Yesterday I published a review of Beaver Street by Neil A. Chesanow that he’d posted on Amazon. I’d gotten in contact with Chesanow after reading the review, and the e-mail below is his response to some of my questions about his background and his expertise in writing about sex. It offers a good deal of insight into sex journalism, magazine publishing, and book publishing.
Since it’s late, I’ll save my excursion into the literature of porn for a future email. But I thought I might provide some perspective.
I wrote for the major women’s magazines from 1972 to 1996. My very first article, for Cosmo, was on sexual surrogates. I interviewed one on West End Avenue. I thought she had the hots for me. Sexual surrogates, by definition, are highly sexual irrespective of partners, but she wasn’t really my type and even though I was a tyro journalist, I felt it would be a gross violation of professional ethics to have sex with an interviewee.
But I have always been interested in writing about sex because it’s so difficult to write about. (That you made it seem so effortless is a big part of the brilliance of your book. It’s easy to take for granted, but writing about sex “in an acceptable way” is no mean feat.)
To flesh out my journalistic assignments, I started to contribute personal essays in, oh, the mid-1980s. I’m a self-abnegating person. The women’s magazines found that a man who could write about masculine issues of intense interest to women in a self-abnegating way was, I don’t know, aphrodisiacal, and I inadvertently found myself cast as a “man who could write for women.” It was a new thing, and for about two years, I owned it.
In that capacity, I wrote about a multitude of subjects, but most especially sex. If a man has sexual fantasies involving other women during sex, is it cheating? Do married men masturbate? (When Ellen Levine, whom you mentioned in a footnote in your book, who was then the editor of Redbook, suggested this to me, I just looked at her. I couldn’t believe she was serious. It turned out to be one of my best-read articles).
But I’ve always found sex to be the most fascinating area of journalistic inquiry because so much of it is unspeakable, when journalism is about telling all. And this is the perfect time to be writing about sex. Online pornography has driven a stake into the heart of normality as a concept and it was a stake that needed driving. Sex surveys on our sexual habits conducted by the University of Chicago and other august institutions are about as accurate as a tip from a racetrack tout.
I could not help but notice that you were published by a British publisher. That a book of this quality wasn’t published by an American publisher is a scandal. Maybe you’ll get a reverse sale—you deserve one—but still! And that’s because there are a half-dozen middle-class suburban matrons who do all the sex book buying in this country, and if they find something offensive, which they regularly do, bang: no one will publish you here.
In 1992, I sold Redbook (via articles editor Diane Salvatore, an up-and-coming lesbian novelist, with Ellen Levine’s blessing) an article on sexual swingers. I said I would take an objective anthropological approach and they agreed. On their dime, I visited swing clubs in Florida and California, attended parties (fully clothed, but with no notepad permitted), and did a great many interviews.
I came away with a lot of good stuff that I hadn’t seen before and haven’t seen since. A majority of male swingers experience erectile dysfunction for up to a year (after which they either get over it or drop out of the lifestyle) because of their inhibitions about performing in public.
A majority of women, upwards of 90 percent, most of whom have never had a lesbian encounter before, regularly if not primarily engage in girl-girl sex.
The whole idea of swinging is to recognize that people a) have a need for a stable relationship with a significant other; and b) have pansexual desires despite this commitment, and to enable the latter without destroying the former. Most of the time it doesn’t work. But once in a while it does work. Because I said that in the article, and refused to retract it, I was fired, after working for the magazine for 10 years.
So I wrote the research up in a book proposal. I do a very nice book proposal. In fact, this was the only book proposal of mine that found no buyer. It was the six suburban dowagers who control everything. AIDS was efflorescing. They found the subject repugnant and, given the current epidemiological climate, irresponsible.
That left me with your alternative: sell it in Britain (or Germany) and hope for a reverse sale. I considered it. But the advance I was offered was less than I made writing a single magazine article, and there was much expensive research left to be done, all, apparently, out of pocket. It wasn’t financially feasible. So I passed and continued on with my life.
Due to the lateness of the hour, I’ll respond to your literature inquiry at another time. However, while I’ve read some porn star biographies, I mainly read scholarly investigations, and those tend to be thin in metanoic insight. That’s why your book is so valuable: it humanizes the enterprise. Love it, hate it, or somewhere in between, this is something human beings do for the delectation of other human beings, and the financial scale of the enterprise strongly suggests that if we are to come up with an accurate definition of sexual normality (not normalcy—that term was introduced by Calvin Coolidge and never exceeded its political context), the quaint Victorian meaning of that must be entirely scrapped. Kinsey said, “If it feels good, it’s normal.” That seems to be about the size of it.
We’ll talk books in a future email.
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