tease and deny: cross-cultural erotics

San Francisco is just full of fun things to do. In one day, I went from exploring 17th-century Japanese erotic art to learning about the history of burlesque and the art of twirling one’s nipple tassels. Wow. Quite a town.

I spent the afternoon wandering through the Asian Art Museum with a couple of friends, and it was absolutely lovely. Being people with certain, ahem, priorities, we ignored the bulk of the museum and concentrated on the Floating Worlds exhibit, which featured an amazing array of Japanese works – mainly hanging scrolls, screens and hand scrolls – from the 1600s to 1800s. The exhibit is split into two rooms, one of which felt to me like foreplay and the other which felt like getting down to business, though the museum itself doesn’t explain it that way of course. The foreplay section provides all sorts of context about the ways pleasure was experienced and constructed in ancient Japanese society – dress styles, hairstyles, areas of town set up for entertainment of every variety. The exhibit features many well-written panels explaining various intricacies of Japanese society and cultural symbolism, very helpful for the culture-hound sex geeks among us. 

The other section is where the erotic art itself is displayed. All things considered there’s not a lot of art that’s explicitly erotic in nature, but what’s there is incredibly revealing (ha!) of a finely tuned and highly knowledgeable culture of eroticism. First of all, the scenes depicted are set up to tease the viewer and emphasize the voyeuristic aspect of looking at such images – nearly every erotic scene is painted so that we as the viewers are peeking around a screen, looking through a sheer curtain, or standing across a river from what’s going on. The scenes themselves are highly detailed, with the genitals painted larger than life (how typical of erotic art from any culture!), and they show an array of sex acts. Aside from the size question, the anatomy is perfectly correct – women (gasp!) have clitorises, for example, and the men actually play with them! And on top of all that, the artists went so far as to paint with mica to add shine to the “important” bits – basically, to indicate the presence of bodily fluids. Even that was done with incredible precision. The mica was used to add drops of pre-cum on the tip of a penis, women’s juices dripping down men’s fingers, and more. Fascinating.

The further interesting bit is that while we were there exploring on our own, a guide was leading a public tour of the exhibit. The group went through the foreplay section while we were in it, and arrived in the sex section as we were there too, but a few moments behind. We circled the rooms and looked at each piece; the most explicit works were directly in the centre of the room, hand scrolls in glass cases. Beyond the exhibit itself, I was almost more intrigued to hear the way the tour guide handled explaining the art. She circled as we had done, offering information about each work, and my friends and I waited nearby to see what she’d say about the explicit stuff. Information about the mica technique? Analysis of the voyeuristic elements?

Nope. None of the above. “The official tour is over, but I strongly encourage you to take a look at the works in the centre of the room, which are not included in my tour because it’s difficult to see them all at once with a large group.”

Umm… what? You get the group to stand around the long glass case and you speak from one end of it. Not that complicated, really. The guide’s – or perhaps the museum’s – decision to leave out any explanation of the explicitly erotic works was a telling reminder of how uncomfortable people still are when it comes to talking aloud about sex, even when in a context such as a museum exhibit on that very topic where such speech would be perfectly appropriate. It was also funny to think about how in some ways 17th-century Japan was more at ease with the expression of sex than contemporary America, even in a city as progressive and sex-friendly as San Francisco.

After the exhibit, I headed for the Center for Sex and Culture to help staff a couple of classes led by the lovely Miss Indigo Blue, a burlesque queen and teacher from Seattle who’s in town for, among other things, Midori’s Bang 4 the Buck play party which I am heading to this evening. She taught two classes: one entitled “The Art of the Tease,” which gave a history of burlesque performance and a crash course in techniques for a tease, and the other one aimed mainly at performers and focusing on the techniques for choosing nipple pasties and getting those tassels to twirl.

I learned all sorts of fun things from her. For example, apparently the word “burlesque” derives from the Italian word “burlar,” to joke or make fun of. Burlesque began in 1800s in the form of variety shows, with pretty women thrown in every once in a while for interest. As time went on, the pretty ladies took up more and more time in the shows, such that by the era we understand as “classic” in burlesque terms – 1930s to 1960s – the comics were on as relief for the strippers, not the reverse. And the women were taking off more and more clothing as years went by; in the 1860s it was scandalous to reveal legs, even though they were clothed in tights.

By the ’60s burlesque was on a major decline because people could go to strip clubs and see the whole shebang. I wonder what that means about present-day neo-burlesque – perhaps we’ve rediscovered the ways in which not exactly seeing everything can be more arousing than splayed legs? I don’t know, but I do know I’ve loved virtually every burlesque performance I’ve ever attended, so there must be something to it. Then again I’ve always enjoyed strippers too. Maybe I’m just an equal-opportunity perv.

Indigo also spoke about the ways in which bodily movements that are considered erotic have changed over the years. In the 1950s, she explained, a “bump” motion – pushing the pelvis forward – was considered very provocative, and shaking the breasts was as well, because clothing was designed to constrict and constrain and so such free movements were unseen. Nowadays, what’s considered provocative is to exaggerate the ass-to-tit ratio by arching the back, raising the butt and pushing the breasts forward. I didn’t think, at the time, to ask what cultural factors she thought might be responsible for that shift in the perception of what’s exciting to look at, but I’d be very intrigued to know.

Most interesting of all, Indigo gave step-by-step instructions on how to manufacture desire. It was very strange to be sitting in a class about erotic performance and all of a sudden feel like I was in the middle of a marketing seminar. That’s not the energy she brought to it, of course, but nonetheless it occurred to me that much of what Indigo was talking about resembled the ways in which the art of marketing takes place, though I’ve never seen it laid out so clearly. (Of course I’ve done quite a lot of marketing writing without ever having taken a marketing class per se, so my perspective is an odd one.)

So, step one: create an object or area of desire. It can be anything; whether or not this object (in this case a body part) has any actual value is not the point. Indigo demonstrated this by covering her neck (which until then had been exposed, as she was wearing a simple t-shirt) with a boa, and using it to demonstrate her points. Step two: draw attention to it. In burlesque terms, this is done by using hands, large motions, facial expressions. This is also done by alternating between making eye contact with the audience and looking at the object itself, which creates tension between the audience’s desire to make eye contact with the performer and to see what’s being so tantalizingly hidden. Step three: withhold it. Demonstrate that effectively, you, the performer, have access to this wonderful thing, but the audience does not. Step four: remind the audience that object is there. Step five: show a bit, cover it up; show it, cover it up; repeat three or four times. This builds anxiety, anticipation, desire. Perhaps, maybe, the audience will have the chance to see. Step six: start to reveal it. Acknowledge that what’s happening in the audience is the impending release of that built-up tension, and perhaps insert a little humour to help lessen the shame because hey, if you can all laugh together it can’t be that bad, right? And step seven: reveal the object, and make a really big deal of it so they feel like they got what they were waiting for that whole time.

Wow. So simple, yet so effective. As an audience member, the tease works on me every time, and when it’s missing I feel like I’ve been cheated. Anytime I’ve attended any kind of striptease performance where that element of tease was missing, it’s been disappointing, whether I’m at a burlesque show a standard gentlemen’s strip club. I’m not there for the costumes and the bare skin; I’m there because I want the engaging emotional experience of being drawn in and entertained by a performer who cares about creating that flirty energy with me. Not me personally, of course, but me as the audience. To see someone simply get on stage and drop their drawers is boring. And, by Indigo’s logic – which makes perfect sense – that would be an indication that the performer does not value the object that is being revealed… so why, as an audience member, should I? Really, what I’m interested in is sitting back and being drawn into a pleasant illusion by someone who’s skilled at creating it, in a context where we all understand it’s an illusion and we’re just playing. (From this perspective, perhaps I understand role play a smidgen better – but that’s an entirely other post.) I want someone to make me believe that their naked or semi-naked body is the most exciting and wonderful thing I could possibly imagine, and aren’t I lucky to get to see it. I want to walk out feeling lucky.

I certainly did feel lucky in the second class, where I watched Indigo show a room full of topless women – from cute tiny small-breasted gals to gorgeous voluptuous ladies – how to twirl their tassels. I wasn’t participating, but boy did I pick up some neat tricks. Amazing how the female body can be so expertly manipulated by its owner to pull off such an oddly mesmerizing party trick. But it’s a lot harder to convey boob-bouncing technique in a blog post, so I think I will leave that one to the experts. You’ll just have to take Indigo’s class sometime if you’re curious…

The thing I found most amusing about all this is the absolutely crystal clear demonstration that effectively, erotic desire is very often bound up in the concept of what is forbidden, and always has been – it’s a cross-cultural and trans-historical fact. If in the same day I can see 17th-century Japanese scrolls that make a point of showing me, the viewer, that I am looking in at something desirable and forbidden, and then take a class on how to make a contemporary performance audience feel they are looking at something desirable and forbidden, clearly this is a theme that works and has worked for people in competely different temporal, geographical and cultural situations.

Of course, this simple little fact is surely not news to most of us; I think it’s simply that I haven’t seen it demonstrated in such a stark way by exposure to facets of that one precise concept in two completely different contexts in the same eight-hour period, in completely different institutions not a ten-minute walk from one another. The human mind is such a strange thing.

On that note, I’m going to go get ready for tonight’s entertainment: Midori’s Bang 4 the Buck women-and-trans play party. It begins with an amateur butch-femme strip lesson by none other than the lovely Indigo Blue, followed by a striptease performance contest. Hey, if a bevy of hotties wants to practice their newfound art of the tease, who am I to deprive them of an appreciative audience? Really, it’s the least I can do!

6 Responses

  1. When I hear people lament how “puritanical and repressed” we Americans are, it seems like the criticism is a bit off base. If so much is forbidden to us by social taboos, then exactly that much stokes the fires of erotic desire. If everything were not only permitted but enthusiastically encouraged, would our sex lives be as hot and exciting? I’m a big fan of repression for this very reason. There can be no perversion without it. I don’t want a sex life that’s approved of by the masses; does anyone else?

  2. Very interesting perspective, L. I think I agree with you to a point, but there is a line somewhere between repression in the “goodness me, that’s dirty!” sense and repression in the sense of social and governmental policy that infringes on the human rights of sexual minorities. I wonder if it would be possible to balance the repressive aspect of American culture that causes some things to be exciting on the one hand with a firm commitment to social justice on the other. Or do they necessarily cancel one another out?

  3. Hmm, rules and form stoke me but repression does not. They’re different things altogether. Rules and form essentially define a space that I can explore and test, and that’s exciting. Repression is the rigid enforcement of rules and form that tries to stop me from exploring and testing boundaries, and that’s not exciting. Sometimes repression is a good thing, like the rigid enforcement of consensual boundaries. Life doesn’t have to be 100% exciting. But the repression that tries to enforce social norms that have nothing to do with consent and harm is pure bunkum (or bollocks, while I’m in Scotland).

    I suspect that social repression will always be with us, whoever and whenever we are, just like a swarm of nasty little blackflies. As long as the blackflies don’t morph into little black helicopters with flags of state and weaponry (i.e., legal apparatus), then I can deal with social disapproval. Like L, I simply do not care whether my erotic life is approved by the masses. I suspect that it’s not (gasp!). (In fairness, I had to work hard to get here, and that work used energy that could have gone elsewhere — that’s a cost of attempted repression, and of course I’m pissed about it). But as long as my erotic life is approved by a select few (especially me), and I have the freedom to explore nonharmful rules and form, then I’m fine. Maybe even joyful. And definitely a cabana boi. I wonder how I would have fared in ancient Japan?

  4. Medici – I see why you and our mutual friend get along. :) And yes, I’m with you – I don’t have any interest in seeing my sex life approved of by the mainstream. I don’t fetishize the mainstream’s disapproval (and I think that such a process can be dangerous for those who engage in it); rather, I simply don’t care. That is, I don’t care until mainstream disapproval infringes upon my human rights. Up to that point, my sexual proclivities will upset some people because I step outside a framework they feel is important to maintain, and that’s okay, and some people’s sexual proclivities don’t seem very exciting to me because they stay within that very narrow framework, and that’s okay too.

    Michael Warner has a lot to say about this, albeit from a political rather than a sexuality perspective per se, in his book “The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics and the Ethics of Queer Life.” If you haven’t read it I highly recommend it, I suspect you’d enjoy it muchly.

  5. P.S. Something tells me there were no cabana bois in ancient Japan, but I imagine you’d have found some alternative that suited. ;)

  6. Yes — cross-cultural inventions thrill me! I’d have made out fine, I think. When can I go?

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