Public Sex

Public Sex

I read the introduction to Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex by Pat Califa with great interest. One of the striking things about the work of Jame Pennebaker, which I previously considered in a class on “Writing and Healing,” is scientific evidence that repression=bad for you, health-wise. Califa’s “Introduction: Or It Is Always Right to Rebel” gestures at the same issues. The title’s reference to “radical sex” is meant to question the way that society assigns privilege based on adherence to moral codes. Califa’s identification of herself as a “sex radical” is clarified through a history of her professional and personal involvement.

She describes her growth as beginning with “getting tired of the lies” (xiii). Califa came out as a radical because of “the destructive impact of the ‘feminist’ antiporn movement” on the lesbian community in San Francisco. “They attacked anybody who argued with them as an advocate of violence against women, a child molester, or (gasp) a sadomasochist” (xiii). Califa calls this response “storm-trooper tactics.” Califa sought a vehicle for public criticism of these people (xiv). The assertion she wanted to put on the table was this:

“I don’t think pornography causes violence against women. I don’t think feminists should ban pornography. This is a right-wing, homophobic, misogynist ideology. I think the only problem with pornography is that there isn’t enough of it, and the porn that does exist reflects the sexual fantasies of aging Catholic gangsters. I do some of the things that you find so scary when they are depicted in pornography, and I refuse to be tarred and feathered and ridden out of the lesbian ghetto on a rail.” (xv)

After publishing her first article, she was threatened with the cancellation of the publication of her book Sapphistry, a lesbian sexual manual. It was published but got vicious reviews. “But the real dykes, both feminist and nonfeminist, didn’t care what the self appointed leaders thought” (xvi). Califa characterizes most early lesbian professional publishing as “assimilationist” (xvii). The question Califa wants to pose is:

Why can’t sex be honored for its own sake, instead of being prettified by the euphemism “the erotic” and being blurred with human experience that are necessary and worthwhile, but not orgasmic? (xix)

Califa details her choice to concentrate on disenfranchised people and topics, because the mainstream feminist literature tends toward the non-sexual aspects of relationships (xx). In many ways, I can celebrate this— but not without wondering if it isn’t just another manifestation of the American penchant for rebellion at any cost. Califa argues that concentration on the core of human experience rather than the fringe is “pathetic crap” when “what we do in bed is illegal in about half of the states” (xxiii). The 1994 preface is filled with desperation: “I no longer believe a cure or a vaccine or even a treatment for AIDS will be found, no matter how much money the government throws at it” (xxv). Califa argues for prevention, and the acceptance of sex as a central part of “deviant” life:

We need the euphoria of the orgasm the way a junkie needs a fix, to kill some of the pain of being outcasts. And so we keep on dying and killing each other before we die. Because we believe we deserve it. (xxv)

Self-loathing is merged with the American ameliorative impulse: “If we cannot be our brother and sister’s keepers, then we do not deserve to live in sunlight” (xxv). She claims a sense of triumph, in that her “insides and outsides match” (xxvii). The ideology expressed in this preface is contradictory, conflicted, and passionate. While she claims that “the force of women united to defend one another” is a “divine” energy, she also argues for separatism, of fracturing out organizations for “lesbians only” (xxix). The tortured psychology behind this preface is as fascinating as a train wreck.

The poignancy of the close of the 1994 preface “Today, at the amazing age of forty, I am trying to cause as much trouble as I did when I was twenty-five. Fifty should be awesome, and sixty incendiary” (xxx) is amplified by her admission, in the 2000 preface, that she is suffering from an autoimmune disorder. One thing seems sure: this book won’t be a dull read.