Final Fantasy

Dennis Cooper’s The Sluts in the time of social distancing

In 2004 the writer Dennis Cooper published The Sluts, a novel that takes place entirely on the pages of an unnamed gay escort website. The novel follows the saga of a young hustler named Brad, whose striking beauty and lurid sexual escapades are recounted and debated by the site’s posters. When Brad is implicated in a brutal crime, the posters embark on a frenzied search for the true identity of “Brad.” Cooper tells the story of Brad entirely through the postings and emails of the site’s users, who are by turns humorous, morbid, horny. 

The Sluts poses a series of questions. Is sex under capitalism inherently violent? What is the distinction between pornography and art? Cooper’s portrayals of rape, murder, and pedophilia have prompted many in the literary world to dismiss him as a transgressive writer. But in the age of COVID-19, in which a fatally inadequate health-care system and a crumbling infrastructure have led to widespread death and unemployment, this is literature that reckons with the violence of our dystopian epoch. 

The following is an edited and condensed transcript of two discussions between writer Elena Comay del Junco, porn actor / fashion muse Sean Ford, academic / cultural historian Diarmuid Hester, and writer Quinn Roberts. The conversations took place on Wednesday, April 1, 2020, and Thursday, April 16, 2020. Please be aware of plot spoilers for The Sluts, as well as discussions of graphic sex and violence.



QR: I felt the state’s response to COVID-19 was mangled and cumbersome, not to mention shamelessly corrupt. President Trump’s bizarre diatribes, Governor Cuomo’s diva grandstanding, members of Congress short selling their stocks, the exorbitant corporate bailout. Even in 2020, the nihilism and corruption on display astonished me. And I wasn’t particularly reassured by the responses I saw on social media, either. There was lots of finger-pointing, armchair activism, self-aggrandizement. Slavoj Žižek’s book deal and the swift backlash. The turgid pronouncements of “If you go outside, you’ll literally kill a GRANDMA.” Can we draw parallels between the acrimony of the pandemic and the atmosphere of acrimony in The Sluts?

DH: Well, I don’t know if acrimony is the right word. It’s more so the insularity of the fictional space of The Sluts, which Cooper reinforces on the page. In the novel’s third section, “Board,” one poster writes: “Get your heads out of your crotches for one second. The kid is mentally ill. He’s sixteen years old.” And then another poster retorts, “Our fantasy lives are not a police state.” This sort of reinforcement of the space’s insularity is what induces the acrimony. It brings forth paranoia. Within this insular community, which they self-determine as the “escort-loving community,” the posters argue over who’s telling the truth and who is lying. These are the same kinds of things I see circulating online.

SF: I’ve never read a novel that portrays sex work quite like The Sluts. I’ve also never read a novel that portrays online fantasies so accurately. In my career, I’ve read lots of comments similar to the ones in The Sluts, from people I’ve never met before. Reading the novel was a little painful, to be honest, because it really captured the visceral emotions you experience when you read comments like that.

Right now, in the midst of social distancing, I’m totally getting more engagement on my social media, both good and bad. If I paid attention to every negative comment I’d go crazy, but it’s hard to resist the urge to read every comment. From my perspective, social distancing has amplified the intensity of these online interactions — people are so lonely and alienated, and any interaction means so much more than it typically should.

ECdJ: Maybe insularity breeds acrimony, resentment, conflict over narrative. I’m also curious how the changes over the years in technology and social media have affected the insularity of online spaces. In The Sluts, the spaces are message boards, which means the audience is more limited and less time sensitive. On a platform like Twitter, however, you have a real-time audience, and you have a potentially unlimited audience.

I see the potential for acrimony skyrocketing in the current context of COVID-19. Unlike in The Sluts, the whole public is concerned, not just a niche interest group of Southern California–based gay johns. The scale of this collective is everyone who lives under the threat of the virus. It’s the entire world. That said, our responses take a similar shape to that in The Sluts. People feel entitled to intervene in each other’s thoughts and choices, just as the “escort loving community” is arguing over whether they have the right to use Brad for their fantasies. These are similar tendencies for moralizing and countermoralizing.

QR: These online realms are at once narrow/limited and expansive/abundant. There’s a strange contradiction unfolding in front of us. 

ECdJ: I might put it like this: We live in a global condition of insularity. Our insular bubble, rather than microcommunities, is what constitutes our world. Before social distancing, insularity was never about smallness — it was about articulating a certain social dynamic that couldn’t take place in real life.

QR: In The Sluts, there are two rivaling factions of the message boards, and then one faction forms its own message board about killing Nick Carter. Some posters are tired of the parameters around the Brad/Brian conversation, so they say, fuck this. This is part of the novel’s genius: In this crude exaggeration of online sociability — “If you’re interested in sharing your fatal fantasies about the Rolls Royce of potential corpses, you can join the fun at” — Cooper generates a set of unflattering truths. Nowadays maybe we think of groups as if they are fixed to a set of preconditions, and that one must adhere to certain stipulations in order for access to be conferred. And if you don’t adhere to the group’s stipulations, then you’re presumed to be against the group.

ECdJ: In a sense, the Nick Carter faction grows sick of their lack of control over the escort-loving community’s parameters. They were uncomfortable with the possibility that Brad was real, the possibility that they were fantasizing about a real-life twink being gang raped and mutilated. They don’t want to engage in the fantasy’s repercussions. On the forum, there’s an unease around their potential complicity in a crime.

DH: In the frenzy and paranoia, the foreshortening of perspective, I think The Sluts contains an oblique response to the AIDS crisis. Cooper rarely addresses AIDS in his work; there are multiple readings of his work that tend to project the AIDS subtext onto his work, but The Sluts doesn’t figure into these readings so often. Now I don’t want to make a spurious connection between COVID-19 and AIDS of the kind that’s been going around lately. I don’t know if you two saw the tweet from ACT UP. It was a photo of David Wojnarowicz’s famous jacket with the white lettering on a pink triangle that reads, “If I die of AIDS — forget burial — just drop my body on the steps of the FDA.” Then ACT UP paired the Wojnarowicz photo with one of a protective mask emblazed with a similar slogan: “If I die of COVID-19 — forget burial — drop my body on the steps of Mar-A-Lago.” ACT UP was rightly lambasted for making that truly banal connection. Of course, there’s a connection to be made — lots of people who are HIV positive will be immunocompromised, but I’d like to go further than that.

The other day I was reading Wojnarowicz’s journals, and it’s remarkable how, when he is diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, his perspective immediately contracts. Where previously he had a really expansive artistic vision, suddenly he fixates on the minute details of his body, his immediate needs, his death. There’s no future, there’s no hope, there’s a foreclosed sense of reality. He records his journal on tape, and he says, “All I can think of to talk about are my anxieties.” I feel there’s something relevant in that response to our feelings about COVID-19. In the midst of the pandemic, we are experiencing a foreclosure of reality.

ECdJ: The remark about Wojnarowicz’s journals is really striking. I’m disappointed by how limited our receptivity to critical discourse has been lately, in contrast to our embrace of first-person reflections. Suddenly it seems as if all writers are publishing is diaristic personal essays about the trivial details of their bedrooms. There’s this strange current of solipsism and anti-intellectualism. The attitude is, now is not the time for think pieces or op-eds, now is the time for soliloquys or love letters or whatever. That was part of why people got angry at Zizek, who can frequently be a clown, but the backlash reminded me of the responses we see after terrorist attacks. Now is not the time to critique, now is the time to mourn and stand together. This produces a lot of personal memoir navel-gazing. And I’m not opposed to navel-gazing . . .

SF: Of course not. We’re gays, and we gays love to navel-gaze.

ECdJ: Speak for yourself. I’m teaching a contemporary ethics class, and I just sent my students Douglas Crimp’s 1987 essay “How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic.” It was a critique of what he saw as the moralizing approaches to the AIDS crisis, the advocacy of abstinence and monogamy. He criticized the CDC on one hand, and Larry Kramer on the other hand, drawing attention to the similarities between the two. Crimp’s essay explores the emerging ideas of safe sex and asexuality, but I also see Crimp making an intervention into the urge to hyperindividualize the AIDS crisis. There are ways to respond to disease through collective action; it’s not all just a matter of personal responsibility. Rather than what he calls the “politics of bourgeois individualism,” Crimp is telling his readers that “‘Community values’ are, in fact, just what we need, but they must be the values of our actual communities.”

Even the vocabulary surrounding COVID-19 is insular. We’ve conceded this the same kind of hyperindividualistic urge. The term “social distancing” isn’t even entirely accurate — what needs to happen right now is physical distancing, physically staying indoors. To conflate physical isolation with social isolation strikes me as confused. Furthermore, COVID-19 isn’t a sexually transmitted disease, but I’ve seen online shamings for those who express sexual urges in the midst of the quarantine. Now, you open Grindr, and there’s an alert for social distancing. Which is good, I guess, but still a little sanctimonious.

SF: Well, if my Grindr feed is any indication, people are still hooking up, and they’re still hosting sex parties. Maybe this is wrong, maybe they should be shamed, but Elena raises a great point — sex cannot always be reduced to a good/bad binary. And even if online shamings are justified, desire has the power to overcome shame. Far too often, attempts to moderate desire can revert to the conservative, punitive rhetoric of “community values.”

Sometimes it isn’t even about sex. A few weeks ago I posted an Instagram of myself on a bike ride, and a stranger commented, “What are you doing outside?” I wasn’t wearing a face mask, sure, but there wasn’t anyone around me, and there are no restrictions on riding bikes. It’s so strange to see how quickly people have slipped into a punitive mindset. It’s very nihilistic.

QR: One of the most compelling aspects of The Sluts is the relationship between fantasy and reality, embodiment and disembodiment, self and non-self. Each main player in the Brad saga has a split personality. There’s Brad and there’s Thad, there’s Zack and there’s Brian. Going even further, there’s the recounting of Brad’s behavior before and after orgasm: “I was going to offer to let him spend the night at my house, but after the sex he became a lot less friendly. . . . he wondered what the police would do if he told them I’d had sex with a fourteen year old boy.” 

This wasn’t immediately apparent to me on first read, but toward the end of the novel, the posters follow suit. They retain the privilege of anonymity, but they begin to exhibit split personalities as well. I wonder if Cooper is suggesting that the opacity of online identity is not as harmless as we’d like to believe. One character it seems to work for pretty poorly is Elaine. The male characters split pretty evenly into dualities, but Elaine is distorted into these crude exaggerations of female archetypes: the ruthless brothel madam, the scorned mother-to-be, the kooky widow who has lived on the block forever. Ultimately, Elaine amounts to less than the sum of her parts — out of all the main characters, we hear her voice the least. And of course, another brilliant element of Cooper’s work is how much of the story he leaves off the page, the usage of white space.

ECdJ: There’s also the correspondence between Brad/Thad and Brian/Zack in “Email, Fax,” in which we have only Brad’s side of the exchange. There’s a constant sense of omission. With Elaine in particular, her womanhood seems at first like a moral defense; she’s an old lady, or she’s a struggling single mother. But soon enough it’s revealed that she’s a scammer just like everyone else. That plays a lot into the notion of where each character stands in proximity to the scammer economy.

DH: The question of fantasy versus reality is also a question of borders and boundaries. One thing Cooper illustrates in The Sluts is the porousness of boundaries. The narrators of the novel are never quite certain of the boundary between reality and fantasy, and the boundary itself is never fully articulated, so this tension is what fuels the narrative arc. On one page, a line reads, “Is this for real? Is that a stupid question?” There’s also a porousness in the boundary between text and reader. When somebody says, “This whole thing is just sick porn, and we’ve all been implicated” — Cooper breaks the fourth wall. The posters are implicated, but aren’t we the readers implicated too? 

There’s a real focus on the architecture of boundaries, how they can be constructed, distorted, manipulated. The Sluts will become useful in understanding the enforcement of boundaries, the difference between indoors and outdoors, me and you, us and them. Once the pandemic has passed, it’s going to be very important to read writers like Cooper. He chooses not to normalize boundaries, or depict them as natural, or justify their existence. Instead he diagnoses a certain pathology.

ECdJ: Speaking of boundaries, I’m reminded that the narrators of The Sluts are discussing characters and events that take place in Southern California. And SoCal has an escape route to Mexico, which one of the murderers, Renn Adams, takes advantage of. And we know this because it’s cross-checked with the L.A. Times. Then there are references to the real-life market for the physical distribution of snuff films, which circulates from San Diego to Tijuana.

It’s interesting that Cooper depicts the Mexican border as porous, something that characters traverse with relative ease. I think of the class boundaries present in The Sluts, too, and how much cross-class interplay there is between the highway motels and the Hills. Note that respectability doesn’t correspond with morality: The most bourgeois character, a successful surgeon, turns out to be the one who is the most depraved. He uses his surgical tools to literally castrate Brad. There are shades of Sade there; in The 120 Days of Sodom, it’s the bishop, duke, politician, and banker who conduct the torture. In any case, the psychosocial boundaries online seem to map onto, and have some symbiosis with, these literal IRL boundaries. It’s very understated in the novel, but it’s very impactful. It really embodies the atmosphere of Southern California.

SF: I started my career in Southern California and got to know a lot of guys who ended up in situations similar to those in The Sluts. It’s a city that feels suspended in time — you don’t get the sense that LA has a past or a future. For so many people there, the future feels conditional or even irrelevant. This attitude drives LA’s queer community in particular; it drives sex, drugs, partying, art, culture. People live in the present moment; they uphold the intrinsic value of pleasure; they’re not very concerned with the consequences of their actions.

I can’t remember the last time I read a novel that feels so LA. Cooper’s rendering of the flat affect of Southern California is spot-on; in “Board,” the posters respond to vulgar depictions of violence with comments like “Here we go again” and “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry (LOL).” That’s what it’s like there — there’s no social space for reasoning or explanation, for genuine self-reflection. Sometimes you just shrug your shoulders and say, “Honey, it’s LA.” In a way, this L.A. affect prefigures the flat affect of the Internet, or even life in the 21st century. Sometimes you just shrug your shoulders and say, “Honey, it’s late capitalism.”

QR: One of Cooper’s most remarkable tricks is that he introduces a stereotypical “fantasy” from pornography and then tests it out in a real-life situation. In the first section, Review #13 reads, “I have a freakishly large penis (14”) and it’s rare that I find a bottom willing to accommodate me. . . . Stevie could take a deep, hard pounding all night long.” I love the way Cooper runs the 14-inch penis fetish as a sort of litmus test. To what extent can certain fantasies take shape only on the Internet?

SF: For porn performers and sex workers, there are so many fantasies that people expect us to uphold. People might watch an old video of you, and they expect you to look exactly how you looked three years ago. An image is frozen in people’s minds, and people demand you maintain this image. The logic of online fantasies goes: Don’t age; defy science and the passage of time. Our fans idealize us, they idealize our bodies, and it’s dangerous to deviate from those idealizations, because our livelihoods depend on them. You want to keep your livelihood, but this can be damaging to your mental health.

ECdJ: Well, maybe you and Sean are a couple years too young to remember the pre-Grindr Internet. But in early 2000s, when The Sluts is set, everybody online had a fourteen-inch penis. Literally, everyone in the chat room was six foot three and hung like a porn star. I read this passage as time specific, but also, if it were real . . .

SF: Yes.

QR: I’m peeling a banana.

DH: It’s interesting that Elena points to the specificities of the nineties/early-2000s Internet. In terms of time period, Cooper wrote most of The Sluts between 1998 and 2002, and it was published by a small press called Void Books in 2004. Then Carroll & Graf republished the novel in 2005, and it became one of his most popular novels; it won the Lambda Literary Award, it won the Prix Sade, and the reception really took Cooper by surprise. But its success came from the way Cooper crystallized lots of new ideas about the Internet, portrayed lots of feelings and situations people were experiencing in the early 2000s. One of these things was the slipperiness of identity, which the Internet catalyzed. At the time, too, there were lots of hoaxes being facilitated by the Internet, especially in the publishing industry. Take JT LeRoy, for instance —

QR: Right, JT LeRoy. Whose work I actually enjoy!

DH: Well, I think Laura Albert is really a terrible person who exploited the AIDS epidemic. She exploited survivors of the AIDS epidemic in order to extract a huge amount of unpaid labor and influence. But the works themselves are fine.

QR: Even Dennis Cooper was implicated in the JT LeRoy grift. And so was Madonna, so was Marilyn Manson. Albert was talking to Sharon Olds and Mary Gaitskill on the phone, and Cooper too . . .

SF: Who is this?

DH: JT LeRoy was an online persona Laura Albert invented, and Albert was passing her short stories off as the autobiography of an HIV-positive teenage hustler from Appalachia. Talking to all these writers and celebrities over the phone, pretending to be LeRoy, Albert said he was agoraphobic, so he couldn’t meet in person, and no one knew what LeRoy looked like. Then suddenly LeRoy got famous and Albert had her sister-in-law pretend to be LeRoy and give all these public readings, and the sister-in-law wore this huge coat, a big white wig, chunky sunglasses . . .

ECdJ: Just looked it up. She looks like Andy Warhol.

DH: There was a film about it recently with Laura Dern and Kristen Stewart. So anyway, when Cooper wrote The Sluts, he used a few now defunct gay escort sites as a formal model for the story he wanted to tell. He wanted to create “a huge mythological scam.” 

Gary Indiana, another one of Cooper’s contemporaries, has published a lot of work that explores scamming: His 2001 true-crime novel Depraved Indifference or Three-Month Fever, his 1999 fictionalized account of the Gianni Versace murder. He explores how American identity is frequently bolstered and reinforced by grifting.

ECdJ: Well, Americans have a strange ambivalence towards grifters. A similar figure to JT LeRoy is James Frey, who fabricated a history of drug addiction and published a best-selling memoir. When Frey was exposed as a charlatan, people felt extremely deceived and betrayed, but then at the same time people also loved him. I think Americans secretly admire these grifters, in a twisted way. We love scammers.

QR: Figures like Frey and LeRoy have these zany, outrageous personas, too. They capture the zeitgeist and stoke controversy.

Let’s talk about the second section of The Sluts, “Ad.” There’s a passage in which Cooper reproduces the voice of an online grifter, a father who attempts to traffic his disabled son into sex slavery: “He had an accident. . . . They revived him, but he was dead too long. He used to be a really active kid. Soccer, little league, cub scout, actor. . . . There’s a website about him. I don’t know if you’ve seen that. Some pedophile put it together. Actually, I put it up. That’s a secret, though. It gets a lot of hits. Mostly fags, but a few girls. They’re obsessed with him.”

The son’s disability has essentially ruined the father’s life: “Look, take as long as you want. Charge your friends to fuck him. Make pornos with him. I don’t care. . . . Look, I had to quit my job to be his fucking nurse. . . . I’m in debt. I’m totally exhausted.” Cooper raises this point in a deft, artful way — in America, the business models of so many industries are predatory; they’re total scams. Figures like Leroy can be zany scapegoats for their industries, but what about loan sharks? Aren’t they just mundane mid-tier employees, fully alienated from their labor, entering data into a computer?

ECdJ: LeRoy is certainly a scapegoat, but now grifters have become the exception to their own rule. Think about Kelly Loeffler and Richard Burr, those Republican senators who were lambasted for insider trading. It’s awful, of course, but in some sense it’s a tired reflex for the media to find an obvious culprit. That way we don’t have to talk about the fact that the American financial industry is so overleveraged that it can’t handle a virus outbreak without entering a recession. Or, we can ignore the fact that our congresspeople have ulterior motives as financial speculators.

Nobody has mentioned that Loeffler’s husband is the president of the New York Stock Exchange — isn’t that the real scandal? Now she has become this eccentric Elizabeth Holmes figure, and oh, she did something bad, and she owns this vulgar house. All of the bad conscience of living in a corrupt system gets relieved on a couple of zeitgeisty figures.

QR: There have been recent reports of child pornography and sex trafficking on Zoom, a digital platform that has certainly struck gold in the midst of the pandemic. I’m curious about questions of corporate accountability. In both the novel and the current response to the pandemic, there’s an unwillingness to accept complicity in violence and exploitation. In the case of COVID-19, our corporations have been treated not as the pandemic’s aggravators but instead as its martyrs. What’s going on here?

ECdJ: I was astonished by the New York Times’s Zoom exposé last fall; there were problems with the coverage, for sure, but the piece contained really valuable information about how the networks for distributing child porn have shifted in recent years. Two of the most culpable networks are Zoom and the Bing search engine. It’s kind of accidental in each case; it just happens that both of their algorithms are really bad at detecting criminal imagery. Zoom’s particular appeal is that it’s live, it’s encrypted, it’s password protected and invite only, and then once it’s over, the record disappears. So if I were to learn that child porn were being distributed on Zoom, I would have a difficult time intervening without a link to the Zoom call or access to the password, and I’d have a difficult time producing evidence, because of Zoom’s encryption.

In The Sluts, the narrators determine if an act of violence is criminal when it is confirmed by the offline world, through cross-checking from the L.A. Times or the LAPD. The Webmaster attempts to impose fact-checking and accountability on the message board, but his system proves fallible pretty quickly. But lots of the narrators are doing the internal cross-checking in their online postings, too.

But today, as social distancing limits our mobility, I’m just not sure how we perform cross-checking or impose any form of accountability. Once you log off, whether as a passive observer or an active participant, the ambiguity surrounding the online fantasy is ultimately cleared out. Maybe the identity remains opaque, but “logging off” answers the question of what’s real and what’s fake. You’ve witnessed a live act of violence, not a construct or a fantasy.

DH: One of the greatest threads of Cooper’s oeuvre is the notion that morality and ethics, as defined by the social apparatus of capitalism, are meant to keep us docile. If that’s the case, and if we seek to dismantle capitalism, then another question raised by Cooper’s books and this novel in particular is: On what grounds do we not commit violence? What do we define as murder, rape, incest, pedophilia? Cooper is an avowed anarchist, and for me this thread follows his anarchism. The ethics of anarchism are so much about self-reflection, and about . . .

QR: Self-governance.

DH: Yes, governance of one’s own ethics and morality. You don’t accept a system of morality preconditioned for you; when you read The Sluts, you must assess where you stand in relation or opposition to what you’re reading. Why do you experience pleasure from one passage and disgust from another?

QR: What moves me so deeply about the fourth chapter, “Email, Fax,” is that we witness an example of the Brad character attempting to self-govern, and failing to do so. At this point in The Sluts, the identity of Brad remains ambiguous, but Cooper sets the question here aside for a brief stretch of pages. He depicts a boy exiting and reentering the cycle of sex work, drug addiction, homelessness, etc., and this question of self-governance plays out on the day-to-day: “It’s not like I’ve been a saint since I last saw you. I try not to let people have me because it always fucks me up, but then I don’t keep jobs very well, and I need money . . . I don’t think I’ll ever have my shit together, so I feel like an asshole for freaking out. I don’t know why you wrote to me, and I’m trying to understand why.” I don’t know about everyone else, but for me this is the emotional crux of The Sluts. Where the reader feels closest to the narrative.

SF: Sex workers are frequently scapegoated in response to scandals like the Zoom exposé. The SESTA/FOSTA package is one recent example of this. There is taboo and stigma surrounding us — we’re hypervisible, we’re presumed to be ethically compromised. The attitude I see is, who cares about him, he’s already a slut. It seems impossible to so many people that sex workers have a moral compass, which is very ignorant. People don’t see the efforts we make to preserve our physical and mental health, or the efforts to build and sustain community resources. We’re forced to be strong in the face of this stigma, along with the lack of regulation in our industries. I’m constantly astounded by the resilience of my peers.

QR: Well, it goes without saying — we would like to express utter sympathy for anyone who has been affected by child pornography and human trafficking facilitated online, and we believe the digital platforms responsible for these crimes should 100 percent be held to account. We also believe that a great failure of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a failure to hold culpable actors accountable. The corporate bailout, for instance, should be condemned. We want to make this as clear as day.