The Power Issue: Bruce Benderson

It’s hard introducing Bruce Benderson.

The prolific author – whose most recent work, The Romanian, details his adventures with a younger sex worker in Romania and whose classic novel, User explores the world of drug-addicts and hustlers – has been published in more magazines than we can count, traveled all over the world, translates French texts like a pro (because he is) and has become one of the biggest names in media, Queer or otherwise.

How, then, can we provide words sufficient enough for such a potent addition to The Power Issue? Answer: we can’t. Instead, we’ll provided an email correspondence between our own Andrew Belonsky and Mr. Benderson, who asked that we not edit his answers. So, we haven’t.

Aside from some spelling errors and more pressing grammatical issues, the words that follow have not been altered in any way. They’re in the exact order in which they were posed and are followed by Benderson’s precise responses. We’ve even included the bit where Benderson gets a bit cranky with one of Belonsky’s inarticulate inquiries. (Now that’s power.)

After the jump, see what Benderson has to say about Catholic and Protestant sexual sensibilities, gay liberation’s unforeseen aftermath, the role of inequalities in desire, his new book, Pacific Agony and so much more we’re finger-tied just thinking about it!

Andrew Belonsky: While preparing for this interview, I came across an article you wrote back in 1996 called “Sex and Religion: A Degenerate’s Perspective”. In said article, you compare Catholic and Protestant sexual attitudes. You commend the Catholic church for allowing “loop-holes” that allow one to confess one’s sins at a later date, thus allowing full enjoyment. If you do, in fact, still feel that way, what do you think about the explosion of priest/molestation scandals in recent years? Do you think religion is a necessary social institution?

Bruce Benderson: I’m amazed at how little Americans discuss religion as a culture. It’s a naive, ahistorical attitude. In Europe it’s very common to discuss “Catholic literature or “Catholic culture,” and compare them to the Anglo-Saxon tradition. “Catholic” refers to the Latin countries: France, Spain, Italy, and Latin America. Ideas about sexuality, social behavior, pleasure, even speech in those countries are intimately related to the Catholic worldview. What distinguished the Protestant sects from the Catholics from whom they rebelled was the Protestant idea that each individual was in direct contact with God. Catholicism, on the other hand, believed that the medium of the Church was necessary as a go-between when it came to communicating with God. Hence the Protestant emphasis on plain speech, whereas Catholics see speech as more complicated, something that can only get at the truth indirectly. What does this produce in everyday life? In Protestant countries your word is a contract, what you say is taken as the literal truth. In Catholic countries words are charm, or rhetoric, which indicate the truth only indirectly. And what about pleasure? In the Protestant mentality, one carries one’s confessor on one’s back. You’re confessing, i.e., analyzing what you do, AS you do it. In Catholic cultures you do what you do without analyzing or confessing. Confession comes later. So when I said that Catholicism contained “loopholes” for pleasure, that’s what I was talking about. As for the priest molestation cases, I think that’s complicated. But have you noticed that a very high percentage of these priests are from an Irish background? Ireland, in my opinion, is in some ways the “exception” when it comes to Catholic countries, and there’s a lot of Irish guilt, and a lot of repressive upbringing, when it comes to sex.

AB: You also write, “Christianity has been identified as a principle villain in the war against…sexual indulgence. However, such official policies only describe the surface, neglecting to admit the conditions of arousal that support good orgasms. In many cases arousal depends upon those barriers set up to prevent or defame it.” So, strict boundaries are an intrinsic component of pleasure? Is it knowing that many people disapprove, or is it breaking through those parameters that’s so enticing?

BB: Sexuality has roots in the unconscious. A conscious prohibition of sex stirs up the unconscious elements. We are “transported” by our feelings. Attempts to make sexuality a rational activity always fail. So once you try too much to create a liberal atmosphere for sexuality, you kill arousal, because you’re making the whole thing too rational. What was once spontaneous becomes something attached to norms. Images of partially clothed bodies are often more arousing than images of totally naked bodies. This is because what’s under the clothing becomes the subject of fantasy. Once all barriers are lifted, fantasy is hampered. That’s why nude beaches, for example, are so non-erotic. That’s the kind of thing I was talking about.

AB: In the same essay, you write, “…I have the feeling that categorizing sex as an act that can be apprehended by reason becomes a kind of reductionism that isolates sex’s primitive libidinal components and ends up as a kind of repression./The submission of sexual desire to the rational is what sexual liberation or gender liberation movements…offer.” Am I correct in reading this as saying these movements actually inhibited sexual practice and pleasure?

BB: This brings us back to Protestant cultures, which seek to make everything transparent and subject to reason. The sexual liberation movements of the sixties and seventies–including gay liberation and feminism–took off much more powerfully in the Protestant countries than they did in the Catholic countries. But once sex was liberated and brought out of the shadows into the public spheres, it became something to regulate. What happened in Holland is a good example of this. I’m certainly against any laws that seek to oppress sexual minorities or sexual behavior; what I don’t like is the inclusion of sex in the public sphere, as something to be explained by your school counselor rather than privately by a peer, or brothels managed by the state– desire subject to public ideas of health, not matter how liberal. Suddenly sex has lost its personal, cryptic meaning. It’s less exciting.

AB: It seems to me that the gay “liberation” movement has become more of a gay “constriction” movement. More and more queers seem to be integrating themselves into mainstream society. Do you agree? On a related note, some argue that the push for gay marriage acts only as a way for gays to erase/cover-up their faggotry, to put a buffer, if you will, on a difference that should be celebrated. Where do you stand on gay marriage?

BB: I have very little interest in taking a position on gay marriage. However, I’m against marriage itself. That’s the way we were in the past, in the early days of gay politics. We were liberationists, not assimilationists. We never would have fought for gay marriage because we thought that marriage itself was an oppressive institution. The same with the military. We never would have fought to have gays allowed in the military because we thought the draft should be abolished. When it comes to bonds, I much prefer domestic partnership. The only laws there should be should concern practical issues, like inheritance rights and medical insurance. The rest is not only banal but irredeemably heterosexual. No one should be allowed to be “married” in a legal sense. If they want to do it in the context of some religious belief or as a symbolic gesture, that’s fine with me. But everyone has the right to do that already, even if it isn’t sanctioned by large institutions. Finally, and in general, gay eagerness for inclusion in mainstream categories frightens me more and more. People are glossing over the fact that the homosexual position is inherently different, subversive. It can never be tied directly to breeding, and for that reason, down deep, straights will never accept “gay marriage” completely. I fear a terrible backlash. We should be protecting our rights and independence, not hoping to share these traditional institutions, most of which are in their death throes in terms of relevance, anyway.

AB: You’ve spent a lot of time abroad, perhaps most famously in Budapest, a time you document in your memoir, The Romanian. One thing that struck me about that book is the ways in which you address the post–communist state. It seemed to me, if I remember correctly, that you portrayed it as having a certain infantilism – which sounds more critical than I mean. Basically, what I mean to say is that you had a sort-of big-brotherish attitude about the nation’s government and society in general: a bit harsh at times, but loving. Am I off base? On a related note, how do you feel about America’s power systems?

BB: Yes, you’re way off base. Perhaps you only read the first couple of chapters? They take place in Budapest, but most of the book takes place in BUCHAREST, Romania. And no, I had no big-brotherish attitude about post-communist states. Nor did I think they were “infantile.” Perhaps you’re merely referring to the fact that I observed that people living in these countries had been isolated from the West and from many current events for about 40 years. That did create a strange mentality, which for me was sometimes perplexing and sometimes fascinating. When it came to the arts in Romania, there was a refreshing purity, long absent from the U.S. Since there was no economic dream to pursue for artists, a lot of them had remained committed, truly interested in creation and not in money. As for America’s power systems, well, we’ve become an international embarrassment, haven’t we? But the real way in which the U.S. is oppressing other countries is by the spread of its culture, through global capitalism, and that’s very disheartening.

AB: While in Romania you had your storied affair with a young hustler. Undoubtedly there were myriad power relations there. In the aforementioned essay, you lament how Good Vibrations in San Francisco has taken “the subversion and inequality out of sex”. Is sex always based on inequity? Do you prefer to always have the power, never have the power, or enjoy a mixed bag, if you will? (I know that with Romulus, you enjoyed rigid sex roles, but do you ever want to be the one in power?)

BB: Sexual desire is not generated by inequality but by inequalities. Generally, these exist on both sides. You desire someone because you want what you yourself don’t have. In heterosexuality, this is much clearer. If you’re a man with a man’s body, you desire a woman, with a female body. In homosexuality, the inequalities may be less apparent. A person who is very hairy may desire someone who is smooth, and vice versa. A person who is slender may desire someone who is bulky and muscular, etc. If the “power” you speak about exists only on one side, there can be no mutual desire. In my book “The Romanian,” I describe certain qualities that gave Romulus, the young Romanian I fell in love with, “power” over me: youth, leanness, courage, stamina, masculinity, a certain world weariness and cynicism. These were things that I felt that I lacked. He, on the other hand, was intrigued by my American citizenship, my intelligence and education, my paternal qualities, my surprising loyalty, the fact that I had more money than he. The balance of power shifted constantly. Sometimes I was overwhelmed by what he had and what I lacked and sometimes the opposite. This is desire, I think.

AB: Speaking of Romulus, in a Village Voice piece written in 2000, you say that he comforted you by saying, “Sex gets better when it’s dangerous.” A few paragraphs down, you say that you think of homosexuality as a narrative of urban adventure – a description I find both romantic and truthful – does being part of the so-called “other” empower you, then? It’s a very unique place to be, in my opinion, at once exciting and horrifying and lonely and erotic.

BB: Romulus said that to me as an attempt to comfort me because we were living in a place where homosexuality was essentially illegal at the time. The laws in Romania have changed since then. I’m not particularly interested in the danger of homosexuality, but I am interested in its adventurous aspects. At least until recently, cruising brought one into contact with people of different races, classes, backgrounds. Especially in smaller cities, everyone who was gay found himself in the same bar. Meeting people from all these different backgrounds was a genuine social adventure. I miss that aspect of being gay.

AB: On a somewhat related note, do you enjoy having sex with men who reject their homosexual desires or are in the closet? It can be a very powerful position, I think.

BB: Do you mean that they reject their homosexual desires or that they reject their homosexuality? I DO enjoy people who reject labels that they find limiting, “gay” sometimes being one of them. I DON’T enjoy people who deny their feelings. If someone says he’s not gay but enjoys a blowjob from me, that’s fine. I’m not an agent of the identity police. But if he said he hated the blowjob and that wasn’t true, I’d be annoyed.

AB: Let’s switch gears for a second and talk about words as power. Michel Foucault wrote extensively on the ways in which language fuels power. Hannah Arendt, however, claims that “power” can only be attributed to actions. Therefore, words have no power. To which side do you lean, if either?

BB: I would tend to agree with Hannah Arendt. You cannot control or police language very successfully. Yes, perhaps language is power, but we all have that power. The power of language is “up for grabs.” Other kinds of power, like police clubs, guns, armies or prisons, are not in the hands of all.
That’s more frightening.

AB: You interviewed JT LeRoy back in 2001 for index magazine. We now know that LeRoy is actually Laura Albert. Did you ever suspect? Do you feel that the demystification of LeRoy diminishes the “power” of “his” works?

BB: I never suspected that Leroy didn’t exist during our entire 8-year telephone friendship. I know it’s hard to believe, but Albert had the skill of zeroing in on vulnerabilities and predilections during phone conversations. This couldn’t have happened face to face no matter who it was. It could only have happened on the telephone. Even after the article by Beachy in New York Magazine, I still didn’t believe it. I felt protective of my protégé. It was Warren St. John, the journalist at the New York Times, who finally convinced me that Leroy was a fraud. He was very compassionate and gave me some unpublished details over the phone during a long conversation that proved to me that I’d been scammed. I was devastated. The most amazing thing about it was that the manipulations that went on over the phone often had no ostensible practical benefit for her. So why did she do that to me, play with my head like that? I don’t know, but it was one of the worst things that has ever happened to me. As for the value of her writing, it’s impossible to judge at this point. From the beginning it was presented with a biography. You read it with that biography in mind. Now that the biography is gone, I can’t judge it. I read it the other way for too long. It was a very big, very contemporary mistake that she made: inextricably attaching the biography that publicized the work to the work itself. Now it can’t stand-alone.

AB: Let’s chat about your forthcoming novel, Pacific Agony, which is described as a “caustic satire of life in the Pacific Northwest”. Is it going to be based on your own experiences? Any sex angle?

BB: I was brought to the Pacific Northwest by a small publishing company, Clearcut, co-run by my friend, the writer Matthew Stadler. They wanted me to do a travelogue of the area, seen through the eyes of a New Yorker. Instead, I wrote a novel, satirizing the entire three-week experience. Astonishingly, they liked it. The material came from my experiences on that trip, but I added an enormous amount of fantasy. I suppose the book is quite vicious, but it’s also quite funny. And yes, it has sex.

AB: Do we need mystification/illusion in sex?

BB: You can mystify me as much as you want, as long as you don’t withhold the sex.