anxiety, sex

For about 1½ years I worked at a porn company. It’s not what you think. We did not make porn. We just processed it. I was only involved as an editor, not on-screen talent.

Mostly, the company bought non-exclusive redistribution rights from video wholesalers (this could be the most boring sentence I’ve ever written about the most boring aspect of any job I’ve ever had). Then we ripped the DVDs, split up their scenes, and converted them into downloadable or streaming formats. The idea was to repackage the scenes based on metadata; it was not even intended for end user consumption, although we did sell memberships to the site.

It’s now all been eclipsed by ad-based streaming sites. At the time, the basic concept was that webmasters would join our affiliate program, build and promote their owns sites using content we provided for a backend cut. Or something. I’m not sure the model ever worked all that well.

A lot can and is being said about porn and I’m not going to comment on most of that. Apart from this: it’s complicated and people without the maturity to understand what it is should limit their exposure to it. But it also tells us a lot about ourselves and our social structures.

My first attempt at a long form book was a collection of autobiographical essays tracking my coming-of-age along with the parallel of porn media as I experienced it. There was a chapter on magazines, and one about phone sex, and you get the idea.

In the first chapter, I recreated a scene from a memory set when I was in first or second grade. I encountered some older boys on the playground who were lying face down in the sandbox, humping tiny craters they’d dug out beneath their crotches. One of them looked up at me and said, “We’re popping boners.” Then he closed his eyes and went back to thrusting.

The whole episode was very confusing to me at the time, as it kind of continues to be for me now. I’d experienced erections and I knew the word boner, but I probably did not make much of a connection between the two very much. Of my erections, my mom told me that my dad said it was just a result of blood filling up that part of my body. She did not say why this happens, but she did say it was normal. I was not having sexual thoughts just yet, so this explanation seemed good enough for me.

But in my estimation, a boner was not something you popped by finding a weird place to put it. It was something that happened that you tried to do something about. Dry humping the sandbox seems hardly the thing.

In a recent interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, Howard Stern said that when he was about thirteen years old, his mother sat him down, gave him a copy of Playboy magazine, and told him these women were not real, just fantasy. According to Stern, his mother said he could and should enjoy the fantasy, but recognize it for what it is. And that he should understand that real women are like his mother, his sister, and his aunts. Stern, of course, made a career of interviewing various performers, sex workers, and celebrities on his top-rated radio show.

The porn company I worked for was in a state of constant shrinkage. We were contained in a huge bunker designed for a staff of maybe 200 and we were down to the last ten. Everyone else had been downsized and outsourced. I did not witness the reduction, which was even stranger. It was like moving to a boom town after everyone has already realized there’s no more gold and packed up and left.

But we still had an on-site cook. And those bizarre corporate motivational posters of wrestling kittens framed in the corridors between vacant cubicle bullpens.

This was during a dismal downtime in tech, after the dotcom bust and before the iPhone, in the early days of George W Bush’s second term. I’ve heard them called The Aughties, The Zeros, The 2000s. Whatever, it was 2005. The office was in Van Nuys, California.

I used to go for walks during my lunch break. One day, a guy pulled up to me in an SUV and asked me for directions. He said he was looking for Woodman Avenue. I told him where it was. He acted confused, so I explained more clearly. “It’s parallel to this street, about a mile away, so take the next left.”

Then he asked me for a cigarette. I said I don’t smoke. Then he said, “Are you gay or what?”

That’s when I realized he thought I was a hustler. I should have known because he’d asked me how to get to Woodman Avenue; I’d always heard the sex workers were on Sepulveda Boulevard. This part of The Valley was sort of the old loser-town. The legitimate money was down in Studio City and Sherman Oaks, on the shady side of the Hollywood Hills. Around North Hollywood and further west, you’d get the desperate and clueless, and with them the usual grifters and pimps.

And then, for whatever reason (probably cheap rents), all the way up in the Northwest corner, Chatsworth had become the new capital of fuck production. At least that’s what everyone said. But I saw videos that had been shot along the back fence of my high school in Woodland Hills. I saw performers eating lunch in Northridge all the time.

I have an eye for faces and a brain for names, and there’s something about seeing someone screwing on screen that makes them extra memorable. A friend of a friend of mine actually dated a performer. He lived on the West Side and I met them in a cafe in Venice. I remembered her stage name and three of the scenes I’d seen her in, but I did not bring it up because I have manners.

I say all this to say it’s a new era. The pinup paintings and playmates Howard Stern spoke of in the 1960s were fantasies. There was a clear distinction between art and life. But new technology has changed all that. Even the performers I encountered 15 years ago were playing a different game.

Somewhere in the early aughts, my friend told me about a video he found, supposedly randomly, that featured a girl we had gone to school with. My friend claimed he discovered this video while browsing around in a porn shop, but to me there’s just no way. Among the thousands of tiny images forming an endless collage of smut, he somehow made out her face?

I believe he received this video from an inside source and swore himself to secrecy about it. But anyway, he then passed the video around to his group of friends. What you see, aside from the dirty details, is a timepiece. This was a semi-professional production, shot in a cheap hotel with a decent camera package and lighting arrangements. Sure, these kinds of consumer electronics had been around, but even if a hobbyist made the investment to procure them, it was still a challenge to duplicate and distribute the material.

By comparison, my friend Maple very recently told me a story about a guy she met who told her he put a sex video online of himself and his girlfriend. I’m not sure why he posted the video – it may have been “revenge porn,” which is immoral and frequently illegal. But the woman, his ex-girlfriend, apparently liked the response, or exhibitionism or whatever and has made more videos available to the public. That’s to say she began making videos with other people with the purpose of sharing them with strangers.

I’m not saying this is common. But I do think it’s novel that we now live in a time when [some] sexual relationships generate a digital byproduct that’s considerably more graphic than the romantic correspondence of the past. And, far from surprising, it’s come to be expected that this material exists.

What’s truly disturbing is that some individuals believe the demise of a relationship somehow warrants the release of private, intimate moments, captured casually maybe, but nonetheless personal, and dare I say… sacred?

Or maybe that’s the point. Personally, I do not understand the impulse to humiliate a person you were once enamored with. Love does not vanish due to circumstance, and even if there was no love, there’s always common decency.

Maybe in an era of information saturation, of social media feeds so filled with the banal goings on of our friends and former lovers, we need not speak to make an acquaintance. Maybe that’s when unauthorized material becomes the measure of intimacy, the social – and potentially economic and ruinous – currency of our times.

Post Script: In the 90s we used to rent porn movies on VHS cassettes from Tower Records, which was a mainstream music store with alternative leanings. There was no shame or seediness in it. Most of the videos we got were Hollywood send ups like A Clockwork Orgy and Foreskin Gump. It was an time for Porn Stars that were not seen outside of porn. Amateur was not really a genre then and the idea that you’d see someone you knew in one of these videos was unimaginable. You were much more likely to see a friend’s tits in person if she flashed you than you were to see a picture of them. A picture meant taking film in for photo processing, having a print made, and then keeping it somewhere safe.

Self-Presentation & Self-Preservation

booze, sex

I used to write a blog called COSMENAUT: true adventures of a straight male makeup artist. It was about me working in the cosmetics section of a legacy department store, my experiences in the makeup and beauty industry, and my personal life – not always in that order. But I usually tried to connect these elements in a novel way, because I thought it was interesting coming from a place with no understanding about this business to having heavy awareness for its effects.

As a man who dates women, in seemed appealing to learn and share insider knowledge of the beauty industry, both as I was exposed to it through sales and marketing campaigns, and in the practical use and application of products by my friends and lovers. To be sure, I regret a lot of what I wrote during that time. I was learning and drinking and exploring. It’s only worth revisiting to see how far I’ve come and I’d prefer if I was not vilified for whatever I wrote back then about people and circumstances I did not understand well.

Selling products I thought were useless and unnecessary, and answering questions about bullshit concerns created by a culture of marketing inane and superficial competition, enlightened me about our perceptions of personal values and individual worth. But it seemed like I was suddenly expected to make priority out of absurdity. And I was not passionate about sales.

Especially sales derived from preying upon natural human insecurities.

I named my blog Cosmenaut as a play on words, like a cosmonaut for cosmetics, an explorer in a foreign land blah blah blah. But it was the subtitle that was meant for exposure. That was the hook: I was a rooster in the hen house. I did not belong there, but I was there, and I was sensitive enough to see the secrets.

Someone sent me a message asking why I “felt the need” to exert my hetero-masculine (assumed cis gender) sexuality into my branding. Was I “insecure” about it, they wanted to know.

The truth is I never was. I was simply just trying to be distinct. The cosmetics environment as I experienced it was something like 85% women, 12% gay men, and the remainder could be anybody else, but really that means trans women and me.

As far as these trans women were concerned: they were women, both in my view and theirs. But that did not keep them from being the subject of vicious gossip.

The store had a fairly progressive attitude toward inclusion, at least. There were expressed, written policies on tolerance, acceptance, and accommodation for customers and staff, though I never heard any issues about access to appropriate bathrooms or dressing rooms or any of that. It was San Francisco, after all. (Personally, I’ve long believed that every rest room and dressing room should be a single occupant all gender inclusive situation because I like privacy).

There were some other straight men in the department, but they almost exclusively sold fragrances and skincare. These products, like the men who sold them, fit safely behind a gender line defined on their packaging. The classic view of the perfume lady spraying unsuspecting passersby had long ago been replaced by the flirty dude with a car salesman’s grin plastered across his face.

The main difference between the fragrance bros and myself was that I also sold color by performing practical applications. In other words, I did makeovers. I knew about makeup.

Our brand had a men’s line that consisted of the exact same products packaged into steely gray containers with the words FOR MEN stamped across them for safety. These were skincare products, but occasionally they’d try out a concealer or something.

Thanks to toxic masculinity, straight guys need reassurance like this. The marketing might say the formulations are specific to men’s skin, but that’s just pitch sizzle. In truth, it’s so the fragile heteronormative cig gender man can feel safe in knowing people won’t wonder about him if they see his facewash. That’s because he’s been told that unqualified vanity is gay.

Image result for vanity smurf
Vanity Smurf

I wrote back to my inquisitor that the subtitle to my blog was just a gimmick. But, just to clarify, I suggested that sexual orientation is who about who you desire, and sexuality is about how you demonstrate that desire.

Dan Savage commonly defines it as a layer cake: at the bottom is who you want, in the middle is who you get, and the top is what you tell people. Within that, there’s a difference between sex and romance, and room for fluidity on each tier.

Still, you hear about “guyliner” & “manscaping” put in such common usage that people don’t think about them anymore. Why do fragile heteronormative cig gender men need alternative terminology for the same shit? Toxic masculinity. Duh. Or is that the joke?

One of my lady coworkers (from Great Britain) told me that if she went over to a guy’s apartment and saw flowers there that were not left by or intended for a woman, she’d immediately assume he was closeted gay. So, I asked her, if I like the look and smell of fresh flowers in my home, how does that somehow mean I also like to suck dicks?

Then there’s the whole question of ass play. Women asked me all the time if their boyfriends were gay because they wanted their salads tossed. So, I replied, your boyfriend wants you to lick his anus. You’re not a man. If he wanted a man to lick him, that might be gay, but if he wants you to do it, why is that an issue? He likes when you blow him, right? Many gay men like to give and receive blowjobs, but your boyfriend wants to receive one from you, so…

There’s an element of toxic masculinity outside of abusing women, though certainly related to it, that speaks to male competition. Consumer culture has long exploited this. But is it more than machismo?

I recently asked an old friend who is now a married father of two young children if parenting in a more inclusive and socially conscious time (like now) has affected his view of himself as a younger man. From my perspective, I see him back then as an alcoholic cokehead who’d frequently say, “Treat them like shit, that’s what they like,” about women. He had apparently determined that indifference sometimes reads as confidence, both personally and professionally; often enough, it seemed, that he could be self-destructive and indulgent and still get laid occasionally.

At first, he told me he was afraid of his kids getting bullied. Maybe that’s because he’d mostly been a bully himself, I think. I clarified the question, explaining that I was interested more in his view of himself than I am in his concerns as a parent.

This was his answer:

Yes, a confusing triple negative preceded by a joke and then redirected onto a disgraced celebrity for comparison. Throughout the conversation he made several attempts to change the subject, but I’m not sure he ever got the point. I was not accusing him of sexual assault against women. I was asking him, probably not directly enough, if he knew he’d been afflicted with toxic masculinity. Or if he saw it that way now. Did he remember drunkenly punching me in the face to show his dominance? Does he regret constantly accusing his straight friends of being gay just to watch them squirm? Did he care about making historically marginalized people feel welcome in his presence?

If we now live in a time when straight men can sometimes have gay sex, and when gay men can occasionally screw women, and women are so whimsically fluid that being a woman has indefinite meaning – physiologically, we’re all women for at least six weeks anyway – if masculine and feminine energy can apply to anyone, if being a mascot or a femme bot are just fleeting fashion choices, if chromosomal biology carries no dictates, so much the better. But I wonder if it kind of makes some of these labels obsolete. Or does it?

Like Gore Vidal said, we are all potentially bisexual.
Like RuPaul said, it’s all drag and life is hard for everybody.

So, is identity how we see ourselves or how we want others to see us?
Sometimes safety requires wearing a mask. I’ve worn many.

Post Script: One night in 2004, which was well before makeup artistry came into my life, myself and two blonde American women encountered a Swedish man while out drinking. He told us casually that he sometimes had sex with men. “I’m not gay,” he said, “Just horny.” The ladies said they thought this was very hot. I felt a little reduced for not being regarded as so adventurously open-minded. Of course, we ended up back at his apartment, where one of the women hinted at a group sex possibility. The other woman shut her down because she claimed she hadn’t shaved recently and said she did not want to “be the hairy girl at an orgy.” The ladies ultimately fell asleep huddled together on the couch. The Swede brought out a futon mattress for me to crash on, and he might have alternatively invited me to join him back in his room. I politely declined, but this exchange may have been imagined or part of a semi-conscious dream sequence. The next morning, the ladies and I left early without seeing our host again. The supposedly hairy girl said to the other one, “I can’t believe you wanted me to fuck that gay guy.” Did I mention these two were sisters? They had the same father.

The (Swedish) Art of Death Cleaning

anxiety, booze, drugs, sex

I grew up in a house full of books. My dad is a historian. We had bookshelves everywhere that were filled with large hardback volumes of dense text. There were plenty of more easily digestible literary works around too, but the library was filled with big, heavy tomes.

Now his shelves all barren, which is strange and disenchanting to me. My dad has been making donations to purge his collection with a specific purpose: so that nobody else has to do it after he’s gone. He’s practical to a fault.

The Swedish word for this behavior is döstädning, which translates pretty much literally to “death tidying.” A translation of Margareta Magnusson’s book on the subject to English a couple of years ago was apparently popular enough for Dictionary.com to add the term death cleaning to American English recently. The Swedes are a sensible sort.

I’m not sure what they’d think of Pittsburgh’s Randyland, but they’d probably approve of Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. A lot of Americans seem to enjoy the image of urban detritus that could suggest the fall of empire. But I’m not sure remnants of bygone technology qualifies as more than items too heavy and expensive to relocate easily. Besides, re-purposing is a lot more attractive these days.

That might also be a healthy way to manage dead relationships: clean up before it’s too late. Obviously, we’re not always lucky enough to have the foresight to do this well.

When Hickory started making noise about moving into my apartment, I should have recognized it as a sign of impending doom. But I did not. Things were good. What had begun as a friendly shag was somehow now a year on at this point. In retrospect, that’s when I should have ended it. On high and fine. She wanted to cohabitate and I arrogantly thought I could talk her out of that for a while.

Hickory was already divorced by 21, which was three years before I met her. I assumed (wrongly, as usual) that this might mean she’d learned something, say along the lines of not rushing into another entanglement. However, her method of remedying her unfortunate marital status — she did not like being a young divorcée, though the rest of us in her circle thought it was alluring — was to repeatedly make the same mistakes as often as possible.

When I thought I talked some sense to her about this I’d really just pissed her off. She spent the next eight months or so stewing about it, drinking too much, dosed on anti-depressants, an awful combination that left her slurried and unpleasant to be around. When I finally realized she was also auditioning new suitors, I classified the relationship as terminal and told her as much. But she didn’t want to be dumped either, I guess.

Since Hickory had keys to my apartment, she announced she’d be looking in on my things while I was away for a few days. Getting the spare set of keys had been a big deal for her, which I should have also seen as a sign – or maybe an omen – of a storm on the horizon. I said this was unnecessary, but she insisted.

When I returned, I found she’d left some items she’d borrowed from me, mostly books, in plain sight. More than anything, I was offended that she hadn’t bothered to read some of the books before giving them back. It’s not like there was some gruesome hatred between us. She could have slipped them through the mail slot at her leisure.

There was no accompanying note or follow-up text message. I was sad to lose a lover, but I also was ready to move on and explore other possibilities. And maybe I’d been mentally preparing myself for this eventuality for a while, doing the emotional death cleansing of the Swedes, if one could put it that way.

I changed the locks and listened to some Leonard Cohen and went on my way. Hickory did send me a message a few days later, asking if we were through. I responded that it seemed she’d dictated as much pretty effectively. She asked when she should bring by the keys. I told her not to bother and this seemed to confuse her.

“I can toss them through your mail slot if you want,” she offered.

“That’s really not necessary,” I replied.

Maybe two weeks later, our mutual friend, Teak, stayed the night at my place. She needed somewhere to crash. The next morning, Teak and I walked to Bart together and rode it downtown, where we both worked.

When we arrived at the Powell Street station, we saw Hickory behind us on the escalator. When she saw Teak and I had seen her, she acted very cagey. Hickory and I lived in the same neighborhood, and she later confessed to having followed us from the street down into Bart at 24th Street, watching us on the train to Powell, and then out at the station there. The ride was about ten minutes long.

Teak and I did not do anything controversial during that time, because we were not acquainted like that. But Hickory, watching us through a stalker’s lens, feared she’d been replaced quickly, and by someone I might consider prettier than her, maybe sexier, but certainly someone I would be more excited about spending time with, about being intimate with, at present.

I don’t understand this competitive impulse, although I have felt it at times. Still, they are completely different people, far from interchangeable. But if you reduce yourself to thinking that you are just the body in someone else’s bed, and then somebody else occupies that space because you’ve been uninvited, maybe it’s hard to find your value. At least in that context.

Of course, I’m sure Hickory had designs on sleeping with someone else herself, if she hadn’t already begun to do that by then. But I know this is separate from the narcissistic jackpot of thinking I’d have been left alone to ponder my losses, too ruined by my affection for her to ever find another. Or conversely, as is more common, that she’d be faced so suddenly with a truth to the contrary.

The catch that confused me about the whole situation was that Hickory was the one who’d created these circumstances as they were. Not that she was entirely calculating about it the way, I assumed. She was not getting wasted and sloppy and blowing me off in a direct effort to get me to break up with her. More likely, she was engaging in substance abuse as a way of managing her emotions, which were conflicting and difficult to sort through.

And so it came as a revelation to me when Hickory explained later that, just because she’d got what she wanted, she did not have to be happy about it. She was still entitled to feeling the grief of loss, maybe more deeply because she knew she’d caused it, and maybe this gave her some sense of failure?

It’s impossible to know the emotional status of another person, even one you know well, despite what you think you know about what they’ve been up to. Emotions are complicated. Two contradictory things can both be true. Opposite intentions sometimes have the same results.

I thought it was strange that despite Hickory’s active role in our split, that she had not done any of that Swedish style death cleansing, at least compartmentalizing her feelings better. It was easy to give me back my books, but the rest required more than a bottle and a pill could provide.

Post Script: My dad’s practicalities go beyond material goods. He has already made and paid for funeral and burial plans for my mom. And for himself, he told me when the time comes and he’s found dead, I am to instruct someone to do the following, or to do this myself: remove a certain card from his wallet. Call the phone number on the card and give whomever answers the account number from the card. All arrangements thereafter have also been paid for, which include a transfer of his body to a crematorium and the burning itself. When they call upon completion of the task, I’m to bring a wooden box he’s also already purchased and shown me to collect the remains. Then, he said, I should take the box to the closest toilet, dump the remains down and flush. After that, get rid of the box.