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Here Be Dragons: A Playboy Conversation with Clayton Cubitt

Photo by artist Clayton Cubitt

Photo by artist Clayton Cubitt

We all wear masks. Every day. Professional faces for our bosses and colleagues. We cast attentive eyes at our professors. We use the disguise of indifference to shield ourselves from strangers. Only in moments of intimacy, when we let our guard down, do we reveal ourselves. There is an unmistakable honesty in those moments. It is this honesty that photographer Clayton Cubitt went after when he first focused his camera at a seated subject being still for five minutes. The goal was to reveal a moment of realness. He called the series Long Portraits.

It was a captivating experiment, and its success led him to pursue an even more intimate and honest and revealing moment. This was the seed that burst into the world as the semi-mysterious Hysterical Literature project.

A woman is seated at a table. Before her is a book. She reads aloud. The camera is static. Before this unblinking eye her speech staggers and stutters, her hand finds her face, which is flushing. She attempts to keep reading, but her body is unable to withstand the building. And then boom! She gives into her pleasure and feels the full rush of climax, as, unbeknownst to the viewer, a hidden vibrator controlled remotely by an unseen assistant brings her to orgasm. Hysterical Literature lets the viewer witness one of the most intimate moments any of us ever experiences.

Some might call a video like that pornography. Others see it as strikingly relevant art. The power is in what it reveals about a culture that rarely focuses on a woman’s pleasure. Hysterical Literature slyly asks, “Why is that?” What do we fear about a woman’s orgasm, about her sexual agency? Think about it. How often have you seen a woman as the focus of sexual pleasure in art–a woman who isn’t seen servicing a lover but instead is the one experiencing full-throated, joyous, ecstasy? Photographer Clayton Cubitt is talented with his camera and is gifted with an ability to arouse such thoughts.

This is a long interview, and to be perfectly frank, it took some wrangling to bring it to you, which will not come as a surprise the more you get to know this artist. Cubitt is a man of deeply-considered opinions.

Was Long Portraits the John the Baptist to the Jesus that is Hysterical Literature?
(LAUGHS) I’m not a religious man, but that analogy makes me smile. Hysterical Literature is definitely an evolution of what I was getting at with Long Portraits, so in a sense, yes, it’s an evolution. They’re both different ways to get at the truth of a portrait subject, by fatiguing them past the point of pretense. We all have our ‘official’ faces, the ones we put forward when we’re being photographed, and both of these projects are an attempt to see the face hidden underneath that. That’s the one we’re all aching to see in others, isn’t it? I think we all want to see what it looks like when the mask falls.

Back in 1964 Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said in Jacobellis v. Ohio that a film that had been labeled ‘hardcore pornography’ was Constitutionally protected, and he defined obscenity as ‘I know it when I see it.’ This has been America’s stance ever since. I’ve seen comments on Hysterical Literature videos, and people seem to see vastly different things. Some viewers see it as obscene. Others see it as art. While others still consider it as a borderland between the two. Does it amuse you to play in that grey area between art and obscenity? Do you find that tension vital?
I don’t set out to make work for controversy’s sake. I don’t find this project too controversial myself. I think it’s perfectly natural and joyous and interesting, and I only make work because it makes me happy or answers a question I have, even if it’s just ‘What would this look like?’ But I do recognize that some people find it risqué, especially in the context of YouTube, which is partly why I decided to put it there. To hopefully delight and open some minds.

I think art and sex are both defined by their containers, their context. They’re like water. They have a surface tension, and they have undercurrents. They can nourish you, or they can drown you. They’re defined by their containers, but they also want to defy their containers. They want to flow past all restrictions. They want to pour over the walls and find the cracks. And so we try to channel them and make them manageable. We build mental levees. And how we try to channel them says a lot about our society. But we don’t do well at just teaching people how to be strong swimmers. So sometimes when a viewer hasn’t been taught to swim yet they see something that shocks them like you would be if you got thrown in the deep. So a lot of what I do is about making a siren song that will lure people into the water and teach them to swim, to get them farther into the ocean, gradually, safely.

I think the charge of ‘obscenity’ is the same as ‘here be dragons’ at the edge of ancient maps of the ocean. It’s a placeholder for ignorance and fear.

Going back to Jacobellis vs. Ohio, that case you mentioned that established ‘I know it when I see it’ as an obscenity line, that was over a screening of Louis Malle’s The Lovers. What was so controversial about that film? The sex in it was tame by modern standards. I think what made it so controversial was that it showed a woman flexing her own pleasure, stepping outside the bounds of a passionless marriage. Her pleasure was a rebellion, a release, an affirmation of her own agency, an exercise of reckless unapologetic freedom.

And what really pissed people off was that within the narrative of the film she wasn’t punished for her pleasure. She wasn’t forced to wear a scarlet letter. She ‘got away with it.’ She went past the edge of the map and no dragons ate her. She didn’t drown. And scolds hated that. They wanted her to suffer for it. They still hate that sort of thing. They still want pleasure to lead to pain, for women in particular. So they arrested the theater manager. Here be dragons. Bad swimmers beware.

In the Hysterical Literature films your unseen assistant uses a vibrator on women as they read a book of their choosing. Was this always intended as a series?
Yeah, the concept was one I’d actually filmed years before, but in that earlier film I’d tried to interview a woman while she was being vibrated. I asked her basic questions about her life and history and her experiences growing up. And I loved the way she fell apart, the battle she had, as she tried to go into her mind to recall the memories, but her body tried to force her into the ‘now.’ But I didn’t like my presence in the film. My voice. And the dynamic felt like an interrogation. I didn’t want to interject into it. It was unintentionally severe, especially my male voice next to the camera.

So to be silent I started doing still portraits of women’s faces while they were being vibrated off-camera, which I liked better. They looked like ecstatic Vermeers but were missing the life that comes with passing time in someone’s presence that film allows. And at the same time I was doing the Long Portraits. And all of this also calls back to Warhol’s ‘Blow Job’ and ‘Screen Tests,’ which were kind of a background haze for this. And I’ve always had a deep love of literature, and books, and what books mean to people, how people express themselves and even perform themselves through what they choose to read. So at some point all of this came together, and I thought, ‘That’s the conversation I’d love to see these women have, with themselves, using their favorite book as the interviewer, so to speak.’

I also decided I wanted it to be internet-native, not just in a gallery. So I chose YouTube to host it, and I posted them without any context as to what was happening, mechanically, under the table. I never described what was going on. I never sent any titillating press releases. I just presented them as straightforward literary readings and let people discover the project on their own and share it using their own descriptions. I kind of wish people would share it more mysteriously. I think it’s more fun when you see the subjects break down, and you don’t know why, but 99 percent of the time when people share it they always just describe exactly what’s happening. I guess that’s to be expected. The world is busy. We don’t have as much time for mystery as we used to. But I love mystery.

I always intended it to be a series, because each new session is part of the conversation, adds a new chapter, alters the trajectory a little. I don’t have any set schedule for it, though. Sometimes I go many months before I know which session needs to appear next.

What have the women you filmed said about the experience? Other than the surprise of it all, what deeper things bubbled up for them?
The subjects usually describe the experience as being suspended in time. They lose track of what they’re reading and how long it’s taken them. Many of them express performance anxiety beforehand, and then during the reading a sort of ecstatic trance, which eradicates their ability to even know where in the book they are, even though it’s a piece of literature they’ve chosen specifically because it’s personally meaningful to them. Yet the body usually wins.

Many of the subjects have written very stirring personal accounts of their experiences with the project, not just the physical experience, but its symbolic and political meaning to them. Beautiful manifestoes. They’re on the project site along with the sessions.

What deeper understandings of female sexuality have surfaced for you?
The project has only reinforced my deep admiration for women’s bravery in the face of how much static they get for their sexuality and how much society wants to police it, from both the right and the left. I started out already firmly of this opinion, and the title of the project ‘Hysterical’ references it, but the experience of the participants, the dialogue around it, have reconfirmed for me how political female pleasure is. All the participants just leave me humbled and proud to be associated with them.

And I know some really powerful women, with far larger audiences than I have, who loved the project and spoke to me privately about how much they wanted to participate but couldn’t because of concerns about how they’d be stigmatized in their careers or personal life if they were associated with it. Millions of people have seen it. It’s been featured in major magazines. It’s installed in galleries and museums. It doesn’t show anything graphic. It’s almost prudish in aesthetic. It’s really as close to mainstream as you can get and still be real and sexual. And yet these powerful women are forced to fear the social pressures they know will be imposed on them, and in large parts of the world they’d be physically in danger if they participated. Still! In 2016. So we still have a lot of work to do.

And by we, I mean mostly men. Many men need to really examine the ways their policing of female sexuality is holding us all back. And a lot of that comes down to just rejecting the toxic things we’re taught by culture for no good reason but tradition. Most people aren’t bad. Most men aren’t bad. I just think most people don’t kick at the walls around them enough. We’re born into structures that were built a long time ago, for reasons that are often obsolete, and they shape us in ways that aren’t our fault, and when we’re being told by women ‘these walls keep us apart’ I think it’s our responsibility to recognize that and to make changes to the structures our forefathers built. Sexism, racism, classism–all these walls just hold us all back from our full potential.

You asked women to reveal perhaps one of the most intimate aspects of their lives. How do you help a woman feel so comfortable and trusting? What conversation do you have before?
You’d be amazed at what people will do if you just ask nicely and treat them with respect. I just chat with them about the project. Why they’re interested in it. What they’re curious about. What they hope to experience in participating. Things to expect from the filming experience. Why what they chose to read is personally significant to them. And whatever else comes up, normal conversation stuff. I’m endlessly fascinated by what motivates people and what their background is, and I love finding out what their hopes and dreams are. It’s all just about syncing up and being in tune with each other.

I also like showing people in their best light. I have a very sympathetic eye. I don’t mistake ‘ugly’ for ‘true.’ There’s a culture in photography, especially fine art and documentary photography, that mistakes the two. I reject that. I think sympathetic beauty is just as pure as the ugly truth. It’s just what angle we choose to focus on. I think subjects pick this up in my work, and that helps instill trust as well.

How has the project changed for you? When you first began, the cultural conversation around female nudity and sexuality was centered on trends like Lena Dunham and Girls, Slutwalk, and, of course, Kim Kardashian. Now, a few years later, we still have Lena and Kim K, but with Amber Rose, #FreeTheNipple, Brooke Candy and her pop imitator Miley Cyrus, there is a far more widespread conversation about a woman’s sexual agency. Do you think pop culture is getting closer to where you are in terms of relating to and celebrating all of a woman’s sexual experiences? Not to be too grand, but will the normalizing of female orgasms be a final frontier of equality?
I think this is a constant ebb and flow in the mainstream consciousness. In a lot of ways the current moment reminds me of the vibe in the air when I was a child in the 70s. That glow of the sexual revolution was still fresh. Freed by the birth control pill, a whole generation of women was staking claim to their sexuality. Books like ‘My Secret Garden’ were presenting conversations by women about their own sexual desires. For the first time, really, in mass culture at least, women were taking control of their own sexual narrative. And this was the era that formed my early consciousness.

Then in the Reagan years we saw a reactionary pullback from this, a resurgence of the old culture, the old shames. Even aesthetically you had a lot of throwbacks to the 40s and 50s. Then the 90s came along and there was a new wave of feminists as kids my age, one foot in the sexual revolution, and reacting against the repressions of the Reagan years, came of age and started entering the conversation. And then the counter-counter-revolution as the evangelicals found full resurgence during the Bush years, but at the same time the revolutionary flame was still lit, and it was nurtured by the rise of the internet.

Now I think you see that early 70s energy rising up again, but amplified. A whole generation of internet kids who’ve been able to congregate and communicate in ways we never could back when it was all local and the only mass ideas were controlled and filtered through big media companies. If the first sexual revolution was spurred by the technology of the birth control pill, which for the first time divorced procreation from sexual recreation, then the current one is being spurred by the technology of mass social media, which divorces publication from intermediation.

So the kids are talking to each other directly on a scale we never could before. Sharing information, forming their own philosophy about gender roles and sexuality. And so you see all sorts of things that were previously defined as ‘abnormal’ by the old culture, kids are rejecting that. You can’t keep them in the dark anymore. They know it’s ‘normal.’ Whether it’s female sexuality, or LGBT rights, or gender roles. These kids are alright. They give me hope. You have to teach someone to hate, and the window of time parents have to instill the old small-minded hatreds is shrinking. It’s hard to keep a kid in the dark when you’ve given them an iPad as a babysitter. That iPad is a window into everything and anything.

Why do you think Western culture is so afraid of an orgasm, of a woman’s ecstasy?
I don’t strictly think that Western culture is afraid of a woman’s ecstasy. I think it’s afraid of a woman’s agency. I think we’re afraid of emancipatory agency in general. It’s too volatile. It has to be controlled.

If you can shame someone you can control their behavior. Our sexual urges are built into us by nature. But our shame? That’s a rudder that’s bolted onto our sexuality by culture, in order to steer us.

I say fuck being in line. And I say the path to freedom is taking control of your own rudder. Be so shameless your haters imitate you.

Why is Kim Kardashian controversial? Because she’s shameless. In the best sense of the word. Her shamelessness is the source of her power, and her power is being leveraged towards her own agency. She’s normalizing and monetizing her own sexuality. She’s steering herself. A lot of people instinctively hate this, because they’ve been trained to hate it. A lot of people, having had shame bolted onto their sexuality at a young age, react with visceral anger when they see other people truly free from shame. This is just jealousy and envy, really. Haterism.

We need to really question why we react that way. Why we’ve been taught to react that way. And who it benefits. It doesn’t benefit the average person, I know that. It keeps us in line. I say fuck being in line. And I say the path to freedom is taking control of your own rudder. Be so shameless your haters imitate you.

You’re a Southern gentleman, one who comes from a culture most Americans would describe as conservative, or at least, traditional. How did you emerge with such a progressive intellect? Was it your family? A naturally iconoclastic personality? A confluence of the two?
I’m no fucking southern gentleman, that’s for sure! That’s some Rhett Butler shit. I’m of New Orleans, which is its own thing. And more specifically than that, underclass Cajun New Orleans, Ninth Ward. I don’t think when you’ve had family in Angola prison and you grew up on government cheese and food stamps you can relate to ‘southern gentleman.’ Although I do say ‘no, sir’ and ‘yes, ma'am’ to elders, and that’s very Southern. New Orleans is deeply in love with tradition; it’s not traditional in the sense most Americans think of the term. It was a colonial city, a Catholic city, a Caribbean city and an African city way before it was an American city. So the traditions there are way different and deeply weird. Even in a city as weird as New Orleans I come from a long line of troublemakers and rebels and outlaws. I think it’s in me genetically and culturally.

My dad was a Canadian national running pot into New Orleans from Mexico. My mom was a Cajun hippie runaway go-go dancing on Bourbon Street. They conceived me on a road trip out West in the back of a VW van. They lived in Watts and got married in Inglewood. My mom wore a baby blue mini-dress on her wedding day. We lived in the van on an Indian reservation in the desert in Nevada. Coyotes ate our pet dog. We moved constantly. We moved back to the inner city in New Orleans and trailer parks in the bayou. I was often the only white kid in school. I once had a pet alligator. I had an aunt that looked like Dusty Rhodes and used to give the most nurturing hugs, hugs where you felt wrapped in baby powder and love, but she would also break a pool cue over her husband’s head. My grandma spoke Cajun as her first language. My grandpa was a bare-knuckle brawler in the Bywater. He never learned to read or write. They raised my mom and her siblings in a junkyard. When I was a kid we’d dig up vintage spark plugs from the greasy dirt of that junkyard. I had an uncle that got drunk to celebrate his parole from Angola and tried to shoplift a microwave under his shirt at K-Mart, so he got sent back. There were a lot of bikers in my family. One of the earliest photos of me is as a toddler sitting on the back of a chopper. This is all just the tip of the iceberg as far as my childhood is concerned. I left home at 16, and it took me until I was 28 to recover.

I grew up in some weird version of Sons of Anarchy meets The Partridge Family meets Sanford and Son meets Urban Cowboy meets Treme. There was no way I was going to turn out normal, but I definitely turned out interesting. And while I was growing up I only ever wished to be normal. In retrospect, I’m glad I turned out interesting.

"Every knee shall bow. Every tongue confess." | Photo and caption via [Cubitt

“Every knee shall bow. Every tongue confess.” | Photo and caption via Cubitt’s Instagram

How does erotic writing and poetry inform your image-making and photography? Your Instagram captions are often these remarkable pairings of word and image.
I always had a love of poetry and literature from a young age. My mom instilled that in me. I think coming from the rough household she did, the bad public schools in New Orleans, her mom speaking English as a second language, her dad being illiterate, she really had to seize on the opportunity that books symbolized as a path to her own emancipation from those constraints. And she passed that on to me, like the baton in a relay race.

So books became a window not just into fantasy and escape for me, but also into a world I was going to have to make for myself as a poor kid with no hope of college. I had to teach myself everything and even teach myself how to teach myself. Which was the real challenge. And in doing that at the same time as I was developing my skills in art, originally drawing and painting, and then photography and film, I think somehow the words and the images just got welded together. And so I can’t see an image without words coming to mind, and vice-versa. I also have synesthesia, so all of it is mingled and travels together for me. It’s just a natural reflex.

As a photographer who often takes very sexual, erotic photos, how do you wrestle with your own male gaze? How do you make your photos accessible to the viewer so that it’s seductive rather than sexually reductive?
I think it’s really easy to overthink this. The camera can be seductive, but it is always reductive. This is one of the fundamental challenges of the photographer, to translate a very complicated and messy world, a world in 3D and constant motion, into the constraints of a static frozen image. To reduce a world filled with voices and smells and thoughts and desires into one that’s silent and mute and symbolic. A world where we’re part of a conversation to a world where our images become a part of other people’s conversation, one we have no control over. So a lot of this will be instinctive and reactive. From the gut as much as the mind. We just have to make sure our mind is sharp and our gut is balanced. And even then that doesn’t mean the images will be received with the same sensitivity with which they’re made. My ‘seductive’ might be another person’s ‘reductive.’ And I have no way to control or account for that. It’s a messy translation.

I think the concept of the ‘male gaze’ can be an interesting one to use to analyze structural systems in the media and popular culture, the same way the Bechdel Test is helpful to illuminate possible lack of female autonomy in a cinema narrative. I think artists should try to internalize these thought exercises so that they become muscle memory. Periodic gut checks to make sure their art is as powerful as it can be. A part of the normal survey of the landscape they’re seeing. A way to recognize that striving for equality and consent is a power, not a weakness. They’re just ways to counterbalance gender narratives that were skewed towards a certain type of male domination for too long in the popular culture, a type of obsolete male domination that hurt both men and women. ‘The patriarchy,’ so to speak.

On an individual level, once we’ve internalized the rightness of equality, to quote Marie Shear, ‘Feminism is the radical notion that women are people,’ I think that provides both men and women with the freedom to come together as equals that are capable of making informed decisions together. Two people can come together and can consent to do whatever they like. They can seduce. They can objectify. They can dominate or be dominated. They can take turns doing these things, and photograph all of it, and those photographs will necessarily be reductive of the context in which this is all taking place, but that’s not really the fault of the people involved so much as it illustrates the possibly toxic viewpoint of who views the images later or the structure in which the images are placed, to get back to my earlier point about how art is often defined by its container.

Like I said, it’s easy to overthink!

I think Generation X were just Millennials minus the internet plus better music. We really should merge into one super-generation, rise up and finally overthrow the Boomers.

On Twitter you often point out the differences between Gen-X and Millennials. You seem to have a clear-eyed respect for Millennials and a big brother affinity for their struggles. What advice do you have for Millennials that you feel no one else is sharing with them?
I love the Millennials. I think Generation X were just Millennials minus the internet plus better music. We really should merge into one super-generation, rise up and finally overthrow the Boomers, who started strong but have really been fucking everything up since the 80s. I’m kidding! Sort of.

I don’t think there’s any shortage of advice to Millennials, so I’m not going to join the chorus. They can Google anything they need anyway. These poor kids have been helicoptered over since they were infants, promised the sky, then had the economic ladder pulled out from under them, and now they get lectured at incessantly. They don’t need advice. They need a more equitable economy. They need single-payer healthcare. They need help with college and student loan debt. And that’s just the middle-class ones! Millennials: you’re good. Stop taking shit from old Boomers. This is your house now. Watch your backs, Generation Z is coming up fast, and it’s got your passwords.

This political season has been insane. We have a ringside seat to a circus of toxic masculinity. Dick-measuring contests, good old-fashioned American sexism, and yet the most interesting story may be that Bernie Sanders, a Jewish socialist from Vermont is winning states across the nation. As someone who was involved, do you think the seeds of Occupy Wall Street are blossoming in the American political landscape? Is this a lasting Gen X/Millennial transition of American values?
I think the Sanders campaign has been a great inspiration. I’ve been waiting for a new New Deal Democrat for a long fucking time, and it feels absolutely amazing to finally have a candidate that’s unambiguously on the side of working people, calling for all of us to come together to fix what’s broken, to build a better and more just society, and not just talking the talk, but walking the walk in how he campaigns as well, all via small money donations. People power. And he’s been there all along. If anything he presaged OWS. He’s on the right side of history for decades, and it’s now just a question of whether the country is ready to wake up and face its problems or if it wants to keep sleeping while the house incrementally floods.

I mean this literally. I’m from New Orleans. From the working class. We’re the early alarm for all of these issues. Wealth inequality. Climate change. Job-offshoring. Corporate pollution. Corrupt politics. Racial injustice. I’ve seen this entire thing in slow motion since I was a kid, headed in the wrong direction. We watched as our city drowned in Katrina. This isn’t a game for my people. It’s life or death. And it might not be life or death yet for a lot of people voting this year, but it’s going to be soon, even if they don’t know it yet. We’re trying to warn you. What came for us is coming for you.

These things are all seismic warnings. Flood alerts. Wake-up alarms. Lowered voter turnout amongst the working classes in the 90s was an alarm. The WTO protest riots in 1999 were an alarm. Establishment Democrats still think the election in 2000 was about Nader. It wasn’t about Nader. Nader was a symptom. The cause was that lower voter turnout, and a lack of real progressive options that cared about working people. So they stayed home. Or voted Nader. That election was another alarm. The Iraq War protests were an alarm. Katrina was an alarm. The BP oil spill was an alarm. The economic collapse and OWS were alarms. Black Lives Matter was an alarm. Trump’s unstoppability is a raging dumpster fire of an alarm.

All of these alarms are telling us that what we’ve been doing is not working, or at least not working fast enough, for enough people. That the mainstream wings of the two parties are in thrall to money in a way that has deafened them to the alarms and blinded them to the flood at the threshold. And people in the basement are already drowning. The rest of us are treading water. We don’t have time for more of the same. Incrementalism is no help when you’re drowning. We need the people on the high ground to wake up and help. And Bernie is awake. And he’s ready to help. I don’t dislike Hillary. But I don’t think she’s been hearing these alarms. And she’s surrounded by people who caused them. Paid for by people who caused them. So I don’t have great confidence in her desire to solve them. Like (Upton) Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

And I think Millennials are absolutely on the right side of this. They understand it. They’re closest to it. They’re voting for Bernie by a massive percentage. Clinton’s natural base of support is older people and wealthy people and people more rewarded by the Democratic Party structure. Mostly people safe on higher ground for now. I don’t know if enough of us are awake in time for the Bernie candidacy. I hope so, but life has not taught me to be optimistic in this area. I always vote Democrat, and then I always get Republican-lite.

I think this year is weird enough that the truth just might prevail and we should work to make that happen. But it’s long odds, and the entire force of the old system is against us, wanting us to stay asleep. But no matter what happens with this election, he’s putting it on the record, for history, for the next generation, to see that someone can do it. And once they wake up and see they’ve got the example, then they’ve got the future, and then we can start fixing this.

It might have to wait until the Boomers die off, though.

Photo by Clayton Cubitt

Photo by Clayton Cubitt

I read that your mother decorated your crib with centerfolds from Playboy. As you put it in an interview, 'The first art on my walls were centerfolds,’ which suggests your mother was not only a badass independent woman but clearly responsible for how you view women. Would you say that’s fair? That your mother gave you a way to see sexuality as natural and thus a way to express oneself?
There was definitely a lot of this attitude in the hippie culture everywhere at the time—skinny-dipping and family nudity and a desire to not instill shame. And all this was very formative to my early relationship to art, and sex, and the female form. I didn’t really start picking up on the dominant culture’s Protestant middle-class naughty/shame vibe until I started attending school, and I started realizing how differently the middle class kids lived.

My mom was (and is!) very much a badass independent woman, and she did indeed decorate my crib with centerfolds. A few years ago I asked her why, and she looked at me like I was asking a dumb question and was like, ‘You were breast-fed, I just thought as a baby you’d be soothed by having more tits around.’ So it was all very innocent, as only someone who was a hippie at the time could understand. She had a subscription to Playboy, she liked them as art, they were always just lying around, like you’d do with coffee table art books now.

We actually did read them for the articles, too. And the interviews. I discovered Shel Silverstein first in Playboy, not in his children’s books. I used to draw the centerfolds and bring them to school to sell to the rich kids so I could afford more art supplies. Now there’s a business model that the internet destroyed. I don’t know what broke artsy kids do now. I bet they wouldn’t even understand that sentence.

But it wasn’t just my mom. I was surrounded by badass independent working class women: her sisters, my aunts, cousins. The men were often gone or in jail, so it was the women that formed the core of my world, taught me how to survive in it, taught me the meaning of courage and struggle, and how to communicate, and laugh, and love. Women were really my role models for everything. Still are.

With Hysterical Literature you revealed an intimacy that asks the viewer to witness how female sexuality is coaxed rather used for gratification of another. This shift where the viewer is not the one being gratified is subtle; most miss it. Do you have a hope that thanks to artists and thinkers such as yourself that our world is getting sexier? That the fear is diminishing?
I often come across as cynical, especially on Twitter, but underneath that I’m an optimist. My cynicism is just the scar tissue over wounds inflicted by my optimism’s many battles with reality. Some battles I’ve won. Some I’ve lost. I think Hysterical Literature is a win.

I like the way you put it, though. Like we’re in a battle against fear. Making beauty really is a tiny skirmish in that battle. Or making a friend laugh. Or visiting with a lonely person. Or giving an orgasm. All of this seems small or trivial, but it all adds up and makes the world worth living in.

On good days I’ve got great hope that the world is bending toward more justice, and more freedom, and more pleasure, and more equality. I know this year is a bad year for optimism, but I try to look at these forces trying to drag us back as the last gasps of a dying world. I think we’ve got the numbers. And we’re growing day by day. And failure isn’t an option, so let’s succeed. We’re planting the seeds, at least.

Zaron Burnett is Playboy’s roving correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: Zaron3.

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