Interview: Lusty Lady

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Rachel Kramer Bussel is prolific. She has been the openly bi writer of the Lusty Lady column at the Village Voice for two years, had a column in New York Blade and has articles in GothamistMedia BistroLesbianationThe Black Table and Cosmo. She edits an average of five erotic anthologies a year on topics like femmes who like femmes (Glamour Girls), naughty spanking (Naughty Spanking Stories from A to Z Vols I&II), people who like watching… or showing off (Caught Looking), girls discovering other girls (First Timers), sweets (Sex and Candy: Sugar Erotica), lingerie (Ultimate Undies) and lesbians (Up All Night: Adventures in Lesbian Sex.) Her stories have been published in over 80 anthologies, including Best American Erotica 2004 and 2006 and she’s working on a novel, due out in ’08.

How do you get your ideas for your Lusty Lady columns?

The ideas really came naturally to me, whether stemming from my own life, conversations I’ve had, or news items, sometimes a combination of the three. I was never at a loss, and I think that’s because sex is so pervasive, not just the sex you’re having at any given moment — I didn’t have sex for about the first six months of writing my column!– but the sex you see around you in the culture and what you hear about.

You have edited many books of erotica, what makes for a good story?

A good story should surprise the reader. Even if you expect it to be hot, it should somehow keep you on your toes and not let you sink into the comfort of knowing what will happen. I love when people say that they didn’t think they’d like a story about a given topic, but then found that they did. The writing should suck you in from the very start and make you breathless with anticipation.

Some of my favorite erotica stories I’ve written in fact have no sex in them! One is called “Lap Dance Lust” and it’s a true story about getting my first lap dance. It was such an erotic experience I knew I had to immortalize it… the dancer was seductively moving against me and perhaps because she was off limits for actual sex, it made things all the hotter. So that’s the kind of thing I mean. To me, sexuality is about so much more than who and how we fuck; it’s also about how we dress, think, flirt, and conduct ourselves in various situations.

You are well known as a writer in bi and lesbian circles so I was surprised to find out you edit Penthouse Variations. How did that happen?

I’d been writing erotica for a few years and after three years at NYU Law School was working at a series of administrative jobs. I’d met the editor, my now boss, at a panel on sex writing and when there was an opening, she thought of me and called me. We actually have a bisexual category and regularly run stories about bi and lesbian women, as well as the occasional guy/guy letter, so it’s not that strange that I’m here. I think having women on the staff of a magazine like ours brings something different to the table and am really proud of my job and what I bring to it.

So what do you do at Penthouse Variations, exactly?

I work at Penthouse Variations as Senior Editor, where I’m in charge of the letters section. We cover things that are generally deemed “too kinky” forPenthouse, like spanking, bondage, BDSM, etc., and I get to read lots of letters submitted by readers. I’ve been here since March of 2004 and really enjoy it. The kinds of letters and stories we publish are very different from the erotica I edit; in Variations it’s very cut to the chase, down and dirty, and I’ve learned about all sorts of fascinating fetishes.

As a woman, how do you deal with such a male-oriented publication and the male chauvinist vibe?

Actually, the majority of my coworkers are women and I’ve found the work environment to be nothing but pleasant. It’s not what you’d think.

What percent of the stories do you think are true and what percent are imagination?

I really couldn’t say. Some of the best stories read like they’re true even if they’re not. When my first erotica story, “Monica and Me,” was published, one reviewer said it read like it was true! This was hilarious to me because it’s a fantasy about me having sex with Monica Lewinsky. If it were true, I never would’ve written it like that – or used my real name. I think even in the totally fictionalized erotic stories, there’s some element of truth, either literally, like the author is drawing from their sexual history, or emotionally.

What are your In The Flesh evenings like?

I try to mix things up at In The Flesh, so some nights it’s all smut, but I’ll have poetry and gay, lesbian and bi stories mixed in with straight ones. Sometimes we have non-fiction nights, like Erotic Memoir or True Confessions. It’s interesting to see what the audience reacts to…and you can tell when everyone in the room is holding their breaths and getting turned on. Sometimes couples leave for a few minutes and sneak off and come back looking like they were getting up to something naughty. That’s not the goal of the series but if people hook up or get turned on by the readings, I’m all for it.

Why do you think erotica has become so popular lately?

I think more and more people are finding that they can pick up an erotica book, or order one online, and there’s no stigma attached. As erotica penetrates the romance market, I think more women especially are seeing that it can be something that appeals to them, it’s not all wham, bam, thank you ma’am. Erotica is getting more diverse in every way, with books catering to all sorts of interests and groups, so there’s a wealth of lesbian erotica, as well as African-American erotica, kinky erotica, gay male erotica, etc. People are also seeing that you don’t have to be into a given sex act or part of a specific group to enjoy the stories told from that perspective. I think erotica is a safe way for people to explore sexual fantasies, first by themselves, reading, which I consider one of the most intimate acts around, and then, if they like, by sharing the stories with a lover.

What makes someone a good erotic writer?

I think having genuine passion for the material is one quality. That doesn’t mean it has to stem from personal experience, but if your heart’s truly in it, I think that will show. Many people assume erotica is a breeze to write, and for some it is, but it requires a lot more than just throwing dirty words on a page and seeing what sticks. I think it’s largely about the tension and buildup, what comes before and after the sex, as much as what happens during the sex scenes. Mixing things up and experimenting sexually with your writing is a smart move, too, because you don’t want to keep writing some variation of the same story over and over.

As a bi woman who operates in both lesbian and straight arenas, is the gender of who you are dating ever an issue? Or having a bi identity?

It’s an issue in that I probably look for slightly different traits in men than women, but even that really depends on the person. I’ve mostly dated and been attracted to very femmey girls and more muscular guys, but sometimes I’m into the opposite. Again, it’s all about the individual person. I could see myself settling down with a man or a woman, as long as they wanted to have kids, were smart, creative and interesting and could keep up with me, in and out of the bedroom.

On LGBT Pride day, where would we find you?

I’m probably more partial to going to the Dyke March than Pride, because I’ll know more people and I just find that vibe and camaraderie more exciting. But at Pride I might march with Lesbian Sex Mafia. While I’m bi, I don’t necessarily need to be part of a bi group to claim that identity.

When other women are taking off their tops to celebrate…are you swinging free or covering up?

Swinging free, definitely! One of my favorite Pride memories is going to San Francisco in 2001 and being part of a schoolgirl and schoolboy contingent, wearing a plaid skirt and stickers over my nipples. It was so much fun and such a rare treat to walk around topless.

There’s a lot of photos of you on your website…do you enjoy posing?

I used to be more nervous about posing for photos, nude or otherwise, but now I really like it. I’m not an exhibitionist in the sense of wanting to be seen while having sex – that makes me nervous, like I have to put on a show or performance – but posing for a photographer who brings out my fun side is totally enjoyable.

You are an amazingly prolific writerand editor. When do you have time to eat, sleep or have sex?

Well, I don’t have sex all that often. If I’m dating someone, yes, but most of the time it’s just me curled up in bed, pretty much literally, with my laptop. I sleep with the computer on my bed and often I wake up in the middle of the night and will get up and read or write for a little while. I do my best writing when I first wake up, no matter if that’s 3 a.m. or 6 a.m. and find as the day goes on, my mind starts to get mushier and less able to get the words to come out the way I want them to. For that matter, I get more writing done when I’m single and able to get up at any moment and go go go with the writing. That doesn’t mean I plan to or want to be single forever, but it’s a tradeoff.

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About Author

Denise Penn

Denise Penn is a Southern California-based journalist who has covered issues for the LGBT and HIV-affected community for nearly two decades. While an investigative reporter for the Blade Newsmagazine, her coverage of hate crimes became part of Congressional records. She served as News Editor for the Lesbian News and has contributed to In Los Angeles Magazine, EDGE, and many others. She is also a clinical social worker and brings that perspective to her articles. She produced and hosted an award-winning community television program in Long Beach, California for 12 years.

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