The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Sexlife: One Word or Two?


This began with a prompt, over six months ago, from Rumpus Sunday editor, Gina Frangello, who also happens to be my former student, and one of my close confidantes when I began my current relationship and eventually left my marriage.  Gina wrote, of my recently-completed memoir, Something Wrong With Her (Jadid Ibis, late fall 2013): “Hey, Cris, do a piece for me on what it’s like to write about your sexuality in a sex-memoir-glutted age, but from such an opposite place than the now-familiar sex-addict trend.”

So this is that piece, addressed at times directly to Gina, and at times to the broader, unidentified —and perhaps feared—“you” of my friends, family, random acquaintances, and literary audience…


Don’t you actually mean: what does it feel like … in an era of personal and sexual openness, beyond anything “free love” could have imagined, where books, blogs, columns and talk shows feature “I am a sex(ual) fanatic / deviant / victim / worker” content … amid all that what does it feel like … to be frigid? What does that feel like? Does it have a feeling?

Try this:

I feel beyond caring who knows about my sexual “condition.” Growing up female in America – what a liability, Erica Jong said. Her character answered disillusionment with promiscuity, with angst over empty masturbated orgasms, with living out the zipless fuck. She didn’t specify that the risk in our perilous circumstance could be this too.  My failures, my dysfunction, my frigidity – feminists of 2nd and 3rd wave alike chastise me for the terminology, which places the blame on and finds something “wrong” with me. But wasn’t that my own stance from the beginning? What other word is there? I ask them. No suggestions. Try this: a wall of thick clear glass between me and the sensual, lascivious world that is paraded, painted, filmed, flaunted, blared, boasted about, advertised, analyzed, danced to, dramatized, even purred about softly in every subliminal white noise.

Writer friends believe I’m “brave” to be so open. Of course critics have called any writer, especially a woman, brave for exposing sexual histories on that other side of the glass. Just this week, browsing a bookstore, on the “face-up” table were two memoirs by women about their sexual compulsion, about the joy and thrill of one-night stands, about the addiction of being sexually active and desirable. Yes, they couch it in terms of the low self esteem one must feel to believe her value is measured by a man’s carnal desire for her body. But still, isn’t the unspoken aura that these women are – for the same reasons – exotic, worldly, exciting, charismatic, provocative … or just plain cool?

from Something Wrong With Her , expected release October 2013

I wrote the book. The book has been written. Now I have to own it. Face it. No, I’ve faced it. Now I have to face them. You. Anyone who reads it. All ten or ten-thousand. It doesn’t matter. If you ever meet me afterwards (or if you knew me before), I picture our meeting to be weird, unnatural. Weirdly unnatural. You won’t know where to look, what to say. You’ll be imagining all sorts of things. I’ll know you know.

Know what? I worked hard to describe and define it in the manuscript, but what will someone walk away “knowing”? In part, that Cris Mazza not only has never orgasmed, but isn’t exactly sure what “feeling horny” means. There’s an array of “never’s” and “don’t’s” that may, should or even shouldn’t delineate that pejorative word frigid. I’ve believed that the men in my life — past and present — don’t deserve humiliation-by-association, so I’ve used the damming word but allowed some vagueness to surround it. Instead, I tried to think of a metaphor, one involving a behavior at once intimate and alarming, but they all seemed as though I was trying to vie for the kinds of emotions a rape victim must experience, facing people, afterwards. And this isn’t that. I have exposed “it” voluntarily.

From the very beginning, when my first book earned words like lasciviousness in its first pre-publication trade review, I was marked as a new writer unflinchingly exploring female-sexuality, following in the footsteps of Erica Jong and Judith Rossner. Although my notoriety was minor, even in the world of literary fiction, my second book, Is It Sexual Harassment Yet? – which enjoyed some infamy having been released six months before the Clarence Thomas congressional hearings – added sexual politics to my label. Subsequent books didn’t dissuade label-makers, and then co-editing the two Chick-Lit: Post-Feminist Fiction anthologies in the mid-90s sealed the deal. I was a frank, brash, even assertive surveyor of sex and sexuality.[1]

In fact, my sexlife, for over 30 years since losing my virginity, could be described with other adjectives – painful, desperate, dysfunctional, uninspired, unresponsive, perfunctory – but all leading to inorgasmia, and then prolonged periods of celibacy, met with simultaneous relief and self-loathing, a reprieve and a condemnation.

Recently, someone on Facebook posted that it’s difficult for her to write good, serious, meaningful sex scenes. Then, almost immediately, she followed-up with a second post to notify her FB friends that she was, in fact, good at doing it, she just didn’t know why she wasn’t good at writing it. It’s no surprise that someone who is good at doing something has trouble writing a good scene about it – how many jockeys, anglers, musicians, or painters can use written language to successfully evoke the nuances of the actions required to produce the sensations of their skill? And, although I’ve never had this predicament, a lot of good writers have difficulty (or avoid) writing sex scenes. What struck me about this FB post was two other things: (a) that being good at “it” is something she wanted to make sure everyone knew, and that no one assumed her apparent inability being to write about it meant she didn’t “do it” … and do it well. And (b) it was apparently easy for her to confess being inferior at writing sex but good at “doing” sex. Could she have confessed to the converse, being bad at “doing it” but could successfully pretend to do it in writing?

From “I Write as a Charlatan,“ Something Wrong With Her

I’ve been asked “what it’s like.” I assume that means what it feels like because otherwise “what it’s like to write it” might mean what it was like for my butt to be in the chair for 3 years, or what was the state of my carpal tunnel after all the typing, mouse-clicks, scanning and image-enhancing. “What it was like” to do this can only mean “what are you thinking?” Which reduces to “what do you feel?” My therapist says a sentence that starts with “I feel like …” is not describing a feeling, an emotion. For that I would have to say “I feel scared” or “I feel angry” or “I feel isolated.”

A reply to this prompt is in my gut-response to the usual daily barrage of implication and not-so-subtle nuance.

  • Best Sex Writing 2012 edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel.

The blurb says: This is bedtime reading for erotic intellectuals and those who want to go behind the latest leering headlines for real talk about the topic on everyone’s lips.

Bussell[2]: “Just because you are not part of the group the story is talking about doesn’t mean … what that group is going through doesn’t affect you as well.”

But are any of the pieces in this book, or the editor’s other sexual-content anthologies[3], about women who … can’t? Who haven’t? Who (apparently) haven’t tried hard enough? Or haven’t wanted to enough?

I’ll buy a copy and check. Meanwhile, I asked her. Her bio says she’s a sex columnist. In her author photo she’s pretty, and young, and her black dress only has one shoulder strap. The days of old Dr. Ruth Westheimer are over.

More from Rachel Kramer Bussell:

Up until now, I haven’t included any pieces on women who “can’t” or “haven’t” but I would love to, because one thing I definitely don’t want any of my writing or editing, whether it’s non-fiction or erotica, to be is something that makes people feel worse about their sexuality. I think it would be audacious to say I want it to make people feel better, but more than anything, I want people to connect with the pieces I publish in some way, to find some spark of recognition. I want it to be human. I read this line of yours: “a wall of thick clear glass between me and the sensual, lascivious world that is paraded, painted, filmed, flaunted, blared, boasted about, advertised, analyzed, danced to, dramatized, even purred about softly in every subliminal white noise” and have to admit, I felt a little ashamed because my work is, in a way, part of that “sensual, lascivious world” and while I’m proud of that, I don’t want that world to be an “us vs. them” one. It’s not, to my mind. It’s a both/and/we’re all in this together world, especially when it comes to sex. I want to read about and publish works about sex that look at all its complexity, not present a seemingly utopian world that doesn’t actually exist. Even in fantasy, there is plenty of room for reality.

And for the record, I do think it’s brave for anyone to tell the truth about their sexuality. There are so many standards we are all held to to have a “perfect” sex life, whatever that means. I don’t want to add to that pressure, one I certainly have felt and do feel. I think the challenge we all face is figuring out where we ourselves are situated and how we can live in that “sensual, lascivious” world without letting it, or anyone else, dictate what we do with our bodies. The kinds of sexual stories and truths I love to hear and read about are precisely those that don’t fit into the tidy narrative of what’s au currant, and, audacious or not, I do hope my books open up a space for people who don’t necessarily see themselves in that sex-pressure cooker to find like-minded individuals.

I don’t aim (even inadvertently) to dis fully-sexualized women – those I know, those I don’t – no matter how they got that way, who are getting their due with books or blogs about their early-life sexual events, either healthy or not. The this-distress-happened-to-me genre is so easily disparaged and disregarded these days, but also, apparently, for some (and the ‘chosen’ seem chosen randomly) bringing acclaim, gratitude, and … well, more acclaim and gratitude, and the professional benefits that go with them. But a large enough segment of society seems interested (turned-on?) by their terrible/sad stories.  And one woman opening a door, any door, has to be good for all women. (Or substitute writer for woman.) I suppose they have done that, opened this door for me. Even though, in some weird way, I helped open previous doors for them, just as earlier others before us opened more doors, way back there, for me, for all of us.

That said, I don’t intend to minimize their accomplishments … the books they’ve written nor the lives they’ve constructed, and the sexualization they may now enjoy despite the events they write about. Was it from bitterness I wrote mine? Jealousy? I hope not. I hope the book was just provoked by the bewilderment that’s always been the bottom layer of my intimate life, both before and after fear took it over. Fear, no matter the inciting reason, seems to fasten more firmly than sadness.

Habitual thinking. I learned about that, writing it. I learned stuff[4]. That’s also “how it felt.” But, despite the learning, the habitual emotions and reactions continue: 

  • A writer blogs about her friend’s new book: “Overtly sexual,” says the review (among other praise), “Is that good?” S— asked me. Um, because what exactly would be NOT good about that? 

Okay, sex sells.  I know.  And “selling” is what we seek, despite declarations to the contrary. I’m pretty sure the “overtly sexual” parts of this book are not fraught with sexual dysfunction of the sort that fails to climax. 

  • She is young and wild, uninhibited, says a review or blurb for another book, about the book’s focus-character.  

That combination of wild and uninhibited has to include carnality, and see how her carnality – the wildness of it, the uninhibitedness, which suggests not only experimentation but full pleasure and enjoyment – makes her a worthy, interesting character for a novel. Sure ‘she’ll’ get into trouble – what’s a novel without trouble? – but that trouble won’t be because she’s frigid.

  • A reading titled Dark of the Male, Light of the Female: Women Writing About Horrible Things, and billed to be “the first in … a tantalizing series … deliciously dishy and disgusting.”

What does this mean … that these “horrible things” are actually alluring (“delicious”) to the readers/listeners. That someone is beguiled by another’s trauma? Is that the real root of the “this-happened-to-me” genre? The sexiness of “horrible things”?

  • …feminism equals materials and attitudes and actions that lead to sexual arousal and satisfaction, says a blog. I’m honestly not sure I would have gone for that women’s studies minor if it wasn’t linked in my mind with good sex. … I was looking for sexual information and titillation anywhere I could get it, and I couldn’t afford to be picky. 

A pure example of what should be healthy sexualization.  Except she, too, suffered some form of sexual abuse. But it didn’t stop her from seeking that titillation, that arousal, and that satisfaction.  What else could it mean?  She got there.  Her road wasn’t “normal” or untroubled, but she got there.

Am I finished yet?

(OK, the irony of that one, the sexual joke on myself that could be made of that statement is not lost on the uninitiated. It seems every phrase I write here has the double blade.)

Creative-writing texts say I have to show emotions, not just state that they exist. So what does my evasive form show? How about the prose voice that speaks in questions? How about that this piece can’t “show” whatever evidence might have been found in what I’ve expressed then deleted. Frankly, answering this question doesn’t feel so hot. Feels: unsatisfying, unproductive, frustrating, grinding, like a day of fishing with only a few nibbles on the bait (but am I the fish or the bait?), a day of fishing in beautiful pristine wilderness but with no results (am I the senses taking in the setting or, again, the untouched bait?), the-big-one-that-got-away (here come the clichés), close-but-no-cigar, close-only-counts-in-horseshoes.

Try again: What does it feel like to release my broken-sexlife story, to use the word frigid on the first page, and to know that anyone out there who happens to read it, will … know …? Is that what you mean? How will feel to know you know?

How can that even matter, considering how it has felt when I encounter all those other books rendering various forms of sexual heights and appetite that I’ve only imagined. So maybe you mean, what it feels like to realize what my life has been missing, what my body has failed to achieve? That it might very well be too late to ever recoup, to belatedly re-sexualize myself (although, yes, I haven’t given up, thanks for thinking the question, and yes some of the attempt for evolution is in the manuscript).

“Who do you read,” I am sometimes asked, far more often than how does it feel…? Right now it’s Alice Munro. In her semi-autobiographic almost-novel, her coming-of-age girl, Del — in rural Canada in the late 40s — starts having orgasms within weeks of losing her virginity. During sex with a man. During intercourse.[5] Although I loved one backhanded aspect of it: “But I was amazed to undergo it in company, so to speak; it did seem almost too private, even lonely a thing, to find in the heart of love.”[6]

Of my fictional women, in their dysfunctional sexual relationships — are any orgasmic? I don’t recall any. A few cry out about their lack. I am sometimes guilty of trying to dramatize an answer, for them … a reason why.

I thought how I felt was contained in a Harry Chapin song lyric:

Am I? I am a lover who’s never been kissed.

Am I? I am a fighter who’s not made a fist.

Am I? If I’m alive, then there’s so much I’ve missed.

How do I know I exist?

But his “character” in this 15-minute song is the Texas University sniper of the 60s … the eccentricity is fictional, as fiction will do: to explain his murderous rage.

My prompt for this piece was not why do you think it happened? or did you learn something by writing it — was there a cause, is there a cure? Is there a reason to expose this about yourself? (Yes, Gina, you did ask me those questions, as a friend not an editor, at various times over lunch, drinks or dinner, but not when asking for this piece.) But those were, in fact, my prompt(s) to myself, in 2008, when I started the book. This time I’ve only been asked how did (does) it feel? I wish I knew.

Am I finished now?

Almost. And appropriately, Gina impelled my push to a finale in a FB post:

  • Gina’s Facebook post: Okay, who wants to start a viral campaign called “Women Who Will Volunteer To Blow Clinton If He Will Run For President Again?” Extra points for managing to keep your dress clean.

The immediate responses to her post included many I’m in’s and yuk’s and I’d let him get my dress dirty and best thread of the day and (possibly the one unconsciously sought) dirty girl!

Surface intention: to show enthusiasm for an admired leader, to display the excitement generated by the political convention … because just feeling the enthusiasm (or anxiety or trepidation or joy or hope or the rest of a limitless list of emotions) isn’t enough anymore[7].  And to share it in a cute, fun, humorous way. To be noticed!  (To not have one of those FB posts, like mine, where only crickets chirp afterwards: How lame.)

But like so many of the other sharings of experiences and the emotions they generate, it’s couched in terms of sexuality.  (And yes, the always supposedly hilarious dig at incidents in this particular man’s life, which is usually the conservatives’ only retort).

The whole “fun” “cute” display depressed me enormously.

After my peevish comment-post, “ … in all seriousness, why do we have to perpetuate this Clinton-will-do-anything-for-sex thing.  Let’s admire him for a few other attributes. Please, girls, let’s rise above,” someone responded, “We’re saying that… rhetorical power is aphrodisiac.”

Me: “I believe you’re saying a lot more than that, and not just about him, in a lot of different kinds of subtexts.”

Gina commented/answered on her post: “I think all I was actually saying was that I dug his speech. I mean, it was clearly not meant to be literal.  …  I’ve never even really thought he was that hot, and yeah, he’s a LOT more moderate, politically, than I am. So it’s funny. Things online become very…controversial. … [I] thought it a LOT more likely that I’d be scolded by my good lefty friends for even liking the centrist little SOB.”

But no, it wasn’t “liking the centrist SOB” that I wanted to scold you for, my friend, my confidante, and my editor who “assigned” me this piece.[8] It was for the glaring subtext I saw (and yes, I’m putting aside the issue that blow-jobs do not, inherently, bring physical sexual pleasure to a woman):

Notice how I’m sexy!

Notice how easily and casually and heartily and avidly and animatedly I refer to (my own) sexual behavior.

And isn’t it also:

Listen to me because I’m sexy … notice me because I’m sexy?

The identity being sought, and the way to get attention … both … simultaneously:  I am sexy.

The identity society says we’d better have or no one will pay any attention.  And you know what?  Society is right.

I can imagine the unposted thought-bubbles to my comment: stick-in-the-mud … or, she’s on the rag … or, typical feminazi… or even, obviously frigid. Or … crickets.

Maybe it’s a chicken-egg thing: my own sexlife is why I can’t appreciate, value or incorporate how sexualitiy has saturated (or just is) identity.  Zero = invisible.  Broken = incomplete.

Awareness.  That’s why writing the book (and now talking about it, even thinking about it) was not therapeutic. I should have just kept pretending.

[1]  “Cris Mazza is many things: a short story writer, a novelist, a memoirist, a professor … even a dog trainer. She is also sometimes a provocateur, infamous for her writings on sexual harassment, her post-feminist sensibilities, and her frank explorations of gender politics and (sometimes “deviant”) sexuality. Whatever Cris does, she does passionately.” Introduction to an interview.

[2] She said it here.

[3] [footnote mine] Bussell’s dozens of other edited sex-writing anthologies can be seen here.

[4] And everything I learned writing, it, then editing it, and now while talking about it, will go into the “interactive” or it’s-still-being-written version of it. Which is why I’m not delving into habitual thinking here.

[5] Yes, the book admits that Del had taught herself to orgasm alone — euphemism for masturbation — which studies suggest is, in fact, the way that women “learn how,” and when, in an essay, I come to a point like this of (almost) quoting established medical or social research, I have left the realm of the personal and confessional — which I had more room to do in writing the book. The research was laid out and I lay myself beside it. But “how did it feel…?” Clinical, I hope. That’s what I intended.

[6] Munro, Alice, Lives of Girls and Women (New York: Vintage International).

[7]I’m sorry, but I can’t view FB posts, including mine, as anything more than 90% voyeurism. One feels [something] after reading or seeing or doing [something].  Good.  We all do.  But for some reason now one wants everyone else to know it. What did we do with our boundless feelings before social media?

[8] C’mon, Gina, join me here. Click on the end of this footnote and have your say.

FROM GINA: Probably it would take an entire complimentary essay to really talk back to this complex, layered piece. I guess of course my first response is to doubt—but then want to investigate—whether my intention, even subconsciously, in writing this FB post was to announce something about my own sexiness.  That doesn’t feel true to me, though I guess that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t feel true to someone reading it. So I’m not sure I concur with your interpretation…though I do in part concur with the general interpretation that a reason any of us post anything on FB, ever, really, is “for attention,” sure.  I mean, we can also term this as “for interaction” and “for communication” and “for relationship-building,” all of which also seems true to me, but sure, there is an implied attention-seeking any time we feel a need to talk about our own personal lives in public, on social media or elsewhere.  To some extent, in fact, this is one of the criticisms of creative nonfiction writing in a broader term, and memoirs in general.  Social media is, perhaps, this phenomenon on steroids.  We want to connect, to meet people, to share, but the way to “achieve” that is to be “looked at” and noticed, yes.  So I guess for me, these seem separate issues, one of which I agree with and the other of which I’m not sure I do…

For the sake of argument, though, let’s say I do agree that some implied or subconscious desire in such a FB post is for the writer—me in this case—to announce my own sexuality/sexiness…I guess I feel strangely “criticized” for that, here, even though you say elsewhere that you don’t begrudge or aim to dis “fully sexualized” women.  I mean, I often think about sex in positive/fun ways, I like sex…and I suppose I am not afraid to admit or show that, and that it is part of my self-identification.  So I wonder if the implication here is that somehow I should be hiding that, for the fear of seeming show-offy?  Whereas, in comparison to the current glut-of-sexual-confessionalism culture you talk about here: other than off-the-cuff comments on Facebook, and one short essay on The Nervous Breakdown, I’ve never written about my sex life/sexuality in any public way: I have no memoir about my “past,” have no intentions of writing one.  In my view, I was just “being myself,” if, yes, in the way of ALL Facebook posts, which implies a kind of attention seeking.  So perhaps it makes me a little defensive to think that this “sexual self” would seem somehow more attention-seeking or put on just because it has a fun/funny/sex-positive tone, whereas your (also public) discussions of sexuality would be seen as “more serious” and legitimate and not-attention-seeking because you’re exploring something more troubling/problematic?  I mean, we’ve BOTH written a ton of highly sexual fiction.  We both think and talk about and explore sex a lot, in discussion with each other, with other friends, in our writing.  So it’s interesting to me, how strangely “judged” I felt here for allowing my own sexual personality into a FB post, and therefore it seeming to you that I was trying to announce to the world how sexy I was.  Still, I enjoy and appreciate the fact that your comment brought up a lot of shit for me to think about, in terms of how we present ourselves and what we may intend or hope to be announcing about ourselves with such public posts, and how others may read that and feel about it.  In an age of such over-the-top social media, these are real issues, because we write something without thinking and then it’s “out there” for our 2,000 FB friends to react to and remember, and…uh…write about in Rumpus essays.  Which is both interesting and, of course, utterly terrifying!

CRIS ANSWERS: Fair enough. I certainly knew I was treading on the personal and you’ve shown your liberality and erudition here. So here’s my comparison: You admit thinking about sex in fun and positive ways is part of your self-identification, therefore (conclusion mine), your written-self presents itself as “sexy.” Whereas the complication sex has been for me is also part of a self-identification (which I have kept hidden until now), so how could my newly exposed written-self ever be considered “sexy”? Nor do I, unconsciously or not, intend or expect it to be. And, trends in both literary writing and society in general suggest that would mean I will become, increasingly, invisible. So, in  the spirit of your original prompt? How did “it” feel? This is part of the answer: it causes hyper-sensitivity to “noticing subtext” like this, We’ll continue this over dinner, okay?

Cris Mazza has authored seventeen books, most recently Something Wrong With Her, a real-time memoir. Her other fiction titles include Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls (being re-released in 2014), Waterbaby, Trickle-Down Timeline, and Is It Sexual Harassment Yet? A native of Southern California, Mazza grew up in San Diego County. She currently lives 50 miles west of Chicago and is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her books, interviews and excerpts can be found online at More from this author →