My 24-Hour Sleepover With a Sex Therapist at Her Ape-Inspired Commune
Welcome to Bonoboville, where Susan Block (and her flock) lead a lifestyle inspired by our sex-loving cousin, the bonobo
Max was exactly where I’d left him. Thirteen evenings ago to the hour, the man in the captain’s hat had ushered me into a Lyft Line, and now here he was again. I pointed to his anchored posture and my driver U-turned around four vacant lanes of West L.A. traffic to drop me off in a time warp. Like before, Max opened my door and boomed an orotund hello from his barrel chest. I asked him if he’d been waiting for me, and he said no. He was just out there, standing before his home, a 20-room former motel, now “a kind of halfway house,” where friends, lovers and the occasional porn actor, lived in intimate commune, and where, for the next 24 hours, I would too.
“Across the street,” Max immediately started detailing the same neighborhood highlights he had two weeks ago, “That’s a top hip-hop recording studio.” A pride of black Escalades parked outside corroborated the claim. “And over there,” to our right: “That’s one of L.A.’s oldest speakeasies,” Max said. “Sometimes we go after the show.”
Every Saturday night, from 10:30 to midnight Pacific Standard Time, a live, unscripted sex-oriented talk show called the “Dr. Susan Block Show” streams from a so-called “Womb Room” in Max’s motel home. “Brothers and sisters, lovers and sinners, artists and exhibitionists, voyeurs and connoisseurs,” a sinuous voice introduces it. “Welcome to the greatest sexuality show on Earth.” The show’s namesake is its sole mainstay, star and host: Dr. Susan Block, aka Dr. Suzy, who is also Max’s spouse. Married since 1992, they’ve been collaborating even longer, with him supporting her public persona — that is: sexy, smart and relatively obscure.
“I’m a little bit famous,” says Dr. Block, now 61. Meaning: She’s occasionally recognized at the grocery store, she has 26.3K followers on Twitter, and she speaks by invitation for the elite and the New Age alike — UC-Berkeley to Laguna Beach public radio. Her speciality is sex therapy. With a Ph.D. in philosophy from unaccredited Pacific Western University (now part of the accredited for-profit California Miramar University) and a honorary doctorate from the unaccredited Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, her professional nomenclature is somewhat misleading, or playful — as an undergrad at Yale, Susan studied theater.
“The Dr. Susan Block Show” is theatrical: campy, hippy, bawdy. Block plays a therapist comme madame cum call girl prone to puns and left-bent political digressions. It’s a believable bit, or well-rehearsed: Suzy’s been doing it since 1984. First on the radio, then public access cable TV, a short-lived HBO special, and now — “The Dr. Susan Block Show” is a subscription-based web broadcast and archive (for $7.95 a month, members get access to over 200 old episodes, plus the new one every week).
True to its latest medium, the internet, the show is more pornographic than ever. When I sat in on a filming, I got to watch a young individual named Jay Toriko perform auto-fellatio, and see off-screen porn-star fuck buddies Eric John (46) and Maya Kendrick (20) boff on-screen for the first time. All the while Block, who rarely gets nakeder on-air than her uniform of push-up bras and string panties, commentated, egging on the action.
“And now the panties are coming off,” she narrated into her sportscasters headset mic. “And they are fragrant. And they are coming off a beautiful organic yoni with a lovely bush. This is very popular these days, by the way, the full beautiful bush.”
I found Dr. Suzy and Max on Craigslist’s “writing/ editing” listings. Their work/trade offer stood out among the garbage heap of calls for under- or unpaid beauty bloggers, in-house assistants to male executives and copywriters for holistic, health and natural products. In exchange for 24 hours of editing and writing help per week, Block and co. would offer an estimated $1,400 worth of housing, food and amenities in a convenient part of LA, plus the opportunity to learn from Block, a behatted blonde with boastful cleavage and author of The Bonobo Way: The Evolution of Peace Through Pleasure.
The self-published polemic promotes the bonobo, an endangered Congoan great ape famed for its bi- and hypersexuality, as a role model for human relations (including “The 12 Steph to Releasing Your Inner Bonobo.”)
Block’s online presence was labyrinthine. Not only did every project of hers have a distinct URL, she hosted a deep archive (“Educating, Agitating, Stimulating & Celebrating on the Internet since 1996”), and was on Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and Pinterest, every platform echoing similar content: hashtag-heavy copy plus pics of Block with naked or fetish or Burner-garbed bods, often in front of an arboreal batik sheet.
She wore a tone-changeable uniform of bustiers, stocking, scarves, platforms, and hats. Always a hat. British monarchical hats. African-American church hats. Pretty Woman hats. Cowboys. What inspired me to write to Dr. Block was her look, for one; the monkey business, for two; her post-911 “Terror Journals,” coquettish anti-war diatribes with titles like “Bush’s P.O.W. Porn”, for three. While my travel plans precluded me from working at Bonoboville, the Blocks invited me to spend a night — which I how I came to watch someone suck their own cock, or try to.
It was flaccid and that could’ve been awkward, had Dr. Suzy not been so cool. She had Maya stroke DIY Jay, as Shannon Coronado, a Bonoboville regular who’s stacked like Tomb Raider, stood before him, fully dressed. “Jay loves Shannon,” Susan later explained. When that still didn’t flood Jay’s corpus cavernosum with blood, Dr. Block called for an intermission. “We’re going to be taking some breaks to hear from our corporate overlords,” she announced ominously.
After an ad for the Sybian, a hands-free masturbation tool for women (you mount it) and one for Block’s own book, we returned to the show, to Maya sucking Eric John’s cock, renowned for its capacity to splooge “up to 14 times in one shoot,” then to him going down on her, to her toes in his mouth, to his member in her barely legal, and then an audience member named Ikkor the Wolf joined in. He started rap-narrating Eric’s thrusts (pump dat pump dat) and Maya’s moans (in Bonoboville, she lookin real, make her feel) until, she claimed, she came. Meanwhile, I was slurping cold prawn from a cocktail ring Max had just served.
The shrimp cocktail was the icing on my cake of retro delight. Anemoia: nostalgia for a time you’ve never known. Mine is hippiedom. Peace and free love, Situationism and psychedelia. Bonoboville embodies many of the flower childish ideals I’ve long longed for. “SEX FUN WISDOM” and “Communal Ecstasy” the pink poster reads, between two larger-than-lifesize Suzies in a peace-sign-print belly-top. I sat before them the morning after the show, reviewing my notes, already stoned.
Bella Doll Bonobo — my next-door roommate in the motel’s northwest corner — had offered to smoke me out soon as I rose. Bella, who bios herself on Twitter as a “photographer, multimedia producer, writer, marketing & PR guru, model, cancer survivor, mom & then some” (she does porn) had been living on the Block compound, “since May or June, I think.” I would’ve thought longer, given her comfortable posture. She lounged in the courtyard garden like she owned the place, or did at least by proxy. There’s a contagious air of irreverence, ease, and respect chez Bonoboville that I associate with the homes of friends who still live with their “cool parents.”
When Max descended around 11 a.m., he accepted Bella’s green offering. Though he’s turning 73 on Election Day, Max still tokes like it’s a rebel act — and like he’s been doing it for decades, sucking in hard with an arch grin and wide teen-meets-tits eyes. (A few hours later, I’d smoke with Suzy, who kept the joint from her lips, bonging the thing with a cupped fist.) If Suzy’s persona is Mama Monkey meets Professor Porn, Max’s is an Outlaw Mad Man. Or, as he put it: “I’m an old retired hippie.”
The first story Max ever told me was of his incarceration over “conspiracy to distribute obscenity.” From 1972 to his arrest in 1982, Prince Maximillian Rudolph Leblovic di Lobkowicz di Filangieri (Max claims to come from Italian-Czech aristocratic stock), aka Mickey Leblovic (his then pen name), co-ran a bundle of underground magazines, among them the LA Star, Finger, Love, Hate, and God. All of these were reader-made. People of all ages sent in their selfies, amateur porn and fantasy stories and Max published them all — with no editorial interference. Some stuff that made it through: scat porn, bloody masochism, and a picture of a dead fetus. “We made sure to include all typos,” Max said. He was “in the business of revolution.”
“It’s important for couples to have common interests,” says Susan. “One of ours is radical politics.” When they first met, in 1984, shortly after Max was released from prison, it was “our antiwar sentiments that united us.” One of their first collaborations was “Desert Susan,” a series of tapes Max and Suzy produced and distributed to U.S. troops deployed in the Gulf War. Featuring music and “make love not war” monologues, it was erotic peacenik propaganda, not unlike Block’s ongoing show: On a recent episode, a Donald Trump costumed man is paddled and gagged by Suzy and a dominatrix guest, Mistress Tara, who’s running for president.
Now, it was morning, and Max, Bella and I were smoking a top-shelf medicinal, and high theorizing: “There’s two political systems,” Max espoused, Leo-season sun showering our crowns. “There’s the Monarchy, and there’s the Anarchy. The Monarchy are those in power. They’ve been in forever. They own so much wealth, they’re not getting out of power. And then there’s the Anarchists. The Anarchists are the guys trying to overthrow the Monarchists.” I was about to challenge this romantic dichotomy when all 90-or-so pounds of Dr. Block pitter-pattered out of her upstairs bedroom.
Leaning over the balcony that framed our seats in the garden, she asked if anybody would like some coffee. I said I could do with another, and Max agreed: “If you’re making,” he said. “I’d like a cup.” As Max went back to his monologue, I watched Susan watch us. A few immobile minutes later, she went, wryly, “Nooooo, I’m not making.” At which, “Oh!” Max bounced cartoonishly out of his seat, sing-songing: “I’ll be right there, sweetie.”
Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal, author of Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape (1997) and The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates (2013), has described “bonobo society” as a “gynecocracy,” or matriarchy. “Female-centered and egalitarian,” he writes, “[the species] substitutes sex for aggression.” In the latter text, de Waal quips that “the French call them ‘Left Bank chimpanzees,’” and quotes, in passing, “an American therapist, Susan Block, who teaches ‘The Bonobo Way of Peace Through Pleasure,’ which seems an appropriate slogan, given that, apart from our own species, no other animal is as much into sex as the bonobo.”
Tongue kissing. Oral Sex. Group Sex. Face-to-face genital sex. Doggy style. Penis fencing. Feedism. And genito-genital (GG) rubbing, which is like short-burst, high-speed scissoring. Female on female. Male on male. Male and female. Adult and juvenile. Bonobos fuck a lot, at least in captivity, where they’ve been most closely studied. Funding for field research is limited, as bonobos were only recently discovered, c. 1954; and because their home, the Congo, is politically awry; and also maybe, as Dr. Block suggests, perhaps prestige institutions don’t want to fund research on an animal with a reputation for sexual extremes.
Dr. Susan Block first encountered bonobos on TV in 1993, a year after she wed her “Prime Mate, as I call him,” Max. Watching the apes on screen, she writes in The Bonobo Way, “I felt like I’d rediscovered long-lost relatives who, unlike my own rather uptight clan, knew how to party hardier than the swingest swingers in Swingtown.” She recognized her ideals — of “ethical hedonism,” or “hedonic kindness,” as she was then preaching them (years before the publication of The Ethical Slut) — in bonobo action.
Because it’s not just love the bonobos are known for; they are also one of the most peaceful primates in our so-called kingdom. While bonobos exhibit aggression over resources, they don’t kill each other in the style of their closest extant relatives, men. In part, it’s because they de-escalate and circumvent violence via the exchange of sexual pleasure. “A jealous male might chase another away from a female, after which the two males reunite and engage in scrotal rubbing,” writes de Waal. “Or after a female hits a juvenile, the latter’s mother may lunge at the aggressor, an action that is immediately followed by genital rubbing between the two adults.”
Perhaps the most striking collective expression among the bonobo is what poet Adrienne Rich called, in 1979, “the most feared, the most problematic, and the most potentially transforming force on the planet… the connections between and among women.” In a recent article in The New York Times, several primatologists, among them Nahoko Tokuyama, of the Primate Research Institute at Kyoto University in Japan, and Amy Parish, from the University of Southern California, detail the “constructed sisterhood” of female bonobo society. Unrelated by blood due to migratory patterns, female bonobos still care for one another like an army of lovers. They GG-rub regularly, and to counter male physical dominance, female bonobos gang up: If a larger, stronger male bonobo provokes one of them, a coalition of two or more females will band together, howling and hitting him off, and then, Suzy told me, “they may even gangbang the bad boy.” This, she shared with a gum-baring conspiratorial nod and grin.
“Why are you writing about these losers?” Legs McNeil, a music journalist and historian of porn, asked me. Andrew Richardson said the same thing. I reached out to Richardson when I learned that he, a fashionable porn publisher and street wear brander (Richardson is his moniker), had amassed a maybe-singular archive of Max’s magazines (most were seized by the FBI). He’d also featured Max in the one issue of Richardson I happened to have: 2012, Belladonna’s on the cover.
In that issue, author Owen Campbell suggests that arrests like Max’s were pivotal in L.A. County’s establishing legal regulations on pornography, which sparked a boom in local production from the 1980s to 2000s. In person, Richardson pinned it all on Max: “This is how I understand it,” he said, pink Brit lips sipping on lime-green American Spirits. “The reason so much porn is made in Los Angeles is because he went to jail for obscenity in the late ‘70s.” Which led me to McNeil, who checked Richardson’s fact in the negative: “Hal Freeman was more responsible,” he spat. “Read my book. And anyway, why are you writing about…”
Between them, McNeil and Richardson called Max and Suzy con artists, skeeve artists, grifters, insular, uncredible, irrelevant, hungry and vampiric.
Richardson questioned the ethics of reporting on what he called their “disenfranchisement.” We were seated on a balcony on the top floor of his friend Dov Charney’s Silver Lake mansion, overlooking a good half of Los Angeles. Max and Suzy’s pad was down there somewhere, literally: down-and-out.
To Andrew’s “why?,” I replied that I’m interested in what happened to the sexual revolution and to the potential of communal living. He agreed that Max’s early work was fascinating: “It’s like a zine of the Kinsey Report,” he said of the reader-made mags. “Like a document of America’s sexual revolution before people were concerned about the brand.”
To McNeil, I just said, they’re interesting. “You must’ve lived a very sheltered life if these people are interesting to you,” he replied, and I concurred. My parents left L.A. the year, Dad says, “people starting shooting up highways for no apparent reason.” I was in utero. I was raised in the relative peace and quiet of Canada, ogling over the border via media. The other story is that my parents couldn’t afford to give birth to me in the States, which is another reason I’m interested in Max and Suzy — money and alternative measures of value, wealth and resources.
The reason bonobos are so peaceful, primatologists believe, has to do with where they live. The Congo basin, where the species developed, is marked by abundance; there’s more than enough small game, greens and fruit to go around. With its communal meals, open bar and ample herbage (all you can smoke), Bonoboville mimics such conditions. It may not be luxury by Richardson’s standards, but it feels safe, respectful and calm, which is more than enough for many.
“I get the people who are sexually challenged due to their narcissism to help fund everything,” Dr. Block explained, half-kidding, the first time we met. Two trips into Bonoboville, Max showed me the books and a deposit slip for a $13,000 donation they’d received that week. “It costs about 30K a month to run this place,” which they clear through donations and phone therapy.
Dr. Block charges a few hundred an hour. Other therapists are cheaper. If I lived-in, I could practice too. Would I be trained? …not really. Therapy, at the Dr. Susan Block Institute for the Erotic Arts and Sciences, often comes, like her show, with an invitation to cum, depending on which “therapist” you access. Amateurs like myself are welcome, as in pornography, which may be, Dr. Block remarked, “the only industry where a lack of experience is desirable.”
“It’s about 50/50,” Susan told me, when I asked her how much of her calls were straight therapeutic versus erotic. “Sometimes we’ll be talking about serious sexual problems and it’ll cross over into an erotic fantasy. We go back and forth and all around. The erotic theater of the mind is a multiplex.” Most of Block’s clients are straight cis men; she estimates that cis women, trans people and couples claim another 2 to 3 percent each of her market share. Many of them are what you could consider her political rivals: conservatives, media and tech magnates, a dentist to the royal family of Saudi Arabia. Rich, busy power players. The chimps to her bonobo.
“Lots of these privileged classes are abusing and oppressing marginalized people and women,” Block says. But: “They are paying, so I don’t talk politics all the time. I’m trying to help individuals as a therapist.” She will share beliefs like, “Pleasure heals pain, and doing good feels good.” And she encourages callers to abide by, “the golden rule: Do not do unto others, as you would not have them do unto you.”
“She actually helps them,” London, one of Block’s “bonobos in residence” told me. London is from the UK, an actor a month into LA. She work/trades as a receptionist, dispatching incoming therapy calls. “I had no idea people suffered so much,” she said. “The men who call in, often they call in a panic. And she really helps them.”
In the same kitchen where we had that conversation — where there’s almost always a pot of food heating, and a table spread with delights, like two-bite brownies, below a pirate flag that puns “Surrender the Booty” — I asked Block if she’d met her ambitions. To me, she has the makings of a star: 32–22–30, by my estimate. She looks like an IRL Carrie Bradshaw. A Yale graduate. Charismatic. She can quote Georges Batailles, detail Leopold II’s brutal colonial legacy and joke about her hubby’s post-bladder-cancer lack of emissions. New York Times bestseller Christopher Ryan, co-author of Sex at Dawn, is a fan. Ditto Ron Jeremy, and feminist icon Betty Dodson: “Susan is an excellent writer,” Dodson told me, “a good thinker, and her sexual politics are right on. But she looks like a floozy.”
On the phone, Dodson chided me for my “femme-y, weak voice.” “Speak up girl!” she commanded. “You’re important.” As if one can’t be soft-spoken and important, femme and strong. These are dated double standards, which Dr. Susan Block’s been challenging for decades. Sexier than your average academic, smarter than porn’s status quo, she’s a renegade leader of a matriarchal, swinging sex collective, who also happens to be happily married to a man, her “Prime Mate.”
Their next media venture will help you “find a Prime Mate” too. Bonoboville.com is a social networking site where members can find each other to party and date—but once you have your Prime Mate, you can only go back to Bonoboville to visit, not to live.
“Couples can be harmful to community,” Block explains. “Conflicts become bigger, as couples defend each other.” When bonobos fall in love, they move on from Bonoboville. The anarchy of other lovers threatens the order. Suzy and Max stay in charge of their motel jungle.