In 1992, Sallie Tisdale wrote an essay in Harper’s about enjoying pornography — as a woman. In response, she received some “thoughtful letters” and “mash notes.” She was also told that she shouldn’t be allowed to have children. A man offered to cut off his penis and mail it to her. A couple dozen readers canceled their subscriptions.
Two years later, “Talk Dirty to Me: An Intimate Philosophy of Sex,” a book expanding on that controversial essay, premiered. In it, Tisdale writes about porn, yes (“pornography is a hall of mirrors, a central symbol of the societywide confusion over sex”), and enters the fray of feminist debates over the industry. At its heart, though, it’s a personal exploration of her own sexuality — whether it be through visiting seedy sex shops or reading about the communal homes of certain Native American tribes. “Studying [sex] was part of my reconciliation with a large and demanding aspect of my life,” she wrote. “All I’ve read of sex in history, in anthropology, in religion, in other people’s lives, I’ve read more for my own reassurance, to assuage my own guilt and clear up my confusion than for anything else.”
To commemorate the two decades that have passed since the book’s release, it was reissued in the U.K. last month and will be republished as an e-book in the U.S. in the new year. I thought it was a great excuse to catch up with Tisdale, a Salon alum, to talk about how our sexual culture has changed — and hasn’t — in the past 20 years.
How has our sexual culture changed in the two decades since your book first came out?
I think the primary change, and everybody mentions it, is the Internet. That’s a change of visibility and accessiblilty but it doesn’t change the fundamental nature of sexuality. It doesn’t change the existential questions that sexual behavior raises in people and I think there is a concomitant rise in resistance and supression. Visibility of sexual behavior and sexual orientation and sexual identity always have brought forth a proportional resistance.
In the last twenty years we see a dramatic rise in fundamentalism and even violent repression of sexual identity. So it’s easy for liberal Americans to say, “Oh everything is so much better now because of the Internet,” but if you actually go and look at what’s on the Internet it’s not very different and the conversation is not particularly different, and there is definitely a backlash. I think if you look at the history of sexual expression and sexual orientation you see the same pattern. This is human history, this is the same pattern that we’ve always seen.