Interview With Dr. Carol Queen

Sex in the Public Square is proud to present this interview with one of the great sex writers and activists of our time, Dr. Carol Queen. This interview was conducted by Sabrina Chapadjiev in 2005 and originally published in her 'zine, Cliterature.

This is a crucial cultural function of erotic literature: It always serves as a kind of protest literature exploring (and exploding) taboos, gender roles, and socially imposed notions of appropriate sexuality. So says the erotologist, the academic analyst of erotica, in me, but more than that, it is crucial to me personally as I try to carve a space for myself in the world that acknowledges the true possibility of an alternative female sexuality that is exploratory, voracious, curious, pansexual, open to multiple sources of pleasure.
from the essay, "What Do Women Want? We Want to Be Big Slutty Fags, Among Other Things," by Carol Queen

Carol Queen's understanding of sex is everything they didn't teach you in sex ed. From her experiences as a sex worker to her PhD in Sexology, she's seen sex from about every angle possible (no kidding). Her collection of essays, Real Live Nude Girl, contains thoughtful meditations on sex while her hardcore erotic novel, The Leather Daddy and the Femme reveals a completely different side. Not content to simply write about sex, Queen co-founded the sex-positive Center for Sex and Culture. Add to this the fact that she is also staff sexologist at the San Francisco feminist sex shop, Good Vibrations, and it's obvious that this sexologist is doing all she can to make you come and become aware of the cultural significance of a good fuck.

I read in previous interviews that you started noticing sexuality really early, like when you were 11.

I started to get curious when I was nine, and by the time I was 11, I was distinctly curious. I can't really pinpoint an exact moment, though I can remember the first boy I had a crush on. The first girl I had on a crush on was a little later, although I didn't have any sexual contact with anyone for another several years. This would have been like 1968 – 1969, which was the "Summer of Love" year. It was a year when the sexual revolution was pretty much in swing, and though it wasn't obviously in swing where I grew up, images of it came to me through magazines. I started to read my mom's women's magazines, very interested in the sex articles, which were not as explicit as they are today, but were surprisingly frank for the late 60's and early 70's. Then I had a lot of questions about sex that I then proceeded to try and figure out where to get answers to. I was embarrassed to ask my parents, but not as embarrassed as my parents were to talk to me, so it was one of those uncomfortable situations. It also was not a comfortable conversation to have because their discomfort, especially my mother's, was so obvious. My parents' relationship, in the ways that it was not great, had a lot to do with sexuality and I intuited that. And it turned out that, sure enough, my mom had been sexually abused. My dad never knew about it until almost before he died, and their erotic connection was really problematized by that. I think at one time they had had an erotic connection, but it didn't last very long. It left me with the impression that sex could be a problem and I didn't want it to be a problem. I knew that there was a difference between being comfortable about sexuality and being uncomfortable with it.

The first essay in Real Live Nude Girl is a letter to your mom although she's already passed away. Do your current explorations in sex work and theory still draw back to the fact that you weren't able to tell your mom about those things, or as a type of communication with your family?

I think there was an almost ritualistic effect for me to writing that, because I credit both of my parents a lot, and not always in a positive way necessarily, for helping to shape my interest in sex. I don't mean that either of them sexualized me or any of that kind of stuff. Instead, it was their discomfort and their distress which spoke so clearly. I couldn't talk to her, and she couldn't talk to me as thoroughly or as frankly as I would have liked or felt would have been healing. But I can write these things, like writing a letter to anyone who is dead. Mail it to the North pole, except I published it.

Do you remember the first sexual experience you had, even if it was your first kiss or something?

My very first kiss was with a guy in high school that I was on a date with, and it completely grossed me out. But it wasn't very long after that experience, within a year or a year in a few months, that I was having sex with one of my teachers. I was sexually curious, so that sort of rolled along. The very first time we had sex. The next day he was completely freaked out, like "We can never do this again, that really wasn't okay!!" I was like, "What do you mean we can never do this again? Wait a minute!!"

And how old were you guys at this time?

I was 15. He was close to 30. It was a tiny town and he knew my dad, so there was a fair amount of need to keep it all on the down low. What really politicized me around sexuality was understanding very clearly from the very beginning how much danger my erotic connection with him was putting him in. And it was putting me in a certain amount of danger. For example, in those days it was very common for what they called "sexually incorrigible girls" -- girls that had sex before they weren't married mainly or weren't of age -- to be put in juvenile institutions… where they subsequently figured out how to have sex with each other and went from there.

You wrote about this affair in your short story "Golden Boy," right?

Actually, that was a fictionalized true story about a different teacher and a friend of mine. And "Golden Boy" is especially fictionalized because I was never there when those two had sex. But they did have sex, and I knew about it. I was sort of a go-between between them in a few ways.

What's really cool about "Golden Boy" is that when you talk about going into your teacher's place, it seems like this amazing place. There's a Maxfield Parrish there and Oscar Wilde books, and it seems to transport you into this really beautiful, rich way of living.

It's also a way of getting queer, cultural history from an older person, which was why that particular teacher was really meaningful to me.

It seems that fairly early you started realizing that sex was a way to learn things.

Absolutely. Before I had sex I felt that way.

But it became sort of your main instrument or language.

I think that's very insightful. It's always been an important part to me of understanding another person, understanding what their sexuality was, and of course, the most thorough way to do that is to actually have sex with them. Even if I wasn't having good sex, I was always getting information about sex, including what good sex wasn't, which is about the only positive spin that you can put on that.

Well, you become a connoisseur of wine by drinking a lot of it…

Well, that's where my information gathering started. The stories that I have about my own experiences are important for me to tell just from my own process, but they're also going to be useful or informative or interesting to other people potentially, which is what gives me the nerve to publish them.

It's funny, because I just got another insight, which I'm not sure is true or not. Adults often think there are things kids shouldn't know and will only reveal to them a certain type of education. When you're able to be educated in a more illicit way, you're able to learn all of the things they're hiding from you anyway.

I think you're really right about that. And I have to say that if the wrong person read this statement, it would sound totally horrific to them, I'm sure, but there's a way in which that level of illicit exploration gives a person more control than they have sitting passively waiting for adults to decide it's time to tell them more facts. I'm not suggesting that everybody go out and have sex to learn more: there are books now. And there are age appropriate stages for learning all of that. I'm not denying that in anyway. But I think that if you get a group of people whose hormones are beginning to boil and are curious and think that sex is a rite of passage into adulthood, you're asking for experimentation. And it's often uninformed experimentation if you don't answer their questions. And that's what makes me tear my hair out in the current "harmful-to-minors" discussion. People might agree about what's harmful to minors, but that's not going to stop the minors from wondering what the answers to their questions are.

You went to college at the University of Oregon. What was that like?

Once I got to college, it was very much my priority to explore the queer part of me that hadn't had very many options to explore when I was in a tiny conservative town. So what I did was try to find the gay and lesbian community on campus. I identified as bisexual at that time, and was really told, "Oh no! Come back when you've picked one!!" That happened on and off for a couple of years, until finally I went, "Okay, I'll pick one." I identified as a lesbian for several years, specifically because it really seemed as though that was a gateway to an experience I wanted and needed, and the gate was largely closed as long as I identified in a way that the people on the other side of the gate found objectionable.

It seems to me that in the 70's, a huge way of defining feminism was to take it as a reaction to men.

At that time, its underpinnings was the differentiation between male and female, not the acknowledgment that there might be a continuum. That's a very new notion that we really have to thank the transgender community for fighting for, as well as the sexuality community in general.

I was talking to a trans friend of mine, and they were saying that gender and sexuality are two completely separate issues. Do you believe that's true? How does one face describing their gender when often gender has been assumed to be sexually defined?

Well, I have to say that I don't entirely agree with the statement, that they're absolutely different. They are different, and should be looked at on two separate axes, not as variants on each other. But I think there are some places where gender and sexuality get sort of mushed together. In the best example, cross-dressing can be done because somebody is getting into a transition process and wants to cross-dress, which isn't sexual. Still, cross-dressing often has an erotic element. There's a way in which the gender community is very uncomfortable about that and doesn't want to acknowledge it and sort of leaves fetish cross-dressers out of the discussion, when they may be a gender continuum too. They certainly are on a sexual difference continuum. Many people in the gender community aren't comfortable about this situation and feel as though it serves them to completely differentiate sex with gender. For the most part I agree, that they should be differentiated. I just think there are these little nexuses where they come back together again. And that needs to be part of anybody's analysis of sex and gender.

I assume that Freud came into your field of study in college.

I sort of had two bouts of Freud. One right when I got into college, when sort of the feminist take on Freud was, "What do you mean, 'What do women want?' You bastard!" Later on, when I got into poststructuralist and postmodern theory, so many of them bounced off of Freud that I visited them again, just to see what they were seeing that I hadn't seen the first time around.

Was there anyone you were reading during that time who was giving you positive insights in terms of sexuality? Not reading stuff you reacted against, but stuff that you identified with?

Absolutely. And of all of it, [Michel] Foucault was the big cheese. He took sexuality on in a new way that was recognizable, especially to queer people and people whose sexuality had been problematized already. Of course he was a queer man, whether he came out about that or not. He was able to bring a different eye to this topic that nobody had brought to it before. He was very influential, not just to me, but to practically everybody in the 80's.

Well, that makes sense, though. You talk a lot in your books about being a "fag hag." Maybe Foucault was your first.


It seems like you've learned a lot about sex from gay men.

Well, also that isn't necessarily contextualized within an ongoing relationship. That was the thing that was most attractive to me about gay men besides just... themselves. I liked how they dealt with sex. I had been so curious and exploratory around sex, and not necessarily in ongoing relationships. Because one of the things feminism was telling me was that sex for women was only going to be good in a trusting, healthy relationship. It was like, "Wellllll….yes and no." The gay male community was the only place where I got any ongoing support for the notion that sex could be detached from relationship. Of course, I don't always advocate that, but sometimes it is.

I hate to sum up four years into a single lesson, but was there a main thing that you did take away from your college years?

It actually was eleven years of going back and forth. Probably the most important thing I finally understood was that I didn't have to change how I identified or who I was in order to be an important part of the queer community. That if it came to being rejected by the queer community, there were other communities to be discovered or developed.

At this point, were you already thinking that you wanted to write on sex?

I always wrote in a journal from the time I was a teenager. I was always writing, writing, writing. During that time, I was writing poetry, and a friend of mine had started what we today would call a zine. She actually published a couple of my poems in it and all of a sudden I was like "Gasp! I could write about this stuff?" But it wasn't until the end of the 80's that I started to say, "Alright, I'm going to write down what I've been suffering about, thinking about, and discussing with my friends", which were all of these issues having to deal with sex and identity, particularly.

Even having a simple poem or two published in a zine does sort of give you this sense of, "Yeah, I can do this. This is a possibility!" which is exciting.

Between unpublished and published, there is a gulf. It doesn't even matter what the kind for publication is, it doesn't have to be the New Yorker. I was so scared about what it meant to bridge that gulf, that I was really kind of stuck for years. I would totally suggest to people that feel like they've got something to say, to say it. Make your own zine. Because who knows where I would have gone if I'd started to publish 10 years earlier? If people have something to say, they need to figure out a way to say it, which is one of the reasons Ladyfest is brilliant.

Now, you left Oregon to enroll in the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco. What was it like exploring all of the possibilities that San Francisco afforded you?

It was really mind-blowing, because I had two things going on at the same time. I had the beginning of my process at the Sex Institute, which allowed me to start thinking about sexuality in some new ways. And then I had being in San Francisco, which was essentially "The Lab". There's no better way of saying it. I had a whole variety of erotic interests that I hadn't had much ability to pursue beforehand, and because it was very clear that learning about things in first person was another way of learning, that gave me permission to explore San Francisco. And I explored.

Who, besides Pat Califia, were some early precursors of this "live it and tell it" theory?

The very first person like this I came upon was Xaviera Hollander, the Happy Hooker, in the 1970's. She was huge back then, for a couple of reasons. She was big because she told secrets about the sex industry that people didn't necessarily intuitively know. She also had a unique perspective and her own voice, which is helpful for anybody who wants to write about anything. Another one was Marco Vassi, who does essays of his own experiences, but then also writes fiction. Susie Bright and John Preston. John Rechy, who is the guy who wrote The Sexual Outlaw .

What was the first piece you remember writing?

The first thing that made me feel like, "Okay, it's coming together" was an essay about bisexuality that I wrote called "The Queer in Me." That was the first one, and was also the first piece to be published in a book in 1989 or 1990.

How did that feel?

It felt really great. It first came out in Bi Any Other Name, sort of a coming-out book for and by bisexuals. I got to bring my own piece to the table, and at that point, I wanted to really bring the queer perspective of politicized sex orientation to bear. I felt it was very important.

Can you talk a bit about the first time you started doing sex work?

I'd had the experience of doing a couple of videos at the Institute which I never got paid for, but they were able to make me feel differently about what I thought it would feel like to be in film. I was then willing to believe that it might feel different to do an act of prostitution compared to what I had been told. And it turns out, it felt different. There are all kinds of reasons we don't hear really intimate first-person accounts of prostitution. But everybody's an individual sexually as well, and will bring what they have to bring into a situation. I certainly brought all of this history and all of these politics into prostitution, and there's no question about the fact that that influenced the experience that I had.

Can you talk about something you were surprised about in terms of doing sex work?

I pretty much had internalized male sexuality as being a particular way, what surprised me was that, "Oh, it's lots of different ways." The diversity really surprised me and taught me a lot.

There's so much investigation in terms of female, trans, and queer sexuality, most of it done in reaction to male sexuality. Is there any research being done on male sexuality that is in response to feminist or queer theory?

Not as much, and I'll tell you what I think it is. I think there's a full-on sociological reason. Male sexuality is not as problematized. Even still. Through a feminist lens it may be problematized, but not by the mainstream culture and the people who give out the money and grants.

When did you start writing and publishing erotica, and how did that come about?

Zines were really the place where I started. I got to talk to the zine editor and they'd say, "Well, we'll publish anything you come up with" or "We don't have anything about this type of topic in the zine, and it feels a little one-sided. If you have anything to say…", which gave me some structure, but not very much. Just enough to say, "Okay, what do I have to say? What am I going to write? What's my erotic charge?" The Leather Daddy and the Femme (Queen's novella) really came from that opportunity. As soon as I wrote the first story I was like, "This really gets into what I've been wanting to write about/talk about for along time. I hope they like it." They did like it, and so many people came up to me that I was like, "Okay, I've got something going here." That was what got me to continue writing stories and turn it into a whole novella.

In an essay on sex writing, you wrote that you think you "…draw believable men, but do not grapple or invest in those characters the same way you do in writing women." Why do you think this is?

Partly it's because my relationship with women has been so full of discussion on identity and dissent around what any given sexual thing means. I can't think about any deep discussions or arguments I've had about men about the meaning of various sexual acts in the same way that I've had them ad infinitum, with women. Often, these arguments are just in my own subconscious. I'll talk back to things people like Gloria Steinem or Catharine MacKinnon have said while I'm doing something else, like washing dishes. Washing dishes and having arguments with Catharine MacKinnon -- that's always fun. Also, because my feminist identity is so strong and was so early developed, and because it dovetails historically with lesbian feminist identity, there is always an awareness for me that there are other ways that other women would be think about the same set of circumstances. I have to grapple with those things. I don't have grapple with the experience when I'm writing from the perspective of men.

In terms of erotica, what you're working with is a language that is pretty loaded. I mean, what vocabulary do you have besides "fuck" and "hot, throbbing cock"? Is it hard for you to work with those words in a way that is separated from what they've been loaded with?

That's a really excellent question. I think a lot of people who want to write erotica come up against the language, particularly if the language hasn't been comfortable for them in the past. Women who've been feminist and people from fairly conservative environments might hear those words and be offended. They're extremely loaded words for many of us. I try not to generate a cliché when I write. Because really the biggest problem with that language isn't that they're dirty words, it's that they're clichéd dirty words. Plus, the words, for their loaded-ness, have an erotic charge for many people as well. I want to honor and utilize that, because they have an erotic charge for me. I figure that if I stay fairly close to what is erotically compelling for me, in terms of not only the characters and they're actions, but also the language I'm using to describe them doing it, then hopefully other people will get that response as well. And hopefully, it won't be too off-putting. If it is too off-putting for someone, then that person needs another story. A writer can not be all things to all people. They have to develop a voice and do what they're called upon to do, and that's sort of where I leave it.

Another interesting thing is that you're dealing with a subject matter that is, for the most part, loaded for many people. I've talked to a lot of incest survivors and rape survivors and women that have had to deal with looking at sex in a not positive way. For those women, sex has not become sex anymore. It's become something different. Are you aware of these women as an audience, ever?

Well, I don't write directly to that audience or let myself go into a place of concern that, "Wow, if I get too explicit, it's going to freak someone out." I can't stop short of where I'm aiming for that reason. I can't let somebody other than I be the primary reader. What I hope is, that in some cases at least, even people that have not been able to have good experiences around sexuality will be spoken to. That is, if they end up reading my stuff at all, which they certainly may choose not to do. I hope that one of the two things that I try to have in all my writing will speak to them. One of those things is that I try to bring intelligence to erotica. I try not to dumb any of it down, ever. I want it to be erotic writing that can make people think and that can feed the brain, as well as all the other parts. Another thing I hope is that adding more complexity and intellect to the sex writing will actually be a positive thing. You don't want your sexuality simplified, reduced, and constructed, which is what abuse can do. Not always, but can. I hope that making it non-simplistic, being no holds barred and over the top, will actually be useful.

Of course, any reader always reserves the right to say, "I'm not going there with you." Even with my more explicit smut or any argument that I'm spitting out in an essay. I just hope people will go, "Oh, that's interesting!" Or at the very least. "Huh! I never thought of it that way!" To me, that's the main exchange I hope for with a reader. If they then go along for the ride, well then, that's fabulous. So even if somebody hasn't had good and very consensual sexual experiences, my hope is that pulling out all the stops gives a vision of a sexuality that's so important to people that it's clearly more layered and worth taking risks for. That it's more than what some people think sexuality has been for them so far.

I've noticed that you tend to really add layers to your erotica.

Sex is interesting. It's not one thing, it's many things. It's complicated. Its got physical, emotional, and spiritual levels to it. Sex is just interesting, and of course, I am a sex geek, who went and got a PhD in the subject. I find this culturally and individually fascinating. We're not a very nice culture right now in a lot of ways, and one of the things that I think is a piece of that is that we have a big case of erotophobia in the culture. Homophobia, too. obviously. But it's easy to say, "They're not like me, I don't have to take this seriously." and I just don't think that's a good thing in a culture, especially not in a diverse one like ours. So this is my little place where I can discuss diversity issues. Granted, they're not class or race diversity issues, but I think sexual diversity is a big cultural issue just as those things are. And this is where I do my work around now.

A lot of your characters often have safe sex. Is that a direct response to what was going on with AIDS?

Absolutely. If it hadn't been for that, chances are fair that I wouldn't ever have bothered putting condoms or anything else into a story. And not all my stories are 100 percent safe sex, but that's because the characters get to live in your brain, which is where you can have the safest sex of all. I started doing HIV political action and education in about 1984, so I'm really steeped in this challenge to eroticize safer sex. And what better way to start than putting it in an erotic story?

Besides making sex safer, did the whole AIDS epidemic start making you view sex in a different way, just in the fact that death was brought into it?

If anything, it complexified it a little more. What it really did more than anything else, was make sex a serious and culturally central enough issue that I could say, "Yeah. I'm going to devote my work to that." Because there was a sense before that, a little bit maybe of dilettantism, that by focusing on this stuff I was setting aside the more important big issues of the culture. Like I was avoiding dealing with social justice issues and environmental issues and all the different kinds of things that people who usually identify as progressive think are important.

I know you wrote an article on Wen Chin, the man who started a sex shop in China. Do you look a lot to other cultures to learn about their takes on erotica?

When we went to China, we found out that the Chinese word for masturbation, when translated into English, is "self-comfort." When I tell people that they're eyes get big, like, "Who knew that China, which doesn't have the most sex-positive reputation, would have something that positive to offer us -- whose literal translation of masturbation is 'to pollute with the hand.'" I mean, who's sex-positive here, us or them? I think we're going to give them that point! There's a lot of Puritan and anti-sex attitudes in the United States' sexual culture, even given how sex-obsessed, wacky, and overstimulated we are about these issues. So looking to other cultures for different points of view, I find seriously valuable.

You've edited or co-edited about six anthologies now, and the one that struck me the most was PoMoSexuals: Challenging Assumptions about Gender and Sexuality. I really loved the term "PoMoSexuals." How did that come about?

I've always said that we need to bring more voices in, just to see whether or not we've oversimplified the way we're talking about things. We called the gay movement "the queer movement" when I was a pup. Then it was lesbian/gay. Then lesbian/gay/bi/trans. We keep adding letters every year or two, until another sub-community says, "My letter's not up there!" And, of course, the idea is this huge gobbledy-gook of letters can somehow purport to shorthandedly describe an entire community of diverse constituents. It's hard to do that with a few letters, and PoMoSexuality was a way to sort of conceptualize the way that none of this is either/or. It is not binary. Gender's not. Sexual desire's not. It may be for an individual, but it's not for a group and it's not for the culture. There's more to it than that. So the word PoMoSexuals is partially derived from the word "post-modernism", yet has an ironic twist, because it does rhyme with homosexual. That anthology was a way of saying, "What is the one thing that all of these people have in common? That they're not binary with regards to sex and gender. That's about the only thing that they have in common, yet their stories all hold together." I'm hoping that it started allowing people to think more broadly about what constitutes a community.

Some people identify themselves as a punk writer, an anarchist writer, a queer writer… there a certain way that you identify?

Well, clearly I'm a sex writer. Also, when I call myself a cultural sexologist, one of the things I'm doing is making up a phrase that most people haven't heard before, unless they've read my bio. As far as I know, I'm the only person that calls myself this. I really want to make the link with sex and culture -- that sex just isn't a private act that happens in the body, nor is it just something that cements and maintains a relationship. It's something to study, understand, unpack, make more complex. and do art around. It's a lot of things. So when I say the phrase "Sex Writer," I absolutely don't mean it to sound minimal to anyone. To me it's the biggest, broadest identity I could practically have.

Is there anything you would ask for from future sex writers, or feminist writers, or women writers?

More voices. More acknowledgment that each and every one of us has a separate story and voice to bring to the table. But we can not assume that each of our stories tells the stories of everybody else. We've gotta have multiple stories.

The last question is very simple: I know you've mentioned Pat Califia in your books as a huge inspiration. Are there any other shout-outs to people that have inspired you?

Wow. There really are so many shout-outs that I probably shouldn't even start. There's one person that I haven't mentioned who I think some of the younger women may not have run into. She was mainly noted in the mid-1980's, at the height of the feminist sex wars when women were really mad at each other and being kinda nasty about these sexual issues, and it's Carole Vance. Carole's still in New York. She's teaching at Columbia, and she edited Pleasure and Danger.

I was talking to her on the phone one time, and I was all bummed out and angry and was all newly into the moniker of sex-positive feminist. I was talking about being a post-feminist, and she said, "Don't you dare identify as post-feminist. Don't you dare give that away. You are a feminist as much as anybody else! Do NOT give that to them! There have got to be all of these different voices under the tent." I just went. "God, you're so right. I'm so sorry. I was just being bitchy. You're right, you're right." And from then to now I've never neglected to identify myself as a feminist. It was really important for me to hear that from somebody I admired and respected so much. That there was a place for me in this discussion, even though sometimes it looked like there wasn't. Sometimes it felt like I should just take my ball and go play in the other corner. It was like, "No. We're all playing together here."

Sabrina Chapadjiev is a playwright, spoken word artist, and singer-songwriter originally from the suburbs of Chicago. She is founder of the all-woman songwriter series Chicks that Kick, editor of the zine Cliterature: 18 Interviews with Women Writers, and her plays, including Perhaps Merely Quiet, have been produced in the United States and Europe. Her latest book, Live Through This--The Art of Self-Destruction (Seven Stories Press, 2008) is an anthology of women talking on how they've used art to deal with self-destructive tendencies.  It includes essays by Carol Queen, Annie Sprinkle, bell hooks, Nan Goldin and more!