by Sam George
It is, by far, the strongest drive in our lives. It pervades our deepest thoughts and dreams with a hot desire that makes it hard, so hard, to concentrate on anything else. This supreme passion, elemental, rampant and, for all our thin veneer of civilized behavior, uncontrollable. For this simple act we will do anything, sacrifice everything in the pursuit of fleeting, potent gratification. Betray lovers, brothers and friends. Cheat, lie, scheme...risk. All for that blinding moment of pleasure: hot, wet and naked. Or wrapped in rubber-we don't care, just so long as we can do it and keep doing it, over and over again.
But the pressure, the relentless pressure, in a culture that has taken this most private moment and turned it into a very public obsession, warping values, turning ours into a world where "hard core" is the new ideal. A false, unrealistic ideal that in its purely graphic depiction has set an almost impossible standard of participation, giving rise to international cult of fantasy. Magazines, videos, the more hard core the better. Full-color, in-your-face, full front-lit super action; don't we all love to watch. And if we can't watch, we call up and get it over the phone.
And yet it's a beautiful thing, this fluid dance of desire, hardly diminished for how its been chronicled. This is accessible romance, a kinetic romance. Whether done alone (a perfectly natural urge) or shared with close friends, it is still the most sublime of couplings, the timeless pattern of attraction, arousal, penetration and release never more eloquent. This passion-this true essence-has, in turn, been reflected back on our culture, marking it in ways no x-rating ever could. Romance that has colored our most creative expression: music, poetry, art and fashion. It has changed the way we look at ourselves, how others look at us; how we regard others. Quite literally, it makes us.
We're talking, of course, about sex. But what, you thought we were talking about surfing? Couldn't blame you if you did, surfing having been, and still the most erotic of all sports. Always has been, historically, philosophically, emotionally and physically wrapped up tight with that other basic human drive, twin serpents on a cultural caduceus which, upon examination, are virtually impossible to separate.
We're not going to even try. Because even the most proprietary look at the sport reveals that surfing isn't just like sex.
Surfing is sex.
IS THAT AN OLO IN YOUR POCKET OR ARE YOU JUST HAPPY TO SEE ME?
400 AD -1920
It's been said that passion comes in waves, and for that we have to thank the ancient Hawaiians-those lusty, liberated, sexually uninhibited Hawaiians. This remarkable culture, having after their long trans-Pacific voyagings found themselves in such fertile climes, took leisure-time activities and turned them into an artform. The most extraordinary thing, however, is that unlike virtually every other culture of the 5th century A.D., Hawaiian men and women played together, and not just in the bed chamber.
"The thatch houses of a whole village stood empty," wrote 19th century Missionary William Ellis, who in his 1831 account Polynesian Researches described the arrival of a new swell. "daily tasks such as farming, fishing and tapa-making were left undone while an entire community-men, women and children-enjoyed themselves in the rising surf and rushing white water."
Key phrase: enjoyed themselves. Keep in mind that it was customary to surf naked in those days, and the erotic affect of all that sun-kissed, exercise-toned, glistening skin, heightened by the stimulation and exhilaration of shared strenuous sport, combined with the Polynesian's inherent sensuality and lack of shame must have been...formidable. Writes cultural anthropologist Ben Finney in his seminal 1966 work Surfing, a history of the ancient Hawaiian sport:
"This equality and sexual freedom added zest to the sport and were important to its widespread popularity. No doubt many a Hawaiian, who on some day didn't feel at all like surfing, found himself paddling for the break line in pursuit of his lady love, knowing full well that if a man and a woman happened to ride the same wave together, custom allowed certain intimacies when they returned to the beach."
'Laying out' on the beach certainly would've had an entire different connotation back then. And had moralities not changed since those amorous times, can you imagine how much more crowded the surf would be today? But changes did occur that rocked the Hawaiian sport of Kings to its foundations, the true nature of which has never been seriously examined until now. To do so is to accept a radically new perception of surfing and its erotic essence.
The affect that the arrival of the white man-most specifically missionaries of various denominations-had on 18th and 19th century Hawaii has been widely discussed, and much lamented. Traditional surfing lore has told us that uptight Calvanists effectively banned the sport along with just about every other frivolity Sandwich Islanders seemed to enjoy. Undoubtedly surfing's permissive atmosphere outraged the pious newcomers. Yet the Puritan devil-dodgers made pains to point out that the white man's God didn't oppose surfing per se.
"The decline and discontinuance of the use of the surfboard, as civilization advances, may be accounted for by the increase in modesty, industry or religion, "claimed the pioneering Calvinist missionary Hiram Bingham in 1847. "without supposing, as some have affected to believe, that missionaries caused oppressive enactments against it."
So it wasn't surfing this new convention sought to rub out, but something of its essence. In an illuminating passage from his surfing text, anthropologist Finney theorizes that in fact it was surfing's erotic elements-the nudity, the co-mingling of sexes and the ensuing sexual freedom-which led to the cultural clampdown and the eventual demise of the sport by the late 19th century.
"With these activities forbidden," he writes. "interest in surfing quickly died. The Hawaiians apparently found little value in the sport when it lacked these attractions. One explanation of the decline admits that 'as the zest of the sport was enhanced by the fact that both sexes engaged in it, when this practice was found to be discountenanced by the new morality, it was felt that the interest in it had largely departed.' Emerson, 1852."
In short, the sport was love-sexy right from the get-go, at its hardest of cores meant to be shared and enjoyed without shame between men and women. Only when they separated the surfing from the sex did they fuck everything up. Or at least try to. Because surfing's sexy self would not be denied, and with its rebirth in the early 20th century-and the beginning of its modern history-it wasn't just the big redwood boards that got stiffer.
Why Do You Think They Called Them Woodies?
During surfing's rebirth in the early 20th century, a very strange thing happened: we got back into the water on our boards, but without the women. Who knows why this is so, other than to understand that by the turn of the century women as a gender suffered much greater cultural suppression in Hawaii, with women's rights everywhere at an all-time low. Regardless, as the Modern Era developed on the shores of Waikiki throughout the 1920s and 30s, a new archetype rose up out of the foam and took its place as the sport's most enduring erotic icon: The Beach Boy.
"Without these remarkable people the island would be nothing. With them, it
is a carnival...in the pursuit of money, they are irresponsible. In the pursuit
of happiness, dedicated. They are perpetual adolescents of the ocean, the playboys
of the Pacific."
--James Michener, Return to Paradise
These tumescent playboys of that Pacific got that way simply because when they stopped paddling out with women, they began paddling out for women. This distinction has defined surfing's sexual seascape ever since; only today, with the rise of the Roxy Girl, has the tide begun to turn back to its original high-water mark (but more on that later.) Unlike more conventional masculine role models, however, surfers were uniquely endowed to wow the babes. For one, they performed virtually naked, "bronzed Mercurys", rippling muscles toned by the sea and kissed by the sun. And straddling their huge, hard, redwood phalluses; how could, say, a baseball player of the same period compare in sex appeal, with his droopy-bottom pantaloons and puny bat. Surfing's sensual climate in both Hawaii and California was further reinvigorated by hunks like Tom Blake, once described by a female friend as "outrageously handsome", who in the first half of the 20th century established himself as the modern sport's first serious eroticist. A collection of Blake photos, published in "Tom Blake: 1922-1932 (Adler Books, 1999) reveals a surf scene literally throbbing with sexual tension and imagery. The famous National Geographic self-portrait of super-buff TB posed against his redwood quiver, each board growing in ascending proportions as if in various stages of arousal, is perhaps surfing's single most potent image. And believe it, the beach boys knew how to use all that wood.
"One beachboy advanced the theory that his profession's success with women had little to do with dark skin, handsome physiques and engaging personalities," wrote Grady Timmons, in a chapter of his 1989 book Waikiki Beachboy titled 'Of Liars and Lovers'.
"The real secret was the water. 'Wahines have a thing about it. Get a woman in the water and something happens. Every woman I ever met wanted to make love in the water. A lady once told me, 'When I was nineteen, you took me tandem. Can you imagine what it was like for me, going to a Catholic school on the mainland, to have a man take me surfing? To lay on top of me, on the back of my legs...skin to skin. In the water.'"
Well, when you put it that way...but as in the decades following the beach boy's Golden Era of the 1930s and 40s the sport flourished beyond Waikiki's lusty shores, the overtly masculine stereotype grew. In "1936-1942 San Onofre to Point Dume" (Adler, 1986) a collection of photos by the late Dr. Don James, there are plenty of sexy photos: surfer guys posed with their planks ala Blake, surfer guys cuddled up with their girls on the beach, said girls dancing hula for their surfer guys, posed alluringly for their surfer guys; not one photo of a girl surfing. It's clear that in the post-WWII surf scene, and with very few exceptions, a women's place was on the beach, preferably laying on a blanket with her...arms opened wide.
This sexual economy was the root, if you'll pardon the expression, of the modern sport's most far-reaching cultural epoch, when in the late 1950s it was made clear that it was really all about getting laid.
To finish reading this article you can purchase Surfer magazine volume 43 #3 at a surfshop or newstand near you.