scene report

New Yorkers Are Reading Smut — And Their Audience Is Loving It

Photo collage of Micaela Durand, Michael Bullock, Al Bedell, and Ada Antoinette.
Clockwise from top left: Micaela Durand, Michael Bullock, Al Bedell, and Ada Antoinette, with Heaven Tonight’s event poster. Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos: Ada Antoinette, Kevin Champoux, Michael Bullock, Micaela Durand, Whitney Mallett

Michael Bullock walked up to the mic in an Anita Baker concert tee, taking a pitbull power stance to deliver autofiction about having a threesome with his boyfriend and a closeted virgin. It was 1:30 p.m. on April Fool’s Day, and the Chinatown gallery Sara’s was filled with folks who’d dragged themselves out of bed on a Saturday to hear smut.

Bullock’s story, “The Godfathers,” weaves a retelling of the couple’s own traumatic first times with a blow-by-blow account of the gay initiation of their third, a 33-year-old Bathhouse crush wearing aspirationally whorish “hot-pink assless Andrew Christian briefs” under the “hetero drag” of his khaki shorts. “Let’s daddy him and break the cycle of the reckless devirginizers who abandoned us!” read Bullock. The reason for his Baker tee became clear as the story established the R&B icon as a “guiding light” embodying everything “butch, beautiful, and honest,” with her songs as a soundtrack of sorts. Straddling coded humor and poly-marriage mediations, the story is surprisingly tender, even with lines about “pumping our dicks in his hole.”

This was the live debut of the online erotica series Heaven Tonight, which has been publishing stories since last June. Until a few months ago, I wouldn’t have expected a 50-person audience for this daytime happening, but lately, smut-fueled readings in New York have been turning out the crowds. There were stirrings before the pandemic: In 2017, artist Sarah Zapata started activating her textile installations with performances and readings, including her own erotic writing and that by the poet LA Warman. In 2019, the writer and sex worker Rachel Rabbit White released her first full-length book of poems, Porn Carnival, with a party made infamous by this publication’s louche reporting. (At the time, New York called her the “hooker laureate of the dirtbag left.”) Downtown personalities like Seashell Coker and Ruby McCollister were being tapped to read at the now-defunct MX Gallery’s Erotica Night.

Then, when the pandemic started to wane and people began to return to public life, readings seemed like the perfect event — low cost, relatively small, easy to hold outside — and these formerly low-key happenings started to demand crowd control. Last August, the Cobrasnake snapped photos of the mob outside the KGB bar who couldn’t fit inside for Label’s “Late Summer Social” reading. Erotica became a clear theme of this new wave: In the fall, I organized a Wednesday-night erotica reading at Performance Space New York to launch a book from Tamara Faith Berger’s Smutburger Editions, part of the recent surge of horny indie publishers. The venue hit capacity. Perverted Book Club cemented the fad with a slew of press for its sexy-screwball reading series hosted in unconventional locales, like a porn shop and the Penn Station Sbarro. In March, the writer Peter BD curated a night of strangely sensual performances called “Art Erotica” at the stalwart downtown gallery Canada; the artist Allison Brainard delivered a monologue in a zentai suit with just her lips exposed. She began by saying, “What’s up, guys? I’m a kiss.”

Performing stories live offers a different catharsis from oversharing online — and doesn’t have its potential consequences. It can feel both public and private at the same time. The curator and editor of Heaven Tonight, Micaela Durand, has had a hand in driving the momentum of these readings: In 2015, she and artist Paul Chan started New Lovers, an offshoot of Chan’s small press, Badlands Unlimited. Over two years, they published nine sex-driven novellas with purple covers that looked as good as they read. (My favorite is Berger’s Kuntalini, about a 25-year-old who experiences an anal awakening at her yoga class. The tagline: “Eat ass, pray, love.”) When Badlands shuttered in 2019, Durand started consulting for clients including the arts space Pioneer Works. Durand said that one night when she was drunk at an “awful” party, she suggested to one of the editors that Pioneer Works’ online magazine, Broadcast, should publish erotica to make it “more fun” — and Heaven Tonight was born, with a name courtesy of a Hole song.

Durand has now published three Heaven Tonight stories online, as well as audio versions of each, and has plans to expand into print. She said she’s interested in publishing “fierce personalities” and sees her new project as a departure from her work with New Lovers. “For Paul, those books were intended to focus on pleasure, but it wasn’t the only thing I was interested in,” she said. “Heaven Tonight deals with desire in a new way, sometimes in which there is no pleasure or payoff or point.”

That was clear from the readers who took the stage after Bullock on April 1. Ada Antoinette, a self-described “‘It’-girl turned Ph.D. student” clad in sexy-librarian Miu Miu, read the monastery-set story “Ada and E” whose tone of soft dominance queers her hetero subjects; the titular E. is described as “trapped in his impotence, waiting to be held so he could be of some use.” Al Bedell, who hosts the recovery-themed podcast Al Anonymous, took the stage in rosary-patterned tights — more Catholic camp — to read from a book she had published with New Lovers in 2015 called How to Train Your Virgin, an absurdist coming-of-age tale about a teenager who hires a professional “devirginizer.” And Kevin Champoux performed a selection from his Heaven Tonight story, “Blow Ponies,” about a transactional arrangement: The narrator, a broke 19-year-old, texts stories of gay sex encounters to his closeted uncle for a $300 reward each. The nesting-doll narrative underscores the protagonist’s acrimony for the partners he tolerates in the name of sexual experimentation; he’s newer to bottoming than he is to cynical defense mechanisms.

Champoux, who works for a film production company as his day job, emphasized that his story is about a character he invented, not himself. “People want to know so badly what parts are true,” he said. “The funny thing is the parts they think are true are made up, while the actually true things people find unbelievable.”

Audiences at these readings often assume the writers are processing their personal experiences, and sometimes they are. Durand discovered Bullock’s writing about a decade ago when she read his book Roman Catholic Jacuzzi, a soft-core autobiographical novella about partying with a group of active priests on their secret annual gay wellness retreat complete with scenes of hot tubs, dancing, and courtship. Bullock, 46, has day jobs in political crowdfunding and magazine publishing; among other gigs, he was the American publisher of the queer NSFW magazine BUTT for a decade. He also maintains a personal erotic-writing practice he often uses to unpack his early years in suburban Massachusetts. He said he grew up at a time when “being a faggot was like the worst thing a man could be,” with the Catholic Church legitimizing the homophobia around him and causing at least some of the “pain and sadness” in the closeted men he hooked up with in gym locker rooms and at rest stops. Bullock’s inadvertent encounter with the priests — and his writing about it — allowed him to “confront directly the hypocrisy and the feelings of attraction and repulsion they created within me and my gay peers,” he explained. “Writing is an important part of how I process these complicated and deeply embedded feelings. I can synthesize them, through narrative, in a way that doesn’t flatten them. And then sharing the story lets me connect with people who felt the same shame.”

Bullock wasn’t the only writer I spoke to who came to erotica via a repressive religious background. Warman, who began teaching a writing class called “Erotics” six years ago and whose book Whore Foods won a Lambda Literary Award for LGBT erotica in 2020, grew up Evangelical, which she described as a “very anti-erotic faith.” When she started experimenting with the genre, she said, erotica seemed “vital, like a way I could leave the faith behind. Shameful in the best way. A shame I could control.” While Whore Foods, about a horny grocery-store employee, fixates on appetite, her second book, Dust, follows two dykes in the desert at the end of the world and addresses grief. Both books mix visceral and immediate descriptions of sex with labor politics and existential ennui. Warman, who teaches her Audre Lord–inspired “Erotics” course virtually as part of an unaccredited institution she calls the Warman School (it also has classes called “God” and “Depression”), defines erotica as “body writing. Pleasure writing. Pain writing.”

Whether or not their stories are true, these writers tend to adopt a confessional mode. The poet Em Brill organized nearly two dozen readings at KGB from 2021 to 2022 — a major catalyst in New York’s post-lockdown reading renaissance. Even though those events weren’t explicitly erotica themed, she was struck by how many writers and artists shared experiences of erotic labor. And she wasn’t just hearing it from writers like Rabbit White, Sophia Giovannitti, Liara Roux, and Rachel Oyster Kim, all of whom are out sex workers with industry experience that is relatively central to their writer personae. “I think it speaks to how frequently artists, poets, and writers are using sex work as a form of income in New York City,” said Brill — and, I mean, the rent is too damn high not to. No one at KGB was reading love sonnets, according to Brill: Their stories were “just these transactional experiences. The only other time sex really came up, it was the lack of it in a story about an incel.”

Shame, cruelty, worship, and money can all be parts of sexual experiences, as they are of life. I think about stories that twist eroticized desperation with religious ecstasy, as in Maya Martinez’s chapbook Hell or Mercy?, published by the sex-worker-aligned Other Weapons. And some stories I’ve heard performed around town: At one reading, Lily Lady — who organizes a monthly reading series at Honey’s — deadpanned about wearing a chest binder to a Panic! At the Disco–themed orgy and asking their friend to punch them in the face. At another, Max Haslam performed a tale titled “Lungfucker” about fetishists willing to pay for videos of heavy smoking, the more performative the subject’s suffering, the better. “Lust can make us ping-pong from sex drive to death drive,” said Durand.

After the readings at Sara’s, Champoux asked me, “Did any of the stories actually get you aroused?” It was a rhetorical question; he knew the answer was “no.” That isn’t to say these stories had failed. Arousal just didn’t seem to be their point. Perhaps the closest thing to a climax that afternoon was Bullock’s discovery that the grandnephew of Anita Baker — whose soulful ballad “Caught Up in the Rapture” accompanies the rimming and mixing of loads in Bullock’s tale — just happened to be in the audience. “He said he’s going to send my story to her,” said the writer, grinning, the screen-printed image of Baker on his chest smiling too.

New Yorkers Are Reading Smut — and the Audience Is Loving It