Books: THE PARADOX OF PORN: Notes on Gay Male Sexual Culture

July 15, 2018

I’m delighted to announce the publication of my new book called The Paradox of Porn: Notes on Gay Male Sexual Culture.

Based on my twenty years of experience as a sex therapist/educator and pleasure activist, this book-length essay explores the topic of pornography from a unique, specifically gay male perspective, surveying in depth what’s valuable and what’s problematic about the ubiquitous forms of erotic imagery we encounter on a daily basis.

My intention in writing the book is the same one that drives my professional practice: to encourage and support gay men in having more pleasurable and more satisfying sex. I would like to share more widely the questions, discoveries, curiosities, and wisdom that I encounter every day of my working life.

Pornography is integral to gay male culture: obsessively consumed and almost never discussed, it is the shamefaced step-child of desire and the imagination.

Almost all gay men look at pornography almost every day, whether it’s commercial clips on XTube, handheld homemade videos on Tumblr blogs, or pic-swapping on hook-up apps. Yet we almost never talk about what we watch, what it means, what we like and don’t like. When porn is discussed publicly, it’s often addressed as a problem related to addiction, dysfunction, or exploitation. We nod our heads thoughtfully . . . and then go home and pleasure ourselves to whatever version of porn currently entertains us.

To understand the siren call of pornography, it’s important to consider both what’s valuable and what’s problematic about this alluring form of entertainment. In our heart of hearts, gay men know that pornography has played a special role in our sex lives. It has taught us what desire between two men looks like; it has helped us figure out what turns us on; it has supported us in not feeling so alone; it has gotten us through times of loneliness and isolation, disease and disconnection; and it has contributed to many pleasurable orgasms. At the same time, the images from porn that are now ubiquitous in our lives have shaped and often distorted our ideas about what sex is, what normal bodies look like, how people make connections, and how we feel about ourselves. It has been hugely liberating and hugely oppressive. And that’s the paradox of porn.

This is not a scholarly treatise but an informed, opinionated, open-ended, sometimes extremely graphic meditation on the topic of pornography and its impact on gay male sexual culture. The Paradox of Porn speaks to anyone who wants to explore and expand their understanding of the impact pornography has had in their lives.

Here’s what some eminent authors have said about the book:

The Paradox of Porn is the best book about pornography, the lives and imaginations of gay men, and state of erotic gay culture written to date.” – Michael Bronski, author of A Queer History of the United States

“Sane, helpful, and fascinating.” – Andrew Holleran, author of Dancer from the Dance

“Don Shewey’s book is wise, informed, and fearless. The Paradox of Porn busts through several closet doors and explodes taboos. A rich and rewarding read.” –Jay Michaelson, author of God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality

“Frank, smart, and unafraid. Definitely a welcome addition to the conversation gay men should be having.” –Wayne Hoffman, author of Hard, Sweet Like Sugar, and An Older Man

You can read an interview with me about the book published by the online magazine Edge here.

The book is available for order online here. It’s being sold at independent bookstores in New York, San Francisco, and Seattle. Ask your local bookstore to order it for you.


In this week’s New Yorker

July 13, 2018

For self-protection, I avoid TV news. I’m content to get my news of the world from the kind of deep dives that the New Yorker specializes in.

The current midsummer double-issue is extra-good, in a roller-coaster way.

Adrian Chen’s “No More Secrets,” about a guy who live-streams his mundane existence, reflects up-to-the-minute technology but in a way that fills me with despair — THIS is what people pay attention to? Yuk. But I guess it’s good to know.

David Sedaris writes hilariously, as always, about going to a shooting range with his sister Lisa (“Active Shooter”), where the instructor keeps calling him “Mike,” which he finds an amusing alternative to what he often gets when he presents his credit card (“Are you THE David Sedaris?”).

In “Tunnel Vision,” William Finnegan profiles the new head of the MTA, a Brit named Andy Byford who’s determined to overhaul the NYC subway system as he did in London and Toronto.

How cool to get a look at a mural Charles Addams painted for a Hamptons hotel in 1952, which has been quietly hanging in a library at Penn State.

Ariel Levy writes about a fascinating Iranian-American novelist named Ottessa Moshfegh (below, photographed by Dru Donovan) and her crazy romantic life (“Not From Around Here”).

And Hilton Als pays tribute to Anika Noni Rose, who’s starring in a production of “Carmen Jones” directed by John Doyle that sounds worth seeing at Classic Stage Company (“Working It”).


Culture Vulture/Photo diary: Taylor Mac in Philadelphia part 2

June 14, 2018

Saturday June 9 —

Andy and I returned to Philadelphia for the second half of Taylor Mac’s “24-Decade History of Popular Music.” It seemed like half the crowd had seen the first part, the other half were all new people (including our friends Nick and Jimmy). Taylor said something in judy’s introduction that judy hadn’t said before, that judy undertook this epic theater piece because there’s no way it could be perfect — an exercise in managing The Anxiety of Imperfection. That’s one of many inspiring aspects of the extravaganza.

Some highlights:

Each decade’s costume was a Machine Dazzle masterpiece, some more dazzling than others, like this simulation of the Wright Brothers’ airplane wings with Machine traipsing around in a Mount Rushmore headdress.

Guest artists included Philadelphia-based immigrant advocacy activist Yared Portillo, accompanied by Erick Pérez.

During the Depression era, the theater became a soup kitchen, as the Dandy Minions served soup to the audience. When the 1950s rolled around, Taylor’s white-picket-fence costume signalled the era of “white flight” to the suburbs. At this point in the show, Taylor had all the white people in the middle section of the orchestra “migrate” to the suburbs and invited all the people of color in the house to take seats in the center, so for the rest of the show they got to sit in the best seats in the house, soon followed by the queers.

Machine Dazzle’s costumes and Matt Ray’s musical arrangements have been widely and deservedly lauded, but I’m not sure enough praise has been heaped on set designer Mimi Lien and lighting designer John Torres, who succeeded in continually transforming the look of the show/concert using the simplest of means. Andy and I had seen the three-hour section covering the ’60s/’70s/’80s at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, a flexible open space. At the Merriam Theater in Philadelphia, the curtain came down as the ’60s rolled in, and it reopened with this grand entrance, to the tune of “Turn! Turn! Turn!”

In Taylor’s queer revisionist pop-song history, “Born to Run” became a Stonewall anthem, as Taylor ran around the audience in judy’s disco-ball headdress and light-up brassiere, orchestrating a simulation of Judy Garland’s funeral (with audience members recruited to play La Garland and her pallbearers, which you can see over our shoulders).

In Brooklyn, Taylor brought on a local youth marching band to signify Black America “Movin’ On Up” at the start of the ’70s. In Philadelphia it was a fantastic local youth dance troupe called Camden sophisticated Sisters/Distinguished Brothers. Notice the hefty gal in the hijab? She did a handstand that turned into a back flip!

And the Dandy Minions got to represent ’70s disco.

The ’80s morphed from a backroom bar into the grim specter of AIDS.

For the oughts, Taylor invited all the lesbians in the house to join him onstage for beer and snacks while judy sang an array of lesbian music (including a sweet rendition of Ferron’s “Girl on a Road,” a duet with Cynthia Hopkins) and brought on Toshi Reagon for a stellar solo.

By the end of the night (the last hour was Taylor solo, singing original songs), I was left with a few strong impressions. Fun and crazy and dazzling as the visuals and the jokes were, this was an incredibly impressive and accomplished musical event. Especially when Taylor slowed things down or stood still to sing ballads, they were overwhelmingly beautiful and emotional, along a fascinating unpredictable spectrum — the country ballad “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” Patti Smith’s “Birdland.” And I walked away blessed to have inhabited a day in the life of a Temporary Queer Utopia, which is as strong a political statement as an artist can make these days.

 


Theater reviews: The 25 Best American Plays Since “Angels in America”

June 7, 2018

Okay, I’ve spent way too much time this week thinking about the New York Times article in which the Times critics list the 25 best American plays of the last 25 years, so I’m just going to share my list. I stuck to the rules (mostly) of only one play by a particular author. I haven’t read all of these scripts, so in many cases I’m not sure if what stuck with me was the play itself (the Great American Play that must be done in theaters across the country!) or the production. Some of these absolutely do not count as plays in the Shakespeare/Arthur Miller/Wendy Wasserstein category. But this is a list of plays that made a big impression on me that has lasted. No particular order, except that the first several are the ones from the Times list with which I agreed.

 

  1. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, An Octoroon
  2. August Wilson, Seven Guitars (or Jitney)
  3. Wallace Shawn, The Designated Mourner
  4. Edward Albee, Three Tall Women
  5. Tectonic Theater Project, The Laramie Project
  6. Eve Ensler, The Vagina Monologues
  7. Margaret Edson, Wit
  8. Claudia Rankine, The Provenance of Beauty: A South Bronx Travelogue
  9. Kia Corthron, Light Raise the Roof
  10. Annie Baker, John
  11. Adam Bock, Five Flights (or The Drunken City, or A Life)
  12. Stephen Adly Giurgis, The Motherfucker with the Hat (or Between Riverside and Crazy)
  13. Han Ong, Middle Finger
  14. Doug Wright, I Am My Own Wife
  15. Erik Ehn, Maria Kizito
  16. Lynn Nottage, Intimate Apparel
  17. Lisa Kron, Well (or 2.5 Minute Ride)
  18. Anna Deveare Smith, Notes from the Field (or Fires in the Mirror, or Twilight)
  19. Okwui Okpokwasili, Poor People’s TV Room
  20. Craig Lucas, The Dying Gaul
  21. Jon Robin Baitz, The Paris Letter
  22. Christopher Durang, Why Torture is Wrong, And the People Who Love Them (or Betty’s Summer Vacation)
  23. David Greenspan, The Myopia
  24. Keith Hennessy, Crotch
  25. Eisa Davis, Angela’s Mixtape
  26. Taylor Mac, The Lily’s Revenge


Culture Vulture/Photo Diary: Taylor Mac in Philadelphia

June 5, 2018

Andy and I took the bus down to Philly for Part I of Taylor Mac’s “24-Decade History of Popular Music.”

Taylor Mac is a tall bald performance artist with a phenomenal voice, an activist’s engagement with the politics of the day, and a drag queen’s ability to work the crowd. The show, which judy (Taylor Mac’s pronoun of choice) built in three-hour increments and premiered in all its glory at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn in 2015, is a queer history of the United States in song. This gig, produced by Pomegranate Arts for the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, is the first time Taylor Mac has performed the show in two all-day chunks. Mac refers to the show as a “radical faerie realness ritual sacrifice.” The loose concept is that every decade gets an hour, and the band starts with 24 members, one of whom peels off every hour until there’s only Taylor Mac onstage. Besides the musicians, there are random guest artists and a squadron of body-positive gender-queer helpers known as Dandy Minions (I spotted among them my friend Chris Bartlett, moonlighting from his high-powered job as executive director of Philly’s William Way Center). But the key collaborators are musical director Matt Ray, who arranged all 246 songs in the show, and Machine Dazzle, who created all the costumes including a different staggeringly creative outfit for each of Taylor Mac’s 24 hours.

We’d seen one three-hour segment (1956-1986) at St. Ann’s, which contained songs we knew. The early decades turned out to be a hodgepodge of familiar songs queered for Taylor Mac’s purposes and obscurities dug up to illustrate judy’s intersectional historical revision. The show opened with “Amazing Grace,” for which a woman in the audience was selected to come onstage and receive a blessing from the audience. It occasioned the first of many times Taylor Mac said, “This is going to go on a lot longer than you’re going to want it to.”

A conceptual show this long is bound to be padded and stretched thin in spots, and it was. There was the hour of drinking songs. There was the hour the audience spent blindfolded doing sensory perception exercises that required intimate interaction with your neighbors. Apples, beer, and ping pong balls were freely distributed. Large swaths of the show involved audience members dragged onstage to perform crucial tasks. Most of it was fun and engaging, but the real highlight of the first 12 hours came around the 9th hour when Taylor Mac rescued Gilbert and Sullivan from cultural appropriation jail by performing The Mikado on Mars, through vocoders, mostly to a reggae beat, with the crucial role of Yum-Yum played by a game young guy from the audience following instructions through a headset. It was one of the craziest and most fun things I’ve seen in the theater in years.

                                     that’s Matt Ray at the keyboard

                      that’s Machine Dazzle on the right in checkered stockings

The 12-hour show wrapped up an hour early, to no one’s complaint, since it was a pretty intense day. We’ll be back next Saturday for the second half of the show. We got to hang out later with our friends Nick and Jimmy.

We met Jimmy’s adorable ancient kitty Scarlett, and after brunch walked through the sidewalk art fair in Rittenhouse Square. I admired some stone sculptures by Paul E. Braun.

And I was impressed by the Basquiat-esque paintings on wood by Senegalese artist Michel Delgado.


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