The women behind Paramour push the bounds of sexuality in fiction and art
by Gerald Peary
Raye Sharpe won't reveal her real name, her profession, or her place of
residence, but she isn't shy about admitting that she has "been covered with
the New York Times in duct tape and had a man read to me the
Times crossword puzzle taped to my body."
So, not coincidentally, has the heroine of her erotic story "Two Down, One
Across." You won't find a scene like this in a romance novel, but it's not
likely to appear in Penthouse Forum anytime soon, either. "Most porn is
about random couples doing unhealthy things," Sharpe says, "and that doesn't
speak to me. I want to celebrate a [long-term] partner's kinky desires and also
have some fun."
Sharpe, a gregarious woman in her early 30s, is a star in-house writer for
Paramour, the Boston-based magazine of literary and artistic erotica.
She's just one of a group of bright, sophisticated women associated with the
nationally distributed quarterly, which Cambridge resident Amelia Copeland
founded three years ago to fill what she perceived to be a gap in the erotic
Says Copeland: "I was writing for a local 'zine, Fine Print, and a
friend and I were talking about being in our early 30s, straight, single, more
or less artsy and creative, and how there was no alternative sex magazine that
we could really relate to, something that was not specifically gay or
fetishist." A couple of existing magazines seemed to come close, but Copeland
and her friends wanted something with more sexual edge than the San
Francisco-based Yellow Silk and more visual appeal than the
Chicago-based Libido. Most important: although they didn't want to be
preoccupied with political correctness, they wanted the magazine to have a
consciously feminist perspective -- no stories by men bragging about their
sexual conquests, and no Penthouse-style shots of women with their legs
The result is a publication that most stores simply don't know what to do
with, even if they routinely carry Penthouse and Hustler. It's
too literary for the lunch-bucket buyers of men's magazines, and it's too
explicit for a straitlaced literary audience. Perhaps this is why
Paramour remains difficult to find on newsstands, despite its ambitious
12,000-copy run. (It is available in Boston at Trident Booksellers and
Café and at Tower Records; in Cambridge at Out of Town News and Tower;
and at some larger chain bookstores. Subsciptions cost $18 per year. Write
Paramour, Box 949, Cambridge, MA 02140.) "We're struggling to get
properly distributed," admits Copeland.
Certainly Paramour does not shy away from explicitly sexual writing.
Sharpe's recent story "Buena Vida" (in Volume 3, Number 4), in which the
protagonist falls for Italianate Rudy, with "thighs of a horse, all sinewy and
smooth under loose green trousers," is typical. When Rudy offers her a peach,
the heroine dares confess, "I wanted to lift my skirt to show him my dripping
fruit." Show it she does, so "He knelt down and fluttered his tongue over my
crevice. I was filled with creamy juice. I smeared my whole self over his
lightly stubbled chin."
Copeland does set some limits on Paramour's visual content: "We don't
do `parting of the beef curtain' shots, and we don't have cum shots and
penetration," she explains. "We wouldn't show pictures of bestiality or
pictures of minors." Still, it isn't exactly candlelight and rose petals. "We
have had pictures of peeing, and we like erections," she says. "We will show
S/M pictures. If there's a [signed] model release, we assume what's shown is
And as far as the text is concerned, anything goes. "We err in favor of
printing something on any subject," Copeland says. She recalls one story "about
a girl starting to jerk off a horse," which the magazine declined to run only
because "it wasn't well-written."
Paramour review editor Peg Aloi concurs. "We all try to be very
open-minded," she says, "and [we all] agree that good writing is paramount. But
we disagree whether stories are erotic. Do they arouse the emotions and the
bodily fluids? We try to have people at the [editorial] meetings who know
something of the S/M community, of poetry, of literature, and also we make sure
there's a gay component."
Adds senior editor Marti Hohmann, "more and more, we know what we are looking
for: someone not afraid to talk about sex explicitly, whose voice is modern and
direct. I also like texts which are in dialogue with other texts, with
Bataille, Pauline Réage, Nabokov, Joyce, and which are aware of a
century of sexually explicit writers. My favorite stuff has the sex and
violence integrated into the story, with a certain amount of social commentary.
My least favorite erotica is flowery stuff. And I won't be for publishing a
Hohmann, a Harvard PhD candidate writing a dissertation on feminist
pornography and the sexual avant-garde in France and the US from 1968 to the
present, is Paramour's in-house theoretician, especially on the issue of
why so many women are at the forefront of erotic writing in the 1990s.
"It's a women's renaissance because of the trajectory of feminism in this
country," she says. Back in the '80s, she explains, when there was "a
party-line [feminist] campaign against pornography," there was also a movement
of " `sex-positive' feminists who tried to integrate honest
representations of sexuality into their consciousness, so that women, like men,
could embrace the whole of experience. This means `pleasure activism,' sexual
play-acting, and S/M in which a power exchange flows both ways."
Now, Hohmann argues, the "sex-positive" feminists are in the ascendant. In the
'70s and early '80s, she notes, the lesbian aesthetic demanded "absolutely no
penetration . . . and now, in lesbian culture, penetration is
politically correct," she says. "Penetration is a style like anything else,
subject to modifications in culture.
"To me, feminism isn't about sexual organs," says Hohmann. "In bed you can be
either gender, through cross-dressing, language, or fantasy. And feminism to me
is a woman who's not afraid to say what's happening to her body sexually.
"Our readers are straight men and mostly straight 20- to 45-year-old couples,"
Hohmann says. "None of us [writers] are married. None have kids. If I'm the one
most radical, the most likely to talk about Paramour as a political
project, all the writers have feminism integrated into their lives. And we're
not unique for our generation. Many people are working on the same issues: how
to realize your full potential, as a human being and as a sexual being too."
Aloi agrees. "The magazine is very important to me," she says, "and the people
I work with are smart, sexy, irreverent, unpretentious. And the magazine is a
way to express the sensuality of everyday existence, the connection to our
physical selves. A problem in the world today, said a French writer, is that we
no longer give Aphrodite her due."
One person of whom that could never be said is Paramour's other star
fiction writer, Annie Regrets. (Her nom de plume, she says, started with a fake
punk band in college that never played a show. "I use it as a protection
against cranks," she says. "I feel for women to do this sexual stuff is really
taboo. . . . Amelia gets all these crank calls, late-night
breathers, or e-mails with no text because someone was jerking off at our Web
site and hit a key.")
If Raye Sharpe is cheery and upbeat about sex as something that's good for the
body, mind, and spirit, Annie Regrets is hardboiled, suspicious. Hers is the
voice of the alternative city. The sexual acts she writes about are chilly,
paranoid, vengeful. "My stories are generally pessimistic," she says. "The act
of writing is a way of grappling with the darker stuff."
Regrets says she first wrote porn "as a young, small-town Catholic girl, some
`girl meets boy, girl and boy go to the top of a hayloft' stories." She got
involved with Paramour when her ex-boyfriend wrote a story for the
magazine. "In a jealous pique," she recalls, "I thought, `You call that
erotica? I'll show you erotica!' My ex-boyfriend hated my story because, of
course, I made the male in the story nothing like him."
Her first story, "Developer," a stark, realistic tale of an anonymous groping
in a photography darkroom, was selected (along with Raye Sharpe's "Thirty,"
about a light S/M session as a surprise birthday present) for Susie Bright's
collection Best American Erotica. "I thought it was a lark," says
Regrets, "but getting that encouragement made me want to do more." Her next
Paramour piece, `Call Before You Come,' was a "revenge story" in which a
guy gets trapped with no choice but to watch the girlfriend he dissed make love
to another man. "This guy had pissed me off," she recalls, "so I thought, in
the ideal world, what would happen to him? My stories mutate. They have nothing
to do with real life."
This technique can be seen in a recent Paramour, which features a story
called "The Spectator." In real life, Regrets, stricken with pneumonia, had to
go to work on Marathon Monday. In her fictionalized version of the day, as she
describes it, "a marathon runner comes to Boston with pneumonia, can't run, and
gets hand-fucked by a stranger at the Boston finish line."
I can hear the roar of the crowd rise and then boil over; the winner must be
coming down Boylston Street right now. My legs twitch and my Keds thrash in
mid-air as he fucks me to a climax, spreading his fingers and brushing against
my clitoris with each stroke. I buck against his hand, and then finally, the
waves overtake the shore and ripple outward from far below, past the stars,
past infinity as I desperately gasp for air.
"Maybe if I lived in the country I'd write Bridges of Madison
County," Regrets says, "but Boston is where I am. I'm a townie." It's not
a town famous for its unrestrained sexuality, but the women of Paramour
are happy to buck the stereotype.
"I don't think that Boston is really that puritanical," says Amelia Copeland.
"People here are just as adventurous as other places, but more private."
Gerald Peary is a film columnist for the Boston Phoenix.