What Do You Desire?
On a Monday last April, I stood in line at JFK Airport to board a plane to San Francisco. Before me stood a silver-headed West Coast businessman. His skin had the exfoliated, burnished sheen of the extremely healthy; his glasses were of an advanced polymer; he had dark jeans. He wore the recycled ethylene-vinyl acetate shoes that are said never to smell. His fleece coat was of an extraordinary thickness and quality, with a lissome external layer that would not pill. He seemed like the sort of man who would pronounce himself a minimalist and say that everything he bought was selected for its extraordinary craftsmanship and beautiful design. But the silver fox’s computer bag was a cheap thing with netting and buckles that said GOOGLE on it. The person in front of him in line wore a Google doodle T-shirt with Bert and Ernie where the Os would be. In front of him was a Google backpack.
Until I left San Francisco it never went away. It was embroidered on breast pockets, illustrated with themes of America’s cities, emblazoned on stainless-steel water bottles, on fleece jackets, on baseball caps, but not on the private coach buses that transported workers to their campus in Mountain View, where they ate raw goji-berry discs from their snack room and walked about swathed, priestlike, in Google mantles, with Google wimples and Google mitres, seeking orientation on Google Maps, Googling strangers and Google chatting with friends, as I did with mine, dozens of times a day, which made the recurrence of the logo feel like a supremacist taunt.
My first day in the city I sat in a sunlit café in the Mission District, drank a cappuccino, and read a paper copy of the San Francisco Chronicle that lay anachronistically on the counter. I overheard someone talking about his lunch at the Googleplex. “Quinoa cranberry pilaf,” I wrote down. And then, “coregasm.” Because that was the subsequent topic of discussion: women who have spontaneous orgasms during yoga. The barista was saying how wonderful it was that the issue was receiving attention, coregasms being something a lot of women experienced and were frightened to talk about. Those days were over.
The people of San Francisco were once famous for their refusal of deodorant and unnecessary shearing. Sometimes, walking down the street, past gay construction workers and vibrator stores, I was reminded that this was the place where Harvey Milk was elected (and assassinated), where the bathhouses had flourished (and closed). But most of the time I noticed only that the people of San Francisco appeared to have been suffused with unguents and botanical salves, polished with salts, and scented with the aromatherapeutics sold in the shops that lined Valencia Street. The air smelled of beeswax, lavender, and verbena, and the sidewalks in the Mission glittered on sunny days. The food was exquisite. There was a place in Hayes Valley that made liquid-nitrogen ice cream to order. I watched my ice cream magically pressured into existence with a burst of vapor and a pneumatic hiss. This miracle, as the world around me continued apace, just moms with Google travel coffee mugs talking about lactation consultants. Online, people had diverted the fear of sin away from coregasms and toward their battles against sugar and flour. “Raw, organic honey, local ghee, and millet chia bread taming my gluten lust,” was a typical dispatch. “Thank goodness for ancient grains.”
At night I was alone, and I would walk down the street listening to sermons in Spanish from the storefront churches and the electronic hum of the BART train below. The city was a dream world of glowing screens and analog fetishism, of Google, orgasms, stone fruits, and sparkles. A Greek chorus of the homeless and mentally ill connected these fragments into deeper conspiracies, until I began to see conspiracies myself. I would walk down the sidewalks of the Mission and note their glittery resemblance to my powdered blush in its makeup compact. “This sidewalk looks like Super Orgasm,” I would think, Super Orgasm being the name of the particular shade of blush I own. My makeup reveled in contemporary sexual politics: FOR HIM & HER read the sticker on the back of my paraben-free foundation. I contemplated a possible economic index comparing the cost of a pint of honey-lavender ice cream to the federal minimum hourly wage. I ran to Golden Gate Park, where giant birds of prey gazed hungrily upon glossy dachshunds. The cyclists passed in shoals, dressed in Google bicycle jerseys.
I had never had a coregasm and my sexual expectations conformed to widely held, government-sanctioned ideals. I was single, and now in my thirties, but I still envisioned my sexual experience eventually reaching a terminus, like a monorail gliding to a stop at Epcot Center. I would disembark, find myself face-to-face with another human being, and there we would remain in our permanent station in life: the future.
In San Francisco, people thought differently. They sought to unlink the family from a sexual foundation of two people. They believed in intentional communities that could successfully disrupt the monogamous heterosexual norm. They gave their choices names and they conceived of their actions as social movements. I had come to San Francisco to observe this sexual vanguard, but I did not think their lessons applied to me. “But what is your personal journey?” they would ask, and I would joke about this later with my friends.
Public Disgrace is an online pornography series that advertises itself as “women bound, stripped, and punished in public.” It is the creation of a 30-year-old San Francisco–based porn director and dominatrix named Princess Donna Dolore. Princess Donna conceived of the project in 2008, during her fourth year of working for the pornography company Kink.com. In addition to directing, Donna performs in the shoots, though she is not usually the lead.
When Princess Donna is scouting locations for Public Disgrace she looks for small windows (they need to be blacked out) and spaces (they need to look crowded). For outdoor shoots she usually works in Europe, where public obscenity laws are more forgiving. Before each shoot, Princess Donna coordinates with the female lead to establish what she likes or doesn’t like and produces a checklist of what the performer will take from her civilian audience. Some models are happy only with groping, some have rules against slapping, and some are willing to go so far as to be fingered or spit on by the audience.
For female performers, the draw of Public Disgrace lies in Donna’s directorial prowess. Princess Donna is an experienced orchestrator of complicated fantasies of group sex, public sex, and violent sex. Such situations tend to be, as Princess Donna puts it, “kind of tricky to live out in real life.” She is also a deft manipulator of the human body. Female performers trust her to extend the boundaries of their physical capacities.
The job description for Public Disgrace, posted at Kink.com, reads: “Sex between male dominant and female submissive; domination by female and male dom; secure bondage, gags, hoods, fondling, flogging, and forced orgasms with vibrators.” For four to five hours of work, performers earn between $1,100 and $1,300, plus bonuses for extra sex acts with cameo performers who can show a clean bill of health.
A week after I arrived in San Francisco, I attended a Public Disgrace shoot. The shoots are open to the public, a public that’s encouraged to actively participate. Novelty is important to the world of porn, so audience members are recruited through the internet but restricted to attending one shoot a year.
The venue of the shoot I attended, a bar called Showdown, was on a side street haunted by drug addicts and the mentally ill just south of the Tenderloin, next to a Vietnamese sandwich shop and a flophouse called the Winsor Hotel (REASONABLE RATES DAILY-WEEKLY). When I arrived, several people were standing under the red arrow outlined in yellow lightbulbs above the entrance, waiting to get in, including a group of young men and a heterosexual couple in their thirties. We signed releases, showed our photo IDs, and a production assistant took a mug shot of each of us holding our driver’s license next to our face. Then she gave us each two drink tickets that could be redeemed at the bar. “Depending on how wasted everyone seems to be I will give you more,” she promised.
That evening’s performer, a diminutive blonde who goes by the stage name Penny Pax, flew up to San Francisco from her home in Los Angeles especially for the Public Disgrace shoot. She had told Donna that one of the first pornos she ever watched was Public Disgrace, and since she got into the business herself she had been anxious to make one. Her personal request for the evening was that Princess Donna attempt to anally fist her.
The bar was a narrow room with a sense of history attached to it, of an older San Francisco that was a working-class mix of Irish and Italian immigrants. Old-fashioned smoked-glass lamps hung over the wooden bar. A color-copied picture of Laura Palmer from David Lynch’s television show Twin Peaks hung on the wall, next to a stopped clock with a fake bird’s nest in the cavity where a pendulum should have been. Behind the front area with the bar was a dark square room with black wallpaper patterned with alternating illustrations of two parrots on perches and a vase of flowers. The crew from Kink had rigged lighting overhead.
Princess Donna arrived with a small entourage, wearing a vacuum-tight black minidress that flattered her exceptionally perfect breasts. Donna is an extraordinary physical presence in any group of people, and her stature plays integrally into her authority. She is five foot seven with long, almost alarmingly thin limbs that make her seem taller. She has large, brown, Bambi-ish eyes that, the night of the shoot, were complexly shadowed and wreathed in fake eyelashes, which Kink purchases in quantities of several hundred at a time. Her long brown hair was tied up in a high ponytail. She has a tattoo of a biologically correct heart on her left shoulder and a cursive inscription that says DADDY on her inner right forearm. She strode into the room carrying a black vinyl purse from which a riding crop protruded. With her minidress she wore tan cowboy boots, which made the length of her legs appear heron-like. A neck bruise the size of a silver dollar that I had noticed during my first meeting with her a week before had faded.
Donna stood before the bar with the palindromically stage-named male performer, Ramon Nomar, surveying the room. He pointed up to several hooks on the ceiling and to a metal Juliet balcony over the bar. Donna nodded without a word. They retreated to the back. I asked a production assistant where the female performer was. Penny Pax, she said, was having “quiet time.”
Soon, the music was silenced (Kink had its own music, cleared of rights, to play). The bartender removed his gingham shirt and his tie and suddenly was wearing nothing but his waistcoat. Donna came out to make some announcements to the assembled crowd, which was well on its way to getting soused.
“You might think we are doing things to the model that are mean or humiliating, but don’t,” said Donna. “She’s signed an agreement.” According to the agreement, the crowd had permission to poke the model, fondle her, and finger her, but only if they washed their hands and had neatly trimmed fingernails. A fingernail trimmer was available if necessary. “I’m going to be watching you like a hawk to make sure you’re not doing degrading things to her pussy,” Donna said. She continued: “You’re allowed to spit on her chest but not her face. You can give her a hard spanking but you are not allowed to give her a hard smack.” She pulled her production assistant over to her physically. “If Kat is the model”—here Kat bent over obligingly—“this would be a reasonable distance from which to spank her.” Donna mimed responsible spanking practice.
The model, Donna went on to explain, could not leave the set bruised because she had another shoot coming up this week. Donna said that therefore at some point she might have to forbid certain practices to ensure Penny’s body remained unmarked.
Donna concluded her speech with a more theoretical exposition. The whole point of Public Disgrace, she explained, is that it’s supposed to seem spontaneous, and that “you guys are not supposed to know that we’re coming here.” Taking video was forbidden, photographs with phones were fine, but the most important thing: “Don’t ignore us. I’m going to walk her in with a sign that says I’M A WORTHLESS CUNT. So react to that.” She repeated that nail clippers and files were available for anyone who wanted them and reminded the audience to wash their hands in the bathroom before touching the model. Then she returned to the back room.
A few minutes later Donna emerged with Penny Pax and Ramon in tow. Penny was small, just over five feet tall, with full natural breasts, milky white skin, and a chin-length bob of cornsilk blond. Her eyes were the rich azure of a blue raspberry Blow Pop. She was very pretty, and decidedly not plastic or spray-tanned. She looked like a model in a JCPenney catalog. She wore a denim miniskirt, white high heels, and a white tank top. Donna looked her over, then deftly pulled the straps of Penny’s tank top off her arms and folded them down. She spun Penny around, unhooked her white padded bra, and tossed it to one side. From a black duffel bag under a table Donna picked up and put back various coils of rope, judging the weight and length of each one. Meanwhile Ramon stared—the only word for it is lovingly—at Penny’s breasts, which hung pendulously down, stretch marks visible. Grabbing them, Donna executed a complicated-looking tie, uplifting the breasts to bra elevation by winding the rope around each one. She pulled the straps of Penny’s tank top back over her shoulders, then tied Penny’s arms behind her back.
“Look at that,” said Donna, surveying her work and turning Penny around. “You look gorgeous.” Meanwhile Ramon stepped in and looked over Penny with the tender carnivorousness of a dime-store bodice-ripper. He ran his hand over Penny’s body from behind, turned her around and examined her, kissed and inhaled her hair, then put his hand up her skirt and began feeling her while staring intently at her body. This was his way of preparing for the shoot. Ramon was from Spain and had a sharp accent. He rarely smiled. He wore a tight black T-shirt that showed off his impressive pectorals, black pants, and black combat boots. He was just over six feet tall, tan, and sculpted like an Iberian Bruce Willis. This was an attractive couple. Donna hung a sign, which indeed read I’M A WORTHLESS CUNT, around Penny’s neck, then grabbed Penny roughly by the hair and took her out the door.
Now the cameras were recording. Now we could redeem our drink tickets. The bar was full, mostly with men. These men I would divide into two groups: the openly slavering, confident about the righteousness of their lust, and the self-conscious, worried about breaking the taboos of touching and insulting a woman. They were joined by a smattering of females, some of whom were there with their boyfriends, others who had come together in pairs. Donna had exchanged her cowboy boots for patent leather high heels and now strode through the door purposefully, she and Ramon on either side of Penny, who looked up at her tall handlers with baleful blue eyes.
“Tell everybody why you’re here,” ordered Donna, as the people drinking at the bar feigned surprise. “I’m a worthless cunt!” said Penny. Using some kind of professional wrestling trick, Ramon lifted her up by her neck and sat her on the bar. Working together, Donna and Ramon stuffed a cocktail napkin in her mouth and taped it into a gag, taking turns slapping her on her face and her breasts. They ripped off her spotless white tank top. The rope had cut off circulation to Penny’s breasts and they looked painfully swollen.
“Who wants to touch it?” asked Donna. “Who wants to play with this worthless little cunt?” The bar patrons obligingly hit, fingered, and spanked her. From her handbag, from which the riding crop still menacingly protruded, Donna now withdrew a device that crepitated electric sparks and started shocking Penny with it. Ramon removed what remained of Penny’s clothes, then his belt, and began gently swiping it at Penny, who was soon pinioned on the floor.
“I thought it was your dream,” goaded Donna. “I thought it was your dream to shoot for this site. You didn’t come ready?” She looked around the room. “What’s her name?” she demanded. “Everyone knows what her name is.”
“Worthless cunt!” yelled the crowd.
“What pretty girl wants to grab her titties?” A woman in attendance obliged. Ramon took off his pants, balancing on each foot as he pulled them over his combat boots. He was not wearing any underwear; his penis looked like the trunk of a palm tree. The bar patrons burst into applause.
He picked Penny up and had sex with her against the bar as the extras continued to smack at her breasts. Penny, still gagged, was wide-eyed. Her mascara had begun to run in rivers down her face. She had the option of halting everything with verbal and nonverbal cues but she did not exercise it. Suddenly Donna stopped the show. “Everyone, I have an announcement,” Donna said, as she removed the ropes still tied around Penny’s breasts. “No more smacking this boob,” she said, pointing to the right one, which had red marks on it. They resumed shooting.
Ramon, who had biceps like cannons, hoisted Penny around the room and the crowd followed, vying with one another for a good sightline. He was able to walk around holding Penny in one arm, wielding the zapper in the other. “Zap me!” requested a male audience member. Ramon rolled his eyes and did so without breaking rhythm. “Ouch,” said the guy, looking sore. Ramon removed Penny’s gag and guided her into a blowjob, during which Penny theatrically gagged. Donna stood by, slapping and shocking, and then tag-teamed in. Using her hands, she made Penny ejaculate, to the delight of the crowd. After fifteen or twenty minutes, Donna called for a break.
Paused in the middle of his exertions Ramon looked up at the ceiling with a look of super-intense concentration. Penny was on the floor. He picked her up and sat her on the bar. He and Donna tenderly tucked her hair back from her face and wiped off her sweat and the grime from the floor with Cottonelles. Donna, like a trainer during a boxing match, removed Penny’s false eyelashes, gave her water, and kissed her on the cheek. During this reprieve from shooting, the crowd, which had been as verbally abusive as directed, seemed sheepish.
“You are beautiful and I’d take you to meet my mother!” yelled one man who had been particularly enthusiastic about yelling “worthless cunt.” Ramon asked for a drink. “What do you want?” said the bartender. “A soda,” said Ramon. “Porno guy wants a soda!” echoed the loud man.
When shooting resumed, a female audience member, heavily tattooed and wearing a miniskirt and a ragged T-shirt that had two skeletal hands printed across her breasts, had a go at Penny’s body. Things continued in this way for more than an hour. Chairs were knocked over. Drinks were spilled. The bartender had by now removed his vest and was shirtless. The crowd was drunk and excited, although not entirely unembarrassed. “Make that bitch choke,” shouted the shouty man. Then: “Sorry!”
Donna began to wind things down. “OK guys,” she said, to prepare the audience, “the pot shot’s not the end though.” The crowd cheered. With the cameras off, Ramon and Penny had vanilla missionary sex on a table to get to the point where he could ejaculate. He nodded when he was ready, then put Penny on the floor, and masturbated until he came on her face. Again the room burst into applause.
The performers took a break. Ramon’s job was now done. With the room’s attention focused on Penny he yanked off his sweaty T-shirt, flung it into a corner, and wandered off into a dark part of the bar, naked but for his combat boots. Like a long-distance runner who has just crossed the finish line, he walked it off, moving his arms in circles, wiping the sweat from his face with his arm, and taking deep breaths. Nobody noticed him. Eventually he recovered his composure, toweled off, and put his black jeans back on. Penny, meanwhile, rested primly on a chair and sipped water. Her expression was, in a word, elated.
I joined Donna at the bar. What was going to happen next?
“I want to get my hand all the way in her ass,” she said. “She’s never done that before and she wants to try it.”
Princess Donna sat Penny Pax down on a bar table. She had a Hitachi Magic Wand and a bottle of lubricant. “I need all the room that’s in her holes for my hand,” she announced, and the audience deferentially took a step back. After Donna accomplished her task, the crowd chanted, “Squirt, squirt, squirt, squirt,” and then Penny did. I watched all this from a corner, standing next to Ramon, who had a towel around his bronzed shoulders and was drinking a bottle of pilsner.
Shooting was coming to a close. Donna and Ramon moved Penny back to the bar and strung her up by her wrists to the metal balcony. I saw Donna in a corner, carefully wiping down a beer bottle with a sanitizing wipe. And that was the final shot of the evening: Penny tied up and suspended from the railings of the balcony by her wrists, while a member of the audience penetrated her with a beer bottle. Ramon, now shirtless and in jeans, casually sparked the zapper across his pectoral muscles a couple of times, then reached out and zapped Penny on the tongue she offered to him with a scream. Then it was done. With a debonair flourish, Ramon effortlessly picked up the tiny starlet and carried her out of the room in his arms.
Kink interviews its female performers before and after every shoot. It’s a de-escalation strategy that reminds the viewer—if he watches it (Kink does not release the demographics of its audience, but studies have found that 98 percent of paid porn is watched by men)—of the controlled conditions of what he just watched, and confirms that the activity was consensual and that the model has recovered. Penny wandered out for her postgame interview wearing pink glasses, a gray bathrobe, and a pair of Uggs. But for her smeary mascara, she looked like a college student on her way to a dormitory bathroom. Donna arranged Penny’s bathrobe to reveal her breasts. Other than that, like most postgame interviews with athletes, this one was a little bland.
So, Penny, how did you enjoy the shoot this evening?
I had a great time, it was amazing. There was so much going on.
HECKLING AUDIENCE MEMBER #1
I actually want to take you out for lunch later!
HECKLING AUDIENCE MEMBER #2
You have really pretty eyes!
All right everybody, hold on. Tell me what your favorite parts were.
Probably, uh, just the getting handled by everyone and not really knowing how many hands were on me, or who was touching me . . . And then the—I don’t know, did you get your fist in my butt?
Well, that was awesome. Yay! I can’t wait to see it!
Yeah, that was rad. Round of applause for the anal fisting!
And you also said that you had never squirted like that before?
Yeah, that was ridiculous. How did you do that?
Magic fingers. Years of practice.
Yeah, it was amazing.
What were the most challenging parts?
Uh, probably putting your fist in my butt? That was pretty challenging. It felt really full.
On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate your happiness leaving the shoot?
So is it safe to say that you would come back and shoot for the site again?
Do you want a shower?
Penny Pax nods.
Let’s get you a shower!
MALE AUDIENCE MEMBER
A golden shower!
FEMALE AUDIENCE MEMBER
Can I come?
After this conclusion, Penny and I retreated to a stairwell behind the bar. Penny, I learned, is 23 years old. I asked if she had been working in the industry since she was 18. No, she said, she wishes. She had only been in the industry for six months. Before working in porn she was a lifeguard in Fort Lauderdale. Being a lifeguard in Fort Lauderdale had been pretty boring. I asked her about the shoot. I wanted to know how it had felt.
“It’s a little uncomfortable in the beginning, for the anal,” she said. (She was presumably referring to a moment early in the shoot when Ramon jumped up on the bar, stuffed a lemon in Penny’s mouth, and had anal sex with her. “Nice boots, man!” someone in the audience yelled. Penny made a nonverbal cue to slow down and Donna jumped over and slathered her with lubricant.) “But my body warms up pretty quickly and then there’s no discomfort.” Slightly incredulous, I asked if there were moments then of genuine pleasure. She looked at me like I was crazy. “Yeah. Like the whole thing! The whole thing.” She apologized for not being more articulate and explained she was in a state of delirium. “We call it ‘dick drunk.’”
I rode back to the Mission in a van with Donna and Penny and Ramon. Penny and Ramon were both sleeping over at the landmarked Moorish castle that houses Kink. They usually work in mainstream porn in San Fernando Valley, but enjoy coming to San Francisco. In the shoot he was doing tomorrow for New Sensations in Los Angeles, Ramon lamented, they wouldn’t even let him pull the girl’s hair. I surmised that making more extreme pornography if you’re a performer is like wanting to write like Beckett if you’re a writer.
I left Penny and Ramon wandering the lobby in their gray bathrobes and stepped out into the cold San Francisco night. I walked west to Valencia Street, where I found a scene of unexpected destruction. Broken glass filled the sidewalks. The windows of every storefront—TACA Airlines, an adjacent property management company, the boutique after that, and on down the street—had been shattered. The windshields of the cars lining the street had been systematically bludgeoned. A new apartment complex under construction had FUCK THIS SHIT spray-painted on a column. I stared at the hanging fragments of glass and the garbage bins tipped over on the sidewalk. Then I crossed to the undamaged side of the street and bought myself an ice cream sandwich. I asked the cashier what had happened. He described a dozen protesters dressed in black. The following day was May 1. I knew strikes were planned in Oakland, but on this side of the Bay nobody had seemed particularly interested in Occupy Wall Street.
I took some photos of the destruction and posted them to the websites of the great technology corporations with written exclamations of bafflement. Then I deleted the posts. I tried to think about the sex I had just watched. In the early years of broadband internet, Frontline had made a documentary called “American Porn.” (“It’s a multibillion-dollar industry—and growing. In a wired world, can anything stop it?”) After interviewing various porn industry stalwarts, the male anchor had attended a shoot not unlike the one I just watched and had walked out in disgust. While I certainly worried about what I had seen, I could not find it in myself to feel that level of indignation. I ate my ice cream sandwich and went to sleep.
Over the course of the next several weeks I watched Princess Donna direct and star in more films. I watched her perform in a roller-derby-themed episode of a series called Fucking Machines where she wielded a drill retrofitted with a giant dildo. I watched her train for her new role as director of a Kink property called Ultimate Surrender, a girl-on-girl wrestling tournament. For three eight-minute rounds, two women wrestled each other. The goal was for one woman to pin the other and molest her for as long as possible. For the fourth round, the winner has sex with the loser wearing a strap-on dildo. It’s one of Kink’s most popular properties and is sometimes shot before a live studio audience. Princess Donna also directs a series called Bound Gangbangs, and one day was inspired to do a shoot where all the men were dressed as panda bears. I watched this too, and was surprised to find it beautiful.
I, personally, was not having sex while all this was going on. Not that the sex I would’ve had, if I’d been having sex, would’ve been anything like the sex that was going on at the Kink castle. The Kink actors were more like athletes, or stuntmen and -women performing punishing feats, and part of what fascinated me was the ease with which they went in and out of it, the comfort with which they inhabited their bodies, their total self-assurance and sense of unity against those who condemned their practice. I possessed none of those qualities.
I had made no conscious decision to be single, but love is rare and it is frequently unreciprocated. Because of this, people around me continued to view love as a sort of messianic event, and my friends expressed a religious belief that it would arrive for me one day, as if love was something the universe owed to each of us, which no human could escape. I had known love, but having known love I knew how powerless I was to instigate it or ensure its duration. Whether love was going to arrive or not, I could not suspend my life in the expectation of its arrival. So, back in New York, I was single, but only very rarely would more than a few weeks pass without some kind of sexual encounter.
What even to call these relationships? Most of my friends had slept with one another and I had slept with many friends, too. Sometimes years separated sexual encounters. Things thought buried in the past would cycle around again, this time with less anxiety and greater clarity, in a fluid manner that occasionally imploded in horrible displays of pain or temporary insanity, but which for the most part functioned smoothly. We were souls flitting through limbo, piling up against one another like dried leaves, circling around, awaiting the messiah.
After a decade or so of living this way, with occasional suspensions for relationships that would first revive my belief in romantic love and its attendant structures of domesticity, and then once again fail and extinguish them, I started finding it difficult to revere the couple as the fundamental unit of society. I became a little ornery about it, to be honest: that couples paid lower taxes together, that they could afford better apartments, that there were so few structures of support to ease the raising of a child as a single person, that the divorced experience a sense of failure, that failed marriages are accompanied by so much logistical stress on top of the emotional difficulties. All this because we privilege a certain idea of love. The thought of the natural progression of couples, growing more and more insular, buying nicer and nicer furniture, shutting down the world, accruing things, relaxing into habit, scared me. As I grew older, I found it difficult to distinguish romantic love from other kinds of connections: the platonic love for the friends I did not want to have sex with, the euphoric chemical urges toward people I had sex with but did not love. Why was love between couples more exceptional? Because it attached itself to material objects, and to children? Because it ordered civilization? I probably would not have a baby without love, and buying a home seemed impossible for all kinds of reasons, but I could have sex. I had a body.
A few weeks before I decided I should go to California and watch people make porn, this revised outlook toward my prospects—that I did not need to see my life as an unanswered question, in permanent suspension for the answer of a relationship—resulted in deliberate immersion in New York’s sexual fray. A relationship had ended, I kept running into old friends, I was internet dating; it was all happening. Then all of it imploded. First, I inadvertently caused someone emotional devastation. Second, I was told I might have been exposed to chlamydia. Third, I therefore might have given chlamydia to someone else. Fourth, and this really was the worst part, I received an email from an acquaintance that accused me of destroying her friend’s relationship.
The next day, sitting in the packed waiting room of a public health clinic in Brooklyn for the un- and underinsured, I watched a clinician lecture her captive, half-asleep audience on how to put on a condom. We waited for our numbers to be called. In this cold, adult daylight, I examined what I had done. I thought about the suggestion, in the email from my acquaintance, that I “stop pantomiming thrills” and “starkly consider the real, human consequences of my real-life actions.” A single person’s need for human contact should not be underestimated. Surrounded on all sides by my imperfect fellow Americans, I thought many were also probably here for having broken some rules about prudent behavior. At the very least, I figured, most people in the room knew how to use condoms.
The clinician responded with equanimity to the occasional jeers from the crowd. She respectfully said “no” when a young woman asked if a female condom could be used “in the butt.” After her lecture, while we continued to wait, public health videos played on loop on monitors mounted on the wall. They dated from the 1990s, and dramatized people with lives as disorderly as mine, made worse by the outdated blue jeans they wore. The brows of these imperfect people furrowed as they accepted diagnoses, admitted to affairs, and made confessional phone calls on giant cordless phones. Men picked each other up in stage-set bars with one or two extras in fake conversation over glass tumblers as generic music played in the background to signify a party-like atmosphere, like a porn that never gets to the sex. They later reflected on events in Real World–style confessional interviews. From our chairs, all facing forward in the same direction, awaiting our swabbing and bloodletting, we witnessed the narrative consequences. (One of the men has a girlfriend! And gonorrhea! Now he has to tell his girlfriend that he’s bisexual and that he has gonorrhea!) The videos did not propose long-term committed relationships as a necessary condition of adulthood, just honesty. They did not recriminate. The New York City government had a technocratic view of sexuality.
The federal government had different expectations. Following the phone call I had looked up chlamydia on Google, which led me to the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The government suggested that the best way to avoid chlamydia was “to abstain from vaginal, anal, and oral sex or to be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is known to be uninfected.” Porn might be a fantasy, but at least it is not a fantasy that defies all interpretation. The suggestion of abstinence came with a more realistic reminder to use condoms. I usually used condoms, but this time I had not used a condom, so now I used antibiotics. When the lab results came back weeks after my visit to the Brooklyn clinic it turned out I did not have chlamydia. None of us had chlamydia.
Still, I didn’t have sex again for nearly seven months.
The women at Kink came to porn for various reasons. Bobbi Starr, a 29-year-old who won Adult Video News’s Female Performer of the Year award in 2012, was raised in a Pentecostal Christian family in San Jose, California, and was homeschooled until middle school. She trained as a swimmer, competed in the Junior Olympics, and earned a scholarship to study music at San Jose State University. Although she had always considered herself sexually adventurous, she was 22 years old and working as a classical musician when she watched porn for the first time. Sitting down with a male friend, who was surprised at her lack of awareness, she watched several videos, including one called Bong Water Butt Babes. Very little needs to be said about this video except that the bedroom set is covered in sheets of plastic. Starr was mesmerized, applied for a job at Kink, enjoyed the bondage work, and within a year got an agent and moved to Los Angeles.
I asked her about pain. She recalled an “authentic BDSM experience” she had with a Kink dominatrix named Maitresse Madeline. “I had my head in the pit and she was flogging me and caning me and single-tailing me and doing all these really, really intense corporal activities with me and then she started tickling me and I just completely broke,” she said. “At some point I came out and just cried on her chest and then she started crying.” She described the experience as cathartic. “Through her dominating me and me subbing to her we had this really unique experience. I think that she and I are better partners, we have a better working relationship because of it, I think we have a better friendship because of it, I think it’s easier for us to communicate.”
One day, I watched Princess Donna have her makeup done for a shoot with the porn phenom James Deen. (The first male porn star of the internet age to amass a vocally enthusiastic following among women, James Deen’s popularity seems explicable not by his slight physique but by the way he gazes at his partners and whispers urgently in their ears—he manages to convey genuine, ardent desire. In real life he reminded me of the boy in the eighth grade who went around snapping girls’ bra straps.) Another model wandered in, a lanky woman wearing hot pants and a bra that enclosed each breast in its own beribboned dirndl. A tattooed tendril of morning glories climbed the length of her very long leg. Donna introduced her to me as Rain DeGrey, and told me that she, Donna, had directed Rain’s first shoot five years ago.
We went into a sort of lounge in the next room that had wall-to-wall carpeting and sofas. On one sofa a young woman with wet hair, wearing a gray bathrobe, barely out of adolescence if at all, sat painting her toenails a vivid sapphire. Her stage name was Katherine Cane. Rain DeGrey sat on a chair in front of me, applying sedimentary layers of Jergen’s bronzer as we talked.
Rain DeGrey described herself as a “24–7 lifestyle kinkster” and “pansexual.” She told me that for years she had denied the fact that bondage and flogging turned her on. She knew that even in the Bay Area it was not something you could just tell people, that she would be judged for her preference.
“Finally you’re like, ‘Hey, it’s OK if normies think I’m a freak,’” she told me. “And the day that I came out as kinky I felt fifty pounds lighter.” One day, she was tied up in her local dungeon, The Citadel, getting flogged by a friend, when someone suggested she try to do some of this stuff professionally.
Her first shoot was for the Kink site Wired Pussy, which at the time was under Donna’s direction. For the first scene they shot together, Donna stood over Rain DeGrey with a cattle prod. Donna told her if she moved the shoot would end.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to sit still on your hands and knees and not move while someone cattle prods you,” said Rain.
Five years later, Rain DeGrey, who does not have a college degree, has bought herself a four-bedroom house with her earnings from Kink. She is very grateful to Donna for her counsel and support.
“I was actually on set for her Bound Gangbangs that she did, where she took on eight dicks.” Rain stood up. She proceeded to demonstrate a play-by-play of everything that had happened, which ended with Donna on the floor, “this little, limp, sweaty, fucked rag doll. James Deen’s just kicking her as hard as he can and she loves it.”
Rain DeGrey returned to her chair and resumed her ceaseless application of self-tanning lotion. The chemical baby-powder scent of it wafted over us. I said nothing.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever had cum in your eyes?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“That’s like a super-duper hard limit for me,” said Katherine Cane, shaking her head in dismay.
“It blinds you,” said Rain.
“It stings horribly,” said Katherine.
“Do you realize the dedication that takes?” asked Rain. “That’s how committed she is.”
Committed to what? To getting guys sitting in their studio apartments to jerk off to you for $30 a month? Not an insignificant accomplishment, but enacting a fantasy of violence for personal reasons was one thing; doing so for money was another. I held my tongue, and Rain continued.
“We’re told our entire lives how fragile and delicate our bodies are,” she said. She adopted a tone of mock concern. “‘Don’t go out late at night, someone might mug you.’ ‘You’ve got to be careful, bad things will happen to you.’ And there’s a certain liberation in challenging your body, and getting beaten or distressed in some way and realizing you’re actually tougher than you realized.”
She looked over at Katherine, who had finished her pedicure and had her toes out in front of her. “Know what I mean?”
“Exactly,” Katherine responded.
“It is a very empowering experience to realize you’re not as fragile as you’ve been told your whole life,” said Rain.
“But it’s just as empowering to let yourself break down, in my opinion, because you go to a place that is so vulnerable and scary that a lot of people don’t want to acknowledge it because it’s your weakest point possible,” said Katherine.
“The vulnerability,” agreed Rain.
“Like you’re safe to be your completely base, your most broken-down, crying, you can’t even talk.”
I didn’t say anything, but here’s what I thought: there was no great truth about the human condition that I would discover through celibacy.
Princess Donna makes a lot of porn: on average she does a couple of shoots a week, and she’s been directing for eight years. Unsurprisingly, she sometimes gets bored and wants to try something different. When Princess Donna proposes a project, her boss, Kink CEO Peter Acworth, must approve it. Sometimes there are conflicts. Early in her career Donna proposed doing a series called Dirty Girls, which she described to me as “like girl–girl sex, but like rough sex, but not with, like, a dom/sub relationship but just like going at it, with like fisting and spitting and dunking people’s heads in toilets, lots of anal, stuff like that.” Acworth decided not to give the green light, but Kink thought the request was interesting enough that they posted an online debate between Donna and Acworth.
So the fisting is really the most important thing to you.
Clearly a lot of people like fisting and girls dominating each other and spitting on each other. It’s still pretty extreme.
I don’t know how much for the male customers . . . you know for the male viewer I don’t know how much fisting actually adds to it.
I’ve had so many male viewers ask me for fisting. Like on Insex [Donna’s previous employer] when I worked there they were always like, yeah, “fisting fisting fisting fisting.” I think there’s a lot of guys who think fisting is hot. I think you don’t think it’s hot.
Donna then proposed a lesbian gangbang site, which also did not pass, and then started experimenting with the tactics that would go on to become Public Disgrace. She started while still filming Wired Pussy, doing a series of shoots in New York where she would wire up the performer and shock her under her clothes in public places. These were popular, so Donna did a Wired Pussy shoot where she invited members of the public. Eventually she got the go-ahead to make Public Disgrace a recurring series.
I had insisted to myself that I wanted a long-term, committed relationship, of the kind celebrated by the CDC and most happy endings (of the narrative sort). I had decided that any other kind of sexual relationship was a “waste of time.” Having committed myself to a limited worldview I saw not as limited but rather as dignified and adult, I was able to distance myself from the very question I had gone west to investigate—one that was turning into a major question of my adult life: if love could not be relied upon to provide an idyllic terminus to one’s sexual history, and naive performative attempts at a noncommittal sex life resulted only in health scares and hurt feelings, how best to still carry out a sexual existence?
In San Francisco, the right to be a lawfully wedded couple was not taken for granted, but this question was still pursued with a cheerful, pragmatic determination. It came accompanied by Google spreadsheets, jargon, discussion groups, community centers, dietary changes, and hallucinogens. San Francisco’s sexual vanguard might overuse words like “consciousness” and “mindfulness,” but the success of their politicization of sex had repercussions that reached across the country. The mind-set could sometimes seem grim, or at least all that talking kind of dampened the feeling of spontaneity. But they meant it: “Polyamory is a decolonizing force,” one person explained to me. “If you want to transform society, it includes our intimate relations.”
I met with everyone I could. I met a group of Google employees in their early twenties, beneficiaries of the country’s most elite educational institutions, now applying their sharp minds to the investigation of multiple concurrent relationships. They all did yoga, were extremely attractive, and accompanied their sexual experimentation with controlled consumption of psilocybin mushrooms and MDMA. They spoke of primary and secondary relationships, and described a world in which jealousy and possessiveness were the sins to overcome. I attended the cult-like meetings of a group of people who have devoted themselves to the female orgasm. After a “game” at one meeting, where I stood directly in front of a male stranger who looked in my eyes and repeatedly demanded answers to the question “WHAT DO YOU DESIRE?” for several minutes, I went home, drank almost a full bottle of wine, and wept.
I took the train across the Bay to Oakland for a quiet dinner with several anarchists, to talk about anarchist ideas of sexuality. They all wore black and spoke of their decisions with a seriousness that my friends in New York might have had derided. The anarchists cooked kale and dressed their pasta with cashew pesto from a jar. Oakland’s soft summer warmth came as a welcome relief from San Francisco’s miserable microclimates. We dined with the windows open and the evening sun flooding into an apartment lined with books.
In another part of Oakland I met with a radical queer activist who had a platonic partner, a sexual partner, and a rotating cast of people with whom she “played.” (The really tough part, she admitted, was the scheduling.) I asked if her platonic partner was not just her roommate, or a friend, but she explained that it involved a deeper commitment: going to holidays at each other’s family homes, caring for each other when sick—everything expected of a husband or wife except for the sex. It wasn’t any easier than marriage, either: they were in couples’ therapy.
In the past twenty years, in San Francisco especially, the celebration of choice over systems has coincided with the advent of new technology and an influx of money and entrepreneurs. One result has been the healthy, humane workplaces presented by Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the other Bay Area companies and their acceptance of individual expression in the corporate workplace and of families in all their forms. These changes made for a better working experience, but they also made it easier to complacently watch the flourishing of unfamiliar digital monopolies, to partake in the consumer delights produced by unprecedented inequality with a mistaken sense of political agency, and to pay to watch a woman get gangbanged on the internet with a clean conscience, because the producers used the rhetoric of the fair and just. The ghosts of the formerly ostracized, including the untimely dead, haunted the city. The general consensus was that we honored the dead and the formerly oppressed by enacting the present utopia.
The wealth and the corporate culture that produced it defied the old models of good and bad. Google’s motto, “Don’t be evil,” had been adopted across a range of industries. Evil, unfortunately, remained loosely defined: we would know it when we saw it. But all we saw on our computers were our photographs, our friends, our broken hearts, our writing, our search terms, our sexual fetishes.
The friendly blandness of Google’s interface bestowed blessing on the words that passed through its sieve. On Google, all words were created equal, as all ways of choosing to live one’s life were equal. Google blurred the distinction between normal and abnormal. The answers its algorithms harvested assured each person of the presence of the like-minded: no one need be alone with her aberrant desires, and no desires were aberrant.
Googling “tiny blonde tied up and ass fucked in public” will lead you to a video I saw recorded in San Francisco one April evening. In life, the sex I saw there did not upset me, but when I arrive at the video via Google I want to turn it off. The whole motivation of our new sexual paradigm might be to ensure that nobody will be alienated, but porn is a medium where the expression of one person’s happy sex life can easily shade into another person’s estrangement.
I watched how my friends became anxious when the subject of porn came up. Some people enjoyed watching it as part of a daily routine. Some felt enslaved by their desire for it. Others saw their real-world sexual experiences reduced to a corny mimicry of porn, and wished they could somehow return to a time when porn was less ubiquitous, or was just soft-focus tan people having relatively unadventurous sex by a swimming pool. Since more men watch porn than women, the occasional imbalance of knowledge caused distress all around and was perceived at times as an imbalance of power. Porn made people jealous, it hurt feelings, it made them worry about whether their partners were attracted to them, or to the kind of people they watched in porn, who might have a different color hair, skin color, or bra size. Because porn loves the taboo, it was also sometimes racist and misogynist.
It’s tempting to think that life before internet porn was less complicated. There are sexual acts in porn that it would not occur to many people to attempt. We have more expectations now about what kind of sex to have, and how many people should be involved, and what to say, and what our bodies should look like, than we might have at a time when less imagery of sex was available to us. But if the panoply of opportunity depicted in porn seems exaggerated, the possibilities are no less vast outside the internet. The only sexual expectation left to conform to is that love will guide us toward the life we want to live.
What if love fails us? Sexual freedom has now extended to people who never wanted to shake off the old institutions, except to the extent of showing solidarity with friends who did. I have not sought so much choice for myself, and when I found myself with no possibilities except total sexual freedom, I was unhappy. I understood that the San Franciscans’ focus on intention—the pornographers were there by choice—marked the difference between my nihilism and their utopianism. When your life does not conform to an idea, and this failure makes you feel bad, throwing away the idea can make you feel better.
The panda gangbang took place deep in the basement of the Kink armory, where rivulets of the long-suffocated Mission Creek still trace a path between moisture-eaten columns, and the air hangs heavy with a stony dampness. On the day of the shoot, a glow of warm light punctured the center of a cavernously empty space. Bathed in this warm glow, a young woman named Ashli lay sleeping, impervious to the styg-ian immensity of her surroundings. Her sleek black hair was draped over her shoulder; a small silken bow of the palest pink pinned it away from her face into a girlish side part. The hem of her pink dotted-swiss dress had been carefully arranged to reveal a glimpse of her upper thigh through the gauze. On her feet she wore six-inch patent leather high heels embellished with lace. She slumbered on a bed of green leaves in a simulated bamboo forest beneath wraiths of mist produced by a Rosco Hazemaker puffing gently away beyond the circle of light, the sound of which seemed not to disturb her.
The panda bears approached her from behind. They waved their horrible paws and sniffed inquisitively. One stood over her nibbling at a frond of bamboo. Another gently stroked her hair.
“Now poke her or kick her,” ordered Donna from the darkness. The pandas fell upon her. The sound of ripping gauze and a snapped bra strap broke the quiet. They fondled and slapped at her now-exposed breasts. She awoke and screamed in fear. “But I love pandas, I love pandas!” she cried out.
The panda shoot was a taxing one. Donna hovered around the bears, using metal clamps to keep the furry folds of their costumes from hiding the action. They took turns with Ashli without conferring much. Finally the pandas retired to their bamboo bowers and the shoot was over.