Unzipped lips

Sex writer Courtney Weaver talks about her new book, seriously considering prostitution and the joys of a serious relationship.

Published December 7, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Almost everyone does it, but precious few manage to make their living from it. That's the paradoxical fate of the newly minted profession known as the sex columnist. Like chefs or professional shoppers, they must make an art from a deceptively mundane activity: clever chat about nooky.

Nowhere is this irony more striking than in the case of Courtney Weaver, author of "Unzipped," a book based on her former Salon column of the same name. Unlike so many of her fellow sex scribes, who cavort through the darkest and brightest corners of the human libido and fashion themselves as experts, Weaver has never claimed to be an authority.

Even now, after having visited dozens of dens of iniquity and shared cocktails with scores of fetishists, call girls, strippers and horn dogs of all breeds, she denies the mantle of sexpert. Instead, hers has been the work of a stranger in a strange land. And although she mined the extremes of sexual culture, she has preferred to explore the sex lives of the lumpen libidos: her friends, her family and any Jane or John Doe that would open up their otherwise Gap-filled closets and allow her a peek at their skeletons.

Peering stoically at the many facets of human desire, she's kept a dogged diary of her years as a tourist in the kingdom of Eros. Even in chronicling her own love life, she approaches her subject with a mixture of bemused detachment and an abiding sense of astonishment.

Now with the release of her first book, she opens her life and those of her intimates once again, offering a Pandora's feast of modern-day sexual and romantic imbroglio. From Jemma, her self-assured friend who has chosen to become a slave, to Marie, her wickedly honest hairstylist and recently divorced mother, to Harriet, her best friend and devotee of "The Rules," to her own turbulent, less-than-noble sexual escapades, Weaver spins a portrait of late 20th century single life as vivid and addictive as our own friends' secret lives.

At a neo-bohemian cafe, filled with overfed freelancers, in San Francisco's Mission District, Weaver ate a Cuban beef sandwich and talked about her new book, telling her friends' secrets and her waning nymphomania.

When you first started writing, did you ever imagine that you would become a new genre of writer known as a sex writer? You started doing it right when it sort of became this new genre.

No. I was completely naive on that score. I was just telling these stories that women and men were talking about. And trying to just talk about it in an honest way that wasn't so smarmy and marginalized. But the column was never only about sex. It was usually sex as a lens to look at other issues. Like relationships, interactions, sexual politics, lives, expectations. Sex was like the springboard. I never saw myself as a sex writer. If anything I was like a ... I don't know, a relationship investigator.

It's not that I think sex is so interesting in and of itself. But what's interesting is all the psychology and the interactions that go behind it.

Yeah. In the beginning, you were sort of mining the really personal parts about your own life. Was that easy for you? Or was it sometimes difficult?

In the beginning it was always really easy. Because that's the way I had always been, and I had never been coy about it. It was coming from this position like, well, I've talked about this all my life, and my parents have talked about it and my friends have talked about it and everyone I know talks about it all the time. So writing about it is not so surprising or weird or outre. But after a certain amount of time, it has to shift because you can't keep mining the same sort of ground over and over again.

You have to actually go out and have life experiences and have some knowledge, some self-awareness of what you're doing. And be able to think about it. And if you're talking about it all the time you're not really thinking about it. You're not learning anything new. It was time for me to stop putting the lens so much on myself and my friends and step back.

Do you feel like you have a specific perspective that's unusual, having been raised in San Francisco at a certain time?

Yeah, I do. I, like a lot of San Franciscans, live in this bubble of sexually liberal thinking and it's easy to think that everyone else has this sort of honesty about their sex lives and their relationships. What made that really clear was when I went to England and started talking about the book. And everybody said, "What would make you possibly want to write about your relationships?" Or, "Why would your friends want to tell you this stuff?"

Although the British in some ways are way more open than Americans are. Like the women, the way they talk to each other is much more detailed, much more clinical than our girl talk.

How did you transform your material from the columns into your book?

Well, that was hard because one of the criticisms, I think, of the column -- which is justified -- is that I would come across as too glib. I would skim across issues that were probably a lot more complicated than I was able to deal with in a 1,000-word column. It was kind of a relief to be able to write the book and have that room to explore stuff.

How did you end up weaving all these stories together -- it's an interesting form because it's sort of a nonfiction novel.

It's hard, because life doesn't follow an arc, the way you want it to in a book. It has highs and lows. But it doesn't have Aristotelian closure, which made it difficult.

I knew I had people in my life who were gabby and funny and interesting. And I also knew that they all kind of represented different aspects of women's sexuality and relationships.

I think one of the things that was the most difficult was when my agent came to me and said, "You've really got to decide how much you want to be in this book. Because either you've got to be in it all the way, or you've just got to step out of it and look in." And I really wanted to step back and look in. I just thought, I don't know how I can deal with that kind of exposure. Then I realized I just can't step back. I would have to be in it, otherwise it just would be this totally glib thing.

What was the hardest thing about depicting yourself?

Admitting that I hadn't treated people well in some ways, like Aiden, the guy I was dating. As I was writing the book, I was still in the midst of a relationship with him, and realizing that I wasn't treating him well. I was doing all the things that I hammer men about.

And I also realized as much as I profess to wanting to be this sort of independent, I-don't-want-to-be-involvedin-a-relationship kind of person, that I was one of them. It turns out I'm just like [laughs] ... like everyone else! Maybe all those women's magazines do have something to tell me. It was a real shock to suddenly understand that having some kind of significant relationship was going to matter to me at some point. And I'd been so convinced that didn't matter.

I'm glad you made the choice to include your contradictions, because it gives the book all these interesting tensions.

If you're a writer, you're usually a person of strong opinions. And you're probably one of these people who has spent a lot of time arguing with people throughout your life about different issues. So it's easy if you're that kind of person to sort of turn it on other people, and turn it into print, and then end up sort of looking like an asshole. But that's just not -- in the end it's not honest, and it's also boring.

The most interesting writing that is done is when people actually really expose themselves and are willing to be vulnerable to say what they want to say, but also do it in such a way that it isn't like I'm the moralist, I'm right, you're totally wrong. That's why I hate -- I can't stand Maureen Dowd. You know? I just think she's such a good writer, she has so many great opinions, but the way she comes off is so fucking glib and snide. She's just boring. She just ends up being boring. Because it's like, oh, so here you are on your high horse again. That's not interesting. Anybody can do that.

Did you have to fictionalize events more in the book compared to the columns? Or were you sort of allowing yourself to be more true?

I did have to take out a lot of stuff that was also going on at the time because it just wouldn't be readable. But I would say, yeah, it is a lot less fictionalized than the columns were. But in some ways it's more, because I had to be really careful about identities.

Because you felt like you were exposing people a lot more?

Yeah. I mean people that were agreeing to be exposed, but from doing the column I had learned that when people say, "It's OK to write about me and it's OK to write about the situation," sometimes it turns out being not OK.

Initially they're just kind of flattered that you want to write something. And then it comes out, and they're just like "I can't believe you said that. I didn't mean for you to say that." It's like, well, why did you say it? It's like, well, I didn't think you were going to put that in.

I mean, people -- that's why you turn off the tape. Or that's why you say, "This is off the record." They didn't have that kind of language. They didn't know.

So how did you negotiate that with friends?

There were legal issues involved with it.

Did they have to read the early drafts?

No. But they had to sign a release saying it was okay that I portrayed them. And all of the main characters had signed releases. And all the people also had been written about in my column before so they were fairly used to it. They weren't the people who were like, "I can't believe you wrote this. I didn't mean it that way, blah blah blah."

Were you ever tempted to just make it fiction?

Make it up? [laughs] No, no, never. I often think to myself, I am really the most unimaginative person that I know. I would love to be able to turn things into fiction and have these big, dramatic explosions and stuff like that. But no. The truth's always much more interesting than fiction. I love documentaries, I love reading newspapers, I love watching the news. That is my thing. I hate magic realism. I don't like those kinds of writers.

What was the reception like in England for the book?

I think the sales have been good. I did all these interviews and think I was more surprised about things that they didn't ask me. They asked almost all about the book but American interviewers always want to know about your personal life, and they try to get that kind of stuff. The English are very polite that way. They wouldn't dig that deep.

The thing that shocked me the most was when I was interviewed by the Evening Standard in London. And this woman who came out to San Francisco was really insistent about coming to my apartment to do the interview. We had this totally pleasant chat in my kitchen or whatever. And then when it came out, it was kind of this snide, really invasive kind of piece.

I felt like one of my interviewees, like, oh my God! She made a comment about what my house looked like, what I was wearing, the bikes in my hallway.

But you wouldn't hesitate to describe your bed sheets much less your own apartment.

Exactly. That's just it. It's this strange thing. Yeah, I'm so open. But wait a minute, you can't write that.

I had another funny experience. I was on this radio show over there that's kind of like Howard Stern. And he was totally outrageous. I think the English think that we're these sort of weird, laughable kind of people. And the worst thing you can do is appear to be too serious and take yourself too seriously -- then they'll just tear you apart.

And that's how they treated me. And I would say, "Yeah, I am. I'm a totally weird American." And this guy would ask me, "So have you ever tried anal sex? And what's your feelings about -- why haven't you ... You're lying." He was really trying to rattle me.

But I was like -- I don't know. I just refused to be rattled because I knew what he was doing, and that was funny, too. That was really interesting. That interview went on for two hours, and it was a call-in show and everyone assumes you're a sex therapist. And people start calling in with their sex problems. I'd say this really isn't my area of expertise. These truck drivers are calling up, "I tried this gel with me wife and it made me numb, and what do you think about that?" And I'd say, "A gel that made you numb? Why would that be exciting? But I'm not a sex therapist, I hasten to say. I just want to keep reiterating this point."

I so don't want to be an expert. That's never what I wanted, that's never what I tried to be or wanted to be with the column or the book. Because I am like every chick who's reading the column, a normal girl.

Do you see yourself writing a sequel or anything like that? Because these people's lives continue.

No. No, I'm not going to write a sequel.

Do you see yourself moving away from writing about sex?

I don't feel like I ever wrote about sex per se. But I see myself definitely moving away from revelations.

When you started the column you were the everywoman single gal living in an urban setting.


And now you're in a relationship, right?

Yeah, a serious relationship.

And so you can't play that role anymore.

It's not that it would bother the person I'm with now, but I don't want do it anymore. The change has been with me. It's a really hard, tight road to walk because on the one hand you want to be honest. You're going to get shit for doing that. Like why are you so important that you think you can write about yourself? But you don't want to walk into your house feeling like your whole life has been ripped open. You know, there was a point when I was doing the column where I actually considered being a prostitute. And I thought about it really seriously. And then I thought no -- most of the stuff that I've done is just being a voyeur.

But I was thinking, Well, what would it be like if I were to just be a submissive for a week? To just try it out, what would it be like? Because I was curious. And then I said, wait a minute, I can't do that. A lot of people that do this kind of writing are a little nuts. They have to be. Because otherwise they don't survive it.

What do you want to write about next?


I don't know what form it's going to take. But I find that whole issue of betrayal fascinating. Why did they do it? How people get over it. How they don't get over it. What does it mean?

Over all these years has your initial attitude about sex changed?

Yeah. I think at one point in my life I could've been called a nymphomaniac. I mean I really liked sex and I liked one-night stands and I liked doing different things and I liked experimenting and making love wasn't that interesting to me. Now I find making love to my boyfriend unbelievably exciting and interesting. More than anything that's come before.

But before you met him, were you learning and changing from the column?

I think women, young women who consider themselves sexually liberal, put themselves through a lot of things to kind of figure out what it is that they want and need.

That's sounds a little like Wendy Shalit's theory that modern young women are forced by feminism into casting pearls before swine and giving their milk away for free. She's talking about strong women feeling obligated to be sexualized in a certain way. And then that's not always what they want in the end.

I have a hard time thinking that Wendy Shalit and I would ever agree about anything, but with these sort of young, upper-middle-class, white, educated, fairly liberal women -- it's almost like they feel they owe it to themselves to go and experience as much as they possibly can. They just don't protect themselves in a way that I think women in their 30s start to learn how to do.

You positioned yourself in the book as very anti-marriage in the book. Has that changed?

I don't know. Some days I feel like going all the way, go to the altar, have a big wedding, get all excited about it. It's a stupid Pavlovian thing where all my friends are getting married. I don't know if it's really my desire or my dumb jealousy thing or something I'm supposed to do. And it makes me really mad, actually, that I can't figure this out, whether it's cultural or whether I really want it.

It is so weird. I had four of my best girlfriends call me within one month and tell me they were getting married. And I just felt like, "What's wrong with me?" [laughs] Then I think: Get over it!

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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