"I can't believe she bit off his whole nipple!" Margaret Cho said, affecting shock, while filming a short promo for her new TLC late-night talk show All About Sex.
"I can't believe she bit off the entire nipple," Cho said during the next take.
They went again. "She ate the nipple. Ate it!"
And again. "I can't believe she chewed off his nipples!"
A call came in over a headset from the producers in the control room: They had to redo the nipple line for a fifth time.
"She bit off his nipple," Cho said, dragging out the l, making it ni-pulllllll. "Ow, ow."
All About Sex, which premiered Jan. 10 and airs on Saturdays at 11 p.m. on TLC, features Cho and her three co-hosts — comedian Heather McDonald (best known from Chelsea Lately), actress Marissa Jaret Winokur of Hairspray fame, and sex therapist Tiffanie Davis Henry — talking about sex, relationships, and the week's weird sex news (the talk show airs just after the self-explanatory Sex Sent Me to the ER).
On the particular day BuzzFeed News was on the All About Sex set in Burbank, California, their guest was a BDSM expert/porn director/performer who was never identified during the taping as being in the porn industry. She described 50 Shades of Grey as "a tale as old as time," and then went on to discuss in vague terms how she got into BDSM.
"I think Marissa wants to do it," Cho said, looking at her uptight co-host Winokur. "Strangely silent and listening." Shortly thereafter, the seeming prude confirmed with a crew member that they can say "blow job" on the show but cannot pantomime the act, and then proceeded to pantomime the act between takes to demonstrate what she was not allowed to do onscreen. When they finished shooting the episode, Cho told Winokur approvingly, "You talked today more about your sex life than ever."
And really, that's all Cho wants. Before the taping, BuzzFeed News spoke with Cho about sex, bodies, and relationships as two hair and makeup artists fussed about her face.
What motivates you to talk about sex?
Margaret Cho: It's an interesting topic because everybody's got an opinion about it, and hopefully everybody's having it to some extent, or has had it in the past, or wants to have it. It is a subject that is infinitely interesting because it's connected to identity, and also desire. It's a subject that's intertwined with all these ideals about identity and self and purpose.
You're working toward achieving an ideal?
MC: I want to have orgasms during cunnilingus. I've never achieved it. Three thousand years of being sexual — 25 years of being sexual, never achieved it. And now, I think it's not gonna happen, because it's been 25 years. You work on something a quarter of a century, you work on it really hard, that ideal may be not possible. So that's my idealization, or my projection of something I would like to do. That's why sex is so interesting: because people have those idealizations, people have those sex goals in mind.
Do you think there's any downside to thinking about sexual pleasure as a project?
MC: No, because I think, in a way, sometimes it has to be — certain things like learning how to orgasm, or learning how to be a multi-orgasmic person, learning techniques, things like that. I've always wanted to ejaculate. But that has never happened, and so now, I'm kind of thinking, Maybe that doesn't exist for me. Sexual fulfillment goals, to make them happen, you have to work on them as a project. I don't think it's a bad thing.
Can it ever become counterproductive?
MC: Maybe. Sex in general should be about intimacy and yet, when I'm talking about projects, I'm really talking about projects to work on, like, that are during masturbation, or during sex with a partner that we're both working on, we're both working towards a personal best. But sex in general, for me, is a lot of different aspects of humanity, not just my relationships. It's my relationship to myself and my body.
What can straight people learn from queer people about sex and relationships?
MC: Well, people can learn from people. What I bring from the queer community, or from being with women for years, is incorporating sex toys, which is very common in my relationships with women, or sex with women, but not as common in heterosexual sex. So my inclination during sex always is to use sex toys. That's not something men are often used to.
Do you think there's anything else that's different for queer people about how relationships function?
MC: No, people are people. I mean, then you get into a very, very complex conversation of what socially makes a man versus a woman, versus a heterosexual man versus a homosexual man. Nobody is the same just because they're gay or straight or queer or not queer. There is a variety of human experience. Sexuality is only one part of who we are.
I noticed this in the first episode of All About Sex — and in life — there's a narrative that women don't want sex, or that sex is something that women do for their husbands —
MC: That's not my narrative. That's Marissa. I don't have that attitude. I think sex is really about the self, and really a self-reflection. I'm not even talking about sex, I'm talking about a responsibility to have a sexual relationship with myself, which is an attitude about your own body, and attitude towards finding out what really makes you tick. But I don't like the fact that that consciousness is out there, that women's sexuality is really about pleasing their husbands so their husbands will do something for them. That's not my take on it. But I know it's possible that other people have that.
Is there a radicalism to joking about enjoying sex as a woman? I was thinking about Joan Rivers, who I love, and I know you love, but one of her recurring jokes throughout her career — two of her recurring jokes — was that she was ugly and also that she didn't like sex. That's a joke that you don't really make, and not something that you put out there.
MC: Yeah, that's almost like a different generation. Joan's joke about avoiding sex, or just doing it because you have to, to please your husband… she always had that joke about how she'd be reading a magazine at the same time or something. It was her way of trying to get control over the situation by ignoring the man trying to have sex with her. I always thought what she did was funny, but that's a definite generational joke. I wouldn't make the same joke. I think you should really enjoy the sex you have. If you have sex, it should be for you, not for the other person. That joke is assuming that sex is always in service to men, which I think I wanna flip that, and make it all about the woman. Or me.
And what about the body image part of it?
MC: Well, we all certainly have times where we feel ugly or we feel pretty or whatever. I never agreed with any of that, that Joan would say. That was our main difference: that I'm more about celebrating the body, and celebrating where we are, and sort of where I am in my own skin. I don't get too caught up in it. It's just another way of telling jokes, but that's just, again, her generation.
How do you find yourself talking about body image in your day-to-day life?
MC: About ugliness and prettiness? I just don't care. In my life, I don't wear makeup, I don't care about any of the trappings of the "feminine," or how I look in photographs. To me, it's irrelevant, which I think is really shocking to people in the industry that I'm in, because it's like, You should always look good, but I honestly don't care. It's not important to me. Maybe that makes me different — I know that makes me different from Joan. But it's just kind of, my comfort zone is, I'm much more of a tomboy.
[At this moment, a makeup artist put a false lash on Cho's left eyelid and chuckled.]
What role have your tattoos played in self-love and your relationships?
MC: These are my choice to have — I've always wanted to have tattoos. I grew up around people who were very tattooed. It's a self-expression thing; it's also helped me claim my body as my own. So I think it's really positive. It's really joyful.
You said you learned a lot about sex as a young person from gay men, whom you grew up around in San Francisco. Can you speak about that?
MC: When AIDS came in, there was a lot of fear around sexuality, so you had a whole generation of people learning to have sex without bodily fluids. This is when BDSM [really took hold], where you had sexuality that did not have the same look or trappings of genital sex, which, at the time, after AIDS, was a very scary thing to do. I witnessed a variety of different kinds of sexuality through growing up within the gay community, and then surviving the AIDS crisis.
Do you think that there's too much emphasis on STIs in sex education??
MC: I don't think there can be too much emphasis on STIs, but I think there's so many different things to sexuality, there's so many different ways to learn about it and find out about what you like and what you are. I think sexually transmitted diseases and infections are serious. I come from an era where people have died, so it is serious, but there's a lot more to sex than the different infections and diseases that you can catch. There's a lot more to it.
One last thing: What word do you prefer for vagina?
MC: Oh, vagina. I think I often use the word "pussy." But probably vagina is the word that should be used.
This interview has been edited and condensed.