An Interview with Janet W. Hardy
I narrowly missed my former classmate Janet W. Hardy when she was in Portland, Oregon, reading at Powellís Books on a recent Monday night. When I asked what she had read, she told me ďThe Portal,Ē which had been selected for inclusion in Best Sex Writing 2010. When my classmates and I workshopped it three years ago, that piece was titled ďCunt.Ē I remember our class workshopping it to a serious-looking Janet, and all of us ďadultsĒ trying really hard not titter into our hands when we used words like ďcunt,Ē trying not to look too prude when mentioning ďthe narratorís pussy.Ē There we were, a bunch of bad-ass literary wannabes who had spent our experimental college years in the uber-liberal Bay Area, and a woman who looked like she could be our mom -- if our moms had a purple streak in her hair -- was reducing us to giggly kids.†
Janet was always miles ahead of the rest of my M.F.A. program. She had already written many books, including the well-known guide to consensual non-monogamy, The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities, published under the alias Catherine A. Liszt with her frequent co-author, Dossie Easton. She had started her own publishing company, Greenery Press. And her writing -- incisive, tight, mature, hilarious -- stood out against our rambling, immature, drug-experimentation-memoir prose.
I havenít seen Janet since graduation, but kept up with her on Facebook, including her move from a little bungalow in Oakland to Eugene, Oregon.†
How has the move to Eugene affected you?†
Moving is disorienting, and moving here is one of those mid-life things. The things that seemed so important to me when I was in my mid-thirties and living in San Francisco arenít as important now. Itís more relaxed up here; thereís less financial pressure. Itís a fairly rich cultural life, with the university here, a lot of theater, which is very important to me [Janet is obsessed with musicals -- on her website, she says her biggest fantasy is being chained to Sondheimís piano]. Itís been slow finding the LGBT community, but we [Janet and her spouse, E] are starting to meet people.† I know thereís a leather community here, but Iím not reaching out to them.†
Leather is still core to me. I call myself a BDSM emeritus. The sado-masochistic fantasies are still there, but because of age and shifting hormones, the desire to act them out isnít as much. Also, with tantra, I got to the point where I could have full-body orgasms. I began having orgasms in places I felt were inappropriate, and began feeling a lack of control. I felt embarrassed, like when I did orgasm I was going temporarily crazy, and it scared me a little bit.†
Who are your favorite sex writers?†
Jack Morin, especially The Erotic Mind: Unlocking the Inner Sources of Passion and Fulfillment. Carol Queen, The Leather Daddy and The Femme. Susie Bright for making radical sex palatable for a wide audience, which I wish I could do. And, of course, my co-author Dossie Easton.†
How did your working relationship with Dossie begin?†
A friend of mine at the time was the program manager for the Society of Janus [the BDSM society of the Bay Area]. Dossie was looking for a demo bottom during a caning seminar. He asked -- knowing I would -- if I wanted to be her demo. I had been wanting to meet Dossie for quite awhile. After the seminar, Dossie and I talked about doing a bottoming book.†
Did the sex come first or did the writing? Are you not writing together now because youíre not having sex,† or not having sex because youíre not writing together?†
Well, yes, as co-authors, weíd try out scenes together. For example, for The New Topping Book, we wanted to play with cultural trauma -- the rape of Nan-King, Nazis. But weíre both white women from privileged backgrounds. And we didnít feel like we could do much good with those topics. But we wanted to try anyway. So we decided upon a scene where she was a black streetwalker and I was her pimp. Dossie goes to her costume closet -- most of our sexual escapades began at that costume closet -- goes into the bathroom puts on this long leather coat she got at Goodwill for like $40. She comes out and Iím in a manís suit, reclining on her bed. I say, ďFuck you, bitch. Where did you get that coat?Ē And she says, ďI got it from GoodwillÖ it was only $40.Ē And I get up, acting like I donít believe her, and say, ďYou canít get a coat that nice from Goodwill. Youíre holding out on me bitch!Ē And it turned into a very beautiful scene.†
What are you reading right now?†
Iím reading Philip Hoare, The Whale. Itís mind-blowing. It weaves back and forth from memoir, biology, and a study of Moby Dick. Iím also reading Nick Flynnís new book, The Ticking is the Bomb: A Memoir.†
Whatís your comfort reading?†
P.G. Wodehouse. During any time of stress and angst, I always go back to Wodehouse. Nothing bad ever happens in one of his novels. I donít read much fiction anymore, but I used to read Larry McMurtry and Anne Tyler. Now that I got an e-reader, Iím re-reading the classics. I just downloaded Call of the Wild.†
What are you doing now other than writing?
Right now, Iím leading a local workshop. Itís creative non-fiction, a freebie workshop, theoretically egalitarian but I sort of took the lead. Also the Greenery [Press] sale took up a lot of my time.†
You literally built that publishing house from the ground. Do you feel sad? Bittersweet?†
Itís a huge relief because I never liked the financial, business end. Iím still the editorial director on a contract basis, so I get to be on the editorial side, which I always loved. But I hated balancing the books and doing all that.†
How did you start Greenery Press? †
I began Greenery with my old partner, Jay [Wiseman]. Jay had written a book called SM 101 and got turned down by a bunch of mainstream publishers. He was nervous about self-publishing. Then I got fired from my advertising job and our only asset was this manuscript, SM 101. We went to a copy shop, made a few copies, had them bound, and began selling them in a local erotic boutique. Demand grew, we began selling them in more and more boutiques around town, and soon we had raised enough money to buy our own press. †
Youíve done sex-writing, memoir, and you did some great food writing for our class. Which do you enjoy the most?†
Memoir is the most enjoyable. Iím not a serious foodie. I love food, and Iím inspired to write about it, but Iím not a big foodie. My biggest writing project right now is expanding a piece that I workshopped in a reportage class we took together first year. [It was a piece about non-traditional marriages, featuring a master-slave relationship and gay men married to straight women.] Iím expanding it outward into a book. Iím going to Edmonton to teach a class called Love Beyond Gender. Iíve come up with this theory called Vectors of Attraction. Thereís a list of at least five: man woman; masculineĖfeminine, which is not necessarily a man and a woman -- it could be a very butch woman to a very feminine woman; queer; straight; same and different, where sometimes people find that they are attracted to a different gender after their sex change, so they like bodies that are like or unlike theirs; and fetish/BDSM, where the attraction is more important than the body. Thatís the theoretical construct of the book, the different vectors of attraction. Iíve taken some of the memoir out.†
I loved this essay, because I know thereís LGBT, but I also know that thereís far more beyond that and yet I never quite know the correct terminology.
So LGBT is an important construct for political reasons, but itís not that cut and dry in terms of the way people live. If you look historically at the idea of homosexuality, it didnít exist until the late 19th century. Itís the whole idea of identity that nails you down. But if you look at some of the iconic gays of history, Oscar Wilde and his wife and, more recently, Cole and Linda Porter, there was a genuine deep connection there that may or may not be sexual or exclusive, but was definitely love and a marriage.
I was surprised when that piece was rejected from a local lifestyle magazine.†
Well, the gay magazines donít want it.†Itís not good for their political agenda. And the straight mags just donít get it. I havenít found the hook, but the feedback from my writing group is, ďI want to read this book. But if it gets shelved in the Gay/Lesbian section, Iíll never be able to find it.Ē My fear for it is that it will get ghettoized in the bookstore.
So, as a sex writer, having introduced millions of ďnervous beginners,Ē as you say, to the world of BDSM, must feel incredibly rewarding.
It is. I like being about as famous as I am. If I introduce myself as Janet Hardy, no one knows who I am outside of a few circles. If I say, I wrote The Ethical Slut, a lot more people know.†
Is that why you wrote with a pseudonym? †
I did that because I was writing these books as my children were young. My kids had some idea of what I was doing, but I tried to let them have their own sexual awakening and not let them see at all what I was doing. I knew that if they would ever come after me for something it would be for taxes or my kids. So I made sure Greenery Pressís books were balanced and my childrenís boundaries were respected. But I think the kids did know. I formally came out to my oldest son when he was 18, but I think he knew what was going on.†
I always remember a particular paragraph in an essay you wrote. I thought it was beautiful. Itís a scene where you and E go to the Folsom Street Fair [a major BDSM festival on Folsom St. in San Francisco] and heís not feeling well, and you guys just sit on some steps, and you realize, ďEh, Iím kind of over this, too.Ē Itís a sad moment, because in some ways you want to be out there, but in other ways, youíre older, youíre settled, and you canít because your spouse doesnít feel well. And you realize, too, that thereís a change in the BDSM scene, and that youíre not quite as ďinĒ it as you were before. And you sort of donít care anymore.
Thereís been a major change in the BDSM community with the advent of the Internet. It used to be that you already had to be an outsider to find it. Now, itís a bit more conventional. People find the Society of Janus online, and itís like, ďDrop the kids at the babysitters and letís go.Ē I have mixed emotions. In some ways, itís excellent; in some ways not so much. In my day, it was a life-changing event to go to your first BDSM event. It was darker, more important; now that itís so ďeasyĒ to do, it feels more trivial. †
Does it feel trivial in the sense that you were there and now you feel that new BDSM-ers arenít respecting that history?†
No, itís more to do with a fear of death. BDSM, if youíre doing it right, youíre putting something at risk. A real risk of physical and emotional damage. I worry for peopleís health and safety when itís too easy, not a thought-out, life-changing decision.
Do you felt that as a woman sex writer, you go back to that very heteronormative trait, the nurturer? †
As a woman sex writer, I want to help others not make the same mistakes that Iíve made. If youíre doing BDSM and out on your own personal edges, I want to prevent unnecessary mistakes. The mistakes Iíve made. This is where my books, my mentoring comes in.