Wedding pics 383This is the second installment of my column, CNF 500. The column will deal with topics related to anything and everything creative nonfiction, and will be 500 words. As essays editor of The Nervous Breakdown, I’m always ready to consider essay submissions of any length for publication. Please email essays to ekleinman at thenervousbreakdown dot com.

Facebook is a bitch.

I never figured out how to post status updates and links to specific people. When I publish an essay somewhere, I usually just email friends and family I know would be interested, if they can tolerate the topic. For example, I love my cousins in Arizona, but would they really want to know about how I got my cherry fisted as a young dyke in Seattle? Probably not.

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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.

realman_pb_cover_FINAL_PRWhy They’re Called Passports

Partial transcript of a telephone conversation I had with a representative of the U.S. Department of State ¹ [after having my passport renewal application rejected and returned in the mail]:

ME: I don’t understand what the problem is. You have my fee, you have my correctly filled-out application, and you have a letter from a surgeon saying that I had sexual reassignment surgery and have lived as a man for several years.

 

“We need to talk,” said my mom. I was 14, and this could have meant any number of ominous things. We’d had many “talks” over the years, most of them related to my adolescent misbehavior, which arrived at 12 in particularly worrying form.

We sat together at our breakfast counter, she with a mug of Bengal spice tea, me with a glass of OJ. My mother was, and is, a very pretty woman, with bright blue eyes, skyscraper cheekbones, and an easy laugh. She sipped her tea and took a breath.

“Karen and I aren’t just friends, honey.” Her features tightened, but her eyes met mine, clear and steady. “We’re more than friends.”

As the Bachmanns continue to “correct” gay sexuality, I keep teaching erotic writing classes.  These multi-week courses are always a joy.  Writers with a rich range of sexual identities come into a safe classroom where they are actively encouraged to express desire and discuss its importance.  As artists, we ask questions about sexual expression:  Why do so many people think “cunt” is an objectifying word to use in a sex scene when “arm” and “hair” are perfectly fine?  Why is the vulnerability and power of desire, along with all its peacemaking qualities, seen as more denigrating than gunfire?  Why is erotica that is written to bring sexual pleasure, viewed, by many, as immoral or cheap?

There are countless answers.  Here’s an important one:  Many people are ashamed (beyond measure) of their own sexuality, so they project that shame onto those who aren’t.  The sexually attuned human beings of this world are attacked as if we are dirty.  Why?  Because if you make everyone ashamed of their erotic freedom, expression and pleasure, you control a heck of a lot.  And you get to feel superior while you’re doing so.

One of the biggest hurdles for the beginning sex writer is the rejection they often feel in their writing communities.  Suddenly, those who have always been supportive are asking, “But why is this piece of writing just about sex?  Can’t you write about something pure?  This is shallow, this is meaningless, this is frivolous, this isn’t your business.  This is sinful.  This needs correcting.”

Does that string of statements remind you of Michele Bachmann?

We’re in a dangerous time, right now.  We’re fighting anti-queer violence, both physical and psychological.  Religious rhetoric is often frightening to those who are already afraid.  And the message is that all of us, regardless of our sexuality, should be ashamed of human desire, intimacy and sensual connection.  The Bachmanns put sex in a box and say “This is separate to everything else,” which of course makes it easier to control.  But sexual identity and expression are about so much more than the body.  They’re about acceptance, openness and truth.

When debating the power sexual attunement, consider this:  In a multi-week erotica class that I taught in the UK, one of my students came up to me at the end of the course.  She told me how life-affirming it had been for her to write about sex in a supportive community, and how self-embraced and aglow she now felt.  “When I started this class,” she said, “I hadn’t had a period for ten months.  Two weeks ago, I had one.”  She put this down to the fact that she was feeling alive in her body.  Proud and unashamed.

Here’s my take:  When we feel good in our bodies, we’re also likely to feel good in the rest of our selves.  And if we all felt good, there’d be less war.

And where would the politicians be then?

In Boston where I live, every Borders store is closing.  It’s sad news, especially for sex.  I’ve always found the Borders staff to be a sex-positive bunch who don’t keel over with horror when I ask for the Sex section.  What’s more, Borders actually has a Sex section.  And that’s a political stance.  Acknowledging the need for Sex or Erotica shelves is akin to announcing that sex is important – and baby, that’s a statement I respect.

Frankly, my relationship with bookstores often turns sour when I ask for the Sex and Erotica sections.  Recently, in a little indie establishment, the bookseller responded by raising her nose in disgust and telling me this was a family store.  Well, where the hell does she think family comes from, dammit?  To prove a point, I spent my final few moments hunting the shelves for hypocrisy.  I found Nabakov’s Lolita, Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus, and Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith.  All of them can be classified as erotica and two of them contain incestuous sex.  I’m pretty sure incest isn’t “family store” material.  Snort.  It seems that snooty woman was housing the bookshelves of doom!

In truth, any bookseller who claims they don’t stock books about sex has got to be pretty naive.  Let’s face it, you can’t avoid the topic.  It’s where we come from.  And understanding sexuality is vital.  For instance, a teenage boy who is beginning to believe he might be gay should be able to easily get his hands on a book about sexual identity.  Likewise, he should be able to find literature about safe sex without having to ask stony-faced people who send him away with a flea in his ear.  I can’t think of a more family friendly policy than having a sex section that anyone can locate.  Not getting pregnant by mistake, not living in shame, not having unprotected sex…these are family friendly notions.

Still, it isn’t all doom and gloom.  Bookstores with sex-positive policies do exist, and thankfully many librarians are knowledgeable about sexuality.  I used to live near an excellent library where the collection of sex books was expanded every year.  That said, I once borrowed a copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and was greeted with a glare when I handed it over at the desk.  (It was actually so hilarious that I got a fit of the giggles!).  But would she have glared if I was a shy teenage girl who was borrowing a book on abortion?  And what if that shy teenager wasn’t used to libraries, and had to ask a library assistant for help locating such a book?

So that’s one of the reasons I will miss Borders.  But the battle isn’t lost.  Next time you’re in a bookstore, ask for the sex section, especially if you know there isn’t one.  Do it because you’re politically proactive and want plant a seed.  Because the more we learn that sexual openness is vital, the more healthy this world will be.

On the subway last week, the man sitting opposite was ranting about his groin. “See this?” he asked me, pointing at himself. “Think I don’t have anything? Well, you’re wrong. This is mine.” As he continued to spout I got out my book (Anais Nin’s Fire, since you ask) and walked to the other end of the train, before I heard him move on to the next poor soul. He was right, of course. He does own his groin. But how sad that he had to announce it.

Like it or not, there’s often a sexual vibe on the subway. Of course, sex on the train is a classic fantasy, which, during rush hour, can give rise to as many furtive looks as you’d find in a busy bar. I suppose being sealed into a compressed space and traveling superfast is a recipe for lust, particularly when you find yourself face-to-crotch with a stranger. (Depends on the stranger! Depends on the crotch!). And perhaps being in the underbelly of the city releases all those urges we attempt to suppress. In London the subway is called the Underground, a word that also connotes spycraft – rather fitting, considering the amount of watching going on.

As it happens, I’m all about sex on the subway, but there’s a context. I use my commutes to catch up on my reading, which is often about sex and sexuality. The written word offers us a wonderful way of revitalizing and nurturing our sexual imagination, broadening our erotic focus and challenging our assumptions.  As an activity that can be solo, reading is also a great reminder that our sex lives lie within ourselves – we can still experience rich sexual worlds when we’re alone, and beautifully at that.  So, seeing as I love book recommendations, here are some quotes from great sex books/stories I’ve been reading on the train:

From “Dumbrowski’s Advice” by Steve Almond, in This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey:

“At the hospital, you told Dumbrowski: I met a girl, which might have been the truth from time to time, though really you dreamed of the waitress, your waitress, sweet greasy onion rings on her fingers as you lay in a pool of your own heat.”

Riki Wilchins in Genderqueer, ed. Joan Nestle, Clare Howell, and Riki Wilchins:

“…I am speaking, of course, of intersexed infants. Such children, who are not clearly male or female, occur in about one in every 2000 births. Because anything that is not male or female is not a true sex, we pronounce them ‘abnormal,’ fit them legally into male or female, and fit them physically into boy or girl by cutting them up at a rate of about five a day. Thus are ‘natural’ males and females maintained…”

From “Lina” in Little Birds by Anais Nin:

“She bought herself a black lace nightgown like mine. She came to my apartment to spend a few nights with me. She said she had bought the nightgown for a lover, but I saw the price tag still fastened on it. She was ravishing to look at because she was plump and her breasts showed where her white blouse opened. I saw her wild mouth parted, her curly hair in a wild aureole around her head. Every gesture was one of disorder and violence, as if a lioness had come into the room.”

It turns out that 2011 may be a good time for us bookish types to bask in the limelight. Sex expert Petra Boynton predicts this will be a year of sexual introspection: “…I think we’ll see the idea of self reflection and sexual diary keeping become more of a mainstream phenomena.” Self-help, philosophy, guided explorations…these may well be the kind of texts we’ll see reflected in print and online. In fact, Susie Bright recently brought out a 2011 sex journal, entitled Love & Lust, which provides prompts and guides for exploring your sexual self – my copy’s on its way and I’m excited to get started. So we don’t have to shag in public to be sexual while we commute…though maybe a few of us will get to do both! But as sex-positive readers with a mischievous streak, we can always tell our friends, “I had sex on the train today…” before pausing for effect, and adding, “vicariously, of course.”

The photo on the main page is by By Étienne ANDRÉ

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.

Wanking, as many of you may know, is Brit slang for masturbating – a verb that can also be used as an insult. In our teens, my friend would defend herself against the cruel boys by calling them wankers. “A bastard is tough and manly,” she’d explain, “but a wanker sounds weak.” She had a point. I once called an angry ex a wanker and almost got a sock in the eye.

Truth is, whether we’re wanking or tossing or beating the bishop, none of it sounds pretty. And the technical term is almost as bad. If I didn’t know better I’d assume masturbation was rather a boring activity, like unclogging a drain. How sad, considering the act itself can help us understand our sexual needs and even become more talented, imaginative lovers. Touching ourselves is nurturing – a form of self-love.

But as a term masturbation sucks. Like many long, depersonalized words it has its roots in Latin. Historically, this was the language of posh intellectuals, whereas your everyday Anglo Saxon (bless him) brought us tit, prick, arse etc. As an author of erotic fiction, I steer away from the technical term, favoring the more sensual touched herself. In a discussion, however, I tend to use solo-sex because I believe masturbation is indeed a type of sex; and maybe when we actually view it that way, the pride can’t help but spread.

Of course, the fact that terms like wanker and tosser double as insults speaks to how little our society respects solo-sex. When was the last time you heard someone walk into a bar and brag, “I had sex with myself last night and woah, was it hot!”? Which reminds me, when Woody Allen jokes that masturbation is “sex with someone you love,” the reason it’s funny is because loving ourselves sexually is so often seen as perverse. And yet notice how peaceful a climax can make us feel. Imagine a world where we all took care of our sexual selves – might there be less aggression? But that’s a topic for a later discussion.

Right. So here’s my 10 point, language-driven plan for encouraging folks to love themselves and promote self-pleasure:

1. Come up with sexier verbs for solo-sex. Like russing, perhaps. Heaven knows why that popped into my head: maybe I’m marrying the sibilance of pussy with the animal glory of rutting? “Last night, I was russing, and damn was it good.” That sort of thing. But better.

2. Make female self-touch sound as hot as possible – terms that suggest you have a vagina seem to be rare, which perhaps speaks to our society’s repression.  In Britain, we have jillying. I believe it comes from Jilly Cooper, a famous Brit writer of hot novels.  God love her and all that, but who wants to jilly? Holy heck.

3. Start counting solo-sex as a type of sex. Note: If we all did this, any of those social networking surveys that say, “People who use such-and-such-a-product get more action,” would be scoffed at, and rightly so.

4. Try dropping solo-sex into a conversation in a cool, thoughtful manner. e.g. “Yes, I own a pair of gorgeous leather handcuffs. But sometimes, dammit, I only need the one.”

5. Buy products from sex shops, such as vibrators, lube, body paint, and use them ourselves. I recently went shopping with a group of trusted friends, and it was great fun. There’s something sweet about your pal spotting a certain kind of vibrator and saying, quite thoughtfully, “This wouldn’t work for me, but it would be perfect for you.”

6. Support a great cause that articulates the importance of solo-sex, such as podcasts like In Bed, With Susie Bright or activism sites like Our Porn Ourselves.

7. Foster vivid fantasies in which solo-sex plays a titillating role. In Donna George Storey’s “The Big O” for instance, a woman learns to control her muscles through solo-sex with delicious results. You can find “The Big O” in Orgasmic: Erotica for Women, edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel. If porn is more your thing, check out Violet Blue who is THE expert on sex and the web.

8. If you’re single or have recently come out of a relationship, and someone asks whether you’re sleeping with anyone yet, reply, “Well yes, actually. I’m sleeping with myself and loving every moment.”

9. Question folks when they call us wankers. What exactly are they saying? Most of us are wankers. Aren’t they?

10. Refuse to be silenced about the benefits of solo-sex. For more information, including statistics, check out the recent National Survey of Sex and Behavior from Indiana University.

The photo on the Main Page & Archives Page is by Flickr photographer TheAlieness GiselaGiardino.

At a party, my new friend V. was ogling a blonde.

“Lovely, isn’t she?” I said. “Killer legs.”

He gave me a blank look.

“I’m bisexual,” I explained.

“No you’re not.” He laughed. “I know for a fact you’ve never slept with women.”

In my most ironic tone I thanked him for enlightening me, but how did my love of naked breasts fit into his equation?

“If you did sleep with a woman,” he said, “you might end up hating it.”

“Hold on a mo, Sir Lancelot. Let’s keep to the here-and-now.”

To make my point, I offered the following scenario: A teenage boy called Tom has never had sex, but identifies as gay. Tom can’t be bothered with topless women, but the sight of Jimmy Jones from Tech class sucking a ballpoint pen makes him hard as heck.

“Okay,” said V. “He’s gay, I guess.”

I explained that I, like Tom, haven’t had a same-sex partner but still feel a strong sense of who I am sexually. Sure, I might sleep with a woman and find I didn’t like it, but my identity is now, and unrealized desires are a part of that. We’re not solely defined through the people we’ve slept with. For instance, what about the use of lesbian erotica or heterosexual porn? If our erotic tastes contribute to who we are, then the fantasies that stir us are key. What do we like to imagine during solo sex? What arouses us? Now that’s relevant stuff.

Of course, V. is right in believing that our desires can shift. Though we don’t necessarily wake up one morning saying, “Wow! I want to give bondage a go!” we do often surprise ourselves. Buffy the Vampire Slayer explores this brilliantly. In season six, Buffy finds herself in a BDSM relationship with a vampire called Spike – a role that takes her completely by surprise and also helps her to face her own pain. Plus in season seven, Willow claims she started having gay sex because of one woman, Tara, rather than women ‘per se’. The writer and director, Joss Whedon, along with his team, explores sexuality with real elegance and feeling. The shows encourage us to ask each other, “Who are you?” and truly listen to the answers.

…If only good sex education was easier to come by. In my British high school Biology classes during the eighties, I learnt all about condoms, but nobody encouraged us to reflect on what we longed for or who we were. In spite of my attraction to women as well as men, I assumed I was heterosexual because I’d been raised that way, and it took me years to start loving my bisexual self. If someone had taught me that a man who has a wife isn’t necessarily heterosexual, and a woman who only dates women won’t necessarily kick Brad Pitt out of bed, I’d have been far happier. These days, though I know I may never sleep with a woman, it still feels wonderful to know myself.

In order to keep growing, I believe we should strive to be open about our sexual selves. If we’re gay, let’s own it. If we’re kinky, let’s own it. If we don’t yet know, let’s own that too. And when people try to tell us who we are, let’s set them right.

At the end of the party, I asked V., “How do you identify?”

“I’m heterosexual, of course.”

With a wry grin, I extended my hand. “I’m bi. Nice to meet you.”

The photo accompanying this post is by Suicide Girls from Los Angeles, CA, USA (Rambo).