Five minutes before the start of a class called ‘Porn in the USA’, chitchatting students at Dahlem’s John F. Kennedy Institute eagerly fill the spots closest to the front of the room. Behind them, all the way in the back corner sits Saskia Vogel, notebook and pen in lap, quietly waiting for the class to commence.
Vogel isn’t a student. She’s there to do research for a book she’s writing about pornography and her personal relationship with it – both as an insider and an outsider. Having reported on the porn industry for the AVN media network a decade ago, she visited the class to get a more theoretical, less controversial perspective. “I liked the idea of porn not always having to be attached to what I think is a very muddled conversation, one that is rarely conducted with the same respect and clarity as other conversations,” she explains, speaking slowly, as if deliberating every word.
Born to American-Austrian parents and raised bilingually, Vogel grew up in a costal suburb of Los Angeles and finished her high school years in Sweden. She went on to study and work in London, but, wanting to escape her high-pressure job as the global publicist for Granta Magazine, moved to Berliin winter 2013.
The 39-year-old works primarily as a Swedish-to-English literary translator, but has also immersed herself in Berlin’s queer and sex-positive communities, aiming to bring topics of desire and sex into the Bewusstsein of the wider literary scene. “Sex is one force among others that is always present in our society and lives, and it should be acknowledged with the same matter-of-factness.”
In a step towards this, Vogel hosted a discussion in the basement of the JFK Institute in January, where she read from her acclaimed debut novel, Permis- sion, which follows protagonist Echo’s relationship with a dominatrix who lives next door. Frustrated with the media’s clichéd and inaccurate portrayals of BDSM in LA, Permission actually began as a research project aiming to depict the community with more respect and nuance.
But Vogel never found her stride with non-fiction and instead turned the material into a novel, where she felt she didn’t have to justify or psychoanalyse sexual desire. “I just didn’t want to have to answer the question ‘why?’ I was like, ‘ok, people who have these desires, how do they navigate the world and get to know themselves?’” Vogel went on to host an event for Permission at last year’s International Literature Festival and joined a panel on how to write a good sex scene, something she believes is more important than ever in this Corona age. “I feel like the pandemic has really clarified how hard we find it to talk to each other about boundaries, as well as consent, and how we care for each other’s bodies,” she says.
As for the pandemic, which she’s mostly spent tucked away inside her Prenzlauer Berg apartment with her German husband and six-month-old son Oscar, Vogel seems to have been quite productive. Since May she has completed work on a screenplay, started translating a 420-page reinterpretation of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck and submitted her new book proposal, which will hopefully cut through all the controversy surrounding the porn industry: “I want to be a person who contributes a different kind of story.”