...from the Bisexual Backpack
by Patricia Nell Warren
reviewed by John Denton
For those of us who read The Front Runner, or are members of one of the local lesbigay running groups named after it, Billy's Boy -- the sequel to The Front Runner and Harlan's Race -- is a "must read," if only to catch up with the lives of the interesting characters Patricia Nell Warren has created.
Billy, a 12-year-old adolescent coming of age in Southern California, painfully struggles to learn what the words "gay, lesbian, bisexual and queer" mean as applied to himself, his mother and her friends. What stimulates Billy to probe into his parentage and reflect on his life and his relationships so seriously is a dream in which his dead father seems to be sending him a message from the Cat Nebula, somewhere beyond the cosmos.
What gradually occurs to Billy, first during his school days in Orange County and then in Malibu where he and his mother move to escape Southern California bigotry, is a big revelation. His mother and friends all fit under the snide and mean labels he and his friends bandy about at school: "gay, lesbian, bi, queer faggots." So, "What am I, then?" and "What does that make me?" become daily mental exercises. In the typically herky-jerky way teens self-reflect, Billy comes to look at his own sexual relationships with boy and girl friends and his mother and her "acquired" family of queer men and women.
As a Summer of '42 adolescent myself, addicted to serial "boy" novels (I read everything Stephen Meder and Altschuler wrote), I understand the terrible importance of Warren's book for today. I think the author does a wonderful job of charting the emotional confusion and realities that today's young people are dealing with, realities that are so different from my own. Warren does not shy away from dealing with Billy's alienation from this "family" around him as he gradually comes to realize that he lives in the midst of the "alien queer nation" that his school friends denigrate on every occasion.
If I had not just read the San Francisco Bay Guardian story on queer teens hiding from their parents in "safe houses" in San Francisco, or heard recently of the suicide of a gay 14-year-old at the high school I attended and where, later, I taught as a Catholic priest, I might not have taken Warren's book as seriously as I did. But it's clearly important that there are books on the library shelves today by Patricia Nell Warren. As a teen, I would have loved to read about someone my own age who reveled in adolescent sexual loving with another boy and was trying to work through all the confusion. Now that I'm older, the book is an excellent point of departure for an ongoing dialogue as my friends and I try our best to understand our own adult confusion around gay, lesbian, bi, and transgender issues. Great job, Patricia Warren! Wildcat Press: 213-966-2466.
The Emergence of Modern Sexuality in America
by Sharon R. Ullman
(University of California Press)
reviewed by Amy Conger
By the turn of the 20th century, America was transforming rapidly into an industrialized nation. With its influx of immigrants and its blurring class distinctions, one Victorian standard abandoned by American society was the strict gender lines of social life: Men and women began to associate in public. According to Ullman, this was the seed that led public opinion around sex and gender to begin shifting toward what we know now as publicly acceptable heterosexuality.
The examples presented in this doctoral-thesis-cum-paperback are limited to the court records of Sacramento, California, and entertainment such as early film and vaudeville. The author notes that, at the time, a personally fulfilling sexuality became more important to married people than reproductive sex and that female impersonators were challenging the audience's views of gender roles and prompting the print media to comment at length on the physical traits that were signs of being "less than" one's gender. Meanwhile, the white, middle-class Reform Movement battled what they saw as societal moral decay. Their efforts centered around the skyrocketing divorce rate, homosexuality and prostitution, inadvertently bringing these issues into a larger public consciousness.
Ullman presents much more such evidence, but her points are inconclusive. She does not point out any legacy left us by those turbulent times, nor does she provide us with a historical context for the changes she presents. Her book left me with questions; it could have been twice as long.
Strangely, the author's comments on non-heterosexuality are limited to men and she makes little effort to consolidate her observations of attitudes around gender roles and identification, especially those of women. One very important point that she nearly missed completely was the cultural shift toward identifying people by their sexual practices. Sex Seen offers an interesting peek into the sexual attitudes of ordinary people at the time, but she never once mentions bisexuality in concept or practice.
A Female Experience of Pornography
Edited by Cherie Matrix
(AK Press, $10.95)
reviewed by Shiloh Dewease
Age six, peeking through crimson velvet curtains at the "XXX Theatre" to investigate the strange groaning, moaning and squealing noises: my stomach flutters as I focus on a full-screen close-up of hot lava spurting towards heaving flesh and drizzling off of two red lips. This first experience of pornography seemed even naughtier when I realized the celluloid flesh belonged to a family friend. (I had to blush around her for some time afterwards.) This was only the first encounter with pornography to have a profound effect on my sexual aesthetic as I've wrestled with my appreciation for smut and critical disappointment with the lack of explicit materials by and for women. Opening this dialogue with other feminists is often just as frustrating as watching dissatisfying porn, since the conversations tend to lean heavily in one of two directions: "all-porn-is-objectification" vs. "all-porn-is-good," with me somewhere in the middle, trying to make peace.
Tales from the Clit is a welcomed relief from the old debate. Cherie Matrix and her comrades at Feminists Against Censorship have compiled a tantalizing and nourishing smorgasbord of intimate essays from some of the world's most pro-sex feminists relating their first encounters and ongoing struggles in the male-dominated arena of pornographic production and consumption. This collection completely dispels the notion that feminists must be either for or against porn, opting instead to savor the deliciousness of diversity, recognizing that feminist reactions to sexually explicit material are as varied as the spectrum of feminism, itself as broad as the vast array of women's experiences.
I particularly enjoyed the essay by Arabella Melville, co-founder of Libertine, who has experienced pressure from fellow porn producers trying to edge her out of the market for quality educational and diverse reader-centric porn. She argues, from personal experience, that the porn market relies on manufactured discontent, forcing customers to browse numbing aisles of the same old crap, combing the smut for more stimulation. Perhaps people consume crap porn because that's what's available; people might not buy unfulfilling fluff if they had real variety. Therefore, producers of standard porn have a stake in keeping the market closed to innovation and variation for fear of losing out.
Though much porn at present unquestioningly endorses negative stereotypes, the right to consume and create pornography from a feminist perspective is essential to the emergence of women as powerful sexual beings. Tales from the Clit is a milestone, bridging the debates to make our desires known.
AK Press, P.O. Box 40682, San Francisco, CA 94140-0682
edited by Jill Nagle
reviewed by Monica McLemore
Jill Nagle has pulled together 29 of the most cutting-edge, sex-positive women to write for a diverse, funny, political, serious, and wonderful anthology. The book does not merely focus on the relationship between "whoredom" and feminism, but presents true-life experiences of the women and men whose livelihood is based on sex work. At times raw and raunchy, the book is a must-read for anyone interested in contemporary conversations about the sex work industry and those who patronize it.
The topics include everything from peep show workers to street prostitutes, professional pornography filmmakers, and massage parlor workers. My favorite part of the book was the roundtable discussion with women of color moderated by Nagel. She presents the views of various women of color who explain how sexism, racism, and sex-negativity create barriers for freedom and autonomy in their work.
Other stories tackle the "standard of beauty" myth that is perpetuated in society, or address head-on issues of color, homosexuality, violence, inequitable distribution of wealth and the disappointing lack of support many sex workers have received from feminists.
At almost 300 pages, the book is not a light read. Many of the authors use empirical data as a framework from which to write and in so doing they stimulate us to re-examine and challenge our own sex-negativity. Beware: if you start reading this book on a rainy night, you may find yourself welcoming the sun to a new day!