Tristan Taormino ’93 lecturing on her college book tour. All images c/o Taormino.
The editors of The Village Voice wanted someone to write about sex. Dan Savage’s weekly advice column “Savage Love” was gaining popularity and had outgrown its place in the back of the paper, alongside 900 numbers and ads for escorts. Sex needed a new section.
They convened a meeting. The late Don Forst, editor-in-chief at the time, asked if anyone had a writer in mind. One editor suggested the “Adventure Girl” columnist from the lesbian feminist publication On Our Backs. Was that the same woman who wrote that book on anal sex, another editor asked. A third wanted to know if she used to run her own ‘zine.
All three had in mind the same person: Tristan Taormino ’93, author, feminist pornographer, and now, sex columnist. They brought her into the Village Voice offices.
“They said they had one concern: Is there really that much to write about sex? Can you keep that going for a while?” Taormino said. “And of course, I kept it going for almost a decade.
“My answer then, and proves to be, yes.”
As Taormino has shaped her career, her brand of feminism has promoted realistic views of sex and sexuality by keeping politics and ethics at the forefront of her work. She had to carve her own path, but in doing so, she paved the way for dynamic change.
Every Friday, Taormino hosts Sex Out Loud Radio, the top rated show on the VoiceAmerica Talk Radio Network. According to Taormino, her mission, no matter the medium, is to inform people about sexuality and help them figure out their desires and what she calls their “authentic sexual selves.”
“The reason I have a job and continue to have a job is because we as a society are doing such an awful job of educating young people about their bodies, about gender, about sex, about relationships,” she said. “I think that the model we subscribe to right now, the majority of people, is one where sex is about silence and misinformation, withholding information from young people to ‘protect them,’ withholding resources, and shaming people around their sexuality, desires, feelings, fantasies, practices, and identities.”
Around 90% of the sex questions that Taormino receives, through her show, column, social media, or in workshops, revolve around concerns about normality. People are afraid, she said, that the sex they have or want is not correct, not like other people, weird, deviating from social norms.
“We are heavily invested in this mythological thing called ‘perfect sex,’” Taormino said, “and most of us believe we’re not having it.”
For Taormino, who specializes in “alternative” sexual identities, communities, and practices, simply giving permission is an important part of her job. Convincing people that the sex they desire – especially queer, kinky, or even ethically non-monogamous sex – is normal and acceptable is a matter of abolishing the silence and taboo around it.
“We can talk about other things in very specific and direct ways, but when it comes to sex, it’s all mystery and euphemisms and this idea of secrets, which is all really problematic,” Taormino said. “Part of what I do is talk about it in very explicit terms, not to shock people but to model for them that we really need to talk about this, what we’re doing, and what we’re thinking about doing and want to do, in ways that make sense and don’t obscure what we’re trying to say.”
Instead of what Taormino calls “women’s magazine, cutesy, sex-ed lite,” the information she seeks to disseminate is either ignored or sensationalized in popular culture: on sexually transmitted infections, on having orgasms, on concrete techniques.
Beyond her bi-weekly column “Pucker Up,” which ended in 2008, Taormino is the author of seven books and the editor of several more, including the award-winning The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women (Cleis Press, 1997/2006), the Best Lesbian Erotica series (Cleis Press, 1996–2009), and The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure, which was published by Feminist Press last year.
But writing can only explain so much. In Taormino’s essay “Calling the Shots: Feminist Porn in Theory and Practice,” she explains that, while on a book tour promoting The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women, she ran anal sex workshops around the country. But people wanted more. They wanted to know if she would make a video version.
Taormino had to find out: Could pornography be educational? And could sex-ed be sexy?
“I wanted to make a film that not only taught people how to have safe and pleasurable anal sex, but was so hot that after watching it, they were inspired to run out and do it,” Taormino wrote.
In 1999, feminist pornography was still somewhat of a “fringe” movement, striving to be an industry of its own. According to Taormino and other feminists, mainstream porn promotes stereotypical, one-dimensional images of sex and gender, repeating the same activities and power dynamics to the point where they are accepted as “normal.” Feminist pornography interrupts and challenges those assumptions.
“We need more representations of a much more diverse, erotic landscape that reflects what goes in our erotic lives and imaginations,” Taormino said.
Taormino decided that she could make change herself. In addition to directing, producing, and even performing in The Ultimate Guide film and its sequel, Taormino went on to found the adult film production company Smart Ass Productions and create several feminist porn series, including the award-winning Chemistry and Expert Guide series.
As with Taormino’s other projects, her feminist pornography is a conversation. Part of what makes her films “feminist” is how they are produced: ethically and accountably. Taormino said she insures her performers are paid a fair wage, work under safe and comfortable conditions, and participate in the writing process. By treating backstage as important as center stage, Taormino reinforces the value of her performers. She consults with each individual on who in the industry they want to work with, asks them about their actual sex lives, fantasies, and preferences, and then creates the scenes based on those discussions.
Taormino wants her feminist ideals to come across on-screen as well.
“Consent is going to be explicit and ongoing, and nothing is going to be assumed,” Taormino said.
Challenging mainstream porn also requires diversifying who is seen as well as what is seen. Taormino mandates that every film she creates must have people of color, without representing them in demeaning or derogatory ways, as mainstream porn so often does. She seeks to depict sex as it is in real life, and that in itself is a statement.
“I consider my smut-making political,” Taormino writes in her essay. “I think making porn can be a political act, one that is just as valid and valuable as other forms of activism within the feminist movement.”
When in 2010 Taormino received the Feminist Porn Trailblazer Award for 10 years of work in the industry, it seemed to validate the unorthodox trajectory of her career— and it was Wesleyan that set it into motion.
“Wesleyan cracked my mind open on so many levels,” she said. “Socially, politically, sexually.”
Her acceptance into Wesleyan and subsequent liberal arts education – which Taormino, who received 80% of her tuition on scholarship, argued would have been impossible for her to attain without need blind admissions – exposed her to a variety of different viewpoints and perspectives.
“I really developed my own sense of what my politics were,” she said. “There are jokes in feminist circles about, ‘What was your light bulb moment in Women’s Studies 101?’ But I can think of amazing professors and classes that really helped me shape what my feminism would look like and instilled in me this notion that I could go on and have this career in sex and porn and identify as a feminist and explain why. The seeds of all that happened for me at Wesleyan.”
An American Studies major, Taormino spent a year working on a thesis, “Dressing Up and Fleshing Out: Butch/Femme Erotics and Politics All Tied Up,” which not only won an award in her department but in the Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department too. But she did not think her career would follow her academic interests so closely.
“I thought I was going to be an activist lawyer for the people,” Taormino said. “That’s not where my life took me.”
After being waitlisted or rejected from all her law school choices, she went to her thesis advisor, then-Professor of History Claire Potter, for advice.
“I was upset, I was crying, I had a plan but now I had no plan,” Taormino said. “She said to me, very calmly in her typical, very straightforward way, ‘Tristan, I don’t think you want to go to law school, and I don’t think you want to be a lawyer. I think you want to write about sex, and you’re good at it.’ I feel like Professor Potter saw a passion in me that I didn’t see.”
Despite Taormino’s success and passion for Wesleyan, she feels that the school has overlooked or purposefully ignored her accomplishments. For all of her awards and books, not to mention a 10-year stint at The Village Voice, neither the Wesleyan Connection newsletter nor Wesleyan Magazine have written about Taormino or even mentioned her name.
“I am, to my knowledge, the only Wes graduate to have a butt plug named after me,” Taormino said. “I feel like we’re in a place now where Cosmo is having a conversation about feminist porn. In 1998, did anyone want to talk to the girl who wrote about anal sex? No. But now? I’ve been on CNN. It’s part of the larger dialogue.”
But Wesleyan, Taormino suspects, still considers her work risqué, no matter the politics, ethics, and entrepreneurship involved.
“I’m way way way over that spectrum of independent thought and wackiness and forging your own path,” she said. “But I’m still too far out there for the alumni magazine. I’m bummed that every person who ever went to Wesleyan may not know that I went to Wesleyan, but I also live in the real world. And I get it.”
That does not mean that Taormino can’t see the impact of her work on individuals and the progress of the movement as a whole. Even if Wesleyan won’t talk, publications as varied as The New York Times, Fox News, and Playboy will— and already have.
“There’s finally enough feminist pornographers on the planet that we can have complex conversations and we can’t all be fed at one table,” Taormino said. “That’s how you know you’ve made it.”