For Issue #4 of Razorcake, I wrote an article about Ben Akerley and his book, The X-Rated Bible. Parts of the article were based on the following interview.
Sean: Most people know the story of David and Goliath. And David went on to have some pretty interesting adventures in the Bible. What are some of the most notable adventures he had?
Ben Akerley: The fact that when he was going to be crowned king of Israel, and came back into the city after his triumphant battles, he literally exposed himself. He had a little apron on that they called an "ephod" that, if you bounced around a little bit, your genitals would readily be available to anyone you see. Not that he flashed directly, but the point is, he was jumping up and down at such a terrific rate that his genitals were visible to the crowd. And, of course, I capitalized on this incident in my book and called it "King David Flashes His Royal Penis." Because, essentially, that's what he was doing. And as soon as he got home, his wife was very upset and said, "You exposed yourself like a common pervert." And he took great issue with it because he felt that all he was doing was showing his great excitement at his victory and his forthcoming being crowned over all of Israel.
Another incident is, of course, when he watched Bathsheba taking a bath and lusted after her. He made sure her husband was sent into battle and killed. Then it was easy for him to move in and get her into his bed and legally marry her.
The most interesting aspect is his love affair with Jonathan. And, again, love affair can be in quotes because nobody can prove that it was sexual. But when it talks very openly about it being the love that surpasses that of man and women. And that when Jonathan first saw him, he was so lovesick that he couldn't eat. It's hard to ignore that there probably was a sexual component to the relationship. And, again, here's a so-called man of God who's supposed to be a wonderful example to everybody.
But to me, the outstanding graphic example of David's exploits in all the Bible is: when he wanted to marry Micca, who's a very beautiful young lady, and Saul was still king over Israel, and David went to ask for his bride-to-be's hand, Saul was so envious of David, and so jealous that people would sing that Saul had slayed his thousands but David had slayed his tens of thousands - that they were comparing David to Saul on a ten-to-one basis, in other words, David was ten times as popular as the incumbent king - Saul put David on a mission and said, "If you want my daughter's hand in marriage, I want you to go and bring me back a hundred Philistine foreskins. And you must remember that Israel was unique in the Middle East at that time in circumcising. It wasn't common practice among the heathen tribes that surrounded them. It was a special covenant between Jehovah and Abraham and the Israelites. So these other tribes, other warriors, were not circumcised. And, of course, when Saul asked for the hundred foreskins, he was basically saying, "You have to kill a hundred Philistines - murder them. Execute them in battle and bring me back their foreskins as proof you did this. So David really wanted to impress his father-in-law and he killed, with his men, two hundred Philistines, and then showed up at the palace gate with two hundred foreskins to present to King Saul as a dowry for the daughter Micca's hand in marriage. Now, if you can imagine anything more grisly than killing soldiers, then going around and performing necrophalic circumcision on the corpses and cutting away the foreskins from the penis, which probably would be erect, which often happens once rigor mortis has set in, and then transporting all of those. The French philosopher Voltaire, who was very much an iconoclast and rejected all religions, said, "Maybe David should have brought them to the palace in the form of a necklace."
Sean: Other famous people from the Bible. Lot, who was so pure that he was the only one saved at the burning of Sodom and Gomorrah, had some interesting exploits with his daughters, right?
Ben Akerley: That whole story is quite fascinating for many reasons. First of all, because Lot was singled out as worthy of being saved out of everybody in the city of Sodom, Jehovah sent to angel emissaries to warn him that the city was going to be burned, and he should flee with his wife and two daughters to be spared of the fire and brimstone that was imminently going to be rained down from heaven and destroy both Sodom and her sister city of Gomorrah - by the way, according to the New Testament, for "general wickedness," not just for butt fucking. And what happened is that these angel emissaries were so hot that when the men of Sodom saw them go into Lot's house, they banged on the door and said, "Hey, bring these guys out so we can get it on with them." In the biblical words, "We may know them." And, of course, "know" in seventeenth century English means "have intercourse with" them. So it's very clear that they wanted a gang bang. They wanted to gang rape these two emissaries. And what Lot did immediately was to say that they should not do that because it would be violating the rules of hospitality. As much as it would be a sexual assault, it was just as outrageous a violation of Middle Eastern hospitality that it would be done to his guests, who were literally in a safe haven, in a safe house, and should not in any way be put in danger. So it was a double whammy that they were asking to rape the men and they were asking Lot to violate his code of being a host and protecting anybody who was under his roof. So he freely offers his daughters and says, "Do what you wish with my virgin daughters." He was even giving them virgin daughters. In other words, he was giving them unused material to go ahead and have their way with. But no, no, no. They were much more interested in the rear ends of the houseguests than the front ends of Lot's daughters. And, therefore, they were struck with blindness immediately. And, in groping around, there was much confusion.
At that point, Lot decided to leave, and when he and his daughters headed for a cave near a city called Zoar. Just before they got there, his wife turned around longing for what she was leaving behind and was warned not to do that. And, of course, the mythological story tells that she turned immediately into a pillar of salt. And upon arrival in this cave, where they were perfectly safe, the daughters decided that they should see that their clan continued since obviously everybody else in that tribe had been annihilated. So the first night, the older daughter got Lot drunk and had intercourse with him and the second night, the younger daughter got it on with her father after getting drunk. And both became pregnant by him.
It's always fascinating to me that the fundamentalists and the people who insist on a literal translation of the Bible say that everything in the Bible has a moral tale. Every story in the Bible, even if it describes something like incest, has a purpose. And the only thing I can get out of that story, the only reading I can get out of it - again it's an interpretation situation - is that, when two daughters decide to fuck their father, the older one should get her chance first. The older daughter should fuck daddy before the younger daughter, that the primogenitor rule should prevail, that the older daughter has first grabs. That's the only moral story I can see there.
I had a fascinating conversation with a Baptist minister who said, "They had to do what they did because they wanted to be sure that the world - which, as they knew it, had already been destroyed - would continued on." And I said, "Yeah, but there were other people around. It wasn't like everybody in the world was wiped out in Sodom and Gomorrah." And when you talk to fundamentalists who insist that the Bible is literally true, there's no argument because there's no interpretation. If it's literal, it has to be taken at face value. It's so funny that these same fundamentalist ministers who insist that the Bible is literal and has to be taken as the exact word of God, say there's no such thing as situation ethics - where you make a decision based on certain circumstances - yet Lot made that very decision. He decided it was better to give his daughters to the crowd than it was to give his two male houseguests to the crowd. So those kinds of things are things that all fundamentalists and all literalists have tunnel vision about. They zero in with their own interpretation that they insist is the only interpretation because, even if it's the literal word of God, it's still subject to interpretation. I don't even try any longer to argue with these people because you can't. Their mind is made up that their way is the only way. Therefore, to them, what's their interpretation has to be the final answer. The final word.
Sean: Speaking of interpretations, of course most people read Bibles through certain translations. Pretty much only scholars read the original book in its original language. Why do you choose the King James Version in your book?
Ben Akerley: It was very practical. King James is public domain. No permission was needed and I couldn't imagine getting permission from any of the other translations to do a spoof of the Bible. Because, after all, remember the subtitle of The X-Rated Bible is An Irreverent Survey of Sex in the Scriptures. And, unlike several other books that have been written about Bible sex, always from an apologetic view point and from the view point that is totally reverential and respectful, mine is a thumb-your-nose attitude, saying, if people who literally interpret the Bible say that all morality is literally based on the Bible, they're on pretty shaky ground. Therefore, I want to provoke them as much as possible. So it was just an absolute dollars-and-cents, pragmatic decision to use the King James. And also because it's the one that's most familiar. At least in 1985, when my book first came out, it was. Still, in 1985, a lot of people weren't familiar with the newer translation. And, at the time my book was published, every Gideon Bible that you would see in any hotel in the world would be a King James Version.
It also highlighted the fact that so much has changed since 1611 when that translation came out that it's hard to see how much sex is in the Bible because so many of the words that were used in seventeenth century England today we don't have a clue what they mean. "Stones" means testicles. You'd never know that unless you had somebody point it out to you. And "know," most people know that "know" can have two meanings in the biblical sense: either "become acquainted with" or "to have sexual relations with." But still, many other words have changed radically. Even "virgin" - or what was translated as "virgin" in King James - really means "maiden." It doesn't necessarily mean a girl who's never had intercourse. So that also was a good reason for the choice of translation. Because what so many people had interpreted or read for years has a very different meaning with other translations and in light of the English language of the seventeenth century changing.
But I have to say, at the same time, I used to walk to school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and every day I'd passed the Buhl Planetarium. One of the six cities in the US to have planetariums was Pittsburgh. And engraved in stone on the side of the building was the Psalm 19 out of the Bible: "The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament sheweth his handy-work. Day unto day uttereth speech and night unto night sheweth knowledge." The sweep of that English is just so beautiful. Just the language itself.
Sean: How do the passages that you select in The X-Rated Bible compare to the contemporary version?
Ben Akerley: It's interesting. What I call "the dirtiest verse in the Bible," is the story about Israel being divided into two kingdoms. Israel was constantly trying to go after other gods. You have to understand that these other gods were mostly fertility gods. So here's Israel trying to choose between having this stern, mountain-top deity called Jehovah, who all he could say is, "Thou shalt not… Thou shalt not…" and all of these fertility gods who would say, "Come and fuck on our temple steps. We welcome you with prostitutes. You can have a woman if you want a woman. You can have a man. This is part of our worship." It was very, very difficult for Israel to make a choice between this stern father with a long beard who's always saying, "No, no, no. Just say no," and these fertility gods who not only welcome people with open arms, but open flies and open tunics and open everything else. And sex was a sacrament in their religion. So, as a result of that, Israel was compared to a whore. She was whoring after other gods. And in this story where the kingdom is divided, these two sisters are debauched whores who are so far gone that they're giving themselves to men. They're not even charging like a normal prostitute does or a temple prostitute - who takes a donation at the door. Remember, it's called a donation. But these whores are giving their bodies away, which is even worse than selling their body. And the lovers that these whores have, these two sisters who represent the divided kingdom, have lovers who have penises the size of a donkey that shoots semen in the quantity of a horse. Well, if Playboy or Penthouse says that he was hung like a donkey and shot a wad like a horse, that's called pornography. But when the prophet Ezekial says the same thing in chapter 23, that's divine inspiration. And yet I've looked at all of these other translations - I gave a free translation just to amalgamate all the modern translations and I ended up saying gobs and gobs of cum - but some of them still skirted around very much with "member" - of course that's a real euphemism for a dick or a cock - and emission instead of saying a load. And how gingerly they tried to get around that passage and not make it quite as graphic as it is. And, again, what could any fundamentalist possibly say was the moral of the story saying that Israel is like two women who are whores that are so far gone they're giving their bodies away and their lovers have dicks like a jackass ejaculating as much semen as a horse? I mean, where's the moral of that story?
Sean: That's a fine question. I can't answer that.
Ben Akerley: Well, the usual answer is: God moves in mysterious ways. I had a Baptist minister on the air one time. I was doing a telephone call-in show. And I said, "Reverend. I want a straight yes or no answer, like we're in court. We have the example of Jesus bending over and scribbling in the sand to prevent a woman caught in adultery from being stoned to death by a mob. What should happen to a woman today if she's caught committing adultery? Should she be taken out and stoned according the biblical injunction? A yes or no answer." "Well, she should be punished to the full extent of the law." I said, "Wait a minute. I want a yes or no answer. Should a woman caught in adultery today be taken out and stoned like the biblical injunction demands?" "Well, I repeat. The woman should be punished to the full extent of the law." I couldn't get the dude to give me a straight answer because he knew that I had him by the ecclesiastical balls. He really did. And there was absolutely no possible way out. So he kept spouting that she should be punished to the full extent of the law.
Sean: That's funny.
Ben Akerley: It is, but it's tragic. I just have to say this: there was a wonderful article in Penthouse a few years back called "Why Bible Beaters become Wife Beaters." And it showed that, among fundamentalists, there is a tremendous amount of spousal abuse because, according to the Bible, they had to dictate that the man rules the roost and the woman has to be subordinate and subservient to him and the man can do anything he wants and the woman should never question it. She should just accept that as her place in life. And I think it's a very clear cause and effect relationship from what the Bible says about the way men ought to treat women vis-ŗ-vis the reality of the way the world views equality for women.
Sean: Speaking of literalists and the way they approach the Bible, is there a condemnation of masturbation in the Bible?
Ben Akerley: There's a condemnation of a man who decided not to father children for his deceased brother. There's a law called "leverite." And leverite means that, if a man dies childless, his older brother should go in and father children with the widow to carry on his brother's generation. And the story of Onan is his brother, Er, had been killed by Jehovah, executed for unspecified reasons in the narrative, and so it was Onan's duty to go in to Er's wife Tamar, Onan's sister-in-law, and to impregnate her. And, for whatever reason, after Onan was going at it for a while, he had second thoughts and withdrew from Tamar and ejaculated on the ground and was instantly executed by Jehovah. The title of that chapter in my book is "Onan's Fatal Orgasm." So, while it's very clear that the only reason he was executed is he failed to fulfill that law and he disobeyed Jehovah as far as the leverite law was concerned, kids like me when I was thirteen and reading that passage and realized he was struck dead for spilling his seed on the ground, felt that maybe the next time I masturbated, I was going to see a thunderbolt coming down from heaven and zap my right hand. I was willing to change hands. Anything to avoid the same kind of fate. And, unfortunately, any dictionary anywhere defines onanism as masturbation. So it's a very, very common misconception. And, of course you could say that, maybe when he pulled out, he hadn't reached the point of what Master's and Johnson call "ejaculatory inevitability" and therefore had to finish himself off with his hand. Therefore, it actually looks like he was struck dead for auto-relieving himself, but that's a stretch.
But along the lines of a stretch - and I have to go back to this - I have a book at home called Sex and Love in the Bible written by a minister. And he says that anybody who would see even a hint of homosexuality between David and Jonathan and their great love for each other and their willingness to die for each other and lovesickness would have to be perverted and see homosexuality everywhere. And a different book by a different minister says that David and Jonathan were bisexual. There's an example of two totally divergent interpretations of the same passage. One minister is quite comfortable saying, "They were bi. Man, they were bi." And another minister says, "That's the most twisted possible thing you could imagine when you read that." So you get these extreme divergent view points over a very simple story.
Sean: To go back to masturbation, isn't there also a passage in Leviticus?
Ben Akerley: Well, there are passages that, if a garment is stained with semen, that it's polluted. But, again with interpretation, you could have a wet dream. That certainly wouldn't be masturbation. You might have awaken in the morning and found out that your nightie, pajamas, J. Edgar Hoover nightie, whatever you sleep in, could be semen stained. But it's pretty obscure. And there's the one about "a man whose seed goeth from him." But again, "seed goeth forth from him" could be involuntary. It could be a nocturnal emission.
Sean: (looking at the passage) And in King James English, what does it mean to be "unclean until the even?"
Ben Akerley: Until the sun sets. For the rest of the day.
Sean: And what is "unclean."
Ben Akerley: Well, that you're defiled. You're contaminated. No woman could ever go in and worship when she was menstruating because she was "unclean." And she had to ritually purify herself. If a woman had a baby, and it was a male baby, she was "unclean" only forty days. And she couldn't do anything for that forty days. But if she had a female baby, she was unclean for eighty days. So you see the value of women versus men in the Old Testament and the whole idea of patriarchal rule and the man ruleth the roost and women aren't as valuable and everyone wants sons because they can be warriors.
In a country as tiny as Israel, you have to remember that it was very important to direct all sexual activity towards reproduction. And that's why, again, when you get into the story of Lot and Sodom, was the sexual act condemned because it was evil or was it condemned because it was non-procreative. That the seed that was used between two men was seed that could've gone to fathering more children, more male children, more warriors. And you get two totally different interpretations again: that homosexuality was condemned because it was a terrible, sinful, evil thing to do and the view that the only reason it was condemned is that you can't have any babies when two men are going at it or two women are going at it. A lot of gay Christian apologists say, "Oh, well, we can still love our god and be gay." Troy Perry, the founder of the metropolitan community gay churches, wrote a book called The Lord Is My Shepherd and He Knows I Am Gay. And in his view, he can harmonize and rationalize all of that by saying the condemnation wasn't the act being sinful or evil. It was the act being not procreative.
Sean: But there's no mention of women in respect to masturbation or lesbianism?
Ben Akerley: No. Women don't emit seed. They don't ejaculate - unless you hit the G-spot.
Sean: And no mention of lesbianism?
Ben Akerley: Yes, there is. In the New Testament. Paul mentions turning away from the natural to the unnatural. It's so interesting that the word "natural" comes up. Even in the Bible, it's phrased, "That which is against nature." Some of the sodomy laws that are still on the book in the United States call sodomy "a crime against nature." And not just gay sex. They're talking about any kind of oral or anal intercourse, whether it's same sex or opposite sex. And you should know that the Uniform Code of Military Justice that was adopted only in the 1950s criminalizes sodomy between any two people. In other words, a man and a wife are guilty of sodomy and could go to the brig - if they are military personnel - for one full year if they commit adultery, and five full years if they commit sodomy. So a military couple engaged in oral or anal sex could get a five year brig sentence. And it's one reason why I think the whole campaign for gays in the military was ass backwards. They should've focused on the Uniform Code of Military Justice because it criminalizes sodomy for everybody and you can get a lot more people sympathizing with a soldier being sent to the brig because he fucked his wife in the ass or because his wife gave him head than you can get people sympathizing with a guy in the shower looking at somebody next to him saying, "Hey man, I'd like to get it on with you." So I think the whole focus was way off course and they would've gotten a lot more done if they said, "Let's change the Uniform Code." But that's how what's in the Bible - even though people don't read it, even though people don't know it - affects us all in our everyday living.
When I did one of my first talk shows in '85 when the book first came out, one of the talk show hosts said, "Ben, I think you're so far off base. All the Bible does in our house is sit on our coffee table and we stuff pictures in it. We use it as a picture album. How can you say that anything in that book means anything in today's world or affects any of us in our daily lives?" I said, "You are so wrong. You don't have to read it. You don't have to know what's in it to be affected by it."
Sean: Well, it's been argued that our society in the United States is not only a Christian society, but it's a Puritan society.
Ben Akerley: It's anti-sexual. Sure. We're the only country in the world that routinely circumcises infants for "medical reasons." Israel does it, of course, for religious reasons, but no other country in the world lops off the foreskin as a routine medical thing. And that's all because the Bible suggested it was an important thing to do. And if you're not convinced it wasn't hygienic - because it wasn't. It had nothing to do with hygiene. If, in the Bible, a baby was stillborn, it was still circumcised before it was buried. That's how strong this rite was in Jewish society that this special covenant between Israel and Jehovah had to be observed. If there was hemophilia, and a baby hemorrhaged to death, one more had to hemorrhage to death before the third was spared. After two hemophiliac children died, son number three was excused from circumcision. So does that have anything to do with hygiene? It's a ritual that they feel has to be done. And, once again, isn't it gruesome to think of a little stillborn infant being circumcised - the rabbi cutting off the skin of a corpse like this was some very important thing to do. It's just plain grisly.
Now there are groups that are trying to convince people that circumcision is not necessary. I was fortunately spared because I was born at home in Pittsburgh and I'll be happy forever that I was spared that rite. It turned out the doctor who delivered me serviced all the girls in the red light district in Pittsburgh and he didn't need the extra five bucks my dad would've had to give him to circumcise me at home. He could care less. He took one look at me and said, "Nah, he's fine. He doesn't need it." But a lot of people don't know, when they go to a hospital, that it's an option. They think that it's part of the package deal. And believe me, you don't know what you're missing when you're circumcised. I could never understand guys using a whole hand. All I need was two fingertips and that was enough. It makes a great deal of difference.
Go to Europe and you'll hardly ever see a circumcised penis. Even in Canada and certainly in Mexico and most of the world. But in the United States, because of the biblical influence and our early medical practices - circumcision was actually thought, in the last century, to be a cure for masturbation. We were so anti-sexual that doctors convinced most American mothers that, if their sons were circumcised, they'd be much less likely to masturbate. So it all comes together as part of this Puritanical, anti-sexual view point.
Sean: Would you say the Puritanical influence goes beyond that? If you look at every president since Nixon, everyone who's been elected has either been "born-again" or pandered to the religious right. How do you account for that?
Ben Akerley: Well, most people are convinced that the only way to be moral is to be either convinced that you're going to heaven - which is a bribe - or convinced that you're going to hell - which is blackmail. And if people think that the only way you're going to get to heaven and avoid hell is to follow the Bible and do what it dictates, they can't imagine leading a moral life without following a book like the Bible and all of this hypocritical attention about a big daddy in the sky and an afterlife that we're all gonna live forever. It becomes part and parcel of the culture that people want to believe. Since we are the only species in the animal kingdom that knows we are mortal and that we are going to die someday, religion for most people is a coping mechanism. And a coping mechanism, for most people, is the only way they can carry on from day to day.
When Madalyn Murray O'Hair was first interviewed - remember she's the outstanding atheist, or was before her terrible execution style murder. When she was interviewed in Playboy back in 1963 - I still have the interview at home - the interview began, "Mrs. Murray, why are you an atheist?" Answer: "Because religion is a crutch and only the crippled need crutches."
Sean: Jesse Ventura just said something similar in Playboy not too long ago.
Ben Akerley: Yes. And boy he sure got flack for that statement. See, when you have a Puritanical society, you have a hypocritical society where a politician would never come out in favor of prostitution because he knows it would be a suicidal thing politically. If he believes prostitution being legal, like it is in most countries in Europe, would probably be a good idea, he wouldn't dare say it. Same thing about smoking pot. Same thing about anything that had to do with morality. That's why, when the McKinsey Report first came out on human sexual behavior back in the forties, it was such a blockbuster. Because it showed this huge, huge discrepancy between public professions of morality and public morality that was actually documented. In other words, the big difference between the public image and the private reality. And that's why it just blew the lid off so many things. And, again, that's why he was called every name in the book: because he was telling it like it is and no one wants to hear it like it is. They want to hear it like they think it should be.
Sean: And a very similar thing happened to Clinton's first surgeon general, Joycelyn Elders when she came out in favor of sex ed being taught in schools and condoms being handed out by guidance counselors. She was booted out of office.
Ben Akerley: For what it's worth, Clinton knew what he was getting into when he invited her to come to Washington. When he was still governor of Arkansas, he made her the state health officer. He was standing right beside her when the reporter said, "Dr. Elders, are you going to distribute condoms in our high schools?" And she said, "Well, we're not gonna put them on the lunch trays, but to answer your question: yes." And Clinton turned an absolute bright crimson. But this is the kind of outspoken woman she was. And when she was interviewed in Playboy, the interviewer asked, "Dr. Elders, why are you so relaxed about the subject of sex?" She said, "Because I grew up on a farm and I saw the animals doing it and I knew it was just natural. And she did not encourage masturbation. She encouraged students to learn about masturbation. And one of her goals in Washington that no one could forgive her for… Well, first of all, the United States has the highest out-of-wedlock teenage birth rate in the world. Bar none. Again: a Puritanical society. We follow all these moral rules, yet we have more knocked-up teenagers than any other country in the whole world. And in the United States, Arkansas was second in line. Mississippi had the highest rate. Arkansas was number two when Joycelyn Elders took over as the state health officer. So she saw it as her mission to get to the root cause of this. And that was part of her mission. She also could never be forgiven for saying, in many cases, gay parents make much better parents than opposite sex parents. Nobody could forgive her for saying that. You just don't say that and stay in office in a Puritanical, hypocritical society like ours. That is being much too honest. And honesty and politics is like oil and water.
Sean: Why should sex education be taught in public schools?
Ben Akerley: Well, because first of all, kids are going to do it and they need to be informed. The view in Holland, which has the lowest teenage pregnancy rate in the world, is, if you're going to do something, just be sure you don't have any unintended consequences. That's the message of sex education in the Netherlands. And study after study after study has proven that the more realistic sex education you give, the lower birth rate there is. It doesn't encourage kids to have sex. It just encourages them to be more responsible. But, again, nobody wants to hear this. Nobody wants to hear that, if you tell kids how to prevent pregnancy, that they should do that. Because that's immoral. You're basically condoning immorality, and so-called pre-marital intercourse. It's crazy that we think that "just say no" is going to work with teenagers. And the only funding available for sex education from Washington is abstinence-only sex education. It's not going to work for raging hormones.
Sean: Did you grow up in a religious household?
Ben Akerley: Well, that's a hard question. My mother died when I was thirteen, so I lived with an aunt who was quite religious and I spent some time living with my maternal grandmother. But I was reared a Methodist and contemplated being a missionary at one time. I had a conversion experience at age eighteen where a friend of mine from my high school asked me to go to a Seventh Day Adventist Evangelical Crusade much like the Billy Graham type thing and it was so excited for me as a kid to see all these lights and people coming up to the alter and giving themselves to Christ and you get baptized in the Adventist church by being totally immersed in water because your sins have to be completely washed away and you wear a white robe to show that your new life now presents purity because you've given up all the black sin that was enfolding you. All of that is theater. It's drama. It's real. So I spent some time in that church.
Then, I saw Inherit the Wind - the play about the Scopes Monkey Trial. The contrast between [William Jennings] Bryant [the fundamentalist politician who was the prosecutor in the trial] and [Clarence] Darrow [the lawyer who defended the schoolteacher who taught evolution in his classroom] was so great that I wanted to follow the role model of Darrow, who was cool, calm, calculated, very intellectual, very introspective, as opposed to Bryant, who was all emotion and show and hysteria. And it really started to veer me away from this whole idea that I was such a terrible sinner that no God could forgive me, that I was worthless, I was hopeless, I was a basketcase. And please understand that even today, in 2001, gay teenagers have a suicide rate of about thirty percent. In other words, about one third of teenage suicides happen to gay kids. And, again, it's because, if the Bible says, "Though shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind in an abomination. They shalt surely be put to death." If the Bible says you deserve to die because you're gay, kids grow up internalizing that, thinking that they are miserable, hopeless, lost, worthless. And a lot of them just do themselves in. And it's a very, very hard struggle. It's hard enough to be an adolescent when you're straight, and to try to deal with all the peer pressure. But when you're gay, it's more than just a double whammy. It's just devastating. And, of course, things are changing gradually, but very gradually.
Finally, I saw the light at about nineteen. Gave up all religion and have been basically an atheist ever since.
Sean: Did any other famous atheists in history - well, you mentioned Stephen Jay Gould, who's not really a historical figure, but you mentioned his quote about humans being the only animals to recognize their mortality. And you mentioned Clarence Darrow. Were there any other famous atheists throughout history who influenced you?
Ben Akerley: Oh yes. Robert Ingersoll. Ingersoll was a lawyer who loved to go around the country giving anti-theological lectures. And he was so respected that even ministers would come to hear him knock the Bible and to knock religion. He was great orator. One of the things he said that I think is priceless about the effect of religion - and you'd said about when you live in a Puritanical society - he said it is difficult to find an antidote for a poison that was mixed with mother's milk. And boy, that's a very profound statement because, from the day we're weaned, we are saturated with religion. And you really have to look for an antidote. You really do. To me, one of the greatest antidotes is humor. Humor diffuses so much. It helps a great deal. And, as you know, most religions take themselves very, very seriously. So I feel that something like my book helps a lot simply because it is a spoof and I am making fun, thumbing my nose at these do-gooders, at these self-righteous people who insist that theirs is the only way and everybody else is wrong.
Sean: Have any people who consider themselves Christians come up to you and thanked you for writing this book?
Ben Akerley: Well, I did an interview with a man, a lengthy telephone interview for a program back in New York City where he said, "I don't know how anybody could read your book and look at the Bible the same way again." Of course, that was his reaction. Not everybody agrees with that. But that, to me, was exactly why I wrote it. I would like to think that if people realized that this mythical collection is just that: it's mythical. It should not be taken seriously or at face value. It's a compilation of works by men who were very, very human and very subject to error like all humanity. They would never look at it again as if it were The Holy Bible, as if it were the only guide. It is the best selling book in history, by the way, but it's not the best read book.
Even in church, Ingersoll once offered a thousand dollars to any minister in Cleveland, and this was the 1890s, and one thousand dollars was a huge sum of money in the 1890s. He would give a thousand dollars in cash to any minister in Cleveland who would allow him to come to the church on Sunday morning and read passages that he, himself, would select to the congregation. And no minister ever took him up on the offer because they knew what they were in for. So Ingersoll also had a great sense of humor.
Sean: We talked about the effect that the Bible has on children and adolescents and the views they have on sex. What kind of effect do you think this religious orthodoxy has on adult sex lives?
Ben Akerley: Masters and Johnson were the preeminent sex therapy couple in America with all of their studies on orgasms and physical reactions and so forth. They have a marvelous monograph called The Role of Religion in Sexual Dysfunction. And what I find remarkable about their research is that, number one, their estimate is that fifty percent of all American marriages have some sort of sexual dysfunction. Fifty percent. And in the majority of those cases, the sexual dysfunction is due to religious orthodoxy. That's a pretty damning statement.
The most frequent dysfunction of men is premature ejaculation, which I would say is probably due to guilt or never learning to control or to satisfy. You look at sex as something you do on the run, or try to get it over with as fast as possible, or whatever. And the man really never learns to be a good lover because you're not supposed to make it last. I mean, if you make it last, it's more sinful. So that's the main dysfunction that happens with married men.
I mean, when you learn to do it in the back of a car wondering if the cops are going to drive up or in a basement where you wonder when her mother's gonna come down to check on you, all this is furtive and it becomes rushed. And I'm saying that Europeans, for years, have always laughed that American women who come to Europe can't believe how much more trained the Europeans are. They don't have the guilt in prolonging the orgasm. A woman is supposed to take at least eight minutes to reach orgasm, and most men can't last eight minutes or don't want to last eight minutes. Anyway, that's on the male side.
On the female side, the most common dysfunction is inorgasm - the inability of a woman to achieve orgasm. And, again, all the guilt. A book had to be written by a woman sex therapist called Nice Girls Do because, up to the time of that book's publication, the American maxim was "nice girls don't." And she actually wanted to counteract that misperception.
Getting back to the Masters and Johnson article, their analysis of the reason that religion affects people is the way people perceive it. In other words, they say that everybody should look at sex as a natural function. It shouldn't be looked at as any different than digestion or elimination or secretion like sweating. But that's easy to say, but when you keep the genitals covered all the time and you have this secretive view, then it's no longer a natural function. It's a hushed up or dirty or nasty thing. Even the expression "do the nasty." That's slang for having sex like you're doing something nasty. You can't say "do the nice." All of that carries over.
And, by the way, I told you that one of the reasons for circumcision in the nineteenth century was to prevent masturbation - masturbation was called "self-abuse." Abuse. You're abusing yourself. Then, McKinsey came along and called is "self-gratification." Talk about two divergent view points. Self abuse, where you're actually harming yourself, and self-gratification, where you're pleasuring yourself. Those are opposite viewpoints.
So what Masters and Johnson suggested was that you could get people to counteract some of these dysfunctions if you could just get people to look at sex as a natural function. The reason it's deceptively difficult is, you can have two kids grow up in the same family. Theoretically the same heredity, the same genes, the same environment. One will think masturbation is the dirtiest, lowest, most infantile thing you can do and another will do it every day, maybe more than once a day, and have no hang ups at all. Masters and Johnson say that it's not religion, per se, but the perception. Again, the interpretation that a person puts on it. So it's not the religion directly that affects how people get into these hang ups, it's the way they perceive the religion. Just like I thought that if I masturbated, I was displeasing God. God was actually displeased if I masturbated. I was doing something to offend him. That was my perception. But I have other friends who never thought that. It never occurred to them that it was wrong or sinful or bad. They just did it and enjoyed it. No hang ups whatsoever. But me, I would take purification baths. I'd run a bubble bath and do it, then get in the bath and promise that I'd never do it again and wash myself and get all the sins away. And then, of course, I'd wake up the next morning with a boner and start all over and be unclean for the rest of the day.
Sean: You just need to time it better. Do it right before sunset. That way you're only unclean for an hour or so.
Ben Akerley: But something very, very important in this discussion is that part of the enjoyment of sex is when it is nasty, when it is dirty, when it is sinful, when it is taboo, you get a great sense of exhilaration when you break that taboo and you break that code and you're doing something that you know is nasty. That's why, in the Victorian society, pornography was everywhere. Prostitution was everywhere. The minute you suppress something on the one hand… human nature is human nature. You try to suppress on the one hand and you can't. You can't suppress it. It's gonna break out on the other hand. In this country, we have more X-rated video channels, X-rated bibles, X-rated everything than any country that is not Puritanical. It's a cause and effect kind of thing. You create the forbidden fruit, and everybody wants the forbidden fruit because it's forbidden. Robert Ingersoll said, "Banish me from the Garden of Eden, but first let me taste of that apple from the tree of knowledge."
Sean: Well, sure, because the whole time of Anthony Comstock [fundamentalist crusader whose "Committee for the Suppression of Vice" led to the outlawing of contraception or contraceptive information in 1870] was also the time of Ingersoll and Emma Goldman being jailed for speaking about contraception and Elizabeth Cady Stanton saying that religion was the greatest sin against the women's liberation movement. All of these people came as a reaction to the power of puritans like Comstock.
Ben Akerley: Oh sure. And I have to say, even I, as a gay man, have trouble seeing the very close connection between the right for reproductive freedom and the right for gay rights. You see, gays have been demonized for the very same reason that birth control is demonized: because it's non-procreative. Gays don't do anything that heterosexuals don't do. Gay sex is no different - except for the orifice and the gender of the partner - than what straight people do. And, of course, when you look at the primary function of sex as procreation rather than pleasure - which is really what it should be - then you have the same reason to demonize birth control. Margaret Sanger had to go to jail nine times simply because she thought women should have the right to control their reproductive lives. And gays and advocates of birth control, both issues have been demonized because they're non-procreative. Margaret Sanger had the balls to say to a priest who was railing against her at a meeting of birth control advocates back in New England somewhere; she looked at him and said, "What could be more unnatural and un-normal, Father, than you a celibate?" She had the balls to say that to a Catholic priest. So you can tell that she wasn't very popular.
Sean: Speaking of unpopular women, who first published The X-Rated Bible?
Ben Akerley: Madalyn Murray O'Hair. I gave her the manuscript after many, many publishers had rejected it. In her typical fashion she said, "I'll publish the goddamn thing." That's verbatim. And for a woman who was never very generous with praise, as she went through my chapter titles, "In the Beginning, There Was Incest," "Onan's Fatal Orgasm," "King David Flashes His Royal Penis," she said, "Ben Akerley, I don't know how you thought up so many great titles." She didn't often praise anybody, but she did think I had some winners in there. Since I was trying to use the same tabloid approach that the National Enquirer and Star use to sensationalize things because it is sensational. Very sensational, affecting all our lives the way it does.
Sean: How was your relationship with Madalyn Murray O'Hair?
Ben Akerley: It was one of great admiration at first, because, as you know, when we find someone who we look up to as a hero or heroine, we hate to think that they have feet of clay. We hate to think that they have any faults. And so initially it was almost a worshipful attitude. When I read in Playboy about religion as a crutch, I said to myself, I have to meet that woman. And initially we corresponded. Finally, I met her in person. I joined her group [the American Atheist Organization]. And since I was on the faculty at USC at that time and we had a series called Great Issues Forum, I was able to get her invited to USC to speak. The subject of her talk was "Freedom from Religion." And she stood up there and said, "You know, the government needs religion and religion needs government. They feed on each other and they thrive on each other. Because, after all, if you can be taught to believe in a virgin birth, you can also be taught to believe in the Federal Reserve System." And it knocked everyone in the audience on their ears. Here's this grandmotherly figure with gray hair and her granny glasses spouting things like that. I admired her so much that, when Sherry Lewis of Lambchop fame - who, by the way, was an atheist and her husband was an atheist - her husband had his own publishing company and he had invited Madalyn to write a book based on freedom from religion. So I went to Texas in 1972 and I helped her do research to get the book ready. And my assignment was birth control. That's when a light went off. Because the more I learned about birth control, the more I saw the same issues that I as a gay man was suffering through: "you can't practice birth control. That's abnormal. That's unnatural. That's against nature." The very same argument that I'd heard all my life about gay sex. So the light went on and I began to see how similar these two issues were as far as being free and as far as realizing that people who are religious are illogical. If a man has an average of 5000 orgasms in a lifetime, and if the average family is two children, what's the ratio of two to 5000? I mean, it's pretty miniscule. So this whole idea that the primary purpose of sex is procreation? Kinsey - also a doctor at USC who I admired greatly - had a wonderful statement, "An unnatural sex act is a sex act that would be impossible to perform. That's the definition of unnatural sex." Because if it exists, it's natural. So that helped an awful lot.
Again, here's how this blind spot affects people. Here's Madalyn O'Hair, an atheist, no hang ups about religion, saying, "Ben Akerley, I have no problem with you being gay. I have no problem with gays at all. The only thing that bothers me is that they spend so goddamn much time cruising." She had no problem with the sex part. She just knew that gay guys are a lot more active than straight guys - a lot more sex partners, a lot more hunting, a lot more finding. And that's the only thing that bothered her - that so much time was involved and I could've been dedicating that time to the atheist cause and research.
When I was at USC, we had a gay liberation forum, and I'll never forget this woman sitting there and listening. Morris Kight was there, who's one of the premiere gay rights activists, now eighty-one years old but still very active, and he was talking about homosexuality. He said, "Well, you have to understand that gay sex is a form of pleasure and it's just wonderful to indulge without any consequences, without any worries." This woman's face got tighter and wilder and she said, "Do you mean to say that we have the right to pursue hedonism? Pleasure for it's own sake?" And Morris Kight said, "Yes. Isn't it wonderful?" She was hoping that he would back off a little. She almost had to be carried out of there. She couldn't believe that anybody would say that pleasure would be a legitimate end. And that's as anti-Puritan as you can get.
The man who covered the Scopes trial in 1925 for the Baltimore Sun was H.L. Mencken. Here's his definition of a Puritan: "A Puritan is a person with a terrible fear that someone, somewhere is having a good time." Nobody will ever come up with a better definition. I defy anyone to come up with a better definition. Mencken was right on.
Also, Darrow said, as far as our importance in the universe, "We are a speck on a speck." I love that statement because, in the overall big picture, this little planet in this great big solar system is just a speck. And with six billion people on the earth, every one of us is just a speck, also. Stephen Jay Gould talks about cosmic arrogance. By that, he means that we like to think that we are important in the overall scheme of things. In reality, humanity has only been around a very short time. He gives three metaphors. Humanity vis-ŗ-vis the length of time the Earth has been here, if you take the top on the Eiffel Tower, the layer of paint on the top is humanity, and the whole Eiffel tower is the history of the Earth. If you take a mile, the last few inches represent humanity, and the rest of the mile is the history of the Earth. And if you take a year, humanity is the last few minutes of the year, and the whole rest of the year is the history of the Earth. And when you have a Bible that tells you there's a heavenly father counting every hair on your head, and that this is a special creation of that heavenly father, that supreme, divine being, that's cosmic arrogance.
Sean: Were you still a professor at USC when you published The X-Rated Bible?
Ben Akerley: No, not published it. I started working on it. When I read Ingersoll's statement about the thousand dollars to any minister and no one took him up on it, I thought to myself, if Ingersoll sat down and picked out everything he could pick out of the Bible to take to that minister, what would he have chosen? And that was my basic criterion. I chose the passages that I thought Ingersoll probably would've had the most fun with, and that was kind of like the inspiration. So the seeds were planted.
But it really happened at USC that we tried to form a gay liberation forum. This was now '72, the Stonewall Riots - remember the beginning of gay liberation - was 1969. So, by '72 at USC, like everywhere else in the country, they were starting to have gay groups. And the trustees had to go into a secret meeting because they were so afraid that John Wayne and all his macho glory, and Tommy Trojan would suddenly get a limp wrist on his statue on the campus. They were so worried about their image among trustees and alumni and all that, they felt that, if they had a secret ballot, than nobody could accuse any individual on the board of trustees of condoning this bunch of campus queers. So somebody wrote a letter to the Daily Trojan, a campus crusade for Christ young man, saying, "The trustees should condemn this group and forbid it on campus because the Bible condemns homosexuality." So I sat down at my typewriter and wrote a little article called, "Sex in the Bible." And I said that this young man had tunnel vision because, if you're going to condemn homosexuality on the basis of what the Bible says, then you're also going to have to condemn fornication, meaning having any kind of sex before you're married, adultery, loss of virginity, sex with animals, and there's a pretty big spectrum there. When I did the article, which was only like one page in the Daily Trojan, it made me feel that I had enough for a full-length book. And I went from there.
Sean: How did the trustees resolve the situation?
Ben Akerley: They finally resolved it with the threat of a lawsuit. That's exactly what they wanted, because if they could say they were forced to recognize the group, then they were all off the hook and their image was fine and John Wayne wouldn't come down and Tommy Trojan's limp wrist could go back into the macho pose. The day was saved when we threatened a lawsuit and they realized they had to recognize us. It's funny. It's just like the argument today. The argument today is that gays want special rights when in reality, all they want is equal rights. At USC, all we wanted was a little box at the student union building, like every other campus group, so we could get mail. And we'd have an office. And that's all. We weren't asking for any special consideration. We just wanted what every other campus group gets. But, of course, it was looked at as a sex club.
For what it's worth, when the Salt Lake Board of Education was so opposed to a gay/straight alliance on the campus of the high school in Salt Lake City where that young lesbian wanted to start one, she was flabbergasted and she told reporters - because everybody said, "All they want to do is get together and talk about sex," - she said, "I looked at it as a suicide prevention club." And when somebody asked me what answer he could take down to the board of trustees in Orange County where they were debating whether to let that straight/gay alliance go at Medina High School in Orange county, I said, "Tell the trustees that the blood of gay teenagers who commit suicide at that school will be on their hands." That's what I told him to tell the board.
In Salt Lake, again a typical Puritan reaction, rather than let the gay/straight alliance go, they cancelled all extracurricular clubs. Typical Puritan reaction. That's how convoluted the Puritanical, anti-sexual mind is. It's like you open the floodgates and all the sudden there's a tsunami wave rushing in and you're all swept away. Once you allow a crack and Satan gets his foot and pitchfork in the door…
Sean: Did you experience any professional backlash when you were trying to start this group at USC?
Ben Akerley: Well, you see it was a campus group and campus groups can only have faculty members as advisers. So what started as a campus group had to be initiated and run by students. So all they need was somebody to be an adviser. I was just an observer. They were able to get one of the ministers as the advisers. It actually worked out very well because he was liberal and all that and he gave a little cache to the group that not everybody in there was bent. Severely bent.
Sean: Were you a fairly controversial teacher at USC?
Ben Akerley: I was in the American Language Institute and my job was teaching English to foreign students. So most foreign students didn't know what gay meant. And I don't know if you're aware of this, but almost every faculty of every major university in the country has a high percentage of gay people. So there was really no ruckus about that. We were free to do pretty much whatever we wanted. My boss was gay. His boss was straight but liberal. There was a lot of support from all of the university.
Sean: Did you experience any personal backlash when you first published The X-Rated Bible?
Ben Akerley: I was pretty well cushioned because that first edition was only available through mail order or at atheist conventions or book sales. Mainstream bookstores wouldn't carry titles from American Atheist Press [the first publisher of The X-Rated Bible]. It would be too controversial or not sell enough or whatever. Yet the book sold more than any other book that American Atheist Press ever sold. Which isn't saying a lot, because they never published a lot of books. But when Adam Parfrey [head of Feral House, the current publisher of The X-Rated Bible] finally got a hold of it and told me it would be available for every bookstore, that was great for me. Once he realized that the Murray O'Hairs were probably dead and the contract I had with them was null and void and he wanted to bring out a much more modern,