Thoughts on the Duke Student Porn Star Story – Sex, Shame, Brainwashing, and the Loss of the Feminine

•March 8, 2014 • Leave a Comment

I have been reading everything I can find about this story of the Duke freshman woman who was recently unwillingly revealed to be a porn actress. (See also here.)

I am finding this story morbidly fascinating for the reprehensible reactions it is eliciting from so many people, and for the spectacular blindness these people appear to have to their own inconsistencies. How does anyone justify to themselves the nasty and threatening things that they have said to this woman? How do her choices in any way justify these reactions? In what way is her participation in pornography a license for others to degrade and threaten her?

Why does her story cause such strong reactions of disgust and revulsion in so many people? Why are people so unquestioning of their “gut” feelings? Doesn’t it seem odd to them that they are having such a strong reaction to a woman who they don’t know and who has done nothing to harm them? How did it get so personal for them? How can people be so mean, and so mindless?

It is very, very disappointing to watch people behave this badly. I seem to constantly expect people to do the work that I take for granted: question what you have been taught, question the gut reactions that have been programmed into you, question yourself. And I am disappointed, over and over. People can be so thoughtless, so unquestioning, so programmable.

And then there is the question that perhaps clamors the most loudly for an answer as a result of this whole story: why, in our culture, is there so much shame attached to sex? What I found most interesting in her interview with Piers Morgan was the way that every question he asked seemed to be a variation on the same underlying, unspoken question: isn’t pornography shameful? Aren’t you ashamed? Why aren’t you ashamed?

I think it is time people started to recognize in themselves this underlying assumption about how we are supposed to feel about sex, this burden of shame we carry, and ask themselves: why is sex something to feel shame about? Really, really question this reaction. Yes, we have been taught, in so many ways, to see sex as something a bit dirty and shameful. But it does not have to be so, does it? There is no logical basis for this “belief”, is there? Try to imagine a world in which sex is recognized as beautiful, natural, healthy, necessary. And then ask: why can’t that be our world?

If you go one step further, and ask yourself why there exists this culturally-inculcated belief that sex is shameful, you might arrive at the more “political” points this woman has herself made quite eloquently in the articles she has written. There seems to be something incredibly threatening about a woman who shows no shame about her desire for sex. Our culture expects a woman to be pliant and demure; to have sex, yes… but not really enjoy it. A woman who unabashedly likes sex, who hungers for it and seeks it, scares the crap out of people. And the reaction to this “threat” is the outpouring of anger that has occurred on various social media sites since this woman was “outed” at Duke.

I am horrified by the ongoing historical tragedy of the curtailing and containment of the power of women. I don’t look at this is a female issue, but as a human issue – all of us are reduced by this loss. We all suffer for it. It feels like we, as a species, have poked out or own eyes, and then forgotten that once we could see. We don’t even know what we are missing. And all of this seems to stem from some effort to control the feminine, to tame and contain it, to make it amenable to control. I wonder sometimes if we are on a long, long historical journey in which the more masculine powers have taken the upper hand for the past few thousand years. And the only way out of the terrible situations our world now confronts is to find again those powers that we have bound and hidden, to dig up that Pandora’s box that we have been taught to fear… and open it.


When I Met Sally

•July 2, 2013 • 1 Comment

When I met Sally
I was all
Of what powers
Might be found
In this world and
In a woman.
I was like a boy. Or
A monk in his small chamber
With a narrow window
Opening on the large
Field of experience.

Nothing had prepared me for
The gush of warm and earthy energies
That she poured on me.
It was like
Walking across a field at night, and
Being thrown bodily skyward
By a geyser I did not know was there.
The stars seem now so close.

*   *   *

The best-laid plans
Of mice and men
Often go astray.

I know this, of course I do… But
That was no preparation,
Or consolation when my terrarium tipped
Topsy-turvy and the furniture
Spilled out, willy-nilly
Without a care for my sense
Of alarm or injustice.

Why start a hopeful project when
You know at the start
That it will end,
Its ugliness
A bad joke, a cruel thumbing
Of the devil’s nose
At our unfortunate conflation
Of beauty and permanence?

Of course,
You know the answer to that question…

And I am learning it.

*   *   *

When I met Sally, she
Threw her arms around
My neck (as promised)
And pressed sweet, soft lips
Against my own. I was so
At how natural it felt
To put my hands on her hips
And draw her
Into the circle of my arms
As if we were two
Adjacent puzzle pieces,
Long separated,
Who had found each other.

*   *   *

A shipwrecked captain
Thrown upon the beach
After a long night’s losing struggle
With an implacable ocean
And crying bitter tears of shame
For his failings and faults
Might feel it an unwarranted miracle
To feel the sun shine upon
His weary body and whiskered face
Warming him from skin to bone.

*   *   *

When I met Sally
We talked at first
Of ping-pong and Tintin
Red wine and ocean spray
Photographs and children…
And then
Her energy burst forth,
Irrepressible, sensual,
Shining on my quarter deck
Raining on my mainsail
Gently and insistently
Calling me forth
To steer, together
Into deeper waters

One hundred and fifty
Miles between us, yet
She could set my skin
Tingling! Electricity
Building in my
Fingertips, her breath seemingly
Warm on the nape of my neck. Here
And not here, the most
Fantastic longing.

*   *   *

Fears run in me
Like a cold
Underground river
Rolling large smooth rocks
With a gnashing sound
Like ice cubes rattling
In a highball glass
At the strength of
That swift and
Dangerous current

Each stone felt there
Is a single
Chilling idea. One,
A dark and
Speckled granite
Has a dead
Earthward pull…
Turned over, it reveals
An etching of my fear
That you will tire of me
And my doubts

*   *   *

When I met Sally
She came out of the darkness
Like a beautiful figment of my
Fantastical imagination…
A nymph! She
Approached me
Tentatively but surely
And she kissed me
And the night
And the press of her against me
And the condensing of vaporous dream
Into physical solidity
Under my hands
Was so dreamlike and yet
So achingly real
That my senses drowned
In honeyed sweetness
And I breathed

*   *   *

This giving of grace
This generous pouring of energy
This profligacy of sweetness
Is so unbounded
That I could believe
That you are an embodiment of
Earthly energies, Shiva or Isis or
A spirit of the woods
Sent to me by gods
I don’t believe in.
But why me?
What have I done
To earn this gift?

Beyond that unanswerable why
I can sometimes see that
      Are only half the story
And I
      The other half.
We together form a circle
Along which our energies race
And chase each other
Higher and higher.

*   *   *

Sweet girl, you are
My shining sun
My waterfall of boundless energy
An ocean moving tirelessly against my shore

You are
Yin to my yang
Soft to my hard
Yielding to my thrusting

You are
The bird singing in the night
The kitten stretching luxuriantly
The tigress fiercely defending

You are to me
The quintessential essence
Of all the most beautiful powers
That I call Woman

Bold and humble
Wise and fierce
Giving and accepting
Wild and thoughtful

As beautiful as the moon in the night sky
As sensuous as the nymph naked under that moon

When I met Sally
The end became the beginning
And I became
Unaccountably lucky.

Matchstick Men

•February 9, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Re-watched “Matchstick Men” over the past couple of nights. I had forgotten how much I like this movie. Ridley Scott manages to imbue this movie with swagger, while at same time achieving a cool, understated tone in many of the scenes – a neat trick, combining apparently clashing styles in a seamless way. Alison Lohman is spectacular, a revelation, one of the most appealing performances from a young actor that I have ever seen. Nicolas Cage is dynamic and funny, as usual, depicting a con man with nearly-incapacitating neuroses, full of physical and verbal tics. The scenes between Cage and Lohman are touching and lovely, almost heartbreaking, as Cage’s character falls so in love with his long-lost teenage daughter that he breaks his own rules and lets her transgress most of his self-imposed boundaries. And Sam Rockwell… well, what can I say, I love everything this guy does. This is one of those tight little movies that I like so much, where not a moment is wasted, everything is of a piece, each scene moves the story forward and reinforces the central themes, and the scope and ambition of the movie are sized just right.

Lion’s Breath

•June 1, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Lyrics, rap, spoken word, poetry
Activating this and that
Corner of my mind, flipping
Switches, turning on
Lights, opening windows
Pushing stale air from a parking garage.

An intimation, or implication
Of fresh air coming
Behind, chasing old
Dead things ahead of it.

The way the rumbling ground, pawed
By the hooves of so many antelopes
Implies the lion behind
The herd. And even though
You cannot yet see
Those rippling muscles, those merciless

Hunter’s eyes, the shaking earth,
The rushing air, are enough
To fill you with fear
Of the power that is coming.


Author’s Note:

August 27, 2012 Update: This poem is now published at Fictionaut:

With props to Soul Coughing for the line, lifted from their song, which inspired this poem.
And to Rainer Maria Rilke, especially for the startling last line of “Archaic Torso of Apollo”, which I speak silently at this poem’s end.

Review of “Falling Man” by Don DeLillo

•March 31, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Falling ManFalling Man by Don DeLillo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the eleven years that have passed since the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings, I have steered well clear of narrative fiction that purported to treat that fateful day. The idea repulsed me. I found disgusting the occasional attempts by Hollywood to package our collective nightmare and sell it back to us. As if we did not all already know what it was. I did not feel they had the right; American movies tend so much towards the facile and trite, and this event was too close, and too big. Nor did I feel that I wanted to immerse myself in a novelist’s attempt to grapple with that day; I feared the maudlin and the obvious.

Eleven years on, and Falling Man caught my eye in the library. I had been meaning to read some Don DeLillo, but was a little intimidated by the scope and ambition of Underworld. Even after I understood that this book was “about” 9/11, I did not put it back on the shelf. In fact, I found that I had a certain hunger to experience how, many years after, a serious author chose to portray the happenings and effects of this day.

I like that DeLillo chooses to simultaneously treat this event head-on and tell stories whose relationship to 9/11 is tangential or mysterious. I was glad that he chose not to be coy and tiptoe around the large and dangerous subjects that beg for treatment in a story about 9/11. He opens the book with a detailed but dreamlike, visceral description of a man walking away from ground zero in the midst of the surreal, ash-choked mayhem as one tower, then the other, collapses. He returns to the scene as two survivors share their stories of walking down the endless winding flights of stairs and making their way out of the WTC; and again to great effect late in the novel as one of the protagonists digs up memories of being at work in the tower when the first plane struck, and feeling the building sway. DeLillo even surprises with an abrupt and wrenching change of perspective about a third of the way into the book, shifting the scene to depict the thoughts and environment of one of the terrorists-to-be as the plan for the WTC attacks gradually takes shape. This was perhaps the weakest part of the book, but I appreciated his daring in smashing all these stories together in an attempt to view the 9/11 disaster from many directions.

The core of the book, however, is an apparently haphazard series of detailed snapshots of the thoughts and emotional states of two main characters: a married couple who had been separated for a year or so, but who find themselves surprisingly thrown together in the immediate aftermath of the day the towers fell. Things begin with an oddly hopeful tone, as this pair find solace in their rejoined family in spite of not knowing what new contract they are writing. But this is something like misdirection; as the novel progresses, a darkness seems to seep from the outside to the inside of these people, and they retreat into their separate neuroses.

This novel does not attempt to dive too deeply into the individual grief of those who lost friends and loved ones in the collapse of the WTC towers. Rather, it seems to me that it slowly builds in the reader a sense that 9/11 is a fault line in our shared consciousness, a day that divides “before” and “after”. That the period we now live in will forever be tinged with a kind of sadness. That there has been a loss of some kind of hope or optimism that we used to take for granted as an American birthright. That things will never be the same again. We are living “after”.

I am not sure that the story arc of the two main characters is entirely convincing or involving. In the end, they seem less like individuals that I am meant to relate to and more like stand-ins for certain themes or ideas. The woman runs a weekly group therapy session for people who are gradually losing their memory and individuality to Alzheimer’s. The man reduces his life to little more than a never-ending series of professional poker games in anonymous, windowless rooms. Both of these involve themes of control, or loss of control, or the little amount of control one can exercise over things that are fundamentally random. These are themes that are apropos for a story about this national trauma. Alzheimer’s, in particular, struck me as a surprisingly apt metaphor for the sense of slipping identity that we all feel after 9/11, and the fear that this loss of self engenders.

There is a way in which DeLillo maintains a certain distance from his characters in this novel, and we fail to be truly drawn into their stories, and are left a little bit cold. Despite this, I appreciated this novel as a meditation on the subtle and unexpected damage that 9/11 has wrought on us. As we look inwards, we may all find that there is still some schrapnel buried deep inside of us, a legacy of that explosive day. We will never be the same.

Review of “The Godfather of Kathmandu”

•July 17, 2010 • Leave a Comment

The Godfather of Kathmandu (Sonchai Jitpleecheep Series #4) The Godfather of Kathmandu (Sonchai Jitpleecheep Series #4) by John Burdett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was another serendipitous library find. I don’t read a lot of mystery novels, but I do like the occasional mystery set in an unfamiliar culture or environment or time. This goes some way to explaining why The Name of the Rose is one of my all-time favorite novels. A good mystery novel always contains some wisdom; enough wisdom, and it crosses that invisible line between genre novel and “literature”.

This book compares well with books from Tony Hillerman, John Straley and Dana Stabenow. All of these authors write books in which the environment itself is arguably the most important character. While it may be a stretch to call “The Godfather of Kathmandu” literature, it certainly contains wonderful environments, odd and fascinating characters, some adventure… and yes, some wisdom. In John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep stories, Thailand is the setting, and Buddhism is the soundtrack. In this latest installment, our hero spends much of his time in Nepal, and is exposed to a rather harrowing version of Tibetan Buddhism.

The very un-Western reactions and aspirations of the characters provides a lot of what interested me in this book. I have an interest in Buddhism, and still I was surprised again by just how foreign and strange a Buddhist outlook can be. Buddhism somehow is at once profoundly compassionate and shockingly impersonal; I find myself unable to reconcile these apparent opposites. The kind of Buddhism that believes in reincarnation teaches that change takes many lifetimes, thousands of lifetimes – this point of view forces a kind of patience that strikes a Western mind as a kind of unforgivable passivity. I admire this strong belief in patience – lack of patience and an attraction to shortcuts may be the Western character flaw that dooms us all, finally. On the other hand, when confronted by the acceptance of suffering, my reaction is somewhat like Joseph Campbell’s when he traveled to India: repulsion. Westerners have such a strong belief in action. While reading this book, I somewhat strangely found myself admiring the heart-on-sleeve, undisciplined emotionalism of a “Western” reaction when compared to the detachment taught by Buddhism.

This book meanders somewhat: our hero seems to spend more time visiting shrines, smoking pot, or getting something to eat than he does pushing the plot forward. And yet, I liked the overall effect. In a way, the background of this mystery novel steps in front of the foreground action, which suited me just fine, since the descriptions of Bangkok and Kathmandu, and the discussions of Buddhist ideas and practices, turned out to be much of what made this book so enjoyable.

View all my reviews >>

A selection of Facebook posts, taken out of context

•March 22, 2010 • Leave a Comment

My side of a Richard Dawkins-inspired debate that took place on Facebook… My blog, so you only get my side ;-)

In fact, there is a lot of thought/research/writing coming from anthropologists/evolutionary biologists/etc. regarding the evolutionary advantages of empathy and cooperation. Evolution is not all about competition. Sometimes, what is good for the group is what is best for the individual. The “survival of the fittest” notion most people have of evolution is becoming outdated. E.g., many animals can be observed to share impulses and behaviors that once were considered to define our human-ness: sacrifice, grieving, etc.

What is the underlying principle of a Christian’s moral code? I like the Golden Rule as a succinct expression of Christian ethics. But then I don’t actually feel that there needs to be a god to deliver or enforce the Golden Rule…

I agree with … that atheism is not a philosophy or a set of beliefs, it is just a word to represent a lack of a certain belief. Being an atheist does not dictate a moral system. Where I perhaps differ from … is that I am not sure that our built-in moral instincts are a product of higher reasoning. I tend to think we humans overestimate the value of our intelligence, and underappreciate our similarities to other animals. The more we open our eyes, the more we find that some animals behave like us, and vice versa. And I mean that in a value-neutral way. I could argue that bonobos behave better than humans. So… maybe our moral sense *is* simply product of evolution. And maybe there is nothing wrong with utilitarianism, if we understand that humans are social animals, which therefore expands the scope of the utility we seek to beyond our self. It is kind of odd to fuzz the distinction between selfishness and selflessness in this way, and perhaps a little disturbing to those of raised in a religious way of thinking (including me). But I also find comfort in the idea that kindness is in our genes…

Good debate. I’m not sure we are actually getting anywhere here, or that we are likely to change each others’ minds in a big way, but goo debate, nonetheless :-)

I have been a Christian, and a “non-Christian”. So I think I get how what … is saying above would appear to be “moral relativism”, which is a very nasty thing indeed to many a religious person.

To be very blunt, I would say: like it or not, the decisions about what is moral and what is not come down to *us*. *We* have to choose. We can choose to let someone else choose for us, but we are still choosing.

To be really, really blunt: I believe there is no legitimate communicator of absolute morality on Earth. Who would we trust to convey to us the absolute rules of morality? Why would we trust them? Even if there is a higher power, who is their mouthpiece on Earth, and do we really trust that they can convey such truth without imperfection?

There are moral ideals, and those can be sensed and communicated by people in any place and any time in history. We can strive for these ideals, but it is never simple, and there is no getting around the difficulty of sorting through complicated issues to reach a moral decision. Moral absolutists scare me: they too often ignore nuance, and too often are calloused regarding individual lives, and worse. To me, the more correct reaction to the bewildering life we find ourselves living is: humility.We can do no better than to talk to each other, to try our best to understand each other, to try VERY hard not to judge each other. Judgmentalism seems to come so easily to humans.

To me, the core of Christianity is *love*. The most important lesson of the Jesus story is *tolerance*. But what I see too often from religious people is a need for rules, a yearning for absolutism. I get that, I really do, in the face of the life we live. But you can yearn all you want, it won’t make your rules any more absolute, and the human need for absolutism leads too often to brutality.

So I choose love, respect, tolerance and humility. That is not a small amount of stuff to strive for. To some degree, none of these come naturally to human beings, at least not purely. So it is hard work. I recognize that religions tend to strive, or tell their members to strive, for these very same ideals. But I also think religions confuse the matter if they lead people to believe in moral absolutes – this leads people in the opposite direction, away from tolerance. I find it easier to work towards these ideals outside of a “religious” structure. That makes me what some people call a “humanist”. I don’t much care for such a label, but if I have to have one, I can live with that one.

I should let this thread drop… but I can’t resist a response to some of …’s questions in his last post.

“Who has the moral authority and jurisdiction…”. …, you ask fantastic questions in that paragraph. Who, indeed? Who on Earth deserves to be the final arbiter of such weighty decisions? The answer is: nobody. Can you imagine what a horror it would be if we actually did vest such power in some worldly body? Actually, you don’t need to apply much imagination, you just need to read some history…

Even if we all were to agree that there is an extra-Earthly being with the final answers to all moral questions… that does not help us one whit, because we then need to agree on which Earthly individual or body is officially “certified” to be the interpreter of this superhuman authority. We are back to square one: nobody on Earth deserves or can handle that kind of power.

The only solution to this mess is something like the mess we have: constant discourse among reasonably free people who have the right to challenge *all* authorities. We all have to *think*. We can never cede our right to think and decide to any government or religious body.

Via this messy discourse, we arrive at a (constantly shifting) consensus. The fact that it constantly shifts does not invalidate the consensus, it simply reflects our messy reaility in which there are no easy answers, and there is always room for improvement. There is always room for dissent and objections and calls for change. Good is not a final static state of being, it is a contant striving.

So… Who has the moral authority? Everybody. It is an ugly, unsatisfying answer. Or then again, maybe not. Maybe it is the most beautiful thing there is.

I have to say, I am a believer that we (human beings) are on a tortuous path, but one that is slowly and definitely leading towards a state of greater enlightenment, and more good for more people. It is very hard to see this trend, especially given the horrors of recent history. But I think one can see it if one zooms one’s optic out to encompass millenia. Perhaps the single trait that most defines the negative side of humans is intolerance. Or call it tribalism. The trait that I see growing over time is tolerance: the ability to accept and include people who are very different from you. It is hard to see this signal in all the noise of history – history can so easily appear to be a broken record, always looping, never changing – but I think I can see it.

It can be very hard to “keep the faith” that humans have the capacity to improve themselves, we are surrounded with so much evidence that humans don’t deserve this kind of faith. But when it comes down to it: we have no choice. We must have faith. We guide our own destiny. It is up to us to save ourselves.

Gods be with you :-)