In the Chapter of Norah Vincent’s Self Made Man about her visits, in male disguise, to strip clubs, she writes, in partial explanation of men’s frequenting said clubs:
When pure fucking and animal release is what you’re thinking about and that is what the male sex drive at its basest seems to be all about you don’t want there to be any witnesses. You don’t want to be a dirty, senseless animal with someone you love or respect or are capable of loving and respecting. You’d be too ashamed for her to see that part of you in the light of day, and isn’t a mind something like the light of day? A real woman is a mind, and a mind is a witness, and a witness is the last thing you need when you’re ashamed. So fucking a fake, mindless hole is what you need. The faker the better.
I suppose, oddly enough, when it came to genuinely heterosexual men, all of this added up in my mind to something that might have been the opposite of misogyny, the idea being that you could only treat as an object something that resembled a real woman as little as possible, because only then could you bear to mistreat it and yourself enough to satisfy your instincts.
I recently published an essay, “Peep Show,” in the Sun Magazine (and also in an anthology, Flesh for Fantasy) about my own experiences with "adult" entertainment. What I find most interesting reading Vincent’s take is that I went to strip clubs based at least somewhat, on the instincts she described, but with with nearly the opposite intent.
With that, we’ll be offering up "Peep Show" in five parts, starting today. Take a look, it won’t even cost you a quarter:
Peep Show (part 1 of 5)
“I understand that sex should be peaceful and good and loving, but what about the things that turn me on and are repellent at the same time?”
– Lisa Palac, The Edge of the Bed
“The men [who frequent peep shows] don’t know it, but they are secretly coming to church. They are seeking absolution, acceptance, compassion, kindness, and caring from a willing, friendly woman if she is pretty, so much the better. They believe themselves to be fundamentally unlovable because of their sexuality. . . . Granting these men acceptance and understanding instead of disgust and ridicule is the single most profound aspect of sex work.”
– Nina Hartley, “Bodhisattvas Among Us,” Tricks and Treats: Sex Workers Write
about Their Clients
In the fall of 1997, my friend G. asked me to read my work at a benefit for a San Francisco alternative performance space. G. is a radical queer woman. I am a heterosexual white man. I hemmed and hawed and tried to duck her invitation. I said I was busy, that I hadn’t written anything in ages. I even told her I just plain didn’t want to do it, but she wasn’t buying my excuses. The truth is I was not eager to be the token straight white male in the show. It’s not that I’m uncomfortable in the radical queer world. (OK, maybe I’m a little uncomfortable.) I just have absolutely no interest in stepping up in front of that community and proudly representing the patriarchy.
With about a month to go before the event, though, I acquiesced. All too quickly it was the week of the show. My name was on the flier, and I had no idea what I would read. Instead of writing something, I spent much of my time trying to think of a plausible excuse to bail out: Broken limb? Dead relative? Laryngitis?
As the date drew near I anxiously sifted through old grad-school poems, pulling out some “nice” ones: about my mother and a snowstorm, about a fondly remembered ex-girlfriend, about a long nighttime drive filled with hopeful thoughts of the future. Hey, leather-clad lesbians like mothers and ex-girlfriends and hopeful thoughts of the future, right?
In the back of my mind, though, nudging at me, was a new piece of writing that I had been working on. It was a short story called “Close,”and it was the first fiction I’d written that I actually liked; it was also the worst possible piece for this particular show.“Close” is the journal of a museum guard named Henry, a mulletted, unkempt, oily-faced junior-college dropout in his early forties. Socially inept and utterly isolated, Henry divides his time between home, work, and a Times Square peep-show joint, where he’s fallen in love with a curvy Slav whose stage name is Nadja. The story includes several scenes of Henry participating in the only form of intimacy he knows: masturbating while awkwardly touching Nadja’s breasts through the eye-level porthole of the peep-show booth.
I imagined I’d have a hard time reading “Close” out loud anywhere much less to an audience of hardcore dykes for fear of offending people and revealing way too much personal knowledge about strippers and peep shows, the sort of knowledge that can only be learned firsthand.
I grew up the only child of two academics, a feminist English professor and a moral philosopher. Together we formed a left-of-liberal family unit whose values included strong stances against racism, sexism, homophobia, and social injustice. Though the Berger family values were ethical guidelines, not moralistic strictures, they engendered as much guilt and shame as Catholic doctrine. My parents made no explicit rules prohibiting drinking, drugs, and swearing. (Well, words that were offensive to various oppressed groups were forbidden. And the word sucks was also a no-no, I think because it debased the sucker, as in “cocksucker,” who is by inference a woman or a gay man. But fuck was acceptable in moderation in fact, I’m pretty sure I first heard the word from Mom.) Civil liberties concerns aside, though, both my parents, were certainly against pornography. So, naturally, I found it incredibly enticing.
After a brief preadolescent obsession with forbidden toy guns I traded some prized Matchbox cars for a couple of heavy, metallic toy pistols I quickly moved on to the glossy pages of Playboy and Penthouse. Soon I made the jump to the grittier, nastier Hustler and Club. I stole my first Hustler from Tom Denton’s house one night in eighth grade. Denton was a gentle giant, a star football lineman who effortlessly tossed opponents about without malice it was just what you did. Then the game would end, and he’d become his big harmless stoner self again. The Dentons’ liquor cabinet was always fully stocked and free for the raiding. A bong sat out on the rec-room ping-pong table. And, most exciting to me, Tom left porn just lying around in the open.
One night I snuck a Hustler into the secret zipper pocket of my parka. I still have the cover of that magazine somewhere, with its picture of a devilish blonde in shiny red leather, head thrown back and to the side, mouth forming an o. The look in her eyes is not soft-focus come-hither but straight-up lust. The image, a thrilling combination of the combative and the submissive, contradicted everything I’d been taught. This woman was objectified and loving it. She was horny. She didn’t want to be tenderly made love to. She wanted no, she needed to be taken, to be fucked, and fucked hard. This was so wrong, so confusing and so damn hot. The images inside the magazine evoked similar contradictory feelings, exciting and disturbing at once. In my first, furtive jerk-off sessions to the photographs I focused on the soft smoothness of breasts and bellies, legs and asses, averting my gaze from the pink, fleshy, wetness. Learning to like pictures of women’s genitalia was like learning to like the taste of booze. The pictures in Hustler burned like bourbon. I started with little sips.