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Talking about sex: Erotica readers arouse blushes and grins at monthly literary salon

THE NIGHT started with a poem written more than 30 years ago, a few innocent lines about a love long since lost:

THE NIGHT started with a poem written more than 30 years ago, a few innocent lines about a love long since lost:

"The sun and the moon

On a star-spangled bosom.

I love freckles."

So it could only get more explicit from there.

In the hours that followed, the crowd gathered at a Center City bar for the Erotic Literary Salon heard everything from a short story that detailed a woman coming home early to find her boyfriend masturbating, to an excerpt from a novel describing what would happen if "Don Draper had sex with Zac Efron."

They heard poems, including one that pondered the proper name to give the male sex organ.

One man began his piece, "I like slutty women a lot . . . "

"Sometimes you squirm in your seat," said Susana Mayer, who has organized these gatherings since 2008, "like, 'My God, am I really listening to this?' "

But, mostly, she said, people find the readings funny or sad, touching or titillating. There are laughter and tears along with the hot rush of blood - to the face. The audience must enjoy the variety, Mayer noted, because the crowds at Bohemian Absinthe Lounge seem to be getting larger on the third Tuesday of every month - from 25 that first night in 2008 to double that now.

Mayer, who has a doctorate from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, had the idea for the salon while working on her dissertation. She found some older women who were suffering from a lagging sex drive. When she suggested that they read erotica to jump-start their libidos, they balked.

"It amazed me," said Mayer, 61. "They were like, 'I can't do that. My husband would think terribly of me.' If erotica was mainstreamed, I wouldn't have gotten that kind of reaction."

So she began the mainstreaming.

"If people feel comfortable coming to a salon or even knowing that one exists and other people are going, it gives them permission to think, 'Yeah, this is OK.' Most of the work I do is giving people permission."

She imagines the salon as something similar to those held in France during the 17th and 18th centuries. Each month has about a dozen readers who are generally limited to five minutes. They can share original work or the work of others.

After the readings, audience members have a chance to query writers about their work. They can ask those burning questions: "Is this about you?" and "Where do you get your ideas?" and "If you've never done XYZ, how can you write about it?"

Not everyone is a professional writer, but the crowd - composed of some core folk and newcomers each month - is generally helpful.

"We don't blow you off with an 'Ah, that's great.' We support you but say, 'Maybe you want to read this or that,' " said David Barrett, 30, of Northern Liberties, who has been a loyal salon participant for about a year.

An actor, Barrett said that he has tried to explore sexuality in other venues - like monologues when he's auditioning for a part - but not everyone appreciates his efforts.

"If more people were having better sex, we'd have a nicer world," he said.

And, while the readings may make some people blush, to call them pornographic would be wrong, he said.

"Pornography is taking the humanity out of sex," he said. "Erotica explores sex as part of humanity."

Those who read at the salon follow no stereotypes: Some nights, men provide all the romantic readings while women get raunchy. Men write about lesbian encounters. Women tackle gay sex.

Age doesn't matter: Mayer promotes the erotica of a 93-year-old friend who sometimes writes about her relationship with her 96-year-old boyfriend.

At February's gathering, the room was nearly filled with those paying $10 apiece by the 8 p.m. start. Among the snippets of conversation overheard was a discussion about those who judge masochists and the phrase, " '9 1/2 Weeks' was good about two-thirds of the way through."

Microphone in hand, Mayer played host, welcoming the crowd. She said the snow-covered streets had kept some loyal participants away, but she was thrilled when a show of hands revealed at least 10 new audience members.

Mayer was playful, inviting. She urged people on the outskirts of the room to take advantage of a few scattered seats in front: "I don't bite. Not hard anyway." She held up her cell phone and told people with similar objects to turn them off or "if you need to vibrate it, put it in a nice place."

Some readings provoked laughter while others invoked the urge to have another sip of wine.

The night's featured reader was Heidi Champa, a Montgomery County native now living in York. Champa, 33, offered three tales, including the one about the woman coming home and finding her boyfriend masturbating.

As she read that piece, more than one person cast a glance at her husband, who sat on a nearby bench.

"Everyone assumes it's about us," she said in a pre-reading interview. "I'm a writer and it's about being creative." (No telling how they'll take her next works, which deal with men loving men. "I like men. They like men," she said with a shrug.)

Champa started writing erotica a few years ago and has now had more than 40 pieces published in magazines like BUST and anthologies like "Frenzy: 60 Stories of Sudden Sex."

She used to work in a bank. Now she's making her living by writing. She's proud of what she does and, unlike some, she writes and reads under her real name. Her mother told her to have a good time at the Philadelphia salon. Her supportive husband brought her a beer and a glass of water between readings.

"My friends are very jealous that my wife is a licensed massage therapist who writes erotica," said Anthony Champa, 33. "I don't try to shock people, but I enjoy it when they're uncomfortable about it. Because it's no big deal. Everybody loves sex. Everybody loves fantasy." *

Erotic Literary Salon, Bohemian Absinthe Lounge, 1315 Sansom St., doors open at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow, reading starts at 8 p.m., $8-$10.