A couple of years ago, Courtney Weaver, overeducated and underwhelmed with the literary job market for twentysomethings, was living the glamorous life of a freelance writer: waiting tables and ripping open the mail to find anonymous rejection slips. Then she read an article about a new Internet magazine and thought she had the perfect topic for a column: her sex life.
The fortysomething male editors behind Salon, the Internet start-up, weren't so sure. Are young women, ummmh, still talking about sex?
"Not only are they talking about it," Weaver reassured them, "they're doing it, and a lot of it."
The wonder, then, is that anyone has time to read about sex. But--to judge from the columns of glossy magazines, alternative weeklies and books crowding store windows--people are taking a break from their amorous adventures long enough to fuel a boom in literary sex writing.
"Everyone loves to talk about sex," Weaver says. "They love to think about it, and the only thing better than talking about it is doing it. But you take what you can get."
Salon readers are getting a lot. Besides Weaver's weekly "Unzipped" column, one of the best-read features in the magazine, the site recently added a second coitus commentator, libertine crusader Susie "Sexpert" Bright.
In an age when AIDS angst has given way, in large part, to the rampant sexualization of pop culture, and tell-all memoirs have supplanted novels as the main currency of literary popularity, it seems only reasonable that talented young writers would shrug off the Olympian detachment of their journalistic predecessors and take their notebooks into the bedroom.
"Everything about the world is sex," moans Dishwalla on the song "Pretty Babies." The average newsstand groans under enough prurient reading (or at least viewing) matter to fill a small library.
In this sex-drenched society, women's magazines have long been full of copulatory tips for the Cosmo Girl ("Six Ways for Mind-Blowing Orgasms") and, more recently, even such once-rarified citadels of restraint as the New Yorker have run pieces like one dealing with a woman writer's obsession with sexual masochism.
But the new wave of sex writing is less instructional or lecherous than witty, funny and even self-mocking--literary smut, in the words of Nerve, a Web site that strives for an open but tasteful discussion of carnal matters.
"AIDS provoked a crisis about what people were actually doing in bed, which led to an anti-sex backlash and then an even bigger pro-sex backlash," explained syndicated columnist Dan Savage.
"There's a much greater willingness on the part of writers to insert themselves into sex," he said. "In the older sex writing, it's like the writer had no sexuality. No one is impartial about anything having to do with sex. People are either repulsed or titillated, but no one is neutral."
"I was just naturally writing in a first-person, confessional way," recalled Anka Radakovich, who stumbled into penning a sex column for Details magazine in 1990. "Now I notice more of this confessional sexual journalism. Women love to talk about sex and men and analyze things. When I'm with a group of girlfriends talking about men, I bet a similar group of men are sitting around analyzing our breasts."
Radakovich's first story for the magazine was about men's apartments; soon she was writing about sleeping with her boyfriends (but only after they've left the picture). A collection of columns, "The Wild Girls Club," sold well and was translated into German and Japanese; Tom Cruise's production company bought the movie rights.
"The column organically evolved," she said. "It got more depraved as it went on." Men wrote letters. And more letters. More than a 1,000 men entered a Details contest to win a date with Radakovich. ("I picked the biggest jerk," she admitted. "A lot of women do. Dating is a constant process of humiliation." But it made for a good column.)
Her most recent collection of columns is called "Sexplorations: Journeys to the Erogenous Frontier," (Crown) a chronicle of her reportage from orgies, nudist colonies and wife-swapping conventions.
"I'm just looking for the fun aspects of sex," she said. "I'm taking an anthropological view but also sort of doing a comedy remote at the same time."
If Radakovich's column takes the National Geographic approach to sex, Candace Bushnell is more of an Edith Wharton type. Bushnell began her popular "Sex and the City" feature in the New York Observer in 1994. Last year she turned it into a book of the same name (Atlantic Monthly Press) and next summer it will appear as a series on HBO.
Bushnell uses the roman-a-clef to give readers a guided tour of the Manhattan mating game as it plays out at A-list cocktail parties and Hampton soirees.
"Frankly, I don't think other people's sex lives are that interesting," she said. "It's more about society politics than sex acts. It's the pursuit of sex. Sex is something you should do. Not read about."