Sexual Solipsism and Mental Masturbation

Last year, I covered San Francisco's Exotic Erotic Ball for the sex department of an online magazine. There were a few thousand people at the ball, many of them naked or dressed in revealing bondage gear. There were whipping booths, group sex, strippers, porn films and piercings, but walking around, I was unable to find a single aroused person (since everyone was naked, it was obvious). Strangely, the mood was as cordial and benign as a church social.Or maybe not so strangely. In many ways, the obsession of sex-positive cheerleaders with exorcising our inhibitions is just the flip side of Puritanism, and maybe even less conducive to eroticism. By marrying the explicitness of pornography to the banalities of the new age movement, the sexual activists have created a religion where the highest virtue is openness and worst sin is repression. In the process, they've done something the religious right can only dream about -- they've made sex seem boring.Susie Bright and Annie Sprinkle are two of the most famous sex crusaders, but masturbation missionary Joani Blank has been just as active in the movement. Blank is editor of the new book, "I Am My Lover: Woman Pleasure Themselves," a collection of photographs and stories about women masturbating. As the founder of the non-threatening, well-lighted sex shop Good Vibrations and the editor of several sexual self-help books, Blank has spent the last 20 years encouraging people to talk more about sex. "I Am My Lover" combines interesting if uneven photographs of masturbating women with treacly 70's-style writing. One woman, Barbara (last names are withheld), is pictured masturbating in a field, her stomach covered with grass. "To me, masturbation is a meditation or prayer," writes Barbara. "It is Goddess-God, sex with unseen helpers and spirits. Masturbation connects me with my inner self, quieting things down so that I can hear my inner voice." With writing like this, who needs cold showers?To be fair, education, not literature or pornography, was Blank's primary aim. Sitting in the library of Down There Press, surrounded by shelves of erotica and advice, 60-year-old Blank says, "I have two goals in life. One, to help people talk about sex, and two, to enhance their sexuality." She hopes that women who have never masturbated might flip through the book and give it a go, that women who do masturbate but feel weird or ashamed will realize that they're normal, and that women who masturbate happily might pick up new techniques.Unfortunately, a woman who is ashamed to touch herself is likely to be ashamed to wander into Good Vibrations or any other store that would carry "I Am My Lover." What is helpful about the book, though, is its view of all different kinds of women being sexual. There's a middle-aged woman climaxing with a vibrator and an obese woman sucking her own breast. Seeing real women naked, with their stomach folds and stray hairs, is comforting and empowering, especially since the photographers obviously see their subjects as incredibly sexy.For a book whose aim is education, though, "I Am My Lover," is a little disingenuous about the truth behind its masturbation pictures. The inside jacket of the book says, "Twelve courageous women share their self-pleasuring experiences both visually and verbally." The implication is that all these women chose to participate in the project. But in our interview, Blank casually mentions that the pictures by Ron Raffaelli were taken of models in the 70's. Blank didn't know who the women were, so she made up names for them. Of the 12 women pictured, they're the only two with no accompanying text. For someone so concerned with openness and honesty, this disregard for truth is a bit startling. It's echoed by this line from the introduction of her first masturbation book, "First Person Sexual." "Only three or four of the stories in this book are fiction. I haven't identified which they are because it doesn't matter." If the point of the book is to educate, to make people feel normal, how can it not matter if the text is true or not?But leaden writing, not dishonesty, may be the book's worst sin. The writers bastardize the language in all kinds of ways: since the agenda of the book is to claim masturbation as legitimate sex, it's no longer OK to assume, for example, that the word "sex" means sex with another person. Instead, the writers call it "partnered sex" or "other-person sex," both awkward terms that make technical words like "intercourse" or "coitus" sound like poetry. In claiming the equivalency of all acts even remotely sexual, Blank's thinking resembles the most PC Women's Studies Departments. Her ideology many be different, but the stridency is the same. She tells me a story about how she was flirting with a man and he implied he wanted to have sex with her. "What do you think we've been doing?" she asked him. If flirting is tantamount to sex, does that means that a catcall from a construction worker is the same as an assault, as some academics claim? I, for one, would hate to live in a word where there isn't a gulf between flirting and fucking, hooting and rape, and masturbation and the drama of sex. It is this sort of sexual fundamentalism that makes so much of this stuff so insufferable. Like Bright and Sprinkle, Blank starts from the assumption that our problem is that we don't talk about sex enough, and that means that all writing about sex is important and deserves to be read just because it's about sex. While Blank is right that Americans are a repressed lot, the obsession with getting sex into the open- with screaming WOMEN MASTURBATE from the rooftops -- typifies the way Americans need to react to everything with hyperbolic zealotry. If the sex brigade is so liberated, can't they just take sex for granted?If you disagree with the openness ethos, you're likely to be branded a prude. During our interview, I mentioned an article that was in the "New Yorker" several months ago about how unerotic sex-positive books can be. "Well," she said about the writer, "That really tells you something about his sexuality." Later, after talking about her plans for a book on making non-monogamy work, she asks me if I am in a monogamous relationship. I answer yes, and she assures me it won't last. At the same time, Blank is aware of the diluting effect of overexposure. "The big, huge cultural acceptance of S/M is because vanilla sex has been so out in the open in the last 20 years, and now everybody's bored by it," she says. And she really is concerned about making people's sex lives better. "I really do care as much about the woman and man in the midwest who figure out that its OK to do it with the woman on the top once in a while," she says. It's just too bad that instead of aspiring to the erotic explosions of Anais Nin, Robert Maplethorpe, D.H. Lawrence or Erica Jong, she's created a book that's mastabatory in every sense of the word.


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