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Between Erotica and a Hard Place

Nerve splits the difference between romance and lust.

I recently heard that there are 10,000 pornography sites on the Web. Sex is one of the few things people are consistently willing to pay for online (sports and stocks are among the others), and there are obvious reasons for this–say, privacy and convenience. You may be able to find the same stuff as what’s online at any decently stocked porn shop, but to do so you have to go to that neighborhood, physically enter that store, and then worry about what the clerk thinks of your interest in dominant transvestites. Browsing at home, it’s just you and your modem, and using the mouse only takes one hand.

The recently launched “literate smut” Webzine Nerve might be Sex Site No. 10,001, but don’t call it porno. In a letter to the readers, the site’s twentysomething editors declare, “Nerve intends to be more graphic, forthright, and topical than ‘erotica,’ but less blockheadedly masculine than ‘pornography.’ ” If pornography encompasses all those hot ‘n’ hunky sites out there, and erotica is that safe and boring territory of romance novels and scented candles, then Nerve wants it both ways: rough sex and soft lighting, meaningful talk and meaningless orgasm.

You wonder why no one has ever tried this before. Go to Yahoo! and type in “literature & sex,” and you get sites such as Madeline’s Sex Offerings, which contains articles such as “Some Philosophical Thoughts on Giving Head,” by Madeline herself. And this is the high end. More typical are sites such as Pussy Vision and Blow Job of the Day. Search for “erotica” (thousands of matches) and get sites such as Yellow Silk, the online version of the Berkeley-based journal the Utne Reader called a “tasteful celebration of the sensuality of every day life.” Or the Web site of Mary Anne Mohanraj, whose most recent book, Torn Shapes of Desire, is touted as “eminently literary, well-written and tasteful” (there’s that word again).

The editors of Nerve feel no need to be tasteful, God bless ‘em. What you find here are actual writers holding forth on subjects near and dear to their hearts, and other organs; writing that generally seems to know the difference between the precious and the precise. And they do it without sacrificing lust and the promise of sexual possibility. As Ruth Shalit says in her review of two books about predator women (Candace Bushnel’s Sex and the City and Anka Radakovich’s Sexplorations), “When staging a literary revolution, it never hurts to be sans-culottes.”

In its architecture, Nerve is not especially revolutionary: There are seven distinct sections within the site, each with its de rigueur icon in the margin. In “Smut Cut,” the reviews section, you will find pieces like Shalit’s; “Roles” features essays on sex, gender, and relationships; “Pedantry” presents pieces by public figures such as former Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders on favorite subjects (take a guess); “Ex Libris” comprises “favorite erotic passages from our writers’ libraries”; “Skin” is photos of flesh; “Threads” is occasionally interactive erotic fiction; and “The Bar” is a yet-to-be-launched chat area. Nerve wants to provide something for everybody: there’s homeless sex, prison sex–there’s even Norman Mailer, who says in a 17-year-old interview (published here simply because it’s Mailer) that he draws the line at child porn. (Everyone has his limits.) Though the author of Advertisements for Myself has always liked his sex the way a schoolboy likes his pie–any way he can get it–he was never the hippest cat in the pack (witness “The White Negro,” his attempt to grapple with the Beats, which proved the adage that those who had to ask what hip was, weren’t). In the interview, Mailer recalls reading a line from William S. Burroughs in 1959 that flat out cleaned his clock: “I see God in my asshole in the flashbulb of orgasm.”

“I remember reading it and thinking, I can’t believe I just read those words,” recalls Mailer. “I can’t tell you the number of taboos it violated. First of all, you weren’t supposed to connect God with sex. Second of all, you never spoke of the asshole, certainly not in relation to sex. If you did, you were the lowest form of pervert. Third of all, there was obvious homosexuality in the remark. In those days nobody was accustomed to seeing that in print. And fourth, there was an ugly technological edge–why’d he have to bring in flashbulbs?”

While Nerve hasn’t violated many taboos yet, the site does betray some expectations. “Skin,” the photography area, is doubtless heavily trafficked. The pictures are quick to download–Nerve is very user friendly: good navigation, great design, and an intelligent use of icons. Some images, like Richard Kern’s New York Girls, are as soft-porn as a Playboy calendar. But Greg Friedler’s black-and-white photos from his book Naked New York are slightly disturbing: New Yorkers (who answered an ad in the Village Voice) are photographed twice–clothed and naked–and the pictures juxtaposed side by side, before-and-after fashion. Their change of expression (or lack thereof) is itself a comment on the meaning of nakedness–many appear more defensive unclothed, as if to counteract any vulnerability–and the effect is almost anti-erotic.

Equally un-arousing are Barbara Nitke’s pictures from the sets of porno films, where she worked as a still photographer. There is a sad, Felliniesque quality to these images: bored and exhausted women lying on a king-size bed, surrounded by dildos of towering dimensions; an actress being eaten out while the director casually talks to her about the scene. “Once I got focused on their underlying sadness,” says Nitke of her subjects, “it was all I would see for years.”

So far, Nerve has avoided most sentimental, you-gotta-have-heart reminders that people need more than just sex. The attitude seems more carnivorous and unapologetic: We need sex, let’s indulge, and save talk about those other important things for Nightline. True, there are lapses. Fiona Giles, editor of a book called Dick for a Day: What Would You Do If You Had One? (surprise! most women would have sex with themselves), has a moment of sadness when, having gone dickless for months, she finds herself “walking down the street, thinking I should ask someone for a hug.” Barbara Nitke also recalls a porn star saying all he wanted was a hug. (The moral: Whether getting laid consistently or not, people need hugs.) For the most part, though, Nerve is a hug-free zone.

It will be interesting to see if Nerve can keep it up. The editors seem to know good writing when they see it: Novelist John Hawkes makes an unexpected appearance with a new introduction to The Passion Artist, and Poppy Z. Brite has a touching fantasy of John Lennon and Paul McCartney holding more than each other’s hands. (Co-editor of Nerve Genevieve Field was executive editor of MTV Books–words that, linked together, look about as strange to my eyes as “God” and “asshole” did to Norman Mailer’s.) “Piss Christ” creator Andres Serrano is to be featured in “Skin” soon, so we know Jesse Helms will be bookmarking this page. And if the editors are ever tempted to take themselves too seriously, they can always refer to Lisa Carver’s hilarious essay on the differences between “sensualists” and “sexualists”–those who like talking about it and those who like doing it. “Sensualists have sex without orgasm on purpose,” she writes of all those candle-loving, body-oil-bearing himbos. “They call it tantric sex. I’d call it a bad date.”