Recently STET, a website about writers and books, asked me to write a short essay about a piece of writing that changed the way I think about my own work. Below is what I wrote.
Before I tell you about the piece of writing that most influenced me, I feel compelled to tell you the story behind how I ended up reading it:
It was December of 2008 and I was on a plane from Heathrow to JFK, traveling from my then home of London back to the States to spend Christmas with my family in upstate New York. Seated next to me was a tall, handsome, 30-ish blond guy in a baseball cap. I usually loathe when people try to make small talk with me on planes, but this was a red eye, and he was cute, and after a mini bottle of Merlot I became uncharacteristically receptive to his flirtiness. Naturally, our conversation reached the point where he asked, “So, what do you do?”, to which I unattractively responded, “Uh… well, I don’t know… I write some stuff, but not very seriously, I guess.”
I had begun writing my blog, Slutever, the year before on a whim, with no real plan of what I would be writing about and unsure of whether I would even have enough motivation or ideas to post even somewhat regularly. One year in, I was surprised to have gained a semi decent audience, but I still didn’t consider myself a “writer” — I didn’t make money writing, I didn’t have an area of expertise, I didn’t write fiction, I wasn’t a journalist in the sense that I was reporting on anything… all I had was a poorly-designed blogspot. I filled that blogspot with funny and sometimes dark anecdotes about the various people who I lived with in our South London squat — prostitutes, drug dealers, drifters, artists who rarely made any art, and just generally colorful people who seemed to be floating through life without much direction. I also occasionally wrote about their relationships and sex lives, as well as my own, but not very often because the idea of writing about sex seemed kind of cheesy and cheap to me, like I was the semi-ironic blogger version of a romance novelist or something.
Turns out plane guy worked at Simon & Schuster and was quite the literary nerd, and the more he drank the more encouraging he became about my writing, giving me examples of the many people who had turned their blogs into successful, legitimate literary careers. We ended up drinking enough wine that the stewardess actually cut us off, and then we made out for a while (embarrassing?), and when the plane landed he asked me to give him my address in New York, adding, “not because I’m a stalker, but because I want to send you a care package.” I gave it to him.
A week later the box came in the mail — five books, a few magazines, and a mixed tape (accompanied by a very self-aware “I’m literally sending you a mixed-tape” handwritten note). One of the books in the box was Mary Gaitskill’s book of short stories, Bad Behavior. I was instantly drawn to the title, and to the book’s cover — a fuzzy image of a girl down on the floor on her hands and knees, looking like she had either just collapsed in despair, or was about to begin some ominous sexual game — it was unclear. I opened it, and the first lines of the first page read: “Joey felt that his romance with Daisy might ruin his life, but that didn’t stop him. He liked the idea in fact. It had been a long time since he’d felt his life was in danger of further ruin, and it was fun to think it was still possible.” With those three sentences, I was hooked.
Bad Behavior is largely about sex, but it’s not cheesy or cheap. In her stories, Gaitskill writes about women in the sex industry, people in power play relationships, S&M, and the general psychology of people who engage in these so-called “bad behaviors” in a way that’s honest, sometimes brutal, and always beautiful. (For example, the darkly erotic film Secretary, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, was adapted from a story in the book.) Her characters tend to be unconventional, broken, wandering, curious people — characters who reminded me a lot of the people who I wrote about on my blog. Ultimately, the book gave me confidence that writing about sex, and about the various people who wander in and out of your life, was a legitimate pursuit, and could be seen as intelligent, meaningful, and maybe even poetic.
My latest Breathless Column for Vogue asks: Is female intuition real, or is it something our mothers created to validate why they were always right, without ever having to give an actual explanation? (i.e. Are we witches?) – Read it HERE.
I ask the dominatrix if she ever brings the men she dates back to her apartment. “Here? Oh god, no,” she says. “I mean, just look at the place. I couldn’t. Any man in his right mind would run screaming.”
The dominatrix, Mistress Dee, stands with her back arched in a pair of PVC heels, thigh high stockings and a black latex mini dress. Pretty standard attire. She’s petite with giant boobs (real), black curls and skin so white it looks painted on. Dee’s not even 30 but she’s been in the business for almost a decade. I’ve spent countless hours here in her apartment–a spacious one-bedroom in Manhattan’s financial district, the decor of which has been very carefully curated, to what some might consider an intimidating degree.
The first thing one notices when entering the Mistress’s apartment is that the walls of the main living area are lined with metal meat hooks, like the interior of an abattoir. The centerpiece of the room is a large black cabinet–about 7ft tall by 5ft wide–with a glass front, where Dee keeps most of her equipment and/or torture tools. There’s one shelf for dildos (there’s a good 30 or 40 of them in there, all shapes, sizes and colors, including one 16 inch black dildo that looks capable of damage I’m reluctant to even imagine), one shelf for gags, one for masks (my fave is the pink latex balaclava with matching nurse’s cap), one for whips, and so on. Opposite the cabinet, against the far wall, where most people would place a couch, or perhaps a TV, sits an authentic, stainless steel autopsy table. “A dominatrix friend of mine bought that at some sort of ‘morgue going out of business’ sale,” Dee explains, “but she ended up giving it to me because it was creeping out her roommates.” She pauses, thoughtful. “It really comes in handy… ya know, autopsy fetish, zombie roll play, and–my personal favorite–necrophilia fetish.” From the ceiling hangs a chandelier of illuminated glass butt plugs. It really is quite beautiful. In the summer, when the window’s open, a breeze causes the dangling butt plugs to clink together, making a really pleasant chiming sound.
When I arrived here earlier this afternoon, as I walked up the stairwell of the building, I was comforted by the familiar smell of freshly baked bread, drifting up from the bakery below. Dee opened her apartment door just slightly and peeked out, like she always does. I walked in to find a short Indian man crouched on all fours in the center of the living area, staring back at me.
“Don’t look at her,” Dee scolded him firmly. “Did I say you could look at her?” The man dropped his head down at the floor. “I just shit all over that guy,” she said, then began to giggle, flipped her hair and told him, “OK, you can leave now,” and the man obediently crawled out the door.
A few moments later Dee was in her bathroom, wiping the remnants of her session off the black and white tiled floor. “This,” she said, “is the not-so-glamorous part of the job.”
I ask her again why she doesn’t invite dates over. “Because they walk in and immediately think I’m going to rape and dismember them,” she says flatly. “It’s probably my apartment’s fault that I’m single. I love how all this stuff looks—fetish is clearly 80% aesthetics anyway—but it’s really threatening to guys who aren’t in the scene. And the only guys in the scene I meet are submissive guys. And I couldn’t date a sub. I mean… they’re fucked up, right? Not that I’m judgmental. I just mean that, let’s be honest, there is something slightly wrong with all of them.”
“But there’s nothing wrong with us,” I say, unsure of whether I’m asking a question or making a statement.
“Us?… No,” she says with a confident shake of the head.
Pube undies by Marianne Murray (and btw she made these before the whole American Apparel pube mannequin thing)
I have a female friend who I’m at art school with, and she recently started texting me erotic photos and porn, and then last night she texted me asking me to fuck her. I was shocked! I said I couldn’t, but then she responded saying the sex would be incredibly hot and different. I’m confused actually, because I don’t really like her and I wholeheartedly don’t want to have sex, however I know that will make her sad. By the way I’m 26, she’s 21, but I prefer women older than her, like 35-45. What should I do?? Zach
As a general rule, if someone tries to have sex with you, you should have sex with them back–it’s only polite. However, if you wholeheartedly don’t want to, or you have to be somewhere else because of an emergency, etc, then there are methods of getting out of it. For example, why don’t you text her saying, “Hey, no hard feelings but I think we’re better as friends… but maybe you could introduce me to your mother?” Alternatively, if that seems too difficult or insensitive, you could use my preferred method, and the next time she contacts you for sex just say, “Oh shit sorry, I can’t hang tonight, I have a birthday party to go to.” And then the next time she sends you a sexy text, you make a similar excuse, and if all goes to plan she will eventually just gets the hint and stop sexting, allowing you to ease with only mild awkwardness back into the friend zone, after which you can both pretend like the whole thing never happened, even though you’ll both always remember that it did, and it will probably be somewhere in the back of your minds every time you speak to each other from now until eternity.
I’m a 19 year old French girl, and I’m wondering: Do you ever feel bad after a one night stand? I’ve had a few in the past couple months and I just hate the feeling afterwards, like the guys didn’t take my number and it made me feel like an “easy girl.” It’s not like I expect guys to fall in love with me just because we have sex, lol, but I still feel disappointed afterwards, like I’m not “the one.” You might think, “You’re just not cut out for one night stands,” however when I’m in the moment I feel good, and very sure of myself. The weirdness and regret only come the day after. How do I cope with that? Also, do you think you have to to wait to have sex to form a lasting relationship? AnnaMaria
Well, I have a few ideas about this. First of all, most people have experienced feeling not-the-best after a one night stand, because things that seem like good ideas in the early hours of the morning often reveal themselves to be unnecessary acts of stupidity and desperation the following day (especially when you’re riding the subway home in painful high-heels, covered in the bodily secretions of a mediocre stranger). So you’re not totally alone there. However, this is 2014: you don’t have to wait for a guy to ask you for your number! Especially if he’s already been inside you, for pete’s sake. Have you ever considered that after you parted ways, your one-night-stands might be wondering why you didn’t ask for their info? The morning after a random hook-up is a vulnerable moment for both parties, so you can’t put all the responsibly on the guy. However, it’s also important to consider: Did you really want to see those guys again, or did you just want them to want to see you, for the sake of your own ego?
I generally think that regret is counter-productive, because there’s no use wasting time feeling sorry for yourself about a past decision that you can’t change. Deal with it, it’s been done, move on with your life. However, when regret is useful is when you find yourself continuously regretting the same behavior, because then regret becomes a warning sign that you need to change something. I’m not suggesting that you’re not cut out for causal sex all together, but it does seem like the way you’re engaging in casual sex isn’t working out for you, and something needs to be adjusted.
Casual sex has the power to make you feel totally amazing and satisfied, but it can also make you feel like a piece of shit. The difference in results usually has to do with the person’s motivation–i.e., are you having casual sex for the “right reasons” or the “wrong reasons”? You know it’s a “right reason” when your decision to have sex is very clear and autonomous. For example: you (soberly) find someone attractive and interesting and want them inside you; you’re curious and want to explore your sexuality, and think anonymous sex is an important experience to have; or, you’re horny and want to experience something new and different. Now, here’s some “wrongs reasons”: peer pressure; because you’re drunk; pressure from a guy; or, because you’re secretly hoping that the sex will lead to something more serious, while pretending to yourself and your partner that the encounter is purely physical and fun. And judging by your question, I think that last “wrong reason” might be the case for you.
I don’t think you have to wait to have sex to form a lasting relationship. However, I also think that drunkenly fucking guys and then not making an effort to get their phone number is not the best way to get a boyfriend. Your behavior is making you feel bad so you should try something different and see if it makes you feel good! Go out with someone from OKCupid, don’t blackout, wait a few dates to have sex, and who knows… maybe something ~magical~ will happen, lol.
I’ve been going out with my boyfriend for a couple months and I’m happy about the relationship, however when it comes to sex… well I’m kinda new at these things. He does everything perfectly to me and I’m satisfied, but I have no idea how to please him. I’m scared that if I suck his dick, for example, I’ll look like a complete slut, and I don’t want that! What should I do? Quinn
OK what? On one hand, it’s nice to know that people like you can still exist in the modern world. However on the other hand I feel scared about your cluelessness and think you need to watch some porn right now. I guarantee your boyfriend watches porn–or at least he has in his lifetime a considerable amount of times–so this will give you some insight into what’s going on in his mind when he jerks-off and/or thinks about sex. After you’ve watched a woman with bad plastic surgery being anally gang-banged and then bukakke’d by a group of prison inmates, you’ll understand why the image of your girlfriend giving you a blow-job could never be seen as slutty, but only as a gesture of true affection and intimacy (even if you’re making porn-face). While pornography is pretty well known to misinform men as to how to please a woman (i.e. “the easiest way to make a girl cum is to bend her over, smack various parts of her body with your hands and then vaginally spear her without foreplay”), porn can still be a good source of basic information–i.e. what goes where, possibilities of positions, etc–and it will likely inspire you with some sexy ideas.
If after that you’re still paralyzed in bed, why don’t you just ask your boyfriend, “What do you like?” or “How can I please you?” Sometimes the hardest-seeming problems have the simplest solutions! Of course, when asking questions like these, delivery is important. Try not to scream the question or to sound overly panicked. Rather, if you make your voice sound all breathy and comforting, like Scarlett Johansson’s voice-over in Her, I’m almost positive you’ll get the response you’re looking for.
I went in-conversation with Petra Collins for the Girls Rule issue of Dazed. You can now read the full article below.
If you’ve ever been on the internet, you’re probably familiar with the artist Petra Collins. I’ve also written about her on this blog many times, and she and I have since made a couple of short films together, both of which (quite serendipitously) are about murderous girl gangs. We also both made T-shirts with vaginas on them, except hers was bleeding.
For those of you who don’t know: Petra made her name creating beautifully nostalgic images of youth in her hometown of Toronto, Canada. Still just 21, Petra’s career started in her mid teens. She’s the founder and curator of The Ardorous, an online platform for girls to show their artwork, and she’s also a staff photographer at Rookie, Tavi Gevinson’s awesome mag for teenage girls. This year Petra made the move to NYC, and has since curated an all-female art show titled Gynolandscape, become a muse to Ryan McGinley, and has started making music videos for artists like Sky Ferreira and Blood Orange. Through her cinematic lens, Petra has become an expert at using the female body as a tool to both seduce and provoke, and never fails to find the humor in both.
Karley Sciortino: We’ve worked together a bunch of times, but I’m only just realising that I’ve never asked you when or why you started taking photographs..
Petra Collins: Well, I hate saying this because it sounds sort of pretentious, but since I was very little I’ve always made art, in some form or another. It wasn’t a career choice; I was just doing it because I needed to, because it made me feel whole. Then, when I was 15 I took this photo of my younger sister’s three girlfriends sitting on my bed, and one of them was smoking, and when I got the image back it really surprised me – it was really interesting in a way that I didn’t expect, with a strange sadness and beauty to it. After that I decided to keep documenting those girls, and so for the past five years I’ve been taking photos of my younger sister and her friends. That was unconsciously my first photo project, and what started everything. It’s really crazy because now all the girls have graduated and are going to university.
Karley Sciortino: I’ve seen some of those photos. Some that stand out in my mind are of them at prom.
Petra Collins: Yeah, I shot them at prom, at parties that they went to, in their high school, them taking selfies…
Karley Sciortino: The other day I tweeted that a better name for our generation than “Millennials” would be “Generation Selfie.”
Petra Collins: Seriously. I think the selfie is really interesting because there’s so many levels to it. In a way, it’s an image that doesn’t hold that much truth, but rather is a representation of how someone wants people to perceive them. It’s supposedly a personal image, but it’s always taken with a second party in mind. It’s part of how we all curate our lives online, through Facebook or whatever.
Karley Sciortino: Yeah, so in a way the selfie is the purest representation of how we want the world to perceive us. I recently wrote an article about how social media has turned everyone into their own brand, and suggested that the people who don’t un-tag unflattering photos of themselves are actually just bad at doing their own PR.
Petra Collins: Lol.
Karley Sciortino: I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this, but when I first saw your work and then found out you were so young I thought, “She must have famous parents.” I didn’t think someone could be so cool while still so young without some assistance. But then when I met you I realized you’d actually just taught yourself to be cool on the internet.
Petra Collins: Ha, it’s true. The school of Tumblr!
Karley Sciortino: Yeah, it’s crazy how much of a game-changer that is – to grow up with a catalogue of everything that was ever cool or influential or relevant since the dawn of time. I just missed that, because I didn’t have internet at home until I was 13, and even then we just had like AOL chat and other similar non-cool-making resources, and then people like you and Tavi come along, and are intimidatingly cool at age 15, and that makes me hate you, honestly.
Petra Collins: Uh… thank you? So, when you started Slutever, did you set out to create a feminist blog?
Karley Sciortino: Honestly, that wasn’t my intention. I was just writing about what interested me, and I ended up writing a lot about sex and sexuality, I suppose just because I’ve always been a very sexual person, but it wasn’t until my blog started getting popular, and other people and press began referring to me as a feminist blogger that I sat back and thought, “Wait, is that what I am?” Don’t tell anyone, but I actually didn’t know that much about feminism at the time!
Petra Collins: No, same with me! I feel like we went down the same path, because I just started taking photos to work through my own person frustrations, but I didn’t really know what I was doing, and it was through being defined as a feminist that I discovered feminism. But that was only in my last year of high school, which isn’t that long ago.
Karley Sciortino: What frustrations were you working out?
Petra Collins: Well, in the beginning my images were very sexual, and at that time I was dealing with my emerging sexuality. I remember thinking that my worth as a person was based on my looks, and basically being a sex toy. That sounds bad but it’s really what I thought, and it felt very confusing, and I guess I was trying to combat feelings of the male gaze through my images. I wanted to create images that represented my own sexuality, not a sexuality that was dictated by someone else–like, “How do I make this mine?” But it’s a long, hard process to figure that out, and I’m still figuring it out.
Karley Sciortino: I recently interviewed Marsha Rowe for Dazed – she was the founder and editor of the iconic second-wave feminist magazine, Spare Rib. She told me, “What strikes me about modern feminism is that it focuses quite narrowly on the body. So much anxiety gets centered on the woman’s body, and it feels somehow detached from what other things are going on in the wider world.” We went on to talk about the obvious connection of girls’ obsessions with their bodies, and the unrealistic, airbrushed images of perfection we are bombarded with in advertising, in magazines, on TV, etc.
Petra Collins Yeah, it’s so fucked up. It’s almost hard to realise that those images aren’t real because we see them so much.
Karley Sciortino: Right, so we hold ourselves up to these unrealistic standards. It’s strange because as a society, we look at these super retouched images in the media and we’re angry, because we know it creates unhealthy aspirations for women, and just makes us feel bad about ourselves. But simultaneously, whenever we see an unretouched paparazzi shot of a celebrity on the beach, we relish in the opportunity to criticize them for having cellulite or whatever. Rather than appreciating it as a realistic depiction of a female body, we print the photo in a tabloid magazine and draw a big red circle around any imperfection, underneath a headline like, “Scarlett Johansson’s cellulite beach nightmare!” or whatever. So as a society we are very hypocritical about what we want. We want to see images that are at once aspirational and relatable, and yet we condemn them for being both.
Petra Collins: Honestly, I don’t think there’s an hour of the day where I don’t think about my body, which is really messed up. I actually find it weird when I meet a girl without body issues. I just think, “Where did you come from?!” And it makes me so sad to see my sister and her friends, who are all so amazing and beautiful, just hating themselves.
Karley Sciortino: As someone who’s curvier, I sometimes feel insecure about my weight. But then at the same time, because I understand that I’m in a position of even a small amount of influence to young girls, I feel it’s important to project a body-positive image in my writing and in my videos, because obviously I think girls of all sizes can look amazing, but I still can’t escape the harsh self-critique. And then I get anxiety that I’m projecting this confident imagine that isn’t entirely sincere, ya know? But anyway, keeping on the subject of body, your Instagram got deleted recently after you posted an image of yourself in a bikini with a visibly unshaved bikini line. Given that there’s millions of photos on Instagram of girls in bikinis, it was obvious that your photo was censored because of the hair. Quite awesomely, everyone from Vogue to the Huffington Post wrote stories about how Insta censored your pubes.
Petra Collins: Right, the issue was that the image of my body didn’t meet society’s standard of “femininity.” It’s an example of the pressure to succumb to society’s image of beauty literally turning into censorship. I actually did this giant research project about female body hair in my first year at university. I was beginning wonder why I felt the need to remove my hair, ritualistically, almost every day, without ever considering why. So as a little social experiment for myself I decided to stop shaving, just to see how uncomfortable I would be with exposing myself in that way. It was partially about training myself not be affected by what other people think. And now, three years later, I still have the hair. And I still get so many stares. It’s so funny how shocking armpit hair on a girl is to people–they spot it and they just like can’t look away! But I love it now, it’s such a cool accessory. I love the combination of armpit hair and a slutty dress.
Karley Sciortino: That’s hot. Maybe I should stop shaving, both to look more edgy and to just avoid getting ingrown hairs. Literally, sometimes I feel like my life is just one giant ingrown hair. So, who are some female artists that you love?
Petra Collins: I love Lauren Greenfield‘s work. She did that photo series Girl Culture, about girls lives and private rituals, and she made that documentary Thin, about a rehab center that treats women with eating disorders. What about you?
Karley Sciortino: I love Camille Paglia – she’s a very controversial feminist who writes largely about art, sex and pop culture. She’s very pro-sex, pro-porn, and she can be pretty harsh, but she usually just says what everyone else is thinking. And of course, I love Joan Didion, who somehow is able to perfectly articulate everything I’ve ever thought and felt and wondered about, and even some things I didn’t even realize I thought or felt until I read her words. So… should we talk about the fact that we both made shirts with vaginas on them? Mine was a photo of my hairy vaj, and yours was a line drawing of masturbating, menstruating woman with pubes, sold at American Apparel, and it sparked some backlash.
Petra Collins: I know. I find it funny that with all the sexually violent, disgustingly derogatory images we see everyday in the media, that a woman’s period is still something people find so shocking. Menstruation is a natural part of growing up and becoming a sexual person, and yet it’s so hidden, so I really wanted to put it on a shirt and bring the power back to vaginas. That’s what I love about your shirt too – it really demands attention, and calls attention to the fact that the vagina is its own sexual organ. It’s not, ya know…just for dicks.