When my graduate school mentor and longtime friend, Cris Mazza, first told me over dinner that she was writing a memoir about—among other things but pretty front-and-center—her lifelong inability to reach orgasm, my reaction can only be described as…well, pretty much begging her not to. Despite some fairly personal short essays on TNB, I am, bluntly, chickenshit as a nonfiction writer: I have never attempted a book length memoir, and the mere thought of divulging any of the ugly, raw kinds of truths that would make any memoir worth reading fills me with enough terror that I might rather become the author of Harlequin Romances rather than “go there.” My god, I told Cris, do you really want your new students in every workshop knowing these details about your physical being—do you really want to have to deal with all your male colleagues knowing this crap in faculty meetings? I needed an extra glass of wine on Cris’ behalf, and when she later sent me an excerpt of the book, I believe I urged her all over again to rethink the endeavor…
Sometimes, one of the great joys of life is being wrong. By the overwhelming response to Cris’ powerful new memoir, Something Wrong with Her, I can clearly see that the personal risks Cris took with this project has paid off in dividends for other women reading her story. Already widely the subject of many interviews so thought-provoking and compelling that they alone would have justified any “drawbacks” to the project, Cris, with her habitual generosity, took the time to talk with me here on the book’s critical and popular reception, on her relationship with long-lost high school flame Mark (whose emails are included in the book and who also recorded its soundtrack), and on how important that Big O is or isn’t, in the scheme of a larger life.
TNB: So I’m noticing that a lot of the online discussion of your memoir, Something Wrong with Her, has tended to focus on the issue of vaginismus, or painful intercourse, with would-be-helpful people in the comments sections trying to assure you that there are “ways to reach orgasm” beyond vaginal intercourse. But I know from both your book and from knowing you for many years that obviously the issues you’re exploring go much deeper than that, and that of course you’re quite aware of the myriad ways in which women can potentially reach orgasm and have tried…well, probably all of them. There has been a significant outpouring of support for your memoir from other women who have experienced sexual dysfunction, which is really great to see, but I’m wondering whether, even after all this, you are still getting the impression from media or readers that people are assuming you just haven’t “tried hard enough.” Is there a part of you that feels as though people are still pushing for the conventionally happy ending for you of “overcoming” the obstacle?
CM: Perhaps some do think I haven’t “tried hard enough” or (worse!) secretly assume it is the partner’s fault. Believe me, he already feels it’s something he “should be able to” help make happen. And there’s nothing he won’t try. But it’s that concept of trying that I view as detrimental. Trying is too conscious, and I don’t think I can intellectualize (or cheerlead) myself to “success.” This is not, I don’t think, something I can try to accomplish.
Yes, there is more to it than vaginismus. Many anorgasmic women do not have vaginismus. Having it is the “double whammy,” so to speak. I’ve read that a large percentage of “successfully” orgasmic women learned how to orgasm — taught their bodies how — through masturbation as girls and young women, and for women who did not give themselves this kind of education, it’s not easy to “do over.” It’s psychology or muscle memory or cell memory … it’s a body that just doesn’t know how. Or just doesn’t. Certainly one can imagine how vaginismus, combined with the issues and experiences that likely caused the vaginismus, combined with the issues that in-turn vaginismus causes, combined with some past partners who were, shall we say, less than uninhibited … that’s a lot of baggage to unpack, and the pressure to now unpack it is something equal to all that original baggage, piled on top.
The more anyone cheerleads or hopes-for a “happy outcome” that includes orgasm (or the more I am made aware of it) the more I am convinced that’s not going to be the “outcome.” Sorry, I just have to keep using quotes, because words like success and accomplishment and overcoming and outcome are so damn unsexy.
I’ve been extremely thrilled to see so much of the focus on Something Wrong With Her being on the “love story” aspect, with many interviewers and reviewers focusing on the truly unique story of the way you and your current partner, Mark, reunited after thirty years of distance, and the way he had never fallen out of love with you. I know that Mark’s sexual attraction to you has always been very intense—how do you and he keep your sexual connection mutual and alive? For example, Mark has faced some health problems and one of his biggest concerns was not wanting to lose his sexual functioning or desire…how does a couple work together to make sex a mutual joy and priority if one partner is also coming to terms with the fact that she may just not be sexually “wired” in the way a majority of people are thought to be, and sex is not always satisfying in conventional ways?
I have to admit, there’s no small measure of satisfaction in being able to give someone what he’s longed for — during sometimes dire emotional circumstances — for 30 years. It’s true that I’m not fully able to give him everything he’s longed for, because it seems his yearning included giving me sexual experiences I’ve never had, and there’s still the one left “unachieved.” I don’t know if it’s difficult for a man to imagine that physical intimacy can be satisfying without a climax, but I admit it’s difficult for me to imagine a man being content if sex did not lead to orgasm. Sometimes it’s like we’re both striving to be the one who gives.
But this question brings up another aspect to my sexual past that was largely missing: physical affection. I won’t go into details because it’s not fair; I knew before I married that my ex-husband was not comfortable with physical affection. I think he’s made strides to overcome that aversion since we broke up, seeing how it was damaging to both his marriages. I’m glad to hear he’s doing that. For me, with Mark, the amount of daily (hourly) physical affection is a new experience, and is part of the whole of our intimate life.
Mark and I are in a slightly unusual situation in that if we had been together for 30 years, the physical deterioration of certain sexual functions might not be so distressing. Many couples, after 30 years, can handle low testosterone or vaginal dryness or complete sexual dysfunction because “they had their hot years.” (Said by someone I know.) Mark was diagnosed with beginning-stage prostate cancer the first year we were together again — before he was able to move to Illinois and live with me. Knowing that the only eventual treatment that can almost guarantee survival is prostectomy, but that living without a prostate also means living without orgasm and possibly without erections, Mark was panicked. We learned that early-stage and non-aggressive prostate cancer can be monitored, giving a younger prostate-cancer patient more years to continue to live with his prostate. Doctors have assumed that Mark’s low testosterone might translate into male sexual dysfunction, but this has hardly been the case. Mark is an example (if anyone wanted to do a study) of how emotions can overcome physical issues that are supposed to cause loss of sexual “performance.” (Boy that’s really a word I hate to relate to sex).
Basically, we are a support group for each other’s anxieties, and that’s one factor (along with the 30-year-separation) that keeps our physical life animated. It’s our want, and it’s as heavily based on emotion as body chemistry.
There is much interrogation, both in Something Wrong with Her and in your fiction, of past sexual experiences (or would-be experiences) and the way they impact sexual development. Yet you also speak and write very lucidly about the fact that many women and men who have suffered extreme sexual trauma still come to a place where they greatly enjoy sex, attain orgasms, feel extreme desire. While there are many points in your youth and early adulthood that seem to have potentially thwarted burgeoning psycho-sexual development, how much of the issue do you think is strictly physical/biological? Do you think your body and brain were simply wired to face certain challenges of desire and satisfaction, sexually?
Of course it’s the question I’ve spent 30 years and 17 books asking, and not quite answering. There must have been a reason I was not driven to explore my own body, neither with my eyes (and a mirror) or my hands. Any curiosity I had was somehow aghast, and this wasn’t caused by what my parents or a religion taught me. I barely had any religion. My parents didn’t talk about sex, except as it concerned breeding the rabbits we kept in the yard (for meat) and while breeding was one of my responsibilities, it didn’t do much to change (either positively or negatively) the growing anxiety I had toward human sexuality. What causes one kid to grow up with excited curiosity and a pioneering spirit to start to try it out, and another to seal the subject into fear and anxiety, I don’t know. Nobody jumped out of a closet, literal or figurative, and scared then scarred me. I brought my already simmering anxiety into a very unfortunate experience with the first boy who showed interest, but he never did the usual teenage “dating” things of the time, just parked his van on road shoulders on the way home from school and played rape games. Not culminating in intercourse, but once after a school banquet, I crept into the house past my curfew with my nylons in shreds after a session of “see if you can get out of this one” on the bench seat of his van. That was “going steady”? I hated it, but my verdict was there was something wrong with me for not liking it. I was already aware that what my girlfriends spoke of with some reverence, excitement, curiosity and/or pleasure was something I was only looking at with distress, and then that jerk was my first “boyfriend.” And I didn’t walk (or run) away from him. He finally told me he “loved” the other girl he’d been seeing at the same time (she did put out). To say at that point that I didn’t “trust” intimate relationships with boys was an understatement. Lack of trust was added to the already present fear. A lethal combination — combined with never masturbating to teach myself how to feel — if one expects then to be ready to have orgasms with the next partner(s). Is my body wired differently? Maybe. But fear is born and lives in the brain, especially when fear pre-dated much of anything to fear. Unless I could trace it to the time in 6th grade I found a page torn from a XXX porn magazine with about 6 or 8 small photos of erect men with the most ginormous penises imaginable (and this way before photoshopping). But then how many years of fear is going to teach a body to resist, to shut down when intimacy is begun? My body learned well, and doesn’t seem to want to listen to the new messages my brain is sending.
Talk about how important all of this—which clearly at many points in your life felt…well, major and even debilitating—seems to you now. I mean, put bluntly, how important does “attaining orgasm” or feeling certain types of desire feel to you, in comparison with other aspects of your life? Not only have you published many books—and you head a writing program—but clearly your personal life is not lacking either. You’re living a romantic love story that many women (and men) would give a limb for—I’d venture to say that most people on the planet have never been the object of such a lasting and faithful love and desire as what Mark has had for you. You have your work, your man, your friends, your house in the woods, your dogs…has writing your memoir in some ways helped you just exorcise some of the concerns that dominated your earlier life, so that you can move on to enjoy all you have?
The way you put it in this question … well, yes. And thanks for a perfect nutshell. It’s true that Mark’s yearning — and his never-shaken certainty that I was what he’d wanted since he was 18 — is almost inexplicable. I mean the expected result might be that a man who spends 30 years wanting (and fantasizing) and then has his hopeless desire become reality, will of course then be disappointed by that reality. Nothing of this sort has happened — the biggest miracle of all. When one finds themselves the object of that kind of yearning, and then able to continue in real life being what he wanted/needed … yes, who needs orgasm. I have all the stuff that for other women does lead to orgasm, and a man who can’t get/give enough of it. There’s too much contentment in that to be complaining about the one experience I haven’t had. There’s too much baggage to Mark’s story to contain here; suffice it to say helping him escape the life in which he’d buried himself so he “could just get to the end of it, whenever that was,” is a heady, satisfying journey, and one that’s really just started.
You mentioned recently in an interview (or maybe the interviewer said this) that if you had been male, and had experienced such revulsion at your own developing genitalia/body, and found yourself unable to achieve sexual release, that probably “society” would have pushed you towards gender reassignment. Now clearly, as a woman, you are “heterosexual”—but do you feel as though gender reassignment, early on, would have been a reasonable solution for you? Would you have been happier as a gay man than you were as a heterosexual woman? (And bonus question: Your relationship with Mark seems so “fated” and meant to be—such a case of true love. Yet Mark is of course a heterosexual man. If somehow you had ended up in a male body at some point after you had met Mark and he had fallen in love with you, would he then have loved you no matter what “form” you took? Would you be together now?)
To the bonus question: No, Mark and I would not be together if that string of events had happened. I don’t know how he would have felt or what it would have done to his emotional state, but he would have likely gone on as he’d been, secretly loving the me he had known. The few times he didn’t think he could go through with the hellish departure from the situation he’d locked himself into, he’d suggested as much to me: that his weakness was hurting me and he would understand if I just said “never mind,” he would go back to loving me the way he always had. The comment you refer to (about gender reassignment)was generated by me, mainly in reference to body loathing, not the inability for sexual release. I just wondered if a man could admit to the kinds of body-loathing I knew I harbored, such a man might be convinced he should not be a man if he felt that kind of repulsion for his own body. I think doctors and psychologists involved with gender re-assignment have other questions and topics to discuss with prospective patients as well, and it’s not just focused on one’s inability to admire one’s own body. My comment was meant to point out, though, that women’s body-loathing is almost expected, is part of being female (even though it’s “something wrong with her” that needs to be assuaged); but that a man loathing his sexual body would likely be considered far more critical and in need of more urgent attention. There were times, in my teens I did wish for some kind of permanent androgyny or even male-passing. When I became aware of the first sex-reassignment surgeries (which happened decades before I heard about them, and they were male-to-female changes) I wondered why a man would want to choose what being female was going to mean. I did think life would be easier as a man, that instead of being the eternal wallflower, I’d be a person of interest — and yes, I’m saying this even though Mark was always there, willing to make me the center of his universe. It took an entire book to circle around that particular “something wrong” in my brain.
As your close friend, I had some trepidation about your writing this book. I’ve always known you as a very private, introverted person, so I worried that you would ultimately regret all your students or casual acquaintances having so much access to your private and physical life. Seeing the outpouring of support that has accompanied this book, I now revise my earlier opinion and can see that you’re reaching a lot of people who needed and craved to be reached, and that your story is helping them. That said, do you ever have regrets? Is it different walking into a faculty meeting or a party now that you have divulged so much about yourself? Or has this become so commonplace in our tell-all culture that it fazes you less than you sometimes worried it would?
You’ve accessed the exact particulars which do cause me unease. But this is something I looked at directly when I started the book: Would people feel comfortable “facing me” afterwards? But women write sexual tell-alls about their lives of promiscuity and no one has any trouble when they walk into a room. (I was going to say “no one has any trouble looking at them when they walk into a room,” but that does give a slightly different nuance to what I mean!) Why would a woman with sexual dysfunction be a shame medusa? I still worry. Maybe I’ll be the one who feels shame, and I wonder why about that too, although the answer is in my title. I haven’t been shaken — by political correctness, feminism, or an outpouring of kinship and support — from feeling there’s something wrong with me. But recently I was sitting at a banquet with a high-ranking administrator from my university. She seemed excited and interested to hear about my writing career. Then she asked me what my new book was about. When I answered, “female sexual dysfunction,” she leaned a little bit away from me, dipped her head, hid her face partially behind a hand, her eyes looking almost warily over her fingers. The gesture only lasted a moment. I don’t remember what she did next. It seemed she didn’t talk to me again for a while, but eventually her attitude and demeanor toward me resumed. But I couldn’t help but continue to wonder if her interest in me — as a successful writer from the university which she represents — had been irrevocably challenged.
CRIS MAZZA is the author of over 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, includingMen Undressed: Women Writers on the Male Sexual Experience. In addition to fiction, Mazza has authored 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.