At various points in this episode, we discuss sex and sexuality, AIDS, mental illness, and suicidal ideation. If you are experience a mental health crisis or thoughts of self-harm, you can call the National Hotline for Mental Health Crises and Suicide Prevention at 1-800-273 TALK (8255.) And for more information about AIDS prevention and treatment, you can go to or

In 2012, Amber Hollibaugh, then the executive director for Queers for Economic Justice, explained to radio host Laura Flanders what sex and politics had to do with each other. Desire, she argued, was a way of reflecting on the past, understanding the present, and imagining a future. The erotic, and fantasies about what might be sexually possible, she explained, are essential ways to not just connect to the world around us, but also to the people in it who are imagining that better future.

Hollibaugh, like other queer people born in the 1940s, inherited a conservative American culture where sex was hidden and ideally confined to heterosexual marriage. She had to fight to publicly claim her desiring identities: lesbian, femme, sex worker, erotic writer, feminist, and gay liberation activist. Like Joan Nestle, who appeared in an earlier episode, Hollibaugh went to queer bars to find other sexual outlaws, coming alive in sexual communities that formed under cover of night and operated under the uncertain safety of police and mob protection.

In the 1960s, it was still illegal in many states to sell alcohol to gay and lesbian people, or for queer people to congregate. Bars constantly threatened to expose their patrons with the occasional raid that reassured the public that the police were on the job. Pornography theaters, where gay men met for sex, were subject to similar raids, and sex workers were periodically rounded up, jailed, and fined.

Similarly, obscenity laws governed what could or could not be published and sold, viewed, or exhibited. And outside the arts and the theater and film worlds, a so-called “known homosexual” had difficulty finding work, and could certainly not be employed as a teacher, coach, or minister—in other words, someone who had contact with the young: queer people were all seen as potential child molesters.

Because of the sexual revolution and the gay liberation movement of the 1960s, these prejudices and laws began to fall away, allowing ordinary people to come out, get good jobs, and seek sexual pleasure openly. As importantly, decisions by the Supreme Court rendered many old laws that had confined sex and sexuality unconstitutional. These decisions, and particularly those that applied the first amendment to sexual expression, opened the door to the erotic performances, writing, film, and art we enjoy today. Initially, some of this material was little different from the forms of gritty pornography that had previously operated in a semi-clandestine way. But many newly available books were works of literature—novels like D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) and Vladimir Nabokov’s sensational 1962 novel, Lolita. Movies like Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Taxi Driver (1976) celebrated New York’s Times Square as a neon world of sexual outlaws, hustlers, and grifters.

But when it came to pornography, the Court released a gusher of films, books, and magazines. Some Americans were content to use newly available home video equipment to rent a porn tape now and then or to visit the adult theaters that sprang up in chains across the nation. But feminists like Amber Hollibaugh, anthropologist Gayle Rubin, and writer Patrick Califia took erotic expression in a new direction. They published about their embrace of power exchange sexuality, and their political commitment to outlaw desires like leather, S&M, and other sex play that required training and consent.

Other women promoted an idea born in radical feminist consciousness-raising: that women could take charge of their own pleasure, even if that was ordinary, vanilla, heterosex. In the 1970s, artist Betty Dodson began giving what she called “Bodysex” workshops, which taught women how to masturbate to orgasm, with or without a vibrator. And in 1984, a former performance artist and pornographic actress named Candice Vadala (known by her stage name, Candida Royalle) founded Femme Productions, an erotic film company aimed at women and couples.

While some feminists criticized women who embraced fetishes that they associated with male violence and predatory sex, the genie was out of the bottle. In the 1990s, feminist erotic writing exploded, and academic feminists were taking pornography seriously as an area of study.  By the twenty-first century, a feminist pornography industry had emerged to take advantage of the internet and produce erotic films that were not only sexy but had politics—on the screen and on the set. (You can read an essay I wrote about the industry for Dissent magazine here.)

One of those feminist producers and entrepreneurs is Tristan Taormino, who was born in 1971 on Long Island, and whose parents were divorced when her father came out as gay. Tristan learned to love her body early on, and grew up, as she notes in this episode, without any sense of sexual shame. In 1989, she matriculated at Wesleyan University, a liberal arts college in Middletown, Connecticut (full disclosure: Tristan was my student) and where she also came out into a thriving queer community.

An award-winning writer, sex educator, and film producer, Taormino has written widely on the safe practice of anal sex and has been a popular—if occasionally controversial—lecturer on the college circuit. Today, we are here to discuss her new memoir, A Part of the Heart Can’t Be Eaten, out this week from Duke University Press. There, she writes about being raised by an open-minded mother and a queer dad, struggling with her mental health, becoming one of the most respected sex educators in the United States, and the right-wing sexual backlash we are dealing with today.

Program notes:

  • Tristan notes that when she was a child, there were few resources for gay parents like her father; later, we discuss the ways that many children lost access to an LGBT parent altogether. Listeners who want to follow up on the history of gay parenting may wish to read Daniel Rivers, Radical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and Their Children in the United States Since World War II (University of North Carolina Press, 2013.)
  • Tristan describes a first-year orientation in college, during which students discussed living in a sexually diverse community. These workshops were called BiLeGas (Bisexual, Lesbian and Gay Alliance), and are now called BiLeGaTAs (add transgender to the acronym!) Here is a detailed 2009 description by a Wesleyan student.
  • Claire references “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner,” a 1967 movie about putting one’s social beliefs into practice. Released at the height of the civil rights movement, it is about two white liberals coming to terms with their daughter’s impending interracial marriage.
  • Tristan learned when she was a young adult that she had a family history of bipolar disorder: if you want to learn more about this, try Kay Redfield Jamison, An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness (Knopf, 1995.) She also discusses how hidden depression was in the 1990s: listeners may wish to follow up with Gary Greenberg, Manufacturing Depression: The Secret History of a Modern Disease (Simon & Schuster, 2010.)
  • Claire mentions one of Tristan’s mentors in the erotic film industry, the late Candice Vadala, a feminist erotic filmmaker whose working name was Candida Royale. You can read more about Vadala at her website, and look forward to a new biography of this artist by historian Jane Kamensky, now available for pre-order.
  • A second pathbreaker who made Tristan’s career possible is therapist and pornographer Patrick Califia: you can read some of his work for Poz magazine here. Tristan mentions Califia’s Macho Sluts (Alyson Books, 1994) as a particularly inspirational text.
  • Tristan also mentions the feminist erotica magazine On Our Backs, which ceased publication in 2006 and the work of feminist sex journalist Susie Bright. You can read more about Bright here.
  • In a conversation about how she built her business, Tristan mentions her first website, (adults-only, please.) There isn’t a lot to read about the effect of the internet on pornography that is not about addiction, but listeners may wish to check out Margret Grebowicz, Why Internet Porn Matters (Stanford University Press, 2013.)
  • Tristan also discusses the influence of the riot grrrl movement: check out Sara Marcus, Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution (Harper Perennial, 2010)
  • In a conversation about why there is so little history written about the queer 1990s, Tristan name checks Sarah Schulman’s book about ACT-UP, Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993 (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2021.)

Claire Bond Potter is Professor Emeritus of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).