There’s evidence that D.H. Lawrence enjoyed an erotic power exchange relationship with his wife, that James Joyce was into scat (among other things), and that Oscar Wilde—well, most of us know what Oscar Wilde liked. These literary geniuses explored radical sexual agency and desire in their work and in their relationships, but little beyond rumors and personal letters exist to tell us what they themselves thought of their turn-ons and the ways in which those dovetailed with their writing. Even if space for such a discourse and community had existed back then, Lawrence, Joyce and Wilde couldn’t freely discuss their sexuality. As it was, they faced censorship and generated scandal wherever they went, and of course Wilde went to prison for his sexual behavior.
Although our world is still intolerant of sexual difference, I want to believe we’re at a point where people can speak openly about the consensual ways we express our erotic selves. And I’m interested in the connections between those private expressions and the larger, more public work we do in the world. This series is meant as a forging of community; a validation of that which gets called sexual deviance; and a proud celebration of the complex, fascinating ways that humans experience desire.
In this ongoing series of short personal essays, writers in all genres—novelists, poets, journalists, and more—explore the intersection between our literary lives and practices and our BDSM and fetishistic lives and practices. In other words, these essays aren’t about writing about non-normative sex: rather, it’s a series about how looking at the world through the lens of an alternative sexual orientation influences the modes and strategies with which one approaches one’s creative work.
If you have questions or comments, or if you’re a writer who would like to contribute, please contact me at [email protected].
–Arielle Greenberg, Series Editor
Radical Vulnerability: The Writer as Exhibitionist
The changing room in Macy’s. A rest area bathroom. The hood of a sports car.
If there’s a chance to get caught, I’ve probably fucked there.
Like sex, writing is both public and private. Like an exhibitionist, a writer gets off in private by exposing her work to the public: to Facebook comments lauding her honesty, to a spiral of retweets. Because there’s no greater pleasure than a work well received.
These are metaphors, of course, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when my thoughts drift during sex, the first thing I think of is writing about it. There’s nothing more immediately satisfying than sharing personal intimacy with strangers—and genre-wise, for me, that happens most easily via the personal essay. This desire to be witnessed, or to put on display for others the things I believe are most important, is often the drive behind why I write.
More than any other kind of writing, and perhaps much like hooking up, personal essays face this challenge of connecting “I” with “you” or “them.” The reader could be a voyeur, or the object of attention. If a personal essay is the exploration of one private moment, publication is what exposes it.
In a piece for Brevity’s blog, I once wrote on the social and elite benefits of earning an MFA: primarily that it’s a calling card offered to those who can afford it. I included anecdotes from my own experiences. Several writers responded with their own pieces, which I have found to be a mark of a good essay: what makes good art is not that it’s well-loved, but that many eyes have seen it, and in turn that it’s inspired an action. Months later, I still refresh my Twitter feed looking for public response to something that privately bothered me until I wrote the essay. Reading a new comment can sometimes feel just as good as an orgasm: short and exhilarating after a sweaty, monstrous amount of effort. An earned pleasure.
Writers are natural pleasure seekers, hedonists. I don’t know of anything more satisfying than laying on the hood of a car, staring into the black night sky, and watching cold breath float slow from my lips like I’m lying at the bottom of the ocean, like the stars are shimmers of sun from the top side of waves. I love the ashy, flat taste of Cabernet a whole bottle in. I love the thoughtless, cliff-wobbling moment before an orgasm better than the orgasm itself. But this is not enough. A writer must push her pleasure into risk, expose herself publicly to strangers with no knowledge of how she might be received, and become something that must be seen. The best kind of writing lives at this intersection.
Both sex and writing are about experiencing pleasure for yourself (the private) and if you feel like it, for others (the public). In the personal essay, those social boundaries must disintegrate: an exhibitionist and a writer need strangers, not just lovers, to watch. Personal essay writers publish for the thrill in stripping down for a reader. The act feels vulnerable, but the reception is more satisfying because of the risk. Although this can feel as difficult as owning up to a kink, the exposure is freeing. Sometimes, being seen is less shameful than not being seen at all.
There are many ways to expose yourself, if willing. I find pleasure in sharing my sexual exploits with friends, just as I do writing about the experiences. “I’m a very physically needy person,” I always start. Then, after some perverse account over coffee, I stir my cup and shrug as if I’ve merely recited the weather forecast. This makes me feel powerful for a moment: because the stories are unforgettable, I feel that I have become unforgettable. Sometimes, I bring my friends’ shocked reactions to the bedroom and share them with my partners, if for nothing else than to extend the pleasure of being seen.
Strangers have often struggled to remember my name, my face, or even my presence in the room. I have seen myself peel away under their eyes like a ghost. In order not to worry about speaking and being ignored, I always want something in my mouth; in bouts of sobriety, I keep pots of coffee desk-side. Outside late-night clubs where I dance off a fever, I drag a borrowed Marlboro. I want the smoke to go deeper than it can and listen for the crisp foil sound of it on inhale. Likewise, I want the Facebook comments of my essays to tunnel deep into the webpage, or letters of affection to fill my inbox unending, scripting an analysis of my own work that I cannot. I want my partner to acknowledge me, speak to me, growling: “I love the way you wrap around me. I love how you’re present.”
I am most memorable in my writing, where I can craft sentences like pulling the moon down on strings. I can cast spells. I can make you see me.
I’m an exhibitionist for the same reason.
During a conversation in a car with friends about Mary Gaitskill’s “The Secretary,” I confessed that I’m often attracted to people in positions of power. The friend who was driving laughed, then said: “Does that mean you’re attracted to me?”
We laughed, but the car settled into blank silence. Her response wasn’t one I had accounted for, and it felt embarrassing because I was unsure of how to respond. This is of course the one threat for an exhibitionist and a writer: to lose our power, or control over our audience.
One summer, I dated a married woman whose husband agreed to her seeing other women. He was a nurse who sometimes worked night shifts, which is when I would sleep over. The morning I met him, I woke up on his side of the bed, rolled on top of his wife, and woke her up by going down on her. She was in the middle of a loud orgasm when we heard her husband unlock the front door. She finished as he knocked on the bedroom door, then I wiped my mouth on their sheets and dressed quickly. I left their bedroom and held out my hand for his.
“Nice to meet you,” I wanted to say. “I just fucked your wife.” Instead, I shook his hand and sat next to him at the breakfast bar while his wife made us pancakes. He commented that he liked my dress, that it fit well, and suddenly I felt momentary. He was not the person I wanted to be viewed by. The experience disembodied me from the pleasure of my own kink, which felt just like a critic’s bad review.
I have felt more in control while drunk at a college house party. At the end of one such night, I found myself on the yellow tile floor of a bathroom with a classmate’s fingers inside of me. When someone knocked on the door, she covered my mouth with her other hand; we heard her name called, but said nothing. Her fingers moved painfully slow as we waited for the caller to disappear, and my hips moved up to meet her stroke. Anyone could have opened that unlocked door and found us half-naked on the floor. It could even have been her boyfriend.
This sexual anecdote would be mortifying if we’d actually been caught, my legs spread embarrassingly wide for the whole school to see—after all, the satisfaction in exposure is about holding all control over the narrative. Like the process of consensual negotiation, writers must decide what private things to make public: an answer that is individual, fluid and momentary as this scene. We desire the permission to be present—the reward for our labor. And this is the necessary vulnerability of both exhibitionist and writer: coming to terms with the fact that you may lose control for the sake of art and pleasure, and that you may not like the result.
Rumpus original logo and art by Liam Golden.