The Rumpus Interview With Tristan Taormino


Tristan Taormino is an example of multi-tasking at its finest. She’s the author of countless books, the editor of numerous anthologies including Best Lesbian Erotica series, a polyamory proponent with her book and website Opening Up , a relationship and sex expert, and an adult video producer through her self-made company Smart Ass Productions. After nearly a decade of writing her Pucker Up column for the Village Voice — the sister column to Dan Savage’s Savage Love — she was abruptly let go during a round of layoffs. Tristan sets the record straight with The Rumpus, and talks about prioritizing lust, relocating to the ‘burbs, and her Barbie-perfect fifth grade teacher.

The Rumpus: Well, the first question I wanted to ask you comes from the fact that you always seem to be doing something different, may it be writing, editing, producing. You seem to always have something new going on. How you stay organized?

Tristan Taormino
: I think it’s genetic. I came out of the womb really organized. I know that you can teach organization skills, but I think I’m sort of predisposed to have them. I do love organization, and I’m someone who begins the day with a list every day.

The Rumpus: Do you ever suffer any burnout or take any time off of all your jobs?

Tristan Taormino
: Well, it’s funny that you said that ’cause someone asked me the other day, “What do you do for fun?” And I said, “Oh, I work.” I’m a bit of a workaholic. I guess that one of my goals for this year is to achieve more balance in my life. But part of the thing for me is that I love what I do. I feel like I get exhausted and I get overwhelmed but I still, I love what I do, so I just want to do more of it. And I feel like it’s not a typical job, because my job, my life, and my community are all intertwined, and my job is very much about who I am. So there’s not a clear dilineation. If I sold office supplies for a living that would be different. I would come home and my job would be over for the day. But that’s not really how my life works.

The Rumpus: I don’t know if this is a sensitive topic but how were you let go at the Village Voice? Did you see it coming? I was so bummed out when I found out about it, I’m hoping that you’ll tell me that it was your idea.

Tristan Taormino
: No. It completely came out of left field. I mean, in some senses, when The New Times bought the Village Voice there was a series of layoffs, as well as people quitting. So, from the time that The New Times bought The Voice, up until this fall, probably every single person, except for maybe five I knew as working at The Voice was gone. But when these layoffs and quittings would happened, I was just sort of out of it. I mean, I was at the back of the book. I’m doing my own thing, I’m not in the office, I’m not a part of the office politics, I’m essentially a freelancer. And so when various people would be let go it never really affected me, and truly I had no idea. None whatsoever. The editor-in-chief called me and left me a message, and in general he doesn’t call me, so I knew once I got the message. And then I couldn’t reach him for two days, and that was really anxiety provoking! (she laughs)

But it truly was a function of the economy. Print media is just bleeding right now. I don’t feel like there’s a vast right wing conspiracy, I really feel like it was about the economy, and about the fact that I worked there for nine and a half years. I had seniority, I had health benefits, as employees go I was probably more expensive than a new hire or someone who wasn’t in the union. I was in the union, which means I was entitled to certain benefits that someone hired tomorrow wouldn’t be. So I saw it as purely economics, like, someone looked at a spreadsheet and they were like, “Well, what do we need her for?”

I know it spawned all these interesting articles about the death of the sex writer and people diving into the cultural politics of it all, and people made some good points in some of those articles, but I think it was pure economics for them. I do, I really do.

The Rumpus: The day that you found out did you continue working?

Tristan Taormino: That was the thing. I had handed in a column, and what happens because of where I’m located in the paper is that sometimes my column gets held for space. In other words, they lay out the paper and they realize, “Wait, we need this page for ads.” So sometimes I’ll get bumped, which is a common occurrence. I had handed in a column like the week before that didn’t appear in the paper, so that meant it had been held, and basically Tony [Ortega, the editor-in-chief of The Village Voice] said, “That’s your last column.” So I didn’t have the opportunity to write a final column. And because I’m a freelancer, there was no two weeks notice, no severance pay, any of that.

The Rumpus: After nearly a decade of people reading and connecting to your work, and being interested in it, to not be able to sign off seems like a disservice to the reader, and to you, obviously.

Tristan Taormino: And I just felt like, I don’t know, like a lot of people were writing about me, and writing about the context. Several people all lost their jobs around the same time who were sex columnists, and people were writing about it. And none of those people called me or talked to me, and a lot of them were speculating, and they were wrong about a lot of things, and it felt really, really frustrating. But every time I attempted to draft a response or write a blog I felt like people were just going to think, “Well, she’s just disgruntled ’cause she lost her job.” I couldn’t find any way to frame it to say what I wanted to say.

Audacia Ray wrote this really amazing piece on her blog Waking Vixen,and I felt like she took some people to task for some of the bullshit they were saying, and I felt good that that piece was out there. I felt like there wasn’t anything more that I needed to add to it. She didn’t talk about me, she just talked about some of the weird pieces, things that had been said.

It was just very jarring. I just had no idea.

The Rumpus: That’s not the answer that I wanted. I wanted to hear you say that it was your idea, that it was just time for you to go.

Tristan Taormino: Well, sometimes the universe lets you know when it’s time for you to go. I have to kind of look at it like that at this point, you know?

The Rumpus:
I sometimes wonder, when reading erotica, how the writer tunes out distractions. Something about reading sex lit makes me imagine the author sitting at their kitchen table, wondering when the clothes need to be switched from the washer to the dryer, walking the dog, etc. How do you stay inside your head while writing?

Tristan Taormino: I think it’s just a matter of making time and space. One of the things that’s really important for me is not being online when I’m writing, because when you’re online email comes in, and someone IMs you, and you get some Google alert, it all feels kind of invasive when you’re trying to concentrate. To me it’s important to not be online when I’m writing, and I think you just get into kind of like a zone.

The Rumpus: Are you getting excited for Dark Odyssey Winter Fire ?

Tristan Taormino: Oh gosh, yeah. You know, one of the things that I was wondering was that in a recession, in a bad economy, will luxuries like sex events be tabled? What I’ve been so happy about is that we haven’t taken a hit in terms of attendance, and I feel like that’s about the community that has grown up around this event. Because we’ve been doing this for a while now there’s a core group of people who don’t miss an event. And those people know and believe that sex and pleasure and fantasy are our priorities. That is so inspiring to me.

I think enough people don’t prioritize those things and that stuff does kind of fall by the wayside when people are faced with economic decisions or hardships. And so the idea that all these people are still making it a priority in their lives is just awesome. It just makes me really happy that this group of people is going to come together and be able to have this amazing event during a pretty rocky time in our world right now.

The Rumpus: I know that you’ve done it in DC, and this year again it’s in DC…

Tristan Taormino: I know! And it’s like literally blocks from the capital! Crazy!

The Rumpus: About Opening Up, what I love about the website is that it’s so approachable. I feel like my mom could click on it and read about polyamory. I had to ask, though, do you believe that monogamy works for some people?

Tristan Taormino: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. There are certain people who are polyamorous or who believe in open relationships who believe that that is a more evolved relationship model, who believe that they’ve seen the light and that is the one way to do relationships, and I am not that person. There are monogamous people represented in my book, and I really feel strongly that my message for people is create a relationship that works for you, like, let go of these stereotypes, let go of these fairytales and create it from scratch. But then if you come back to me and say, “You know, I’ve thought about all of these things, and I’ve worked on all of these things, and my ideal relationship, well, it looks a lot like monogamy.” Well, then who am I to say, “Oh, no, wait, that’s not the right answer”?

The Rumpus: Do you think that it’s more dangerous either physically or emotionally?

Tristan Taormino: That’s an interesting word, dangerous. You know, I think that relationships are dangerous, right? Relationships can be emotional and physical and spiritual landmines. Like, we get into relationships with people for a reason, and often it is to learn about ourselves and to change, and so I don’t know that an open relationship is any more dangerous than one that’s not open if you’re consciously engaged in the relationship, if you’re self-aware and if you’re present, and if you’re working on your own stuff plus the relationship. I think that certainly people who are in open relationships are probably forced to confront feelings of jealousy and insecurity and fear on a regular basis, it’s built into it, ’cause there are people sort of constantly coming in and out of your life, new experiences, new people, new relationships. A lot of that means that the relationship is really dynamic, and there’s a lot of change, and change is hard for people. But I think that certainly you can be confronted with all of those same issues in a monogamous relationship. You can experience intense jealousy in a monogamous relationship. I just think that people who are in open relationships have a lot of work to do, and the more people you’re involved with the more people’s issues you have to process. Green Energy Sources

The Rumpus:
And in regard to sexual health, if you’re sexually active with even one person you have to be pretty careful nowadays. When you’re with other people it’s even more important. How is sexual health promoted in the poly community?

Tristan Taormino: I think that you have to be vigilant about it. People have certainly come up with creative ways to deal with it. For example, there are people who have created these sort of poly chains, where a group of three people or four people or even six people all get tested. They all agree that they can have unprotected sex with the people in that chain — they’re not always sexually active with all of those people — but then they have to have safer sex with anyone outside that chain. So it’s a way to have unprotected sex with more than one person, with more than one of your partners, but it means that you have to trust all the people in that chain. ‘Cause the one or two or three people you’re not sleeping with, what they do is going to affect you, ’cause they’re sleeping with someone you’re sleeping with.

And then there are people who are strictly safer sex for everyone, that’s just their bottom line. I think it’s a much more well developed message within the poly community than it is among swingers. I definitely see more unsafe sex among swingers and the swing community than I do in spaces that are specifically poly. I think that the same rules apply though, I think that people are constantly making these snap judgments, “You don’t have an STD.” And it’s like, you don’t know this person! I think people just need to be vigilant about it, they need to define what’s okay and what’s not for them, because every single person I interviewed for my book said that safer sex was a rule in their relationship, even people who had very few or no rules, they had a safer sex rule. Now, when I asked them to define what safer sex meant for them, that was all over the board. There were people who were like, we mean intercourse with a condom. Then there were people who were like intercourse with a condom and oral sex with barriers, gloves, and kind of everyone in between.

The Rumpus:
What’s the selection process like for the Best Lesbian Erotica series? How do you handle the influx of submissions? I imagine you and, like, two other people huddled over piles upon piles of manuscripts with nothing but a six pack of Pabst and some candy bars to keep you going.

Tristan Taormino: Yes. Send me those two people. No, I mean, I’m it. I don’t have a reader who forwards onto me. The way it works is there’s a guest judge. I read every submission and I narrow it down to a group, and then from that group the guest judge selects. So the guest judge has sort of the filtered version of the story. But I have to read all of them, and I do read all of them. I feel like someone took the time to write this and send it to me and submit it, so I’m going to take the time to read it. It’s a tremendous amount of time and it can get a little repetitive, ’cause there’s only so many ways to have sex and to write about it. So statistically I’ve read a lot more bad erotica than good. This year, 2009 is the last year that I’m going to be series editor. I felt like it had fallen near to the bottom of my priority list. I wasn’t getting really excited about it so I felt like it was time to let someone else take it over who could be really excited about it.

The Rumpus: Who was your favorite teacher growing up?

Tristan Taormino: I had a lot of really good teachers. I loved my first grade teacher. We don’t have that many memories from when we were, like, seven or eight, but I can just remember loving going to school. Mrs. Taber was my English teacher in high-school, she was really kickass. She was really smart and I felt like she was a mentor to me. I really liked her. She’d be someone I’d like to have lunch with now. Like, what are you doing, Mrs. Taber? She’s probably retired by now.

Also my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Lopiparo, who really always was perfectly dressed and made-up and coiffed. I mean, perfect, like a beauty queen. She never had a hair out of place. She had very high standards, and was very challenging for a fifth grade teacher.

The Rumpus: Weird aesthetic question, I’ve seen that you wear glasses. Are you near-sighted or far-sighted?

Tristan Taormino: Oh, um. I can’t see far, so I’m nearsighted. I’ve worn glasses since I was in, like, fifth grade and I can’t really wear contacts comfortably. Now I feel like my glasses are a part of me. Even if they invented the most amazing contact lens I wouldn’t wear them.

The Rumpus: Were you teased when you started wearing glasses as a kid?

Tristan Taormino: I was teased about a lot of things when I was a kid! I can think of, like, twenty things that I was teased about, I don’t think glasses were one of them. I was really skinny, flat-chested, I was really smart, I was awkward, I had bad skin…I mean, there was so many things I was teased about, I don’t think glasses was on the list.

You can see what Tristan‘s up to on her sex-based site Pucker Up or on her website based on her book, Opening Up.

Ainsley Drew is a native New Yorker, freelance writer, and euphemism enthusiast. Her work has been featured in The New York Press, McSweeney’s, The Morning News, and Curve Magazine, among other totally sweet publications. An avid fan of all sports, but especially the NBA, when she's not stalking 6'10" centers she eats way too much Japanese food, plays word games, and hits on anything that moves. Aiming high, she hopes to one day be a notorious literary celebrity with her name in tabloids. She also has eleven fingers, so she can type faster than you. You can find her and ainsleydrew. Be her Internet friend. More from this author →