Authors: Emily Witt
A funny, fresh, and moving antidote to conventional attitudes about sex and the single womanEmily Witt is single and in her thirties. Up until a few years ago, she still envisioned her sexual experience "eventually reaching a terminus, like a monorail gliding to a stop at Epcot Center." Like many people, she imagined herself disembarking, finding herself face-to-face with another human being, "and there we would remain in our permanent station in life: the future."But, as we all know, things are more complicated than that. Love is rare and frequently unreciprocated. Sexual acquisitiveness is risky and can be hurtful. And generalizing about what women want or don't want or should want or should do seems to lead nowhere. Don't our temperaments, our hang-ups, and our histories define our lives as much as our gender?In Future Sex, Witt explores internet dating, internet pornography, polyamory, and other avant-garde sexual subcultures as sites of possibility. She observes her encounters with these scenes with a wry sense of humor, capturing them in all their strangeness, ridiculousness, and beauty. The result is an open-minded, honest account of the contemporary pursuit of connection and pleasure, and an inspiring new model of female sexuality--open, forgiving, and unafraid.
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For my parents,
Leonard and Diana Witt
I was single, straight, and female. When I turned thirty, in 2011, I still envisioned my sexual experience eventually reaching a terminus, like a monorail gliding to a stop at Epcot Center. I would disembark, find myself face-to-face with another human being, and there we would remain in our permanent station in life: the future.
I had not chosen to be single but love is rareand it is frequently unreciprocated. Without love I saw no reason to form a permanent attachment to any particular place. Love determined how humans arrayed themselves in space. Because it affixed people into their long-term arrangements, those around me viewed it as an eschatological event, messianic in its totality. My friends expressed a religious belief that it would arrive for me one day, asif love were something the universe owed to each of us, which no human could escape.
I had known love, but having known love I knew how powerless I was to instigate it or ensure its duration. Still, I nurtured my idea of the future, which I thought of as the default denouement of my sexuality, and a destiny rather than a choice. The vision remained suspended, jewel-like in my mind, imperviousto the storms of my actual experience, a crystalline point of arrival. But I knew that it did not arrive for everyone, and as I got older I began to worry that it would not arrive for me.
A year or two might pass with a boyfriend, and then a year or two without. In between boyfriends I sometimes slept with friends. After a certain number of years many of my friends had slept with one another,too. Attractions would start and end in a flexible manner that occasionally imploded in displays of pain or temporary insanity, but which for the most part functioned peacefully. We were souls flitting through limbo, piling up against one another like dried leaves, awaiting the brass trumpets and wedding bells of the eschaton.
The language we used to describe these relationships did not servethe purpose of definition. Their salient characteristic was that you had them while remaining alone, but nobody was sure what to call that order of connection. “Hooking up” implied that our encounters had no ceremony or civility. “Lovers” was old-fashioned, and we were often just friends with the people we had sex with, if not “just friends.” Usually we called what we did “dating,” a word we usedfor everything from one-night stands to relationships of several years. People who dated were single, unless they were dating someone. “Single” had also lost specificity: it could mean unmarried, as it did on a tax form, but unmarried people were sometimes not single but rather “in a relationship,” a designation of provisional commitment for which we had no one-word adjectives.Boyfriend,girlfriend, orpartnerimplied commitment and intention and therefore only served in certain instances. One friend referred to a “non-ex” with whom he had carried on a “nonrelationship” for a year.
Our relationships had changed but the language had not. In speaking as if nothing had changed, the words we used made us feel out of sync. Many of us longed for an arrangement we could name, as if it offeredsomething better, instead of simply something more familiar. Some of us tried out neologisms. Most of us avoided them. We were here by accident, not intention. Whatever we were doing, nobody I knew referred to it as a “lifestyle choice.” Nobody described being single in New York and having sporadic sexual engagement with a range of acquaintances as a “sexual identity.” I thought of my situation asan interim state, one that would end with the arrival of love.
* * *
The year I turned thirty a relationship ended. I was very sad but my sadness bored everyone, including me. Having been through such dejection before, I thought I might get out of it quickly. I went on Internet dates but found it difficult to generate sexual desire for strangers. Instead I would run into friends at a party,or in a subway station, men I had thought about before. That fall and winter I had sex with three people, and kissed one or two more. The numbers seemed measured and reasonable to me. All of them were people I had known for some time.
I felt happier in the presence of unmediated humans, but sometimes a nonboyfriend brought with him a dark echo, which lived in my phone. It was a longing with nohope of satisfaction, without a clear object. I stared at rippling ellipses on screens. I forensically analyzed social media photographs. I expressed levity with exclamation points, spelled-out laughs, and emoticons. I artificially delayed my responses. There was a great posturing of busyness, of not having noticed your text until just now. It annoyed me that my phone could hold me hostage to itsclichés. My goals were serenity and good humor. I went to all the Christmas parties.
The fiction that I was pleased with my circumstances lasted from fall into the new year. It was in March, the trees skeletal but thawing, when a man called to suggest that I get tested for a sexually transmitted infection. We’d had sex about a month before, a few days before Valentine’s Day. I had been at a barnear his house. I had called him and he met me there. We walked back through empty streets to his apartment. I hadn’t spent the night or spoken to him since.
He had noticed something a little off and had gotten tested, he was saying. The lab results weren’t back but the doctor suspected chlamydia. At the time we slept together he had been seeing another woman, who lived on the West Coast. Hehad gone to visit her for Valentine’s Day, and now she was furious with him. She accused him of betrayal and he felt like a scumbag chastised for his moral transgression with a disease. He’d been reading Joan Didion’s essay “On Self-Respect.” I laughed—it was her worst essay—but he was serious. I said the only thing I could say, which was that he was not a bad person, that we were not bad people.That night had been finite and uncomplicated. It did not merit so much attention. After we hung up I lay on the couch and looked at the white walls of my apartment. I had to move soon.
I thought the phone call would be all but then I received a recriminatory e-mail from a friend of the other woman. “I am surprised by you,” it said. “You knew he was going to see someone and didn’t let that botheryou.” This was true. I had not been bothered. I had taken his “seeing someone” as reassurance of the limited nature of our meeting, not as a moral test. “I would advise that you examine what you did in some cold, adult daylight,” wrote my correspondent, who further advised me to “stop pantomiming thrills” and “starkly consider the real, human consequences of real-life actions.”
The next day,sitting in the packed waiting room of a public health clinic in Brooklyn, I watched a clinician lecture her captive, half-asleep audience on how to put on a condom. We waited for our numbers to be called. In this cold, adult daylight, I examined what I had done. A single person’s need for human contact should not be underestimated. Surrounded on all sides by my imperfect fellow New Yorkers, I thoughtmany were also probably here for having broken some rules about prudent behavior. At the very least, I figured, most people in the room knew how to use condoms.
The clinician responded with equanimity to the occasional jeers from the crowd. She respectfully said “no” when a young woman asked if a female condom could be used “in the butt.” After her lecture, while we continued to wait, publichealth videos played on a loop on monitors mounted on the wall. They dated from the 1990s, and dramatized people with lives as disorderly as mine, made worse by the outdated blue jeans they wore. The brows of these imperfect people furrowed as they accepted diagnoses, admitted to affairs, and made confessional phone calls on giant cordless phones. Men picked each other up in stage-set bars with oneor two extras in fake conversation over glass tumblers while generic music played in the background to signify a party-like atmosphere, like porn that never gets to the sex. They later reflected on events in reality-television-style confessional interviews. From our chairs, all facing forward in the same direction, awaiting our swabbing and blood drawing, we witnessed the narrative consequences.(One of the men at the gay bar had a girlfriend at home … and gonorrhea. We watched him tell his girlfriend that he had sex with men and that he had gonorrhea.) The videos did not propose long-term committed relationships as a necessary condition of adulthood, just honesty. They did not recriminate. The New York City government had a technocratic view of sexuality.
The federal government haddifferent expectations. Following the phone call I had looked up chlamydia on Google, which led me to the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The government suggested that the best way to avoid chlamydia was “to abstain from vaginal, anal, and oral sex or to be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is known to be uninfected.”It was a fantasy that defied interpretation, two cliffs without a bridge. The suggestion of abstinence came with a more realistic reminder to use condoms. I usually used condoms, but this time I had not used a condom, so now I used antibiotics. When the lab results came back days after my visit to the Brooklyn clinic it turned out I did not have chlamydia. None of us had chlamydia.
Like the federalgovernment, I wanted nothing more than “a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is known to be uninfected.” I had wanted it for a very long time, and it had not arrived. Who knew if it would one day happen? For now I was a person in the world, a person who had sexual relationships that I could not describe in language and that failed my moral ideals.Apprehensiveness set in: that this was my future.
* * *
On a Monday in April 2012, I stood in line at JFK Airport to board a plane to San Francisco. Before me stood a silver-headed West Coast businessman. His skin had the exfoliated, burnished sheen of the extremely healthy; his glasses were of an advanced polymer; he had dark jeans. He wore the recycled ethylene-vinyl acetate shoes thatare said never to smell. His fleece coat was of an extraordinary thickness and quality, with a lissome external layer that would not pill. He seemed like the sort of man who would pronounce himself a minimalist and say that everything he bought was selected for its extraordinary craftsmanship and beautiful design. But the silver fox’s computer bag was a cheap thing with netting and buckles that saidGOOGLEon it. The person in front of him in line wore a Google doodle T-shirt with Bert and Ernie where the Os would be. In front of him was a Google backpack.
Until I left San Francisco it never went away. It was embroidered on breast pockets, illustrated with themes of America’s cities, emblazoned on stainless-steel water bottles, on fleece jackets, on baseball caps, but not on the privatebuses that transported workers to their campus in Mountain View, where they ate raw goji-berry discs from their snack room and walked about swathed, priestlike, in Google mantles, with Google wimples and Google mitres, seeking orientation on Google Maps, googling strangers and Google-chatting with friends, as I did with mine, dozens of times a day, which made the recurrence of the logo feel like amonopolist taunt.
My first day in the city I sat in a sunlit café in the Mission, drank a cappuccino, and read a paper copy of theSan Francisco Chroniclethat lay anachronistically on the counter. The front page reported a gun massacre at an unaccredited Christian college in the East Bay and, below the fold, a federal crackdown on medical marijuana. I overheard someone talking about his lunchat the Googleplex. “Quinoa cranberry pilaf,” I wrote down. And then, “coregasm.” Because that was the subsequent topic of discussion: women who have spontaneous orgasms during yoga. The barista was saying how wonderful it was that the issue was receiving attention, coregasms being something a lot of women experienced and were frightened to talk about. Those days were over.
The people of San Franciscowere once famous for their refusal of deodorant and unnecessary shearing. Sometimes, walking down the street, past gay construction workers and vibrator stores, I was reminded that this was the place where Harvey Milk was elected (and assassinated), where the bathhouses had flourished (and closed). But most of the time I noticed only that the people of San Francisco appeared to have beensuffused with unguents and botanical salves, polished with salts, and scented with the aromatherapeutics sold in the shops that lined Valencia Street. The air smelled of beeswax, lavender, and verbena, when it didn’t smell like raw sewage, and the sidewalks in the Mission glittered on sunny days. The food was exquisite. There was a place in Hayes Valley that made liquid-nitrogen ice cream to order.I watched my ice cream magically pressured into existence with a burst of vapor and a pneumatic hiss. This miracle, as the world around me continued apace: moms with Google travel coffee mugs waiting patiently in line, talking about lactation consultants. Online, people had diverted the fear of sin away from coregasms and toward their battles against sugar and flour. “Raw, organic honey, local ghee,and millet chia bread taming my gluten lust,” a friend from college announced on social media. “Thank goodness for ancient grains.”
At night I was alone, and I would walk down the street hearing sermons in Spanish from the storefront churches and the electronic hum of the BART train below. The city was a dreamworld of glowing screens and analog fetishism, of sex shops and stone fruits. I listenedto deranged speeches on buses and street corners by paranoids who connected ancient conspiracies to modern technology. I began to see conspiracies myself. I walked down the sidewalks of the Mission and noted their glittery resemblance to my sparkly powdered blush in its makeup compact. “This sidewalk looks like Super Orgasm,” I would think, Super Orgasm being the name of the particular shadeof blush I owned. My makeup reveled in contemporary sexual politics:FOR HIM&HERread the sticker on the back of my paraben-free foundation, as if we were all living lives of spontaneity and adventure instead of conformity and punishment. I ran to Golden Gate Park, where giant birds of prey gazed hungrily upon glossy dachshunds. The cyclists passed in shoals, dressed in Google bicycle jerseys.
The idea of free love had a long American tradition of communal experiments, wild-eyed prophets, and jailed heretics. Free love had once meant the right to have sex without procreation; to have sex before marriage; to avoid marriage altogether. It meant freedom of sexual expression for women and gays, and freedom to love across races, genders, and religions. In the twentieth century, post-Freudianidealists believed free love would result in a new politics, even the end of war, and when I heard the phrase “free love” I would helplessly think of 1967, of young people listening to acid rock in this park.
In science fiction, free love had been the future. The new millennium had promised space exploration, fail-safe contraception, cyborg prostitutes, and unrestricted sexuality. But the futurehad arrived, along with many new freedoms, and free love, as an ideal, had gone out of fashion. We were free to have coregasms, but the hippies had been naive; the science fiction wasn’t real. The expansion of sexuality outside of marriage had brought new reasons to trust the traditional controls, reasons such as HIV, the time limits of fertility, the delicacy of feelings. Even as I settled forfreedom as an interim state, I planned for my monogamous destiny. My sense of its rightness, after the failed experiments of earlier generations, was like the reconstruction of a baroque national monument that has been destroyed by a bomb. I noticed that it was familiar but not that it was ersatz, or that another kind of freedom had arrived: a blinking cursor in empty space.
The friendly blandnessof Google’s interface bestowed blessing on the words that passed through its sieve. On Google, all words were created equal, as all ways of choosing to live one’s life were equal. Google blurred the distinction between normal and abnormal. The answers its algorithms harvested assured each person of the presence of the like-minded: no one need be alone with her aberrant desires, and no desireswere aberrant. The only sexual expectation left to conform to was that love would guide us toward the life we want to live.
What if love failed us? Sexual freedom had now extended to people who never wanted to shake off the old institutions, except to the extent of showing solidarity with friends who did. I had not sought so much choice for myself, and when I found myself with total sexual freedom,I was unhappy.
I decided to visit San Francisco that spring because my desires and my reality had diverged beyond the point of reconciliation. I wanted to picture a different future, one aligned with the freedom of my present, and in those years, San Francisco was where the future was going to be figured out, or at least it was the city America had designated for people who still believed infree love. They sought to unlink the family from a sexual foundation of two people. They believed in intentional communities that could successfully disrupt the monogamous heterosexual tradition. They gave their choices names and they conceived of their actions as social movements. They saw in new technology an opportunity to refashion society, including ideas about sexuality. I understood that theSan Franciscans’ focus on intention marked the difference between my pessimism and their optimism. When your life does not conform to an idea, and this failure makes you feel bad, throwing away the idea can make you feel better.
I could have found these communities in New York or almost any American city. I would not be the first person to use California as an excuse. I used the West Coast andjournalism as alibis and I began to consider my options. Eventually I reached the point where the thought of not having examined the possibilities filled me with dread. But if in my early thirties the future would have simply arrived as I had always imagined, I would have abandoned my inquiry. I would have embraced the project of wifeliness, monogamy, and child-rearing and posted them as triumphsfor collective celebration on digital feeds. When I first began to explore the possibilities of free love, I still half-expected that destiny would meet me halfway, that in the middle of all the uncertainty I would come across an exit ramp that would lead me back to all the comfortable expectations and recognizable names.
I was so disingenuous. “But what is your personal journey?” the freethinkerswould ask, and I would joke about this later with my friends.
I am not usually comfortable in a bar by myself, but I had been in San Francisco for a week and the apartment I sublet had no chairs in it, just a bed and a couch. My friends in town were married or worked nights. One Tuesday I had lentil soup for supper standing up at the kitchen counter. After I finished, I moved to the couch in the empty living room and sat under the flatoverhead light refreshing feeds on my laptop. This was not a way to live. A man would go to a bar alone, I told myself. So I went to a bar alone.
I sat on a stool at the center of the bar, ordered a beer, and refreshed the feeds on my mobile phone. I waited for something to happen. A basketball game played on several monitors at once. The bar had red fake leather booths, Christmas lights, anda female bartender. A lesbian couple cuddled at one end of it. At the other end, around the corner from where I sat, a bespectacled man my age watched the game. As the only man and the only woman alone at the bar, we looked at each other. Then I pretended to watch the game on a monitor that allowed me to look the other way. He turned his back to me to watch the monitor over the pool tables, wherethe pool players now applauded some exploit.
I waited to be approached. A few stools down, two men broke into laughter. One came over to show me why they were laughing. He handed me his phone and pointed to a Facebook post. I read the post and smiled obligingly. The man returned to his seat. I drank my beer.
I allowed myself a moment’s longing for my living room and its couch. The couch hada woolen blanket woven in a Navajo-inspired pattern. There was a cast-iron gas stove in the fireplace. I had fiddled with the knobs and the gas, but couldn’t figure out how to ignite it. At night the room had the temperature and pallor of a corpse. There was no television.
I returned to my phone and opened OkCupid, the free Internet dating service. I refreshed the feed that indicated whetherother people in the neighborhood were sitting alone in bars. This service was called OkCupid Locals. An OkCupid Locals invitation had to start with the word “Let’s”:Let’s smoke a joint and hang outLet’s grab a brunch, lunch, beer or some such for some friendly Saturday revelry.Let’s get a drink afterKoyaanisqatsiat the Castro.Let’s meetand tickle.Let’s enjoy a cookie.Let’s become friends and explore somewhere.
I never broadcast an OkCupid chat signal, I just responded. That night I scrolled until I found a handsome man who had written a benign invitation: “Let’s get a drink.” I looked at his profile. He was Brazilian. I speak Portuguese. He played the drums. “Tattoos are a big part of my friends’ and family’s life,” hewrote.
I responded to the online beacon, and I went for a drink with a stranger. We kissed, we went back to his place, he showed me his special collection of marijuana plants, and we talked about Brazil. Then I went home and never spoke to him again.
* * *
I went on my first Internet date shortly after I bought my first smart phone, in November 2011. Tinder didn’t yet exist, and in NewYork my friends used OkCupid, so that’s where I signed up. I also signed up to Match, but OkCupid was the one I favored, mostly because I got such constant and overwhelming attention from men there. The square-jawed bankers who reigned over Match, with their pictures of scuba diving in Bali and skiing in Aspen, paid me so little attention it made me feel sorry for myself. The low point came when Isent a digital wink to a man whose profile read, “I have a dimple on my chin,” and included photos of him playing rugby and standing bare-chested on a deep-sea fishing vessel holding a mahi-mahi the size of a tricycle. He didn’t respond to my wink.
I joined OkCupid with the pseudonym “viewfromspace.” In the “About” section of my profile I wrote, “I like watching nature documentaries and eatingpastries.” I answered all the questions indicating an interest in casual sex in the negative. I wanted a boyfriend. I was also badly hung up on my last boyfriend and wanted to stop thinking about him. Many people on the site had this problem. People cheerily listed their favorite movies and hoped for the best, but darkness simmered beneath the chirpy surface. An extensive accrual of regrets lurkedbehind even the most well-adjusted profile. I readThe Red and the Blackto remind myself that sunny equanimity in the aftermath of heartbreak was not always the order of the day. On the other hand, I liked that on the dating sites people hit on each other with no ambiguity of intention. A gradation of subtlety, sure: from the basic “You’re cute,” to the off-putting “Hi there, would you like tocome over, smoke a joint and let me take nude photos of you in my living room?”
I found the algorithms put me in the same area—social class and level of education—as the people I went on dates with, but otherwise did very little to predict whom I would like. I seemed to attract, in both online and real-life dating, a statistically anomalous number of vegetarians. I am not a vegetarian.
I wenton a date with a composer who invited me to a John Cage concert at Juilliard. After the concert we looked for the bust of Béla Bartók on Fifty-seventh Street. We couldn’t find it, but he told me how Bartók had died there of leukemia. We talked about college, and the poetry of Wallace Stevens. We both liked the novels of Thomas Pynchon. We had all this in common but I wished I were somewhere else.As we drank beers in an Irish pub in Midtown, I could think of five or ten people with whom I would have rather spent the evening drinking beers. But the object, now, was to find a boyfriend, and none of the many people I already knew were possible boyfriends.
For our second date we went out for ramen in the East Village. I ended the night early, on the way out lamenting what a long day it hadbeen. He next invited me to a concert at Columbia and then to dinner at his house. I said yes but canceled at the last minute, claiming illness and adding that I thought our dating had run its course.
I had hurt his feelings. My cancellation, he wrote, had cost him a “ton of time shopping, cleaning and cooking that I didn’t really have to spare in the first place a few days before a deadline…”He punctuated almost exclusively with Pynchonian ellipses. I apologized, then stopped responding. In the months that followed he continued to write long e-mails with updates of his life, and I continued not responding until it was as if he were lobbing his sadness into a black hole, where I absorbed it into my own sadness.
I went on a date with a furniture craftsman. We met at a coffee shop.It was a sunny afternoon in late February, but a strange snowfall began after we arrived, the flakes sparkling in the sun. The coffee shop was belowground, and we sat at a table by a window that put us just below two chihuahuas tied to a bench on the sidewalk outside. They shivered uncontrollably despite their fitted jackets. They looked down at us through the window, chewing on their leashes. Thewoodworker bought me a coffee and drank tea in a pint glass.
He showed me photos of furniture he made. He had callused hands and was tall. He was attractive but his blue eyes shifted restlessly around the room and he looked bored. We discovered we had been born in the same hospital, Allentown Hospital in Allentown, Pennsylvania, except that I was seven months older. In another era, the era whenmarriage was dictated by religion, family, and the village, we might have had several children by now. Instead my parents had moved halfway across the country when I was three years old, he had stayed in Allentown until adulthood, and now we both lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and were thirty. He thought of himself as defiant, and loved being a craftsman only as much as he had hated workingin an office. After drinking his tea, he went to the bathroom, came back, and wordlessly put on his coat. I stood up and did the same. We walked up the stairs into the February wind. We said goodbye.
I went on a date with a man who turned out to be a hairstylist. “A nod and a bow, Ms. Space,” he had written. He arrived late to our appointment in Alphabet City, having accommodated some last-minuteclients who wanted unscheduled blow-drying for their own dates. On either side of his neck he had tattoos of crossed scimitars. I asked him what the tattoos meant. He said they meant nothing. They were mistakes. He pushed up his sleeves and revealed more mistakes. As a teenager in Dallas he had let his friends use him as a training canvas. To call the tattoos mistakes was different from regrettingthem. He didn’t regret them. He said it was just that his sixteen-year-old self was giving him the finger. “You think you’ve changed,” the sixteen-year-old version of him was saying through the tattoos: “Fuck you, I’m still here.”
None of the careful self-presentation in the OkCupid profiles ever revealed what I would discover within several minutes of meeting a person: that I never seemed towant to have sex with anybody I met online. In real life, casual sex was straightforward. I would meet someone at a party. One of us would ask the other out. Then we would have a date or two and have sex, even when we knew we weren’t in love and the relationship wouldn’t “go anywhere.” Sometimes we would skip the dating part. I told myself that my celibacy on OkCupid was because I thought of Internetdating as a “project” I was undertaking, where I would apply a “seriousness” that was absent from my actual social life. I had an idea about “standards” that had to be met before I would consider having sex. The truth was that when I met with these men, most of whom superseded my “standards,” nothing stirred in my body. I felt that it was usually clear, to both parties, that while we could havehad sex it would have been more out of resignation and duty than real desire. If Internet dating made me feel like I was taking control of my life in some way, having sex with people I didn’t really desire would just remind me of the futility of trying to engineer a relationship into existence. Sex, when it was the result of an accumulation of energy between me and another person, really did makeme feel better, but to pretend that feeling was there when it wasn’t was more dispiriting than going home alone.
The body, I started to learn, was not a secondary entity. The mind contained very few truths that the body withheld. There was little of import in an encounter between two bodies that would fail to be revealed rather quickly. The epistolary run-up to the date only rarely revealed thetruth of a man’s good humor or introversion, his anxiety or social grace. Until the bodies were introduced, seduction was only provisional. I began responding only to people with very short profiles, then began forgoing the profiles altogether, using them only to see that people on OkCupid Locals knew how to spell and didn’t have rabidly right-wing politics.
Still, I avoided any mention of sexin my profile. I also avoided all men who led with explicitly sexual overtures. My avoidance of any overt reference to sex meant that Internet dating was like standing in a room full of people recommending restaurants to one another without describing the food. No, it was worse than that. It was a room full of hungry people who instead discussed the weather. If a person offered me a watermelon,I would reject him for not having an umbrella. The right to avoid the subject of sex was structurally embedded in the most popular dating sites. They had been designed that way, because otherwise women would not have used them.
* * *
The man generally held responsible for Internet dating as we know it today is a native of Illinois called Gary Kremen. In 1992, Kremen was a twenty-nine-year-oldcomputer scientist and one of the many graduates of Stanford Business School running software companies in the Bay Area. After a childhood as a pudgy Jewish misfit in Skokie, Kremen had decided upon two goals for his adult life: he wanted to get married and he wanted to earn money. In pursuit of marriage, he went on lots of dates. He soon developed a habit of calling 1-900 numbers—not the phone-sexkind, but the kind that were listed with classified personal ads in the newspaper. As a standard practice at the time, newspapers charged readers two dollars a minute to leave a voice-mail response to a personal ad. Kremen had run up a lot of bills by making such calls. He was, in his own words, “kind of a loser.” One afternoon at work at his software company Kremen had an idea: what if hehad a database of all the single women in the world?
Kremen and four male partners formed Electric Classifieds Inc., a business premised on the idea of re-creating on the Web the classifieds section of newspapers, beginning with the personals. They found an office in a basement in the South Park neighborhood of San Francisco and registered a domain name, Match.com.
“ROMANCE—LOVE—SEX—MARRIAGEAND RELATIONSHIPS,” read the headline on an early business plan Electric Classifieds presented to potential investors. “American business has long understood that people knock the doors down for dignified and effective services that fulfill these most powerful human needs.” In deference to his investors, Kremen eventually removed “sex” from his list of needs.
Many of the basic parts of mostonline dating sites were laid out in this early document. Subscribers completed a questionnaire, indicating the kind of relationship they wanted—“marriage partner, steady date, golf partner, or travel companion.” Users posted photos: “A customer could choose to show himself in various favorite activities and clothing to give the viewing customer a stronger sense of personality and physical character.”The business plan cited a market forecast that suggested 50 percent of the adult population would be single by 2000. By 2008, 48 percent of American adults were unmarried, compared with 28 percent in 1960.
Electronic Classifieds suggested that “many people feel freer when talking electronically than they do face to face.” Kremen drew on the experience of early Internet chat rooms and bulletinboards, which one newspaper article from the time described as “an antiseptic version of a 70s singles bar.” Online, “people who meet in crowded chat rooms often create their own private chat rooms where they engage in cybersex—the keyboard equivalent of phone sex.” But the Internet was most prevalent in sectors that had historically excluded women—the military, finance, mathematics, and engineering—andthe new World Wide Web and its online predecessors had acquired a sexist reputation. “The brave new interactive world is still a club for white male members,” lamented a 1993 manual calledThe Joy of Cybersex. “It is by no means politically correct.”
Knowing that a successful heterosexual dating site had to have roughly equal numbers of women and men subscribers, Kremen hired a team of womenmarketers led by a former Stanford classmate named Fran Maier. Maier learned that women were more likely to use the site if it emphasized traditional dating rituals and presented sex as a secondary question. If the Internet chat rooms were the equivalent of online singles bars, Match, Maier said, would be like “a very nice restaurant or exclusive club.” The company forbade sexually explicit contentand photographs. They modified the questionnaire to include questions about children and religion to emphasize that while any kind of encounter could be had through Match, the site would favor the impression of being a place for people who were looking for lasting relationships. They published editorial content about courtship, as in a dating column about how to use emoticons to “e-flirt,” and offeredguidelines about safety, suggesting that women arrange their dates at public places and not give out their addresses to strangers. They banned any mention of biological clocks, which might have made the site look like a place for desperate people. They gave the interface a clean, white background and a heart-shaped logo. All of this was for women; recruiting men had never been a problem.
Matchset a template for the industry, which grew as the World Wide Web did. As the databases multiplied, they became more specific, tailored to ethnicities and religions. Then came the era of matchmaking science and algorithms, then Internet dating for free, and finally the era of the mobile phone. Each dating technology looking to attract an equal number of women and men, no matter the business strategy,had to ensure that a woman could join the site without having to make any sexual declarations. The more an Internet dating site or application led with the traditional signifiers of masculine heterosexual desire—photographs of lingerie-clad women, open hints about casual sex—the less likely women were to sign up for it. When hackers stole user data from the website Ashley Madison (tag line:“Life is short. Have an affair.”) they revealed that only 14 percent of user records belonged to women, half the percentage that had been advertised by the company’s founder. Of this number, thousands of profiles appeared to be female “bots” programmed to send automated messages to men.
The Internet dating business was the place where I first encountered a popular marketing concept called “theclean, well-lighted place.” This phrase, divorced completely from its origins as the title of an Ernest Hemingway story set in a bar in Spain, came up often when businesspeople spoke about creating a “woman-friendly environment” for sexuality. Cleaning and lighting a place usually meant the removal of pornographic or sexually explicit imagery. “A clean, well-lighted place” was the motto of the pioneeringfeminist sex-toy shop Good Vibrations in San Francisco, which had taken vibrators and dildos from their porn-laden packages and placed them in denuded simplicity like art objects on pedestals. At first the idea had stood for a reclamation of sexuality, an aphoristic amulet against the lingering specter of 1970s movie houses, hot tubs, singles bars, and abused porn stars on quaaludes, butthe concept applied equally well to the age of unsolicited dick pics and “Meet hot singles in your area who want to fuck you now!” In online dating, the clean, well-lighted place meant a sex-free environment in which to consider people with whom one might eventually have sex. For some women, even acknowledging that they were on OkCupid with any sort of intention, let alone a sexual one, was undesirable,so it benefited the dating sites to be as anodyne and blandly enthusiastic as possible. Sam Yagan, one of OkCupid’s founders, told me that one of the unexpected advantages of being free was that the service allowed women to tell themselves that they were not actually looking for a date. “Like, they’ll be, like, ‘Oh, I just met a boyfriend on OkCupid. I didn’t even sign up for dating!’ Okay.You’re right.” Yagan rolled his eyes. “Literally about a third of the success e-mails we get from women have a disclaimer in them that says ‘I didn’t sign up for dating.’” And success, of course, was defined as love. According to another OkCupid founder, Christian Rudder, the numbers of heterosexual women who explicitly stated they were on the site for casual sex was disproportionately low, only0.8 percent, compared with 6.1 percent of straight men, 6.9 percent of gay men, and 7 percent of gay women.
The business strategy was different on websites that excluded women. The founders of Manhunt, which transitioned from a phone chat line to a website in 2001 and became one of the most popular early dating sites for gay men, quickly recognized that in the world of men interested in meetingmen, what job the person had or where he went to college were secondary questions. Sexual attraction and explicitly sexual communication tended to come first.
“A website operated by straight people just does not register with gay men,” Jonathan Crutchley, Manhunt’s co-founder, said in a 2007 interview. “When you fill out their questionnaires the questions that a woman would ask a man when she’slooking for someone to marry, like ‘How much money do you make?’ ‘Do you want children?’—these are ridiculous questions. A gay man could not care less how much money you make, could not care less about wanting children. They want to know your physical attributes; they want to see pictures; they want to know what you’re into.” It was not that his clients did not seek long-term partnerships and families,said Crutchley. Many of them did. The difference between the two approaches was in the process of evaluation. For a significant number of men, sex had its own intrinsic value and quantitative metrics, independent of the qualifications that determined whether you wanted to live with someone and adopt babies with him. Sexual attraction was not a mysterious chemical accident but something thatcould be researched and described in language. Sexual desires were not ineffable wisps of the imagination; they could be named. Someone like me, in contrast, believed that if I enjoyed going to a museum with a man the sexual attraction would just follow, without anybody having to talk about it.
In March 2009, a “social discovery” app called Grindr invited men to “find gay, bi, and curious guysfor free near you!” When enabled on a mobile device, Grindr produced a grid of users, organized in order of proximity. Information about each user ranged from a headless torso with a sobriquet, to smiling, fully clothed portraits with real first names. Full nudity was not allowed in profile pictures, in part to comply with the rules of the app stores, but people could send each other more explicitphotos once they began chatting. Grindr’s founder, a thirty-two-year-old New Yorker named Joel Simkhai, said that the app was more about accessing a social community than it was about finding sex. He had invented it because he wanted to know who around him was gay, and 67 percent of users said they used it to make friends. On the other hand, it was called Grindr.The New York Timeskept describingit as a “hookup app.” The logic, I guess, was that a conversation that began with “R u hung?” had as its end goal an anonymous sexual encounter, whereas one that began with “Hey there gorgeous, ready for the weekend?” would result in a malted with two straws in it followed by an engagement ring. I think that was the story we were telling ourselves.
Before Grindr presented another idea about howto use an iPhone, Internet dating had succeeded as a technological change that did not dismantle certain myths about the progression of romance. OkCupid was just another way to ask someone out on a date. Grindr introduced the theory that one could look at a picture of someone’s abdomen and soon be having sex with a neighbor, and the theory became a question. Should one do this? My answer was no,obviously not. I could only see threats of sexual violence and disease. Still, I liked the idea of it; I liked that our phones beamed signals to orbiting satellites to reveal people only a few feet away; I liked the idea that the strangers of the city could lower the barriers of their isolation. I anticipated when such a technology would become available for my demographic even though I alreadyknew I wouldn’t be bold enough to act on its potential. I wasn’t alone in wanting it to happen. Web articles speculated about the arrival of a “Grindr for straight people” or a “Grindr for lesbians.” These articles had a wistful tone, and even the ones that fretted over “hookup culture” believed in the power of a GPS-equipped mobile device to sexually liberate women, as if the technology would freeus from all the fears and superstitions. The consternation about the “decline of romance” revealed inadvertent optimism that we really could become a society where every single person would feel sexual belonging by activating a program on her phone on a Friday night. Even the opprobrium was idealistic, with its faith that technology would change everything.
In 2011, Simkhai launched such an app.He called it Blendr, but it failed to deliver results comparable to its men-seeking-men counterpart. Once he allowed everyone into the network, it lost its purpose as a means by which to find a coherent social community. Worse, when users started chatting on Blendr and a man sent an unsolicited picture of his penis, women deleted the app.
Tinder arrived a year later. It was a general-interestdating app that in many ways mimicked the interface of Grindr. It showed photos of other users in a person’s immediate vicinity with only name, age, and a tag line of written text. Depending on your feelings for these people, you swiped them to the left (no) or right (yes). It was a Grindr for straight people, but its success with straight people had everything to do with changing Grindr into a clean,well-lighted space. Tinder had innocuous graphic design and peppy animation. The copy of its messaging was buoyant with exclamation points. The profiles were tied to Facebook profiles so that you knew a person was “real.” Users could not exchange photographs within the app, to lower the risk of unwanted sexual imagery. They could exchange messages only when two people swiped each other to theright and would “match.” Tinder’s founders called this the “double opt in.” The founders of Tinder denied any comparisons with Grindr, or that the app’s purpose was to help people arrange casual sex. “Girls aren’t wired that way,” said Sean Rad, adding that married people could also use it “to find tennis partners.”
I didn’t think straight women lived dramatically different lives from gay men.I saw two cultures with distinct stories about the right way to act and to be, with differences in what they were willing to declare about themselves. Grindr had presented an idea. Tinder had modified that idea according to another culture’s concepts of propriety. The gestures toward the two mythologies were very banal: a black screen background versus a white one; photos of body parts versus photosof people doing adventure sports. Two sets of symbols and gestures that would end the same way, with two people in a room together and no guidance.
Of course I knew many friends who had fallen in love online, who had found in the technology a clear, sense-making corridor from being single to being in a couple with no detours into other possibilities. I felt more affinity with the people who hadnot found love, especially those who expressed a feeling that endless stretches of Internet dating put them outside of an ontological monoculture that they could neither describe nor name: people who had gone for several years without bringing anybody home for family holidays, who were used to going to weddings by themselves, who knew they embodied some ahistorical demographic whose numbers werenow significant but which was lacking any sense of group consciousness, let alone any declaration of sexual purpose.
These technologies, which presented a certain possibility of freedom, revealed how little we demanded. In theory, I could behave as I wished. Without breaking any laws I could dress as a nun and get spanked by a person dressed as the pope. I could watch a porn starlet hula-hoopon my computer while I had sex with a battery-operated prosthetic. I could contact a stranger on the Internet, tell him to meet me at the north entrance of the Woolworth Building, tell him I would make myself known only if he arrived carrying three Mylar balloons referencing distinct Disney animated classics, and then, if he fulfilled my wishes, go to his place for sex. I could do all these thingswithout having to wear a scarlet letter, get thrown in jail, or be stoned in public.
I did not do any of these things. My timidity not only concerned ideas of sexual “safety” (especially since most such ideas were ruses that gave women a false sense of control in an unpredictably violent world). My avoidance of sex also had a lot to do with an equation, a relationship of exchange around whichI organized my ideas. I saw sex as a lever that moderated climatic conditions within the chamber of life, with a negative correlation between the number of people I slept with and the likelihood of encountering love. Being sexually cautious meant I was looking for “something serious.” Having sex with more people meant I privileged the whims of the instant over transcendent higher-order commitmentsthat developed over long stretches of time. I equated promiscuity with youth culture and thought of longer monogamous relationships as more adult, and it seemed depressing to still be having casual sex on a regular basis for an interminable number of years. The arbitrary nature of these correlations had not occurred to me.
Even though I felt certain I would eventually meet someone, I consumedmany theories about why I was alone. The books and magazines I read supplied an ongoing and detailed investigation of female malaise. All over America women wondered what had happened to the adult life they had imagined as children, and whether to blame its elusiveness on material changes or personal shortcomings. The old-fashioned theory that a woman might be unlucky and had not met the “right guy”no longer satisfied them. Books urged the single woman to “settle” and marry the imperfect suitor, or to accept that “he’s just not that into you.” The literature counseled behavior modification, telling her to follow “the rules” or to temper adoration because “men love bitches.” Another set of ideas reassured the woman that she was not to blame—her problems were caused by the Internet: porn hadencouraged a culture of loveless, aggressive sexuality or had drained men of sexual animus; the “marketplace” of Internet dating made consumer products of humans and overwhelmed them with choices. Fake-sociology journalists explained to her that she lived in an unfortunate era of societal confusion caused by unclear postfeminist gender roles. This literature could be helpful. It recognized a situation.But it never found a way out.
Instead, these theories compressed the life of “woman today” into a single, unhappy narrative. It began with accounts of how technology was ruining things in high school, how teenage girls had now assimilated ejaculate in the face and Brazilian bikini waxes, how blow jobs were the new kissing, and how girls used social media to send boys pictures of their breaststo be popular. These young women would progress to college, where, after initially thinking that having sex with a man meant committed monogamy, a woman would first suffer disappointment then shift her outlook to “try not to get attached.” Absent the intention of finding love as she pursued sex, the story went, love would never arrive for her. The young woman would then arrive in New York or Dallasor Chicago, where men don’t pay for dinner anymore, and romance is only so many text messages sent while drunk at two a.m. The men were listless dilettantes, the women gym-toned and frantically successful. The confused heroine was often counseled to withhold sex, in exchange for what wasn’t exactly clear. As she aged, the articles shifted to stories of regret, how at one point she thought thatmarrying young would be detrimental to her career, and now she worried about her attractiveness and fertility, as if every woman is presented with a clear choice between career and family in her mid-to-late twenties. By the age of forty the single women, tired of waiting for commitment from men, were using technology to get pregnant by themselves. Babies equaled the fulfillment of a great destiny,although women who had married and had children sounded extremely busy and unhappy, suffered in their careers, and lost interest in sex. The narrative of married life culminated in a hazy binary of male politicians who cheated on their middle-aged wives versus happy couples who settled into gardening, fitness, and conversation about television shows over dinner. Researchers were hard at work tryingto invent a pill to incite sexual desire for married women who loved their husbands but did not love having sex with them.
The stories all became one story, documenting a long series of contemporary threats to the ideal of “the committed monogamous relationship,” that managed to include every expression of female sexuality that happened outside of it. The only way a woman could keep from underminingthis version of love was by saying no to sex, never pandering to male desire, and never expressing any overt sexual interest in the new channels of photography and text. Critics would lament that if a person were to design a fantasy world based on the whims of a young man, its rules and ethics would look much like the social world of the contemporary college campus. What men wanted from sexwas assumed to be sex; what women were described as wanting when it came to sex was not sex at all, but rather a relationship in which one had sex, a structure in which sex happened. The consensus about what young men were said to want from sex—lots of it, perhaps with a number of different partners—had no female corollary. “What kind of sex do you like?” was a question the Internet dating appsdid not ask.
If a woman thought she would most likely sabotage her future happiness through her sexual choices, it followed that it would be difficult to plainly state one’s desires, or even to describe in explicit language the sex she wanted to have. Every sexual expression raised the question of false consciousness: women were described as “objectifying themselves,” “degrading themselves,”or “submitting unthinkingly to contemporary pressures.” They were accused of succumbing to “the pornification of society” and altering their bodies to please men. Rather than following the natural impulse of an adventurous young person a woman was “adopting the sexual behavior of the most opportunistic guy on campus” or “masquerading her desperation as freedom.” Once married, a woman who became aswinger was accommodating the desires of her philandering partner rather than acting on her own free will. A woman could not even give a blow job without a voice in the back of her head suggesting she had been “used.”
I saw that it was taken for granted, or asserted by books of biological determinism such as Louann Brizendine’sThe Female Brain, that the monogamous relationship made women themost happy, was where they most enjoyed sex, and that this sort of commitment brought women both freedom and security. This line of thinking forced me into a gendered role that I resented. If every expression of free sexuality by a woman would be second-guessed, it left men as the sole rational agents of sexual narrative. The woman was rarely granted the heroic role of seducer. If a woman pursueda strictly sexual experience, she was seen as succumbing to the wishes of the sovereign subject. If the sex she had with no commitments made her unhappy, it was not simply bad sex but rather proof of her delusion that it could be good. Male sexual desire was the overwhelming constant, the chemical imperative, and female desire either a concession or a taming influence, whose achievement was not inthe act of seduction but in wresting a man’s interest from the wider field to her alone. What a stupid way to live, where the pure force of sexual desire could never be trusted. Casual sex, abundant and plentifully available to any woman willing to announce her interest in having it, always came second to this precious and rare thing, the loving relationship. Very few people questioned the worthor desirability of this denouement. I didn’t question it either.
It was the very naturalness of the committed relationship, its supposed inevitability, the ne plus ultra of comfort and respect that it represented, that induced the worst mania in the women I knew, because many of us felt simultaneously entitled to it as a destiny while also finding it impossible to achieve, what with our technology,our moral landscape, and our lack of clear gender roles. Unlike school or work, the amount of effort and thought we put into it had no correlative result, because the outcome depended on the behavior and complicity of another kind of person. “It is agonizing for a woman to assume responsibility for her own life,” wrote Simone de Beauvoir inThe Second Sex, first published in 1949. Many decadeslater this was still true: to give up on theideaof the relationship would be to assume a mantle of preternatural self-sufficiency. Letting go of the ideal relationship, to instead declare herself autonomous, to treat sexual desire as a force that gave life meaning rather than as a means to a structural end, would run counter to the thing that most religions and every happy ending she had everseen assured a woman would bring her the most joy.
Even if I rejected the books and magazine articles, which forecasted a range of consequences from the simple decision to have sex or not, they colonized my mind. Experience indicated that love would not be more likely to arrive if I rejected sex, but I read articles that spoke of a woman’s “choice” between casual sex and serious relationships.I learned about an “economic” theory of sex, wherein if women make sex more readily available (never mind wanting it) its “price” drops, and men have to “do less” to get it. “She struggles with him in the effort to uphold her independence, and she battles with the rest of the world to preserve the ‘situation’ that dooms her to dependence,” wrote Beauvoir. “This double game is difficult to play,explaining in part the disturbed and nervous state in which many women spend their lives.”
* * *
I had a friend who began pursuing casual sex as a declared intention in her twenties, when she lived in New York. In New York, her strategy had not been complicated: when her friends left the bar, she would stay. When she later moved to a smaller city, the bars closed earlier. A car-bound transportationsystem meant people drank less. She turned to the Internet.
While plenty of men offered themselves as interested in casual sex on OkCupid, too many encounters ended sadly: it was, after all, a dating website, and she did not want to talk about feelings, she wanted to have intense, satisfying sexual encounters. She began using the “Casual Encounters” classifieds on Craigslist. She would go onat night and respond to ads. She had a system: first, an exchange of photos. Then a phone call. She is deft and decisive, and these traits gave her an advantage when it came to casual sex. Every phone call, she would lay out a list of rules. She would get a real name. She would say that everything they did would be consensual and that if she said “no” or wanted to stop that all sex would stop. Theywould use condoms. If she liked the man, and he agreed to her conditions, she would go to his place. She would meet him outside and then they would go in and have sex. She understood all of the risks.
Sometimes the encounters would be depressing, but even the worst ones would give her stories to tell. When the encounters went well they could be powerful sexual experiences. Some of the men whoused Craigslist to seek out casual sex, she said, were really good at sex. They were people for whom sex was an end in itself, who had a lot of experience, who tended to have an ardent fascination with and interest in the body and in pleasure.
When I spoke to her about it, she was now in her thirties, and more interested in having a monogamous relationship. I asked her what her Internet sex experienceshad given her. The most important thing, she said, was learning that if she overtly expressed interest in having noncommittal sex with men who also seemed interested in sex, they almost always responded positively. They would delight in her willingness and affirm how much they desired her. This affirmation was not, as perhaps she had been led to believe, “cheap” for being readily available.(Or rather, as another friend once put it: “Yeah, it’s cheap—it’s free!”) She learned that even if she never found love, she would always find someone who would want to have sex. It made her feel good about herself and her body, it made her more confident, she grew in her awareness of her own agency and had more control than she was used to experiencing in the confines of the traditional viewof dating, where the idea remained that sex was to be withheld until some indication of emotional commitment was revealed. When a woman wanted casual sex, and not a boyfriend, the old gender roles were often reversed. She was the one who could choose; she was the one to whom men would clamor to reply. These lessons outweighed what she saw as the downsides: the depressing encounters that were reallydepressing, the fact that her partners in the future would have to reckon with the extent of her sexual history, the risks. Also, she said happily, “now I’m really good at sex.” By which she meant, I supposed, that she had overcome the idea of good sex as a chemical accident, as rare as falling in love.
I never felt secure enough to pursue sex online. In the depths of loneliness, however, Internetdating provided me with a lot of opportunities to go to a bar and have a drink with a stranger on nights that would otherwise have been spent unhappy and alone. I met all kinds of people: an X-ray technician, a green tech entrepreneur, a computer programmer with whom I enjoyed a chaste fondness over the course of several weeks. We were both shy and my feelings were tepid (as, I gathered, werehis), but we went to the beach, he told me all about mushroom foraging, he ordered his vegetarian burritos in Spanish, and we shared many mutual dislikes.
Internet dating had evolved to present the world around us, the people in our immediate vicinity, and to fulfill the desires of a particular moment. At no point did it offer guidance in what to do with such a vast array of possibility. Whilethe lonely might harbor a secret object, from the desire for a brief sexual encounter to a longing for love, the technology itself promised nothing. It brought us people, but it did not tell us what to do with them.
The organization OneTaste was careful about the impressions it gave, since its mission to “bring female orgasm to the world” could sometimes be misinterpreted. Once a week, OneTaste therefore offered an open house, where curious members of the public could meet practitioners of what the organization called orgasmic meditation, or OM-ing, in a casual and friendly setting,without any of the actual orgasms or meditating. Advertised as “A room of people (cool, fun people) engaged in honest, humorous, playful conversation around topics we mostly only consider having in our head,” the meetings were held every Wednesday evening at OneTaste’s small headquarters on Moss Street, a secluded back alley in San Francisco’s South of Market district. The building was a squat two-storyformer warehouse, its exterior painted a neutral gray, its front a façade of frosted glass windows. A velvet curtain shielded the front door from the view of the street, and entrances were monitored by beaming members of the organization, who greeted newcomers with the confidence and searching eye contact characteristic of all purveyors of conversion experiences.
I entered here one evening, gavemy name to one of a small fleet of enthusiastic people presiding over clipboards, and walked from the foyer into OneTaste’s inner chamber, a clean, skylit space with polished concrete floors and exposed wooden beams. In one corner was a table holding coffee and tea. Music played softly through speakers. Two rows of chairs were placed in a half circle; in front of them another row, of fabric chairslined up on the floor. Maybe twenty or so people occupied these seats, a healthy-looking, multicultural group of people who mostly appeared to be in their thirties or forties.
I sat on the end of the back row of chairs, and said hello to the woman sitting next to me. Her name was Melissa. She was originally from Kansas City but had most recently been living in New York. She had only just movedto San Francisco. She worked in public relations. She was white, had long brown hair and a full figure, and wore a knit dress. Her looks and dress would have been visually congruent in a vast array of settings: she would not have stuck out at a church in Kansas City, or in a bar in Midtown Manhattan, or at a Whole Foods in Austin, or on a back patio in Atlanta, and nor did she stick out in an orgasmicmeditation information session in San Francisco. We compared New York and San Francisco, agreeing that the latter’s slower pace and manageable size had its advantages. We talked about how expensive the taxis were. We ran out of things to talk about. Melissa had been to OneTaste before. “Everyone is really nice here,” she finally said, and it was true.
In front of her, a slim man with light brownskin and glasses turned around and stared at us. He and the man next to him said something to Melissa and she listened. “You don’t want women and women sitting together?” she said. So she stood up and switched spots with the man, who now sat next to me. Still staring, in the friendly, focused, interested way that indicated to me he had clearly had some experience in this setting, he introducedhimself as Marcus. We shook hands. Meanwhile, the music that had been playing was turned down. A man and a woman sat down on stools before the half circle, and a quiet settled over the room.
The man and woman did not immediately speak. Instead they gazed thoughtfully around the room with tranquil, wise glances. They were both attractive, and radiated the clean healthy blondness endemic to NorthernCalifornians. They were casually dressed. He was in his late twenties, sandy-headed, clean-shaven and with symmetrical features, the sleeves of his faded T-shirt nicely taut against his biceps. He had the human neutrality of an Apple store or IKEA—if he had been a piece of furniture he would have been a solid but elegant construction of blond wood. Both wore jeans, hers with a plaid pearl-buttonedshirt of thin cotton that allowed the edges of the tattoos that framed her chest to peek through at the collar. Her nails were a vivid tomato red and her wavy blond hair delicately tousled. I could picture her leaning against a vintage pickup truck in a field of wheat at the golden hour, perhaps in an advertisement.
His name was Eli; hers was Alisha. He had been OM-ing for three and a half years;she had been practicing for more than six. They told us this now, and then explained the meeting we were attending as a way to introduce the practice to us, the public. We would begin, they said, by playing a series of three games to get to know one another, and then they would explain the practice of orgasmic meditation for those who were unfamiliar with it.
The first game was called One Mind.To play it, we answered a single question with rapid responses made sequentially around the circle. First we gave our names. The next question was “Why did you come here?” I was one of several people who answered “curiosity.” Already, however, people showed an apparent eagerness to make their answers sexual, although Eli and Alisha had yet to indicate that OneTaste had anything to do with sex,per se. The third question confirmed that the intention of the whole endeavor was to in fact encourage us to talk about sex in an overt way. It was “What does your red hot desire look like?”
The responses ranged from “Being tied in a bed,” to “Naked in a forest in Tahoe,” to “Giving head for fifteen minutes straight.” One woman said, “I can’t fathom it so I’m here to figure that out.” Someoneelse gave a sylvan vision of a fawn caught in a sunbeam in a tree-filled glen. A man in his mid-fifties whose hair seemed styled into a monk’s tonsure said only, “I’m available.” Someone else said, “Licking pussies.” Another, to Alisha: “You, when you’re turned inside out.” The familiarity and gusto with which many people in the room played the games indicated that they already knew one another.They emphasized their ease and comfort with discussing sex to galvanize the rest into adopting the same attitude.
We proceeded to the second game, called Hot Seat. For this game a volunteer sat on the stool in front of the room, the aforementioned hot seat, and answered questions from the audience. The questions were supposed to be “interested rather than interesting”—oriented to show curiositytoward the recipient and not to make a provocative point. The game’s rules forbade any rejoinder beyond “thank you.” If the answer satisfied the questioner before the person in the hot seat had finished responding, he or she could cut off the response with “thank you.”
“Who wants to be in the hot seat?” asked Eli. At least a dozen hands shot up, including that of Melissa from Kansas City. Themoderators chose a small, dark-haired woman named Rebecca, with whom they seemed to be friends. “Rebecca, you’re glowing,” said Eli. She did appear to be glowing. She sat down and awaited her first question.
“Rebecca, why are you glowing?” someone finally asked.
“Because I found my orgasm tonight,” she answered.
Rebecca pointed to the next questioner.
“Where was it?”
Another woman sat in the hot seat. The questions continued: “Are men who want to date you intimidated by you?” asked one. “I don’t know,” she said. Further questions revealed that the hot seater was actually in love with a woman, so later someone asked, “How did it make you feel when you were asked that question about dating men?”
A lanky man with harem pants, blue eyes,and an indeterminate northern European accent took to the stool.
“Are you German?”
“How did you hear about OneTaste?”
“Someone told me about it at a party.”
He said he was happy to have come because these were the kinds of things he always wanted to talk about.
“What sort of things?”
“What do you hope will happen?”
“I hopeto meet people and maybe have sex with one.”
A woman named Lisa sat in the hot seat. She pointed at a man with his hand upraised.
“Jose,” she said, calling him by name.
“What are you frustrated about?” he asked.
“Jose,” she answered.
“Thank you,” said Jose.
“Why are you frustrated with Jose?” asked someone else.
“Because I want to fuck him.”
Finally the moderators called on Melissa. She had looked happy, but once she was sitting in the hot seat she began to cry.
“Why are you crying?” someone asked.
“I don’t know,” she said.
She did not seem to be crying from despair. Rather, the idea was that she cried like someone who has been unhappy for a long time, has unexpectedly found solace, and now can hardly conceive ofthe darkness to which she had previously confined herself.
We proceeded to the third and final game: Intimacies. Alisha explained that it was Intimacies that had made her realize, when she had first encountered OneTaste, that she had found somewhere she belonged. The rules of the game held that people directly addressed other people’s “turn-ons”: we went around in a circle, and each person wasallowed to make a statement to another person directly, or the group at large. A man named Rajiv told the woman named Lisa that he was attracted to her. When the game reached her she addressed him, “Let’s talk.” Somebody told the not-German man he had “turned her on.” Another man addressed all of the women in the group, expressing relief to hear them talking about their desires. Another liked someone’sglasses. One man from across the room said to a woman on the floor with blond curly hair, “You’re not normally the kind of person I’m attracted to but you really turn me on.” Another: “When I saw you kissing someone earlier in the kitchen I felt disappointed.” Each of these statements was to be met only with a simple “thank you.”
A lot of people addressed Melissa, whose tears had acted as aninvitation to the more shy people in the group. When my turn came I told Melissa that the contrast between our shallow small talk and her tears reminded me how much is going on beneath every banal conversation. Much of the attention also focused on a small man dressed all in white sitting on the floor. He was pale and seemed to radiate illness and depression. At one prompt he had referred to the endof a relationship. In Intimacies several people addressed him. One told him that he looked troubled. Another said that he was surprised to see him back for the second time. The sallow man in white used his chance to share an intimacy to thank the friends who had accompanied him. Marcus, the man who had been staring at the beginning, addressed me: he had been watching me during the evening, he said,and would see me shut down, and then at other times open up and light up. “Thank you,” I said, annoyed.
After the “games” finished, Alisha and Eli launched into a brief explanation of what orgasmic meditation actually is. Orgasmic meditation, or OM, is a fifteen-minute practice between a woman and a partner. The word choice—practice—deliberately recalled yoga and meditation. For the OM-ers itimplied an ongoing, daily ritual in which one gained incremental expertise and wisdom over time.
A couple begins an orgasmic meditation session by first setting up a “nest.” They place a blanket on the floor for the woman to lie down on and a number of pillows to support her legs and head. The woman then takes off her pants and underwear, reclines, and opens her legs. Her partner sits down ona cushion to her right, remaining fully clothed. He puts his left leg over her body and his right leg under hers. Then he sets a timer for fifteen minutes, puts on a pair of latex gloves, and puts lubrication on one finger. He looks down and poetically describes the woman’s vulva to her. He asks for permission to touch her. When she grants it, he puts his thumb into her introitus with his right hand.With his left he gently begins stroking the upper left-hand quadrant of her clitoris, applying only very gentle pressure. This continues for the remainder of the allotted time, sometimes wordlessly, sometimes with the woman offering guidance or her partner sharing observations or physical feelings. When the timer ends (usually heralded by the “Bell” setting on an iPhone), the man cups his handover the woman’s vulva, providing firm pressure to “ground” her. Then the session ends. He covers her with a towel, and the two share what the OM-ers call “frames.” The man might say, as one did in an instructional video I watched: “I felt a bright, thin gold pulse from the tip of my finger up to my chest.” The woman might respond, as she did in the same video: “There was a moment where you slowedthe stroke and stopped for a split second and I felt a deep electrical exhale move through the upper part of my body.” Following these statements the OM is complete. The woman puts her clothes back on, the nest is put away, and the two get on with their day.
After this meeting I went back to my apartment and watched more of the organization’s videos on the Internet. They mostly showed couples.There sat Marcus, sitting with his partner, a woman named Hadassah. In reality-television-style testimonials they said things like “Once I started to OM I realized how much was available,” and “OM-ing helped me find my voice. It’s not just the secret to better relationships, it’s the secret to a better life,” and “You are sitting on a volcano and you don’t know it,” and “The turn-on is there thewhole time.” Marcus and Hadassah looked at each other with love.
* * *
I went back to Moss Street the next day. The founder of OneTaste, Nicole Daedone, was lecturing that evening, in what Alisha had said was her first public appearance in months. Daedone had been working on her next book, about the “OneTaste theory of relationships.” The lecture was to be webcast via her Facebook page andboth the live audience and the Web audience would have the opportunity to ask questions.
Walking over to the OneTaste facility through the bleak streets of SOMA I was conscious of weariness settling over me. I was interested in their project but I did not want to have to talk to these people again. They demanded an enthusiasm and a positivity it exhausted me to have to muster and present. AsI approached the location, I saw the sickly depressed man walking with a female companion across the street. He still wore his curious draped outfit of white, including what appeared to be linen white culottes, which exposed his stockinged ankles and Birkenstock sandals. One ankle appeared to be supported by a tan ACE bandage, but I had merely conditioned myself, because of his white attire, to thinkof him as a sort of hospital patient, oppressed with an unknown malady. In reality he was simply wearing a single brown sock on his left foot. I hung back to avoid overtaking them and having to acknowledge that we had both attended the group meeting last night, shared “intimacies,” and would therefore have to introduce ourselves to each other. In my efforts to avoid this encounter, I took a wrongturn and arrived by way of a circuitous route, walking back toward OneTaste after having overshot my destination by several blocks.
Ahead of me, a woman in a long mustard-yellow skirt scanned the numbers of the buildings on Moss Street. She opened the door of OneTaste and disappeared inside. I followed her, passing through the velvet curtains into the entryway, which was now filled with people.The clipboard phalanx remembered my name and welcomed me back as if I were an old friend. I greeted Justine Dawson, who did public relations for the organization. In the room where we had sat yesterday, the seats had been rearranged into rows. Lights, cameras, and cords gave the space the appearance of a floodlit production studio and added an air of significance to the moment. These arrangementsall oriented themselves toward a simple tableau: two high stools and an end table with a white calla lily and two glasses on it. Two bottles of Perrier stood beneath the table unopened.
Nicole Daedone was immediately recognizable, not simply from her photos online but because of the acolytes who now flocked excitedly around her. More than this I knew her by her charisma, which had a physicalcomponent. She was in her mid-forties and tall. She wore a delicate bias-cut shift of milky white that revealed her décolletage. Her hair was dyed a pale gold and she wore gold hoop earrings. She was tan and her long legs were bare and impeccably depilated. She wore a pair of black suede wedge heels and a ring that was a sort of half gyroscope of diamonds. As the audience waited for her speech, theirattention was drawn to her, half-monitoring what she would do and what she might say as they carried out their own conversations.
The organizers turned off the music. Daedone came down the side of the aisle on the right and sat in front of the audience on one of the stools. After a brief introduction, where she was introduced as the “originator of the practice of orgasmic meditation,” Daedonewas left alone on stage. She began with the deliberate gesture the moderators had used the previous night: the calm, wise, glance around the room, until the audience became aware of a change and fell silent. Then Daedone began speaking, in a quiet, conversational tone.
She teaches, she said, one thing: “I teach about desire and the fulfillment of desire.” Women have been trained, she continued,to think that men don’t want them to be happy. But desire was not about indulgence. It was not Harlequin romances or bonbons or shopping. It was the antithesis of that, an “unbelievably stringent mistress,” and the best way Daedone had discovered to feel desire was the experience called orgasmic meditation, a thing for which there was no “cultural context.”
“How many people know what orgasmicmeditation is?” she asked. Many people in the room, which held at least one hundred people, raised their hands. Daedone nodded. “We’ve actually gotten to the point where we sound like we make sense.”
Daedone then proceeded to tell her story, the details of which were filled in with each retelling I heard over the course of several weeks. She grew up in Los Gatos, California, with her single mother,in what she frequently alluded to as a boisterous and emotional family of Sicilian descent. She had sex for the first time when she was sixteen, got pregnant, then had an abortion. She attended San Francisco State University, and in her twenties began to collaborate with a friend on an art gallery. She described herself then as an uptight and controlling person, who dressed in tight black dresseswith white pearls, who ate well and practiced yoga and surpassed all contemporary indices of personal fortitude and accomplishment. She had boyfriends, but there was no indication, in her early twenties, that she would go on to devote her life to spreading gospels of sexuality. She did not feel capable of sharing joy with other people. “I was a bitch,” she said.
Then, when she was twenty-seven,Daedone received a phone call and learned that her father was on the verge of death. Daedone only rarely mentions her father in lectures, and doesn’t explain where he fit in her portrait of her expressive Sicilian family. Daedone’s father died in prison, convicted of child molestation. She has said that he did not harm her as a child, but that she had spent many years of her life “choosing theoption of the powerful-victim identity.”
She told the story of his death in mystical terms: she ascended in the hospital elevator toward his deathbed, and suddenly experienced a singular feeling, not of sadness but of rapture. Time seemed to dilate. The air in the elevator took on an aquatic quality. For a moment, every other aspect of her life faded. When the elevator doors opened, Daedone hadlost the illusion of purpose. In the days that followed her father’s death her resolve collapsed. A breakdown followed, until, in another epiphanic moment, while running through Yerba Buena Gardens a few days later, Daedone heard a voice, clear as a bell. It said, “You will not leave any part of yourself behind.”
I knew what she meant. Losing oneself, in the local context, was a reasonable fear.Strange lives are led in Northern California, where one intellectual stumble can turn you into a wild-eyed apostle of pet acupuncture or shadow healing. It is the national headquarters of bronzed mystics speaking into wireless microphones, promising all the keys to “unlocking your potential.” An army of them waited, in thousands of YouTube videos, to validate pain and propose solutions. In mentioningher own skepticism about the magic formulas Daedone was really addressing my own skepticism, and that of the other people in the room, who might see her speech as just another sales pitch.
Until the death of her father, Daedone had dabbled in spirituality, but now she waded into an active exploration of New Age ideologies of self-help, self-improvement, and self-navigation. She began her trainingat a panspiritual “mystery school,” taking a vow of silence there for the better part of a year. She deepened her exploration into Taoism and Zen, part of what she later would see as an attempt to reject the messy business of death, sex, and the body. In speeches she refers to mysterious mentors, including three women who absorbed her into a coven and a “thug guru” who meted out harsh truths.She speaks of having once lived in an “acid house” and of other experiments living communally. She practiced meditation, vegetarianism, and, for two and a half years, celibacy. She concluded her initial three-year foray into the esoteric with a plan to pursue a life of celibacy and monasticism at the San Francisco Zen Center. Before this renunciation, however, she went to a party.
At the partyDaedone met a Buddhist, an older man in his seventies. They began discussing sex. He invited her to try “a practice.” He explained that for the practice she would lie down, she would disrobe from the waist down, and he would stroke her clitoris for fifteen minutes. “I’ll stroke you,” he said. “You don’t have to stroke me back.”
Daedone told this story to a deeply attentive audience, who was soeager to laugh that they would find hilarity in the mildest of verbal miscues or the blandest of risqué jokes. When she would use a colloquialism, or when she would mime a toke from a joint, the room would explode with laughter. Her speech did not follow any easily summarized rhetorical structure; thoughts began, but they did not always conclude, or would be rendered diffuse after drifting throughnon sequiturs. Chronologies were hazy. She made statements that had protean referents, like the idea of “becoming the person you were always meant to be” or “accessing your inner teacher.” Still, the failures of chronology or logic did not affect her power over the room, because her strength as an orator lay in the intensely personal nature of her disclosures, the ease of her gestures, and herglossy appearance.
Her session with the man from the party, she said, indicated to her that “something more was possible.” She had established a sexual connection with a person without having had sex with him. She had not had to worry about whether he was attracted to her, whether he was honest, if he would call the next day, who would pay for dinner. The “deliberate orgasm,” as the practicewas called, was neither sex nor masturbation. It unlinked sexual experience from love and romance in the way that casual sex never had for her.
“Rather than actually feeling the sex I would feel the relationship,” Daedone said of her life before OM. “I was very sneaky about never confronting my genitals as genitals.”
She meant, I think, that the stroking practice was a sexual technique thatallowed for an intimate connection but preserved an emotional distance, a sexual practice that allowed one to be close to another person while remaining autonomous. Her partner needed only to know what he was doing and respect the boundaries of the process. She did not have to love or even like him. I saw the appeal: if this strange method of sexual communication between friends could be availableto everyone, then a feeling of sexual connection need not be such a rare thing, but as common as friendship itself. It could happen abundantly, with people who failed every ideal of perfection.
Daedone now focused her research on orgasm, a term she used not according to its dictionary definition as a moment of climax but rather to refer to a generalized idea of sexual energy in the world. Whatshe began to hypothesize was that love and relationships in an era of sexual freedom followed an obsolete system of “crossed wires.” She described it as a difference between the map and the territory. Men and women believed that certain sexual behaviors would reward them with certain results: fidelity would be recognized with long and happy marriages, or honesty would be met with honesty. When theseideas of sexual propriety failed to deliver the expected results, people mistakenly blamed personal deficiencies rather than systemic ones.
As many have before her, Daedone suspected the problem lay not in people, but in the network of rules and expectations that govern adult life. In particular, the tendency of women to link sexual desire with so many arbitrary expectations and consequencesthat they cannot focus on the sexual experience itself. Orgasmic meditation, she concluded, would be the neutral space in which focus on the body could happen without the interference of romantic stories or behavioral conditioning.
She did not realize all of this right away, but only after years of research. In 2000, by then in her thirties, she met Rob Kandell, who later became chief operatingofficer of OneTaste. Kandell had undertaken a similar navigation through California self-help, doing Landmark Forum workshops and studying the literature published by More University, an intentional community started in 1968 that produced reports on its “lifestyle experiments.” He told me, vaguely, that he met Daedone at “a social mixer with people engaged in sexuality.” Kandell was married atthe time, but he, his wife, and Daedone started going to sexuality workshops together. Soon they started discussing a curriculum for their own workshops.
Justine Dawson, OneTaste’s public relations woman, called it the search for a “clean, well-lit place, for people to talk about this stuff.” In relation to a New Age organization with evident roots in the human potential movement of the 1960s,the aphorism was meant to dispel the lingering fear of fanatics and cults, of the aprons and lentil soups of the old male-dominated New Communalism. As Dawson explained to me: “There were other people teaching in communities but it often felt like there wasn’t necessarily the most urban, open, clean, clear feeling about it … it was sidelined as hippie or backwoods.” When she started her study, mostof the people teaching deliberate orgasm were men; Daedone wanted to create something woman-centric, a technique that was carried by women but that did not exclude men from the process.
In 2004, Kandell sold his house in the Outer Richmond area and invested the money in a new organization, now called the OneTaste Urban Retreat Center. Daedone signed a lease on a warehouse at 1074 Folsom Street,in which an initial group of twelve people would live communally. They opened their doors on July 30, 2004, with the tag line “A Pleasurable Place for Your Body to Be.” Their stated mission was “to bring orgasm back into the world conversation and back into our bodies.” The warehouse had a space that could be rented for private events. It had a store. They offered yoga and meditation classes, workshops,massages, and books about sexuality. A 2005 article in theSan Francisco Chronicledescribed their naked yoga classes as “transforming, not titillating.”
The residents of the warehouse also experimented among themselves. Daedone does not speak in great detail about this, other than calling it the phase of “research and development.” The rooms in the warehouse had no doors. At its most active,fifty people lived communally in the space, essentially volunteer human research subjects inhabiting a petri dish. They would rise each morning early, at 7:00 a.m., and OM. Then they would undergo a group session called Withholds, a discussion technique that Daedone had learned from Victor Baranco, the founder of More University, where communal residents voiced suppressed thoughts or feelings aboutone another. Then they wrote in journals or practiced yoga.
The sexual research of the house’s residents went beyond the practice of orgasmic meditation, although residents would OM two or three times a day. A person with whom one shared a bed was called a “research partner,” and research partners would invite each other over for “sleepovers.” Through sex and discussion about sex they pushedthe boundaries of jealousy: an awareness of being near a partner, for example, while he slept with someone new, or forcing people to continue to communicate with each other even in the middle of the worst emotional upheavals. They explored the particularities of sexual responses by women who had experienced trauma or had eating disorders. They looked at how a woman’s sexual experience might evolvewith age. They discussed how a man should respond when a woman starts crying during sex, or how a man can discern a woman’s sexual satisfaction if she does not vocalize her enjoyment. The communal nature of the experience was essential. If a difficulty arose, the resident would have the rest of the group there to discuss the problem. If the world at large condemned their sexuality, the numbers ofthe group would reinforce the worth of the experimentation.
According to one former resident, who spent three or four months in the warehouse in 2008 when he was in his mid-twenties, “there wasn’t that much sex happening,” despite “the sounds of orgasm rippling through the warehouse through the day” as people OM-ed with each other. As a man, he was not allowed to be stroked unless the woman offeredin return. (“We teach men not to ask and women not to offer for at least a year, or six months,” said Kandell, of the “male stroking practice,” which does in fact exist but the specifics of which are obscured to all but the more committed members of OneTaste. The idea is to eliminate the notion of sex as a reciprocal servicing contract, and to encourage women who consider the needs of othersbefore their own to learn how to receive rather than give.) The former warehouse resident found his experience living there beneficial, especially the work to eradicate gender-based preconceptions about sexuality. He felt he had genuinely learned to perceive and read what the OM-ers call “turn-on,” or the body’s physical responses to the presence of another person. He gave me a summary of theirtheories about privileging the drives of the body, or “limbic system,” over the reasoning of the mind, or “cortex.” The downside of living in the warehouse was the heavy focus on recruitment, the pressure to make OneTaste a proselytizing endeavor.
“They were, to my chagrin, very much motivated to bring people in by selling the program,” he said. OneTaste earned revenue by charging for workshopsand coaching, and anyone who traded their e-mail address or phone number in exchange for the right to watch a video or attend a lecture could expect a long series of solicitations. The first workshop he took was very beneficial to him; the second class was “bullshit.” He found the teaching strangely anti-love, or at least averse to the building up of intimacy between two people at the expense ofothers, elevating instead an idea of wider-ranging connectedness. The warehouse was not welcoming to those who fell in love. “I very much enjoy intimacy,” he said, and ultimately concluded the OneTaste way was not for him. It took him time to reintegrate back into the world of mainstream expectations, to remember how love and sex worked without the structure of OM-ing.
* * *
Daedone emergedfrom this “research and development phase” having refined and codified the system and practice of orgasmic meditation, which she says provides a stable foundation from which to experiment. OM-ing every day, she said, gave her more security from which to pursue more emotionally demanding situations. (When I met her she was attempting a year of “extreme non-monogamy.”) At the end of 2008, OneTasteabandoned its warehouse and moved its offices and residence to a former single-room-occupancy hotel nearby, which had the advantage of having doors. They brought their numbers down to twelve residents. “The heat in the warehouse, I think, was too high for the public,” said Kandell.
By the time OneTaste was profiled for the first time inThe New York Timesin 2009, the organization had adopteda tone of friendly ambiguity. The opacity about what happened at OneTaste beyond the orgasmic meditation it publicly advertised allowed the organization to appeal to both monogamous couples and women who thought of themselves as reluctant sexual explorers. Daedone’s great hope was that one day asking someone for an OM would be like “inviting someone for a cup of tea.”
That night, before her liveaudience, she described how the practice works. She set up the “nest” of pillows and one of her colleagues volunteered (remaining fully clothed, in this instance). Nicole set her subject in position, then put her hand on her legs. “I’ll feel the difference between the sensation in her body, and the sensation in mine,” she explained. Then she would put lubrication on her fingers, set a timer forfifteen minutes, and begin stroking. “So if her clitoris were a clock” (the room found this hilarious), “it would be the one o’clock position. And you’re just going to stroke there, up, down, up, down, up, down, up down.” The lecture ended in wild applause.
* * *
In order to try an orgasmic meditation, the first step was attending a one-day workshop at OneTaste to get “certified” to OM.The workshop cost $97. Justine told me I was lucky, because I would have the rare treat of viewing a live demonstration, and Nicole would be there in the morning.
After signing a release that said, among other things, that we understood that “OM-ing is not psychotherapy,” the workshop began with the same round of games as before, although this time discussion was led by Nicole. She looked casuallysexy in a short gray dress that revealed her long legs and bare arms and tan suede high-heeled boots. Again, in response to the question about the motives that brought us to the workshop, I responded, “Curious.”
Nicole challenged me. “You say that but I’m sensing some irritation.” I was irritated. The man to my left reeked of booze, was red-faced and bright-eyed, and I was pretty sure that whateverwas in his coffee cup, at ten in the morning, was not coffee. He would laugh loudly and frequently and would turn and stare at my profile. He radiated a grasping need. I felt he had come to the room with a question and had singled me out as an answer to that question. As long as I was conscious of his presence I felt almost nauseated with anxiety. The room was warm and oppressive, and the fiftypeople in the semicircle formed a tight wall. I could not take notes without attracting attention, but needed to take notes. I could have said all this but instead I pretended I was relaxed and enjoying myself, even though I felt only more anxiety for having been singled out by Nicole.
She questioned other people, too, and could come down harshly. Winning her approval or earning her notice becamea part of the room’s dynamic. A man sitting on the floor confessed himself a skeptic of the benefits of orgasmic meditation, and Nicole bristled. “Then why are you here?” she asked. “I’m not here to convince you.” A medical resident at Stanford University, a divorcee still in her twenties with whom I had been chatting earlier, said, “I’m here because I haven’t had an orgasm in five years.” Whenanother woman introduced herself, Nicole interrupted her with an air of psychic prognosis. “Are you from San Diego?” she asked. “I’m from the Bay Area,” replied the woman. Nicole stared at her intently. Then she looked around the room. “What’s the ‘It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp’ movie?” she asked. “Hustle and Flow,” someone yelled out. Nicole nodded and looked back at the woman. “It’s hard tobe a witch when everyone around you is normal,” she said.
We broke for lunch. I went to a nearby café followed, to my dismay, by the man who had been sitting next to me, who ordered a beer. Several other people joined us. One of them, a woman in her early twenties named Lauren, was enthusiastically raising funds to try to enter OneTaste’s coaching program, which cost $13,000.
Lunch was a relieffrom the frenetic atmosphere of a room where everyone was talking about sex. I waited until my neighbor sat down with his beer then chose a seat on the other side of the room. When we arrived back at the workshop, we were all much calmer. Alisha and Rob led a discussion about the morning’s events. Suddenly Nicole stood up from her seat in the back row and came to the front. She had changed costume,and was now wearing jeans and a draping, oatmeal-colored cowl-neck sweater. She was worried, she said, that the energy had gone out of the room. She lamented that we had all returned to our usual, comfortable state of sexual repression. This was true. I felt much more relaxed. Nicole said this was a mistake. “A group of people gets very uncomfortable when things get hot,” she said. “This practiceisnecessarilyuncomfortable.” So before we proceeded, she asked us to go around the room and talk about our feelings some more. “The whole thing is for each person in this room to become who they are,” she announced. “The soul isn’t just connected to the heart, it’s connected to cocks and pussies.”
We continued going around the room, sharing our feelings, Nicole periodically stopping to interrogatepeople further. A young olive-skinned man said that he loved women but felt like a different person when he was having sex. She stopped him. “Are you Italian?” she asked. He was, he said. She looked at him thoughtfully.
“Women love to fuck,” she told him. “They have no desire deeper than to devour you.” I had started taking notes again, but at this I stopped. Her eyes now scanned the room andrested on me. “What?” she asked. “You look skeptical.”
I admitted that as interested as I was in being in a room with so much openly expressed desire, I was feeling hemmed in by it. I said I guessed I liked to have more control about who I could be sexual with, and that unwanted advances made me anxious. As much as I might “love to fuck,” it was usually only true for one guy out of several hundred,and sexual interest from the rest bothered me.
In response to this, Nicole told a story about a guy who was leaving lascivious comments on her website. Every day, the man wrote to her how much he wanted to fuck her, about all the nasty things that he would do to her. She ignored him for a while, but then finally confronted him, asked him for his number, texted him, and said, “Okay, let’s do this.Come on over.”
Nothing. He did not respond. She had proven herself bigger than his desire. By inviting rather than repelling this man, she had put herself in a position of power over him. Women, she explained, tend to receive sexual desire with anxiety. When Nicole walks into a room and perceives someone’s sexual interest directed her way, she now internally acknowledges it instead of pretendingto be unaware of it or doing everything possible to diminish it. She monitors the response of her body, specifically her genitals, to the other people in the room. She will even talk about this in speeches: “At all times there isn’t a moment when I’m awake that my ambient attention isn’t anchored to my genitals,” she said in a video I later watched online. “I can tell you at any moment—not thatyou’re going to ask—what’s happening in my genitals. Right now my genitals are slightly swollen, they’re switched out a little bit, it feels like there’s a light layer, almost of like sweat or perspiration, it feels really warm and there’s a buzzing around my introitus. At any moment I keep my attention there, and if you keep your attention there you stay grounded with what’s happening. If you cankeep your attention located on the most intense domain of the body, then nothing out here matters.” Now, as a mental exercise, she makes a point of identifying who in the room she “wants to fuck.”
This statement offended my propriety. Shouldn’t I have the right to be in the world without having to contend with male desire? My whole life I had received strangers attempting to flirt with me withthe graciousness of a fence post. It had always filled me with annoyance. I could never take it lightly, as I saw my friends could, when we were interrupted at a bar in the middle of an interesting conversation to endure a dull performance by a man. My first impulse was always to indicate that I wanted to be left alone as quickly as possible. Of all the things Nicole Daedone said to me, however,the idea of acknowledging and accepting the sexuality in a room, feeling it, naming it, and inhabiting it, was a kernel of a thing that I kept trying to dismiss but found I was unable to stop thinking about. To walk into a room and concentrate on the way my body responded to the people in it was a sexual inquiry I could conduct privately, without any risk. After thinking of what Nicole had said,I discerned a duplicity at work in the archive of my own perceptions, whereby I had carefully excised my sexual awareness of other people from the naming of my experiences and pretended my own physical responses had not happened. I wondered what this façade of asexuality had cost me in confidence and decisiveness. Had I made choices on false pretenses? To shift my perception meant only that I beganletting myself name when I wanted to stare at someone, or that I fought the impulse to look away when someone stared at me. I tried to notice the catalog of subtle urges or repulsions that I would never name or discuss out loud. I experimented with my responses to getting hit on or hollered at on the street, forcing myself to chat or nod, letting myself experience the unsettled feeling that camewith a sexual overture, just sitting in the feeling and trying to know it, instead of immediately trying to close it down. It became apparent how much energy I expended in being affronted, or wondering whether I should be affronted. Other women at OneTaste would talk about conducting similar personal experiments. They might mention that they had spent a week sitting with their legs spread in public,so as to test out the sense of entitlement or ownership over a space.
The time now came for Nicole to give a demo of the practice of orgasmic meditation. We took a short break and the staff set up a massage table covered in pillows. Justine Dawson took off her jeans, and the look that passed between Nicole and Justine was one of complete trust and mutual assurance. They were friends who kneweach other well. Sitting up while Nicole explained her process, Justine looked unembarrassed and cheerful. She was a fair-haired woman in her mid-thirties, slim and small. Once Nicole had adjusted the pillows, Justine lay back and splayed her legs.
“The first thing I’m going to do is safeport her,” said Nicole. She told Justine that her hands were cold. Then she described Justine’s vulva to theroom. This was where Daedone could be her most poetic, evoking seashells and flower petals. As house style, OneTaste always used the termspussyandcock. When I asked someone why, the response was that the problem with female genitalia was that it was difficult to describe the whole thing—the wordvagina, commonly used, at least in the medical sense of the word, refers only to one part of things.So, too,clitoris,vulva,introitus,labia, and all the other parts. Nicole, former student of semantics, had therefore decided to usepussy. “I’m super big on reclamation of terms,” she told me.
She put lube on her fingers. She explained that she and Justine were old friends who got regularly tested for sexually transmitted infections. We should always use latex gloves. “Sex is not worth dyingfor,” she said. She explained that she would be touching Justine’s clitoris with no more pressure than rubbing a finger across an eyelid. Around the room, men and women touched the pads of their fingertips to their eyelids. Then she began her performance.
It was like watching a medium in a séance, or an evangelical taken by a spirit. Nicole’s face assumed a look of intense concentration. Shehad her right arm draped over Justine’s leg, and used her left arm to stroke. Justine almost immediately started moaning. As she stroked, Daedone would throw her head down and then toss her hair back again, biting her lip and gazing heavenward as she tried new configurations. Beneath her arms Justine quaked and shivered. The room was silent and rapt. The man to my right began to inhale and exhalewith deep, meditative breaths. The face of the man on my other side took on a deeper red flush. Justine never reached a recognizable climax. There was no clear peak followed by a lull. Her left arm grasped feebly at the air. Her legs vibrated. During the performance, Nicole asked several women up to the massage table, where they put their hands on Justine’s leg and felt the currents of feeling washingover her. Justine’s vocalizations were consistently loud but varied in tone. When the timer sounded, Nicole ended the practice with a firm downward stroke. She closed Justine’s labia. She took a clean towel, placed her hand over it, and pulled it downward through her hand. Then she covered Justine with the towel. Justine lay motionless.
Following this, we had a lecture from a doctor from Berkeleyabout the benefits of regularly flooding the female body with oxytocin through orgasms. Then Daedone left and Alisha and Rob returned to their duties. Now we stacked the chairs and faced each other in two lines, men on one side and women on the other. This set of exercises involved an escalating series of interrogations followed by touching. With each exercise, we would step to our right, soas to be in contact with a different person. The man would be asked to describe the face of the woman in front of him, and vice versa, with instructions to include mention of all the lines, blemishes, or errors in makeup. As a man described to me the traces of my makeup, a blemish on my chin, and other flaws in my appearance that I had convinced myself were too small to be noticeable, I felt a uniqueexperience of horror. We stood in front of each other and repeatedly asked the question “What do you desire?”—a question to which I could only stammer meager responses. I was conscious for the first time of the flat white screen that rolled down when I considered such a question, the opaque shadows of movement behind it. A vacant search bar waited, cursor blinking, for ideas that I, who did notconsider an idea an idea until it was expressed in language, had never expressed in language. What I said I desired was to surrender to another person without having to explain what I wanted.
The men took the wrists of the women and gently stroked them with their fingers in an up-down motion. We stroked each other’s shoulders and then interviewed each other about what we had felt. After it wasover, I did not take up the option to partner with someone else from the workshop and try an orgasmic meditation for the first time. I felt physically exhausted and emotionally drained. Every time I thought of the older man whose shoulders I had petted I felt a deep repulsion. There is a reason for boundaries, I told myself, not at all certain if it was true but knowing that I was certainly morecomfortable with boundaries.
I avoided all eye contact with people looking for partners, and quickly walked to the Muni stop and caught the bus home, where I bought takeout Vietnamese food, an ice cream sandwich, and a bottle of wine and watched the Norman conquest episode of Simon Schama’sHistory of Britain, my last birthday present from the ex-boyfriend whose average response time to my e-mailswas now four to six weeks, if he responded at all.
* * *
A few days later I was sitting in the Harvey Milk branch of the San Francisco Public Library when Justine Dawson called me. I felt a twinge of panic and ignored the call, then forced myself out into the sunshine, where a cold wind was blowing, to return it. Justine asked how the class had been. I told her that it had been overwhelmingfor me. She again suggested I try the practice. She said that she could not tell me who to OM with or set it up for me, but that if I joined the secret orgasmic meditation group on Facebook I could message a couple of men who might be interested. I joined the Facebook group, and soon received a friendly message from Eli, the man who had led the first meeting I had attended. I liked that he didorgasmic meditation all the time, so that it would be uneventful for him. I asked him to OM, he said yes, and we arranged for a Thursday at noon session at OneTaste. It was a sunny day, and I went running that morning, then showered carefully and shaved my legs. I walked to 47 Moss Street slowly, not listening to music through headphones. I passed a man carrying a bongo drum and a tambourine, a papersign in a window that said “The Center for Sex and Culture Has Moved,” and a lunatic woman with her pants down around her knees, performing a fanciful ballet dance.
The building on Moss Street was still and quiet. I went through the heavy velvet curtains that divided the room and closed off the event space from the entryway. Two affiliates of OneTaste were there. One, whose name was Henry, gaveme a pint glass filled with green tea and I sat on the couch. Eli entered with Matthew, an older man whom I had met the night of Nicole’s first lecture. Eli and I went upstairs. Off the landing were three carpeted rooms furnished with pillows and chairs. Eli went to gather supplies from a closet: one pillow for him to sit on, a smaller pillow for my head, a woolen yoga blanket, yoga mat, and towelsfor me to lie on. “Is there anything I can do to make you feel more secure?” he asked. I said I didn’t think so. His presence, above all the ease and casualness with which he did these things, was reassuring enough.
The room was small, its walls painted gray. It had two yellow chairs, white curtains, and exposed wood-beamed ceilings. It was very warm in the room and Eli opened a window to letin a breeze. We made small talk. I learned that he was twenty-eight years old and had quit his job at Apple to work for OneTaste. He asked me which direction I wanted to face, and then, perhaps sensing my inability to decide, said, “Or I can just decide.” I chose to have my head toward the window, feet toward the door. He announced each step he was going to take methodically. He was going to takeoff his shoes. Then he said, “Now it’s the time when you take off your pants.” This was the moment, in a gynecological exam or a bikini wax, when the practitioner left the room, but Eli stayed, and I took off my pants. I asked if I should take off my socks. “Your choice,” he said. I took off my socks. “I’ll take mine off, too,” he said.
He guided me into a sitting position and took my leg overhis arm. I felt very secure. I could feel his leg against my leg; his arm supported my arm. He set the timer on his phone. He took several deep breaths and began massaging my legs. The pressure of his hands on my legs felt nice. He put on latex gloves. “Now I’m going to begin stroking,” he said.
Before he had begun, I had thought I was feeling aroused. I could feel the breeze from the windowover me. I thought of Justine’s boisterous display and I worried I might reveal something of myself I didn’t want to reveal to a stranger. Once he began touching me, however, I performed, and experienced, detachment. I didn’t have anything that resembled climax or an orgasm, or feel stimulation in the way that I would have with a vibrator. I felt no desire to have sex with the man holding my legs,but feeling his breath rise and fall against my leg brought a feeling of deep, intense comfort. I was not transported by rapture. This was quiet and still. I concentrated on breathing and feeling the pressure of his body. At one point he said, thoughtfully, “I feel a deep swelling at the base of my cock.” Then the bell on his iPhone chimed and it was over. We shared “frames.” I had trouble thinkingof anything to say and remember only that whatever it was I said felt somewhat fictional. Then I put on my clothes and left. I did this two more times, both with Eli. I never reached the point of eagerness. I turned down several other invitations and canceled on people with whom I had scheduled appointments. The third time I tried orgasmic meditation was in a room with other people also practicing.I climaxed, or “went over,” as the OneTaste people put it, as I stared at a coffee urn on a table. I felt sad afterward, as I did sometimes after sex. It had not been so different from sex, where some orgasms happened because I concentrated and willed them. A climax could be perfunctory. It could be just another form of service to another person, to give him a sense of satisfaction. I could climaxeven during sex I did not enjoy.
* * *
For months I pretended that what I saw at OneTaste was so far beyond the boundaries of my day-to-day reality that it didn’t affect me. This was easy to do because what the people at OneTaste did was very strange. At the time, I would have rather socialized with any other group of people than them. I disliked them. I preferred the company of people whodid not insist on sympathetic eye contact, who did not need to talk about all of their feelings at every instance, who drank and smoked cigarettes. I felt more comfortable in situations where I had the right to remain maladjusted, to leave some feelings undisclosed, to acknowledge and enjoy the prospect of my own mortality. Their language made me cringe. They would describe themselves as feeling“tumesced” and used the wordpenetrateto indicate a personal breakthrough. They liked to usesexas a verb instead of a noun: “My sexing changed,” said Rob Kandell. “So how I OM informed how I sex, and how I sex started to inform my OM-ing.”
I would see people I had met through OneTaste on the street in the Mission, or run into them at the Rainbow Food Co-op, the great temple of antioxidantand raw snack foods. Once one asked me out, inviting me to a tea lounge on Fourteenth Street that many of them frequented. He wore a beaded necklace, and he stared into my eyes. “It’s an open space,” he said of the tea lounge. “It doesn’t have the darkness or oppression of a bar.”
“I like bars,” I replied snottily.
After I left San Francisco that summer, OneTaste kept calling. First it was theoccasional text message from Marcus or Eli or Henry asking if I wanted to OM, to which I would happily reply that I was no longer in San Francisco. Then members of the organization would occasionally call to invite me to a lecture or a workshop.
The updates of the meditators filled my Facebook newsfeed with their daily epiphanies. I continued to read them and would watch their video testimonies.
“The moment you realize you’ve built a life based on ‘stroke for your own pleasure,’” one would write.
“The (much earlier) moment when you realize that you haven’t. And that you could,” another would reply.
“Thank you,” the original poster would write. “And the much later moment when you realize there is no going back. And that you couldn’t.”
“So, so good!” someone else wrote.
But if theirfollowers, or those of the Esalen Institute (“pioneering deep change in self and society”) or the Landmark Forum (“create a future of your own design”) or the Zen Center (“may all beings realize their true nature”) or Lafayette Morehouse (“you are perfect, the world is perfect, and you are totally responsible for your life”) or the Pathways Institute (“the exploration of human consciousness leadingto your personal, professional and spiritual wisdom, skills and fulfillment”), seemed self-obsessed, it was because so many doctrines—marriage, the nuclear family, sexual taboos, diet, gender—had successfully been exploded. The privilege of being middle class in America in the twenty-first century meant that most of the pressing questions in life were left to choice. Who should I have sex withwhen I’m single? What should I eat for dinner? What should I do to earn money? There was limited ancient guidance on such historically preposterous questions. The difficulty of actually choosing which rules to live by invited extensive self-examination.
There was an idea that greater gender equality had not brought equal sexual fulfillment, and most commonly held ideas about sex were still orientedtoward masculine ideas about orgasm and desire. People felt sexually “liberated”—they were trying a wider range of things on a broader scale than perhaps at any other time in American history, and although sexual repression lingered, the problem was often not sexual repression. It was that the women who saw promise in pursuing sexual openness often found themselves battling their own feelings:trying to control attachment, pretending to enjoy something that hurt or annoyed them, defining sexiness by images they had seen rather than knowing what they wanted. The people at OneTaste were looking for a method to arrive at a more authentic and stable experience of sexual openness, one that came from immanent desire instead of an anxiety to please. Their method was strange, but at least theybelieved in the possibility.
The first legal images of penetration were published in the magazinePrivatein 1965. And to think of everything that has happened since then … What was called porn, by the second decade of the twenty-first century, was a paring down of plot, performance, and romance to the very basics of efficient sexual stimulation. The ten-minute video clips, organized into a grid on websitesand indexed by interest, were, in relation to the history of porn, like the pinnacle of a mountainous landfill. Seagulls circled above and bulldozers aerated below, unearthing martini glasses, smoking jackets, Leather Goddesses of Phobos, alt.breast.net. Yesterday, without putting in any credit card information, you watched three tanned hard bodies winch a woman up against a gently swaying palmtree and today you watched a butch woman with very hairy legs and one pierced nipple face-fuck another woman with a strap-on and tomorrow you will watch what the computer says is a cum-craving hottie feeling a ripping hard cock banging her pleasure hole. Or you didn’t watch it at all. The culture had an abstract idea, “porn,” which for some people meant particular websites, search terms, and somaticmemories but for others was only a vague menace that flickered obscurely in the dark.
Porn caused my friends a lot of anxiety. Some people enjoyed watching it as part of a daily routine. Some felt enslaved by their desire for it. Others saw their real-world sexual experiences reduced to a corny mimicry of porn, and wished they could somehow return to a time when porn was less ubiquitous, or wasjust soft-focus tan people having unadventurous sex by a swimming pool. Since more men watched porn than women, the occasional imbalance of knowledge caused distress all around and was perceived at times as an imbalance of power. Porn made people jealous, it hurt feelings, it made them worry about whether their partners were attracted to them or to the kind of people they watched in porn, who mighthave a different hair color, skin color, or bra size. Because porn loves the taboo, it could also be racist and misogynist.
It was tempting, now, to think that sex before Internet porn had been less complicated. There were sexual acts in porn that it would not occur to many people to attempt. We had more expectations about what kind of sex to have, and how many people should be involved, andwhat to say, and what our bodies should look like, than we might have had at a time when sexual imagery was less available to us.
People who liked porn described their desire to watch it as similar to wanting to watch videos of cats climbing into boxes in the middle of doing one’s taxes. Alternatively, it was like going to a café alone and eating a piece of cake in the middle of the afternoon.It gave temporary fulfillment to a need. It primed them for masturbation, which they might do to relax, procrastinate, or fall asleep. But porn united all of the possibilities, including the ones we didn’t want to have.
* * *
Public Disgrace was an online pornography series that advertised itself as “women bound, stripped, and punished in public.” It was the creation of a San Francisco–basedporn director and dominatrix named Princess Donna Dolore. Princess Donna conceived of the project in 2008, during her fourth year of working for the pornography company Kink.com. In addition to directing, Donna performed in the shoots, though she was not usually the lead.
When Princess Donna scouted locations for Public Disgrace she looked for small windows (they needed to be blacked out) andspaces (they needed to look crowded). For outdoor shoots she usually worked in Europe, where public obscenity laws are more forgiving. Before each shoot, Princess Donna coordinated with the female lead to establish what she liked or didn’t like and produced a checklist of what the performer would take from her civilian audience. Some models accepted only groping, some had rules against slapping,and some were willing to be fingered or spat on by the audience.
Princess Donna had experience as an orchestrator of complicated fantasies of group sex, public sex, and violent sex. Such situations tended to be, as she put it, “kind of tricky to live out in real life.” Her role, as a director and performer, was to both initiate and contain the extremity. She was also a deft manipulator of thehuman body. Female performers trusted her to extend the boundaries of their physical capacities.
The job description for Public Disgrace, posted at Kink.com, read: “Sex between male dominant and female submissive; domination by female and male dom; secure bondage, gags, hoods, fondling, flogging, and forced orgasms with vibrators.” For four to five hours of work, performers earned between $1,100and $1,300, plus bonuses for extra sex acts with cameo performers who could show a clean bill of health.
A few weeks after I arrived in San Francisco, I attended a Public Disgrace shoot. The shoots were open to the public, a public that was encouraged to actively participate. Novelty matters in the world of porn, so audience members were recruited through the Internet but restricted to attendingone shoot a year. I say audience members, but the members of the public who attended the shoot were actually performers. Our job was to play the role of an unruly and voyeuristic crowd for the real audience, the people who paid to watch a series called Public Disgrace on the Internet.
The venue of the shoot I attended, a bar called Showdown, was on a side street haunted by drug addicts and thementally ill just south of the Tenderloin, next to a Vietnamese sandwich shop and a flophouse called the Winsor Hotel (REASONABLE RATES DAILY-WEEKLY). When I arrived, several people were standing at the entrance waiting to get in, including a group of young men and a straight couple in their thirties. We signed releases, showed our photo IDs, and a production assistant took a mug shot of eachof us holding our driver’s license next to our face. Then she gave us each two drink tickets that could be redeemed at the bar. “Depending on how wasted everyone seems to be I will give you more,” she said.
That evening’s performer, a diminutive blonde who went by the stage name Penny Pax, flew up to San Francisco from her home in Los Angeles especially for the Public Disgrace shoot. She hadtold Donna that one of the first pornos she ever watched was Public Disgrace, and since she got into the business herself she had been eager to make one. Her personal request for the evening was that Princess Donna attempt to anally fist her.
The bar was a narrow room that recalled a bygone San Francisco of working-class immigrants. Old-fashioned smoked-glass lamps hung over the wooden bar. Acolor-copied picture of Laura Palmer from David Lynch’s television showTwin Peakshung on the wall, next to a stopped clock with a fake bird’s nest in the cavity where a pendulum should have been. A back room, dark and square, had black wallpaper patterned with alternating illustrations of two parrots on perches and a vase of flowers. The crew from Kink had rigged lighting overhead.
PrincessDonna arrived with a small entourage, wearing a vacuum-tight black minidress that flattered her breasts. She is five foot seven with long, almost alarmingly thin limbs that make her look taller. She has large, brown, Bambi-ish eyes that, the night of the shoot, were complexly shadowed and wreathed in fake eyelashes, which Kink purchased in quantities of several hundred at a time. Her long brown hairwas tied up in a high ponytail. She has a tattoo of an anatomically correct heart on her left shoulder and a cursive inscription that saysDaddyon her inner right forearm. She strode into the room carrying a black vinyl purse from which a riding crop protruded. With her minidress she wore tan cowboy boots, which made the length of her legs appear heron-like. A neck bruise the size of a silverdollar that I had noticed during my first meeting with her a week before had faded.
Donna stood before the bar with the palindromically stage-named male performer, Ramon Nomar, surveying the room. He pointed up to several hooks on the ceiling and to a metal Juliet balcony over the bar. Donna nodded without a word. They retreated to the back. I asked a production assistant about the female performer.Penny Pax, she said, was having “quiet time.”
Soon, the music was silenced (Kink had its own music, cleared for rights, to play). The bartender removed his gingham shirt and his tie and suddenly was wearing nothing but his waistcoat. Donna came out to make some announcements to the assembled crowd, which was well on its way to getting drunk.
“You might think we are doing things to the modelthat are mean or humiliating, but don’t,” said Donna. “She’s signed an agreement.” According to the agreement, the crowd had permission to poke the model, fondle her, and finger her, but only if they washed their hands and had neatly trimmed fingernails. A fingernail trimmer was available if necessary. “I’m going to be watching you like a hawk to make sure you’re not doing degrading things to herpussy,” Donna said. She continued: “You’re allowed to spit on her chest but not her face. You can give her a hard spanking but you are not allowed to give her a hard smack.” She pulled her production assistant over to her physically. “If Kat is the model”—here Kat bent over obligingly—“this would be a reasonable distance from which to spank her.” Donna mimed responsible spanking practice.
Themodel, Donna went on to explain, could not leave the set bruised, because she had another shoot coming up that week. Therefore, Donna said, at some point she might have to forbid certain practices to ensure Penny’s body remained unmarked.
Donna concluded her speech with a more theoretical exposition. The whole point of Public Disgrace, she explained, is that it’s supposed to seem spontaneous,and that “you guys are not supposed to know that we’re coming here.” Taking video was forbidden, photographs with phones were fine, but the most important thing: “Don’t ignore us. I’m going to walk her in with a sign that says ‘I’m a worthless cunt.’ So react to that.” She repeated that nail clippers and files were available for anyone who wanted them and reminded the audience to wash their handsin the bathroom before touching the model. Then she returned to the back room.
A few minutes later Donna emerged with Penny Pax and Ramon in tow. Penny was small, just over five feet tall, with full natural breasts, milky white skin, and a chin-length bob of cornsilk blond. Her eyes were the rich azure of a blue raspberry Blow Pop. She was very pretty, and decidedly not plastic or spray-tanned.She looked like a model in a JCPenney catalog. She wore a denim miniskirt, white high heels, and a white tank top. Donna looked her over, then deftly pulled the straps of Penny’s tank top off her arms and folded them down. She turned Penny around, unhooked her white bra, and tossed it to one side. From a black duffel bag under a table Donna picked up and put back various coils of rope, judgingthe weight and length of each one. Meanwhile, Ramon stared—the only word for it islovingly—at Penny’s exposed breasts, their stretch marks visible. Grabbing them, Donna executed a complicated-looking tie, raising the breasts to bra elevation by winding the rope around each one. She pulled the straps of Penny’s tank top back over her shoulders, then tied Penny’s arms behind her back.
“Look atthat,” said Donna, surveying her work and turning Penny around. “You look gorgeous.” Ramon stepped in and looked Penny over with the tender carnivorousness of a dime-store bodice ripper. He ran his hand over Penny’s body from behind, turned her around and examined her, kissed and inhaled her hair, then put his hand up her skirt and began feeling her while staring intently at her body. This was hisway of preparing for the shoot. Ramon was from Spain and had a sharp accent. He rarely smiled. He wore a tight black T-shirt that showed off his impressive pectorals, black pants, and black combat boots. He was just over six feet tall, tan, and sculpted like an Iberian Bruce Willis. This was an attractive couple. Donna hung a sign, which indeed wasI’M A WORTHLESS CUNT, around Penny’s neck, thengrabbed Penny roughly by the hair and took her out the door.
Now the cameras were recording. Now we could redeem our drink tickets. The bar was full, mostly with men. These men I would divide into two groups: the openly slavering, confident about the righteousness of their lust, and the self-conscious, worried about breaking the taboos of touching and insulting a woman. They were joined by asmattering of females, some of whom were there with their boyfriends, others who had come together in pairs. Donna had exchanged her cowboy boots for patent leather high heels and now strode through the door purposefully, she and Ramon on either side of Penny, who looked up at her tall handlers with baleful blue eyes.
“Tell everybody why you’re here,” ordered Donna, as the people drinking atthe bar feigned surprise. “I’m a worthless cunt!” said Penny. Using some kind of professional wrestling trick, Ramon lifted her up by her neck and sat her on the bar. Working together, Donna and Ramon stuffed a cocktail napkin in her mouth and taped it into a gag, taking turns slapping her on her face and her breasts. They ripped off her spotless white tank top. The rope had cut off circulation toPenny’s breasts and they looked painfully swollen.
“Who wants to touch it?” asked Donna. “Who wants to play with this worthless little cunt?” The bar patrons obligingly hit, fingered, and spanked her. From her handbag, from which the riding crop still menacingly protruded, Donna now withdrew a device that crepitated with electric charges and started using it to shock Penny. Ramon removed whatremained of Penny’s clothes, then his belt, and began gently swiping it at Penny, who was soon pinioned on the floor.
“I thought it was your dream,” goaded Donna. “I thought it was your dream to shoot for this site. You didn’t come ready?” She looked around the room. “What’s her name?” she demanded. “Everyone knows what her name is.”
“Worthless cunt!” yelled the crowd.
“What pretty girl wantsto grab her titties?” A woman in attendance obliged. Ramon took off his pants, balancing on each foot as he pulled them over his combat boots. He was not wearing any underwear; his penis looked like the trunk of a palm tree. The bar patrons burst into applause.
He picked Penny up and had sex with her against the bar as the extras continued to smack at her breasts. Penny, still gagged, was wide-eyed.Her mascara had begun to run in rivers down her face. She had the option of halting everything with verbal and nonverbal cues but she did not exercise it. Suddenly, Donna stopped the show. “Everyone, I have an announcement,” she said, as she removed the ropes still tied around Penny’s breasts. “No more smacking this boob,” she said, pointing to the right one, which had red marks on it. Theyresumed shooting.
Ramon, who had biceps like cannons, hoisted Penny around the room and the crowd followed, vying with one another for a good sight line. He was able to walk around holding Penny in one arm, wielding the zapper in the other. “Zap me!” requested a male audience member. Ramon rolled his eyes and did so without breaking rhythm. “Ouch,” said the guy, looking sore. Ramon removed Penny’sgag and guided her into a blow job, during which Penny theatrically gagged. Donna stood by, slapping and shocking, and then joined in. Using her hands, she made Penny ejaculate, to the delight of the crowd. After fifteen or twenty minutes, Donna called for a break.
Paused in the middle of his exertions, Ramon looked up at the ceiling with a look of super-intense concentration. Penny was on thefloor. He picked her up and sat her on the bar. He and Donna tenderly tucked her hair back from her face and wiped off her sweat and the grime from the floor with Cottonelles. Donna, like a trainer during a boxing match, removed Penny’s false eyelashes, gave her water, and kissed her on the cheek. During this reprieve from shooting, the crowd, which had been as verbally abusive as directed, actedsheepish.
“You are beautiful and I’d take you to meet my mother!” yelled one man who had been particularly enthusiastic about yelling “worthless cunt.” Ramon asked for a drink. “What do you want?” said the bartender. “A soda,” said Ramon. “Porno guy wants a soda!” echoed the loud man.
When shooting resumed, a female audience member, heavily tattooed and wearing a miniskirt and a ragged T-shirtthat had two skeletal hands printed across her breasts, had a go at Penny’s body. Things continued in this way for more than an hour. Chairs were knocked over. Drinks were spilled. The bartender had by now removed his vest and was shirtless. The crowd was drunk and excited, although not entirely unembarrassed. “Make that bitch choke,” shouted the shouty man. Then: “Sorry!”
Donna began to windthings down. “OK, guys,” she said, to prepare the audience, “the pot shot’s not the end, though.” The crowd cheered. With the cameras off, Ramon and Penny had vanilla missionary sex on a table to get to the point where he could ejaculate. He nodded when he was ready, then put Penny on the floor, and masturbated until he came on her face. Again the room burst into applause.
The performers tooka break. Ramon’s job was now done. With the room’s attention focused on Penny he yanked off his sweaty T-shirt, flung it into a corner, and wandered off into a dark part of the bar, naked but for his combat boots. Like a long-distance runner who has just crossed the finish line, he walked it off, moving his arms in circles, wiping the sweat from his face with his arm, and taking deep breaths. Nobodynoticed him. Eventually he recovered his composure, toweled off, and put his black jeans back on. Penny, meanwhile, rested primly on a chair and sipped water. Her expression was, in a word, elated.
I joined Donna at the bar. What was going to happen next?
“I want to get my hand all the way in her ass,” she said. “She’s never done that before and she wants to try it.”
Princess Donna sat PennyPax down on a bar table. She had a Hitachi Magic Wand and a bottle of lubricant. “I need all the room that’s in her holes for my hand,” she announced, and the audience deferentially took a step back. After Donna accomplished her task, the crowd chanted, “Squirt, squirt, squirt, squirt,” and then Penny did. I watched all this from a corner, standing next to Ramon, who had a towel around his bronzedshoulders and was drinking a bottle of pilsner.
Shooting was coming to a close. Donna and Ramon moved Penny back to the bar and strung her up by her wrists to the metal balcony. I saw Donna in a corner, carefully wiping down a beer bottle with a sanitizing wipe. And that was the final shot of the evening: Penny tied up and suspended from the railings of the balcony by her wrists, while a memberof the audience penetrated her with a beer bottle. Ramon, now shirtless and in jeans, casually sparked the zapper across his pectoral muscles a couple of times, then reached out and zapped Penny on her tongue. Then it was done. With a debonair flourish, Ramon effortlessly picked up the tiny starlet and carried her out of the room in his arms.
Kink interviews its female performers before and afterevery shoot. It’s a de-escalation strategy that reminds the viewer—if he watches to the end (Kink does not release the demographics of its audience, but studies have found that 95 percent of paid porn is watched by men)—of the controlled conditions of what he just watched, and confirms that the activity was consensual and that the model has recovered. Penny wandered out for her postgame interviewwearing pink glasses, a gray bathrobe, and a pair of Uggs. But for her smeary mascara, she looked like a college student on her way to a dormitory bathroom. Donna arranged Penny’s bathrobe to reveal her breasts. Other than that, like most postgame interviews with athletes, this one was a little bland.DONNASo, Penny, how did you enjoy the shoot this evening?PENNYI had a great time, it wasamazing. There was so much going on.HECKLING AUDIENCE MEMBER #1I actually want to take you out for lunch later!HECKLING AUDIENCE MEMBER #2You have really pretty eyes!DONNAAll right, everybody, hold on. Tell me what your favorite parts were.PENNYProbably, uh, just the getting handled by everyone and not really knowing how many hands were on me, or who was touching me … And thenthe—I don’t know, did you get your fist in my butt?DONNAI did.PENNYWell, that was awesome. Yay! I can’t wait to see it!DONNAYeah, that was rad. Round of applause for the anal fisting![Audience applauds.]
After this conclusion, Penny and I retreated to a stairwell behind the bar. Penny, I learned, was twenty-three years old. I asked if she had been working in the industry since she was eighteen. No, she said, she wished. She had been in the industryfor only six months. Before working in porn she was a lifeguard in Fort Lauderdale. Being a lifeguard in Fort Lauderdale had been pretty boring. She had gone to San Fernando Valley and soon found representation from Mark Spiegler, who is one of the top agents in the business. He was known, I gathered, for representing performers who didn’t play dumb and were willing to have anal sex. Penny wasn’tdumb. I asked her about the shoot. I wanted to know how it had felt.
“It’s a little uncomfortable in the beginning, for the anal,” she said. (She was presumably referring to a moment early in the shoot when Ramon jumped up on the bar, stuffed a lemon in Penny’s mouth, and had anal sex with her. “Nice boots, man!” someone in the audience yelled. Penny made a nonverbal cue to slow down and Donnajumped over and slathered her with lubricant.) “But my body warms up pretty quickly and then there’s no discomfort.” Slightly incredulous, I asked if there were moments of genuine pleasure. She looked at me like I was crazy. “Yeah. Like the whole thing! The whole thing.” She apologized for not being more articulate and explained she was in a state of delirium. “We call it ‘dick drunk,’” she said.“I’m a little dick drunk right now because it was just very nice.” She looked at me. “You want to do something like that?” I tried to imagine a world where I would feel uninhibited enough to do what she had just done. It was impossible.
I rode back to the Mission in a van with Donna and Penny and Ramon. Penny and Ramon were both sleeping over at the landmarked Moorish castle that houses Kink.They said they usually worked in mainstream porn in the Valley, but enjoyed coming to San Francisco for the fetish jobs. In the shoot he was doing tomorrow for New Sensations in Los Angeles, Ramon lamented, they wouldn’t even let him pull the girl’s hair.
“In L.A. most of that doesn’t require any bondage or much rough sex at all,” explained Penny. “It’s just, like, three positions. We call themgonzo scenes. It’s super-quick. When I do the gonzo scenes I usually don’t get to have an orgasm. Here, at Kink, they’re like, ‘You’re going to come.’” I gathered that for performers, making more extreme pornography was like being a writer’s writer, where the value of the work was most apparent to other people immersed in the same field, and the respect one earned was of a different, more meaningfulorder than mainstream acclaim.
* * *
Over the course of the next several weeks I watched Princess Donna direct and star in more films. I watched her perform in a roller-derby-themed episode of a series called Fucking Machines where she wielded a drill retrofitted with a giant dildo. I watched her train for her new role as director of a Kink series called Ultimate Surrender, a girl-on-girlwrestling tournament. For three eight-minute rounds, two women wrestled each other. The goal was for one woman to pin the other and molest her for as long as possible. For the fourth round, the winner had sex with the loser wearing a strap-on dildo. It was one of Kink’s most popular series and was sometimes shot before a live studio audience. Princess Donna also directed a series called Bound Gangbangs,and one day was inspired to do a shoot where all the men were dressed as pandas.
I was not sure what question I was trying to answer by watching the production of so much creative and exaggerated sex. The old question was whether one was “for” or “against” porn. This question had been unhelpful since 2005 if not earlier. Decisions about how porn should be obscured or banned in public spaces didn’tmatter in a time when watching porn was a question of typing some words into a search box while at home alone. It was impossible, in a democracy, to advocate for the censorship of all sexual activity on the Internet. One could draw up a list of crass gestures to which one was personally opposed, but parsing which kinds of sex were “good” or “bad” had resulted historically in the prohibitionof gay sex, interracial sex, transgender sex, bisexuality, and literature about birth control and family planning. Not all porn was like the porn made at Kink, but when you set porn free, the simulation of violence and ritual public humiliation of a woman was what you got. You could refuse to watch it, but not watching porn offered no liberation from the anxieties caused by the other people in yourlife, or in the world, who watched it. Banning porn from your life also cut you off from the most comprehensive visual repository of sexual fantasy in human history, which had to have some value.
I, personally, was not having sex while all this was going on. Not that the sex I would’ve had, if I’d been having sex, would’ve been anything like the sex going on at the castle. The Kink actors weremore like athletes or stuntmen and -women performing punishing feats, and part of what I admired was the ease with which they went in and out of it, the comfort with which they inhabited their bodies, their total self-assurance and sense of unity against those who condemned their practice. I possessed none of those qualities. I was, at that time, so miserable about being alone, and half-convincedby the logic that I could somehow solve the problem of loneliness by avoiding sex until I fell in love, that I was in the middle of a long and ultimately pointless stretch of celibacy.
The women at Kink came to porn for various reasons. Bobbi Starr, a twenty-nine-year-old who won theAdult Video NewsFemale Performer of the Year award in 2012, was raised in a Pentecostal Christian family in SanJose, California, and was homeschooled until middle school. She trained as a swimmer, competed in the Junior Olympics, and earned a scholarship to study music at San Jose State University. She was twenty-two years old and working as a classical musician when she watched porn for the first time. Sitting down with a male friend, who was surprised at her lack of familiarity, she watched several videos,including one calledBong Water Butt Babes.Very little needs to be said about this video except that the bedroom set is covered in sheets of plastic. Starr was mesmerized and applied for a job at Kink. After getting hung upside down and sexually tortured in a tank of water, she signed with Mark Spiegler as her agent and moved to Los Angeles.
Lorelei Lee was nineteen and had just graduated fromhigh school in San Diego when her boyfriend told her about a website called SoCal Co-eds. Lee posed sitting on a surfboard, lying across a washing machine, sitting at a desk with her feet up, and wearing a UC–Santa Barbara sweatshirt. To accompany the photos she recorded a voice-over. This was in 1999. She figured nobody would see the photos, because they were on the Internet, which nobody lookedat. She did it for the money but even that first time it was not just for the money but also because it was “some kind of thrill.” Her earnings from porn put her through college. She had an MFA in creative writing and met her husband at Kink, where he was a director.
Rain DeGrey described herself as a “24/7 lifestyle kinkster” and “pansexual.” For years she had not admitted, to her partners andeven to herself, that bondage and flogging turned her on. She knew that even in the Bay Area there were people who would judge her, but eventually she “came out as kinky.” One day, she was tied up in her local dungeon, the Citadel, getting flogged by a friend, when someone suggested she try to do some of this stuff professionally.
Princess Donna grew up in Sacramento, where both her parents hadworked in the medical industry. She went to college at New York University, where she signed up for a class in gender and sexuality theory, began reading Simone de Beauvoir and Judith Butler, and met her first girlfriend. On a break home in Sacramento, she went to a strip club and decided she wanted to try dancing at one. When an acquaintance mentioned that she was earning money by posing for photosfor a BDSM website called Insex, Donna thought she might try out that, too.
Insex was founded in 1997 by Brent Scott, a former professor from Carnegie Mellon University who performed in his videos the role of handler, bondage rigger, and dominator under the name “PD.” It was one of the earliest BDSM porn sites on the Internet, offering pre-broadband live feeds where viewers could interact andinstruct the models via chat rooms. Donna had been promoted from modeling to torturing at Insex when she heard that there was an opening for a director at the Wired Pussy electricity fetish department at Kink. She sent in her résumé. In 2004, when she was twenty-two years old, Donna got the job and moved to San Francisco.
Some people said Kink was not “real” porn. Kink was thought of as differentfrom San Fernando Valley porn because it was in Northern California, had many performers and directors who came to it from San Francisco’s queer pornography scene, and because it consciously distanced itself from the stereotype of the industry as a group of exploitative lowlifes. It fashioned itself as a slightly unconventional tech company in a city of tech companies, offering its full-timeemployees catered lunches, retirement plans, and health insurance. Most San Fernando Valley pornographers didn’t care to reassure viewers that the sex they watched had been consensual, but Kink videos were often preceded by a good fifteen minutes of backstage demystification, and not of the professional wrestling fake-reality kind. Kink emphasized consent, they wanted real orgasms, they followed thesafeguards honed in San Francisco’s long-established BDSM scene, they bought lubricant by the barrel (literally: they had blue plastic barrels of lube in the basement). Insofar as was possible in an industry where the employees took physical and psychological risks, they tried to give a clean conscience to consumers of raunchy porn. That did not mean they always succeeded: in 2014 and 2015 therewere four lawsuits filed by performers claiming Kink failed to protect their health and safety on set, including two actors, a couple in real life, who claimed to have contracted HIV on the set of Princess Donna’s Public Disgrace, an allegation that Kink has denied. As far as is known, the lawsuits are still pending with no resolution of the charges.
The company’s self-described mission to “demystifyalternative sexuality” and its woman-centric presentation—the Bound Gangbangs series was advertised as “women explore their darkest fantasies”—meant that perhaps more performers at Kink came from nice families or had college degrees, but not everyone had supportive parents or explained their sexuality with references to Judith Butler. I asked one performer, Ashli Orion, why she had a tattoothat said, “Shoot Frank.” “Frank’s my dad’s name,” she said. She giggled. “I have daddy issues. I hate my dad. But it’s also fromDonnie Darko. That’s what I tell people. Not many people know my dad’s name is Frank.”
I didn’t inquire further. Lorelei Lee, who had a happy childhood, had said something with the evident weariness of someone regularly asked to explain herself: “If you look at peoplein porn as a group, you might find a lot of people who do not have strong family connections, and in some ways that can make it easier to choose to do something that is looked down on by a lot of people,” she said. “If nobody’s making rules for you, you have to make up your own rules.”
* * *
The porn at Kink made you think about rules. Rules, in particular, about what the sexual fantasiesof a moral person should look like. Legal rules were one thing, and personal rules were another. Some experiences you avoid not because you know you don’t like them but because you don’t want to like them. I had never tried masturbating to porn on my computer. I associated my computer with labor, boredom, and abjection. I associated porn with a man grabbing a woman’s lower jaw to force her gazein his direction, or slapping her face as if to keep her from slipping into unconsciousness, or with ads selling “cum-craving sluts.” With friends I had tested out several other explanations for why I didn’t watch porn. I had said I thought the idea of masturbating “to” something was an imposition of masculine ideas of sexuality. I had wondered aloud if women weren’t stimulated by images but ratherby ineffable gestures and olfactory chemicals.
Of the 21.2 billion visits to Porn Hub in 2015, data analytics identified about 24 percent as female and 76 percent male. A lot of theories were floated on the subject of why so many women didn’t like watching porn. Most of them fell into one of three arguments:1. Women did not watch visual porn in equivalent numbers to men because the imageswere the wrong images.2. Women were not physically “wired” to respond to visual stimulation and preferred to fantasize with novels or stories.3. Women had simply suppressed, through cultural conditioning, some vital part of their sexual psyche.
And yet:1. There were a lot of images to choose from.2. Thinking of an aversion to porn as a biological preference was easier, perhaps, thanhaving to wade through fantasies like “tiny teen snatched up and fucked in van,” and “stepdaughter fucked by pervert dad.”3. Not wanting to click on a link that said “hardcore lesbian scissoring” and touch myself didn’t mean I was repressed.
I started to think about the origins of my rules.
* * *
Deep Throat, which came out in 1972, was the first (and possibly the last) pornographicfilm that American women watched in significant numbers. The film was made for $25,000. It grossed tens of millions in ticket sales. It remains an artifact of a singular moment in time, when a lot of Americans had rejected the religious prohibitions against porn but had yet to hear about the feminist ones. BothTimeandNewsweekran cover stories about its star, Linda Lovelace. The film receivedreviews in mainstream publications such asThe New York Times. Even the feminist publicationOff Our Backsdispatched a reviewer, Christine Stansell, who attended a screening with a male friend.
“There was none of the male sadism and negation of female sexuality which I had predicted,” wrote Stansell in her review. “But this intellectual understanding of the quality of degradation fails to accountfor the most significant aspect of the film for me: the fact that I freaked out.” She spent most of the film in the bathroom, “to minimize the feminist martyr aspect of it all.” She concluded thatDeep Throatwas symptomatic of “a culture which sucks emotion out of sex and sensuality out of our bodies and turns the whole business into a hot-dog stuffed in a Wonder Bread bun.” And soon a new kindof moral objection to porn found articulation: the feminist one.
The anti-porn feminist movement began with protests of depictions of violence against women. The movement was galvanized in 1975 by a slasher film calledSnuff, which claimed (falsely) to show the real rape and dismemberment of a woman. A year later, more women protested when a Rolling Stones billboard on Sunset Boulevard in LosAngeles showed a bruised woman tied up in a chair next to the words “I’m ‘Black and Blue’ from the Rolling Stones—and I love it.” Images like these made women feel like lesser citizens of the world. The feminists proposed a vocabulary with which to express this dismay—words likeexploitation,objectification,misogyny,degradation. They showed how these images fit into larger patterns of structuralinequality and violence. Today, if I were to explain what is wrong with the 1978 cover image fromHustlerof a woman’s leg being shoved into a meat grinder, I would use the language of feminism to argue that violence against women is a tool of patriarchal control, and that the commercial exploitation of violence against women informs the ideological foundation of their continued oppression.
The movement shifted from boycotts of violent images to boycotting porn with the idea, as Andrea Dworkin wrote, that porn “conditions, trains, educates, and inspires men to despise women, to use women, to hurt women.” Susan Brownmiller called pornography “the undiluted essence of antifemale propaganda.” The feminists dissected the politics of sexual stimulation. They articulated what might be demeaningand servile about women dressed up in bunny costumes. They taught men that women were not in the office to be groped. They explained that a woman with a clitoris in her throat was a self-serving male fantasy.
“There can be no ‘equality’ in porn, no female equivalent, no turning the tables in the name of bawdy fun,” wrote Brownmiller in 1975. “Pornography, like rape, is a male invention, designedto dehumanize women, to reduce the female to an object of sexual access, not to free sensuality from moralistic or parental inhibition.” In 1978, the first feminist anti-pornography conference in San Francisco culminated in a march around a cluster of porn shops on Broadway. The protest included a float plastered with pictures of porn as well as a statue of a bride, dozens of lit candles, anda lamb carcass smeared with blood and red feathers. The concept, according toOff Our Backs, was “to convey the theme of the oppression of women through the images of madonna/whore.”
A legal strategy followed. In 1980, Linda Lovelace, the star ofDeep Throat, published her memoirOrdealunder her given name of Linda Boreman. In the book Boreman alleged she had acted in pornographic films onlyunder the threat of abuse from her husband, Chuck Traynor. She would later testify to the Meese Commission that “every time someone watches that movie they’re watching me being raped.” Anti-porn feminists including Andrea Dworkin, Catherine MacKinnon, and Gloria Steinem flocked to her aid, investigating the feasibility of a lawsuit, but the statute of limitations had passed. In 1983, Dworkin andMacKinnon, who were both then teaching at the University of Minnesota, drafted what they called a “Model Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance” that claimed as its legal legitimacy that “pornography is an act of sex discrimination.” Activists in Minneapolis, where anti-porn feminists had taken to occupying sex shops and surrounding the men browsing the video racks, succeeded in bringing the ordinanceto the city council, where it passed, only to be vetoed by the mayor, who said that it violated the First Amendment. When a version of the ordinance succeeded in Indianapolis, the courts determined that it did, in fact, violate the First Amendment. There the feminist legal challenge to pornography expired.
Today, because porn has triumphed, anti-porn feminism is thought of as a failed movement.I would say this isn’t true. Anti-porn feminism might not have done much to temper the explosion of pornography in the video age but it deeply affected the way some people, perhaps especially some women, felt about what they were watching. Catherine MacKinnon’s statement that “porn is the theory; rape is the practice” was a glib overgeneralization, but the idea lives on that porn is a theory thathas negative effects on the practice of sexuality. The radical ideas of the movement filtered down into popular culture as a series of moral arguments against porn that social liberals could accept. These were the notions that I had inherited, that had made me wary of porn: that porn by definition was oriented toward the sexual desires of men; that it therefore offered few positive experiencesfor women; that it objectified and racialized women’s bodies and glorified sexual violence. From the earliest days in which feminism turned its eye to porn, it became acceptable to make the distinctly unfeminist assumption that the women involved in porn were unconsciously complicit in their own exploitation. Porn performers were victims: they were traumatized by childhood abuse, forced into theirjobs by abusive men, or abusers of substances themselves. This did not go unnoticed by the performers. WhenMs.magazine convened a panel on pornography in New York in 1978—a panel that neglected to include anybody who worked in the industry—the porn stars Gloria Leonard, Annie Sprinkle, and Marlene Willoughby stood outside holding signs that read “I Am Not a Female Captive” and “Ms. ExploitsSex Too!” (One poster showed an issue ofMs.with the cover line “Erotica and Pornography: Do You Know the Difference?”)
Anti-porn feminism created another problem. What did “feminist” sex look like? If a feminist felt sexually stimulated while watchingDeep Throat, would she compromise a more equitable future by enjoying it? “Porn” means only material produced with the intention of incitinga sexual response over an aesthetic or emotional one. What is pornographic is therefore a highly subjective experience. What inspires sexual feelings in one person might provoke disgust or boredom in another. If pornography was inherently masculine, “an act of sex discrimination,” were the sexual desires of “women” therefore impossible to visualize? Did they resist representation and articulation?Soon another wing of the feminist movement, grouped under the label of “pro-sex” or “sex positive” feminism, emerged to address some of these questions.
“When I first heard there was a feminist movement against pornography, I twitched,” wrote Ellen Willis in her 1979Village Voiceessay “Feminism, Moralism, and Pornography”:For obvious political and cultural reasons, nearly all porn is sexist in that it is the product of a male imagination and aimed at a male market; women are less likely to be consciously interested in pornography, or to indulge that interest, or find porn that turns them on. But anyone who thinks women are indifferent to pornography has never watched a bunch of adolescent girls pass around a trashy novel. Over the years I’ve enjoyed various pieces of pornography—some of them of the sleazy Forty-Second Street paperback sort—and so have most women I know. Fantasy, after all, is more flexible than reality, and women have learned, as a matter of survival, to be adept at shaping male fantasies to their own purposes. If feminists define pornography, per se, as the enemy, the result will be to make a lot of women ashamed of their sexual feelings and afraid to be honest about them. And the last thing women need is more sexual shame, guilt, and hypocrisy—this time served up as feminism.
Willis criticized the attempts of anti-porn feminists to distinguish between “pornography” (bad for women) and “erotica” (good for women). She wrote that the binary tended to devolve into “What turns me on is erotic; what turns you on is pornographic.” In these early yearsof anti-porn feminism a pattern emerged, where what was envisioned as “feminist” sex tended away from literal descriptions of physical activity. Andrea Dworkin’sIntercourseis an extreme but lasting example—her assertion that women want “a more diffuse and tender sensuality that involves the whole body and a polymorphous tenderness.” One theorist Dworkin quoted pictured a possible future of sexwithout thrusting. Instead, sex would be like “a stream that meets another stream,” and “a more mutual lying together.”
Other feminists responded to the feminist porn wars by making porn. In response to the anti-porn polemics inOff Our Backs, a group of women began publishingOn Our Backsin 1984. Billed as “Entertainment for the Adventurous Lesbian,” the magazine soon expanded from print toinclude Fatale, a line of pornographic videos aimed at the lesbian market. Another direct response came from women who had worked for years in the industry, who began speaking and writing about their experiences with porn, responding to the claims about their exploitation, and directing their own films. The Golden Age film stars did not all have Linda Lovelace’s story of exploitation, although LindaLovelace remains the archetypal tragic victim of porn in the national imagination. Some found their way to porn via the utopian ideas of the counterculture, others by the usual accidents that shape people’s destinies.
Annie Sprinkle came to sex work by way of a hippie adolescence. After dropping out of the artists’ commune in Oracle, Arizona, at the age of seventeen, she got a job answering phonesat an erotic massage parlor, then began giving erotic massages and sometimes having sex with her customers. It was 1973, and Sprinkle had a hippie’s view of sex as a natural and abundant gift to celebrate and share.
Sprinkle moved to New York after starting an affair with Gerard Damiano, the director ofDeep Throat, whom she met when he came to Tucson to testify in an obscenity trial. In NewYork she began working at the Spartacus Spa in Midtown, and then found her own way to porn. Her first starring role was in a film calledTeenage Deviate, where she performed under the stage name of “Annie Sprinkles” (her given name was Ellen Steinberg).
At eighteen, Annie Sprinkle (as her name was later shortened) had bobbed brown hair, full breasts, and a twinkly smile. As a performer, she affectedthe airy grooviness of the hippie she once was, with a wry sense of humor coming through. As the 1970s progressed she came to be known as one of the performers most willing to try controversial sex acts. She peed on men, fisted them with Crisco, and even vomited on one (using, she later revealed, canned soup). She held the hand of another performer during what might be the first clitoral piercingin porn. After performing in more than a hundred movies directed by men, she directed one herself.Deep Inside Annie Sprinklewas the second-highest-grossing X-rated feature in 1982.
In 1983, Sprinkle began hosting a support group for performers who were now leaving the industry. Its members were Sprinkle, Gloria Leonard, Veronica Vera, Candida Royalle, and Jane Hamilton (who acted as VeronicaHart). They called the group Club 90, for the address of Sprinkle’s apartment on Lexington Avenue. All five would put their sexual experience in pornography toward other professions: Vera founded a cross-dressing academy, Miss Vera’s Finishing School for Boys Who Want to Be Girls; Gloria Leonard was the first president of the Free Speech Coalition, which advocated for the First Amendment rightsof the industry; Hamilton went on to work as a porn director and later an executive at VCA, a major Southern California production company. In 1984, Candida Royalle produced Femme, a series of videos marketed to women and couples.
Rites of Passion, Annie Sprinkle’s 1984 collaboration with Candida Royalle about tantric sex, is typical of Femme’s style: soft-focus video and women with teased hairstylesexplaining their sexual dilemmas. Jeanna Fine plays a young woman increasingly dissatisfied with her lovers. She has unfulfilling sex with an uncaring bodybuilder type, then expresses her frustration and asks him to leave (he does, in a huff). Afterward, she sits alone in her apartment in an armchair next to a pseudo–Georgia O’Keeffe painting hanging on one wall.
“In my search I tried everything,”she says of her failure to find sexual satisfaction. “Every type of man, every type of woman. I tried it everywhere, from on airplanes to on the subway at rush hour. Threesomes, orgies; I even tried”—here she pauses—“monogamy.” Her despondence deepens. “Maybe I should just become celibate and forget the whole thing.”
Then she meets her long-haired tantric lover. They have tantric sex over animatedbackdrops of autumn leaves and lotus flowers. “I returned to the place where I existed right from the start, where spirit meets flesh,” she says. “We were the universal life force.”
Sprinkle wanted to depict climax with something other than a cum shot on the face, so her heroine’s orgasm is represented by an explosion of early-1980s computer effects with a roiling saxophone accompaniment. “Iborrowed a special effect fromStar Trek,” Sprinkle said, in the autobiographicalAnnie Sprinkle’s Herstory of Porn, of her attempt to create “the feeling of a cosmic orgasm of love.”
As the years progressed, Sprinkle’s porn did, too. She has described herself as “metamorphosexual.” She invented a genre she called “docu-porn” and in 1991 directed and starred inLinda/Les and Annie: A Female–Male Transsexual Love Story, the first porn with a surgically constructed penis. She performed in art-porn movies like Nick Zedd’sWar Is Menstrual Envyand played the role of God in Cynthia Roberts’s 1996 “feminist sex fantasy”Bubbles Galore. She made performance art, most famously with “Public Cervix Announcement,” in which she inserted a speculum and invited the audience to inspect her cervix witha flashlight. Today she identifies as eco-sexual, which means she finds sexual stimulation in nature. She told me that there is even a culture of sadomasochism in eco-sexuality: people who might, for example, run naked through a field of nettles.
Annie Sprinkle explored sexual possibilities that would become familiar to the mainstream only decades later. What was, in the 1980s and 1990s, thefuture of sexuality was not really found in the pages ofMs., but rather in the fringes of the pornographic, in the work of people like Sprinkle, who used pornography to explore their physical and psychological limits, to identify unconventional forms of sexual stimulation, and to question the gender binary. If the future was to be defined by a more honest and nuanced sexual culture, one in whichsexual diversity was valued, the people with maximalist ambitions were futurists, and they had knowledge unavailable to those who had not considered their extremes. A better sexuality, if such a thing were possible, would be discovered by people who explored the widest range of sexual practice, not those who treated it as resistant to literal representation. I valued the ideas of feminism thatspoke of liberating feminine sexuality from masculine ideas of sexiness, but it was as if, having cleaned out the clutter of masculine pornographic language and imagery, the only inoffensive concept left was a spartan white room dotted with patches of sunlight, starched curtains gently blowing from the open floor-to-ceiling windows. This was either the empty canvas of the liberated sexual imaginationor evidence of a deep aversion to physical reality, where any image of sex provoked disgust and had to be replaced with an innocuous interior design concept.
Today, marketing of porn intended to appeal to women often emphasizes producers’ “tasteful,” “natural,” or “romantic” aesthetic. Or it appears under theCosmo-inspired alibi of education and self-improvement, such as the genre of “guidepornos” that present themselves as how-to workshops on having better anal sex or giving a better blow job. It shrouds sexual stimulation in stories of dating, personal confession, self-help, romantic intrigue, and education. One self-described feminist video I watched had as its plot a woman turned on by watching a man assemble IKEA furniture. Another,Marriage 2.0, which won Movie of the Yearat the Feminist Porn Awards, had long scenes of couples discussing the politics of their open relationships and a cameo by Christopher Ryan, the co-author ofSex at Dawn. These videos offered worthwhile romantic and educational entertainment, but did they inspire masturbation? In the marketing of these movies, the sex itself was not emphasized, the way it was on the online porn tubes. The videoI Fucking Love IKEA, for example, which was directed by Erika Lust, was not described as “ripped carpenter bro cock fucks the shit out of insatiable busty rich girl” but rather, “I have a thing for IKEA (I know, it’s weird), but making him buy and build stuff for me turns me on.”
The pornographers at Kink, feminists themselves, had thrown all of this perceived self-censorship and sensitivity inthe trash, along with the notion that feminine sex was a delicate, unnamable mystery. The rage and misogyny of the American male is an astonishing thing, its own natural wonder, like a geyser in a national park. But it had taken feminism to explain how the gagging, slapping, and sneering of porn might be hateful to women, and feminism to enhance its taboo. You couldn’t have nun porn without Catholicism.You couldn’t have Public Disgrace without feminism.
* * *
But I preferred the white cube. For years after watching the pornography shoots at Kink I still thought of myself as personally uninterested in porn. Instead of watching porn I read articles with titles like “Why Women Don’t Like Porn.” I read interviews with Stoya or Joanna Angel or Nina Hartley inCosmoabout why they made porn.I had interviewed Princess Donna, and watched her make porn. I still didn’t go on xHamster and watch videos and masturbate to them. Googling “tiny blonde tied up and ass fucked in public” will lead you to a video I saw recorded in San Francisco one April evening. In life, the sex I saw there did not upset me, but when I came to the video via Google I wanted to turn it off.
My aversion to pornographywas not because the images didn’t stimulate, but because I did not want to be turned on by sex that was not the kind of sex I wanted to have. I knew I shared this feeling with certain Christians, certain feminists, and many people who could only articulate an uneasiness that fell outside of an ideology. I remained at least half-persuaded by the argument that a woman watched or made porn onlyas a member of a subordinate group trying to win the acceptance of the dominant group by conforming to its standards of sexuality and beauty. Nobody at the feminist sex shop suggested that the way to maximize pleasure was to go online and masturbate while watching “bondage slut gets a rough gangbang,” which is what I finally did one day.
I was honestly surprised that it worked. It usually tookme a long time to give myself an orgasm without a vibrator. I only had to watch the video for ten minutes. I started looking at porn on a semiregular basis, maybe once a month, when I was alone, had no prospects for sex, and didn’t have a vibrator with me. The site indexes were useless, since I didn’t have a particular fetish. I would click through until I found something that didn’t annoy or upsetme. I liked porn that had both masculine and feminine characters. It had to have a woman, and it had to have dicks. If a dick was a strap-on it had to be on a masculine-looking person, but she did not have to be a biological man. I didn’t need and felt bored by setups, stories, character-specific fantasies, “talking dirty.” I disliked the index terms. I wished, for example, that the “gang bang”category had a different, less aggressive name, like “group sex with >1 dick” and that a MILF (“Mom I’d Like to Fuck”) was “woman >30.” The industry’s tendency to reduce people to the most offensive stereotypes of their age, race, ethnicity, body type, or gender seemed entirely unnecessary, although a friend of mine argued that the point of the language was to demarcate fantasy, just as inStar Warsthe light saber was not called a “laser sword.” So, on the Hot Guys Fuck channel, I watched porn advertising “big dumb Chad” or “tattoo stud Blake,” and, on For Her Tube, browsed through the Doctor Tube, the Office Tube, and the Seduce Tube.
I had once thought of porn as a male-dominated force that standardized sexual expectations, and that it therefore imposed its will on my sexuality,but I saw that porn defied standardization. Some men clearly watched porn to experience a feeling of domination and control over women, and a lot of porn played to these fantasies. This fantasy of control transcended porn into an evident belief that masturbating to someone, or casting sexual judgment on her, was an expression of power over her. A common choice of insult by disdainful men on Internetcomment threads was to say that they masturbated to some piece of content made by a woman with serious intent. I don’t know why, but knowing porn as he does diminishes the specter of the leering man. You invade his temple, his redoubt. You have felt what he feels but you have felt it in your own way.
Watching porn left me more confident about my body. The “sexiness” used to sell clothes or toothpastewas very different from the sexiness that incited actual sex. Porn represented a wilderness beyond the gleaming edge of the corporate Internet and the matchstick bodies and glossy manes of network television. Porn had body hair, tattoos, assholes, bodily fluids, genitals, Mexican wrestling masks, birthday cake, ski goggles. The index entries on the most fetish-specific sites included “bigclit,” “chubby,” “puffy nipples,” “farting,” “hairy pussy,” “aged,” “9 months pregnant,” “short hair,” “small tits,” “muscled girl,” “fat mature,” and “ugly.” In looking through all this I found unexpected reassurance that somebody will always want to have sex with me. This was the opposite of the long road toward sexual obsolescence that I had been taught to expect.
Because porn was a tour ofhuman sexual diversity, I also watched porn that didn’t really turn me on but that interested me as an exploration of the human body and what it looked like and what it could do. The experimental work made by Sprinkle was a more artsy example of this kind of porn, but it also happened in more commercial porn, often under the direction of women. If there were differences between porn made by menand porn made by women, it might be that the feminine aesthetic was less literal, showed a wider variation in stimuli, and tended to have costumes and fantasies that had nothing to do with the traditional repertoire of nurses, babysitters, and stepmoms. Porn made by women tended to be a little more bizarre, as I realized when I started to watch the work of Belladonna, who retired in 2012 but was probablythe most influential pornographer for the current generation of women making porn. The directors at Kink spoke of her with reverence, as did many other directors in the industry.
Belladonna’s non-porno name was Michelle Sinclair. She was born in 1981 in Biloxi, Mississippi, and raised in Utah. She started making porn after working at a strip club in Salt Lake City called American Bush. She becamefamous in 2003, when ABC’sPrimetimeaired a documentary about what it was like to be a naive young woman in the industry. “Inside the new world of pornography,” said a severe Diane Sawyer. “Be there as an eighteen-year-old makes a decision she can never take back.” San Fernando Valley could not have pitched it better. A few years later Belladonna was a star performer and perhaps the most successfulfemale director of hardcore pornography in the industry. For years she was the only female director under contract at the giant Valley studio Evil Angel. She had a franchise of more than eighty DVDs, many of them made with her then-husband, Aidan Riley, including seven installments of Belladonna’s Fucking Girls, and ten chapters of Fetish Fanatics.
Belladonna, like Annie Sprinkle, seemed metamorphosexual.She had a round face and a gap-toothed smile. She occasionally performed with her head shaved and her underarms hairy. Her body was athletic. She made every kind of porn, including some of the most intense and violent porn I had seen, but it wasn’t the sex that upset me the most. I had trouble watchingManhandled 4, where in the lead-up to the sex Ramon Nomar plays the jealous and abusive boyfriendall too convincingly, and slaps Belladonna for having looked at another guy. In addition to double penetration, peeing, deep throating, gagging, and begging, Belladonna also made porn about two people waking up in bed together and having vanilla sex. She made foot-fetish porn and sex-toy porn. She made porn with scenarios removed from any power dynamic I could try to impose on it, because itwas porn between women wearing bunny heads. She made porn where she instructed how to give an enema, where she wore a surgical mask, or carnival face paint, or a vinyl outfit with pigtails, or where she played Dance Dance Revolution. She made porn when she was pregnant. She made a movie calledCvrbongirl, described by Evil Angel as “the fantasy of Belladonna as the ‘Doll Maker,’ a cross betweenPinocchio’s Gepetto, the Wizard of Oz, and a perverted Doctor Frankenstein, bringing dolls to life in her workshop so they can engage in lesbian depravity with each other.” She made porn about a glory hole, where “the backdrop is a perfectly disgusting bathroom with rotting tile, a grimy floor, and numerous duct-tape-reinforced holes to serve as entry points.” She madeDirty Panties, where “thedirector’s cast of lovelies enjoys the powerful aroma that emanates from a woman’s moist butt crack.” Her own contribution to the genre of guide pornos, the ironicBelladonna’s How to Fuck, includes the aforementioned enema, and a blow job during which the man pinches her nose as she goes down on him. She has performed in porn with people of many races and gender identifications, including inStrapped Dykes, parts one and two, andTranssexual Playground.