On Writing About Sex in the New York Times

One week ago, the New York Times published a very personal essay I wrote about my sex life (or lack thereof) in their Modern Love column. The first thing Dan, the column editor, asked me during our phone conversation a few weeks ago was whether or not I wanted this story in the world. He warned me a little bit about trolls and said every single essay gets at least some negative feedback. I told him I don’t have a thick skin, but that I’d fight through it.

One of the hardest parts of this process was informing the four people who appear anonymously in this essay that they were going to be in the New York Times. The majority of people who read this essay have no idea who any of these people are, but these people know who they are and our friends know who these people are. I sent the essay to each of them. It was like coming out. It was like saying, here is who I am and here is how I feel at the same time as saying here is my writing. Most of them hadn’t read my writing before, at least not outside these blog posts.

My ex was supportive but a little upset, and reasonably so. He is only portrayed in the essay as the man who broke my heart. And he is that man, but for the record, he is also so much more than that. We have known each other more than 13 years. We were together for 5 years. We didn’t speak for nearly two years, but for the past 10 months, we’ve returned to being the best of friends. He is my person, now more than ever since there is no more messy romantic component to our relationship. The other three people aren’t portrayed negatively and have also been incredibly supportive and loving. I mean it when I say that when I love someone, I love them hard and I love them forever, in whatever shape that love may take. The people who allowed me to write about them in such a public manner will always be far more to me than the few sentences I allotted each of them in this piece. Just, you know, to respond to this super confusing, weird comment from some human named Terry:

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This process has been unlike anything I could have ever imagined. I just wanted to share with you some of what it feels like to be a woman who wrote a piece about sex in the New York Times. Most of the feedback I got has been incredibly kind and encouraging. Many of you have emailed me, commented on my blog posts, tweeted at me, written on my instagram, written about my essay in your own blogs, and I seriously can’t thank you enough for your supportive words.

I am someone who struggles a lot with anger and pessimism and this experience didn’t do much to assuage my dislike of humankind. Though for every troll, there was usually someone coming to my defense. I can’t really explain to you how it feels to have total strangers psychoanalyze you, diagnose you, and tell you what your life is like at the same moment that other total strangers stand up for you and defend you like momma bears you’ll never meet. Over the course of the past week, I feel like I have become two people. I am the me I am, and I am the me who is this name floating around on the internet. At first this split was hard for me to comprehend, but now I find it helpful.

Before I share with you a bit of the feedback I got on this essay, I just want to say that I think some of the negative comments I’ve received are justified. My personal essay is very focused on me (hence the “personal” part of “personal essay”). My blog posts are also very me-focused because this is a personal blog about my life that serves as a way for me to compulsively record, like I have done since I was a kid. That said, I do struggle a lot in my writing to get outside of myself and to write things that aren’t all about me. Because I feel uncomfortable, for the most part, writing about anyone else, their experience, their identity. It feels presumptuous. But I also can’t imagine ever writing a book that is a series of essays like the NYT piece because I, too, find that to be too self-indulgent, at least for me. I get bored of myself. I get bored of my own voice. I own my narcissism, I always have and I always will, but even I have limits and even I, contrary to popular belief, do not find my life so interesting. A lot of the negative feedback I’ve received has forced me to confront what exactly it is I want to do with my writing, and that has been tremendously helpful. I do write fiction occasionally, and I write mostly academic stuff given that I’m currently an English PhD student, but I’m enjoying navigating my future as a writer with your feedback in mind.

And now, let me present you with some screen shots of the best, worst, most hilarious, and most awful stuff I encountered on the internet in relation to my essay. The majority of responses I received were from men. I don’t know if this is because the piece resonated more with men or because men feel more like they have a right to be heard. These responses were collated from online forums like reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, and the NYT comment section. Some of them are emails or blog comments I received. Anyway, here goes:

  1. In which the internet informs me that I have been raped:

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2. In which the internet presumes a LOT about who I am and gives advice based on that presumption:

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Ah, yes, the “Dear girl” address.

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This is an email from a man named Mark.

3. In which the internet tells me I have a drinking problem:

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4. In which the internet debates my attractiveness:

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In this thread, someone had clearly posted a photo of me with a comment bad enough to be flagged and removed from the forum.

5. In which the internet blames my lack of sex (and my reflection on such) on being a feminist:

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The link in that comment is to a photo of me holding up a ticket stub to a USC event called “Friends, Bitches, Countrymen,” which was an event on contemporary feminist poetics.

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6. In which the internet tears me a new one in sometimes hilarious, sometimes mean ways and in which strangers sometimes defend me:

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I really got SO many comments like this about how narcissistic I am. How dare I voice anything about myself because NO ONE CARES. This person even says, “you imagine everyone is thinking about you, worrying about you and somehow, therefore, you are important.” The irony of someone who cared enough to read the essay, find my blog, read my blog, and comment on my blog telling me that no one cares about me is just too good. Plus the other little lovely bit of irony in which someone takes it upon themselves to voice their personal opinion about how I should stop being so narcissistic because no one cares about my opinions makes me laugh every time I encounter any troll spewing this kind of shit.

7. In which the internet speculates on whether or not I masturbate:
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8. In which the internet makes me laugh:

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Al, you called this one.

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9. In which Tumblr & Instagram & Twitter users quote me and make me a hashtag and I feel seriously like I am in the twilight zone.

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11. In which one of the people I wrote about but don’t really know reads my essay and asks me on a date:

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Yes, we’re getting coffee next week.

11. Also, since this is my personal blog, I’m going to set the record straight on a few things:

  • No, I don’t need rescuing from my sex desert, I’ve had sex since I submitted the piece to the Times.
  • No, I don’t need you to tell me to stop taking the birth control pill, ALL THE MEN WHO TOLD ME TO STOP TAKING THE BIRTH CONTROL PILL, because I already stopped taking it months before I published this piece and it’s none of your goddamn business anyway because you don’t have a uterus.
  • Yes, I have a therapist and I’ve been in therapy with her on and off for five years and things are going very well, thank you very much.
  • No, my friends aren’t terrible people for asking me why I don’t have sex. My friends are the most incredible people in the entire world and they are brilliant and compassionate and supportive and they have every right to ask me about my sex life because that’s what friends do.
  • Yes, my parents *are* very proud of me, random internet pieces of shit. And they hate you.
  • Yes, I probably do have a drinking problem. I ended over a year of sobriety the night before this article came out simply because I was worried about people like you judging me and trolling me, so thanks for showing me I was right to anticipate such vitriol. My sobriety is none of your business, even if there is a brief mention of it in my essay.

That’s all for now. Non-NYT related updates coming soon. Thanks for the love. Thanks for reading.

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