When Women Write About Their Sex Lives

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Singer-songwriter Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids is, among other things, one of the more sustained apologias for Robert Mapplethorpe you will ever read. Smith spends many pages defending Mapplethorpe—her one-time lover and long-time friend, who also happened to shoot some of the more shockingly and controversially erotic photographs of the 20th century—against the personal and artistic charges that have been leveled against him. She describes, admiringly, pieces that portray bloody testicles, mutilated penises, Mapplethorpe's own crotch. Then, abruptly, she records one of the greater ironies in art history: "Robert was so concerned about the content of my work. He was worried I wouldn't be successful if my work was was too provocative." According to Mapplethorpe, Smith was "always too crude."

Crudity is not something about which the reader of Just Kids will worry. One of the bigger surprises of the book is that a woman who wrote lyrics such as "these bitches are just too lame to understand, too goddamn grateful to get this job to know they're getting screwed up the ass," is capable of sentences as curiously prim as, "'Do you want to have sex?' he asked me. I was surprised and pleased he still desired to be with me."

"He" is Mapplethorpe; he asks her this after he has been out of the closet for some time, and after they have both begun dating other people. And he retracts the offer before she can accept. Still, their sexual contract is complicated: a betrayal, in the Smith-Mapplethorpe relationship, consists of a revelation that "he had been with a fellow, and not for money." He comes out so many times over the course of their relationship that at one point, Smith writes exasperatedly, "it was as if Robert had forgotten that I knew." Of all this, Smith writes, "having to define his impulses and confine his identity in terms of sexuality was foreign to him." One imagines Smith, who walked like Bob Dylan, cut her hair like Keith Richards, and famously said "being any gender is a drag," empathized. But "surprised and pleased" is about the extent of the revelation on offer.

Which is unsurprising, considering how sexual revelation by women is often received. Many less illustrious women have written in more detail about their relationships, and it's undeniably true that the "straight lady writes about her dates" genre can be deeply boring—particularly if dating is all the straight lady in question seems to have accomplished. But the venom reserved for women who write about their sex lives says a lot about how even the most run-of-the-mill expression of female sexuality is still, in many ways, taboo.

Consider Julie Powell. I came to her first memoir, Julie and Julia, late; my mother, after hearing that I had a blog, had purchased it to try to understand the form. I thought the book was clumsy but charming; I tried to talk about it, at a party, with a friend of a friend.

"You know, she had an affair," was his immediate response. It seemed like an odd thing to bring up, considering her memoir on the subject had not yet been published and was not the topic of our discussion, but there it was.

When Cleaving was released, shortly afterward, its reviews often contained the same information, in the same scandalized tone, and not much else. When Powell stated that she sought and received her husband's permission to publish the book, a blogger for NPR cried, "Why would you even ask him whether it's okay for you to write in detail about your sex life without him? You already know it isn't." Tasha Robinson, for the Onion AV Club, notes that "too many" of the reviews for Cleaving "have focused on [Powell's] morality than her writing," then goes on to describe Powell's "aggressive smugness," "self-absorption," and "complete lack of guilt." That party wasn't the last time I heard a man volunteer his thoughts on Powell, or learned that his thoughts chiefly related to her affairs and whether she should have written about them. The conversations also tended to contain meditations on Powell's looks—strange, for people who seemed to feel that Julie Powell's own impulses of attraction, or lack thereof, should be kept secret.

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Sady Doyle is a freelance writer based in New York City. She blogs at Tiger Beatdown. More

Sady Doyle is a writer living in New York. She has contributed to Salon's Broadsheet, the American Prospect, the Guardian's Comment is Free, and Feministe. She blogs at Tigerbeatdown.com.

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