Prude: lessons on love, sex, and writing from memoirist Emily Southwood

A Q & A with the author on what she learned when her fiancé filmed porn.

Posted by Shawn Alff on Fri, Dec 6, 2013 at 11:00 AM

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In some ways Emily Southwood was living a modern day fairytale. She had just finished her MFA degree and was packing her things to move in with her fiancé, Robbie, in LA. Then she received a call that changed everything. Robbie landed a job filming a reality show about porn stars.

At first Southwood, who considered herself a sexually liberated and progressive minded woman, thought she could handle her fiancé's job assignment. However, she quickly realized how messy love could be when she spent her days at home, searching for jobs and planning a wedding while Robbie dodged body fluids on porn sets and scouted locations at all-inclusive sex resorts.

Although the experience jeopardized her relationship, it also gave her an idea. Just as Robbie had used porn to build his professional credits, Southwood would use the experience to launch her literary career. The resulting memoir, Prude, tells the story of a young couple forced to reexamine their notions of sex and love through the lens of the adult industry.

Humans tend to fetishize what a society considers taboo or forbidden. Some theories suggest that the more egalitarian a society is, the more men in such a culture fetishize the degradation of women. That is, the less power men exercise over women in society, the more they seek to control and dominate women during sex. What do you think the prevalence of “degrading” porn says about the society that consumes it?

That theory is in line with some of what has been said about Fifty Shades of Grey—women crave submission in the bedroom as a release from juggling jobs and households. They want to relinquish control and focus on a nice spanking from a rich, handsome, sadomasochist CEO for a wee bit. Perhaps.

I identify with the theory that our brains become immune to what we are seeing and increasingly crave greater stimuli. Porn today certainly seems like a reflection of being desensitized to graphic visuals. First it takes you half a beer to get a buzz, then eventually you need five. A lot of mainstream porn today is definitely a five beer buzz. Maybe even a three day bender.

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  • Robert Vroom
Romance novels don’t receive nearly as much criticism as porn, even though they depict just as unrealistic of sexual encounters and relationships. If you were a romance writer, do you think Robbie would have as big of a problem with you writing sex scenes about fantasy men as you had with him filming porn?

I completely agree that romance novels, not to mention Rom Com’s —here’s looking at you, Love Freaking Happens, play a huge and often disastrous role in shaping female expectations. Would Robbie have trouble with me writing these types of fictional tales? No, probably not. He may feel occasional pressure to be buff, rich, and forever brandishing roses. But he’s much better than me at not taking things on. And he never seems to feel inclined to get Brazilians, either. Weird.

In Prude you mention your partiality toward lesbian porn though you entertain little interest in having sex with other women. A surprising number of straight women admit this same preference. Their rationalization often boils down to how much more comfortable they are watching two women. Do you think this stems from the fact that women are programmed to view males’ sexuality as having both the potential for pleasure and pain? That is to say, do you think lesbian porn eases many female viewers’ suspicions that the female actresses are being forced into having rough sex against their wills?

That feeling of “a safe fantasy” could be part of it on a subconscious level. But mostly I just think lesbian porn tends to focus more on female sexual pleasure. Our bodies are the main event. I think men similarly get pleasure from seeing their physiological selves reflected, which is the focus in lots of hetero porn. Case in point: the money shot. But it’s less taboo in our culture for women to admit they enjoy looking at our own sex than for men to.

In Shakespeare’s time, a comedy was a lighthearted story that ended in marriage. This motif persists to this day. Even if a couple doesn’t get married at the end of a romantic comedy, the implication is often that they will live happily ever after. While your book doesn’t technically end with marriage, your impeding nuptials help build the tension. Would this book have worked structurally if your relationship didn’t have marriage looming as an end point?

Prude is essentially a comedy. I think the marriage plot helped move things along and heighten the stakes of our tale. This was a happy coincidence in the structure of my book, since it’s really just the way it happened. If our engagement hadn’t endured, I probably wouldn’t have been so psyched to write a tragedy, a la: “How porn ruined my marriage.” That would have been a serious downer.

In Prude, it’s obvious that you and Robbie love each other and have a solid relationship. What isn’t as clear is why either of you wanted to get married, especially since you claimed that your life plan, pre-Robbie, never included much room for someone else. He even joked about how you used to tell him you weren’t the marrying kind. Why was marriage so important to your characters and their relationship?

Robbie was always stoked on marriage. He liked the gesture of a big, inked commitment to live up to. I didn’t see why at first. To me, marriage seemed archaic, redundant. But ultimately I agreed that it’s useful to make goals. We discussed how signing a contract doesn’t mean everything will necessarily work out, but it solidifies the common aim. We came together on our values. We also both really like parties. The cocktails and sloppy 4am dance moves were definitely part of the incentive.

In the book, the marriage is important to our characters because it grounds the idea that we don’t have to see everything the same exact way, but we have to communicate and strive toward our goal—to live harmoniously with each other. Marriage, like porn, is something many people assume they share perspectives on. Until they’re suddenly all up in misunderstandings about it.

When you criticized Robbie for how porn potentially exploits some girls and how he was profiting off this exploitation, he made the point that reality shows do the same thing. Reality shows exploit “contestants” who think these shows will lead to mainstream fame without fully considering the consequences of their exposure. If you weren’t in a relationship with Robbie, which profession would you consider more unethical or exploitive: filming a reality show or filming porn?

I don’t think either porn or reality TV are necessarily unethical. But like all products, both can be created less than honorably. The Real Housewives can get pretty nasty. The garment industry can be awful as well.

Do you think you would have landed a book deal if Robbie had not filmed porn, if your book merely dealt with the troubles a young couple experiences before getting married? Do you think you used porn to help launch your mainstream literary career in the same way Robbie used porn to advance his mainstream videography career?

I wouldn’t have landed this book deal, no. For Prude, the framework of porn is inextricable. I definitely used the topic to launch my literary career. I’ve probably now used porn for career advancement to a greater extent than Robbie has.

That said, this book was not an easy sell and I didn’t go looking to write about porn. This experience pushed me to explore an uncomfortable (for me) topic that I would have rather avoided. As a writer, I know to dig into that stuff. If, for example, Robbie’s job filming The Deadliest Catch had forced me to confront my fear of loved ones dying, I would have probably wound up writing about that. Would that have garnered a book deal? Who knows.

At one point in Prude, you question your insecurities, writing: “Maybe our society only craves hard-core smut because aspiring to monogamy is so ass-backward and fucked-up. Maybe it’s marriage I should be wary of, and porn is just bringing its inadequacies to the surface.” If monogamy wasn’t the current relationship standard in western society, do you think porn would be as popular?

Oh boy, that requires serious speculation. I dare imagine that it might be less popular, yeah. I think the solitary nature of our society affects porn consumption as much as anything. We spend a lot of time alone on smart phones and laptops. Maybe the sheer community factor of living in different types of unions other than two-by-two might make porn less popular. But wait, am I going down a dangerous road of polyamorous assumptions here. Abort! Abort!

Did you start writing Prude while these events were taking place?

I didn’t record these events while they were taking place. At one point while I was ranting about porn, Robbie even said to me: “I bet you’ll write about this one day.” I told him where to shove it. Back then, I was just living through it.

A year or so afterwards, I started blogging about Robbie working alongside porn stars and thought about putting together a book pitch. Those original blogs are much less honest than where I eventually arrived. For the longest time, I had trouble being perceived as the jealous/crazy girl and even admitting that Robbie filming porn made me uncomfortable. In the end, the crazy/jealous/uncool stuff is the bulk of my story!

Did Robbie really get the job offer to shoot porn for a network reality show days before you were scheduled to move from Canada to his apartment in LA? In what ways did you manipulate time to shape reality into a more narrative structure?

Yup, that’s 100% accurate. In places, I altered the sequence of events to better suit the narrative, but that wasn’t one of them. The porn Robbie filmed was really repetitive and since I didn’t keep a journal (nor did he), we sometimes couldn’t remember whether, say, the MILF stuff was in June or October. Re-watching Webdreams was sometimes a help. Of course, it, too, is heavily edited.

Presumably you held back certain details, and made certain omissions that would have compromised the integrity of your relationship with Robbie, even if only by limiting the detail with which you described your sexual fantasies or experiences with previous partners. How do these omissions compare to Robbie’s omission that he had a one-night-stand the week you broke up with him and were sleeping with your ex? Can an author be trusted to write faithfully about a relationship he or she is currently in?

In Prude, I tried my very best to be transparent and let the reader into my experience. I shared a lot of myself. I also tried to use the best and juiciest possible details to push the story forward—like Robbie’s omission, though how empirically no worse than my sleeping with my ex at the time, fed my amped up jealousy in that moment. I didn’t use details for mere confession sake, and I probably wouldn’t have revealed, say, an ex fantasy, unless it was absolutely vital to the story. But Robbie was really open to whatever I needed to use; we discussed everything.

If you found out today that Robbie had protected sex with an adult performer while he was shooting porn, would this moment of infidelity change how good of a husband and father you now consider him to be? What would this insight into his past reveal about the present man?

That would be an extremely difficult scenario. It wouldn’t change the fact that he’s been a great father and husband to me. But it would change my trust level going forward. Lets just say we’d probably be hoofing it to the therapist’s office.

Why did you wait until one of the final chapters of Prude to offer dueling perspectives of what Robbie was doing on a porn set juxtaposed with your own experiences with temptation?

One difficult element of writing Prude was that Robbie was the one on set, so all of the porn details were secondhand. I went into Robbie’s perspective in Gonzo at the beginning to give the reader a taste of his world. And I used that tactic again at the end to show our two perspectives and heighten the tension. But I thought it might stretch the reader’s credibility to play with perspective too often in a memoir. If I had written this as a novel, I would have gone there more for sure.

Although you tell Robbie at first that you are comfortable with him filming porn, you eventually change your mind. How would you have reacted if, after writing much of Prude, Robbie told you he had changed his mind; he was no longer comfortable with you writing about your relationship, or about your sexual fantasies and experiences with previous partners? How would you have dealt with his request?

If Robbie had changed his mind about Prude, I wouldn’t have published it. We talked continuously about our comfort level with sharing all of this, so it’s hard to imagine him changing his mind in the final hour. In any case, I would never have proceeded with such an intimate story about him without his permission. He read every word, many times.

We need only look at the popularity of shaved genitals or the growing prevalence of anal sex to see how porn influences our sex lives. What has been less examined is how our relationships are shaped by mainstream depictions of love and romance. In what ways would you hope Prude shapes modern relationships?

Oh boy, that’s lofty! I hope Prude encourages people to communicate more about sexual expectations and porn. I also hope it encourages folks to use so-called plateau moments in a relationship, like an engagement, to really get to know each other. I’m glad we spent eight months talking about foursomes instead of flower arrangements. It was way more revealing.

My other small wish is that showing everyone my crazy pants makes someone else feel a little less crazy. Writing Prude was cathartic for me. So hopefully someone with similar issues can relate, have a laugh, and move on.



Check out Prude and read more by Emily Southwood at EmilySouthwood.com.

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