by Gilbert Wesley Purdy.
Sex Carnival by Bill Brownstein.
Toronto: ECW Press, 2000
250 pages. $22.95 Can, $18.95 US.
Two factors changed our relationship to sex in the past century. The first was the introduction of cheap, effective birth-control. The second, market capitalism, has become the unchallenged law of the jungle. The results of these changes are far reaching and labyrinthine. Markets led to the wide spread employment of women (no pun intended), who were available in wartime, and available, war or peacetime, at a favorable wage-rate. Wages led to personal empowerment.
Virtually every aspect of life has undergone market-induced changes -- and it's still happening. Old moral codes, which hindered the fastest possible growth of wealth, began to be referred to as "mere superstition". They were preached against with the fervor of a Baptist tent revival. They were the evil remnants of a world once dominated by aristocracies bent on insidious, internalized control. There are few in the industrialized western world who aren't in agreement with this model to some extent.
Bill Brownstein was instructed by his publisher to "explore the world of sex": the world, that is, of the sex industry. The author was to have a gratifyingly free hand. His only requirement was to "have fun". The result was the book Sex Carnival.
Virtually every one of his potential readers need only walk through the streets of a modern city to observe first-hand that there is little that is fun about most of the sex industry. It is degrading, manipulative, filled with drugs, violence and littered with victims. Books that don't "have fun," however, don't generally sell well. Predictably, Mr. Brownstein and his publisher have decided to look elsewhere in the industry. They have gone where the money is.
Each chapter explores a different city: (in order) Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York, Amsterdam, Paris, Montreal. The final chapter samples the remainder of Canada. When the author forgets that he is the comic foil -- his favorite character in the book -- the text is solid. Beknownst to him or not (Who can say?), it is also revealing of un-fun facts.
In the U. S. the conversation of the pornography elite is strewn with the crudest language. The "jokes" are heavy and sophomoric. The backdrop is garish. There is a spirited competition for the world-record for the number of sexual partners in a single day. The portrait is of a gargantuan rationalization-fest. No one is getting hurt. Everyone is a consenting adult. They are actually trail-blazers of freedom. They are therapists and a considerable number of them have the university degrees to prove it. They are millionaires: contributing members of society.
The moment the author crosses into Europe the crude language is virtually gone. The jokes are witty. The backdrop is often off-plush, rarely worse than store-front. The members of the profession make a decent middle-class living. Canada predictably falls between the two. But time marches on and takes us all with it.
The clear and simple fact is that, with present technology, market morality, and a 55-gallon drum of industrial strength K-Y Jelly, a liberated woman can accommodate 620 men in a single day, proudly appear in the Guinness Book of World Records under her nom-de-screw, and retire to become a soccer mom. In backward times, on the other hand, if she had sex with that many men in a lifetime she would have 41 children, her sexual parts would be the size of a circus tent, and she would collapse with a tiny inverted puff of smoke out her asshole. Such is progress.
Gilbert Wesley Purdy's work in poetry, prose and translation has appeared in many journals, paper and electronic, including: Jacket Magazine (Australia); Poetry International (San Diego State University); The Georgia Review; Grand Street; The Pedestal Magazine; SLANT (University of Central Arkansas); Orbis (UK); Eclectica; and Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. His Hyperlinked Online Bibliography appears in the pages of The Catalyzer Journal. This review first appeared in The Danforth Review.