Faces of Ecstasy

Masturbation is usually a private thing.

And orgasm, that moment when everything spins so delightfully and totally out of control -- your mind, your body, your face -- well, that's private, too, something you only want the most intimate and trusted of other people to see.


But now, on a sunny Sunday morning, I'm driving to San Francisco for the purpose of masturbating in front of three other people and having my orgasm recorded on videotape for (potentially) all the world to see.

Part of my orgasm, that is. The plan is to videotape my face, only my face, close up and personal, as they say -- all the way through arousal and climax.

It was all Joani Blank's idea. Joani is the marvelously creative, innovative founder of San Francisco's famous Good Vibrations sex emporium. She had decided to make a video -- "Orgasm! The Faces of Ecstasy" -- that would show a wide variety of people having orgasms, by themselves (sex toys and vibrators permitted). What Joani wanted to record was not people's bodies, not their genitals, but just their faces. We concentrate too much on genitals and intercourse when we think of sex, Joani has long complained. Pornography, she notes, is positively obsessed with genitals, much to its detriment.

She wanted to offer an alternative -- an alternative sex video, an alternative sex vision, an alternative attitude about sex altogether. In 1996 she had made a nine-minute video of people's faces during orgasm, which was received with great enthusiasm by friends and professional colleagues alike. Now she wanted to expand that pilot, with proper video equipment and lighting, and with people talking about how they felt about sex, orgasm, and masturbation, in addition to the footage of their sexual excitement and release.

She had called one day to ask if I wanted to be part of her project -- to be interviewed and videotaped by herself, and by Jack Hafferkamp and Marianna Beck, the editors of recently-deceased Libido magazine, while I masturbated until I came. After about a quarter-second of careful thought, I jumped on board.

I completely agree with Joani about the general sexual obsession with genitals and intercourse, as if there were nothing else that matters about sex, that counts as real sex. I mean, genitals are important, of course, and intercourse, too. But so much of what I value most about sex gets lost if genitals and intercourse are all you think about.

And faces! There is so much going on, so much to see, in people's faces during sex. I have, for the last four years, made a project of taking fine art photographs of couples being sexual. I photograph plenty of genitals and plenty of p-v penetration, but I find that I focus most on people's faces and hands. So much of what is going on in sex gets expressed in faces and hands -- the subtleties as well as the more obvious heat and passion.

The idea of a video that showed nothing more than the ecstatic, twisted, confused, amazed, nervous, vulnerable faces of people at the height of sexual excitement was intriguing to me. And, yes, I'm something of an exhibitionist too, so I was delighted to sign up as one of what would become 22 subjects, aged 22-68.

Unfortunately, all that interest and conceptual excitement feels like something from the very distant past as I negotiate traffic on Interstate 280 at 9:30 in the morning and wonder what in the world I've gotten myself into. I've dutifully refrained from sex for a couple of days, but I'm not feeling the least bit sexy or sexual. Whatever prompted me to agree to a 10 a.m. time slot? And how am I going to get myself out of an utterly mundane frame of mind so I can jack off with proper enthusiasm and offer the cameras a wonderfully passionate picture of my self-induced sexual excitement?

It helps to remember that Joani, Jack, and Marianna are all close and longtime friends, serious documentarians who, I know, will not portray my sexuality in some stupid, trivial, or sensational way. It helps to remember -- as I emphasize so strongly to the couples I photograph -- that this isn't some kind of grand performance, that I don't have to produce some preordained image of sexual heat, that I don't have to prove anything to anyone.

It does not help that the place Joani, Jack, and Marianna have chosen for their videotaping is a huge, empty, art gallery space sans art, totally devoid of human presence, visual aesthetics, or even any soft surfaces except for a forlorn-looking futon set under two spotlights in the middle of the vast floorspace, looking more like an interrogation site than an invitation to erotic pleasure.

Fortunately, before jumping into any kind of sex, I am going to be interviewed, which just might give me a chance to get used to the physical space, to the cameras, to Joani, Jack, and Marianna, and to being out of the car. I'm placed on a stool against a blank white wall, and Joani asks me a series of questions while Jack and Marianna film my responses, peering out from behind big cameras on tripods.

Why do I want to be in this video? What do I think the significance of this video will be? Who do I especially hope will see this video? Who do I especially hope will not see this video? Is there something political about making this video?

When Joani asks me to fake an orgasm for the cameras, it brings me up short. I've never faked an orgasm in my life and don't have the slightest idea where to begin. I try to make some appropriate faces and sounds but feel so utterly ridiculous that I have to stop.

"I really don't think I can do this," I say, finally, embarrassed at my embarrassment.

"That's ok, you don't have to," Joani offers quickly, to my tremendous relief.

Then it's time to go over to the interrogation futon. I take off my clothes and lie down, a little colder than comfortable. I'll warm up soon enough, I tell myself hopefully. Jack and Marianna position their cameras around me. Marianna is to my right, a few feet away. Jack is on my left, much closer, the camera practically on top of my face.

"The one thing we ask," he says in his soft, comforting voice, "is that you keep your eyes open as much as possible and look directly at the camera." I nod. When I look directly at the camera I see a miniature of myself reflected in the lens. Not helpful.

Someone asks if I want lube. I decline. The cameras go on. "Whenever you're ready," Jack suggests.

"Ok," I say.

There's no music, no incense, no sexual or sensual input coming from the outside. It all has to come from me. Just what is the sexual desire I'm expressing here? The only desire I feel is the desire to produce something useful for the video. That and the desire not to make a fool of myself. What does that mean? I want to be genuine, but I also seem to want something more -- to be seen as sexy, attractive, desirable. I want the picture of my desire to itself be desirable. Interesting, but not helpful.

Too much thinking, I realize.

I start to touch myself. Fortunately, touch has its own way of generating desire and of getting my mind to shut up. Out of the desire void I begin to feel genuinely aroused, in waves that come and go. I still feel pretty distracted and self-conscious. With my eyes open I don't have the option of getting lost in an appealing fantasy. This is going to be about me, Joani, Jack, and Marianna making a video in a big empty room at 848 Divisadero. Reality video.

"This may take a while," I announce, apologetically.

"That's fine," says Jack. "Take your time."

I feel myself working, trying to accomplish the task of turning myself on. I imagine, with some dismay, how that must look to the camera. Indeed, I can see, in miniature, how I look in my camera lens reflection. I look like I'm working much too hard. I breathe deeper, encourage myself to relax, to really take my time. Gradually the pleasurable feelings take over from the need to deliver a product. I get more and more deeply turned on. Jack reminds me to keep my eyes open, to look directly at his camera, at my little face staring back at me from his lens. When I come I'm aware that my head is jerking around a lot, through the big release and a series of aftershocks, all of which sweep remarkably strongly through my body. I manage to keep my eyes open through al of it, I think. And then I burst out laughing at the whole thing -- the absurdity of the situation, the build up and release of tension, the ego confusions, the simplicity and the complexity of physical sexual pleasure.

* * * * *

Something like a year goes by. Occasionally I hear from Joani or Jack or Marianna about how the editing is going. They have over 40 hours of tape to edit down to less than an hour. They are blown away with what they've gotten on tape and working hard to create a video that does justice to the heart and soul of what these 22 people have given them. There are the usual hundreds of unforeseen production problems, crises, and delays -- and then some.

Eventually I get an email from Joani that it's all done -- edited, remixed, boxed, and ready to go. There will be a release party at Club Mighty in San Francisco. I invite everyone I know and make my way to the city for the big event.

Some 250 people show up, far exceeding anyone's expectations. The mood is joyous, celebratory, friendly, congratulatory -- sexy in the understated, somewhat-overly-conscious way of the Bay Area's unique pan-sex-exploration/writers/artists/photographers/publishers/activists subculture.

I feel excited, and surprisingly nervous. It's not as if I haven't had my sexuality out in public before, but there's something about this particular situation that makes me feel particularly vulnerable, particularly exposed. Something about the combination of orgasm and masturbation. I'm glad Susie is there to hold my hand, and glad when I run into more than a few close and more distant friends.

The room quiets down. Joani, Jack, and Marianna offer thanks and introductions, and then the video comes on -- projected in triplicate on huge scrims above everyone's heads. The talk and the ecstatic faces have been interwoven into a powerful flow. The orgasm sequences, in particular, are collectively amazing. As viewers, we're inches away from each person's face as they go through arousal and dissolution. It's a physical closeness usually reserved for lovers, so we all become, in a sense, each subject's lover for a minute or two, participating in their sexual excitement and culmination. The eye contact that was so difficult to maintain makes the intimate connection between subject and viewer unmistakable and inescapable. I am deeply moved by this recurring intimacy, by how beautiful each person is in this state of vulnerability, and by the honor of being permitted to witness such unfiltered, soulful, revealing pictures of one person after another.

Then it's my turn on the screen. I relive the embarrassing tension, the softening, the release, the manic head twitching, all redeemed by the final laughter which, even in my state of nervous self-criticism, I can see in a positive way. Some people laugh at my laughter; a few applaud. I feel seen and validated. I've just had sex with all these people, I think to myself. I smile and relax.

There's something to be said for telling the truth about who we are sexually, and a lot to be said for letting other people see our more vulnerable sexual sides. Maybe truthfulness, pleasure, and joy can win out over anger, fear, and guilt -- even in these strange and confusing times. Faces of Ecstasy is certainly a step in that direction.

"Orgasm! The Faces of Ecstasy" is available in DVD or VHS from Libido Films (, 800-495-1988), $34.95 plus $4 postage and handling.

© 2008 David Steinberg  

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This column is written by long-term activist David Steinberg. David is a photographer, author, editor, and publisher. His previous books include Photo Sex: Fine art sexual photography comes of age; Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies, The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self and his most recent book Divas of San Francisco: Portraits of transsexual women. He is currently working on two books of couples photography, This Thing We Call Sex, and Sex and Disability. He lives in San Francisco. If you would like to receive Comes Naturally and other writing by David Steinberg regularly via email (free and confidential), send your name and email address to David at Past columns are available at the Society for Human Sexuality's "David Steinberg Archives": .


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