The first thing you need to understand about consent is that consent is not, strictly speaking, a thing. Not in the same way that teleportation isn’t a thing. Consent is not a thing because it is not an item, nor a possession. Consent is not an object you can hold in your hand. It is not a gift that can be given and then rudely requisitioned. Consent is a state of being. Giving someone your consent — sexually, politically, socially — is a little like giving them your attention. It’s a continuous process. It’s an interaction between two human creatures. I believe that a great many men and boys don’t understand this. I believe that lack of understanding is causing unspeakable trauma for women, men, and everyone else who is sick of how much human sexuality still hurts.
We need to talk about what consent really means, and why it matters more, not less, at a time when women’s fundamental rights to bodily autonomy are under attack across the planet, and the Hog-Emperor of Rape Culture is squatting in the White House making your neighborhood pervert look placid. We still get consent all wrong, and we have to try to get it a bit less wrong, for all our sakes.
To explain all this, I’m going to have to tell you some stories. They’re true stories, and some of them are rude stories, and I’m telling you now because the rest of this ride might get uncomfortable and I want you to have something to look forward to.
The original piece is a lot to digest. It’s a delicate look at Japanese men who claim they’ve found true love with life-like dolls. But there’s a back story, too. On Correspondent, Alastair Himmer and Tokyo photo chief Behrouz Mehri talk about how they were affected by their work on this story.
You don’t expect to be emotionally scarred by a lifestyle story — and certainly not by a rubber doll. It seemed like such a good idea at the time: write a story that takes a look at the lives of Japanese men and their silicone lovers. I’m AFP’s lifestyle and sports correspondent in Japan and if this wasn’t a lifestyle story, I don’t know what was. I admit that I have previously had odd experiences doing my job. I once ran off the set of a porn shoot. But that was child’s play compared to sex dolls.
But poor Behrouz. He hadn’t been exposed to something like that before. I feel awful about what I did to the Tokyo photo chief. But you have to understand my perspective. It took me nine months to set up this story. You don’t just approach someone on the street and ask them “Can we photograph you and your sex doll.” You make contacts, you get to know the people, you develop trust. I didn’t want to blow all those efforts with some hackneyed, tabloid-style guffaw at Japanese men who go on dates with lifesize dummies. So when Behrouz asked me to ask one of the men, Senji Nakajima, if he could spend the night at his place for the story, I spat coffee all over my shirt. But I asked and Senji agreed and Behrouz went.
Despite riches, power, and respect, some people are never satisfied. A poor North Carolina kid named Michael Thevis turned paperback smut and peep show machines into a million-dollar empire, and he shaped America’s porn industry right as laws started to relax around the ownership and production of sexually explicit material. When Thevis crossed into arson, threats, and murder, he brought himself down for good. At The Daily Beast, crime journalist Jeff Maysh gets access to Thevis’ diaries and letters to tell the full story of “The Scarface of Sex” for the first time.
Rival peep machine manufacturers emerged, included those run by Leon and Mike Sokolic, Art Sanders, and Bill Walters. Before now, the most Thevis had ever done to intimidate a rival was let off a stink bomb at a store in Baltimore. Not all competitors rolled over so easily. Nat Bailen, who manufactured a peep show machine for cartoons, started to sell his units to sex-shop owners who used them for porn. In 1970, a customer named Harry Mooney in Michigan asked to lease 50 machines from Thevis—an order so large he couldn’t meet it in time. Instead, Mooney bought his machines outright from Nat Bailen. As he would do so often, Thevis turned to Underhill.
“Something,” Thevis told him, “has to be done with Bailen.”
On April 26, 1970, Underhill drove from Atlanta to Louisville in his yellow station wagon, where he met a paid accomplice, Clifford “Sam” Wilson. In the dead of night, they broke into Bailen’s factory, carrying burglary tools and five-gallon containers of gasoline. They built a bonfire using his furniture and paperwork. When Wilson found some paint cans, he told Underhill, “Let’s really screw this guy,” and poured paint over the desks and carpets. There were four-foot-tall flames licking at the windows by the time the goons fled. Reeking of gasoline, Underhill found a pay phone at the Kentucky Turnpike, and called Thevis at the Central Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles.
“Veni vidi vici,” Underhill said—I came, I saw, I conquered.
In The Walrus, Natalie Zina Waschots describes her time doing search-engine optimization for a Toronto pornography curator. She tagged images with anatomical and other sexual descriptors to help randy users find the type of porn they wanted. Although the optimization was standard, Waschots’ essay shows how sex work affects a person’s own sex life, and how working with sexual content makes some employees think it’s okay to be sexist.
It feels strangely noble to shepherd horny web surfers along in their pursuit of self-gratification, and under different management, it would probably be a fulfilling, even pleasant, job. I could learn to deal with the fact that constant exposure to sexual content is starting to alienate me from my body and make me distant in my romantic relationships, that my brain is slowly becoming saturated with the language of fucking. But what really gets to me are the standard-issue white-collar indignities: an overbearing, creepy boss, and the singular tediousness of cubicle life.
Johnny was more honest than most about his salvation. Other teens said they’d felt so lost in the secular world that they’d attempted suicide. When pressed for details, they produced accounts of the angry boredom of being sixteen in the suburbs: “attempted suicide” meant driving too fast, going for a too-difficult dive, getting dangerously drunk on dad’s Jack Daniel’s. One boy told me had resolved to strangle himself and would have, too, had not Jesus invisibly pulled the boy’s hands from his Adam’s apple. For Johnny there had been no special signs, no spiritual lows. It was simple as this: he was on a ski trip, and Jesus got him—shouldered into Johnny’s heart and said, “You’re mine, buddy.” It felt “wicked awesome,” better than eight girls in a Hummer all at the same time.
– Jeff Sharlet, in Lapham’s Quarterly, on a day spent with the sexually pure teens of Battlecry Honor Academy in Garden Valley, Texas — where he learns that renouncing your sins doesn’t mean redacting their memories.
Ms. Lewinsky was quickly cast by the media as a “little tart,” as The Wall Street Journal put it. The New York Post nicknamed her the “Portly Pepperpot.” She was described by Maureen Dowd in The New York Times as “ditsy” and “predatory.”
And other women — self-proclaimed feminists — piled on. “My dental hygienist pointed out she had third-stage gum disease,” said Erica Jong. Betty Friedan dismissed her as “some little twerp.”
“It’s a sexual shaming that is far more directed at women than at men,” Gloria Steinem wrote me in an email, noting that in Ms. Lewinsky’s case, she was also targeted by the “ultraright wing.” “I’m grateful to [her],” Ms. Steinem said, “for having the courage to return to the public eye.”
Had the Lewinsky story unfolded today, certainly the digital reality of it would have been worse (or at least more pungent). “They would have dug up her private photos,” said Danielle Citron, a law professor and the author of “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace.” But there would have also been avenues to push back: more outlets, more varied voices, probably even a #IStandWithMonica hashtag.
“If it happened today, I think the consensus that she deserved to be thrown under the bus would be considerably weaker,” said Clay Shirky, a journalism professor at N.Y.U. who studies Internet culture. “And the key thing that’s changed is not information — there were credible press reports about Cosby for years, just as Clinton’s denial was ridiculous on its face — but the ability to coordinate reaction.”
Omuro started Redbook so that Bay Area mongers would have a home on the web. It succeeded, ultimately attracting so many users that the site became a full-fledged business, with massive profits. But when RedBook was shut down, the people who were hit the hardest weren’t the buyers, but the sellers—sex workers like Cathy for whom the site had made the world’s oldest profession significantly less risky.
One of the ways the site reduced danger for workers was by making it easier for them to weed out bad dates, from poor tippers to full-on abusive creeps. Providers could choose to meet only customers who were well known and well liked on RedBook’s forums, and some workers even required references from other escorts on the site before taking on a new client. “RedBook provided a space to safely negotiate and screen clients that reduced the likelihood of being victimized by predators or cops,” says Kristina Dolgin of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, a national advocacy group.
If sex workers simply want to buy an ad, they can still use Cityvibe, Lovings, Backpage, and Eros Guide. RedBook was different, in that its vast network of message boards made it possible for workers to not only advertise but ask questions of one another, find support, and even make friends. This is one of the things that Siouxsie Q, a sex worker in Oakland, misses most about RedBook. “We lost a critical resource for building community,” she says. “And building community is already tough enough when you’ve been marginalized and your work is criminalized.” Women used RedBook’s forums to share everything from jokes to medical and financial tips that were useful to people in the sex industry, she says.
—Eric Steuer writing in Wired about the rise and fall of the Bay Area website myRedBook.com (commonly referred to as RedBook). RedBook, which was shutdown last year by law enforcement, “served as a vast catalog of carnal services, a mashup of Craigslist, Yelp, and Usenet where sex workers and hundreds of thousands of their customers could connect, converse, and make arrangements for commercial sex.” Many sex workers have struggled since the site’s shutdown, with an activist from the Electronic Frontier Foundation quoted as saying that its closure has actually brought more sex workers out onto the street.
Why do writers have such a hard time writing about sex?
Sex is difficult to write about because it’s just not sexy enough. The only way to write about it is not to write much. Let the reader bring his own sexuality into the text. A writer I usually admire has written about sex in the most off-putting way. There is just too much information. If you start saying “the curve of . . .” you soon sound like a gynecologist. Only Joyce could get away with that. He said all those forbidden words. He said cunt, and that was shocking. The forbidden word can be provocative. But after a while it becomes monotonous rather than arousing. Less is always better. Some writers think that if they use dirty words they’ve done it. It can work for a short period and for a very young imagination, but after a while it doesn’t deliver. When Sethe and Paul D. first see each other, in about half a page they get the sex out of the way, which isn’t any good anyway—it’s fast and they’re embarrassed about it—and then they’re lying there trying to pretend they’re not in that bed, that they haven’t met, and then they begin to think different thoughts, which begin to merge so you can’t tell who’s thinking what. That merging to me is more tactically sensual than if I had tried to describe body parts.
Here are five stories born of adultery. Read about technological advancements for philanderers and their cuckolds, personal perspectives from the cheater and the cheatee, a forbidden lust-fueled crime story, and a piece on how adultery became bedfellows with American popular culture and music—back in 1909.
1. “The Cuckold” (James Harms, Guernica, February 17, 2014)
“The cuckold knows betrayal as a form of revision: here is the life you thought you were living; now here is what really happened.” Read more…
Young women in college have joked for decades about “working their way through school” via pornography. And as with every tired old joke, there’s some truth behind it. The Duke Chronicle profiled a first-year student named “Lauren,” a woman who identifies as a feminist, libertarian, and porn star as “Aurora.” The student who wrote the piece, Katie Fernelius, opted not to go with a straight profile and instead made the story just as much about her as she did about Laura. The article reads more like an essay, as Fernelius struggles not only with reconciling what Laura does, but also articulating her own reaction. It also critically examines the sexual culture at Duke, which is similar to other schools (Duke just gets more press.). Consequently, the piece at times veers into a reaction paper for Women’s Studies 101. But that’s what college, and college media, gives you: the time to think about the big stuff, and a platform to express it.