Everything I Know About Sex Writing I Learned From Taylor Swift

A couple years ago, I was sleeping with this guy. At nineteen I had yet to realize that what I actually wanted was a relationship, and with whom I wanted this relationship to be was even less clear. I also had yet to realize that what my partner wanted was a no fuss, no muss arrangement, whom with being largely irrelevant.

Our hookup-relationship was fully consensual but poorly communicated, and rock bottom arrived as I waited in the snow for him to let me into his dorm, unaware his cellphone had died. I shivered in the freezing cold, dressed for seduction and not warmth, and wondered what the fuck I was doing. My doubts aside, I hung around at least another week until he broke things off on Facebook chat, declaring we wouldn’t be having sex anymore because he was “done with it.” Ouch.

Mortified, hurt, and incensed, I started writing. I wrote the most scathing account of his behavior that I could muster, getting personal about each and every inadequacy I could think of (both the legitimate and invented). My inner critic came out in full, furious force. It didn’t help that I was in the depth of my “the personal is political” feminist theory phase, imagining every slight as indicative of some larger patriarchal conspiracy. I didn’t consider my own complicity in getting hurt, that I had become attached to someone who was honest about only wanting something physical. I thought he was pure asshole, and I wrote it all down in a malicious tirade.

I don’t regret writing it. What I regret is posting it on Tumblr. I didn’t include his name and I never intended for him to read it; making it public was not some act of revenge. I was proud of how bitingly unremorseful I’d been, feeling as though I had reclaimed some of the power I lost when he blew me off. Too preoccupied with my self-involvement, I forgot that one of his best friends followed my blog. The rest of the story is scorched earth.

I never did get up the courage to apologize. I’d written to hurt and I’d succeeded—it was irrelevant whether or not I had meant to. He later warned a guy not to date me because, “Ella Dawson will write shit about you on the Internet.” In all fairness, he had a point.

I’ll be honest, I used to hate Taylor Swift. From her angelic blonde curls to her flowing white dresses to her slut shaming of other women, her early years were everything I didn’t want to be as a teenager. Baby Taylor was the Perfect Girl. Baby Ella was decidedly not. I spent high school hitting on boys, reading feminist pop culture magazines, and talking about sex at every opportunity (even though I didn’t actually lose my virginity until college). I considered Taylor Swift the enemy and sneered at her for only writing about boys and happy endings and how misunderstood she was… while in notebooks I only wrote about boys and happy endings and how misunderstood I was.

And then I went to college, and then Red happened, and then I started to say I didn’t like Taylor Swift but… in much the same way she was starting to say I’m not a feminist but… Red saw me through the first real breakup of my life, and I ran loops around my hometown listening to “Holy Ground.” When Taylor Swift started hanging out with other vocally feminist celebrities, my hopes started to rise. And then aha! Taylor realized she had been a feminist all along.

tumblr_ne7oleWDvJ1rhfiuuo1_500And now there is 1989. Spiky, lush, retro 1989, unapologetic in its glitz and nerve. Listening to “Blank Space” for the first time wasn’t a joyful experience—it was validating. Because I finally got it. I finally got her, battling to control her own image with the media since her career began, saying I know how you see me and I can use that. Taylor Swift, who dated a few too many celebrities and became a punch line, who wrote about it and milked it in every teasing liner note and lyric. Taylor Swift, who wrote for herself and let the headlines write themselves. Maybe she’s a marketing savvy opportunist, or maybe she’s a woman who has fallen for men over and over again and written to figure that shit out. Realistically speaking she is probably somewhere in the middle, and that’s cool.

In an interview with The Sunday Times UK, Taylor Swift describes “Blank Space” as follows: “I had been thinking a lot about how the media has created this complex, fictionalized cartoon version of me, you know, this man-eating, jet-setting serial dater who reels them in, but scares them off because she’s clingy and needy; then she’s all dejected, so she goes into her lair and writes a song as a weapon. I mean, man, that’s pretty intense. And I started thinking about what an interesting character that person is. And, if I was that person, what would my life motto be, my mantra? What would I say? I think I’d own it.”

“Blank Space” is Taylor at her most self-aware, a wonderfully biting track about the next lover to romance her and end up in a vicious pop song. It is also the retrospective soundtrack of several of my failed relationships. I listened to it for the first time while walking my dog around my neighborhood and found my mind thrown into music video mode, reliving highlights of a toxic summer fling spilling across the streets of Manhattan. “Oh my god, look at that face/You look like my next mistake… New money, suit and tie/I can read you like a magazine/Ain’t it funny, rumors fly/And I know you heard about me.” It is the theme song of Taylor’s alter ego, and it is also the theme song of mine.

“Got a long list of ex-lovers/They’ll tell you I’m insane/But I’ve got a blank space, baby/And I’ll write your name.”

I have always written about my exes. Fiction, nonfiction, published or in journals, if I’ve ever been attracted to you I guarantee there is at least a sentence if not a Moleskine notebook of proof. The men of my life are woven through my writing and vice versa. I’ll always be grateful to my high school sweetheart who somehow found it exceptional that some 15-year-old had written what was basically fan fiction about how cute he was. Instead of calling me a freak, he told me I was talented and went so far as to read everything I have written as long as we’ve known each other. With him, as well as with the men who followed, love was about the constant struggle to find the right words.

The same could be said for pain. My next love was marked by pain more than anything else, and I wrote over 200 pages in six months about every fight, every fuck, every lie and every perfect kiss. When this love finally morphed into complex and fraught hatred, I wrote about that too. I had to write about it, to understand, to heal. To forgive myself for falling in love in the first place. I didn’t write publicly about it for years out of fear and shame, terrified he would show up at my dorm, and then at my apartment, and then at my office. For the record he never has. And now I don’t feel bad about having clicked ‘publish.’ After all, he was warned not to date me.

tumblr_ne8drntiw21rhfiuuo1_500For a long time I would use my position as a sex writer to make myself appealing to men. Being the editor of my college’s sex magazine was a go-to pickup line. But eventually I discovered this was a double-edged sword, framing me in a sexual light before someone could get to know me for who I am. Telling someone I am a sex writer can easily reduce me to just sex depending on the guy. And it’s ironic when I think about it because the majority of my writing is about love and not sex, or at least about the complicated relationship between the two. For a man to find me truly attractive for my writing, he needs to actually read it. Otherwise he just likes the concept.

And what makes me sexy at first turns into a threat if a relationship ends poorly. “You aren’t allowed to write about this,” an ex told me snidely during a breakup, maybe seeing the words already forming in my wrists as he called me an emotional burden on the steps of the New York Public Library (at least you are a real New Yorker now). Apparently I was only allowed to write about him when it was flattering to his ego, when it made him feel important and somehow immortal.

I discovered that a woman who writes about the way she is treated, and who dares to quote men when they say something shitty, is public enemy number one. Being unafraid to put pen to paper can be a feminist act, a rebellion, a way of holding accountable the assholes we might fall in love with against our better judgement. So that woman is reduced to a string of gossip rag puppets: a psycho bitch, an attention whore. She is dangerous, and she needs to be made pathetic.

When asked what she thinks of being accused of only writing about boyfriends, Taylor Swift is quick to call bullshit. “Frankly, I think that’s a very sexist angle to take. No one says that about Ed Sheeran. No one says that about Bruno Mars. They’re all writing songs about their exes, their current girlfriends, their love lives, and no one is raising a red flag there.”

tumblr_ne32xdmxAH1trmgxmo1_500Taylor also writes about friendship, about her new best friend New York City, about feelin’ twenty-two. 1989 treads familiar emotional ground—exes, romantic gestures in the rain, mysterious snowmobile accidents—but she also belts about being a new type of romantic. Her “New Romantics” is jaded and reckless and focused on now. “Heartbreak is the national anthem, we sing it proudly/We are too busy dancing to get knocked off our feet.”

The relationship tracks are probably about Harry Styles, and the angry girl revenge song “Bad Blood” is rumored to be about Katy Perry. Taylor’s days of dropping hints about her muses are hardly over, especially considering she named one of the songs “Style.” Real subtle, Tay. But she is growing as an artist, and I love that she’s human. I love that she’s learning and sharing and discovering her politics. I understand that a brand doesn’t change overnight. Even if 1989 is still a treasure-trove of relationship rumors, it reads like a story. The liner notes are fictional as opposed to the usual scavenger hunt of identities. It’s a healthy, productive shift in the right direction, an expansion of who Taylor is and what she has to offer us.

When I finally fell in deep, honest love with a man who became more like a partner than a boyfriend, I faced a dilemma. How could I respect that relationship and at the same time pursue this whole new career as a sex writer? I asked him what was fair game as subject material, and there was a long, uncomfortable pause before he told me to just use my judgment. I erred on the side of caution, not only because I wanted to respect his privacy but also because it felt wrong to share what we had. Real love needed to be protected at all costs. Instead I wrapped it tenderly in prose almost poetic, and I wrote it just for us.

tumblr_ne8hcxIlGi1reuk41o1_500It is easier now that I am single to know what I want to share with the world and what I don’t. I expect Taylor feels the same now that she has sworn off relationships for the time being. We are both exploring New York, making it our next great love, and it is easier to stay true to myself and to my career when I do not have to factor in the boundaries of others. But I have constructed some guidelines from lessons learned, some standards of practice when it comes to balancing my personal and professional lives.

My rules are as follows: I use no real names unless the person in question has given their full consent. I avoid any recognizable details, like a birthmark or a particular brand of cologne. I respect a partner’s comfort level and privacy unless he does something truly unforgivable, in which case fuck that guy. But I do not write to hurt, ever, no matter what. I write to tell the truth, at least the version of it that I know.

I can’t speak for Taylor. As much as I project myself onto her, we aren’t much alike. She is on an international stage inspiring love and loathing in the hearts of billions while I’m an upstart writer with a blog. But I’m sure she has put much more thought into her rules than I have, and like mine I’m sure hers change too. That’s all I ask of an artist at the end of the day: that they think. That they take responsibility for the work they create, whether that work is erotica or this year’s first album to go platinum. Taylor does that.

So welcome to New York, Taylor. I’ve been waiting for an artist like you.

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

20 thoughts on “Everything I Know About Sex Writing I Learned From Taylor Swift

  1. Once again I am struck by how eloquently you get your point across. Your writing is such a pleasure to read. I wish I had even half your talent.

    Gorgeous piece. 🙂

    HGG. xx

  2. worrddddd. thanks for sharing.
    im reading this and feeling oh so validated…recently i wrote a zine all about exes/ppl i used to be into and i felt SO self-conscious about putting it out because i was like “why would a feminist like me need to write a zine all about her exes? that is so typical” or whatever. but i really DID need to write it, and giving myself permission to do so was absolutely a “feminist move” (if you wanna call it that) because i was letting myself tell these stories my way, the way *I* felt them and not conceiving of myself and these relationships through how those men regarded me.

  3. “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” ~ Ernest Hemingway
    I can’t claim to always achieve this but I do try… I think as a writer you have to share the pain and the crap but also the joy. For me it is about truth, being truthful to me, even when that is ugly or challenging


  4. Ella, this made me cry. I too, made the same mistake at the start – I used my blog as a way of communicating with the guy I was seeing, but only with regards to the things that frustrated, hurt or damn well pissed me off. Eventually he called time on the whole thing, citing the blog as proof that I wasn’t happy. It hadn’t occurred to me to write about the good stuff, or maybe I was scared of writing about the good stuff in case it somehow jinxed the whole thing. You know already that I love your writing, so I won’t keep fangirling here, but it’s such a relief to read that there are other girls who write the hell of their relationships. Beautiful.

      1. Don’t take this the wrong way, but boys write about their relationships too. Just… not all boys. Or they’re not as open about it as they could/should/would be.

        I loved the post. As much as it galls me to say so, I kind of like Taylor too.

  5. Jesus Christ. Read Jane Austen, Virginia woolf, Sylvia Plath(keeping in mind she was a nutjob). Joan didion. I truly feel sorry for the younger generations who think taylor swift has anything to offer other than pop tunes for tweens.

    1. I have read Jane Austen, Virgina Woolf, Joan Didion, and Sylvia Plath. I’ve also read a dozen of Shakespeare’s plays, most of the American classics, and work for one of the most prominent educational nonprofits in the world. Don’t feel sorry for my generation. We don’t need your pity.

      1. Well if you think taylor swift or Lena Dunham have any new insight worth talking about, you may not need it but your generation certainly is deserving of it.

        1. Hi there Wilson. Here’s the thing. Culture keeps moving forward. As such, influencers change and just because they happen to speak in a way or on subjects that you don’t feel have value, does not, in fact, make them valueless. Yes, Austen, Didion, Woolf and Plath continue to tower as intellectual and creative figures, but that does not mean that there isn’t room for the dialogue and thought that comes from newer mouths. Personally, I’ve heard all of one song by Taylor Swift. I’m in my mid-30’s, I have two MA’s and a healthy, healthy respect for the Western canon and 20th century critical thought, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to dismiss what resonates with a younger generation. It means I’m going to listen to more Taylor Swift.

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