Tristan Taormino is a young woman who can look sensitive and lithe even when she has been strapped with an erect black rubber penis. I've never seen Tristan this way in person, mind you. Just in photos and videos. In person, she is as dressed-down as a Midwestern college girl while she yacks on her cellphone. I'm meeting her today in the lobby of a trashy hotel off Union Square in New York.
Tristan Taormino is the Ann Landers of sex advice. She has columns in the Village Voice and Taboo magazine. She's the editor of On Our Backs magazine. She wrote the bible of female anal sex, "The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women." We're meeting to discuss her new book, "Pucker Up: A Hands-on Guide to Ecstatic Sex." First, however, there is the apocalypse to deal with.
"I was asleep in Brooklyn when it happened," she says. No need to explain what it is. "It was a totally bizarro thing. The plan was to wake up at about 9:30 and go into the city for an acupuncture appointment. But I woke up feeling really sick. I knew acupuncture would make me feel better, but the trip would exhaust me. I slept in."
The way she computes it, she would have been changing subways beneath the World Trade Center close to the moment when the first tower collapsed. "It's hard to think of a sex book as relevant to what's going on," Tristan says, sipping a ginger ale. "But it's like I say, people have sex for a bunch of different reasons. People have sex to escape. People have sex to connect with other people. There is a desperate need to grasp on to the ones who we love and are close to because we feel this sense of urgency. Sex is so devalued in our culture -- a side dish to everything that is important in our life. In fact, I look at sex as totally central to a bunch of different aspects of our life. There are plenty of people who feel like they don't want to have sex right now, but there are plenty of others who feel like they do. I have noticed the bestselling books right now on Amazon.com are sex books. It's a weird phenomenon."
It's such a classic literary coupling, sex and death. Eros and Thanatos.
I have so many mixed feelings about writing my column. Everyone around me is encouraging me that we have freedom of speech and so many countries we're going after don't. "You have a platform and you need to use it. Don't take it for granted. Exercise your freedom of speech." In other words, if this act of terrorism is going to be successful we're all not going to fly and be too scared to go into tall buildings. [Pause.] I've had feelings when I think I don't know if I can do this. My first column [for the Voice after the attack] was the hardest column I ever wrote.
Can you tell me your life story in three minutes?
[Looks at her watch.] It's 4:30 exactly. I grew up on Long Island. When I was 1, my dad came out as gay and left my mom. I was raised by my mom. She never remarried. I grew up in a small, very WASPy town on Long Island. Went to public school. Went to Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Came out there. Did a lot of gay and lesbian activism. Decided I wanted to become a lawyer. Had great grades. Did very mediocre on the L.S.A.Ts. I ended up getting wait-listed or rejected from every law school I applied to even though everyone who advised me said, "You are in the top 10 percent of the class graduating Phi Beta Kappa. You have great grades. Sterling recommendations. Don't worry about the L.S.A.T."
[Pause.] In fact they slaughtered me. I went into my thesis advisor's office crying hysterically because my plan had been disrupted. I was going to be an activist lawyer and now I couldn't be. I'd been working with her all year on my thesis, which was about butch-femme sexuality. There's a lot about sex. S/M. Porn. She said, "Tristan, I don't think you want to go to law school. I think you want to write about sex." At that point I'd gotten into some schools off the wait list, and she said, "Defer admission for a year and see what happens." I started writing about sex. Never went to law school. And here I am. [Looks at her watch.] That was one minute.
When did you figure you were gay?
I don't want to be identified as gay. I first had a sexual relationship with a woman when I was in college. When I was 19. I came out then as a bisexual. I definitely fooled around with girls and boys growing up. It was just like part of what I did. People started to get boy crazy, that mandatory heterosexuality kicking in -- so around 15 I was not fooling around with girlfriends as much as boys. Then in college -- there are a ton of gay people at Wesleyan. It's a queer university, 35 percent of the student body is gay.
Isn't Wesleyan an all-girls school?
No. That's Wellesley. We're always confused with Wellesley. Wesleyan was actually all male until 1971 -- that was when I was born -- and then they went coed. So around that same time I was doing a lot of activism and stopped calling myself bisexual, and firmly identified as being queer. A dyke. And then from there just started having sexual and emotional relationships with people of all genders. People are constantly trying to pinpoint me. They tend to categorize me as bisexual. I don't identify as bisexual for a few reasons. One is, for me, identifying as a dyke is as much about whom I have sex with as it is about my community and my culture. I firmly believe there are not two genders. So identifying as bisexual is counterproductive to my gender politics. So when people ask me, "Are you bisexual? gay?" I'm like, "I'm equal opportunity. I sleep with people of all genders."
I was going to say that you're into "mono gender," but there's more than two?
Yes. It's like "omni gender." I identify with pansexual. Certainly my community and affinity is with gay-and-lesbian bisexual/transgender people.
Speaking as a layman, how can you give heterosexual sex advice? Should we take what you write with a grain of salt?
[Laughs.] It's a very good question. People are afraid of being politically incorrect and asking that question. I thought I would get that question way more than I have. "You're a dyke and you're giving my girlfriend blow job techniques? How much experience is behind this?" One of the selling points of my book is that I've done everything I write about. I'm not going to give you advice about a product or act that I haven't tried myself (which is more than you can say for a lot of sexologists and educators).
I've had plenty of sexual experience with people of both genders so I think I have a grip on how to please men and how to please women. Even though I don't have access on a daily basis with a penis, I think I still have a grip on how to make one happy. That said, you know it was weird to write a book where you assume the person reading it is straight. That's not usually my audience. But the thing that I really want to do with this book is teach straight people how to be more queer.
I don't want straight people to have sex with the same gender unless they want to. We need to get rid of the script that plagues even the most sexually adventurous and evolved heterosexuals: Sex is all about vaginal intercourse. It's leading up to that. It's going there. It's headed there. That's all it is. I want to throw that out of the equation. You've been looking at the express menu, but actually there's a whole long 17-page menu at a diner and every single one of these things is sex. So forget about that one thing that you think is sex and everything else is foreplay. All of this is sex.
For me, the first time I slept with a woman, all body parts, all sexual acts, all desires, all fantasies, all erogenous zones were fair game. They're all on the table. That's what I want more people, no matter what their sexual orientation is, to figure out.
Americans are idiots about most everything. We just wolf down our hamburgers instead of relishing every bite like a gourmet.
Right! My agent said that to me just the other day. We were at lunch and I guess he scarfed his food down. He said, "You're eating the right way. You're supposed to pause. Take a break. I think I eat too fast." I think all people eat too fast.
Mom and Dad taught us how to put the food into our mouths when we were babies, but after that we were on our own. Sex is usually the same. Dad never takes you aside and says, "Listen. Women are more complex than men."
There are some complex men out there. I don't want to discount all of you.
For most of American history, it was only the smart guys who figured that out on their own. I fumbled my way through high school as clumsy as a dog. It wasn't until the summer after I graduated that a girlfriend got pissed and said, "This is what you should be doing." I was a very eager learner. But it had never previously dawned on me ...
This is my point. I honestly believe that people, and men especially, want direction and will take it. They want to be told what to do.
I'm 10 years older than you. When you were a teenager, were you aware that sex was more complicated than wham-bam, in-out?
I became sexually active when AIDS was already a reality. That shifted the landscape entirely. I have rarely had sex that does not involve latex barriers. There are plenty of people who are much older than me and say, "We did it this way and everything was fine. And then we had to relearn." Latex was a part of my sex life from the beginning. For me, latex is not weird or unsexy.
Your first encounter was with a guy? [She nods.] How old was he?
[Gives a dry laugh.] I wish I could tell you the entire story. It was an older man. The details would incriminate someone, but let us say that he was older. I was 16 and he was 22. He'd been around the block.
Does the average 16-year-old male today understand --
I think the average 16-year-old has an idea that this stuff is there. I think the average 16-year-old knows the word "clitoris," but doesn't know where it is. I go to college campuses and have a vulva puppet. It's a puppet of female anatomy. It's much less scary than an actual latex representation. The puppet is velvet and satin, and there's this little rosebud. I've had guys come up and I quiz them, "Tell me where the vaginal opening is. Where the outer labia. Clitoris." The guys wander around there like it was pin the tale on the donkey.
When you yourself are messing around do you ever think, Hey, I should learn this technique better?
[She gives a hoot.]
I mean do you feel an obligation to be fluid in everything?
Yes. I went to an S/M/Leather conference in Palm Springs and one of the workshops I went to was about electricity play. A lot of people like to play with electricity. The two most popular forms of electricity are the violet wand, which is this long thing with a blue light and feels like a bug zapper. The other is the TENS unit, which a lot of people use if they go to a chiropractor. It stimulates the muscles and it actually can contract your muscles. So I've dabbled in electricity play, but I don't like it at all. Not my thing. Not my fetish. Not into it. However, when I teach advanced workshops on anal sex, they ask me about electricity play in your ass. There are these butt plugs that conduct electricity. So finally I decided I gotta go learn about this stuff and learn about it from beginning to end.
So you went to boot camp ...
I went to boot camp.
And now you know?
That wasn't a very helpful workshop. A lot of times it's hit and miss at those workshops, and you don't want to be hit-or-miss with electricity. [Laughs.]
It's funny, I find myself wanting to confess things to you.
Interviewers do it all the time with me. It's crazy: "I've always wanted to ask someone ... I once had this weird thing ..."
Do people ask you for romantic advice?
I'll be at meetings pitching. And they say, "We don't want it to be all about sex. We're thinking about sex and relationships." You know how much time I spend talking with people about relationships? One of the real common letters I get from my anal advice column is, "I think that I want to have anal sex and I don't know how to approach it with my partner. She's never brought it up. I think she might freak out. Think I'm kinky. I'm gay. I don't know how to bring this up." The answer to that question has this much to do with anal sex [she makes a tiny pinching gesture with her thumb and pointer] and really is about how to communicate with your partner about your sexual needs.
Before we set this interview up, we talked about doing something fun. There's too many security people in this hotel to wander around. I remember one of your columns last month was about human puppies ...
Did you read about the puppy thing?
Yup. But then I looked at my dog and just went, "No way."
Human puppies are a totally different thing. I'm a dog person and I have no desire to do any of that to my dog. Making a person into a dog is very appealing, however.
So let's go to the pet shop across the street.
[Taormino and Bowman leave the hotel]
I have a boy who's my submissive -- my full-time collared -- I own him. He has some interest in this puppy play stuff. [Taormino and Bowman walk along Union Square to Petco.] A human puppy acts on instinct. A human puppy can't answer his e-mail. You can only crawl up on your feet. Chase a ball. Have some food.
Have you ever been a puppy?
No. I've been submissive with girls. But I've never been a puppy. I don't think I would like to be a puppy.
Have you ever gone into Petco with your human puppy?
[Shakes her head.] You don't want to freak people out.
[Walks in the door.] Look at this stuff! Not to be judgmental, but isn't there some sexual subculture that involves stuffed animals?
That's why I get looks from the Salvation Army clerks.
[Examining dog collars.] We could get him a purple collar because purple is his color. We can measure it on you. What do you think about this? [Taormino straps the collar around Bowman's neck. Several customers back away.] You think it's too thin? You want it thicker? [Picks up thick leather color.] Don't you think this is butch-er?
[Removes dog collar] Does your boy wear collars for other girls?
No, no, no. Just for me. [Picks up a rubber bone.] Put that in your mouth ... It's too big? You can't get your mouth around it? ... But it would be good. Let's see how this looks in a human mouth. [Holds up a latex bone.]
You know, I'm going with this, but putting this stuff in my mouth really freaks me out because who knows who's touched it first.
Come on, do it again. You can do it Not very impressive. How about this one? Is it too big? It's hard to get your mouth around it.
[Mumbles.] Does punishment come into puppyhood?
For me, punishment is not part of my fetish or kink and doesn't really work well with my boy. One of the things that's great about puppy play is that it's positive reinforcement only. He's a dog. He can do no wrong. Here, put this one in your mouth. Is it going to be hard? Let me see one of those in your mouth.
[Squeaks a little rubber fireman with his teeth.] So, do interviewers hit on you?
All the time. The assumption is, because I'm sexually open, I'm sexually open to them. There's this way that you gently say, "I'm a crazy wild girl. But I do have boundaries and taste. I have particular turn-ons like everyone else. It's not just a free-for-all kind of thing." There are tons of people in my workshops who say, "Your book made me realize that I have a deep dark desire to get fucked in the ass and I want you to do it." On the one hand, I have encouraged them to voice their fantasy and desire. I don't want to squash it. So I say, "I am very happy that you have this thing, but I am not going to be the person to act that out with you."
Is there anything about sex that embarrasses you?
[Paying for purple dog collar.] No. It's hard to throw me. People are always asking, "I have this question and I bet you're never heard it before." Nine times out of 10, I have in fact heard it many times before. [Pause.] Once in a while people send me wacky questions and I'm like, "Wow." But no, I don't think anything embarrasses me.