With an extraordinary talent for evoking a scene, Eurydice plumbs the strange worlds of cross-dressing conferences, supersized strip emporiums, and sadomasochist gathering spots. She records the surprising sexual adventures of ordinary Americans and introduces such unlikely characters as a former IBM executive who has been cross-dressing since age twelve and a dental assistant who has won fame as a porn star on the Web. Part reportage, part analysis, and part memoir, Satyricon USA is an unforgettable reading experience, catching a society in the throes of redefining its sexual mores.
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Satyricon U. S. A.A Journey Across the New Sexual Frontier
Holiday HouseCopyright © 1999 Eurydice
All right reserved.
Sex Across America
As the first century of Christianity was coming to a close, Titus Petronius Arbiter, governor of Bithynia, purveyor of taste at Nero's notorious parties, and "a scientist of pleasure," was accused of conspiracy. Knowing the range of Nero's rage, Petronius severed his veins and then bandaged them to relish his death; he dined, joked with friends, recited frivolous poems, made a list of the emperor's debaucheries, which he sealed for posterity, and dozed off, so his death would look natural. Legend has it that, before he fell asleep, he wrote, sitting in his bathtub, the entire Satyricon. Out of its 2,000 pages, some 250 survive in fragments.
Petronius liked the chaos of human sexuality and blamed the Greco-Roman separation of mind and body, which our culture has inherited, for the persecutions of his protagonist Encolpius (Crotch) by the vengeful god of lust. The Satyricon is a satyr's odyssey, with the hero suffering the wrath of the god Priapus in brief erotic episodes. The book is also a subtle denunciation of a Rome turned narcissistic through the loss of its Republican values to the lure of Mammon. The writer depicts an everyday reality of pimps, bureaucrats, pederasts, soldiers, courtesans, slaves; a multicultural world where moneylenders talk in poetry, whores are powerful priests,boyfriends and wives are constantly abducted, corpses get eaten, and professors dress in drag: in short, "a landscape infested with divinity." "It is simple realism and nothing more," Petronius wrote in his own defense.
The extant Satyricon opens with Encolpius complaining that schools shield us from reality. Ignoring his professor's retort, he runs away from college, but he can't find his own house anymore, and this confusion is the outset of his orgiastic adventures. To my surprise, this was pretty much my own experience with this book. Having been in universities since the age of fifteen, I left them in 1995 to write it -- driven by a desire to both compensate for the sensational sleazy confessions that had become the norm of our sexual discourse and to understand the sources of our fascination. My research took me on an extraordinary rite-of-passage road trip through America. I saw a home I didn't quite recognize. In school I had learned and taught that America was becoming frightfully neo-conservative, and then that America was becoming reassuringly politically correct; I found neither to be accurate. What I encountered were mostly ancient, confining sexual mores going by new, emancipatory names. So that became my subject: the tricky disguise of our self-denials as sexual excesses.
"What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence."
-- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus
"My most memorable sexual experience," I told a congregation of upper-middle-class wives in Providence, Rhode Island, one cold weekend afternoon, "was during Easter in Crete." These women ran a social group dedicated to unshackling their sexualities by "mutual sacred exploration." I'd been invited by the 230-pound wife of a surgeon, mother of schoolchildren, and interior decorator. We'd begun by evoking Isis, Aphrodite, Cybele, dipping our fingers in bowls of oil, casting from our bodies impure fears, and holding hands and squatting round a candle-festooned table. As a warm-up to their bonding sexploration, they went round the circle evoking positive sexual experiences to draw strength and inspiration. "To tell our stories is to come out of isolation and honor pleasure as a gift from God," the hostess urged. The attention of the listeners, the fuming incense, and the joint confirmation that followed every telling made the tales more weighty than they were.
"I was visiting a friend whose house overlooked a church," I said in my turn. "As crowds gathered in the pavilion and priests in golden robes sang Byzantine psalms and passed the holy flame, we two stood on the balcony over the congregation and he kissed me. It was a surprise. By the time the priests sang the resurrection hymn, 'Christ has risen from the dead, stepping on the death of death, giving eternal life,' his arms were around my hips, and my body leaned off the balcony. The crowds were kissing, cheering, shooting fireworks; the bells of every church were ringing. I felt that I had risen from the dead, I was stepping on a little death of death, and I was eternal."
The women sat still; they had been raised in families where sex was equated with sin, but they also felt a reverence for sex as a source of life. Then the hostess beamed and said this was what the group strove for: to return meaning to sex without being trapped in tyrannical clichés. The decorator, resplendent in her white reclining nudity, declared that this was everyone's sexual agenda at the end of our millennium: to make sex sacred and thus morally free. "For me, sex is a manifestation of spiritual need," I assented. "I can't actually explain it." And that is my theory of sexuality.
After chanting an ode, the hostess extolled us to "reconnect with our neglected bodies, renounce memories of fear or shame, and assist each other's sexual journey, knowing that the soul's hunger for ecstasy is as real and urgent as the body's hunger for pleasure." The complexity of the emotions pulsating about the dim room, the haphazard crisscrossing of wants and wills, oppressed me. This was the world I'd undertaken to record. Some women wept as if in the bowels of despair. Others held them. Then their soothing touches turned fingertip-light and sneakily erotic, their faces hard and determined. Some convulsed, some danced lewdly, some rolled on the floor, kicking and laughing. It occurred to me that two hundred years ago every woman here would have been burned. And yet I had the eerie sense that ritual was another protective device used to circumscribe our sexual conduct and save us from disappearing into each other, as if what we fell in love with were imaginary black holes.
It was early 1996. America's sexuality felt liminal and exuberant. Fertility drugs, sperm banks, in vitro walkins, had divorced sex from procreation. Coital pleasure was seen as an end in itself. More people demanded gratification. Gays, lesbians, and transsexuals were "coming out," exposing families and colleagues to multiform sexualities. Young people fetishized lived-in, pierced, tattooed flesh. Older people drove across country on cyberdates. New Agers practiced tantric yoga. The fear of death-by-sex had subsided and, in typical millennial style, death-and-sex had become a form of recreational kink. Movies glamorized hot-wax sex, car-crash sex. Porn videos were swapped in school buses and watched at slumber parties. Academia was plundering sexual testimonies for topics, and scholars were denouncing the veiled body as analogous to covert government actions and were conferencing on S/M. The feminist shibboleths that the personal is political and secrecy is oppression had touched America's individualist nerve. Old sexual contracts were breaking down, rendering our neatest fixed preconceptions obsolete. The next phase of the sexual revolution was expected to shift the homo-hetero dichotomy toward an inclusive polysexuality. It seemed conceivable that in our lifetime Catholic priests would marry, housewives would swap dildos like recipes, and sex would be seen as a celebration of life rather than a harbinger of trauma, disease, etc.
At the same time, a new type of sexual repression had surreptitiously emerged. A six-year-old boy in Lexington, North Carolina, and a seven-year-old in Brooklyn, New York, were suspended for sexual harassment after kissing female schoolmates on the cheek. Eighty-one percent of polled eighth to eleventh graders felt they had been sexually harassed. Antioch College in Ohio published a code of sexual conduct for students that required verbal consent at every stage of intimacy. Army recruits, corporate suits, and Mitsubishi factory workers in Normal, Illinois, were made to attend sexual ethics seminars. New Haven masons were warned to abide by a "five-second rule": if they looked at a female colleague for more than five seconds, it could be sexual harassment. An executive was fired for recounting a Seinfeld episode to a female colleague. A Nebraska graduate student was forced to remove from his desk a photo of his wife in a bikini. The U.S. Supreme Court allowed an Arkansas woman to take the president of the United States to court on uncorroborated charges of sexual harassment; as she had not been fired, demoted, or deprived of benefits, her real charge was impropriety. Having shed the stranglehold of sin, America was devising more sexual rules than were prescribed at any time in this century. These ever-broader definitions of rape signaled a compulsion for regulation that followed each moral laxity we achieved. Caught in the old struggle between the need to satisfy our desires and the need to test our souls, or between the needs of society and of the species, we set ourselves strictest principles of conduct -- for we still understood sex as transgression. Our mushrooming draconian guidelines were redefining the private desires of citizens as issues of public legal control, marking the reincarnation of America's inherited puritanism in a more modern, tolerable garb, and solidifying our desires into traps.
For some time, I had considered our current restrictions to be the expected extreme vacillations of a culture in the process of finding a less coherent and more tolerant moral balance. We still had no philosophy, theology, pedagogy, or literature of sexuality. Our public morality was an incoherent collection of contradictory archaic views bequeathed to us from eras otherwise forgotten. We were inventing a new ethos, and were bound to falter and exaggerate until we became carnally literate. But I now had to admit that our outspokenness was not a victory for oppressed sexualities, and didn't promote a proliferation of sexual options; it was a frustrating struggle to conquer, even deny, nature. Our candid articulation had become a repository of tropes and dictums that justified repression, and our vast sexual discourse only reinforced our awareness of sex as danger. I worried our new byzantine structures bent the scales too much on the sectarian side of fairness and reason. I feared the emptiness at the heart of our sexual demystification. As sex became associated with gender war, paranoia, a panacea, or a thesis for our general being, the simple joys of tactile, olfactory, visual, and aural immersion in one another were becoming skewed or neglected.
It was the time when a Brown University student was expelled on an unfounded charge of sexual harassment, and most polled undergraduates agreed that a mere charge should suffice to incur punishment. As I walked by that venerable university citadel, I felt that, by taking no stance, I was implicated in a witch-hunt. I decided our new openness was dividing rather than unifying us, pitting our grievances against one another rather than against the system that bore them.
"You think we don't know about sex out here, but we know all there is," a Mennonite elder told me a few months later in Sugarcreek, Ohio. "We don't discuss it because we have no need to. We all know what to do." The land was rolling gold-green and fertile as far as the eye could see. We were rocking in wooden chairs, digesting a lavish lunch. He said he saw no need for anyone to interfere with what people did in private. I asked his granddaughter, a young nurse who mostly stared at the vast sky, if she knew all she needed to about sex. "My girlfriends and I...we know all about it. We don't do it, because we don't want to be taken advantage of. Having my own voice is more important to me than having sex. My boyfriend understands." "She's a feminist," Grampa grumbled. Her modern logic kept her as chaste as her faith would once have.
"It takes a mind debauched by learning to carry the process of making the natural seem strange so far as to ask for the 'why' of any instinctive act."
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience
When I began my research, I was intrigued by America's growing sexual fringe. What interested me was the prospect, inherent in every society, that in time the social margins would expand enough to become the status quo. I interviewed many paraphiliacs, looking for the source of their commitment to nonmainstream pleasure. I soon realized I had exaggerated -- their differences. Most struck me as the Masons or Dungeons & Dragons buffs of previous generations. What they did in private might qualify as morally flawed or abnormal, but they did not. For some, sexual aberration was like a cruise: an adventure. For many, deviation provided a means of sculpting a self out of a homogenized world, so they embraced it vehemently. For most, sexual eccentricity was just a way to be and feel interesting. For all their talk about overcoming outdated limits and the "tyranny of the majority," they were looking to escape the drab frustrations of ordinary civilized life, and sex is the one foolproof way humanity has had to feel whole, incandescent, and alive.
I met transvestites who every dawn serviced Hassidim merchants on their way to work because their faith forbade sex with women but not ex-men; I met sex-addicted priests, and Christian virgins who were anally promiscuous; I met teens who studied mortuary science because they had come to realize, after an average heartbreaking love life, that the dead held more romantic allure than the living; I met models who believed abstinence made them look sexier, businesswomen who served their menstrual blood in meatloaf dishes at dinner parties to snag mates, lesbians who bled themselves in orgasm, nymphomaniacs who struggled with sexual aversion; I met lawyers who paid to be electroshocked during their lunch hour, bankers who dressed as cheerleaders during their lunch hour, politicians who liked to be hung on a cross, bagpipers (armpit-sex), genuphallators (knee-sex), furtlers (sex with pictures of celebrities), pygmalionists (sex with mannequins); I attended workshops where burly truckers learned to perform "sacred spot massage," and sexuality camps where yuppie couples studied felching. And in the end, the S/M dungeons I visited were no more libidinally intense and no less hospitable than the bare-walled homes of Amish bishops.
I saw that, up close, the outrageousness of the most unacceptable sexual practice vanishes into the ordinariness of the human being who engages in it. So whenever I found myself in a state of uncertainty and apprehension, I went by the assumption that, as Plato says in the Symposium, "where there is mutual consent, there is what the law proclaims to be right." And the less I questioned, the more I was told, and the less I judged, the more I was trusted. The great undersung virtue of the American society is the openness of its people. Strangers confided in me generously, with no guarantee of being favorably presented, out of a genuine desire for commemoration. And despite their serendipitous congruencies, these people couldn't be reduced to systems of reactions or fetishes or aesthetics. The plethora of their private needs taught me that sexuality can be neither delimited nor defined.
My personal attitude today is that sex should be neither underestimated nor overinterpreted, neither shamefully hidden nor publicly broadcast. My favorite definition of sex is William James's definition of religious experience: "The mystical feeling of enlargement, union, and emancipation [that] has no specific intellectual content of its own...the abandonment of self-responsibility." Only a dreary mind can't leave mystery alone.
My primary project here is not to depict problematic contemporary sexual practices, trace their evolution, and analyze the ideas that drive them; it is to present a record of a long, tentative study, at the end of which I came to think and perceive intimacy differently from the way I had before. My main topic is America. I'm interested in what we don't talk about when we talk about sex -- starting with the panhistoric assumption that sexual desire is the beast lurking in our social jungle whose containment is the prerequisite for a moral, stable civilization; and ending with the suggestion that sex is used in our public life as a loud distraction from important practical, emotional, and ideological issues. Because this is not a scholarly book, I have not weighed it down with references to the books and articles that were my invaluable sources. I tape-recorded (openly and with permission) the interviews and naturally occurring discourse in all but the most sensitive cases. What appears in quotes or paraphrase also exists on tape or notepad. I abridged and edited quotes, condensed time and sequence, consolidated locations and characters, rearranged names, ages, and occupations to protect my sources' valued anonymity, and to compose comprehensive archetypes representative of the people I met in each "scene." I certainly do not presume to understand any individuals. At best, this book aspires to capture our psychic anatomy in a textual snapshot of our moment in history and to illustrate part of the sexual nerve pulsing across America. I expect that all I can say will fall short of the subject. The rest is realism, and nothing more.
Excerpted from Satyricon U. S. A. by Eurydice Copyright © 1999 by Eurydice. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of ContentsContents
Introduction: Sex Across America
Provincetown: Guys as Dolls
New York: Masters of Ceremony
Pensacola: War in Peace
San Francisco: Blood Simple Babes
Dallas: The Economy of Desire
Cincinnati: Intercourse by Numbers
Americans Abroad: Virgins at Heart
Los Angeles: Tales from the Crypt
Miami and Santa Fe: Alien Romance