A few months ago, Amelia and I were talking about rape threats against women who write online. It seems like it happens to feminist writers Zerlina Maxwell, Amanda Hess and Jessica Valenti every day. Amelia asked if any readers have threatened to rape or otherwise harm me. The honest truth is that it only happened once — on Twitter a few years ago. The man had zero followers and had only tweeted a handful of times, all of which were incendiary remarks or threats against other liberals. I didn’t suspect he posed a serious threat to my safety, so I just blocked him. Do I even have to say I’m grateful that this was the one and only time some stranger threatened me?
That one incident isn’t the complete picture, though. A better question to ask in order to illustrate the at-times unsavory experience of being a feminist writer online would be about the kinds of inquiries I get on social media or in my inbox. Nearly every single day, a man emails asking me personal information about my sexuality, for an invitation to a sex party, or straight-up propositions me for sex.
That isn’t the experience of every woman who writes online, or even every feminist writer, I’m sure. Lots of writers intentionally do not share anything about their personal lives. I get these sort of communications because I openly write about sex. In case you’re new to The Frisky or to my writing, I’ve written about date rape at 17, spanking, kink/BDSM, going to a spanking party, going to an orgy, and being violated during sex while on a date, among other things. My favorite piece is the one I wrote right after I got married which was in praise of premarital sex.
I’ve read enough anonymous comments over the years to be familiar with the opinion that I have brought unwanted, creepy, sometimes-just-plain-gross attention upon myself by putting this information out there in the first place. The thing that might surprise you is, well, I actually sort of agree with that.
I’m the person who has completely controlled that flow of information. I understand that nothing about my sexuality would be connected to my name, my picture, or email if I hadn’t put it there first. I wasn’t coerced by anyone or paid based on pageviews. I can stop revealing this information at any point.
The reason I’ve written openly about sex — to break down years of therapy into one tidy paragraph — is because the attention in general doesn’t bother me. I don’t feel shame or particular concern about it. Quite the opposite: I like my shamelessness and fearlessness. There are areas of my personal life which are kept private — meaning, off the Internet and mostly unknown to anyone but my friends and family — that have brought me a lot of shame and fear over the years. I grew up both believing and being outright told that I had to keep other people’s shameful secrets for them. In adulthood, I’ve gone in the other direction. I don’t keep secrets or feel all that much shame. I understand why such openness and directness isn’t for everyone, but I feel great, even relieved, living this way.
And yeah, there’s a feminist element to it as well. It’s important to me that women’s desire is not seen as shameful and that safe, sane and consensual kink is seen as “normal” sexuality. When so many women and men are (understandably) intimidated from diving straight into FetLife, I want to be more approachable. At the end of the day, I’m still a WASP from Connecticut who loves J.Crew and tweets about “The Bachelor.” I do feel like I’ve been helpful in normalizing this kind of kinky sex, at least judging by the lovely emails and occasional in-person coffee with a woman who tells me she’s a feminist who likes to be spanked too, and she doesn’t feel guilty anymore. I feel an instant kinship with these women.
I’ve also gotten more than a few emails from kinky men over the years. Each has said something to the effect of “I love and respect women, but I also want to dominate my partner in bed, and reading what you’ve wrote gives me hope that there’s a woman out there for me who would want that, too.” Men are looking for confirmation that safe, sane and consensual kink is “normal” sexuality, too. All the scared, tentative and curious people who’ve contacted me throughout the years are the reason I get defensive about stuff like this.
So those are the good communications. Let’s talk about the bad ones.
Between my emails, my Twitter @ replies, and my Facebook’s Other folder, every day something makes me go “Ugh ick ugh ick.” The vast majority of these communications are men asking me if I will have Skype- or GChat-sex with them or send them sexy pictures of myself. That’s totally weird, because I’ve never posted nude or even partially-nude pics online. The assumption seems to be that because I’ve written about sex, I will email a stranger a picture of my tits. (I don’t care if other women would want to do that, but it’s not for me.) Occasionally, a stranger will write an unintentionally funny email describing in specific detail what his penis looks like and its supposed sexual prowess. Why, just last Wednesday, a gentleman offered to send me a picture of his own dick. “Just to see what you think of it,” he wrote. These emails are wholly unwanted and harassment for sure. In at least one instance, I had to take steps to have the man who was repeatedly emailing me creepy missives firmly reprimanded.
But the reason I am writing this essay is because of one sub-genre of these communications: people who contact me about my orgy essay. It’s maybe 90 percent self-identified as male, 10 percent self-identified as female — all strangers who’ve read an essay that I wrote over a year ago about attending a sex party. The essay was called “First Time For Everything: I Went To An Orgy.” My account wasn’t particularly bacchanalian or even sexy, I think, but it was thorough and honest. I’ve been told it comes up high on a Google search about orgies.
Clearly, I don’t put myself out there as an expert about sex parties or even about kink. I’ve only gone to three sex parties total in my life and this particular essay was predicated on my learning curve. (“I wasn’t sure what the social codes were, like being a freshman plunged into a class of seniors. Cue a Google search prior to leaving the house for ‘do orgies provide condoms’ …”) So, I’ve been genuinely surprised by the emails about it that have been pouring in for the last year-plus. At first, I considered punting those emails to someone else better equipped to answer questions — I’m not the first of my friends to attend sex parties. In fact, a couple of my friends have attended a way more than I have. But my name is on the essay. No one else asked to have their name and identity put out there. So I try to respond when I can.
Most of the emails just ask me how to find a sex party. Usually they mention living someplace more conservative or rural, and they don’t know anyone who is into group sex or how to find people who are. I tell these emailers the truth: I found it through a friend. I got invited because my friend knew I’m very sexually open and assumed that I’d be down to come. I suggest to these emailers that they look online, perhaps via FetLife or OK Cupid, to see if there’s any polyamorous folks in their area. (Being poly does not mean a person attends sex parties, but that crowd is a good place to start looking.)
A substantial amount of the emails are … weird … though. Thire tone isn’t curious or seeking help but rather creepy and presumptuously overfamiliar. “Can I go with you?” is a common question from absolute strangers, a request expressed usually in a one-line email (as opposed to, say, paragraphs introducing themselves and trying not to sound like a murderer). There’s also a fair amount of emails asking me if it was “real” and if I could (re)describe the experience for them. I’ve been told that I wrote a “great story,” which in and of itself would be a compliment, but it seems much less complimentary followed by five winky faces: ;) ;) ;) ;) ;) I ignore these types of emails, all too aware (both from Internet comments and from years of OK Cupid dating) of the ways people go fishing for a sexy pen pal and/or attention.
The grosser emails are so common at this point that they’re a joke between me, my husband, and my friends. Let it be known that if you email a blogger something sexually explicit and weird, she’s going to forward it to at least 13 people. It’s harder to laugh at the gross emails lately, though. I’m torn between the feeling I have about those who reach out to me as a resource and the feeling that I get whenever a new request to send me dick pics arrives in my inbox — the latter being that this is unwanted harassment and it’s got to stop. The truth is that sometimes when a man emails asking if he can send me a picture of his penis, I’ll wish I hadn’t ever written about sex. Not because I’m ashamed, to be clear, but because it feels on those days like the pleasures of writing hasn’t been worth the hassle from what I write.
I focus on just enjoying the nice emails, but somewhere off in the middle distance is bitterness about the creepy ones. Simply put, I feel like my good intentions are being taken advantage of by immature jerks. I shared my personal stories and I take responsibility for that, but the responsibility not to be an asshole is bigger than the responsibility not to “provoke” asshole-ish-ness.
Most people do not write weird emails about their dicks, though, just like most men are not rapists and most people don’t make inappropriate sexual comments in the workplace. There’s always a few (or more than a few) who lack self-awareness and respect. Me not writing won’t make those people go away. It’s the men reading this essay who have to decide to change.
Email me at Jessica@TheFrisky.com. Follow me on Twitter.
[Image of woman checking email via Shutterstock]