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This Sunday, I will be moderating the Sex Panel at the West Hollywood Book Fair. There are several authors on the panel, and their books are as varied as they are. One book is an autobiography of a woman’s experience in the world of hardcore porn, another is the history of burlesque in America, while the third explores the often stigmatized world of the “fat girl” in a book of pin-up style photographs of self-declared “fat girl” April Flores.

The books, which I powered through in preparation for Sunday, are incredible in their diversity. They may all deal with sex, while, at the same time, they don’t deal with sex at all. The burlesque history is a collection of stories told firsthand by the original dancers who brought the movement to life, painstakingly interviewed by Leslie Zemeckis.

Carlos Batts’ photos of his wife are so beautiful that one forgets that, by some beauty industry standards, she might be seen as undesirable. Her sensuality and curvaceousness, as well as her ability to transform herself into a million different personas, are all one notices.

Oriana Small’s tales of her experiences in the porn industry feel like the equivalent of reading Platoon, weirdly fused with a coming-of-age memoir. There may be a lot of fucking, but the fucking is often upstaged by all the thoroughly bizarre and physically and emotionally grueling experiences she had.

So yes, the panel is about sex. But really, the panel is about women who forged new paths, who defied expectations of gender or body image or socially expected behavior, who defined their roles as women without a pre-determined narrative to lead the way. These are real women who know the power that comes with that.

“You don’t have to take everything off to be beautiful.” – Kitty West, aka Evangeline the Oyster Girl.

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