Gay porn and ancient erotica: an interview with Neil Redfield

For Decent Company February: LUST, Neil Redfield will be presenting a guest lecture as Eros, the god of lust. Neil sat down with Decent Company producing director Josh Boerman for a conversation spanning the entire history of human sexuality.

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JOSH BOERMAN: Recently, you rediscovered some videos from your sex ed of when you were in high school. And you were posting about this on Facebook and talking to some people about this, and I thought it was just remarkable. I was hoping you could tell me a little bit more about that.

NEIL REDFIELD: Yeah, I thought this was gonna come up. I prepared for this, actually. (LAUGHS) So, as you saw, the video was called Sex, Lies… and the Truth, produced by Kirk Cameron, and it is a “documentary”— that’s air-quoted— about abstinence. So it’s basically just this abstinence propaganda.

Growing up in Texas, I went to a public middle school. And at this public middle school, I was shown this 35-minute abstinence pushing video with blatant religious overtones.

JB: Right, ’cause it was produced by Focus on the Family.

NR: Yes, right, exactly.

JB: Which is, for those not aware, a very conservative, very strongly evangelical Christian organization.

NR: Yeah. So things in this video include very blatant religious overtones. A quote from it in the end is, “This is why God made marriage the way it is, so that we would be safe and not be in danger when we— for not having sex with other people other than our partner.”

There are egregious scare tactics, like juxtaposing shots of scary clowns with a really cuddly couple going into an amusement park ride, saying, like, tunnel of love or something. Literally scare associations, creating a Pavlovian response, to connect sex to fear.

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JB: And this video, and all of this, was pretty representative of what your sex ed experience was like, right?

NR: It essentially was my sex ed experience. I don’t remember anything other than that from my sex ed class. And, my thirteen-year-old sister who is in Texas right now was shown that very same video three months ago in her class. And that infuriates me. Because it’s, you know, it’s just like the epitome of everything we say that’s bad about sex education.

JB: So what are you gonna do about it?

NR: I don’t know. I thought about it. I mean, there was a point where I thought the piece that I was going to be doing for Decent Company was gonna be about that. It’s not, and I came across it again because I was exploring things with this piece and was looking up research for part of it. And it is really relevant to my experience of sex and lust, because rewatching this video, I think I realized that it either epitomizes or is actually the source of a lot of anxiety and fear I have, related to sex and sexuality.

But what I’m gonna do about it is a good question, because I want to do something about it. And I don’t know what yet. I don’t know. I think this is the start of whatever that’s gonna be.

JB: Sure. Well, in the piece that you’re doing, you give a lecture where you are educating a little bit, so I feel like education and that whole thing is something that matters to you. It’s something that you care about.

NR: Yeah.

JB: And I was just hoping that you could talk a little bit more about, I guess, your personal experiences with discovering, sort of coming into an understanding of who you are as a sexual, as a lustful being, what that means, and how you’ve communicated that to other people.

NR: Oh, yeah. So, I never really had a talk with my parents or anything. I had remarkably little sex education other than being sort of self-educated from pornography, mostly.

JB: And being shown awesome videos.

NR: Yeah. And being shown— so, self-educated and abstinence propaganda videos.

JB: That’s a pretty hard— like, talk about being between a rock and a hard place.

NR: (LAUGHS) Yeah.

JB: You’ve got the unrealistic expectations of pornography on this end, and the equally unrealistic expectations of “there is one perfect person out there, and once you get with them it’s going to be amazing always.”

NR: Yeah. Yeah. And even then, you can’t really talk about sex. Just, like, only in God’s name. (LAUGHS) In service of God. But yeah. So like I said, I had and have a lot of anxiety and fear about sex and sexuality. I think those sort of very religious conservative overtones have carried through with me in my life as far as feeling like there has to be one person or there has to be something perfect about a person to share sex with them.

‘Cause there’s also this thing about, like, you’re giving something up of yourself when you have sex with someone. And that, I think, is the flaw. I mean, that’s a huge thing that I think is inaccurate and unhealthy.

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So my own experiences were pretty fraught with anxiety. And so I say I never really had this talk with my parents, and I find that both of my parents are pretty, like, hesitant to talk about relationship and sex stuff. Even though they’re not, like, prudish or anything.

And so they never really talked much about sex or relationships or stuff. I remember my mom caught me watching gay porn. And that was, like, mortifying. It’s actually kind of a funny story.

JB: Yes, yes, please. Tell me the whole story. (LAUGHS)

NR: (LAUGHS) So I’m bisexual; I date men and women. And so my mom caught me watching this gay porn. I was a freshman in high school, and I remember this ’cause I was supposed to be working on a world history project, a world civilization project about, like, Norway or something. And instead I was procrastinating by watching porn.

And so my mom finds me, and I, like, quickly minimize the video. And she’s like, “Oh, what was that?” And I was like, “Nothing.” She was like, “No, no, what was that?” Like, totally fine, totally chill. And I was like, “No, it was nothing, it was nothing.” And she was like, “What was that?” And I was like, (QUIET, LOW-PITCHED VOICE) “It’s gay porn. It’s gay porn.” (LAUGHS)

And Mom got really upset, I think more upset than she should’ve been. At a certain point in this conversation, it’s like, “Yeah, well— well, you might be, Neil. You might be gay. You— you just might be.” And it was not in a vindictive way, or not in a way that was, like, punishing or something. But it was just, like— from looking back on that now, it’s like, the fact that a mom would just say that, when it is such a stigmatized thing where I came from.

I also never had a coming out conversation with my parents. I never had to talk about being attracted to men. So.

JB: The fact that you had that upbringing, would you say that that was a gift? Was that a positive thing? Was that a negative thing? Was it a mixed bag? I mean—

NR: It was sort of a mixed bag, mostly because I didn’t get to talk to my parents openly about sex. Or didn’t feel like I could, or didn’t feel like they— you know, I just didn’t, whatever the reason. And one of the things is that my sister, something I really do like about what my sister had to do in her sex education class, is that she had some questions that she was sent home with, and then she had to ask a parent these questions.

So things like, what are the different kinds of STDs? What is the safest way— and they were sort of leading towards abstinence only. It was like, “What’s the only way to make sure that you’re safe in a sexual contact?” And obviously, the only way you’re safe is abstinence, like, that’s always the clearest thing.

But what I did like about those is that it fostered a conversation between the kid and a respected adult, and even if the conversation didn’t get very far, it sort of opened the channels. And so Crystal, my sister, chose to call me and ask me those questions.

JB: And she is what, like, 13?

NR: Thirteen. She’s in eighth grade. Goodness. But to say that it was a mixed bag, the upbringing that I had, because I didn’t really get to talk openly with my parents about sex and I had to make a lot of assumptions and I had to make more mistakes than I think I had to. Things, like, really confounding, that sex and lust is exclusively tied to romantic love.

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JB: Right, and I wanted to come back to that. Because earlier you had said something to the effect of, you were always taught that when you had sex, you’re giving a piece of yourself away irrevocably.

NR: Yeah. Yeah.

JB: So when you’re talking to your sister and she says, “If I have sex with somebody, does that mean that part of me is always going to be with them forever, and I’m never going to get that part back,” what do you say?

NR: That’s hard. Because, in a way, I do think that romantic connection— well, not even romantic connection. Connecting with anybody does that in a way. But it’s not that you give a piece of yourself away, it’s like you leave a photocopy or something and you’re connected because of that. And you don’t ever break that connection in a genuine friendship or in a romantic relationship.

But obviously, the danger in that is feeling broken or incomplete. So whatever the answer is that doesn’t undermine the connections that you make with someone, and that doesn’t exclude sex from a human connection with other contexts, any answer that does that but also doesn’t make you feel broken? I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it. That didn’t come up specifically in the conversation that we had, but that’s a really good question.

I mean, I guess in short, I would say no. You’re not giving a part away of yourself. You are sharing and opening up a part of yourself to be seen. You don’t lose that. And that’s something that I’m still working on in a sense too, actually. Learning that lesson for myself.

Not just that, like, not giving up a part of myself, but I feel like for me, my response to having grown up with these conversations about sex the way that I did, I think the “solution” that I found, airquotes again, was to sort of shut down the emotional relationship to sex, and it had to be just this exclusive thing that is only self-contained in itself.

And can be beautiful and amazing and great, but is just “it.” It’s not related to something else. And so something that I’ve been working with is sort of expanding that. What I would say to my sister is, like, integrating that is just another human connection.

JB: So to sort of pivot to what you’re doing with the show. Again, it’s a lecture. You are embodying a god, essentially. And he’s got a lot on his mind.

NR: Yeah. Yeah. (LAUGHS)

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JB: And I’m curious, because when I saw the version of it that you presented last week, I still felt like there was a whole lotta Neil in there too. And I was hoping you could just talk a little bit about, you know, how much of yourself you bring to that, where the line is between the character and the person, and so forth.

NR: Totally. Well, I mean it’s totally a cliché answer, but of course there’s so much of me in there. It is all me. I mean, I won’t give away the gag, but the whole sort of premise of the piece, for me, is really comedic. And it comes from Plato’s Symposium. And so that sort of was the starting idea, and I think that’s really funny.

But all the things that Eros says are things that I, obviously, believe about sex and I think are important things to talk about, about sex. And I mean, obviously, for me, the piece isn’t just about this presentation that Eros gives. It’s the interplay between the presentation and the interruptions that happen throughout.

The things that he says in there are things that I believe, for the most part. I mean, there is a character view of being the god that he is, he has a certain perspective. But the things that I really see in it, the things that I think are the most me, are seeing lust as a universal and a desire and a connecting. A common human experience that people can empathize based on.

So all the things that Eros really loves about– there are some poems that he reads during it. And he loves these poems. And he loves those poems because I love those poems. And they come from all different parts of the world, and I think that’s so fascinating, that there’s this thing, lust, and romantic love and long-term attachment, that pervade human societies. And that is such a powerful truth.

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JB: ‘Cause even if you go back to literally the Bible, you’ve got like Song of Solomon, which is a very explicit book.

NR: Yeah. “Come to my garden, feed among my lilies.” “Come to my garden, smell of my fragrance,” or something.

JB: “Your breasts are like two fawns.”

NR: Yeah, “your breasts are two fawns.” “You’re my apple tree, I sit in the shade and you are nourished from my milk.” Like, oh. I’m sorry, this is about Jesus loving the church? What? (LAUGHS)

JB: At the end of the day, there are so many people who want to ignore or deny that fundamental thing.

NR: Yes. Yes. Yes.

JB: That we all just want it so bad, and we wanna write about it, and we wanna sing about it, and we wanna do plays about it.

NR: And we have for the entirety of human history. I mean, I think love poetry is the most common art, probably. And, you know, there is a very clear line between romantic love and lust, the sex drive. They’re two distinct but inter-related things.

When I was doing the initial research that became this, and for another bigger project about the universality of love in general, there was this great book called The Erotic Spirit. And it’s just collections of erotic poetry from around the world through all of history.

JB: Through the ages.

NR: Through the ages. So, like, back from Catullus in ancient Rome, and Paulus Silentiarius.

Two are contemporary. I don’t know a lot of the contemporary ones, ’cause I haven’t really researched them. I think the last poem in the book is this beautiful description of a guy and a girl fucking, like, sitting up and looking at each other, and about the things that they see in each other’s eyes while they’re fucking and the things they don’t and the things they see in their bodies. It’s, like, you know, that kind of really graphic, beautiful description that feels very contemporary.

But then there’s also this poem by Catullus that’s like, “Send for me in the afternoon, during lunch time, and before you do, think of nine different ways of copulation. Think of nine different ways to have sex and then come here, and we’ll spend the afternoons together, and I won’t be here left alone thinking of you with my cock sticking out of my tunic.”

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(LAUGHS) It’s this poem by Catullus. And it’s, like, you read that, and you’re like, “What? That’s totally not the image I had of antiquity, because nobody talks about that in history classes and stuff.”

JB: But that’s what you’re gonna do. You’re gonna give us the range. The full range.

NR: The full range, absolutely.

JB: That’s the Neil experience.

NR: Yes. I like that. Yeah. The full range. In all ways. (LAUGHS)

To buy tickets for Decent Company February: LUST, click here.

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