Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex (Pat Califia 1994, Cleis Press. San Francisco)
Public Sex is a series of articles that Pat Califia wrote prior to the mid 1990s. If you are not familiar with Pat Califia you are either new to contemporary queer literature or you have been living under a rock. Califia is one of the leading queer writers of modern times.
Public Sex address issues that form something of a modern history of the queer movement. The political construct of what constitutes the acceptable practice of sexuality is explored in depth. Califia walks the reader through several pressing issues from conservative feminist separatism, sex laws based on fear, age of consent laws, politics of pornography, kinky sex, and what it means to be a sex radical. Califia guides the reader through the politics of queer sexuality and points out how we went “from being isolated freaks and psychiatric case histories to members of an above ground, powerful subculture that lobbied for increased protection and civil rights” (Califia 1994, 18). Reading Public Sex will help you to understand the conservativism that has swept the queer community over the last three decades.
This book confronts many of the issues that cause tension, fear, and hatred within our community. Califia is able to write critically about issues that we fight over, who counts as real, what acceptance means, and the way we really find sexual pleasure. There are a lot of things that you will not agree with in this book, you might get pissed off and thrown the thing on the ground, call it names, storm off and not want to finish it. If this happens I urge you to pick it up again, finish it. Challenge your own sexual politics.
Though I would rather not touch this issue with a ten-foot pole I need to mention the kiddy porn panic, the age of consent laws, and the outrage that a lot of people have expressed about Califia’s views on sex with minors. Califia writes about a group of gay men who are known as boy lovers. This article will almost certainly push your comfort zone. Califia is examining a part of gay history that has been defined by men who love boys. In this article Califia defends boy lovers and calls age of consent laws into question. The article was written some time before the internet porn community was inundated with 2257 laws. The age of consent laws and the kiddy porn panic that President Regan initiated put 2257 laws into motion. Most of how this happened was based on fear mongering and a moral code that should be examined closer. I understand that Califia later changed zirs position on sex with minors though I never actually saw that piece. I do wonder if Califia was bullied into a public change of opinion because suggesting that ‘sex with minors’ is part of queer history is a political minefield.
The articles in Public Sex shine a light on how the queer community tackles issues of sexuality. Califia examines how the queer agenda has been staunched into a single cause. In the mid 1990s that cause was to find a cure for HIV. In subsequent years that single cause has been transformed into marriage equality, as though the homonormative ‘straightening’ of queer sexuality through hegemonic monogamy could actually prevent HIV transmission. “We need to stop indulging the ridiculous fantasy that if we could just get legally married like heterosexuals, we could all be monogamous, and then we would be safe” (Califia 1994, 21).
Califia writes about feminists and pornography, the perception that porn is degrading to women, and the laws that have been implemented in many places around the globe to staunch pornography production and distribution. Califia questions the propaganda of censorship as a safety mechanism. Public Sex calls on readers to examine their own bias. Califia opens up in a way that makes you feel as if you are having an exciting conversation with a good friend. The articles are smart, thought provoking and sexually charged.
To be a sex radical today you need to question the propaganda. To be a sex radical you need to make it a priority to learn the history of the LGBTQQIIKAP&GQ movement, you need to be wiling to toss out your politically correct, white washed view of the queer agenda and think critically about the issues that have helped to define our people. Radical sex isn’t about following the herd, radical sex is about creating a political climate where people don’t have to live in hiding because they prefer to have orgasms in a taboo way.
Califia’s position of equality and sexual freedom have been seen as edgy even in the queer community, a community of people that considers themselves to be an edgy bunch. Califia has received a lot of criticism for zir work over the years. From hir position on kinky leather sex to the article about the history of boy lovers in the gay community Pat Califia has often been a very hated author. I admire this and think that you owe it to yourself to read Califia’s work, rethink your own preconceived notions about what constitutes good and acceptable sex. If you believe in equality, in the right to make your own choices about your body and the genre of sex you wish to have, read this book with an open mind.
It is easy to think that people who enjoy a sexual practice that is different than the one you enjoy are dirty sinners (or at least claim that you just don’t understand them). “Unfortunately most people’s sexual tolerance ends at their own bedroom (or dungeon) door” (Califia 1994,19). It is much more productive to stand up and claim a sexuality that the right wing would still like to demonize, claim it, own it, defend it, fight for equality not hegemony. Your sexual politics and identity don’t matter one bit to me. What matters is your ability to critically analyze the disinformation we have all been fed about the rights, the responsibility, and the kind of sex we should be allowed to have. In a world where equality for some (but not all) still flies I urge you to read Public Sex, it will push your limits, I promise.
Originally posted March 13, 2011
I’ve been re-reading essays from this book for the past few weeks, and was actually going to write a review of it (much of it falls nicely into the category “Kink and the Law”). Discovering it, and Pat Califia generally, was a huge part of my sexual (and kinky) coming of age.
This review is great – it does what I was planning to do in my review, which is to say “go out there and buy the book – read it. Whether you argue or agree with it, the writing is so powerful you cannot come away without an opinion, untouched.”