The Beatrice Interview

The Erotica Project

Lillian Ann Slugocki and Erin Cressida Wilson

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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The Erotica Project's origins lie in a group of women active in New York theater who wanted to stage material about women's sexuality. Lillian Ann Slugocki invited some friends over to her house for a series of Saturday night meetings about what they could do and how they could do it. "What happened is that everybody went off in their own directions," she recalled as we met for coffee in Greenwich Village on a gray Sunday afternoon. "One woman directed a show in Williamstown, another got a show on Broadway. And I found that I really enjoyed working on that type of material, so I kept writing it." She had been producing dramatic works for a local independent radio station, WBAI, and knew that she could probably convince them to give her a half hour late at night to present some of that material. After the initial broadcast, Slugocki decided she wanted collaborators. Director John Rubin introduced her to playwright Erin Cressida Wilson, and a partnership was born. The radio programs were followed by staged productions at HERE and Joe's Pub in New York City, and then the two women wrote a bunch of new material for a book version of The Erotica Project, released at the beginning of 2001 by Cleis Press. Wilson was there with us, and mostly I just had to turn the tape recorder on get out of the way while the two playfully bantered with each other.

LAS: I had always kept a journal as a writer. In 1995, I was recently single, so I began to explore what that was like in my writing--to be suddenly single for the first time in about twenty years. I'd been in three back-to-back longterm relationships. The climate had changed so drastically, it was almost like I was on another planet. It was a very bewildering world for me. I felt I was twelve years old again, rediscovering what it was like to be dating. But as a grown woman, it felt almost ridiculous to me. I felt that this sort of exploration of one's sexuality was something that should have happened when you were an adolescent. It shouldn't be happening in your late thirties.

ECW: But it does.

LAS: But apparently it must and it does. I felt like I didn't know what I was doing, and there was no book to consult, no guide.

ECW: When we looked for empowering sexual material by women about men, we were virtually unable to find any. We could find a lot about what was wrong with men. We could find a lot of lesbian erotica. We could find a lot of gay male erotica. All of which was very nice, but...

I have a fairly long history of having written sexually charged plays, almost twenty years. And I find that sexuality, to me, is a language to talk about many subjects. It can lead to highly emotional true states and rites of passages.

LAS: To me the Erotica Project is a way of looking at sexuality as a total person. How sex involves the emotional life of a person, the psychological life, how it bleeds into all those different areas. When people refer to this as pornography, that's very offensive to me. Pornography to me is one- dimensional; this work is not one-dimensional at all. I don't even have a particular problem with pornography--the first Amendment and all--but this is a way to see how we are sexual beings. I think to deny that, to try to compartmentalize that, is very damaging.

ECW: Female sexuality is very mysterious, even in the year 2001. It's hidden to us, hidden inside us. Where does an orgasm happen? Maybe it happens on the neck. Luce Irigaray writes about how the woman has sex organs all over her body, that we're constantly engaged sexually, even when we speak. And because the woman's actual sex organs are folded inside her, constantly touching each other, a woman is always touching herself. LAS: There's a fear of women's sexuality that goes back throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition. "Mary Magdalene" was just published on, and the Catholic League got all over it. They don't see that it's essentially a love story, and their reaction comes out of a lack of understanding of women's sexuality and an underlying fear.

There are also some women who find the work threatening and scary. We've been labelled several times as politically incorrect because we've said that sometimes it's okay to be thrown down and made love to. It's okay to want to be an object sometimes. To walk the line of politically correct feminist idealism is very difficult, and I'm not interested in it. It's too confining a role. I consider myself very much a feminism, but it's a feminism of my own creation.

RH: Erin, you must have faced some controversy for your monologue, "The Intern."

ECW: Actually, not so much. I'm not sure why. People either just like it or they don't say anything about it, I think because they're so deeply offended.

LAS: I spoke to several women in their early twenties who loved the piece, because they thought it was offensive to think of Monica Lewinsky, or any woman that age, not being able to make up her mind about what she wanted sexually. They felt it was her choice to make.

ECW: When you're in your early twenties and an intern, the internship takes on many forms. (smiles) You learn what you can.

LAS: When I was in my early twenties, I had a long-term affair with a man twenty years older than me, and it was a great relationship, and very much of a mentorship. It was wonderful, and though it wasn't going to last forever, I was very much aware of what I was doing.

ECW: Did you break his heart?

LAS: No. Well, maybe a little bit.

ECW: In the reaction piece I wrote, "Addressing the Intern Situation," I wrote the older woman's point of view, the wife whose husband is taken away by the intern, and the devastation of that. We tried not to take sides, by showing both sides.

LAS: It all exists on a continuum. There's pieces in here from the point of view of an adolescent in her sexual awakening, and from the perspective of women in their forties and fifties.

ECW: Lillian, you were talking about people asking why there aren't many lesbian pieces in the book, and your answer was...

LAS: I'm not a lesbian. (laughs)

ECW: But your other answer was that the gay community is brilliant at generating their own empowerment.

LAS: Yes! I was very much enamored with the way the gay community has taken the word "queer," which was very derogatory, and made it a term of empowerment. And I thought, what if we were able to do that with women's sexuality, to take it from pornography, which is generally male-generated and objectifies women, and instead present the whole woman? There are no boundaries. I felt very early on that it was okay to push the envelope in terms of what you could write about. So we have pieces about a woman imagining that she has a cock. I don't know big that's going to go over with the feminist community. Again, it's the idea of a continuum. I don't think you can just put yourself in a box and say, "I'm a heterosexual woman and I'm a feminist, so therefore I'm only allowed to fantasize about A, B, and C."

RH: There's a lot of points on the continuum, between straight and gay, for example, and anybody, woman or man, who's honest will admit they've passed through a couple of those points.

LAS: I certainly had my share of lesbian love affairs as a nineteen year-old, twenty year-old girl, sure.

ECW: (smiling) We don't even need to ask questions. Just turn her on.

LAS: I'm just trying to be entertaining. (laughs)

RH: So given this conversational drift, without being too salacious...

ECW: How true are the stories?

RH: No, no. I was going to ask what the collaborative energies are like between the two of you, working on such erotically charged material.

ECW: Oh, well, we usually start out by making love, then a hot bath, champagne...

LAS: I don't think we ever discussed the dynamic. It was a very natural collaboration, and it just developed very organically.

ECW: We don't talk about the subjects very much, or judge them. Often what happens is that one of us will say, "Wouldn't it be fun to write about sex at nineteen?" And without saying, "Go do that," we'd come back a few weeks later with some pieces.

LAS: There's a great alchemy between the two voices. For sex at nineteen, Erin had written about a woman in her thirties, looking back at those days, and I'd written as a woman who was nineteen. They were two different points of view, but the marriage between the two voices was great.

It was fun this last winter, when we were working on new material for the book. We didn't really have discussion about what we were going to write. At all.

RH: Both of you took part in nude photo shoots to promote the stage production, some of which have ended up in the book.

LAS: In the very beginning, when we were putting the show together for theater, we need publicity photos and...

ECW: We were doing press shots, and we were all dressed, and then I said I would take my clothes off. And then we took some great photos with me naked, and Lillian and John clothed, which got ruined by the photographer. That's sad, because I think it's incredibly sexy to have one person clothed and one naked. But by the end of the day, we were both completely naked and in the bathtub.

LAS: One shot in particular, which is not in the book, of the two of us taken from behind, was the postcard for the first show. When we needed more publicity shots for the second production at Joe's Pub, we just took our clothes off again.

At first there was a certain hesistancy and shyness, but by the time we were shooting in Joe's Pub, while the photographer was reloading the camera, we would just sit there, naked on the bar. We became very comfortable with it. I don't see myself doing that again, although those could be famous last words. But I think it was fun. It was liberating. In many ways, sure, it was a publicity stunt. I have an understanding of how that works, and I knew that it would be provocative, not politically correct, to do that.

We did get some flak. One person commented that you don't see Arthur Miller with his clothes off.

ECW: But do you want to see Arthur Miller with his clothes off?

LAS: No, I don't...

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BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Susie Bright | Complete Interview Index | Jill Nagle

All materials copyright © Ron Hogan