Nov 082015

Weiss, Margot. Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality. Duke University Press, 2011. Amazon

You can get an idea of how thought-provoking I found Weiss’ book was by the sheer density of post-its as bookmarks.

Side view of Weiss' Techniques of Pleasure, with many post-its

Side view of Weiss’ Techniques of Pleasure, with many post-its

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Oct 272015

Khan, Ummni. Vicarious Kinks: S/m in the Socio-Legal Imaginary. Toronto Univ. of Toronto Press, 2014.

Remember “Two Girls One Cup“? This video clip of two women appearing to eat feces out of a cup went viral a few years ago. I happened to be at a vanilla party where everybody wanted to take their turn seeing the clip, with the kind of horrified fascination usually seen in children poking a dead mouse. The clip went viral powered by that kind of attraction/repulsion experience, exposing it to an audience orders of magnitude larger than the probably tiny audience of corporophagia fetishists it was originally made for. Disgust is a powerful force in human experience, perhaps more powerful than desire.

Jamie Dornan, who played Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey film, was less than flattering in his view of the kink scene, as he told Elle UK:

He visits a sex-dungeon of course. “I went there, they offered me a beer, and they did…whatever they were into. I saw a dominant with one of his two submissives,” he says.

There was plenty of kink… and plenty laughter. “I was like: ‘Come on guys I know I’m not paying for this but I am expecting a show.’ It was an interesting evening. Then going back to my wife and newborn baby afterwards… I had a long shower before touching either of them.”

Not only did Dornan treat this as an exhibition for his pleasure, he evinced disgust afterwards, especially in the context of not touching his wife or child, as if he was contaminated. (Probably some of the people he observed had their own spouses and children. Did they take a long shower before touching them?)

Even people who are on the side of kinky people still need to express their disgust of BDSM. Law professor Alan Young, who defended Ontario pro-dominatrix Terri-Jean Bedford, wrote in his book:

Despite my championing of the S/M cause, I always had a bit of sadness when I thought about some of the characters inhabiting this sub-terranean world. It’s somewhat pathetic that someone has to dress up as Louis XV or as an infant in a soiled diaper and yell “Vive la France” or whimper “Mommy, don’t hurt me too bad” in order to get a sexual buzz. I find this sad because I still believe that vanilla sex is one of the most magnificent and oceanic experiences available in life’s repertoire. Who needs the costumes and the humiliation? Well, I guess some people do. [Pg. 278-279, quoting Young’s 2003 book, pg. 97]

Young uses words like “sadness” or “pathetic” to describe BDSM, while his own sex life is “magnificent and oceanic”. It’s not enough to say that he feels no attraction to BDSM, he has to denigrate it and valorize his own vanilla sexuality.

Both Dornan and Young described their reaction to BDSM as one of visceral disgust, and in so doing re-state their attachment to the normative values of heterosexual family and vanilla sexuality.

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Oct 022015

Foster. Richard. 1998. The Real Bettie Page: The Truth About the Queen of the Pinups. Carol Publishing Group.

I approached this book looking for information on the 1950s bondage picture and stag reel culture Page was a part of, when she was one of the most popular models working for Irving Klaw. I didn’t find anything I hadn’t already learned, and it left me as puzzled as I was before.

Bettie Page in leather bustier and gloves, holding a whip

Bettie Page as the Dark Angel

Bettie Page was, undeniably, a beautiful woman with a curvaceous body and a megawatt-intensity smile. She was neither an intimidating vamp nor a vulnerable girl-woman like Marilyn Monroe. Even in the Irving Klaw bondage and fetish shoots and loops, she could look like she was having fun. Her heavy black bangs became an icon.

Like fellow early Playboy Playmate Marilyn Monroe, Page’s modelling career abruptly ended, but with a mysterious disappearance instead of a tragic suicide. A few claimed she had been killed by the mob, but most agreed she was still alive, with stories ranging from having a husband and kids to doing missionary work to living in a mental institution.

Page, the image, attained a kind of mystique far beyond any flesh and blood woman. She became Marilyn Monroe for hipsters, a sex symbol and style icon, forever frozen in her prime with her black bangs. She both harkened back to the days of Vargas Girls and gestured forward to the modern fetish subculture. Yet she herself was a mystery, never a speaking subject. What did a woman who had been molested by her father as a girl, and had done missionary work in Haiti, and was a near tee-totaller and part-time school teacher, think of her iconic status as the queen of bondage?

Foster’s book endeavours to tell Page’s full life, but this is an unauthorized biography. The only direct contact Foster had with Page was a single letter she sent him before he started on the book. Nearly all of the material is from second and third hand accounts, and some of them are a bit suspect.

There’s also two areas where I think Foster went beyond journalism into exploitation.

The first is documenting Page’s descent into paranoid schizophrenia. This is something far too many people suffer through, and Page’s story was mostly just sad. Her authorized biography says that she lived with her brother for 9 years, but Foster asserts she was wandered from place to place and was eventually institutionalized after she became violent. Foster’s excruciatingly detailed reconstructions of Page’s supposed outbursts don’t do any good to her or the people she allegedly assaulted. Not all stories need to be told in gory details.

The second is the legal squabbling over Page’s likeness and legacy and the money they generated. Foster’s unauthorized work, which has been criticized by Page fans for inaccuracies, is just another attempt to cash in on her.

I’m tempted to say that Foster’s book ultimately fails in that it doesn’t deliver any real insight into who Page was, or why she did the things she did. However, Page’s life is so opaque that I can’t really blame him for that. The real Bettie Page remains such a shadowy figure, rarely photographed and only giving the occasional audio tape or letter, that even the more unlikely scenarios seem plausible, like the claim that the woman glimpsed in the 1990s is actually an imposter.

So what did Page think of her career as fetish queen? It’s hard to say, as Page herself was notoriously reclusive. Was she a good Christian girl, damaged by childhood abuse, who wandered into a scene that exploited her, or was she a tigress with an eye for young muscular men and who loved the spotlight? There are rumored to be certain hardcore shots of her, which she later claimed all came from a single night of drunkeness in an otherwise sober life. [See Pg.137] She also said she hated the raunchier pictures of her smoking.

The most plausible account in Foster’s book actually comes from J.B. Rund, a publisher, expert on erotica, and who was briefly Page’s agent in 1996. [Pg. 135-136] He said that Page’s seven-year modelling career and her forays into Hollywood were just a minor diversion on a life devoted to Christian faith and academic study.

…Rend says that he found Bettie’s take on the picture, particularly the Klaw Bondage photos, to be innocent and “naive.”

“She said, ‘Irving used to get suggestions from his customers as to what kind of photos they wanted to see. A lot of Irving’s customers liked me with a ball gag in my mouth.’ Very matter of fact,” Rund recalls.

“I realized right then and there that she doesn’t understand any of this. She doesn’t understand foot fetishism or bondage. I said, ‘Bettie, does it ever occur to you that guys are masturbating over these photos?’ and she says, ‘Yeah, I guess so,’ you know, like it doesn’t matter. She had no understanding of any of this.

“She said to me she thought it was funny. She does not understand that people get erections from it. Her sexual interests are very normal. Bettie still drinks milk.”

He says, “The thing is, she really doesn’t have anything revealing to say about her work. She went there and posed and that’s it.” [Pg.172-173]

Is that it? So many of the men who reminisce about Page talk about her as innocent, as pure. Page wasn’t a fool; many of the men described her as intelligent and well-informed. Perhaps Page was playing another role, one that she understood her fans wanted. Was Page retroactively revising her own biography as she lived it?

Her fan club president, Steve Brewster, who has met her, said:

“She’s a very devout Christian lady,” Brewster says. “She takes her religion very seriously. We’ve had some discussions about it. She’s not ashamed of her past. She said she does not feel guilty then or now. She has a very positive attitude about her career. She thinks those sever or eight years she modeled were kind of a time in her life when she was kind of lazy. The time period we think of as the Golden Age of Bettie Page, to her, she kind of kicked back in New York and made a few dollars modeling. She left New York and went to Bible college and started her real career.[“] [Pg. 174]

Perhaps Page was such a recluse before her death was because if she went into the public eye, she would have to express some kind of opinion about her career as a model. She’d either have to repudiate it or champion it; either way, it would define her life, and obscure anything else.

Feb 122015

As of this writing, Fifty Shades of Grey holds a 32% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a 47 on MetaCritic, and a 3.1 on IMDB. Suffice to say, it won’t sweep the Oscars next year. I do predict it will do well at the Golden Raspberries. Its loyal fanbase will probably guarantee a commercially successful opening weekend and a lot of DVD sales, but I suspect it will do poorly in the long run.

I am a little disappointed we won’t see little CGI chibi versions of Dakota Johnson’s subconscious and inner goddess hopping around.

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Jul 192013

McInnis, Maurie D. Slaves Waiting for Sale: Abolitionist Art and the American Slave Trade. University of Chicago Press, 2011

Group of African slaves sitting, waiting for sale, white men in background.

Slaves Waiting for Sale, by Eyre Crowe

This is an excellent work as a reference from the Virigina slave trade in the 1850s. The author includes all kinds of “you are there” details, including clothing and architecture.

Built around work of British artist and journalist Eyre Crowe, who travelled in America in the 1850s as secretary to author William Thackery on a lecture tour.

Crowe read Uncle Tom’s Cabin before he saw any actual slavery, but was moved by it. (Pg.4) Purchased from street book merchant, also selling Thackery’s books. Crowe was “properly harrowed” by the book. (Pg. 19)

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May 202013

In researching the history of consensual sadomasochism, there isn’t a comprehensive body of knowledge to draw upon, no established canon of reference works, no Journal of Sadomasochistic Studies.

Instead, I have data points: case studies, books (often anonymous), anecdotes, images, etc. I’ll admit that sometimes what is and isn’t a data point is decided on the “I know it when I see it” principle. Connecting those points requires a certain amount of guesswork and judgment calls.

For example: Dr. Samuel Johnson, English man of letters of the Enlightenment, and his relationship with his close friend Hester Thrale.  The latter’s posthumous effects, sold at auction in 1823, included a padlock and fetters. Thrale identified it as “Johnson’s padlock, committed to my care in the year 1768.” In 1767 or 1768, Thrale wrote that “our stern philosopher Johnson trusted me… with a secret far dearer to him than his life”. On other occasions , she wrote that “this great, this formidable Doctor Johnson kissed my hand, ay & my foot too upon his knees!” and quoted him saying, “a woman has such power between the ages of twenty five and forty five, that she may tie a man to a post and whip him if she will.” Finally, there is a reference in  Thrale’s journal to “the fetters & padlocks [that] will tell posterity the truth”, and Johnson’s own journal entry, dated 24 March 1771, about “Insane thoughts on fetters and hand-cuffs.” (in Latin) (Pg.387-388)

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Apr 132013

Cole, Shaun. ‘Don We Now Our Gay Apparel’: Gay Men’s Dress in the Twentieth Century. Berg, 2000 Amazon

If there’s a predominant theme in Cole’s book on the history of gay fashion in the twentieth century, it’s that gay fashion is always imperfectly mimetic, a tangled mix of “passing, minstrelization and capitulation”, to quote sociologist Martin P. Levine (pg. 3)

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Apr 032013

Perkins, Lori, ed. Fifty Writers on Fifty Shades of Grey. Benbella Smartpop, 2012 Amazon

Much like Christian Grey himself, the Fifty Shades trilogy is everywhere, overwhelming and relentless, dominating bestseller lists, metastatizing into countless imitators, and spawning an entire industry of gifts, CDs, boardgames and other branded merchandise, plus a feature film. Through sheer repetition and ubiquity, we find ourselves trying to accommodate it, even to make excuses for its flaws and offences. Some of the authors in this essay collection try too hard to put a positive spin on Fifty Shades. Even the collection’s  editor, Lori Perkins, says:

Some have wondered how a “classic” can be so “poorly written.” But I contend that it is not poorly written, but rather written in an everywoman’s voice, a necessary part of its success I once worked with an author who used plebian language…. When she returned my edits, she told me that she did indeed know the word “simultaneously,” but when she was fantasizing, she always used the phrase “at the same time as,” and she knew that her readers did as well. [Pg.3]

EL James’ prose is not “plebian” or “in an everywoman’s voice”, it’s just plain bad. You don’t need an MFA to read or write good prose or hot prose.

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