Last Wednesday I met a friend at the public library for an author talk with Justin Spring, whose book Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade just came out. Spring gave a short slide presentation sketching Steward's life and career and then sat with Honor Moore to talk about the book and answer audience questions.
Afterwards, I was less interested in the book than I was before. Spring's discomfort, his negative attitude toward aspects of Steward's sex life -- in particular his s/m experiences and his affairs with teenage hustlers -- made me reluctant to trust him as a biographer.
Still, I'll probably pick up the book. I've been fascinated by Steward since the 80s when I was discovering both s/m subculture and body modification. It was obvious that many in the audience at the library Wednesday, as I do, consider Steward a pioneer, a revolutionary, a hero for his promiscuous exploration of sex with men in the 40s and 50s, the variety and numbers of men as well as sexual practices. He was the avant garde.
My friend T reminded me last week of a post on JoeMyGod linking to an article in Men's Health which ranked U.S. cities according to how much sex people are having. I couldn't find the original article, but the ranking was based on such things as condom sales and rates of STD infection, which makes me question its claims. I had lots of sex when I lived in San Francisco (which was not even in the top 10) and I never caught anything, whereas when I lived in Austin (which was ranked #1), I got to know the folks at the clinic better than I would have preferred. I doubt San Franciscans are having less sex; I think they're more savvy regarding sexual health and hygiene. Not that Austin isn't sexy. Not that I didn't have a lot of sex in Austin.
New York is another story. It's a weird place, with, on one hand, its deserved reputation for permissiveness, and on the other its Puritanical vice laws which force sex clubs into a ridiculous dance of secrecy with the police. I mean, for god's sake, tattooing was illegal in New York City until some time in the 90s.
I went to a sex party last week. I found out about it on one of the hookup web sites, sent an email for info, the guy seemed friendly, and it was pay-what-you-want if you arrived early, so I thought I'd give it a try. It was in some guy's tiny studio apartment in the West Village. I don't know what he did with his furniture and stuff, but there wasn't much there besides a mattress on the floor and a sling.
I arrived at the party at the same time as a young man probably in his early twenties, handsome, polite, big smile, Indian accent. We chatted as we waited for the bathroom; he introduced himself and said, "Pleased to meet you." It was his second time. He was nervous, open and eager for the experience, like a kid in line for a roller coaster. He let me use the bathroom before him because he had to "change and clean up a bit. By the time I left, about two hours later, I had seen him get fucked by at least five men and two or three of them came in and on his ass. The pleasure this brought him was palpable all around him. His dark eyes positively danced and seldom did he stop smiling.
Did he know the HIV status of any of these men? He didn't know mine. Did they know his? Did risk assessment play a part in any of these encounters, for him and for the men who fucked him? I have so many questions.
Is anyone's safety but mine any of my business? Isn't castigating someone who fucks without a condom the same as telling me I have to wear a helmet when I ride my bike, or reprimanding a pregnant woman enjoying a glass of wine? Or telling a woman she can't have an abortion? What right does anyone have to tell me how to have sex? To tell us how intimate we can be with each other?
Many of us have come up with our own set of unwritten rules, based on acceptable risk, to guide us in sexual encounters, but who are we to impose our own rules on others? It made sense in, say, 1990, for us as a community of men who have sex with each other to agree: a condom every time. We didn't consider the profundity of the sacrifice of intimacy; we wanted to stop killing each other. But how long could we be expected to abstain? Apparently not long enough to stem an epidemic.
Something I think most men who have sex with men know but rarely talk about is that barrier-free anal sex is happening everywhere now, in many men's lives frequently and as a matter of course. Men of my age remember a time when you didn't have to ask him to put on a condom, he just did; but that's no longer the rule. They call it "condom fatigue." I call it desire. We can talk about deviance, and that's another conversation, but the compulsion to inject semen into another person's body has a few thousand years of natural selection on its side.
Anal sex, buttfucking, sodomy is the sine qua non experience of being a homosexual male. It is the central act that we fought hard to liberate, and, with Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, succeeded, at least as a matter of law.
As the GLBT rights movement has transformed itself from a fight to liberate desire to a campaign for inclusion in conservative, repressive institutions, I find my own sympathies more and more aligned with people and ideas I would have found scary and repulsive 20 years ago.
Paul Morris of the notorious porn company Treasure Island Media speaks of the sexual acts which his videos document as necessary and essential:
Irresponsibility to the everyday persona and to the general culture is necessary for allegiance to the sexual subculture, and this allegiance takes the gay male directly to the hot and central point where what is at stake isn't the survival of the individual, but the survival of the practices and patterns which are the discoveries and properties of the subculture. In this context, danger is allegiance to hard-won knowledge.
This is a nexus, a heart of our problem: the subculture and the virus require the same processes for transmission. In such a situation, how does one balance the struggle between the needs of the survival of the body and the needs within the body for the survival of traditions, truths and practices?
I see Paul Morris (and, for that matter, Dawson of Dawson's 50 Load Weekend) as the same kind of pioneer and revolutionary, the same kind of hero as Samuel Steward.
One more idea to chew on: Treasure Island Media is often banned from gay events, such as International Mister Leather and the Folsom Street Fair. It seems to me that the shunning of bareback porn by the gay establishment is, in an interesting sense, no different than the so-called marriage equality movement. They both exist to tell us what kind of sexual relationships we are allowed to have.