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The Boston Phoenix - 1 in 10
January 1998
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Rear guard

Shocking the unshockable

by Tristan Taormino

"Did you have fun? Were you nervous? Did you mind being called a slut?" These were the probing questions asked in an e-mail sent by my friend Rich, a reporter for TV Guide, the morning after I was on The Howard Stern Show.

I had been booked to promote my new book, The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women, a fun, practical self-help guide. Since Howard is very vocal about his obsession with both lesbians and anal sex, everyone thought it was a perfect fit.

Did I have fun?

When I arrived at the studio at 7 a.m., the cameras were rolling. The radio segment is filmed for Stern's nightly cable show on E! Entertainment Television, and the producers like to include clips of guests as they wait beforehand in the green room. As I waited, Gary the Producer and other staff members asked me strange questions, such as: "Would you have anal sex with anyone?" There was a live feed of the show in the room, and I could hear Howard teasing the listeners with my imminent arrival, referring to me as "the anal sex woman," "the anal sex expert," or simply, "anal sex girl."

As soon as they opened the door to the studio, I was on the air. Although it was eight o'clock in the morning, it felt strangely like midnight. Wearing his trademark sunglasses, Howard sat directly in the middle of the studio, behind a block of computer screens. Robin was behind glass in her own booth to the left of the guest area. Jackie the Joke Guy and Fred the Engineer were lurking behind stacks of equipment. Gary the Producer, Howard's Assistant, and all the interns were frantically taking orders and hurrying in and out of the studio. It was chaotic, and more than a little difficult to get a word in edgewise.

Was I nervous?

A few weeks before my scheduled appearance, I began listening to Howard's show every morning before work and watching it at night on E!. I wanted to get a better feel for the show. In fact, that made me even more nervous, because each time I heard or saw a show, I thought, "What I am getting myself into?" But I'm glad I arrived with well-researched expectations.

I expected him to try to guess my bra size, though I didn't expect a breast expert to actually guess wrong, erring on the side of voluptuousness. (The feminist in me was horrified at the objectification, while the late-blooming-and-flat-chested-until-I-was-17 girl was delighted.) I expected him to tell me to stand up so he could check me out; I didn't expect him to tell me I had a "hot little body." I expected him to ask personal, rude, and inappropriate questions; I didn't expect him to ask me how many people I had slept with in my lifetime. Generally, knowing what to expect made it easier not to make a big deal out of his queries. I simply answered them honestly, and moved on to my book.

What was the biggest surprise? That there was someone else in the studio more nervous than I was: the radio station's general manager. Before I went on, Gary told me the words one cannot say on the air, per FCC regulations: fuck, shit, piss, cocksucker, motherfucker, cunt, tits. I was ready for those. What I wasn't ready for, however, were Gary's next set of instructions for keeping the show clean (read: uncensored). "You cannot refer to penetration -- vaginal or anal -- in any way," he told me. "Nothing can be in anything else -- like, no penis in a vagina. Nothing can have been in something -- like, `My finger was in his butt.' You can't describe any act involving penetration."

What? How was I going to discuss my book without referring to penetration? "Howard will lead you through it," Gary assured me. "You can say things like, `When you've experienced that type of pleasure,' or `When I have pleasured someone in that way' -- stuff like that."

I didn't know what to make of these supposedly helpful suggestions. I feared I would end up sounding like an uptight sexologist who couldn't even say the words written in her own book. I wanted listeners to know that the way I described things was restricted by the FCC and that I usually talk about sex in an honest, straightforward, accessible way.

Except for one slight screwup (I said fuck without realizing it, and they beeped me), I thought I was doing pretty well. But then Howard asked me about positions for anal sex. "Can I go through all the positions and their pros and cons?" I asked. "No!" he burst out.

During a break after the segment, I learned that the general manager had been freaking out, panicked that not only would this part of the show be censored, but Howard would be fined by the FCC again (he's already been tagged for over $2 million). I imagine that warnings such as "Get off this positions thing now!" were flashing on Howard's computer screens. I didn't know about any of this scandal as it was happening; I just knew that Howard was being cagey and weird about the question of positions.

This served as a reminder of just how taboo the topic of anal sexuality is. Not only is there still widespread misinformation, misunderstanding, and myth out there, but I'm confronted with silence and censorship everywhere I go to promote my book -- even on The Howard Stern Show.

Did I mind being called a slut?

Howard can be really mean to his guests, and I knew that going in. I knew I shouldn't take anything he said personally. After all, it's his persona that's offensive and outrageous, not him. He was ultimately fascinated with the topic of my book, and approached me with enthusiasm and well, respect, insofar as he can respect any guest he has on his show. So I ended up having an even better time than I expected.

Would I do it again?

In a heartbeat. While all this was going on in New York, at the West Coast offices of my publisher, Cleis Press, the staff had arrived at 4:30 a.m. to answer the phones (Howard repeated the toll-free number for ordering the book several times, and Cleis anticipated some calls). They worked a 14-hour day, taking orders that came in almost faster than they could record them.

So, whatever you think of Howard Stern, I have to give him credit for his huge and loyal following. Keep in mind that the mainstream media -- including the national queer media -- won't cover this book. Because of the provocative nature of the topic, I have limited outlets to promote the book, and I'll take the exposure where I can get it.

And besides all that, my mother called me from Long Island after the show to tell me that she thought I handled Howard quite well. Who would have thought going on The Howard Stern Show to talk about a book I penned on anal sex would make my mother proud?


Tristan Taormino is series editor of Best Lesbian Erotica (Cleis Press); the 1998 edition, with guest editor Jenifer Levin, will be released this month.


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