November 29, 2011 § Leave a comment
Remember the nineties when rape and sexual harassment were everywhere? There were all those televised court cases such as Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill. In Modern Novel class in college, every book we read had a rape scene in the first chapter. Wherever you turned, there was some outrage over the untamable impulses of male sexuality – that evil creature that for one second is the boy next door and in the next is that gang rapist in the fraternity at 3am on a Saturday night. The problem was that young women grew up thinking that men were evolved spineless teddy bears. But feminism is no match for nature.
I’d forgotten about the rape preoccupation until I read Camille Paglia’s collection of essays, Sex, Art, and American Culture. To be honest, the book is outdated and repetitive. But Paglia’s voice more than makes up for it and her rich knowledge from ancient history to pop culture is passionate and invigorating. She loves to tell it like it is. “American feminism has a man problem. The beaming Betty Crocker’s, hangdog dowdies, and parochial prudes who call themselves feminists want men to be like women. They fear and despise the masculine. The academic feminists think their nerdy bookworm husbands are the ideal model of manhood (Paglia, 5).”
Paglia embraces nature and our natural impulses to understand why we behave the way we do. When it comes to survival in nature, you must always be aware. “Feminism keeps saying the sexes are the same. It keeps telling women they can do anything, go anywhere, say anything, wear anything. No, they can’t. Women will always be in sexual danger (Paglia, 50).”
I still hate admitting that this is true, even though I have learned from many bad experiences that it is. And of course, Paglia tends to contradict this statement as well. I’ve been mugged, and more humorous than scary, once I was on my way home from work in my sweats and a guy in an SUV from the suburbs mistook me for a prostitute. He asked me how much for a blow job, and was embarrassed when I rounded the corner and entered my building. But it still left me shaken, because he was following me in his car.
Most recently, I was walking home from dinner and on a street corner a man asked me the time. “10pm,” I said. The light changed and I started walking. He followed me for six blocks – up the bridge, over the freeway, through the dark foliage of the side streets. My heart was pounding as I felt his presence behind me, keeping close watch on his shadow. Then he said something, which I couldn’t hear. I turned and snapped, “What?”
He goes, “How would you like me to rub my penis up on you?”
“Fuck off!” I yelled, “Do you want my husband to come down here and fuck you up? You need to respect women!” I shook my finger at him, inflamed.
Immediately he stepped back four feet, struck by the sheer force of my anger. He held his hands up in surrender. Just at that point, I reached the well-lit entrance of my building where my neighbors were in the lobby getting their mail. My hands were shaking, “That guy was disgusting.”
“Welcome to the neighborhood,” they cheerfully replied. I tried to keep myself composed as we rode up the elevator, but as soon as I was inside my door, I melted onto the floor and lost it. In a rage my husband ran down to the car, circling the neighborhood to find the guy – someone who could be almost impossible to recognize, slipping in and out of shadows, a faceless loner in the night.
Feminism’s biggest mistake was in denying nature, history, and the archetypes of our mythology. Utopia doesn’t exist, and we live in a world of risk.
At some point in his journey towards maturity, the average man will reject his mother and his dependence on women. He will join the pack mentality in a rite of passage and succumb to his most basic nature, the nature that society tries it’s best to refine and suppress. But when a man relies on assault to overtake a woman, he becomes a pathetic figure, weak and inept, revealing all of his vulnerability as a man. If you need to take something by force, then you will never really have it at all.
So why did the rape and sexual harassment propaganda get out of control in the nineties? “The theatrics of public rage over date rape are their way of restoring the old sexual rules that were shattered by my generation (Paglia, 52).” It always scares me when women want to return to an infantile, protected structure lacking in freedom. In the end, I don’t see that this preoccupation with fear won out. The young twenty-something women of today don’t remember a time when they weren’t equals. Overall, they seem to be well informed, prepared and strong.
I relate to Paglia’s warrior mentality, “Rape does not destroy you forever. It’s like getting beaten up. Men get beaten up all the time… If it is a totally devastating psychological experience for a woman, then she doesn’t have a proper attitude toward sex (Paglia, 64-65).” I have experienced sexual violence, and I would have to agree with this. It was physically and emotionally painful, and it came from the pain my attacker had suppressed. That is the way of nature. A pain-free world does not exist. We must all be trained to fight, to be fit, ready for what comes. But through it all – take the risk of being open and free to all human experience. Lacking in fear – but full of awareness.
November 21, 2011 § Leave a comment
For a while, last summer, I made a good attempt at going to book readings at Elliott Bay Book Company. I like to study what authors do in their readings, how they present themselves, what sorts of people show up besides the two old ladies who sit up front and knit sweaters with their bifocals on. Unlike the two knitters, I could only make myself go if I actually wanted to buy the book. And this fall there has been little to draw me in. I’m not much for all the cozy historical fiction and ‘we are the world’ multicultural fare. I realize what really excites me is a thought provoking memoir. Nothing ever seems stranger than the truth and I like to experience the author’s process of release. When we write down our stories, we are finally able to let them go.
I went to see Sheila McClear give a reading for her debut book and memoir – The Last of the Live Nude Girls. She looked stunning with none of the visual queues of an ex-stripper. Tall, slim, and flat chested, she had the same body type as I do but with much better legs. She wore a white shift dress that reminded me of the Jetsons with a zipper going all the way down the front. Her tall tan wedges and long feather earring added contrast to her choppy asymmetric haircut.
The interesting thing about this reading was that I was seeing someone comparable to myself. My age, first book, sexual subject matter. I related to her intensely before she even opened her mouth.
There were not enough people in the audience, maybe five or six. I sensed her embarrassment over this. She told the organizer the book had gotten great reviews in New York, but she was having trouble garnering interest outside of the city since it was a memoir about working in the Live Girl Peep shows of Times Square.
She began the reading, and all I could feel was how awkward she felt. It was impossible to tell if the book was any good by the nervous way she read her work. I thought to myself, at least I’ve had a lot of stage experience for when it comes time to do my own readings. But then I remembered she had been onstage too.
After the brief reading, she took a few questions. One man in the back asked, “So why do you think Peep shows have gone out of popularity?” She didn’t really have an answer, and neither did we. They just seem like a thing of the past in an era of lap dances. Left behind with the unsanitary version of Times Square, before it became a Disneyfied family attraction.
I began to feel nervous as I always do when getting a book signed by an author. Racking my brain for something good to say. Apparently authors feel the same way, because almost always they compliment me on an article of clothing I’m wearing – a coat or a hat as though this is written in some book promotion guide for writers.
“Awesome reading,” I said abruptly. She signed the book, “8/25/11 Hi Lauren! Thanks for coming to see a live girl in Seattle! XXXO, Sheila McClear”
I thought it was clever. I liked her, and I desperately hoped I would like her book too. It was a great read and I couldn’t put it down. But I felt it could have used a better editor, and that her experience had needed more time for processing.
I am still contemplating how exactly she was drawn into the live shows. I understand the giant leaps we introverts sometimes take to overcome our shyness. I also understand just how easily New York can suck you up and spit you out. Look at me, after three years in New York I had to give up because I couldn’t find a job that paid as much as the first lucky find I’d had. There is still always the thought in the back of my head that I could’ve made it if I’d just tried harder. Why hadn’t my tenacity kicked in a little more? But the sheer force of home drew me back.
In those last few months in New York, I had a friend. We met through a man we had both been involved with. Originally she taught English as a second language. But over ten years prior, our mutual ex-lover had come along and she decided to show him how much he hurt her by working as a prostitute in a fake tanning parlor. I’m sure it didn’t phase him at all, but now she was running a brothel out of her apartment in the West Village. It seemed her main motive in being my friend was to convince me to come work for her. She couldn’t accept that I wouldn’t. I couldn’t accept that she only saw me as a commodity.
“My Dad can help me out this month, “ I always told her. I was the only person I knew of who didn’t have a jackass for a Dad. Cliché as it is, maybe my rejection of sex work partially stems from that. Why didn’t I do it? I still wonder. Reasons why – I hate living a double life and had already done enough in that regard. I could disappoint my parents by being who I am (aka not a Christian), but I couldn’t abuse them with the knowledge that all the money they’d spent for my education, all the love they’d given me would be in vain since I would be the antithesis of the strong person they raised. It was also personal. I didn’t want to end up hating men. But would it have come to that? Who can know?
All I saw was that my friend was hugely depressed and didn’t seem to know it. She resented people for everything they took from her, though she offered them everything. And towards the end she was ridiculously flaky. I got off the Path train to meet her for coffee. “Oh Lauren, I’m so sorry. A client just called and is only in town for the day. I’m meeting him at his room at the W. I can’t make it. But please come! I still want you to sit in on a session and just observe to see what you think. He’ll pay you $300. And then you can see if you’d like it.”
“Oh no, that’s okay. I’ll see you another time.” But I never heard from her again. She gave up on me. I found it bizarre that men paid for her – she looked like a stressed out housewife with long scraggly brown hair and a deep worry crease between her eyebrows. I guess she made men feel safe.
Years later in Seattle I briefly saw her leaving a bar in belltown, getting into a limo with a big group of black guys. It happened so fast, walking past her in that tight hall as I came through the door; she seemed like a mirage. Her entire life is like a mirage – appearing here and there in different cities, sitting beneath the law, fading from people’s lives before they ever get too close.
Her loneliness had weighed me down. Her money weighed me down too. I was too broke to afford the cabs and expensive restaurants she wanted to eat at. She probably held that against me.
“Things like sex and nudity were supposed to be imbued with meaning. But isolated from a relationship, they meant nothing – or rather, I realize now, they became something to be negotiated, and I became nothing – little more than a dress-up doll for them to project their narratives onto (McClear, 22).”
One night at this friend’s apartment I met a woman who worked for her. She was getting a divorce, her husband had cheated on her, and she had two kids. She liked sex work almost too much and was lonely enough to find solace in it. Tall, blonde and bare-breasted, she spread her expensive lingerie across the kitchen table, deciding which lacy silky thing she would wear for her client. I didn’t realize that business would be in session while I was there, but I decided to roll with it.
It was supposed to be a forty-minute session, but she wouldn’t stop talking to the guy afterwards. They were in a front room blocked off from the back of the apartment. We had to be quiet in the back. But I had to leave. It was midnight, and I wanted to catch the next train that only came every half hour late at night. Against my friend’s wishes, I busted a move for the front door. It jammed and just then the John walked out into the hall. I saw his look of astonishment as she shoved him back into the room until I could get out. What had I been doing there anyway? Out on the street I breathed in the cold air, with every step feeling further away from that heavy, alternate reality.
“That’s what I was learning from New York: you could fit in anywhere if you hung around long enough (McClear, 201).”
In the book, Sheila finally escapes her peep show life and finds work as a writer with enough love, acupuncture and therapy to begin to heal. But how can you begin to shake off all of those faceless men who make you what they want you to be, or the fellow live girls who disappear into the ether or turn into over-sexualized plastic deformities?
“There was a moment, after every show, after the light abruptly snapped and the glass fogged to opacity, when I could suddenly see my reflection: naked and alone, untouchable, on display like a zoo animal, suspended behind glass (McClear, 45).”
November 17, 2011 § Leave a comment
In my evolution of what I like to call “Gypsy Jobs” my latest addition is working as a model for the art school up the hill. I have always had a fascination with Bohemian Paris, artists and their muses, Kiki de Montparnasse. So after several months of thinking about it, I finally brought in my application.
On my first day I had two back-to-back three-hour classes. Bright and early that morning, when I usually wake up, I began with an open studio, monitored by a student. There is always that initial funny feeling when you first take off your robe, like here goes nothing. They started with 10 one minute poses, then 5 ten minute poses, and 2 twenty minute poses. During the longer poses I began to hallucinate. I was staring at a speck on the blanket covering the stage. The speck started to move. I was convinced it had come to life as a bug. In the next class, I stared out the window at a tree and soon I was a heron flying through the large open center of its branches.
I didn’t feel awkward once I was on the stage, only when I was waiting to go on. The pain however was another thing. By the end of twenty minutes, even in a basic standing pose, my feet fell asleep and my legs felt stuck when I was finally able to move. I realized you can’t rest your weight on one straight leg or else you’ll hyperextend and cause an injury. Even though it’s less striking, I’ve learned to always keep both knees slightly bent.
I’ve gotten a lot of compliments since then on my stillness as a model. Having an active mind saves me. I focus on a point, do breathing-exercises to work through the pain, and then distract myself by thinking of interesting memories or ideas for my writing. Now that I model two to four times a week, it feels completely natural, and I forget that I’m not wearing any clothes. It actually feels cozy.
Last week at a long pose session I walked through the class to see their interpretations. In the drawings my weight ranged from 110 to 160. One woman was drawn to the more Rubenesque, and said she tends to draw what she is working with, as in her own body type. The men drew me much thinner than the women. I thought of our differing perceptions – how women put themselves in the females position, and men see women with rose-colored glasses.
The experience of posing got me thinking about how we interpret nudity in our society. Years ago my friend took two of us girls to a nude beach in New Jersey. It was a gorgeous place. I found it beautiful that people of all ages, shapes, and sizes were completely out there. I swam topless and hung out with an older guy in the waves, having fun. Later on at a restaurant I saw him again with his clothes on and had to look twice. He looked like a Senator or an Investment Banker, though I’d had no way to interpret him without his clothes. Now we were back in our hierarchies and I wanted to go back to the beach where we were all equals.
I had a phase when I lived in Hoboken, where I’d drink so much gin I became inspired to take off all my clothes in the confines of my apartment with friends. I guess I liked the feeling of absolute freedom. But the guys interpreted it to mean that I was ready to go. Climb on in or take a number and come back another day. I look back on my own spontaneity in amazement – a desperate need for an adrenaline rush. And it is interesting how nudity outside of the confines of an art class, a nude beach or a hospital is interpreted as sexual. But nudity is much more nuanced than that. Nudity also brings to mind our own mortality, our equality as human beings, the mystery of existence, anatomy, art, beauty, the poetry of motion and form.
Friends and family may not quite understand my job or how I can feel comfortable without clothes. My mother still asks my husband, “Are you okay with this?” But for the first time in years I am enjoying a job and looking forward to going to work. I get to learn more about something I love – art, and be in an academic environment with enormously talented people. I take romantic walks afterwards, feeling poetic, drinking coffee and eating crepes with enough time left in the day to write for a while before dinner. When I’m not at the school, I’m thinking about the next time I get to be there, creating new poses for the students.
It’s an instance where life led me to two books. The Nude Female Figure and The Nude Figure by Mark Edward Smith. They are both visual references for the artist working without a model. I am learning the range of the human form, thinking of ways to inspire the artists. And now, I find myself returning to the place where I began – painting and drawing figures just as I did when I was a kid and was obsessed with fashion illustration and portraiture.
Artists of all ages are honored to be able to work from a live model and respect the opportunity. I get the sense that they are grateful for the model’s bravery. And in the stillness of a pose my mind is in motion, building ideas and images, undisturbed, in perfect meditation.