Previous generations are usually pretty noisy about impressing on current ones how tough they had it. Bill Cosby satirized it well, saying his father had to walk to school “in the snow, uphill—both ways.”
Felice Newman, co-founder with Frederique Delacoste of Cleis Press which has published ground-breaking books on feminism, sexuality, gay and lesbian issues and many other topics, has a refreshingly relaxed take on the fact that some younger women might be unaware of the work earlier generations of feminists had to do in paving the road for them.
“In a sense, we fight for freedoms so the next generation can take them for granted,” Newman says. “On the other hand, you can never take these freedoms for granted because there’s always someone wanting to take them away from you, and you have to defend it. We won abortion in 1973, and we’ve been fighting to keep it ever since.”
Now in its third decade, Cleis helped revolutionize both publishing and sexual culture with authors like Susie Bright and Patrick (then Pat) Califia, books such as the ever-popular Good Vibrations Guide to Sex, and a celebratory frankness about sexuality and other controversial subjects that kept them pushing boundaries and readers.
“While others in the industry scramble to get a grip on e-books and lament lackluster sales in a bad economy, Cleis Press reports sales up 50 percent over last year,” noted Publisher’s Weekly of the 30 year-old company in late 2009.
All you liberal arts majors who can identify with the Avenue Q song “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English” take note: Before helping form a financially fit, cutting-edge business, Newman was a poet. By her late teens, she’d already been published both in journals and in the collection Amazon Poetry, by poet Joan Larkin’s Out & Out Books. While earning her MFA, she helped found a small feminist press and that’s where she got the publishing bug.
“It was a sexually transmitted disease,” jokes Cleis co-founder Delacoste in an interview on the company website, referring to the fact that Newman’s mentor at the company was also her first lover.
“You have to reach readers somehow; I guess I fell in love with that,” says Newman. “You can be a great writer, but unless you can form a collaboration with someone who knows how to get your words out into the world, you’re going to be famous in your living room.”
In 1981, when Newman and Delacoste founded Cleis (Cleis was the daughter of Sappho, so it’s a thoroughly fitting moniker for a publishing house that was helped into the world by a poet), neither of them knew anyone at a major publishing house, but they knew what was going on in feminism. Cleis’ activist roots might help to explain their comfort with controversy. Their first title was Fight Back: Feminist Resistance to Male Violence, which Newman envisioned would be “like The Whole Earth Catalog of anti-violence activism for feminists. That was the only model I had,” she says (and not a bad one, considering it was as ubiquitous in the ’70 s as Harry Potter books are now).
If the title has a strident ring to it, that’s because 30 years ago, America was very different than it is today. “In 1981, rape victims were put on trial. It was a different atmosphere,” Newman says, citing 1984’s The Burning Bed with Farrah Fawcett, a movie about a battered woman who kills her abuser as being “the hugest, most controversial thing of the time.”
Thanks to feminist activism, media attention on subjects like rape and domestic violence, a cultural awakening was happening around serious women’s issues. “This is the ground we came from,” Newman says. “We just wanted to publish books that really mattered.”
It was a slow start—maybe two books a year—but in the ’90s, things began to accelerate with the publication of Susie Brights’ Susie Sexpert’s Lesbian Sex World, a collection of essays the funny, intelligent and beloved Bright had written as the editor of On Our Backs magazine.
“That was where we crossed the line,” Newman says. “We say we got kicked out of the sisterhood. We got kicked out of the sisterhood again and again.”
Now that our culture embraces porn stars as celebrities and has celebrities that want to be porn stars, it’s easy to forget why the term “sex-positive” came into parlance.
This was the time of the sex wars,” Newman explains. “Sex-positive feminists against the rigidly conservative feminists, who basically saw pornography as a tool of the patriarchy so if someone published pornography they were just imitating the patriarchy. [Two influential figures], Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon were huge voices in feminism, and it was about anti-pornography. So, certainly, what we were doing was crossing the line because we were publishing pornography in their eyes.”
In the early ’90s, Cleis published I Am My Own Wife by Charlotte von Mahlsdorf—a memoir by a transvestite who went through World War II in East Berlin in a dress. “Then we were for sure kicked out because we published a man,” Newman jokes. “And then (in 1995) Pat Califia—who is now Patrick Califia—the most notorious SM lesbian at that time known to anyone, and on and on it went. We got very much into the sex-positive culture and helping to make that culture.”
Cleis’ open attitude was met with eagerness in the ’90s, a time Newman views as much more sexually liberal than the one we’re living in now. The shadow cast by AIDS made people open up and talk about sexuality and safe sex, “so then you have people talking about what they’re really doing as opposed to what they want people to think they’re doing.
“There was an exuberance,” she says, around gender and sexuality, “and I think things have gotten more conservative now. Who is President and what kind of political leaders we have actually does trickle down to the level of sexual culture. We had a decade where the Religious Right ran the country,” and in publishing “this last 10 years, that edge hasn’t moved very much—whereas in the ’90s, that edge just traveled.”
Keeping an eye on that how that edge travels and responding to it has been met with gratitude by readers, many of whom who saw their most intimate selves in the pages of Cleis’ books, perhaps for the first time. “Some Cleis books, some of the erotica or sex guides are those cherished books that people stumble upon at certain points in their lives, and 10 or 20 years later they’ll tell us, “This book saved my life,” or “This book really made a difference for me.”
Many titles come to Newman’s mind on that score, including Pat Califia’s Public Sex, Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry, edited by Delacoste and Priscilla Alexander; Healing Sex: A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma by Staci Haines and the early Best Lesbian Erotica, series because there was “so little erotica at the time that was so daring and open,” Newman says.
Her own book, The Whole Lesbian Sex Book: A Passionate Guide for All of Us, now in it’s second edition, is also on that list. Being educated by the books she was publishing, Newman decided to also study at San Francisco Sex Information and become a sex educator. Her partner, Constance Clare-Newman (they are legally married in California) is also a sex educator who specializes and writes about the Alexander Technique, while Newman teaches Somatic Coaching and Sex Education to individuals and couples.
“The soma is the body, so it’s working through the body. When I say ‘the body,’ I mean the physical stuff of you, but also your history, how you use language, cultural background, where you come from and all of that shapes you and makes you who you are as you walk in the world today.” Working with people one-on-one she’s been able to fulfill the dream of helping people realize themselves sexually in a more personal way than through publishing alone.
Meanwhile Cleis is ever-changing and expanding, too. The company recently launched a new line called “Viva Editions,” under the auspices of Brenda Knight who joined Cleis about a year and a half ago. Viva is all about “advice for vivacious living,” and includes subjects like The Fatigue Prescription, by Linda Hawes, MD, and Girlfriends are Lifesavers, by Reeda Joseph about the importance of female friendship. And then, there’s fried spiders…. (You’ll just have to check out Weirdness Around the Globe, by Nick Belardes for that one.)
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