So You Wanna Be a Sex Writer? Tristan Taormino on Activism, Anal, and Quitting Law School

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In the words of Chef from South Park, "There is a time and place for everything, and it's called college." They say that college is where we send our youths to find themselves. I became an activist in college, and I thought law school was the natural next step. Sex educator Tristan Taormino had a similar trajectory. Taormino was in town recently for OpenSF, a nonmongamy conference. I am always interested in how people become sex educators, sex workers, sex activists, and sex authors, but what I learned was that Taormino's career was not one she planned on.

"I went to Wesleyan University in Connecticut. That's the place where my brain got cracked open and I was exposed to Susie Bright, On Our Backs, Queer Nation, and politics. I became really active politically on campus. I was going to be an activist lawyer." 

Taormino applied to 13 law schools and was rejected or wait-listed for every single one. A state of panic set in for the woman who describes herself as a "planner." Taormino went to meet with her thesis advisor for counseling, and was told:

"Tristan, I don't think you want to be a lawyer, and I don't think you want to go to law school. I think you want to write about sex, and I think you're really good at it." Taormino had done her thesis on sex, but was unsure how on earth to make a career out of that. Taormino's advisor told her to take a year off and see what happened.

"I started writing erotic fiction. It wasn't really fiction; all the stories are true, but I changed the name and identifying information and put composites together. I was really writing about my sex life and my own sexual adventures and sending it out to small publications. I started reading my stuff out loud at random clubs in the city." At the time, Taormino noticed that people who showcased their work did it through zines. So Taormino decided to do a zine of her own, which turned into a perfectly bound 64-page magazine that showcased her writing and the writing of others.

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This was just the beginning for Taormino. She wanted to see just how far she could take this sex career experiment. She and her friend Michael Thomas Hall decided to pitch an idea to Cleis Press, an alternative and queer-friendly publishing company. Together, they pitched the idea of an annual anthology series of the best lesbian and gay erotica. Cleis Press bit, and in 1996 Taormino's first book was born.

Shortly after that, Cleis Press sent out a note saying that they wanted proposals for sex education books. They wanted to start a new series about sex on a single topic. "I sent them a proposal for a book I called The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women. This was a book I wanted to have on my shelf. I'm someone who started having anal sex in college. I really loved it, and I knew I couldn't possibly be the only person out there that liked it."

Cleis was hesitant, but in the end they agreed to take it on. In researching, Taormino looked to her friends and realized that, as much as she knew of their sex lives, no one talked about this particular topic. When she went hunting for information on anal sex in previously published literature, she realized nothing was really written on it. There were chapters on oral sex and a chapter on masturbation, but nothing on anal sex. The only people who were writing about anal sex were gay men for other gay men.

"When the book was finally done, their distributor was really freaked out about it. They said things like, 'I don't know how we are going to sell this book! Who would buy this book? No one is going to bring it up to the counter! Book stores won't shelve it!' A ton of my sales were online, which was a huge turning point. If it wasn't for Amazon, I don't know how people would find the book. I wanted to promote it, but I couldn't do a traditional book signing or reading because no book store would have me. They wouldn't put a sign in the window advertising the book."

So Taormino decided to create a workshop that went with the book and began doing it in stores like Babeland and Good Vibrations. When she did this the first time, she was surprised by the amount of people who came and how diverse they were. Talking to a room full of strangers about sex was so easy and fluid, that in that moment she realized this was exactly what she was born to do.

Now Taormino does a number of things, one of which is going to universities and educating our youth on sex.

"I still think in 2012 there is not enough talk about sex-positivity. Kids are given image and flash, with no education or knowledge behind it. People are going to college with abstinence-only education, having no conversation with their parents, and they really don't know all that much about how their bodies work, how to get an STI, how to negotiate a sex life that feels good, that feels fulfilling, safe, and empowered."

It seems to me that the younger generation has a much broader perspective on sex. I wanted to know what change, if any, Taormino has seen since she started so many years ago. "First of all, people are coming out as gay or bisexual in junior high and high school. There are alliances that people in my generation did not have. There is more of a sense of fluidity for people under 20. They just aren't as married to 'I do this, I like this, and therefore I fit into this box.' They have a more expansive view of gender, and I think that has shifted dramatically."

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What makes Taramino unique is that her success has been half accident, half plan. She has written books about sex. She has done educational porn, which she starred and directed in. She speaks on campuses about sexual health awareness and sex-positivity. At OpenSF, she taught a class on nonmonogamy for people in dominant/submissive relationships. She also delivered the keynote speech about the state of nonmonogamy as a movement with political goals and aspirations.

In between all of this, she also hosts an Internet radio show called Sex Out Loud on the VoiceAmerica Network, which is something Taormino is really excited about.

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Taormino with recent radio guest and sex geek extraordinaire Reid Mihalko

I think part of the reason Taormino is popular is because you can feel her passion. She is not going through the motions; she is feeling, reeling, and sharing with the world all of her experiences and ties to every kind of sex-positive community. In essence, she is giving her closing arguments to a very large audience and allowing them to decide how they feel before they make a very important decision. 

Catch Sex Out Loud Fridays at 5 p.m. to see what this classy and sassy lady does next.

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Vanessa L. Pinto (aka Fleur De Lis SF) documented a year of her sex life on her blog Whatever You Desire. She also blogs for the Huffington Post and is a contributing writer with Whore! Magazine. She has a degree in political science from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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