How to talk about sex in public
I’m in the midst of getting ready for my upcoming Best Women’s Erotica of the Year book tour, which will take me to four cities: Los Angeles on January 31, Baltimore on February 9, New York on February 11 and Jersey City on February 13.
Joining me will be contributors to Volumes 1 and 2 in the series. As these dates inch closer, the two words I’m hearing most often from seem of the authors reading are: “I’m nervous.”
My response, which sometimes feels like a dirty little secret, is always, “Me too.” Because despite the fact that I believe readings are a vital career tool for authors, and that I’ve been organizing and participating in them since 2000, I still dread having to read my dirty words out loud. It’s gotten a little easier over the years, but it still makes my heart pound wildly every time I look out over a crowd and realize I will have to navigate language like “cock” and “pussy” and “orgasm” and, the one that always causes me the most anxiety, “cunt.” I never know whether I should pronouncing with a loud, proud, hard “t” at the end, or let the four-letter word almost trail off with a soft “t,” as if that will lessen its impact.
So despite this post’s title, I don’t have the secret to getting over your fear of public speaking, especially when it comes to speaking about sex, but I do have a few tricks I’ve picked up along the way after seemingly countless readings in bars, bookstores, community centers and other locales. When I read my work, I often feel like I’m reading it to myself anew as well, because once I put the final edits on an erotica short story and it goes to print, my mind tends to move on to the next thing. I don’t always grasp how odd it might seem to read about, say, an oral sex restaurant, such as the one in my story “Secret Service,” until I’m actually doing it. Here’s a peek at me reading that one at my old reading series In The Flesh, nervous tics and all:
Here are some tools that have helped me get over that fear and nervousness, and push through it when it strikes during a reading. For one thing, I think you want to remember what compelled you to write the piece in the first place. On one of my favorite podcasts, Bad With Money, host Gaby Dunn discussed the topic of self-promotion with Real Artists Have Day Jobs author Sara Benincasa, and Sara said something I’ve always believed: that you have to believe in yourself 100% and not be shy about letting others know about your work (I’m paraphrasing, but I promise the episode is worth a listen). Tap in to your motivation for telling this particular story, and channel that as you give voice to that tale.
I believe readings are the epitome of that practice of putting your work out there, because even though you can, of course, do some last minute editing on the fly, you don’t have the time to agonize and overthink and cut and paste and edit and delete and hem and haw that you do with writing (yes, I do this with almost all my writing). You are there, live, raw, and showing that you are showing up for your words and ready to share them in this personal format. The words are already there, and your job is to do them justice and bring your own personal spin to them.
Most likely, you’ll find that as you read, even if you start out nervous, at some point, you will get lost in the story, and find that it becomes a separate entity to what’s on the page. It’s only when I read my work out loud that I often get its nuances. I don’t tend to think of myself as a funny writer, especially of erotica, but during readings is where I start to notice the humor in my pieces. Sometimes, I gravitate toward those aspects, selecting passages that play up the funnier angles. Since you’re usually only reading a small selection of your words out loud, you can shape and frame them, tantalizing the audience with a teaser of your work, and encouraging them to read the rest on their own.
I also think it’s important to remember that even if you’re nervous, audiences don’t mind. In fact, they appreciate you all the more when you reveal your humanity and let them know that you’re nervous. In all my years of doing erotica readings, I’ve never had anyone criticize me when I’ve faltered over a phrase, or skipped over a line, or couldn’t stop my voice or hands from shaking. We are all human, and we all know that talking about sex can be challenging, but I think that at a time when the arts are under attack, it’s vital that we meet that challenge and show that we don’t see anything wrong with writing explicitly erotic material.
It also helps me to think less about the individuals I’m reading to, who in the past have included friends, family members and current and former lovers, and instead focus on the story. I do try to look up and make eye contact, but at the same time, in my mind’s eye, I’m picturing the action of the story, and trying to do it justice.
Another way to lessen your nerves is to give audiences a little peek into your writing process. Whether you do this before you read, after you read, or with small asides as you go, this gives them additional insight they won’t find on the page. Bring a prop if it’s relevant to your story, as D.R. Slaten plans to do at our reading at Sugar in Baltimore. Tell us something personal about yourself; this doesn’t have to mean your sexual history (though it could), but something that makes readers appreciate having taken the time to leave their homes when they could be curled up under a blanket watching Netflix. Give them a juicy detail, tell them how you came up with your story idea, offer a tidbit of writing inspiration, or anything that will add to the words you’ve already crafted on the page.
Bring your personality with you when you read. Remember that you don’t have to be an A list quality actor in order to bring your words to life; you just have to be yourself. Here’s a wonderful example of a reading by a woman who inspired me to get into the genre, Susie Bright. Watch her reading from her story “The Best She Ever Had” in her gorgeously crafted anthology X: The Erotic Treasury, back in 2009 at In The Flesh, for an example of a master of how to talk about sex in public:
The awful/wonderful thing about readings is that anything can happen. I recognize that for women, especially, it can be unnerving to talk so frankly about sex in public, lest we be greeted by flirtatious, inappropriate or downright creepy comments in return (I’ve experienced all three), with the assumption being that because we aren’t ashamed about sex, we want to sleep with anyone who happens to be around. At the same time, I think staying silent about sex adds to our cultural confusion around it. Exploring it, whether in fiction or nonfiction, is a way to break some of the taboos, and in a culture when so many of us, myself included, live our lives behind a computer screen, saying those dirty words, giving them context and meaning and emotion and weight, is all the more valuable.
The awful/wonderful thing about readings is that you can’t predict how they will go. The audience may listen avidly, or twiddle with their phones. They may laugh or gasp where you don’t expect them to, and your favorite jokes may fall flat. Someone may catch something in your work you’ve never thought about before.
Lastly, remember that readings don’t last forever. They may loom large when they’re on the horizon, but the time really does fly by when you’re up there speaking into the microphone. I can’t tell you the number of times an author who’s seemed nervous beforehand has trouble sticking to their allotted time, because once they get started, they get swept away.
I hope you’ll join me on this book tour, and if you’re not in any of these cities, I would love it if you’d pass on the details to someone who is. I’ve organized it in part to promote my books, but also to stand up for erotica, to ensure that it’s not relegated to some bottom shelf or back corner of a bookstore, only ferreted out by the truly dedicated. Plus, on a personal level, it’s another way for me to help conquer that fear, to leap into the unknown and find out what happens. I want to see erotica front and center, next to the latest mystery and romance and fiction titles. Here’s where to find us – all our events are free and will be followed by Q&As and book signings.
January 31, 7:30 pm, Skylight Books, 1818 North Vermont Avenue, Los Angeles
February 9, 6:30 pm, Sugar, 1001 W. 36th Street, Baltimore (Hamden)
February 11, 7 pm, Bluestockings, 172 Allen Street, New York City
February 13, 7:30 pm, WORD, 123 Newark Avenue, Jersey City, New Jersey
Rachel Kramer Bussel (rachelkramerbussel.com) has edited over 60 anthologies, including Best Women’s Erotica of the Year, Volume 1, Come Again: Sex Toy Erotica, Begging for It, Fast Girls, The Big Book of Orgasms and more. She writes widely about sex, dating, books and pop culture and teaches erotica writing classes around the country and online. Follow her @raquelita on Twitter and find out more about her classes and consulting at eroticawriting101.com.