A version of this essay was published in Whores and Other Feminists, edited by Jill Nagle; another version was published in The Spectator a few years later.
Until recently, I wrote and sold pornographic stories. Like most people who work in “the sex industry,” this is not something I ever planned or expected to be doing—I’ve always seen myself as a “serious” writer of literary fiction. Sex work is something I drifted into, and when I learned that not only could I earn money at it, but enjoy it, I continued.
My first intimate contact with pornography occurred when I “caught” my husband masturbating into a Playboy centerfold. I was all of 20 at the time, and my budding sexual ego was seriously bruised by the discovery that he’d chosen an air-brushed bunny rather than me on which to spill his precious seed. With not a little guilt he tried to convince me that, even were he married “to Raquel Welch,” he would still participate in this all-American male sport.
Thereafter I tried to ignore what I saw as his perversion, but one day I stumbled upon a collection of girlie magazines in the back of the file cabinet in his study. With a sinking heart I sat down to peruse the pages of naked women, expecting to feel degraded and repulsed. But as I turned from one exquisite female creature to another, a funny thing happened: I got excited. Tentatively I touched the perfectly shaped breast on the page before me, letting my fingers wander down to a feathery vagina, imagining what it would feel like in real life. I found myself reading the silly captions with interest: Lola loves to ride horses and play tennis, but her main ambition is to fulfill her man’s every fantasy. Monique works out every day to keep in shape for her lover. The not-so-subtle theme of these “biographical sketches” was that the women existed solely to bring men pleasure. As a budding feminist, I was confused by the arousal I felt from such a notion–but that didn’t stop me from being aroused.
While I believed that women were more than the sum of their physical parts, the fact that they displayed their bodies for money seemed to make me positively feverish. At the time I had no idea why this was so, but now I do: power is an aphrodisiac, and in our culture money is the ultimate symbol and expression of power. This element was and remains one of pornography’s key turn-ons for me: its sheer existence. The fact that some people earn money by sexually entertaining those who can afford to pay for it has always in and of itself excited me. That it was and still is women entertaining men went unexamined until much later, when feminist theory compelled me to view the selling of sex as part of female oppression. Later still, I had another change of heart, newly inspired by virtue of indirectly allowing myself, via my erotic stories, to become the object for sale.
After leaving my six-year marriage, for reasons having nothing to do with pornography–or, for that matter, sex–I became involved in consciousness-raising groups and the Women’s Liberation Movement. Porn wasn’t a hot topic among feminists back then–we were too preoccupied with more basic concerns, like legalizing abortion, and pornography didn’t command my conscious attention.
The issue hit me full force again when I fell in love with Marco Vassi, a pornographer who Henry Miller called “the foremost erotic writer of our time.” I met Marco in Woodstock, New York, during the halcyon days of hippiedom. When I learned he wrote pornography, I sought out his books and masturbated my way through each, dismayed that I was turned on by the material, even when it smacked of misogyny. More significantly, I learned from Marco’s work that sexually explicit literature could not only be arousing, but witty, intelligent, insightful—and even profound.
During this crash course in pornography, I was still traveling in feminist circles, organizing Take Back the Night marches, writing tirades for equality in the local newspaper. I took pains to keep my relationship with Marco hidden from my feminist friends. When Women Against Pornography brought the issue to the forefront of public debate, I became almost schizophrenic, arguing with Marco on one side and with feminists on the other. Between my relationship with a pornographer and my enjoyment of his writing, I doubted myself as a feminist. I went to great pains to hide my involvement with Marco—no easy feat in a small town like Woodstock.
Almost by accident I began writing my own porn. I had a neighbor who was driving me nuts by warming up his truck at 5:00 every morning. Lying in bed awake and furious, I imagined confronting him—and my imagination quickly turned the confrontation into sexual fantasy. I got out of bed and wrote down my fantasy exactly as it occurred to me, and was astonished by the ease with which the words poured forth. Although I’d been writing for years, it was always an agonizing process; now it seemed as if the freeing up of the sexual realm loosened my creativity. The next morning I read my story, called A Neighborly Compromise, and found that it was witty, hot and nearly perfect in its first draft. Aiming high, I sent the story off to Penthouse. In a few weeks I received an offer of $350 and publication in Hot Talk, one of that empire’s many magazines. Let me tell you, after years of rejection from The New Yorker and Ms, I nearly fell off my chair.
“Writing,” said Moliere, “is like prostitution. First we do it for love. Then we do it for a few friends. Then we do it for money.” During the course of the next year I sold four stories to Penthouse Forum at $1000 a shot. When the editor I’d been working with left, the gig was up, but by then I’d started to connect with people in the sex-positive network, and eventually found other markets for my stories. I became a veritable erotic fountain, every sexual fantasy and life experience finding its way into a plot. By now I’ve written hundreds of erotic stories, some of which have been translated into Swedish, Danish, Norwegian and Japanese.
I used a pseudonym, and told only a few close friends what I was up to. While I was proud of my stories, I couldn’t really show them around; I couldn’t get the kind of respect, for instance, that I got when I published an article in Mother Jones about my work at a battered women’s shelter.
Eventually I shyly confessed my extracurricular activities to friends, and found, to my surprise, that they were amused rather than disapproving. I even told my mother, who was actually delighted that I’d finally found a means of earning money with my pen. But while friends and family accepted what I was doing, they certainly didn’t consider it valuable work, nor did they have any notion that I put as much thought and effort into writing porn as I did into poetry, or that I was as proud of one as of the other. In other words, while I didn’t encounter disapproval, neither did I gain the kind of recognition everyone wants for his or her work.
As soon as I arrived in San Francisco in 1988, I made a beeline for the female-friendly sex emporium Good Vibrations, where I found, among other interesting items, a flyer seeking stories for the first Herotica anthology. I sent off four stories and had two of them accepted. Since it was a “real” book it seemed eminently more respectable than Penthouse, so I decided to sign my real name, and have been doing so ever since. Publication in Herotica led me to Joani Blank and Susie Bright, and eventually to the sex radical community. I went on to work at On Our Backs, first as Susie Bright’s assistant, then as Fiction Editor, and finally as Editor after Susie left. Later still I edited the Herotica series when Susie moved on to other things. When I pointed out to her that I seemed to be following her around, she said with her generous smile, “I’ll just keep warming up the chair for you.”
That’s been the best part of doing this work–getting to know like-minded people with whom I can talk about sex without fear of being deemed “inappropriate,” something I was previously judged for (particularly for being a mother who doesn’t hide the fact of her sex work from her grown children). Among the sex-positive crowd, theories about politics and sexuality, as well as sexual words and images, are the stuff of everyday conversation.
It’s the kind of talk on which I thrive. The discourse among sex radicals–the exchange of information and ideas—seems natural now, not the giggly or disapproving way most Americans talk about sex—if they talk about it at all. I don’t feel like I’m an oddity, and I forget that mainstream America regards people like me as perverted. Any time I venture outside the Bay Area I’m newly shocked by prevailing attitudes.
While it’s true that I drifted aimlessly into this world, it’s been an organic process. I write about sex because it interests me, because I’m good at it, and because I can make money at it. Unlike most sex radicals, I’m not in it as a political cause. I don’t give a shit if Molly in Idaho reads one of my stories and has her first orgasm, though it’s fine with me if she does. I don’t like debating prudes or right-wingers about the ethics of porn, and I’m not out to convert anyone; I just don’t want anyone else telling me I can’t read and write whatever the hell I want. Don’t get me wrong–I fully support the folks out there on the front lines defending sexual freedom; I’ve even done a bit of it myself in the natural course of my work. Our sex-negative culture tends to push those of us who dare seek and promote sexual pleasure into an aggressive stance.
Meanwhile, the feminist debate continues. As far as I can see, the discussion hasn’t evolved all that much since the early days of WAP. But I’m no longer vulnerable to their judgment; I no longer doubt my feminist credentials. It’s a core part of my identity and a philosophy I’ll defend with my dying breath. Sexual self-determination and pleasure is an inherent aspect of feminism. There may even be some question about which came first: sexual or social oppression? Like the famous chicken and egg, nobody knows—but of one thing I am quite sure: you cannot possibly have one without the other.