People are always telling me their secrets. But who is here to listen to mine? I’ve toiled over this essay, the last one I write in 2013, as I prepare for the New Year, filled with the notion of clean slates and past reflection. The story was supposed to be some sort of manual for taking stock of your sexual self.
“What does that even mean?” he asks. I study his face trying to discern if he is truly invested in my answer.
To be honest, I’m not sure what taking stock of your sexual self entails. Musings about what goes on, not only between my sheets, but between the bodies that soil them with sweat, tears and the unsayable angst that comes with being in love, lust and everything in between? That sounds about right. There are humorous versions where I count down in trendy, enumerated fashion the intimate encounters I’ve had over the past 52 weeks, as if some dalliance with a literary cad, junkie artist or one of many sexy yet unattainable man-children has helped me get closer to myself. Because falling in and out of love, even in and out of lust, can break you, sometimes you want to make a pithy list, delight in your cleverness and then Tweet it to the world. Because that way, you have nothing to be ashamed of. Because that way you own it. Because that way, you have the last word. But what if you don’t want to laugh your way through the gut-wrenching experience of opening yourself up to another? And, what if there is no lesson at the end of it all?
The thing about life, even for the most adroit of scribes, is that you can’t go back and rewrite your stories. When I was in high school, I took a class called “Herstory,” a feminist look at world historical events. The obvious wordplay here hinges on the fact that by changing the signifier from his-story to her-story, we make a conscious shift in perspective about what is worth recording, deconstructing, and debating. This shift is supposed to somehow validate marginalized experiences. But does it? That class, which had less than ten members, didn’t change my life, but it was one of the first times I sat around with women deconstructing and debating how women experience the world. But maybe it did matter since I’ve made a career out of doing just that.
One of the most satisfying feelings I get to experience in life is having my work published. Did I mention that I write about sex? I have to wonder if my “herstories” are somehow an attempt to validate my experiences. That would mean, of course, that rather than owning the stories that make up my sexual self, I give them away, asking others to listen, to validate, to make them worthwhile, because that would make me worthwhile. I’ve faced criticism for sharing my bedroom anecdotes, both in public, on TV, on Twitter and in my private life. I’ve lost relationships, lost friendships and alienated people who can’t deal with the fact that I kiss and tell. I cannot say that I blame them, per se. But then, why do I continue to write about these exploits? Why do I, again and again, make myself an easy target for others to pour vinegar into the holes left by romantic rejection?
In a good story, drama relies on tension. In life, and specifically relationships, we are taught to avoid drama and tension. But I’ve yet to experience a relationship that exists without neither drama nor tension. Is it me? Or am I so mired in my existence as a writer that I can’t have a functional relationship because it won’t make for a good story?
“Sometimes I wonder what you even like about me.”
“Don’t fish,” he says. “You know how I feel about you.”
“You won’t even read my stories.”
He takes a drag of his cigarette. I hate smoking. I do not care for smokers. They elect to die a slow death and poison those closest to them. “I can’t read your stories because that would be weird. We’re involved.”
The thing is, I don’t know if my sexual self is any different from the rest of me. One of the goals of adulthood is self-integration. And to achieve an integrated self, we must live an examined life. But what if all the examining is ruining our chances of happiness? After all, culture dictates that we keep our sexual self private, or share it only with the person or persons with whom we are intimate. We are not supposed to peddle our sexual self on the Internet, filter it with the forgiving, soft glow of X-Pro II or ask others to learn from our experiences. But we do that anyway, and I’m afraid that it’s turning us into a shallow society. Sex in the media is omnipresent, and at each turn sends some message for us to consume. While we project our own private desires upon whatever cultural dictum the media spits out at us, we rely on this very information to either shame or validate our experiences. This is not healthy. This is trivializing some of the most profound moments we share. This is breaking us.
I can tell you this: I have let love, lust and everything in between break me. Sometimes, it’s because I want to be broken so I can keep my hands busy putting something together again. Sometimes, my fragility is an illusion. Sometimes, it’s all I have to hang on to.
Here’s a confession. I grab onto the strangest things: the empty box of cough drops he’s left on my bed stand, the quarters that fell from his pockets long after he’s gone because I need proof of life, proof that at least for one night I wasn’t alone. Certainly I’m worth more than loose change and garbage he couldn’t be bothered to toss. But I save these things, these signifiers of nothing, because they are sexual relics. Because they are tangible artifacts that I have a sexual self. So here’s another question. Does a sexual self rely on another?
The truth is, even when we’re with someone, we’re still alone. And when the sun breaks through the window the next morning and he’s splayed in my bed, his breath stinking of Jameson, cough drops, my sex and nasty cigarettes, I count the pores in his face and hate him for being human. All I want is to release the desire of wanting him. He needs to cease to be real because that would mean that I’m real and we’re real together.
I listen to myself, spinning tall tales to these men, projecting an image of the woman I think they want. Or I project an image of the woman I think they don’t want, depending on much of a self-saboteur I want to be. I construct a self, and in many ways my “herstories” here are exactly that: the cultivation of a woman in a world of quantifiable desire. I suppose it’s easier that way. To hurt yourself before they hurt you. It’s easier to live with a degree of self-preoccupation, walking that tightrope of vanity and masochism, lusting without love and loving without listening. But can you hear me? Sometimes I whisper; sometimes I cry; sometimes I scream.
“You’re so intense,” he says.
“Do you think you’re the first person to tell me that?”
Self-protection is tantamount. But don’t I want him to see me? Isn’t that all I’ve ever wanted?
The more naked and sincere I can be in my writing, the more I want to recoil and hide from the world. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. There are times when I want to be seen and others where I can’t stomach the thought, hiding in my bed, trying to convince myself that his scent really does linger on my pillowcase; he wasn’t a figment of fantasy. But he’s not here now, and that’s just fine. I do know this to be true: my sexual self is more than the sum of the men who have come in and out of my life. And it’s more than the glib retelling of the fingerprints they’ve left on my skin and the incessant rattling on of all those loose parts.
Jill Di Donato is the author of the novel Beautiful Garbage (She Writes Press, 2013). She writes about sex for the Huffington Post and at large in New York City.