Talking about sex can be dangerous. Especially if you're doing it loudly in a small, quaint, informal café in the hip, gritty-on-the-outside-yet-civilized-at-heart area of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Clad in a long-sleeved tee and jeans, with her long, dark hair splashed with incidental highlights, Tristan Taormino looks younger than her just-turning-35 years of age. Perhaps her most striking features are her heart-shaped face and green eyes accentuated by dark cat-eye frames.
Taormino enjoys talking about sex so much that she's carved the niche of a maverick.
An award-winning author, columnist, editor and radical sexuality educator, Taormino has written three books, lectures at top colleges and universities, teaches "hands-on" workshops and more (visit www.puckerup.com). She's also been referred to as an "anal sex guru" — a apt descriptor given that she wrote the second-ever book on the subject and the only one penned by a woman for women. (Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women was Amazon's No. 1 best-selling women's sex instruction title of 1998.)
As the cafe's noise level increases with additions of music and a juicer, Taormino enthusiastically and articulately dishes her opinions on gender, feminism, sex education and more fun topics that aren't standard brunchtime chat. This notion is evidenced by periodic facial contortions from a nearby Englishwoman — possibly the place's owner or manager — that never quite achieve a full-on cringe but often come close.
Yes, in spite of sexual messages permeating our culture, people still just aren't comfortable talking or hearing too much about sex.
Porn, feminists and bisexuality
Taormino didn't set out on this career path. She had plans to become an activist attorney or public defender after having been involved in political activism at Wesleyan University.
Fate dealt her a round of rejection letters and a couple of wait-listings from the "big" law schools. She recalled a tearful visit to her advisor who had worked with her on her senior thesis addressing lesbian butch-femme identities, when she was told she was good at writing about sex and was advised to give it a try.
"I thought that was crazy," Taormino says. "I thought, 'No, no, no, that's not what I'm supposed to be doing, that's not part of the plan.' "
Her open passion makes it hard to imagine her doing anything else. She began writing erotic fiction based on some of her own experiences but soon decided she wanted to write true stories instead.
Taormino calls to mind a quintessential best girlfriend from high school, the one brash, bold and brave enough to try anything and then bursting at the seams to tell you all the "gorey" details. An opportunity would soon follow via her "Adventure Girl" column for the lesbian sex mag On Our Backs, wherein she would embark on a reader-selected journey into unknown sexual territory such as a masturbation workshop, a session with a professional dominatrix or learning to ejaculate, and then write about it.
"I felt like, 'OK, we're doing it safely, and these people know what they're doing,' " Taormino says. "There's not a lot that embarrasses me, and so I was super game to do anything and everything. One of the results now is there isn't a lot I haven't done. Not to be jaded or anything, but fantasies have been fulfilled, territory has been explored."
Not to mention great field research obtained!
She'd like to put to bed (pun intended) any rash assumptions around labeling her sexuality. Though her partner is a biological woman who prefers using male pronouns, she describes herself as "equal opportunity." She doesn't like the word "bisexual" — it's too polarizing.
"I feel like (it) just reinforces that there's male and there's female and there's nothing else," Taormino explains. "There was a time when you were male or female or you were transsexual, where you were one and you felt like you were the other. Now there are people who identify as gender queer, who identify as a little bit of both. ... It's not just about who I love and lust after, but it's like my whole way of seeing the world."
Mention porn and feminism in the same sentence, and you might be asking for trouble. Taormino believes that two camps of feminism still exist: pro-sex and anti-porn. She recounts her recent stint as a panelist at Yale University.
"One of the women got up and said that porn is prostitution with a camera and that the people who make it are pimps, which is hard to hear from my sister in feminism," she says. "I think the major problem with anti-porn feminists is that, within their arguments, porn is one monolithic thing. Porn is not a monolithic thing. Is there porn out there that's degrading and offensive and humiliating and stupid? Absolutely."
But, Taormino adds, there are so many different kinds of porn: mediocre, boring, hot, inspiring.
"I feel like they're sort of stuck on this model of the worst," she says. "And certainly they can still trot out the worst of the industry and you can see gross things, but that's not all porn."
She ought to know. During her more exhibitionistic days, she took a brief foray into porn. It wasn't an easy sell (read: instructional, for women), but eventually she enlisted a reputable porn director to collaborate with her in producing and directing a couple of sexy and educational videos to complement her anal sex book. In addition to calling many of the shots, after some deliberation she appeared in her videos alongside the pros.
Braless and broke
Growing up on Long Island in the '70s, the first feminist Taormino knew was her mother. Her father came out as gay, though no one "clued her in" until she was about 16.
Her parents divorced when she was a baby, and her mother wanted to remain completely independent, refusing to accept child support. Before collapsing into giggles, Taormino quips, "To me, I associated feminism with being braless and broke."
Today, feminism means two things to her.
"It's absolutely about choice and women having the right and the opportunity to choose what they do with their lives, their careers, their bodies and their sexuality," she says. "Feminism is also about the political struggle to acknowledge that the playing field is uneven and to work toward rectifying that."
Although Taormino is undeniably outspoken, she stops just shy of being in-your-face and maintains a friendly, approachable demeanor, an essential trait for getting sex workshop attendees to open up with their most personal concerns. One of the constants — and she believes sex columnist Dan Savage would tell the same story — is that, whatever issues people write to them about, the bottom line is almost always, "Am I normal?"
"As I talk to people about sex, obviously, every day," she says, "I think people want information and want a sense of validation that they're not a freak. You know, it's rare that people reveal a fantasy or a turn-on to me that I've never heard before. Very rare. And they think that they're way out there and I'm like, 'You're just as far out there as the person I talked to yesterday. Maybe you guys can connect!' "
Problems arise when people are bombarded with the mixed messages inherent in mass media's pervasive sexual imagery and resulting disconnection from the lack of substance behind it.
"We can't escape (sexual images), and they sort of drive us to go buy things or try to look a certain way or be a certain way," Taormino says. "But there's no real information or education that's connected with those images. A 12-year-old girl can learn how to dress provocatively from Britney Spears, but she has no idea where her clitoris is."
This fits nicely into the sticky subject of sex education. Taormino freely admits that the powers-that-be won't let her talk to high school kids, yet she recently received her first-ever request to speak to kids at a public high school in New York.
"You know, we are unwilling to educate children and teenagers about sexuality," she says. "It's why I have a job. Thirtysomething (year old) people come to my workshops because they don't know, because they never learned it. And it's crazy to me. There's all this denial about kids' sexuality. ... It's like we want to keep our kids in this sort of weird bubble of adolescence, which isn't fair and isn't realistic and really just causes more confusion and more bad things like teen pregnancy and teen STD rates going up, depression, all that stuff."
Taormino's model of sex ed would be explicit but adapted appropriately for different age groups and "about giving people real information, about countering myths and misinformation and then about really giving people the tools to discover their own sexuality and feel empowered around it."
She'd also like to remove the heavily scientific, medical institution influences in which modern programs are steeped — right down to the language used.
"I feel like using terms like 'penis' and 'vagina,' which people do not use in the bedroom or in their everyday lives, distances me from the material, which is not my style and sounds clinical," Taormino says. "I'm really done with the metaphors, and I'm done with the charts. We've gotta get way, way, way before the Fallopian tubes. There's a whole shitload of stuff happening before we even enter the Fallopian tubes, and that stuff isn't being talked about."
She points out that many programs spend excessive time scaring young people about STDs and pregnancy rather than addressing the normalcy, health and pleasure of sexual behavior.
"Put forth this message of, 'This is us, this is what we do and it's a positive thing' — you've got to put it all out there," she says.
Risk and responsibility must also be part of the package, according to Taormino, including not only protection of one's physical body but also one's emotional well-being, which is crucial.
It's all tied to cultural fears surrounding sex. Remember that the U.S. is founded on puritanical ideals, with Christianity ("an anti-sex religion") ruling the roost. In terms of general advice, Taormino recommends that people must strive to reprogram their brains to counteract the powerful mainstream media images that dictate what sex should (or shouldn't) look like, sound like or feel like.
"The only way to get to parts of your authentic sexuality," she adds, "is to let go of that (standard) and to find out what really turns you on."
Sexual pleasures and adventures aside, what's been most rewarding for Taormino about her career?
"When someone comes to me ... and says 'I went to one of your workshops or I heard one of your lectures or I read one of your books and you changed my sex life,' " she says. "It's just like anyone else in any other profession. I want to make a difference in this world, and I feel like I can make it in the arena of sexuality."
When Taormino gets up to leave the crowded café, a few relieved patrons actually applaud.
READ MORE WITH TRISTAN TAORMINO
CityBeat: How has your writing and other work, such as your adult films, impacted your personal life and your relationships?
Tristan: Well, you know when I began writing a lot of nonfiction I began doing a column for (lesbian sex mag) On Our Backs magazine called Adventure Girl, and basically they would send me on adventures, things I hadn't already done, sort of new territory. And then I would write about them and sort of take the reader along with, like, how I learned to ejaculate, when I went to a masturbation workshop, you know, all that stuff. And I felt like I was in a place in my life when I seriously would try anything once (she laughs). ...
I've been around and back again, but I think one of the most interesting things about it is that the average person doesn't usually have a sexual experience and then have to sort of analyze and critique and sum it up in 1,100 words, right? It really increased my own awareness about my sexuality. 'Cause it's sort of like I have to go do this and then sort of sit and think 'OK, so how did that make me feel, what buttons did it push, what did it remind me of? And what did I like about it, what didn't I like about it?' I mean, all these questions that certainly some people do ask themselves, but it's not for the everyday experience, but I feel like it's a good thing. I became a lot more, um, self-aware.
But then I wanted to answer the impact on my relationship. You know, I think more than anything (she chortles). ... Let's see, porn is that thing by which I judge everyone. (She's joking.) No, you can write about the smuttiest, craziest stuff and I think people feel relatively comfortable. I do feel like me being in the porn, not just directing porn but being in porn, had a much bigger impact on relationships. Because it certainly is taking it to the next level and a much more public level and a much more permanent level. It's out there forever and so I feel like it had a negative impact on my primary relationship at the time, when I was in my very first video. (That was in 1999.)
It's very funny because, I think this was unconscious, but I don't know ... after only knowing my current partner (a biological female who now prefers using male pronouns) for three months, I invited her (sic) to the set of my next movie. (They've been together for five years now.) I brought her (sic) to the set of the porn movie. It was interesting because there's a lot goin' on and there was a sort of flirting and exchange between me and a male performer, and he was totally fine with it. And I think that that sort of set a certain standard for the relationship, which is that I don't feel like he is threatened by my sexuality, my sexual identity, my sexual openness. I don't feel like he is. It got very quiet then. (We laugh.)
CityBeat: Tell me a little more about your own sexual orientation and your thoughts on bisexuality.
Tristan: I came out when I was a sophomore in college, when I was about 19 or 20, and was pretty strongly identified as queer, which I still am, but I consider myself sort of "equal opportunity." (She laughs.) I don't like the word bisexual, and I don't really identify as bisexual although people call me bisexual. I just like to think of myself as equal opportunity.
(Interviewer mentions that in one of her books, she once described herself as "first come, first served.") I might be a little bit more picky than "first come...", but back in the day... (she chuckles). But things have changed over the years.
I feel like on the Kinsey scale, I'm not saying there's no one, but there are few, few people at one end or the other. I feel like everyone else is essentially in the middle somewhere, but I think that there are all these factors that factor into whether people express their bisexuality or their curiosity or not. And those factors involve the social setting, you know, do you have access to other bi, gay and lesbian people and then do you act on it. I mean, there are all these issues of socialization and internalized homophobia and I feel like, if the time and place and person were right, then everyone would have some sort of experience that maybe contradicted their current identity as heterosexual or as gay, but it doesn't sort of happen that way, we kind of have to pick. So people who identify as bisexual are like 'I don't wanna pick and I'M NOT GONNA pick' and I think it also just raises so much anxiety in people because if you're bisexual, they sort of have to question their own sexuality and their own desires. It really just sort of tweaks them.
But the reason I don't identify as bi is because the definition of bisexual says you are attracted to and/or have relationships with and/or love and/or bond with people of both genders. And I don't believe there are two genders. I feel like the whole bisexual thing just reinforces that there's male and there's female and there's nothing else...
I feel like there was a time when you were male or female or you were transsexual, where you were one and you felt like you were the other. Now there are people who identify as gender queer, who identify as a little bit of both who may favor male pronouns, but have a female body and may also walk in the world and be seen as either gender depending on the person and they're OK with that. And that's very much my partner.
My partner identifies as transgender and uses male pronouns but doesn't sort of discard or dislike his female body and hasn't gone through physical transformation. And he walks in the world and some people see him as a really really really butch dyke and some people see him as a 15-year-old boy — which is one of the problems with tranny boys because they always look younger than they are. (She laughs.) People are like 'Is this your son?' And if I weren't perverted, I would be offended by that, but I'm not offended by it.
Getting back to the question of identity, which is that I identify as queer and so does he, but certainly when he's read as male, people assume that I'm straight and that's sort of his defiance: 'I'm not gonna identify as either one' — that automatically disrupts any sort of sex about my identity. ... If you wanna like, nail me down by your primary partner, you can't, right? Even if I were involved with a so-called heterosexual guy, I would still identify as queer.
CityBeat: How do you establish boundaries between the personal and professional parts of your life? Are there many differences between your public persona and the private Tristan Taormino?
Tristan: Well, there are a few differences. One is that I think people assume that when you're that candid and out there that they know everything about you. The thing that they forget is you know what I've chosen to share with you. There are certain mind-blowing experiences I've had — you know, physical, sexual — that I've never written about. Or that I've written about in a journal, that I haven't written about in The Village Voice, right?
That's the first thing that I think which is sort of misunderstood is that people think they know me, that they know everything about me.
And then, I think that Tristan Taormino, like as the sort of public figure doesn't really have a bad day, you know, like, her dog doesn't pee in the bed and I feel like the assumption that people make about me is that I'm swinging up on the chandeliers in a latex dress 24/7 and I think that they'd probably be surprised to learn that I feel like I live in a world pretty much the same as anyone else, but that's just because I think my world is normal, which obviously, apparently, is not the norm. But I also think that it is important for me to retain certain things about my relationships and myself that are totally private, that I don't share because I can't and I don't want to and I sort of want to retain a sense of privacy.
And then, I think that it's a big, broad question for me, because I feel like once you've created this "persona," it can be quite hard to maintain. There are times when I'm really sick of being me. ... And I feel like I haven't figured out entirely how to (balance the two parts of myself) and I'm working on that now — how to really balance the two.
CityBeat: Do you feel you're not the same person you were five years ago?
Tristan: The truth is, there was a time when I wanted to do everything and I wanted everyone to see it. You know, it's sort of like when people ask me, 'Would you ever perform on video again?' And I'm sort of ambivalent. And a lot of it is because when I did my video I was like, a huge exhibitionist and I was loving it. And I just feel like I'm not in that place anymore.
Yeah, there are just different things that shock and inspire me, and I feel like I engage them in a different way. I don't feel like I want to rush to the front of the line and, like, strip off all my clothes and do something in public. I feel like I've done that and I've learned a lot from it and I love people who do, you know, I love exhibitionists. I just feel like I'm sort of not there anymore.
And another thing is that, as I've gained notoriety, I feel like there's this sort of expectation of me now to behave in a certain way and so when I go to a swingers party or an orgy or an SM event and people are doing some sort of sex or SM play in public, I feel like it's hard for me to play in these public spaces, because people know who I am and I feel like 'OK, what I do could be on someone's blog tomorrow' — which is not cool, but happens. It's happened to me before where they've named me and they don't even ask my permission, I mean it's crazy.
So I feel like, I feel a sort of pressure to perform and pressure to perform is you know, one of the top three things that can kill your sex drive and entire libido. It's like 'Wow! Put pressure on me! I'm feeling sexy!' So that pressure may be completely internalized, but I feel it as external and I feel like there are these expectations of me like OK, if Tristan picks up a flogger, something amazing's gonna happen and I don't want to be that and I would rather play in private as a result.
One thing that people don't know about me: There are times when I can have bouts of shyness, where it's really hard for me to get up in front of a room or talk to a lot of people — more than public speaking, it's sometimes I have these anti-gregarious moments, because I'm a very gregarious person by nature, but there are times when I really like to be alone. And when I say alone, I mean, the only other things around me that can be breathing are maybe animals, but I want to be alone. And sometimes I'm going through a phase where I really want to be by myself and I have to teach a 50-person workshop, where then after the workshop, I have to interact with all 50 of those people on a 1-on-1 basis and be pleasant and focused and listen and open and "on".
And I wouldn't say it's painful, but it's hard. That's the thing — I never want to do anything half-assed. So I don't want to show up somewhere and then just be like checked out or inaccessible or unapproachable. See, that's my whole thing is that I want people to be able to tell me these things and ask me questions and in order for that to be, I have to be totally there and totally open and bring my A game. There's no bringin' the B game. And so sometimes I feel like, I feel like I'm at the M game, way down the fuckin' alphabet and I have to get it up to bring the A game.
I'm really hyper and I have a lot of energy, so I don't think people have a sense that there is ever a time when I want to be quiet or alone and so I feel like people would have trouble believing that about me, but it's quite true. And you can ask my partner!
CityBeat: What do you think about (sex columnist) Dan Savage's belief that people in sexual relationships should be 'Good, Giving and Game' in trying new things?
Tristan: Especially if you're in a relationship, you should be willing to try anything once. Because you're invested in this person and if they come to you and say, 'Hey, I was thinking about worshipping your feet.' Give it a go, at least once. And I also feel like people don't always work at their sex lives and this is something that baffles me because we work really hard at our careers and we work on our families and we work on our health and fitness and we work on our spiritual identities and then we still hang onto this dumb idea that all you need for sex to happen is to put two naked people in a room together and that's just bullshit. It's just total bullshit.
You need to work at your sex life like you work at other parts of your life. And sometimes that means, you know, trying something new and I also think that just as a sort of Dr. Phil might counsel a couple to compromise over a particular issue that they're not agreeing on, but there can be sexual compromise. See, obviously, I don't want people to do things they don't want to do. So I'm not into, 'Well, my husband is really into this and I hate it, but I just do it to please him.' I'm not into that at all. But what I am into is, 'What is the fantasy going on here and how can we form that fantasy so that it works for you also?' How can we come to a compromise, so that people are getting their needs met and people aren't doing things that are totally outside of what they want to be doing. But we're kind of meeting halfway.
That's the other thing. I feel like if people also expect that we're gonna be completely sexually compatible with the person that we first fall in love with and that sexual compatitibility is going to last. Nothing lasts forever; it's all dynamic. And the thing is, that just like someone changes their personality — it shifts slightly. Their sexuality can shift and you've kind of got to be ready to go with the flow. You can't be like, 'OK, but, there was a time when all you wanted was a French maid costume and you're telling me now it's not working for me anymore'? 'I used to love the French maid costume, but it's not working for me anymore. We've got to get something else.' So you've got to be ready to compromise and ready to change sort of dynamically with different times.
CityBeat: What are your thoughts concerning non-monogamy (aka polyamory)?
Tristan: My thing with polyamory and with open relationships is that I don't think it's fair to say, which I feel like sometimes gets put out there, 'Well, if you're sexually adventurous, then you should have an open relationship. And if you're sexually saavy and sophisticated, then polyamory is where it's at.' That's not what I'm saying. But this gets back to choice. Which is: I want people to consciously choose monogamy as the model of relationship that works for them and to acknowledge that it doesn't work for everyone.
See, monogamy is the default, it's the expectation, it's the standard by which we judge all this stuff, so I feel like that, again, monogamy can be satisfying and it can be radical and you can be the most political person and you can be anti-marriage and be monogamous, there are so many possibilities. Monogamy is one thing. My friend Helen and her partner Betty are monogamous and she actually teaches a class on monogamy as a choice and when she explains why monogamy works for her, it's so radical and out there, it blows your mind. What it says to me, is it says, 'Fuck, you've thought a lot about this. You didn't just like take the kit they gave you when you were born: this says straight and I'm just gonna go with what I've got, I'm not gonna trade my cards in for other cards.' She's really thought about it.
The thing with open relationships is just to acknowledge that that works for some people. Not everyone wants one partner and not everyone feels like that one partner can meet all of their needs. The other misconception about open relationships is that it's a total free-for-all. Hey, it's a free-for-all — anything goes! (She jokes.) Not only is it not a free-for-all, it's quite the opposite. It can be very regimented and there can be a lot of rules, commitments that you may put in place that you've got to follow. And so I feel like the majority of the people I know who are in open relationships are really about honesty, negotiation and ethical behavior. It's the opposite of this sort of 'We're just gonna go and fuck whoever we want.'
And I think it's also not just about sex. Sometimes, these relationships can really be. ... I think there are times when not one person can meet all our sexual needs, but there might be a person who can't meet all our emotional needs also. And so I feel like open relationships are another option that I want people to feel empowered to explore.
CityBeat: How do you respond to people who might find your language too frank?
Tristan: I don't say 'penis' or 'vagina.' Again, I don't find words like 'cock' and 'pussy' vulgar and I don't find them offensive. They're what we have — we have cocks and pussies, they're what we use, they're what we play with, they're all that. I feel like using terms like penis and vagina, which people do not use in the bedroom or in their everyday lives, distances me from the material, which is not my style and sounds clinical.
Again, I feel like all of our sex ed is tied up in the institutions of medicine and science and not what people are actually doing in their bedrooms. So I want to get away from that clinical approach and really get in there, down and dirty. And I know that there are some people offended by the word 'pussy,' they think it's a bad word. And I don't do it to offend people and don't do it to shock people, I do it because those are the words that a lot of people use and I feel like 'Let's get to it!' Let's not hide behind these weird terms that, by the way, aren't even sexy! The word 'vagina' — not sexy. The only time I ever hear that term on a regular basis is once a year at the GYN — vagina. Yeah, it's a medical exam, OK?
CityBeat: Now for a fun question: Do you have any good stories of airport baggage searches?
Tristan: The most recent is the tuning fork dildo, which is on my Web site. Before Ray Cirino produced them for us, I had one, which is a one-of-a-kind creation, so there was only one in the world and I was bringing it somewhere and I didn't want to check it in my luggage. There's no way — it's a one-of-a-kind thing. It's worth certainly $500. It's metal, stainless steel, but the new ones are aluminum.
So we got pulled over to go through the luggage and they pulled it out and they were like, 'What is this?' And I said, 'It's a tuning fork' — because it is a tuning fork! It's a working tuning fork, but it looks like a dildo. It's very heavy. They called their supervisors over, you know, everyone's gotta see the crazy thing. Finally, they let us go, but...
CityBeat: We've covered a lot of ground.
Tristan: You're talking to someone who shoots 24 hours of footage for a two-hour movie, so don't worry!