Sex for America. Even Sacramento.
Author Stephen Elliott convenes the randiest sons and daughters of our great republic for some seriously freaky political love stories
Oh, how tempting it is, as we close in on another historic election, to once again cheapen the level of our political discourse. How easy to bog down in language no one really wants to hear—words that don’t mean much, ultimately, and that shy away from the real heart of the matter, the truly, madly, deeply penetrating analysis. But please, just this once, let us stay focused. Let us at last firmly grasp what means the most to us. The sex, of course. Oh, please. Yes. Give it to us.
If the month of February has you hot and bothered, do not fear. This is as it should be. Not, mind you, because of Valentine’s Day, a calculated economic-stimulus display of highly manufactured consumption preferences. Not because a former stripper has been nominated for a screenwriting Oscar for her movie about a pregnant 16-year-old. No, it’s mostly thanks to the swift, sanguine thrust of caucuses and primary elections, a whole season devoted directly to romance, seduction and scoring. Now is a special time. It is a time for change. A time for America’s deepest-rooted pieties and her most primal instincts to collide. And rub against each other. And get each other all worked up, and get each other off. And then maybe share a cigarette and just lie there together for a while, but also sort of apart, too, each in its own headspace, maybe admittedly wondering if this is going to work and trying not to overthink it or freak out and hurt the other’s feelings.
It is a time for Stephen Elliott to work his literary sex magic, maybe saving our nation and the world in the process. Elliott, the San Francisco author most recently of My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up, a sexual memoir, and Looking Forward to It: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the American Electoral Process, a 2004 campaign journal, has forcefully combined his proclivities for a special new project. He has convened the randiest, most writerly sons and daughters of our great republic and called them to arms for a bold and ardent literary anthology. It goes by the name Sex for America: Politically Inspired Erotica. It involves two-dozen tales of pleasure and desire and people coming together—or trying to—and humor and kink and carnal vitality. It understands that the quest for consummation is the basic dramatic narrative of politics and yearns for a new mode of political storytelling—less hectoring, less isolating, less expected, more hot to trot. Its timing is perfect.
“There is something profoundly sexual about campaigning for office,” Elliott writes in his new book’s introduction. “I’ve worked on campaigns where the tension was so tight, the hours so long, that passion was the only release. Every two years, marriages across the country are destroyed by the campaign season.” As for transmuting that energy into literature, having been in Best American Erotica and Best Sex Writing collections himself and having edited other anthologies of political writings, Elliott’s as right a guy for the job as can be.
“Writers tend to be political. But they don’t always know what to do about it,” he explains in a San Francisco coffee shop not far from his Mission District apartment. “Give them an opportunity to be political and they jump on it.”
So when the word went out that he’d be editing this anthology, Elliott didn’t want for submissions. He says he didn’t really have to do much hard editing, either. Once, for instance, he told a writer, “‘This needs more sex.’ Obviously she was holding back. She loved that suggestion.”
With the acknowledgement that only in Northern California, perhaps, could this particular project come to pass, Elliott recounts the details of his endeavor with palpable glee, a disarming lack of self-seriousness. “Rupert Murdoch owns HarperCollins. I’ll burn right through his money. I don’t care. Fuck him. I’ll spend it all.” Which is not to say that Elliott doesn’t take literature or sex or America seriously. “It’s not the most important election of our generation,” he allows of the current presidential race. “We already fucked that one up. Now we’re voting about whether we want to fix our mistakes.”
So it goes with the pursuit of happiness: We seem to spend most of our days fucking up and fixing mistakes. “I met a woman online and went out with her, and after a while, she told me she voted for Bush in ’04,” Elliott says. “I was like, great, I just wasted two hours. I mean, OK, in 2000, I’ll give you a pass. Nobody knew. But in ’04?”
Like many of his personal stories, it sounds like fertile soil for literature. “Sex is not actually the most important part of a relationship,” Elliott says. “It’s the person you sit in bed with talking about books and politics. Sex is minor. It’s not the foundation. And I say that as a sex activist.”
What’s most surprising about this book, and the man behind it, is the range of expression. “I’m writing long and gonzo, short and dark,” he says. “My writing’s all over the map. You gotta read that way and write that way.” Although Elliott is part of a clubby Bay Area literary scene—a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, he belongs now to the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, is sanctioned by McSweeney’s and speaks fondly of the counsel and companionship of Dave Eggers—his anthology isn’t just, well, a big circle jerk of hipsterati writers delighting in each other’s company.
Elliott puts on a popular reading series to raise money for progressive politicians—most recently in January for Fourth District congressional candidate Charlie Brown—and he keeps busy socially, but where his literary identity is concerned, he seems to remain a sort of loner. From Chicago originally, Elliott ran away from home at 13 and became a ward of the state of Illinois as an adolescent. His first few novels are grim and yearning and often delicately lovely. He has been a stripper and written about what that’s like. He has written about liking to be hurt and held afterward.
And Sex for America, too, manages a kind of sweetly fringy appeal, not to mention the legitimacy of letting individual voices speak for themselves.
“When I hear the word ‘erotica’ these days, I break out in a rash,” says contributor Anthony Swofford, who grew up in Carmichael and also wrote the Gulf War memoir Jarhead. “I want to sort of avoid the book. It’s sort of tinged with … I don’t know. It just sounds like bad writing. I think what makes Steve’s book get beyond all that is the layering. And I think it’s conceptually radical. Some readers will be pretty familiar, but for others it’ll be something new. It may change their reading boundaries.”
Swofford’s fierce, fearless and horrifying story is called “Escape and Evasion,” because, as one of its characters remarks, that’s “how to be gay and stay alive in the Marines.”
“I think people will either be confused or repelled by the story,” its author says. “Or maybe get it … obliquely, it’s asking people to think about the value of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ and what that means. And whether it’s sort of a worthless policy.”[page]
Swofford says he’s conscious, too, of “that high threshold that we now have in the media for violence—these images, once they’re stacked up, they don’t mean very much. But I do think that literature can offer, over film or TV, a slowing down of meaning, an accretion of meaning, a more complicated and advanced rhetoric. I would hope for a new frankness about sexuality and what it means. I think that’s important. It will be important for the next president, who will have a lot to deal with.”
For his part, Elliott defends the high ideal of erotica, as “a subgenre of literary fiction. It’s character-driven. There’s a change that occurs. In erotica, the catalyst for that change is sex. It’s not necessarily sexy. Erotica isn’t porn. The aim isn’t to turn you on. I like porn. I’ll do porn. I’ve acted in porn. I promise to provide porn—at some point. But this is not that. I want people to understand what they’re getting.”
As it happens, “politically inspired erotica” has literary precedents in America. It was only about a year after the publication of our nation’s most famous novel of sexual transgression, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, in 1850, that poet Walt Whitman went around calling himself “the phallic choice of America.” Meanwhile Henry James, a high stylist of late-19th-century realism, perfected the sort of literary leering that would endear him to gender-studies departments across the land for generations to come.
“Sex is politics,” later wrote Gore Vidal, the well-born senator’s grandson whose scandalous early novel, The City and the Pillar, in 1948, was America’s first to deal openly with homosexuality. Vidal would become, in print and in person, an outspoken opponent of conservative repression, especially where American attitudes about sex are concerned. It was he, for instance, who shrugged off identity politics and uttered the contentious words, “there are no homosexual people, only homosexual acts.” (Maybe that’s what Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was trying to get at when he said, “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals.” Probably not, though.) It was he—Vidal, that is, not Ahmadinejad—who wrote the fierce, bar-raising 1968 satire Myra Breckinridge, about a particularly ambitious transsexual.
A year later came Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth’s monologue of frankly elaborate sexual frustration, and the floodgates for sexual, political literary fiction seemed wide open. By 2000, Roth had delivered The Human Stain, a direct response to Clinton-Lewinsky and the corrosive, half-puritan, half-politically correct cultural stew to whose surface that scandal bubbled. The way was paved for Sex for America.
“I did not mean to sodomize Dick Cheney,” begins the collection’s opener, Jerry Stahl’s “Li’l Dickens,” a story asking us to contemplate “the very notion of anal sex with an aging fat man who voted against Martin Luther King Day.” Alison Tyler’s “Measure A, B, or Me?” examines two lovers’ commitment to politics and to each other: “You’ll let me do that if I vote for measure A?” Jonathan Ames’ hilarious “Womb Shelter” finds a lecherous solipsist teaching at a second-rate women’s college, ogling the tennis team as his nation goes to war. “But I don’t know if it’s a laugh,” the narrator says. “I’ve masturbated nine times in forty-eight hours. That’s way too much at my age, three years shy of forty. I look like I have two black eyes. I’m losing too much semen. All my nutrients are going out my cock. To hell with Afghanistan, I need the government to drop some food on me.”
This is among the collection’s lighter fare. It gets heavy, too. And hot.
“I’ll paraphrase a line of Kundera’s,” says Sex for America contributor Peter Orner, “where a guy’s lover tells him that he fucks like an intellectual. Aside from being pretty hilarious, the line has some real consequences in the context of the novel where it appears, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. It’s communism’s early days, and people are bending over backward to be more of the common man than the next guy. The last thing you want to be is intellectual. … So the guy starts doing pathetic things to not behave in bed like an intellectual, like growling like a dog. Sex has political consequences. It always has. Maybe we talk about it differently depending on the context. But even when it isn’t there, it’s there.”
Orner, like just about everyone else, seems delighted to be a part of Elliott’s project. “I think what people sometimes miss about Steve’s work,” he continues, “is that for all the S&M, which I’m all for, there is, more than anything else, very real unvarnished pain in his stories. I think this is what gives books like Happy Baby and My Girlfriend Comes to the City their power. A lot of people write about sex, God knows, and so often it’s just terrible. I think Steve’s work touches a nerve because it is a pain we recognize.”
And empathy. Elliott achieves a kind of open vulnerability that can’t be faked. And it’s bracing at a time when fiction and politics can be marauding and convoluted and disingenuous. It’s really little wonder so many other writers want to work with him.
“I was working on a novel, since abandoned, with the characters in the story ‘Music from Earth,’” says Sex for America contributor Michelle Tea. “When Stephen asked me to contribute a piece, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to be in one of his totally righteously excellent anthologies, but I also didn’t want to take time away from the novel to work on a new story. So I had the characters get it on, which was my intention anyway. I now want to return to writing that book! Maybe I will.”
“I felt like I salvaged something of incredible value,” Elliott says of bringing Tea’s tender, funny, poignant story to light. “If that’s the only thing that came from this, then it was totally worth it.”
“I have to say that I’m fucking thrilled Stephen Elliott is out there, providing venues for writers to live up to their moral duties,” says Steve Almond, another anthology contributor and the author of a recent collection called (Not that You Asked).
OK, maybe sometimes it is kind of a circle jerk. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. (Hey, live a little.)[page]
Almond says his piece for Elliott’s anthology, “The True Republic,” was actually written to be published somewhere else. “But it got too heavy, I guess, and the editors were like, ‘Hey, we wanted sexy, but that shit is too dark for us.’ I was like, ‘Fuck that, we’ve got an administration that says torturing people is cool, throwing people in the hoosegow for having booty sex is cool, and undocumented workers should be shot on sight. And I’m supposed to be the sick fuck? Whatever. Anyway, I sent ‘The True Republic’ around to a bunch of lit mags, but they said the same thing: too dark, too twisted. So finally, I was yakking with Stephen Elliott (knowing what a sick fuck he is), and he told me about this anthology and I was like, ‘Uh, yeah, I’ve got a story for you.'”
In Almond’s bitterly funny post-American sexocalypse, the narrator’s band plays a gig for a Saudi zillionaire, who treats him to an intensely disturbing orgy, “like a Bosch painting.”
“As for sex and politics,” Almond says, “they’re both frowned upon by the keepers of modern lit. Not sure why. It’s part of this cult of restraint that afflicts modern fiction. But it seems to me that sex and politics—which is really the pursuit of power— are ideal subjects for fiction, because they tend to lay bare our human frailties. Which is the whole ball of wax, really.”
“Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” Henry Kissinger said, in one of American statecraft’s many too-much-information moments. The eroticization of political leaders was in practice even before the United States were born, of course, but we took it to a whole new level.
Maybe the quantum leap happened with John F. Kennedy. How virile and youthful he looked, how luminous in that silvery light of television’s early days. Once he’d weakened our knees, we couldn’t stand a chance. And that was decades ago. Soon enough, and perhaps inevitably, came the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and the Starr Report, to which Elliott refers as “a giant mass of political porn.”
“What’s the point of being president if you can’t get a blow job from interns?” Elliott says. “You look at guys like Henry Hyde or Mark Foley. The real trouble is because they’re repressed. Foley, he coulda just had it! He didn’t need to, you know, violate children to have what he wanted! All those child-protection laws he was trying to pass. What a scumbag. He was a predator. What a prick.”
And so it is that now, one way or another, sex always seems to be on our political minds. We can’t help but take note of, say, the weird way Rudy Giuliani toted his girlfriend around while he was still another woman’s husband, then officially ended his marriage via press conference. Or how Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign still has to do damage control for the fact that her own marriage continues. Or how Larry Craig seemed so lonely and pathetic, ultimately, in that airport bathroom.
We understand why Austin Powers has to tell himself, “Margaret Thatcher naked on a cold day! Margaret Thatcher naked on a cold day!” when distractingly aroused. We find endless fascination in strange political bedfellows, be they the 1990s’ most famously ideologically opposed yet matrimonially united campaign-strategist pundits, James Carville and Mary Matalin (he for Clinton, she for Bush Sr.), or today’s first couple of Callyfoneeyuh, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver (he for McCain, she for Obama).
What’s more, with last fall’s rash of online debates about the hotness of dear president Ahmadinejad, and otherwise rational members of the American electorate feverishly hearting Huckabee or offering themselves up as Obama girls, it’s obvious that political pheromones still make us swoon. Why fight it?
Maybe because George W. Bush, Elliott writes, managed to “win two elections as the anti-sex candidate,” becoming a president hell-bent to prosecute a major war on terror and, through the FBI’s anti-obscenity squad, a minor one on pleasure. “So while the administration is practicing torture on our behalf all over the world,” Elliott writes at his most affronted, “Web sites depicting consensual S&M are being shut down at home.”
In Sex for America, there is more than one instance of politically charged role-playing domination. There is more than one instance of desperate sexual coupling on the eve of war. And of a near future in which America has come apart at its seams. But also, there is optimism. There is humane, persuasive progressivism. When faced with politically grim conditions, the book seems to say, what choice do we have but to incline toward procreation? Or at least toward orgasmic distraction? Sex can be a counterforce to all in the world that’s worrisome, which is much. By default, then, it must be a powerful political tool. And in this unique cultural moment, Stephen Elliott and company are ready to use it.