Different Strokes

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Different Strokes by David Weisberg


Decades before the Internet or adult cable TV, about the only place a suburban boy could get a good look at breasts was in the pages of National Geographic. While the latest James Bond movie might momentarily whip up my little libido, it was only from the depths of equatorial Africa or New Guinea (via the magazines in my dentist’s office) that the female body lay open for my prolonged fantasy. Little did I know that, as I was waiting to get my teeth drilled, I was being inculcated into the eroticized power dynamic of Western global hegemony.


Which brings us to Tobias Schneebaum: explorer, artist, sexual daredevil — a man who devoted his life to trekking to the remotest areas of the earth, from the Amazon to New Guinea, at great personal risk, with one overriding ambition: to live amongst and have sex with people whose way of life is as distant as could be from our own. The difference — and it’s a crucial one — is that these were men. The kind of men after whom, he claims, he has lusted ever since he was a gawky Jewish kid growing up during the depression in the Bronx. The New York–based, seventy-eight-year-old Schneebaum has written four fascinating books about his adventures, and a documentary film about his singular life, Keep The River On Your Right, will be released this month.


I spoke with Schneebaum last summer in his small Greenwich Village apartment, crammed full of tribal art from the Asmat region of Irian Jaya (now part of Indonesia): shields, amulets, spirit figures and decorated skulls. Hanging amongst the artifacts are dozens of framed photographs: dark-skinned men, with sharp bones and bamboo plugs stuck through their noses and ears, smiling, standing in canoes or in front of the curtain of forest, all of them sleek and beautiful, naked and facing the camera.


“I can’t bear it,” Schneebaum told me when I asked him what compelled him to journey so far at such risk. “When I see the wild man, I get the shakes. I’m serious. There’s something so attractive, so erotic, that I can’t help but go look for it. Someone, what’s his name . . . ” He pauses, grimacing in frustration at his powers of recall slightly dulled by his late age. It’s a bit unnerving to sip coffee with a man whose thinning silver hair and nasal Bronx accent remind me of a spry, elderly relative, and hear him speak of the unbearable sexual yearning occasioned by the sight of an Asmat man’s naked ass as he stands up to pole a canoe. “Someone, he writes travel books, he wrote a review in which he says I’m not aware of the fact that I’m suicidal. That it’s the driving force behind my whole life. Maybe there’s something in that. I don’t know. I don’t want to know.”


Over the years, Schneebaum’s truthfulness has been regularly called into question, and in fact there are exaggerations and distortions within his memoirs, as he himself acknowledges. Particularly controversial were his claims of having participated in an act of cannibalism. But lately the pendulum has swung, with recent anthropological discoveries confirming the existence of such practices, and the new documentary (directed by siblings Laurie Gwen Shapiro and David Shapiro) showing Schneebaum as he journeys back to the tribe where he once lived, greeting old lovers and friends. Over the years, Schneebaum has been called a narcissist, a charlatan, a great autobiographer in the manner of Rousseau and a lyrical commentator on modern man’s primal urges. But most of all, he’s been accused of being a sexual adventurer whose life and work naively reproduce the notion of the “noble savage.” To my mind, this analysis ignores the central fact of his life, his homosexuality — or, to be more specific, Schneebaum’s preference for “rough trade,” a desire that has a long tradition among gay men. He wanted not conquest but simply sex with strangers, as foreign and dangerous-seeming as possible.


For centuries, since the first seafaring European explorers glimpsed dark, naked bodies on the palm fringed shoreline, the Western imagination has been repulsed and fascinated by “the sexual lives of savages” (the title of Malinowski’s famous 1929 ethnography of the Trobriand Islands). By the mid-nineteenth century, Christian missionaries’ condemnation of what was perceived as the original sins of tribal peoples — orgies, incest, wife-swapping, that sort of thing — was giving way to anthropological speculation about how and why tribal folks could let it hang all out, even in front of family members. And the more the secularized West obsessed over its own sexual neuroses, the more the “primitive” appeared to be a resource for liberation. The early decades of the last century produced a spate of cultural works that popularized the image of the supposedly freewheeling tribal erotic, from Josephine Baker’s faux-ritualistic nude dancing to Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa to Freud’s bizarre Totem and Taboo, which pinpoints the origin of the civilizing impulse in the savage adolescent’s desire to have sex with his father’s harem.


The 1990s clamped down on all this nonsense. With some justification, historians made a case for how and why this centuries-old eroticization of the primitive made conquest seem sexy. We were chastised for projecting our pent-up desires on the bodies of powerless strangers. The turn-on of those taut, bead-waisted nude beauties — a turn-on no doubt enhanced for me by the edgy apprehension of the dentist’s drill — ought now to be a source of shame.


Schneebaum doesn’t appear to share this requisite sense of shame. His obsession is with hunter-gatherer men, preferably ones who traditionally have practiced cannibalism, men with whom he could only communicate in grunts and gestures. His odyssey began in the jungles of Peru in the mid-1950s. Until then, he had led the life of a quiet-natured, artistic, gay man in a homophobic world. Lacking the social chutzpah to cavort confidently with the bohemians he had met studying art, he had fallen, in his twenties, into a jealous sexual despair. Haunted by memories of his bullying immigrant father and terrorized by McCarthyism (he was interrogated by the FBI about the commie fags he associated with), he drifted in and out of the art world, traveled to Alaska, joined the Air Force and worked as a messman on ships — until, in 1952, after a one-man exhibit of his paintings in New York, he won a Fulbright scholarship and traveled to Peru, entranced by photos of Machu Picchu.


Despite warnings that no white man could travel there alone, Schneebaum set off on foot for a remote Catholic mission deep in the jungle. For over a year, he was lost to the civilized world. The U.S. Embassy in Lima reported him missing and presumed dead. The mission, a rotting outpost of Christian morality, was run by a senile priest who admonished the tiny group of Indians clustered around him to give up their sinful nakedness and ignorant superstitions. A young Spanish exile, Manolo, also lived at the mission, and he admitted to having had sex with several of the Indian men. “I thought I could love them,” he tells Schneebaum sadly in his first and best known memoir, also titled Keep the River on Your Right and the inspiration for documentary, “but they were only looking for a quick roll in the jungle with the great big white man.”


For Schneebaum, such stories triggered an irresistible compulsion to go further. After hearing a story told by an Indian from a tribe that had had no prior contact with whites — a story filled with cannibalistic violence — Schneebaum was transfixed. A few days later, with nothing but a knapsack and the clothes on his back, he wandered into the bush. “I was cutting away all that I knew about myself, I was removing my own reflection. I did not look for the Indians now; I simply transferred myself toward them. There was no picture in my mind, no ideas of what their reactions might be,” he writes. Some days later, he glimpsed flecks of movement in a clearing along the riverbank. “I made out a group of men, their bodies painted in black and white. Some had match-like sticks through their lower lips, others had bone through their noses. They held bows, long arrows, stone axes. No one moved as I approached — no gesture of hate or love, curiosity or fear. My feet moved, my arm went out automatically, I put a hand easily upon the nearest shoulder and I smiled.” Within seconds, he reports, the men were tearing off his clothes, pinching his ass and weighing his testicles in their hands, poking and laughing at the strange pale thing they had stumbled across. They decided to keep him.


For the next seven months, Schneebaum lived with a group of five men who painted his body, taught him words and how to hunt, fed him insects and monkey flesh and slept with him in a tangled “body pile,” the hard penis of the man next to him pressed against his back. “I went among them as if entering into luxury, the physical pleasure of their touch more gratifying than any pleasure known before.”




Schneebaum’s gentle demeanor and soft, sensitive eyes do not seem like the attributes of a hard-edged thrill seeker. He says that he doesn’t know if he seeks danger or if the risk is merely the price he pays for pursuing his obsession. “I knew they would be receptive, though I don’t know how I knew it,” he told me. When I asked him about the sex he’s had here in New York, his anecdotes had a very different flavor. He told me, for instance, about a longstanding sexual relationship that began when he was in high school, in the 1950s.


“I used to do it on the subway. Boy, if you think the subways are crowded now, you should have seen them fifty or sixty years ago. There was this man, he would be waiting for me at the station. We would enter together and squeeze in so that there was no way of anyone noticing. The cars were so packed you could masturbate someone, or be masturbated, and no one would know. We never talked, we never looked into one another’s eyes.”


Every time he took a piss in a public restroom, he recalled, he was terrified of the cops entrapping him on a trumped-up morals charge. Then there was Sergio, a black man who would stand outside his apartment building and charged ten dollars a fuck. When Schneebaum returned from a trip to South Asia, he heard that Sergio was in prison for manslaughter. “One of his tricks was a coke addict who wanted to be chained. They got so high that they passed out, and when Sergio woke up the guy was handcuffed to the bed, and dead.”


Schneebaum recounted these stories with barely a hitch of emotion. From his perspective, his real life had transpired elsewhere, in the Peruvian jungle. For months, he had lived, hunted and slept with the men of the Akaramas tribe. But his sojourn came to a terrifying climax. In the midst of a hunting trek, the leader had the men form a tight circle. “Michii broke from the circle and stepped inside, the gap closing in the smack of flesh. He held up his penis and began to rub it hard. He walked to the man beside me who was himself half erect, and touched the end of their penises together, then moved from one to another, pressing slightly on each penis with his own, ending up with mine.” Schneebaum didn’t know what to make of this, and before he realized what was happening, he found himself on a raid for human flesh. His friends were crushing people’s heads, impaling them on arrows. He vomited at the sight of blood mixed with feces and hair, but did not run; his friends were laughing, they were victorious. Schneebaum admits that he laughed with them. The male victims were beheaded, gutted, strung up on poles and toted back to the village. Later that night, Michii bit into a piece of roasted heart, chewed and spit it back into his hand, and divvied it up among the warriors, placing a morsel into Schneebaum’s mouth.


Schneebaum panicked and left the tribe soon afterward. He had learned how far he could go to consummate his “need.” Without a word of goodbye, Schneebaum walked away from the mission and wandered days later into a town along the river, dazed and naked, as if emerging from a dream.


For the next twenty-five years, Schneebaum bounced back between New York and the peripheries of globalization, courting sexual fulfillment in India, Burma and Somalia. He took part in a drunken orgiastic festival in a Murut village in Borneo; fucked two Buddhist monks in Mandalay who then filched his wallet; was threatened with homophobic taunts by a knife-wielding truck driver in Ethiopia who later came on to him; and found himself turned on by the repulsive beauty of skin disfigured by ringworm. He sees himself as both “indestructible” and “some half-creature, thin and weak, not frail but vaguely feminine,” whose introspective nature blocked him from complete immersion in the unself-conscious homoeroticism of tribal life.


In 1973, Schneebaum traveled to Asmat, New Guinea. At the time, Asmat was considered one of the remotest places on earth, its people, hunters and gatherers, intensely hostile to outsiders. Rumor had it that Michael Rockefeller, who disappeared there in 1961, was murdered by an Asmat tribe in revenge for the colonial Dutch government’s violent attempts to stamp out traditions of ritualistic headhunting. The anthropologist Gilbert Herdt had come to New Guinea as well to study what he calls “ritualized homosexuality” and the practice of semen ingestion in male initiation rites. But Schneebaum traveled there neither to collect nor study. Instead, over the ten years he lived there, Schneebaum writes in his book Where the Spirits Dwell, he found something akin to sexual bliss.


The Asmat men possess compact muscular bodies and wear elaborate facial adornments of curved fox bones, bamboo nose plugs, shell, seeds and fur. Their nakedness is accentuated by long, conical, rolled-leaf penis sheaths. Upon arriving at a remote, upriver Asmat village, Schneebaum — wearing nothing more than sneakers — was led by a young boy to an elevated thatched house filled with men. His nakedness set him apart from the few whites they had ever seen. When the headman entered, Schneebaum writes, “I stood up and he motioned me to sit down. He stood in front of me, took his penis in both hands and flapped it up and down. The penis was half-erect. He moved even closer and flapped it in front of my nose, almost touching it. I did not know the meaning of this gesture.” Schneebaum knew an Asmat from downriver might suck the penis as part of certain peacemaking ceremonies, or a Dani from the mountains might hold the pair of testicles in greeting. But he was too startled to react, except to smile weakly. The man pulled him up and threw his arms around Schneebaum, apparently satisfied by his reaction. “What would have happened, I wonder, had I shown anger, or opened my mouth and received his penis? I had visions of being forced to fellate the men, one after another.”


As Schneebaum describes it, in Asmat communal life, sex between men functions as a system of personal alliance. The penis is both a mechanism of testing authority and a vital clause in the village’s social contract. Gradually, he was allowed full access to the bisexual activity hidden from outsiders: “They knew I was sympathetic, possibly a participator, and I begin to see that homosexual relations existed everywhere,” he writes. He learned about the mbai, a ritualized sexual relationship between boys that often lasts into adulthood, even after marriage; imu-mu, sex between an adult man and a boy connected to the belief that the continual absorption of semen is necessary for masculine development; and ndoram ata yima, which translates roughly as “I want balance” and signifies how sex between men is never expressed in active and passive roles, but must always be reciprocal.


He began a relationship with a man named Akatpitsjin. It was “the longest continuous sexual relation I’ve ever had with anyone,” Schneebaum told me. “He called me mbai, and everyone in the village knew it, there was no secrecy.” Only the itinerant Catholic teacher was kept in the dark. Schneebaum delighted in the frankness of his new friends. “When one mbai sucks the penis of his friend,” they instructed him, “the two may not part until the friend turns around and sucks his penis. If one enters the ass of another, the other must turn around and enter his ass.” The only thing that surprised Schneebaum was when, after many nights of sex under his mosquito net, Akatpitsjin took him to his wife, to complete the initiation into the mbai relationship. “I failed,” said Schneebaum, “and he consummated the act in my place. His understanding of my dilemma gave me a sense of security I had never felt before.” For the men of this village, Schneebaum claims, the bond of the mbai was stronger than any other interpersonal tie, including marriage.


In his writings, Schneebaum doesn’t exactly idealize these Asmat men (the world of women, he said, remained closed to him): he portrays the men as jealous, vengeful and close-minded as the suffocating world of his Western upbringing. They considered most non-Asmat people subhuman, referred to rival Asmat villages as “shit-eaters” and viewed sexual practices of neighboring groups, such as the Fore people’s initiation rite of piercing the hole of the penis with a thorn and twisting it until semen and blood come out disgusting and bestial. Schneebaum knew that they would never really know him, just as he had little inkling of their lives beyond his external, pleasurable interactions. And, after ten years of immersion, he returned to New York for good.


Although Schneebaum has been attacked by anthropologists and other academics for his ethnographic naïveté, it’s only a short-sighted egghead (my tribe) who can’t see that Schneebaum really has no pretensions of seeking anything but a particular form of homosexual activity, and for little reason beyond his own personal oddities. “I could have done it with anybody without anyone getting angry or upset or nervous,” he told me about his time in Peru. “The men always came together at night, no matter what they did during the day, and slept in the body pile. And in Asmat, I felt like was part of a people, a family.”


What Schneebaum sought in these remote and hauntingly alien places was not some erotic Eden, like Margaret Mead’s Samoa, but merely a positive version of his youthful subway sex. The negative anonymity of the homosexual act, in the midst of a crowd hostile to men fucking men, became, in Peru and Asmat, the welcoming anonymity of fucking men who he would never really know — except in the one way it mattered, the disinterested but connecting closeness of bodies. Or at least that’s my theory. Schneebaum himself gently rebuffs all attempts to rationalize his obsession. “There is some element of all that,” he said when I offered my interpretation, ” but I do not want to understand it. I just want to do it. And now it’s getting late in my life and I’ll never do anything like it again. It was the best sex I’ve ever had. What can I say after that?”



David Weisberg and Nerve.com