Thirteen years ago, Rachel Kramer Bussel was a doctrinaire feminist. The UC Berkeley women’s studies major was always writing in and wagging her finger at the Oakland Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle because she found some of their content objectionable. Then, in 1996, she started law school at NYU and attended her first sex parties. She met porn directors. She began writing erotica. From 2004 to 2007 she penned a sex column for the Village Voice called “Lusty Lady.” Now she edits for Penthouse and other such publications, including the annual Best Sex Writing anthology put together by San Francisco-based Cleis Press. Bussel not only came full circle on the porn issue, she’s now a veritable titan in a medium she once condemned.
Bussel’s transformation reflects a larger paradigm shift in feminism and pornography. Once the domain of prudish, anti-smut crusaders like Andrea Dworkin, the feminist movement has given way to a generation raised with Good Vibrations and Internet porn. Yesterday’s forms of exploitation are now considered hip and progressive — a woman who lands a strip club gig to put herself through college now gets approval from her feminist peers, rather than the cold shoulder. “I think to some degree there’s a generation divide,” said Bussel. “My mother doesn’t like the fact that I write erotica or work for a porn magazine. I don’t think my generation thinks everything going on in the porn industry is awesome, but we’re much more open about it, and more cognizant of people our age who are making porn. We see it more as an issue of, ‘If you don’t like it, make your own.'”
As a result, porn has become a new realm for feminism. These days women write all the sex columns for college newspapers; they post naked pictures on the Suicide Girls web site; they gab freely and openly about cybersex, orgasms, spitting and swallowing. In fact, they dominate a lot of the public discourse about sex. A quick glance at the sex-writing industry shows that a substantial niche has been Sex in the City-fied, and rendered into a virtual matriarchy.
Consequently, some writers say it’s getting lonely at the top. “I definitely wish there were more men writing about sex and not going for the funny element,” said Bussel, who actively sought out male contributors for Best Sex Writing 2009. She managed to strike gold with Tom Johansmeyer’s essay on porn prohibitions in the military and Don Vaughan’s piece on sexual problems resulting from combat-related PTSD. Unfortunately, Bussell said, such contributors are the exception to the rule. For the most part, she says, sex blogs, erotica, and even think-piecey writing are women’s domain. “There are definitely men writing about sex … but I think it’s more challenging to find them.”
Granted, not every piece in Best Sex Writing 2009 falls into the sex-column vein. A mix of cut-and-dry reportage nestled cheek-by-jowl with humorous, bloggy ruminations and personal memoirs, the book lacks tonal unity, which makes it more interesting and probably broadens the potential audience. It culminates with a science piece written by East Bay author Mary Roach, and includes several essays dealing with the intersection of sex and politics, which is where some of the male contributors shine.
But the edgier content was all penned by women. Take Tracy Clark-Flory’s “In Defense of Casual Sex.” “I lost my virginity at sixteen with my first love and best friend; it was all champagne and roses,” Clark-Flory wrote, describing a scene that reads like the script of a Seth Rogan movie — with Clark-Flory playing the part of Rogan. “I enthusiastically guided us into nearly every position I’d marveled at online. At one point, midcoital, I actually pinched my chin and asked aloud, ‘What positions are left?'”
The resulting “deflowering” scene pretty much flies in the face of our traditional conceptions of first love and its consummation. In this version, the girl is the initiator, the leader, the one versed in Internet sex positions, the one who pauses because she’s bored. And 25-year-old Clark-Flory, who attended Berkeley High School in the late-’90s and wrote a sex column for The Jacket, is no anomaly. Clark-Flory said she got scads of fanmail after posting “In Defense of Casual Sex” on Salon.com last year, much of it from guys her age who wished they could have written something like it themselves. “A lot of them were happy to find an article about hook-up culture that didn’t kind of paint them as sex-crazed guys who are taking advantage of women,” she said. “Which is really unfair. Women don’t get any of that.”
Bussel concurs that the most irreverent pieces in Best Sex Writing — like the rape fantasy by Tracie Egan that opens the book — would not have succeeded had they been written by men. In Egan’s essay, “One Rape, Please (to Go),” a women hires a male hooker to fake-assault her for $300 — and then has to deal with him falling in love with her at the end. Had a man written “One Rape, Please,” it might sound cretin-ish and tacky. Egan sounds, well, empowered. “What I liked about it was you have this woman who has this fantasy which is supposed to be common, and she goes out and pursues it, it doesn’t turn out as she expected,” Bussel said. “I don’t know if Tracie’s piece would go over as well if a guy wrote it. … There’s freedom for women to talk about rape fantasies, but if men do that we’re not sure if it’s cool.”
Blame it on our PC culture, said Brenda Knight, associate publisher of Cleis Press. “Somewhere along the line, the tyranny of the concept of political correctness kind of took over, and men are not as comfortable with coming out in the public discourse and saying what they think,” Knight said. “As an editor, I’m trying to do something about that,” she added. In fact, Knight would consider implementing an affirmative-action-type policy to get more men to write about sex in an intelligent way. “I’m very actively pursuing men to write for Cleis.”
There’s no telling whether Knight, Bussel, and their ilk will be able to fix this gender homogeny any time soon. First they will have to address a lot of social stigma against male sexuality. “It’s not that I think men have it tougher,” said Bussel. “But I think it’s now acceptable for women to say ‘I go to strip clubs,’ whether it’s Chippendale variety or alternative. It’s acceptable for women to be sexually experimental, it’s a little less so for men.” Still, said Knight, any man wanting to penetrate the female-dominated medium of sex writing has plenty of incentives: It’s one of the few branches of the publishing industry that’s actually growing.