Part of the writer’s art is knowing which subjects to choose to write about. Sometimes the choice is right in front of one’s face. Sometimes it’s a little more difficult. Such was the case when I heard an old friend had become a “sex clown” in San Francisco, and another writer I know wanted to do a story on the turf battles that take place within the belly dancing community of the Bay Area.
Of course, when I hear anyone has become a sex clown I’m interested as a writer and, well, a potential consumer. However, I don’t take anything at face value so I decided to do what any good writer would do and follow up with this old friend who had seemed to have found a new vocation in the city by the Bay.
My e-mail to him was simple: “I’ve heard you’ve become a sex clown. If this is true I want to write about it.”
A bit later I received a response telling me that he had never heard himself referred to as a “sex clown or sex klown.” The K, I learned, is preferred by the clowning or klowning community. What he then described to me seemed more like an exotic form of performance art with an erotic aspect to it. Though, he did admit that he would be lying if he said his “grease paint” has not touched some “breasts and booties”.
I like it, I told him. I like it a lot. So I thought about it for a bit. This is where the belly dancers come in.
I was having drinks with another writer and his girlfriend who, among other things, is a belly dancer and my favorite vegan smoker. I was told a mutual friend of ours wanted to write about the turf wars of belly dancers at different Indian restaurants in the Bay Area. However, my dancing friend said she would only talk about it if it was completely off the record and her name wasn’t used in the article. That’s when I came to a great realization about the core of feature writing that I’ve known for quite some time but could finally verbalize:
Feature writing, to be non-exploitative, needs to be of as much benefit to the subject of the article as it is to the reader and the writer. Otherwise, the only purpose it serves is to give the readers “content” – to enter into someone else’s world and steal their souls for a byline without knowing what the repercussions might be.
Which brought me back to the subject of sex C(k)lowns.
“This is the thing about the sex clowns,” I told them. “I need to gain their trust. I absolutely need the trust of the sex clowns for this to work. Otherwise, it’s just going to come out as an exploitation piece by some outsider to their world. It has to be to some benefit to them – some authentic look at them in the same way if being a part of the article on belly dancer turf wars doesn’t work for you, doesn’t benefit you in some way there’s no point in taking part in the article no matter how good of an idea it is.”
Your subjects should not be injured by a feature about them – like it’s some kind of smash and grab scenario.
This brought me back to the sex c(k)lowns again.
Did I really want to do what I had to do in order to bring true justice to this story? Did I want to do what I had to do to earn the trust of these klowns? I knew my old friend would probably vouch for me as a standup guy. But it had been awhile since we talked, and I didn’t exactly know what I was getting myself into. And more than likely it was going to require many trips into San Francisco at night to become a part of the scene. I might even have to become transformed into a klown to report on this phenomenon from the inside.
Would it be worth it? Would I lose myself in this “klowning”? I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t even sure if I had the emotional stamina for it; the, as Dr. Hunter S. Thompson would say, true grit necessary for the assignment. This was, as he might have offered, pure gonzo journalism or, in this case, pure clown shoes journalism.
Does one even go into this kind of assignment sober, I wondered? Should I hire a driver? Should I try to infiltrate or remain an interested outsider? What happened if sex really was involved and this wasn’t just some quasi-innocent form of performance? What if, as someone asked me at a recent party, it was really prostitution? What’s the difference, I was asked, between a stripper coming over in a costume and doing a dance before doing the whole room? About 25 clown noses, I thought.
Was it really for me to judge? Did I care whether it was technically prostitution or not? What did it concern me if clowns danced around and then had sex with each other and members of a private party? I’m not the law.
And then I remembered the eight year recurring nightmare I had as a child. In the dream I was trapped with a clown who would ask me a question as a giant, comical clock loudly ticked down. I would have the dream for years, staring into this huge eyes, his exaggerated eyelashes fluttering, his springy orange hair quivering with impatience—and run out of time, every time. Finally, I answered the question.
No, I can’t remember what the question was. But, come to think of it, maybe these clowns do need policing. The psychic trauma police, perhaps.
Indeed, I don’t like clowns. I think they’re freakish. I once had a dental hygienist who was a Clown for Christ – one of these people who dresses as a circus clown to spread the Gospel of the Lord with grease-paint, rubber noses, giant ruffles and good intent. She even told me that I could use the power of my mind to straighten out my wisdom teeth so that I would not need surgery. This, of course, did not work.
It seems that to go in with the clowns – whatever kind of clowns they may be—is to go deep into a different world; a place somewhere between sane, delighted laughter and hysterical giggles. Maybe the world’s just not ready to hear about this story.