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Money thinks


Stemming from the Latin addictio, meaning giving over or surrender, the term addiction has come to denote a provocative concept in modern mental health, stirring associations with significant behavioral disorders with a medical underpinning: the activation of a brain’s reward system, connected by neuronal pathways, leading to patterns of reinforced pleasure-seeking behavior despite the continuation of negative personal consequences connected with said behavior. In psychodynamic terms, addiction is perhaps a shorthand for another kind of unconscious yet unrepressed phenomena. No, I’m not referring to social prejudice—yet—but rather to what is broadly termed acting out: that is, acting out feelings versus being aware of and expressing them. “I’m not doing it on purpose”, says a relapsing, self-identified addict (and the listener wonders). “Not consciously,” I have sometimes responded, eliciting quizzical looks. What’s the difference, the eyes ask? These are meandering thoughts yet still brevities, offered for menu-style perusal in mine and Joe Farley’s book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction, which of course focuses on pleasure-seeking as it relates to sex, plus the fallout that typically ensues. This tends to include estrangement from committed partners (the most common pretext for treatment described in out book), which may or may not have existed prior to the onset of addictive behaviors, which lends itself to a sinewy and fascinating treatment process, minus the dirty details—the real stories, for the most part. Besides the medical/behavioral elements, moralism and ontological philosophy do hegemonic battle on this topic, with advocates for variably impacted groups offering views that privilege the groups they represent. It seems to my co-author and I that a mini-culture war pits intimate partners, genders, and even sexual minorities against one another, and it may be that neither the theorists, the psychiatrists, the partners’ advocates, the LGBTQ advocates, nor the 12-step confidantes have all the bases covered. In terms of who is getting closest to the truth, as in the dirty details and the real story of addiction, I’d vote for the satirists.

A few years before sex addiction was a commonly used term, an a priori disorder and a recognized thing, author Martin Amis did for sex addiction what David Foster Wallace would do for drug addicts a decade later in his encyclopedic magnum opus, Infinite Jest. Amis gave the reader a taste of the sex addict’s mind, of his manic turn of thought and phrase; of the inchoate mechanisms that generate decisions, process experience, emotion. In his novel Money, the acting out is unrepressed and rendered conscious (largely, anyway) for the reader’s voyeuristic (our acting out) or otherwise sublimated pleasure. Here, for example, is a passage about brothel economics and dissatisfaction:

That session with She-she had done me no good at all. Although I had tarried in the Happy Isles for well over an hour, the actual handjob was the work of a moment—forty-five seconds, I’d say. I had to rack my brains to remember a worse one. ‘You must have been really excited,’ said She-she quietly, as she started plucking tissues from the box. Yes and no. Between ourselves, it was one of those handjobs where you go straight from limpness to orgasm, skipping the hard-on stage. I think She-she must have activated some secret glandular gimmick, to wrap it up quickly.

Note the wry, detached voice. An astute ironist, Amis gave his protagonist, John Self (such a psychodynamic name!), an observant mind, and while Self is an ignorant slob with his fictional peers, he is literate with the reader, which gives us something to hope for. The addict thinks! Yes, he acts out: he is compulsive, ethically reprehensible; he is violent, exploitative, and shameless, yet his dignity persists because his humor, honesty and intelligence are intact, affording him a charismatic villain’s appeal. Because Self has no one to answer to except the invisible reader, he is guileless in his confidences, and also unembarrassed by the pitiful failures he shares for our pleasure. Without apology, he admits his affliction and defends it with proprietorial hunger:

Besides, pornography is habit-forming, you know. Oh yes it is. I am a pornography addict, for instance, with a three-mag-a-week and at-least-one-movie habit to sustain. That’s why I need all this money. I’ve got all these chicks to support…

Never mind the anachronisms, the essence of immersion, of relationship with anonymity, has likely not changed in the forty years since Amis’ seminal publication. Meanwhile, there is no shadow consumer, as I term long suffering, non-acting out partners in Getting Real, for this character to report back to. The imagined reader is his only judge, and while he or she may be disgusted or rendered indignant by the anti-hero’s shenanigans, there is collusion in being the reader; in being, in effect, no less a voyeur than if watching one of Self’s porn clips, plus his masturbatory routine. In a novel like Money, there is complicity alongside a critical witnessing. Author and protagonist take us on a tour of debauchery, and as a novel suggests drama, there is a crisis afoot for the reckless Self. Of course, before the written word, the reader has no responsibility beyond that of a passive confidante; unlike a therapist, he or she need not pretend to relate to or distance from the wayward behavior of the confessor. There are no goals for the reader to assert; no warnings that we have to issue, and no calamity that we have to do anything but wait for. And we don’t have to answer to a shadow consumer either.

As a result, we get more than we bargain for. More information, more insight, than we bargain for if we read a book like Money, which is about an addict and narcissist’s mind as it takes a treacherous journey. Self wonders aloud, plays with his own thought like an X-rated Richard III: What is this state, seeing the difference between the good and bad and choosing bad—or consenting to bad, okaying bad? For the struggling, recovering person who is not afraid to think his own thoughts, John Self is a learned companion in a study of pleasure and pain. And it’s not just about addiction, this book, but about the medium of porn, with its degenerate, inferior, yet truthful venture beyond repression barriers. See, it goes without saying that sex has always been in our music, our plays, films and books, yet I must say this a lot, I find, to people who don’t want to think about sex—not really. Still, we’ve insisted sex be present lest the action of art become dull and plainly unincentivized. We’ve asked only one thing across most contexts, across most societies: that sex appear artfully, perhaps subliminally, with reminders that we are more than our savage, venal and aggressive drives. Porn is therefore dangerous. It defies this traditional artifice, stripping us of our pretenses, and refusing to honor our niceties, or the institutions that require us to pretend so that civilization itself may continue. Yes, it’s that bad, porn. We hate it that much.


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Venus and AB1775


In August 2014, the California legislature passed bill AB1775, a law that redefines sexual exploitation for the purpose of mandated reporting guidelines. For the first time since the codification of child abuse reporting law in the early 1980s, the consuming of a product (such as the accessing or downloading of illegal pornography) must be reported by mental health professionals and other mandated reporters to authorities. For many in the field of mental health, this bill constitutes a threat to therapist-patient confidentiality, a bedrock principle in the treatment of mental health disorders. The bill was written by child advocacy groups in coordination with California police departments, and was promoted as “cracking down on child porn and child abuse” by assembly woman Melissa Melendez, though it was written by lawyers for the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, whose 30,000 deep membership mostly learned of the bill just weeks prior to its passing.

This controversial law serves as a real life backdrop to my novel, Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole, a first person narrative about an alcoholic, widowed psychologist named Daniel Pierce who takes an impromptu hiatus from his practice, only to be stalked by a former prostitute and lawyer who wants information about and his intervention with a recent patient of his whom she says has perpetrated a child molestation. Pierce resists intervening or giving information, citing patient-therapist privilege, though he is intrigued by the woman’s ardent appeal, for professional and personal reasons: attracted to her, he is nonetheless unmoved by her insistence that he break the confidentiality of his patient as he finds her pretexts grounded more in prejudice than in substance. Aware of his patient’s substance abuse, predilection for prostitutes, and compulsive use of pornography, he doesn’t dismiss the possibility that a crime against a child has occurred, but he resists reporting information that will likely prejudice police, a criminal or family court, or a jury. Unknowingly dodging subpoenas, Pierce retreats to a sober living house to examine his grief, his conscience; even his role in society. However, in the small world of 12-step recovery, he meets the patient who is the object of so much fear and suspicion. The impromptu hiatus becomes an impromptu therapy between two men, neither of whom is a shining example of mental health.

The novel is a dramatic expression of social concern: about the role of the psychotherapist in society, which is a subset of society’s broader desire for heroes, sometimes at the expense of reason; about the need for privacy such that effective mental health treatment can transpire; about the relationship between pornography and sexual abuse; about the influence of feminism upon sexual mores, the process of family courts. As a psychotherapist who works with self-proclaimed sex addicts, state-identified sex offenders, I observe a degree of cynicism on all sides: within the minds of the offenders, or addicts, but also within the schemes of their critics and persecutors. In one sense, it’s no surprise that Daniel Pierce is a burn-out case. His personal drama illustrates what has previously fascinated readers of Irvin Yalom’s novels, or viewers of the HBO drama, In Treatment: that mental health professionals are also flawed, and vulnerable to addictions, if not anti-social behaviors. I think this unknown facet of the mental health professional intrigues members the public. As my protagonist states, they want “in the room” of psychotherapy, to find out what’s being said and done.

Sprinkled within this heavy drama is an equally heavy dose of satire. While excoriating the state’s intrusion upon mine and others’ professional space, I also poke fun at a few segments of society: at the subcultures of pornography and 12-step recovery in particular. Meanwhile, my text lampoons the social engineering that occurs in advertising, via the themes of TV commercials; the products that line the shelves of retail. I write with mischief about contemporary issues that subtly divide men and women, teasing feminists and paternalists alike. This commentary is intended as comic provocation, but is not comic relief or gratuitous soapboxing. These themes are the subtext of my protagonist’s alienation.

The result is a melancholic, if sometimes flippant (some say arrogant) story that is typical of my style. I’ve written four novels prior to this one, but despite better reviews for previous efforts, I think this novel my best. I like repeated themes, inside jokes, and metaphor that stirs the imagination of the reader. I like anti-heroes, difficult people who are not easy to understand, because real people are not easy to understand. Venus Looks Down On A Prairie is an obscure title, no doubt—but no more so than Catcher In The Rye or even Fifty Shades Of Grey—and its meaning should not elude an attentive, curious reader, whom I intend to engage in the deepest possible way.

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Talkin’ about it



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The ins and outs of porn


Nothing like a little innuendo to start a blog that is both serious and comic in nature, but if you’re waiting to read about best porn sites on the internet, you’ll be greatly disappointed, for this entry is about as anti-porn as it gets, ironically. This entry is all about the written word and the long narrative—things porn dispensed with almost from the get-go of its existence.

Reviews are available of my porn-on-the-periphery novel, Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole: mostly lukewarm responses from the likes of Kirkus and Clarion, who seem to regard my writing as competent, if unremarkable, but take issue with my central character, thinking him unlikeable, a drag upon a worthy cause. The only thing that’s surprising is their reticence. You’d think reviewers would spend a bit less time/print giving synopsis; a bit more time reviewing prose, plot or character development. Daniel Pierce, my protagonist, is indeed an unhappy guy, as the Clarion reviewer points out. He is perhaps arrogant as Kirkus observes. But I’d expected to read more about why reviewers think this, and beyond that, to wonder. It’s strange to me that while people in my profession are used to seeing beyond defenses into what’s inside another (in other words, observing that which is not expressed explicitly), readers expect conscious endeavor, and reject characters who won’t say what readers want them to. In writing Venus, I knew I’d annoy progressives with my teasing of feminist cliches, what I think are tired attacks upon porn. I’d expect disapproval from 12-step adherents, who may not care for my lampooning of drug treatment, or the casual misuse of recovery principles. Both these factions, plus old school paternalists—everyone—might resent my implied sympathy towards sex offenders. As Daniel observes towards the beginning, you the reader might not like what he’s about to share.

Of all these contentious themes, porn gets the spotlight today. It’s in your face, as Daniel comments. Here’s a sample from the text:

“You see, in sex, real sex, not porn sex, eyes are the thing; the personal center. I know because I don’t have great eyes or facial symmetry, which hasn’t helped my pursuit of sex—well, except when light flatters me, when no one is around to look. I wish it were different, not that I want more sex these days. I just wish I knew what makes a pair of eyes great. When I hear people say, “so and so has pretty eyes”, I always wonder what they’re referring to, because compliments tend to be unspecific. Is it the color, the shade, or size, or what my mom, my first gal, used to call “the shine” that dots the pupils? The women of porn stare into cameras seducing viewers with their eyes, big pupils and all, plus their dirtied personalities, looking undignified, yet ambiguously powerful; ambiguously not, I guess. They say—some say—that the women of porn are in it for the power, the sexual power, not the money. Are they? I don’t know, though if you ask me, no one’s coming out of porn looking or feeling their best. The real issue—the real offense to the egalitarian way—is the air of servitude, for what porn really does is arrest women into roles of pleasing. Don’t agree? Go watch some porn”

Actually, eyes are secondary. The penis is the star—the object, if you will—of porn, Daniel remarks, adding that they are in our faces, and “literally in women’s”. These are examples of his flippant, crude armchair views, and a portent of more earnest commentary later on in the story. Venus echoes an argument I first read in Martin Amis’ Money, written thirty five years ago when porn existed only in magazines or in seedy, downtown theaters—maybe videotapes. Money is a masterpiece of gritty, maverick literature. In it, a character (Amis himself, actually) says to John Self, the protagonist, that pornography objectifies women and men equally. Self, a debauched porn addict himself, jovially disagrees, saying that men don’t or wouldn’t mind being so objectified, especially for money (his stand-by argument about everything). Amis rebukes this assumption, claiming he and most men wouldn’t have sex for money, thus pointing out that all involved in porn are exploited. Lira, my women’s advocate/former prostitute in Venus, argues that whatever exploitation of men exists in porn is irrelevant, as men are the dominant consumers. Daniel retorts that if the consumer is the oppressor, then we are all oppressors in our consumer society, and that scapegoating sex for the problem of exploitation merely exposes western prurience.

This is not to say that he’s a fan of porn. In fact, he finds it cold, cynical and narcissistic, though he shamefacedly indulges on occasion when feeling disconnected. But like myself, he’s wary of the righteous; distrustful of zeitgeist opinion, well-marketed, sound-bitten ideas, and therefore has a soft spot for the demonized consumer. This leads him to work with sex addicts in his practice, and with some sex offenders, though he demurs on most cases mired in a legal process. Meanwhile, serendipity places him the company of Rick, ostensibly a chef whom Daniel meets when working shifts at a restaurant during his practice-shedding hiatus. Later, it turns out that Rick is a budding porn actor who goes by the name Kane Able, a typical double entendre slapped on for parody’s sake. So, too, are some scenarios that are common to porn’s semi-theater: the fireman or policeman skit-gimmicks, enacted with thin, tongue-in-cheek pretense, which play upon themes of heroism, damsels in distress and the pull for male sacrifice; abuse of authority, plus the chance to fashion dialogue replete with daft innuendo, silly plays upon words. As a result, Venus is filled with plays upon words, at times mimicking the artifices of porn; otherwise providing a kind of parallel script alongside the action.

Amidst all of this, Venus drops down into a serious contemplation of sex and gender politics. In its subtext it observes a shift in mores, from the castigation of female sexuality, to a back-handed latter-day quest for more freedom, but to what end? For men, the freedom train is heading in the opposite direction. Former license(s) is being revoked, yielding more punishments, weaker performance, and more anxiety, even as advertising media goads them to take the same old risks. Porn offers a kind of refuge to those who are not sure that sex, as in regular intimacy-enhancing, not-paid-for sex, is worth the effort or the risks. With respect to this problem, Daniel Pierce is an outsider: he’s too old to have known the ubiquity of porn prior to his marriage or to have experienced dating as the online shopping exercise it currently is. In a sense, he is safe from contaminated society, but still he is adrift, a closet romantic largely suppressing comment but now seizing a moment with an unlikely listener. Lira listens well enough, but like my reviewers, I think, doesn’t really connect with him. I realize that’s what Daniel Pierce’s story is about: a lament for what is missed.


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