"Don't Scare the Villagers" and other Questionable Laws
along with my thoughts on David Steinberg's book
Photo Sex: Fine Art Sexual Photography Comes of Age

by Sensuous Sadie

"Photo Sex" is available at Amazon.com

A fellow writer and sexual adventurer, David Steinberg, recently sent me his latest collection of sexual photography. Unlike so many books which languish while I finish the mystery novel under my pillow, I dove right in. After all, photo books are irresistible, from the seductive intimacy on the cover to whatever delights lurk inside. Oddly then, when I finished noshing on the art, I made a dessert of the introduction - that which so many of us ignore on the way to the meaty stuff. Turns out that David has some pretty interesting and possibly even subversive ideas, but then that's pretty evident in his "Comes Naturally" columns.

In the introduction A.D. Coleman says, "the book in your hands is not just another volume of loosely defined 'erotic' photography in which formal nude studies and elaborately staged but fictional sexual scenarios predominate. These are photographs of everyday people-not hired models or professional sex workers-engaged in real sex." "Thank heavens," I thought. I've pretty much had it with staged erotica - the kind where a model stands against a black backdrop in a latex maid outfit and a whip in her hand, the kind rife at what he calls the "tens of thousands of unfathomably popular, hopelessly boilerplate, sex websites," but hardly what I see in real life.

Give me instead what David collected in Photo Sex, "Older people, hefty people, skinny people, people with disabilities-these and more mingle here, linked principally by their acknowledgment of their sexuality as central to their lives and by their participation in these acts of photo sex." Yes, people who look like me, and like my friends. Yes, people like me, who celebrate sex as the core of our being. And Yes, real sex and love and affection, the kind I feel when my lover Griffin looks into me, his hands on me and in me.

The photos are beautiful. Sexual. Alive with hunger. But then, it turns out that this book is about a little more than just that. Coleman goes on to discuss this type of photography as inherently political, saying that, "By its very existence, the range of sexual images being produced opposes the core right-wing dictate that sexual activity should properly be restricted to heterosexual interaction between husbands and wives, without accouterments and with procreation foremost in mind-and that sexual activity should never involve shameless public display."

Another giant of sexual politics, Marco Vassi, would agree with Coleman. Vassi said that, "a great deal of our confusion about sex has to do with the fact that we don't understand it's purpose in our lives. If we assume - as many people do - that the only purpose of sex is procreation, then it is natural to see all kinds of behaviors as wrong: premarital sex, extramarital, oral, anal, manual, homosexual…" This is the approach that the right wing uses to bludgeon us over the head, saying that BDSM, which I practice, cannot by it's very nature be an acceptable activity. Let us consider instead Vassi's definition of sex as "the act of intercourse that a man and woman perform in order to have a child. 'Metasex' is any other form of sexual behavior, for any other purpose… two categories which should never be discussed together."*

So it is Metasex that we see in these photos, but maybe even more than that. Coleman adds that the collection "represents a generational shift in the socially acceptable level of frankness and disclosure about individual sexuality and in the appropriate representation thereof." By putting real people in them, the photographers make them undeniably real, and render us unable to write them off as pornographic slop. These are our sisters and brothers, neighbors and friends, and their courage in being photographed in such intimate moments is perhaps more of a political statement than any single one of them realized. David writes that, "The basic premise of this book is simple: that each of its images is a photo of sex in one form or another-a sexual photograph, rather than one that is more generally erotic or sensual. The sex in a given image may involve a single person, a couple, or a group; it may show kissing, dancing, touching, or sexual intercourse; it may be graphic or muted, passionate, tender, or humorous. But it is a photo of sex first and foremost, without obfuscation and without apology." It is his "without apology" that reminds me of my struggles with expressing my own sexuality.

We in the BDSM community are often reminded not to "scare the villagers," meaning don't let them see too much of our practices because they cannot understand what they are seeing and will use it against us. Maybe that's true, but in another way it so damages us both in the public arena as well as in the private one. There is another part of me, a hunger for my vanilla friends to see me, the whole me, not just the fluff I assemble for public consumption. My vanilla friends have responded in a variety of ways, from mild titillation to a blank look. Even my kinky friend Susan exhorts me to keep this side of myself under the blanket so as not to make anyone uncomfortable by "unconsensually" including them in my lifestyle, or because I might appear to have gone "around the bend with that bondage stuff." She is right in one way though, I also don't want to become one of those BDSM-obsessed people who bore us silly, yammering on and on about their sex life.

I cannot keep it all under the blanket though. The only way to remove the stigma of an alternative sexuality is to educate our vanilla brethren. Speaking openly about what we do and who we are is part of that. It's not that I want to share what I did in bed last night, but rather I want to be free to talk about the remarkable world of sexuality and how that affects my personal and public life. I am hungry for compatriots, hungry to connect on a deeper level about what is meaningful. Sadly, in our culture talking about sexuality is often not acceptable, not to mention alternative sexuality like BDSM. Even when I do find vanilla friends open to discussion, they must start at the beginning as in, "What does that B-D-S-M stand for again?" With that in mind, a deeper discussion of sexual politics is never going to be on the table.

Perhaps this is why I've found myself more and more wanting to hang in the company of BDSM friends where not only do I not have to dissemble, but where we can discuss the philosophy behind what we do. Unfortunately, discourse on deeper topics such as BDSM and spirituality are not common fodder for the BDSM community either. I hope that I am in some small way changing that.

It is this quality of being known, of having my sexuality on the table as much as any other part of me that Photo Sex offers, because in this book, sexuality is on the proverbial coffee table. Despite the risks in sharing this part of their private lives, the people in the photos chose to do it anyway, maybe hoping that their small act might help to change our landscape of repressive sexual culture. As Coleman says, it "represents a generational shift in the socially acceptable level of frankness and disclosure about individual sexuality."

One day my life will have its own generational shift, a shift that like David's book, offers "glimpses of the playful, the tender, the intimate, the affectionate, the delicate, the humorful, even the goofy-sex in all its delicious, constantly shifting intricacy." One day I will be known for all of it, and then I too will be a coffee table book of delicious desserts, easy to taste along with all the other flavors of my inner landscape.


David Steinberg, editor of The Erotic Impulse, Erotic by Nature, and Photo Sex, write the Comes Naturally columns, which are published in San Francisco's Spectator magazine. If you'd like to receive Comes Naturally and other writing by David Steinberg regularly via email (free and confidential), send your name and email address to David at eronat@aol.com. Past columns are available at the Society for Human Sexuality's "David Steinberg Archives": www.sexuality.org/davids.html. Three books edited by David -- "Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies," (www.sexuality.org/l/davids/en.html)"The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self," (www.sexuality.org/l/davids/en.html) and the just-released photo anthology, "Photo Sex: Fine Art Sexual Photography comes of Age" (www.sexuality.org/l/davids/ps.html)-- are available from him by mail order.

* From The Red Thread of Passion: Spirituality and the Paradox of Sex by David Guy.

Sensuous Sadie is the author of It's Not About the Whip: Love, Sex, and Spirituality in the BDSM Scene (http://www.trafford.com/robots/03-0551.html). She is the founder and leader (1999 - 2001) of Rose & Thorn, Vermont's first BDSM group. Comments, compliments and complaints, as well as requests for reprinting can be addressed to her at SensuousSadie@aol.com or visit her website at www.sensuoussadie.com . Sadie believes the universe is abundant, and that sharing information freely is part of this abundance, so she allows reprints of her writing in most venues.

Copyright 2003 Sadie Sez Publications