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Charles Silverstein, 1992

The New Joy of Gay Sex: Talking with Co-author Dr. Charles Silverstein

By Owen Keehnen

In 1977 The Joy of Gay Sex, co-authored by Edmund White and Dr. Charles Silverstein, caused a worldwide sensation. Now, fifteen years later, HarperCollins is proud to announce the publication of The New Joy of Gay Sex, co-authored by Silverstein and acclaimed gay writer Felice Picano. The updated version is a fully illustrated compilation of 111 A-Z essays on such diverse topics as Mixed HIV Couples, Domestic Violence, Vanilla Sex, Shaving, Homophobia, and Piercing.

In addition to his work on both editions, Dr. Charles Silverstein is a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist. He is the founding editor of The Journal of Homosexuality as well as a founder of two counseling centers for gay people. Dr. Silverstein was also the psychologist who made the presentation before the Nomenclature Committee of the American Psychiatric Association that ultimately led to the removal of homosexuality from their list of mental disorders.

[Since this interview, HarperCollins has issued a fully revised and expanded third edition of The Joy of Gay Sex (2003), also by Picano and Silverstein; and Dr. Silverstein has published a number of book chapters and professional papers.]

Keehnen: Let's start with 1977. How did this project first begin and how did you become a part of it?

Silverstein: The publisher who had done The Joy of Sex wanted to do The Joy of Gay Sex. Their New York representative was someone with whom I'd done a previous book and asked if I was interested in the project. I said yes, and they found Edmund White to do it with me.

Keehnen: Did the two of you have an original objective in mind?

Silverstein: Yes, to write a book we would have liked to have had when we were coming out, which meant we were going to be talking about more than just sex. We wanted to include information about gay life. In fact, the original book has more nonsexual entries than sexual ones.

Keehnen: Do you think gay men in 1992 are more knowledgeable regarding sex because of the popularity of hardcore porn magazines and movies than they were fifteen years ago?

Silverstein: I would say yes. There's an area in psychology called "Modeling" where one uses a model to learn new behavior by observation. In that sense porno is useful; it spreads information. The problem with porno is that it's designed with all those gorgeous bodies and big dicks that are always hard and shooting all over the place. The whole nature of porno is to do something quickly so one of the things that is lost is more affectionate kinds of contact. The purpose of porno is to get people off.

Keehnen: In 1979 British customs officials seized and burned 500 copies of The Joy of Gay Sex. Do you foresee any problems like that with this edition?

Silverstein: There was also a French edition published in Montreal, and when they tried to ship the books to Paris, customs burned them. They don't have a choice anymore. They cannot stop the importation because of the European Community, which has set standards regarding what various national groups can and cannot do.

Keehnen: Have you had any problems with libraries placing advance orders for the book?

Silverstein: There was with the old book, but nothing with the new book that I know of.

Keehnen: What is a common misconception about safe sex?

Silverstein: Well, I think that some people think they can drink all they want and take whatever drugs they want and still have safe sex. One of things we know is that alcohol and the "designer drugs" are one of the leading reasons why people don't practice safe sex.

Keehnen: How do you view the re-emergence of the popularity of sex clubs?

Silverstein: I come down on the side of being a real square when it comes to sex clubs. I don't see them as a positive thing. The sex clubs that I am aware of, though I live in New York City, are bastions of unsafe sex. They are exactly the kinds of places where there are drugs and where people are not practicing safe-sex techniques. A lot of very young guys go there and they are becoming infected with HIV. People can go home and have unsafe sex too, and I know that, but there's something special that happens in the clubs. In New York City at these places there are guys getting fucked regularly without a condom. The guy getting fucked isn't saying anything, and no one else seems to care either. We come out against all this in the book. It's not on moral terms, but what are we to think of guys who want to fuck without a condom?

Keehnen: As a clinical psychologist, what do you think was your most important contribution to the book?

Silverstein: I've worked with gay men for years, and I am familiar with many of the problems gay men have. For instance, there's an essay in the book titled "Saying No" because, believe it or not, some people cannot say no when it comes to sex, and they can get themselves into a lot of trouble. Another essay is "The Pleasure Trap" about the person who has to please sexually but is never concerned about his own satisfaction. There are essays as well on "Impotence," "Retarded Ejaculation," and "Premature Ejaculation"--we tried to give the latest information available in all those areas.

Keehnen: Other than the obvious, what is unique about counseling gays?

Silverstein: A primary issue for gay men is in terms of relationships. When you have men together, you have a heightening of male behavior. In heterosexual marriage man and woman really are very different, and both get tempered by each other. What you often find with gay life is a heightening of male behavior without some of the restraints, hence a sexuality that is many times so important that it overshadows lots of other issues. I'm sure you know gay men who are interested only in sex, whether vanilla or S&M or whatever they're into. The constant search for partners will ultimately create problems. In gay life it's all about sexual exploits, and that tends to make it harder to form attachments later. We tend to have greater problems with attachments.

Keehnen: Do you think that generally gay men still feel a lot of guilt regarding sex? How do you think that's changed from twenty years ago?

Silverstein: In a general way I think things are better. However, with many gay men all one has to do is scratch the surface to bring up many feelings of guilt. The Kinsey Report of ten years ago found that gay men attempt suicide five times more than straight men. I think a study today would find that to be much less. But in small towns in rural areas where there really isn't a gay community, one still finds a tendency to find gays with a lot of bad feelings about themselves. I think that's going to take a couple generations, but we are on the way.

Keehnen: What's something about the first book that you swore to remedy this time out?

Silverstein: In the first book, we couldn't write about teenagers. The publishers wanted us to say that any adult man who had sex with a teenager was sick. Ed and I were not inclined to do that and we tried to write a number of different things, and each one was rejected. We decided that rather than write something watered down and wishy-washy, we just wouldn't write anything at all. So the 1977 book has no essay on teenagers. With this book, there was no censorship whatsoever.

Keehnen: In the 1992 version, the A-Z essays have expanded to include not only sexual terms but many social and political realities as well. There are pieces on "Living Wills," "Domestic Violence," "Racism," and "Grieving," to name a few. Was the decision to cover a broader base of gay life an easy one to make?

Silverstein: In the first edition we wanted a whole section on venereal disease, but the publisher wouldn't allow it because it was discouraging of sex. We knew it was information people needed about sex. In this version we've included venereal diseases as well as a section on HIV. There's a section on insurance, which is very important. Normally insurance is a boring topic, but it's not a boring topic if you're a gay man. In this book we felt a responsibility. We not only wanted to talk about gay sex, but also about gay life. Many topics we could not discuss in 1977 because we were sensitive about gay life and didn't want to include anything that would present it in a bad light. Today, thankfully, we are more secure.

Keehnen: Should virtually all sexual fantasies be indulged?

Silverstein: If you and I were lovers and I have a fantasy that I want to rape you and you're willing to play out that fantasy and we know what the parameters are and have a way of identifying going too far so there is an exit from the behavior, then I think that's fine. But I don't agree with rape. If you like to get flogged, it's your right to go out and find someone to flog you, but you have to be careful to have someone you trust do the flogging. I guess my answer is, in general, yes, but with exceptions.

Keehnen: What do people want to know about safe sex?

Silverstein: We all know fucking without a rubber is unsafe. People want to know, "Can I suck cock? Can I get the virus by swallowing cum or precum?" I don't know when we'll be able to give a definitive answer, and I suspect we'll never be able to give a definite answer. I believe we'll have a way of dealing with the virus before we have all the answers about transmission. If kissing transmitted the virus, who would be alive?

I tend to agree with many experts who say sucking cock is not a problem. But when someone talks about swallowing cum, I don't know. Most people I know think stomach acids take care of all that, and they may be right, but there's no certainty.

Keehnen: What words of advice do you have to say to all those gay men out there having sex?

Silverstein: Enjoy it. Why not? We are biological animals, and our bodies sort of demand it. As long as it's done with responsibility, I think it's terrific.

Keehnen: Thanks, Charles, and all the best with the book.

About Owen Keehnen
Owen Keehnen has worked as a journalist, book reviewer, and interviewer for a number of years. Currently, the Chicago based author is completing a trilogy of interview books on gay XXX stars, finishing a horror novel, and supporting himself as a massage therapist. He is also launching a website which celebrates independent horror films,
Related Pages

Interview: Felice Picano, 1996


White, Edmund



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