When Women Write About Their Sex Lives



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.

And Powell is not the only woman whose right to publicly record her own experience has been challenged. "If one more guy asks me how I think the people in my book will react to my writing about them, and was it revenge and did I use their real names and aren't I worried, I might crack," wrote Julie Klausner, whose dating memoir, I Don't Care About Your Band, I happened to enjoy. "It's MY real name that's going on this thing—I'm the one putting myself out there, in whatever cross hairs, looking the most like an idiot."

And, if Powell's example is anything to go by, there may be people who won't hesitate to call Klausner an idiot, in conversations unrelated to her sex life. Of course, bookstores won't refuse to carry Klausner's or Powell's books, as the Corcoran refused to exhibit Mapplethorpe's work; he obviously got the worst of it, because of his sexuality and the fact that we could actually see where he'd lodged the bullwhip. Still, relatively tame disclosures by women are often met with relatively hysterical condemnation.

Powell, Klausner, and Smith are a mismatched group. And the question of whether women "should" write about sex is misleading: It depends on the woman, and how well she writes. But, however you feel about straight women's dating memoirs (or the fact that dating memoirs by not-so-straight women, like Michelle Tea, often don't receive prominently unfavorable coverage, but zero prominent coverage), the fact remains that Mapplethorpe's worries for Smith were not terribly misplaced. The coverage of Just Kids has largely been reverential—whether because it is a book by a woman which focuses on a man's sexuality and genius, because it is a book by Patti Smith, or because it is in fact a good book.Yet Smith's reserve throughout—she has no idea what this "androgynous" label is about, she swears!—is uncharacteristic, and a bit disappointing.

In fact, the liminal, boundary-testing sexual terrain of Just Kids is shared with Smith's debut record, Horses. The songs seem far more comfortable there. The album opens with "Gloria," one of the more famously homoerotic covers in rock, and peaks with the epic, polymorphously perverse "Land." Johnny starts out in the hallway, drinking a glass of tea; nine minutes and 26 seconds later, he's been penetrated by another boy, himself (via knife), and Patti Smith. "I put my hand into his cranium," she sighs. It sounds filthy. Elsewhere, she can feel Johnny hardening in her hand; Johnny lays there in his sperm; the angel looks down at him and says, "pretty boy, can't you show me nothing but surrender?"

Smith apparently didn't heed Mapplethorpe's advice for her music. Yet it's impossible to imagine this work existing without him. (Or Smith's idols, Rimbaud and Genet, who got there first.) It's strange that Just Kids goes into such detail about Mapplethorpe's sexuality while sharing so little about Smith's—as if, out of love, she's ceding him the privilege of being the sexual iconoclast. They both deserve the title; it's worth wearing with pride. But for access to the unfiltered erotics of Patti Smith, you have to go into the messy, screaming, ecstatic whirl of her songs.