A woman wrinkles her nose, her pretty face a mask of derision. "Have you ever seen anything more unerotic?"
A silver-haired, barefoot woman next to her agrees: "This is really shitty porno, like all porno. Look, he hasn't touched her once."
"That's because he's gay," the first woman says.
"Then why is he doing it at all?" wonders a dreadlocked young man.
"Maybe he's a professional," I offer. The group raises their eyebrows, considering this. There must be an explanation for the scene taking place just five feet away. A blond, large-breasted woman and a massive black man are fornicating with methodical, casual self-consciousness, like two body-builders pumping iron after an injury. He is on top, banging away unhurriedly, holding himself away from her with two knuckled fists
planted on either side of her hips. She doesn't touch him but fidgets with a silver vibrator while preening at the small live audience and the roving, carnivorous camera. The peanut gallery continues with its kibitzing, trying to
make sense of how such an explicitly sexual spectacle -- the climax to an evening of
broken taboos -- can be so deeply, utterly unsexy.
The event seemed too good to pass up. Dr. Susan Block, a sex celebrity who is, among other items on a groaning risumi, an advice columnist, a maker of videos bearing such titles as "The Fine Art of Fellatio," the author of "The 10 Commandments of Pleasure," the holder of a doctorate in philosophy, a radio and cable access talk-show host and the cleavage-friendly poster child for all things sex-enlightening and self-promoting, was throwing a Valentine's Day party to celebrate the opening of her new sexual institute, located in an old 1920s speakeasy in "the heart of downtown L.A.'s art, fashion, financial and convention district." The invitation, on creamy, textured, heavy-bond paper, promised a Boschian garden of earthly delights: an erotic art exhibition, an "aphrodisiac buffet," cabaret-style entertainment, impeachment erotica, a chemistry lesson in how to "use fantasy to arouse reality" and the vague but intriguing "wild orgiastic felliniesque fun." The dress code (lingerie, pajamas, formal attire, uniform, naked in a trench coat or stylish slutwear) and the steep ticket prices ($150 for
couples, $120 for "select individuals") made the event seem all the more
legitimate. But what sealed my resolve was the event's charitable raison d'jtre -- a portion of the proceeds would go to save those endangered paragons of polyamory, the bonobos. I envisioned glamour and revelry, dosed with social responsibility and sprinkled with transgression.
Down a dark street of boarded-up buildings past men huddled in furtive transactions, the folding table with a small copier seems like a beacon. "Fill out these forms," snaps the woman. "I'll need to see ID." Our driver's licenses are whisked out of our hands and run through the machine, while we fill out four pages of release forms -- giving our names, addresses, phone numbers and e-mail addresses. "Look this way, Miss Lloyd," says the man. A blinding flash. "It's all for HBO's show 'Real Sex,' Miss Lloyd."
We climb a squalid, fluorescent-drenched stairwell. "I don't know if I want them to have my image," mutters my friend, a brunet dead ringer for Michelle Pfeiffer who has similar ambitions. Her husband sighs, "That was weird." I have lured them here with my own hyperbolic promises and now, the more they wish they hadn't come, the more I thank God they did. Inside the entrance, images proliferate like an epidemic. It would be unkind to call these Barnumesque figments people; I assume people inhabit these bodies at other times but now under the merciless HBO lights, in the stark chintz of artworks that repeat vulvas and phallae like so many corporate logos, each face becomes a surface too hard and opaque to emit any light. The dress code has been largely obeyed: Women shift in sheer scarves tied around their breasts or corsets or gownlike inventions that defy the laws of physics; men light cigarettes in silken pajamas or trench coats or pose in "slime wear," those shiny, skinlike fabrics that go taut with every move. Unlike my beleaguered friend, images are precisely what many people have come here -- and paid dearly -- to give away. Take me, HBO! Have your way with me! Dark, moody lighting and music might have shrouded this fact. But in this setting, the obscenity of imagery is far more striking than the imagery of obscenity.
I dressed down, wearing a little skirt and a furry hat that numerous people in attendance seem to regard as some kind of fetish totem.
"Hi Carol," comes a voice out of nowhere.
A man with a monster spike choker and silver paint ringing his eyes like an extraterrestrial raccoon stands before me in a buttoned-up trench coat. "Remember me?" he asks. "I took your class."
I peer closer. It is one of my recent career counseling clients, a shy, heavy-set artist. "Hello there," I smile. "I didn't recognize you. That's quite a get-up."
He smiles bashfully and begins to unbutton his coat. Still cheery as morning light, I stammer my sudden concern for my friends and beat a hasty retreat.
Max, Susan Block's self-declared publicist, footman, butler, husband and sex slave, offers to show me the art. Gray and a little slovenly, he has the quick, weak eyes of a salesman from a
David Mamet play. He keeps touching me the way some men do, as if a little pressure on a woman's hand will make an argument more persuasive. He points out a carving of a naked, leaping woman whose head is a giant ruffled vulva, and a small old-fashioned bottle stuffed with a pair of dirty panties. Both pieces are profoundly depressing. "We've got everything," he says proudly, then segues into interview mode. "I'm the most prosecuted publisher in America. I've been prosecuted 20 times and I've spent 18 months in jail." He ticks off the charges on his fingers. "Industrial espionage, rack ordinances (I put the first pair of tits on the streets of L.A.), conspiracy to publish ..."
I protest that most porn is legal, but he will have none of it.
"You know you can't show a woman fucking a horse --" He grabs my hands to prevent my retort. "We can't make that distinction as artists. The minute we do that we become workers of the state."
He excuses himself to take the microphone and issue a stirring defense of our recently exonerated president. "We're here to celebrate the spirit of America ... those people said let's get that motherfucker, but they didn't get him!"
He introduces LaVonne, a bespectacled black woman in an unfurling corset and G-string who seizes the mike and paws at herself while singing a bubblegum pop song, "I Touch Myself." She doesn't sing for us but for the camera, which kneels before her, zooming in on her crotch and hand. "You guys want to hear it again?" she cries as soon as the song is over. "HBO ran out of film."
This time the song ends in a long, very fake orgasm. LaVonne squeals and rips off her corset. She holds her boobs and pogos around the room.
"Can you imagine enslaving tits like these?" crows Max, inaugurating the racial healing phase of the evening. "But that's what our forefathers did!" At this majestic moment, Dr. Susan Block makes her grand appearance. She is dressed like a Victorian hysteric who has had one too many clitoral massages from her doctor and succumbed to her illness by tearing off her dress but keeping on her hat. In a way, this isn't so far-fetched. Having grown up in a conservative Jewish household, she has acted as her own doctor, and made up her own cure.
Building upon the now-established theme of enslaved black breasts, Dr. Susan cries out in a Southern preacher's vernacular: "Brother Roy, where is brother Roy? Come forward and be healed, Brother Roy!" Finally, a modestly dressed African-American man appears. He does not look like a member of this perv circus, but more like one of the quiet, nondescript characters who hang out in front of the seedy hotel across the street. "From black people," she declaims, "we learned spirit."
Then she begins to preach the way of ethical hedonism, a philosophy that she claims to have invented. The chief tenet seems to be: Do what feels good, as long as it doesn't hurt anybody. But Roy and LaVonne's presence complicates the simplicity of this message. Standing behind her, they testify as if they are in church: "Yes!" "Tell the truth!" "That's right now!" Suzy works herself into a froth. "How dare they try to impeach our values?" she cries. Then she performs a blow job on a dildo formed in the likeness of President Clinton.
Hungry to disseminate her images, it's Susan Block. She recently tried to get a squirt of national media attention by presenting Kenneth Starr with an award for best pornographer of the year. The theme of Clinton's victory seems equally contrived.
Suddenly, HBO interrupts. The mike is interfering with the camera sound. "But the people can't hear me otherwise," she protests. "That's OK, you're crystal-clear on film," the sound operator assures her. To her credit, Block opts for reality over image in this instance, but by then few people are listening and she has to beg the audience not to talk. The advertised "journey through the senses" involves sound (being quiet for the TV cameras), smell (burning sage and smelling our armpits) and finally taste (the "aphrodisiac buffet" of cheese and crackers, grapes and lox). As the small crowd veers toward the meager feast, a rock band bangs out a single tune before HBO complains that the music is too loud and the band must wait until 1 a.m. The band leader and Max nearly come to blows. Angry tears glint in two of the musicians' eyes as they pack and go. "Get me away from this disgusting place," one whispers.
This eruption of hostility seems to have fueled people's spirits and the circus begins to whirl into orbit. Two six-foot women enter, one dressed as an angel, the other as a devil. LaVonne has changed into a new outfit that consists entirely of a leopard tale that fits around her butt crack and ends in a claw over her pubes.
Two gentlemen shop-talk like business men on the golfing green. "I own a gallery on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Here, let me give you my card. Beverly Hills is like Iraq when it comes to showing erotic art."
The other counsels him: "What you do is show the work, the police will come and shut you down. Contact the ACLU and you've got national coverage." Images disguise themselves easily as political principles. In this case, the penis wags the dog.
"Your class was really good," says my student, coming up behind me. "I got a new job. In fact, I got two new jobs." He tells me that, being an avid fan of Dr. Susan's hot line, he'd gotten an invitation in the mail for this party and decided to drive down from San Francisco. I'm beginning to think he's the only person here who's just a regular, ticket-buying pervert.
After the Rodeo Drive businessman, under the pretext of showing me some art, leads me to a briefcase full of glass vibrators and tells me that they can help strengthen the walls of my vagina; after the ubiquitous cameras become almost invisible; after Dr. Suzy whispers, "You're going to be all right" to a drug-addled woman in a mesh pantsuit; after my poor friends find a distant wall where they stand clutching beers, it happens.
We watch the simple animal act. Two bodies intertwining, potentially making babies or pleasure or meaning, but remarkably making none of these. The overwrought attempt to make everything sexy, explicit, titillating, groovy, has created a vacuum. The two people fuck and it's not interesting, except insofar as it's uninteresting. He is playing to the camera; she is somewhere else. We conclude that they must be paid performers and he must be gay. Otherwise, wouldn't there be some there there? Later I learn that these two are a married couple, porn stars Cassandra Knight and Antony Stone, whose mission together is to present "healthy, loving but exciting sex." They smile sweetly when they say this. I feel suddenly sad for them. As with so much explicit eroticism nowadays, so much gets lost in the presentation.