Writing is a slippery business. In 2009, Steph Auteri and I were just two underemployed writers working for a love and relationships website, churning out content, cobbling together freelance jobs, and dreaming of writing our own books. Steph was the queen of the email cold pitch and I had a thousand ideas. We quickly formed a friendship and became writing partners. We set up Skype dates and sent one another weekly updates to stay accountable to one another and keep track of our goals.
Over the next nine years, Steph and I found agents and lost agents. We dished about editors and outlets, who should we pitch, who was writing what. We discussed rates and agonized over writing for money or writing for passion. We despaired and cheered and wallowed. Until we found ourselves exactly where we hoped to be—authors, with actual books.
Steph’s book is A Dirty Word, a deeply researched, smart, thoughtful, and hilariously anecdotal story of how Steph, a sex writer, reclaimed her sexuality after an abusive relationship. The book also chronicles her journey into motherhood, finding the power of her body through yoga, and learning to live in the ambiguity of her past abuse. The book is an urgent and necessary look at how we view sex and a woman’s sexuality in this #MeToo era.
I sat down with Steph and talked to her about our writing journey, coming to terms with her sexual experiences, #MeToo, rape culture, and the radicalization of motherhood.
The Rumpus: You made it! You’ve been working on this book in one form or another for almost a decade.
Steph Auteri: It’s crazy because it’s been quite a long time that I’ve been working on this book, and I’ve been writing about sex for about sixteen years now. On the one hand, I’m feeling a little burnt out on sex. As I’ve told people, even sex can get boring.
Rumpus: Anybody who’s been married knows that.
Auteri: Well right. That’s for damn sure. But also, I feel that whenever I’ve gotten into a rut with my sex writing, it is magically shifted in some way to become something completely new. There is always a new way of seeing it and a new way to think about sex that makes it such a fascinating topic.
Rumpus: I was thinking about your book and this moment of Kavanaugh and airing traumatizing sexual experiences, and harassment, and #MeToo. And I wonder how you see your work in that context?
Auteri: I tried to end my book on a somewhat hopeful note because there are things that can be done as we move forward, but as I sit here and think about the news, I feel even more hopeless. Which is terrible but I feel even more hopeless, because I feel that no matter what we do it’s one step forward, twenty steps back, and no matter what my daughter is still going to grow up in the same world that we grew up in, if not worse.
Rumpus: When you and I first started being writing partners, I think one of the things that we both really wanted to do was capitalize on relevancy, so if a topic came up in the news and we knew that we were qualified to write about it or we had an interesting take we tried to capitalize on that, and a lot of writers do that and there’s nothing wrong with it. But there was a moment when you and I were both kind of exhausted and realized, Oh, this is always going to be timely.
Auteri: I remember when the Bill Cosby story ran. And I remember thinking, Holy crap, if I’m going to get my shit together and get this book out into the world, now has to be the time. I started approaching agents and I sat down with one agent and I said, “I think this is really timely right now, I feel like I need to get my ass in gear and do this.” And she said to me, “The news cycle is going to come around again; this will always be timely.” And lo and behold, I waited just a little bit longer and Harvey Weinstein story broke and the #MeToo movement started.
If you have a good topic, it’s evergreen; it has nothing to do with timeliness. But that evergreen quality makes it really hard to end my book on a note of hope. And it’s hard to continue when you feel like you’re writing the same things over and over and at a certain point you’re like, Why? What am I accomplishing here?
Rumpus: So, why did you write this book?
Auteri: I wrote it because I felt for the longest time that people didn’t feel comfortable talking about issues of sexual shame, or the feelings that they were somehow insufficient in the bedroom, or the experiences they’d had being sexualized by other people.
I wanted my book to open up a conversation. When I started writing about sex I felt like there was no point in having any secrets, so I put it all out there. And people immediately began contacting me to say, “Thank you.” I felt very alone in my experience, and lots of people contacted me pretty much saying they felt like I did. And why does sex have to be such a taboo thing that we can’t talk about with each other? We’re all going to feel isolated and abnormal unless we bring this conversation out into the light. That is why I wanted to write the book.
Rumpus: One of the things you grapple with in this book is the gray area of sexual assault. You don’t even call your assault, “assault.” I’ve seen you struggle with this, draft after draft. So how did you learn to contextualize your experience?
Auteri: The chapter in the book that deals with this topic is “The Word I Cannot Say.” In that chapter, I grappled so much with how to define my own experience. I hesitate to make my experience worse than what I feel it could have been. I just keep thinking, like the title of the Roxane Gay anthology, It’s not that bad. As a culture, we’ve only just started to talk about the gray areas and we don’t seem to be very good at it.
Even through writing that chapter, I still don’t know how to define my own experience. If I say, my experience was still not as bad as these other experiences, I wonder if I’m in some way undermining the conversation, making it difficult for other women to place enough gravity on what they experienced, if I’m accidentally minimizing other people’s experiences.
Rumpus: This book is so personal. What are you afraid of the most?
Auteri: Well, I finally gave copies to my husband and mother. I always try to be very respectful when I write about anyone else in my life when I include them in a piece. I put myself under the microscope more than I put anyone else under the microscope. But if I feel uneasy that someone might, like my husband, might be uncomfortable with something, I ask about it before I write about it or before I send a piece out anywhere. I’ve found, over the years, that aside from not wanting to share such certain pieces on his Facebook page because his family could see—even though they all follow me on Facebook—that he gets more uncomfortable around issues of money than he does around sex.
Rumpus: In the book, you write about finding a relationship with your body through yoga. I also know that yoga helped you approach this book again with a renewed sense of purpose. So, I wonder about that relationship between yoga and your body and your writing.
Auteri: I started going to yoga because everyone started wearing skinny jeans a lot at that time and I was like, I want to look that good in skinny jeans. But then yoga hit me on so many flipping levels. At the time that I started yoga, my husband and I had been trying to get pregnant for a while and it was not going well. There was all the baby-making sex that I felt was pointless, and it trapped me in this cycle of resenting him and feeling betrayed by my body. Things were so hard on us at that time, we almost separated. We were just coping with our struggles in very different ways. I was not handling things well at the time because I had stopped taking my antidepressants when I started trying to have a baby. So, I was a hot mess.
Though my husband and I started going to therapy together, I still felt like I didn’t trust this uneasy peace we were creating between us, and it was so hard to be at home with him because I felt I was constantly walking on eggshells and I felt like if I made one wrong move it would all fall apart again and everything we had worked on together would be for naught.
I started going to yoga so much, like four to six times a week, sometimes more, to escape that environment. I was unhappy in my marriage, I was unhappy in my body and my seeming infertility, and yoga did for me almost immediately what my antidepressants used to do—it made me feel a lot less depressed and lost and about to lose my shit all the time. It also made me appreciate my body in a way I hadn’t in a very long time, and it had nothing to do with looking cute in leggings after a time.
Rumpus: You write that having your daughter was an awakening of sorts.
Auteri: Having a child changed my perspective on sex. It was no longer about my sexuality but about how to raise my child in a culture which continually makes it so dangerous and so hard for women all the time.
At around the same time, I read Emily Nagoski’s Come As You Are and had finally come around to the idea that I was not a broken or there was not something innately wrong with me or my sexuality. So, I carried a lot less guilt around my desires and my lack thereof at any given time. By the time my daughter was born, I was like, Holy shit there are way worse things to be concerned about.
Rumpus: You and I came of age during the Clinton impeachment scandal. We’ve seen Anita Hill, Bill Cosby, and now the #MeToo movement. Does anything give you hope that things will be better for our kids?
Auteri: I think things have changed in that women are finally demanding some sort of accountability. I don’t think we’ve gotten to the point where we’ve figured out what that accountability should look like, and what we’re getting is incredibly underwhelming in terms of accountability. But the fact that we are demanding it is for sure a positive change. The fact that we’re connecting that a person who does these incredibly inappropriate things and flexes the power dynamic in such an inappropriate way isn’t the type of person who should be in a position of power. It may not be much, but it’s something.