Literate smut that hits a raw nerve
By Greg Cahill
CYBERSPACE is a cold and soulless place. Or at least it can be. Perhaps that's why a recent study found that folks who surf the Internet on a regular basis are more depressed than their Web-less peers. What the study didn't figure out is whether those depressed Net denizens were depressed before they got there, and if their depression was simply compounded by hanging out with a lot of other depressed Web surfers.
And then there's always the possibility that those depressed souls are feeling low because they weren't getting laid and were attracted to the Net in the first place by the promise of the cheap thrills found in the hard-core sex sites that are proliferating like, well, rabbits.
Certainly, intelligent, quality erotica--and we're not talking about the abundance of latex-clad fashion models on display on the Web pages of wannabe fashion fotogs--is in short supply. One exception is Nerve.com, a tasteful online magazine that has made its mark by featuring bright, often humorous erotic essays by such big-name writers as Norman Mailer and Erica Jong. Indeed, Jong's take on the Clinton/Lewinsky affair, currently posted online, is funnier and more insightful than anything you'll ever read or hear in the mainstream media on that vastly overcovered topic.
It's a good example of the Internet's alternative strength, and makes a good case for preserving free speech on the Net.
Nerve: Literate Smut (Broadway; $15) is a provocative, if somewhat more flaccid, print version of the celebrated online publication. Edited by Nerve.com co-creators Genevieve Field (who edited books for MTV in her pre-Nerve life), and Rufus Griscom (who deserves a lot of praise for leaving a job at the Wall Street Journal to bring the masses a better brand of smut), this original paperback throbs with stylish soft-core sex and literati.
Field and Griscom have culled some of the best of Nerve.com to include essays by Mailer, Sallie Tisdale, Rick Moody, Thom Jones, and even Dr. Joycelyn Elders (somehow you knew the former Surgeon General would rebound after getting trounced by Congress for suggesting that masturbation is a good thing). The brief, mostly upbeat stories about shame, habits, taboos, debauchery, and love are interspersed with erotic photos by Andres Serrano, Richard Kern, Sylvia Plachy, and others--all of which are fairly tasteful and identifiable, which is more than you can say about of the mystery body-part photos that occasionally pop up on the website (Is that a navel orange or a clitoris? Who knows? Who cares?).
Unfortunately, the aforementioned superstar writers are few and far between in this print version, which means one must sit through (or choose not to, as the case may be) essays by former sex-trade workers who give a glimpse behind the green door but usually fail to offer insight into what led them there in the first place. Still, essays like "Diary of a Live Nude Girl: Snapshots from the Lusty Lady" by San Francisco writer Cammie Toloui (who worked during 1991-92 at the "live" peep shows at the infamous Lusty Lady) help lend a sense of humanity, not only to the women who work in the sex-trade industry, but also to the mostly male customers who frequent these seedy businesses.
After all, it's all too easy in this neo-Victorian era to dismiss the needs of folks who seek satisfaction at a strip show, adult video theater, or even the Web--a narrow mindset that ultimately denies the complexities of human sexuality.
As Dr. Elders suggests in her essay "The Dreaded 'M' Word": "Sexuality is part of creation, part of our common inheritance, and it reminds us that we are neither inherently better nor worse than our brothers and sisters."
That's a lesson worth learning.
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From the September 17-23, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.