Deviant Funnies: A Postcoital Interview Of Underground Comic Artist and Hip Hop Historian Ed Piskor

text by Audra Wist


Something about returning to my hometown of Pittsburgh always makes me really horny. One night, after Tinder-ing for awhile I came across a dude named Ed - profile picture was slick and mysterious, black and white, him in a Gucci bucket hat, sunglasses, and a Public Enemy hoodie. Swiped right. This was not a typical Pittsburgh guy. Why not? The mystery man with great style turned out to be Ed Piskor. We matched and met up that night. He answered the door in his pajamas which I thought was funny given our assumed future activities and we proceeded to give each other little gifts. I gave him a copy of the Autre LOVE issue and he gave me an old issue of FOX magazine where one of early comics was in, super babe Janine Lindemulder was on the cover (the iconic tattooed nurse blondie on Blink-182’s Enema of the State album cover). Yeah, I liked Ed already. He is a Pittsburgher to his core and wildly successful, his new series Hip Hop Family Tree earning him three Eisner Award nominations and numerous other accolades and shout-outs from hip hop greats like DJ Ready Red and DMC as well as TIME and Boing Boing. His comic heavyweight status aside, I wanted to talk with him about sex because of his early involvement in porno mags and because during our evening rendezvous, he was incredibly sexy: kind, funny, unafraid - a real cool guy. He was on, fully himself, but no fluff or pretension. I would agree with Ms. Lehoczky at NPR who wrote about Ed’s work saying “he’s more realer without even trying.”

Audra Wist: I wanted to open with the fact that we met on Tinder and we had this deep love for old things, like newsstand stuff - erotica, comics, music, magazines, records - print media. I liked you from gate because of that. You were involved in both porn and print media. And you did “Eddie P’s Calvacade of Perversion,” right?

Ed Piskor: Yeah.

Wist: How long did you do that with that magazine? Or why porn, in general?

Piskor: When I was underage I was commissioned to do illustrations in porn mags. They never asked my name. I had this reputation that got started, a lot of people thought I was a grizzled old hippie because the style was influenced by Bay Area underground comics of the 60s. And at that time, Robert Crumb was my biggest influence ever. So, in conversation when they found out I was 17 it was big trouble. From there, very randomly, this lady who has had this whole career in copywriting porn mags - she wrote for the Berkeley Barb and worked for different porno mags based out of SF. She put together a comic just about her life and career and she commissioned maybe 5 guys and girls to illustrate her stories, so I did that. And from there, she was the connection to FOX magazine and other weird porn related stuff. I didn’t do that many strips - I did maybe a handful. A couple years later, I did one panel of cartoons for Belladonna on her website. And I did that for a couple months and it yielded 60 or 90 different cartoons. It was super fun to begin with but after awhile it got real redundant because she’s really well-known for taking different instruments into her ass.

Wist: Right, yes, I remember you saying that you ran out of stuff to put in her butt.

Piskor: Yeah, it’s the truth. I couldn’t think of anything else. I could be remembering this wrong, but I’m pretty sure I drew a cartoon with the kitchen sink in her ass and that was the joke of it.

Wist: I really love that.

Piskor: So ridiculous. And you have to think too, this was a 23-year-old boy making these things. My own sexuality was pretty immature which lends well to doing humorist stuff because a young person’s sexuality is nothing but folly for years. You gotta get your 10,000 hours of experience in fuckin’ before it’s no joke anymore.

Wist: It’s so true! That’s why I try not to fuck around with anyone under the age of 28. That’s my cutoff. Otherwise, it gets dismal. Have more sexual experiences! The more the better.

Piskor: Certainly, I agree. And as creative people, our lives are sorta built on experience. Your work will become tremendously uninteresting, an insular vision, if it doesn’t get expanded upon by outside sources. A lot of art is about the decisions that you make and sometimes you need weird stuff put in your path and figure out how to navigate around that stuff to learn about yourself.

Wist: And speaking to creative people, I find that if you are unapologetic in your work that it has to translate over to how you are in bed, right? One of the things that struck me about you was how open, comfortable, and non-judgmental you were about talking about sex, which is rare to me even though it’s my bag.

Piskor: Is it a question about being non-judgmental?

Wist: No, I guess I’m asking if you agree that there is a connection between how people conduct their sex lives and the quality of their work.

Piskor: In our case, we did not know each other very long, so I had to let you know that it was a cozy situation. I mean seriously, at any moment, if you ain’t feeling shit, there would absolutely be no hard feelings. Things are all good. And if you’re comfortable in your mind and I’m comfortable in my mind, then we’re probably going to have a pretty awesome time.

Wist: It’s so fucking true. And this whole pick-up artist thing and “negging” - have you heard about this?

Piskor: Oh, yeah. You know, after I did the porno stuff I did a book about computer hacking [Wizzywig] and a big part of computer hacking is something called “social engineering” which is the idea of verbally getting what you need from others. It’s way faster for me to talk to you and get you to give me your password then it is for me to use some computer code to get it. So, a subset of this social engineering thing is that pick-up artist stuff. I saw this stuff in the 90s. All the dudes that are famous now were on hacker bulletin boards when I was in high school. So, yes, I am familiar but I do not employ it. I just can’t put that much thought into it. These dudes are fully invested.

Wist: I’m now thinking about some of the people you were interested in growing up like R. Crumb and you worked with Harvey Pekar, kind of sexual stuff, when you were pretty young, right?

Piskor: Yeah, 21.

Wist: Were they formative for you, maybe not just in thinking about sex, but formative for you in talking openly and being a confident person? R. Crumb seems like the binder of sex, outlandishness, grotesque, honest - all those things.

Piskor: Yeah, he was a big motivator for me, the idea of being real. Another big influence would be John Waters. I’m a big devotee of his films.

Wist: I was going to ask you that, but I think we talked about him before.

Piskor: Yeah, and it’s about being unapologetic in your tastes which is becoming exceedingly rare because people do filter things through different kinds of social lenses. You have to develop a certain sophistication of taste to understand it. Like if you’re knee-jerk about it, then it’s hopeless. We don’t even need to have that debate. You’re going to see things one way and be resistant to opening up your mind more. So, yeah, Crumb… John Waters, Hugh Hefner, Russ Meyer. And then you get into Richard Kern, Lydia Lunch.

Wist: Yeah, I’m a big fan of Lydia Lunch. I got to perform with her this past February and she was great.

Piskor: Oh cool, what for?

Wist: Actually, for this magazine. It was the release party. And I didn’t know she was going to be on the bill until a couple days beforehand and she’s obviously an influence. I read this eleven-page document on sexiness, kinda cutting and charged and so I got really nervous, like oh fuck, what if Lydia Lunch thinks I’m copping her shit. I had all these weird fantasies about her hating me and then I was just like wait, that’s what it’s all about.

Piskor: It’s always scary. I’m very resistant to meeting my heroes because I would be heartbroken if they treated me like an asshole. That’d be a tough pill. So, I stay aloof. The best-case scenario would be if they came to say hi to me. It changes the dynamic.

Wist: Yeah, I remember emailing Kembra Pfahler of The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black gushing to her how I thought she was so great and she said something so profound, she said “if and when we ever meet, you will be pleasantly disappointed to find out that I’m exactly like you.” I thought that was fucking genius. Can you talk a bit about your education as an artist?

Piskor: I went to art school for one year and then I was like oh, I have to pay these student loans back? I immediately got this square job at a call center and all of my superiors were such dumb people that it made me sick every day. And I was like okay man, I just gotta make a bunch of cash, put it all towards these loans and get the hell outta here.

Wist: The same thing happened to me after undergrad. I was doing domme already but still a little uncertain about it being kind of a lone wolf in Pittsburgh, and so I got this job at this floral warehouse down in the strip district to make ends meet. I woke up at like 4AM to go work with a bunch of yinzer dudes. Imagine that scene. It was fucked up. They said stupid shit to me. I learned a lot about flowers which was cool, but it was bad. And one day I was just like fuck this forever.

Piskor: As a creative person, you have to make that call. You have to be able to gamble on yourself at a certain point. You gotta gamble on yourself when you’re younger because you have a lot of fire, a lot of energy at your disposal so you can work on things all day if it’s required. You have to make that call. It’ll make you happier in the long run. At least you took the shot.

Wist: I was gonna ask you this and it’s maybe a bit of a tangential question and also selfish of me because I have very nostalgic romantic feelings about Pittsburgh but you're arguably the most successful creative person from Pittsburgh other than maybe Wiz Khalifa. So, why did you stay in Pittsburgh? It seems to fit in with that hacker mentality you mentioned with Wizzywig.

Piskor: I have a young sister who is fifteen who I adore and I want to be a good role model for. I have a niece who’s a little baby. If they hated me or something, I would leave tomorrow. But also, there is a hacker element to it because it’s so cheap to live here. I make Los Angeles money or New York money and I live in a place that has a way cheaper cost of living. I can live real nice and comfortable. In order for me to do the kind of work that I do, it takes a lot of time and time is money. My biggest stressors are purely self-induced because it’s about the work. Comics are like a puzzle: you try to figure out the best way to accomplish this puzzle and create each page and I’m very hard on myself, as most self-employed are. You have to be objective and tough on yourself because no one else is going to. No one is forcing you to do what you do. So, you have to be on top of your game. And if you had that plus rent or a mortgage or whatever, I’m not sure if you could do the best work.

Wist: I want to talk about Hip Hop Family Tree. First of all, congratulations - it’s so successful and you were just nominated for three Eisner awards.

Piskor: Yeah, yeah, thank you. It’s a cool thing, I can’t deny it. Back in 2015, it was my New Year’s Resolution to accept compliments. So, thank you very much. I think the big goal is to make enough cash to see a head shrinker and take care of some of those sticking points. Like Ed, man, you can relax. You might shave a couple years off your life if you’d stop being such an intense motherfucker. Help me address my intellectual small penis complex or whatever.

Wist: You are the best. You’re like a contemporary feminist icon, poster boy, at least for me. It’s really great to hear you say all these things.

Piskor: I didn’t say it in the context of us being butt naked, but I was thinking we’ll probably be cool forever. Like I don’t doubt that we’ll be like 50 years old and I’ll be out in LA and we’ll be kicking it. Why would that not happen? You have to nurture those kinds of personalities that operate at that level. Everyone I try to be around is operating at a pretty intense level and our vocations are different but there are abstract ideas that can be used for my own shit, maybe for your own shit, and it increases the breadth of possibility just as a person. I definitely don’t doubt that we’ll be homies for the foreseeable future. It’s very nice - a pleasure to meet ya! And I’m super proud to be a notch on your belt.

Wist: You are sweet. And now you have this great sell for future women! You can say look, I’m such a great lay, look at this girl who fucked me and had all this nice stuff to say about it.

Piskor: Audra, if you keep saying it, I’m gonna believe it.

Ed Piskor's Hip Hop Family Tree Hip Hop Family Tree 1983-1985 Gift Box Set is available now. Text, interview and photographs by Audra Wist. This interview has been condensed and edited. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE

Sex As Power, Black Identity and The True Meaning of Love: A Unique Conversation with Artist, Performer and Writer Lex Brown Who Just Released Her First Erotic Novel

Text by Audra Wist

Lex Brown is an artist, performer and the author of My Wet Hot Drone Summer, recently published by Paul Chan’s Badlands Unlimited as part of the New Lovers erotica series. Lex and I met in the summer of 2011, keeping in touch and crossing paths in LA. She is now pursuing an MFA in Sculpture at Yale University. It’s hard for me to write about Lex as I see her as a close friend who I love, someone who I think is accomplished just as a person, aside from her remarkable work. She seems to have an casual but intimate knowledge of a pulse that goes unnoticed by most. Our interest in sex crosses over where we think in terms of experimentation or the idea of sex as power - where are there glitches and what is happening when we have a sexual encounter? In her new book, she takes on sci-fi erotica full throttle with a cloaked critique. She is electric and the book reflects that spirit with equal parts hilarity and sincerity. We sat down in Pittsburgh, PA after performing together the night before to discuss her new book, views on sex, the fluctuating temperature of our time, and how to appropriately experiment with love.

Below is an excerpt from our conversation.


Lex Brown: Audience praise in general is a weird dynamic.

Audra Wist: Actually, Aaron [Kunin] and I were talking about this… there’s some poets that don’t even want white writers to talk about black writers. No names, no mention of their work, no praise, nothing. And I wonder is that constructive? Or how is that productive? Anyways, what is it like to do the performance you’re doing or write the book that you’ve written and have a primarily white audience watch or read it and go “Good job, wow, great work.” I have no idea what that’s like. I remember [in a group dynamics class] sitting in the William Pope.L show at MOCA and we were to discuss the show and a black student blurted out “What is white guilt? Tell me. I don’t know. Can a white person explain that to me?” And of course, all of us whiteys were stunned, panicked. We didn’t know how to approach that question but we all knew it very well. It felt like anything we said was wrong - and here, to congratulate feels like it’s patronizing in some way. There are so many intricacies to being a person of color and writing or making and looking at art that I simply do not have the experience to speak about… or I don’t know what is the right or supportive response to these complicated knots.

LB: I think what is so complicated about right now is that in addition to already living in the white patriarchy, within the last twenty or thirty years, there has emerged another normalized reaction—a standardized black reactionary identity, or criticality, which does not involve thinking critically. And also the same for feminism and other marginalized groups. There’s this component of people reacting in the way they think they’re supposed to and not really stopping to consider and engage with things. Though, as I’m saying this, I know I can only notice things because I’m in my own very specific place of privilege… my own self-awareness of being black in an upper-middle class situation gives me a special kind of privilege of hyper-articulateness. Anyways, the point I’m getting to is that there are so many blogs in which people are going off about x, y and z. A lot of people are angry about a lot of things because they do recognize their oppression, and that is good, but in a way it can be so counter-productive to the project. I can understand where they’re coming from, but as a writer, when you’re talking about systemic oppression, you cannot throw that phrase around without providing the facts and experiences that are evidence of that oppression. You need to back it up because the things you are saying are true and are important but if you don’t back it up the only reaction you’re going to get is that you’re just being emotional and then you can’t be mad when somebody only sees that emotion. You can’t get mad at some white male reader when he says “all you’re doing is reacting emotionally” when the way that you’re writing is with the expectation that people just automatically understand you. You need to write as a black woman as if nobody understands, explain everything, because people can be ignorant.

AW: And that goes for anyone making an argument about anything, right?

LB: Yeah, you really need to because if you’re in a position of marginalization, there’s nothing about systems that are organized that benefit you. You need to be like a razor blade if you’re going to cut through the bullshit. You have to be! It’s really important to understand the intricacies of what you’re talking about and the identity of the person with whom you’re talking to.

AW: Or the context perhaps, like who it’s being sent out to or where it’s being published.

LB: Yes, this is something I learned in the clowning workshop. If you really want to change someone’s mind, they need to feel like you see them and they need to feel like… or, they need to have the experience of seeing you saying “I’m marginalized, you’re not, can you understand this?” There is a certain amount or acquiescing or compromise that has to happen. Making things a little sweeter. Not everybody feels that way. But my perspective on this is that the little song and dance… you know, it helps because in order to-- I don’t know if this is coming out coherently.

AW: I’m totally following. This is making sense.

LB: Okay, so, for example, to be a woman and talking to men and trying to get them to see you, you have to be like “Don’t worry, man, I see you.” You know?

AW: Yeah, of course.

LB: And of course I see you because I live in your world! I understand-- well, no I don’t understand what it feels like to be white... but I also kind of can because I imagine it would be like if I turned off some things in my brain. For a long time, I have had a guilt that I had to get over that I imagine feels similar to white guilt because ultimately white guilt is a class guilt. It’s a privilege guilt. That’s what it has to do with and for me I felt guilty about privilege and a very complicated guilt about being black and I felt like I didn’t have anything valid to talk about because I was not suffering or something. And then, slowly I realized, oh, wait, I have this very unique position in combination with my disposition, which I also like thinking about those words: position in society versus a disposition, or personality, what does a disposition mean? Dispossessed?

AW: Or out of position?

LB: Yes, something to explore. Good title for a piece. But, I also relate that to the book in the sense--

AW: I was just going to say that. That’s perfect for the book: position and disposition.

LB: There’s the position of the book and the disposition of the book. There’s funny stuff in there, too. Erotica is something that people don’t take seriously but arousal is a serious and real thing. It’s a fun book. You know, I hope people even read it. That’s the whole question I have. Are people even going to read this book? And maybe that’s a larger question about books.

AW: Who reads ‘em?

LB: Who reads ‘em? Seriously! I’m reading books right now.

AW: What are you reading?

LB: Right now, I’m reading Taipei by Tao Lin, Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger, and Citizen by Claudia Rankine.

AW: That’s an interesting combination of books.

LB: I love when I can get into a book and I feel like I’m into all of them. Taipei because it’s just so... god, yes! That is how it feels to be a young person today. Have you read it?

AW: I haven’t read it yet.

LB: It’s really remarkable. I think someone on the back cover describes it as “relentless.” The intensity and specificity with which he describes an anxiety about vagueness that we experience now in the information age: a vague sentiment about being and existing. Especially because his character is a writer like him, everything that comes with existing as an artist that is existentially questionable and that is not present in the New York Times article where they’re talking about the “Creative Class” and asking “Do these doodles make you feel better?” That is the difference between this self-help doodling and being an artist - it’s confronting that existential vagueness that is the reality of life and being like, fuck!

AW: Disposition.

LB: Yeah, and Franny and Zooey is great because Franny’s character kind of talks about that, too. It’s actually very contemporary. Have you read it?

AW: Yes, I was always struck by that, too.

LB: Yeah. There’s this part with her talking to her boyfriend and then she runs to the bathroom crying and tries to pull herself together… there’s this affective nature with which she presents herself that I really identify with. Like you can’t help but have affectations and play with those when you are a conscious thinking intellectual person who is aware of that intellectualism as a marginalized person. You can’t help but be interested but also grappling with your own affect and what do I do with that? Citizen is great. I only just started, but she talks about Hennessy Youngman and him giving instructions to black artists on how to express feelings of rage, but Rankine is talking about the real rage that is the undercurrent of this rage, Hennessy Youngman’s rage, that is subdued. She has this brilliant line about making oneself visible to death. And I read it and was like, yep, that’s me. This craving for visibility. To be visible at all costs. Listen to me at all costs.

"...On the one hand, I’m like fuck, fuck these white dudes, I can’t keep having sex with them because I feel rejected and in pain and then on the other hand, I want to do it because it’s an experiment to push somebody. But it takes me so long to get over everyone. Through all of these relationships, I’ve learned and learned and learned to constantly try to get to a place of truth with love."

AW: Visibility at all costs, yeah, I feel that.

LB: I hope people read this book! Just look at me.

AW: Yeah, look at me.

LB: Like in your performance, you said “they never let you speak.”

AW: Yeah, they don’t. And when you do speak the whole thing is really dependent on the fact that they listen. That’s the hard part. You try to give them the opportunity to listen as best as you can but… you give it your best shot.

LB: Yeah, last night with our performances back to back and then Moor Mother Goddess - that was great!

AW: It was a great trifecta.

LB: I feel like when some people perform they ask “look at me” instead of saying “look at me.”

AW: Yeah, you don’t need to ask for permission and that’s actually the problem is that you shouldn’t have to ask for permission. I will take that.

LB: Or it’s something else to do while doing something else and saying look at me.

AW: Like I said last night, women are typically very good at being direct. Is everyone in the Badlands New Lovers Series female identified?

LB: Yeah.

AW: The ability to be direct is really specific to women, I think.

LB: That’s something Michaela asked me on the panel about being a woman, or writing as a woman, and she made a point—and I’m glad she made this point and it was pretty bold—she said, “We got submissions from men but they just weren’t as good - they just weren’t.” And the way she said it was very straight up, no apologies, and I appreciated that. I think she was asking why do you think, as a woman, you’re a better writer? And my response was…

AW: Women are better.

LB: [laughs] Yeah, women are better. But as a woman, you experience sexuality beyond the bedroom.

AW: You do!

LB: In a way that most men do not.

AW: You put your finger in the fucking wound. Men don’t even see the wound, they don’t even know. Women are in there, feeling around, touching it.

LB: Or the wound is wounding you, just walking down the street, whatever. There are so many infinitesimal interactions of sexuality that women live and breathe. For me, I constantly feel like I’m living and breathing identity as a woman, as a black woman. And because I’m black, I’m so sensitive to other aspects of class that might be harder to feel if you were white. But people of color, when you’re in this weird position… somehow my ancestors made it here and I’m so aware of here.

AW: Of course, that lineage and the time.

LB: I’m so aware of my ancestors all the time. I really visualize myself almost with a cape trailing behind me—my parents, grandparents. Who are mostly black, but some white and Native American. My mom knows a lot more about it than I do. I need some money to do some research. You know some issues are too big or complex for me to take on right now because I don’t have the money or can’t devote the time.

AW: Something else I thought of while reading the book was sex as transactional.

LB: I think I need to peg somebody. I think I need to have that experience.

AW: Oh, yeah. That’s an absolute. I think men have this fantasy about it. They think women are so turned on or are getting so sexually aroused by it, and that’s a part of it, but I think it’s mostly… I mean, I’ve said this before: sex is not that interesting, power is and pegging is about power. Power is in that wound.

LB: Yeah, I was having sex with this guy and afterwards, I was explaining to him what I was thinking about the whole time and he said, “Wow, you think a lot.” The instinct I feel when he makes that comment is I’m going to push this. You’re obviously fascinated by me thinking a lot or you’re trying to destroy it. That’s hyperbolic but, there’s an attraction in sexual attraction, at least this is the way it works for me… is that there’s something that you want in a person and at the same time there is something you want to erase or destroy, even if the thing you want to erase is your own desire for wanting something that isn't you. Does that make sense?

AW: Yeah.

LB: So, when he says something like you think so much, I’m thinking yeah, I do, but I don’t know if you realize what it sounds like you saying that me… but also I don’t know what I sound like to you telling you this. That aspect of sex is very interesting to me as a transaction between people.

AW: It’s almost as if sex can be an intellectual transaction.

LB: Oh, sure! When we were having sex, I was thinking about so much stuff! I always do when I’m having sex. And I really feel that also has to do with when you’re in the receiving position. Physically, you are equally engaged in making it happen but you could, in the receiving position, you could ostensibly just be completely flat and have all this time to think which I often do.

AW: [laughs]

LB: You don’t have to do anything to make intercourse happen. I think it’s true too that you could be a passive top. Sort of.

AW: But putting them in that position, the importance of pegging, is putting them in the position of receiving so that their mind has that time to do what we usually do.

LB: Yeah, totally. I really fight that impulse and what this guy and I talked about on the train, it was a difficult discussion. I  have this impulse to go towards things that are difficult. I want to change your mind. Bottom line, I really do. When you’re attracted to somebody and you feel like they have something that you don’t, that’s what makes the attraction.

AW: It does.

LB: Projection.

AW: Absolutely.

LB: Projection is attraction. And so I know what it is that these white guys have that I don’t. But, what is it that I have? I feel like they don’t know, but it’s there and it’s an interesting mystery. What is it that I have that they don’t know that they want? And so on the one hand, I’m like fuck, fuck these white dudes, I can’t keep having sex with them because I feel rejected and in pain and then on the other hand, I want to do it because it’s an experiment to push somebody. But it takes me so long to get over everyone. Through all of these relationships, I’ve learned and learned and learned to constantly try to get to a place of truth with love.

AW: I think that’s a really good outlook though. I’ve been thinking about the same thing.

LB: I don’t know if I’ve ever even had sex with somebody who loved me and I loved them.

AW: And even when you do, sometimes it can’t work. I have so much love for [my ex], but I’m not sure if we can ever fuck again, there’s too much love between us.

LB: In a sense that sex diminishes that or is superfluous?

AW: It diminished the unconditional nature of our love. Sex can introduce a possessiveness and necessitates something else, something more. Whereas when we’re just friends, it’s an unconditional love.

LB: I don’t know if they can go together.

AW: Neither do I. I’m very skeptical. But I’ve also had weird sexual situations work in all types of ways, good and bad.

LB: At this point I think love is really grappling with your inner shit and being challenged to throw some stuff away. But also own some stuff—own your shit in a way that’s uncomfortable. Within the act of loving someone, you have to come to terms with how you construct yourself, as well as how you construct the other person. I’ve had to come to understand love as a non-possessiveness.

AW: I see what you mean. There are also some types of love can be play pretend or a security blanket to shield you from your own cracks. I wonder sometimes if I am really looking at love for what it really is.

LB: I imagine love as the essence of the universe, which is beautiful, but not peaceful. Each person is a universe, and you have to come to an understanding. Maybe real love is unexpectedly coming to the same definition of what love is.

You can purchase Lex Brown's book, "My Wet Hot Drone Summer," here. See the trailer below. Text and interview by Audra Wist. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE

The year is 2056. Hotshot lawyer Mia Garner needs a fresh start after dumping her cheating boyfriend. So she goes on a cross-country drive with Derek, her handsome tech stepbrother, to meet Xavier Céron, a mysterious CEO who wants to acquire the game-changing nanochip Derek invented.

Femdom and Supermasochism In the Modern Age: An Interview With Sheree Rose

text and interview by Audra Wist

Sheree Rose is the kinky grandmother I never had but always wanted. Featured in the groundbreaking 1997 documentary SICK alongside her late partner, supermasochist Bob Flanagan, Sheree was the woman behind the curtain acting as Bob’s Domme and a massive force in helping him achieve greatness through performance, poetry, and promiscuity. All smiles and as candid as it gets, she gleefully divulged the breadth of her sexual awakening and the hardships in getting there. She is a punk, a pervert, and a pioneer — a true libertine — warm hearted yet strict and opinionated, which is why I was initially drawn to her. She is most written about in the context of Bob (“an exotic endangered species,” as she calls him), and while that relationship was undoubtedly important to her and performance history, Sheree stands alone as a remarkable and fascinating woman who waxes poetic on the state of femdom, feminist practice, and sex in the contemporary time — “out of the bedroom and into real life — explicit not just implicit.” On September 11th, we met at the ONE Archives at USC to discuss her role in the BDSM and D/s scene in Los Angeles during the 70s and 80s, the importance of choice, questions about male sexuality, and our shared love for guiding slave boys into the matriarchy.

AUDRA WIST: I am primarily interested in you as a dominant woman. Obviously a lot of your work involves Bob. How did you come to understand your relationship? Especially when you were coming of age?

ROSE: I was one of those 50's teenagers who, I think I missed the sexual revolution by a year or two.  And back then abortions were illegal, and in my middle-class Jewish family you were expected to be a virgin until you got married, not necessarily because it was the moral thing to do, but because we didn't want to get pregnant. And we tended to get married right out of high school--many of my friends married right out of high school. I was really worried I was gonna be an old maid. So, I married the first man that I slept with. Did I know about sex? No. I lived at home; I had never had my own apartment, you know I was very sheltered. I was immersed in this culture that was very conservative. Did I know about sex education? Did I know about pornography? Did I know about gay people? Nothing. I don't think I was that unusual; that's just the way it was.

AW: Was that frustrating?

ROSE:  No because I didn't know about sex. I mean I really didn't know. I couldn't say it was bad sex. I knew I was bored with it; I knew I didn't like it. I started going to UCLA at night, and we would go out drinking after class. Only once a week before class. We would go out and have fun, just talk. This was something I had never done before, and these were all single people. My social life before then was couples going out to dinner on Saturday night, going to each other's houses for little dinner parties. It was very boring, but this was exciting. And one night we were out late.

AW: And what year was this?

ROSE: This was '77, and my husband said--I came back a little drunk; I had been drinking-- he yelled at me: "No wife of mine is gonna go out drinking in bars! I won't allow this!" And he threw something at me; I think a bottle of perfume or something; I don't know, and that was my moment. That was this is not the life I want to live. I don't want anybody telling me what I can and cannot do, especially for what I felt was relatively innocent. I mean I wasn't having orgies. But remember, you have to remember the context: my husband was a lot older than me, so he was even more conservative than I was. And that was it, that moment. And soon after that I started having an affair with one of my fellow students, a Colombian. And he played the classical guitar. He started my love affair with guitar players.

AW: So, you did it the exact way you do this kind of thing: you exited the conventional life and did the whole passionate Latin lover thing?

ROSE: I did the whole thing. And I realized that I didn't want to lie to my husband. And my friends said to me: "Look, just have lovers, and don't tell him." That was the morality. Again this is a very small sub-group of people: Jewish, middle-class, upper-middle-class--married people with children. Very respectable people.

AW: This is funny. The reason I got into BDSM, or what peaked my curiosity is that I also grew up middle-class, and I worked at a drycleaner, and I always thought everything was just so, you know? Everyone was always so pleasant and so great. But I thought: "this is just bullshit, such bullshit". I remember I was working one night and this guy came in and told me, out of nowhere that he loved to wear women’s clothes. That was the same thing, it just shattered that illusion in an instant. 

ROSE: Well yeah, it is illusory. Unfortunately all the hypocrisy, especially around sexual matters, I mean big deal. But in the meantime, between the time I got married in the 60's and eventually divorced in the 70's, the whole sexual revolution had taken place. Birth control was out there, so I could have an affair and not worry about getting pregnant. And that was a big deal. I found that being being was wonderful, and he had a different take on life. You know, he was very romantic. He was like a rolling stone because he came from a very wealthy family in Colombia, and he just travelled around doing different things, doing whatever he wanted to do. So that was a good introduction because he wasn't really the typical married guy who you'd have an affair with. But after that break up I was single for about three years, and this was from '77 to '80. And this was not a happy time. In some ways it was great because I explored my sexuality; I said: “I need to know what sex is all about.” I explored my sexuality with different people, but never one that I felt like I really liked.

AW: So, you were cruising?

ROSE: I took a lot of chances. But this was the time. It was the time before AIDS; it was the time to do it. And I had my tubes tied after my two children, so I wasn't worried about getting pregnant. And most of the time I used condoms (luckily I didn't get any diseases) but this was before AIDS and we didn't think about sex as something you could die from. I was hanging out with X--the rock 'n roll group X. I became a groupie for X. I was older than everybody else! I was in my late thirties, but that's what got me off my boyfriend. We had been big Who fans, and I heard about this new group X, and decided I wanted to go see it, so we went to see our one of their first performances. And there were people throwing up on the floor, people with purple hair, people cutting themselves.

AW: At the show?

ROSE: Yes, if you were an X fan--and back then it was before there were plastic bottles, you had glass bottles--and you would cut their arms with X's. So the first time I saw stuff like that was not SM, it was the punk scene. And I was an older punk, but I was a punk. In that photograph of me and Billy Zoom, I was the punk queen and he was the punk king at a punk prom. It's a very famous photograph. But that was before Bob. This was all before Bob.

AW: And this was in LA?

ROSE: All in LA. It was '78-'79 was when I got totally wild that way.

AW: So did you run around with the same people, like Joanna Went?

ROSE: Yeah, of course I know Joanna Went. But that was later, once I got together more with Bob, and we got more into the art part of it. But at that point it was all music. I knew everybody in that scene, and it was really fun: those early days. It was innocent in a way that it isn't now. And then I went to a poetry party Halloween 1980; my other interest was in poetry, and it was Beyond Baroque which was a poetry art center. And all the poets came through there. I was dating a poet there, and he invited me to this Halloween party. I was dressed like Jane Mansfield. Bob wrote a poem about it, and he was a character from Night of the Living Dead. So I am in a blonde wig, and fake boobs, and a tiny dress. I knock on the door and he answers the door and he has hand in his mouth, and we looked at each other--two dead characters--and something happened. I don't know what it was, but it happened. He was 27, very young, but I just thought there was something interesting about him. He was thin and very punky looking, and I was impressed that he had a book. That was a big deal in those days, to have a book published. So we made a date, and like a day or two days later he came over and we went to dinner, and he told me he had cystic fibrosis which I had never heard of. He said to me: "you know it’s a gastric disease, and I have to take all these pills, and I have to cough." And I thought oh, okay, No big deal. I was exploring. Remember I was in an exploratory period; I am looking for a new kind of something.

Mockup of Bob Flanagan on the cover of Bimbox, No. 4. Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose Collection. ONE Archives at the USC Libraries

AW: How did your relationship move into SM?

ROSE: So that first date at my house--I had this big house in Westwood--and he fell in love in my basement, which we did utilize. And he said to me: "I'm a submissive man," and I thought what does that mean? And he said "I have CF." And that meant nothing to me. But he said: "I want to belong to a woman. I want to do anything she says. I want to cook for her, clean for her: wash windows, wash clothes, clean up." And for me, I thought this is a great. I want a man to do all those horrible chores for me that I can't stand doing. Because when I was married, and we were both working, I had maids. So I knew what that was like.

AW: He came out swinging.

ROSE: Well, remember he was dying. He thought he was dying, and was looking for a good two-year relationship. Most people with CF didn't live past 30, and he was 27. So I thought to myself: this is interesting. I mean two years.

AW: Did he tell you straight out: "I could die"?

ROSE: Cystic Fibrosis was a deadly disease, and he started talking about the SM aspects: he liked to be whipped; he liked to have his penis tied up. And I had never heard any of that stuff, but all the light bulbs went off for me. The other thing that had happened to me is that I started going to feminist workshops, and I was a student. I had stopped archaeology and went into psychology. I have a Masters in psych. So at that time my assignment was the women's building on campus. Now, I am a straight woman, don't know anybody who's gay. Really, nobody. And I was thinking: I have to go in there with all those lesbians. I was petrified! I don't know what I was thinking. But this was my assignment, and I started meeting all of these wonderful women who weren't scary at all. They were women! They were cool women! And also from that came The Socialist Feminist Network, and this was a group of women who met once a week to talk about feminist literature, and the history of feminism, and women before the patriarchy. And all the texts that has been written--that I knew nothing about. Everything about women power and women taking control, and I think most of these women were lesbians, but I was dating someone at the time and they said to me: "don't you realize you're sleeping with the enemy?" That was the attitude.

So that got me thinking. I had been very dissatisfied with these men I had been dating, so when Bob came into my life at this point it was like the perfect storm. As an identified straight woman I was looking for a man who would not dominate me. Who I could take the role, take over. So it was the political aspect of it as well as the sexual, and he was in a band, and he was a poet, and a lot younger than me. It all worked perfectly.

Had he told me he was a dominant man, and wanted to dominate me I wouldn't have been interested. My head was filled with rhetoric about women power, and all that.

AW: You came about it from almost a theoretical or intellectual standpoint, whereas now, I feel like there is so much merchandising of BDSM. There is so much imagery, and the amount of porn out there. Not that that's bad, but the difference in how you come to it.  Do you think that one is better or worse or it doesn’t matter?

ROSE: As far as sexuality is concerned, some people--male or female--enjoy getting a sexual thrill. SM to me is all about satisfaction. If you're not getting off on something you're doing, you're not doing it right, or you shouldn't be doing it. So, some people, really enjoy being submissive: it gives them a sexual thrill. And if they love their partner, it's fun. And that's why you do it, that's why you should do it anyway.  But for me, anyway, it wasn't fun for me to be submissive. It wasn't fun for me to be tied up, and we tried a little bit of that. I did not like following directions, and he had no interest in doing that. He loved to be submissive; he loved to be on his knees--whatever weird stuff I wanted him to do, he just got off on it. So I don't think it really matters what your theoretical thing is, it matters more what gets you wet, what gets you off. It's sexual. It can be theoretical, but if it’s not sexual--if you're not doing it for money. Then there are economic reasons for doing what you're doing, which I have no problem with at all.

AW: There was never any formal training?

ROSE: He taught me! He had been going to professional Mistresses for year, which many men would do. He would save up his money, go and pawn his camera, then go and get beat up. It was a lot of physical domination. He had a lot of bruises, a lot of welts. He liked very heavy SM; not as heavy as some guys, but that was what he was into. He loved being in bondage. So, it clicked. When I first got together with him, there wasn't any situation that I knew of where a couple could go in and do SM together. It was very private, very closeted. I wanted to get it out of the bedroom and into real life. It wasn't just that I tied him up, and we fucked, and nobody knew what we were doing. No, it was a political statement. I wanted him with a nose ring and a collar and people knowing that he was submissive to me, not just in the bedroom, but in real life.

"It was very private, very closeted. I wanted to get it out of the bedroom and into real life. It wasn't just that I tied him up, and we fucked, and nobody knew what we were doing. No, it was a political statement. I wanted him with a nose ring and a collar and people knowing that he was submissive to me, not just in the bedroom, but in real life."

AW: Did you have any inspirations?

ROSE: Our model was Leopold Von Sacher Masoch. He wrote a book called Venus in Furs (a very famous book) and masochism comes from him. And he was essentially Bob's role model. He looked for the woman of his dreams who would be cruel to him, who would be mean to him. And they started with contracts, so we started with contracts. Everything was written out: what we would do, and how we would do it, and it was renewable. He signed with a cut in his chest, to formalize it. He was my slave forever, or until I said you're not my slave anymore.

AW: Marriage is a contractual thing, but using the body as a symbol of that power exchange or bond is interesting.

ROSE: Right, absolutely. I wanted it to be explicit, not just implicit. And I like the idea of contracts. And later on, when we started different groups to bring SM into the mainstream, and we started a group called Society of Janus. There were quite a few women coming into it, and I wanted to get women into the SM scene. I didn't want it to just be under the table. Because it was "nasty", the only women in it were professional, but they weren't high on the social ladder, back in those days in the early 80’s. I mean they were not talked about. They were there, for sure, so I really wanted to make it more respectable. If a women wanted to be more submissive or dominant, it didn’t matter, to be able to be out about it, honest about it. So I started having female slaves. My main slave was Bob but I had other slaves as well, and with all of them we had contracts. That was a really big deal to have a contract, so that everybody knew what was expected. After three months, we would go over the contract again and decide are we going to keep it up or dissolve it. So it wasn’t like anyone was breaking up with anyone, you signed up for three months and at the end of those three months, you both decide, not just the Mistress.

AW: So, what’s this?

ROSE: Oh! These are some good pictures, this is rather famous, the incident is going to be in a book that just came out. This is the weird kind of stuff we did. Bob devised this whole thing, where he was down in the basement, and he had tubes attached to his penis and mouth so he could pee and be fed because he was down there for 24 hours.

AW: I remember Grace Marie [Professional Dominatrix] did something similar.

ROSE: Did she? Oh cool!

AW: Yeah we were at a play party and there was some ass-to-mouth tube system and it was pretty amazing.

ROSE: Pretty amazing. And also we were into things like enemas, I used to give people wine enemas, that was my big deal.

Mike Kelley and Bob Flanagan, MORE LOVE THAN CAN EVER BE REPAID

AW: How old did Bob live until?

ROSE: 43.

AW: He lived for a while then.

ROSE: Yeah, he did. And without a lung transplant either.

AW: Do you think that it was the fact that you were around?

ROSE: Definitely, no question about it. He wrote a song about it. CF would have killed him if it weren’t for SM.

AW: I always tell people, what we do is therapeutic, but it’s not therapy.

ROSE: Oh my god, yeah, men who need it, it’s like lifeblood for them.

AW: I feel like I’m so fascinated by the punk scene you were talking about, and the way you came out BDSM. I don’t know if it’s because I romanticize things that I don’t know about or things that I wasn’t there for. But it must have been so different and exciting, to have no rules or precedent.

ROSE: It was, and that’s what I loved about it. Remember when I was talking about my boring life before? I wanted to experience things that nobody had experienced, that women hadn’t experienced. By that time, I knew that men were doing wild things and I wanted women to be able to do them too.

AW: Right.

ROSE: So I don’t think if I had been as repressed, maybe if I had had a great sex life with a great husband, maybe none of this would ever have happened. I don’t know.

AW: That’s crazy. And I guess there still are women out there living those lives, maybe not you or I, but generally speaking there’s people who subscribe to it who maybe wouldn’t otherwise.

ROSE: I don’t know anymore, I’m not in touch with the world the way I used to be. I’m not nearly as active and I’m not nearly as plugged in. But I still do my things on the side here and there. One of the things we did before was crossing SM world with the poetry world with the art world. So we were always running to one thing or the other. Bob was the star, and I was coming from a place where I was the woman. I’m the mother and I still have that traditional role of wanting to see my children succeed. In many ways Bob was my pet, he was the best pet a person could have. He was an exotic, endangered species, and I thought he wasn’t going to live that long anyway so I wanted to exploit him in the best possible way so that he would make the best impact on the world.

AW: You facilitated that.

ROSE: Totally. I saw him as not as just a kinky guy, but as someone who was really talented, really funny, really sweet, as extraordinary. I thought he was going to die. I don’t want the world to forget about him. So of course it changed as years went on, and I became more active in it, but I didn’t want to be the star, to be on stage. That wasn’t really my thing. I very enjoyed being behind the scenes and making it happen. And getting almost a motherly thrill. I got a lot of satisfaction out of seeing him be so successful. That pleased me. It wasn’t like I was jealous of him and wanted to be up there.

AW: Right. That’s something I picked up on in reading about you and watching all the videos. That’s a really privileged position to be in. To have that responsibility, to feel like you had such a hand in making somebody fulfill whatever their higher purpose is. Putting something good into the world.

ROSE: Yeah, and I feel like that was the impetus of it. Now looking back, should I have done something different or been more assertive about some things? I never felt that I was that talented… my talent was recognizing other people who were talented. I could see something good, something that should be noted. 

In 2014, Sheree Rose donated her extensive archives of photographs, ephemera and other material to the One Archives at the USC Libraries. You can peer into Rose and Flanagan's intimate public life in the documentary Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. text and interview by Audra Wist, Autre's sex editor-at-large. Below photographs of Rose and Wist at the One Archives by Sara Clarken.