Lisa Palac is a big-time bad girl: a Catholic schoolchild and nursing student turned career pornographer and techno-sex queen. Her new book,
The Edge of the Bed: How Dirty Pictures Changed My Life, traces her raunchy ride from virgin to whore to wife — by way of the Madonna. The eroticism of Catholicism, the eroticism of e-mail, her friendship with sex icon Susie Bright, her editorship of the cyber-porn magazine Future Sex and her vaginal adventures in Vegas are all offered up for the entertainment of vanilla voyeurs and sexual pioneers alike.
I first read Lisa’s essays a number of years ago, and I teach one of them in my freshman writing classes — about learning to get off on pornography with a video called “Aerobisex Girls” and about
publishing a sex-zine in college. The students love it. They tell me they never knew women could feel “that way” about sex, and they try to re-define porn based on Lisa’s pro-sex position. And
therein lies the difference between me and Lisa: she writes erotica, beats off to it, celebrates it. I’m more likely to use it as a way of discussing expository writing with a group of sexual neophytes.
I am, at best, only a small-time bad girl. I’ve written a book called Tongue First: Adventures in Physical Culture in which I chronicle my responses to strip shows and sex manuals, nude beaches and racy lingerie (along with acupuncture, heroin and sensory deprivation tanks), but my approach to sex is really pretty standard-hetero. I may find drag queens attractive and be willing to have my picture taken naked, but that doesn’t make me a sex radical. I haven’t even had that many lovers.
Lisa says in her book that when people ask how she got so interested in sex, she answers that it’s partly, though only partly, because of her Catholic upbringing — and maybe that’s the major difference between us. I was raised in a hippie commune full of brown rice, armpit hair and probably free love (I was too young to know for sure), so perhaps that’s why my erotic practices remain safely in the range of the culturally sanctioned — nothing was dirty, so there was no thrill of transgression.
I found The Edge of the Bed witty, articulate and brave — but also a little frustrating. What’s most remarkable is how homey it is. Writers like Sallie Tisdale and Nicholson Baker make
themselves nearly invisible behind their subjects. Others, like Anka Radakovitch and Candace Bushnell, present dramatic, babelicious personas to the book-buying public. Neither group would offer snapshots of themselves as sad-faced kids at First Communion, or confess to singing along to the music of Andrew Lloyd Weber. Lisa does both, and acts in lesbian fuck films besides. Her book gives us family album and fantasies in a single package, taking a step toward making getting off seem like an everyday activity, part of the larger continuum of life — which, of course, it is.
What’s frustrating is that in places, in the midst of this headlong confession, Palac clams up. When she decides to marry Andrew, surfer man and travel writer, she says, “It is completely possible to be devoted to your partner and make room for erotic dalliances.” What I wanted to know was: How much room gets made? How do they communicate such a need to one another? And how does one keep from getting lost in all that space? I was also disappointed to find that the woman who writes an awesome sentence like, “The last sexual frontier isn’t some intergalactic tactile data fuck: it’s your ass,” never tells me how she reached that frontier for the first time, or whether she’s found it worthwhile to make repeat visits.
To be fair, The Edge of the Bed may have been a worse book if Lisa revealed all the things I want to know. Chronicles of bonking and bodily fluids can start to wear after a couple hundred pages. Still, I was glad to get a chance to interview her and pose at least a few of the questions I’ve grappled with in my own forays into sexual culture.
I met Lisa in a Manhattan restaurant, to which I earnestly wore my best sex-babe outfit: knee-hi boots, short black dress, white leather coat. She arrived in shorts and a t-shirt, looking more California earth goddess than porn provocateur, and talked to me for more than an hour about lust, leather, literature and lesbians.
EMILY JENKINS: What are you going to do next?
LISA PALAC: I’m not exactly sure. Writing this book was really intense . . . I’ve been toying with doing a book about women and surfing . . .
JENKINS: You can surf?
PALAC: Oh, yeah. I can stand up and ride the waves. And if I can do it, anyone can.
JENKINS: I think my problem with surfing is the same as my problem with B&D. I don’t like any sports with gear.
In The Edge of the Bed, you say you were disappointed in Susie Bright’s appearance when you first met her. So now that you’re a sexpert yourself, what do you wear?
PALAC: I’ve always really enjoyed outrageous clothes. Ever since I was little. My mom was a fashion
plate . . . When I was in college, whatever I wore was really my statement to the world: I’m different. Very cliched, very punk rock. Bright pink hair, leather pants. But I used to wear my heart on my sleeve because that’s all people saw. Now that I can express my ideas in this book and people can read about them, I don’t feel as pressured to dress in a way that’s outstanding. I’m more comfortable being casual. And I’ve been living in Santa Barbara, working at home and never getting out of my pajamas.
JENKINS: You look great in your photos, but you’re not naked. I was determined not to have a naked lady on the front cover of my book. But then I myself ended up practically naked on the back cover. I tell myself it’s relevent because I talk a lot about public nudity in Tongue First, but I still feel a bit conflicted about it. Are you getting naked to promote your book?
PALAC: I’ve done my share of getting naked. Well, I don’t know if I was ever totally naked, but you know: coy, titillating, half-naked, semi-naked, conveniently naked but in front of a couch . . . I was in Future Sex and I posed for Annie Sprinkle’s Pleasure Activist playing cards. People are interested in looking at naked pictures of people. I certainly am. But when you present yourself to the media it opens you up to criticism. And there’s the bimbo factor. I won’t pose nude for any publicity for this book.
JENKINS: What do you think of Elizabeth Wurtzel on the cover of Bitch?
PALAC: Her publisher totally airbrushed her nipples off the cover! It encapsulates the whole attraction/repulsion to nudity in this culture. We want to see her naked, but we can’t show her nipple.
JENKINS: I have a lot of questions about your sex life and how it’s represented in The Edge of the Bed. Why is there no lesbian sex?
PALAC: There was nothing too private to put in the book. The only details I left out were when I didn’t really have a story to tell. And one of the best lesbian stories I have was already published in a book called Surface Tension. I didn’t want to repeat it.
JENKINS: Reading [leather fetishist and culture critic] Pat Califia, I get a lot of little details about a scene she’s done or an encounter she’s had. I know what she wore, what kinds of toys she used, who was being paid. She provides a sexual showpiece on which she bases her analysis. You don’t give your audience those details, nor do you do that kind of micro-examination. Is there a reason behind that choice?
PALAC: It’s just a stylistic thing. Pat’s style is different from mine . . . I do say in the book some people sleep with people of the same sex for love — or money, or both — and that certainly I have. And there was Venus, the night of the birthday party.
JENKINS: Yeah, but what’s going on sexually with her is not entirely clear.
PALAC: [laughs] It was pretty hot. Hey, what about the scene where Susie [Bright] and I were making out?
JENKINS: That was just kissing.
PALAC: She was feeling me up! See, there’s your lesbian scene. With America’s most famous lesbian!
JENKINS: The reason I’m fixating on this is because you talk about sexual boundaries, and for me lesbian sex is on the other side of a boundary. And I think that’s true for a lot of people. What boundaries exist for you?
PALAC: Living in San Francisco, you can just be on a bullet train through the boundary department .
. . I didn’t have any hard and fast rules, except for some really basic things: I wasn’t going to have sex with a child, I wasn’t going to have sex with an animal, I wasn’t going to eat shit . . . Other than that, I was pretty fluid. When I first read Susie’s essay on lesbian fist-fuckers I thought, What are these people talking about? And lo and behold, it ended up being something I tried myself. But I never thought, What else can I do for a kick? I just wanted to try things when the time felt right.
JENKINS: There are photos in your book: baby photos, geeky school photos, old boyfriend photos, a wedding picture. It brings this sexual underworld — which is obviously not an underworld for you — into the realm of families and weddings.
PALAC: The point of the photos is that people live all kinds of lives and it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I fell in love, I got married, I developed friendships, I worked . . . It wasn’t as if I went off down some rabbit hole in San Francisco and only wore leather and didn’t come up for air until fourteen years later. On some level I’m traditional.
JENKINS: You have a lot of people’s photos in your book, and you’re telling really intimate stories. How did they react?
PALAC: Everyone whose photo appears in my book is pretty much a ham. No one minded. My old boyfriend, Greg, actually asked me if I would please use his last name. He’s very proud of it, like his golden moment was being my boyfriend. Isn’t that funny? He’s my biggest groupie.
JENKINS: I couldn’t get any sex out of my boyfriend this week because he has the flu, so perhaps the section in your book about men refusing sex rang inordinately true — but I think you’re right! Lots of men don’t want to do it, and a lot of them are very sexually conservative. The only woman I know who is getting enough is gay.
PALAC: I’m getting enough.
JENKINS: Thank god someone is.
PALAC: About the men saying no: I had trashed the notion that women are supposed to be timid and unsure about sex. I said, Fuck that. Obviously. Yet, even though I had destroyed this stereotype for
myself and for other feminist women, I still held men to the stereotype that all they think about is sex and they want it all the time.
JENKINS: That’s what a lot of them say about themselves.
PALAC: I found out the hard way that once women start saying yes, and call that bluff, men don’t want sex as much as they thought they did — or as much as we thought they did. I can’t tell you how many guys wanted to get to know me first, before we slept together. And a lot of men say no. I realized I had changed my definition of women’s sexuality, but I hadn’t really changed my definition of men’s sexuality. And how progressive is that? Not very.
JENKINS: The amount of sex I imagine you have, I don’t know how you even find time to be doing it all. At one point in the book you get it on for five hours. I thought, how did she even stay awake for five hours?
PALAC: The marathon sessions are not as frequent as they used to be.
JENKINS: Are there any erotic books that have inspired you?
PALAC: The Story of the Eye by George Bataille . . . It’s an incredibly bizarre farce about young kids. All they want to do is suck and fuck and piss on each other. Some of them get carted away to mental institutions and then they go to a bullfight in Spain where the matador gets his eyeballs gouged out and at the same moment this one woman takes a bite of these bulls’ balls that have been presented to her. When I read that book I couldn’t decide if it was supposed to be really hot, or just really silly. I’ve always been influenced by writing that I felt was absurd, and also really erotic — things that encapsulate all these emotions. That’s what’s the sexual experience is all about.
JENKINS: All the sex manuals I pick up either make me laugh or tell me nothing new. Are there any that you think are worth reading?
PALAC: Have you read The Erotic Mind by Jack Morin? Oh, man. That is an incredible book. He wrote Anal Pleasure and Health which was an anal sex how-to book — very popular, as you can imagine. He also did Men Loving Themselves, which was about men and masturbation . . . He says many people steal from bookstores because they’re too embarrassed to buy it. In The Erotic Mind . . . he has this erotic equation. It’s so basic, and so true. Attraction plus obstacles equals excitement.
JENKINS: What was the first piece of sexual writing you ever showed to anyone?
PALAC: My “editor’s column,” which I did for my own little Xeroxed sex zine, Magnet School. It was the very first thing I wrote about the contradiction I was feeling between anti-porn feminist politics and my own personal explorations into porn. It’s about 200 words and I agonized over it for weeks.
JENKINS: What kinds of media are available for women writing erotica?
PALAC: I just got this great bit of news: finally, there is going to be a journal called The Erotic Writers Market Guide, edited by Lawrence Schimel. People have been asking me how they can connect with other erotic writers for years, and now I finally have the answer!
JENKINS: You are part of a wave of memoirs that has come under a fair amount of media fire.
PALAC: At first, I paid far too much attention to that criticism. Every time I picked up a magazine
it said something like, “Oh, more people talking about themselves and their little lives and their intimate details. Do we really need to know?” And I’d think maybe I should be more ivory tower, maybe I should be more third person, and I didn’t trust my story. I felt like I was just a woman talking about sex, and that [the magazines] were right, it was trivial and stupid. And it’s not . . . This is a story that I need to be telling. What is there to write about, if not the human drama?
JENKINS: Do you think writing about sex can ghettoize women?
PALAC: My greatest hope is that more straight guys will start writing about their own sexual lives, and fantasies and identities. Then, not only will it not be a ghetto market, we’ll gain insight into this incredibly silent group.
JENKINS: I’m still replaying a lot of hackneyed sex fantasies I developed around age eighteen. As a writer of erotica, how do you, uhh . . . stimulate your imagination?
PALAC: Like any writer, I draw on all sorts of sources for my imagination, sexual or otherwise. I certainly don’t just read erotica to get turned on. Sometimes the smallest thing — the way someone looked at me, for example, can be enough to spark a fantasy. Of course, the old standbys are still in use, much the same way I like to see the same movie over and over again.
JENKINS: Give me some sexual advice.
PALAC: Well, I didn’t write a how-to-book.
JENKINS: Yes, but you have set yourself up as an authority. You’ve spent fourteen years thinking about this stuff and many of us have thought about it for maybe five minutes.
PALAC: My one little sex message is this: Sexual things are the hardest and most contradictory things to be honest about, and being honest about my sexual identity made me able to be honest about many other things in my life. It wasn’t just: “Here’s my orgasm, and here’s my clit, and here’s my vibrator and here are all these kinky things I did!” Well, it is that . . . But sex is fraught with contradiction and ambivalence and guilt and shame as well as being empowering and wonderful and life-giving and spiritual. And coming to terms with sex has allowed me to come to terms with the rest of my life.
Emily Jenkinsand Nerve.com