Anyone who has read anything of mine, from the dedication of my novel to my first book review here on my site, knows that I absolutely adore the two erotic novels that Pam Rosenthal wrote in the 1990’s as Molly Weatherfield, Carrie’s Story and its sequel Safe Word. I sing their praises at every chance, defend them on Twitter. Those two novels, more than any other erotica I have found, wormed their way deep into my brain with their brilliant erotic imagination—the elaborate and sometimes fantastical world-building, the self-aware intelligence, oh yes the torments and the sex, and more than anything the fascinating main character, Carrie.
Carrie is the smartest erotic heroine (or hero) I have yet found. Unlike certain other submissive English majors, she actually paid attention in class, and knows what the hell she is talking about. Her intellectual dissections of her sexual predicaments are one of the things that make these novels unique—she makes Theory sexy! I would even credit the character of Carrie—and thus her creator, Molly/Pam—with my decision to go ahead and devote my website to at least somewhat deep analyses of erotic novels and films. If I find thinking about erotica hot, surely there must be others out there who do as well.
In the introduction to the 2003 edition of Carrie’s Story, Ms. Rosenthal relates a formative story of how, in college in the ‘70’s, she was invited to attend an anti-pornography rally—and decided against it. She realized the organizers of the rally were trying to “protect” other women from what she herself had been so attracted to, as well as confused by, in her youth—S/M porn. She couldn’t very well deny others that same baffling internal journey for themselves, that had made her what she was.
Naturally, I was dying to know what these early books of Pam’s might have been. So I asked her! I invited Pam to write an installation of Kinked Ink, for which the central questions have always been, “What’s your favorite erotica?” “What has influenced you to write it?”
Here is her response:
The first of my two foundational books came from a remainder table, in a bad translation, crudely abridged. I raced through most of it on the Long Island Railroad and finished it late that night in my pink suburban bedroom, as thrilled by the feverish, compulsive hectoring as I was by the lurid goings-on, helplessly complicit with that whacked-out authorial voice of reason gone amok.
The second—newly published in its minimalist white Grove Press cover—was cool and stylish, its manicured prose as drop-dead chic as the fetish costumes and décor it imagined. But below the surface, I could still hear the relentless French philosophizing, the unanswerable whys of outrageous, escalating desire meticulously voiced by a woman whose honesty was an audacious challenge, even to a reader as clueless as I was.
Because that’s how it works with certain kinds of precocious, barely understood knowledge. Reeling from its impact, before you know it you’ve locked yourself into a secret bargain to try to understand what hit you. Which is why, I think, I was so frustrated by lesser, milder stroke books that didn’t add anything to my early intuitions. Giving credit where credit is due, a stray Gor book passing through my hands yielded a cherished detail I loved using in my Carrie books—but oy, that swords-and-sorcery writing style: I was never able to read another in the series.
It now seems to me that, during my first decade of marriage and early years of motherhood, the hottest things I read were Susan Sontag’s essays “The Pornographic Imagination” and “Fascinating Fascism.” But it would be a few more years before I could come to terms with my inner theory-groupie. And so I pretty much put my fantasies on lockdown, handy to call to mind during sex, but otherwise scrupulously ignored while I occupied myself with other things—most particularly second wave feminism, with its mind-blowing discoveries, life-changing decisions, and mind-numbing orthodoxies.
Until one day a friend showed me a brilliant, badass, minority feminist polemic in a gay newspaper. And the polemic saved my life by engaging my sexuality, my politics, and my intelligence in a way I had never been able to do for myself.
The article was called “A Secret Side of Lesbian Sexuality1.” The newspaper was The Advocate, December 27, 1979. The author, Pat Califia, wrote: “As I understand it, after the wimmin’s revolution sex will consist of wimmin holding hands, taking off their shirts, and dancing in a circle. Then we will all fall asleep at exactly the same moment. If we didn’t all fall asleep, something might happen, something male-identified, objectifying, pornographic, noisy, and undignified. Something like an orgasm.”
And I thought, Oh my God. And ran to Castro Street to hunt down my own copy.
Who was this woman? And how was it that a leather lesbian sadist was talking directly to me? You know how exciting it is when you can’t solve a problem—perhaps you don’t even know there is a problem—and then suddenly you get a clue that changes everything? The essay led me directly to pro-sex feminism, a fledgling conversation between brave, bright women who were beginning to stir the mess of ideological pottage that had been traded to us by the movement that had changed our lives in so many important ways. Some of these women were lesbians and some weren’t. Some were activists like Susie Bright and Carol Queen; others were activist academics like Gayle Rubin and Ann Snitow. And just about all of them were wonderful writers.
But Califia was my gateway drug2, at least in part because that essay, fearlessly combining argument and autobiography, was the best stroke literature I’d encountered in years. I read and reread it for the author’s detailed descriptions of a first date with a new bottom. I read it again for the sense of her argument, and then again in awe of her chops as a writer, the depth and lucidity of her metaphors. “Fall asleep at exactly the same time” is a brilliant takedown of the fear of erotic performativity, the prudery that can’t bear to look or to expose itself to scrutiny. The circle-dance metaphor totally nails kitsch political groupthink. Years later, when I encountered the same dance image in Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, I could only marvel that Pat Califia had gotten there first and better, in a torrent of angry eloquence, coruscating wit, and wall-to-wall hotness.
Because it turns out my inner theory-groupie had been onto something after all. At least since Sade, there’s been a tradition of eroticism on the border between sex and sense, body and mind, instinct and strategy. The 80s and 90s pro-sex feminists became my Enlightenment pamphleteers, my Diderots and Tom Paines. For me, as for more of us than I’d imagined, sex is best and realest when it’s fraught with meaning, redolent with symbol, born in contention, and sometimes (toppling under the weight of all that significance) unpredictably, uproariously funny.
Since that turning point, there have been a host of erotic writers—story-tellers, critics, and theorists—I care about. Sometimes a whole book, an insight or a fiendishly clever detail: the truth I take away from each of them is of a sexuality of narrative invention, craft and intentionality; of argument, negotiation, and theorizing so intense it activates the muscle fibers; erotic selfhood too proud of its desires to sentimentalize them or explain them away (I’m looking at you, EL James, and not in a good way); and a conversation that continues in this guest blog series and beyond.
Thanks for the opportunity to participate.
 Reprinted in Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Cleis Press, 2000  She also wrote some very hot fiction—see Janine Ashbless’s Kinked Ink discussion of the story collection Macho Sluts. And “she” is now Patrick Califia, a bisexual trans man—but since the essay I’m discussing was written when he was a woman, I’m using feminine pronoun.