July 30th, 2009

Being an enormous sex nerd, I chose for my honeymoon reading not the latest beach-worthy, bestselling novel (le gag) but Michael Leigh’s The Velvet Underground. Originally published in 1967 as Bizarre Sex Underground, the pseudo exposé from which Lou Reed and co. drew the name for their aptly perverse early 70’s rock, Leigh’s book purports to shine the light of morality and legal justice on the twisted subcultures of swinging, BDSM, and homosexuality — which together formed the “disease underbelly of ’60’s American society.”

Leigh, a journalist, reports stumbling across these sinful activities when he responded, supposedly innocently, to an ad offering to connect adults for “new and unusual friendships.” Upon discovering that the company running the ad was little more than a matchmaking service for kinksters of various persuasions (we’re talking pre-internet here, remember), he poses as an interested party while writing hundreds of letters to couples and singles across the country — feigning, and by necessity of building trust describing in detail, his interest in sex with men, sex with married women, sex that involved intense sadomasochism. This, he insists time and time again, was done purely in the name of research. He closes the book:

I am simply a man who found himself by accident, and unhappily at times, in a strange and alien world, or, rather, an unreal and unquiet underworld, and who reported on it — that and no more.

If ever there was a guilty conscious, Leigh had it. One can imagine him sitting up nights, writing and reading these graphic letters, “taking notes” on pornographic photos sent to him by correspondents. Disinterested and objective he surely was not. The tone of The Velvet Underground as a whole reeks of sexploitation; it pretends to tell a cautionary tale while actually allowing the reader to wallow in explicit details of that very thing it cautions against. Compared to Tea Room Trade, an ethnography on “impersonal sex in public places” also researched through first-person involvement in a subculture, it rings so false as to appear fabricated.

And yet nowhere in the writing on the book I’ve been about to scrounge up is there mention of Leigh’s approach, of the book’s veracity. As a snapshot in the history of popular sexological research surely it deserves more exploration. Who was Leigh? What were his real motives? What was left out of this text? What impact did his book have? Would he be shamed or pleased that the published house that now prints it, called simply Velvet, carries also Sade, Krafft-Ebing, and a vast array of dark erotica?

Tags: BDSM, books, sadomasochism, sex writing

3 Responses to “Sexploitation in ‘The Velvet Underground’”

  1. Chiaki Says:

    I wonder. Is Mr. Leigh still alive? If he is, I’m sure he has the say in having the book published. My quick google-fu has failed me to pull up any kind of immediate result on his whereabouts currently. I think finding out what he’s doing these days is the key — then again, his disappearance from the public might be a telling sign as well.

    For all we know, he could be living in his guilt-ridden misery as he keeps indulging in his taboo arts.

    I’m a journalist myself, but I find that the work you do in the field becomes a part of you. Like the daily beat reporting I do in the community, I become as much a part of the community as I am a non-biased observer.

    Then again, I’m a journalist that doesn’t want to caution people on their actions. If I were to write something on today’s labyrinth of Internet-infused kink, I would write as an observer, not as a self-pitying cautionary tale. Never mind whether I enjoy it or not.

  2. Bonnie Ruberg Says:

    These are very good questions… They make me wish I could stop time for a month and do some serious research/tracking down. Not that I’ve given up on the idea yet.

    And I totally understand what you mean about your journalistic work becoming a part of you. It’s certainly true of my work with both video games and online sex. What starts as an observation becomes a genuine interest. Of course, you could make the case that the things you choose to work on are inherently reflective of you to begin with.

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