LILY BRAINDROP PHOTO: Michelle Handelman
Lily Braindrop Burana is editor of the sex magazine "Taste of Latex." Ever since I bought the first issue at the Epicenter Zone in San Francisco, I've been a fan of this publication. Recently Paul Kim interviewed Lily on Straightjacket, KALX Berkeley's queer talk radio show, about the joys and difficulties of publishing a magazine for the sexually disenfranchised. - burma
I guess a lot of people out there probably haven't seen "Taste of Latex," so when they open it up, what should they expect to see?
Lily: Well, basically I started "Taste Of Latex" with the intention of being Hugh Hefner's worst nightmare. I have no intention of supporting compulsory heterosexuality. I have no intention of presenting cute, glossy, meticulously overgroomed, normal people engaged in conspicuously wholesome acts of exhibitionism. Basically, I just wanted to create a porn magazine that made a safe haven for all the marginalized sexualities: transgenderists, gay, bi, all kinds of queers, sadomasochists, fetishists, and you know, all kinds of freaky people. Myself being one of them, by the way...(laughing) I'm not slumming!
How did you come up with the idea, and what did you do to execute the whole thing?
Lily: When I was growing up as a teenager in suburbia (a little monster punk rocker), like most teenagers, I had an extreme interest in sexuality, but every time I looked at a sex magazine, I couldn't see anything that reflected my sexuality. Everybody looked really normal. Everybody was doing stuff that was really straight...and all the magazines were put together either as this really intense marketing package, or it looked like they just didn't care, and it was totally crappy looking. So, when I moved out to San Francisco in 1989, I decided to try to put something out there that looked like something I would want to see. So, it started out as a 'zine. It was a 24-page newsprint number. I had to work within the humble means I had (many 'zine-sters out there will understand how that works) and I just wanted to see if there were other people interested in an alternative kind of porn besides me. It's exceeded my expectations to the n-th degree.
How so? What is your circulation?
Lily: Right now, we print about 7000 copies, which is 6000 more than what we started with. It's glossy, it's got a full-color cover and a full-color center which, to some people, constitutes a sell-out. Just because it's stylish doesn't mean you don't have subversive politics behind what you're doing! Anyways, the circulation continues to grow. The response from the readers has really been the greatest thing. So many people write in saying how validated they feel by it, and that really makes me feel great. Beyond wanting to provide great masturbation material, I also want to have people look at a sex magazine and see themselves reflected back for the first time. For a freaky person, it's hard to find that validation anywhere.
How would you characterize your readership? Are they mostly punks and mod prims [modern primitives] or do you find that there are a lot of very straight people?
Lily: Every so often I have a "Taste of Latex" party (I did one in New York and I've done a couple out here in San Francisco). A lot of them are tres rad mod prims and little punksters and things, but lots of people (especially the hardcore S/M people) look, actually, very conservative. You'd be surprised. I was surprised! I'm certain that there are people out there who get, you know, a kind of vicarious "walk on the wild side" by reading the magazine, and that's fine as long as you're not critical in a negative way and you're reading it with an open mind. But I would say that the diehard readership is people who are definitely on the alternative, with a capital "A", side. (laugh) It's so hard to communicate it and not sound schmaltzy, because in the past few years all of this has become so very popular and that has been extremely bizarre. So, it's hard to even say, "Oh really? Alternative people?" 'cause that doesn't even sound like a compliment anymore! (laugh)
What sort of criticisms have you received about "Taste of Latex"?
Lily: Well, one criticism that I get from people who are in positions of "authority"...more conventional, mainstream people, is they're quite disturbed by the magazine because it is explicit. It does show people who don't look conventional. There is a lot of sadoerotic and queer content. Obviously the subtext of whatever they're saying to me, delivered in the name of "literary criticism" (gag) is that this is a magazine for maladjusted sickos. As far as I'm concerned, a heterosexual, vanilla, mainstream, conformist-minded person, who perhaps holds a degree, has a couple of letters after their name...um...handing down the "guilty of perversion" verdict, for me that kinda doesn't wash because they don't have experience. They don't even know who we are or how we live. They don't know our practices. They just come into the community, take a few looks around, see a couple of people of the same sex holding hands, or a few people with whips and chaps...and because that makes them feel uncomfortable, that means what we do is wrong. Now, I don't know where these people get off feeling comfortable describing themselves as authorities on the subject of the sexually disenfranchised. Frankly, I think that we queers and sadomasochists are the authorities on who we are. Often, people who judge us have not spent enough time around people who engage in alternative sexual behaviours to even make a judgment in the first place. My response to people who say things like that is, "Really, who died and made you Dr. Joyce Brothers?" How can they say that this is the product of sick people when they haven't even taken the time to acquaint themselves [with us]. That never ceases to offend me. I hope it never does, because it's fucked.
The more "liberal" or attempting to be more "sex positive" folks...often are put off by the fact that I don't couch the explicit material in an excess of overt-polemic or "literature." That means there is stuff that's rough. It's not necessarily something that's going to represent a James Michener novel or a sociology text, because it's people who are just telling what turns them on in no vague terms. I prefer to tell it like it is because, even though people say the greatest sex organ in the body is the mind, I've not yet met one person who sticks their finger in their ear to masturbate.
Beyond that, I can field complaints as long as they don't ultimately lead to censorship or persecution of people of marginalized sexuality. Everybody has a right to an opinion. It's how they choose to act on that opinion that I may have issues with.
Do you ever have problems with printers or distributors? 'Cause it is a porn mag and a lot of queer periodicals tend to have problems...
Lily: I think this is where we lapse into the crushing reality of the limitations around media that represent sexual expression in this country. I have had to change printers about 3 times because of the content of the magazine. Essentially that wouldn't fit the legal definition of censorship, meaning that the government is trying to suppress this information. But it is a form of censorship, or censureship, because the printers can turn it down if they want to, if they think that it's too hot to handle. Believe me, that's definitely happened. I went to a printer in the Midwest who does large runs of conventional porn magazines but, because my magazine is smaller and more radical, they're inclined to not take the job. I'm certainly not the only person that's happened to and it happens, not only with printers, but with distributors as well. The temptation would be, and the advice I've gotten from people who are into publishing more from the business standpoint, is to limit the content and tone it down a little bit. But for me, that's defeating the whole purpose.
Back to this whole thing about alternative sexuality becoming more popular, why do you think this is happening? And in what way?
Lily: Gee...oh gosh, this is where I sound like a cynical old shrew. (laugh) I would say that, and this is certainly nothing original to say, I'm afraid, I'm apologizing in advance for this...but I really do believe that the reason why tattooing and piercing and queerness and S/M and bondage and exploring different alternative forms of lifestyle and aesthetics has become popular. In a way it was galvanized by feminism, and the gay and lesbian rights movement. People of all stripes are looking at alternatives to this tremendously provincial, suburban mentality that prevails in this country. Life seems to become more isolated, less meaningful, more mundane, increasingly stressful, and they want something that feels more meaningful and satisfying. Often that means defying the mainstream. There's an extreme comfort, an intense comfort, that comes from being rebellious, both sexually and socially. That can't be denied. I think to a certain extent a lot of the media attention heaped on it has a kind of freak show aspect. It's that tabloid style...well..."Here's the big trend." But there's always an undercurrent of "Well, these people are just a bunch of complete misfits." That's okay. I don't think currying favor with Time-Warner is necessarily on anybody's agenda anyhow.
You can say that, but lately in the queer community you see a lot of queers divorcing themselves from the underground sex scene, trying to appear more mainstrem, trying to appear just like everyone else on the street. How do you feel that's affecting the acceptance of alternative sexuality?
Lily: I think any time you are a person who is historically disenfranchised, whether it be by your class background, race, sexuality, or what have you, your ultimate goal in life, really, is to find your personal comfort zone. For some people, that is to fit into the mainstream. Certainly, I would like to see people of marginalized sexuality have the fundamental civil rights...but people not only want civil rights, they want the station wagon and the 3-piece suit. I don't begrudge anybody for wanting that...I personally do not...and as long as they understand that drag queens, bulldaggers, and sadomasochists are a vital part of the queer identity, and often at the forefront (particularly historically) of uprisings in the name of acquiring civil rights for gay and lesbian and queer people. If they can acknowledge that, then that's fine, but if they try to disavow that as a part of the queer experience, then they're absolutely lying. I would say fuck them.
I get the impression from reading the magazine that most of the people that write letters want to be freaks, they want to be alienated from the mainstream, and that somehow being absorbed into the mainstream would take it away...How do you feel about that?
Lily: Well, I certainly cringe when I see all those big Hollywood leading men roaring around on their $19,000 Harley-Davidsons. Gee, it seems like owning a Harley-Davidson could be one of the least rebellious things you could do. Certainly, a lot of the things I identified as part of my misfit tribe...somebody in a pair of leather chaps or with a nose ring or a mohawk...you knew that they were going to be a cool person. Now you have these tattooed MTV VJs who are conservative Republicans...
Actually, just the other day on TV they had Lee Press-On Tattoos, so it's officially in the mainstream now...
Lily: Frankly, how it's affected me personally is I look more conservative than I ever have. Just because that whole "groupthink" has permeated the mod prim movement. It's kinda heartbreaking, I must say. But everything rises to the surface eventually and you either have to mainstream gracefully or dig deeper.
Do you feel that there's an actual unified movement or group here? Or is it just a bunch of people with common interests?
Lily: Well, there're a whole bunch of people with the same hairdo who may be totally farflung, ideologically speaking. But I think that people who are into alternative sexuality would agree that they want to see sexuality discussed more. They want better sex education. They want more honest depictions of sexuality in porn. I mean, really, if you flip open a Hustler, how many women do you know who lie around with their legs spread like that, practically tucking their ankles behind their head in an impromptu gynecological display. I think that there are certain elements that people have in common. They want to have more decent sex in their personal lives and to see sex acknowledged as an important force. Not neutralized, like this romper room thing. I don't think we could ever lose its mystique and its taboo thrill.
Inside the latest issue, there is this little disclaimer: "It is assumed that Taste of Latex readers will not go to some of the extremes that appear in our fantasy pieces." Also, I believe that there is a letter to the editor commenting on the violence in some of the fiction pieces. Did you put that in out of legal obligation or do you feel that you have some responsibility to the readers?
Lily: I have more faith in my readership than someone like Jesse Helms would. I believe that the healthy individual, and yes, my readership, by and large, is a healthy group, can certainly [differentiate] between fantasy and reality. As far as the disclaimer is concerned, yes, that's more legal than moral: I know where I stand and what I believe in terms of people determining right from wrong and fantasy from reality. However, the way obscenity is defined in this country is usually by community standards. What many S/M-inclusive porn magazines have done in the interest of self-preservation is to put a disclaimer of that sort in there. It's kind of a preventative measure because all it would take, realistically, is one lawsuit against one of these small-press porn magazines to send it belly-up. So we need to do whatever we can to keep it on the newsstands. (laugh)
And, as far as the letter saying, "A lot of these pieces are violent. They kinda disturb me." My response is that violent sexual fantasy is probably just as okay, if not less disturbing to me than say, a very violent action movie like The Terminator. It is fantasy and there are certain elements of the human condition, such as control, order and logic, that get overturned through healthy sadomasochistic, sadoerotic fantasy. The actual practice of sadomasochism is consensual. It is negotiated ahead of time. However, containing negotiation in a fantasy can kill the fantasy at times, particularly some of the pieces in this issue. So I just try to make it clear that everybody has a different level of acceptability. But ultimately any fantasy has to be okay, because the function of fantasy is that there are no limits...
Tell me about people who have appeared in the magazine in one capacity or another.
Lily: Well, since I do go out of my way to court people who look unusual, who are pierced or tattooed, who have really excellent hair (laughs)...a lot of the time it ends up being my friends or I meet somebody in a club who I think is really amazing looking. Not amazing in a conventional way necessarily, like having a perfect body. I basically try to go after people who wouldn't fit in anywhere else. I've seen friends of mine, or people that I know, in Hustler as models and they have their tattoos all covered up or they've taken their piercings out...I'm like, "No, no. Come over here. We want to see that tongue piercing. We like to see your hair purple." Frankly, I find that much more interesting to look at. I'm just not turned on by conventional looking people. I can't understand the fuss about Mel Gibson...it's completely alien to me! I think that there's a missing link in my consciousness about that kind of a mainstream...I never thought anybody that looked like they wanted to fit in was terribly attractive. I think rebelliousness is an incredibly erotic thing. If you tear apart even Harlequin romances, with all the swarthy domineering men in these books, there's always a rebel element. I think that that's an incredible aphrodisiac for anyone. But we here at Taste of Latex like it a little bit more in the extreme.
There are quite a number of erotic mags out there. How would you differentiate Taste of Latex from...let's say...Yellow Silk, or something?
Lily: Oh, gee. Well, I think on the continuum, on the bellcurve of alternative porn magazines, we and Yellow Silk are at opposite ends of the spectrum. And that's not to say that I don't have a healthy respect for what Lily Pond is doing over there. She's trying to do a very serious, erotic, yet not...uh... she's very hesitant to have it catagorized as porn. I, on the other hand, would be terribly insulted if you didn't consider it porn because I, for one, am trying to take that word back. It doesn't mean something that's useless to society. It doesn't mean that because you enjoy it, you're a degenerate. It means that you have a healthy interest in explicit sex. I try to make it look as attractive as possible. I try to put a fair amount of money into the layout and to make sure that I have good photographers and everything...because I want people to understand that I take it very seriously. This is not a fly-by-night project for me. This is not something that I'm just doing to make a quick buck...obviously. (laugh) As we sit in my spacious 25-room mansion and our butler serves us tea. (laugh)
Anyway...I want to create a safe haven for the sexual extremes so people can not only see the fantasy depictions but also get how-to instruction on alternative sex practices...you know, watersports and fisting and queer sex and, what else have we done?...lots of practical information about S/M. It's one thing to read about it and get your rocks off, but it's another to try to do it in your own personal life.
For me, I was absolutely starved for information. So, as I find the information, I try to pass it along to other people because it's great in theory, but it also can be pretty darn fun in practice. I'm not going to be a dog in the manger here. I want everyone else to experiment and be able to do it safely. I only have authorities write about safe fisting or watersports. Especially in this day and age, the more extreme practices can often have graver physical and emotional consequences if they're not done properly. I'm trying to make a sincere attempt at titillation and education at the same time.
What are your turn-ons?
Lily: What are my turn-ons? (laugh) People who often get into producing sexual media, the ones who have become my heroes are the ones who put their money where their mouth is. They don't just write sexual fantasies, they also involve themselves personally in it...like...they will tell this kind of thing about themselves. Because it is embarrassing...(laugh) So I have a genuine empathy for anybody out there doing sexual exploration. Any time you expose yourself in that way, verbally let alone physically, it's a vulnerable space...
Of course, I love tattooed, pierced, freaky people...Obviously! I've been an S/M player for about 4 years...and actually worked professionally as a dominatrix for a while, which was not my cup of tea. It was more the work than the domination that got on my nerves. I'm just a really curious person so I'm turned on by people who are very smart and want to talk about sexuality and what it means to them. I'm certainly atttracted to rebellious people, and rebellion shows itself in some strange ways, I've found out.
Actually. I've met a lot of people who identify as straight. Being formerly lesbian, I identify now as being bisexual/queer. Like many people of my ilk, I have this tremendous bigotry against straight people that I've had to unlearn. I've met so many straight people who are actually quite cool and supportive and who, in their own ways, are quite transgressive.
Well, let's give you more dirt here...(laugh) Spike-heeled shoes, which I'm always happy to have someone send me as a token of their esteem. How solicitous of me! I have one very politically incorrect fetish, which is fur. This is Berkeley, so you can all hiss now. I guess that since I was a sex worker and still am, in the literal sense, having been a stripper for many years, I also would have to classify myself as an exhibitionist. Certainly if I can do it for that long, there must be a part of me that not only likes the money but likes the job too. And...what can I say...that's about it. Well, there's always more but..that's a good start, right?
Is there anything that is still capable of shocking you? Is there anything you haven't seen?
Lily: There's lots of things that I haven't seen, that I know exist. I have not seen a tremendous amount of bestiality, either happening in person or in video. There are things that still shock or disturb me. Certainly a lot of hardcore, male-dominant, female-submissive S/M videos where it's obvious that the intention of the video is to show the woman not enjoying it. That's hard for me to watch because it's a trigger for me. I kind of have to accept that there are people who get turned on by that. I have to have faith that they're not, you know, complete psychopaths. 'Cause I understand how other people can look at what I do and look at my sadomasochistic or sadoerotic leanings and say the very same thing. So, I try to chill out around that and realize that fantasy is fantasy. Hmmm...what else would be disturbing for me? Anything where it's not clear that it's consensual...Often dialogue will make it clear that it is. What else shocks me?...uh...oh, there's lots of things that shock me in a good way, but there's little else that shocks me in a bad way.
Is there anything you will not print in "Taste of Latex?" Do you have a policy about anything that just will not go into that magazine?
Lily: Well, for all you people who are ingenues about the legality of pornography, I won't show anything that's illegal. Images are far more questionable, and more likely to get you busted than print. So, obviously, imagewise, because of my distribution situation, I can't show penetration. I can't show ejaculation. ...um...what else is there? I can't show a mixture of sex which would be penetration, which is a strange definition of sex if you ask me. It's a little limited. S/M you can't really show. I found this out the hard way. You can't show watersports. You can't show a weapon being pointed at a body in an erotic context. That implies intent to harm. Obscenity is determined in this country by the "intent to harm." But printwise, the only limit that I have is quality. I determine what I print by whether I think it's good quality, not whether it's in good taste or not.
Suppose NAMBLA submitted a spread of a bunch of men with some boys. Would you have any problem with that?
Lily: Of course I would because it's illegal. (laugh) If it was a photo-spread, yes. However, I would be more than willing to read and possibly publish a well thought out, well-expressed piece that dealt with that kind of sexuality because if anything, this magazine exists to educate. Not everything Taste of Latex represents is something I am personally interested in. That's editorial bias and that certainly exists. But, it's really a matter of how things are presented, as opposed to what they are exactly. I have published a piece that was intergenerational. In fact, it wasn't boy-boy, it was an older man and a younger girl. There were no legal repercussions. There certainly were lots of raised eyebrows out there. But the whole subtext of the piece was this man grappling with the morality around that. He ultimately decided that he was wrong. I breathed a sigh of relief when I read that, because then I would have been forced to question that even further. That kind of thing is very difficult, because there is the whole debate around whether sex with minors can be deemed thoroughly consensual. The jury is still out on that for me. So, I am not the guru sitting atop the mountain here with the answers. I would never profess to be that.
I did turn down one thing that I didn't like, a drawing a man sent me of a butcher in a big apron with a woman in bondage, and he was disemboweling her. I didn't find that particularly sexy. Although maybe out there somebody would. Again, editorial bias. It didn't work for me. I'm sure a diehard liberal out there, a die-hard anti-censorship person might be kinda cringing but it's the editor's perogative to publish what they think is going to be hot, and what works for them and their readership. That [picture] is not necessarily beyond the pale fantasywise, but not necessarily something I think most people would find exciting or most of my readership would find exciting.
Tell me about the future? What does it hold for Taste of Latex?
Lily: Well, fortunately, much to my surprise and delight, it is growing quite rapidly. One of the positive by-products of the popularization of modern primitives, body modification, and sadomasochism, is that it's opened up avenues for the magazine to get more exposure, which is great. We're going to add more pages because it's always fun to have more to read! We're probably going to add a few columnists, whose names will remain undisclosed, that little cult fans out there will know and love. Basically try and make it as vital as possible because some magazines, they kinda carve out there editorial niche, stay there and get really stagnant. Since porn has historically been specialized with niche markets--one magazine dedicated to panty fetishes, one dedicated to rubber raincoats, one dedicated to over-blow-dried babes in last year's spiked-heels...sorry, obviously I have a grudge against that kind of thing. We decided to expand on that. We're going to include everything that's marginalized, more or less. We have a lot of latitude that way, so we're just gonna try to keep it interesting. I always invite submissions of visual material and writing, so I'd be happy to give out the address to all you little perverts out there who are ready to put ink to paper or pick up the camera and send it on in, 'cause I'd be perfectly happy to consider publishing it. And I can pay you too, isn't that nice? (laugh) Not a lot, but some.
And where can people find the magazine?
Lily: Believe it or not, as you're going to buy the latest Mariah Carey CD (laughs), you can stop by the magazine rack and pick up Taste of Latex at a Tower Records store. If they don't have it, you can say, "I know you guys carry this. You should order one for me." They will do it. You can also get it [in San Francisco] in the Haight at Deviant Books, Naked Eye, and Bound Together. Stormy Leather, which is a wonderful fetish emporium down on Howard Street, and Good Vibrations and many of the queer bookstores, including A Different Light. You can also order it through the mail. It's $7 for a sample copy, $19.95 for a sub. But you gotta include a signed age statement saying that you're over age 18 or else...you can't have it. Another legality, folks. I'm sorry.
Thanks for speaking with us.
Lily: No problem. I must confess that the magazine is far more interesting to read than I am to interview, so go out and pick it up today. (laugh)