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In 2011, when she was 21, Marie Calloway posted a long piece on her Tumblr about a sexual encounter she had with an older male writer whom she met online.  The post immediately attracted attention, and it was republished on Muumuu House with the name of the man and the story changed to Adrien Brody. The link spread far and wide. The story and the author, often conflated into one subject, were discussed, derided, analyzed, and defended on many major cultural web sites (including The Nervous Breakdown) as well as on scores—maybe hundreds, maybe thousands—of blogs. In these conversations, Marie Calloway became a stand-in for many things—the ethics of writing about real people, the impact of writing personally about sex as a pretty young woman, the internet in general and its affect on Art and Literature. She’d sometimes pop up on comment boards and deflate or deflect some of the weight being placed on this one story.

She also got a book deal with Tyrant House. The resulting volume, What Purpose Did I Serve In Your Life, just came out. Billed as a collection of fiction, the book begins with a story about the narrator having sex for the first time at age 18 and proceeds with accounts of other sexual experiences she had in the next few years, including forays into sex work, hook-ups with older men, S&M sessions, and attempts at emotional connection. These are all told in a voice stripped of judgment and adornment, and they’re interspersed with photos of the author, transcripts of chats and texts, and excerpts of some of the most personal criticism directed at her. It’s a genre bending, compelling, uncomfortable, sexy, and anti-sexy book. The reviewer on Goodreads who picked it up because she heard it spoken of in the same breath of Shades of Grey was hugely disappointed. Here’s what Marie Calloway had to say about fantasy, orgasms, lust, transactional sex, and whether the pursuit of a good lay is always a worthy effort.

 

One of the things that interests me about What Purpose Did I Serve in Your Life is the way the narrator analyzes where her desires comes from, even as she inhabits them. For example, in “Thank You for Touching Me,” during a scene in which the man who’s fingering her repeatedly asks her if it feels nice even as she’s moaning in pleasure, she notes that previously she had hated it when men got off via proof of a woman getting off, but that now she finds the humiliation of being prodded to verbalize her pleasure at their hands exciting. You write, “I had actively adjusted my sexuality so that it was more compatible with a common male sexual urge.” I’m wondering about when this adjustment begins—for the narrator, for you, for any woman—and when consciousness of it begins. How old were you when you had your first sexual fantasies and your first sexual pleasures? What did they consist of, if you don’t mind saying, and how were they related to your environment, if at all?  And if they were related, when did you become aware of this?

Me and a close female friend once had an intimate conversation about childhood sexuality.  We talked about how we both started masturbating at around seven or eight (at least I did) and believe our female friends have said they masturbated as children, had sexual fantasies too and it’s taboo to talk about supposedly.  Unrelated, but lots of people, particularly leftists, talk about the “sexual repression of children” and I’m very suspicious of this line of thinking.

But anyway, when I was that age I had fantasies that were basically bondage/submissive fantasies and would tie myself up with toy handcuffs.  I don’t know where that came from.  Radical feminists, and lately I’m reading old Silvia Federici essays and she basically says this as well, say that in our society female submission and violence against women are so fetishized and romanticized and because men’s sexualities are so based on those things we have to internalize those values if we wish to enjoy sex, and so we do. I don’t know if it’s accurate; it seems like one of those things that’s impossible to prove or disprove.  But if it is true I can answer your question by saying that perhaps even at that young age I had been affected by those values, I mean the fetishization of female submission and male domination/violence.

I had a boyfriend who wouldn’t act dominating or violent with me in bed like I wanted. His whole thing was just trying to make me cum and that was how he got off.  I don’t know, I see it as very selfish and about male ego/pride but less honest than when men dominated me directly.  Someone wrote about how men see female orgasms as trophies rather than pleasurable experiences to share with a partner.  They laugh and mock women with their male friends that they made cum, like mockingly imitate how they sounded during.  For this reason I find it humiliating to cum with a male partner, unless I trust and like him a lot.

I read writings by escorts who talk about faking it, being pressured to fake it as well as they can, is the most unpleasant/humiliating part of sex work (for some). I’ve felt like that with men, like, “you can have my body, but not my soul.”  Porn encourages men to think that women beneath a thin veneer are just cock crazy animals who love cock no matter what it’s attached to.  I can’t encourage that line of thinking.

 

A thread that runs through the book is the narrator’s pursuit of sensation and experience, even at the expense of her self-care and self-esteem. Yet, though there are numerous mentions of male cum and where it lands—in the narrator’s mouth, on her face, warm in the tip of a condom, splattered on a puke-covered towel—there are no references that I caught to female orgasms, no description of that sensation. To what extent are orgasms an outcome or a desired outcome of the narrator’s sex, in relation to other parts of the sexual experience? Are female orgasms intentionally obscured in this book?

I find it impossible to orgasm without a vibrator and even then it’s difficult, and as I say above I am uncomfortable orgasming with most partners.  I read something once, defending PIV [penis in vagina sex] even though women generally can’t orgasm from it on the basis that women get other kinds of pleasure from PIV.  A lot of the other kinds of pleasure were basically just male approval/affection.  I read something about negotiating sexual consent and how we should view sexual consent as being more complicated than just the “enthusiastic consent” ideal that a lot of feminists advocate…  Like a woman who has sex with her partner so he will stop badgering her, or make her feel desired, is consenting, making a sort of cost benefit analysis, and that we should accept that.  This is obviously opposed to the ideas of radical feminists who say that consent in heterosexual sex isn’t meaningful under patriarchy.  And then another feminist view of looking at sex and consent and enjoyment is looking it under capitalism as unpaid domestic labor.

This next paragraph may seem to be unrelated to the previous one, but please stick with me.

It’s tempting to want to say the sex I wrote about in my book—and often had when I was younger—was about trying to use sex to gain validation and value from men, because I thought sex was the only thing I had to offer another human, something many young women think of themselves.  Obviously there was some of that going on, as well as using sex as a shortcut to intimacy because I struggled with extreme shyness/social awkwardness (a porn star once said she found it much easier to have sex with a stranger than hold a conversation with one which was certainly true of me at one point in my life, as I state in my book), but I don’t think it’s correct or insightful/interesting to reduce it all to that.

I basically want to express that I wasn’t having orgasms and physically enjoying a lot of the sex I was having.  But I was getting other things out of it (non-sexual excitement in the form of novel experiences/emotions, and male approval/feeling desired, among many other things).  I also feel suspicious of the valorization of orgasms and sexual pleasure in general.  I don’t think those things are inherent unquestionably good all the time, as they are often taken to be.  And I don’t really think there is anything liberating about sex or sexuality today, especially for women, except maybe if we refuse to have it.

I guess I just wonder, then, why, when I write about these things people talk about how sad and pathetic I am, how ugly I make sex seem, but then in other contexts viewing sex transactionally is seen as reasonable, a sober assessment of the world as it is.  The problem isn’t young girls and their low self-esteem (who become the objects of enlightened misogyny) but something more structural… Sex is often transactional, is work for women even if it’s not as obvious as Marie Calloway having sex she doesn’t orgasm from so boys tell her she’s pretty/validate her.

I feel like this was all fairly garbled but I hope you can get a feeling of what I’m trying to say.

 

Recently, the New York Times Magazine ran a story about the search for a drug to stoke female desire. The author acknowledges that “whether [desire] is mainly a raw drive or a complex emotion is a question that has bedeviled psychiatry for decades,” but the article goes into the most depth when it discusses the brain chemistry that pharmaceuticals can affect. I’m wondering if you see the narrator’s lust and her craving for sexual experience as separate entities, or as a joined impulse.  If there were a magic pill designed to help her achieve a more satisfying sex life, what would it do, what brain, body, or emotional thing would it suppress, hide, reveal, encourage, or accentuate?  

I don’t know…  Lately I was consumed with lust, like because a boy I liked kept going hot and cold on me.  Mixed signals.  Ultimately he totally rejected me.  All of this really sparked desire in me, like hurt pride I guess and wanting what I couldn’t have after I got so close to having it, even though previously I didn’t want to have sex with him that much.

I feel like I have always gotten turned on by scenarios like this…  I feel like I never specifically sought certain experiences.  I was always just following impulses that seemed totally intuitive.  I now think this is probably a naive way of thinking but I’m unsatisfied with other explanations.

I think because I’m unintelligent and we always want what we don’t have, etc. I’ve been turned on by intelligence more than anything.

A more satisfying sex life…As I’ve gotten more secure with myself and less desperate for male approval and that sort of thing, which I think is what that question is kind of leading to, I’ve rejected sex with men almost entirely.  This seems meaningful to me.

 

One of the things that makes What Purpose Did I Serve in Your Life compelling is the inclusion of texts, Facebook chats, and excerpts from online criticism that are published over photographs of you that have also appeared online. The presentation of these pieces seem so interestingly fixed yet jarring and active on the page. Virtually all of them have to do with sex—though some also have to do with love and some with sexually-based insults and accusations of the author and character. Most of the sexual encounters described in the book began online before moving into real life. What is the relationship between the narrator’s search for Experience and sensation and the importance of screen-based interactions in her life? Are the virtual life and the physical life equally real, or is one an antidote for the other? How is sex performed differently or similarly online and in person? Does the omnipresence of online life affect the degree to which the narrator and/or the author identifies as a performer?

In interviews and to a lesser extent writing I’ve discussed having extreme social anxiety/shyness and feeling alienated from other people, I mean when I was younger, so I basically lived on the internet…  It was just a way to communicate with people and eventually reach them in person when I was incapable of doing so when I had terrible anxiety and when I lived in places where it was difficult to find people I was interested in interacting with and vice versa.  I’m sure there are Deep Things to say but I don’t feel like doing that work.  It’s not my area of interest.

I don’t like it when people write, discuss things about the internet making us less connected, Facebook making us into narcissists etc that are so trendy now, I find them boring and often pointless, these discussions.

Sex over Skype or just talking about sex over Facebook chat/email…  I guess cybersex is more obviously a performance (I think irl sex is often a performance too).  I think if you read the cybersex collages in my book it’s kind of obvious I was more interested in getting men to tell me about their fantasies, ideas about women etc than getting off myself.   I was just using my naked body to convince/”pay” them to get them to reveal things to satiate my curiosity.  Maybe that’s what I was often doing in real life sex as well?  Interesting…

 

In the final story of the book, the narrator has a long, closely-observed three-way with two men in a hotel room. She plays a part in initiating it and is excited by it, but she’s also embarrassed and ashamed by what’s happening. As the second man begins fucking her, she asks herself, “Had they thought I would be so easy and that they could do whatever they want because they know that I write about sex…?” During a break in the intense fucking, she goes to a desk and begins writing about what’s transpiring, analyzing it. What if there was no writing? Would the narrator make different sexual choices or have different sexual responses?  Would there be an affect on her mental health or sense of herself?

When I did that, I mean the writing down, I was overwhelmed with emotions and ideas. I was trying to work through what was happening.  I’m sure my mental health would have taken a hit if I hadn’t had that outlet.  I would feel very distressed…  I don’t think the choices I made would have been different though.  I think one thing I was trying to explore in that story was consent, like the impossibility of just saying “stop I feel uncomfortable” sometimes.  You can be overwhelmed with emotion and curiosity, overpowered by charisma, and that sort of thing.  And there’s just sort of an energy or impulse that’s hard to just step out of.  But when it’s over you still feel hurt.

 

What is a question you are hoping to get answered through sexual experience?

I don’t know if I was trying to answer any questions…  I feel like people set me and my writing up as purposefully seeking out experiences so I could write about them or deal with psychological issues but I feel like those assumptions are kind of mired in misogyny, though sometimes unconsciously.  I felt more like I was again following impulses.  I’m in a very different state of mind than when I was writing this book/having the experiences that made up this book so it’s difficult to reflect back.

_______________

marie final coverMARIE CALLOWAY (b. 1990) is a writer and resident of Manhattan.

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ZOE ZOLBROD's first novel, Currency, won a 2010 Nobbie Award. She was born in Meadville, Pennsylvania; went to college in Oberlin, Ohio; and got a MA from University of Illinois at Chicago. She works in educational publishing and lives in Evanston, IL, with her husband, the artist Mark DeBernardi, and their son and daughter. She's currently at work on a memoir.

2 responses to “Six Question Sex Interview 
with Marie Calloway”

  1. Gloria says:

    Very interesting. Lots to think about. Especially this, “And I don’t really think there is anything liberating about sex or sexuality today, especially for women, except maybe if we refuse to have it.” <— This is exactly what's been confounding my understanding of sex and feminism for a while now, I just never put it to words.

    Thanks to both of you.

  2. M. says:

    “I find it impossible to orgasm without a vibrator and even then it’s difficult”; “I don’t really think there is anything liberating about sex or sexuality today, especially for women, except maybe if we refuse to have it.” When is someone going to ask the obvious question, which is why do so many women who officially Write About Sex seem to be women who don’t particularly enjoy it, don’t have easy orgasms, don’t manage to find partners electrifying enough to make their many anxieties or natural inclination to sullen moods irrelevant, don’t find it liberating — as a set of sensations, as an emotional or intellectual clock-cleaning, or as whatever else — simply to be alone with someone (or multiple someones, or not alone) and fuck the fuck out of one another?

    I suspect the answer would be relatively boring, something about how women who are generally content with their sex lives simply don’t feel inclined to probe their satisfactions in print. There are any number of valid reasons why: unwillingness to endure the contempt that would be sure to follow, for example, or unwillingness to become a focal point for every last tedious, banal lady-blog in the world, or the feeling that even the very best writers tend to flail in their dirty bits.

    It makes sense on that level and several others, but I think it’s nonetheless a real problem that some of the most visible women who write about sex don’t seem to enjoy it for its own sake, for all the same reasons we’ve all been hearing about for decades now. It’s particularly disheartening to think that this could turn out to be as generally true of young women writers as it is for the Alice Munro set, and the in-between, ultra-middle-class, MFA-workshop set. I admire Ms. Calloway for her candor, her thoughtfulness — especially about curiosity, and following impulses vs. seeking out experiences — and her lack of vanity, but as a reader and a feminist I want to hear from someone more ardent, more unruly, and a great many miles away from transactional sex.

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