Joseph Kramer

A sacred prostitute and teacher of "ritual masturbation" explains the mysterious links between spirituality and doing the wild thing.

Published May 28, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

In his unusual line of work, Joseph Kramer is a man of many titles: teacher, sex worker, masseur, therapist, AIDS activist, filmmaker, former Jesuit priest in training. All are more-or-less accurate, but none captures the religious, sexual and therapeutic aspects of Kramer's work quite like his personal favorite, sacred prostitute.

By his estimates, Kramer's had sexual encounters with 15,000 men in 15 years. He's developed his own method of erotic genital massage and founded a school, the Body Electric School of Massage, to teach it in Europe and the United States. Kramer is also the founder of the Erospirit Research Institute, operated out of his home in Oakland, Calif., which explores and teaches the connection between sex and spirituality through video and other media.

Kramer makes how-to movies on everything from his massage techniques to "ritual masturbation" and "shamanic sex magic." Erotic, they are not. After watching "Fire on the Mountain: An Intimate Guide to Male Erotic Massage" -- in which every stroke of the penis is accompanied by rhythmic breath work and foreplay consists of facing your partner and repeating, "I am you. You are me" -- a male friend of mine said he needed to purge the memory of it from his mind in order to get on with his sex life, so unappetizing were the images. The visual quality of Kramer's videos ranges from clunky to plain cheesy, such as when Kramer pops out from behind a 7-foot-tall phallus, or scenes of two men touching multiplied à la "The Brady Bunch" after too much tequila. But Kramer isn't interested in making beautiful work. "Other people are artists. I'm a teacher," he says.

I meet Kramer at Anabella's, a bistro in downtown San Francisco, where his latest film, "Zen Pussy," will debut at the Sex Worker Film and Video Festival that night. We settle into a quiet corner of the restaurant beneath a ceiling painted pink with bas-relief clouds, an '80s version of a Rococo background. "It looks like flesh, a young pink flesh," Kramer remarks, looking up. "It's pretty awful," I say back. Fortunately the restaurant is quieter than its dicor and we are able to talk in relative peace.

Kramer explains that the inspiration for "Zen Pussy" came while he was shooting an erotic-touch video two years before. "One of the cameras was mounted on the table between the woman's legs -- the vulva cam, we call it. There were 20 minutes of this woman breathing from the perspective of her vulva. I became entranced. I thought, gateway, this is where I came into the world. We can project a variety of things onto it." The finished product, which Kramer refers to as "my first trip into the arty," is 11 one-minute extreme close-ups of various women's nether regions.

When I ask what a viewer is supposed to take away from the experience, Kramer says it's meant as a meditation. "Zen is just looking at things as they are and being with the present moment and not expecting anything to happen." He hopes to make "Zen Cock" and "Zen Butthole" in the future, but is waiting to see what degree of acclaim the first film attracts.

A waiter interrupts our discussion to take our order. I have the chicken salad and Kramer selects the day's soup and a sandwich. Kramer is approximately 6 feet tall with gray-specked brown hair. He has a slightly round face and a charming smile. He's dressed casually in blue jeans and a white collared shirt, and it isn't difficult to imagine him in his previous profession: Jesuit.

"How did you go from 10 years of training for the priesthood to making erotic film and teaching genital massage?" I ask.

"The short version of it is, the core of my Christian background is to be of service to others, to look at what my gifts are and see how I can best use those in the world." The long story is that Kramer is gay. In 1976, one year short of becoming a priest, Kramer left the order and moved from Berkeley, Calif., to New York to pursue a career in massage and the wonderful world of sex with men.

When the AIDS virus struck the gay community, Kramer started looking for ways to find fulfillment sexually without risking infection. "A lot of people just stopped having sex, or had very limited sex because of HIV." Kramer began developing his current genital massage technique. "In my classes and in my profession, I have probably erotically touched 15,000 men since HIV started. I've been totally safe and I'm HIV negative. People say promiscuity is the problem. It's not."

After being openly gay caused him to be fired from the Catholic school where we was teaching, Kramer moved back to California to finish his degree in theology. He began studying Taoism, Tantra and conscious breathing, focusing on the links between spirituality and sexuality.

What most people think of as sex, Kramer refers to as "quick sex," "recreational love sex" or, worse, "paltry sex." "Therapeutic sex gets more into the area I'm in, and then there's spiritual sex. People may have trouble with this. I think it's a little related to Karl Marx's 'religion is the opiate of the people.'"

Kramer's spiritual sex may or may not involve ejaculation, orgasm or penetration. It most certainly should end in some kind of enlightenment or mind-altered state, perhaps a tingling sensation or tears. In other words, not what most of us think of as sex.

I ask Kramer whether most people just want fucking to be fucking. Why does it have to be spiritual as well?

"Spirituality is just a way of valuing. It's what we value that is important in our lives and integrates us and makes us whole and feel good. For some people it's money. For me, it's sex that brings me together. It's also a gateway out of the ordinary."

Kramer explains that according to Taoist thought, genitals are generators of energy, like miniature Grand Coulee Dams. When stimulated, the energy spreads to the rest of the body. He juxtaposes this against the traditional sex model, where the goal is to build and build to a climax -- balloon sex, he calls it. "There's the idea of building up a balloon to pop the balloon. If the goal is the end process, then you want to get there as fast as possible. But with a massage, there's really no end. You can go on and on." He tells me that a single hour of controlled, or ecstasy, breathing, where you take fast, deep breaths, can bring women to orgasm without any stimulation. After witnessing this in workshops, he started incorporating breath work into his genital massages. "I started doing this on people and there were such breakthroughs."

Kramer's sandwich is mostly uneaten. He's too polite to talk with a full mouth. I ask if he wants to take a break and just enjoy his food; he tells me he'd rather keep talking.

"When you say breakthrough, what do you mean?" I ask.

"It's almost like a gateway out of ordinary consciousness. Time can stop. Some people lie still on my table for an hour. I stop and they can't move. They're in an altered state, a trance. Some people just feel like a oneness, a breakthrough. Some people go into connections with other folks. William James wrote a book on all different types of altered experiences called 'The Varieties of Religious Experience,' and a lot of them have happened on my massage table and in my classes."

"In your perfect world, would everybody experience this?" I ask.

"You know, one of the reasons I do this is about choice. This is a world full of choice, but in the area of sex, we've not been educated. We're educated in all kinds of other areas, but not about our own fire, our own eroticism, what's possible. I'm doing this because most people don't know about it. It's another option. And some people go, 'That was great.' Others say, 'That's not for me.' I have a thriving practice of men and women who come to me wanting this experience. But I'm a soft sell: Here it is; take it or leave it."

Kramer attributes America's squeamishness about sex to its Puritanical foundations. "The key to Puritans is there is a battle between good and evil. There's always the devil or evil in some form. With Reagan it was the evil empire, then the Soviet Union fell. Even television has taken this up: Almost every news show has to have two people at war. But I think sex has always been demonized."

And it's not just folks like Jesse Helms who are doing all the demonizing, either, Kramer says. "What I think is sad is men who say, 'I'm gay. I've never been around women. I don't want to watch 'Zen Pussy.' It's not just about being gay; it's a repulsion, an aversion toward these sexual things, or women: 'I don't want to see that; I don't want to do that.'"

As he finishes his meal, I tell him about the sex ed. class in my sophomore year of high school. "My teacher ended every class with the mandate, 'Pet your dog not your date.' Most of the class was already sexually active and this was supposed to be our introduction. But here we are, a whole generation who were taught in sex ed. not to do it or our lives would be ruined."

"I was on HBO's 'Real Sex' series about three years ago," Kramer tells me, "And I got a call from a kid that I taught high school English to at the age of 13 in Catholic school. He said, 'I'm really angry. Here you are on this show, Mr. Liberated, and all I got out of high school was inhibition and I'm still a fucked-up dude. You could have given us some of that, or some information. Instead, you passed on the party line. You were part of the whole administration.' It was difficult to hear from somebody who was so upset and angry. People recognize freedom when they see it."

Kramer says his response to seeing people who are more liberated than he, if you can imagine such a thing, isn't anger. "One of my favorite movie scenes is the orgasm-screaming scene in 'When Harry Met Sally' when the woman looks over and says, 'I'll have what she's having.' I always look at people who are wild and go, 'I'll have what she's having, or what he's having.'"

By Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

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