In 2000, Natacha Merritt became an instant girlpower sex icon with the release of her debut photo book, Digital Diaries. The book documented Merritt’s sexual history through intimate portraits of herself and her friends having sex. So basically think bondage, blow-jobs, self portraits of Merritt masturbating in the shower, and a peak into her involvement in San Francisco’s BDSM scene. Hot! Digital Diaries was the first book of entirely digital photography ever published, and went on to become a best seller. Next, Merritt proceeded to do what every rising photography star does after her first book: she went back to college to study science.
Now ten years later, after taking a time-out to become a biologist, Merritt is releasing her second book, Sexual Selection. The book contrasts the sexual intricacies of plants and insects with images of people (again, herself and her friends) fucking. The juxtaposition of the images is incredible; it makes you view the human body in a totally different light. Like, you know how when you’re having sex while you’re tripping, and you look down and see yours and your lover’s sex organs colliding and everything suddenly becomes a bit too real, and you’re like, “Wait… eww” but you’re also like, “Wow, the world is pretty amazing”? Well Sexual Selection is kind of like that.
The book’s introduction is written by Richard Prince. According to Merritt, when she contacted Prince about writing the intro, his reaction to her work was, “Oh my god, I love it, I want to hang the book on my cock and walk around with it like an appendage!” I had a similar response.
VICE: Was science something you were interested in while you were making Digital Diaries?
Natacha Merritt: It wasn’t. Digital Diaries happened because I just had a great sex life, and I wanted to document it. I was taking photos of strippers and dancers in the San Francisco S&M, slut-sex scenes, and having a great time, but there was nothing intellectual behind it. I was a wild child, like, “I just like to shoot sex and I don’t know why!” But now, having studied biology, I understand that sex is actually the most interesting thing we do as a species, so my photographs have more of a context. What turns me on now is more complicated, and often more twisted.
What was your involvement in the San Francisco S&M scene?
Mainly photography, and then within my relationship there was some cock and ball bondage and mild dominatrix stuff. So I wasn’t fully in the scene, per se, but I was definitely inspired by my environment.
Why did you decide to put your sex photography on hold to study biology?
Well, I found that over and over I was asking myself questions like, “Why does this turn me on?” and “Why do I find fetish so interesting?” and I found the answers in biology. I took my sexual investigation all the way down to the genetic level. And then it clicked: all of our fetishes and perversions are justifiable, and we’re not even close to as kinky as so many other species, and evolution is the ultimate art form!
It’s cool that science can teach us why we’re sluts.
It is! And the science of sex is becoming more interesting, because scientists are starting to look like us. Girls, gays, minorities—all of these people are coming to science with new questions. The stereotype of the straight male scientist is gone. The lab is full of crazy people now! It’s really exciting, and the artistic potential of the sciences is really cool.
What was the genesis of the idea behind Sexual Selection? What were you trying to get across by combining the photographs of insects, plants, and people?
It was as organic as Digital Diaries. I was studying biology and I began photographing insect genitals, mainly—I made what’s called a taxonomic key in order to identify spiders local to San Francisco based on their penises. And also during this time I was meeting up with other students for study groups, and by the end of the semester I was asking the girls, “Hey, should we do some erotic photography together?” Ninety percent of the time they said yes. And then I started putting the images together, and I realized I could make all of these amazing connections.
After reading Sexual Selection I presumed you were a lesbian because most of your subjects, and most the people you are with in the photos, are women.
That’s funny. Well, if it weren’t for my husband, I would definitely be a lesbian. I have ongoing relationships with other girls now, and that’s fine with him. On a purely sexual level I think lesbian sex is better, because men haven’t really understood the clitoris yet.
Why don’t they get it? I know a lot of girls who identify as straight, but who cum easier when having sex with a woman.
Exactly, because women understand the female body. I think that porn has just really gotten in the way of our orgasms. Like sometimes I’ll watch my husband’s porn with him or his friends, and it’s all wrong! It’s all a lie—none of those girls are actually enjoying themselves—and so this lie is perpetuated. And incomplete sex-ed is also a problem.
In your studies, did you ever figure out why most girls are open to fucking both girls and boys, while guys tend to be more regimented and say either “I’m gay” or “I’m straight”?
I think that’s more of a social stigma than a biological question. I read an interesting article recently about a girl in San Francisco who did a casual study of all her male friends, and she found that most had at least kissed another guy, and some had even had sex with another man, but still identified as straight. So I think that’s changing.
Yeah. Also there are more sexually fluid male icons now, like James Franco, for example.
That’s true. Also, there are roughly 30 species now that biologists have identified as behaving in this way, like for example two female birds will “adopt” an offspring and raise it. So we’re finding examples of this everywhere, and I think it’s really natural, it’s just taken science a long time to ask these questions.
Did you ever have any apprehension about photographing yourself having sex, since many people have difficulty making the distinction between art and porn?
Well, it is an issue, but the world that can legally fire you for showing your pussy with a cock in it is bullshit! I don’t want to be a part of that world. I realize that not all people are in a financial or cultural position to fight this, but if you are a privileged Western person and you don’t fight it, then I think that’s just weakness. I see it as a big “fuck you!” Also, I’ve been doing this for 15 years now, so I have had a huge stack of model releases from people I’ve photographed, and as the years pass many of them have asked me to retract their release, but I never give in. I wonder what it is that makes people become more conservative as they get older. It’s really creepy, like society is pulling everybody down.
Earlier you said that many other species are way more kinky than we are. Do you have a favorite example of this?
There is a bit in my book about cannibalistic spiders that I really like. In the spider world, the females are huge and the males are tiny. There are very few females, given that it takes a lot of resources to become so big, and there are lots of males who die young, so if a male finds a female he goes above and beyond to try and mate with her. Often the males become a meal, often while trying to escape. But in the genus Latrodectus the male will literally get on top of the female, and after he fucks her he will put his upper chest into her mouth and she will eat him, slowly. And if she pushes him off, or it doesn’t work out, he will literally do a somersault and come back and try again. At first scientists couldn’t understand why he would want to be eaten, but then they discovered that the females who have that meal will be much healthier and have more of his offspring. It’s Sexual Selection at its greatest—the male is sacrificing himself for what he believes is the ultimate use of his body. I think that’s so romantic!