My lunch with Joseph Kramer

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Joseph Kramer
A sacred prostitute and teacher of "ritual masturbation" explains
the mysterious links between spirituality and doing the wild thing.

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May 28, 1999 | In his unusual line of work, Joseph Kramer is a man of many titles: teacher, sex worker, masseur, therapist, AIDS activist, filmmaker, former Jesuit priest in training. All are more-or-less accurate, but none captures the religious, sexual and therapeutic aspects of Kramer's work quite like his personal favorite, sacred prostitute.

By his estimates, Kramer's had sexual encounters with 15,000 men in 15 years. He's developed his own method of erotic genital massage and founded a school, the Body Electric School of Massage, to teach it in Europe and the United States. Kramer is also the founder of the Erospirit Research Institute, operated out of his home in Oakland, Calif., which explores and teaches the connection between sex and spirituality through video and other media.

Kramer makes how-to movies on everything from his massage techniques to "ritual masturbation" and "shamanic sex magic." Erotic, they are not. After watching "Fire on the Mountain: An Intimate Guide to Male Erotic Massage" -- in which every stroke of the penis is accompanied by rhythmic breath work and foreplay consists of facing your partner and repeating, "I am you. You are me" -- a male friend of mine said he needed to purge the memory of it from his mind in order to get on with his sex life, so unappetizing were the images. The visual quality of Kramer's videos ranges from clunky to plain cheesy, such as when Kramer pops out from behind a 7-foot-tall phallus, or scenes of two men touching multiplied à la "The Brady Bunch" after too much tequila. But Kramer isn't interested in making beautiful work. "Other people are artists. I'm a teacher," he says.

I meet Kramer at Anabella's, a bistro in downtown San Francisco, where his latest film, "Zen Pussy," will debut at the Sex Worker Film and Video Festival that night. We settle into a quiet corner of the restaurant beneath a ceiling painted pink with bas-relief clouds, an '80s version of a Rococo background. "It looks like flesh, a young pink flesh," Kramer remarks, looking up. "It's pretty awful," I say back. Fortunately the restaurant is quieter than its dcor and we are able to talk in relative peace.

Kramer explains that the inspiration for "Zen Pussy" came while he was shooting an erotic-touch video two years before. "One of the cameras was mounted on the table between the woman's legs -- the vulva cam, we call it. There were 20 minutes of this woman breathing from the perspective of her vulva. I became entranced. I thought, gateway, this is where I came into the world. We can project a variety of things onto it." The finished product, which Kramer refers to as "my first trip into the arty," is 11 one-minute extreme close-ups of various women's nether regions.

When I ask what a viewer is supposed to take away from the experience, Kramer says it's meant as a meditation. "Zen is just looking at things as they are and being with the present moment and not expecting anything to happen." He hopes to make "Zen Cock" and "Zen Butthole" in the future, but is waiting to see what degree of acclaim the first film attracts.

A waiter interrupts our discussion to take our order. I have the chicken salad and Kramer selects the day's soup and a sandwich. Kramer is approximately 6 feet tall with gray-specked brown hair. He has a slightly round face and a charming smile. He's dressed casually in blue jeans and a white collared shirt, and it isn't difficult to imagine him in his previous profession: Jesuit.

"How did you go from 10 years of training for the priesthood to making erotic film and teaching genital massage?" I ask.

"The short version of it is, the core of my Christian background is to be of service to others, to look at what my gifts are and see how I can best use those in the world." The long story is that Kramer is gay. In 1976, one year short of becoming a priest, Kramer left the order and moved from Berkeley, Calif., to New York to pursue a career in massage and the wonderful world of sex with men.

When the AIDS virus struck the gay community, Kramer started looking for ways to find fulfillment sexually without risking infection. "A lot of people just stopped having sex, or had very limited sex because of HIV." Kramer began developing his current genital massage technique. "In my classes and in my profession, I have probably erotically touched 15,000 men since HIV started. I've been totally safe and I'm HIV negative. People say promiscuity is the problem. It's not."

After being openly gay caused him to be fired from the Catholic school where we was teaching, Kramer moved back to California to finish his degree in theology. He began studying Taoism, Tantra and conscious breathing, focusing on the links between spirituality and sexuality.