The Washington Post
Sex Collectors: The Secret World of Consumers, Connoisseurs, Curators, Creators, Dealers, Bibliographers, and Accumulators of ',Erotica',by Geoff Nicholson
In Sex Collectors, Geoff Nicholson hunts down an assortment of these obsessives around the world. From the/i>/i>
Though you might not encounter the subject in Artforum or stumble across it at Sotheby's, the thriving business of erotica is a mixture of sophistication and seduction, an underground world of eccentric artists and serious collectors.
In Sex Collectors, Geoff Nicholson hunts down an assortment of these obsessives around the world. From the Florida grandma with five million dollars' worth of sexual collectibles to Third Eye Blind's manager, who owns more than eighty thousand men's magazines, Nicholson celebrates these collectors and the occasionally beautiful, frequently bizarre, and always fascinating objects they have amassed.
He accompanies Linda Lovelace, the star of Deep Throat, as she is taken on a tour of a collection devoted to her. Days spent in the Kinsey archives reveal the cultural artifacts resulting from the sexual awakening of public America, as well as boxes with labels such as "Phallus with Agricultural Tools" and "Scarf Trick when Folded." Nicholson journeys to Germany to visit with the legendary Karl-Ludwig Leonhardt, sex collector extraordinaire of first edition volumes such as Flagellation pour couples pervertis and Tender Bottoms, erotic Picassos, and notes handwritten by the Marquis de Sade.
Throughout his exploration of some of the wildest collections in the world, Nicholson's discussion of collecting as an expression of self and psychology goes hand in hand with his gleeful discovery of the seventh giant phallus used in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, Hitler's creepily erotic personalized bookplate, and a woman who has a plaster cast of Jimi Hendrix's penis. Sex Collectors is a winning story of one man's attempt to collect collectors, to reveal the neuroses that drive some people to collect, and to have good, dirty, high-minded fun while doing it.
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The usual throat clearing, my father's gnomic wisdom, anal retention, less than full disclosure, living with and without a sex collection.
I once had dinner in New York with Linda Lovelace. This is not a boast. It was some time ago, well before I'd thought of writing a book on sex and collecting, though I was certainly already interested in both subjects. The year was 2000 and Linda, who was then in her early fifties, was trying to make a modest comeback. My girlfriend, Dian, was the editor of a men's magazine called Leg Show, and Linda was in town to do a photo shoot for her. Linda wasn't prepared to take her clothes off for the shoot, or more precisely she wasn't prepared to take her clothes off for the sort of money Leg Show was willing to pay. Therefore Dian had arranged for her to be seen in a corset, high heels, shiny tights, and so on. This, I suppose, might have allowed Linda to square an appearance in a men's mag with her continuing professed antipornography stance, but my guess is she didn't need to square anything. She was a woman who could live with contradictions.
Linda Lovelace, real name Linda Boreman, was, as everyone of a certain generation will need no telling, the star of Deep Throat, a preposterously lame porn movie, made in 1972, about a woman whose clitoris is located a long way down her throat and who can therefore get satisfaction only from "deep-throating" men. There have been crasser premises for movies but not many, not even in porn. Yet the moment found the movie. American society was ready and eager to embrace hard-core pornography, and Deep Throat struck lucky. It became a hit, a must-see, a couples movie, even a date movie.
I don't think you can pretend that Linda Lovelace was the only or even the main reason for the success of Deep Throat, but she did what was asked of her, and it's apparent that the camera liked her a lot back then. On-screen and in still photographs from that period, her face had a lopsided, quizzical, hippieish laxity about it that was very much of its time, but still remains appealing today. In the early days she had a shaggy, let-your-freak-flag-fly kind of perm, trading it in for a then-more-fashionable yet somehow more staid feather cut.
She always looked as if she was enjoying herself in front of the camera. She denied this fervently in person and in print. She said she was hating every minute of it, but was acting as if she was enjoying it because her manager and husband, Chuck Traynor, had threatened to kill her if she showed any reluctance. If this is true, then Linda Lovelace was an infinitely better actress than anyone I've ever seen in a porn film.
In England, where I lived at the time, we never saw Deep Throat, but we certainly knew about it and we knew who Linda Lovelace was. We'd read the articles, the interviews, seen the film stills, read or at least heard about the so-called autobiography Inside Linda Lovelace, which wasn't written by her but was prosecuted in England for obscenity. The prosecution failed, and after that England pretty well gave up fretting about the printed sexual word. Some of us thought that was a good thing.
The Leg Show photo shoot, indeed Linda's entire comeback, was being facilitated by a man called Eric Danville, a writer who had worked for Penthouse, Forum, and Screw, a man who would admit to having had previous obsessions for certain female stars including Debbie Harry and Madonna. The name Joan Jett was -- and I imagine still is -- tattooed on his forearm. Joan had autographed his arm at a New York gig, and after some hesitation he'd had a tattooist ink in the signature before it faded. It looked as good as you'd imagine.
Eric is a very competent researcher, known for his determination to track down anything and everything on a subject. About six years earlier he'd decided to write about Linda Lovelace, and had managed to get her phone number and call her up. She'd refused to speak to him, had indeed pretended to be her own secretary. This only spurred him on to become a serious Linda Lovelace expert and collector.
There is apparently quite a lot of stuff out there, although the primary materials, as it were, are limited. Linda Lovelace only worked in hard-core pornography for a very short time, literally a few weeks. A lot of the movies that purport to have her as their star are shameless rip-offs and repackagings of the porn loops she made before Deep Throat. These include a couple of her having surprisingly enthusiastic sex with a dog, which I had in fact seen, but before we had dinner that time I was sternly informed by Eric and Dian that "nobody mentions the dog."
After Deep Throat she rose without trace, to become a celebrity, to make "straight" films like Linda Lovelace for President -- a satire of sex and politics that's probably even more disappointing to those interested in politics than to those interested in sex. She even appeared on the New York stage in a play called Pajama Tops.
Eric Danville, of course, had videotapes of all her movie work, he even had two versions of the sound track of Deep Throat that had been released on vinyl. He had masses of magazines in which her photographs appeared. He had bootleg live recordings of a Led Zeppelin concert where Linda had been the emcee. He had every pop or rock song that contained the name Linda Lovelace -- most famously Elton John's "Wrap Her Up."
Of course he had all the books attributed to her, all of them ghosted, all more or less autobiographical, charting a course from fake sexual liberation, via victimhood, toward a misanthropic feminism. Ordeal, a midperiod work, and in some way the most compelling in the oeuvre, tells horrific tales of rape and sexual violence, yet still remains part of that long, long line of popular confessional literature in which the sins have to be recalled in prurient detail before they can be forgiven.
While amassing his collection, Eric made further attempts at contacting Linda and assuring her of his good intentions. After her experiences with Chuck Traynor she was naturally suspicious of men who wanted to "help" her, but she and Eric became friends, and she gave him some snapshots for his collection, nice enough, perfectly innocent pictures taken on holiday in England in the 1970s, one of which showed her posing with Stonehenge as a backdrop. In return for this, Eric was helping her make some money by organizing the sale of authenticated Linda Lovelace items on eBay.
Linda needed all the money she could get. A liver transplant had left her in need of some very expensive drugs, and she'd fallen on hard times when Eric caught up with her. She'd worked briefly as an office cleaner in Colorado but lost the job because company policy insisted that employees had to give details of every name they'd ever worked under. For entirely obvious reasons she hadn't told them that she used to be Linda Lovelace, but they found out anyway and were then able to fire her because she'd "lied" to get the job.
So she was glad of the attention, glad to be invited to New York to do a photo shoot, glad to be taken out to dinner. It wasn't just me and her, of course. Eric was there, too, and so was Dian, and I seem to remember Eric's wife, Abby, being there briefly, too. Linda looked not bad that night. The skin on her face was a little florid and pockmarked, but she was lean and tanned and she certainly looked alert and alive, and if she seemed a little damaged at the edges, she certainly didn't look destroyed. She still had the feather cut. She was polite and a little nervous and seemed to be consciously on her best behavior, but then so was I.
In some ways she was quite the innocent. She hadn't heard of reflexology, for instance, and when the drinks menu came she didn't know what "ale" was. She talked a lot about her children and her grandchild, but she was also happy to talk about her past. She'd met her fair share of the rich and famous, she said, but they'd seldom been the way she wanted them to be. Clint Eastwood was a terrible disappointment because when he sat next to her at the Playboy Mansion he'd been wearing jeans and sneakers. Elvis had been a sad, drugged-up fat man who erupted from time to time in a flurry of karate moves. The only one she'd really been impressed by was Tony Curtis because, she said, he seemed like the same guy offscreen as he was on.
There had been some talk that after dinner we might go back to Eric's apartment. It would be a rare occasion when a collector, the subject of his collection, and the collection itself would all be in the same room at the same time. And so it came to pass. As I've said, I had no idea at the time that I would ever write a book about sex collectors, but even so I could see this was going to be a special moment.
Eric's apartment, where he lived with Abby, was a monument to their shared and separate enthusiasms. She was editor of a magazine called Extreme Fetish, and a professional giver of parties, usually with some fetish theme. Around the apartment were some of her clothes that bordered on fancy dress, books, fetish magazines, videotapes, records, vibrators, and it was all highly organized. Along one wall of the living room were two museum-style floor-to-ceiling vitrines that had been sawed into sections before they could be got up the stairs and into the apartment. There were also a couple of "cabinets of curiosities" mounted on the walls.
The Linda Lovelace collection was in a glass-fronted bookcase in the bedroom at the foot of the four-poster bed. It would have been easy for Eric to sit up in bed and gaze with pride at his collection; in fact it would have been pretty impossible for him not to. Eric was keen to show it off, and Dian and I were an enthusiastic audience, but the presence of Linda was clearly giving Eric some anxiety.
To an extent Linda reacted the way anyone might while rummaging through an old box of photographs or family keepsakes. Some of the things in Eric's collection she remembered well, others she'd never seen before, didn't know where they could have come from. There were photographs that she didn't remember being taken, of her standing next to someone she didn't recognize. But occasionally she'd look at herself in a photograph and say something like "Oh, I still have that dress," and Eric would say, "Well, if you want to sell it we can put it on eBay." The fact that there was a picture of Linda wearing it improved the provenance and supposedly increased the value.
I think both Linda and Eric were a little embarrassed by the occasion, as who wouldn't be? Occasionally she'd laugh nervously and say something like "This guy knows more about my life than I do." Whether or not this was literally true I'm not sure, but I suppose all serious collectors know things in a systematic, codified way that the subject of the collection never will.
But one thing Linda certainly did know was her own signature, and when Eric showed her a signed film still, she was immediately able to tell him it was a fake. It wasn't her signature. Someone had forged her autograph to increase the value of the still. Eric was crestfallen and horrified. He'd bought the still from a dealer he regularly did business with, and he swore he'd get his money back, though he didn't sound very confident. But there was obviously something else at stake here. A true, knowledgeable Linda Lovelace collector, a connoisseur of the type Eric wanted to be and thought he was, should surely have spotted a fake a mile off. Eric hadn't. He'd failed to live up to his own standards. Eric smiled nervously and then his face settled into a study of mortified disappointment. It pretty much soured the evening.
I don't want to say that witnessing this event was some great road- to-Damascus moment of literary inspiration. I had already written about obsession, sex, and the relationships between people and things, though it had mostly been in fictional form. And I suppose, like any professional writer, I was always on the lookout for some new way of writing about old subjects. Nevertheless that night with Linda and Eric and the forged signature was one of those intense, moving, all-too-rare occasions when a writer says to himself, "You know, I think there's a book in this."
Incidentally, on page 55 of Ordeal Linda says that Chuck Traynor gave her two pieces of advice: "I should never let anyone take my picture, and I should never sign my name to anything. He said those were two things that would always come back and haunt you later on."
I remember very clearly the first piece of sexual material I ever, so to speak, collected. It was a copy of Carnival, what we would probably today refer to as a pinup magazine. It contained jokes, cartoons, a bit of hairy-chested fiction, and on most pages were my reasons for buying it: pictures of partly undressed women. Many were in bikinis, or if naked, they were posed in a way that preserved most of their modesty, but a few were less modest and showed bare breasts, nipples, and the occasional bottom. Pudenda and pubic hair were entirely unseen, their display as unthinkable to the publisher (City Magazines Ltd, 167-170 Fleet Street, London EC4) as they were to me.
I was thirteen years old, the year was 1966, and given that I managed to buy the magazine quite openly, if nervously and furtively, at a newsstand in the center of Sheffield, I don't suppose I, or the person selling it to me, was involved in anything very transgressive. Nevertheless, as I thumbed through the magazine that night in bed (yes, under the covers; yes, using a flashlight), it seemed to me I'd gained access to a world of infinite female mystery. In fact I probably believed that the magazine was the means of solving that mystery. Here were women showing their naked bodies, exposing themselves, flaunting themselves. It seemed a bizarre, an indecent, and a wonderful thing for them to be doing. I looked, I saw, I seemed to understand. And I remember thinking to myself these images were so intense and so revealing that they were the only ones I'd ever need to look at or own. That delusion lasted a surprisingly long time; say a month.
One of the reasons I remember that copy of Carnival so well is that I still have it. It's here now. The cover, printed in intense, slightly blotchy color, shows a blonde wearing a striped dress that manages to expose both cleavage and thigh. She's at a dockside, half sitting on a metal capstan, and the mountains in the background suggest she's somewhere in the Mediterranean. Her face shows a healthy, enthusiastic, uncomplicated sexuality. There's nothing corrupt or decadent about her -- she's a cover girl -- although some of the models inside the magazine look far more knowing and overtly sexual.
Actually, the models are of two sorts; first there are young actresses, some of whom you may even have heard of: Edina Ronay, Martine Beswick, Jackie Collins (yes, Jackie, not Joan), and they're more or less decently dressed. Then there are the glamour models proper, some of them identified as French, Italian, or American, thereby representing the wildest shores of sexual exoticism that could be imagined in England in the midsixties, and these girls were prepared to show rather more. So here they are, as naked as the magazine allows, wearing see-through baby-doll nighties and high-heeled mules and wisps of leopard skin, pretending to play the guitar or lolling provocatively on patchwork leather poufs. It's tame stuff, of course it is. I suspect that almost any thirteen-year-old boy of today would find it quaintly innocent, and I'm certainly not trying to make any claims for it as a classic or significant or seriously collectible bit of erotica.
Now, the mere fact that I still have that copy of Carnival might suggest to you that I am, and have long been, a sex collector, but when I first started writing this book I certainly didn't think so. Back then I'd have said I kept that first magazine simply because it was the first. It was a souvenir I'd held on to because of what it represented, because of the effect it had once had on me. It certainly didn't mark the beginning of my career as sex collector, I'd have said, since I didn't think I'd had any such career.
I meant it sincerely. I wouldn't have been trying to deceive you or myself. I would have said I was fascinated by the subject of collecting, and that I could see the attractions of creating and owning a collection, but that I didn't have any urge to do it myself. And I would probably have admitted that I shared some of the same acquisitive "genes" as collectors, but I'd also have said that there was some important gene missing, something that held me back, that prevented me from becoming a "true" collector, whatever that was, and that I was happy to be held back.
And yet, and yet...
That copy of Carnival wasn't exactly the only piece of "erotica," or pornography, or whatever we decide to call it, in my possession. Over the years I'd been a regular if infrequent buyer, and although a few things had got lost or misplaced over the years, I was definitely a keeper rather than a thrower away.
It's worth noting that for substantial parts of my adult life anything resembling hard-core pornography was illegal in England, where I then lived, and therefore extremely difficult to get hold of. To have amassed a collection would have involved a lot of expensive trouble, at best involving dealings with unreliable mail-order dealers, at worst involving transactions with both unsavory criminals and police.
Hard-core pornography was therefore rare and enticing, and consequently when I went abroad, to Amsterdam or Paris, or even to the United States or Australia, I tended to take a look in the local sex shops to see what we were missing in England. And I sometimes brought a magazine, two at most, back with me as a souvenir. Fear of being searched and shamed by customs men was certainly a factor, but one or two was all I wanted.
Equally it's worth noting that there have been even more substantial periods of my adult life when admitting to any familiarity with or interest in pornography, or even "erotica," would have condemned a man as a scum-sucking, probably self-loathing, and certainly woman-hating pervert and inadequate. We're talking about the kind of women I used to meet back then. I didn't want to cause offense and be hated by them. Some of my best friends were feminists.
We know there are some necks of the wood where this attitude persists. In less densely foliated areas, the ones I inevitably inhabit, to be interested in pornography is currently considered to be okay, to be a sign that you're un homme moyen sensuel -- it's what guys are like -- but some of us won't be entirely surprised if and when the backlash comes.
So, in the interests of fullish disclosure let me briefly describe my holdings as they stood before I began to write this book. In addition to that copy of Carnival, at the very mildest end of things were a number of Readers' Wives-type magazines, with amateur content supplied by men who like to see their wives and girlfriends naked and in print. I love this stuff and always have. I think it's because it allows you to see naked "ordinary" women, the kind you don't normally find posing in magazines. More than that, you see them in their natural environments, in their own bedrooms or living rooms and kitchens, places you're never going to be invited in reality, and definitely not for sex. It creates an intimacy that more professional, "industrial," pornography never achieves.
But, of course, I owned a bit of the industrial product, too, the brightly lit, full-color, overpolished, overglossy mainstream stuff: issues of Private, Busen Leben, and Eroticat -- the latter impenetrably subtitled "High Class Pornography from Scandinavian Picture." This stuff seemed very hot and desirable when I first acquired it, but I must say it's looked less and less interesting as the years have gone by.
More enduring are the few genuinely exotic or eccentric items, the odd water sports, piercing, or foot-fetish magazine, and, for example, a French publication called Transsexual Climax (auteur, éditeur, Manuel Lizay), a thing so thoroughly bizarre and downright odd that I never dared show it to anyone for fear of what they might think about me. I also owned a few videotapes, again both generic and curious, Sarah Louise Young on the one hand, and a fat, tattooed, pierced orgiast called Rona of Ipswich on the other.
I bought this stuff for all the usual reasons: as an aid to masturbation, to share with a female sexual partner (always a risky thing to do), and also to satisfy my curiosity about the varieties of what people do and how they look while they're doing it; and that last thing is a function of pornography that isn't to be underestimated. But in all cases we're talking small numbers. Put all my acquisitions together, and did they constitute a sex collection? I wouldn't have said so. I'd have said it was just a bunch of smut that I happened to have accumulated over the years.
Another issue might be that at this point in cultural history, anyone with an interest in art, literature, or the movies is de facto a sex collector. Your bookshelves are likely to contain novels by Joyce, Bataille, Burroughs, de Sade, Henry Miller, Bret Easton Ellis, et al. You're likely to own books or magazines containing images by Bellmer, George Grosz, Man Ray, Mapplethorpe, Helmut Newton, Araki, Warhol, Nan Goldin, and many of these images will be highly sexual, and some of them consciously, deliberately pornographic. Likewise you might own DVD copies of movies by David Lynch, Peter Greenaway, Kenneth Anger, Richard Kern, and there'll be some very explicit stuff in there, too.
I pick these names not quite at random. I choose them because, even before I started this book, I owned work by all these people, but did my ownership of these texts and images make me a sex collector? No, no, I'd have said again, it just makes me a man of my time. Hundreds of thousands of people owned much the same material as I did. We weren't all sex collectors, surely.
In any event, I was much less of a collector than my girlfriend Dian, the one who organized the photo shoot for Linda Lovelace. When I first met her she called herself a "career pornographer," which is a good line, and almost true. She'd worked for men's magazines of various sorts for a good long time, though when I met her she was involved with the decidedly soft-core end of things. As well as Leg Show, she edited the magazines Tight and Juggs; well, somebody had to. I wouldn't say that pornography brought us together, but clearly I was fascinated by the notion of a female pornographer, as are many others.
I also knew that she was something of a collector of erotic materials, which she kept in her house in upstate New York, a two-hour drive from Manhattan. I made the journey there at the beginning of our relationship, with some trepidation, intrigued and not knowing at all what to expect. The house was ordinary enough on the outside, small, rustic, painted pale blue, but the interior was extraordinary, its decor based on old-curiosity-shop chic, with elements of a certain kind of saloon: heavy oak furniture, stained glass, motion lamps, a neon beer sign, multiple pieces of taxidermy, a live snake in an aquarium. I'd been there for a while before I even began to notice all the erotic items. There were original artworks and photographs on the walls, by the likes of Eric Stanton, Russ Meyer, Elmer Batters, Bobby Beausoleil (yes really, Mansonite Bobby -- a kitsch little painting showing two "mythological" figures kissing). Then there were Barbie dolls and their sexualized imitators, some fetish masks, whips, and one of those Balinese male figures that are really drums, with a detachable penis that you can use as a drumstick. Here and there were a variety of sex toys, vibrators, and electric stimulators that had generally been sent to the magazines for "testing," some of which looked (and were) extremely dangerous.
The bookcases were packed with sex books and magazines: a catholic selection, from Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis to Hirschfeld's The Sexual History of the World War, from Puritan to Amputee Times, from medical textbooks to underground comics, along with all manner of erotic novels, sex guides, and manuals. One particularly cherished item was The Illustrated Presidential Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, published as a Greenleaf Classic. Dian had bought it on the day she turned eighteen, the very first moment it was legal for her to buy pornography. There was also an attic full of many hundreds of videotapes: from Orifice Party to Black Bun Busters, from Chuck Berry's water-sports tape to Linda Lovelace's dog movie.
In other places around the house there was a large and spectacular array of outfits that had been used by nude models. Dian had always had a hands-on approach to photo shoots. She wasn't a photographer, and never actually pressed the shutter release, but she'd done pretty much everything else: chosen the models, dressed the sets, directed the shoots, bought or borrowed outfits for the girls, and then costumed them. Consequently the house contained countless stockings, corsets (one purporting to have belonged to Maureen O'Hara), gloves, hats, feather boas, a nurse's uniform, and of course there were scores of pairs of shoes and boots, in all sizes and in many styles, though chiefly of the high-heeled fuck-me variety. There was, I admit, a certain thrill in knowing that these clothes had been worn by bona fide sluts who'd torn them off during the making of pornography. She also had filing cabinets full of slides, glossy nude photographs, business documents, souvenirs from the "sex industry."
Dian was evidently attached to all this stuff, in that she'd not thrown it away, but again, the extent to which it constituted a collection was debatable. Very little of it had been acquired in any systematic way. Very little of it had been sought out or bought. It had come her way in the course of her career. Can you be a passive collector? Yes, I'm sure. And in any case a selection process had definitely taken place. She'd kept only a fraction of the masses of material that had passed through her hands, and in part she'd kept things she liked, that she found sexy or funny or interesting. But there was also an anthropological dimension to it.
It may surprise you, it certainly did me, that some readers of men's magazines (a tiny minority to be sure, but the numbers add up) like to correspond with the editor, especially if the editor is a woman. They like to discuss the merits of the models in the magazine. They like to send in photographs of themselves, with or without their partners, with or without clothes, with or without erections. They like to send in autobiographical writings, confessions, manifestos, politicosexual tracts, and artwork. Some of it frankly gave me the creeps, but to Dian it was well worth preserving. I mean, if a man sent you some photographs of himself in full drag, saying that his greatest turn-on in life was to wear high heels and pump the gas pedal of his station wagon, you (and indeed I) might think, "Oh boy, this guy should get over himself," and then you'd throw away the photographic evidence that he'd provided. But Dian would keep it. It was interesting, she said. It was, that Kinseyan word, data.
Did I find all this stuff easy to live with? Yes and no. Much of it was fine, of course. Much of it was fun and interesting and sexy and arousing. But some of it wasn't. Perhaps it's absurd to complain about pornography being offensive, that's surely one of its attractions and defining factors, but offended I sometimes was. There were things in Dian's filing cabinets that I saw once and never wanted to look at again, that I wished I'd never looked at in the first place, that I wasn't even all that keen to be under the same roof as. Some of the magazines in the collection seemed both misogynistic and racist, often at the same time; I'm thinking particularly of a dubious tabloid called Interracial News. Nor did I share Dian's taste for "primitive" reader art, especially when it featured scenes of sexual torture, as so much of it did. If I'd encountered these things in somebody else's collection or someone else's house or in a sex museum, they might have been bizarrely fascinating, and would have been fine, but having them at home, as it were, was a different matter.
But perhaps the problem was a more general one. Perhaps everyone finds it hard to live with someone else's collection. Whether it's overtly sexual or not, a collection is always intensely personal. It has meanings and intimacies that another person can never share. It excludes others. No doubt Peggy Guggenheim's husbands found it difficult to live with her world-class art collection.
When Dian and I eventually bought a house together we agreed that we didn't want to feel like we were living in some quirky private sex museum. We agreed that our shared living space should be as uncluttered as possible, and we've more or less stuck to that, while our offices, hers far more than mine, have become warrens of accumulation and obsession. Out of sight is not entirely out of mind, but at least it means that when a plumber comes to the house he doesn't look around him and think we're a couple of weirdos; or if he does, the judgment isn't based on seeing piles of nude photographs and dirty magazines. Dian always says I worry too much about that sort of thing, and I'm not saying she's wrong.
My father, who wasn't much given to gnomic utterance, and was no sort of collector, did drop one bit of wisdom that I'll always remember: "When you've got furniture," he said, "furniture's got you." Substitute a collection for furniture and you see why this has been on my mind lately. It occurs to me that one of the main reasons I never became much of a collector was that until recently I always lived in very small flats or houses, and regularly moved around. Moving is quite difficult enough without having to transport precious collections as well.
My father worked for the council in Sheffield. He started out as a carpenter and joiner, building council housing after the war, and he rose through the ranks, ending up in a job that seemed mostly to involve listening to the complaints council tenants had about their accommodation, then sending a man to fix it.
One day an old couple told him their toilet was stopped up. My father said he'd send a plumber. How long had it been blocked? About two years, they said. For about two years they hadn't been able to use their toilet. They'd managed to use the sink for liquid waste, but solids were trickier, so they'd been putting those in black garbage bags. They still had them. They were stacked up in the spare bedroom, did he want to see them? He didn't, and he had a lot of trouble finding a plumber prepared to set foot inside the house, which frankly surprised me: I thought council plumbers were made of sterner stuff.
You'll find plenty of psychologists, not least Freud (of whom more later), who'll tell you that collecting is an anal compulsion. He says that orderliness, obstinacy, and parsimony are the three traits that go along with anal eroticism. The need to keep and the refusal to give is what adults do as a substitute for the childhood habit of retaining feces. We gather objects, or indeed money, because we can't bear to part with our dung. The old couple in Sheffield had demonstrated the point more literally than anyone, certainly than any Sheffield council plumber, would ever want.
It so happened that I, too, worked for the Sheffield council one summer. They employed me as a garbage man. I carried away domestic waste from the poorer parts of the city. Men who work with garbage every day are no less curious about its contents than the rest of the population, and they don't feel any inhibition about satisfying their curiosity. We always dug through the bins to see if anything of interest was being thrown away, and we always, always, found pornography, lots of it, girlie magazines, dirty books, some of it quite odd and explicit, although never anything truly hard-core, that was obviously too valuable to be disposed of by this method.
Throwing away pornography is not quite the opposite of collecting it. In both cases it has to have been sought out and obtained. But owning and keeping it has uncomfortable implications for some people. They may like pornography, they may like to use it, but having used it they don't want it in their home. This of course says a great deal about their feelings toward sex, arousal, and home.
There are historical precedents. We know that Samuel Pepys owned and enjoyed a copy of L'escholle des filles (it consists of a dialogue between two young women, one innocent, one sexually experienced), but after reading it he burned it so "that it might not be among my books to my shame." The fact that I'm telling you this now suggests that the burning wasn't quite enough to rid him of his shame entirely. But he evidently knew all along that his pornography wasn't for keeping. The book came in several bindings, and he chose a cheap one.
None of the garbage men I worked with ever claimed to "care" about pornography, much less admitted to collecting it. Nevertheless they always showed off the magazines they found on their rounds, brandished them like trophies, and they always took them away with them. Maybe they kept them at home and treasured them. Maybe they used them once and threw them away. It was never discussed. Since I was at the bottom of the pecking order, none of this loot ever came my way.
There was an incinerator at the council depot and every once in a while a police van would arrive with sacks of confiscated hard-core pornography that had to be burned. Naturally we all asked if we could have a look in the sacks and I think we were surprised when the police said no. We hadn't imagined they took themselves so seriously or that they really believed pornography was such a terrible thing. But apparently they did. Or at least they cared about being seen to do their job properly. They even had to throw the sacks into the flames themselves, and wouldn't trust us garbage men to do it.
No doubt they were right to be suspicious. We council employees spent a lot of time thinking up madly ingenious ways of foiling this incineration. It usually involved trapdoors, asbestos, flameproof chambers. But we were only playing. We were just saying the things guys say.
My father took early retirement from his council job and was almost immediately diagnosed with terminal cancer. His deterioration was shockingly swift. In no time at all he was transformed from a workingman to a bedridden invalid. I don't know that he ever accepted the fact of his own death. He certainly never discussed it with my mother or me. But he did discuss the tools of his trade. All his woodwork tools were kept in the garage. They'd never be any use to my mother, and they'd never be any use to me, he said. I had long been cast as the bookish incompetent who couldn't knock a nail in straight. However, my father had a good friend called Graham who was another carpenter. He was the one who should have the tools, my father said.
Now, it so happened that I wasn't quite as cack-handed as my father wanted to suppose. I did small jobs around my flat -- I had to, I couldn't afford to call in a professional just to put up a few bookshelves -- and I'd have found some of his tools useful. But far more than that, I wanted them as a way of remembering my father: he certainly didn't own anything valuable or collectible.
I went into the garage to investigate. The tools were kept in a black wooden tool chest that my father had made as part of his apprenticeship. I opened it up and found a serviceable but really unexceptional set of well-worn, much-used tools. And I also found something else: a yellow folder containing letters, greetings cards, and photographs.
Perhaps there are people who would have known immediately what this was, or at least they'd have realized after a second or two and immediately destroyed it. I move slower than that. I had to examine everything in the folder before I knew what I was looking at.
They were love tokens, of course. They came from a woman unknown to me and they'd been sent to my father at his work address. They formed a collection undoubtedly, and they were sexual to the extent that the writer frequently said what a good time she'd had in bed with my father, though they weren't, by anybody's standards, explicitly pornographic. The writing was clumsy, girlish, gushing, full of all the clichés of undying love and one day being together forever. The short notes were written on greeting cards with pictures of hearts or teddy bears or Snoopy. If my father had been the man I thought he was he'd have found this stuff unbearably cloying and embarrassing, but, of course, I was realizing that he wasn't precisely that man.
There were photographs, too. My father's mistress -- if that's the word -- was a plain, taut, rather hard-faced woman (at least when photographed), younger than my mother but not a lot. A part of me perhaps wanted this folder to contain the full horror of sexy, dirty, naked pictures, but thank God there weren't any. Mostly they showed the woman alone, sitting or standing in a modest, comfortable living room. There were, however, a few pictures of her and my father together, perfectly decent, fully clothed, but posed with their arms around each other, and they looked (I realize this is unprovable) like a couple who either just had or were just about to have sex. My father looked happier than I'd seen him in years. There are times when I think I'd never seen him that happy.
There was nothing to be done, or at least nothing I could do. I couldn't confront my father: he was on his deathbed by then and barely coherent. I couldn't discuss it with my mother. On balance I suspected that she knew about the affair but I was far from sure, and in any case we weren't the kind of family who discussed things like that. I only feel free to write about it now, years after my mother's death.
I kept that collection of letters and photographs for well over a decade, stored away with various files and papers that I didn't need to consult very often. I seldom thought about it at all, and when I occasionally came across it while looking for something else, it seemed an embarrassment, a silly and painful thing to be holding on to. I certainly had no intention of ever rereading any of the letters, or poring over the photographs.
I finally threw everything away at about the time I started to write this book. That timing seems far more significant to me now than it did then. I'm slightly ashamed to say I didn't even really think about it at the time. I was moving again, selling my flat, moving in with Dian. I had far too much stuff, and I was throwing away lots of things, and a collection of love letters sent to my father didn't seem like something a reasonable person should hold on to any longer. It went into the trash along with back issues of Guitar Player magazine and a faltering old vacuum cleaner. I can't say that its destruction was in any way liberating, but I did feel quite good afterward, and it did make me realize that destroying a sex collection might be just as satisfying as creating one.
What exactly do I mean by the term sex collector? Well, I take a pretty broad definition. First, I mean someone who collects any type of object or artifact that is primarily sexual. We may be talking about collectors of books, magazines, art, films, photographs, shoes, sex toys, and so on. These artifacts generally tend to be preexisting but in some cases they may have been created or commissioned by the collector, and in any case these categories are not mutually exclusive.
I also recognize another kind of sexual collecting, which again is not necessarily separate from other kinds, and that is the collecting of sexual experience itself. I'm talking about people who are sexual adventurers, experimenters, obsessives. In general we know about these people only if their activities are recorded in some way, via a journal or diary or photographic record, so again I suppose we're talking about artifacts. But a woman who's collected several hundred videotapes of herself having sex is doing something rather different from the man who's gone out and bought those same tapes for his own collection. The woman I'm thinking of is the porn star Vanessa del Rio. Her working years were chaotic and she didn't hang on to much, then about a decade ago she started assiduously acquiring all the videos she appeared in as well as all the photos, film stills, and magazines. It's quite a collection.
In writing this book I was interested in sex collecting in all its many manifestations. I wanted to write about collections large and small, high and low. I didn't simply want to write about the world's greatest erotic art collections, for instance. The collector with a small stash of highly treasured nudie playing cards was as interesting to me as the collector with a country house full of museum-quality erotic etchings.
Incidentally, I'm not sure who's the premier collector of nudie playing cards -- very possibly Mark Rotenberg, who's published a book on the subject -- but surely one of the most unlikely has to be Brian Eno, formerly of Roxy Music and a leading popularizer of ambient music. In an interview with New Musical Express he said, "It's a burning shame that most people want to keep pornography under cover when it's such a highly developed art form -- which is one of the reasons that I started collecting pornographic playing cards. I've got about 50 packs which feature on all my record covers for the astute observer...I have such beautiful pornography -- I'll show you my collection sometime." The interview was done in 1974 and the interviewer was Chrissie Hynde, in her rock-journalist days. I don't know if he ever followed up on his offer.
It's interesting there that Eno uses the word pornography so freely and so definitively. For my own part, as we've seen already, I've been extremely reluctant to define pornography, art, erotica, smut, or any of the other words we might use to describe sexual materials. It seems a futile task. I suppose there are some people who think that any depiction whatsoever of sex is offensive and unacceptable, but for the rest of us, in the end it's a question of degree, and of personal taste. Of course I know that art is different from pornography, so do you, so does everybody. Of course I can see that Picasso's Vollard Suite is art, and that a copy of Weekend Sex from the 1970s is pornography, and that the former is in every conceivable sense of the word "better" than the latter. That much is easy. But the gray areas are so gray and so broad and unstable that trying to make any hard-and-fast definitions seems just pointless. That way madness lies.
In any case, increasingly we see it's not a matter of either/or. Sometimes art wants to be pornographic, or at least to interrogate the discourse of pornography, and to use that as an element in a work of art: I'm thinking of Jeff Koons in his Cicciolina period, or Andres Serrano in his History of Sexuality. They're not making pornography, they're making art; but their art contains elements that are, by any reckoning, pornographic.
Some people used to say that art was good because it was celebratory and porn was bad because it was masturbatory, but now we all say, what's so wrong with masturbation? Camille Paglia says, "What people call pornography is simply the moment when the physicality of the act becomes obtrusive to them." I say the difference between art and pornography is this: you can masturbate to art if you want, but you don't have to. It still has an appeal and a function even if it doesn't get you aroused. Whereas if a piece of pornography doesn't get you aroused, then it's a complete failure, and few things are worse than failed pornography. But for our purposes, whether it's art or pornography, or any of the things in between, doesn't really matter so long as somebody's collecting it.
In the course of writing this book I've seen a lot of collections, and I've seen a great many things that were sexy and fun and beautiful and fascinating, and I wouldn't have missed them for the world. But I wouldn't want you to think I'm unshockable. I've seen quite a few things that I've found shocking, and ugly and offensive, too. I haven't enjoyed seeing those things, but I'm a tough guy, somehow I've managed to cope. In the end, being a grown up, you have to demand the right to be offended.
Finally, I suppose the question inevitably arises, why would a professed noncollector such as myself want to write a book about collectors and collecting? The simple answer is I don't really know. In my experience writers very seldom know why they write anything. But to the extent that any piece of writing involves thinking about a subject and clarifying your own attitudes, I certainly welcomed the chance to do that. And I was very interested to meet collectors and find out what I had in common with them and what I didn't, though I certainly wanted it to be a book about them, not about me.
Then I thought of another possible motive. Perhaps the real reason I wanted to meet collectors and view their collections was simply that it would allow me to have all the thrills of seeing and admiring, of connoisseurship (real or imagined), of being in the presence of curiosities and rarities, of wild sexual materials, but without any of the angst of having to acquire or own them. I liked this explanation. I liked this explanation a lot. And it seemed to be further evidence that I wasn't a collector.
And then I started writing. I did research, I started accumulating information, stories, news clippings, phone numbers, catalogs, downloads from the Web. I went to libraries. I started talking to people. Sometimes if I wanted to ingratiate myself with a dealer I'd buy something from him to show willing. I started meeting collectors, and sometimes one of them would give me something, since not all collectors are Freudianly parsimonious by any means. And sometimes, when I visited, say, a sex museum, I'd buy a souvenir from the gift shop, or I'd be in an antique store and buy some little erotic knickknack. Sometimes this could be construed as research material but just as often I bought things simply because I liked them, because I wanted them. I was aware that this was a little bit odd, and not precisely the way a strict noncollector would behave. The truth is, there's no denying it, in the course of writing this book there were times when I really did start to think that perhaps I was a sex collector after all.
Copyright © 2006 by Geoff Nicholson
Meet the Author
Geoff Nicholson is the author of fourteen novels, including Hunters & Gatherers and Bleeding London, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize. He divides his time between London and Los Angeles.
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I love Geoff Nicholson as a novelist, and now it turns out he writes cracking non-fiction too. Is there nothing this man can't do? All the dirtier for being so discreet