Natacha Merritt: Sex, Bondage, Biology, etc

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!

Totally cute!

Dating 101: Sex Therapy

So you know how I give out sex advice on my blog all the time, and how I just generally discuss sex as if I know what I’m talking about? Well, (surprise!) I’m not actually qualified to be giving anyone advice about anything ever. Woops! To better equip myself to answering your (and my own) sex questions, I decided it would be a good idea to speak with the professional sexpert, June Tomaso-Wood. June is a psychotherapist who specializes in sex therapy. At the moment she is writing a book about sexual dysfunction, ways to pick up sex drive, how to maintain a meaningful relationship, and how to have the best sex of your life. So basically she has the answers to everything we’ve ever wanted to know. I hope this interview will help to clear up some of the stuff that’s constantly confusing all of us about sex/relationships/life in general.

I get a lot of girls who read my blog emailing me, complaining that they have difficulty cumming during sex. This is a giant problem for girls! How do we fix it?!
June: Let me tell you this straight up: only 30% of women have an orgasm during intercourse. That’s not a high percentage. Most of the nerve endings are on the outside of the woman’s genitle erea. There are 8000 nerve endings on the outside of the vagina, compared to 4000 nerve endings on the male penis. Men are more concentrated on the actual act of intercourse because it feels so good for them, but it’s only the first two inches of the vagina that have nerve endings. That’s why size doesn’t matter, and why foreplay is so important!

Yeah. Penetration, without any clitoral stimulation literally just feels like inserting a tampon on repeat forever.
Right. So what’s wrong with oral sex? What’s wrong with mutual masturbation and digital stimulation?  What’s wrong with getting off in different ways?

I think sometimes, especially when you’re young, you assume that you’re supposed to cum from the actual sex, so you’re embarrassed to masturbate in front of a guy because in your head masurbating is what you do when you’re alone. Also guys watch porn and it (wrongly) teaches them that girls cum just from getting fucked.
That’s what they think, but it’s not true. That’s why women need to get more acquainted with their own bodies, in order to transfer the training to their partner. Just because it feels so good for them to have intercourse doesn’t mean that women don’t need more foreplay and to have the outside more aroused for them to enjoy the intercourse. They don’t get it, you have to educate them. That’s why it’s awful that many women from religious backgrounds feel guilt about touching their own body.

So what do you tell people who have difficulty reaching orgasm during sex?
I tell people to relax, and that it takes training to really have a good orgasm with intercourse, and a lot of stimulation. This is what I suggest to start with nice long foreplay, like oral sex–hello!–and/or using vibrators on the outside, on the clit, to encourage the clitoris. This will make it so you’re stimulated on the outside, which also increases the blood volume on the inside at the g-spot. The g-spot is sitting on the paraurethral gland–it’s like a little seat that the g-spot sits in–and if you stimulate the outside as well as the inside where the g-spot is, with intercourse in the right position you might be able to have an orgasm that way. And if you have a vibrator on the outside as he’s thrusting, your chances are much better. So tell him that. And remember that the nerve endings are mostly on the outside! Men don’t get it!

For me to have an orgasm usually things have to be more slow and I need to concentrate. But then sometimes I just want to be thrown around and just be fucked really hard, and that’s not really conducive to me having an orgasm, but I still like it. So basically I can still enjoy sex even if I don’t cum, if it’s the right kind of sex.
Yeah, but a lot of men aren’t OK with the girl not cumming because they have such egos. And of course you can fake orgasms, but if you fake it, you have to keep faking it, because then their ego is fed and you have to feeding it. That’s why it’s so important to tell him what you like in bed. You can say things like, “You know honey, the other night when you did this or that, that felt really good. Can you do a little bit more of that?”

On your website you heavily promote sex toys. Why are sex toys such a big deal?
The reason I tell a lot of people to use them is because they are a buffer. So like dual stimulators for women, rings for men, vibrators, bullet, etc. They are really good for people who have anticipatory anxiety about sex. At our age this generally isn’t a problem; people are just crazy horny and all they want to do is screw. But as you get older things change and there is a lot of emotion connected to sex. Some people begin to feel shameful because they don’t know if they perform well, and a lot of men lose their erections and whatnot, so I promote the toys as a buffer, because it allows people to focus on the toy and not be so focused on themselves.  

That makes sense.
For example the Bullet is great for a woman’s clitoris, but it can also be used on the underside of the penis and be really stimulating for a man as well.  

What about if you’re in a relationship where you fight a lot? How do you fix it?
I meet with couples about conflict resolution a lot. What I advise is for the couple to pick one night a week where they can spend half an hour with each other sharing one gripe at a time. You should make eye contact, be respectful, and use a good tone–soft and gentle–and then tell your boyfriend something that’s been bothering you, and then you have him reflect back what you just said so you know you’re being heard. And then it’s his turn. And if you allow time for these gripe sessions once a week it means you get your frustration out in a positive way, instead of arguing all week. You learn how to discuss and problem solve and to compromise better.

What if you are both passive people, so you almost never fight, but then when you do fight it’s like a gigantic horrible explosion?
Well, having an argument or a disagreement is not always a bad thing. No relationship is copescetic all the time; it’s unrealistic to thinks it’s going to be heavenly every day. You’re different people, you’re different sexes (sometimes), so of course you’re going to have disagreements. It’s the way that you handle them that’s important.

What do think about open relationships?
I think every relationship is different and if both of you are in agreement and you feel comfortable and you set clear boundaries about what’s OK and what’s not OK, then there’s nothing wrong with it.

Sometimes I think it’s better to be lenient than to put up these crazy boundaries, because then you just want to rebel against them, ya know?
Some people can’t handle that. They’re jealous as hell. Some people simply can’t handle someone having their hands one their woman, and vice versa.

Do you think sometimes a little bit of jealousy can be good for a relationship though?
I guess it depends on what you’re looking for in the relationship, because it can also be dangerous. The thing about sleeping with people outside of your relationship is that you run the risk of becoming emotionally involved. That’s the dilemma. Sometimes you don’t expect that to happen, but damn it, it does. And then what do you do?

So maybe it’s better to deny yourself of something that you want, because in the end it will make your relationship stronger for having made those sacrifices?
It definitely can, yes. But I also think that you’re very young, and that there’s nothing wrong with exploring your sexuality at your age. And even if you decide to make a commitment to someone and have children, you’re married for a long time! So have fun while you can! As long as you’re safe, of course.

Do you think it’s a good or a bad idea to sleep with someone on the first date?
What I say to a lot of the women who I work with is, “What’s wrong with building a relationship and building emotional intimacy by staying away from sex for the first three months?” Now at your age three months is forever, but for women in their 30s and 40s, spending three months in a casual relationship, going out to dinner, seeing a movie, dancing, etc, allows you to build emotional intimacy, and then when you do have sex it will be amazing and passionate. I’m not talking about one night stands or physiological release, I’m talking about women who are serious about getting involved in a relationship that they want to maintain. Then I would say give it a month or two–you don’t have to jump in the sack right away. Get to know them, see if there’s chemistry. It’s not all about the physical. The emotional is important too.

But what about people who are, like, twenty-two?
Well twenty-two is hot! If you’re twenty-two and you are exploring your seuxality, then I wouldn’t advise you to wait that long, of course not. I would say explore and have casual sex, but be selective and be careful, and wear condoms so you don’t get HIV!

One common question I get for my Ask Slutever column is from people who are around twenty, who are still virgins, who want to know if they should sleep with a random and get the first time over with, or if they should wait to have sex with someone they love. What do you think?
Very good question. I’ll tell you a story, the first guy I ever had sex with was a urologist. You know why? Because I really just wanted to get rid of that hymen and I thought, “who better than him to do it?” He was twenty-seven and I was eighteen, so it was kind of nice. It was more about getting rid of it. You don’t always have to be in love to have sex.

I think some people overthink the first time.
Yeah, some people analyze it too much. The most important thing is, if you’re going to have sex, you have to be sexually awakened. You can’t be coerced into it. Your body really has to want to have it. And if you want it, then I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having sex with someone you’re not in love with.

When I was young my mom told me not to have sex before marriage.
Oh god, why would you buy a pair of shoes without trying them on?! I know a case in point where a woman’s husband died and she remarried–the new guy was in his 50s and a multimillionaire–and after the wedding she found out he was impotent. She was furious!

That happened to Charlotte on Sex and the City.
I think that’s pretty damn stupid. I mean, come on!

If you’re in a relationship, how important is it to talk about sex with your partner?
Emotional intimacy is extremely important, and keeping a positive dialogue is extremely important in a relationship, and will bring you a lot closer. It’s definitely important to sit down and talk about sex, and what you like and what you don’t like, and what you prefer. And if your boyfriend cares about you deeply then he will want to please you, and visa versa. That’s where the emotional intimacy comes in.

I think sometimes people find it embarrassing to talk about sex really seriously.
Even in your generation?

Yeah. Like I think I almost find it easier to be really grotesquely blunt, and to say things like “I want you to bend me over that table and fuck me,” than to sit down with my boyfriend and seriously say, “This is what makes me feel good and this is what I think you should do for me.” It’s almost “too real”, ya know?
Well, guess what honey, it is real. But that’s what you need to do. And if you learn how to do it now you will have a more meaningful relationship later. You need to be real with each other. And if you can talk about sexuality, which is so intimate, then you can talk about anything.

Do women ever come to see you who feel guilty about violent fantasies they have, like rape fantasies?
No, it’s mainly men who come in with those issues, not women.

How do you make your sex drive higher?
Diet is very important. Dark chocolate: eat it, an ounce and a half a day, the darker the better. The orgasms are amazing. Visual stimulation helps to pick up drive too, or using a kegel exerciser to bring blood flow to the area. If you use that for twenty minutes a day that certainly will pick up drive and make your orgasms better. And exercise improves performance and makes orgasms better.

How many times a week should a couple have sex?
It depends on the couple and the drive of each person. Remember this: the person who has the lower drive controls the sex.

Don’t I know it!