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The Joy of Controversy

Meet the man behind the book--and more

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It was just last month, but the headlines sounded as if they could have come from a bygone age. A group of concerned parents and nonprofit moralizers were protesting the Nampa Public Library, hoping to force the library to remove seven "pornographic" books--most loudly, The Joy of Gay Sex--from its shelves. The groups didn't succeed, but their efforts came as no surprise to Dr. Charles Silverstein, co-author of The Joy of Gay Sex. As the first mainstream sex guide for gay men, the book was published into immediate controversy in 1977. Now in its third edition, The Joy of Gay Sex's overarching theme is acceptance and blunt, foul-mouthed explanation of the history, psychology and how-tos of everything from coming out, to Internet hookups, to specific techniques and fetishes like--much to the chagrin of local activists--daddy-son fantasies.

But while the book itself is just for the boys, Silverstein himself has been instrumental in bringing about changes benefiting the entire gay community--most notably, as a driving force behind the effort to convince the American Psychological Association to de-list homosexuality as a diagnosable mental disorder in its diagnostic and statistical manual, which it did in 1973. BW caught Silverstein over the phone at his private practice in New York City (www.doctorsilverstein.com), where we were surprised to hear that he had already heard about the incident in Nampa.

BW: How often do you hear about your book getting threatened or censored anymore?

CS: Very seldom. It used to happen a lot, but the same people are censoring books all the time, and not just gay sex books. To mention just some of the books that have been censored by the religious right: One of them was Tarzan. The reason was because these illiterates said that Tarzan and Jane were living in sin. I call them illiterates because Jane's father, in the first book, was a missionary, and married them. Then, the Girl Scout Handbook was banned in many places, because it said favorable things about UNESCO and fluoridation. And then the most universally banned book is Catcher in the Rye, and that's because Holden Caulfield used dirty language and didn't respect his parents.

I understand you offered to help the library. What did you say?

I e-mailed them and said, if there was any help I can give, I'll do it, even if it meant my coming out there. I also offered to send them a few autographed copies. But while they did thank me for the e-mail, they haven't taken me up on the books yet. It's still open.

The reviews I've read of the new edition of The Joy of Gay Sex say that it's a good book for libraries, but it's really only an introduction. Almost like it's the tame version. Does that sound accurate to you?

The thing about the book is that most of it isn't about sex. But of course, it's the sex that gets people riled up. There's nothing about having children in that book, and that's the only form of sex that's permissible for the religious right. And there's all that stuff about anal intercourse, and to them that's the devil's work.

Is it tame? I think it's tame. Certainly one area that we touched on but didn't go into great detail are all the things that are listed under the paraphilias--kinky sex. Much of it was discussed, but I would say that if the book were being written today, there would be much more on the paraphilias in there. The great value of the book, I think, at least it was our intention, was to make sex a legitimate topic--not only to read about, but to have.

And it states in the book, when I first wrote it, that we wanted to make the kind of book that we wish we had when we were kids and coming out. I think it is that kind of book.

What does a book like this offer that a reader today can't simply find on the Internet?

My experience with the Internet is that it's mainly about hooking up. You can see two-dimensional pictures of people screwing, but that's not terribly educational about sex. The book is an attempt to educate young guys about sex.

In the chapter on explaining homophobia, you devote a good chunk of space to internalized homophobia in gays, or the idea of a "self-hating homosexual." Are you seeing less of that in your practice today than when earlier editions came out?

Much less. The thing about homophobia is that the basis is secrecy. When I was your age, no one knew that I was gay, and there was no one to talk to about it. Today, there is so much information, and so many people have come out, it doesn't carry the same sense of embarrassment and shame that it did when I was a kid. There are gay groups all over at colleges. When I went to college, I think that if I had come out, I was certainly in danger of being beaten up. It was just not acceptable. I don't know how things are in your local high schools, but there are still high schools where it's dangerous for a kid to come out. But more and more, it's becoming acceptable.

I noticed that The Joy of Gay Sex has a chapter on monogamy and fidelity, but no mention of gay "marriage." If you were going to write that chapter, what it would say?

Keep plugging away. More and more straight people are coming to the conclusion that there's nothing really to gain [by opposing gay marriage]. The religious right is feeling their power, and it's fueled a lot by the demands of the gay community about of gay marriage. That has scared the shit out of the right, and it has mobilized them to attack everything about homosexuality. But they're not going to win. They've already lost the battle, really. The [federal] anti-gay amendment is never going to pass. And the fact is, gays are acceptable in all society. We have gay legislators all over. They were elected by the population, and that's an extraordinary change.

People are getting bored of hearing about [gay marriage]. But it all depends on more and more people coming out, because years ago, a homosexual was viewed as some kind of heinous person who preys on children, who's sick, who's immoral. But now, so many people have come out that they're in everybody's family. They're young, they're bright, they're quite open, and it's a very different idea of what homosexuals are like. And the people in the community look at them and say, "They're just like everybody else." So I say, it's just a matter of time, and it's not very long.

I noticed that you still have your famous 1973 speech to the American Psychological Association available on your Web site. What ramifications of the APA's decision do you still see in psychological communities today?

In the diagnostic and statistical manual for the APA, there is no listing for homosexuality. Even very conservative psychoanalytic organizations no longer teach trying to cure people of homosexuality. The only place that it exists is that there is a group of conservative professionals that are still dedicated to rooting out homosexuality, and they are the same people who are trying to get The Joy of Gay Sex out of your library ... But all of these conservative professionals are just going to die off. Nobody will replace them.

Finally, how do you respond when someone says, as [Brian Fischer, Executive Director of Idaho Values Alliance] did, "To put literature in the hands of teenagers that encourages them to go online and hookup online for gay sex with strangers is totally inexcusable"?

As far as teenagers going online, nobody has to teach them anything. They're all online. Boys are probably jerking off to whatever, and they're going to find the pornography they're interested in. Books aren't going to influence that. They're going to find the sites, and they're going to find many of the sites for meeting men. They're going to make a profile, and they're going to do it at a rather young age if they can. You're supposed to be 18, but nobody comes out to your house to check your age. As for a kid picking up The Joy of Gay Sex and then becoming interested in gay sex and having sex with another person, my point of view is, as long as it's consensual, and he can end it if he wants, I think it's a great idea. And certainly Felice [Picano, co-author] would agree with me that we want to encourage that. Kids who are not interested in gay sex are not going to be having sex with other guys.

To read an additional section of the interview that we were too chicken to print, visit www.boisweekly.com.

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