Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex, Second Edition by Pat Califia

“There is nothing like desire for preventing the thing one says from bearing any resemblance to what one has in one’s mind.”
— Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past: The Guermantes Way

Who would have thought a book about radical perversion could be so palatable? Reading Pat Califia’s recent book, the second edition of Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex, readers might be surprised at how one person’s highly intelligent, honest, and even funny approach can open their eyes to issues rarely addressed in popular culture in a non-judgemental or positive way.

The most enjoyable thing about reading Public Sex — which digs into issues ranging from sexual outlaws to right-wing feminism to the future of radical sex — is Califia’s savvy and informed approach to unpopular culture. Spanning more than 20 years of work, Califia’s controversial essays tackle so many issues related to sex and sexual freedom that nobody seems willing to talk about (sex between lesbians and gay men!), yet somehow along the way he gets you interested in talking about them. In fact, he might even change your opinions on them.

Since the original 1994 publication of Public Sex, a significant change has taken place in Califia’s personal life. Indeed, when I first met Califia a few years ago, “he” was a “she,” his partner Matt was pregnant and had a beard. Confused? Both Pat (who now goes by Patrick) and Matt are in the process of female-to-male (FTM) transition, which involves taking testosterone and changing one’s social gender (no genital surgery). Struggling with a strong sense of discomfort with his female body since childhood, Califia describes his decision to go through this transition as being “the next logical thing for me to try to gain a greater sense of physical, sexual, and spiritual congruency.” [This explains why “she”, while not quite the legal or scientific definition of a “he,” becomes “he” in this article.]

Those familiar with Califia’s work know it can be difficult to decide which is more disruptive to mainstream culture: Califia’s writing, or Califia himself. Now a certified family and marriage therapist, he has been called many things, including “the unofficial poster dyke for lesbian S/M” and someone who “has done more to promote, chronicle, and educate about gay male sexuality than any faggot has.” He is the author of numerous sex-positive articles and essays, and more than a dozen books, including erotic fiction collections like No Mercy and Macho Sluts, and nonfiction works like Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism. But beneath all of Califia’s works lies one central truth: his advocacy for the rights of “perverts.”

Societal norms fall apart and gender definitions defined by birth sex become suspect when discussed by Califia. He not only writes about a range of possible gender and sexual roles, but he now also embodies them. “People on the margins who don’t conform to sexual norms or gender stereotypes don’t get treated very well. Part of my agenda is to make as many people as possible think about things that might otherwise escape their notice.” In this light, Califia is well aware his ideas may not be the most popular, but then again, who cares? As he reminds, “Being unpopular or hated or repulsive is infinitely better than being bored.”

Califia’s unpopular beliefs also raise the potential for more challenging questions. “The really interesting question is not ‘why is somebody gay or bisexual?’ but ‘why isn’t everybody doing everything they can to experience sensual pleasure?'” Or consider why mainstream society reinforces only heterosexual and monogamous relationships as “natural” and “normal”? It is because, Califia believes, “the illusion of heterosexuality as the majority sexual orientation is maintained by forcing homosexual activity to be furtive, as invisible as possible. The illusion of monogamous marriage is maintained by the hypocrisy of the sex industry.”

Digging in even further, when Califia discusses the legal ramifications of sexual freedom, the ills of pornography can appear less threatening than the oppressive controls put upon them by the legal framework of this country. Public Sex attempts to persuade readers about what Califia believes are the many ways that legal and political actions taken against child pornography have resulted in fallacious claims about pornography inciting violence, and in the “skillful use of a vague and even broader definition of ‘child pornography’ to smear material that depicts and is intended only for the use of adults.” In this light, the increasing censorship of child pornography could seem more motivated by a public effort to do away with things that promote sexual pleasure rather than about protecting children. To Califia, this couldn’t be more apparent when considering current laws in which someone could be convicted of violating child pornography laws even for looking at pictures of fully clothed young models.

[Editor’s note: The University of Minnesota recently published the controversial book Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex by Judith Levine which will be reviewed on PopMatters next month.]

But perhaps the most significant — and most interesting — ideological shift in this edition of Public Sex relates to the topic that has drawn the most criticism of Califia’s work: age of consent and cross-generational relationships. “This is an inflammatory issue. Everybody wants to protect children from harm and exploitation. And yet, no matter how harshly we punish pedophiles and try to eliminate child pornography, it continues to exist.” When Califia wrote on the subject over 20 years ago, he believed children were valued and safe enough within our society that it should be acceptable if they wanted to express their sexuality with adults. In retrospect, Califia now believes he was being too naïve about the power imbalance between adults and children, and frankly, that adults simply don’t know how to listen to children. “For me, this issue is about acknowledging the sexual feelings of young people and empowering them; it’s not about granting adults a license to exploit them.”

With safety and responsibility a given, Califia wants to convince readers that they are entitled to sexual freedoms which lead to their physical and emotional enjoyment. He believes that instead of feeling guilt and shame, regardless if sexual preferences involve pornography, S/M, role playing, gay or lesbian sex, eroticizing Latex and safer sex, looking at pictures of penguins, or whatever, pleasure is the key factor in a sexual experience.

Califia says, “You can still be a sex radical even if you prefer to ‘get off’ in the missionary position and still believe there are only two genders.” The purpose is to feel good. “Most of the time, people use pornography for fairly benign reasons. They want to ‘jack off,’ turn on a lover, get information about sexual variations, surprise and startle or gross themselves out. Porn comforts the lonely, elderly, disabled, and busy.” So, as mainstream culture continues to define sexual pleasure in “socially acceptable” terms, at least we can count on voices from the fringes like Califia’s to bring up things that may be thought about, but rarely said.