The Wonk of Wank

Joseph Kramer didn't just reinvent the career of Sexological Bodywork: He helped convince state regulators to sanction it.

It was a clear Saturday morning, nine o’clock, and the day’s early yellow light spilled into Collin Brown’s second-floor studio. “You made it,” he said, as I sidled up to him and introduced myself. “You’re brave.”

As I chatted up Brown — a middle-aged, balding man with soft hazel-green eyes and an easy manner — the room began to fill with other men: some young, some old, but most in that paunchy wilderness of middle age. They seemed almost relaxed as they milled about, clustering as they did in little knots and making small talk. Each wore a name tag. Each had arrived with two innocuous towels, a bedsheet, and a pair of tube socks. Still, the crystal phalluses resting on a nearby table assured me this was no yoga class.

But I already knew that. I had arrived that day at Oakland’s Body Electric School as part of an agreement with Joseph Kramer, the grandfather of modern-day Sexological Bodywork. He founded the school in 1984, and though he has since sold it to Brown, Kramer retains his reputation among Bay Area bodyworkers as a “visionary,” a “great deity,” and — get ready for this — a “god.”

Still, Kramer the man teaches Taoist Erotic Massage, and as such, this deity is leery of journalists. True to his shamanic reputation, Kramer had agreed to speak with me only on condition that I first attend a class at the Body Electric. I had to understand the experience, he reasoned. I had to be open to his pedagogy. I had to prepare myself for his message. I had, in other words, to get my head right.

But there was little time for such considerations. Brown soon had us in a large circle, shaking hands, telling stories about ourselves, and looking deep into one another’s eyes. We hugged. We massaged. We jumped like cheerleaders.

Now, sure, I was blindfolded. And sure, someone was clammy to the touch. One of my mates thought he had big hips; another spent a small fortune each month on lubricants. It can also be disconcerting when three beefy strangers close in on you for a group hug.

But what got me was our hug’s release: One pair of hands began rubbing my back. Another worked my shoulders and forearms. A third moved slowly down my thighs toward my calves. They’d been at it for about five minutes when I felt someone tug at my shirt. He unbuttoned it, and then lifted it off my shoulders. Next went my belt, my pants and, finally, my underwear.

When it was over, there we stood, all forty of us, blindfolds off, stark naked and hugging. But these weren’t the tight, needy hugs of a maiden aunt. No, we tried to be completely present in our embrace — nothing more, nothing less. But as I communed with my group, eyes clenched and hands gripping those strange hairy shoulders, I was suddenly hit with a blast of halitosis. I shuddered. I couldn’t help it. Try though I might, I had to look. I had to know. Slowly, I lifted my head and opened my eyes.

There was my classmate: thick glasses askew, week-old whiskers sprouting at the chin, and a tie-dyed bandanna clinging to his scalp. He looked at me, smiled ecstatically, and asked: “Do I look pretty weird?”

I didn’t answer. I was trying to remember how I’d come to attend “Celebrating the Body Erotic,” a two-day beginners’ workshop in masturbation.


Now stop. I know what you’re thinking. Few boys over the age of fourteen can be called a “beginner” when it comes to wanking. Many practice daily. Mastery soon follows, and by the time those same boys have reached manhood, most can literally do it in the dark with one hand tied behind their backs.

But what do we really know about it? Not much, if you ask Joseph Kramer. Onan’s dark art is rarely taught. Most boys stumble upon it as if by accident, alone and at night. It soon becomes a source of embarrassment and shame, and that, according to Kramer, causes them to masturbate as quickly and furtively as possible — damning their erotic energy to a sort of Kleenex purgatory. Masturbation is ignored in waking life. Though men may think about the quality of their sex life, their romantic life, and their spiritual life, they rarely think about that of their primary erotic experience: their masturbatory life. Neglected and hidden, masturbation soon becomes routine, perfunctory even.

“Every time somebody masturbates there are one or two — maybe three if you’re really creative — ways that men hold their bodies,” Kramer told me when we finally met at his Rockridge home. “It’s the same almost every time. That’s the norm, but that’s also the way dogs have sex. … We have the option to do something else.”

It’s that “something else” Kramer has been probing for the past two decades. First at the Body Electric School and now through instructional DVDs and videos, Kramer has trained thousands of men with his arsenal of masturbatory techniques. With names such as “Rock Around the Clock,” “Jiggle,” “Fire” (“Use plenty of oil for this high-friction stroke,” he warns), and “Hairy Palm Sunday,” his techniques may sound goofy, or smack of top-shelf California decadence. But to Kramer and his entourage of sexual “ecstatics,” these techniques are the brick and mortar of erotic fulfillment. They are foundational. If you listen to Kramer, not only do his self-loving methods make for richer sexual experiences with a partner, they also allow him and his disciples to enter erotic trance, a mystical state often unavailable through traditional male orgasm.

The typical male orgasm can be seen as something akin to a Greek tragedy’s dramatic arc: Every action, every movement, every sense and rhythm inexorably builds to a short-lived but concentrated climax. For that moment, it’s all bombs and glory. But the climax soon passes. It is swiftly followed by a dispersal of energy, a resolution, which is almost the sexual equivalent of rolling over and falling asleep.

Not that Kramer sees anything wrong with ejaculating. It’s pleasurable — but limited. “I don’t tell people that just because you like to come a lot, you’re a bad person,” he said. “But I do say: ‘What if instead of masturbating five times a day, what if you masturbated for an hour at one time?’ … In normal male sex, what causes the excitement is something outside. It’s the fantasy — the partner — it’s whatever they look like. It’s there; it’s outside of me.”

In Kramer’s view, masturbation and sex can be used to build fugue-like states of pleasure, arousal, and erotic energy. Ejaculation is only one of many orgasms available to men. And even then it is not first among equals. Traditional ejaculations are often quickly dispatched, weak in erotic charge, and entirely genital. Not to mention the toll they take on a man’s overall erotic energy.

But in Kramer’s world of ecstatic masturbation and Taoist erotic massage, erotic energy — horniness — is to be savored, not purged. It fuels both creativity and vitality. He promises orgasms that are full-body, revelatory, nourishing, nonejaculatory, and, best of all, multiple. Male orgasm for Kramer is not so much about ascending that one lone peak. Rather, he offers men all the hills and valleys, peaks and plateaus, traditionally associated with feminine orgasmic states.

“There was a whole year when I did erotic massage nonstop, and not one man ejaculated,” Kramer said. “Within the word ‘horny’ is ‘I want to get rid of it. I want to do something to get unhorny.’ We don’t have a word in the whole English language that says: ‘I’m horny, and I want to get hornier and hornier and hornier.’ We don’t have that. Isn’t that amazing?”

For Joseph Kramer, sex is the creative force of the universe. On Mr. Kramer’s planet, sexual energy is the strongest force a person can generate, and while it is certainly pleasurable, sex and masturbation can also be used for healing, mystical states, and raised consciousness.

“When I’m on a massage table getting an erotic massage, there are times when I state various things that I want,” he told me. “I want to feel dying today. I want this erotic energy to work on dying. I’ve also said I want to feel resurrection: the exact resurrection Jesus was talking about.”

For the past twenty years, Kramer has been honing his skills, bringing himself and others heightened states of pleasure and insight. He has collected some impressive degrees along the way, including a master’s in divinity from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, and a Ph.D in Human Sexuality from the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco.

But lately Kramer has developed what could well be his masterstroke: Last year he worked with the institute to petition the California Department of Consumer Affairs to approve a certificate program in Sexological Bodywork. Unlike his earlier work, which concentrated primarily on pleasure, trance, and consciousness raising, Sexological Bodywork uses his blend of masturbation coaching, Taoist erotic massage, breathwork, and pelvic relaxation and release for both educational and healing purposes. “I have used every skill that I could … and Sexological Bodywork is the best I could come up with,” Kramer said. “It’s my art.”

The California Bureau for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education approved the program last May, and the first class of twenty students — including Kramer himself — graduated in August of 2003. “I don’t recall ever even seeing that application,” said Steve Baker of the bureau. “I don’t know who approved it. I hope it wasn’t me.”

After all, state approval places Kramer and his students in an odd position. Previously, his practice — like that of many Bay Area bodyworkers — had existed in a sort of legal nether region. It wasn’t exactly prostitution; then again, as a practice that involves the exchange of money for sexual gratification, it sort of was. Still, it functioned beneath the radar of bureaucratic oversight and regulation. Since his practice involves explicit genital manipulation, most massage certification agencies won’t touch him. “Erotic massage is a form of prostitution,” scoffed Judy Dean, chair-elect of the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork. “The intent in an erotic massage is that the person gets his rocks off. It’s not professional. It’s not part of our profession. … That’s a crock. … To put the title ‘massage’ to that absolutely does a disservice to the massage therapy community. It puts massage back in the massage parlor frame of mind.”

Nonetheless, Kramer has never been busted for prostitution, and makes a strong case that full body massage should not arbitrarily ignore genital — read erotic — touch.

But now the state has approved a certificate course — and by extension an entire profession — that involves the exchange of money for sexual pleasure, among other things. Local district attorneys won’t comment on its hypothetical legality, but they did say it could prove an interesting collision of state and local agencies at the intersection of prostitution and massage.

For his part, Kramer has adopted a sort of wait-and-see attitude. “We’re crafting a profession from the beginning,” he observed. “So what are the ethics? What are the boundaries? What’s the protocol? It’s the beginning of something, and it doesn’t matter if this becomes a big thing. It’s now planted in the culture. It’s out there — and from California.”


Dressing as he does in spring-loaded black Nike trainers, faded blue jeans, and a tucked-in crewneck sweater, Joseph Kramer hardly calls to mind the image of the sexual shaman conjured by his reputation. Maybe it’s the lingering effects of his St. Louis upbringing. Possibly it’s a holdover from the ten years he spent in the Jesuits, but to the casual observer, Kramer looks distinctly conservative. He wears his graying hair cut short with a straight-edged part. His mustache is clipped close to his upper lip, and, at 57, his joints hurt, he wears glasses, and his belly is beginning to show the effects of gravity’s long tug.

Nonetheless, Kramer remains irrepressible. We had decided to meet at an editing studio in San Francisco, where he was reviewing footage for his upcoming DVD, Anal Massage for Lovers.

“When you work with people with their assholes, you can just tell — I mean, the hemorrhoid culture, the tight asshole; it’s precultural,” Kramer said, explaining the sphincter-shame relationship. “It goes all the way back to potty training. If you shit, your parents are going ‘Ewww.’ So you learn to tense. Anal [massage] takes one to this deep profound place. It’s another one of these trance states. … This massage I was done with ten years ago, but the culture is getting to anal now and anal massage, and this is the best thing out there. … It’s external anal massage, internal anal massage, man and woman, anal lovemaking, anal for relaxation, anal for therapeutic, anal, anal, anal, anal.”

Indeed.

When I walked into the editing room, the monitors showed two of Kramer’s favorite instructors and actors — Ben Haggard and Joe Miron — giving and receiving anal massage. Flanked by his assistant to one side and his editor to another, Kramer was deep in the editing process.

“He moans so well,” Kramer said, leaning forward. “Is that Ben’s hand?”

As the footage continued, Kramer was constantly leaning back in his chair. He would rest for a while, placing his hands behind his head, before again thrusting himself forward, placing his elbows upon his knees. He seemed almost nervous, breathing along with Joe and Ben while repeatedly asking other people what they thought. But as I was coming to realize, this was Kramer’s perpetual state: excitement, deep breaths, and lots of body contact.

“Do we have any shots that involve anal and vulva?” Kramer’s assistant asked the editor. “We’d like to get some clit work.”

Editing is not easy, Kramer says. It can be tedious, time-consuming, and at times frustrating. “The space we can always work with, the lighting we can always work with, but what we really need is the talent,” he said as the next pair of lovers appeared on the screen. Unlike porn, where, presumably, a director finds the best-looking skin and puts it in front of a camera. Kramer is more concerned with technique.

“Here’s my metaphor: If you’re going to do a yoga video, you don’t send out a casting call for types, and then teach them the yoga … you get people who are world-class yoga teachers,” Kramer later told me. In the case of Anal Massage for Lovers: “Anal needs to be part of your lovemaking. You need to be masseurs and masseuses — both couples. You need to touch.”

In other words, not just anyone can do it. What sets Kramer’s technique apart is his concentration on conscious breathing. Without it, what had been an erotic, trance-inducing massage becomes nothing more than an elaborate hand job. Breathing is the linchpin of his method. It creates, he says, a frenetic state of neural activity and, when combined with Kramer’s erotic massage — where, through slapping, pulling, and rubbing other parts of the body, the erotic energy is drawn away from the genitals to other sectors — passageways that were formerly blocked become freed. During a Taoist erotic massage, energy moves uninhibited throughout the body, enabling not only ever-heightening states of erotic pleasure, but full body orgasms, too.

It is here — when through conscious breathwork we break free of the mental images, fantasies, and thought patterns that normally interrupt (and at times define) our erotic experiences — that we can enter a mystical state. It is in this embodied, liminal present that Kramer promises visions. The mind and body are in flux. The thought patterns, conceptions, and fantasies that so define us float freely through our consciousness, unencumbered by past associations and categories. Both past and future melt away, leaving us nothing but this erotic present. This is the moment when we are most free. This is the moment of personal change.

Then, by ceasing to breathe and tensing each of our muscles, we can enter what Kramer calls a “consequential moment.” This full-body exertion effectively freezes these free-floating ideas and sensations. Like a bottle of wine whose sediment has been shaken free and floats pell-mell through the liquid, the accretion that has become a personality — with all of its past memories and future hopes — is unbound, redirected, and free to reorder itself unencumbered by the weight of personal history. We have rapidly come from a state of high erotic arousal to a state of deep relaxation, which Kramer calls “enjoyment-joy.” As our personality begins to reassert itself — as the sediment is redistributed — we find that our personal contours have shifted. What once had been a source of shame no longer has power over us. What had once been embarrassing is now funny, or interesting. There is no messy ejaculation, no drain on our erotic energy — just a psychosexual transformation.

At least that’s the theory.

Still, as the footage progressed, the editing room was filled with all the Oh yeah!s and I’m gonna come!s of your standard Chasey Lain download. In the room’s blue light, the four of us watched while one lover stroked himself as his female partner performed an anal massage. Both on-screen and in the room, the tension began to mount. The man’s pelvis pulsed up and down. He bent his legs, straightened one, and then bent it again. I’d seen this before. He increased the speed of his stroke. His voice jumped an octave and he raised his head from the pillow. I held my breath, Kramer breathed, until …

“Wow!” Kramer exclaimed as the man on screen writhed and moaned. “She really drained his prostate.” Turning to me, he added: “This is only the second ejaculation to be on one of my DVDs.”


Joseph Kramer has never been married. He has no children. While he does drink margaritas, he says he is allergic to the citric acid in lemons and limes. He also is allergic to the yeast in beer and the sulfites in wine. He does not like feeling drunk. He does not drink milk or eat bread — again, his allergies. He has bad knees, and wears his spring-loaded Nikes even while naked. He exercises regularly. He believes he is now addicted to sweets, and regularly sees an addiction counselor to moderate his sugar habit. Though he has had a few long-term relationships, his romantic life has been one of polyamorous detachment. Joseph Kramer does not like patterns that control him.

Kramer also happens to be a child of the Midwest. He grew up Catholic in St. Louis before entering the Jesuit order in 1965. By 1972 he had moved to the Bay Area and enrolled at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union. Four years later, Kramer left both California and the Jesuits, opting instead for the gay life of Manhattan. While there, he quickly went from a life of near-monastic chastity to one of uninhibited sexual abandon, before returning to California in 1979 to explore massage, breathwork, and masturbation.

“Sufism, Tantra, Taoism — all have a consciousness of breath,” Kramer told me. “From my early days I’ve wanted total bliss and to commune with God and all of that. … I learned highs and lows, which I could take over into sex.”

Five years later, in 1984, Kramer founded the Body Electric School for erotic touch. The Bay Area’s AIDS epidemic was beginning to crest and, within the next two decades, nearly twenty thousand San Franciscans succumbed to the disease. It was a time of fear and confusion. Protease inhibitors were more than a decade away, and Kramer, a gay man wanting to be of service to his community, founded his school, where men learned to touch in a safe, erotically fulfilling way.

“Along comes AIDS, and I go: ‘I’m not going to live my whole life in fear. I’m going to discover a way of having sex that is totally satisfying with others and with myself,'” Kramer recalled. “I didn’t want me and you and AIDS in bed. Never. That’s too much.”

In a sense, it is Joseph Kramer’s fear — of allergies, of addiction, of AIDS, of losing control and being dependent upon someone else for erotic fulfillment — that has animated his life and works. Of course, fear is quite a motivator. It has enabled Kramer to explore sexuality — both his own and others’ — at depths we surface-breathers can hardly imagine.

It was in 1991 that Kramer began to first formalize his ideas that sex and masturbation could be used therapeutically. “I started seeing in my classes certain people who were erotically gifted,” he recalled. “They were natural teachers of eroticism. They had an empathy, they had some sort of spirituality — varied, but spirituality — that they brought to this, a generosity and a talent — and they could be seventy or eighteen.”

He called these people Sacred Intimates, and began holding training seminars for this carefully selected group. “Just as other people are great artists or athletes,” he said, Sacred Intimates “have something about who they are that influences people just by being with them, by having sex with them.”

The quasiprofession remains unregulated. But it was here that Kramer began developing his idea of a body-based therapy to heal psychosexual wounds. At times this may involve sex with a Sacred Intimate, but it also may involve nothing more than breathwork, holding, and massage. “They are people who are transformers,” Kramer told me.

Kramer soon sold the Body Electric School, and with it responsibility for the Sacred Intimates program. And while he remains convinced that Sacred Intimates can be effective, he likes to see his work as a progression, and is deeply uncomfortable with the direction many Sacred Intimates have taken.

“Too many people have sex — have good sex — with somebody and then the Sacred Intimate goes ‘Thank you,’ takes the money, and says ‘Call me next week,'” he said. “In very few cases is this not harmful.” Clients are often not transformed by the Sacred Intimate, but rather become attached and dependent, returning again and again for their services. The “Sacred Intimate is a beautiful model, but I don’t know how effective it is,” Kramer said. “I don’t think people who do the work know the effect they’re having. There’s no follow-up.”

In hopes of refining the role of therapeutic eroticism, Kramer has now expanded on the idea of the Sacred Intimate and developed a course in Sexological Bodywork. Though the two professions have many similarities, there are also major differences. Primarily, Sexological Bodyworkers do not have sex with their clients. During a session, the bodyworker remains clothed, and there also is a strict requirement that clients do not touch them. And significantly, a Sexological Bodyworker holds a certificate approved by the State of California.

With its blend of Taoist erotic massage, masturbation coaching, pelvic release work, and counseling, Sexological Bodywork is meant to educate and help people with problems of sexuality and shame. It draws from the work of such sexological luminaries as Wilhelm Reich and Donald Mosher, and argues that psychology, with its strict emphasis on the mind, is often incapable of addressing certain memories and impressions that are held in the body. “When you undergo pain and stress centered in a certain part of your body, your automatic physical reaction is to contract and withdraw,” said Margaret Wade, who co-taught the first class in Sexological Bodywork with Kramer. “That’s how trauma gets stored in your body. So we get all these messages in our genitals that are traumatic. It’s just like going to the doctor if you have a head cold or something. …You can work on those issues and those kinds of trauma and wounds that our society says you can’t do by touching. Well, if the wound is inflicted by touching … how can they be healed without touching?”

With Sexological Bodywork’s emphasis on touch and the transformative powers of sexual trance and pleasure, Kramer and his students believe their new profession can not only heal people of sexual shame and dysfunction, but also free them of their sexual limitations. “Part of it is profoundly transformative — meaning dealing with abuse, education, or people who are [sexually] retarded and just getting up to par,” Kramer said. “Then there’s what I call the shamanic, which is taking people to this vibratory state and assisting them in making use of it. In other words, the variety of erotic experience — we’re sexual educators.”


I never did complete Collin Brown’s class. Midway through the first day I lost my nerve, put my clothes on, and walked out. I suppose I’ll never be the sexual adventurer Kramer had hoped for, but I just couldn’t hack it. Of course, I knew I was taking a risk, and my departure almost cost me the interview. But Kramer is a generous man and, after a bit of back-and-forth, he agreed to speak with me.

Still, when we first met he demanded to know why I’d left. Was I some raging homophobe looking to write a hit piece? To my chagrin, I couldn’t really answer. It may have been the frank talk I’d had with my group about our collective genitals. It might have been the 45 minutes we spent writhing around on the floor, naked and breathing. Maybe it was the moment Brown had all forty of us stand up, hold hands, and skip around the room in nothing but our tube socks. I don’t know. I had seen the videos, and I knew that if we’d covered this much ground in the first four hours, the hot oil and bedsheets were soon to follow.

Still, as I saturated myself with Kramer’s world — watching his videos, speaking with his students, and spending time with the man — simple squeamishness about being naked with strangers seemed like a poor excuse to leave the class. They were just bodies, after all. And who cared if they were men? The point of the class was not to develop a lasting emotional attachment — quite the opposite, really. The class was purely instructional: We were there simply to learn the giving and receiving of erotic pleasure and trance.

It wasn’t until later that I began to realize what I’d found so troubling about the class: Yes, sex can be a casual means of personal gratification and transformation. But sex also can be paltry. Sex can be disgusting. It can be fun, violent, boring, predatory, convenient, acquisitive, intimate, dangerous, conciliatory, routine, and — at times — even loving. Sex, for all that it is packaged, manipulated, and commodified, remains one of the few inscrutable acts available to us. And try though we may to codify, delimit, and categorize sex and sexuality, these arbitrary constraints fall away when faced with the primordial act itself. In sex, we never know the outcome, and to be tossed into those dark waters as if I were taking a casual dip in the community pool was deeply troubling. And while the physical act of sex is nothing if not simple, it is this complex emotional dimension that keeps our interest.

“If I need a sexual experience, I know how to give that to myself — without anyone else,” Kramer once told me. “If I just want to get off, I know way more places, and have much more fun, than if I just meet somebody anonymously or casually, or go to a bathhouse. … I might as well jerk off if all I want is an erotic experience.”

And that’s when it dawned on me. Whether out of fear or circumstance, Kramer has effectively inverted the mental and physical dimensions of sex. Whereas many of us have sex lives that are physically simple but emotionally complex, Kramer has attempted to reverse that order. With all of his emphasis on specific strokes, breathing, and personal, nonpartner engagement, he has tried to transform sex into an act that is physically demanding, but interpersonally safe.

“Taoist men are really into erotic trance,” Kramer told me when I first met him. “Women are there to get them into this vibration, to nourish their body. Especially fucking; it doesn’t matter who it is.”

Of course, Kramer is very clear that he offers one mode of sexual experience, and that it is not for everyone. “The whole culture has opted out of learning erotic trance for partner engagement,” he said. “I’m not an expert in relationships, and I don’t claim to be.”

After all, sex can be many things, so why not introspective, transformative, and healing? As solipsistic as Kramer’s techniques may at times seem, they remain only one of many sexual experiences. And as Joseph Kramer says: “My position is choice. If people want to fantasize and jerk off — fine. But if they have eight choices — a menu — it’s like, I don’t want to just eat McDonald’s every day.”

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