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Look, Sheryl: No Pictures!

John Pritchett

On January 29 Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Sheryl Ramstad Hvass announced that "publications which feature nudity or are sexually explicit" would be banned from state correctional facilities. In other words, the approximately 6,300 adults currently incarcerated in Minnesota can no longer subscribe to Playboy, Playgirl, Penthouse, or similar, more crudely titled glossies. The ban on incoming magazines takes effect March 1; by September 4 inmates must surrender any cherished back issues. Whereupon for some, hard time will become that much harder--or, to put it perhaps more accurately, softer.

Like any good rule, the new one does contain its exceptions. But it's unlikely that residents of Minnesota's penal institutions are going to view an exemption for "published materials containing nudity illustrative of medical, educational, or anthropological content" as any great consolation. (Then again, maybe we're poised for a run on subscriptions to Gynecological Endoscopy.)

Inmates can always hold out hope that some stray salacious material manages to slip past the censors. But that would appear unlikely. Ramstad Hvass refuses to describe her department's new screening process. Denying a City Pages request to observe the procedure, she'll say only that a staffer at the Oak Park Heights Correctional Facility will vet incoming mail and make decisions on a "month-by-month" basis.

But while convict morale may droop at the prospect of the impending prohibition on visual aids, we at City Pages have come to view it as a potential boon: an opportunity to promote prison literacy. For those willing to work their imaginations a little more rigorously, the text can be even more effective than pictures when it comes to transporting one on flights of fantasy. And think of the historical value: Erotica is as old as the written word itself.

So as a public service to our incarcerated fellow Minnesotans, we put our dirty little minds together and assembled the reading list below. While prison policy already bans some forms of sexually explicit written material that depict, among other things, "actual penetration" or "any bodily excretory function," we're betting that soon-to-be-overworked mailroom reader at Oak Park isn't going to have the time to read entire books.

In fact, we're willing to go out on a limb and test our hypothesis: Minnesota convicts are hereby invited to enter the first annual City Pages Erotica Sweepstakes. Send in your inmate number and place of residence and become eligible for the Grand Prize Drawing. We'll pick the names of ten inmates, to each of whom we'll attempt to send a copy of one of the hot titles listed below. (Only one condition: You must report back and let us know whether our contribution to the cause of adult literacy made it into your hands.)

Finally, our thanks to the University of Minnesota English prof who aided us with some of our selections. (Too modest to be named in print, our randy instructor prefers--in the great erotic tradition--to be known by a pseudonym: Dr. Amari Monda.) And now, without further ado, on to the prose porn (in no particular order):

 

Miracle of the Rose, The Thief's Journal, Querelle, or Funeral Rites, all by Jean Genet

These homoerotic works are an especially apt starting point for an inmate's reading list, as the author began writing novels while incarcerated.

 

Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland

The first pornographic English-language novel, Fanny Hill became grounds for the first obscenity case launched against a publisher on U.S. soil in--where else?--Boston, back in 1821. Could "Banned in Stillwater!" supplant "Banned in Boston!" as a subversive selling point? And will state-paid prison censors note the fine irony that author Cleland penned the seminal raunch to avoid debtors' jail? Essential.

 

Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration by David Wojnarowicz

An AIDS memoir by an artist who lived partially in the urban sexual underworld, this volume features many descriptions of anonymous encounters.

 

The Mad Man by Samuel R. Delany

Delany, a well-known science-fiction writer, centers this story on a professor who conducts research on the sexual underworld and begins to identify with his research subjects. Lots of raw, anonymous sex.

 

How to Talk Dirty and Influence People: An Autobiography by Lenny Bruce

Not pornography or erotica per se, but a prescient discussion of the debate over censorship and sexual material.

 

Vox: A Novel by Nicholson Baker

Modern saga of phone sex and masturbation. Extra credit: Monica Lewinsky gave a copy to President Clinton.

 

Blood and Guts in High School by Kathy Acker

The hallucinatory tale of a girl who is--perhaps metaphorically, perhaps not--involved with her father. (This volume might not make it into prisons under the new policy: It includes primitive line drawings.)

 

The Sexual Lives of Savages in Northwestern Melanesia by Bronislaw Malinowski

This World War I survey report would squeak in through the "anthropology" loophole in the corrections department's policy!

 

Spanking the Maid by Robert Coover

A parody on the Victorian-erotica form that's plenty erotic.

 

The Kinsey Report by Alfred Kinsey

A 1948 survey of sexual mores in America, this would qualify for both the medical and anthropological exemptions, as well as make for some lively reading. The authors questioned hustlers in Times Square and other spots thought to offer anonymity to the sexually adventurous.

 

A Secret Garden by Nancy Friday

This 1973 survey of women's fantasies runs such a wide gamut it should provide something for everyone (along with a truly respectable dose of sociological context).

 

My Secret Life: An Erotic Diary of Victorian London by Anonymous

The sexual memoirs of a Victorian gentleman--virtually from his first ejaculation to his last. An exhaustively detailed debauch, made all the more scintillating by the colorful sexual vocabulary of the day. Gamahouche, anyone?

 

Lifting Belly by Gertrude Stein

A lesbian love poem. Need we say more?

 

Groove, Bang, and Jive Around by Steve Cannon

Variously praised by those reviewers who managed to secure copies as filthy and/or downright raunchy, this New Orleans-set, voodoo-steeped story traces the sexual escapades of a 14-year-old girl. At the time of its publication in the late 1960s, this work was an African-American cult classic. (And no, the author is not the longtime WCCO radio disc jockey, in case you were wondering.)

 

The Pearl by Anonymous

The finest in Victorian erotica. The Pearl was an anonymously published "Monthly Journal of Voluptuous Reading" that was published in London in 1879 and 1880. An appropriate companion to My Secret Life.

 

Lysistrata by Aristophanes

Just say no. The title character, a strong-willed Athenian woman, convinces the women of Greece to go on a sex strike to bring an end to the warlike ways of their husbands. Sex comedy, circa 411 B.C.

 

Ulysses by James Joyce

Once banned as "obscene"; some folks just think it's impossible to read. (All the better to get past prison censors!) Chronicles the movements of its two main characters on a single day in Dublin, avec doses of sex and masturbation.

 

Peyton Place by Grace Metalious

This soft-core soap opera shocked many upon publication in 1956, and, naturally, became a massive bestseller. Metalious pulls back the curtains on quiet, small-town New England to reveal sexual abuse, copulating teens, and a single mother carrying on with the local school principal.

 

Belinda by Anne Rice

Originally published under the pseudonym "Anne Rampling," here the mega-selling vampirist tells the tale of the uninhibited (and underage) Belinda and the fortysomething children's-book illustrator who becomes obsessed with her.

 

Candy by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg

A worthy satire of Voltaire's Candide: predatory men hound nubile nymphet. (After parole, you can see the movie version!)

 

Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller

Or virtually anything else by Henry Miller, for that matter. Here the expatriate writer bums around Paris in the early Thirties, experiences hunger pangs, has sex.

 

The Kiss: A Memoir by Kathryn Harrison

In the Nineties many writers were forsaking thinly veiled autobiographical fiction for the it-really-happened, first-person memoir. Even in that saturated genre, Harrison's tell-all stood out, recounting the miserable tale of her four-year incestuous affair with her father. Caused a stir even before it was published.

 

The Story of O by Pauline Réage (née Dominique Aury)

A character, known only by the letter O, is taken to a private chateau, where she is turned into a sexual servant with no will of her own.

 

Delta of Venus and Little Birds by Anaïs Nin

Nin is such an obvious choice that we almost didn't include any of her classics, but then we realized that this list could be perceived as light on materials that would be especially popular in the women's prison in Shakopee.

 

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Not erotica, per se, but perhaps a cautionary tale for inmates seeking to thwart the ban: In this literary classic, the title character indulges her obsession with romance novels. She develops titillating fantasies that lead her into a downward spiral of adultery and adventurism. Sorry to give it away, but in the end, demoralized, she poisons herself.

 

Inmates should send their vital statistics to City Pages Erotica Sweepstakes, 401 Third St. N., Ste. 550, Minneapolis, MN 55401.


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