Honest John: An Interview with Caveh Zahedi
By Kristie Alshaibi
Spread, Fall 2005
I recently saw an interview in which a popular epic filmmaker stated that a good film is one that you continue to discuss at length after walking out of the theatre. Judging by that criterion, Caveh Zahedi’s newest movie, I Am a Sex Addict, is truly great. I left the theatre feeling uneasy and agitated, and was unable to pinpoint the reason for this reaction until much later.
As a sex worker, my immediate desire upon watching this film is to do what I consider a large part of my job: to help Zahedi gain some acceptance of his own sexual fantasies. It’s an incurable instinct that stems from more than five years of having sex with, and hopefully helping, many shy, shamed, and guilt-ridden men. Caveh’s self-deprecating humor and conflicted sexual psyche unexpectedly brought out the super-whore in me, in a context to which I was previously unaccustomed. I suddenly felt a suprising urge to impose my own brand of carnal openness on a person who seemed to be very willfully turning away from it. Suddenly I began to see myself as less of a healer and more of a sexual fascist. It was unsettling.
The movie is a combination of video diary, documentary and re-enactment of real events. This true-to-life narrative is propelled by Caveh’s persistent attempt to rid himself of his obsession with prostitutes. It is structured by a number of strategies to “get it out of his system,” from masturbation, to talking to prostitutes, to acting out his darkest fantasy. It all begins with a French prostitute who looks just like his now ex-wife Caroline (both played by French porn star Rebecca Lord). From there he engages in a habit that he just can’t seem to break: cruising hookers and occasionally paying for sex. What he believes to be a harmless fetish becomes a real problem as the acts, and his unrelenting honesty about them, begin damaging his romantic relationships along the way. His first two marriages end in divorce, due in part to his need for extramarital explorations.
Caveh effectively conveys the thrill of merely approaching a woman and asking her, “Will you suck me?” Every woman in the movie responds with a performance of slap-stick simulated fellatio, except for actress Emily Morse, who plays Caveh’s girlfriend Christa. She is shown voicing her objection to this act in the movie’s self-reflexive parallel narrative about the process of making the film, which is a common aspect of Caveh’s work. He often documents much of what really unfolds during the course of creation and almost seems to be attempting to allow the movie to tell its own story, to direct itself. This lets the viewer in on fascinating details, like the remarkable parallel lives of the actors and their real life counter-parts. For example, Rebecca Lord, who is a make-up artist in the movie (while playing the role of his wife), is, in actuality, not only a porn-star but also an escort and make-up artist.
I caught up with Caveh at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Kristie Alshaibi: When you were at the Tribeca Film Festival you mentioned that you began working on I Am a Sex Addict more than ten years ago. Can you tell me a little more about that process, and when you got the idea to make this movie?
Caveh Zahedi: I got the idea for the film the night that I went to my first Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) meeting. I was blown away by the honesty and vulnerability of the other men in the room, and realized that I had never in my life heard men talking openly and honestly about their sexual problems before. I immediately realized the healing potential of making such a film, and decided that I wanted to do for other men what these men had done for me.
KA: What do you think makes your “prostitute fetish,” as you so appropriately named it, an addiction rather than just a misunderstood hobby?
CZ: SAA defines an addiction as not being able to stop doing something that you don’t want to do. A hobby is something one wants to do. As long as one isn’t trying to stop and finding that one can’t stop, then it’s not an addiction. If you can stop smoking when you decide to, you’re not addicted. If you’re trying to quit, but find yourself unable to stop, then you’re addicted.
KA: I noticed in the movie that you solicited mostly street prostitutes and went to massage parlors. Did you ever try calling an escort? If not, was it for economic reasons, or did you just prefer something in particular about picking a girl off the street?
CZ: I did have sex with escorts, but escorts were typically much more expensive. Also, a lot of the acting out ritual involved cruising, which doesn’t really happen when you call an escort service. Typically, I would go cruising, just to experience the rush of talking to them, with no intention of actually having sex. And then occasionally, my desire would get the better of me, and I would find myself giving in to the temptation, even though I hadn’t planned to do that.
KA: Your parents are from Iran, correct? Has your ethnic background had any effect on your own sexuality?
CZ: My parents are from Iran, correct. I think my ethnic background has had a definite effect on my sexuality. First of all, Iranian culture is extremely puritanical sexually, and I definitely inherited that sense of shame and repression. Secondly, being an ethnic minority (as an Iranian-American) is hard sexually, because one always feels marginal to the culture’s notions of what is sexually attractive. For me, the result was a compounding of sexual shame and a feeling of inadequacy.
KA: As a sex worker I’ve always been asked the question, “does your family know what you do?” So let me ask you a similar question. I’ve seen two of your movies so far (this one and In the Bathtub of the World). They are extremely personal and even confessional. Do members of your family watch them? If so what kinds of reactions do you get from them?
CZ: Well, most of my family members have seen enough of my work to know that they don’t want to see any more. I think it’s disturbing for them, and they’d rather not think about it. My youngest half-sister is a big fan, though. She likes all my movies a lot. Still, it’s embarrassing for me to have her see them.
KA: In the movie you list a number of strategies for “getting it out of your system” (“it” being your preoccupation with prostitutes). I noticed you never mentioned role-playing. Did you ever ask your partner to pretend to be a prostitute?
CZ: That’s a very good question. There was a scene in the film that involved role playing that got cut out, for pacing reasons. But yes, I did try that as a strategy. It never worked for me because I was much too shy and felt much too guilty to be able to role-play very effectively. The truth is I still have tremendous shame about my sexual desires, and role-playing is something that requires a certain amount of courage and self-acceptance. I have courage, but I lack the requisite self-acceptance.
KA: Are you still tempted to solicit prostitutes? Is the desire still as strong? Have you ever “slipped?” Do you still go to meetings for sex addicts?
CZ: I do still get tempted to solicit prostitutes, but only rarely, and less and less often. Basically, I get tempted when I’m extremely angry or upset. And for a variety of reasons, I seem to get less angry and upset than I used to, so the desire is not as strong as it used to be. I did “slip” several times after I started going to meetings, but I haven’t slipped in about 8 years. And no, I no longer go to sex addicts anonymous meetings. I went for several years, and found going extremely helpful, but at a certain point, it became a case of diminishing returns.
KA: At the Tribeca screening someone asked you about your current opinion of monogamy, given that you used to view it as a form of ownership. You said that you now believe in it. You also said something to the effect that other people may have non-monogamous relationships, and that’s fine, but that your wife isn’t into it. If your wife were into it, would you be as well? Or do you find that monogamy personally suits you better than alternative types of relationships? Can you expand on that?
CZ: I have nothing against non-monogamy morally speaking, but for me it never worked very well in practice. I personally find that the deep intimacy required to make a relationship work is severely compromised by the incredibly primal feelings of abandonment that come up whenever one person becomes sexually involved with a third party. Relationships are so much about trust, and trust is incredibly difficult to build. So, for me, why jeopardize something as delicate and fragile as trust? I’ve never met anyone evolved enough to be truly happy and intimate in a non-monogamous relationship, and I’m certainly not that person. But if someone were that evolved, I think that would be ideal. I used to be an idealist, and believed I could become that person, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten to know my limitations, and this is one of them. If my wife was into non-monogamous relationships, I suppose I might give it another try, but I would be suspicious of her reasons. I suspect that a lot of interest in non-monogamous relationships is the result of dissatisfaction in one’s primary relationship, and that getting involved sexually with other people is inherently destabilizing to one’s primary relationship. I think the solution is to look deeper into the roots of one’s dissatisfaction rather than to look outside the relationship for fulfillment.
KA: And finally, what are some of the most interesting or unexpected reactions you’ve gotten to this movie?
CZ: At Tribeca, all of the janitors and ticket-takers and popcorn-makers snuck into the screening and wanted to shake my hand afterwards. They were visibly sincerely touched. I was surprised that people who would never relate to any of my other movies (which are all decidedly on the artsy side) were so profoundly enthusiastic about this one. I think there’s a huge thirst among men for this part of themselves to be given a voice, free from the shame-based moralistic ideologies which have made them feel guilty for having normal sexual desires. Our culture has a false notion of what is “normal,” and a lot of suffering ensues from that. I think people really appreciate it when someone speaks out against the rampant dishonesty in our culture and tells it like it is.
Kristie Alshaibi has owned and operated ObjectifyMe.com, her independent adult web site, for more than four years. Kritie’s alter ego, the alien prostitute and porno actress Echo Transgression, appeared on MTV’s Sex2k, and is also the central character of her first feature legth digital film entitled Other People’s Mirrors. Recently, Mrs. Alshaibi became a founding editor of boazine.com and started her own adult web zine and podcast.