New CIA Deputy Avril Haines Used To Run Erotic Fiction Readings At Her Bookstore. Good For Her.

Image courtesy The Daily Beast.

Over at the Daily Beast, Avi Zenilman and Ben Jacobs report that Avril Haines, President Obama’s nominee to be Central Intelligence Agency deputy director, had an interesting former profession: she used to run a bookstore. And specifically, they report, she used to–in addition to promoting the work of local authors and books out of smaller publishing houses–Haines used to host erotic fiction readings:

But 20 years ago, Haines opened and co-owned Adrian’s Book Café in the Baltimore waterfront neighborhood of Fells Point. She opened Adrian’s after dropping out of a graduate program in physics at Johns Hopkins University. The store featured regular “Erotica Nights.” including dinner and a series of readings by guests of published work or their own prose, according to a 1995 report in the Baltimore Sun; couples could attend for $30, while singles paid $17.

“Erotica has become more prevalent because people are trying to have sex without having sex. Others are trying to find new fantasies to make their monogamous relationships more satisfying,” Haines, then in her twenties, told the Sun. “What the erotic offers is spontaneity, twists and turns. And it affects everyone.” (She also told Baltimore Sun reporter Mary Corey that friends heckled “you just want a mass orgy in your bookstore, while she and her co-owner were initially worried only “dirty old men” would show up.)

“At an Agency recently rocked by revelations about then-Director David Petraeus’ secret erotic emails while having an affair with his biographer, Haines’ bookstore past seems considerably more appealing, and about as racy as what a reader might find in a Lewis Libby or Jim Webb novel,” the two reporters write. But I’d actually argue that the fact that Haines can get nominated at all given her past employment speaks to a certain maturity at the Central Intelligence Agency and the Obama administration.

Displaying interest in anything other than the most basic heterosexual sex acts has long been suspect when it comes to the world of government secrets. Simply being gay or lesbian meant you were out of the running for a federal security clearance for decades: the National Security Agency gave a clearance to its first non-closeted employee until 1980, and as of 1989, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was saying it had no plans to grant such clearances to gay and lesbian applicants, and while the Central Intelligence Agency didn’t have the same blanket policy of exclusion, the organization said that same year that it was confident it had never cleared a gay employee. It took until 1995 for President Clinton to issue an executive order saying the federal government wouldn’t discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation when it came to classified material. And it’s not just your own sexual behavior that could cause suspicion. Among the novels targeted by Sen. Joe McCarthy in his attempts to purge volumes from federal libraries overseas was From Here to Eternity, which acknowledges both infidelity and homosexuality. Consumption of pornography that’s considered “compulsive” can still potentially get you denied a security clearance for government work.

And treating erotic fiction with moral suspicion isn’t entirely an artifact of the past. Pelican Bay State Prison recently found itself in front of the California State Court of Appeal for confiscating The Silver Crown, an erotic novel about a werewolf hunter who falls in love with a werewolf, from Andres Martinez, an inmate who had ordered it. Martinez has a less than charming criminal record, including attempted murder–one of the crimes for which he’s incarcerated–and battery on inmates and peace officers, acts of violence that have gotten him assigned to a secure housing unit in prison. But he doesn’t have a record of sexual offenses where consuming erotic literature might conflict with psychological treatment to prevent recidivism, or act as some sort of trigger. And the prison system’s claims that banning material with a lower standard for what constitutes obscenity than would apply in the real world has decreased harassment didn’t turn out to be backed up by actual statistics. As Justice James Richman wrote of The Silver Crown itself, in the order allowing Martinez to have his book: “The sex is sometimes rough but always consensual. Women are portrayed as frequently aggressive, always willing, and seemingly insatiable. Men are portrayed as frequently demanding, always ready, and seemingly inexhaustible. The sex occurs between humans and werewolves, as well as intra-species. On the other hand, the sex appears to be between consenting adults. No minors are involved. No bestiality is portrayed (unless werewolves count). And there is no sadomasochism.”*

It’s simultaneously amusing and sad that we still treat erotic fiction and interest in depictions of sexuality as if they’re likely to cause real-world trouble. But it’s a relief to see the California courts and the Obama administration act sensibly, in declaring that reading work like The Silver Crown or Anne Rice’s pseudonymous erotic novels won’t make the people who consume them act out or turn into security risks. In decades past, Haines might have been treated like a deviant, or as if she were oversexed, and even today, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the talking points around her appointment is that her interest in erotic fiction renders her frivolous or naughty. But like the millions of other Americans who read books like Fifty Shades of Grey, Haines is just a grown-up. And the sooner we can all acknowledge that reading sexy literature doesn’t render anyone blackmailable or unfit for serious work, the more adult our country will be, too.

*The decision is truly entertaining reading, including this vigorous argument in support of genre fiction: “To begin with, we cannot simply dismiss the work as nonserious literature because it deals with werewolves and other paranormal creatures and activities…Whether contemporary readers drawn to this genre actually believe in werewolves, whether they see in such works a metaphor for some kind of human transformation, or whether they simply read werewolf literature as escapist fantasy, the fact remains that werewolf literature retains a place in modern American and European society.”