Hot and Bothered: Writing about Sexuality at BinderCon
November 16, 2015 § 3 Comments
A guest post from Gila Lyons:
Two weekends back, about 500 women and gender non-conforming writers gathered at NYU’s campus for the second annual BinderCon, a conference whose stated purpose is to “empower women and gender non-conforming writers with the tools, connections, and strategies they need to advance their careers.”
The conference is an offshoot of Out of the Binders, a women’s writing collective of thousands of women formed in response to Mitt Romney’s gaffe during the 2012 presidential debates that he had “whole binders full of women,” referring to job applicants he’d received as Massachusetts governor. Panels and sessions ranged from Hot and Bothered: Exploring Sex/Desire in Creative Non-fiction and Fiction, to Pitching 101, to The Art of the Ghost: We Write Because They Can’t, and keynotes from Lizz Winstead, Jenn Pozner, Suki Kim, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc and more.
Here’s my recap of one of the most inspiring and instructive panels, Hot and Bothered: Exploring Sex/Desire in Creative Non-fiction and Fiction, which explored writing about desire, sex and sexuality in nonfiction and fiction, focusing on the work of women of color and queer women, and paying special attention to writing beyond shame, fear, and dealing with the ramifications of being a sexually empowered woman who will receive violent threats, judgment, and nasty comments from those threatened by such a woman.
March opened by claiming, “If you’re not a white 25-year-old cis guy and you’re writing about sex, you’re transgressive.” She quoted Rebecca Walker who said, “Good therapy leads to good writing, and good writing leads to good therapy, and I can’t imagine doing one without the other.” She shared that the two best pieces of craft advice she’s ever received: “1) sit down and 2) write.” Also, read well, and read variously.
March encouraged women who want to write about sex and sexuality to develop a network of writers, “not supportive people who will say, well honey, this is causing you trouble, so stop doing that.” But other writers who will encourage you to keep going even when nasty comments come in, harsh judgments, or threats. “It’s normal to have fear of what you’re revealing about yourself,” she said. “Acknowledge that. And let’s kill that motherfucker shame. Every time I’ve shared things I’m most ashamed of, my life has become so much richer. People come forth and say ‘me too,’ or ‘I’ve never been able to tell this.’”
March discussed the ethics of writing about sexuality, especially when writing nonfiction and others and their privacy are involved. She recommends:
- be respectful and work it out with them ahead of time – what they’re comfortable with, if they want any edits made, if they want their identity concealed.
- Remember that other people can want their privacy, and that’s fine, but you have a right to tell your story.
And you should do it even though this world is not a hospitable place for it. “We get told our lives don’t matter,” she said, “pregnancy, equal pay, our sexual lives, they don’t matter. There’s a rise in women essayists right now and a corresponding rise in being told to shut up. Be love in the face of hate. Because what else is there to do?” She ended with a powerful quote from Muriel Rukeyser, “If one woman told the truth about her life the world would split open.” Let’s split it.
“Let your sex writing be aspirational. My characters have much more exciting sex lives than I do. You will be exploring, expanding, and healing your own love map by writing about sexuality, even if no one else sees it,” Quintero said. She recommended Exploring Your Sexual Self: A Guided Journal, by Joan Mazza, which offers writing prompts and exercises to put women in touch with their sexual truths and desires. Quintero led the audience through a quick writing prompt from the book, “If you could say three things about the nature of your personal sexuality and really be heard and accepted and understood, what would you say?”
Quintero advised writers to cultivate compassionate awareness of their own sexuality – including what excites, intrigues, repulses, and scares them – in order to increase ease and competence in writing sex scenes. She recommended the book, Sex and Money …Are Dirty, Aren’t They? by Cheri Huber to explore and work through thoughts and ideas about sex.
Finally, Quintero wanted attendees to remember that the rules of good craft apply to erotica. “Setting, conflict, character are even more important when your characters are having sex. No one person engages in sex the same way every time. Really great sex scenes tell you about something other than sex.” Her final book recommendation was Juicy Mangos: An Erotica Collection, edited by Michelle Herrera Mulligan, for the “tremendous characters” in its stories.
LaShonda Katrice Barnett:
Barnett described the protagonist of her novel, Jam on the Vine, as an African-American lesbian living during the Jim Crow era who is sexually free and fulfilled. She wanted to have a black heroine who did not have sexual violence done against her, as so many black heroines do, but to have her filled with passion and lust and love and see where that would take her. “I had to fight to keep a dildo scene in the end of the book,” Barnett said. “My editor said, ‘No one ends a literary novel with a sex scene,’ but I wanted to end on an up note, a celebratory vibe.” She fought for it so readers would get to know a different type of black woman who owns her own sexual prowess.
Barnett credited Zora Neale Hurston with the best masturbation scene she’d ever read, the one in Their Eyes Were Watching God – and with writing the first black sexually empowered female character that pursues what she wants with great passion. She urged writers, “Mine your sexual experiences in your writing so they become autobiographical ethnography – our stories have so much power they begin to speak for the whole of us. Shun shame. Claim your sexuality because it’s part of your humanity.”
Ashley C. Ford:
Ford described her work as addressing sex, gender, sexuality, and race, seeking to honor the entire spectrum of sexual experience, “which means they’re not all good, passionate and can be kind of funny.” She writes about budding sexuality, specifically for young women “who get such mixed messages about their bodies and sexuality in general as they’re growing up and having their bodies mature before they’re actually ready to engage in sexual activity. How do you explore that?” She continued, “Black girls’ bodies seem to mature faster than white bodies,” and Ford is interested in exploring in her work how adolescent black girls are treated by men.
She also talked about being bi-sexual and being in a relationship with a cis man, and how much she didn’t want her current relationship status to discount her queer identity. She referenced an essay she wrote for Buzzfeed, My Boyfriend And I Came Out To Each Other about her and her first boyfriend coming out to each other after dating for six years. She also talked about the ethical issues in privacy of loved ones, as she maintains a column, Disrupting Domesticity at The Toast about living with her boyfriend while dealing with her PTSD, depression, and anxiety.
Friedman asserted, “The most important sexual relationship you’ll have is one with yourself.” She spoke about her most recent book, What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex & Safety not as a self help book that communicates, “you’re broken and this book will fix you,” rather as a book that says, “you’re fine, the world is broken, here’s how you can have good sexuality in a broken world.”
She said that for her writing about sexuality inherently meant writing as a survivor of sexual assault, and when she did that “all the trolls came out.” She actually doesn’t like to call them trolls, “They’re abusers, harrassers, ‘trolls’ sounds harmless and funny, they’re not, they’re abusers,” she said. Friedman admitted that nasty comments and threats can get to her, “I do take to my bed,” she said. But then she gets up and continues to work for women’s sexual safety and freedom. “I’m Jewish,” she said, “and there’s a Jewish saying that really helps me – It’s not yours to complete the work but neither is it yours to desist from it. It’s important to be part of a community so you can tap in and tap out.” When you need to take a break for self-care, she explained, take a break, shut off your devices, and tap out. When you’re ready, return. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” she said. “We come here to decolonize the body and we end up talking about violence and fear,” Friedman noted. “Whatever makes it possible for you to keep doing the work, that’s what I recommend you do.”
Anna March’s essays and creative non-fiction have appeared in Modern Love in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Salon, The Rumpus, Tin House, PANK and numerous other publications. Her memoir, The Spectacular Remains, and novel, The Diary of Suzanne Frank, are forthcoming and she is at work on a collection of essays, Feminist Killjoy.
Ashley C. Ford is an essayist, editor and columnist whose work in Elle, PANK magazine, The Rumpus, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, and Literary Orphans addresses sexuality, gender and race.
Jaclyn Friedman is author or Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape and What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex & Safety. Friedman has been a guest on PBS News Hour, the BBC and numerous other radio and television shows, and her commentary has appeared in outlets including CNN, Time, The Washington Post, The Nation, Jezebel and The Huffington Post. She is a founder and the former Executive Director of Women, Action & the Media as well as a charter member of CounterQuo, a coalition dedicated to challenging the ways we respond to sexual violence.
Self-professed “Ivy League homegirl” Sofia Quintero is a writer, producer, activist, educator and speaker. Under the pen name Black Artemis, Sofia is the author of several hip-hop novels for adults including Explicit Content, Picture Me Rollin’ and Burn which are assigned in college courses across the nation. Under her real name she has published the chick –lit novel Divas Don’t Yield and her award-winning debut YA novel Efrain’s Secret and numerous short stories and novellas. Her latest novel is Show and Prove.
Novelist and playwright LaShonda Katrice Barnett’s debut novel, Jam on the Vine, was an Editor’s Choice pick at the Chicago Tribune and earned the Emerging Writers Award at the 2015 Tennessee Williams Literary Festival. She is also the editor of I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters On Their Craft and the story collection Callaloo. Twice-nominated for the 2015 Pushcart prize for her short fiction, Barnett holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.
Gila Lyons‘ work has appeared in Salon, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Morning News, GOOD Magazine, BUST Magazine, Ploughshares, Brevity, Tablet, and other publications. Links to published work can be found at www.gilalyons.com. Follow her on Twitter at @gilalyons