Digital native is a term coined by writer Marc Prensky, one I discovered, along with its counterpart, digital immigrant, in New York Times tech reporter Nick Bilton’s excellent book about media and technology, I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works. According to Wikipedia, “A digital native is a person who was born during or after the general introduction of digital technology, and through interacting with digital technology from an early age, has a greater understanding of its concepts,” while “A digital immigrant is an individual who was born before the existence of digital technology and adopted it to some extent later in life.” According to my understanding, a digital native is someone for whom the use of digital technology is innate and natural, who never had a moment when they learned, say, what the internet was. Not so for me; I’m pure digital immigrant.

A long time ago, I read Elizabeth Wurtzel’s book Bitch—yes, the book she admitted to writing on coke—a and one part has stayed with me, which is her assertion that maybe female victims of domestic violence, rather than avoiding the beat-your-wife types if they came with dots on their foreheads, would head straight toward them. I haven’t kept this in mind because I think it’s some fantastic insight into domestic abuse, but because the idea that we, as humans, will always avoid difficult situations rather than seek them out has proven, at least in my case, false. I often go directly toward the choices that are most catastrophic for me.

There is a common misconception that submitting in the bedroom makes a person weak.  Frankly, the myth isn’t surprising.  In our society, kink is often so taboo that sex education rarely covers the topic.  And if you’re not in the habit of crying, “Spank me now!” it can be hard to wrap your head around submissive empowerment.  The truth is that most of us submit or dominate in one form or another – if not in the bedroom, then in the rest of our lives.

Even if you don’t buy into BDSM, you might well have been touched by submission and domination.  Have you ever longed for a lover to throw you against the wall, or bite your neck, or order you around?  These acts are absolutely domination and submission.  You choose to either submit or master.  In fact, the notion that submissives don’t choose their suffering is entirely erroneous.  Ever heard of the phrase topping from the bottom?  It’s used to describe a situation in which the submissive is ordering a dom around, insisting, “Tie my handcuffs more tightly!” or “You’re just not spanking me right!”

Perhaps BDSM can be tough to come to terms with when it involves violence and pain.  That said, the power to withstand pain is a very favourable characteristic in everyday life. Think of ear piercing or training for a marathon – these are all chosen acts of suffering.  In fact, I’ve heard Greta Christina argue that submission is rather like eating spicy food.  Once you can withstand a certain heat-level, you crave a hotter dish.  Apparently, the reason chili peppers are spicy is because they contain a chemical that directly triggers our pain receptors.  Think about that a moment.  We eat curry because we love the pain.  And what about stiletto heels and Brazilian waxing?  As for the latter, Rachel Kramer Bussel says it best:  “Because I lean toward being a masochist, sometimes I can eroticize the pain [of Brazilian waxing]. I think of it like candle wax in a scene, and use my kinky training to get through the momentary pain for the reward of sleek skin.”  You can read more at Rachel’s column at Sexis, which I heartily recommend.

Of course, the ultimate infliction of pain is the non-consensual kind – and that is chilling stuff*.  Outside of the bedroom, social attitudes towards brutality are often clear.  For instance, fans of the 2006 remake of Casino Royale (directed by Martin Campbell) will remember the scene in which James Bond (Daniel Craig) is bound to a chair and brutalised.  In spite of agony and restriction, he goads his torturer – and that’s “topping from the bottom” on a grand scale.  Considering our society views Bond as resilient in these moments, it is surprising that those of us who cry “Bring on the pain!” are so often dismissed as weak.

As a matter of fact, submission can be tremendously healing.  The first time I subbed was a direct result of watching the movie Secretary (directed by Steven Shainberg).  To give you the gist, a young woman starts taking charge of her life because her boss starts to spank her for minor transgressions.  Talk about hot!  I had never believed that pain could bring such pleasure, and once I’d had a go at masochism, I was surprised by how it affected my life.  Subbing taught me a lot about sexual assertion because I learnt to be both upfront and tuned into what I do or don’t want.  With a safe word, it’s not so difficult to learn to actively say no with words like “Enough,” or “Not so hard,” and this spilled over into the rest of my life.  (These are issues of consent – read more here). A friend recently told me that she was amazed I subbed in the bedroom because I’m such a dom when I’m teach, so I told her that part of being a sub is learning to assert yourself.  I’ve become a lot better at expressing my needs and defending others since I learnt to withstand erotic pain.

And if you think BDSM can’t be inspiring, think again.  When a lover finally ties you up, just as you’ve always wanted, and takes you with rough passion, the bond can be quite powerful.  You yield to your partner, who expresses his/her aggression directly – and that’s pretty intense.  In truth, this faith runs in both directions:  When, as a dom, you hit someone in the bedroom, you trust that they’ll say what they need.  You also trust that they’ll know this is a scene, not a real-life conflict, and that this violence is an expression of intimacy and passion.  In fact, I’ll leave it to Anais Nin to show us how subbing/domming can be breathlessly romantic.  Check out this excerpt from Henry & June, her unexpurgated diary 1931-32:

“He asks to see me again.  When I wait in the armchair in his room, and he kneels to kiss me, he is stranger than all my thoughts.  With his experience he dominates me.  He dominates with his mind, too, and I am silenced.  He whispers to me what my body must do.  I obey, and new instincts rise in me.  He has seized me.  A man so human; and I, suddenly brazenly natural.  I am amazed to be lying there in his iron bed, with my black underwear vanquished and trampled.  And the tight secrecy of me broken for a moment, by a man who calls himself the ‘last man on earth.'”

*I don’t think this can be reiterated enough:  You must always be aware of your power and rights in a BDSM scene.  Have a safe word and use it when you don’t consent.  This is key.  For more on consent, look up Charlie Glickman’s blog.

Photo on main page: Clarence Risher (via Wikimedia Commons)

Recently, I’ve noticed an uptick in authors asking for a critique of the stories I’ve rejected from my anthologies. Most of them ask politely, and I send back the shortest reply I can explaining that I have a rule against giving any sort of critique. This latest round of requests made me wonder if perhaps I was being too harsh, but then I realized that there are very good reasons for me to refuse. Here are the top three:

Last year, I got an email from Erica Jong. Yes, that Erica Jong, noted author of the classic novel Fear of Flying. She was inviting me to submit an essay to an anthology she was editing about sex. “I am asking for your contribution, of course, because I so admire your writing.” My immediate thought was, “I’ve made it,” because this anthology was also going to house the writings of some very prominent female writers. It felt like the last ten years of sex writing, which I stumbled into while in law school with very little thought about its consequences, had culminated in this opportunity. The book was being published by a major publisher, and would pay $1,000.

For some of you that may be small potatoes, but in my world, that’s major money, both in terms of my usual rates, and in terms of what it could pay for: two-thirds of my monthly rent, almost seven therapy sessions, a few trips and hotel stays. I was so excited that I forgot about the hard part: the actual work.

I agonized over my essay. Well, before I agonized, I blabbed. I’ve since come to the conclusion that talking about my writing while it’s in progress, before there’s a contract for it. is the kiss of death. But at the time I was so honored I thought it would be a good idea to tell my boyfriend. I hadn’t quite thought through the process, though, of assuring him that no, I wasn’t writing about him…for an anthology centered around “the best sex I ever had.”

I was honestly stumped at first. What was the best sex I’d ever had? How could I rate that? Is there such an objective way to measure it? I had been chosen, presumably, for my years of writing a sex column for The Village Voice, for my ability to write about my personal life with no qualms about what others might think. Yet the more I tried to focus, the more elusive the topic seemed to be. It seemed audacious to suggest that some of the kinky sex I was having with my boyfriend might be the best; I know I’d scoff at someone who made it sound like her life was so glamorous and perfect.

Finally, I settled on a particular one-night stand that, as I titled my essay, “saved my life.” It was an over-the-top claim, and I flip-flopped while trying to describe—and disguise—my subject, changing his profession and appearance, while still maintaining heart of the story. Jong mailed me back extensive revisions, and while I stood outside the Au Bon Pain on Broad Street during a lunch break, took the time to go over those revisions by phone.

I should have been extremely honored that such a literary luminary wasn’t dismissing my words out of hand, but trying to teach me how to share something personal and powerful, something that would resonate with readers and reveal something I’d never revealed before. Instead, as I so often do, especially when any amount of money more than a pittance is offered to me, I got in my own way. I procrastinated. I thought about retackling my essay, and I wrote it on my to-do list for months. I woke up each morning determined that today would be the day…or tomorrow. Or the next day. Or, in reality, never, because I never did tackle the revision. Maybe I was so afraid that I would try again, and be rejected, that instead I rejected myself. Maybe I convinced myself that nothing I could possibly write would be worthwhile. I know that not trying will be something I regret for the rest of my life.

The bottom line is, when the book now titled, according to Amazon, Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex, comes out in June, my words won’t be in it. This, much more than the missed financial opportunity, serves as a daily reminder of my lack of follow-through, my lack of belief in myself. In the meantime, I’ve since submitted dozens of short stories, ones that usually pay around $50 each. I value writing erotica, and editing it, but I’m extremely ashamed that, through no one’s fault but my own, my words will not be nestled alongside those of Susie Bright, Fay Weldon, Gail Collins, Honor Moore and others.

This is not the first time I’ve flaked on an anthology assignment. There are several, but the ones I think about when I see them on my bookshelves are the ones where I let my fear get in the way. I assumed that, seen alongside real music writers in a book of musical rivalries, my idea to explore the rivalry between Madonna and Cyndi Lauper in the 1980’s would be seen as puny. My Bush twins erotica story for a collection on sex and politics? I let it wither after a few paragraphs on my computer screen out of what I told myself was some fear of White House reprisal.

While I did struggle with the topic, as the best editors do, Jong gave me guidance, told me how I could fix my meandering words into a proper story, one with not just a beginning, middle and end, but a point, a statement, a unique opinion. Instead of grappling with the red marks on those pages, I did the worst thing I could possibly do: I ignored them. I reverted to my childish habit, one that has lingered into adulthood, of abandoning any task that didn’t come easily to me (chess, law school, etc.).

I fear that perhaps my mother’s disapproval of almost everything I write, her belief that sex is a solely private topic, has somehow affected me, even though I clearly have staked my career on the idea that sex is both public and private, and fully worthy of discussion and exploration, in conversation and on the page. Jong gave a talk on a cruise my mother was on, and she related this dismissively; “I didn’t go to that.” I don’t think it’s just my poor relationship with my mother, though, because I write about sex all the time, revealing details and nuances about my erotic behavior. Yet when the stakes are high, I flee.

It hit me last night that perhaps the reason I couldn’t bring myself to face the topic head-on wasn’t just that I didn’t think I had anything original to say, but in that all too classic female way, I didn’t want to hurt anyone by what I might write. If I were to call X, even anonymously, the person who I’d had the “best,” most transformative sex with, would that put all my other lovers to shame?

Even now, I can’t simply produce off the top of my head a single night of passion or a person who seems entitled to wear this crown. But that is not an excuse, because the job of the writer is not to simply allow their mind’s first (or second or third) thought on a topic to prevail. My job, as I perceive it, is to push past those often incorrect first instincts and delve deeper, look farther, unearth things about myself I might not have realized. Maybe instead of a single “best,” I could’ve found patterns or connections, could’ve crafted not just a point A leading to point B lightbulb of an a-ha, but something thoughtful, something that took more than a few hours to produce. In hindsight (ha ha), I’m sure I could have pushed myself intellectually in a way that, whether the final product was published or not, I could have been proud of. Instead, I succumbed to my biggest fears, my inner bully who tells me more often than I’d like what a loser I am. I know that plenty of other people, maybe all of us, have at least a whisper of that voice in their heads, but the successful people, the ones I look up to, are the ones who’ve found ways of vanquishing that voice, at least for as long as they need to in order to create their art.

I write this not to beat a dead horse, because, believe me, I’ve thought about this many, many a time, wondered why I, who often struggle to pay my rent and other expenses, would so easily let go of a lucrative, exciting chance to truly be seen, in a book about sex that even those who probably would never touch—or hear about—the average sex book just may pick up when they see it front and center in their local bookstore or read about it in major newspapers.

I don’t have a precise answer as to why I’m my own worst writing enemy. I share this story for the same reason I write most of what I do: because I want to release some of the haunting thoughts that circle in my head around this topic of self-sabotage, because while I wouldn’t wish that same shame onto anyone else, I think it’s likely other writers have gotten in their own way too. Because I want to apologize to myself and forgive myself and move on. Because I want a public reminder that the next time I say yes to a writing project, no matter how big or small (and I fervently hope there’ll be another big one someday), I want to see it through.

I’ve been reading journalist Courtney E. Martin’s new book looking for inspiration in the lives of others. In it, she profiles eight activists who have forged new paths toward creating a world they’d like to see, and haven’t let their doubts stop them. Often, I hold onto a book’s title in my head even more than I do the words inside, and repeat it like a silent mantra. Sometimes, when I’m sick of my worst habits, it’s Dylan Landis’s Normal People Don’t Live Like This. Now, Martin’s title one of those phrases, so simple yet so often easy to ignore, that in three words sums up the advice I wish I could give myself, after taking over a thousand to to explain my failure: Do It Anyway. Next time I hope I will.

“Be as vulnerable as you possibly can.”

I read this line in Sara Marcus’s excellent feminist music and culture history Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, and it stopped me in my tracks. She was quoting from Riot Grrrl, the zine, in its second issue, which was in itself quoting from the zine Bikini Kill, written by that band’s ringleader, Kathleen Hanna. This was one of several commands to the new girl order to reclaim traditionally feminine traits. Instead of seeing these traits as weak or problematic, my take is that Hanna was urging women to embrace our entire selves, vulnerability and all. (Other commands included “Figure out how the idea of winning and losing fits into your relationships” and “Commit to the revolution as a method of psychological and physical survival.”)

It would also make a good command for a writer, to be as vulnerable, open, honest and raw as one can. There are times when doing so feels not only like the easiest thing imaginable, but the only thing I can do, the only way to somehow control or explain or even acknowledge my thoughts and emotions, extreme and otherwise. Writing often feels a lot less vulnerable than speaking to people, because there are things you can do from the safety of not only your computer screen, but the safety of language, contorted, controlled, contrived exactly to your specifications. If only our emotions could be so easily mastered.

So I think writers can make good use out of Hanna’s phrase. Yet as a command for life, it’s more challenging, because by its nature, being vulnerable makes you possible prey for those who would indeed see that as a weakness and seek to exploit it, consciously or not.

I looked up the word because I thought it meant something akin to easily embarrassed, but no, it actually does mean, by definition, a form of weakness. According to Merriam-Webster, the first two definitions for “vulnerable” are “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded” and “open to attack or damage.”

I find it fascinating that a movement built on the idea of revolution would embrace those qualities, and at first was startled at the connection. My immediate image of “riot grrrl” is the opposite of vulnerable; it’s fierce, in-your-face, proud, rocking out, empowered. Marcus’s book draw the connection, though, by exploring not just the music (including bands like Heavens to Betsy, which did betray vulnerability in their lyrics), but the zine culture riot grrrl spawned, and in those writings, we can see vulnerability unleashed, and also see that it’s not the opposite of empowerment; the two can coexist. We can also acknowledge that even a performer who seems to embody all those non-vulnerable qualities I cited above may very well be quaking on the inside, and the daring it takes to get up on a stage, or put your byline to your words, is still an extremely bold act, whether you swagger or cower your way through it.

On a deeper level, I think recognizing and embracing our vulnerability is being truthful about who we are. It means we might not always know why writing is our first defense and our first offense, we only know that it’s our only option. It feels like our life will stop unless we write this one thing down; not literally, perhaps, but in all the ways that matter. It means, maybe, sometimes writing something and only wondering later whether it should have seen the light of day. It means being okay with the fact that sometimes we have no barriers, no shields to protect our hearts, our egos, and that being “strong” can look like its exact opposite. At 34, I’ve never developed the thicker skin I probably should have tried to grow. Maybe I’m not built that way, or maybe there’s a part of me that needs to be a little undercooked, soft, easily pierced.

In fiction, my most personal and vulnerable pieces have been written in the second person. That distance was something I needed to truly go there, especially when it comes to what I can only describe as breakup erotica. For examples, see “The End” in Best American Erotica 2006 and my recent “Espionage” in Best Women’s Erotica 2011, both fictional stories, the former pretty much true, the latter heavily borrowed from real life. The latter starts:

You tuck your new pink and black coat, the one purchased earlier in the day just for this special evening, around your body, pull it tight like it’s cold out, except you’re indoors and the fire is roaring. You are cold, but it’s the kind of cold that can’t be heated by rubbing two sticks together or turning up the thermostat, the kind of cold that can only be vanquished once your heart catches up. Your heart is cautiously icy, watching and waiting; it isn’t safe to let it melt just yet.

It’s a story that, frankly, makes me cry when I reread it, but I’m still glad I wrote it, glad I took a situation where I felt nothing but vulnerable and could step back and assess it with a smidgen of distance, turning it into something outside of myself, where it wasn’t about me, but this character, this narrator–“You.”

I’m often so wary of being vulnerable, of being any emotion that’s too soft or scary. But I think we all have our moments when something shatters the calm we want to project onto the world, when things seem on the brink of collapse, whether because they truly are, or our minds distort our inner worlds to appear so.

This topic reminds me of Brin Friesen’s post here, “The Facebook Aquarium,” asking whether The Nervous Breakdown and its commenting community are “too nice.” I don’t know if that is a qualification I or anyone else can make, but with the internet deluged by often hateful, stupid or hateful and stupid comments, I don’t think we should discount kindness. Not to the extent that we tiptoe around each other’s emotions, but instead recognizing that any writing, or art, takes guts to share with the world, or a slice of it.

While I do believe the personal is political, unlike Hanna in the context above, I don’t think striving for vulnerability is so much a political act, as a holistic one. It’s something we can embrace and acknowledge without succumbing to it, or playing the victim. I’ve been mulling over this, my first posting here, for several weeks, and have talked myself out of it more times than I can count. Perfectionism and vulnerability go hand in hand, and the former often keeps me from exposing the latter.

Ironically, perhaps, about a month ago, I got a tattoo on my back that says “open” as a way to remind myself to be, well, open, emotionally, to not shy away from either my own fear of rejection or from experiencing new challenges, personal and professional. But old habits die hard. Embracing and consciously engaging in radical vulnerability, which is what I sense Hanna was aiming for, is not easy. I don’t think we can be that vulnerable all the time and still protect ourselves the way we need to to survive, but never being vulnerable means missing out on not just taking our writing to the next level, but our lives. I want to strive to keep peeling back the shell I often hide under, whether via simply not trying, or masking it with something more “fun,” like humor. For me, writing speaks to me loudest, as author or reader, when it goes somewhere that makes me squirm, that makes me think, “How could he or she expose so much?” I’m up for the challenge, though I’m not putting a quota on myself for X days per week of wringing myself dry on the page. How often I “possibly can” remains to be seen, but in this case, I believe the process of trying counts as much as the outcome.

Sex (I’m a…)

By Greg Olear

The Feed

Attention, New Yorkers,

On Thursday evening, September 16 — one week from today — I will be appearing at the famed “In the Flesh” erotic reading series, hosted by the inimitable Rachel Kramer Bussel.

The theme is “Virgin Night,” but I’ve been assured that Frank N. Furter lookalikes will not be pelting toast at newbies in attendance, nor will anyone be sacrificed to the dark gods.

Here are a few reasons to show up:

1.  The reading series, a mainstay on the Lower East Side, is winding down.  Because all good things must come.  To an end.  Must come to an end.  There are only four of these left.  So if you ever plan to indulge your deepest desires, now is the time.

2.  Past TNB readers at this event include Gina Frangello and Jillian Lauren. This makes me the first unsexy TNBer to appear.

3.  Joining me on the docket will be Marcy Dermansky, author of the fantastic Bad Marie (I read it. It really is fantastic.  I’m not saying that just because Gina liked it).

4. I will be reading a post that will never grace the pages of TNB.  Not something I want on the Internet. Nor will there be a recording. So if you want to hear my sort-of-sexy, sort-of-funny, sort-of-true tale, you have to show up at Happy Ending Lounge on Thursday.

5.  Free admission.

6.  Free cupcakes.

Here are the deets:

IN THE FLESH EROTIC READING SERIES
VIRGIN NIGHT
September 16, 2010, 7:30 pm – 10 pm
AT HAPPY ENDING LOUNGE, 302 BROOME STREET, NYC
(B/D to Grand, J/M/Z to Bowery, F to Delancey or F/V to 2nd Avenue, )
Between Forsyth & Eldridge. Look for the hot pink awning that says “XIE HE Health Club.”
Admission: Free
Happy Ending Lounge: 212-334-9676

Featuring Logan Belle, author of a forthcoming burlesque romance series, erotica writer Megan Butcher (contributor, Best Bondage Erotica 2011), novelist Marcy Dermansky (Bad Marie), novelist Lee Houck (Yield), Greg Olear (Totally Killer), Moshe Shulman (“The Wise One”) and Can’t Help the Way That I Feel: Sultry Stories of African American Love, Lust and Fantasy editor Lori Bryant-Woolridge and contributors Sasha James and Erika J. Kendrick (Appetites, Confessions of a Rookie Cheerleader). Hosted by Rachel Kramer Bussel (Fast Girls, Please, Sir, Please, Ma’am). 100 free copies of Sexis Magazine will be distributed. Free Baked by Melissa cupcakes, candy and chips will be served. This is the countdown to the final In The Flesh December 16th so don’t miss a very special night!