Smash Pages Q&A: Carta Monir

The comics creator discusses her latest zine ‘Napkin,’ pornography in the age of COVID-19 and much more.

Carta Monir and I spoke more than a year ago about her work, her career and Diskette Press, which she runs, but late last year she published Napkin, a zine about sex and desire that honestly blew me away. This is a work that is raw and thoughtful and insightful and pornographic – but not really pornography.

Monir writes very specifically about her own life, her own journey and her own sexuality, but besides being a thoughtful and honest document, the book also manages to be something striking. It is a moving documentation of queer thinking and sexuality. More than that, there’s so much in it that queer people, cis people and so many people can relate to. Anyone who has had issues with their bodies, struggled with what they want and what it means, questioned their identity, wanted to let loose or felt unable to let loose will relate to it.

The questions of sex, desire and identity are hard to talk about openly, which made me more impressed by the way that Monir is able to. I admitted before we talked that I am a neurotic New Englander, but we spoke about her book, how she started making porn recently and the connections between these projects. 

Please note this interview includes a frank and mature discussion about sex and pornography that is NSFW or for kids.

Carta, we spoke last year about various projects of yours, but since then you published Napkin, which was an incredible work. Where did the idea for it start?

I don’t know if you read the selfie zine I made, I Must Be Doing Something Right. Early in my transition I had been doing this email newsletter where I sent people selfies and wrote critically about them. I enjoyed doing that, and after the newsletter concluded I collected the best writing in a little square book. When I started sleeping around, I knew that I wanted to make work about it in one way or another, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. The comment card thing started almost as a joke, but the more I thought about it, the more it felt like a cute gimmick but also a way to let people feel like they were participating in work that was partly about them.

When I’m writing about selfies there’s no ethical question. I didn’t want to be one of those people saying, “Here’s my tell all about sex with people who did not necessarily know they were being farmed for content.” [laughs] It did double duty in that it gave people a head’s up that if you participate in this, I will be including this card in a zine. I was very up front about that. It’s anonymous. A couple people did sign their names, but I blacked them out for publication. Also it just felt more authentic to give people the opportunity to give feedback. It didn’t end up being a book that was, over and over again, “I am so cool and good at sex.” I liked the idea that if someone had something they wanted more of or something they wanted to share, this was their opportunity to do so.

Originally my idea was just to publish the comment cards with no commentary. The more I went along, the more I wanted to include short essays, and it became a much bigger zine than I initially intended.

I’m sure the comment cards and the idea of it made people think of performance art.

I like performance art. The zine is an art project that feels unusual, but very approachable. People know what to do with a comment card. I think most people just thought it was funny. I told some people about it before and asked some people after, but it was always filled out basically immediately after we had sex. I think people thought it was a unique thing. They were excited about participating.

And doing it after sex, it’s not that people weren’t taking it seriously, but there’s an element of play to filling it out.

There’s an element of play, and it just feels like we’ve already broken the ice. I did not have anybody say no.

How long did you do this?

I stopped doing it basically after I finished laying out Napkin. At that point I was like, I don’t need to keep collecting these forever. They had a defined purpose and at a certain point I feel that people can communicate with me directly if they want to.

It’s interesting to hear that essays came afterwards. Clearly you’d thought about many of these concerns for a long time, and cis and trans people can relate and understand so much of what you’re talking about. Why did you think your voice needed to be a part of this?

Because so much of my work is about myself. I’ve really become really enamored of this idea of being as direct as possible when talking about the things that are going on in my life. Sex was and is a big part of my life.

Also, I haven’t seen a lot of work like this. Or any work like this, particularly. It felt like something that was worth doing. I like making work about myself. I like having the opportunity to explain myself to other people and feeling like other people understand me. There didn’t feel like there was work that spoke to my experience specifically.

Anecdotally I would tell people, “It’s wild: when I started hormones my unstoppable compulsion to look at pornography basically disappeared.” My endocrinologist at the time said, “That’s a new one, I should probably write that down.” By writing it in this book and being very candid about it, I’m recording something that felt interesting and important to me – and since the book came out, people have reached out to say they’ve experienced the exact same things. That’s something I never would have known if not for writing it down.

Something I found through doing largely autobiographical work is that even when I’m extremely specific and talking about things that could only have happened in my own life, the specificity allows people to see I’m being very open and honest, and connect more with the things that I’m talking about even if the exact details are a little bit different. Especially when it’s a topic that people feel embarrassed to talk about. Being as direct as possible connects with people very effectively.

I’m really glad that I did these essays because I know that for a person who’s early in transition or hasn’t considered a lot of these things before, it might be the first time they’re thinking about these things for themselves. The responses I’ve gotten to Napkin have been so amazing. It feels like there’s a huge gap in terms of books like this or people talking about experiences in this kind of way. I’m glad that I was able to fill that, to some extent.

There’s so much in the book that I could relate to as a cis person, and I’m sure a lot of the people who reach out have a very personal response to it. I remember one essay early on where you were talking about saying no to people. Which I think will resonate with so many people.

Something I’ve found is that the personal failures or the things that feel the most awkward tend to be much more universal than you would initially expect. I’m just really glad that through talking about them it gives people permission to think about and grapple with the ways that it manifests in their own lives.

I think that saying no is difficult for everybody. And especially for queer people, where so much of your early life is this navigation of feeling totally undesirable so when you do get to feel desirable, you ask yourself, “Is this the last time, the only time I get to feel desirable, and if I say no, I’ve ruined it forever??” I’m sure everyone has had that experience, but a lot of people have never seen it articulated before. I know I hadn’t when I was a teenager having trouble with this concept. Through writing it down, that acknowledgement helps people who haven’t grappled with the idea that it’s more universal than they realize. 

There is something transcendent about when someone can put it into words, these feelings that we’ve internalized. Through reading it, we understand ourselves better. 

Exactly. I think especially when we talk about understanding ourselves as sexual beings, the imagery that we consume and is all around us is filtered through a male gaze more often than not. It takes a lot of time for most people to find things that aren’t just purely for men.

It’s the difference between lesbian porn made for men to consume vs lesbian porn made for lesbians to consume. I think a lot of coming to terms with your own queerness and your own body is about navigating not only what you have internalized from pop culture and the male gaze, but also accepting that even if something has bad origins that it can still be hot and that’s okay.

I’m making pornography actively now and there’s a real navigation of not feeling like I’m totally playing into the most obvious scripts of submissive and docile femininity. While also wanting to make money off of men. [laughs] Also navigating what I find personally hot. Sometimes it feels hot to be submissive and passive. Often it feels hot not to be that. So much of feeling good in your body is being able to forgive yourself for the things that you find sexy, even if they are un-feminist. 

As you were saying that, I thought about one essay you wrote about protection. One of your partners said, “I’m a faggot, but I’m not that kind of faggot.” I would have responded similarly to the suggestion of having unprotected sex. But your essay about it and the idea of it is so intensely hot. I’m just too neurotic to actually do it.

I feel you. It makes sense. I have a lot of respect for that. There’s that toxic Grindr boy meme, *licking a public railing* “it’s okay, I’m on PrEP.” [laughs] It feels like that’s my approach. Every time I see my doctor she tries to remind me, “You don’t want to get chlamydia, you should be careful.” Most of the sex that I tend to have is with other queer people, who are promiscuous, who get tested extremely regularly, and that makes me feel a little more protected. 

But there’s something really wild to me about getting to taste what I imagine the 70s were like. [laughs] I love 80s queer porn and so much of 80s gay male porn is about a longing for the sexual freedom of the 70s. A longing for those halcyon days where you could climb into someone’s trucker cab and have them piss in your ass and not even think about it. Now we have PrEP. The science fiction future that everyone wanted is here and it feels like if the worst things I have to worry about are these not life-threatening STI’s, I’m generally a little more willing to take that risk. I’m much more careful than that sounds! I’m not having my ass pissed in by random truckers. But I could! [laughs] 

So how did you end up making porn?

Doing porn is something that I’ve always been interested in. And sex work, more generally. Something I talk about in Napkin was this arc. I got straight/cis married – and then my spouse and I both came out as trans. Me first and then them a couple years later. It’s not something that we talked about when we started dating or got married. Neither of us had even acknowledged it to ourselves. Our respective comfort levels with the types of sex that we were having and the type of relationship that we had changed a lot. At the beginning of our relationship the idea that we would ever open the relationship was absurd. That is not something that would have ever come up. Much less the idea of transitioning. It took a while for both of us to get comfortable with these different forms of sexual expression. 

When the quarantine started my spouse saw how adrift in the world I was because hooking up with people and being a sexual member of the broader queer community is an important part of my life that had disappeared for who knows how long. They saw how difficult it was for me. How so much of my self esteem and feelings of being connected to the queer community are tied up in being able to touch other people and express myself sexually. They knew that I’ve thought that if things were different I would love to do porn. When quarantine started they said, “If you want to make an onlyfans or something, this is a good time. Everybody is in the same boat as you and everybody needs to see a hot lady.”

With their blessing, I dove headfirst into it. I don’t know if it would have happened if not for quarantine. I’m very content with where I am normally being able to just go out and have these experiences. I don’t necessarily need other people to be aware of them for me to feel value. But in the absence of being able to hook up, it feels nice to know that I can still connect with people in a sexual way without worrying about spreading this contagion. As non-neurotic as I am about hooking up on PrEP, I am extremely careful when it comes to not wanting to become a carrier for coronavirus. I suppose I could be hooking up if I wanted to, but I don’t want anyone’s lungs to fill with fluid, you know? That idea that by doing things in the world I could seriously harm other people – I can’t do that. So it’s going to be a while before I’m able to even see other partners again and I’m really trying to focus my efforts on my online porno empire.

I see Napkin and what you’ve been doing online these past months as related. But while you’ve been very open about sex and sexuality, I wouldn’t have described you as an exhibitionist.

This is going to sound silly. I’m sure there are scholars who have more nuanced takes, but I don’t necessarily know if putting porn on the internet and exhibitionism are exactly the same. Maybe there’s grades of exhibitionism? I’ve been to sex parties and I’m very comfortable having sex in front of people, but I would be very uncomfortable having sex in a public park. The idea of people seeing me who weren’t into or expecting to see someone having sex just doesn’t make me feel good or comfortable.

With a sex party there’s a degree of consent by everyone.

There is a degree of consent, but ultimately – and I know this is hard to reconcile with the work I make – I am a person who really values privacy and control over a situation. If I’m at a party with a hundred people and everyone is fucking, it feels like a situation I have control over because I’ve chosen to go there and I understand the parameters and it feels like I’m safe there. Even if I knew that no one could see me, having sex against a window would make me feel uncomfortable because the idea of someone I don’t have control over seeing me in a way that I don’t want makes me uncomfortable.

To me it feels like an exhibitionist gets off on the idea of people seeing them, whereas for me the idea of people seeing me is not in itself particularly sexy. People choosing to and me allowing them feels better. In making porn, much like with my comics or zines, I’m making the kind of work that I would like to see. Most of it feels like I’m still experimenting and figuring out what I’m doing. The fact that random internet men also subscribe feels very secondary. Does that make sense?

It does. And having read your work I know a lot about you, but there’s a lot of aspects of your life that I know nothing about. I don’t think that’s a contradiction.

Eventually I’m sure I will want to make art about this. There are so many aspects of this that I’m finding interesting that I’m excited to make work about in one form or another, but right now, I’m content at letting this be the work. Especially because I’m depressed as hell and quarantined, shooting these little videos feels more approachable and doable to me than anything I normally do.

You do seem to be having fun.

Yeah. It is fun. 

It’s also fun starting fresh in a domain that I don’t have a ton of experience in and seeing what connects with people, what can set me apart from other people, and what feels authentic. My porn Twitter account feels experimental – in a fun way. Can I get away with this? Pornographic anything online could be deleted at any moment and I’d have to start over again, so I might as well have fun with it for now. I’m having a really nice time so far. It does feel like an extension of the other kind of work I do. Where the porn I make is this intimate peek into my life. That’s what my other work is, too, ultimately.

The Twitter account has your sense of humor and sensibility.

Yeah, like I made a video of me fucking the risograph machine and I assume I’m the only person to make that content? If someone else is making risograph fucking content, I’d love to see it and know what company I’m keeping. [laughs] It is fun. It’s an excuse to have fun.

You mentioned that this is what you’ve been doing lately. Everyone I’ve talked to or checked in with, almost no one is getting work done, but people can often do something different and it feels like this has served that purpose for you.

Yeah. It’s been a good outlet for me. It’s different from my normal work. It also pays substantially better than any freelance job I’ve ever had. My normal work has dried up. There are no shows this year, so all of that income is gone. Making porn has been really good for me financially and I’m excited to continue. I am so deeply, deeply indebted and grateful to the community of trans sex workers who have been so welcoming and helpful and kind as I’ve learned the most basic online ropes.

I’m glad you found a community. 

It’s a good community. Napkin already felt pornographic. I don’t think people pick up Napkin thinking I’m going to read this and jerk off, but it was certainly explicit and parts of it were intended to be pornographic, so it didn’t feel like a huge leap. It’s just a different type of content. A purer form?

In Napkin you talked about your struggle to define your own sexual identity. You said, “I’m gay.” I’m curious about that because so much of your work is about fluidity – and not just about you and not just about sex – but you see the world in very fluid terms. That felt like you needing to have a vague catchall term because of that fluidity. Is that fair?

I do think it’s fair. I got a new doctor recently and the intake paperwork had a couple of questions asking about sex risk factors. The way that the paperwork phrased it was, what is your sexual orientation? Then there were check boxes: do you have sex with women, men, trans women, trans men. I wrote lesbian and then checked all the boxes and the doctor was very confused, I think. It just doesn’t feel worthwhile to get into it, most of the time.

If pressed, in most scenarios, I would say I’m a lesbian. The attraction that I feel is directed at women. At the same time, I like sex. I like to have sex with all kinds of people. I will occasionally have sex with cis men. It’s pretty unusual but it will occasionally happen. There are definitely people who would want me to quantify that that makes me pansexual, but it just doesn’t feel important to me. I have more important things I could be doing than agonizing over the exact taxonomy of who I fuck. It doesn’t feel terribly useful. Why would I try and put myself and others in a box that way?

The sex I’m having is deeply queer. I guess that one thing I can say for sure is I don’t think I’ve slept with any straight cis men ever. And it seems unlikely that I’m ever going to unless they wander into some big queer sex party. As I said in those tweets, it feels like in a lot of queer media I really like there’s this understanding of a fluidity of terms and that when people say they’re gay, it can mean 20 different things. That feels right to me. That feels correct based on my own experiences. So many things about my body and my sexuality have changed in such wild ways. They’re probably going to continue to change so I just don’t need to worry about it. 

As far as making porn goes, if once all this is over, if someone – Natalie Mars? Whoever – asked, want to do something together? Would you be interested? Or does that kind of thing not have any appeal?

I’m definitely interested in collaborating with other people. I don’t know about such big names, honestly – I’m small-time compared to any mainstream trans pornstar – but I would love to collaborate with some of my friends on onlyfans and porn twitter. I guess I’ll see what I’m offered when it’s even a possibility again!

You mentioned that making porn is something you’d thought about for a while, but for all the normalizing of porn – for good and ill – it is a brave thing to be open the way you are. I mean I’ve written porn, but I’ve never published it, much less under my own name. This isn’t easy.

Thank you. I’ve talked about this in other interviews, but I feel like I’m able to do these things because of circumstance more than bravery. I’m in a position where I don’t really care about what other people think of me anymore. Not everyone can say that.

I do wonder if we’re at a point where things might change about a lot of these things. Since lockdown started and we can’t even touch, people have said (joking and not), we’re all going to be complete sluts when this is over, right? We might live through the revival of the 1970s.

I hope so! People keep talking about post-COVID orgies and I want to go to them!! As long as everyone is being safe and thoughtful, I think a huge, end-of-The-Matrix-Trilogy orgy is very appropriate.

But in all seriousness, I really appreciate you doing this because I did love Napkin and when you started doing this, I saw the connections and thought, “I should talk to Carta about it.” And then I immediately hesitated because of the topic. Clearly, I’m neurotic and a bit uncomfortable about talking about sex and desire. Or maybe just uneasy and unused to talking about it in this way? But I’m glad we could do this.

Me too, Alex. Thank you so much!

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