Janet W. Hardy is a provocative American sex educator and one of the leading authors and publishers on alternative sexualities including BDSM, polyamory and alternative gender/orientation expression. Author of ten books, including her notorious and groundbreaking guide to polyamory and open relationships The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities (co-authored with Dossie Easton), Hardy has been one of the most infectious and compelling voices of consensual non-monogamy and the pursuit of (ethical) pleasure for more than twenty years.
She is doing a talk in London on Oct 3rd. You can purchase a ticket here.
We’re called Advantages of Age and we’re hopefully challenging media stereotypes around ageing, do you see this pursuit as relevant to you and your work? Could you tell us how old you are?
I’m 63, due to turn 64 in February. Not quite old-old, but not really middle-aged anymore either.
Your new book is called Impervious – Confessions of a Semi-Retired Deviant – so we were wondering what you are still up to as a deviant?
I think of myself as a “deviant emeritus” – with all the knowledge and experience I acquired over three decades of exploring alternative erotic behaviors, gender expressions and relationship structures, but not very actively involved in any of them anymore – hence “semi-retired.”
Could you let us into a few juicy interludes that you have included? Why did you want to write this memoir?
I wanted to write it for a few reasons. First, because I think any one individual’s personal experience of kink gives a very different perspective on kink as a whole than can be gleaned by a media-filtered overview. Second, because I don’t think enough has been written about kink as an ecstatic experience, and for me, that’s by far the most important aspect of BDSM. Third, because it’s fun to write a smutty graphic recounting of some of the amazing experiences I’ve had through the years. Some of my favorite chapters of the book include one about an encounter in which a group of women spent an evening preparing a very small woman to be fisted for the first time by her very large husband; one about an encounter where my partner and I broke the common BDSM rule about “never play while angry,” and one about agreeing to become a substitute disciplinarian for a dominant who was out of the country and could not properly chastise his slave.
You and Dossie Easton wrote Ethical Slut over 10 years ago, why did you use the word slut and has it served the cause?
Actually, the first edition was published in 1997, so that’s upwards of 20 years now. In the beginning, we were calling it “The Ethical Slut” as a working title, kind of a joke between us – it was a phrase Dossie had invented, but we never thought we’d actually publish under that title. But as we tried to come up with something more socially acceptable, all we could find were horrible clunky textbook-sounding things like “Multiple Loving for the Coming Millennium,” blargh. Finally, we had to get our cover designer started, and we really couldn’t think of another title than “The Ethical Slut,” and some friends encouraged us to go for it, so we did. And it turned out to be a brilliant move. I think we helped jumpstart a whole new part of the sex-positive movement, one in which people of any age, gender or orientation can claim the title “slut” with pride.
Is society catching up with you now? How do you view polyamory and pansexuality now? Has your attitude towards polyamory changed?
My attitude hasn’t changed at all – I think polyamory is one of many excellent ways to manage a relationship, and that any relationship style that works for the people in the relationship is great. But there’s no question that polyamory is far more broadly understood and more socially acceptable than it was in 1997. There was a Newsweek cover, there was a reality series, there have been uncountable newspaper and magazine articles, podcasts, etc. I do want to note, however, that pansexuality and polyamory are not the same thing. Pansexuality is a retooling of “bisexuality” for people who believe that bisexuality implies only two genders (it doesn’t). Polyamorous people can be hetero, bi, pan, ace, gay, or any other sexual identity.
I guess the Metoo campaign has made ethical all the more important?
I think what #metoo has done is brought to the forefront a very long-overdue conversation about the nature of sexual consent – and that’s a conversation that’s changing shape almost daily. Poly people do not have a monopoly on ethical sexuality. Everyone, whether they identify as monogamous, poly or something else, has to consider the ramifications of their sexual and romantic behaviors, which must be respectful, consent-aware, honest and growth-oriented in order to be considered ethical.
Polyamory is difficult to do – jealousy has to be dealt with – but do you think it’s easier for older people?
I don’t really have an opinion on that. On one hand, older people are often more comfortable with who we are as individuals, with less need to seek out romantic partnerships in order to feel whole. But older people got indoctrinated into normative monogamy at a very early age, and may have to work harder to overcome that conditioning. Younger people these days are likelier to enter the sexual/romantic arena with more sense of what possibilities are out there, but they may not have as much self-awareness as older folks, and self-awareness is essential to ethical poly.
Are you in a non-traditional marriage?
Sure am! My spouse and I are both genderqueer, bisexual and kinky, none of which makes us all that non-traditional in the groups we run in. However, we have never had sexual intercourse, and we no longer have any form of genital sex, which is still pretty non-traditional, even among our perverted friends.
How has ageing affected your desires on the BDSM and leather front?
My libido is certainly not what it once was, but it’s still very present. However, I rarely-to-never feel the desire to indulge it with anybody but myself. I still do the very occasional BDSM scene, either as part of a lecture/demonstration or with an old and beloved friend, but the hunger that sent me to play parties every weekend and play dates once or twice a week is not part of my life anymore, and I find I rarely miss it much.
What do you see as the possibilities re ageing and sexuality?
I think the work being done in alternative sexuality toward creating forms of sex that are not predicated on penetrative intercourse (we sex educators call this “outercourse”) has the potential to be extremely helpful for older folks who still want the excitement and connection of sex. Penetrative stuff can very often be problematic with older bodies – penises refuse to get or stay stiff, vaginas get stubborn about lubricating. But outercourse can be fun for anyone.
I see you have also been into tantra and full body orgasms?
Yes. When my coauthor Dossie and I were researching our book “Radical Ecstasy: S/M Journeys in Transcendence,” we took many tantra classes together and had some astonishing experiences. While I don’t think full-body orgasms scratch exactly the same itch as genital orgasms, I also believe in having lots of arrows in my quiver, so I like doing some of each!
Are you still working with Dossie Easton? I was intrigued by the scenes that you two set up together when you’re writing about sexuality.
We don’t have any new books in process – we don’t have anything that urgently needs saying right now, but if that changes, we’ll definitely be back at our keyboards. Our scenes together have always been part of our process as writers. If there’s an issue on which we need clarity, we create a scene to explore it together. I don’t think I can recommend our technique to all coauthors, but it’s worked pretty well for us for thirty years now.
Are we making progress re openness and sexuality as a society, do you think?
Right now, depressingly enough, we’re in the midst of a sex panic – finding ways to talk about important sexual information is more challenging right now than I think it’s been since the Internet started enabling people to share information about sex. But I don’t think the genie of good sex information is going to go back into the bottle. There is a lot more information about sexuality than there was when I was young – I was pushing 30 by the time I figured out that I wasn’t the only person in the world who got turned on thinking about spanking, and it’s hard to imagine that happening now. But the more forthright and informative sex information becomes, the greater the pushback against it from conservative forces who want to restrict sex to a very narrow form of expression (married/heterosexual/fertile/etc.).
What’s important to you now re sexuality and desire?
Self-awareness, access to information and tools (any older person who does not have a bottle of lube on their nightstand is missing out on a lot), fighting back against shame and oppression.
What mistakes have you made on the relationship front and where have they led you?
I am by nature a caretaker, and that’s led me down some unfortunate paths. I don’t think I get to stop being a caretaker in this lifetime, but I have gotten better about distinguishing between caretaking and codependency, and at looking for relationships where my caretaking is met with appreciation and echoed by someone who wants to take care of me too.
Can we be old and bold on the sexuality and relationship front? And what does that look like for you?
The best thing about being old, as far as I can see, is getting over caring what strangers think of you (aka “having no fucks left to give”). I fear that many older people avoid being overtly sexual because they think they’ll look ridiculous. And what I think about that is, who cares? If you feel hot, and you look hot to the person you’re in bed with, what some twentysomething thinks of you is the least relevant issue imaginable.
For me, this plays out as a lot of experimentation with gender signifiers, and a lot of thinking and discussing the possibilities within our grasp when we let go of conventional thinking about questions like “What is sex?” “What does it mean to be female?” “What do we actually need from relationships?”