Earlier this fall, I bought an erotic political novel meant as propaganda for a Ted Cruz presidency. Or, at least, that’s how the book was packaged. A Cruzmas Carol is Lacey Noonan’s 2015 reimagining of A Christmas Carol, in which the “Bathroom Attendants of Constitutionality Past, Present, and Future” take Cruz on a madcap night of lewd hallucinations to convince him to run for president and save American democracy. “He’s got it all,” the novel’s Amazon description reads. “The stunning good looks, the six-pack abs … the perfect record as a hard-balling, take-no-guff U.S. Senator. So why won’t he run for president? … Why’s he being such a Tedbenezer Scruz?”
This week, after a social-media barrage declared it obscene, officials refused to install a sculpture called Domestikator in the Tuileries Gardens near the Louvre. The same piece was then accepted by, and set up outside, the Pompidou, a contemporary-art museum less than a mile down the road.
The piece in question, by the Dutch artist Joep van Lieshout, is of a forty-foot-tall humanoid apparently copulating with a four-legged creature. A staircase leading to a doorway in the humanoid’s hip invites the public inside.
The piece is apparently intended to pay tribute to “the ingenuity, the creativity, the sophistication, and the persistence of humans to change the world into a better place.” But what interested me was why the artwork had been deemed appropriate for one part of the city and not another.
Dian Hanson has made a career of “probing the subtleties of male lust.” In 1976, she began to edit such successful fetish magazines as Juggs, Oui, Leg Show, and Outlaw Biker. Pornography, at that time, had just gone through one of its more awkward phases. Amid the psychedelia and taboo-busting of the sexual revolution, men’s magazines weren’t sure how far to go in depicting free love; an industry built on forbidden fantasy risked being outpaced by real life.
That dilemma is at the heart of Psychedelic Sex, which catalogs, with more than four hundred pages of art, the attempts by men’s glossies to offer an authentic hippie sex trip. More than an exercise in kitsch, the book captures a shift in male sexuality—it reminds of a time when pornography and the stories it tells about our culture were completely different than they are today.
Hanson, who’s now the official “sexy editor” of Taschen Books, is uniquely informed, having seen pornography as a photo and text editor, an advice writer, an occasional model, and a true fan. From her home in Los Angeles, she spoke to me about changing mores, the contempt for pornography even among those who make and consume it, and the many misconceptions of the male psyche.
Psychedelic Sex is about magazines from the late sixties and early seventies, which you seem to have a vast knowledge of, even though you didn’t start editing magazines until 1976.
This book was an offshoot of my six-volume history of men’s magazines. When I was doing the fourth through sixth volumes of that, I hooked up with a collector in San Francisco—Eric Gotland, who was a rock manager. He made a lot of money with Third Eye Blind and used it to fulfill his adolescent fantasy of owning every issue of every men’s magazine ever made. Of course, once he started on this journey, he found that there were so many men’s magazines that it was impossible to buy them all. Still, he filled a warehouse in the Potrero Hill section of San Francisco with these magazines, buying like a lunatic on eBay and everyplace he could find them. I would go up there and go through the boxes with him, which was a joy. We started finding all this psychedelic stuff, and he was a particular fan of it—he’d been too young to be a part of the sexual revolution, but he was fascinated by it, as any ten-year-old boy would be. We decided that this would make a great book on its own, mapping this strange subgenre that tried to represent hippies and hippie sex and the drug experience for straight guys who felt left out of the whole sexual revolution. They went on from about 1967 to about 1973. Read More
A poet’s misadventures in erotica.
I’ve written prose. I’ve written several novels that no one has seen. Well, one was published.
My Mother Taught Me, an erotic novel, wasn’t it?
It’s about sexuality. You have to understand, people were writing sex books but no one was writing them well. I thought pornography should be as much of a genre as cowboy stories. But pornography is boring. Childish. Unhealthy. I thought, Why not have a novel of sexuality that’s not paralyzed by the need for orgasm? So I wrote a good pornographic novel to show it could be done. An enjoyment rather than a momentary excitement. There were so many pornographic novels written; why weren’t they effective? A momentary spasm. Some people will have an orgasm if you say a dirty word or say, What he did to her body was . . . But what if you approach it as a real novel? The idea of entertainment intrigued me at the time—so I wrote one.
—The Art of Poetry No. 91, 2005
Jack Gilbert, who would’ve been ninety today, actually published two erotic novels: My Mother Taught Me and Forever Ecstasy, both coauthored with Jean Maclean and published under the opaque nom de porn Tor Kung. Olympia Press, a short-lived purveyor of smut and other wonders, foisted both titles upon the unsuspecting public, and in time they became the most requested books in the publisher’s oeuvre.
The premise of My Mother Taught Me, which appeared in 1967, is absurd, even farcical—and in its outlandishness, it seems designed to effect what Gilbert called “an enjoyment rather than a momentary excitement.” But what kind of enjoyment? Our hero is Lars, a naive Swedish schoolboy who was raised in an all-male orphanage. The place was so strict, so straitlaced, that Lars in his nonage had never so much as laid eyes on a woman—not even a photograph of a woman. Read More
Sex advice from 1861.
Let me be frank: Valentine’s Day is great if you’re getting laid. But there are, among the populace, a number of the “involuntarily celibate” for whom this “holiday” exists only to remind of isolation, rejection, and missed carnal opportunities. Where, in such times, can the lovelorn singleton turn for solace? There is but one place: the annals of sexual education.
There’s no better way to kill one’s sexual desire than to remember what it was like to learn about sex. Contemporary sex-ed is effective enough in this regard—we can all summon memories of high school filmstrips—but it turns out that the sex-ed of ages past was even more clinical, pedantic, and bloodless. All of which is to say it’s perfect if you’re looking to take the joy out of sex.
Proof positive: An 1861 work by one James Ashton, M.D.—a “lecturer on sexual physiology” who invented the “Reveil Nocturne,” which Google has thus far not elucidated—called The Book of Nature; Containing Information for Young People Who Think of Getting Married, on the Philosophy of Procreation and Sexual Intercourse; Showing How to Prevent Conception and to Avoid Child-Bearing. Also, Rules for Management During Labour and Child-birth. It is, in effect, the most abundantly unsexy sex-ed guide this side of What’s Happening to Me? A Guide to Puberty. Read More
Leonard Cohen in love.
“Desperation is the mother of poetry.”
Like most people, I remember the first time I had sex pretty well. I can recall the surprisingly adept flirting I carried off beforehand, and the moment of pleasant shock when she kissed me. I remember how we stayed in bed until three the next day and how when we finally got up, faint from hunger, we went to eat at a greasy spoon that had a little jukebox by each table. I have no idea what I ordered, but I do remember that she got a grilled cheese sandwich. In the next year and a half that we were together, I don’t know if she ever ate another one.
We all have memories like that, jumping out of oblivion like buoys in the water. The facts might be fuzzy, but the moments are clear. Leonard Cohen describes such a memory in his first novel, The Favorite Game, published in 1963, when he was twenty-nine:
What did she look like that important second?
She stands in my mind alone, unconnected to the petty narrative. The color of the skin was startling, like the white of a young branch when the green is thumb-nailed away. Nipples the color of bare lips. Wet hair a battalion of glistening spears laid on her shoulders.
She was made of flesh and eyelashes.
Cohen, who turns eighty on Sunday, is exceptionally good at drawing out those moments of sexual crystallization. It’s a skill that, along with his gravelly voice and poems about women’s bodies, has given him a reputation for being a “ladies’ man.” Judging by the adoring crowds at his shows, it’s a reputation he deserves.
Yet it isn’t success with women that accounts for Cohen’s particular vision, even if his fame as a lover may have, over time, borne the fruits of self-fulfilling prophecy. Rather, his work is shot through with fears of physical deficiency and sexual deprivation, loneliness and insecurity. “He could not help thinking that … he wasn’t tall enough or straight, that people didn’t turn to look at him in street-cars, that he didn’t command the glory of the flesh,” he writes of his autobiographical protagonist in The Favorite Game. Decades later, in his 2006 poetry collection Book of Longing, Cohen confessed: “My reputation as a ladies’ man was a joke / that caused me to laugh bitterly / through the ten thousand nights / I spent alone.” Read More