By Ani Freedman ’22
On the night of October 28th, Associate Professor of Writing and Rhetoric Maggie M. Werner stepped onstage at Bartlett Theater in Coxe Hall in front of a room filled with her students and colleagues, wearing Halloween masks and eager to hear her read from her recently published book. In the midst of the pandemic, Werner’s book Stripped: Reading the Erotic Body was published by Penn State University Press. The Herald sat down with Professor Werner to discuss her experience writing and sharing this accomplishment.
“Stripped is a book that proposes different ways of analyzing bodily communication,” Werner told the Herald. More specifically, Werner clarified, the book breaks down different styles of looking at “embodied erotic rhetoric.”
As Werner explained the content of her book, she told the Herald more about the deeper meaning that the body takes on through this type of analysis. “So, instead of treating bodies the same way as we would treat text, […] these methods that I’m proposing try to take into account that bodies are not text, and there are multiple symbolic systems that they communicate in,” she stated.
Werner hopes to shift conversations about how embodied erotic rhetoric functions beyond “conversations that just want to talk about them as oppressive or empowering.” Werner perceives this as a limiting binary, especially in regard to feminist theory.
When prompted about her experience in writing the book, Werner disclosed that it was a long process, beginning back in 2005, revealing it to be an immersive time of her life in the communities where the erotic body could be observed. “It’s depended a lot on ethnography, going and looking and being a participant/observer at these sites,” Werner continued, “Going to strip clubs, going to burlesque shows, being an audience member” were all critical aspects of her research for Stripped.
As the interview continued, the Herald asked Professor Werner what provoked her interest in this area of research. She answered, frankly, “Honestly, it all comes back to the fact that I’m interested in women’s sexuality.”
Werner then elaborated, “These are really important areas because of the ways that the conversations are so limited.” In researching and writing this book, Werner hoped to challenge and complicate the discussions around embodied erotic rhetoric. She claimed, “I don’t think anything operates as simply as, ‘it’s good or bad,’ and it wasn’t what I was seeing, it wasn’t what the sex workers that I met were concerned with.” As her research deepened, Werner found a greater motivation to change the way that sex workers and the body are analyzed and discussed. She realized that “There was a disconnect between the lived experience of sex workers, including strippers, and what I saw represented by academics, news sources, and just people in conversation—and so I just wanted to intervene in that conversation.”
Sharing this accomplishment was no easy task for Werner, she admitted. “I was shaky,” she told the Herald, “I think that being a queer faculty member who deals with explicit sexuality is something that I worry about.” Despite these fears, Werner saw positive support and reception from the audience. “I think it was received well,” she stated simply, but the crowds of students and colleagues that flooded towards her at the end of the October 28th reading proved a great deal of enthusiasm to be the reality.
Given the specified, and what Werner perceives to be provocative material, the Herald shifted the conversation towards the potential larger impact of sparking conversations about the topics in Stripped. Werner hopes that this will create “a space for other people to be able to talk about the things [she] hadn’t been able to talk about,” referencing back to when she first came out. In doing so, Werner wants to create a sense of normalcy and safety about this discussion, as she told the Herald, “It is normal, and we are sexual bodies and people have sexual bodies.”
“It’s not dirty—but it is, and that’s why we like it,” Werner said. “We don’t want to normalize sexuality too much, because it takes the sexiness out of it.”
Nearing the end of the interview, Werner told the Herald she hopes that she will not only complicate this conversation, but also “encourage people to listen.” In the process of researching for Stripped, Werner revealed how she learned to listen to the workers she engaged with, emphasizing the importance of this act. “If somebody is saying, I’m doing this work, but I also wouldn’t be doing it if I wasn’t addicted to drugs and living in poverty, that you also listen to that and work with that,” she emphatically said. “That would then start making those important distinctions between people who are kidnapped and trafficked, and between people who are addicted and need help, and between people who are making the choice and do not need help.”
Werner would like readers to know the importance of “understanding that when you meet people who are not like you, that you have to do a lot of stepping outside of yourself to listen to them.” In relation to the body, Werner asserted that people tend to react with regard to their own bodies rather than considering the person’s differences. “When people hear about sex work, they tend to think, ‘I wouldn’t want to do that’”—a fact that Werner hopes will be disrupted by her book as others learn to listen and consider the body in a different, more complex way.
Moving forward, Werner is unsure of the direction her research will take after the release of Stripped. Despite this uncertainty, Werner did express her interest in mental health, and that she wants to intervene in that conversation as well. “I want to remind people that we talk about our brains and our bodies as though they’re separate, but they’re not,” she said. Werner furthered this point by saying, “I think a lot of the stuff that I’ve done with the body will already help me think about mental health.” Essentially, Werner hopes to look into this rhetorical discussion as she did with embodied erotic rhetoric, but cannot say what direction that will take her presently. “I just don’t know what that will look like,” she said.
Stripped: Reading the Erotic Body can be purchased at the HWS College Bookstore, directly from Penn State University Press, or online from Amazon.