Farewell to Jezebel, and a Look Back

After 18 wonderful — and, occasionally, controversial — months writing the Genderal Interest column, my time at Jezebel is up. I am so grateful to have been part of this unique community, and to have had such a wonderful group of editors and fellow writers was a joy.

Tonight, I looked back over the dozens of columns I’ve written for Jez since 2011 I winced at a few, ignored the comments on all, and found some of which I remain kinda proud. Here are my twelve favorites, in no particular order.

Is a Disney-Free Daughter Really a More Empowered One?

The Cheating Dads of Brooklyn

If It’s Not a Secret, It’s Not Safe: Girls, Boys and the Pleasure Paradox

Only Assholes Think You Won’t Sleep With Them Unless They’re Assholes

The Real Reason Older Men Want to Date You

‘Slut-Shaming Fatigue’: Because This Crap Has Got to Stop

The Right Way to Talk to Young Girls About Beauty

One Mistake Won’t Ruin Your Life. Remember That.

No One is Entitled To Sex: Why We Should Mock the Nice Guys of OK Cupid

Why Guys Really Hate Being Called Creepy

The Rise of the Needy Man

Why We Still Fall for the Myth of the Uncontrollable Boner

Shooting Tape: Sex, Editing, Masturbation, and Memory

NOTE: This is a sexually explicit piece and may not be what some readers want to read. I originally wrote this for the magazine Body Talk, and it appeared in their October 2011 issue. I retained rights to it, and repost a revised version now.

Shooting Tape

What’s hotter? The sex we have, or the sex we remember having?

I was 12 when I discovered how to masturbate late one summer night in 1979. What began as accidental exploration was quickly revelatory, and then — as it is for so many kids that age — it became my private source of pleasure and comfort. My fantasies were simple, and genuinely vague: I’d lie in bed, thinking about pretty classmates, fantasizing that I was watching them undress. (I was unclear, to about what ought to happen next, but I knew it involved lots of hot naked kissing, which is what I thought about.)

I had a few dates, but was a shy kid. I’d kissed two girls by the start of my senior year of high school, but nothing more. I was, not unlike many of my classmates an awkward, dorky, twitching bundle of longing.

And then, thanks to some mutual friends with a discerning eye for matchmaking, I met Michaela. (Name changed.)

Michaela and I went to different high schools, and could only see each other on weekends. We’d have sex in her bedroom on Friday and Saturday nights (she had a blessedly liberal mother), go to the beach or to the movies on weekend afternoons, and spend Monday through Thursday talking on the phone. During our time apart, I’d masturbate every night to the visual memory of what she and I had done together the previous weekend. Sometimes we’d have phone sex, but more often, I’d get off to the arousing images in my mind.

These memories were more exciting than porn could ever be. Thoughts of Michaela’s naked body popped into my mind while walking to school or sitting in class, unbidden and almost unbearably arousing. Thinking about what we had done mixed with excitement about what we soon do when we saw each other again. The straight As I got my senior year says more about the lenience of my teachers than about my intellectual focus. My mind was elsewhere.

Michaela and I had been sleeping together for about two months when it happened. We were having sex in her bed on a Friday night, and I remember a thought suddenly popped into my head:
I’m gonna love getting off to this next week.

Huh? I didn’t stop what I was doing with my girlfriend, but I remember my own surprise at myself. Michaela and I were sexually inventive and open by the standards of American high school students in the mid-80s. I told my friends the sex was great, and I meant it. But at 17, as randy as could be, I realized I got more physical pleasure from masturbating to the memory than from the actual sex with this young woman I loved.

Sex with real people is messy, and not just physically. Michaela and I fumbled, as people do, and sometimes we hurt each other, and not in a good way. Like so many young men, during sex itself I spent a lot of time worrying about my own performance rather than focusing on connecting to the woman I was with. All of that detracted from my pleasure – and all of that could be “edited out” in my masturbatory recollections.

Michaela and I had a lot of hot sex with each other, and, eventually, with other people. I had my first ménage a trois with her and a guy from her work; later, she encouraged me to “do everything but” with one of her good girlfriends while she watched. Though I’d started senior year as a virgin, by the time graduation came, I’d had quite a rapid learning curve. And though Michaela and I broke up when I went away to college, I took with me my now-extensive collection of “movies” – all of which lived in my head.

For years and years, through one-night stands I can’t count and a half-dozen long-term relationships, through three marriages and three divorces, the pattern didn’t change. Whatever and whomever I did, the real thing was never as hot as the subsequent recollection. By the time I was in my later 20s, I had a term for what I did when I had sex: “shooting tape.”

Living in L.A., I got the term from my friends in the TV industry. It fit what I did perfectly. I realized that I thought of the actual sex with other people as “raw footage”, and I the director, the camera operator – and eventually, crucially, the editor. The finished product was what I had in my head when it came time to have sex with myself, free from pressure and anxiety. The fear and the fumbling were on the cutting room floor; what was left was an exquisite highlight reel better than any porn video – and better than any reality itself.

I think masturbation is wonderful, life-enhancing, healthy. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with fantasy. But… I will say that for so many years, my relationships suffered because I preferred both masturbation and fantasy to the messy, complicated reality of connecting with another human being. It was only at 35, divorced for the third time and scared that I lacked the tools to ever connect intimately, that I began to take a hard look at how “shooting tape” had impacted my life.

In my next relationship, with the woman who became my fourth and (God willin’) my final wife, I tried something different. I decided I’d only give myself “permission” to masturbate when I was sure that I wasn’t using sex with this woman I loved to create new material. The results were almost embarrassingly immediate. And predictably, I was more present and connected. Even if my wife didn’t notice, I did.

The tapes are all still in my head, of course. Outside of the movies and the tragic reality of brain trauma, most of us don’t have a delete button on our memories (the theme of the wonderful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). I’ve got decades worth of “video” that I “shot” with a great many sex partners. Some tapes are more memorable than others. But those tapes still exist, I don’t bring them out often. I know better.

Fantasy stops being healthy when it becomes something with which our real-life lovers can never compete. And no real lover can compete with the carefully edited erotic images in our minds. If I’m going to stay fully present with my partner when we’re sexual together, I need to be present in mind as well as body. That means not replaying old tapes of past lovers – and it means not seeing the present experience as a mere opportunity to produce a hot new video for future private consumption.

If I want a passionate now, I need to keep the images of the past tucked away. But I also need to remind myself not to bring a mental camera to bed. I’m the best lover I can be when I stop performing, directing, and editing. And start being present.

“My sweet boy, my goy toy”: a debut piece of non-fiction at Jewrotica

From the confessional writing files: a true story about a brief grad school fling serves as my debut piece at Jewrotica. Check out My Sweet Boy, My Goy Toy and please note that the piece does contain sexually explicit scenes and may not be appropriate for all readers. AND NOT YOU, MOTHER.

Excerpt:

We ended up back in her apartment, kissing on the couch. She pulled my tucked polo shirt out of my jeans, her hands running up my torso, finding my nipples. I gasped, my own hand reaching up to cup her breast. Chana suddenly pulled back, pushed back her spectacularly tousled hair, and announced, “Wait. I need to ask you something.”

I was sure she was going to ask one of two things. Perhaps: was my divorce final? (It wasn’t.) Or: did I have a condom? (Not on me, but I was prepared to sprint to the nearest pharmacy.)

Instead: “Are you Jewish?”

I was stunned. My first thought was that she was trying to figure out if I was circumcised. But what an odd way and time to ask, I thought. “I’m half,” I replied, “my father is.” Chana nodded. “But not your mother?”

“No, she’s an atheist Episcopalian. Does it matter?”

Chana leaned forward, butting her head gently into my chest. I kissed her hair, waited. “This can never go anywhere serious,” she said, proceeding to explain – without ever raising her gaze to meet mine – that she was totally committed to her faith and her heritage and would only consider marrying a Jewish man. I stroked her hair while she talked, trying to figure out if I was flattered that this brilliant, gorgeous woman would consider marrying me – or if I was insulted that my mother’s background took me out of the running. Mostly, I was amazed. It was 1992! What serious academic (and Chana had extraordinary intellectual chops) made decisions based on religion?

I lifted Chana’s face to meet mine. I kissed her. “It’s okay if we can’t get serious,” I whispered, “I just want to enjoy this now.” She laughed. “I’m gonna hold you to that, baby; remember you said that.” She cocked her head to one side, studying me. I held her gaze, sensing that if I wavered, I’d be asked to leave. And then, without another word and in one fluid motion, she pulled my shirt up, over, and off.

Read the whole thing.

Election Memories

From before I was born, my mother was an active member of the League of Women Voters. In my family, we just called it the “League”. Mom, now well into her seventies, remains active with the Monterey Peninsula chapter, of which she is a past-president. I can remember helping my mother make coffee for Friday morning League meetings at our home. We would buy Pepperidge Farm cookies at the Safeway, and I was sufficiently trusted as a small boy to place the cookies carefully onto plates for the ladies (and occasional gentlemen) who would come for coffee, sugar, and animated conversation.

My mother frequently talked to my brother and me about voting. Indeed, she spoke of voting with what seemed to me to be genuine reverence. She took us to the polls with her many times; my first clear memory is of the June 1974 California gubernatorial primary. A very young Jerry Brown (my father had been his philosophy TA at Cal) won, but Mama backed the very decent William Matson Roth, an old-guard liberal of the sort that has all but vanished from our public life. (I shook Roth’s hand at a campaign rally at Monterey Peninsula Airpot — ’twas very exciting for me. His is still the face I visualize when someone says the word “politician”.)

My mother has voted at the same precinct for nearly 40 years, a little Episcopal church a couple of blocks from our Carmel home. In my childhood — and now — there were three or four temporary voting booths, each made of wood and cardboard for easy assembly. Each had a cloth curtain for privacy, concealing an average-sized voter down to his or her buttocks. As a boy, I have many memories of watching the back of my mother’s legs as she filled out her ballot. When she came out of the booth, she would hand the completed ballot (tucked into a small paper sleeve) to my brother or to me, and we would solemnly present it to the precinct captain, who would, with a great smile and not inconsiderable flourish, tear off the stub, hand it back, and then gently tuck the ballot into a big plastic crate. (As one might surmise, my brother and I fought a time or nine about which one of us would be given the privilege of handing over the ballot!)

One of the great frustrations of my life was the 1984 presidential election. I was to turn 18 in May, 1985 — six months too late to vote against Ronald Reagan. I can assure you that we were among the three families in Carmel by-the-Sea who strongly supported Jesse Jackson in the primary; we drove over to Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey one spring afternoon to hear the late, great Shirley Chisholm speak on the candidate’s behalf. Mom voted for Jesse in the primary and Mondale in the fall, and a handful of my fellow seniors at Carmel High were able to vote by the general election as well. (Most of us turned 18 just a wee bit too late.) In the mock election held in my civics class, Reagan beat Fritz Mondale by an even-bigger margin than he did in the real count. It was hard going being an avowed liberal at the time that “Reagan Youth” were in their ascendancy!

The first election I was able to vote in came in June ’85, only a week or so after I graduated high school and a month after I turned 18. It was a special election: a school board recall. Three members of the Carmel Unified School District Board were recalled after a brutal battle with faculty and staff. The real reason for the recall was bad blood over the board majority’s stand on union negotiations, but students had their own reason to be angry. Carmel High had always had an open-campus policy which allowed students to leave during lunchtime; the board majority had ended this forty-year old tradition just in time for my senior year, requiring seniors to stay on campus. (The rumors that prompted the switch to a closed campus revolved around one small group of students who drove to the beach to get high, and others who reportedly went home to have sex while their parents were at work.) I took great pleasure in being able to vote at last, and to vote to throw out the wretches who had imposed these draconian measures upon us. A community more sympathetic to teachers than to penned-in students nonetheless agreed to recall the board majority by a satisfyingly wide margin, and it was a happy introduction indeed to voting for me.

I am proud to say I have never missed an election. Since turning 18 in 1985, I have turned out (almost always in person, but sometimes absentee) for every election, no matter how minor. School board recalls, water board contests (that has a double meaning, figure it out), municipal polls in cities large and small. I have been registered at various times as a Democrat, a Republican, and a Green. Through four marriages, I voted in tandem with some wives and “cancelled out” the votes of others. I fill out my sample ballot as soon as it comes in the mail, and look forward to election days with anticipation and giddiness.

I have even voted — vaguely illegally — in Britain in 1999. I hold dual UK/USA citizenship, but voting in the UK requires one (not unreasonably) to have a residence in that country. Some countries do allow overseas citizens to vote, but not Britain. In June 1999, I was staying with Anna, my ex-sister-in-law who lived in a flat on the Herne Hill/Brixton border in South London. The European Parliament elections took place whilst I was visiting. One of Anna’s roommates was on vacation in Sri Lanka, and had left instructions that Anna was to find someone to vote in his place, using his name, in the MEP elections. That person, she reported, could vote for anyone except the Tories. Anna and I went to the polls together, and I represented myself as David-somebody-or-other, and got a ballot. I voted for the Liberal Democrats; they are the party in the UK more or less most closely aligned with my views. Anna voted Green. A simple ballot, just paper and pencil, no chads or computer printouts.

I am not a patriotic man. But I am a civic-minded one, and there is a difference. I say the Pledge of Allegiance perfunctorily, and I don’t put my hand over my heart for the anthem, but I never try and get out of jury duty and I never miss an election. I have no great love of country, but I have a strong sense of communal responsibility. Voting is an obligation as well as a right. It is not a privilege, but it is to be engaged in with a certain degree of solemnity, even if — as the remnants of my Mennonite faith remind me — the leaders whom I elect are just modern versions of Caesar.

Today, I’ll be voting with Eira and my children at the little retirement center next to our home. Both my children were born during the first Obama term (Heloise six days after he was inaugurated). This is my first presidential election as a father, and I’m excited that my daughter is old enough to accompany her parents as they vote. May she long remember this reverent exercise of civic religion.

And may she not know another president in her lifetime before January 20, 2017.

“Even When They Handcuff Me, They Always Call Me ‘Sir’”: on Privilege and Policing

An earlier version of this post appeared at the Good Men Project in 2011.

“I’m terribly sorry, sir, but you will have to come with us.”

Those were the words I heard the first time I was detained by police the spring semester of my sophomore year, caught with a small plastic film canister of cocaine in my pocket. The officer who cuffed me was firm but vaguely apologetic, an anachronistic quality that reminded me of the cops on Adam-12, one of my favorite childhood TV shows. I was placed in the back of a squad car, questioned for a few minutes while someone ran my history, and then released with a friendly warning. The coke was confiscated.

The last time I was handcuffed came just over a decade later; sheriff’s deputies broke down the door to my apartment to rescue me and my ex-girlfriend from what was for all intents and purposes a murder-suicide attempt using gas from the kitchen stove. (I’d called another friend to say goodbye, and she had wisely dialed 911.) I was drunk and high and half-addled from the huge amount of gas I’d inhaled, but momentarily able to stand. When one deputy handcuffed me, I said something to the effect that I wasn’t going to try and hurt him. One of the very few things I recall clearly from that night was his reply: “Sir, it’s not me I’m worried about right now. Why don’t you sit down?”

Though my parents raised me to have nice manners, I have no illusions that it is my particular personal charm that has – on these two occasions and several others – engendered such politesse from assorted officers of the law. (And forbearance: I’ve been “detained” and cuffed at least five times in my life, all before I was 31. But I was never actually arrested, much less charged with a crime.) I doubt it has much to do with a run of good luck, either. The deference and the genuine kindness I’ve been repeatedly shown have more to do with the color of my skin and my class than anything else.

In college, I had a roommate named Oscar. Mexican-American and dark-skinned, a first-generation college student, Oscar had none of my bad habits and (as far as I could tell) the same basic good manners that I did. Participating in an anti-apartheid protest our freshman year, Oscar had been roughed up by campus police when he resisted arrest – a charge he eloquently denied. He spent five days in jail and was eventually sentenced to probation and community service.

A little over a year later, in the fall of 1987, Oscar’s brother Sam had his skull fractured by sheriff’s deputies in a small Central Valley county jail. He’d been held on an open container violation – a lesser charge than the one for which I was detained but never arrested earlier that same year. Sam experienced severe seizures for the rest of his brief life. He committed suicide in 1989, not long after his brother and I graduated from college.

Oscar had been the first person to take me to church; after college, he stayed in touch with me for years as I struggled to get sober. After getting out of another nasty scrape, I repeated an old line about God showing special care for babies and drunks. Oscar– not unkindly but with an unmistakable edge — replied that the Lord seemed to be doing a much better job of it with white middle-class kids. “Any more cops apologizing and calling you ‘sir’, Hugo?”

Oscar had earned the right to be bitter, and to remind me that these second chances were due as much to white privilege as to divine grace.

That white middle-class privilege meant it took me a long time to learn that justice is not color-blind. Young men of color learn that lesson much earlier. In college and grad school, I was stunned by the stories of mistreatment and abuse at the hands of police that I heard from African-American and Latino students and colleagues. Their anecdotes of being stopped for “driving while black” or for “looking like a gangbanger” fit with the sad larger story of criminal justice in this country. Even now, black and Hispanic young men are far more likely to be arrested – and locked up for longer — than their white male counterparts. Though many individual cops are not bigots, only the hopelessly naïve or the deeply prejudiced could believe that these higher rates of incarceration are because young men of color simply commit far more crimes.

As someone concerned with sexual justice and ending rape, the reality of a racist justice system has shaped how I think about solutions to the problem of violence against women. Feminists and their allies have fought hard to stiffen penalties for domestic abuse and sexual assault. Getting law enforcement to take sexual violence seriously (and to stop slut-shaming survivors) is tremendously important. But while rapists deserve punishment (and, if possible, a chance for restorative justice), we should all be concerned that those punishments will be meted out more severely to poor and dark-skinned men.

The struggle to end sexual violence can proceed simultaneously on many fronts. We need to change hearts and minds as much as laws; we need to rethink our dim view of the male capacity for self-regulation and our outdated obsession with what rape victims wear. But ensuring that rape is taken seriously as a crime involves shifting the views of cops, D.A.s, and judges as well. If those of us who advocate for the victims of violence don’t remember that the prison-industrial complex punishes some perpetrators much more severely than others, we’re trying to solve one problem while compounding another.

This doesn’t mean that those who are in danger shouldn’t call the cops if they find themselves threatened. Discouraging the victims of rape and assault from involving the police because of institutionalized legal racism just compounds injustice; women should never be asked to protect their abusers with their own bodies. But those of us who advocate for women and children should partner with those who advocate for prison and policing reform. Fighting rape and racism needn’t be a zero-sum game.

I didn’t deserve to escape arrest for cocaine possession. I didn’t deserve to avoid prosecution for attempting to kill another person as well as myself. Sam didn’t deserve to have his skull beaten in for having an open can of Coors in his car. What we both deserved was respect, and what we both deserved was justice. Only one of us got the former, and arguably neither of us got the latter. Sam’s dead, and I got away too easily for too long. Our stories aren’t just anomalous anecdotes; they reflect patterns of policing that are old and enduring in this country. And those patterns need to change.

Clarisse Thorn on Change and Accountability

I’ve managed to get myself into two separate internet controversies this past week. In a very thoughtful post at Role/Reboot, Clarisse Thorn responds to the one that didn’t involve the Good Men Project. Here’s On Change and Accountability.

Excerpt:

Have you thought about these questions in your own life? I don’t mean abstractly, as an intellectual exercise. Concretely, and with intention. What would you do if, tomorrow, you found out that your best friend was a rapist? Your lover? What would you do if your sibling came to you to confess a terrible crime? To request absolution? To request accountability?

These questions are not just applicable to an individual like Hugo. They’re applicable to all of us, in all kinds of situations. And I think it’s wise for us to give them some thought before they come up … because in the heat of the moment, we can be overwhelmed by questions we could have thought our way around if we addressed them beforehand.

Do you believe people can change? And if you do believe it, then how would you help someone change?

I’m very grateful for Clarisse, and am sorry that she (and Jill Filipovic of Feministe) have endured so much calumny on my behalf this week.

Meanwhile,some folks think I’m the Ginsu Knife Set of Wrongness in Human Form. Some people’s answer to Clarisse’s first and penultimate questions is a clear and simple “no.”

Which Stories Can we Tell? Reflecting on Reaction to my “I Married a Lesbian” piece

Jezebel reruns my “I Married a Lesbian” piece, and as always, the commnents are plentiful and heated.

Several people have raised the question of whether I’m violating my second wife’s privacy by sharing this account. (One even suggests that “Courtney” has grounds to sue for libel.) In one sense, yes; I’m sharing a true and intimate story of a train wreck of a marriage, replete with some moderately graphic sexual details. On the other hand, there’s simply no way that my second ex-wife could be identified from my article. The chances of someone digging through records to find our marriage license (they’d have to know the county in which we were wed first) and discover her real name are slim indeed. We have no mutual friends, no one to “connect the dots”.

The dilemma of anyone who writes about his or her past is the same: how to tell the truth without harming the innocent. It’s a tough needle to thread. I have little doubt that “Courtney” would not be pleased if she read the story. But I don’t owe her my silence; I do owe her the right to keep her privacy. I think I’ve struck that balance.

At what point do the stories from our past, the ones that invariably involve others, become ours to tell? This was a discussion I had often with Carré Otis when I worked as her co-writer on her memoir, Beauty, Disrupted. (We changed some names, but we never altered the truth about what happened in her life.) Indeed, I wouldn’t have written this story about my marriage to a woman who later came out as a lesbian had I not had the experience of collaborating on Carré’s autobiography. I’m grateful for that shot of courage to tell the truth — just as I’m grateful that that commitment to candor has been tempered by the responsibility to preserve the dignity and anonymity of those who deserve both.

I welcome other perspectives.

My favorite carol

My favorite Christmas carol is the one that puts the lump in my throat every year at this time: “O du Fröhliche.” (Here’s an old Youtube clip of the Vienna Boys Choir singing a rather stately version.) Along with “The Holly and the Ivy”, “O du Fröhliche” would certainly make the upper end of any top ten list I compiled.

But I write this morning thinking of my father, for this was indisputably his favorite carol, and his memory of hearing it sung as a small boy is especially poignant. My father was born in Austria in 1935 to a Catholic mother and a Jewish father who had converted to Rome. After Hitler’s takeover of Austria in 1938, my grandparents took their children and fled successfully to England, living a refugee life in London, then Ellesmere Port, and finally rural Berkshire. (Most of the rest of my grandfather’s family perished.) When World War Two broke out, however, the British government interned my grandfather. A citizen of an enemy nation, it didn’t seem to matter — at least at first — that he was an ethnically Jewish refugee from Hitler. He was released after about a year, but spent the first Christmas of the war — 1939 — in what my father says was a reasonably comfortable camp in Scotland. (He was not interned with actual prisoners of war.) Women and children were not interned; England’s policy was apparently more lenient than that shown by the Americans to the Japanese.

That Christmas, when my father was four and a half or so, my grandmother took him and his older sister on a long train trip up to the north to visit my grandfather in his camp. My father remembers very little of the visit, but he does remember that the assembled internees (all of whom were either German or Austrian men) sang some Christmas songs. The last one they sang was “O du Fröhliche”, and my father remembers that his mother and many other grownups wept. For the rest of his life, he was very fond of the carol.

I’ve sung “O du Fröhliche” all my life. And I’ve heard many recordings. But the version I love best is one I’ve never heard. I often like to imagine the one which was sung in December, 1939 by dozens of German-speaking men, ranging from adolescence to late middle age, internees in spartan barracks in Scotland. I imagine their mostly unprofessional voices, and their faces as they gazed at their families who had come to spend a few Christmas moments with them. I think of my grandfather, a then 37 year-old physician, himself descended from a line of Moravian rabbis, but now a loyal son of Holy Mother Church; I imagine his mixed feelings at being safe from Hitler only to be shut away from his family in this strange northern country. And I imagine my father, not quite five, missing his daddy as I, a man of 44, miss mine this Christmas.

It’s a fine carol.

Merry Christmas.