Dirty Words

Investigating the Collective Gestalt of Erotica

Dirty Words

In January of 1999, when the Senate was gearing up to try to unseat President Clinton for having lied to a grand jury about receiving a blowjob from an intern, my mind kept drifting back to the trial of another head of state: Marie Antoinette. Chantal Thomas, a French historian interested in libertine culture, attempted several years ago, in The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette, to address an oddity in the Queen's trial: Marie Antoinette was originally charged not only with treason, but with incest. The incest charge, which was clumsily produced on the first day of the trial (the Revolutionary government had even squeezed a "confession" out of the poor, retarded Dauphin) was replied to with such spontaneous indignation by the Queen that she actually aroused the women in the courtroom to riot. Her accusers hastily dropped the incest charge, to concentrate on the more plausible charge of treason -- showing, it must be added, more sense than their spiritual descendants in the U.S. Senate. What fascinated Thomas was this sudden emergence, in the courtroom, of an obscene underground literature which had flourished around the royal family. Thomas uncovered a rich trove of pamphlets, with names like The Libertine and Scandalous Life of Marie-Antoinette, in which Marie Antoinette figured as the heroine/bitch at the center of a balletic orgy, a sort of penis-grabbing version of The Magic Flute. The Queen's enemies were so completely absorbed by these malign fan fictions that they lost their sense of the inherent implausibility of them to less partisan minds -- for nowhere does suspension of disbelief lead to such sublime gullibility, with all its succeeding train of tragicomic results, as in the moment when the prude resentfully succumbs to the narrative of arousal. Just ask Ken Starr.

The Queen's trial, and the echoes of pornographic scenarios in the Clinton case, made me curious about the relationship of erotica to the mainstream. Especially since, in the USA 2000, erotica has been, everybody agrees, mainstreamed. Sex advice columnists flourish. The confessions of women of leisure and dirty dicks of all types are available in chain bookstores. A formerly marginal genre is now out in the open.

I decided this sudden accession of the dirty book to the status of a middle-class convenience was certainly worth checking out with those who write it and edit it. I was curious, too, to find out what people who had been in the smut industry when it wasn't so mainstream thought of the suddenly "sex-friendly" atmosphere.

You will notice that I am talking about the written word. It has been a long time since the written word, no matter how laden with sexual description, has been up in the dock. The contemporary controversy about the legal control of pornography is almost wholly about visuals. That turn in the way we think about sexual representation -- the takeover by the audio-visual sector of a genre that, for hundreds of years, was all text and gravure -- has overshadowed the continuing life of the genre. Dirty books are not obsolete.

One final note: In order to understand the collective Gestalt of the erotica scene, I decided to talk to booksellers, too. The people who embody erotica's technostructure have, as one would expect, a professional attitude which often defuses just those taboos upon which the industry, paradoxically, depends. I tried to overcome this understandable professional bias by including people in my survey who are still ambiguous about "dirty" literature. So I interviewed booksellers who are not exclusively sellers of erotica, or whose involvement is strictly in the occasional sale of some strictly softcore text.

Erin Stille is a bookseller at BookPeople.

I'm from Lubbock. I never even saw a Playboy or anything until I started going out with this boyfriend in my sophomore year of college. When I first started getting interested in it, or read it, was when I listened to a Jewel song with the line, "You be Henry Miller and I'll be Anaïs Nin." I wanted to find out who these people were.

I read Little Birds. I read a little of Henry Miller. I don't like him as much. I thought they were interesting because they were so far removed from what is available today as far as what is considered erotica. They had things that are taboo today. Like they had more things about little children, and adults, which is very, very taboo today. More focus on sensual language and about sensual things instead of just about sex, a very big difference there.

Women pick their erotica very specifically. They spend more money and more time looking for what they are interested in. Yes, women spend more money on erotica than men. They spend money on the more expensive books, the better-put-together ones. The men buy the quick-and-easy books.

Women's [erotica] is more focused on beauty, the mystique of the woman. You find in women, they are more introspective about their sexuality. You don't find as many women's magazines with models like on the cover of Playboy. I don't have a problem with that since the models are getting paid for it. They aren't being exploited; they don't have to stand there.

Our big sellers are -- well, The Story of O; we have a hard time keeping it in the store. Very, very big seller. The Mammoth Book of Erotica, and Susie Bright is huge. Anne Rice, of course. You know, Anne Rice books, the ones she wrote as Rocquelaire, are the most stolen books from libraries. You'll notice that women will stand there -- I think it is because it is a pleasurable thing and it isn't dirty. We have a sign up that says, please feel free to look. We want things to be very out in the open. You know how the erotic books are usually in the corner where the women can get cornered by men? You always hear stories about men who feel like they can stand right next to you and breathe down your neck. No. Not here.

Erin Stille, BookPeople
Erin Stille, BookPeople (Photo By Kenny Braun)

Erotica is the top-selling section in the store. Like hands down, as to what goes the fastest, although maybe not what sells the most. As far as people saying, why do you have it right there? Everything is just out there. We have a huge lesbian literature section that is out there. We have a Herotica section -- they have lovely covers, they are like art books. You aren't going to be at the park, reading the book, and people aren't going to go, look! (laughs). A lot of the pictures on the covers don't go with the stories. We have staff selections all up and down here. Notice they are all by women.

Susan Dominus is the editor in chief of the paper version of Nerve. Jack Murnighan is the editor of Nerve's Web site, Nerve.com.

Susan Dominus: The first thing that I read that was sexy? This will sound funny, but it was Jean Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear. It was a young adult, pseudo-educational book. There was this pretty explicit scene with a girl who loses her virginity to a hunter who we've been following through the book, and she is obviously loving it. Even Judy Blume didn't write about sex in this way, in this manipulative way.

Jack Murnighan: I grew up in Champaigne, Illinois. While the other kids were having sexual experiences, I was more interested in mathematics. I feel like I was living in a bubble when I was that age. I remember seeing a page of a Playboy which a Ugandan exchange student showed me, but that is about it. Then I went to Brown. I majored in semiotics. There were a lot of us, who are now doing Net magazines, we all went to the same classes. We liked typefaces and things.

SD: I was working at New York magazine. There was a feature in 1997, it had interviews with Rufus [Griscom] and Genevieve [Field, founders of Nerve.com], and I thought it was a brilliant idea. Then I went on a yearlong law fellowship, and then when I came back to New York, I got this job. The idea of going paper was always the hope in their minds. You have an incredibly loyal readership that you develop over the Net. This means that you get around the biggest cost of a paper magazine, the marketing cost.

JM: The great preponderance in erotica, in the past decade, was written by either gay men or straight women. Because for straight men there was a great shame about writing about sex. They were more apologetic about writing about it then men of earlier generations. William Vollman was an exception, he flew in the face of this shame. The shame is wavering now. Normal guys are trying to reclaim their sexuality, almost with a vengeance, a misogynistic fervor, as in Maxim. Now I think there is going to be a backlash against the misogynistic tone. It's important to produce a more nuanced image.

SD: We have little interest in titillating. What we publish doesn't need to have the conventions of erotica. I see our magazine as more consistent with GQ -- to the left of GQ.

JM: With an earlier generation, with Mailer, with Roth, with Playboy, it was the heyday of the male sexual voice at its most narcissistic. What Nerve is doing is taking in what the best American erotica, making it a more realistic, compelling genre. Nerve puts literature first, sex second. Because of the Net, both extremes -- the amateur and the ultra-high end -- have gotten a lot of play.

Alice Joanou is a writer and artist who lives in the Bay Area. Among her books are Black Tongue, Maya 22, and The Best of Alice Joanou.

When I was in elementary school, I read The Collector, by John Fowles. It is about a man who collects butterflies, and wants to collect a woman to keep on display for his pleasure, and how she basically begins to go along with it, to collaborate, sort of like the Stockholm Syndrome. It made me go, "hmm," and that was when I realized something sexual was going on here. Then when I was 18, I read Story of the Eye, which was a total eye-opener.

I went to Yale, postgraduate, in the art department, as a sculptor. When I got out with my master's, I was broke. I had student loans to pay. My first idea was to write romances. I had this project in mind, where I would tweak the romances and make the women in them gradually more masterful. But it turned out I couldn't do that. Harlequin is too strict. They make you work with forms. Then I talked to a friend who was a dominatrix. And she said, I want you to meet a friend of mine. So I went to Richard's office [Richard Kasak, publisher of Masquerade Books]. He was sitting there with this 700-page manuscript, Bad Nuns in Bondage. And he said, "We can't have all the references to the church in this." As you can imagine, it was all these nuns doing this and that, and the Pope, and all. So he asked me if I could fix it. And I didn't hesitate. Immediately I said, yes, I could do that. Well, he gave me a weekend to do it. So I took it home, and worked on it, and then I just decided I would write my own novel instead. Which I did. It was called Festival of Venus. I wrote it in that single weekend, when, also, I was learning to type. I could hunt and peck on the typewriter, but I couldn't really type. Of course, the novel was a very badly written thing. It consisted basically of gymnastics, everybody fucking everybody else...

There was a list of things you couldn't do. You couldn't do scat. You could do enemas, but no shit. No pedophilia. No bestiality. It's funny, when you think of all the chemical shit farmers pump into animals, but having sex with them is illegal.

The more that I wrote for Richard, the more I found the power and the politics that happen in erotics the really exciting thing to me, and that became my aim in investigating sex. Because a lot of "erotica," it is like sci-fi, it can be programmatic and standard and dull. What I find interesting is, for instance, how arousal isn't necessarily predetermined. You might look at the images of horrific stuff, like that little naked girl that was napalmed in Vietnam, or the naked bodies that were piled up in the concentration camps, and, even though you know this is horrible, these are still naked bodies, and you might discover you have the capacity for being aroused, actually aroused, by these horrific things.

We don't want to censor what any adult can see, says Cecilia Bonvillain,  manager of Dragon's Lair Comics and Fantasy, with store owner David Wheeler.
"We don't want to censor what any adult can see," says Cecilia Bonvillain, manager of Dragon's Lair Comics and Fantasy, with store owner David Wheeler. (Photo By Kenny Braun)

Steven Saylor is the author of a series of detective novels set in ancient Rome. His latest novel is A Twist at the End. He divides his time between the Bay Area and Austin, and he grew up in Goldthwaite, Texas.

I grew up in a world where there was a real hangover from the repression of the Fifties. I remember my mother being appalled when she found out I was reading Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. That book was popular in the Sixties. It isn't a dirty book, but it has this messiah-like figure, who preaches free love. Well, she didn't take the book away from me, but I can remember her doing the strangest thing. She read the book, too, and I remember, she'd sit there and read 50 pages of the book, and then she'd tear it out of the book and throw it away. She went through the whole book like that.

I started reading hardcore porn at 16, as soon as I found out it existed. What I did -- I'd go to this place called the Commerce Newsstand in downtown Dallas. And they would have these bags with 10 books in them. There were always eight straight and two gay books. This was back when the books didn't have any pictures on the covers, just the title, so you would go by the name. You knew if it was, like, Pretty Boys Must Die, it was gay. This was back in 1972.

Then I went to UT. That was before there were gay magazines. I mean gay porn magazines. All the gays used to read After Dark magazine -- it was this entertainment magazine, but it always had these pictures of half-nude men who were all aspiring dancers. I remember the premiere issue of Blue Boy, because I had this very queeny friend, and he got it in the mail. And he wanted to know how they got his name. He probably subscribed to After Dark, thinking about it now.

There were some adult bookstores in Austin that I'd go to. There used to be one downtown on Sixth Street, Mr. Peepers. It was huge, it had two floors, and you went in through the curtains into the quarter arcade, and it was wildly popular -- all the businessmen would go there for lunch, and everybody would fuck in the booths.

The way I started writing was, everybody says, write what you know. And you know, I wasn't reading The New Yorker, I was reading Drummer magazine. It was a leather S&M magazine, it was one of the first. At the time, it was very print-oriented. John Preston started there. He serialized Mr. Benson there. I sent them stories, and that was where I was first published, under the name Aaron Travis -- Travis for Travis County. Then I went out to San Francisco with my lover, and I got a job editing the magazine.

What I like about writing porn is that, literally, you are attempting to create a physical response to a reader you don't know, some reader on the other side of the country, perhaps. You are trying to cause an erection and an orgasm, which is unique. Porn is treated like hack work because it doesn't pay well, but I would write a story over and over, and try to get it right. It's like music, trying to get the notes right. You see a lot of bad porn, which tends to drag down the good stuff. But there is good stuff.

We had taboos. No Nazis, for one. Drummer got in trouble because it ran some photo spread with Nazi regalia, and it got an overwhelmingly bad response. And bestiality was a taboo, for legal reasons. This was back when Meese [Reagan's attorney General Edwin] had put a lot of fear into the community. The actual level of writing was higher then.

As to erotica in general, a lot of it opened up when Anne Rice published her Rocquelaire novels. Her editor, Bill Whitehead, at Dutton, let her publish three novels that are hardcore pornography as mainstream fiction. To all of us in the smut industry at the time, this was just mindblowing. Now you see erotica sections in all the bookstores. Society's become so fragmented now -- everything has opened up in my lifetime -- that there isn't a canon anymore. That's a good thing. It allows freedom.

David Wheeler is the owner of Dragon's Lair Comics and Fantasy. Cecilia Bonvillain is the store manager.

David Wheeler: I think comics are an adult art form. They aren't so much for children anymore as people may assume. They are more complicated. Take Frank Miller's Dark Knight. Or even Alan Moore's Swamp Thing. The artwork ...

Cecilia Bonvillain: The artwork is very sophisticated, sometimes ...

Chris Sampson, Lobo Books
Chris Sampson, Lobo Books (Photo By Kenny Braun)

DW: ... and sometimes, like in science fiction, the philosophical concepts are also on an adult level.

Austin Chronicle: How about underground comics? Have they had an influence?

CB: Maybe the underground comics did stimulate the mainstream comics to grow up a little bit. Maybe. I wasn't in the business that long ago.

DW: Honestly, I've never carried underground comics. Possibly what is happening is that things that used to be considered underground aren't. When I think of underground, I think of definitely adult comics, and, unfortunately, things like drugs. As for erotica, one of the things that I think of are the early Playboys. The ones from the Fifties and Sixties. I liked those, they weren't quite as graphic, they were more subtle.

CB: I first saw more erotic stuff when I started collecting Olivia trading cards. My ex-husband got every Olivia trading card. Olivia is an artist who does cheesecake.

DW: I'd say that eroticism in comics is more pervasive because it is more pervasive in culture, now.

CB: We don't want to censor what any adult can see. But we put some books in shrink wrap, so that we don't have some little kid going around going, Mommy, Mommy look, since we don't want some kid getting cut off from all comics because of that. There are books like Leonard and Larry, about a gay couple ...

DW: That's not erotica.

CB: No, it's not erotica, but it does address an adult issue. It's about things that happen in life. It's right out here in the open.

DW: The Manga books are a good example of the difference in taboos. For instance, Ranma turns into a girl when she is splashed with hot water. They show this, you know, on the videos, and now they have disclaimers that all the actors are 19 on up. It's about what you can show here, and what is taboo in Japan. My concern is: I don't want comics to be seen simply as a carrier for T & A. Comics are a lot more than that.

Chris Sampson is the manager of Lobo Books, a gay video- and bookstore.

I was born in Jacksonville, Florida. It is a redneck town. I grew up thinking I was the only gay man in Jacksonville. My first experience that I could call erotic? Charlie's Angels was the first sexual thing. Farah Fawcett Majors used to wear, well, pretty much she let everything hang out on TV. And then some Playgirls I found. And, oh, the Sears and Penny's underwear models. My parents just thought I was making up my Christmas wish list.

A lot of gay novels, they have sex, but they read like romance novels. I classify books like this: If the story is about sex, it is erotica. If it has sex in it, it is fiction.

There are young people that come in, who want books on coming out. And they usually, if they get fiction, they don't get the explicit stuff. A lot of what we sell are how-to sex books. And then there are the perennial sellers. The Leatherman's Handbook, for instance. And True Confessions. You asked about interactivity -- these are books that are reader-written, about supposedly true experiences. Meatmen, a graphics novel kind of book, is very popular. One of the things that I've noticed is that, on the covers, they are going for a younger look now. You don't see too many 30- to 40-year-olds. You can say, Well, I'm just getting older, but it isn't that -- everybody's getting older.

We have regular magazines in the front of the store and then, back in the back, are the adult magazines. Our biggest seller in magazines is Hand Jobs -- the ones you see on the shelves are old ones, because when we get in new ones, they are gone the next day. Hand Jobs also puts out First Hand, which is also terrifically popular. There's a lot of text in those magazines, and pictures, but they are by far our big sellers.

I think things are changing a little. Humans want human contact. A few years ago, everybody was talking about the Net. I think that it is swinging back. People aren't as paranoid as they were about AIDS. They are starting to come out again. end story

  • More of the Story

  • Recommended Erotica

    Chronicle writer Roger Gathman queries local booksellers and various writers on erotica they recommend.

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Steven Saylor, Alice Joanou, Nerve.com, Georges Bataille, Jean Auel

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