Reviews

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

Jennifer Bendery

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.


Public Sex

Publisher: Cleis Press
Length: 300
Subtitle: The Culture of Radical Sex (second Edition)
Price: $16.95 (US)
Author: Pat Califia
US publication date: 2000-07
Amazon
"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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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