Our second film at Sex+++ was “Sex Positive”, a fascinating documentary about the history of safer sex. I’ll be honest: I was psyched about “Sex Positive” from day one, long before I’d even seen it. It was the first film I chose for my film list. In fact, the whole idea for the film series came out of a conversation I had with Lisa (our lovely Hull-House Museum education coordinator) in which I said that I wanted to see “Sex Positive”, and then added, “There are so many sexuality movies I want to see. You and I should have a regular movie night!” She looked at me and said thoughtfully, “You know, I bet people besides us would come to that ….”
“Sex Positive” tells the story of Richard Berkowitz — and how he was one of the first to spread the word about safer sex in America. Berkowitz, a talented writer, started out as a hot-blooded participant in the promiscuous gay bathhouse culture; later, he became an S&M hustler. When AIDS started decimating the gay community, Berkowitz was instrumental in teaching his community (and the world) about safer sex. As it became clear to some medical professionals that sexual promiscuity spread AIDS, Berkowitz tried to tell the world about their findings. But there was a huge backlash against him — because in those days, the promiscuous bathhouse culture was seen by many gay men as a huge part of identifying as gay and sex-positive … and anyone who argued against it, or tried to modify it, was therefore cast by many people as sex-negative.
You can read my “Sex Positive” followup blog post and quick semi-review here, and Richard Berkowitz himself did just that! He left a comment offering feedback on my review, and I was so thrilled and honored to hear from him that I emailed him right away. We talked a little bit, and met in person last time I was in New York City — and I practically begged him to let me interview him by email. Here’s the results: a discussion of Richard’s history with S&M; what he thinks about advocacy; his feelings about the gay community and its history; and where he finds himself in his life right now.
Clarisse Thorn: In “Sex Positive”, you mention that you didn’t initially think of yourself as a BDSM type, but that you had partners who convinced you to do it. Do you think you would have gotten into BDSM if you hadn’t had partners pressuring you to do it? Do you think you would have gotten into it if you hadn’t been able to make money at it?
Richard Berkowitz: I was filmed talking in three- to four-hour sessions over the course of a year about difficult, often painful, personal history. At times I felt uncomfortable, I made mistakes, so there are moments in “Sex Positive” that I wish I could clarify — but it’s not my film. That’s why I’m thrilled that you’re giving me the first opportunity to address the moments that make me cringe when I see the movie — and what amazed me is that you nailed most of them.
Me — pressured into S&M? Hell, no. I stumbled across BDSM porn in college, and was both appalled and more turned on than I was to any other porn. I pursued a few experiences as a novice when I was in college, and I was completely turned off to the scene for years. The few Tops I met were clumsy, distracted by fetishes that bored me, and I was convinced a bottom could easily get hurt — so I walked away.
When I began hustling in NYC, I was an angry activist and it attracted S&M bottoms that were happy to teach me what I could do with my anger that was erotic and consensual. To that I added what I had learned that Tops did wrong — and presto! I got really good at it fast — and I loved it. I was doing two or three scenes a day, but because I could often steer a scene to what turned me on, it felt more like play than work.
If I hadn’t had been trained as a Top by older, experienced bottoms who were hiring me, I still would have had S&M experiences on my own. But I doubt that I would have gotten as heavily into the scene if it wasn’t for hustling. That’s where I earned my S&M PhD.
In 1979, S&M was considered the fallback scene for aging hustlers — it was what you turned to when you were losing your youth. There was such a dearth of good Tops. But I had the raw material to be a great Top at 23, and I built quite a reputation on word-of-mouth referrals and repeats. Many of my clients became close friends.
CT: Where do you place BDSM in your sexual identity and self-conception? Do you see it as deeply part of you, or something you chose? Do you think of your BDSM urges as coming from a place as deep, as intrinsic, as your gay orientation?
RB: I think it’s too late for me to answer that question. Turning my libido into an occupation at 23 changed me in both good ways and bad. It would take a book to explain — so let me just say that as a product of gay male sex in the 70s, there was an element of power intrinsic to the sexuality of the times. That shaped me. I don’t see vanilla sex and S&M sex as mutually exclusive because I believe in Tops and bottoms — and that’s the basis of BDSM. “Tops and bottoms” are not exclusive to BDSM; the terms are widely used for assigning roles of power in sex in general. Gore Vidal said, “There is no such thing as gay and straight — only top and bottom”. I believe both are true.
But one shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that a third of my living space for the past three decades was a sound-proofed dungeon.
I think that a culture like ours that’s based on competition, as opposed to cooperation, can be extremely sadomasochistic. I think bad S&M can be found in many aspects of our daily life, and good S&M is just eroticizing aspects of being human that can enhance sex immensely for some.
CT: What kind of BDSM advocacy have you encountered? What kind of sex work advocacy have you encountered? What did you think of what you saw? Do you have any ideas about how to make those movements effective? Do you have any fears about those movements? Would you consider being part of those movements?
RB: My only fear about those movements would be if they didn’t exist! My neighbor down the hall for the past 25 years built my dungeon and was a co-founder of Gay Male SM Activists, but I always had too much hot sex going on at home to be interested in meetings. Plus, I never stopped feeling like a pariah in the gay community because of the attacks on me and my writing since AIDS began. You reach a point where you just assume people hate you because it’s easier than trying to figure out who doesn’t.
I fiercely support BDSM advocacy, but mainly from a distance. There’s a limited number of body blows any activist can take before we just retreat. I had my fill — but the response to “Sex Positive” and the new Obama era is nudging me out of my shell. I had a breakup a few years ago that devastated me, so I’ve been out of the scene for almost three years. Now I’m trying to reinvent myself, find one person I can retreat from the world with. I’ve never lied about S&M being an intrinsic part of my sexuality, and because of my early bad experiences with BDSM, I’m thrilled and inspired by advocates for it. If there had been BDSM advocacy when I came into BDSM, then I don’t think I would have had the bad experiences I mentioned earlier. As a BDSM sex worker, I met so many men who had horrible tales of being hurt in scenes, and I did my best to be an antidote for that.
CT: On my blog, you commented that “Of course BDSM was a source of joy in my life but I put it aside when it robs me from having a platform to champion safe sex to the largest possible audience, which BDSM often has.” Could you talk more about that?
RB: Smear campaigns are hard to pin down, and there’s no way to know how much of the contempt against me or my writing was due to my BDSM, my sex work, my safe sex evangelism or simply me. I’m just a dangling piñata for people who have issues with sex!
There are gay people of my generation who are as uninformed and rabidly anti-BDSM sex as homophobes are about gay sex.
I can’t think of anyone who has gone on film with such brutally honest testimony about their radical sexual history as I did in “Sex Positive.” It felt like a huge risk and you can see my anxiety in the film, but to me, this level of honesty is crucial to pro-sex activism. People are so dishonest about sex; many would never talk publicly about their private sexual behavior — and they don’t want others doing it either, so it’s not easy.
There was a doctor I saw once when AIDS began who heard I was into S&M. As he went to take blood from me, he stabbed the needle into my arm. I bolted out of the chair screaming, and he said coyly, “Oh, sorry, I thought you liked pain.” How can I not feel reticent talking about BDSM considering so many people I’ve met like that? And then I think, how can I not?
I’ve seen the most courageous pro-sex writers and activists attacked, pilloried and silenced because of their honesty in writing about their kinky sexual histories. I shudder when I recall the vicious smears against pro-sex feminists by anti-porn feminists back in the early 80s. I don’t want to invite that bile into my life, especially now, when my circle of gay male friends are no longer alive and here to support me when I go out on a limb with my personal radical sexual issues in public.
So why did I speak out? Why do I still speak out? Because I owed so much to the army of men who loved and supported me over the years and no longer have a voice, and because gay men were dying. It was no time to be squeamish about sex. It still isn’t.
CT: Do you have any regrets? — and, concurrently, what are you most proud of? Did the making of the film “Sex Positive” bring any regret or pride to the surface for you?
RB: I have a few regrets about “Sex Positive”, but they pale next to what I’ve gained. I’ve been to more cities with this movie in one year than I’ve been to in my entire life. Young people have been extraordinarily supportive and kind, and it helps me to let go of the past. I’ve been stuck in the past for so long — it’s deadening, but I finally feel that this movie is breaking me free, to finally let go and move on to write about other things. For that, I’m forever indebted to Daryl Wein, the documentary’s director.
What I’m most proud of is how much work I did on safe sex that no one even knows about. I’m putting it all on the Internet as a free archive, as soon as I can find or pay someone to help me with the technical stuff. I’m from the age of typewriters.
CT: Is there anything you’d like to add? Please feel free to also respond directly to points I made when I talked about “Sex Positive” on my blog.
RB: I loved S&M hustling before AIDS so much — sometimes, when I talk about it, I become the part of me that tied people up and dominated them; it’s like a mental erection. I get lost in the reverie of being an erotic, arrogant Top. I begged director Daryl Wein to delete me saying that clients would tell me that I could do whatever I wanted to them except fuck them, and then I would proceed to do just that. I said that when I was lost in a persona, and it makes me sound like a rapist!
The truth is, my most valued expertise as a hustler was teaching men who were afraid of getting fucked how to relax, how to douche, how to open up, how to explore the intense pleasures of receptive anal intercourse and anal orgasm without any pain. I would never rape or violate anyone’s consent — and certainly not customers I wanted to come back! I had tremendous empathy for how difficult it can be to learn how to get anally fucked because I was never able — or had the desire — to do it without being high on drugs. (You have to remember how pervasive recreational drug use was during the sexual revolution. There were articles in the gay press saying how cocaine was good for you. We didn’t understand addiction then as we do now. And we paid a heavy price for that innocence and ignorance.)
When I began hustling in NYC, the lesbian and gay liberation movement was ten years old — and about that mature. We grew up in such an intensely erotophobic and homophobic culture — there was no way to escape it, even after we accepted that we were gay. We didn’t always treat each other well, and it permeated our sexual expression whether it was vanilla or S&M.
You mention in your blog post that you are wary of how I talk about BDSM as arising from “self-loathing” and “insecurity” and negative cultural pressures on the gay community. Yes — in S&M and in vanilla sex — I saw how we brought a lot of the culture’s contempt to what we did. But, as I say in “Sex Positive”, many of us came to realize this, and we understood that a lot of sexual fantasies are socially constructed by the times that shaped us. Many of us came to realize that sexual fantasies don’t diminish us as people — they can actually help free and enrich us when we understand what we’re doing.
I’m reluctant to put myself forward as a role model for BDSM and sex work, because of what happened to me after AIDS when I went back to hustling. I was furious that there was no place in the community for me to do safe sex education. I felt so hurt that some people only saw me as a sex worker/sadomasochist and that political differences got in the way of saving sexually active gay men’s lives. You can’t imagine the rage I felt that it took two entire years after we wrote and published “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic” for NYC to do its first safe sex campaign. I went back to hustling in such despair that I was an addiction waiting to happen, and that’s what did.
In the end, though, BDSM and my love for it is part of what saved my life. If I weren’t so busy hustling with BDSM before AIDS and safe sex, I would have spent much more time at the baths having high risk sex, and died long ago. I think each of us has a limit to how much sex and how many different partners our spirits can bear. Sex can become an addiction, and when you reach that point, people use recreational drugs to keep that level of hypersexual activity going. If I had found a place in safe sex education, my life would have been a much happier, healthier journey. But I never lose sight of how grateful I am to still be here, or how much joy and pleasure sexual freedom gave me until the world I loved started collapsing all around me and taking the men I loved along with it.
Check out Richard Berkowitz’s web site to read more about him and order his book, Stayin’ Alive: The Invention of Safe Sex.
If you’re interested in seeing Daryl Wein’s documentary “Sex Positive”, then keep track of the film’s website. It hasn’t been released yet, but I have it on good authority that it’ll be out to a wider audience later this year.