5 Sex, Drugs and Feminism: The Punk Adventures of Kathy Acker

Collin Cheung

Introduction

Born in 1948, Kathy Acker became one of the most influential American writers in her generation. The topics of her writings pioneered the way for the punk movement that emerged in the mid-1970s. Acker’s writing style distinguished herself from other postmodernist writers at the time. One of her most notable techniques, which some would consider plagiarism, was to lift texts from other authors and distort them to contain a new context, whether it be altering the text or adding new text to it. To be more polite, this technique could also be called appropriation or sampling. Acker challenged traditions and expectations through appropriating past texts. Another reason Acker’s writing is impressively unique is that she perfectly mixes her personal identity with her fictitious characters. This made her writing structure completely complex for “if she infuses too much of the personal, it becomes autobiography; if she relies too much on simple narrative, it becomes mundane”.[1] In any of her writings, you can definitely see a part of Acker in her characters. One of the main topics for her writing has always been sexuality. She would take her personal experience from working in the sex industry and apply it to her work, generally in a political way.[2] Her goal was to disrupt society’s expectations for women by bringing light to taboo topics such as the female sexual experience. This goal will become a main tenet in punk feminism for years to come.

Acker’s Works

Rip-Off Red, Girl Detective was the first novel Acker wrote, but it was only published posthumously. The cover of the book is a photo of Acker with the New York skyline.[3] Rip-Off Red was a “pornographic mystery story” that examines the nature of desire and love in female sexuality. The story contains a tremendous amount of sex, explicit language, and homoerotic experiences. The novel begins with the protagonist having sex with her husband, but it eventually leads to her having sex with different female lovers on multiple occasions.[4] Rip-Off Red is an attack on social institutions, specifically the norms of family and society. Acker explores the notion of desire, love, and female sexual experience.[5]

The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula was published in 1973 as her debut novel. The original book cover was designed by Leandro Katz, an Argentinian writer, visual artist, and filmmaker. Instead of using metaphors and allusions as most other authors do, Acker lifts texts from other authors to combine with her own passages. This radical style is exhibited in this novel, as she appropriated texts from authors, William Butler Yeats and Marquis de Sade. This book discusses female sexuality without the traditional sense of poise and rationality.[6] Instead, she examines it with the use of vulgar language and explicitly detailed descriptions. Similarly, to most of her other books, this novel contained a tremendous amount of sex and death; however, since this was the first published book of Acker, Black Tarantula actually set the standard for the rest of her following novels.

The Interview

The primary source comes from an unexpurgated transcript of the interview “Devoured by Myths” between Kathy Acker and Sylvère Lotringer.[7] Lotringer is a literary critic, cultural theorist, and editor. His childhood was full of non-traditional thinking as he was born in Paris during the German occupation. He describes himself as a “foreign agent provocateur.” This is one of the reasons why one of his major interests is in “alternative social movements that challenge current power relations”, which also explains his relation to Kathy Acker and the punk feminist movement.[8] The general audience for the interview were likely open-minded thinkers that were also interested in alternative social movements.[9]

Devoured By Myths: The Unexpurgated Interview With Sylvère Lotringer and Kathy Acker

Lotringer: Before I met you, I had heard of that writer called the Black Tarantula.[10] I was very intrigued. I must say I had a visual picture that was quite different from what I discovered. Why did you take that name?

Acker: I was living in ‘Frisco with Peter – Peter Gordon – in the Haight-Ashbury section right after the hippy period.[11] The section became a very whoppy town for about two years, and then it became gay and started to spruce up.[12] There was a wonderful theater group that used to be the Cockettes, and right before I came to San Francisco, in the early seventies, changed to the Angels of Light.[13] Some of the Angels of Light lived up the street from us, and I became friendly with them. According to the guide, every bar at the time was gay, but it’s not quite true. It was this ambience in which everyone was sort of androgynous. You weren’t gay, you weren’t straight, it was very loose. And everybody changed their names, everybody wore makeup, everybody dressed up all the time. [14]

Lotringer: Even Peter?

Acker: Peter enjoyed watching. Peter’s eyes got very big at all this. I would go up the street for these orgies. Peter never came. I remember I had a girlfriend for a time, Vanessa, who used to sing with Prissy Condition.[15] Vanessa was this beautiful, beautiful black girl, and she would come in and sort of whop Peter around. She would say, “I’m gonna fuck your girlfriend now,” and Peter would just giggle. He didn’t know what else to do! Ah, Vanessa was something. And so everyone changed their names. I was writing, but I didn’t want to make a thing about it, you know; it was as if I had two lives. I hang around them and also I was a writer. So I made up as tore of name for myself, and that name was Rip-Off Red. And I wrote a novel at that point, Rip-Off Red Girl Detective, which is the first novel I’ve ever written.[16] Very luckily it has never been published. It was a pornographic mystery story, and it was supposed to earn me lots of money (in my very deluded brain).

Lotringer: How old were you then?

Acker: When I wrote Tarantula, I was twenty-three.[17] So I was around twenty-two. Where did I write The Black Tarantula? Oh, memory, it gets everything mixed up. I definitely was with Peter when I wrote Rip-Off Red. And we were in ‘Frisco. Before that I was doing The Black Tarantula down in San Diego. I was the Black Tarantula before I was Rip-Off Red.[18] So there goes that apocryphal story. [laughs]

Lotringer: Why the Black Tarantula?

Acker: I don’t remember. I honestly don’t. I like it. I like tarantulas in those days, and I probably like them now. Mexican kids keep them as pets. And they’re really, like, sensual… they’re really soft and furry. Everyone thinks they’re horrible but they’re not terribly dangerous. The worst they do is sting like a bee.

Lotringer: That was quite a punk name…

Acker: Yea, but this was way before punk. I guess I was kind of punk.[19]  I wasn’t a very good hippy. We just liked the Velvet Underground – we didn’t have anyone really to like in those days.[20] Well, I sort of felt like a hippy, I mean I eat healthy food, but I never really was into free love. I am just not that loose. And play those days, the men really had all the power, all they did is to get these women pregnant. It wasn’t really much fun, you end up with five babies and no boyfriend[21]


Collin is a first-year student at Wake Forest University. He wants to major in Biology and is very excited for the next four years at Wake!


  1. Hardin, Michael. Review of Review of Rip-off Red, Girl Detective and the Burning Bombing of America: The Destruction of the U. S., , ; Essential Acker: The Selected Writings of Kathy Acker, , Amy Scholder, by Kathy Acker, Amy Scholder, and Dennis Cooper. Modern Language Studies 33, no. 1/2 (2003): 95–98. https://doi.org/10.2307/3195312.
  2. Scholder, Amy. Essential Acker. (New York: Grove Press, 2002).
  3. Presumably, the background is of the Twin Towers
  4. One of the women the protagonist has sex with is the mother of another female lover.
  5. Hardin, Michael. Review of Review of Rip-off Red, Girl Detective and the Burning Bombing of America: The Destruction of the U. S., , ; Essential Acker: The Selected Writings of Kathy Acker, , Amy Scholder, by Kathy Acker, Amy Scholder, and Dennis Cooper. Modern Language Studies 33, no. 1/2 (2003): 95–98. https://doi.org/10.2307/3195312.
  6. Eye on Design. “Exploring the Radical Feminist Texts of Kathy Acker, One Book Design at a Time,” May 23, 2019. https://eyeondesign.aiga.org/exploring-the-radical-feminist-texts-of-kathy-acker-one-book-design-at-a-time/.
  7. Scribd. “Devoured by Myths.” Accessed November 18, 2019. https://www.scribd.com/doc/280589299/Devoured-by-Myths.
  8. “Sylvère Lotringer - The European Graduate School.” Accessed November 18, 2019. https://egs.edu/faculty/sylv%C3%A8re-lotringer; Lotringer and Acker were also close friends and sexual partners. Livingstone, Josephine. “What Does Kathy Acker Deserve?” The New Republic, September 14, 2017. https://newrepublic.com/article/144803/kathy-acker-deserve.
  9. These people likely knew about Acker and her writing or at the very least, would take her ideas and opinions seriously.
  10. The nickname is a reference to her debut novel, The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula
  11. San Francisco. Peter Gordon is a composer and experimental musician. He and Kathy married in 1976, but they eventually divorced. IMDb. “Peter Gordon.” Accessed November 18, 2019. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0330518/bio. Gordon met Acker in San Diego in ’72. She accompanied him and a friend on a cross-country drive to New York. After the drive, they lived together for seven years. Baines, Josh. “Stream Two Unheard Tracks by New York Disco Legends Peter Gordon and David Van Tieghem.” Vice (blog), November 23, 2016. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/d7jqez/peter-gordon-david-van-tieghem-unheard-tracks-stream. Haight-Ashbury is a neighborhood in San Francisco known as the “hippie counterculture district” of the 60s. “The Summer of Love” of 1967 brought over 100,000 people to the neighborhood for a psychedelic period of free-thinking, creative expression, free love, drugs, and food. Moorehead, Karlin. “Haight-Ashbury: The Hippie Epicenter.” Groovy History. Accessed November 18, 2019. https://groovyhistory.com/haight-ashbury-the-hippie-epicenter.
  12. Whoppy, or whoopee, is “used to express exuberance”. It is also used to denote fun or merrymaking, sometimes sexually. “Definition of WHOOPEE.” Accessed November 18, 2019. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/whoopee.
  13. The Cockettes were an ensemble of hippie women, gay men, and babies who performed midnight musicals at the Palace Theater in North Beach. Their last performance was in the fall of 1972. They were major influences for the glitter rock era of David Bowie and Elton John. They also influenced The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The Cockettes. “History.” Accessed November 18, 2019. https://www.cockettes.com/history/. The Angels of Light were a breakout group from the Cockettes as a reaction for the Cockettes' perceived commercialization. The Angels were a theater group that formed in early 1971 and gave free shows in local theaters. “ANGELS OF LIGHT | Wild Life Archive.” Accessed November 18, 2019. https://wildlifearchive.org/angels-of-light/.
  14. This highlights the immense disconnect from societal standards of the “punk feminist” scene at the time. No matter the gender, race, or sexuality, everyone participated in becoming a “different” person for the night.
  15. I could not find any available information on the internet about Prissy Condition or a Vanessa in connection with Kathy Acker. I have searched multiple databases without finding any evidence for either one. Presumably, Vanessa was the singer in this small band called Prissy Condition.
  16. Rip-Off Red is written in a journal-like fashion as it is broken up by dates. It begins on April 20th with a description of the protagonist, Rip Off Red. In this description, one can see how Acker infuses her personal experiences into her characters. The novel starts with her having sex with her husband Peter. This goes on for a couple of pages. Afterwards, she masturbates on a plane heading to New York, has sex with a grocery boy, and a female lover named Sally Spitz. This was only the first few pages of the novel. Acker, Kathy. Rip-Off Red, Girl Detective. (New York: Grove Press, 2002).
  17. Similar to Rip-Off Red, The Black Tarantula also separates the passages by dates; this time, it begins in July 1973. This novel continues with the high quantity and very detailed descriptions of sex. A different protagonist than Rip Off Red goes on a sex spree with multiple unnamed lovers, both men and women. I find Tarantula to be different than Rip-Off Red in the way that the latter contains more dialogue, whereas Tarantula contains more narration and personal thoughts of the protagonist. Acker, Kathy. The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula. (New York: Printed Matter Inc., 1978).
  18. She started The Black Tarantula before Rip Off Red. However, she finished the latter in San Francisco before finishing and publishing Tarantula in 1973. Rip Off Red remained unpublished for more than twenty-five years.
  19. Acker has always been the icon for “punk feminism” even before it existed.
  20. The Velvet Underground was a rock & roll band from that formed in 1964. They performed until 1973 when they took a twenty-year hiatus. The band was known for their attempt to integrate the avant-garde with rock. They are one of the most influential bands in rock, underground, experimental, and alternative music – the cornerstones for the punk movement. AllMusic. “The Velvet Underground | Biography & History.” Accessed November 18, 2019. https://www.allmusic.com/artist/the-velvet-underground-mn0000840402/biography.
  21. The norm of shotgun marriage has been gradually disappearing since 1969. The events that Acker is recounting in the interview takes place around the same year. Shotgun marriage rates were decreasing inversely to the use of reproductive technology. The rate of out-of-wedlock births increased by hundreds of thousands in a span of ten years. Prior to the late 60s, most out-of-wedlock births were followed by a shotgun marriage i.e. The father is forced to marry the mother to create a traditional family environment for the child. With the decline of shotgun marriages, many women were left with children but no partner to help support them. Yellen, George A. Akerlof and Janet L. “An Analysis of Out-of-Wedlock Births in the United States.” Brookings (blog), August 1, 1996. https://www.brookings.edu/research/an-analysis-of-out-of-wedlock-births-in-the-united-states/.