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Pillow Talk

THE EDGE OF THE BED: How Dirty Pictures Changed My Life.\o7 By Lisa Palac (Little, Brown: 214 pp., $22.95)\f7 ; AT HOME WITH PORNOGRAPHY: Women, Sex, and Everyday Life.\o7 By Jane Juffer (New York University Press: 264 pp., $55, $17.95 paper)\f7 ; GOOD TIME GIRLS OF THE ALASKA-YUKON GOLD RUSH.\o7 By Lael Morgan (Epicenter Press: 352 pp., $24.95)\f7

September 06, 1998|LINDA JAIVIN | Linda Jaivin is the author of "Eat Me" and "Rock 'n' Roll Babes From Outer Space" (Broadway Books)

"Is the very act of a woman spreading her legs and wanting sex degrading?" asks Lisa Palac in "The Edge of the Bed." She argues against the assumption of both anti-porn feminists and right-wing conservatives that images of female desire are inherently exploitative or oppressive, questioning why we can't see such images as "powerful and liberating" instead. As she points out, "if we're going to examine degrading images of women, why limit ourselves to pornography? What about, say, laundry soap commercials and their depiction of women whose self-worth revolves around removing stains?"

Welcome to the world of female porn-meisters, mainstreamed masturbation and proud prostitutes. These three books, one a disarmingly charming memoir, one a provocative academic study and the last a "secret history," together take us on an excursion into the wilder territories of female sexuality, desire and identity.

Strap yourself in--or on, if that's your pleasure--and get ready for the ride of Lisa Palac's life. Raised a good Catholic girl, she had never even seen a vibrator until, at the age of 20, one fell on her head while she was dusting a closet shelf in a rented apartment. An anti-porn feminist herself at college, Palac was further appalled when, ferreting in her boyfriend's wardrobe for a sweater, she released an avalanche of hard-core magazines and videos. She self-righteously informed her mortified beau: "Either this sleazy shit goes or I go." In the end, neither went, and Palac tells us she even came--to a video titled "Aerobisex Girls."

Palac, newly turned on to the potential of porn, approached it with all the zeal of a convert. She made a graduation film that left her fellow students rolling on the floor in laughter at what she considered its "most meaningful and erotically provocative dialogue." It also prompted her father to storm out of the auditorium, turning her graduation celebration into an emotional Hiroshima. From this inauspicious start, and after a string of hysterically disastrous day jobs, Palac went on to become a senior editor of the San Francisco-based, sex-positive lesbian magazine On Our Backs, the founding editor of the oddly conceived and short-lived publication Future Sex, the producer of the CD series "Cyborgasm" and a prominent spokeswoman for feminist pornography.

Palac could never take the world of porn quite as seriously as it sometimes takes itself. While working at Future Sex, Palac played a prank on the media, whose tireless fascination with the notion of virtual reality sex (their interpretation of the title of her magazine) was beginning to bore her. She offered readers a vision of "Love Machine" techno-lingerie so advanced it was able to survive even nuclear attack. The joke sparked a virtual invasion of the Future Sex office by reporters from all over the world, unaware they'd been hoaxed, and all hoping to try on the mythical sex suits for themselves.

Alongside her tales of life as a pornographer, Palac documents her personal sexual odyssey. She recalls how at 7, while watching a TV program in which a prisoner of war was tied up and whipped by his captor, she "got hit by an all-over tingly crazy feeling." She got so worked up that she gnawed on her uncle's hi-fi, leaving two big tooth marks on the cabinet and getting herself into "a whole lot of trouble." Palac, you might say, was a natural submissive.

She links the fascination she developed as an adult for sexual sadomasochism to her strict Catholic upbringing, its ritualized guilt, confession and Communion. "I'd taken the dynamic of love and punishment, which terrorized me as a child and made me feel helpless--kneeling down and sticking out my tongue to receive his body . . . doing penance to show my love--and turned it into a powerful source of erotic pleasure." Referring to its glorification of martyrdom and penitence, she provocatively labels the church "the biggest S / M community in the world." This part of Palac's memoir may disturb some readers. Underneath her sometimes jokey tone, however, she speaks with complete sincerity. As she comments in a later chapter, "I've worked hard to reconcile my politics with my sexuality but they rarely fit together, all nice and neat. If they did, life would be easy. Sex is right up there with love and death and truth--raging with contradiction."

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