Most of my essays start with a text message: “Hey, do you mind if I write about you for my blog?”
What I’m really asking runs the gamut from hey, do you mind if I write about our not-quite-relationship that defies definition but makes me feel all giddy to hey, do you mind if I write about that time we had sex on a softball field. Regardless of the severity of the topic at hand, if the person I am texting says it isn’t okay with them, I don’t publish the post. Even if it pains me not to do it, even if I’m dying to dive into the smutty, witty details, I let it go. No arguing, no nudging, no overruling. They consented to having sex with me, but they didn’t consent to me writing about it.
We talk a lot about consensual sex, and we should. Despite it being a relatively simple concept, we do not yet live in a world where explicit consent is understood as mandatory. The already thriving conversation about consent is nowhere near enough. But we talk a lot less about consent in sex writing, or consenting to being written about by a sexual partner. If we talk about it at all, it’s usually in livid emails or barbed Twitter DMs, from a place of defensiveness and pain as opposed to open and thoughtful reflection.
The erotica and sex writing communities have a knee-jerk reaction against what we perceive as limits being placed on our work. We are wary of being silenced by publishers, social networks and academia. Wondering out loud about the responsibility we have for our work—as authors, as educators, or as lovers—is sometimes perceived as censorship at the hands of peers.
To make matters even more complicated, survivors of abuse and assault are often silenced when we try to write about our experiences. Even if we do not use names, details, or accuse in any way, fear of retribution has a chilling effect. Consent in sex writing can be as political, pained, and difficult as it is in actual sex.
A year ago, I published an essay on this blog called “Everything I Know About Sex Writing, I Learned From Taylor Swift.” Inspired by the pop icon’s new album and her reputation for writing songs about her exes, I thought about my own rules for writing publically about my partners. Putting words to how men treat you can be a powerful feminist act, and what men find appealing about me at the beginning of a relationship (“omg she writes about sex”) seems threatening at the end of it (“You aren’t allowed to write about this”). But there’s a reason people talk about the pen and the sword, and writing to hurt is inherently selfish and unfair, no matter how much someone may have hurt you first. Last fall, I laid out cautious guidelines for myself, then a writer at the beginning of her career with a limited audience. I wouldn’t use real names or identifying details, and I would respect my partner’s privacy and comfort level. I would tell the truth. Most importantly, I wouldn’t write to hurt.
Six months later, my first piece for Women’s Health went viral. An essay that I’d expected a few thousand people to read reached many more than that. I had written several drafts, scrapping one entirely because my ex-boyfriend was uncomfortable being included, and I produced an essay featuring a less reserved partner. People figured out who he was, but he was oddly zen about it, maybe even pleased. I had done my due diligence and abided by my rules, and as a result I could stand by the piece with pride as it took over the Internet.
In the following months, my audience grew and demand rose for more of my story. I became aware that anyone who had dated me could have their reputation tainted ever so slightly the more I wrote. It’s one thing to be involved with someone who has an STI, and an entirely different thing to have everyone know your ex had genital herpes for the full duration of your relationship. So I had some tough conversations. How much, if any, can I write about you in my work? Are you okay with your parents reading about me in the Washington Post? Do you want to participate in my project in the form of an interview? Are you okay with this? Occasionally: Are you proud of me?
I also needed to have a conversation with myself about which was more important: my writing or my relationships. At twenty-three years old, writing is my first priority, and I now make choices that support it. I can’t date someone who is uncomfortable with our relationship being, on some level, political. It’ll only lead to their boundaries being violated, and that’s on me. I communicate with exes and current partners about how I think of the work I’m doing and what role they want to play in it… thus the text messages, and the regular check-ins, and the up front conversations on first dates. An ex saying he’s comfortable with one piece doesn’t mean I have free rein to write about us forever, and if that blog post comes back to haunt him later, I take it down. I do what I can to respect my goals in tandem with the men who have supported them. It’s an ongoing conversation with them and with myself.
But then there was another layer of complication: what about the ex I no longer spoke to, could no longer speak to, because to do so put me at risk? Was I willing to write about how he treated me? When can you ethically press publish without asking for permission?
I didn’t know. So I slept on it, for a night, and then a week, and then a few more weeks. I went slowly and asked for advice. I consulted a lawyer (okay, a law student, but still). Mostly I asked myself why I wanted to write about him at all. It wasn’t about revenge, or exposing him. Despite the cataclysmic, abusive reality of our relationship, I still struggle with a deeply ingrained urge to protect him. And writing about him was part of my healing process, but I could write privately, for myself, to the same effect. It wasn’t about what was in it for me.
I can and will continue to write for myself. My feelings only make sense to me when I find words for them, and writing as therapy and empowerment is vital. I would never say that you shouldn’t write about what hurts; I’d urge you to do so. That’s the advice I give everyone who comes to me upset and alone: find the words for what you are feeling. Buy a pretty journal, or open a word document, or sketch it out on your bedroom wall, whatever medium works best for you. There is nothing wrong with writing to love and protect yourself.
But I publish for other people, because you can’t go public just to process. Every time I put an essay online, my motivation needs to be external. A year ago I promised I would never write to hurt, but that’s not good enough for me anymore. If I’m going to publish a piece, it can’t just have no negative impact: it should have a positive one. It should improve the life of whoever reads it by offering them new perspective or making them feel understood.
As I see it, to write about someone who has explicitly told you not to is a serious violation of trust. As soon as you share a piece against the will of its subject, the relationship is damaged. Sometimes that’s a good thing. In my case, the bridge had been burned years before I wrote about it, and not with my gasoline. But sometimes, if this is a person you still have feelings for, someone you want in your life, it’s a selfish mistake. It tells them that their comfort is not important to you. It tells them that you cannot keep a secret. It tells them that your self-expression and career mean more than the relationship does. Writing about a partner without their consent is the end of something.
Since I started writing about my experience with emotional abuse, I have received hundreds of messages from other women who have gone through something similar. Often they send me long, long emails with their whole story, told breathlessly, because I am the first they have shared it with. Those emails are how I know I made the right choice. But it’s a choice I make over and over again, never easily and never quickly.
Regularly thinking through my own goals and rules helps me hold myself accountable for what I write and how it impacts the people in my life. I’d love to hear how other sex writers (and feminist writers, and trauma writers, and so forth) think about consent in their work too. How do you talk to your partners about your work, and what helps you make those tough calls? What role does anonymity play in keeping the people we love safe? And, most importantly, when do you get sole custody of your story when it is woven so tightly through someone else’s?
Recommended reading: On Writing About Sex in the New York Times