Here follows a conversation about S&M featuring Jack Nichols, author of The Gay Agenda: Talking Back to the Fundamentalists, and Thomas Scott Tucker , former Mr. International Leather and author of The Queer Question: Essays on Desire and Democracy.
By Jack Nichols
I've been wanting to have this S&M discussion with somebody for a long time. Nobody except you has volunteered to take me up on it. Therefore, I do appreciate your having sent me your thoughts critical of my mentions of S&M in my old essay on the 1970s. Let's begin.
First, you say: "I don't think we can read politics and personalities into (or out of) sexual acts like fortunes from tea-leaves."
That's true, and in the largest sense. In the first place, both personal tastes and personalities can always change. If we were to judge someone on the basis on a particular sexual act, we'd be ignoring all that person's potentials, denying possibilities for his or her development.
But even so, much of what a person feels to be his or her own inmost personality is, in fact, a construct absorbed from any given culture-- a construct which also changes from decade to decade.
You say: "About S/M and the rougher sorts of ritual sex we won't agree-- that's been spice for me rather than the whole savory stew, but 'polymorphous perversity' includes intensity over the whole body surface. Intensity is the key, not pain as such-- it's very interesting that some folks project nothing but pain onto the act of handballing, for example, which can be a very intimate and gentle form of anal yoga."
Handballing used to be called fistfucking. Having known of two persons who sustained severe intestinal injuries performing this act, recommending it to budding 18-year-olds seems to me unwise.
I'm glad you use the word "gentle" in reference to it because "handballing" has to be done gently if it isn't to be terribly damaging. In 1981 I saw a guy luded-out and limp-dicked in a SF sex club, hanging in a swing. He and his companion were both beer-guzzlers (beer-cans in hand) but the active partner wasn't even watching what he was doing. I must admit that their seeming unconcern worried me a bit. There was certainly little or no intensity. And their not having had hardons made me question their act as necessarily a sexual one. It must have been fulfilling some other desire, it seemed.
Even so, these guys had made their own choices. That was their prerogative. Let me state right here that I claim no infallibility on S&M questions. I do know that S&M has no specific connection to tastes for leather costuming.
It was about 1969 when certain commercial outfits began taking distinct steps to promote S&M fashions, connecting them to macho-glamour. Newly liberated gay men, eager to show that they--as gays-- weren't sissies, embraced the macho fashions bigtime for a while. And I wondered if it wasn't because violence permeates American male culture with so few serious critics at large, that S&M-macho posturing was able to ride this wave that swelled so after 1970--but then subsided somewhat with the onset of both AIDS and gyms. One doesn't hear much about the Fistfuckers of America club any more, for example.
These straight guys were even sniffing each other's rears as animals do. It did not convince me, nor you, I take it, that Bly was on to something meaningful. And the media gave undue focus to this comical turn he introduced to the men's movement and was thereby relieved of having to have truly serious discussions about male role-conditioning.
You write of S&M: "Intensity is the key, not pain as such."
As I see it, no matter who the participant is, his attraction to given practices and tastes has had seeds from his earlier life determining much of what he deems a thrill. What people find stimulating, however, is not wholly at the mercy of their past histories.
Forming our own tastes we become--as the Buddha said--what we think--or what we absorb. When I think of S&M, my focus isn't so much on the issue of pain as it is on the symbolic validation of dominance and submission. Also, the term "ritual" as applied to sex sounds suspiciously like the planning of sex "scenes" in advance. A focus on "intensity" rather than pain, is fine and dandy, although such intensity must certainly include the deliberate application of measured pain, I'd assume.
You say what you feel is the significance or the prominence of power:
There are those who argue like the fans of violent sport do, that S&M offers nothing more than mere games, seemingly harmless outlets for otherwise violent impulses that need reigning in, that S&M is only a kind of sex therapy that keeps seething violence within the confines of mutual consent.
But by validating the ritual application of pain or what appears to be violence in the bedroom, especially with accompanying symbols of domination and submission, the effect of S&M practices may be quite otherwise.
I fear that sado "games" and "rituals" may actually encourage people to turn not only a blind, but an accepting eye toward non-consenting violence in the wider culture, creating a populace that experiences a thrill whenever dominance or submission is reported or witnessed.
Many English schoolboys who once got spanked in class, apparently, continue their traditions in the bedroom. Doesn't it often work in reverse? Power plays in the bedroom, for example, infiltrating office politics and causing memo wars?
Violence witnessed in sports is now quite commonplace among disgruntled players and fans. Human see, human do. Isn't what we do on a personal level likely to reflect what we'd at least consider doing on a larger scale? Thus, doesn't a dominating/controlling director in bed (or conversely a slave, perhaps) set a fashionable stage for the social acceptance of power-playing values outside the boudoir?
It seems to me that S&M reflects, like popular dancing does (i.e. The Slam) the affectations of a culture. My own experience among sado-masochists has always been limited because S&M violates my personal value system. Even so, I'd be the last to forbid a sado-masochist to play out his fantasies to whatever limits with a consenting companion. Laws against suicide, even, are ridiculous.
But I would call into question whether S&M is in the vanguard of liberation. It's basic premises, including masters and slaves, or dominance and submission, call to my mind the worst aspects of standard role-playing in which husbands give commands and wives obey. Now that there is a movement toward the equalization of the sexes, S&M roles seem to me emblematic of a retrogressive or counter-revolutionary trend.
The Scottish poet, Robert Burns, probably knew nothing of S&M, but his reflections on lords and nobles apply to sado-masters, I'd say, especially as they stalk the bedroom dressed in leather breeches and delivering ominous glances:
Ye see yon birkie ca'd a lord
Wha struts an' stares an' a' that?
Tho' hundreds worship at his word
He's but a cuif (jerk) for a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
His ribband, star, and a' that,
The man o independent mind,
He looks and laughs at a' that.
"Things which go together naturally," said Lao Tzu, "don't need to be tied." So much for bondage, says I.
The lack of self-esteem (still rampant in most social spheres, gay or straight) often caused gays and lesbians in the 1950s to think themselves guilty "sinners", inherently depraved (the original sin theory had morphed, so to speak, into psychiatry's now-defunct approach that treated homosexuality as a mental disorder).
Many, therefore, thought they deserved whatever pain came their way. Many believed that they were, perhaps, unregenerate mental cases. W.E.B. DuBois wrote that the worst effect of slavery and discrimination against African-Americans was that the experience made members of his race doubt themselves and to share a general contempt for others like themselves.
Donald Webster Cory applied this insight to same-sex lovers in his 1951 classic, The Homosexual in America. The Boys in the Band, popular in pre-Stonewall times, was a play that became a film about self-doubters with a general contempt for their kind. Fortunately, there's been change in the ensuing years. But we still have a long way to go. As single men and women who were once the most despised of all human categories, we began to show our truer mettle with the onset of the AIDS crisis. We pulled together.
Whether a relationship lasts an hour or a lifetime, oh that same-sex companions might know a sense of validation in sex, a propping up of their self-esteem causing them to feel somehow more tenderly beautiful--inside and out.
Would I ever hope--instead--that their eyes might reflect submission? Never! Instead, I'd look hoping to see self-appreciation, self-generated ecstasy, or at least, simple satisfaction and happy relief. Sex, for me, offers an occasion to see big ecstatic smiles of self-love and self-appreciation in another, not a worthlessness that is increased by a sado-master's deprecating demands.
I can't work up much erotic enthusiasm, I must admit, for a man who doesn't appear to enjoy the fact of his own divine existence. If he poses as a punching bag, a sad sack who thinks he's been a bad boy, I become more than glad to leave the punching job to somebody else.
I've no objections to "intensity" in happiness. I just don't see why intensity has to be linked to power or pain and punishment. I'd hope instead that it could be the intensity that promotes self-awareness and that a tickled companion would think, "Mmmmm I must be damn good company! This is fun!"
But to see a man cower? To call him my slave? To insure he does what I tell him so he knows who is boss? To order him about? To demand he lick my boots? To smother intuitive communion with the question: "Just what scene involving degradation shall we embark upon tonight?"-- a question that necessitates "ritual" that stands in the way of the spontaneous?
Do I really want to see how much pain a man can endure before he yells uncle? To think in terms of locks, yokes, ropes, and roles? To concern myself meticulously with who is the top as master and who is the bottom as slave? To imagine that I (a mere mortal who must learn about life and love just as everybody else does) am somehow puffed up and made glorious by reason of an evening's scene in which I effectively degrade another?
Could this be satisfying "power"? I'm tempted to assert that it could be, instead, clumsy methodology for an insecure psyche.
And would I recommend to a youth that his psyche could become an integrated whole by indulging in nightly erotic replays hanging in spidery webs, where beatings lurk, whips abound, restraints and handcuffs are used, and far-too-serious commands take the place of happy-go-lucky mutual abandon? Do I, a liberationist, aspire to run a dungeon or to send my lovers to one? I think not.
There's another factor that I wonder about. I used to know a puritanical religious woman who, after she experienced a pleasure of some sort, accepted that she was therefore due some pain. She'd have ice cream, and then starve herself for having enjoyed it. While her behavior was outside the sexual realm if it were not--it would then seem to me to be Puritanism's way of squaring with sexual pleasures enjoyed. And I note that sado-masters seem to view sex as "a dirty." The language they use in sex bouts, I think, backs up this observation.
I've noticed that many who call themselves S&M practitioners seem not to question orthodox Christianity's central dogma, namely that all members of the human family are damned and depraved until they accept the torturous death of Jesus (sacrificed for their sake by the Daddy god) to effect their release from this depraved "original sin" with which they think they're burdened.
This doctrine states that all human beings are born depraved because of Adam and Eve's tasty flirtation with a fruit. I don't accept that doctrine. Never did. I wonder, in fact, if it doesn't help create sado-masochists. I oppose it as strongly as I once opposed the idea that we who are gay are sick, and, on the same grounds. Namely, that to feel good about ourselves we must feel whole rather than broken and guilty because of either sickness or original sin.
Is not the Christian image of a Daddy-god and his nailed/restrained/staked-out-in-suffering Son a fantasy that's made its way into bedrooms? And isn't the Daddy god the keeper of an eternal dungeon? What else is hell?
I wouldn't send my worst enemy to eternal torture, much less worship a god to whom it seems the A-OK thing to do. This cruel kind of god, to me, is a monster.
But among those who say they believe in this kind of deity, isn't there a culturally-induced morbidity? Does an S&M practitioner not accept, as a Marine recruit does, the battering of the psyche, preparing him thereafter to see bodies battered too? Marine recruits, like masochists, are told they are shit. Both masochists and Marines may enlarge their biceps, but their self-images undergo impassioned downsizings.
That there are large numbers of men willing to accept scatological self-evaluations is shown by the existence of the Marine Corps itself. Why, when there are Marines, should the existence of masochists be any great surprise?
Back to gentleness. Frankly, that's the Jesus image I like best. Not because its "meek and mild" but because I know that it takes great strength to be gentle, and awareness too. It is oh so easy to kick ass, to wax angry, to deliver a punishing glance. If that's the kind of culture a person surrounds himself or herself with, there's no denying he or she will be able to find plenty of company. Plenty.
But as a Sixties Flower Child, I'd prefer to offer flowers, to inhale roses and pansies, to kiss from a heart expressing a passionate caring. As for the technological complications of whipping or handcuffing while using terms like "slave" and "master"--is there no reverence anymore for the cause of Abraham Lincoln? Is it 1860 for sado-masochists?
Beyond the confines of the dungeon, is there not some brighter, sunny expanse under an azure sky where lovers lie beside a stream and as in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, enjoy "a loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou beside me singing in the wilderness." And thou beside me in handcuffs? Not quite, thank you.
Finally, let me address the possessiveness that seems to be somewhere near the heart of sado-masochism. It goes something like this: "You are my slave, so do what I say."
Is there real beauty in that? Not for me. I love the man who finds no need to make deprecating remarks about others, who has escaped culturally-induced fears and the concomitant need to complain, order about, punish, or show disdain. In fact, when the man I love smiles, others feel warmly embraced. I love the man who makes his own rules and is satisfied by obeying himself. He grows and changes like some marvel. He explores and asks questions. To him I would say, as Walt Whitman did:
None has done justice to you, you have not done justice to yourself.
None but would subordinate you. I only am he who would never consent to subordinate you.
I only am he who places over you no master, owner, better, God, beyond what
waits intrinsically in yourself.
What waits intrinsically in some people causes them to smile. There are certain smiles that seem to radiate from the pinnacles of erotic splendor. Could we order their wearer's about? Hardly. Nor would they do any ordering about. It would bore them.
So now, dear friend, I've written an essay in reply to you. I'm going to run this essay as a GayToday Viewpoint. If you disagree with what I've said here and wish to answer me point by point, I'll gladly run your reply. As I said, I would never interfere with another's right to commandeer his or her own body, nor do I claim infallibility as to questions surrounding S&M. If you think I'm "full of it" say so. I'm a big boy.
Hugs, kisses and a pansy or two, jack
A Spanking Reply:
By Thomas Scott Tucker
That's not the end of the world, and I'd be sorry if that was the end of our friendship. If we measured each other only by our opinions, none of us would stand above our own shoes and the world would be no friendlier. At this late date-- in personal life and in human history-- I don't think questions of this kind are ever "answered."
The earlier Sex Wars between feminists concerned some of these very issues, and here my partisan sympathies remain with women such as Pat Califia and Lisa Duggan. (I disagree with them on other issues-- no surprise.) With different dialects and accents, similar debates continue among gay men.
I suggested that we can't read politics and personalities into (or out of) sexual acts like fortunes from tea leaves. "That's true," you wrote, "and in the largest sense. In the first place, both personal tastes and personalities can always change."
But even the Buddha over two thousand years ago and even a scientist two thousand years ahead may be excused if they discover a chasm in that tea cup.
Likewise, those tea leaves should not be mystified, but they are likely to remain a mystery-- why do they exist rather than nothing at all? The Buddha claimed they could be stirred up and therefore stilled by the power of the will. The ultimate source of such will was a metaphysical question he did not care to dwell upon.
Geneticists today have competing theories, which are likely to be tested with unforeseen consequences. Playing God is what human beings are designed to do: this is the current genetic gospel, and we don't know where it will take us.
You have your own evolutionary theory of sex and society, your own ideas of progress. Gazing into the depths of that tea cup, you espy creatures in darkness who may yet see a great light, the tadpoles who may yet get to be frogs. If so, that works both ways. Stare in a cup of tea and you stare in a mirror. That refraction of light, often seen through the eyes of others, is what we call the self. For the sake of convenience.
"Handballing," you wrote, " used to be called fistfucking." From the time I first heard the one word I also heard the other, and I first heard them both around 1975 in Philadelphia. And heard both again in New York and San Francisco not much later.
There are good reasons why people choose more than one word for their actions, and here we have at least two ways of naming and enacting a "single" and "simple" act. These distinctions will be sophistry to some, and they will remain philosophy to others. I first mentioned handballing in our correspondence because it is an act upon which most folks project nothing but danger and derangement.
This is, indeed, the very way you address the subject-- of course with appropriate anecdotes:
"Having known of two persons who sustained severe intestinal injuries performing this act, recommending it to budding eighteen year olds seems to me unwise."
I don't recall recommending this act to anyone of any age in our exchange, but I've certainly discussed it in print as an adult pleasure which carries adult risks and responsibilities.
Budding eighteen year olds already take the risk of fucking with and without condoms. If they take the risk, they should get the best information. There are adults who believe eighteen year olds are children, or who believe any such information violates an innocence which should be preserved well above "the age of consent."
Likewise, they insist, sodomy should be reserved only for those who are truly and hopelessly forsaken in Sodom. The risk of disease is supposed to end all argument. The only safe sex, they argue, is no sex. That is one kind of logic few of them personally follow, because sex of any kind is always a matter of some psychic or physical risk.
Quite the opposite. In America, sexual enlightenment is supposed to break all at once like a golden dawn-- of course, under ideal and hygienic circumstances, and only in sync with the astrological schedules of Congress and the local school board.
This is why so many queer boys, past and present, receive an erotic education in "no man's land"-- that margin between barbed-wire where they might really find not only boys as inexperienced as themselves, but men who might care for their erotic and emotional well-being as well. Say so much in public, and the response may well be a panic complete with Technicolor projections of rectal mayhem.
You, however, have a limited power to circumvent this kind of de facto censorship. If you publish these very words for any teenager to find on the computer, then you will have performed a public service. Because one way or another, the sexual initiation of queer youth is happening all the time-- and often during the very years when queers are most exposed to psychic and physical assault.
The systematic evasion of such issues by the leaders of national gay organizations is "pragmatic" only if we accept the dictates of corporate shills and bipartisan pollsters. The social and sexual initiation of queer youth is one of the most serious responsibilities of queer adults.
If I can think such a thought, then I can put it into words. And if I can put it into words, then why is it so difficult to speak or publish them without being set up for target practice?
Recommend handballing to teenagers? No, I don't think so.
Nevertheless, the topic turns out to be a philosophical beauty, by whatever name you please. The act that I mentioned as a magnet for panic, you then took up as a theme for panicky variations. The energy of your performance does not guarantee the logic of your argument.
Following one personal anecdote with another-- I have my own favorites on at least three or four sides of this topic, but let them be-- you then describe two intoxicated guys, a drunken top belaboring the butt of a drunken bottom in a sling. In a sex club in San Francisco in 1981.
You wrote, "And their not having hardons made me question their act as necessarily a sexual one. It must have been fulfilling some other desire, it seems."
You came within a centimeter of an insight there, but lost your nerve and turned your gaze away. Within the men's movement, John Stoltenberg is the apostle of the doctrine that good sex does not require erections-- indeed, that they are a kind of prehistoric baggage, a club for cavemen.
He, too, has just about one-third of one good insight there, but the other two-thirds are a gospel one takes on faith-- or not.
Here is some breaking news: hard dicks are not, in fact, the Holy Grail of many handballing and fistfucking scenes. Let me also insist on the word "scenes" to stress the artifice and theatrics which sometimes accompany such acts.
I suspect much of the animus against anal yoga-- light or heavy, gentle or edgy-- does surface from gender divisions; from concern for male virginity; from concern that a man's innards might bear some of the sensation and risk of a woman's innards during the ordinary course of pregnancy and birth. For some folks I suspect that is even part of the appeal.
Fistfucking is only one kind of mindfucking-- if you prefer that term. For poetic reasons, I emphatically do in this context. But all such ideas must always remain partial. Ideas are falsified when they are forced to explain too much. Psychoanalysis ran aground on just such reefs.
Matters of taste and desire often look ridiculous under a moral magnifying glass, because such an instrument is itself ridiculous for the perception of all phenomena. The next time some gay man dies of an anal perforation in the course of risky sex, precisely what will be the moral to that story? That they were intoxicated? Below average intelligence? Under the age of consent? Doing the sexual equivalent of driving while drunk?
On this last point, Jack, I believe we have some important common ground. But that point seems incidental in your arguments-- instead, there is a more general erotic aversion and moral judgement. I have such aversions and make such judgements myself, but this realm of ethics and eroticism is just the place where we meet in passing and part company once again.
Are you are defending some version of "natural law," Catholic, Buddhist, or otherwise? Sodomy as Mother Nature intended? If so, this will complicate whatever version of "social constructionism" you may care to defend. As for myself, I am convinced some versions of natural law and some versions of social constructionism are not only compatible but necessary.
Such a position is not "in between," but only independent. Effectively, this means excommunication from certain camps, but this does not prevent thinking and writing. Again, sophistry to some will be philosophy-- and indeed erotic practice-- to others.
These are your words again, posted without irony: "Human see, human do." This must be the evolutionary version of monkey see, monkey do-- but even monkeys are not so mechanical.
Primates are not merely motors nor merely mirrors. This is just not good science. In the specifically human realm of ethics and erotic life, I do think "make believe" has its own reality. This is exactly where the really interesting questions begin and are never finally answered. Sex and art have this much in common: these actions create "worlds in common."
I believe our disagreement here goes well beyond the limited question of any act we might single out among the whole range of polymorphous perversities. Handballing turned out to be emblematic in our discussion, but it is nothing like the main event.
Our disagreement is not simply about one sex act or another but about sex of any kind whatsoever. Eroticism is the realm of ambivalence, even when the act is so "innocent" as a mother's kiss with a child or the licking of nipples between lovers. You have not acknowledged the full power nor the full ambivalence of erotic life, but have resorted instead to cheerleading: "...As a Sixties Flower Child, I'd prefer to offer posies, to smell daisies, to kiss from a heart expressing a passionate caring."
Jack Nichols the Flower Child is more near and dear to me, of course, than Elizabeth Birch the Chief Executive Officer, since I have not yet reached the most sublime states of equanimity practiced in monasteries or in madhouses. Incrementally, I am seeking a more worldly wisdom in any case, which has its own moral worth and logic. The realm of politics-- yes, and sometimes even of power politics-- is an inescapable dimension of human existence. The realms of erotic and of political power alike can be called "macho," unevolved, unredeemed.
But all such incantations only succeed in wishing power away, something unlikely to occur even in the next thousand millennia. You think the choice is between Omar Khayyam and hand-cuffs? Then think again of the regimes in which art and science and barbarism are quite compatible.
We will not discover the mystic key to a person based upon her love of Wagner or of jackboots-- though we may well discover mysteries. Personally, Parsifal gives me the creeps and my fetishes run more in the direction of baskbetball sneakers. What will that tell you about my democratic socialism? Nothing at all.
From the main body of your text, with its impassioned condescension towards the sexuality of numerous queers, I assume you would be sympathetic to the kind of "gender analysis" Martin Levine pursued inside and outside the men's movement-- also evident in his posthumous collection of essays, edited by Michael Kimmel, titled Gay Macho.
Levine thought he was writing sociology, but he answered all questions in advance and his methodology was an afterthought. What he painted was a self-portrait of "a feminist man" with some fairly garish ideological squibs.
I regret that this was the literary legacy of an eminently decent man-- brave, too, in his field—who died much too young. Much of the men's movement-- following in the tracks of some (but not nearly all) feminists-- is content with similar paint-by-number cosmologies. The inner light long ago went out of such icons. What's left are bits of very thin gold leaf littered over very dubious ground.
Let's take a deep breath and contemplate these questions in common. Our disagreement is not only a matter of "philosophia"-- it is not, after all, so surprising that love of wisdom is manifested under many intellectual and erotic forms.
Finally this is a matter of faith. In the realm of erotic life you are an Enlightenment optimist with an American accent, quite "progressive" and quite in tune with liberal sex education. Very good, as far as that goes-- if we only consider the usual opposition. But that does not go nearly far enough.
I am unterrified of your broad implication that unevolved queers are poisoned at the root by the Original Sin of... well, of Original Sin! If we give our ancient troubles as a species that Christian spelling. I've been called a Pagan by Born-Again Christians, and I won't lose sleep if I'm suspected of Christianity by Born-Again Pagans.
I do not believe that sex is simply on the side of the angels, if only those devilish priests and politicians would let it be. That is an item of Sixties ideology to which I subscribed for about fifteen minutes in my fifteenth year, and then I changed my mind.
Ever since, I have been skeptical of all purism--certainly of every religious form of pacifism and transcendentalism. (The Amish farmer and the Tibetan monk are equally and blissfully unaware of this queer's skepticism-- and of my qualified respect for their deviations from the norm.)
You want your sex, Jack, and your utopia, too. But you might not find both in the same place, not in this world, not now-- not without some degree of self-hypnosis. If I am told that is precisely the Highest Tantra, then I will bow to the myriad Buddhas, and add for good measure, "May all beings be blessed." But I will go my own way.
Force me to choose between two armed camps of "metaphysical" pessimism and of Enlightenment optimism, and I will not in fact opt for optimism. Not after the blood and mud of the Twentieth Century, not even with the blessings of electricity and antibiotics... (Both camps, as it happens, make metaphysical claims-- claims which point to selective earthly evidence but are finally a matter of faith.)
Instead, I will take up either banner as I damn well please, and many others, too-- and none with optimal loyalty. In this way, queerly enough, there is some chance to advance beyond the battlefields of that old and unholy war.