Rachel Kramer Bussel hosts a monthly reading series at Happy Ending Lounge called In the Flesh that features the best erotic writers sharing sexified stories. Each month has a different theme — Virginity, GLBT, and Comedy Sex, to name a few — that readers use as a jumping off point for titillating the audience with steamy, lust-filled tales. For hours-long aural sex and free cupcakes from Baked by Melissa, In the Flesh provides a treat to all who (ahem) come.
Flavorpill: What prompted your creating the In the Flesh series?
Rachel Kramer Bussel: I started hosting In the Flesh in New York in October 2005, and have been hosting it monthly ever since. Happy Ending Lounge (a very fitting home for this series since was formerly a massage parlor) was looking for two weekly spots to fill and for one of the managers asked me to start an erotic reading series. I had organized local readings before, but there was a definitely learning curve with running the series. The first few weren’t too well-attended, but by early 2006 it picked up. I had a very popular True Sex Confessions Night in April 2006 with Josh Kilmer-Purcell and Jessica Cutler and others, and attendance has been pretty steady ever since.
My friend Carly Milne asked if she could start an In the Flesh in LA, and I read at the first one in May 2008. Then erotica writer Stan Kent took it over and it’s been going very well from what I hear. They do a fun “phone sex” segment where they call someone and have them read erotica by phone to the crowd, broadcast over the sound system.
FP: So what exactly happens on a typical ITF night?
RKB: I host anywhere from 6 to 8 readers. They might read from a published memoir, novel, or anthology, or from an unpublished piece. They might do poetry or act out a scene from a play. I usually read first, and my stories are pretty dirty. There’s always at least one, and usually several, funny stories, so there’s a lot of laughter. I think if all eight stories were about the hottest sex ever, it would be too much for the crowd.
FP: So sex sells and all, but what do you think draws people to the event?
RKB: I bring a lot of food! (Laughs.) Chips, cookies, candy, and cupcakes. I’m the founder and co-editor of the cupcake blog Cupcakes Take the Cake, and am also one of those people who never shows up to a party empty-handed. I go to Trader Joe’s every month and stock up on snacks galore, plus now we have mini cupcakes from Baked by Melissa. I think food, especially chocolate, is sexy — so they go together. It’s also part of the whole throwing-a-party vibe.
We also have giveaways every month, like the game Sexy Slang or a gift basket from Good Vibrations. I wish I could give everyone a goodie bag to take home, but I try to feed them and give out prizes so they walk away with something more than just the stories they’ve heard — and hopefully want to return.
Oh, and everything is free! Having the event be free is very important to me. I wouldn’t feel comfortable charging money for people to hear me read, and if people show up and aren’t into it, they can leave without having lost anything.
FP: How many people usually attend?
RKB: Last month we had at least 90 people, though 60 is more typical. Extra people make it cozier, but it does get pretty crowded. If you’re claustrophobic, maybe ITF isn’t right for you. We officially start at 8 p.m., but Happy Ending fills up fast, so I recommend arriving early if you want a seat. (Doors open at 7 p.m.)
FP: What’s your typical audience like?
RKB: The audience is very mixed; there’ll be people who just turned 21 and couples in their 50s. Some people are from the sex blogging or BDSM worlds, and others have never been to anything like this, so hearing certain explicit language is sometimes a shock for them. There are some regulars, but there are always newcomers, and that makes me happy. Many people who attend are writers themselves, which is why I just held Virgin Night — to give first-timer authors and new readers a chance to stand up in front of everyone.
Most of all I’d say the audience is very open-minded. They enjoy being exposed to different sexualities and personalities. They’re very supportive, and I try to impress this upon my readers. I’ve found that even the most widely published of authors still gets nervous before a reading. I do too.
FP: Do you see this event as a continuation of your work as a writer and anthology editor?
RKB: To me, it’s similar to editing erotica anthologies, which I do every few months. It’s about bringing together a disparate group of people and creating something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Happy Ending Lounge is great because they have wonderful staff, and they let me try out different themes. I’ve had Comedy Sex night, which featured my favorite comedians, and a Sex Columnist night back when I wrote a sex column. I am constantly coming up with new ideas. In September I’ll be doing a night of spanking erotica to celebrate my book Bottoms Up and later this year I plan to have a Sex and Food night featuring Julie Powell of Julie and Julia fame reading from her new memoir Cleaving.
FP: Several authors who have read at ITF write about feminism and sex. Would you call ITF a feminist event?
RKB: I’m a feminist, but I wouldn’t necessarily say In The Flesh is a feminist event. I’m open to all kinds of readers. I’m working on a list of everyone who’s read, and that list includes Susie Bright, Zane, Gael Greene, Jonathan Ames, Tracie Egan, M.J. Rose, Grant Stoddard, Lily Burana, Carol Taylor, Stephen Elliott, Julia Allison, and dozens of others. I think feminism and sexuality are connected, but I would never say something like, “You have to be a feminist to read at my event.” We’ve had pretty much all kinds of erotica and true sex stories, and that’s what I aim for: diverse sexual expression.
FP: ITF-LA is hosted at Hustler Hollywood. Does that rankle your feminist sensibilities?
RKB: Not at all. Stan Kent, who is a friend, has been hosting readings at Hustler Hollywood for years, so this was a perfect fit. The previous venue had been a bar with outdoor seating that was very comfortable, but wasn’t drawing a big enough crowd. I think being surrounded by sex toys is the perfect environment for a reading like this. They are actually doing a Feminist Sex Night on May 13th. I wish I could be there for that one!
FP: What kind of feedback do you get from the audience at these events?
RKB: Almost all the feedback I get is very positive. The biggest complaint I get is that it’s too crowded. (Laughs.) I think audiences are hungry for sexual material, and they seem to really relate to the true stories, which is why I’ve made True Sex Confessions Night (coming up July 16th with Lily Burana, author of I Love a Man in Uniform; Mike Edison, author of I Have Fun Everywhere I Go; Megan Carpentier from Jezebel; Melissa Gira of Sexerati, and others) a more than annual event.
FP: What’s the wildest thing that’s happened at an ITF event?
RKB: I must warn everyone that we can’t condone actually having sex at ITF, but I know people have left together or snuck out during the readings to make out. I don’t want to scare away newcomers, but there’s a fun vibe in the room, and certainly many of the readers have turned me on with their stories and sexy ways of telling them. It’s not a hookup scene though. It’s a reading, and some nights are steamier than others.
That being said, my friend Marcelle Manhattan wrote an erotica story called “Second Date” that’s set at ITF, and I make a brief cameo as host. The story is in Susie Bright’s anthology X: The Erotic Treasury, and I was so honored that she wrote about my series and amazed at the extremely hot story she told about what went down there.
Also, back in 2006, we had one of the best nights ever when Jessica Cutler (a.k.a. The Washingtonienne) told us all about posing for Playboy. She had a very special, and horrifying, prop. We weren’t videotaping back then, which is perhaps for the best. I just remember watching everyone’s faces, which featured part fascination, and part disgust. People like to be titillated, but I think they also get a perverse pleasure from being horrified by certain sex stories. Thankfully there’s room for both at In The Flesh.
FP: What do you personally get out of the ITF series?
RKB: Hearing erotica read aloud, and reading it out loud to an audience, is a totally different experience than writing it at home alone on my laptop. I can easily write about everything from spankings to blowjobs to bukkake, but I totally blush when I read those things into a microphone, even after doing public readings for almost ten years. It’s good for me to step out of my comfort zone, and it is a wonderful way for authors to engage with their work and get a chance to read things that might not fly at, say, Barnes & Noble. Reading my work in front of a crowd changes the game, at least for me, but for some people, it brings out their inner ham. I love seeing that transformation and getting to share it with so many others.
FP: Are there any plans to expand the series to other cities?
RKB: I was asked recently about Chicago and someone once inquired about doing ITF in Austin. I’m happy just to be able to keep up with the New York readings, but if someone in another city wanted to replicate what’s happening in LA, I’d love that. I think there’s potential for ITF to thrive in other cities. If someone’s interested in starting one, just email me. I’d be happy to help and spread the word.