When I saw these erotic postcards from the 20s, I was surprised by the shivery delight they created. Beyond being just sexy, they made me happy, a feeling I couldn’t account for until I analyzed what was special about them. Do we really live in the healthiest era for sexuality that’s ever existed?
Mashable shared these back in May, making them relatable to millennials by calling them “PG-13 Selfies” and condescendingly cooing over their antiquated charm. Isn’t is endearing, say they, what people found titillating back them? Oh, how quaint, when a bit of stocking was risqué! But I found these sexier than any Redtube porn that’s produced with the same robotic precision as are predictable money shots. I found them more arousing and engaging than 90% of the sex scenes I see on HBO (and God knows they try so desperately).
I almost never see modern depictions of sexuality so playful, affectionate, fun, or MUTUAL. In each postcard, both people are comfortable, excited, and focused on each other… I feel short-changed that something so basic is depressingly rare in sexual media I see today. I felt cheated once I realized what made them so wonderful. It should not be rare and magical to find erotic art that depicts consensual, joyful, attentive erotic play.
I sometimes hear all of history dismissed as a one-note regressive slog of prudery and shame that’s only recently shifted, but that’s simply not accurate. We may be saturated with sexual images and discussion now, but the absence of repression does not necessarily indicate that the fish tank is healthy – the pH could easily be out of balance in the other direction. Orwell depicted a world in Nineteen Eighty Four where sex was rigidly controlled and regarded as an unpleasant duty, and this is the extreme that’s usually presented when describing unhealthy sexual perceptions. But Aldous Huxley showed the other end of that spectrum in Brave New World, where sex was as mundane and meaningless as after-school chores. Inundation is no healthier than repression, not when sex loses all its context, value, intimacy… everything that makes it transcendent and joyful.
A friend of mine contributed that it was the “natural and joyous” attitude the models had that made the postcards so involving. She said it was wonderful how unposed they were, how they were more involved with each other than in showing their best side-boob angle to the camera.
They offer context and focus. I hear women and men say often that one of the most erotic experiences is to be desired and focused on. To hold a partner’s undivided, ardent attention, to know that the sight, smell, and feel of your body is pleasurable to them. Why then, in a well-lit, stylized internet porn, are both partners barely touching while the camera hones in on a medical image that has become meaningless without any other form of intimacy colouring it? Who really has sex like that, pushed away from each other as much as possible so that the man can be cropped out of the shot?
In a Tedx talk from 2013, Ran Gavrieli discussed “Why I Stopped Watching Porn”. At the time I was wary and critical because I still believed all depictions of sexuality must be inherently progressive and laudable. But he discussed how the aggressive, goal-oriented porn he found online made him irritable and impatient in his day-to-day life. He missed fantasizing about why he and the woman found themselves alone. He’d trained himself to want instant gratification and could no longer indulge in anything but the mechanics of the act.
From that I learned not all depictions of sexuality are created equal. And apparently, the majority of what I’ve been exposed to has been so lacking in connection or context that it feels dazzling to see a man kiss his sweetheart’s forehead instead of immediately interacting with her exposed panties. Their joy in each other and their excitement at being alone are more erotic than all the pitchy, artificial moans in the world.
I am not being sentimental when I ask for context and intimacy – intimacy can be a dark, challenging thing as easily as it can be mushy. Intimacy is paying attention for the subtle signs that a partner has been triggered by a past trauma. Intimacy can be a dominant who knows a sub can only stay in certain positions for under ten minutes. Intimacy is a girlfriend who puts her hand inside her boyfriend’s coat while they’re on the subway, because she’s allowed. It’s focus and surrender co-existing in one pulse. As Joseph Gordon Levitt pointed out in his brilliant Don Jon, it’s “getting lost in another person”.
Television studios could learn something from these postcards, not just in terms of how to present eroticism, but also in how they present everything that surrounds and informs our attitudes towards sexuality (I’m talking to YOU, Game of Thrones). Netflix is on the forefront of this, having given free reign to Melissa Rosenberg, the writer and show-runner of the massively successful “Jessica Jones”. Skip past the naught bicycle accident to bypass possible spoilers.
In contrast to how HBO depicts sexual violence against both women and men so exploitively and gratuitously that it ceases to examining rape culture at all, Melissa Rosenberg never had to show it on screen to tell a stronger story.
I’ve been waiting four days to feel even slightly more centred or stable since David Bowie died, but it’s not coming naturally. My sense of disorientation, of having a core DNA base missing, only increases as I examine the feeling further.
I’ve been trying to push myself through to the stage where I accept it. I see the beauty in how he lived long enough to watch the seeds of gender-freedom and celebration of strangeness finally bloom in the mainstream. I say corny things to myself like “His spaceship knows which way to go.” I know he planned his last album release and was surrounded by loved ones. But it doesn’t alleviate this ragged, gasping sense of wrongness that his absence has left.
I still feel like my heart is eating itself when I listen to his music; like there’s a vacuum in the centre of the zeitgeist that could swallow and crush us. Our culture wouldn’t look anything like it does without him, and so it feels like we lost a primordial creator: one we’re completely lopsided without.
Maybe people who’ve known their grandparents are more acquainted with the feeling of losing a beloved, integral presence you’ve never been without. But this is my first time grieving and I’m doing it all wrong. I snap into controlled spells of numbness, choosing to feel nothing for a few hours before letting myself go back to grief. And when I can’t sustain the numbness anymore, I’m pulled by my sternum towards the black hole that was created when he left. I keep thinking “How are we going to do this without you? There is simply no other off-worlder here to carry out your duties.”
The first time I saw the liner notes for Ziggy Stardust, it was like the alien messiah I’d been waiting for since first grade, the one I’d daydreamed about then, had finally appeared.”You’re not alone; give me your hands.” My teenage self needed him and I don’t know what I would have done without him. So now I feel lopsided because I haven’t yet become enough of what I want to be to carry on without him.
To this effect, something very strange happened on Monday. I think when that black hole appeared, in spite of the enveloping pain, a self-preservation instinct must have taken over my mind. It’s the only thing that explains how David Bowie’s death transformed my life in under four days.
I first saw the news on my phone in my black, cold room at 7am when I got up for work, and didn’t turn on the heat or light for an hour while I cried. I realized almost immediately that there was no way I was going into my stupid job today, no way I could pretend I wasn’t a fucking disaster, not for a job where I was irrelevant and disrespected. I couldn’t properly mourn the death of this person without making a sudden, decisive change to my life. So I texted my boss that my first boyfriend from high school had died and couldn’t come in. I also resigned.
Here’s the strange thing: if I had not stayed home that day grieving, I wouldn’t have seen, during my first numb spell, that a friend was looking for someone to take over her amazing job as a Production Assistant at a gorgeous theatrical costume house. I had a trial shift today and I’m not sure if they’ll keep me. It’s okay if they don’t because I know now how a workplace can feed the soul, and I’ll pursue that with slavering energy until I find it again. I became light-headed and short of breath with the beauty and splendour of “the cage”, where over 50,000 sumptuous costumes live two stories high. I almost passed out seeing coat trains of fur hanging ten feet long from the ceiling, at the velvet, lacing, and luxurious folds of brocade pressing in on either side.
Whether they hire me or not, I wouldn’t have been there trying out for this amazing position if David Bowie’s death hadn’t prompted me to immediately quit my soul-sucking uncreative job. It disturbs me that the death of such a beloved, important person was what it took to get me to snap out of a state of numb inertia. Whatever happens, I never want to waste my time and energy in a place that drains me the way that restaurant did; the coldness, meaninglessness, the sexist attitudes, seriously inappropriate touching and comments, the utter lack of interest I have towards food I can’t eat — never again. Life’s too short for us Earthlings; there’s too much opulence and bizarre beauty to drown in. I want my lungs to fill up with imagination and creation. How did I forget that this is the only way that living feels like being alive?
Anyways, I didn’t want anyone else’s grief to touch me this week. I didn’t want to see any RIP posts and feel like it had become just another hashtag. I couldn’t see “David Bowie trending” when I had to scream into my pillow to cope with an unprecedented sense of loss and emptiness. I knew there had to be lots of other people just as ripped apart by this, but I didn’t know who they were.
The only person in the world I knew for sure would be just as fucked up as me was Sharon Needles (aka Aaron Coady). What David Bowie did for me in my teens, Sharon Needles did for me in my twenties. Both have other-wordly stage personas that dazzle but do not obscure the tender hearts inside. Angie told David that “the messiah thing” worked for him and encouraged him to scream “give me your hands” in Rock n’ Roll Suicide. Sharon’s the last person to identify with a messiah figure, but she’s functioned as one nonetheless for a lot of isolated weird kids out there. Both performers wield strangeness and otherness to make outsiders feel like they’re not alone. Sharon has performed Bowie songs with a radiating, vibrant energy that shows how much respect and affection she has for the man himself. Perhaps because it’s my first time grieving, I could only share the experience with someone who’s already proven their sincerity and depth of feeling many times over to the world.
Aaron shared a picture of himself without make-up, without a pose, without even a bandage on his cut browbone– his normally handsome face twisted in the same mutilated sense of horror that I was feeling. I only let his grief touch me for the first 48 hours; no one else came into my apartment and my mourning but Sharon Needles. I normally regard Sharon as a kind of pagan goddess: beautiful, fearless, razor-smart… but for the first two days I didn’t talk to anyone or leave the house, he felt more like a sister. I realized we were probably both teenagers at one point who got swallowed up in David Bowie’s music, film, or performances. We probably both fantasized about his unearthly androgynous beauty. And we probably both needed him at vulnerable times in our lives. I’d never dare compare myself to anyone so talented and fearless except in this one case: I felt closer to “Sharon”, to Aaron the artist, in our shared grief than I had in four years of reverently adoring his work.
Remember that clip of David Bowie performing “Starman” on Top of the Pops, strange, sexy, totally comfortable having chemistry with Mick Ronson in front of the entire world? The first time I saw that, I was at the AGO exhibit and ended up sobbing in public, trying to pretend I was just having a nose bleed. It sounds crazy, but I was crying because I was grateful that I hadn’t been young in the 70s, and that I was born now after this part of his career was long over. I thankfully didn’t have to be alive when he first appeared in our culture: languid, alien, caring, a force of youth and acceptance. I was grateful I never had a chance to fall in love with him then, because I would have spent my life broken-hearted. I counted my blessings that he was already a legend, a distant god woven into the stars by the time I was an emotionally vulnerable teenager. It doesn’t make his death any easier, but at least I didn’t have the pain of being young when he was young. I can’t imagine that level of attachment and loss.
That clip from Top of the Pops kept coming back to me, not just from the memory of crying helplessly in front of strangers, trying to hiccup to my mom that I was “just so happy he’s old now.” I kept thinking of how no one had ever gone on a national broadcast and been this weird, this homoerotic, never been front and centre while challenging so many norms of beauty and behaviour. It makes me beam to think of how he must have made so many straight guys adjust themselves uncomfortably while they watched TV with their wives/girlfriends! And this on top of being a devoted husband, loving father, outspoken advocate for social justice and endless fount of creativity. I listen to “Kooks” and wonder what it must have been like to be that adored and accepted by your parents. That’s the type of parent I would want to be: “We believe in you.”
I loved to buy into his ‘alien’ thing. I still do. I feel like an alien all the time, and it’s fun to imagine that maybe David Bowie and I are from neighbouring planets in the same star system. But the part of me that’s showing no signs of healing yet is grieving for the marvellous human being who deserved twenty more years on this planet, his planet. I’m not mourning the god, the alien, the messiah, because those will live on as powerfully as they always did. The truth is, I’ve only known about ten men in my whole life that I would say are good men. Probably less, considering I didn’t know David Bowie. It frightens me that one of the only truly gentle souls I ever knew of, visionary or not, is gone. That’s why I think, “What are we going to do without you?” I know that grief can’t help but be the mourning of the self, and it’s probably closer to “What am I going to do without you?” Who will be as gentle, smart, creative, and inspiring? I only know a few who come close.
The first song I heard in my head while I was still in my dark room that morning wasn’t the one I expected. I was in pain from sobbing so violently, and I couldn’t begin to imagine actually listening with my ears to any music yet. But I heard “Lady Stardust” over and over in my head while I cried. I remember being 15 and enchanted by the male pronouns coupled with the feminine title. I especially lingered over the line “Femme fatales emerged from shadows to watch this creature fair.”
Not that I’m a femme fatale or anything, but I frequently feel like some night-crawler that lives in darkness until a glowing personage makes me want to poke my head out of my cool, dry hiding places. And it’s the phrasing “a creature fair” that made my heart keep breaking. I’ve known those fair creatures before; even as a murky ink smudge on the shaded edges of their orbit, I know what fair creatures are like. Delicate, watchful, sometimes quiet and absorbent before springing suddenly into song, blazing, warm, and with a finite existence. They have the presence of a sylph, magnetic and elusive at the same time. I’ve been lucky enough to be kissed by some, adored in return; I’ve had their warm hands hold my face. They make intense, joyful eye contact without a shadow of a doubt that I’m as worthy of love and friendship as they are.
The idea of one of these fair creatures being infected by cancer, knowing he was going to die, and ending his life with the prescient grace of a falling flower that knows it will forever scatter… it still feels like a blunt set of talons rake my face every time I think of him being attacked by a cancer virus until it killed him. I thought I might actually be sick when I finally made myself look up how he died. I wish I could have held him until all that sickness absorbed into my body. I irrationally hate myself for not being able to do anything to give back to someone whose music and myth were so important to getting through high school. He guided me through a lot of frightening epochs and I never gave anything back. I never will.
I wish I could wrap all this up to a poignantly fulfilling conclusion, but the truth is that I am, for now, incomplete. My queen has died in battle and I don’t know if I’m supposed to keep fighting or just wander away. Frankly, death doesn’t actually seem that natural to me. It doesn’t seem like a part of life. It seems like DEATH, uncontrollable, menacing, occasionally glorious, but not worth the attention it gets.
I can only think of one way to eventually feel okay about this, and that’s to design a full life and future the way that a very young David Jones did. He told Nina Simone that he didn’t think he had a great voice, but he knew what he wanted his life to be. To this day, he’s the only person I’ve heard say that, because who the hell else would even notice? I think the only way to fill this void is to focus on what I can control, and nurture as much creativity and curiosity as I possibly can in myself. There are things that are probably never going to come naturally to me, including being so accepting of strangers and so understanding of human frailty as he was. I don’t care if it never comes naturally to me; it’s still something I want to be even if it’s a struggle my whole life to lower that guard.
I’ve plastered over this void so that I can interact normally with people, but now I’m challenged to make my spirit full and rich enough that his absence doesn’t become an abscess. I’ve got this handful of stardust I’m gripping so tight it hurts, because it slips through mortal fingers just that easily. I’m going to have to swallow it all at once to keep it.