By: SexHerald Staff
The late George Carlin’s “battle with dirty words was couple of decades ago and here we are now in 2008 still fighting against the same problems,” says author and editor Ellen Sussman. “Censorship hasn’t changed much over the years.” No truer, and sadder, words have been spoken. Sussman has felt the widespread negative effects of the FCC when she was denied spots on radio shows because of some of the “dirty words” that would have been used on air. Even bookstores have tried to hide the book’s cover from plain view and have buried them in the reference and, get this, the brides’ advice sections.
However, Sussman doesn’t hold any grudges. A self-proclaimed feminist, she bides by Virginia Woolf’s tenet of every woman needing “a room of her own, and for Sussman that means not getting bothered by such petty things. If people want to be provincial, that’s their problem. She, on the other hand, has forged on and will continue to do so. As they say, the “pen is mightier than the sword,” and Sussman has indeed proven words can make a bigger difference than drawing arms with her latest work, Dirty Words. So, what exactly is considered “dirty words?” To find out, read on.
SexHerald: There seems to be a common theme among all your titles. What was the motivation behind Dirty Words?
Ellen Sussman: The last book that I published that came out in hardback a year ago and just came out in paperback is called Bad Girls—so yes, there IS a common theme. Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave [is a] collection of essays by very well-known, established women writers about their bad girl moments in their lives and what those are all about. I really was exploring the ways in which women in particular bump up against the rules of society and the way we rebel and what it means for us to rebel. When I came up with the idea for that book, and put it together and asked writers to contribute essays, I actually expected a lot of essays about sexual escapades: acting out sexually, bumping up against the notion that women are not supposed to express themselves sexually but men have the freedom to do that—double standards, that sort of things. I got a couple of essays like that, but it actually turned out for the best because Bad Girls is a real range of rebellious behaviors and that’s the way it should be. It may be my particular orientation that I was interested in the sexual acting out. I also noticed, interestingly enough, that the writing—when you ask very literary writers to write about sex, something very surprising happens. And, I think it’s that we are pushed to explore a new form or a new format; there are not lots of easy ways for literary writers to write about sex.
We may have sex scenes in our novels or in our memoirs but we don’t usually go straight at it. I wasn’t interested in porn or erotica; I wanted a literary writing about sex. After Bad Girls, when I started to examine what happens when literary writers write about sex, I thought: ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to put together a whole collection of essays by very accomplished writers about sex?’ I needed a framework; some way for this to make sense. And I came up with the idea of Dirty Words and creating an encyclopedia of sexual terms as—in the beginning—almost an “excuse” for these essays and stories and poems. It was some way to organize it. But in the end, it became a really fascinating framework for it, because there’s been so many changes in the lexicon of sex and the way we use sexual terms and supposedly “dirty words” certainly changes from generation to generation; some of us are very comfortable with it, some of us are not at all comfortable with it.
Words that once had great power have very little power. There are new words that have tremendous powers that older generations don’t even know about. And just the question of why these words are so loaded: what they represent and what happens when we really talk about them became a fascinating subject. It was a way of putting together lots of things: great writing about sex and, in the end, interesting, revealing writing about where we are today in terms of sexual attitudes and sexual trends and even the politics of sex in a much broader picture.
SH: You mentioned the double standard between men and women, how when women express themselves sexually it’s frowned upon whereas men can pretty much do as they please. This repression of female sexual expression, where do you think it comes from?
Sussman: I think it’s from years and years of repressive societies and certainly of the role of women… look at women from the 50s and look at women in other societies where those women were not given any kinds of freedoms sexually that men were given, or just broader freedoms in general. I have a sister who’s 11 years older than I am and really grew up in very a different [environment]. She’s a 50s kid and I’m a 60s-70s kid, so my childhood was all about liberation and rebellion and her childhood was all about following the rules, and I can see that difference so much today that it seems to me that it’s much harder for her generation to talk about sex, or feel comfortable with their sexual selves. I think we’re fighting histories… women today are still fighting many of the same battles that we did back then.
SH: Up to some degree, for some women, do you think sexual repression is self-imposed?
Sussman: Actually, I do and that’s a great question. I think in some ways, sexual freedom is scary. There are some ways in which the ability to explore what’s deep inside of you is frightening territory. I think people in general are frightened of the unknown, frightened of change, and frightened of living without lots of rules of how we should behave. I think exploring our own sexual needs and desires falls into one of those categories. In some ways, it’s very comfortable for people to accept the rules of society that says: ‘This is the way women behaves, this is the way men behaves, this is the way we are supposed to be in relation with each other.’ And the minute you challenge that, there ARE no rules and we’ve got to kind of make them up as we go along and figure out what works for us rather than what someone else thinks works for us. And that is scary, but remarkably liberating once you face that darker space.
SH: Getting back to Dirty Words, it was interesting how NPR raved the book as “a celebration of our splendid imagination and capacity for tolerance,” as if dirty words were things that needed to be tolerated. Maybe I’m misconstruing their words…
Sussman: [It’s] a capacity for tolerating different people’s sexual experiences. The book goes into BDSM; it goes into anal sex; it goes into mistresses, ménage a trois; cybersex, wet dreams… all different variations of sexual aspect that many people might not find in their comfort zone. One of the ways in which I think the book is very political is that reading these essays gives you a great understanding of the personal quest for love and self-expression and finding a place in the world no matter whether you’re a panty fetishist or a foot fetishist or any one of these things that people might think, ‘Well, that’s weird.’ You read these all together and none of it’s weird.
There’s a piece on dyke, [which is] basically a love poem to her girlfriend who in it is defining her idea of what a dyke is. And you come out of that with the most heartfelt appreciation for a lesbian relationship. If my reader is not really someone who’s been exposed to that kind of thing before, I think it could change them and teach them something about talent. In fact, I’ll give you a great example:
Stephen Elliot wrote “BDSM.” I just finished a book tour for Dirty Words, and he was with me at a couple of those events and read about some of his personal experiences with bondage and domination. And someone came up to me afterwards and said: “I never in a million years thought I could get why someone would be into that sort of thing. Now I so get it and I feel compassion for him.” And I thought, ‘Man, that’s what the book, in my mind, is so much about.’ It’s to give us glimpses of so many different sexual appetites and desires and worlds to which we don’t usually have the doors to enter. I think that’s what tolerance is all about in the end; it’s not for the words but for the acts themselves and the understanding of these different sexual activities.
SH: Are there any dirty words that are taboo even for you?
Sussman: When I was first putting the book together, my daughters and my husband and I sat around the [dinner] table and came up with our list of dirty words. [laughs] And then I sent out emails to contributors asking them to pick a word, any word, and write whatever they want about it; they could choose to write an essay, a short story, a poem, a rant, an etymological study, whatever they wanted. But some of them emailed back and said I’d like to choose a word that’s not on this list. I said, ‘Absolutely. Just run it by me first so I don’t have doubles.’ That’s when I came across the words Dirty Sanchez and a whole slew of other phrases that sort of fall into the same category.
And what I found out from a young friend of mine is it seems to me about the age 30 is the cut-off. If you’re over 30, you didn’t know what a Dirty Sanchez was and if you’re under 30, you knew. It seems to be a very big term in the lexicon, and apparently Jon Stewart used it on The Daily Show. So when I found out what it was, and the accompanying phrases that sort of fall into the same category, that was the first group of words that I kind of didn’t like. [laughs] But who am I to pass judgment? I’m putting together this book that’s about all kinds of sexual idiosyncrasies and it’s all supposed to be great fun. So suddenly, I come up against something that kind of creeps me out. [laughs]
But I knew I had to include it so I sent out an email to all my contributors saying this word and its accompanying phrases all seem to be very important right now; we need to find somebody who will write about this. Sure enough, someone volunteered and he wrote an absolutely brilliant, lovely essay. It wasn’t so much about Dirty Sanchez but about when ugly acts become beautiful and how hard it is for one to judge what somebody else finds beautiful. So, he did something that turned my mind around the subject completely and I love it for that. But that’s probably it. I’m pretty open-minded about these sorts of things. There’s not much that either surprises me or horrifies me and that’s about as close as we came, and I certainly felt like we had to include it in the book.
There’s one more: I had always heard of golden showers but I’ve certainly never seen golden showers or participated in it and I had sent out that email, too, but no one had chosen that term. Then a 23-year-old writer emailed that he would like to tackle that one and I said, ‘Go ahead.’ And he wrote a hysterical essay about witnessing a golden shower while he was in college and what it was like. It was beautiful; he described it like it was art. [laughs]
SH: We’ve spoken extensively about “dirty words” but not so much about you. So, tell me a little bit about yourself.
Sussman: Here’s the funny part at this point in my life. I am married for the second time to a guy who I’ve been with now for 11 years. For somebody who loves to write about this stuff and is so sexually open, I am in THE most monogamous relationship. [laughs] And one of the tricks of that is that we are so happy and we are so well suited to each other and our lives together are very, very good. So, it may be that partially that sense of being very grounded right now in a positive relationship makes it easy to explore all this stuff. I think all of it becomes personal when you’re reading these essays. You think, ‘Would I do that? Would I go there? How does this make me feel?’ And the fact that I personally am in a really good place in my life sexually, romantically, all of those things, makes it easy for me to imagine going anywhere but in real life I don’t have to go anywhere. [laughs]
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