Sluts in Form and Content: A Conversation Between Sarah Yanni and Michelle Tea

By Sarah YanniMay 5, 2024

Sluts in Form and Content: A Conversation Between Sarah Yanni and Michelle Tea

Sluts: Anthology by Michelle Tea

“THE UNIVERSE IS low-key slutty all the time,” writes McKenzie Wark in “Here She Comes,” a short prose piece appearing in SLUTS, the new, debut anthology from Michelle Tea’s Dopamine press. With contributions from nearly 40 writers and artists, Tea’s anthology is an ecstatic journey through sex and queerness, youth and discovery. Purposely avoiding categorization by genre, Tea’s editing has created a collection that is richly interesting and quick to move through. I read it like a novel.

Musings and creations by Hedi El Kholti, Cyrus Dunham, Sam Cohen, Kamala Puligandla, Robert Glück, Taleen Kali, Chloé Caldwell, and more expand the understanding of the figure of “the slut,” proposing candid revelations for understanding pleasure and the self. The book is humorous and liberatory, while still being grounded in the truth of our modern policing of bodies. Yet, as Vera Blossom writes in her piece “A New Myth for the Slut,” “[i]t’s in the face of scarcity and violence where sluts can make some magic happen.”

I spoke to Michelle Tea about the editing process, the through lines in this radical anthology, and the future of her queer press.


SARAH YANNI: This is the very first publication from your press Dopamine. I want to start by talking a bit about your methodology for putting together the anthology and launching the project as a whole. Reading your introduction to the book, I sensed the importance of reciprocity and community. Is community building part of why you wanted to start a press? What were you considering, or what was driving you?

MICHELLE TEA: I definitely do feel like a press can be a community. A lot of the people we are intending to publish live in L.A. and it’s been really sweet to get to know all these different writers who have come into the literary orbit. And the idea with the anthologies is that, you know, Dopamine is really small—we’re not super competitive as a press. And there are so many writers that I love but that I can’t necessarily ask to give us their books, so I wanted to somehow involve them with the press and to involve the press with them.

You state in the introduction that you “sort of divined the table of contents.” And I know you’ve written about and done a lot of work around tarot and the occult. Does divination play a role in your editing or writing process in any way?

It does! Not so much the actual editing or writing but definitely getting there—you know, making decisions about what I will work on. At any given moment, I have a lot of ideas, and sometimes I can’t really tell what will be the most fruitful for me, or the most meaningful. So, I’ll do tarot readings. I’m working on a book right now that the tarot told me to work on.

And as far as the table of contents for this and future anthologies goes, I just have this giant list of so many writers that I love. And basically, anyone on this giant master list could contribute something to any of the topics. I didn’t want it to just be writers who I know write about sex. I wanted to hear what other folks had to say about it. I feel the same way about the witches anthology I’m now working on. I didn’t want to only invite people who are known witches; I also wanted to invite other writers who might not identify that way but have something to say about the uncanny.

Well, the variety of writing in SLUTS points to how many different entry points people have on the topic. And it was so enjoyable to move from piece to piece.

I’m so glad! I resisted grouping things by subtheme because I wanted it to be sort of like a ride where you didn’t necessarily know what to expect next.

That was kind of my next question. I was really interested in how there’s no overt categorization when it comes to genre. There’s no disclosure of “this is fiction” and “this is nonfiction.” But it almost didn’t seem important; it just seemed like I was entering these worlds. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that choice.

The genre thing just didn’t feel interesting. It just felt not that fun. I didn’t want to have all the poets with the poets, all the fiction writers with the fiction writers. I wanted everyone to be commingling, like it’s a big party, where the poets are talking to the essayists who are talking to the novelists or the journalists. It was also fun to play with, if one piece ended on a particular note, having the next piece somehow interact with that.

And I think that also made it fun as a reader. When you disclosed at the beginning that the categorization was not based on genre, but on this other, more fluid concept, it was so compelling to move through the book and be thinking about how these writers were connected.

Diving into content a bit, the anthology starts with this great piece by Amanda Montell called “Slut Eras,” which is a lot about semantics and the lexicon of sex and the power of language in society. She writes about how meanings morph: “Who knows what ‘slut’ could mean in a decade or even a year. But our culture’s larger relationship to pleasure will be what determines it.” So, big question for you—what do you think slut will mean in the future? What is your vision or prediction for this word?

I feel like, in the future, it might be a passé, tired term. There might be some other term that arises and encapsulates what slut means for us right now, like hedonistic and liberated and horny and sexy or whatever. But I could totally see it sort of feeling “very 2024.”

Yeah, like “slut?” Eye roll.

Totally. But then, also maybe coming back in an ironic way? Language is so fun, how it morphs like that.

I also really liked D-L Alvarez’s contribution, “Union,” and how expansive its definition of pleasure is. They write:

The value of anything is relative. I love sex but it’s not my only pleasure. Some of the things I’d choose over sex include swimming in a summer lake, a laid-back dinner party with close friends, seeing a good movie in the theater, getting that twice monthly haircut from the barber on Castro Street who always gives the full treatment and only charges for a trim (I tip big) and definitely receiving a massage.

How were you thinking about all the different kinds of things that pleasure and sex and sluttiness could encompass when imagining this book?

I know that barber on Castro Street! It is a sexual experience. And I think that piece is really in conversation with a lot of Amanda Montell’s piece. Getting rid of the idea of “guilty pleasures” but just having pleasures. Slut just meaning, you know, unabashedly basking in the things that make us happy.

Because there is a risk with a book like this that you’ll just be elevating sex to this giant, most important thing. And I think our culture is so screwed up about sex, it’s always hard to figure out where its proper, more natural place would be if we all weren’t so damaged and bizarre. Maybe sex can be swimming in a lake.

The book also touches a lot on the sociopolitical, especially as bodies are so policed, sex workers and queer people and people of color are so policed. It’s a crucial through line in the anthology. I love how Gary Indiana, in his piece “My Hole,” uses the metaphor of tops and bottoms in a very practical way, how if you need money you’re always a bottom in life. People in power are tops, etc. And in Andrea Sands’s piece, they write, “Sometimes trans people live on the intersection of sex and violence.” How were you thinking about the more political implications of “the slut”? How did you navigate, as an editor, moving from that micro to the macro?

I really feel the pieces I received guided the way. By reaching out to the people whom I wanted in the book, I trusted that I would get a mixture of perspective and tone. And when I invited people to contribute, I just was like, “The book is called SLUTS. Period. Go.” You know what I mean? I knew that I would get lots of good pieces because the people I was reaching out to were liberated and sexual and fun. And they were people who think about race and bodies, and about who gets to be sexual.

And for some folks, the word “slut” is going to sting and make them think of traumas or difficult times, while for other people, that word is going to be part of their identity or vernacular. I just feel really grateful that I got the pieces that I did because the word is all of those things, and the word is political. It’s still a pejorative; it’s still a part of cultural liberation.

I mean, I feel like that speaks to your strength as an editor, though, the fact that you can have a sense of trust. Based on Jeremy Atherton Lin’s piece, “Fun,” I’m also thinking a lot about the internet and being online as an early space of queer play, identity formation. A lot of the pieces talk about technology. Also, thinking about the final piece—from Brontez Purnell, who writes about Grindr and other gay apps, white dudes having #BLM next to their dick pics but still not matching with Brontez—were you looking for pieces that touched on digital space?

I was not thinking about the internet specifically at all! And I think if you had asked me what kinds of things people should write about, it would not have occurred to me. Which is really interesting because my sluttiest periods were completely courtesy of the internet. And it makes sense that the internet would come up in a lot of the contemporary pieces, but I really love Jeremy’s because it’s not quite contemporary; he is really writing about this specific moment where the possibility of the internet was very like, Ooh, what’s this? But it does make sense to talk about the internet because it’s a place where we find each other but also a place where people get shamed and harassed. It’s almost as conflicted a word as slut is.

Moving backwards in time a little, I want to touch briefly on the idea of early sexual experiences, which are also super-present in the anthology. I’m thinking of Gabrielle Korn’s “Super Sick All Ages Rock Show,” where the main characters are these indie teen girls, one of them with a horrible Tegan and Sara–esque haircut, and she’s called a lesbian, and she obsessively wonders if it’s true. Or Liara Roux’s “Cantaloupe Tits,” where the narrator is a student at Columbia and is the famous, cool lesbian on campus, but she likes the girl in her literature class who is quiet and loves Derrida, and she very strategically kind of goes after her. Or even Meredith Maran’s piece where a 14-year-old girl hooks up with her twentysomething camp counselor, and she can’t understand why her parents are so pissed about it. I guess, why do you think people went back into these early, formative moments when considering the notion of sluts?

Well, even though we’re in an era of people reclaiming the word and being poly and promiscuous, that is also not a lot of people’s experience. A lot of people are really just monogamously natured and want to find a person and be with that person. So, I think their experience with that word does come from a younger time, a time when that specific word might have had its most formative impact.

At the same time, there are also pieces in the anthology about midlife and divorce and later-life slut eras. And I think that’s also very queer. Because queer time is so not linear.

Absolutely, there are so many coming-of-ages. In polyamory culture, people talk about the “relationship elevator.” It’s also the aging elevator. There’s not just a time where you explore yourself during this one era. And then you figure it out, lock it down, and go on to the next era. And then die. You actually have to keep exploring again and again, and maybe never stop.

Zooming back out to form and your role as an editor, I went to this Maggie Nelson and Miranda July talk recently where they discussed content and form—how, for example, they both write about sex but then think about how sex and sexuality actually influence, on a formal level, the syntax, organization, citation practices, etc. of a book. So, how do content and form play around in SLUTS? Is this book, its organization, slutty?

Yes! Very much so! And so fluid. The boundaries are really slippery and playful and you can come in and out of high times and rough times. And hopefully those rough times don’t kill you, and you can work with them, and they keep you going on your path to liberation. But yeah, it’s a very slutty form.

Finally, can you tell us a little bit about what’s next for Dopamine?

Oh my god, so much fun stuff. Right now, I’m working a bit on our single-author books. We have a novel called New Mistakes by Clement Goldberg. In their own words, it’s a very horny book, so it is kind of great coming after SLUTS. The main character is this girl who is sort of lost: she has just been dumped by her throuple, and she lands in L.A., and she’s not quite sure if plants are communicating with her or if she’s having a nervous breakdown. It’s a lot about art and queerness and sexuality. And aliens. We’ll be launching it in September at Skylight Books.

In October, we’re releasing Vera Blossom’s first book, and she’s just a genius. Her book is a lot about transitioning and the evolution into the girl she is now. In a way, it’s also a call for a new beauty standard, where transfemme is the standard. And I love how liberating and crucial that is, for all femmes. And in February, we’re releasing a novel by Sean Stewart Ruff called Days Running, centered on a young Black gay boy in the Midwest in the 1970s.

All the books are really different.

I know. And that’s what’s so exciting to me.


Michelle Tea is the author of 20 books, most recently the memoir Knocking Myself Up: A Memoir of My (In)Fertility (2022). Her essay collection Modern Magic: Stories, Rituals, and Spells for Contemporary Witches is forthcoming from HarperOne; her novel, tentatively titled Little Faggot, is forthcoming from the Feminist Press. Tea founded the performance tour Sister Spit and the international phenomenon Drag Queen Story Hour. She is the recipient of awards and fellowships from Lambda Literary, the Rona Jaffe Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation.

LARB Contributor

Sarah Yanni is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. She has been recognized as a finalist for BOMB magazine’s Poetry Contest, the Andrés Montoya Letras Latinas Poetry Prize, the Outpost Fellowship, and others, and her work can be found in outlets such as Mizna, Wildness, Full Stop, Iterant, Spectra Poets, and Autostraddle. She holds an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts.


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