It was a great way for a young woman like me to get published. But the cost of sharing sordid tales became too high
When I lost my virginity my freshman year of college to a 24-year-old alum who still lived in his parents’ house, I remember staring at the portrait of the Virgin Mary hanging on his folks’ bedroom wall, the slight ache between my legs, the gasping breath of the guy lying next to me, and realizing: I am going to write about this.
And four years later, in a teen magazine, I did. It was my first published piece, and it confirmed what I’d always suspected about writing: Sometimes, in order to be successful, it helps to get a little slutty.
Publishers have long been partial to young women willing to open up about their private lives in memoir or thinly veiled fiction, from Erica Jong’s “Fear of Flying” to Elizabeth Wurtzel’s “Prozac Nation” to Emily Gould’s “And the Heart Says Whatever.” After Jezebel ran an item that detailed a Duke graduate who created a PowerPoint detailing all the men she slept with, agents and editors pounced, comparing her to a female Tucker Max and praising her self-empowerment. The woman in question may be humiliated now, but trumpeting her sexual conquests opened doors that would have otherwise remained closed — should she take advantage of it? For that matter: Should I have?
I graduated from Barnard in 2005, steeped in the era of “Sex and the City’s'” do-me feminism. Sex wasn’t just material for liveblogs and anonymous erotica, it was fodder for book deals and professional attention. From the highly sensational romans à clef like Jessica Cutler’s “The Washingtonienne” to a “literate smut” website like Nerve.com to the fact that “sex columnist” was a viable career path many friends aspired toward. We got the message: Sleep around, write about it, become someone. I spent every creative writing workshop chronicling the conquests I’d made at the dive bar down the block and wrote an American studies paper about the observations I’d made at a swingers club. I was quite literally embedding myself in self-exploration, hoping that coupling up would lead less to romantic connection than to crafting a cool, confident girl-about-town persona that would help me stand out in a city of strivers.
After college, I dated around, but I wasn’t looking for love, I was looking for experiences. I’d do anything — or anyone — if that could somehow translate into a moment of transcendence worthy of writing about. In writing and in dating, I felt like I was cute-ish, talented-ish, smart-ish. This wasn’t low self-esteem so much as reality in an exceptional town like New York. And I needed to find some way to stand out. I guess mine is an old tale of being just another young girl who comes to the city, willing to do whatever it takes to get noticed, giving whatever she needs to give of herself to succeed; I just didn’t think that was a career path that would affect writers.
But in an economy where nearly all creative types are struggling, highly confessional essays about sex by young people — in particular women — are one of the few reliable markets for a newcomer like me. Websites like lemondrop.com, YourTango.com, TheFrisky.com, and HappenMag.com traffic daily in tell-all, highly confessional essays by barely adult writers. Meanwhile, traditional magazines like Marie Claire, Elle, Self and GQ often run revealing essays about love and lust. And then, of course, there’s the New York Times “Modern Love” column, perhaps the apotheosis of romantic oversharing. I wrote for a bunch of these outlets (sometimes under my real name, sometimes using a pseudonym), including a piece about a casual encounter gone awry (“Modern Love”), my tendency to Google-stalk dates (TheFrisky.com) and even an essay for Salon about how I think weddings are prime hunting grounds for finding a no-strings-attached fling. And reading other people’s work in these outlets, I feel a kinship with the writers, whose best work did what great writing should: make sense of the baffling world, help me feel less alone. The essays are navel-gazing, sure, but they’re also earnest and yearning. And sometimes, they’re simply a plea to the universe to be recognized as a writer, even if it does mean your audience knows how many people you slept with and whether you shave or wax.
As a writer, I was adventurous, with a flair for drama and an eye for detail, three qualities that made it easy to write about sex. Sometimes, I felt like I wasn’t living my life so much as directing it, especially on a Friday night when I zeroed in on a guy at the opposite end of the bar. Following a new acquaintance up the stairs to his apartment, holding his hand and feeling the rush of too many drinks in my brain, sentences would already begin to form in my mind — as calm, detached and sober-sounding as the narration in a public television documentary.
“Do you remember how you kept stopping me to ask how things felt? I’ve never been asked to do color commentary on sex before,” a man said the next morning as he walked me from his apartment to the subway stop.
“I’m a writer,” I said with a shrug. I was embarrassed at how obvious I’d been, as if I were spoon-feeding him lines I could later use, carefully constructing the scene. Which, of course, was exactly what I was doing.
And the comments I got from editors — “good, but needs to be dirtier,” “more details!” “really make the power dynamics stand out” — started to seep into my dating life, where I began suggesting sex in bar bathrooms or sex while his roommate watched. The promise of publication was like a drug, and the more attention I got, the more I wanted.
“You’re not Carrie Bradshaw,” a therapist told me one time, when I told her about the man I’d met at a downtown party whom I’d accompanied home. He asked if I’d mind if he hit me in the face while we had sex, and I declined, mainly because I was interviewing for jobs and wouldn’t know how to explain the mark.
“I know,” I said. Carrie Bradshaw never would have done that anyway. I was more extreme than she was. And I had no intention of stopping. For one, the occasional paycheck that came from a published piece went toward my credit card debt, allowed me to buy more beer that would lead to more alcohol-infused encounters, gave me the money I needed to buy a triathlon bike. Some of my friends sold plasma or donated their eggs or surreptitiously took hardcover books from their publishing house jobs to sell at a used bookstore, and my sneaky way of padding my income was more responsible, less painful, and it boosted my résumé. Was I being “self-objectifying” (as one former boss put it, in an “I’m just looking out for you” lecture after she read a story I’d written online about a threesome)? Did I hate hearing my mother tell me how disappointed she was when she read one of my essays (even though I’d told her not to read it)? Hey, at least I was getting published.
Around that time, I had my first-ever in-person meeting with an agent who’d read some of my pieces and wanted to talk about ideas. I wore earrings and called in sick to work for the occasion. The night before, I’d been at a book party, where the guest of honor was a bestselling author whose success had absolutely nothing to do with her sexual history. I drank too much champagne and went home with the author’s cousin. We’d made out in the elevator of his hotel, and when I woke up the next morning, I was dry-mouthed and confused, and as I stumbled out the door of the building, I had to ask the doorman what part of the city we were in. I’d only figured out the guy’s name, and his relation to the guest of honor, in the cab ride home, when I fished his business card out of my purse.
It was all the ingredients for a solid personal essay about what I’d learned from party hookups. It would be cynical and jaded with just enough humor to slide over the fact that I’d been blackout drunk, couldn’t remember whether we’d had sex, and that colleagues from work had seen me falling all over him.
By the time I met with the agent that afternoon, my head was still pounding and the smell of coffee made me nauseous. A small woman waved me over to a table.
“I bet you have so many great stories,” she said, leaning toward me. “You’re just not afraid to put everything out there, are you?”
“I guess not.” Memories of the night before — the endless alcohol, the clumsy making out in the cab, the waking up naked next to an unfamiliar man, the fact that he’d pinned me down to the bed and I just knew a bruise was blooming on my upper arm as we spoke — flashed through my mind.
“Like what?” She pressed.
“I can’t think of any recent ones.” It was much easier to create a story in front of my laptop, but talking about everything face to face seemed cheap. For the first time, I saw myself as other people saw me. Young, dumb, déclassé. They definitely didn’t see me as a serious writer. And there were only so many times I could tell the same story, could find giddy adventure in a one-night stand. In the first few years after college, thinking of myself as a writer made those wandering hands in sticky bars and those hungover mornings in unfamiliar apartments bearable. Like so many other young women in New York, I was trying to find a moment of connection in a city of confusion. Being the easy party girl gave me an identity, but it wasn’t admirable — or sustainable. For one, I was lonely. After all, telling all meant missing out on the opportunity to ever share my life with just one person who really mattered to me. It was becoming embarrassing that the majority of my clips were about hookups, that essays about wild nights out were the first things future employers (or boyfriends) found on a Google search.
In a way, tossing off pithy, 500-word pieces about sex for $100 a pop was beginning to feel a little bit like a one-night stand. It gave me what I craved in the moment — attention, excitement — without sustaining satisfaction. But still, at the end of the day, I was left with no book deal and no boyfriend. Hardly a tragedy, but at age 28, I was wondering what, exactly, I’d been doing for the past 10 years, both in my personal and professional life. If I wanted to be a real writer — and, hell, find a real relationship, I needed to stop pole dancing for dollar bills and quietly figure out who I was. I’m not claiming that I’ll never write about sex again, or even that I regret all that I’ve written so far. I needed those essays. They got my name out there, they made me feel like a writer, and they helped me parse the complicated feelings I was experiencing during my turbulent early 20s. But I do want a break from the cheapened feeling that it’s all I have to offer. It was a crutch I used while I was still scrambling to figure out who I was and what I wanted to say. And maybe, if I stop performing for a while, I’ll finally figure that out.
Anna Davies has written for the New York Times, Marie Claire, Nerve.com and others. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Anna Davies has written for The New York Times, Marie Claire, Nerve.com and others. She lives in Brooklyn. More Anna Davies.
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