Chris Kraus and R.O. Kwon on the transgressive power of sex

For Document’s Summer/Pre-Fall 2021 issue, the authors discuss anger, ambition, and kink as a tool of self-discovery

“Eroticism cannot be discussed unless man too is discussed in the process,” writes the philosopher George Bataille in his 1957 treatise Eroticism: Death and Sensuality. “In particular, it cannot be discussed independently of the history of religion.”

Both are enduring fascinations for writer R.O. Kwon, whose bestselling first novel The Incendiaries follows two college students, Will and Phoebe, as they fall in love and later become embroiled in a dangerous cult. Chronicling Phoebe’s descent into religious extremism with a deft hand and disarming prose, Kwon interrogates the porous boundaries between ideology and dogma, love and violence—triangulating perspectives to draw a parallel between Phoebe’s obsessive relationship with faith and Will’s obsessive relationship with her. The result is a striking story about the seductive power of belief, told from within its grasp.

In her latest project Kink: Stories, Kwon and co-editor Garth Greenwell delve into sex, love, and sadomasochism, probing at the deeply human desires that animate the erotic imagination. “Literature is the great technology for the communication of consciousness,” they write, “[and] the emotional dynamics of kink are as varied as those of any other human experience.” Featuring many of today’s most acclaimed literary voices including Carmen Maria Machado, Melissa Febos, Larissa Pham and Alexander Chee, the resulting anthology explores the complex relationship between mind and body, embracing erotic play as a tool: not only to induce pleasure, but to reevaluate the cultural and personal narratives that surround it.

Chris Kraus is no stranger to the transgressive power of literature, having made her debut with I Love Dick (1997), an explosive fictionalized memoir. Told through a series of love letters to the eponymous subject—and reflections on those love letters—I Love Dick cleverly flips the original premise on its head, with Kraus using the object of her obsession to open up a rich vein of psychological inquiry into the nature of desire and the self.

Equally as revolutionary is Kraus’s 2000 novel Aliens and Anorexia, a maze-like book which sees her employ characters ranging from the philosopher Simone Weil to her own virtual S&M partner. In the years since, Kraus—also an acclaimed critic, filmmaker, and editor of the independent publisher Semiotext(e)—has cast a roving eye on art and culture with her literary biography After Kathy Acker (2017) and Social Practices (2019), an essay collection merging biography, autobiography, fiction, and criticism. It’s in this interdisciplinary space that Kraus’s intellectual sensibility thrives: straddling genres with a deft hand and incisive wit, her practice of life-writing raises complex questions about everything from artistic identity to pleasure and the body. “The body is a lever for salvation,” Kraus writes, quoting Simone Weil. “But what is the right way? What is the right way to use it?”

“We’re perpetually wanting and lacking. Something about the power-exchange dynamic allows people to use that lack in a more interesting way, as a means of discovering parts of yourself that need to come out.”

Chris Kraus: I’m curious to hear, what made you think the moment was right for Kink?

R.O. Kwon: The anthology came about because I had just published a story in Playboy that was the most sexually explicit I’d ever written. I remember being anxious about it. I’ve been a woman on the internet for a while, and I thought, It’s going to get weird. While I did get a lot of notes from people, almost all of them were lovely—people saying, ‘I feel so much less alone, thank you for writing this.’ I’d also just read a kinky story by Garth [Greenwell] in The Paris Review, as well as Melissa Febos’s first book [Whipsmart], and I realized stories like this could live together in the same book. I couldn’t think of a recently published anthology quite like this, at least not one that I’d read. So that was when I reached out to Garth, to ask if he’d like to edit such a book with me.

It was important to us not to define kink for anyone; when reaching out to writers, we would ask for stories meaningfully centered on kink as each writer would define it. When I emailed you I was nervous. When you wrote back, I was so excited I yelped, jumped back from my laptop, and knocked over my chair. I was thinking, Chris Kraus is going to be part of our book! [Laughs]

Chris: I wrote that story a long time ago, but there’s no reason people shouldn’t read it now. Power-exchange scenarios are such a direct way of negotiating meaning—channeling desire through metaphor, into something both physical and psychological—which is fascinating, because desire is always free-floating. We all desire, you know, we’re never complete. We’re perpetually wanting and lacking. The power-exchange dynamic allows people to use that lack in a more interesting way, as a means of discovering parts of yourself that need to come out. Whatever normal dating situations lack in terms of definition, boundaries, and clarity become essential during a power exchange.

R.O.: I’ve heard people say they feel safer in kink spaces than they ever do in a neighborhood sports bar. Sometimes, in a kink space, you’re not allowed to touch someone without their consent, which is pretty different from the bar down the street, the likelihood that a man will grab a shoulder or waist, and how invasive that can feel. I think the emphasis on consent is something the broader culture can learn from.

Chris Kraus photographed by Sasha Arutyunova in New York City.

Chris: Do you find this emphasis on consent to be erotic? How does that play out for you?

R.O.: I once tweeted, half-jokingly, that there might be no sexier sound than someone next to me in bed, turning the pages while they read. And all these men showed up to reply, ‘Of course there are sexier sounds, you must have the most boring sex life.’ What they didn’t understand is that if someone is reading next to me in bed, I feel safe, I trust this person. Sexiness is not available to me if I don’t first feel, to some extent, trust.

Chris: That’s a beautiful image. I haven’t been involved in this recently, but I think our general expendability in hyper-capitalism is magnified in casual dating situations. While the power exchange may not lead to a permanent domestic arrangement, it forces people to be more present and accountable to each other within the boundaries of the game. Which almost forces people to behave well within it.

R.O.: Yes. I went to a college where there were naked parties, and I walked in wondering if it would be an orgy. But what I found was that at those parties, people were so polite—there was such intense eye contact, everyone being careful not to appear as if they were checking one another out. It wasn’t that people were sober—nobody showed up to a naked party sober, at least as far as I know. There was desire in the air. But everyone was trying to be on their best behavior, and I enjoyed that more than other college parties I went to, with the red Solo cups and drunk men doing as they liked.

Chris: You mentioned over email that you often feel as though you’re being forced to desire things, or act as if you do?

R.O.: Yes, that’s become a central preoccupation of the novel I’m working on. I’m infuriated—but also fascinated—by the ways in which I feel such pressure from the world to desire things I don’t want, and to hide the desires I do have. For example, I feel a lot of pressure to want to have children, and to look after other people. Caring for others is very important to me, but whenever I desire something for myself—sex, food, anything having to do with art, with ambition—I feel the need to conceal it or play it down. Many of my friends are extremely ambitious women, and most of them feel a great deal of pressure to hide it. It still feels dangerous to say ‘I am an ambitious woman,’ and I think the men I’m close to do not feel this pressure to the same extent.

Chris: When I wrote Kathy Acker’s biography, the most ‘transgressive’ thing I saw was her ambition. People act as if what made Acker a radical was her willingness to write about sex, but there were plenty of women already doing that. What made her radical was her transparency about her own ambition.

R.O.: I love that.

Chris: Sheila Heti wrestles with that question of why, and whether or not, to have a child brilliantly in Motherhood. Over the length of the book she’s trying to locate her own desire—she really doesn’t know. And she finally concludes that if you don’t know, then you don’t want. The nature of desire is that it doesn’t allow for ambivalence.

“Caring for others is very important to me, but whenever I desire something for myself—sex, food, anything having to do with art, with ambition—I feel the need to conceal it or play it down.”

R.O.: I was fascinated by the questions in that book. I wonder how much of that ambivalence and unknowing comes from the prevalence and rigidity of scripts about what we should want. I’ve always known I don’t want children—I’ve never felt that desire, it never situated itself in my body. I published an essay last year in which I said it was like learning, one day, that everyone expected me to birth and raise an ostrich. Why would I? I don’t want to do this. And it was so freeing to learn, at some point, that I don’t, in fact, have to take care of an ostrich. [Laughs]

Are these pressures you’ve felt?

Chris: Well, I wanted to have a kid, and then I didn’t. So that was a different experience. I wrote about that in Torpor; a novel about a couple traveling to Romania to supposedly adopt a Romanian child, even though the man obviously doesn’t want, or intend, to. He was a child survivor of the Holocaust. Having lived through this trauma colored everything. For me, the struggle wasn’t ‘should I have a kid,’ but ‘why can’t I?’

Camille Sojit Pejcha: Chris, you are researching a book in what you describe as ‘Trump Country.’ What brought you there?

Chris: Yes, I’m working on a book partly set on the Iron Range in northern Minnesota, a classic rust belt hinterlands terrain, one of the areas that radically flipped for Trump in 2016. I got interested in a murder committed by three teens.

R.O.: One of the things I really admire about your work, Chris, is that it has covered such a breadth of life, of the world. I wonder how you knew that this was a book you wanted to write?

Chris: What fascinated me was the durational aspect. They kidnapped him, and the four of them spent almost two days together before they finally shot him. I wanted to understand how something like that happens. So I spent time in the community and got to know the parties involved. Eventually, I was able to read transcripts of text messages the kids exchanged during the long weekend. The whole thing was haphazard and crazy. Nothing was planned, and it could have stopped any time if anyone thought to. Methamphetamine was involved, but not in the way I’d first suspected. The triggers had to do with sexual abuse, which was an experience all of the kids were familiar with.

I’d spent time in this area for almost a decade, but researching the crime has brought me much closer to what life here is like for the people who stay despite the economic decline.

R.O.: Is meth a popular drug in that area?

Chris: There’s both the meth community and the opioid community, but meth is a lot more prevalent. A detective I talked to who’s worked there for 15 years said there’s not a single homicide he’s worked on that wasn’t related to meth. Meth offers this initial hit of escape and pleasure and then turns very fast into something monstrous.

How to bridge the distance between my world and the world of these kids? It’s almost impossible. You’d have to go all the way back to their great-grandparents’ generation to find people living the dream of the single-income working class household that so much of Trump’s rhetoric feeds on.

For many of these people, life begins and ends on the Iron Range. People don’t leave, either because they can’t afford to or because their entire families are there. So the world moves on, and people are left behind. This is true of a lot of poor rural communities. Few are willing to extend themselves to these people, to understand their world. And the more that mainstream culture emphasizes diversity, the harder they dig into their ‘redneck’ culture, in which guns play a big part. One of the people I talked to has a Facebook profile picture of their cat sprawled out on a table amongst all of his automatic weapons. It’s a total erotic sublimation: The will to exist and have an identity becomes tied to maintaining an arsenal. Take away my gun and you’re cutting off my dick, you’re denying who I am.

“I believe sexual desires don’t just go away. If a person deeply wants something and ignores that desire, it’s probably not going to die a peaceful death.”

Camille: Can you speak a little more about how desire manifests indirectly, how the need for one thing can often signify something else?

R.O.: I don’t know about you, but these days I’m angry most of the time. I can gauge how angry I am by how much Korean food I eat. Korean food is hot and spicy; it’s also the food of my ancestors, it’s what I grew up with. I used to be able to go weeks or even months without Korean food, and at this point, I’m eating Korean food every day. Of course, anger can be hard on our bodies. It’s exhausting to be this angry, but it is also a source of energy; for instance, while I was heavily involved in electoral work, I was barely sleeping, and I kept napping on the floor, like a cat, because of how tired I was. But the anger kept me going.

Chris: My friend, the scholar and critic Anna Poletti, is working on a book where the narrator reinvents herself as a dominatrix after her life is ripped apart. She wants to reclaim her relationship to anger. Growing up in a working class alcoholic family in rural Australia, she fled from her father’s rage…and yet at the same time, found something about it strangely attractive. Alone in the Netherlands after being abandoned by the Dutch partner she moved there with, she seizes the opportunity to learn something she needs to know about herself and her past, about feminism, gender and power dynamics. Is there a way to integrate anger, or cruelty?

R.O.: A lot of people in the kink community talk about what an intense relief it can be to find a space where they can inhabit their desire to hurt someone, and do it in a way that’s safe and not harmful. I think that this kind of space, and others like it can be so valuable, because if you don’t have that kind of space, what do you do with that energy? What will you do with that desire?

I believe sexual desires don’t just go away. If a person deeply wants something and ignores that desire, it’s probably not going to die a peaceful death. When people deny themselves something that their bodies very much want— and which could be achieved safely and consensually—this self-denial can be a first violence from which a great deal of other violence can arise.

I think a lot about something the poet Natalie Diaz said in her most recent book, Postcolonial Love Poem: ‘Trust your anger, it is a demand for love.’