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The hostesses at the door were handing out neon slips of paper with special instructions written on them:

“Suck your thumb while making eye contact.”

“Undulate pleasingly.”

“Wink.”

Inside Chief Ike’s Mambo Room, as the Second Annual Erotic Art Auction got started, the dance beat throbbed over a soundtrack of orgasmic moans.

Near me, a tamely dressed dude was explaining to his female friend how he had recently sliced off his fingernail while peeling a carrot. “Better file that down,” she said sympathetically.

Around us, dolled-up young salesgirls from Dream Dresser stalked shyly in leather bustiers and 6-inch patent-leather heels through a forest of giant phalli, electronic nipples, and giant dill pickles given out as party favors. Onstage, women pranced in black thongs, thigh-highs, and body stockings. Upstairs, hardly anybody knew what to make of the 8-foot-high walk-through labia.

To work up a sweat for the auction, the Malcolm X Drummers and Dancers chanted and pounded away on traditional instruments. Women whipped into a dance, their arms and legs flying, breasts heaving, rumps shaking—getting everybody in the mood to, ah, bid. Then, in an odd, abrupt shift of mood, the “program de passion” yielded to dancer Maria Greiner, who read “Teste Monial,” a poem by Anne McNaughton extolling the beauty of testicles:

Firm, soft, in hairy sacks…

You see them sometimes when he sits,

wide and unaware,

the hair sparse and wiry,

speckled, with wrinkles

like a prune, but loose.

Thunk. It was one of the more awkward moments of a night soaked in repression unleashed, an instance when this calculated sex feast for the eye crossed the line from radical to ridiculous. It was hard to tell if Greiner was joking or not. Greiner herself wasn’t sure; she later admitted that her gig was kind of an experiment; she wanted to push herself and her work. “You don’t really think of balls as being sexy,” she said. “But I want to see if I could do this in front of strange men. I wanted to give them the feeling of having their body parts looked at and talked about.”

The art at the auction formed a pansexual collection, most cards honored—straight, gay, and bi—but no spanking or S&M. The work was mostly what you would call strictly representational: There was a drawing of Betty Boop’s butt by Felicity Hogan and Michael Clark, a drawing of Popeye with tits, and a grinning papier-mâché penis titled Size Matters by Scott Sims. One mixed-media piece celebrated toe-sucking; in one photomontage by Bob Epstein, a troop of Italian Boy Scouts dreamed of huge, soft breasts.

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But the place wasn’t exactly crawling with collectors. Fewer than half the pieces sold, and most went for less than $100. A large photograph of two people in a tender moment brought $480. Dick Brock, a retired librarian from Adelphi, got the bargain of the evening, buying Dollar Dick, a larger-than-life penis coated in dollar bills by Manon Cleary, for $20.

The event’s organizers seemed nonetheless pleased, concerned less with art deals than with staging a circus of sex therapy in a city that needs help. “Washington needs to loosen up a little,” goaded organizer Jeanine Mjoseth, a journalist and former wrestler who, 6 feet 2 and blond, is like some Amazonian sexual missionary. “The atmosphere here is so unsexy,” she sighed. “People don’t flirt. They’re terrified to even make eye contact.”

In fact, it’s easy to overargue the point. Sexually starved people in D.C. like to blame the city for their inhibitions. In a town that regards oral sex as a bad career move and flirting as a public nuisance, acting frigid is a “safety issue,” insisted erotic photographer and suburban mother Tracy Lee. By acknowledging your sexuality, you could risk your job, or invite ridicule—or lawsuits. “It’s a tragedy that we’re so hung up,” she says.

Lee takes pictures of herself equipped with high heels and a riding crop. But she said she never ventures outside her Northern Virginia town house wearing anything too sexy. “I don’t want to get hassled,” she explained. Lee and her husband publish her photographs under an assumed name, and keep their eyes out for e-mail stalkers.

They are not alone in their fears. “People in this city lead divided lives,” noted D.C. photographer Ira Tattelman. “During the day at work, people are very straight-up. But they have this whole other life at night.” Chief Ike’s owner Allan Jirikowic saw the evening as a catharsis, an escape from today’s neo-Victorianism. “The age of free love is toast,” he intoned sadly, suggesting that our culture is oversexed and impotent at the same time. “Sex is just part of the data smog.”

Hyperexposure, Greiner weighed in, does take a lot of the fun out of sexual expression. “Erotica is supposed to leave things to the imagination,” she asserted. “There’s something sexy about not having everything spelled out.” Greiner was among the few who showed restraint: She danced for the crowd, and as she neared the end of her PG-rated routine, she turned her back to the audience to take off her top, choosing suggestion over exposition. A similarly nuanced aesthetic was evident in a photoconstruction called Ravine by Ira Tattelman, which layered a lipstick print over a marble background, the hazy mark of a remembered smooch.

Things got reheated after the art sale, when the five dancers of Shiatscrew Crew performed a piece called “Laying On.” They crawled through the audience from the back of the house, touching each other, and strangers, in the dark. They rolled over an elevated bed, lifting each other into the air, combining and recombining in fantastic permutations. It was clear they weren’t acting.

Dancer Denise Jakobsburg brought the night to a climax, arraying herself half-nude on the soles of fellow dancer Ken Yamaguchi-Clark’s feet. Over the insistent drumbeat, he lifted her into the air, where she balanced like an offering, warm and prone. After what seemed like a long moment, he lowered her gently and folded his arms and legs around her. She glowed all over.CP