Cris Mazza is the author of more than 17 books, including Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls, Waterbaby, Trickle-Down Timeline, and Is It Sexual Harassment Yet? Her first novel, How to Leave a Country, won the PEN/Nelson Algren Award for book-length fiction. Mazza has co-edited three anthologies, including Men Undressed: Women Writers on the Male Sexual Experience. In addition to fiction, Mazza has authored a collection of personal essays, Indigenous: Growing Up Californian. Currently living 50 miles west of Chicago, she is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Her recent memoir, Something Wrong With Her, told in real time, is about Mazza’s experience with sexual dysfunction and her evolution in coming to understand it. Mazza recently reached out to Los Angeles writer Ashley Perez after Perez wrote an essay regarding sexual pain and bondage. The two women discovered they had a lot in common, sat down, and talked very candidly about what they thought they were supposed to feel in terms of sexuality, masturbation, sexual expectations in life and in literature, and the feeling deep down that something is wrong.
Cris Mazza: With a few notable exceptions, Ashley, the first six paragraphs of your recent piece, “All That Yields: An Ode To Bettie Page,” tells a story parallel to the one I’ve plumbed in my new memoir, Something Wrong With Her, including your first-person use of the same phrase. Of course all of us with female sexual dysfunction have those two thoughts: there’s something wrong with me, and I’m alone in this one. Painful sex and anorgasmia…the latter can be experienced without the former, but really, how could one suffer the pain and not have unqualified anorgasmia?
To regret one has a vagina (as you say) or own one with distaste and resentment; to wonder what the “ecstasy” and pleasure—pleasure written about in both fiction and memoir, shown in film (or porn), or alluded to by friends—is all about or even begins to feel like. To describe sex in words like friction at its best, or scraping, raw, and searing at its worst. We are members of a club no one would ask to join, our initiation thrust upon us by fate or biology.
The notable exceptions (in the first six paragraphs): You started sex early (16) while I remained a fearful virgin until I was 24. The fact that you were (apparently) not fearful, while I consider the fear I stewed myself in not only aberrant but probably the largest part of the cause for my lifetime dysfunction. You went to doctors for this (right away? Or relatively soon) whereas I waited until a failing marriage might be saved with abysmal sex-therapy (which is also not going to a doctor). Your dysfunctional sex-life lasted eight years (which doesn’t mean the painful sex only lasted eight years), mine more like 30 and on-going, especially with menopause to add new dimensions to the pain. What you then discovered to bring intimate pleasure into your life (I’ll save my wonder and curiosity [or questions] for later in this conversation). And your doctor couldn’t even give you a diagnosis, whereas I found one somewhere (before the Internet was available) that described the symptoms without explaining why: vaginismus.
I’ve come to theorize—I spent 17 books pondering—that surely the mushrooming fear of intimacy that overwhelmed me in my late teens and early 20s set me up for the involuntary muscle spasms of vaginismus. And once the cycle starts, and a conscious mind is anticipating how much sex hurts, how can each subsequent encounter not deliver the same pain? That’s why your so-similar experience is so perplexing to me. Blows my theory out of recently becalmed water.
But, if I may put on my literary forensic investigator vicarious self, there’s one kernel of similarity that may ask for closer inspection: porn. You found some. The depictions of women in sexual throes looked like women in pain. I also found some porn: folded up on the dirt road shoulder where I walked home from school, fifth or sixth grade. There were no women in the thumbnail photos, approximately nine on the page. It was all penises. I believe they were semi-erect, or even recently-erect but semi-flaccid. Even in this phase, these penises were enormous. I think I could barely even stare—perhaps glanced quickly, but over and over and over. I had just recently learned what intercourse was. Now was facing (even if obliquely) the mammoth objects that were supposed to go inside me. Fear—already germinating due to how sex was described to me on the playground—burgeoned.
So I wonder: How much do you think the idea—planted in your nascent self by the porn—that the staged women looked uncomfortable at best, or literally in pain, created a self-fulfilling prophesy in you as well? Keep in mind, though, that I later also discovered some physical reasons vaginismus can happen, and I know I’m asking us to blame ourselves again, and maybe that’s not the most helpful seed to water.
Ashley Perez: Well, there are a few things to address to start I suppose. I want to talk a little bit about the fact that there does not seem to be a lot of women out there talking about what we have done and are doing right now. Or at least not that I have seen. Your interview with Antonia Crane was one of the first times I saw someone else talk about things similar enough to what I was feeling. It quite literally made me cry that day. I have been told that it was incredibly brave to talk about painful sex the way I did. I don’t know how to take it when someone tells me this. I certainly don’t feel brave and I don’t think the essay would have seen the light of day had it not been for Antonia helping me as editor. What ultimately prompted me to finish this essay was I wanted to not feel so alone. I know I am not the only one who experienced this problem but it can feel incredibly lonely. I am curious if it was the same thing that prompted you to write about your experiences or if it was something different.
It was very frustrating to never being given a proper diagnosis by doctors. I only recently dipped into the health insurance pool so my visits were limited to free clinics and I don’t know if that had anything to do with it but I think the sly hints I got from the doctor or nurse practitioner was that I just needed to lube up and ramp up my libido. I did go to the doctor pretty much right after I started having sex to get on birth control and also because I would swell up down there. Like bad. At one point my labia looked more like a deranged balloon animal than a healthy vagina. I honestly didn’t know if this was normal. I don’t remember at this time getting any useful advice from the clinic. I just felt like a freak.
I did find porn at a relatively early age. Well, what I would consider early I guess. I did live in a houseful of men and I was bound to come across it at some point, I suppose. What I also discovered at that time was romance novels. The kind that had Fabio on the cover. I have always been a rabid reader so I read them. Never mind that I couldn’t fully understand or appreciate what was going on but it always left me to wonder if that somehow set up unrealistic expectations for sex that would go unfulfilled for a very long time. Maybe that was a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy because, even at that age, I am pretty sure I was calling bullshit on that kind of setup.
That is where my problem still lies, I suppose. I now have a partner that I have sex with. Really good sex and that physical pain has never been there. That searing, burning pain. The only pain that is there now is pain that we both consent to (i.e. bondage play). It makes me wonder, though, if I am still kind of defective in a mental way when it comes to sex. How much does thought and emotion affect our physical selves? I am interested to hear your thoughts on that as well. This mental, emotional aspect still lingers. It brings to mind a passage from your book that I love:
“So every sexualized relationship has been, on some level, another gamble to see if a man will love “that part” of me which I’d already determined was unlovable. My non-sexualized adult relationships have been different. Those people call me strong and brave. Who are they seeing?”
CM: Re: calling bullshit: Not a skill I possessed. There are still sex scenes in books, published in 2014 by friends of mine, that I’d like to call bullshit. People slide so easily in and out of each other. Men even “fuck women’s brains out.” (The cliché still readily used.) And the women feel something and have orgasms doing it. Yet wasn’t Freud’s “vaginal orgasm” itself bullshit? Why do fictional heroines still a) lose their virginity so easily and without anxiety, self-doubt, pain or awkwardness? And b) feel so much during male thrusting? And c) come every time? Truthfully, since writing my memoir, I can’t read these scenes anymore. They do seem like bullshit. I want every woman who wrote one to sit in a therapy group with me and describe her own sexual experience, so I can gauge these fictional ones. Who are they writing for? Why do women still seem to write the male-centric view of sex? (Men so desperately want penis-thrusting to be the ultimate sensation we can experience.)
In high school my porn lessons came from The Happy Hooker. I don’t remember anything specific except that, to her, size mattered. (Plus there was the German shepherd episode.) After that, and before I was brought to a theatre (by a friend and her boyfriend) to see Deep Throat (talk about a male fantasy; I mean the movie, not going with a couple!), my literary sex was in Jong’s Fear of Flying and its sequel How To Save Your Own Life. Without going back to reread, I do believe Isadora Wing’s orgasms were always clitoral, she masturbated like crazy to get herself off, she had a lot to say about some men’s ineptness, she never mentioned pain, but she did not like going down on another woman: vilified the smell. I’m sure this greatly assisted my body loathing, although I was by this time at least 20 years old, and had myself never masturbated. I’ve heard female masturbation is essential to a woman being able to orgasm with a partner, “teaching yourself how to feel” without the pressure of needing to please a partner at the same time. There’s a recent article extolling the same message, except in the 2014 version, it doesn’t even include that masturbation is supposed to teach girls how to orgasm, it just says they need to orgasm. Like it’s a given that they always will.
If you’re wondering why any of this matters, I’ll tell you. Orgasms are good for you. And masturbation means no partner or drama required. Have a migraine? Masturbate. Feeling stuck creatively? Masturbate. Feeling blue? Masturbate. Can’t sleep? Masturbate. Mired in stress? Low self-esteem? Sex drive in low gear? Chronic pain? Masturbation is good for what ails you.
It’s also good for what doesn’t ail you. It feels good to slowly tease yourself until you can’t take it anymore. It feels good to rub or buzz or pound yourself into a frenzy full-steam ahead. It feels good to get off and it’s empowering to be able to do it for yourself. It’s your equipment. There is absolutely, positively, no reason not to use it.
Which brings me to my point—masturbation is really important. It’s really important for all women and it’s equally important for teenage girls.
It’s vital for them to know their bodies. It’s imperative for them to have a way to relieve stress. But more than anything, it’s paramount that they know they don’t need anyone else to bring them pleasure. They can “take care of business” all by themselves. No risk of pregnancy or disease or slut shaming or anything.
—“The Most Important Thing Teen Girls Should Do But Don’t: Masturbate” by Jenny Block
Difficult to argue with any of this, except it doesn’t apply to me: I didn’t do it, and not out of shame. I had no desire driving me to do so. And masturbating wouldn’t have alleviated any “need” to seek pleasure with another person because I didn’t have any drive or desire to get it that way either. I never risked pregnancy or disease to get satisfaction because…what was satisfaction, and what was supposed to drive me to get it? That’s where I was malformed, and nobody can find it for me on a physical exam.
That it lead to pain? A no-brainer that that must have been caused by my thoughts and emotions. So, frankly, I’m asking a very personal question to someone who had the same symptomatic outcome (sexual pain and therefore no orgasms): Before you ever had sex (and I realize you were 16, so there was less time for this) did you feel sexual drive and desire (something needing to be satiated), and did you masturbate? And, if so, were there any “results”? And if you didn’t do it, did you think about doing so and then not do it? And, if so, why?
I now have a partner that I have sex with. Really good sex and that physical pain has never been there. That searing, burning pain. The only pain that is there now is pain that we both consent to (i.e. bondage play).
Before we get to the last sentence, did you do anything to be able to have sex without the pain? If you didn’t do anything (besides the bondage play) to bring this about (although your original essay suggests the bondage play was a key element in removing the organic sex-pain), why (else) did you think it alleviated? And are you now having orgasms?
AP: To answer the first question (and in a maybe fuzzy manner) I honestly don’t remember. I do remember having crushes and feeling like I should have other feelings. I knew I wanted to feel something but mostly I felt confused that instead of feeling some clear, burning desire, I mostly felt that I should be feeling something. Also, I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it. I didn’t have a mother around and I didn’t want to confide in my friends for fear of being thought of as a freak. I did not masturbate. I still don’t. I don’t think it was a matter of shame. I think it was a matter of the comfort levels I had with my body. In my head it seems like that could be thought of as shame but it isn’t.
I remember at some point, maybe in late middle school or early high school, I came across this porn video online that showed a women getting fucked by a dildo strapped to a mechanized pumping device of some sort. I guess this may be considered masturbation but it fascinated me to watch. I watched that one video a lot but I wouldn’t say I was turned on by it. I studied it, but couldn’t figure out how it related to me. That is an issue I would say that I am currently in the middle of, figuring out a sexual identity. I grew up in a bubble where I was aware of sex but living in a bubble where it didn’t enter my mind. Does that make sense?
To answer the second part, I don’t think I really tried anything to make sex less painful because I was sure it was a problem only with me and that it was unfixable. I tried lube once and it still hurt. Not wanting this statement to sound like a blame game, but I think that my change in sexual partner had something to do with the change. Also just coming to peace with the fact that I am indeed a sexual person and that it is okay to like or pursue things that are considered not the norm. I do have orgasms now. Even if it doesn’t happen all of the time, I am in a new place mentally during sex. I am not consumed by this pain or the shame that was associated with it.
Also, there is something so true to what you said about women writing sex scenes geared toward the male-centric view of sex. Is it simply that there are not a lot of examples out there of how to do it otherwise? In this day and age, there are so many great women writers that are not writing that way but can it be considered a “new” movement?
CM: Let’s save the literary sex for a minute, except that literary sex was what made me (us?) know that we were missing that “clear burning desire.” Interesting word: clear…because it’s not modifying the way the desire is supposed to feel, but that it should have been obvious: obviously there, and obvious what it was. And since it was not only not obvious, but obviously not even there, how did we know we were supposed to be feeling something? For me, it came from books.
But, likewise for me, it was that absence of feeling that initially caused me to not masturbate, not any kind of shame or taboo. Before an age of knowing what masturbation is or what it’s for, I had no physical need, hunger, desire, yearning—whatever you want to call it—that compelled / led / incited me to explore myself physically. It wasn’t something I did simply because my body never asked me to try. (I think this is the bubble you refer to, so it does make sense. At least to me.)
Then someone did ask me to try: I was 23, doing my student-teaching at a high school, and my master-teacher (to whom I’d confided my sexual angst) suggested I try masturbating. (Talk about consummate sexual harassment.) I might have been in a mental state to do anything the man said …but I didn’t do this. I wrote in my journal instead: “Isn’t it something you do when you’ve got someone you’re lonesome for? Someone who is real, not a phantom. A virgin can’t learn how to feel, can’t enjoy an initiation into passion alone. It doesn’t make sense. I’m always alone. I can’t get excited about it.” (Something Wrong With Her, p. 153)
Since learning about vaginismus, I’ve long held that a virgin with as much sex angst as I had was on a runaway train toward this kind of sexual dysfunction. Vaginismus does often have mysterious causes, but the lack of sexual drive from the start might be an indication that there’s something there (or not there), in our bodies, that we didn’t cause. I wanted to write “something wrong there,” but these days everyone wants to say that nothing’s “wrong” with anyone, we’re all acceptable as-is, we’re all whole just the way we are. But this doesn’t work for me; for me it is something wrong. It still is. I admire how you took this “something wrong” and instead of making it a habit, like I did, you made a sort of peace with it. Not a surrender to it. Just looked it in the eye and said “You’re not who I am.” And found a way around it. On the surface you may have replaced pain with pain, but there’s more to it than that, right?
Before you take off on that, let me go back to literary sex for a moment. A few years ago I initiated the anthology I then co-edited with three other women called Men Undressed: Female Writers on the Male Sexual Experience. The impetus for this project was one line in a book by a famous male writer, in a novel where he wrote from a female point of view: “She came as soon as he entered her.” What is this, a teenaged boy’s fantasy? All it takes is his penis pushing in, and she’ll be in ecstasy. Either that or the author had a lot of women faking it and lying to him. That’s what I mean by male-centric sex scenes, or penis-centric (or fuck-centric). Women characters who experience so damn much pleasure from the friction of penis-vagina intercourse; it makes me crazy. But this kind of obsessing does no one good, when “the moment is right,” as Cialis says.
AP: I really like what you said here “A virgin can’t learn how to feel, can’t enjoy an initiation into passion alone. It doesn’t make sense. I’m always alone. I can’t get excited about it.” I often felt something similar to this. To this day, every time I read about a masturbation story or experience, I wonder how they did this on their own. How did they figure out how to have those kinds of feelings? It seems to come naturally to so many that I felt then (and still do in a lot of respects) that there is something wrong with the way my sexual evolution happened. I still feel that I am at the very beginning of sexuality and coming to grips with what that means. I don’t know if that is “making peace with it” as you say. I like the notion, but I feel that I am very late to the party, so to speak. I feel really good about the fact, though, that there is a place in the world for a conversation like this to happen.
There is more to it than replacing pain with another kind of pain. True. Part of it is what I said earlier about realizing and accepting that I am who I am and I shouldn’t be ashamed of what I like and part of it is the fact (at least for me) that I really can’t do this alone. I lived a long time with this shame that was consuming internally. It really helped to finally confide in friends and find other people who had similar issues. It also helps to have a partner who is willing to be patient while I am working through this issue either on my own or with him.
I think there is vast improvement that has happened in literature for women-centric sex writing but it has a long way to go.
Thank you so much for talking to me, Cris. Perhaps we’ll continue this conversation in a Part 2, especially if anyone wants to ask us a question.