In 1992, Sallie Tisdale wrote an essay in Harper's about enjoying pornography -- as a woman. In response, she received some "thoughtful letters" and "mash notes." She was also told that she shouldn't be allowed to have children. A man offered to cut off his penis and mail it to her. A couple dozen readers canceled their subscriptions.
Two years later, "Talk Dirty to Me: An Intimate Philosophy of Sex," a book expanding on that controversial essay, premiered. In it, Tisdale writes about porn, yes ("pornography is a hall of mirrors, a central symbol of the societywide confusion over sex"), and enters the fray of feminist debates over the industry. At its heart, though, it's a personal exploration of her own sexuality -- whether it be through visiting seedy sex shops or reading about the communal homes of certain Native American tribes. "Studying [sex] was part of my reconciliation with a large and demanding aspect of my life," she wrote. "All I've read of sex in history, in anthropology, in religion, in other people's lives, I've read more for my own reassurance, to assuage my own guilt and clear up my confusion than for anything else."
To commemorate the two decades that have passed since the book's release, it was reissued in the U.K. last month and will be republished as an e-book in the U.S. in the new year. I thought it was a great excuse to catch up with Tisdale, a Salon alum, to talk about how our sexual culture has changed -- and hasn't -- in the past 20 years.
How has our sexual culture changed in the two decades since your book first came out?
I think the primary change, and everybody mentions it, is the Internet. That's a change of visibility and accessiblilty but it doesn't change the fundamental nature of sexuality. It doesn't change the existential questions that sexual behavior raises in people and I think there is a concomitant rise in resistance and supression. Visibility of sexual behavior and sexual orientation and sexual identity always have brought forth a proportional resistance. In the last twenty years we see a dramatic rise in fundamentalism and even violent repression of sexual identity. So it's easy for liberal Americans to say, "Oh everything is so much better now because of the Internet," but if you actually go and look at what's on the Internet it's not very different and the conversation is not particularly different, and there is definitely a backlash. I think if you look at the history of sexual expression and sexual orientation you see the same pattern. This is human history, this is the same pattern that we've always seen.
So what has the Internet actually changed with regard to sex?
I've been following all the sexting lawsuits and dramas that have happened; they're terribly terribly sad. It's easy to say that isn't it wonderful that we can have access to fetish material that would be difficult to find and allow people with minority sexual expressions to find each other, but at the same time the erosion of privacy is devastating to many people. And dangerous to many people. The same thing in fundamentalist cultures, the Internet has allowed people to get together and find each other in terms of resistance to authoritarian government but it has also exposed people in very dangerous ways. So, I always work in the territory of ambivalence and ambiguity. I think we have to recognize that the Internet is an ambivalent technology.
Going back to what you were saying about how the existential questions about sex have not changed, what are some of those questions?
Well, you're going to have a different answer to this than I am. Everybody is going to have their own existential abyss in sexuality. The only thing I'd be sure of is if you say you don't, you're not paying attention. The nature of sexual behavior is to expose oneself in particular ways -- not to say that you can't have perfectly comfortable anonymous sex with groups of strangers. There still remains this exposure, this vulnerability that is part of sex and I think a necessary part of sex, because if you want to talk just in biological terms, sexual behavior creates intimacy, which creates relationships, which creates community and family and protects the species. I think there is a reason why humans and primates have evolved sexuality which causes us to have a psychic response. That existential question of, "Am I being seen? Am I being recognized? Am I safe being seen this way?" will always be with us. To the extent that we can move into that it deepens the physical experience. I'm not saying sex is better if you love somebody. I think it is for some people, it is probably for most people, but I'm talking about the ability and willingness to be really seen. Those questions will always be there.
I think the question we really don't talk about very much, and maybe this is something that has changed a little bit with the Internet, is: What do you do? What's it like for you? What happens behind your bedroom door? Everybody asks that question, everybody wants to know what other people do. The Internet has allowed us to see performance a great deal more easily including the dramatic rise in amateur porn. But it is performance based, still. To truly see unscripted, spontaneous sexual activity is rare, and I think that question is always with us, "What do you do and how does it feel?"
How has porn changed since the days you were boldly venturing solo into sex shops?
Not much, Tracy! Not much! Nina Hartley has lessons for men on her website where she'll say, This is how you do oral sex and this is how you stimulate this part of a woman. She shows them how to do. We had our books, "The Joy of Sex" and things like that, but now it's a little easier to learn, just like cooking, to really watch somebody do it. Nina also, bless her, models being an older woman and has told me that she really wants to continue to make pornography for the middle-aged and older-middle-aged woman to show that that doesn't change. Candida Royalle is doing that as well. It's women who are leading the fray there of saying, "This is what we want from sex. This is what sex can be like."
But plain old straightforward pornography, if you put in a few keywords and get taken to some standard triple-X site? Gosh, it looks the same. The same tropes are there. Young girls in schoolgirl uniforms. Girl-on-girl action. Inflated boobs will never go away, I guess. The same trope of the insatiable woman is always there. The virile, enduring male character is always there. Maybe now it's more frequently omnisexual and bisexual and so on, but the underlying trope is the same. The presentation of bodies is largely the same.
What the Internet can show you is what there is a market for. There definitely a market for feet. There will always be a market for feet. There will always be a market for leather and I leave it to others to go more deeply into what that is expressing, but certain things just recur for forever in our sexuality. Bondage and domination will always be with us, and that one's a little more obvious to me why so many people have those fantasies.
I feel like we're always hearing that porn is becoming more extreme, but it sounds like you don't believe that.
I think it's easier to see the extreme side of porn, that's all. And what do they mean by extreme? Extreme to you is not extreme to me. Extreme is a very subjective word. From a vanilla point of view there's a lot of extremes in sex that maybe from my individual point of view that behavior that makes you uncomfortable is very normative and vanilla to me. We always have to start out talking about sex by saying, "What's your norm?" Not, "What is normal?" I reject that question.
So many people seem concerned with and preoccupied by that questions of, "Am I normal? What is normal?"
Right. And that's just another part of, "What do you do?" If I don't know what you do and I don't know what you like and I don't know what it feels like for you, I'm worried about whether I'm okay. Pornography can be a teacher. For a lot of young men it's the first time they see or think about oral sex, and that would be a positive. But the backside of that is this idea that women orgasm in the first 30 seconds of intercourse, without foreplay. Not true!
You mentioned earlier that bondage is always gonna be around, that there will always be a desire for that, and that it's clear to you why that is. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Maybe in 500 years or 5,000 years our socioeconomic identities will have changed so much that we no longer need to experience power in these ways. And when I say bondage and domination, I think it can be very, very subtle. It does not have to be leather and spanking. It can be a very subtle desire to give up power in a vulnerable situation. Sex being a vulnerable situation and the choice of "I really want you to lead, I want you to tell me what to do," it doesn't have to me forceful or fascistic on any level. It can just be the giving up of power or the taking of power in a vulnerable situation. I think that will always be with us, because we don't share power equally in social situations, we don't share power equally politically, economically, in any way. We have more power than we should in some realms and far too little in others. So in a vulnerable, exposed, intimate environment, it seems perfectly natural to me that we would choose to either reexperience our vulnerability, our lack of power or powerlessness, or try to experience the other side of it. That we would play with those roles and those dynamics. It can be dramatic and acted out, it can take a lot of forms and it can also be very subtle. When actual physical pain is involved, I think everybody understands that pain and pleasure share neurons. If you've ever worried a sore tooth you know that there is something pleasurable about pain. So why are we surprised that sometime a bit of sharp pain can mix with pleasure? Then, humans being who they are, they add this marvelous psychodrama to it and have created this elaborate network of behaviors. We can experience real danger in our sexuality but oddly enough only within an environment that is safe in a more spacious way.
What do you think about where we currently are with the feminist debate over pornography?
I don't even know if there is such a thing because it's very hard for me at this point to tell you what feminism is. I'm so taken aback by young women who reject the label. I'm so taken aback by independent, forceful young women who have ambition and are moving forward in their lives and say, "But I'm not a feminist." I guess we always forget our history. But there's a lot of young women out there who have no idea what they've got. They have no idea how much has been done on their behalf. I guess part of feminism is you can call yourself whatever you damn well want. If you don't want to call yourself a feminist you don't have to. But it's a little sad to me that the label would be rejected as somehow insulting or old-fashioned.
So, the feminist debate about pornography? There's a book called "Wetlands," a novel by a German woman that came out a year or two ago and I reviewed it for the New York Times. I thought it was just an awful book. It was kind of a "Fifty Shades of Grey" for young women testing boundaries. One thing I said in the review is that I was startled to see all these women responding to that book as though it was the first time it had ever been said. That they had no clue what a sexual literature was. They had no clue how many great books were out there and waiting for them. Maybe we always discover fire.
I think younger women too have mistaken being able to talk about sex with not being afraid of sex. You can talk about it, but that doesn't mean that it feels okay.
The feminist debate about pornography, we have to start from scratch. What is feminism? What is pornography? Define your terms and then we can talk. But I will always reject knee-jerk generalizations: Pornography is bad. Pornography exploits women. Pornography is good. It's much more complex and ambiguous than that. In the new introduction to the book, I talk about how of course there's a dark side to sex work. There's a dark side to working at McDonald's. There's a dark side to our inequality. There's a dark side to women not having as a much financial power as men.
And I'm always stunned by how many conversations about pornography take place without anybody who works in pornography, or even consumes pornography.
How did the book change your life, specifically your relationship to sex?
You know, I was surfeited for quite some time! [Laughs] And then I just forgot it. It allowed me to explore my own inner landscape pretty well, for a large part it was consoling and comforting to my personal anxieties about myself as a sexual being. I feel really pretty unapologetic about who I am sexually -- I'm 56, would I feel that way now anyway? I don't know. It had more impact on my work as a writer, in a somewhat negative way. I was too young to really handle the kind of fame it brought. I'm only now probably not getting asked to write about sex on a regular basis. In response to not wanting to be characterized as a sex writer for the rest of my career, I really bent over backward to write less commercial work -- and here I am, a very uncommercial writer.
The thing that's most pleasing to me is that when I sat down to read it after probably sixteen, seventeen years, it held up. I was pleased about that.