naked and nude

The other day, while discussing the unlikely New Age representation of angels as Farrah Fawcett style models in pastel garments, complete with immaculate big hair, I ended up looking up an old post on the Men in Full blog, which is now inactive, but did a valiant job of representing a love of the larger male form for quite a few years, thanks to the lady who ran it.

The post I looked for was called Cherubic Fire: The Fat Angels of David Addison Small, and I do like the artist’s work, and his bearish, older angels with  their full forms and deep red wings. Then the blogger notes:

“These massive figures seem to me to be more ‘naked’ than ‘nude.’ One reason is because there is little stylized imagery for the fat male body in Western art (outside of cartoon or caricature.) To paraphrase art historian Kenneth Clark, the ‘nude’ is by definition stylized and abstract; the ‘naked’ shows us flesh as it is. In some ways the ‘nude’ has lost its power to move us. But because we literally don’t have a common visual vernacular for fat bodies, to us they look ‘naked,’ and thus intrinsically ‘shocking’ (not in a moralistic sense, but in the sense of riveting our attention.) Only within the gay bear aesthetic have stylizations of the beautiful and/or erotic fat male body begun to emerge”

And whether it is fat, hairiness, age, maleness, or some other quality which might endow a human form with the quality of nakedness, it is a treasure, because it brings us into contact with a living, breathing reality. The nude is what we are expected to value. It clothes itself in an aesthetic language. It becomes in a sense synthetic, refined. It could be a statue, a sculpture, a form in service to something else. The same abstracting, emptying process also occurs in some professional porn. Nakedness by contrast is candid, open, seemingly honest in appearance. It is unconsciously the subject itself.

I think it is this that makes it beautiful and real. There is nothing wrong with it also being erotic, but that is just one frequency in an entire sweep of self-evidence.

To an extent, despite things like nudism and naturism, there is a tendency within our culture to judge a nude as maybe good or justifiable, but naked as suspect, embarrassing, or somehow “bad”.  But everyone knows that people crave (or fear) nakedness, not a “nude”.

Maybe that’s part of what those naked, bearded, red winged angels carry with them. A spark of truth that wakes the senses with genuine, real presence.

Chögyam Trungpa used to say “all things are symbols of themselves” – a saying which I always found lovely and profound. In the realm of the physical, nakedness is the quality of that self-evident thing, and self.

Such generosity and candour deserves our gratitude and appreciation.

photo of the cover of "Angeli Terrae" by David Addison Small, which you can buy at http://www.blurb.com/books/1309534-angeli-terrae

photo of the cover of “Angeli Terrae” by David Addison Small, which you can buy at http://www.blurb.com/books/1309534-angeli-terrae

sex, pornography and human community

Reactions to pornography are often very strong, simply to the idea of it, never mind the actual phenomenon, which tends to mask the fact that things labelled pornography or “pornographic” can be very different in nature, circumstance and function.

The word “pornography” goes back to a Greek word relating to prostitution, and that term goes back to an Indo-European root relating to “selling” (see podictionary and online etymology dictionary). So we’re already onto the conjunction of sex, commodification and money right back then. Pornography in this very old sense would have related to writing about prostitution, but the link back to prostitution is there. I am no scholar of Greek social history, but we all know you don’t buy something you can get for free, nor sell something without a market, so there are implicit questions about the valuation and freedom of sexuality even that far back.

The word starts to appear in its more modern form in the 1880s (possibly earlier in the French speaking world), relating to depictions of sex, or “portrayal of explicit sexual subject matter for the purposes of sexual excitement and erotic satisfaction” (Wikipedia) and “salacious writing or pictures” (online etymological dictionary). Here we are getting a more explicit focus on attitudes and judgements about sex and sexual arousal itself. Feminist critiques of pornography used to focus on exploitation of human subjects though (specifically of women in this case) when I was young. I was very aware of this criticism of porn, and selective as it is, I think there is no doubt that people have been exploited in the production of pornography at times, even though this is not always so. Many kinds of depiction of women and men, not just in pornography, can be seen to have an oppressive subtext or overt message, which was another analysis of the destructive action of pornography. But just how far and wide, and universally, does this apply?

If we wish to separate out the exploitation aspect, then I think we look to the choice, autonomy and conditions of those working in pornography. Are they free, are they safe, are they reasonably paid, is it their free choice (given that we’re talking about work)? Slavery and abuse are unacceptable under any circumstances – but why do we have difficulty decoupling the erotic from this area?

If we separate out the exploitation aspect, is paying for something bad in itself? Well, only if we disapprove of it apparently. We pay doctors for their services, in spite of healing being considered something approaching a sacred responsibility. We pay priests similarly. Do we object to these people “prostituting” their services? No, not really, though in the UK we have transferred the transaction to taxation in the case of doctors. Financial transactions can certainly distort human relationships, depending on the nature of the transaction and the attitudes of those taking part.

We live in a society which has had a problem with sex for a very, very long time. Think back to the various obscenity trials and controversies we have seen over the years, and the role that the term “pornographic” used to play in the censorship of writers and artists. Think back to the hounding of DH Lawrence and the book burnings of Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Think of Henry Miller, and of Ginsberg’s “Howl”. Think of the vandalising of ancient statues and sculptures by colonialists and missionaries. I can remember performance artists ending up in court on such charges in the 1970s, and Gay News being prosecuted on related blasphemy charges about the same time. Remember the controversy over Cronenberg’s “Crash”? There’s clearly a powerful censoring and anti-sexual (and sometimes anti-intellectual) cultural drive that can come into play here which really has nothing to do with preventing or critiquing exploitation, and it meshes with attitudes towards “pornography” and eroticism. These are strands which we need to separate and gain some clarity over, yet they are strands which many still cannot achieve that clarity on.

Given that our society still suffers from anti-sexual attitudes, and has not kicked the habit of it being ok to exploit people, it would be something of a miracle if the entire field of pornography did not somewhere reflect these distortions. But is pornography the problem, or is it “us”? Is porn the demon seed, or is it our own problem with sex and human equality? Is porn the malaise, or is it an attempt to articulate an answer in spite of the malaise? Is it even that much different to the rest of life? It’s sometimes hysterical detractors characterize it as “bestial”, “dirty”, “perverted”, which is odd given that a good deal of it does seem strikingly plastic, verging on the hilarious at times. But what these terms really point to is the body, sex and sexuality and human difference. Or rather, they point to our inexplicable trouble with these things.

While for some porn is a simple source of pleasure, or employment, or mirth, for others it is something akin to moral panic, which they would feel guilty of even by association. This seems strange in this day and age, but it is so. The only word really I can think of is shame, with a whiff of damnation, to describe the complex of quite irrational reactions surrounding porn for some – surprising given that these folks presumably do not view porn themselves, let alone make it.

I think a lot of this comes down to what sex can and can’t be for, in the society we live in, and I think we have one hell of a moral hangover. Where sex had to be for procreation in order to be sanctified, then of necessity we made of sex and sexuality an iceberg with an impossibly policed “tip”. Most of the iceberg is below the surface. Every time the sea moved, you had problems. It’s a big iceberg, and the sea of Life never stops moving. You can see many driven and convoluted scenarios arising from this scheme, but is it not the denial of sexuality that powers these scenarios, rather than the implicit nature of sexuality and eroticism?

One question here is: do the things we associate with things like pornography and prostitution make sense in a sexually free world? Sexuality is a mighty force, which for some reason we think less sacred and more morally culpable than the drive to have a child say, even in these horrendously over populated times. Procreation and sexuality are two different things, circumstantially linked for heterosexuals, but only some of the time at that. If these things were not so, then we would view someone expressing the desire to have sex with the same rosy glow we are encouraged to feel when someone says “I want to have a baby”. At least we’d say “congratulations”! Until we kick the habit of procreative necessity, and can look at everything calmly and reasonably, then we are stuck on that wobbly iceberg where everything is perfect and pure, but actually nothing really is. These issues are also another reason why effective contraception was such a landmark development, and why it led to greater sexual freedom for all I feel.

But in an area as contrived and conditioned as pornography, does any real sexual liberation happen? Well actually yes, as a side effect, or more particularly dependent on our relationship to it, and the type of porn. I only really have experience of viewing male gay porn, and a good deal of it seems to be, as I said above, plastic and unintentionally funny. I hope some of the actors have a sense of mirthful irony in this, because I do think a good few viewers enjoy both the comedy and any incidental turn on. Anything that helps us laugh at sex and the predicament of human desire is a good thing, and if it turns us on as well, that’s even better. We are in a sense laughing at ourselves, and celebrating what human beings will do in honour of the erotic.

Having said that, in general it’s pretty much a turn off seeing even attractive men being professional in front of a camera; the posed tough scowl, the faked passion, the “come hither” narcissism that somehow sends the libido plummeting. Not just the pose, the formula, but something in the eyes, that makes you feel like you’re actually stuck on top of someone else’s frigid iceberg again. It is emotionally unreal. A good film, or even watching a guy weight lifting, is actually better porn, but of course that isn’t porn at all. But there are of course other things.

If well paid, well treated, autonomous porn models and actors take us away from the old Greek associations of the word to a healthier part of the river, other people have actually burst that river’s banks. The gay Bear community brought about a mind blowing world of non-commercial amateur porn, of men sharing themselves with the adult male community by means of their own cameras on the internet, entirely for free. This was not for money, and this was not formula, it was an overflowing of male generosity and self revelation (and I suspect self discovery in many cases). This was not producers and consumers, plastic “perfection” marketed to the “imperfect” – the “objects” were all subjects themselves, which was very much part of the message of this medium. You could see it in people’s eyes, and their average Joe smiles. Someone real was home, and the lights were on. It wasn’t even porn in the usual sense, because it was freely given. It was genuine “community porn” and that entirely bucks the term.

I think these men gave an enormous amount, in a way which was nurturing, sustaining and profoundly humanizing. For me they brought recognition, empathy and self-understanding to an entire area of sexual manhood during an important time in my life. Beyond that it was sheer celebration of the goodness of the erotic, and may it remain so.

Far from the demonized myth, these men were benevolent, humorous, harmless, ordinary and embracing. The only way in which this was porn was either in a redefined personal sense, or in the sense that it would be judged too sexual and naked, and too candid by an outsider, which is exactly the kind of judgement we need to disregard. They did just that, with immense good will.

Would such a phenomenon have arisen without professional pornography being there in the first place? Given the repressiveness of our sexual history, I don’t know, but I know that professional porn couldn’t do it. Of course they wouldn’t have gone through any of this analysis or theorizing that I just have (any more than I did when I saw it), and thank the gods for that, because they let the real into an area of human sexuality and shared it with us, and debunked all the porn myths in one go, without even thinking about it. What an education. Bless them all.

There is hope.

“solarized version of public domain image by Priwo”

29/1/12 – corrected inaccuracy re payment of priests in the UK.

What’s in a bear – what’s in a nature?

Bears are my part of the gay community, and they describe the kind of gay man I am, and they also reflect a very old sense I’ve always had of what gay maleness is for me. But that takes a little backtracking and explanation. You see, as bears have become more known, and the bear community has become more mainstream, it’s a bit like a tide that has moved off and filled different pools on the beach, and I’m just doing what I’ve always done really, still a bear, but also a bit of a fish out of water. Not a big deal, but a pause for thought.

More people seem to know about bears than did 10 – 15 years ago, both inside and outside the mainstream gay community, and we’ve gradually seeped into odd bits of popular culture; even Homer got taken for one in an episode of The Simpsons!

Bears are gay and bisexual men, both part of the gay community and part of a previously unacknowledged reality of gay men in the population at large. I had my epiphany with bears about 1992, as a thirty something refugee from the 1970s, shy and half closeted, hopelessly romantic (still guilty as charged!). I found a copy of a book called “The Bear Cult”, a photo book with an essay on bears in the States, and two things happened: 1 – everything fell into place, I wasn’t alone! 2 – the whole body-spirit hope of gay liberation came alive for me again, for the first time since I was a naïve teenager intoxicated by the sheer natural power and sacredness of sexuality amidst all the social upheaval after the 1960s. The sense of recognition and home coming was very powerful for someone who’d always looked up to Allen Ginsberg and Walt Whitman as gay role models.

As you might tell from my intro above, my take on bears is pretty old fashioned. On the other hand it’s pretty open minded, but I’m not so happy with everything that’s happened to bear “scenes” in the UK with commercialisation and mainstreaming since. I can’t speak for what the bear scene may have become in the UK. But for those who don’t know about bears, or only know the “clubbed and disco’d” hook up version, here’s my experience of what being a bear is about.

Gay people are just about everywhere, every place, every town, village and country – every family, somewhere. We’re part of the fabric of nature before we are part of the fabric of culture. Gay “culture” really has nothing fundamentally to do with being gay when it comes down to it. Being a gay man is being a man who loves other men sexually, erotically, emotionally and spiritually. And most of us are out there, unacknowledged, and often unidentified until we identify ourselves. Anybody, any man and “everyman”, from the most eccentric to the average Joe. This was one of the understandings of gay liberation that distinguished it from the pre-liberation homosexual cultures that grew up where they could in such forced and oppressive circumstances. We still have a hang over from these pre-liberation subcultures in many “gay scenes”, but these very scenes leave out in the cold a lot of gay men, many many gay men who are very much gay, but only ambivalently a part of “gay culture”. These men form a great unacknowledged base to male gay nature. These guys, these simply gay guys are the ones who tended to identify as bears to my understanding. But one of my favourite quotes on what bears are came from a book called “The Bear Handbook”, where it humorously sums up bears as “real men, masquerading as real men”. Now tell me, apart from that we know we’re doing it and enjoying it immensely, where’s the difference with any other man?

An old definition of bears ran along the lines of “bears are gay men who are as at ease with their manhood as they are with their gayness, and who have good heart”, and that still holds pretty good for me. And the “good heart” bit is very important to me.

Physically bears have been identified with a body type which is predominantly heavier, hairy, bearded, mature and unreconditioned. The reasons are pretty simple when you think about it – a healthy man left to his own devices grows up and fills out. Most men get hairy to a greater or lesser extent if they don’t try to cover up the fact, and unless you scrape it off your face, a man grows a beard just like nature intended. But that doesn’t make this a “necessary” body type, or the basis for a new body fascism, and neither is it another flavour of gay fetish. Because it’s what comes naturally, bears come in all shapes and sizes, from the thin to the extra large, the relatively smooth to the really furry. It seems natural to most bears though that natural masculinity would be loved by a gay man, and so male secondary sexual characteristics are usually treasured and valued, beards, bellies and all.

Emotionally bears have been associated with strongly affectionate, nurturing and cuddly qualities, tactile, sociable and inclusive, accepting rather than exclusive. In outlook bears have tended to aspire to being open and tolerant rather than judgemental, being laid back and low on attitude. Sure some bears are queeny and some bears are aggressive, but most bears are just pretty regular. Bears also have a strong streak of don’t give a damn individualism, which is pretty much a necessity for any man’s life to be free.

At the same time, qualities which mainstream society often takes to be stereotypically feminine, such as nurturing and openness to emotional vulnerability, sensuality and empathy, a lot of bears take to be naturally masculine for them, and part of themselves. Bears don’t follow the rules – we just eat the whole menu.

But with a moving social tide, with marketing and fetishising, with the “shallowing out” that the gay mainstream often seems so good at, is this all in the past? Nope, I don’t reckon so. A bear will just go his own way anyway. And if we hit the road again, or if we settle and raise chickens and goats, a man who’s gay is going to be just that, and he’ll always have to do it his own way. And that’s a bear in my book.

Nature is good, that’s why we know we’re good. But sometimes Mother Nature is a Daddy, and sometimes he’s abundantly queer.

Welcome to my bear world.

It’s only natural.

a real bear masquerading as a real bear