Pornography has historically been the stuff of plain brown wrappers and back-alley bookstores — books thumbed through and passed around as furtively as a joint. But since "erotica" has entered the storied realms of Barnes & Noble and the Book-of-the-Month Club, pornographers have gotten something of a makeover, too. Hanne Blank, Baltimore transplant, self-described publisher of "veritable bushels of smut," and author of the recently published Unruly Appetites from Seal Press, is also a classically trained singer and university instructor who bears the imprimatur of the New England Conservatory, Tanglewood, and Brandeis, where she sang Schubert Lieder while leading seminars on sex in Boston.
"People are always trying to figure out how I got into sex work from being an opera singer," she explains. "And really, they're not all that different."
Blank has been something of a freelance sexologist since grade school. Raised by a middle-school teacher and an anthropologist with a subscription to Playboy, she was paging through Hugh Hefner's rag by the age of 5. (She reportedly told her father, "There are a lot of pretty ladies in it, but I don't understand why they're not wearing any clothes.") Soon, her "big fat educator streak" was loosing itself on her classmates. "I was the only one who could smuggle in the copy of Gray's Anatomy," Blank offers. "On the playground, that's power."
Out as bisexual at 15 and writing her first erotic stories at 17, Blank refused to hide any of her more controversial pursuits, publishing Zaftig!, a zine about sex and people of size, at the same time that her doctoral committee at Brandeis was busily rejecting her two dissertation proposals — one, a study of women with low voices, the other, a biography of Sophie Tucker. ("Musicology only discovered feminism in, like, 1986," Blank comments wryly.) "I got really tired really early on trying to make nice with people who were never going to approve of me," Blank explains. "And when you grow up fat, smart, Jewish, and female, everything else is kind of gravy."
The same maverick streak that led her to announce herself as a "fat, kinky, tranny-chasing Jew" at a fuddy-duddy academic conference garnered her a first book deal — but not from her horrified colleagues. Greenery Press, attracted by Zaftig! and Blank's popular seminars in Boston, brought out Big Big Love: A Sourcebook for People of Size and Those Who Love Them when Blank was turning 30. She has since edited/authored five other works, including Shameless: Women's Intimate Erotica (Seal Press) and Best Transgender Erotica (Circlet Press, with Raven Kaldera). Blank herself was surprised at the immediate and massive response to her work. "I was there and I was available to do a job for this need I hadn't even anticipated," she says. "But I think that right now there is a need for people who can say, 'Well, you can do this and this and this and this', rather than, 'Omigod! You filthy slut!'"
Blank is now co-editor, with Heather Corinna, of Scarletletters.com, which features erotic writing by and for women. Scarleteen, its sister site for teens, is a sex-education resource with about 10,000 registered users that gets 50,000 to 70,000 hits a day. (Both are part of Femmerotic.com, Corinna's wildly popular online "sex positive" empire for women.) Blank's also flexing her old academic muscles for Bloomsbury with the tentatively titled Virgin: The Unnatural History of Our Most Controversial Universal, a historical survey about "this profoundly sexualized state" in Western culture. "In terms of research about sex," Blank says, "virgins are the ones who have historically had nothing to offer. I think that's incredibly shortsighted."
All of these projects are part of Blank's mission: to create a world where the diversity of people's actual desires is reflected in the media. "I want to see skinny, pale, geek-boy porn. I want to see women making porn about diesel dykes with chin hair," she says. "Whatever it is that gets you off, I want to see it."
But despite her success as a writer and educator, Blank doesn't see Roseanne emerging as a sex symbol anytime soon. "It's not only the media that are telling teenagers that they're not desirable and worthy of being loved unless they weigh 80 pounds and look like Britney Spears," she says. "It's teenagers telling one another that, because no one is supporting them to say anything else." Progressive pornography is a small step in the right direction, she says, but it alone can't keep people from making judgments about people based on their looks.
"How many of those things do you see represented around you?" Blank asks. "I'd love to see that change. I'd also love to see the moral judgments that people make about people's skin color, whether you have a penis or a vagina, change. I ain't waitin' up nights."
Her success also doesn't mean that Blank is pleased with the attention progressive erotica is now receiving from major publishers — or with the quality of the work lining the shelves. In this month's Bitch magazine, she questions whether progressive sex writers haven't sold "our politically radical birthright for a mess of feel-good pottage." Sex-positive writing, she argues, is putting down roots in the porn market, but those roots are too white, too middle-class, and too uncomplicated: "I look at the bookstore shelves, at the dozens of Web sites . . . and I wonder whether it's all really got a point beyond the masturbatory obvious."
In turn, the feminist community has not always been supportive of her work. "Sure, there are feminist bookstores that won't carry my work," Blank says. "They think that what I write is anti-woman. I don't happen to agree, but there's room for everybody." In the is-porn-good-for-us-or-bad-for-us debates, Blank coolly abstains, refusing to put her work either under the "porn" or "erotica" moniker: "I like to use the word smut because it doesn't let people hide. As far as I can tell, erotica is smut you like, and porn is smut you don't like." She also dismisses those that would link her work to the Paris Review over Penthouse. "A lot of people like to say, 'Oh, but it's literary erotica!' I don't give a fuck if it's floor wax. What do you use it for? What does it do for you?"
Porn, as Blank sees it, is simply something humans produce. "Since the first guy was lying around one afternoon and decided it would be cool if he could make some titties out of sand or something, people have been interested in producing sexual imagery," she says. "That's not going to go away." That doesn't mean Blank thinks that all porn is automatically OK: "It's a sexist, nasty motherfucker of an industry. But I don't think the solution is no porn. I think the solution to bad porn is better porn." Still, Blank won't reveal where many of her first stories were published. "I wrote a lot of shitty smut under pseudonyms because they paid for it," she says. "A lot of places where the only comment you get back from your editor is, 'Can you make her tits bigger?'"
Since those days, Blank has risen from an anonymous contributor to erotic journals to a Web presence whose site, www.hanne.net, contains a detailed FAQ to deter those seeking advice on their manuscripts and amorous encounters with Blank. "Sure, I get a lot of clueless wanna-fucks. There are a lot of people that assume that if you are a) female and b) write about sex, it necessarily follows that you must c) want to have sex with them," she says. "And I just generally attribute that to one too many Miller Lites." Blank draws a distinction between herself and the many friends and colleagues who detail their own sex lives on the Web and in print. "If I were a cook, and I spent all my time talking about cooking and teaching people about cooking, that still doesn't tell you whether I like my eggs over easy or scrambled. There really is a private sphere there that my professional work doesn't touch."
Blank still answers at least 50 e-mails from fans a week, pointing readers to "this queer resource or that cross-dressing site." A fair amount of the letters are also from "fat admirers." "They're like, I never knew there were other men who liked fat women," she says. "And I'm like, Well, how the hell do you think fat people got here, honey?"
Literary erotica is a veritable drop in the vast ocean of mass-market pornography, and whether the porn is "erotica" or merely formulaic — a dead body and a smoking gun replaced by a hot body and a smoke — there's no guarantee that it can change people's lives. But Blank is hopeful. "Part of the game is writing erotica is to produce something that people will find sexy, just like part of writing horror stories is to produce something that will scare people — it is genre fiction, let's face facts," she says. "But there's no reason genre fiction can't be insightful and useful at the same time." Lizzie Skurnick writes for City Paper, where the original version of this feature appeared. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org