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Voices Fall-Winter 2009:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Downstate column, “Is Sex Play?” by Steve Zeitlin.
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Voices FW2009


Volume 35

Is Sex Play by Steve Zeitlin

Downstate At the monkey cages of the San Francisco Zoo in the early 1950s, anthropologist Gregory Bateson observed that the monkeys nipping playfully at one another in the cages must have exchanged the message: “This is not fighting. This is play.” He termed it metacommunication, a message that frames the messages to follow. In the S&M subcultures of New York city, consenting adults, negotiating the thin line between pleasure and pain, often use the safeword “red light” to signal “this is not play,” and “green light” to mean “this is play.” How very similar to a game I played as a child, Red Light, Green Light, or Mother May I. Yet when folklorist Amanda Dargan and I studied play back in the 1980s for our book and exhibition City Play, we came across few studies of adult play and no studies of play that considered sex.

Years later, my wife Amanda and I taught a class on the Folklore of New York City at the City University of New York. For their final paper, we asked students to write an ethnography of a New York City community that harbored a rich expressive culture. We were surprised when three of the students independently selected topics about the city’s sexual subcultures: an African American S&M club, a Latino swinger’s group, and the city’s vampire scene. All of the papers were excellent, but we were even more surprised when one of the students brought in an “artifact”—a nipple clamp— to illustrate her presentation.

Never leaving a stone unturned in my work as a folklorist, I began to consider the question, Is sex play? Folklorist Kay Turner suggested a good place to start would be to interview a friend of hers, Claire Cavanah, who owned several woman-oriented sex shops in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn originally called Toys in Babeland (now shortened to Babeland). When I called Claire to ask for an interview this September, she spontaneously brought up an interview she’d heard on NPR with Stuart Brown, director of the National Institute for Play. “He never mentioned sex,” she told me. “I was waiting for it and waiting for it, but it never happened.”

“Sex,” she said in our interview, “is where adults let go and are joyful and follow their curiosity, their pleasure, their bliss, in consenting situations with other adults. That’s really basic to what we do here—and the toys carry the metaphor.” Claire, who is a mom, pregnant with her second child, was quick to point out that sex is not just play. “Sex is so many things. It’s not only play and joy. It’s also serious business—it’s also abuse, recovering from abuse, it’s coming out of the closet, it’s being rejected by your family, it’s contracting AIDS. There’s a lot of darkness, too.”

Given that, we riffed off one another’s analogy between sex and play. She talked about how kids “tie each other up, play doctor, cowboys and Indians, and burning each other at the stake.” “Sex,” she continued, “is where grown-ups pretend.” In her business, toys are useful when they fit into and enhance the stories and fantasies that her clients tell themselves and/or one another. “Oftentimes, people who shop here fall in love with a toy—sort of like a nice pair of shoes. They say things like, ‘That vibrator is ME—that expresses me!’”

I suggested to her how language is often synced to action in children’s hand-clapping games. (City Lore is working on a documentary on the subject.) Similarly, adults employ fantasies with colorful language tied to actions in their sexual play. I talked about how all games and sports are most intense when they’re close and the excitement builds and builds—as in sex—until it explodes, climaxing.

Claire spoke about playing as a child in Wyoming. “In the park near my house— there was a creek that ran through it, and we would build things and hide from each other—time would disappear. You lost your sense of everything that weighs you down. That’s very much like sex, if you think about it. When you’re very close to orgasm—when you’re in that kind of zone with someone or even just yourself—things fall away, all of it. As a child, too, there are those moments when everything feels right, the air is right, the music is right, you’re with the right people—you feel safe, but you’re also risking something . . . and it’s worth it.”

So why do folklorists and scholars of play so rarely explore the playful aspects of sex? Perhaps, as I’ve always suspected, a prudish element runs through the discipline. Or perhaps, despite the similarities, sex and children’s play seem to exist in separate universes. Nonetheless, any folklorist or ethnographer seeking to understand New York City, in particular, can’t do so without acknowledging a side of the city’s life that attracts people from all over the world for its anonymity and permissiveness. Yet folklorists are concerned with collaborating with marginalized groups and forms of expression that are not attended to elsewhere, and the sex industry certainly doesn’t need folklorists to bring its work into the public eye.

I was struck by Claire Cavanah’s passion for the work of Babeland. “What we try to do here is heal the wounds and support people in sexual liberation, which is following the basics of life—your hunger, your thirst, your desire. That’s the play element of sex. Here at Babeland, we feel that we’re standing on the shoulders of all those who fought for reproductive rights for women. Our mission is taking the shame out of having sex, honoring it as a life force, and treating it as a place where grown-ups play.”


Photo of Steve Zeitlin
Photo: Martha Cooper
Steve Zeitlin is the founding director of City Lore in New York City.

So why do folklorists and scholars of play so rarely explore the playful aspects of sex? Perhaps, as I’ve always suspected, a prudish element runs through the discipline. Or perhaps, despite the similarities, sex and children’s play seem to exist in separate universes.

This column appeared in Voices Vol. 35, Fall-Winter 2009. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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