Pre-pandemic, I was a tightrope pulled to its ripping point, a crammed skull overfilling with want, sweetness, anxiety, ambition, loss—but mostly, possibility. Pre-pandemic, I was finally waking up and feeling like myself. Pre-pandemic, I was not “better” or “good” or maybe even “okay” but I thrummed in a constant state of desire. Pre-pandemic, that desire kept me alive. I knew how to go onwards. Everything stung in my fingers and toes, and I lived on precipices, always nearing a cusp. I was sick and swaying with desire. And I thought, maybe I could like being in this body.
In high school, I thought I was asexual, or at least somewhere on the spectrum. I’m not quite sure where I fall now, but I do know that whenever I tried to write about desire as a teenager, I was performing. Perhaps all writing is performance, but what I wrote blurred into a theatre of cruelty directed at myself. I collided with an unease that I think most creative women do at some point in their work: in my writing about sex, I was reaffirming the male gaze. The perimeters of language—defined by cis white men, policed and limited by their own uneven compasses of need—kept stilting any attempts to express my own experience of sexuality. In middle school, I cleaved out a safe medium for exploration: fan fiction. Embarrassing, melodramatic, and wildly misinformed about the actual mechanics of sex—still, I’d needed somewhere to unravel my sexuality that wasn’t completely designed by men.
In high school, I outgrew that kind of consumption, or so I thought. In high school, people discovered porn, and thus I felt the twisting in my throat, the first bud of a lifelong understanding that I, as a girl, was meant to be throttled. I was meant to swallow the violence of men and to do it all with sex appeal, to be compliant, game, that sex never positioned me as an active participant but rather as object, abject.
I hadn’t yet discovered Audre Lorde. She would say: “The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticized sensation.” She later regards the loss of eroticism and the insertion of pornography as its cultural replacement: “Pornography emphasizes sensation without feeling.” Admittedly, in the throes of sex positivity, some of her thesis reads as outdated. And porn in itself is not necessarily damaging, in my experience; rather, the damage is in its structural narrative of brutality.
“Sensation without feeling” encapsulates much of my experience regarding sex with cis men. In writing about sex, I am trying to conquer my own pessimism, trying to acknowledge all ligaments of my sexuality, even that pesky, regrettable part that continues to be attracted to men. In writing about sex, I slam into shame and terror and curiosity. I try to listen to a body unaccustomed to speaking without fear of retaliation. I try to listen to a body with a tendency to freeze-frame, to shut down and click off.
In her exquisite Sewanee Review essay “Mind Fuck: Writing Better Sex,” Melissa Febos writes, “Although my standards did not begin to conscientiously rise until graduate school, even as an undergraduate I became so familiar with the ways that men wrote about women, particularly around sex, that I came to anticipate it with a familiar dread. That didn’t stop me from reiterating them in my own life and work.”
As a teenager, I cultivated my intellectual development with self-destructive rigor and a whole bouquet of mental disorders waiting to bloom. I wrote, read, researched, organized, made zines, ran clubs. In all of my overzealousness I forgot about—or rather, distracted myself from—what made me most uneasy: the tumult of my sexual and romantic development. As if I could expend so much of myself on everything but. As if I could write myself out of fear. I digested the cultural scripts offered to me by nearly every novel I read by a straight white man. I ate my own subjugation, my own aestheticized, well-seasoned fragmentation, for lunch. In sex ed, desire gleamed clinically, sterile and without any commentary about things like pleasure or fantasy or queerness. We were shown images of genital warts and oozing pustules. I mimicked the style of those lauded white dude writers in nearly every piece I wrote; I could not even see enough of my own desire to say anything true about its shape. I didn’t even know how to try.
I didn’t even really believe in an I at all. Judith Butler could’ve used me as a case study for performativity. Kissing girls at parties, in the view of men, always for the specks of attention tossed out like spare bits of meat. Boys said I was too angry, a scrawny unbearable nuisance, nothing desirable or visible beyond the threat of my unruliness. Why do cis men get to author every precinct of desire? Why did I believe that Franzen, Salinger, Roth, or any of those conventional white men had anything new to tell me about my cartography of desire?
I took a playwriting seminar during my first semester of college, and suddenly, those scratchy interior scripts unfolded. Let me write sex, maybe badly, I thought, but let me write it. In a play. In a scene. Let me fuck with structure and form, let me fuck with the rules and dive into the wreckage of desire, of hunger held so tightly within one’s interior life, so locked-up and talked-down-to we can barely look at it without crying. Let me stop apologizing for how disconcerting this representation may taste to the audience.
I wrote a scene in which two college students lie entangled and nervous in a dorm bed, the fan roaring, the ceiling littered with plastic glow-in-the-dark stars. The dialogue mostly sucked, and the depth of action stayed limited to a few moments of quiet conversation. But within that scene, what I wanted to show managed to impress itself upon my class. The characters were Inez and Bo, both young women, and Bo asked, continually, whether she could rest her hand on Inez’s hip, or stroke her hair, hold her hand, or, eventually, kiss her on the mouth. Each touch progressed singularly and momentously. I did not write a sex scene. I wrote an intimacy scene, that delicate terrain of initiation, of figuring out how to touch someone, how to connect without overstepping. I wrote an onstage negotiation of touch because I needed every skip of the heart to be palpable. I did not want to watch another woman get sex done to her. I did not want to listen to another masturbatory metaphor-gasm on vaginas from a cis guy. I did not want to see violence for the sake of violence, for the sake of moving the plot forward and reducing a woman to the ways she’s been harmed by men.
Violence lives in every sex scene, for me, already. Even in the consensual and the tender. In the wilderness of trauma, desire is no soft animal any longer, if it ever was. Queer and trans women, and, like myself, nonbinary people of color, are much more likely to experience sexual violence, often at the hands of cis men. When I write about sex, none of that trauma dissolves. I don’t want to reduce every sexual experience I have to the way it triggers me. Let me try to write eroticism not ignorant of its pained history but rather listening to its every progression, its every note and dissonance.
In writing sex as ours, as messy, awkward, triggering, extraordinary, tender, lonely, passionate, boring, dysphoric, fucking hilarious, all of it—women and nonbinary folks who want to write about it, are, I think, reclaiming our bodies and reinventing a vocabulary never intended for us. Good sex writing evaluates gender, trauma, history, race, and queerness. It plays with our expectations, is clever or devastating or ecstatic. The best sex writing I’ve read has been authored by women (like: Melissa Febos, Toni Morrison, Anais Nin, Bernardine Evaristo, Susan Choi, Lisa Locascio).
I want to say that I know the architecture of my own relationship to eroticism. Underneath the ash pile of violence and dissociation, something warm and elemental stays charged. But how do I access the truth of my desire when I have learned to define its limits, its capacities and unfoldings, through straight cis men? I am not entirely sure yet, but the words will wait.
By Sofia Sears
Photo by Alex Timalos