In Praise of Dirty Words

Reading aloud words you know will arouse a crowd is exciting, but also daunting. A few weeks ago, I took the stage at Williamsburg's Galapagos for their "Smut" series. I warmed them up with a fan letter from a guy who wants to go to a Yankees game with me and take turns spanking each other in the stands. The laughs came easily; then it was time for the smut.

I read my new story, "Spike," about a dominant woman who buys a set of high heels that make her feel extra-tough, then takes out her aggression (and affection) on her latest love slave, Jack. There's no tiptoeing around the fact that the tale is meant to titillate, not just because it uses words like cock, ass, and smack, but because it evokes raw human urges for attention, caretaking, lust, teasing, dominance, and submission. The story is fiction, but was inspired by real-life events. When I finished, I climbed off the stage in my own version of fuck-me heels. Many of the hipster patrons had never heard erotica read aloud. Even at an event with the provocative title "Smut," people were coming up to me flushed, hot, and bothered. One guy told me he was so aroused he had to go smoke his first cigarette in four months.

It's exhilarating but also unnerving to speak aloud my dirtiest fantasies, the ones I give free rein to on paper but sometimes balk at sharing publicly. Knowing that strangers sitting before me are getting turned on as I read words that got me wet and horny while I wrote them is at once a thrilling rush of power and a responsibility I never quite know how to deal with—an odd kind of mass foreplay.

A married father of two recently e-mailed me that my story "Gloss," which is pure down-and-dirty raunch that brings the phrase "lip gloss blowjob" to its naughtiest conclusion, is one of his all-time favorites. Reading his words, I realized that when you write about sexual acts that people don't often discuss, you create an intimacy with your audience. I've certainly read erotica that has affected my sex life in multiple ways: jerking off to the story as I read it, imagining myself in place of the characters, and incorporating some of the specifics into my sexual practices. Erotica can be an educational, or simply an erotic and entertaining, tool. Other times, erotica says more about what's going on in our hearts than down below. I did a reading at Yale with my fellow Voice columnist Tristan Taormino for her anthology Best Lesbian Erotica 2005, and after reading my true breakup story "The End," I had several people come up to me and relate their own sad tales, knowing I'd understand their pain.

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Connecting with strangers over naughty words brings me to the subject of the recently deceased Andrea Dworkin, the pioneering anti-porn crusader largely responsible, with law professor Catharine MacKinnon, for more than one generation of ardent feminists' anti-porn beliefs. I should know, because I'm one of them. During college, I even volunteered to work on Dworkin's website, where more than 10 years later, you'll still find my name listed as one of her supporters, even though I no longer consider myself to be one. People sometimes wonder how I could go from that end of the spectrum to where I am now, but the progression makes perfect sense to me. I grew up with strong feminist beliefs, which I still hold. Back then, I thought porn only existed for men, by men, and that a photo of, say, a woman tied up meant a single thing: a guy getting off on a woman's pain. But I'd just started having sex, had never watched a porn video and, more importantly, had never been tied up myself. The confluence of experiencing all these things I'd only read about in books such as Dworkin's, and finding that my body reacted to them in ways far different from my trying-to-be-liberal mind, helped me rethink porn and erotica. I realized they weren't just "issues" to be debated, but real, tangible things that could viscerally affect people's libidos, especially mine.

I'll never forget sitting in my law school classroom, discussing the topic of BDSM in a clinical, academic way. As people speculated with disdain about why certain kinky acts should or shouldn't be illegal, I desperately wanted to raise my hand and talk about how I'd been visiting a lover in Virginia that weekend, how he'd whipped me with his belt and verbally degraded me, and I'd loved every minute of it, even if I didn't totally understand my response. But I kept silent. Why? Because the idea of taking the topic from the legal and impersonal to the experiential, of everyone staring at me as if I might be crazy, was petrifying. It's that very silence that makes it easy for views like Dworkin's to take hold in young, well-meaning women's minds. On the surface, the idea that a photo of a woman tied up with rope is sick, wrong, and sexist might make sense. But when we parse art, eroticism, and desire as clinical legalities, we miss all of the nuance, texture, and variety that go along with sex. Just as a XXX picture may be worth a thousand words, so may an orgasm, fantasy, or attraction.

I wrote my first dirty words because I wanted to finally be able to share with others what my sexual psyche looks like, without fear or embarrassment. I'm certainly not the only one: The erotica business is booming, with authors like Zane publishing multiple books every year, and readers gobbling up explicit tales in novels, anthologies, and magazines, and online (visit for a sampling). Turning people on is a social good; it expands our erotic imaginations, lets us see new ways of looking at and defining sex, and helps us figure out what we do and don't desire. Some may squirrel away their favorite naughty novel, whether it's Anaïs Nin or Buttmen, while others may read smut in public or to lovers. I'm proud to be a pornographer, erotic author, or whatever other title people want to throw my way. I'd rather own, acknowledge, and revel in my raciest thoughts than ever feel shamed or silenced again.

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