Category: Essays (page 2 of 6)

My essays on a variety of topics involving erotica, sex and culture.

How Do I Love Thee: On Comparing Relationships

Sepia historical photograph of a woman dressed as cupid next to a lion for Post How Do You Love Me by Malin James

Woman with Lion, courtesy of the Getty Museum

Every so often, my daughter asks me if I love her best.**

This is a tricky moment as a parent, because my impulse is to say, Yes! Of course, I love you best. It’s the answer she’s looking for and by far the simplest to give. But as much as my love for her is one of the most overwhelming things I’ve ever felt, to say that I love her best does something that I’m not quite comfortable with – it accidentally reinforces a way of thinking about love that can lead to insecurity later on.

I realize that I might be overthinking this. Is there really any harm in telling her that I love her best?  There are so many things I don’t bother worrying about, like Santa’s existence or whether or not she believes in god. But reinforcing emotional comparisons feels oddly dangerous to me. It implies that love is a zero-sum game.

Love, like so many things, is contextually unique. For example, a person’s love for their child can be catastrophically powerful, but what if you have two or more children? Who do you love best then? That question is almost impossible to answer (without screwing up one of more of your kids), which is why “I love you all differently” is such a great response. It reinforces the love while avoiding the comparison.

Why is avoiding comparison important for all relationships (not just those involving multiple kids)? Because when you start to comparing the different loves you feel, you risk diminishing all of them. Love isn’t measurable or quantifiable, but comparing relationships with the intention of weighing who is loved best imposes finite limits on an emotion that is naturally infinite.

The real question is what underlies the comparison. Not to get all cold and pragmatic about it, but what it really comes down to is resource distribution. We’re a fundamentally competitive species because our survival depends on it. We commodify resources because resources, whether emotional or physical, have a value rooted in survival. That’s about as fundamental as it gets.

So where does love fit into that? Love is a resource too, or rather, the safety love signifies is. As a species, we evolved through dark nights full of predators that wanted to eat us. Abandonment = death. We are literally hardwired to fear being cast aside, and one of the best guarantors of that not happening is love.

When my daughter asks me if I love her best, she’s expressing a really basic concern: If a lion grabbed Daddy and me, would you save me, even if it meant not saving Daddy? (For what it’s worth, the answer is yes. Her dad’s okay with that). The anxiety that underlies the question is instinctively human – so much so that it shows up in all kinds of relationships, not just those between a parent and child, but friendships, business partnerships and romantic relationships.

While love is definitely not a zero-sum game, survival is, and at a very basic level, we have tied security to love and pain to exclusion. That’s why, in poly relationships, it’s important to be patient with a partner’s fears and insecurities. That sort of status anxiety is hardwired into us and, for most people, it takes a bit of effort to work through.

The impulse to compare is an instinctive attempt to see if our position in the relationship is safe. Unfortunately, it’s also a great way to torture yourself into fearing that it’s not. In the end, it’s about security. The surest way to avoid the trap of comparison is to address the underlying concern. If a person is secure in your love for them, they are less likely to be worried about your love for others.

In the end, it’s not about who is loved best, but how you are loved. Are you  loved well? Is your person’s love a revelation? A homecoming? A whetstone? Is it a soft blanket on a rainy night or a delicate porcelain vase? The how says so much more than any comparison could. The how is about the two of you. The how is solid ground.

**NB: Chunks of Browning’s Sonnet 43 are the answer I give my daughter when she asks me how I love her…that and “I love you bigger than the galaxy and 9 million stars”, which is really pretty big. 

 

The Goblin Market

A pre-raphaelite painting of a woman holding a pomegranate for The Goblin Market by Malin James

“Proserpine” or Jane Morris & the Pomegranate by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1847)

I’ve been sick the past few days, which has given me an unusual amount of time for listless thinking and wool gathering. In and amongst the drift of fairly useless thoughts came the realization that there is a binary in how sex appears in fiction – there are stories that focus on sex for it’s own sake, and stories that achieve a raw, nearly sexual intimacy, despite the absence (or near absence) of sex.

The first sort of reading is generally known as erotica, which makes it pretty easy to find. The other kind of eroticism is harder to qualify.

Instead of being expressed in an overtly sexual way, the intimacy in those stories comes out as a sort of shared ache – a sympathy between characters that is, hopefully, transferred to the reader. That affinity triggers something like an erotic response, one that’s subtly sexual and emotionally intimate. The latent sexuality in that response is what comprises the second sort of eroticism – one that’s emotionally sexual and not obvious in the text, but simmering beneath it.

“Goblin Market”, by Christina Rossetti, drips with limpid, super sensual imagery and includes a final scene that could be a portrait of sexual ecstasy, except it isn’t. The ecstasy isn’t sexual. It’s the culmination of devotion, sacrifice, and love between two sisters whose affinity is so strong it pushes their bond to lover-like levels of intimacy while remaining uncompromisingly platonic.

How Rossetti managed to blend the sensual with the sisterly is a wonder to me, even now. There’s nothing concrete that I can point to in the poem, no line on a map marking the territory between sexuality and emotionality, but it exists all the same, which is why I think of that shared territory as the goblin market. The goblin market in narrative creates a tension that works on the reader without any conscious effect, yet you put the book down feeling lush and keenly aware, like Persephone when she finally gives in and eats the pomegranate’s seeds.

For me, one author achieves the goblin market better than anyone else. If you read anything by Angela Carter you’ll feel it, but it’s especially effective in her collection, The Bloody Chamber, which I’ve pushed mentioned before. The title story is fantastic I’ve already fangirled all over it so I’ll focus on a different story from the same collection – “The Tiger’s Bride”.

“The Tiger’s Bride” is one of the sexiest stories I’ve ever read, yet it contains no sex.  What it does have is massive amounts of emotionally charged intimacy unpinning a story in which masks and identities are stripped away. It isn’t until a tacit understanding is reached between the tiger and his captive that a shared ache develops, but when it does, it makes something that should have been ghastly, (the tiger licks her human skin away, revealing golden fur), unbelievably erotic.

The narrator’s affinity for her captor can’t be expressed in words (he speaks in low growls, translated by a simian valet), which is just as well. It’s the silence of their understanding that transforms what could have been yet another variation on “Beauty and the Beast” into a story steeped in animal sexuality. Its lack of obvious eroticism heightens, pretty fantastically, the latent eroticism of the text.

I’m finding more and more that I need this second, more subtle, emotional component for the erotic aspects of a story to work for me. While I still love straight up filth, it doesn’t tend to stay with me. It’s the stories that weave tapestries of sex and emotional intimacy that I come back to again and again, whether they’re called erotica or something else.

This shift in my reading is something relatively new. While I appreciated the goblin market from an intellectual perspective when I was younger, it never touched me the way that raw sex did. Now it’s quite the opposite. It would be easy to say that this shift is the result of getting older, but I suspect it has less to with age and more to do with me. I’ve always had an emotional intensity that I was never completely comfortable with, especially in conjunction with sex. I suspect that my growing attraction to stories steeped in this kind of emotional sexuality is, more than anything else, a sign that I’m finally comfortable with my own goblin market.

Here’s a list of some of my favorite goblin market stories, along with links to where you can find them (some for free!). And if  you have any books you love for this kind of read, tweet me or leave them in the comments!

POETRY:

“Goblin Market” by Christina Rossetti

COLLECTIONS:

Winter’s Tales by Isak Dinesen – “The Invincible Slave Owners” and “The Heroine”

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter – “The Tiger’s Bride” and “The Bloody Chamber” (and most of the others, to be honest).

Lips Touch Three Times by Laini Taylor (The first story is a really subtle, really sexy adaptation of Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”).

The Lure of Dangerous Women by Shanna Germain

Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue

NOVELS:

Atonement & The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (I fangirled the film here. And to be fair, there is fairly explicit sex in this book, but its punch lies in the emotional intensity behind it).

Affinity by Sarah Waters

Angels and Insects & The Game by A.S. Byatt

A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch

The Griffin & Sabine Trilogy by Nick Bantock

The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox (courtesy of Tamsin Flowers, who was lovely enough to give me a copy!)

Guys & the Girls Who Want to Watch: On Homoeroticism

A black and white photograph of two men embracing for Two Guys and the Girl Who Wants to Watch: On Homoeroticism by Malin James

Erotic postcard by Jim French

Roughly two years ago, I wrote a post asking this question:

What is it about two men having sex that turns so many women on?

That post got a lot of generous responses from men and women all over the sexual spectrum, including Exhibit A (though I had no idea at the time it would begin much more than a correspondence). His response, in particular, stood out because it underscored something I’d been suspecting – that the appeal of homoeroticism is, perhaps, even more common (and complicated) than I’d originally assumed. So I set the question aside to think about it.

Two years later….

I’m finally writing the follow-up thanks, once again, to Exhibit A, who retweeted the original post last month. While I’m usually a bit sheepish about letting a topic drop, I’m glad of it in this case. After two years, my thoughts on this issue have matured in ways that I couldn’t have anticipated when I first posed the question.

The biggest adjustment in my thinking was my realization that, while m/m sex clearly appeals to a lot of women, it also appeals to a lot of men who identify as flexibly straight (as opposed to bi). This realization made me curious about how it appeals across gender divides and sexual identities. But first, I want to address the question I originally posted two years ago. Why do women think m/m sex is hot?

As with so many things, the appeal of homoeroticism is intensely subjective, so there is no one answer, but I was able to slot the responses I got into three general categories:

  • Homoeroticism appeals because I like good looking men, so the more the better. 
    • Pretty self-explanatory.
  • Homoeroticism appeals because it gives me access to something I otherwise don’t have access to.
    • Not surprising given our cultural attraction to voyeurism, taboo or potentially transgressive sex; and our obsession with the mutual incomprehensibility of the opposite sex.
  • Homoeroticism appeals because it subverts a dominant paradigm.
    • Also pretty self-explanatory, but worth breaking down a bit.

That third category refers to the fact that, in mainstream porn and media, the traditional understanding is that there’s a power imbalance between men and women when it comes to sex. While this paradigm is shifting thanks to shows like Jessica Jones, Masters if Sex and American Horror Story: Coven, it’s been a standard for so long that this power imbalance is a cultural assumption for a lot of people. This leads to the common perception that men are sexually dominant (ie: guarded or inaccessible) while women are open, emotional and vulnerable.

The m/m fantasy subverts this expectation thanks to a different cultural assumption—one that presumes that two guys will avoid this paradigm more naturally than a straight pairing. Of course, this is ridiculous because sexual dominance and submission are about interpersonal dynamics and not about gender, (which is why M/m pairings are so hot). Regardless, a lot of women admit to being turned on by m/m sex because they assume the men involved to be enjoying a level playing field – both actors are sexually assertive while remaining emotional vulnerability.

This idealization of male sexual agency tends to lead to romanticized readings of m/m dynamics. I’ve read more than one study in which women thought m/m sex was because the guys were “equal” “open” “real” and “vulnerable” in a way that they hadn’t witnessed before.

Of course, we’re talking about fiction in most of these cases—specifically porn. The popularity of m/m pairings in slash, porn and erotica reflects a certain kind of female fantasy—one that subverts dominant paradigms and gives the illusion of emotional access to men in sexual contexts. And it does all this by appropriating a somewhat romanticized version of what people imagine happening when two guys fuck.

Sidebar

This form of appropriation is important but it’s also complicated enough that it requires its own post, so I’m going to leave it there for now and come back to it later. (Hopefully in less than two years).

End Sidebar

While the fictional portrayal of m/m sexual dynamics appeals on one level, the reality of gay sex appeals on another. So, while some women (and men) fantasize about general aspects m/m sex, others engage it more specifically. In otherwords, some women want to watch their man fuck and / or get fucked by another guy; and some guys want the same thing.

I can only speak for myself when I say this, but my desire to watch my partner with another man has nothing to do with the romanticization of m/m sexual dynamics, and everything to do with our relationship and all of the complicated, nuanced reasons that make it something we both think is super hot.

Which brings me to the selective appeal of homoeroticism across genders.

Awhile ago, I wrote a story called “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” about a woman who gives her boyfriend an m/m encounter for Christmas. It plays to a lot of my own kinks—voyeurism, dominance and, yes, homoeroticism—so I was really happy when women and men seemed to like it though they seemed to like it for different reasons.

Women liked it because the idea of watching their man with another guy is goddamn hot (because it is). Men seemed to like the wish-fulfillment aspect or it. The male protagonist wants to suck cock and get fucked, and his girlfriend makes it happen. It’s a portrait of the gray area between gay and straight, set against the backdrop of a loving, if unconventional, relationship.

That gray area is where homoeroticism appeals to me.

Don’t get me wrong – homoeroticism is hot for a lot of reasons, and it can subvert dominant paradigms. But that’s not why I love it. I love it because it breaks a barrier—one that often sits between a man and a woman, as well as between two men.

Unless you bury the needle at either 0 (exclusively straight) or 6 (exclusively gay) on the Kinsey scale, sexuality is more fluid than we tend to realize. The sexual behaviors sanctioned by mainstream society don’t always allow for safe experimentation within the gray areas. Homoeroticism, whether engaged as fantasy or more directly, is one way of experiencing a fuller range of sexual possibilities than might otherwise be available to strictly heterosexual pairings. What’s more, it makes those possibilities available in a relatively unthreatening way.

Homoeroticism is a way of romancing “the other”, whether “the other” is a partner of the same (or opposite) sex, or some unexplored facet of yourself. Ultimately, humans crave understanding and connection. We’re curious. We want to know and touch. A fascination with homoeroticism is one way we can taste things we don’t normally find on our plates.

On Virginity, or A Case For Not Throwing It Away

Image of a man and woman sitting on a fence. His hand is going up her skirt while she looks away.

A Voyage of Discovery by Jack Vettriano

I would love to say that the loss of my maidenhead* was a magical experience. I’d love to say that it set a healthy tone for the whole of my sexual career. In reality, it went more like this:

I was nineteen and deeply frustrated. I’d had boyfriends but none who would go past second base with me, (I dated a couple of Irish Catholics. Confession was a thing). I was sexually aware to the point of discomfort, but I’d never gotten close to do anything about the live wires beneath my skin. I was massively frustrated and burdened with this thing that I didn’t want anymore. So, one night I decided to get it over with.

I met the guy through an acquaintance. I knew him just enough about him to feel relatively sure that he wasn’t going to kill me and dump my body in a lake. I say “the guy” because I don’t remember his name…Jason maybe? I’m not sure. I was sober, so I assume that I must’ve blocked it out. In fact, I’m fairly certain I did – not because anything terrible happened, but because, even at the time, I knew I was making a subtle but serious mistake. It was the start of a pattern that would do me no favors. But more on that in a second. For now, let’s stay with “the guy”….

In the end, his name doesn’t matter because it wasn’t about him. It was about me and the fact that I was approaching twenty and the only virgin left in the city (not really but it felt like it). So, there we were in the back of his mom’s minivan in a mall parking lot. The foreplay was minimal and consisted mostly of my going down on him briefly while he held my head. After that, we moved to the back seat where I gave it up to the age old rhythm of my head whacking against his baby brother’s car seat.

I lost my virginity with less care than some people give to cutting their hair. At the time, I remember feeling a grim satisfaction, one that I now recognize as a defense mechanism. I knew even before he dropped me off (in the minivan) that I wasn’t going to see him again, even if I wanted to (I didn’t). The fact that I’d been a virgin had thrown him. I literally saw him panic the second his cock hit my hymen.

Holy shit! A virgin! They get hella clingy! Finish this and get out of there!

So, the grim satisfaction was both for a job well done (I was no longer a virgin – Ha! Take that, virginity!) but it was also because I needed to own what I’d just done. I knew that wasn’t how it could have been.  I knew it wasn’t a good start.

Now, looking back with roughly eighteen years of sexual experience to call on, I can see that I set a pattern for myself that night – one in which I disregarded the rounded whole of my needs in favor of satisfying temporary dissatisfactions. That pattern is pretty much broken now, but not without effort and a nice collection of regrets.

Should I have taken more time and given myself a positive, even loving, first time? Ideally speaking, of course. I should’ve. But the truth is that I was wired for sex and self-injury. I can’t pretend that a different decision would’ve saved me from years of mistakes. That said, if I had waited and not pushed, I might have developed a sense of myself sooner, and that would have made a difference. Who can say….

Virginity is not a magical thing, nor is it a marker of moral, spiritual or physical worth. The loss of it is, however, a pivotal event in a person’s life. Your first sexual experiences set a tone, even if only subconsciously. Would my sexual development have been different were it not for the minivan and the parking lot and the goddamn car seat? I don’t know. I honestly don’t. And that’s the thing that stays with me. I will never know.

I have wanted to write that phrase into something for ages.

Character Limits

A purple reverse negative photograph of a vintage clock by Angela Bonilla

Ornate Vintage Clock in Deep Purple by Angela Bonilla

A few months ago I wrote a post called #DraftingIsHell. The title pretty much says it all. I’m one of those writers that drafts just to have something to edit. It’s only in edits that I find the threads that pull a story together.

In that post, I compared my writing process to sculpting, with drafting being the equivalent of making the clay. Recently though, the way I think about writing has changed. Working on my current project feels more like building a clock. Drafting is like digging through a big box of parts. Revision is figuring out how to assemble them and editing is the process of fitting them together and making sure they work properly.

Which brings me to my point. Twitter has made me a better editor. Or rather, it’s made me a more efficient writer.

I realize that efficient is a cold-sounding word. It doesn’t carry the throbbing creative impulse that fills your doc with a promising, fresh-faced draft. Efficiency is a different form of creative, more about refinement than creation. It’s the difference between drawing a clock and making a clock. When you draw a clock, you want to let yourself dream of the clock’s potential. But when you build the clock, you need efficiency to make sure the damn thing works.

So, back to Twitter. Have you ever gone over the character limit on a tweet? When you do, you get this little notification:

Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 3.21.51 PM

It’s that “you’ll have to be more clever” that makes me smile. Not long ago, I realized how applicable that is to writing – not how clever are you? per se, but rather how cleverly can you say something?

Balancing your content in the most effective way is a sort of cleverness. It’s how you slide under a reader’s skin, rather than appealing to their brain. That’s what makes flash fiction such a pleasure to read – those little punches that make you feel before you think. Therein lies the beauty (and cleverness) of efficiency.

I’m not suggesting that there aren’t great advantages to expansive prose and rambling, evocative imagery. That’s some of my favorite stuff. What I have found though is that it’s good to be able to choose what sort of style serves a story best, and then execute on that choice.

Sometime over the past year or so, I began to think of every post and every story as a puzzle box that I fold up as tightly as I possibly can. Then, in the reading (if I’ve done it right), it’s meant to unfold and reveal more than the word count might imply. If a piece of writing is going to work like that though, the parts have to be balanced. It’s my job in editing to weight them out correctly. Every word, rhythm and pause has to have a purpose. There isn’t room for anything that doesn’t serve the design that came from that first creative burst.

There’s great freedom in boundaries like word counts and character limits, even when those boundaries are largely self imposed. After all, I could write a 5,000 word post but that wouldn’t feel as satisfying as saying in 1k (at least to me), just as I wouldn’t want to write an essay in an endless string of tweets. Context and form shape style and voice, even when (or especially when) the influence is a happy accident. Blogging and social media have taught me to say more by writing less. They force me to be efficient, and to figure out ways to say more than what is, strictly speaking, on the page.

A Girl’s Guide to Growing Up

Mother and daughter by Pascal Campion

Image by Pascal Campion

Today is my daughter’s 4th birthday. It’s an unabashedly happy day, but for me, deep down, there’s also a little edge of melancholy to it… or, if not melancholy, contemplation.

When I look at her now, I see only a shadow of the moon-faced baby I had four years ago. She’s left that phase and has enthusiastically assumed the role of little girl. Of course, the irrational part of me wants to fill my arms with her while I can, because I know it’s only a matter of time before I look at her and see only a shadow of the little girl she is now. And I’ll tell you right now, I’m indulging that irrational impulse. I’m kissing and swinging her and holding her hand like it’s the most natural thing in the world because, right now, it is.

That irrational part of me wants to keep her a girl forever. But the rest of me knows that, for all that I love and protect her, the best thing I can do is to teach her how to love and protect herself. Right now, I’m reveling in the fact that she’s mine, but that’s temporary. My claim on her will last only as long as it takes her to grow up and claim herself. My most bittersweet job is to her develop the skills and self-possession she’ll need to navigate the world on her own.

That means being open to things that are, quite frankly, frightening and complicated from a parental perspective. The irrational part of me would love to keep her sheltered and unquestioning, but that would do her a massive disservice. I grew up in a family that never talked about sex (or mental health or anything unpleasant or difficult). I know how damaging that can be, even in the most loving household.

So now, while she’s little, I’m making a list of things I want to talk to her about as she grows up. It’s not comprehensive, nor do I think it ever could be. If nothing else, it’s a blueprint, one that I know will get altered by improvisation depending on what’s relevant to her at any given time. In my head, I think of it as a sort of guide to growing up, but one that will grow with her.

Right now, the list is full of things I wish I could have talked through with my mom; things to do with sex, identity, body image and shame; things that I figured out on my own, sometimes at great cost. If I do it right though, the list will stop reflecting my own experiences and become entirely defined by hers. In the end, it is not about me. It’s about her and what she needs at any given time. That said, the list as it exists is massive. It has bullet points covering everything to sex to science – way too much to reproduce here. So instead of trying to get it all in, I’ll leave you with…

A Very Partial List of Things I Want to Tell My Daughter in Completely Random Order

  1.  Masturbation is good, healthy and wonderful. It is nothing to be ashamed of. If and when you want your first vibrator, I’ll be thrilled to take you to buy one. But one word of advice – vibrators are awesome, but it’s easy to get dependent on them. Try to learn your body without one first.
  2. Learn to how to please yourself. Even more importantly, communicate what you like to your partners so they can please you too. Try not to fake your orgasms. Try to voice your needs instead.
  3. Virginity is important, but not in the traditional way. As a symbol of goodness, it’s useless – goodness is better measured by what you do and how you treat people, not by the state of your hymen. That said, your first time (whether it’s oral, penetrative or anything else) is important. It sets a tone. Inexperience isn’t a hindrance to be thrown away.
  4. Sex can be complicated. It can be so complicated that even adults struggle and get tangled up. You don’t need to fear sex. In fact, you shouldn’t. Just choose when to have it and respect the complications it could bring.
  5. Sex isn’t love. It’s sex. While sex is a great way to communicate love, never conflate the two. You can’t barter one for the other.
  6. Porn is not a how-to manual. Neither is erotica or tumblr. They are entertainment and, as entertainment, they’re a great way to explore your fantasies. But if you want to know how to do something, nonfiction is more reliable than fiction.
  7. Take the opinions / advice of your peers with a grain of salt. They’re still figuring it out too.
  8. Sexuality is neither simple nor static. Same with gender identity. Labels are useful but, ultimately, you are you – not a straight person, a bi person, a gay person, a trans person, a slut, a good girl, a feminist or anything else. Labels can define you in ways that miss the whole person. Be the whole of you.
  9. Know your boundaries. They may change over time but always know them. Advocate for yourself. Never, ever be afraid to say no.
  10. I know you’re going to have sex. You’re going to love, hate, be heart-broken and break hearts. Do these things. Live your life. Live it on terms that you choose and do so without shame.
  11. I love you. I love you. I love you. I will always love you. Not matter what happens, no matter who or what you do, I will always, always, always be madly in love with you.
  12. If you get pregnant or get an STI, please tell us. We’ll figure it out. See #11.

NB: This post is far from comprehensive. It’s really more of a meditation than anything else. I am writing several articles that address this subject in a far more directed and detailed way, but for now, this post communicates my general state of mind.

On Depression, Need & Difficult Things

Lotus by Bahman Farzad

Lotus by Bahman Farzad

There are things that I haven’t written about because they’re too personal. Depression is one of them. For me, writing about depression is harder than writing about sex because, regardless of how much I love it, sex is something separate from myself. It’s something I do and enjoy. It doesn’t form my foundation. Depression does.

Depression made me who I am. It put me on different paths than I might otherwise have taken. It made me grow in crooked, creative ways. I don’t know who I’d be if depression hadn’t forced me to struggle with myself but, in the end, I like who I’ve become…most of the time.

I’ve avoided writing about depression for a lot of reasons, all of them hazy and complicated. Then, last week, I received an email from someone in response to a few of my posts. It was a good email – a lot of time and thought had clearly gone into it, but one part, in particular, stayed with me. Towards the end of the final paragraph, the person wrote:

“You have so much perspective. You must come from a very emotionally privileged place. I wish I did.” (Quoted with permission)

Reading that saddened me because the emailer seemed to be saying that they lacked a quality they could not have. It also made me call into question how I’ve presented myself in my writing. I know that depression (and the skills I use to manage it) inform everything I write. It even effects my style – I’ve learned to distill my emotions and I try to do the same with my thoughts when I write – but that doesn’t mean any of this is apparent to anyone else.

In a bit of comic timing, that email came just as I was tipping into a depressive episode that I am still enjoying (and by “enjoying” I mean dealing with) now, even as I write this. The timing made the subject inescapable, so I decided to write about it because that’s what I do.

In one way, the emailer was right – I do have a lot of perspective, but it’s not because I come from a place of emotional privilege. It’s because I don’t. I had my first anxiety attack when I was six and continued to have them into my twenties for reasons I won’t get into here. My parents didn’t know what anxiety attacks were, let alone that a child could have them, so once it was established that I didn’t have asthma, they encouraged me to stop worrying and left me to my own devices. Though well-intentioned, I internalized this as a rejection. Get enough of that as a kid and you get fantastically depressed. Which I was.

Fast forward to university. I started my first semester strong, but by the time the holidays came around, I was deep into my first depressive episode. When I came home for winter break I was way too thin and I slept ALL the time. My parents were worried (because they really did care), but when the doctor said I was anemic, they got me iron pills and ended the conversation.

I flew back to New York and the depression got worse. Eventually, I saw a counselor who diagnosed me in one session, which was a relief because I finally had a name for what I was trying to deal with. I was so relieved that I called my parents to tell them, but they glossed over it. They didn’t know what to do with “my problems”, so they acted like I had the flu and hoped I’d “feel better soon”. I didn’t – not for a really long time.

What surprises me even now is that I didn’t feel ashamed, despite my parents’ reaction. I felt anger, hurt and frustration, but never shame. What developed instead was the conviction that this was my problem to deal with. The worst thing I could do is need someone’s support. Needing became a dangerous thing.

As a result, I built an emotional scaffold that allowed me to function superficially while limiting access to my real (depressed and messed up) self. I dismantled that scaffolding a few years ago, but the impulse to withdraw is still something I struggle with because needing is uncomfortable for me. It is an awful thing to need something desperately and have that need denied. As a result, I made myself into the kind of person that other people need, rather than allowing my own needs to have a voice. Even now, needing someone or something does not fit my self-image.

The other reason I learned to withdraw was that, for a long time, I felt out of control. There are different kinds of depression. Mine is chronic, which means that sometimes my neuro-chemistry get wonky and I get depressed, even when everything is situationally great. The fact that depression is at least 60% physiological for me was difficult. I would get irrational, unreasonable and short-tempered, even on medication. I suffered, so I made everyone around me suffer too. Finally, I got tired of being bad for people, so I hid through episodes until I could put on my public face.

Now, at 37, I have an easier time of it. There are a handful of people I talk to when I’m heading into the depths but, for the most part, my depression is under control, even when it’s bad. I run 5-6 days a week and have done for years, and I have a mindfulness practice that keeps me balanced even when I’m in rough emotional shape. That doesn’t mean it isn’t hard, but I’ve spent so much time cultivating rationality, reason and calm, that those things are reflexive to me now. Which brings me back to the emailer….

The perspective I have is hard won, which is really good news. Because it’s the result of work and not luck or privilege, it’s attainable, even if you’re a hot mess (and baby, I was a hot fucking mess). That said, maintaining my equilibrium is active, daily work – work that I’ll have to do for the rest of my life. No matter how much I achieve, my greatest accomplishment will be getting and keeping my shit together. It is, hand’s down, the hardest thing I have ever done, and the most valuable thing I will ever manage.

So please, please understand that when I write about difficult things, it’s not from a pedestal. It’s from down in the muck. My roots are in mud and depression and self-loathing and disgust, and it took an act of will and a concrete reason for me to grow up out of that. Buddhists use the lotus flower to symbolize that process of digging your roots into the blackest parts of yourself, and allowing something beautiful and resilient to grow out of it. That is what I’m trying to do. If I’m successful, that will be the metaphor for my life.

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Kinky People Sex

Art by Franz von Bayros

Art by Franz von Bayros

I’ve been thinking about labels recently. It started with the resurgence of the erotica vs. porn debate (which Tabitha Rayne addressed beautifully in this post) but quickly spun out to include people, sexuality, kink and the labels we use to describe ourselves.

I’ve written about my own system of genre classification and many others have addressed the question from different angles since. But when the issue was brought up again, I was struck by just how subjective labels like “erotica” and “porn” are. Yes, there are standards most people agree on – erotica has a narrative focus while porn is primarily concerned with sex – but beyond that there’s a lot of grey area defined mostly by an individual’s impression of a work.

I’m not saying that literature and genre defy definition (I may be a lot of things, but I’m not a post-modernist). What I am saying is that regardless of what label we place on a thing, that thing’s identity (or classification) will likely retain some level of fluidity. Anais Nin called a great chunk of her work pornography, while today we consider her catalog one of the foundations of modern literary erotica. A group of Christian moms considered this fondant teddy bear’s seam to be an overly sexual image. I can’t say I agree. The point is that a thing can shift labels depending on who is viewing it.

Which brings me to my actual topic. Labels and people. People use labels as a short-hand for larger, more nuanced identities – are you one of us, or are you “other”? In this way, labels can be incredibly useful. But if you become unquestioningly wedded to your label it can box you in, because labels can’t always keep up with the fluidity of a person’s experiences.

If you’re primarily straight but have slept with someone of the same sex, does that make you bi? If you’re primarily dominant but sometimes like to sub, are you a switch? If your experiences or beliefs are non-binary, then labels may fit accurately, but if you inhabit an ideological or sexual grey area, it often becomes a curiosity when you deviate from the behaviors your label dictates.

Kink is a great example of this. Kinky people are generally thought to be those whose interests fall outside the sexual norm (whatever the “norm” is). I’ve identified as kinky since my early twenties when I realized that threesomes (and foursomes) were a thing. Adopting that label was liberating at the time. As a result, for much of my twenties, I allowed the “kinky” label to direct my sexual interests. I played in ways that I might not have otherwise done and, for the most part, I loved it. I also enjoyed a ton of sex that I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed if I hadn’t also adopted the label of slut. But I also remember feeling that my occasional desire for straightforward, vanilla sex didn’t adhere to my label(s), so I often went without the no-frills missionary I also craved.

At that point in my life, I thought that kinky people were supposed to have kinky sex all the time, which isn’t necessarily true. For many people, kink defines their sexualities in a very whole and satisfying way. But for others, like me, identifying as any one thing excludes five other labels that I could just as easily adopt. It wasn’t until I was in my early thirties that I made up my own label – sexually omnivorous. I want a helping of everything and always have. Or, to put it another way, I have a very fluid relationship to my sexuality and kinks.

Now, just so you know where I’m coming from, I’ll toss out a few of the labels that I do feel comfortable claiming:

Bisexual

Non-monogamous

Voyeuristic (with an exhibitionist streak)

Dominant (though not a Domme. I’m more of an alpha who likes D/s. Domme implies things I don’t want to claim.)

I also like rough sex and boundary pushing. I like feeling vaguely uncomfortable and I like it when my partner feels vaguely uncomfortable too (within the bounds of consent). More than anything, I love intensity. If a sexual experience serves up intensity, odds are I’ll be interested. It doesn’t matter if the intensity is emotional or physical. Even better if it’s both.

That said, I also love vanilla sex (which can also be emotionally and physically intense). I love missionary. I love waking up, having slow, drowsy sex and then going back to sleep. I love catching a quickie before running out for drinks. I love oral – both giving and getting. I love Sunday mornings in bed. I love entire week-ends spent doing nothing but straight up fucking – no games, no trappings, just hungry-for-more fucking. I even love making love with the right person.

So, do my more conventional tastes cancel out the kinks? I don’t feel they do – I think my sexuality covers a lot of ground and that exercising all aspects of it gives me pleasure. I’m hardly going to lock down the snuggly-missionary-loving part of me in the name of kink, any more than I’d give up D/s play because it doesn’t fit conventional sexual tastes. What I want has everything to do with who I’m with and what we need at the time. Sometimes, it’s rough. Sometimes it’s sweet. Unlike my young self, I’m not interested in missing out on either.

So, to bring it back around. If a person dedicates themselves to writing “porn” that’s great. If they claim the label of “erotica” (or “erotic romance” or “smut”) for their work, that’s great too. The danger is in becoming overly committed to a label – whether it’s porn, romance, kinky, straight, feminist, Christian, atheist or anything else. My concern is that, when a label becomes an ideology, it can curtail the intellectual, creative and sexual fluidity that makes you an individual, rather than a component of a larger, homogenous group (kinky people sex aside); or, in the case of erotic fiction, it can needlessly limit your work in a falsely simplified genre.

On Slate’s Sexual History Calculator

From Slate’s article, “Is Your Sexual History as Impressive as You Think” by Andrew Kahn and Andrew Weissmann:

You, dear reader, are a human being. And as a human being, you are naturally curious, a little bit self-conscious, and maybe even competitive about sex. At some point you’ve almost certainly thought about the number of people you’ve slept with and wondered: Is that normal?

Wonder no more. Enter your stats into our new calculator, and, based on your age and gender, it will tell you exactly which percentile you fall into when it comes to how many partners you’ve hopped in the sack with.

I came across this article today and I’ve been chewing on a mouthful of fucking annoyance ever since I read it. Needless to say, I don’t think Slate’s calculator is nearly as impressive as the article’s authors do. Fantastically unprofessional, soul-driven rant ahead.

So why did this article crawl under my skin like a disgusting dermatological disease?

In part because this was published in Slate, a (usually) grounded current events / politics site. If I’d stumbled over this in Cosmo, I’d have rolled my eyes and moved on because a sexual history calculator is exactly the sort of thing one expects to find in Cosmo. What I didn’t expect was for Slate to push the same sort of competitive, sexual shame / insecurity inducing bullshit that Cosmo does. The fact that Slate filed this article in Moneybox, their financial section, seems both nonsensical and ironically appropriate to me. Why?

Because this is click bait, plain and simple. The motive behind it has nothing to do with sexuality, curiosity or culture – it has to do with hits. So, in the spirit of not taking that bait, here’s a link I ran through DoNotLink so you can see it (if you really want to) without improving Slate’s hits on this piece.

...says the sexual history calculator.

…says the sexual history calculator.

But let’s get back to the article itself. As it says, we, the dear reader, are human. Surely we want to know if we’re “normal”, so let’s break this down to it’s unvoiced yet obvious implication:

Am I less than average? Fuck. I’m a frigid, undersexed loser.

Am I above the average? Fuck. I’m an slutty, oversexed slut.

Am I in the average? Whew. I’m normal. Thank god.

The calculator feeds into the popular notion that numbers matter when it comes to sexual partners, and it does so in a way that is almost gleefully disingenuous. Weissmann and Kahn site a study published this month in The Archive of Sexual Behavior as the inspiration behind the calculator. This study, done on a weighty 13,000 participants, found that millennials are on pace to sleep with fewer partners over their lifetimes than previous generations. This finding has some legitimate sociological interest, and it’s on that legitimate interest that the authors flimsily hung the relevance of their handy-dandy little service.

Using the same data used by the study that inspired it, the calculator compares your age and number of partners against the average defined by the study’s participants. But the study is self-reported (and I do give Weissmann and Kahn credit for stating this in the article), which means that the study’s participants could very easily have lied, adjusting their numbers up and down in whatever way suited their self images. There is no statistical rigor behind this average, which means that it’s entirely subject to the truthfulness of the people involved. As far as statistical averages go, it’s inherently flawed.

So why bother with the calculator at all, especially when the average it’s using is, very likely, less than accurate and taken from a relatively small sample size?

Because the article isn’t interested in sociological or generational trends despite what the authors claim their inspiration to be. The article, from it’s hook-laden title to its friendly, 1950’s era ad-man tone, are aimed at subversively feeding into the reader’s potential insecurities. Why? To get you to stop and click.

But beneath all that lies a legitimate question, one the authors choose to ignore. Does the number of partners you’ve slept with really matter?

My answer to this question (for all that it’s worth) is no. Sexual histories cannot be averaged. Not really. A person’s relationship to his / her sexual past is complicated, individual and defined by the particular circumstances of her / his life. Whether you’ve had one partner or one hundred doesn’t say anything about you as a sexually mature human being. But this calculator feeds into our insecurities about our partnered sexual pasts. Am I prude? Am I a slut? Fuck if I care. I’m offended by the idea of a click-bait calculator telling me where I fall on an imaginary average, and I’m offended that it’s been published as a way to capitalize on people’s insecurities (“c’mon – you’re human”) to get hits for Slate.

For all that though, the calculator does one thing of legitimate sociological interest. It underscores how wide-spread the reflex to measure our sexual histories against each other is. It wouldn’t be click-bait if the authors weren’t confident of it’s ability to reel people in. But is that impulse healthy or necessary?

I’d say probably not. Regardless of where you fall on the calculator’s spectrum, you’ll either feel bad about yourself or falsely vindicated if you give the results any weight. Either way, the false notion that the number of people in your history means anything will, once again, be reinforced.

This calculator isn’t the precious little service the authors are making it out to be. It’s a disingenuous manipulation wrapped up in cultural interest and that’s why it pisses me off. It’s selling you the notion that there is an average sexual history and that that the subjective average is “normal”. Are you “normal?” Don’t you want to know? Not to sound like John Oliver on a rant, but Fuck You Sexual History Calculator! Sell your “normal” somewhere else!

And yes, I know, maybe I need to lighten up. Maybe some people find this kind of thing fun. Maybe people don’t care. Maybe…but the calculator is a sensationalistic marketing tool and because it serves no larger point (despite the terms it’s couched in) it can fuck right off. As a culture, we’re already too focused on the number of people in our sexual histories. The last thing we need is an app to capitalize on the obsession.

Notes to My Younger Self

Good Time Girls by Jack Vettriano

Good Time Girls by Jack Vettriano

Last week, I wrote a post about a relationship that, even now, I struggle to admit was abusive (I usually just call it “toxic”). A few days later, someone asked me if I would go back in time and avoid the whole thing. Surprisingly, I said no. While there are things I wish I’d known or understood, that experience was a pivotal one. It’s quite possible that, if I did change something, I wouldn’t end up being the person I am today, and I like that person a lot.

That said, I do like the idea of going back in time to have a little chat with myself. In fact, I keep a list of things I’d probably tell myself over drinks, and not just regarding that relationship. Maybe it’s just that I loved The Time Traveler’s Wife but even if younger me ended up doing everything exactly as I already had, it would still be nice to have my future self’s perspective on certain things. Plus, I’d kind of like to hang out with me (pretty narcissistic, but true).

So, here’s my list of 15 Things I Would Tell My Younger Self:

1. Try not to drink quite so much (she says, sipping a G&T). You don’t have to stop, but you’re using alcohol to numb things you need to pay attention to.

2. Don’t smoke. Like ever. Yeah, I know, this one’s a drag. But here’s the thing – we quit ten years ago and I still miss it. And it’s so bad for you. So don’t start. Don’t bum that first cigarette from Theresa Flynn sophomore year, okay? Just don’t do it, because you’re going to love it and it’s going to suck when you have to stop.

3. Write more. Right now. Write more. Worry about getting good later. Right now, you just need to write. Get it all out of your head. Writing will help you think, and honey, you’ve got so many big, messy feelings, you need to make some space to think. Plus, it’ll give us something bittersweet / poignant to read down the line.

4. Sex. You’re going to love it. LOVE IT. You’re going to gobble it up. But, it’s also going to make you vulnerable, and that’s ok. In fact, that’s good. Just try not to confuse sex with love. Sex and love go together like chocolate and peanut butter, but they don’t have to. You’re not a bad person if you just want to fuck. And you’re not unworthy of love if that’s all he (or she, because you’re totally bi) wants too.

5. Don’t cut your hair short. I know it’s shallow but seriously, that Audrey Hepburn pixie thing you want so much? Don’t do it. And if you ignore me (because you probably will) and you hate it (because you’re totally going to), don’t spend two years growing it out just to cut it again because “maybe you’ll like it better this time.” You won’t, okay? I promise.

6. It’s fine that you have small breasts. I know you hate them. I know you’re hung up, but no one, and I mean NO ONE, cares. Meanwhile, you have no idea how good they can feel, and that’s a freaking crime.

7. You will love him but he will never love you. He’ll want you. In fact, he’ll want you so much it makes him sick, but he’ll never love you. (See #4). There is no way to make that not hurt and it’s going to fuck you up. But it’s also going to be ok. You will get yourself out. You always do…just, maybe, try to do it a little sooner this time around.

8. Don’t move to Texas. (No offense, Texas. We’re just not a good match).

9. Eating a jar of almond butter with a spoon* is not a solution. You know that. That said, stop beating yourself up about it. If it bothers you so much, put the fucking spoon down. C’mon, girl. Either own what you’re doing or change it. <3

*Also applies to wine, bourbon and gin. And cigarettes. And casual sex. Fuck, you’re vice ridden…

10.  There is a difference between testing your limits and disregarding them. You can take a fantastic amount of damage. That doesn’t mean you should inflict it on yourself.

11. Museum studies. It’s a thing. Look into it while you’re at NYU. Also, acting will never make you happy the way writing and academia do. I know your ego wants it and I even know you’re good, but try to channel that energy into your real passions and not a glamorous fantasy.

12. Your self-image and your reality very often don’t match. When that happens, one of them has to change. Either adjust the way you see yourself, or work to become what you wish you were.

13. You’re going to do what you do. It’ll be easier and you’ll suffer less if you follow your instincts, worry less about what other people expect and own your choices.

14. When you first start to write, you’re going to obsess about details. You’re going to strive for perfection in tiny, precious works. You need to. I get it. Here’s the thing: you’re going to suck. It takes years not to suck. Just lay off the impulse to grind every story down and keep cranking out the words. They’ll get better and so will you…And maybe try erotica sooner.

15. Stop faking orgasms. I now you’re nervous, but it’s keeping you from feeling real pleasure. Spend some time with a vibe and your hand because you can come, honey. Oh my god, can you come. Your body can do things you can’t even image. Just take your time and learn yourself.

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