This week I have something very special for you. Last month I had the pleasure of meeting Steph Auteri on my trip back East and, frankly, she’s pretty awesome. It just so happens she also has a new book out and some awesome stuff to say. So, today, I’m doing something I have only done twice before, I’m handing the Redhead Bedhead reigns over to another writer! Now, without further ado, here’s Steph Auteri!
The Sexerciseball was a large, blow-up exercise ball with a built-in adapter for the several dildos that came with it. I tried it while my husband was at work, using a pump to blow it up in our living room, flipping the blinds closed, twirling on a dildo, and sliding on a lubricated condom. I climbed on and slowly lowered myself onto the dildo, my inner thighs gripping the ball so hard they trembled. I feared what would happen if I lost my balance and began rolling across the living room, the dildo still inside me. After a few, tentative bounces, I dismounted the ball, unscrewed the dildo, and never used the thing again.
When I wrote my review for Lemondrop, I played up the absurdity of the toy concept, and the sexlessness of my experience. But still, among the handful of comments the post received was this one:
Is it strange to admit that your awkwardness in this review turned me on?
I had fallen into sex writing unexpectedly. A few years before, I’d been an intern at an alternative weekly, where I was asked to create content for two personals sites owned by the publication’s parent company. I test drove vibrators. Reviewed porn. Tried out cardio striptease classes. Wrote about it all.
Mind you, I was sexually inexperienced at the time. I had just emerged from my first sexual relationship, an unhealthy partnership rife with emotional abuse. The first time I had intercourse, I was coerced into it, him taking what he wanted as I lay tense and silent beneath him. I felt broken after that. Disinterested in sex, but obligated to engage in it. When the internship fell into my lap, I didn’t take it because I was in any way sexually voracious or adventurous. I took it because I thought that exposing myself to new forms of sexual expression—taking charge of my pleasure—would fix me.
The comment on my Sexerciseball review was the first time I was made to feel objectified because of the work I did, but it wasn’t the last. Over and over again, anonymous commenters labeled me a slut. When I met someone new and the subject of my writing came up, they suddenly saw me as a body without boundaries.
What felt like more of a betrayal, however, were the comments I received from friends and family, the assumptions they made about me because of the things I wrote. The things they felt comfortable saying.
My husband’s friends, for example, assumed that he and I had a wild and raunchy sex life. They often made nudge-nudge-wink-wink jokes in front of me that left me feeling deeply uncomfortable. I let them, for my husband’s sake. But my own male friends did it, too.
Family members treated my career as a joke, too. Once, at my in-laws’ house, with relatives visiting from out of town, my mother-in-law made a joke about sex. “But I hear my daughter-in-law knows all about that kind of stuff,” she sniggered, and I blushed, feeling humiliated.
For me, however, the work felt important. It had grown to be about more than just my own alleged deficiencies. In the years since I’d started writing about sex, I’d learned that most people don’t feel secure in their sexuality. They worry they’re doing it wrong. They worry that other people are doing it better. They worry they’re not normal. In being open about my own struggles with sex, I felt I was doing my part to normalize an issue it was difficult for many people to give voice to. In connecting with readers in this way, I was showing them that they were not alone. That none of us were.
As frustrated as I am by the infuriating reactions I receive as a sex writer, I find that the unwanted sexualization I experience is just a heightened version of the objectification all women are subject to. Even without the knowledge that I am a sex writer, men are eager to lay claim to my body. There is the guy who stuck his hand down the front of my pants when we were dancing, who put his hands up in supplication, made a “what’s wrong?” face, when I yelped and jumped away. There is the guy I walked past in midtown, who grinned at me and said, “nice tits!” even though my “tits” were hidden beneath my jacket. There is the guy who followed me on his bike as I walked home one night, forcing me to sprint the remaining blocks to my apartment, my heart leaping up into my throat.
And it’s not just me. Read Jessica Valenti’s Sex Object. Read Myriam Gurba’s Mean. Read the testimony of every single person in the Roxane Gay anthology Not That Bad. For years, these people told themselves that the thing they had experienced—the thing that still echoed into everything they did—was not that bad. Lots of people tell themselves this. I tell myself this.
But whether or not these experiences were—or weren’t—”that bad,” it seems the bar we’re aiming for is pretty fucking low. How many #yesallwomen and #metoo tweets do we need to read before we realize that a thing does not have to be illegal in order to truly hurt us?
Sixteen years after writing my first sex toy review, I’ve published a book about female sexuality. It’s called A Dirty Word. When people ask me what it’s about, I pause, consider the person, wonder how much I should say. The book is about how our culture treats female sexuality like a dirty word, and I’ve written it so that these conversations can be normalized.
But at the same time, I am just so exhausted by the burden of other people’s assumptions. Before responding, I think: How will they sexualize me when I explain what my book is about? How will they see me in a different way?
What boundaries will people feel entitled to cross when they learn that I am a sex writer? I ask myself.
But what boundaries are they already willing to cross solely because I am a woman?
Check out Steph’s book, A Dirty Word: How A Sex Writer Reclaimed Her Sexuality!