Some Notes on Love, Anonymously and Writing About Love and Sex Online

by Latoya Peterson

First things first. Quite a few people reached out to me to say that they did not have enough time to get their piece in by the deadline, are in the middle of drafts, or otherwise working hard on what they want to say. Since the blog carnival idea didn’t work so well (we only got submissions to host on Racialicious, most of those anonymously), I’ve decided to make Love, Anonymously a permanent series here on Racialicious. I would still love to get some comics or videos or other ways of expressing a feeling, if anyone wanted to do something to that end.

I also wanted to talk a bit about the intent for this series, since we’re starting to see some very familiar issues in the comments section.

Love, Anonymously is intended to be a space for people to talk about the messier parts of sex. Since there is such a dearth of conversation about sex from people of color, we wanted to create a little bank of content, so for folks shooting around the internet feeling like they really are conflicted about something or want to discuss something, suddenly, it is here.

The problem is, love and sex aren’t clear cut things. And when you add race, sexuality, religion, and other things to the mix, it brings out some fairly strong emotions in people. And while it is fine to disagree with a sentiment, a belief, or other comments someone may make in a piece, what is not okay is to attack them personally for it.

Personal attacks are obnoxious, and from an editor’s standpoint, are counterproductive. Many people are reluctant to talk about sex publicly. We all know there a lot at stake and that the internet runs on cruelty. When I originally came up with this idea, I reached out to 30 solid writers and friends of Racialicious to see if they wanted to contribute. And for most people, the initial answer was no. Digging into the why of it all brought out a list of fears: fear of being judged, for one. Fear of backlash.  Fears around safety.  Fears about creating a false level of intimacy with the reader.

But the biggest was the fear that one’s personal image will be linked with sex. 

Many of us are women of color,  already people who have been uninvited from the mainstream conversation table. Since most of us fight for our right to talk about serious issues, we don’t want one or two essays to undermine all the work we have done.

I mean, look at what happened to Katha Pollitt, veteran feminist and well respected writer, who had the gall to write honestly about making bad choices and being in a bad relationship. Rebecca Traister wrote an amazing piece for Salon, describing how the mighty intellectual Pollitt was pilloried by the literati by essentially exposing her human side:

That’s probably why, a few years ago, when I read Katha Pollitt’s New Yorker essays about learning to drive and web-stalking her ex-boyfriend in the wake of a brutal breakup, I was so taken aback: humiliated for her, embarrassed to have bumped into her this way, in different clothes and an apron! Pollitt and I are now professional acquaintances, but at the time, I had not met her. I knew her only as a columnist, having long loved her work as a political and feminist critic for the Nation. But I viscerally recoiled at these tales of her abandoning her pride, wallowing miserably and defensively as she compared herself to her ex’s new girlfriend, admitting to her lack of self-sufficiency and confidence. The newspaper where I worked at the time ran pieces mocking both of her stories. I didn’t write them, but I laughed at them. [...]

Now those two essays, in which she confessed to debasements like looking the other way after finding another woman’s panties in the laundry, to not giving her boyfriend oral sex in the mornings, to the fact that he intellectually belittled her and that she — the great feminist! — stayed with him for seven years anyway, until he finally left her for someone else, are the centerpieces (and one of them the title) of “Learning to Drive,” a new collection of Pollitt’s writing.

Picking up these pieces again in book form, accompanied by other essays about Pollitt’s daughter, the Marxist reading group she joined in part to impress her scoundrel boyfriend, and friendships with the women with whom her ex cheated on her, I have a much more intricate reaction than when I first read them. Instead of simply rearing back from them, I wonder: Is there ever a point at which it is a good idea for women, especially intellectual, politically engaged women, to strip off their clothes and caper naked as jaybirds in front of a line of would-be assassins? [...]

The L.A Times’ Susan Salter Reynolds is unapologetic about the terms of her disgust, admitting that “watching a feminist I’ve admired my entire life dissolve into a whingeing puddle in her late 50s is painful,” and calling the book “self-indulgent.” The New York Times’ Toni Bentley is slinkier in her evaluation of Pollitt’s “brilliant commentary on welfare, abortion, surrogate motherhood, Iraq, gay marriage and health care” next to this collection in which she “gets personal, and shameless.” Bentley, a former ballerina, knows from personal and shameless; her graphic 2004 memoir “The Surrender” explored her devotion to anal sex. In her review, she names other female writers like Laura Kipnis, Daphne Merkin and Maureen Dowd, who have excavated their personal lives (not to say their intestinal tracts) for material, cracking nonsensically that they represent a new breed of “enraged, educated woman (vagina dentata intellectualis),” and wonders whether Pollitt is “giving up her dignity in a generous motion of solidarity toward the rest of us who have already blown our cover?” [...]

Bentley gets close to the root of the antipathy toward the book: that maybe women who have serious careers writing about serious subjects shouldn’t let their opponents see their soft underbellies, since once they do, their “covers” are blown and they’ll never be taken seriously again.

We, the folks who make parts of our livings writing, knew the costs intimately.

Carmen, for years, made a habit of not talking about her own personal relationships online or in the workshops she gave.  I remember asking her about this when we starting working more closely together – why didn’t she refer more to the guy she was dating, or make their connection a bit more explicit? She told me about another blogger, an Asian American woman, who revealed her relationship with another blogger, a black male, and was besieged by men who called her a race traitor and a sell out for who she chose to date.  She and the other blogger coined a term for it – “voting with your pussy.” Your racial politics could be declared null and void based on who you were currently fucking.

Over the years, I noticed how right she was, and how those kind of judgments stayed around forever. Carmen never denied her relationships – she just never referred to them with people she didn’t know, knowing that she didn’t want to deal with whatever ideas someone else had put on her relationship.  Right before Carmen announced her retirement, the line between private life and public life had started to blur a bit.  It was fairly easy to figure out who she was dating. Once, she had a dispute with someone on her facebook wall. He was posting links there that she felt were inappropriate, and she deleted them.  The guy’s response? “I always knew you were a nigger lover.”  Apropos of nothing, Carmen’s relationship was used as something to try to hurt her with.

So the cost for revealing who you are and what you do and who you love is high.  It allows others to feel as if they have the right to use this information as they will. And that’s not always an easy thing to swallow.

But, I still think it is important to have some kind of honesty in conversations.  It doesn’t mean that we agree with everything or cosign everything someone says, but it does mean that we acknowledge being honest about who we are will inevitably reveal flaws in our character and bad decisions.  When Katrina Pavela wrote about her first time entering into a same sex relationship, it would have been very easy for her to omit the detail that her beloved was in a marriage at the time to a man. After all, we are writing.  You chose what information you want to include in the story.  But she didn’t. She admitted it, because it was a part of the background, and all the trepidation she felt going into that situation.  Quite a few commenters were offended by that disclosure – but here’s the thing.  Love, Anonymously is a series of personal essays about love and sex.  Most of the time, we aren’t dealing with ideal circumstances and people are still working through whatever happened.  Katrina ended her story after their meeting in New York.  She doesn’t explain what happened after, the context for her beloved’s marriage and decision to commit adultery, if she had always known Julie was married or if she had fallen for her and found out afterward – there is a lot of context that is missing. She doesn’t let on if they have continued their adulterous relationship or if they broke up afterward or if Julie divorced after discovering she was attracted to women and married Katrina and lived happily ever after. There is a lot missing.

But some folks feel like these things shouldn’t be explored – as if none of us have ever had a relationship that started off in less than ideal circumstances or we did something we weren’t proud of.

So many of the comments have come in critically.  One commenter criticized Katrina’s writing style, her word choice, and the idea of adultery, and in the next breath asked why there wasn’t more queer representation in these stories.

Well, think about it.  How many people want to sort through the messiness of relationships, bare their heart and soul, and receive a bunch of judgement and nastiness in return? For the folks I reached out to who identified as queer in some way, three have submitted pieces, and two are working on theirs.  Many more declined, and some for this exact reason – that their first time story isn’t perfect, that they still have a lot of relationship mess to resolve, and that they protect themselves by *not* writing about their relationships or sex life.  After all, who needs strangers judging them, when we do a perfectly fine job on our own.

But the entire reason I came up with Love, Anonymously is to tell these stories. Not to justify things, but to create space for conversations about our lives and these complexities, and to ultimately have a body of work by people who don’t normally tell their own stories.

I have yet to pen a piece for Love, Anonymously, though there are many things I’d like to discuss.  Dating a guy with a hidden color complex was one.  Love in the time of the world’s pre-occupation with black women is another.  But I’ve written a fair bit about sex and love and relationships, and it never turns out the way you want it to.

A big part of this is that the stories we tell aren’t just our stories.  They involve other people, folks that we are still involved with or part of our histories.  One male writer begged off on the initial writing prompt, explaining that he felt like it would be very awkward to write about past loves, since he was concerned about the feelings of his current love.  And it’s not just feelings at stake – we want to protect our friends and loved ones.  I learned this lesson late, probably before I realized the full extent of what it meant to put something personal about yourself online.  I was amazed how perfect strangers felt as though they had the liberty to not only comment on the piece, but also what they thought of the people in my life.  Then I read New York Magazine’s expose on Gawker, and one of the writers there managed to put it all in context (emphasis mine):

Two weeks ago, Gawker writer Josh Stein jumped on the 4-year-old son of satirist Neal Pollack, calling him a “horror” and “the worst” for providing his father with some cute quips about expensive cheese at a gourmet store; Pollack responded by sending an e-mail blast about his feelings to his friends, but Gawker got hold of the e-mail and relentlessly dug into him again and again. When Pollock first saw the post, “my heart sank to my knees,” he says. “Instinctively, and stupidly, I sent out that e-mail, which I should never have done, because it just gave them the satisfaction of knowing that they’d gotten to me. That’s all bullies want, really.”

Someone Pollack knows later sent him a link to a blog written by a woman who’d dated Stein, which he passed along to me: “It’s nice to know that my antagonist is an emotionally manipulative premature ejaculator with a Serge Gainsbourg tattoo on his back,” explains Pollack, who’d realized a truth of the bile culture—shame is a weapon.

“Only two of those things are true,” jokes Stein. “Look, if I was Neal Pollack, I would be mad too. But when you create a character out of your son, and you develop that character in your prose, that character is open to criticism. I’m actually looking forward to the moment when Neal Pollack is an old person and Elijah Pollack is writing stories about him in a nursing home.”

Here’s the problem.  People aren’t characters.  They are people.  And it is difficult to condense an entire relationship into a piece of work.

Ages and ages ago (in 2007) I wrote a piece wondering about the differences between a racial preference and a racial fetish, and included this little example:

One of my close friends tends to date white women, though he maintains he dates the rainbow. When I ask him about the reasons for his attraction, he goes into different factors of why he is attracted to the women he dates. He lists things like body type, hair, and complexion. I prodded him playfully about one of his recently revealed fetishes – the fact that he, a black male, wants to have a white woman tie him up and treat him like a slave.

He asked one of his former sex partners to do it, and she didn’t speak to him for a week.

He acted puzzled.

“I just asked her to beat me a few times and call me Toby.”

I asked him if his desire for that particular sex act has caused him in recent years to narrow his focus in dating, pointing out that he has not dated anyone of color since freshman year of college.

He contemplates that for a moment.

“Maybe,” he finally answers.

Now most folks engaged with the idea of the piece – to explore the differences between preference and fetish and what things we might do that fall along those lines.  A few people mentioned feeling really skeeved out by my friends choice of fetish.  Also, totally cool. One of the things that was irrelevant to the piece, but is relevant to the scenario, is that my friend is kind of a prankster.  Having known him for as long as I have, I would estimate that his wanting to act out a Roots inspired master-slave scenario is about 50% his own inclination to being sexually adventurous and open to kink and race play, and about 50% the desire to watch his partner freak out at the suggestion.  At the time, that particular partner was very sweet-natured and preferred a fairly straightforward sex life – it wasn’t something she would ever even think of doing, let alone consider. (At that point in time, anyway.) So it was as much a joke as it was exploration.

Still, to each their own.  Some folks are skeeved out by slave fantasies. Happens.  I personally get freaked out when women take purity pledges to their fathers, but again, to each their own. We all have different norms and preferences when it comes to dating. But one commenter in particular took things to the extreme, saying that it was clear that my friend had some kind of mental disorder, and that I too, should probably be checked out psychologically. Huh? When I pressed the person why they jumped to that conclusion, they replied that they could not see how a person harboring that type of sexual preference could not act out that type of thinking in every other aspect of their life.

Umm.  Show of hands. How many people can adequately judge a friend’s sex life by how they behave at work or in social settings with other friends?

Short answer: many times, you can’t.  A few people may tip their hand with off-handed comments or by watching their interactions with their partners, but generally, you don’t know until they tell you.  After all, you aren’t having sex with them – how would you know? Some friends who seemed to have great partnerships would confide later that their intimate and sex life was functionally deceased. And other friends, who seem so low-key, may actually attend swing parties.  One of our regular commenters asked me if I could help promote her call for a Perverts of Color anthology.  I said cool – up into that moment, it had never entered my mind that this commenter would be into alternative sexual lifestyles.  But why would it?  Perhaps I’m just self-absorbed, but I generally focus on my own sex life the most.

But what enraged me was generally the assumptions.  And there were two at play – one, that a disinterested third party could actively peer into the motivations of someone else and accurately diagnose an issue from limited information.  But, that happens often.
The other assumption, which is infuriating, is the assumption that that person isn’t reading. On another post I wrote about interracial dating, I talked about how I wasn’t always so accepting of interracial relationships. This is not a piece you write expecting things to go smoothly.  You know what you’re saying is provocative.  You know what you are saying will hurt people and that is not your intention.  But I chose to write it, because it was, in many ways, a journey.  And it was a piece of a journey that winds a bit- I had initially planned to write a second piece about how people get both subconscious and overt messages about interracial dating being wrong, and why we carry these ideas into adulthood and how people choose to challenge or accept those ideas. But the reactions, again, started getting out of hand. It’s one thing to accept criticism of something you wrote/said/did/thought – that’s hard enough. I still believe that sometimes, we have to reveal our struggles to move forward, but that’s neither here or there.

What’s harder is for someone else that you know and love to be judged.  I had told my friend I was writing the piece, let him see it, got his input.  He showed up for the conversation and read all of the comments.  But I still couldn’t help wincing when someone else put him on the chopping block. It made me not want to write about these things anymore, so I haven’t. And when Jaclyn came to me, and asked me to write for Yes Means Yes, I initially said no.  And when I started writing the piece that eventually became the Not Rape Epidemic, it took me two months to pen a piece that should have taken about a week, since I underestimated how bad it hurt to go back to that place. How sucky it was to remember all of that, to still feel that burn of shame remembering that if I had just listened to my momma and not entertained company when she wasn’t home, that would have never happened.  Remembering how it felt to be in that court room and see your friend’s picture on the wall next to the guy who sexually assaulted you, knowing that both of them were a part of gang raping a girl you didn’t know, and that maybe, had you said something instead of just hiding, feeling like it may have been different for everyone.  Listening to the defense attorney infer that the girl with the bashed in face deserved it in some kind of way, and realizing that I probably made the right decision. Thinking about the faces of all my friends, with all their stories, and how our lives took us to such different places.  How we laugh now at what made us cry then.

Writing about these things takes a lot out of you.

Bottom line: Writing is hard. Writing about sex is a hard and often thankless task. Writing about sex that doesn’t follow a script of perfection is worse. Have some compassion for people. Think before you comment, and realize that it is very easy to respond to someone’s work, but much, much harder to put yourself out there.  And, if you honestly think that you can do better, the admission call is open.