“I am a Pornographer”: Conversation with Saskia Vogel on her debut novel “Permission”

Andrea Scrima: Saskia, you’ve written a book that invites us into the BDSM community to explore the complicated emotional landscape lying at the heart of its negotiations over consent and—as the title you chose for your book underscores—permission. When the book begins, Echo, the young narrator, is submerged in a fog of emotional blunting following her father’s accidental death; she trusts bodies and the language they engage in more than emotional intimacy. We’re in southern California: the milieu is wealth and privilege, Hollywood beckons, and the narrative is full of gleaming surfaces. Can aspects of Permission be read as a social commentary?

Photo: Nikolaus Kim

Saskia Vogel: Thank you for that introduction, Andrea! The book certainly came from questions I had about the society I encountered when I moved back to LA after spending most of high school in Sweden and university in London. LA, where I was born and raised, was suddenly new to me. I could legally drink, which meant access to new spaces, and I finally had a driver’s license. I was also carrying years of distance and encounters with new cultures with me. Nothing about LA life was a given anymore. I thought it would feel like free space. However, when I arrived in LA as an adult, in my early twenties, I became aware of a strong current that asked me to conform to certain norms as a woman, for instance in how I presented myself. Dating culture was oddly formal, like we were supposed to demonstrate our skill in performing a script rather than make a connection. Looking back, I might suggest that the kind of abuse of power that was happening in the upper echelons of Hollywood, and I’m thinking of Weinstein here, trickled down into parts of society, creating a dishonest economy of sex and power. Very soon I found a group of friends who were deeply involved in the kink community. Half of myself, shall we say, was in that community, and the other was trying to navigate life outside of that community. There was quite a stark contrast between the BDSM community I knew—informed by mutual respect and consent, articulated boundaries, and an awareness of power dynamics—and my life outside it, which I experienced as far more patriarchal and conventional than my imagination of life in LA had been. Those two worlds left me with questions about the roles available to women in society, about who benefits from the existing power structures, and if there was a way out. I dropped my main character Echo right into the middle of these questions.

A.S.: Echo’s experiences with men are disappointing and disturbing: the father of Ana, a schoolmate she had her first sexual experience with as a teen, recognizes her as she poses for a figure drawing class, follows her into the parking lot afterwards, and slams her up against his car in rage; as far as her failing acting career goes, her agent is blind to her particular type of beauty—she has a “face for witches, exiles, scullery maids, the down-and-out”—and has her pegged for crack whore roles; her relationship to a musician friend she has non-committal sex with is so distant that it never even occurs to her to tell him that her father has died. Echo is lonely; she keeps her pain to herself. Why?

S.V.: I like that you picked out that description of Echo. I wrote it thinking about how beauty ideals can dull the eye. The way beauty is coded in mainstream Hollywood films makes some forms of beauty invisible, and this raises questions about the ways in which our visual culture impacts our ability to perceive beauty on screen and in our everyday lives. Echo has internalized this beauty ideal, so she has a hard time seeing herself. She’s desperate for Van to see her: as a beauty and as a viable, valuable actress. Van’s job, in a way, is about reproducing these mainstream visual codes, and this makes him blind. I had a friend who quit acting after a long stretch of only being offered bit parts as dead women, abused women, drug addicts, etc. She made it sound like she was being filtered out of the acting ecosystem. The idea of “making it” as an actress seemed to be slipping out of reach. Even if you have a strong sense of self, how must that feel? And what is “making it,” anyway?

The short answer to your question is that Echo doesn’t really have any true friends, and she’s gotten used to that state of being. Her relationship with the musician is a function of her loneliness, I suppose. She is aware of the limitations of their relationship: he makes promises he doesn’t keep, but they do have a strong, intuitive erotic connection. She’s there for the pleasure. I like to think Echo enjoys having him in a hermetically sealed box, uncontaminated by the outside world. Something close to the fantasy of Erica Jong’s “zipless fuck.” He’s like a bubble she can escape into, and I think that’s why she seeks him out when she leaves her parents’ home after her father’s disappearance and the disturbing encounter with Dr. Moradi. But her grief and trauma catch up with her, and the bubble bursts. He offers her intimacy, and that frightens her. She doesn’t trust it; I’ll leave the question of “why” to the reader. I imagine Echo’s life in LA as being really quite fun, though. Full of glamour and parties, even when the going is tough. But it’s easy to be lonely when you’re socializing in an environment where people want to know you based on how useful you are to them.

A.S.: Permission slips from first- to third-person narrative; what were your reasons for presenting the book’s characters from differing narrative perspectives?

S.V.: I started writing this book while thinking about Josephine Mutzenbacher, the first pornographic novel in German written in the early 1900s. Basically, it’s supposed to be the memoir of a girl who discovers sex and loves it so much she becomes a prostitute as soon as she comes of age. In fact, it’s a novel that is said to be written by Felix Salten, the author of Bambi. Like other books that follow a woman of pleasure, let’s say, for instance, Fanny Hill, the author offers us a moral framework. In Josephine Mutzenbacher, there is a prologue written by the doctor who cared for Josephine in her final days that essentially says: this book is dirty, but you don’t have to feel dirty reading it because if you look past the porn, this is a document of rare spiritual candor that offers insight into the human heart. I wanted to write in dialogue with this kind of text. And so Echo offers her own prologue, and in the tradition of such “memoirs” Echo speaks to us in first person. When we get to Piggy’s story—about a man who decides to finally explore his sexual self—we shift to third person. I do this to draw attention to the artifice of storytelling. This is Echo recounting the story that Piggy has told her. Piggy is a man who has spent much of his life trying to make sense of himself. Orly we mainly see through Echo and Piggy’s eyes: as an object of their fantasies, but also an active participant in her role as a person with whom you can explore your fantasies and desires.

A.S.: Piggy is a man who doesn’t fit in with heteronormativity and doesn’t profit from male privilege; he seeks release: sexual, psychological, one could even say spiritual.

S.V.: I started writing Permission thinking it would be in dialogue with Josephine Mutzenbacher, except I wanted to tell a tale founded in reality rather than fantasy. What drives a person to seek out the services of a sex worker? When I started writing about Piggy, I was thinking about an interview I did when researching the book. My interviewee said something to the effect that they’d missed out on the Sexual Revolution because they wanted to worship feet, and that kind of sex just wasn’t part of the revolution. It was difficult to find a community where they could express themselves, or a sexual partner who wanted to share in this type of experience. I hadn’t really read that story before. Piggy’s section of the book took on new importance for me after the SESTA/FOSTA law was passed by the US Senate. To use the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)’s summary, the law “silences online speech by forcing Internet platforms to censor their users.” It undermined Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act, which protects free speech online, and it effectively dispersed the online communities that sex workers and their clients relied on for safety, business, connection, and support. The law was supposed to help fight sex trafficking, but in practice it made life for sex workers, their clients, and trafficking victims far more difficult and dangerous.

I help out with a porn film festival in Helsinki called “Viva Erotica!.” We’re in our fifth year. It’s curated for cinephiles by cinephiles, and we show mostly stuff that’s shot on film, in original format. With my background working at a trade publication covering the adult film industry, and with my curiosity about sex and culture, the film festival has given me so much space to think about the potential for the representation of sex. Porn and erotica hold so many of our cultural and social anxieties; shame plays such a big role. For instance, the anxiety around black male sexuality. Or the way women of color are exoticized, their sexuality narrated for them by a gaze that is not their own, as the Mexican performer Lina Bembe discussed when I had the pleasure of being a guest on the Ersties Podcast. Like what I was saying about the visual coding of Hollywood films: similar codes are at work in porn. It’s fascinating to look past the sex and see what else is at work in these stories. The sex in Permission is, of course, marked by the culture in which the sex is being had, but I wanted to show the transformative potential of the erotic: what happens when you value that carnal energy, what you can learn from it, the conversations it makes possible with yourself and others. As far as spirituality: the language of love and the erotic is often one of worship. I dove into that.

A.S.: When Echo tunes in to a late-night radio show about sex, she takes offence at the psychologist host’s first question to every girl calling in with a problem: “‘Where’s Dad?’ Where’s Dad? As if that were the key to it all.” The failure of theory to get at the heart of desire—in all its messy forms—makes me think of Didier Eribon’s rejection of Lacan because the only origin the psychoanalyst and psychiatrist was able to identify for homosexuality was that of deprival and deviance.

S.V.: Otto Weininger, Freud, Krafft-Ebing were touchstones for me… The language of pathology around sex still poisons the discourse today, and I wanted this book to resist those lines of thinking. We like to make connections between cause and effect, but to say “x happened to me when I was young so that’s why I am like this sexually” flattens out the landscape of desire. It might provide something that looks like an answer, but I doubt that approach can lead us to much insight. With Permission, I wanted to explore what is. So, we have Echo and Piggy, sexual beings on paths of self-discovery: how does their sexuality influence their lives? How does it shape them as people? What challenges do they face as a result of who they are and how they want to be sexually? I’d love to untangle shame, filth, and pathology from sex, rethink it in terms of pleasure.

A.S.: I’ve never read Krafft-Ebing, but I was interested to learn that the Catholic Church distanced itself from him because he established a psychological tie between the Christian martyr cults and hysteria and masochism—exposing the repressed sexuality at the heart of much religious fervor. Apart from the private pursuit of pleasure, sexuality is also a language—one that can be read not only societally, historically, and culturally, but as an expression of a collective subconscious that records deeper rifts in the human psyche, as mythology does.

S.V.: Yes! The repressed sexuality at the heart of religious fervor! In the Camille Paglia epigraph in the book that begins with “I am a pornographer,” she goes on to say that she refused to allow institutions like the church tell her that religion, art, nature weren’t suffused with sex. She writes that she held to her pagan vision. It was this perspective that set me on the path to writing this novel. Echo is a person who also sees sex suffusing the world, but her vision has been compromised by the influences of the society around her. Can she reclaim this vision?

You know which book gave me the idea of sex as a language? The House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. Somewhere in that sprawling book, which I read one summer commuting between North London and the South London offices of the Erotic Review magazine, where I was doing an internship, there was a footnote about desire. I don’t know if this is my phrase or Danielewski’s anymore, but something about the “dark language of bodies” stuck with me. It helped me understand why I was so interested in the erotic: a secret language that is born with a lover and, perhaps, dies with that lover. Or maybe we are born with a language and each erotic exploration is evolution? A new dialect? More to the point of your question and going back to Josephine Mutzenbacher, we have learned to speak about sexuality in a certain way, and I think looking at that language, how we narrate sexuality to ourselves and as a culture, bears looking at. Does that language, or mythology, serve us? What might we do well to let go of?

A.S.: “Men of a Certain Age,” your lucid, subtly argued essay for Lithub on the aftermath of the #metoo movement, shifted the spotlight from the discourse’s overwhelming fixation on victimization to the sex worker’s intuitive understanding of complexity and nuance in human desire. In retrospect, how do you see the fallout of the emerging #metoo scandals in relation to Echo’s emotional journey?

S.V.: I’ve thought about this a lot in relation to the scenes in which Echo, the failing actress still hoping for a break, reaches out to her ex-agent’s assistant Van, who is now an agent himself. Is it a date? Is it a meeting? Whatever it is, he has the power in the situation and so the dance begins. She can’t tell. I wrote that scene way before #metoo, and I was worried that it might be dismissed as one woman’s experience. But now we have a new way to read those scenes, and that has given me a fresh view on the book and the questions that led me to write it. For so long I wondered if what I was seeing was part of a greater whole, or if my personal observations were skewed. #Metoo gave so many women I know, and some who have shared their stories with me during this book tour, permission to speak out against exactly the kind of thing we see Echo endure in her interactions with Van. It gave them a framework to question and resist behaviors that perhaps they knew were wrong or that didn’t feel right, but were resigned to living with. My book went out on submission just before the sexual abuse allegations were made against Harvey Weinstein and #metoo went viral. I wonder if and how I’d write Echo’s story differently if I wrote it today. I might have made her a bit more of a bad ass, but that would have been a different story.

A.S.: The scene with Van really resonated with me. He picks her up in his Porsche; during dinner, she entertains the possibility that he might see the potential in her, might actually care about her enough to focus on jump-starting her career. It’s a classic scene: the man is in possession of the car, the house, the professional connections, the wealth; the woman is in possession of her power to influence the man through his desire for her. Every exchange between them is transactional; she has no illusions about this, and yet she nonetheless entertains vague hopes for emotional fulfillment. She is in full possession of her seductive powers, she occasionally lets the reader in on her strategy, but, in the end, she’s humiliated.

S.V.: In this dynamic, humiliation is never far away, is it? But where does that humiliation come from? Between Echo and Van, there is a fundamental failure of communication. I think Echo’s humiliation comes from the fact that she, at one point, gives herself to the pleasure of the moment… she opens herself up for intimacy, only to be rebuffed. I think she feels that she should have known better than to have let her guard down.

A.S.: Saskia, you’re not only a novelist and essayist, you’re also the translator of some of Sweden’s foremost contemporary writers, including Lina Wolff, Lena Andersson, and Karolina Ramqvist—writers who also present us with strong, complex female characters that don’t quite fit in. You discussed some of your thoughts on translation as cultural translation in an essay you wrote for Words Without Borders.

S.V.: I learned so much about writing from translation. And to have translated Lina Wolff and Karolina Ramqvist, in particular, while I was working on Permission meant that I was in constant dialogue with a Swedish discourse on power, gender, sex, equality, labor… a view from abroad. Wolff, I think, helped me feel that I could be free to play with the structure of my story, to leave ellipses in the text for the reader’s imagination to fill in. Ramqvist taught me about subtle shifts in power when constructing a scene. With regard to Words Without Borders, as I got deeper into my writing and into a flow with my translation career, I asked myself if I was reading widely enough. I’m so proud to translate the authors that I do. I’m bringing a different view of feminism into the Anglosphere, authors who are looking at the edges of what feminism can hold and who are unafraid of complexity and murky waters. But I also wondered: what stories was I not reading, not championing, because I was so focused on these voices? The WWB feature, a portfolio of eight Swedish-language writers, was a reading exercise for me. I looked at my reading practices and assessed my responsibility as a translator. I gave a lecture on this last week at UC Berkeley, in fact, thanks to translator and lecturer Dr. Christian Gullette, who translated two of the poets in the portfolio. I hear it will be up on the Institute of European Studies’ YouTube channel soon.

A.S.: Ramqvist’s The White City and Wolff’s The Polyglot Lovers, both of which you’ve translated into English, present us with female characters that challenge the social norm and pose uncomfortable questions about feminism and the ways in which sexual politics play out in personal and professional relationships. I can easily see Permission in dialogue with these works, but I also see a significant difference, because the most important, life-changing love relationships in the book are between women. When Echo meets the dominatrix Orly and becomes her lover, the two of them begin working together, servicing clients to help them articulate and find relief in living out their masochistic fantasies. To what extent does their role-playing inform Echo’s and Orly’s emotional bond?

S.V.: Orly sees her work as a healing practice. She invites Echo into her place of business and into her work life because she identifies a need in Echo, and this is the way in which Orly knows how to attend to this need. With Orly, Echo is able to access and play with power in ways that she cannot outside of Orly’s sanctuary. It’s complicated between them. I think they are both wary of intimacy, and by inviting Echo to work with her, Orly is also giving them a space where they can get to know each other and connect, while maintaining distance. It’s a transactional space, clear-cut in that way. Echo responds well to this clarity, but they have to figure out if it’s enough for them.

A.S.: Echo’s and Orly’s sex work becomes a celebration of female power, yet as Echo realizes, “what we created in her space fell apart if not everyone was playing.” After a client abandons the script and berates them, Echo observes: “We might play at power, exploring roles not yet available to us outside these four walls, but for the space to be sacral, it had to be held sacred by us all.” I wonder if you could talk a bit about the concept of the sacred in the strictly defined rules of BDSM?

S.V.: I like thinking about the use of the word “worship” in a BDSM context. Foot worship. Leg worship. The dominatrix as someone to be worshipped. The dominatrix as a goddess, channeling female archetypes that resonate with the client. The idea being a focused appreciation of a body part, an item, a person. An exaltation. Imagine if we all approached sex like this: vocal and demonstrative in our appreciation of and gratitude for what someone is sharing with you. I don’t know that I can think of sex in any other way: it’s a form of communication and deserves all the care and attention that we give other forms of communication. In BDSM play, as we see in Echo and Orly’s scenes, there is so much trust involved. To submit to another person’s will is to put yourself in their care, to make yourself vulnerable. That in itself is a powerful dynamic, and really, isn’t that what all of us do in every erotic encounter? We trust. We let go. We share ourselves with another person for a period of time. That space of vulnerability and trust is sacred, but it’s so easy to forget that. BDSM’s negotiations of what is and is not allowed in a scene, who will play what role, the explicit discussions about consent create an environment where freer exploration is possible precisely because a foundation of trust and good communication has been established. I don’t know that BDSM’s rules are strict, really, but rather an ideal that we as a society should be working towards. The baseline of communication in a safe, sane, and consensual BDSM interaction is about making sure that both people are entering the encounter on equal footing and are both happy to be there—unlike the scene with Echo and Van. Imagine the possibilities of pleasure when you have that kind of communication and consent as a starting point for sex, however you define it.

A.S.: Apart from the pursuit of pleasure, one way of regarding the BDSM community is as a living, breathing challenge not only to patriarchal society, but perhaps the entire political and economic order: a quietly subversive, visionary enactment of alternative human narratives.

S.V.: I’m glad to hear this perspective. What I find inspiring about the kink and queer communities is the willingness to question how things are done, to explore alternate family structures and find different ways of navigating platonic, romantic, and sexual relationships; to search for ways of being that make sense for each person, while keeping the community in mind. This kind of reassessment asks a lot of us—to be honest with ourselves and each other, to be open to a variety of ways of being, to be gentle and caring with each other—but imagine what the world would be like if this was our starting point? Imagine all the unnecessary pain we could avoid.

A.S.: Yes, just imagine. But historically, when a particular form of sexuality is pathologized and criminalized, the expression of that sexuality will inevitably enact the script society imposes on it. If the narrative is one of perversion, then the experience will often be perceived as perversion: the sex will be furtive, feel dangerous, put a person at risk of being found out—a very different script, and a very different sexual experience than if the sex one seeks is freely available and without dire consequences. And so sex work is not only healing on an individual level—it can be seen as a larger human project.

S.V.: And imagine if sex could break from shame and ideas of perversion. Of course, there would be losses to mourn; it would rob certain dynamics of their erotic charge. I get into this, in a way, in “Men of a Certain Age,” that LitHub essay you mentioned earlier, in terms of the ways of being that fade because of time. Ellen Willis, in an essay about feminism and pornography, writes about how it can be complicated to watch porn as a feminist. You might be politically against what you’re seeing, but it might still turn you on. She—and this is what I love about so much of her work—writes with compassion. In this essay, she urges us to go easy on ourselves. We might get turned on by a script that chafes with our politics. But isn’t that kind of inevitable? After all, we’re a product of our society. We can be both: against a certain kind of porn that might also turn us on. In a different society, perhaps that kind of porn wouldn’t resonate at all.

It’s interesting to hear you say that sex work is healing for these reasons. The way you’ve presented this idea makes me think that this kind of healing experience isn’t necessarily about sex work, but rather finding a compassionate sexual partner or community that is open and available for connection and exploration. Now, as with Piggy, finding a person like that might not be easy. And you might prefer to turn to a professional. One of the essays that influenced my thinking was Pat Califia’s “Whoring in Utopia,” which asks: what if we, as a society, valued sex work? Who would that benefit? How would we benefit as a whole? What if you, as with a therapist or some other body-work specialist, like a masseuse, wanted to work something through outside of your everyday relationships? What if you wanted to deepen your knowledge about the erotic arts? What if you don’t have the time or inclination to seek out a sexual partner? Perhaps apps like Grindr or Tinder have gone some way toward answering these questions by providing people with a platform to seek sex outside of a romantic context, and influencing the culture accordingly. In terms of a larger human project, what we need to be working towards is letting go of shame and embracing compassion.

A.S.: Saskia, I know you’re on a book tour for Permission right now, but I wonder if you’d care to talk about what you have planned next?

S.V.: This book tour is everything to me at the moment. It’s such a joy to be meeting readers and having a sort of roving conversation about the book that changes depending on the city, the moderator. Like, San Francisco was the first audience that knew exactly which radio call-in show I was referencing in Echo’s prologue. I’ll be back there at City Lights with pornographic performer and author Jiz Lee on May 15, and I know we’ll be getting into questions around sex work and community. I’ll be on tour until June, and then again in early September on the East Coast. But! There are a million things going on. Since I translated Karolina Ramqvist, I’ve been working on a series of essays around translation, one of which I need to finish today, another I just received edits on. I’ve been dabbling in research for my next novel. A few months ago, a director friend and an actress she’s worked with before brought me on board a film project, and slowly, slowly we’ve been drafting the treatment via WhatsApp while I’ve been on tour. Meanwhile, I’ve been dreaming of a book-length nonfiction project about sex and culture. It’s either quiet or full on, isn’t it?


Permission, published in the US by Coach House Books. 

The dates of Saskia Vogel’s book tour can be found here. 


Author’s note:

This conversation marks my tenth month as a columnist for 3 Quarks Daily. I’ve talked to artist Joy Garnett about her famous Egyptian poet and beekeeping grandfather; David Krippendorff about his work on the subjects of home and identity; Patricia Thornley about the layers of American identity in her video installation work; German author Ally Klein about her literary debut, “Carter”; Liesl Schillinger about literature and politics; and my editor, Christopher Heil, about the German edition of “A Lesser Day,” “Wie viele Tage” (Droschl 2018). I’ve also written about reading and about the complex work of Alyssa DeLuccia and the balancing act it performs between photography, installation, and collage. There’s also a conversation with Myriam Naumann that explores the connecting points between my book “A Lesser Day” and an installation I exhibited several months back at the Berlin gallery Manière Noire, titled “The Ethnic Chinese Millionaire.”

The series can be found in its entirety here.

My next 3Quarks conversation, which will appear on May 20, will be with Madeleine LaRue, editor at Music & Literature.