Author Stephen Elliott is a bottom, and he's not ashamed to talk about it. The San Francisco-based writer splashed onto the literary scene two years ago with Happy Baby, his confessional novel about juvenile detention centers, sadomasochism and drugs. Elliott has just come out with a new collection of similarly gritty reality-based fiction. My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up is an assortment of stories that explores the world of sadomasochism (S/M) from the perspective of a bisexual male who enjoys being dominated. In time with his Portland appearance at Reading Frenzy this Thursday, Oct. 26, WW spoke with Elliott from San Fran about fiction, nonfiction and the politics of kinky sex.
WW: Is sex a political act?
Stephen Elliott: I think people doing what they want with their own bodies is a political statement.... A tremendous percentage of the population are masochists or sadists or fetishists or kinky in some way. People just don't want to talk about it. When you don't talk about it, then who's going to defend you when the Bush administration takes a whole chunk of the FBI and turns it into an obscenity squad? These guys should be out fighting terrorism, and instead they're cracking down on perfectly legitimate websites and using obscenity laws to take them out. Also, you're very unlikely to find what you want if you're not open about it.
Stories like yours and Michele Tea's Rent Girl seem to be part of a trend of openly blurring the line between fiction and nonfiction.
My new book could have easily been a memoir, but I would have had to change a few things that would have slowed down the narrative. And I just didn't want to. The reader is kind enough to sit with you and sit with your art for a while, and you kind of owe a debt to the reader. So fictionalizing things to make them more interesting, and consolidating characters is kind of living up to your end of the bargain. I mean, I'd probably sell more copies if I called it a memoir, but it wouldn't have been as good a book.
There is a stereotype that people who are into S/M have been abused in childhood. Do you think there's some truth to that?
I don't know. I think the jury is out on whether or not there's a link. It's really, really hard to say, but I guess, deep in my heart, I believe that there is, which is not a politically correct thing to say and I don't know if it's true.
Do you think that practicing S/M can be a healthy way to work on your issues?
You know, to me, when it comes down to it, it's not about it being healthy or not healthy. It's like being gay. You don't sit there and say, "Well, is it healthy for me to be gay?" You're just gay; you can't help it. If you're into S/M—if your entire sexuality revolves around being tied up, being dominated, being submissive to someone, being hurt, being cut—if this is your sexuality, it's not like you choose that. It just is. I would never choose to be into S/M. Do you know how limited my dating pool is?
Your book delves into activities that are considered extreme—like cutting and fisting. I'm wondering how those activities are viewed within the S/M community. Is it kind of like a subculture within a subculture?
There's definitely people within the community that don't think that blood play is OK. You know what's really taboo is race play, for example. I know a black woman who's a submissive, and she likes playing the slave role with a white master, with a white top. She wants to be called racial epithets in her play and people freak out about that. But that's what her desires are and, if she doesn't act on that, it's not like her desires are going to go away.
Many of these stories are set in San Francisco. How you think they would be different if they were set in New York or Portland or Alabama?
Well, I think they would not be very different if they were set in Portland. But I do think that in terms of me coming out about my sexuality, San Francisco is a really safe and nurturing environment to do that. It's probably the most sexually diverse and advanced place in the world, or one of them. This was the seat of the sexual revolution in the 1960s and it's still happening here. People are still experimenting with things like polyamory.
Stephen Elliott will be reading from his new book,
, with Michelle Orange, author of
at Reading Frenzy, 921 SW Oak St., 274-1449. 7 pm. Thursday, Oct. 26. Free.