Since both Daniel Quinn [Correspondence, April 1998] and Derrick Jensen [Correspondence, June 1998] responded to my letter about Jensen’s interview with Quinn [“Down the Garden Path,” December 1997], I feel I must answer them.
In the interview, Quinn said the tribal system “is transmitted flawlessly from one generation to the next.” He described this system as “classless. Tribal leadership, where such exists, is untyrannical. They have a way of life in which there is no suffering class, no poor class, no despised class — while a third of our society belongs to such a class.” To which I say: Which tribal system? There are thousands of aboriginal peoples throughout the world. Some are classless. Some do educate their young for survival in much better ways than we do. And, yes, totalitarian agriculture is destroying many of them. But I don’t agree that there is one tribal system that is automatically superior.
I certainly wasn’t attacking the Native Americans, as Jensen appears to have concluded. I have lived among the Tiwas of northern New Mexico for twenty-one years and have seen firsthand the benefits of their system, which is neither a patriarchy nor a matriarchy. We Westerners assume that one gender has to dominate. Not so with the Tiwas. Not so for many other aboriginal peoples — many, but not all.
In his book The Highest Altar, Patrick Tierney describes how, among the Indians of Chile and Peru, there is a despised class, a poor class. People are routinely sacrificed — at least every four years — to “pay back the earth.” Aztec and Inca civilizations sacrificed children and adults in ages past, and are still doing it today. I guess that’s flawless transmission of culture, but at what cost?
In his rebuttal to my letter, Quinn said, “I nowhere ascribe ‘perfection’ to the tribal system. The wonder of tribal life is not its perfection but rather its remarkable and enduring adequacy.” Again, I ask, Which tribal system? Ideal tribal systems do exist, and are better left alone — I believe that. But human history is full of great cruelties both in our system and in tribal systems. To think that there is one tribal system is a very grave error.
I enjoyed Margaret Hutton’s story “For the Man Upstairs” [June 1998], but I shuddered as I read her description of how her narrator made pie dough. If you knead your dough that way, it will turn out as tough as shoe leather. The secret to flaky pie crust is to handle it as little as possible.
I am a longtime subscriber to The Sun and especially enjoyed the long essay about Ram Dass in the May 1998 issue [“One Hand Clapping,” Sy Safransky]. I left that issue out and encouraged my family (including my children) to read it. When the June issue arrived, I left it out, too. I was surprised to find later that the June issue contained explicit material, in particular, “To Be a Sexual Son,” by David Steinberg. I wish you would indicate on the cover when the magazine contains subject matter not suited for children.
Your June 1998 issue had me alternately reeling in horror and in pleasure. “To Be a Sexual Son” left me feeling sick — not because of its controversial subject matter, but because all I could think at the end was So he’s a drippy, self-indulgent, fifty-year-old mama’s boy. Who cares?
Poe Ballantine’s “The Hunt and the Kill,” on the other hand, was gorgeous. I have read it to everyone who would sit still long enough, and they have all loved it as much as I do; some have even requested copies. Ballantine’s prose is feverish, thrilling, inspired — and never self-indulgent. I don’t care if he is “greasy and narrow faced,” as he describes himself. His writing is beautiful and never fails to make me laugh.
Because of my particular circumstances, I feel compelled to respond to David Steinberg’s “To Be a Sexual Son.” I’m a recovering sex addict in the process of learning about healthy sexuality. Steinberg’s sexual behaviors may be healthy for him, but I have found that group sex, pornography, striptease, anonymous encounters, S&M bars, bathhouses, and hiring prostitutes all appeal to base sexual instinct and can easily become addictive.
Ironically, sex can also be the highest form of spirituality, a way of connecting with another person on a deep level of intimacy. This is possible, however, only between two people who deeply trust and love each other. There is a world of difference between “having sex” and “making love.” I have seen sexual acting-out destroy people and families. Sexual addiction is very powerful and difficult to recover from. Lovemaking, on the other hand, is one of God’s greatest spiritual sacraments. I do not see how Steinberg’s sexual activities could be intimate, spiritual connections. Rather, he appears to be trying to satisfy his most basic sexual desires.
I read “To Be a Sexual Son” with extreme distaste. To me, David Steinberg represents much of what is decadent and wrong in America today. For him to celebrate his narcissistic infatuation with sex as his “work” is disgusting. Forcing his mother to share his perversion is even more revolting. This is not to say that I don’t find sex fascinating and worthy of understanding, but I don’t think understanding it necessitates living such a perverse, vile lifestyle. Sex is wonderful. Perversion is not.
Having early on in life peeped through the keyhole at my mother bathing, I initially identified with David Steinberg’s “To Be a Sexual Son.” By the time I finished his essay, however, I was distraught at his lack of compassion for his mother, with her tragically crumbling “traditional” sense of decency. Any man who expects his mother to watch contentedly as a nude stripper wriggles on the floor with a dildo inside her has definitely lost something that God intended him to keep.
To Steinberg, who’s so hip to the sexual revolution, I offer a brief view behind the walls of the institution where I live. Hardly a day passes in this prison that I don’t run into a guy jacking his dick: in the gym, on the recreation yard, in his cubicle, in the shower, in the hall. This is most prisoners’ version of sex, and their self-proclaimed “right.” To me, however, such behavior is a grotesque, in-your-face display of disrespect to everyone present. I’d like to see what would happen if some of these men showed up at one of Steinberg’s “friendly sexual affairs.”
Nevertheless, I applaud The Sun for printing every word of Steinberg’s essay.
No man, especially one at age fifty, should be wasting his life searching for his mother’s approval. It’s too bad that, after all these years, David Steinberg is still trying to find acceptance via his cock. Having multiple sexual partners is not the answer. Neither is making your mother watch you simulate sex with a hired stripper. I wish Steinberg the best of luck in finding a woman (not his mommy) who truly loves him, warts and all. He needs to grow up and be a sexual man.
David Steinberg responds:
I am surprised and somewhat pained to find my attempt to examine the unspoken erotic complexities in the connection between a son and his mother answered with simple moral pronouncements about “perversion,” and the equally dismissive notion that I am merely seeking approval of my sexuality from my mother.
My primary intent for this piece was not to describe a generational power struggle, nor to proselytize for a specific sexual lifestyle. I simply wanted to acknowledge and attempt to understand the erotic feelings and connections within nuclear families — feelings that are usually denied or ignored. The primary conflict with my mother has not been about her approval, but rather about my continuing effort to include sexual feelings and issues as a valid, vibrant part of our family life and interaction.
The episode that seems to have particularly rankled some readers was my fiftieth birthday party, at which my mother was “forced” to watch me interact with a hired striptease dancer. Contrary to the way it was taken by these readers, this incident — from which my mother could easily have excused herself — was a moment of playful triumph for her. Despite her initial discomfort, my mother enjoyed the humor of the situation and the opportunity it provided for closeness with me and with the other people at the party. Far from feeling put upon, she was pleased to have been drawn out of her usual reticence, and a feeling of openness between us persisted long afterward.
Sex — the most fundamental and complex of psychological dynamics — is consistently condemned to deep silence, or else to withering moralistic judgment. Those who talk about sex openly, honestly, and without shame are attacked as perverts and harassers by those whose sexual pain and discomfort make them want to avoid dealing with sexual issues in any but the most elementary ways. The misery that results from this head-in-the-sand refusal to address the complexity of sex is staggering and includes fear of pleasure, loss of intimacy, unconscious hostility, and the inability to deal effectively with such social issues as disease, unwanted pregnancy, and abuse.
Two years after the end of my account, we discovered that my mother had terminal cancer. The three months between that discovery and her death were a time of incredible love and intimacy among her, my father, my partner, and myself — an intimacy that would never have been possible had we allowed the sexual tensions in our family to go unresolved.
What is needed, both within families and on the national political stage, is for us to respect the pain and discomfort surrounding sexual issues, but not to allow that discomfort to be the primary force defining our sexual thoughts, lives, and outlooks. This, in turn, requires that we make room in our daily lives for discussion of sex in all its diverse forms.
I would like to see you cover celibacy in a future issue. A number of your readers must be celibate, and it would be interesting to hear about their experiences and insights. After all, some of the world’s greatest spiritual teachers have advocated celibacy, so there must be something to it. And given the current problems of overpopulation, divorce, child abuse, and so on, maybe it’s time to explore something other than fucking.