Search Results for: Orgasm

The Non-Mysteries of the Female Orgasm

“My initial forays into oral sex were a crutch, a way of compensating for my sexual inadequacies, and they were approached with the assumption that cunnilingus was a poor man’s second to the joys and splendors of ‘real sex’–like many, I took it for granted that intercourse was the ‘right way’ for couples to experience orgasms. But, to my surprise, I discovered that the ‘way of the tongue’ was by no means inferior to intercourse; if anything, it was superior, in many cases the only way in which women were able to receive the persistent, rhythmic stimulation, outside of masturbation, necessary to achieve an orgasm. I quickly learned that oral sex is real sex, and later in life, when I happened to come across a copy of the seminal Hite Report on Female Sexuality, I was reassured to find that women consider oral sex to be ‘one of their most favorite and exciting activities; women mentioned over and over how much they loved it.’ When it comes to pleasure, there is no right or wrong way to have an orgasm–the only thing that’s wrong is to assume that women need or value them any less than men do.”

-From She Comes First: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pleasuring a Woman, by Ian Kerner, Ph.D.. Read more in the Longreads Archive.

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Photo: ranieldiaz, Flickr

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The Future of the Orgasm Industry

Longreads Pick

Nitasha Tiku goes inside the world of OneTaste, a San Francisco company dedicated to the practice of “orgasmic meditation,” or OM:

“I first heard about OneTaste in March, at a breakfast meeting with a venture capitalist who had newly moved to New York from San Francisco. She hadn’t felt compelled to try it herself, but she had a friend who worked at OneTaste, who would OM if she was nervous before a big meeting. They had lingo for the men who’d perfected the craft: ‘Master stroker—that’s what it’s called!’

“Genital stimulation in a professional context seemed transgressive, even for hippie-hedonist San Francisco. Her friend, Joanna Van Vleck—who is now OneTaste’s president—met me in June when she was in New York. ‘We don’t OM, like, right in the office,’ Van Vleck explained. But she said, ‘If we have employee problems, we’re like, let’s OM together. Yeah, if two people have a discrepancy, we say: OM together!'”

Source: Gawker
Published: Oct 18, 2013
Length: 32 minutes (8,147 words)

For the Thirsty Girl

Getty

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | April 2019 | 9 minutes (2,387 words)

“She’s got the nerve to say / She wants to fuck that boy so badly.” These are the lyrics to the titular track from Third Eye Blind’s 2003 album Out of the Vein (stay with me). They are written by Stephan Jenkins, who has admitted his three-year relationship with Charlize Theron acted as inspiration. Whether or not that particular song is about her, one thing is clear: Charlize Theron knows she wants to fuck a specific boy, even if she is uncertain who that boy is. “I’ve been single for ten years, it’s not a long shot,” she said recently in some interview, dorkily referencing the title of her new film, which is about a presidential hopeful who falls for Seth Rogen (why not?). “Somebody just needs to grow a pair and step up.”

Charlize Theron is thirsty. That surprises people. And by people, I mean me. How is it possible that Charlize Theron has to desire at all, considering she is so desired herself? (Doesn’t one negate the other?) You could sense an army of unworthy men clutching their collective pearls in response to her statement. That this statuesque blond with the kind of face you only see carved out of marble not only has to, God forbid, ask for it, but that she can speak like a sailor about it, shatters the pristine image of beauty — no wants, no desires — she otherwise projects. Theron’s words jolted us back to her humanity. The balls she asked for were the balls to approach her with desire, knowing that she has the power not to desire in return. Charlize Theron is dictating the expression of her thirst, but also the man who is worthy of it.

If the original iteration of “thirst” was a plunging desperation, this one is an uplifting affirmation. NPR traced its root, “thirst trap,” back to 2011; but Jezebel actually defined the singular “thirst” first in 2014, as lust “for sex, for fame, for approval. It’s unseemly striving for an unrealistic goal, or an unnecessary amount of praise.” This was the definition picked up in 2017 by The New York Times Magazine, imbuing thirst with negativity. But in the intervening years, women got a hold of it. These women, objects for so long within an atmosphere of men’s ambient lust, emerged to twist thirst from a cloying wish into full-bodied desire. Out of the wreckage of male toxicity, they used thirst to mark the men who remained worthy. There’s a reason Theron is still single — few men can step up. What’s more, in a world run by female desire, some are terrified of being left unwanted if they do.

* * *

It’s hard to get a clear picture of female desire across a history mostly seen through the male gaze, afflicted as it was with the rare myopia that focuses only on the virgin and the whore. So you had virtuous, prim, usually classier orderly women who were worth marrying, and sinful, messy, gutter-dwelling hysterics who were worth a quick screw, and that’s it. If a woman expressed desire and wasn’t faking it for money, she was a deranged man-eater, like a witch or a harpy. Men’s lust was natural, women’s was the most unnatural. Eventually, fandom offered a means of escape. “While it was risky for individual women to lose control or to surrender to passion, there could be safety in numbers,” wrote Carol Dyhouse in Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire. So women swooned all over the place for Franz Liszt in the mid-19th century before having a collective orgasm over Vaslav Nijinsky, then Rudolph Valentino — the first man (the first person) for whom the word “sexy” was deemed worthy of use. What these men had in common was fluidity — of gender, of sexuality, of race. “I hate [him],” cartoonist Dick Dorgan wrote of Valentino. “The women are all dizzy over him.” Real men hated this new masculine ideal because real women wanted it and they couldn’t deliver. So they took sexy back. The Hays Code put women who wanted sex in movie jail and in their place installed women with whom men wanted to have sex.

The new “sexy” icon became Marilyn Monroe, described by Molly Haskell (From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies) as “the lie that a woman has no sexual needs, that she is there to cater to, or enhance, a man’s needs.” It is a meandering but fairly unbroken line from Monroe to reality star and one-time child bride Courtney Stodden, who has not only physically fashioned herself into her idol, but also appears as troubled. In a recent interview with BuzzFeed, the now 24-year-old pitied her boyfriend for not cashing in on his expectations. “He thought he was going to get in a relationship with this hot young celebrity who’s all sexual and fun,” she said. “He gets in there and I don’t have sex, I’m a mess, and I’m crazy.” So, not really much change from the original dichotomy, the one which limits big-busted babes like her, like Kim Kardashian-West, to conduits for sex. The latter can launch her career off a sex tape, while Jennifer Lawrence, the slapstick virginal non-bottle blonde, can almost be undone by a couple of photos. And forget being a woman who has sex with more than one man; Kristen Stewart had to apologize publicly for that, forced to do a glorified perp walk in a world where husbands have had mistresses longer than Edward Cullen has been undead.

Almost every article I read about female sexuality cited Freud — specifically his inability to figure out what women want. It says a lot that on this subject we are still deferring to a psychoanalyst who predates women’s liberation. It served men like Freud and those who followed him to theorize that women had a lower sex drive (unproven and kind of the opposite), were more romantic than randy (unproven and kind of the opposite), because it meant women could not use men for sex the way men used women. Yet, as Psychology Today reported back in 2013, “If women believe that they will not be harmed and that the sex will be good, their willingness to engage in casual sex equals that of men.” Relax, bros, rape culture keeps that in check. “It is anti-sex and anti-pleasure,” writes Laurie Penny. “It teaches us to deny our own desire as an adaptive strategy for surviving a sexist world.” And now you can stop relaxing; since women have begun dismantling that world, they have also begun releasing their desire — these days better known as thirst.

Some men think the objectification of women has simply turned into women’s objectification of men, but that’s not what thirst is: Where the male gaze limits women to the flesh, the female gaze fleshes men out. Famous guys provide an aspirational model, with women filling in the holes with their wants, showing real guys how to enhance themselves to satisfy women like Charlize.

We have women of color to thank for pushing men to meet us halfway. Their brand of lady thirst went mainstream in 2017, the year ELLE announced “the Golden Age of Thirst Journalism,” and BuzzFeed got celebrities to read “thirst tweets” — their fans’ horny messages — and launched the “Thirst Aid Kit” podcast. That show centered on the famous crushes of hosts Bim Adewunmi and Nichole Perkins, from established hunks like Chris Evans to pensive actors of color like John Cho. “We are two straight black women talking about lust and desire and sexuality,” Adewunmi told Salon last year, “and all these expressions of humanity [are] not something that has traditionally been given to black women.” In their wake, black Canadian writer Kyrell Grant quietly articulated the concept of “big dick energy” (in reference to recently deceased chef Anthony Bourdain). “It’s a phrase I’d used with friends to refer to guys who aren’t that great but for whatever reason you still find attractive,” she wrote in The Guardian. But while black women are stereotyped for being game, they aren’t expected to set the rules. The Cut sought to profit off the term without crediting Grant, effectively muting her, though it was writer Hunter Harris whose desire was more directly silenced.

Vulture’s resident thirst critic — “i have something adam can drive” — was suspended by Twitter last week amid protests by fellow writers. “JUSTICE FOR HUNTER HARRIS, a thirst maestro and one of the funniest people on this hellsite,” Alanna Bennett tweeted. I DM’d Harris for the details of her suspension and she told me that a photographer had issued a copyright complaint about an image she used last summer in a tweet on the “secret romance” between Rihanna and Leonardo DiCaprio (she can’t remember the exact words and, because Twitter removed it, she can’t check). Around the same time that this happened, Quinn Hough, the editor of a tiny online film and music publication, Vague Visages, went viral (in a bad way) after pulling a strong anti-thirst stance on Twitter. The tweet in question has since been deleted, but Hough told me via email that he’d written “a poorly worded thread after seeing tweets from young critics that I thought were excessive and wouldn’t necessarily be acceptable in a professional environment.”

With women being the ones who thirst tweet most visibly, Hough’s comments were interpreted as an attempt to police women’s desire. “I just get very angry at any kind of sex-shaming because I’ve been told my whole life that if I express sexual desire, I’m a slut or dirty,” Danielle Ryan tweeted in response. “It really comes across differently to women.” While Hough’s site may be small, he still acts as a gatekeeper in the world of criticism, a conduit to larger more established outlets. His discrimination against what appeared to be young female writers, was a microcosm of a wider systemic double standard, particularly when he claimed, “Critics can say anything they want, but expressing sexual desire for subjects will minimize their chances for a staff position somewhere.”

This is where Hunter Harris resurfaces. The simultaneous timing of her suspension with the Vague Visages pile-on acted as a trigger for women accustomed to being muted, turning a copyright notice into a symbol of the suppression of black women’s desire. Meanwhile, other Twitter users expressed their delight at Harris’s expulsion. “It’s sad that @vulture encouraged her psychosis, but will probably be looking to dump her, now that @hunteryharris got her twitter account suspended,” wrote one guy who goes by Street Poetics (“PhD in These Streets”). A man he referenced in that same tweet, Jurg Bajiour, responded, “It’s true. @hunteryharris seemed to want to show me that it was *her job* to endlessly horny-tweet about actors.” (Harris denies this).

The missives were rich considering male film critics readily maintain staff positions despite waving around their boners in their actual reviews. “I didn’t miss Lynda Carter’s buxom, apple-cheeked pinup,” New York’s David Edelstein wrote in his Wonder Woman review. You may remember him also writing of Harry Potter, “prepubescent Watson is absurdly alluring,” in a review that originally appeared in Slate in 2001 and resurfaced after his Wonder Woman hard-on. Compare this to famously thirsty film critic Pauline Kael, whose books boast titles like I Lost It at the Movies and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: “There is a thick, raw sensuality that some adolescents have which seems almost preconscious. In Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta has this rawness to such a degree that he seems naturally exaggerated.” There is a lot of sex here, but Kael is not the subject, Travolta not the object, and it layers rather than reduces. In fact, Female Film Critics’ Twitter poll on critical thirst — “What do you think of ‘thirst’ in film criticism?” — which followed the Vague Visages controversy, attracted 468 votes with a runaway 44 percent responding, “A grand tradition (Kael!)” Still, Hunter Harris admits she felt odd being erroneously credited as its icon. “i dont want to be like a martyr for the horny cause lmao,” she told me via DM, “but it is very nice that ppl are defensive of woc being openly desirous !”

* * *

While thirst is most common in the field of Hollywood celebrity — ground zero for idolatry — it has recently moved into politics, a place where masculinity has increasingly become a bone of contention. At one time we thirsted for Justin Trudeau’s “it’s 2019” yoga moves; more recently that thirst turned toward an emo crossdressing Beto. “Ojeda and Avenatti as candidates are like the guy who thinks good sex is pumping away while you’re making a grocery list in your head wondering when he’ll be done,” political analyst Leah McElrath tweeted in November 2018. “O’Rourke is like the guy who is all sweet and nerdy but holds you down and makes you cum until your calves cramp.” While politicians have an extensive history of abusing their positions for their own sexual gratification, this explicit dispatch from the beltway still left a number of us open-mouthed. Yet this is where we are — in the context of a presidency rife with toxic masculinity oft expressed in terms of sexual harassment, good sex acts as an analogy for progressive politics.

Over the past couple of years, women have also elected Noah Centineo, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeff Goldblum, and Mahershala Ali as worthy of their thirst. Like the men who have historically inflamed female desire, they represent an aspirational form of masculinity, one which counteracts the retrograde misogyny trumpeted by the president. The thirst women express for these men’s physical form is informed by the men’s insides as much as their outsides. And the strongest men do not shrink at the prospect of not measuring up, but adapt the way women always have. In this new world, on the red carpet for their shared movie, Long Shot, Charlize Theron’s Alexander McQueen gown is matched by Seth Rogen’s Prada suit. “I was highly aware I was going to be standing next to Charlize for a lot of pictures,” Rogen said at the time. “I always have that image in my head of Beyoncé next to Ed Sheeran in a T-shirt, and I don’t want that.” Finally, it’s no longer about what a guy wants.

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

MACHO: On Black Holes, and the Fantasies of Men

Illustration by Nicole Xu

Frances Dodds | Longreads | April 2019 | 23 minutes (5636 words)

I’d responded to the Author’s anonymous posting on Craigslist, and when I showed up to the interview, I still didn’t know who I’d be speaking with. I was 23, in grad school in New York, piecing together my rent with odd jobs. The month before, I’d replied to an equally opaque Craigslist ad and found myself wobbling over cobblestones in stilettos, club promoting for a man known to the Meatpacking District only as “Doc.” Doc had informed me that I was an “8” among regular girls, but in club world I was only a “4,” given my 5-foot-3-inch stature. He wondered: Did I have many girlfriends over 5-foot-11 I could bring around? They didn’t need to be actual models, just tall enough to be mistaken for models by drunk men from across dark, strobe-lit rooms. I needed a new job.

The Author shuffled into our interview at his Upper East Side apartment, his velvet slippers whispering against the Oriental rugs. He was pushing 80, a small man with bushy white eyebrows and a bulbous nose that pressed flat against his face. He had a full, pouty lower lip and a thin upper lip that curled under when he smiled.

The Author had been a staff writer at an iconic American magazine for three decades and had written a remarkable number of books, mostly memoirs. He’d been blind since early childhood, and while his is surely a story of overcoming great odds, the Author was notorious for his poor treatment of assistants. He actually alluded to this in our interview, telling me there were some unsavory rumors out there and not to believe a word of them. I was dubious but desperate for money. And there was a small part of me that hoped he’d softened with age. Or maybe that he’d sense some unfulfilled potential in me. That he’d treat me with the care one gives to a rare find — plucked from the detritus at a yard sale, snubbed by foolish bygone handlers.

The Author, his wife, and their two adult daughters went to their house on an island off the New England coast every August, and I was expected to go along. The only way onto the island was a 20-minute ferry ride from the nearest seaside town. One road ran through most of the 14-mile island, a hamlet of spruce tree forests and rolling pastures. The island was a private sanctuary for the Northeast’s inconspicuous elite, and on the drive from the ferry station, mansions flickered through the trees. The Author’s house was at the end of a short, wooded drive. He’d built it in the ’80s, with the help of a Modernist architect who’d designed a few New York skyscrapers. By the island’s standards, the house wasn’t sprawling or flashy, but it was distinctively lovely, perched on an embankment above the frigid harbor. Down the hill toward the beach was a pool and a pool house, tucked into an alcove of trees. Past the pool, a pathway cut through high grass and down to the rocky beachfront. I stayed in a spare basement bedroom, with a window that looked out onto the harbor. Their cook, a Brazilian woman in her 80s, slept in a room adjacent to mine.

It didn’t take long to realize that my presence was more a thing to be tolerated than embraced by the family. I wasn’t asked many questions about my life aside from those necessitated by politeness. And to be fair, I can’t imagine what it would be like for your most intimate family memories to include a revolving cast of paid help, always on their way somewhere else. Anyway, it seemed like I was mainly there to enable the Author’s wife and daughters not to be there, so he and I were often alone. My job title was “editorial assistant,” though the only editorial skill required was basic literacy. I read the New York Times aloud to the Author every morning, then we perused headlines from The Guardian. Then we responded to his emails, of which there were generally few of note. Then there was lunch, his nap, a walk, and an afternoon activity. Aside from the nap, we did everything together.
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Of Safe Words and the Sacred

Getty / Collage by Katie Kosma

Britni de la Cretaz | Longreads | March 2019 | 12 minutes (2,913 words)

Step 3: Made a decision to turn our lives and our will over to the care of God as we understood him.

In the throes of passion, it’s not unusual to cry out for the Heavenly Father. Bodily pleasure, the agonizing ecstasy of orgasm, can feel like prayer — a communication with the divine, a gift from somewhere beyond this realm. Sex is one of the most primally human experiences, but when it’s good, it can feel otherworldly.

In AA’s Big Book, they say that having a spiritual experience in recovery will rocket you into “the fourth dimension of existence.”

I thought I’d already been to that dimension: consensually tied up and flogged in a hotel room, the red splotches spreading across my ass and thighs — precursors to the bruising that would splatter my backside like a Jackson Pollock painting in the days to come. I thought I’d found heaven in the place between the agony of the whip and the ecstacy of His fingers finding my wetness. He called me demeaning names and degraded me in all the right ways; I was happy to do anything He asked.

I did not believe in God, but I believed in surrendering my body and my will to this man. Surely, He would save me.
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Barely There

Getty / Collage by Katie Kosma

Jennifer Baker | Longreads | March 2019 | 16 minutes (4,059 words)

 

Before things begin, Eliza and I share the normal pleasantries on the way to her room. She takes her leave soon after we enter, granting me privacy while I undress. The room is equipped with familiar items: cotton balls/swabs, gauze, tongue depressors. Like in a doctor’s office, there’s a cushy table covered with paper for me to lie on. Unlike the office of a medical professional, there’s wax heating that’s azure in color, molasses in texture, along with a paper thong in the middle of the table. There’s also mood music. A kind of subdued instrumental flows in the air.

***

Nair is pungent and medicinal, reminding me of the funk of a relaxer but even more distinct. As hair started to grow on my prepubescent body I asked my mom if I could join in her regimen. Clad in t-shirts and underwear we smeared goo the color of cotton candy on our legs and sat on the edge of the bed making sure none of it got on the furniture. It was cold upon application, then began to tingle. After the designated wait time, we did an imitation of a penguin’s waddle to the bathroom for washcloths to wipe off the gunk. Each swipe removed most of the hair but left patches we attacked with more Nair before resuming the position.

Hair growth and removal seemed the threshold to cross toward adulthood. This wasn’t told to me so much as revealed in the shows I watched, the magazines I peeked at. To this day Nair’s trademark song from the eighties — “We wear short shorts” — echoes as subdued mockery in my head. Spotlight on glistening legs, trimmed bikini lines, armpits with no evidence of my burgeoning curly cues, becoming more noticeable. To see women with hair on their bodies was to see them in the real world, not the universe many of us observed, especially bookish, television indulgent children like myself. Most of my classmates, the women on TV, the girls in books who never mentioned shaving yet always wore skirts and had good (read: unblemished, glossy, smooth) skin. This pointed to my own inadequacy. The traces of my mom’s beauty routine littered around the sink and atop the dressers we shared were no longer meaningless, they morphed into tools.

Hair growth and removal seemed the threshold to cross toward adulthood. This wasn’t told to me so much as revealed in the shows I watched, the magazines I peeked at.

After the first Nair session I took a moment to really see myself. I twisted and posed taking in the sheen of my skin, the lack of stubble. It was the easiest of transitions; I felt more visible, more feminine. It was as if the sense of touch was enhanced so I could better feel fabric on my bare legs, be it cotton covers or faded denim. I strutted around with this newfound appreciation, arching my feet as though I wore heels. Further inspection led me to reckon with my budding breasts, the nipples imprinting my training bra. Evidence of the growth spurt that suddenly created intrigue, not just to me but my classmates who’d mock my chest by sticking pencils down their shirts, creating cone bras reminiscent of Madonna while exclaiming, “Look I’m Jennifer!”

My mom had her arsenal: cosmetics, wax strips and tweezers, manicures/pedicures, new hairstyles. She applied foundation on the hottest of days even though it dripped down the sides of her nose. She often held an already sienna-spotted napkin to wipe away additional perspiration. Sometimes, beyond Nair, I joined her in these efforts of perceived femininity.

Pubescence came fast. At 12 I saw, felt, and smelled the changes. Anxious though determined, I graduated from depilatories to disposable razors. I was cautious before becoming assured as I slid the blade against the grain. I hardened up to the cuts, quickly wiping blood away as I progressed. Yet, within a day stubble appeared. Add up all the time spent in the shower, on the edge of a tub, legs lifted higher than usual, hunched over a sink. Add up the razor pile in your trashcan from one or two (or the ill-advised 10 uses), the price increase every year for a new iteration of the same thing — double blade, then triple, now quadruple. But this was worth it, right? This was the expectation, the norm, the price?

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Teen Girls Finally Get to Touch Themselves

Netflix / Netflix / Hulu

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | February 2019 | 9 minutes (2,569 words)

There was a time when people believed masturbating would leave them blind, hairy-palmed, and STD-riddled (okay, the last one was me — I was a kid in the nineties). The ancient Sumerians were down with it — for both men and women — but two centuries of moralists ruined masturbation for everyone. Even now, the act isn’t especially celebrated, particularly if you’re a girl. It’s hard not to think of boys specifically when studies show that kids learn to jerk off from their friends and the media, rather than from their parents or schools. And while I can’t think of one teen movie where a boy isn’t caught with their hands full (of semen), I can barely think of one where a girl is. I read Deenie like everyone else — apparently Judy Blume’s balls-out approach to female masturbation is still rare in YA 46 years later — but there was a dearth of girls getting themselves off in pop culture and, perhaps accordingly, a dearth of girls talking about it in my actual life. This made me feel all those things that have since become stereotypical themes when it comes to women and masturbation: shame, guilt, like there was something wrong with me.

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What Gwyneth Paltrow and Great Expectations Taught Me about the Male Gaze

Illustration by Wenjia Tang

Sara Petersen | Longreads | February 2019 | 15 minutes (4,273 words)

I was 17 when I watched Gwyneth Paltrow bend her knee gently toward Ethan Hawke’s stooped figure in Alfonso Cuaron’s 1998 film adaptation of Great Expectations. In the gloom of a suburban Massachusetts movie theatre, I watched, my body stiff, my fingers gripping the red plush seat, as Hawke’s hand moved slowly up her leg. I watched as Paltrow’s lovely head tilted back in pleasure. I had never been kissed and I wasn’t entirely sure what Hawke’s hand was doing beneath the layers of Paltrow’s mint-green tulle prom dress, but that seemed beside the point. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from her face. Her face, which seemed to exist only to be seen.

In the film, the kneecap scene begins with Estella discovering Finn’s portrait of her hanging on his bedroom wall. She stares at the painting with dispassionate eyes before turning and saying to him, “I don’t wear my hair like that anymore.”

“You should,” he replies.

“Do you like it that way?” Her voice purrs and a ghost of a smile twitches at the corners of her lips. It’s clear she is turned on by looking at herself through his eyes.

“What else do you like?” she asks, as she moves closer to his seated form before sliding her golden leg toward him.

As his hand moves toward her white cotton underwear, her lips part with what must be ecstasy; the angular planes of her face glow. The scene ends with Estella leaning down toward Finn in a gesture of kindness which seems to cost her nothing. She offers her mouth to Finn’s, which is hanging open with stupid, raw desire. Just as he relaxes into the realization that his fantasy is becoming real, just as he moves more confidently toward her and reaches for the ends of her brittle blond hair, Estella suddenly stands up, her body iron-straight and leaves the room. Her eyes are calm and cold and she is in complete control.

***

At 17, I had fresh-bud boobs, a little-girl tummy, and hard bumps of cystic acne dotting my chin. I had participated in the pageantry of “going out with” a few boys, and I was just beginning to discover what it meant to feel wanted, just beginning to confuse being wanted with having power. My boyfriend-in-name-only gave me a grubby hemp necklace festooned with a soon-to-tarnish silver sun, and after watching Great Expectations, I spent countless hours in bed, fingering the rays of that little sun, wondering if he saw me as golden, as light, as beautiful. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Estella came along at just the right — or ultimately wrong — time in my development.


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Watching Estella use her body to gain control made me curious about desire, made me think about the male gaze before I knew what the male gaze was. Estella enchanted me with her stony perfection, her utter lack of awkwardness or apology, her total command of her audience. I never wondered what she wanted, which of course, was entirely the point. For me, at gangly and insecure 17, Estella was the pinnacle, the holy grail of what any woman might ever hope to be: a gorgeous object of desire.

In her 1998 review of Great Expectations for the New York Times, Janet Maslin writes, “Ms. Paltrow does turn herself into the elegant object of desire that the story requires. Her presence is as coolly striking as her role (in Mitch Glazer’s screenplay) is underwritten. Incidentally, this is one more film in which the heroine’s posing nude for an artist is supposed to make her more fully defined.” At 17, I didn’t read the New York Times, and even if I had, I think Maslin’s critique would only have fanned the flames of my craving to be seen as worth seeing. In high school, it’s every awkward girl’s dream to be thought of as “coolly striking.”

When I recall the movie scenes that lodged themselves into my still pliable, tender subconscious, it’s the kneecap scene first and foremost. But there’s also the penultimate scene in which Finn paints naked Estella in a frenzy of both erotic and artistic ecstasy. She takes off her clothes before uttering her first and final line in the scene: “So do you want me sitting or standing?”

The rest of the scene consists of her languidly moving throughout a New York City loft as Finn frenetically splashes paint across countless canvases, so entranced is he by the glory of Estella’s flesh. And of course, like any good movie that fetishizes unhealthy attachments, there’s the kissing-in-the-rain scene. In other words, the scenes that mattered to me were the scenes in which Estella is devoid of any active purpose or agency; the scenes that mattered were the scenes in which Estella passively submitted to Finn’s desperate eyes.

Maybe it was Finn’s desperation (and, transmuted through the male gaze through which I viewed Estella), my own, that muddled me into imagining Estella the central focus of the film. I didn’t know that Finn is supposed to be the subject of Great Expectations. Feminism existed only as a sterile word in a paragraph about suffragettes in my history textbook and I did not have the tools to view Estella as what she is: an empty shell crafted for male consumption, even demonized as a femme fatale. I did not know that there were limited roles for women — domestic goddess or dangerous sexual minx, or perhaps worst of all, pitiful spinster — and that Estella represented not rosy possibility but a narrow and reductive scope of female representation. Anne Bancroft’s Miss Dinsmoor (Miss Havisham in the novel) tried to show me what happened when a woman defied patriarchal norms, but I was too enthralled by the shiny object of Estella that I didn’t pay attention. Grotesque in clownish makeup and abject in her heartbreak, I saw Miss Dinsmoor through the male gaze, and by that I mean, I saw her as disgusting, a wreck of thwarted desire I longed to look away from.

I did not know that there were limited roles for women — domestic goddess or dangerous sexual minx, or perhaps worst of all, pitiful spinster — and that Estella represented not rosy possibility but a narrow and reductive scope of female representation.

I relegated Miss Dinsmoor to the back of my mind where she belonged, and focused my ambitions on becoming an “elegant object of desire.” Estella never seemed flustered, upset, or awkward, her role as object seemed peaceful and complete. Maybe if I could define myself through and for someone else’s eyes, a man’s eyes, I wouldn’t have to do the work of defining myself for myself.

***

At college in Boston, my breasts became more than buds, and I began dressing to showcase that fact, tagging along with girlfriends to stores in Downtown Crossing to buy all-important “clubbing clothes.” In my case, this meant a pair of boot-cut pleather pants and a triangle top in flimsy polyester zebra print. I wore my new clothes with a combination of curiosity and entirely feigned confidence until it became clear that boys were starting to look.

I watched boys watch me, and the hunger etched into Ethan Hawke’s face flashed across my brain. At frat parties in Allston, or in the bottom bunk of extra-long twins, I became intoxicated by the reflection of myself I had become increasingly adept at invoking in boys’ eyes. I would stand tall and hold my head high on my neck and envision Paltrow’s knee moving slowly toward Hawke’s open hand. I would remember the delicate hooks of her collarbones. Estella doesn’t seem to want anything from Finn. From anyone. In a critical piece about the male gaze in both the novel and the film adaptation, Michael K. Johnson writes, “Pip [or Finn] is blind to any desire on Estella’s part, for if Estella desires, she begins to emerge as a subject rather than an object, and thereby would destabilize Pip’s construction of himself as the hero of his romantic quest.” I thought the not caring and not wanting was the magic that locked people in, allowed a person to bask in the warmth of being seen as something the seer wants. I didn’t imagine Estella’s lack of desire meant that she could never flourish as anything more than a foil to a man’s story.

I finally read Great Expectations around the time I met the perfect test subject for my performance of Estella cool — a boy in a band. By then, I had so internalized Paltrow’s slight underbite, her weightless body, her chilly power, that it was difficult to imagine Estella in heavy petticoats. Miss Havisham’s death by flaming bridal dress failed to make an impression.

The boy in the band scorned me as being a dumb blond at our first meeting (I called him aloof, to which he responded, “I’m surprised you even know what that means”), and his slouchy disinterest was the ultimate aphrodisiac. The first time we slept together, he told me he was in way over his head, and I thought about Finn’s bottomless desire for Estella. The more I projected Estella onto my face, my body, the more the boy in the band wanted me. He hovered his body over mine, and I thought about Paltrow’s lifted chin as she pushes Hawke’s hand between her legs.

The boy in the band fucked me with an urgency that made me dizzy, made me forget the inner trapping of my mind, made me exist only within my body. The force of his desire was all I wanted, needed. His desire was enough for us both — his desire fueled mine. Being wanted like that made everything simple, made my insecurities melt away, made my doubts about myself and what I wanted from life drift into the ether. His desire for my body filled me to the brim, leaving no room for anything else, and that feeling — of being enough because of being wanted — that feeling was calm, was rest. It felt like power.

I never orgasmed with him, but when I was alone in the dark, I pictured myself through his eyes and did.

Maybe if I could define myself through and for someone else’s eyes, a man’s eyes, I wouldn’t have to do the work of defining myself for myself.

When the boy in the band teetered toward indifference, I conjured Estella, thought of her hard icy heart, which was so desirable, so beautiful, and I worked harder on freezing my own soft, warm places. When he didn’t call me, I didn’t call him to complain. I made plans with girlfriends and drank too much until he finally did. When I could no longer locate the image of me reflected in his eyes — the me as he wanted me — I withdrew until the image returned. When we went out together, I collected the stares of other men and boys as if they were a currency I could use to pay my way into the band boy’s heart. When I did these things, I saw that my instincts were right. His desire returned and it filled me up. I told myself we were in love, remembering how Finn and Estella made love look like pain. I remembered their tortured kiss in the rain and committed to making a success of star-crossed love because surely difficult endeavors were worth pursuing. The boy in the band never painted a picture of me like Finn did for Estella, but I vowed to keep us together until he wrote a song instead.

It was all perfect until I made the mistake of thinking maybe the boy in the band wanted the real me, not the veneer I had worked so hard to create. It was perfect until the person who wanted things, needed things — the person that was me — reared her ugly head and scared him off.

I started to ask for things. Things like dinner, double dates with friends, cozy sleepovers planned in advance. Too much. Most of the time, I subsumed my desires to be alone with him and forced myself to be easy, cool, to go with his flow, despite the fact that I was not truly a chill person, that I hated not knowing where I would sleep on a given night. I paid too much for blond highlights that made me look like I had been out in the sun, because the version of me he liked was naturally beautiful without trying. I would sit in the corner of his apartment wearing a mustard-colored vintage sweater because I thought it made me look bohemian, watching him watch a movie I didn’t want to watch with his best friend and bandmate, and the more they enjoyed the movie, the more they enjoyed each other, the more I hated him, his friend, and their easy comradery. The more I hated myself for failing to keep him interested in me.

I went to great lengths to hold his attention. The summer of my 23rd year, I traveled to Vermont to play a coquettish 1940s secretary at a summer stock theatre. When the show closed, a girlfriend and I snuck into the women’s dressing room, where I donned my Marilyn Monroe platinum wig and stripped down to fishnets and a black bra. Steph snapped photos of me, making sure they were optimally sexy. When I developed the black-and-white disposable-camera film, I analyzed each photo carefully, before selecting the ones in which I looked most assured of whoever it was I was pretending to be and pasted them into one of those artsy books girls in their twenties make for their boyfriends who are in bands. Cleverly, I thought, I developed a narrative to accompany the photos. Alongside a photo of me perched above an ironing board, cold iron in hand, my ass jutting out against my black American Eagle underwear, I wrote, “She can be clean.” Alongside a photo of me peering over my shoulder with empty eyes and faux nonchalance, a la Estella, I wrote, “She can be cold.” And alongside a photo of me sitting on the floor cross-legged, my boobs out and slightly saggy, the perky wig tossed to the side, I wrote, “She can be yours.” This last photo felt like a risk, felt like honesty. It was a photo of the me I wanted him to want.

It’s not that these tricks failed to ignite his desire, it’s that I became increasingly resentful of the need to conjure tricks at all. The longer we were together, the harder it was for me to be someone else, and the more I resented him for finding that someone else more appealing than me. As much as I tried to remember the power of Estella, my frosty mask started to itch. The injustice of the whole venture began to preoccupy me. I had groomed my body according to his desires; molded my tastes, my attitude, my clothing to what I thought were his wants. I had done everything Estella taught me would work. But it wasn’t working. There was a flaw in the equation, and I had no choice but to assume the flaw was me. I thought something about the authentic me must’ve been marring my performance. Something about me wasn’t enough. My suppressed desire to be wanted as myself started to turn the real me into something dangerously near combustion.

Miss Havisham died wearing a flaming wedding dress. She died in a blaze of frustrated desire and unrealized potential.

On a raw, drizzly night in November, he texted saying he was in the middle of a jam session and couldn’t make it to my apartment. He was supposed to sleep over, fuck me, then hold me. When I couldn’t make him come to me, something fell apart inside, and it was with equal parts relief and horror, that my whole explosive self came screaming to the surface. Banging my palms against the glossy white of the painted bricks in the tiny Beacon Hill bedroom I shared with my sister, I shrieked and felt validated when my vocal chords felt like they were choking me. I craved that sense of stillness that only his body wanting mine could give me. Without it, I felt empty, felt missing. I think now I had allowed his desire to sweep away the rest of me, so when the desire disappeared, so did I. Unmoored.

Everything was perfect until my pesky subjecthood tried to claw its way free from objectification.

My inability to make him do what I wanted in this one small moment brought the reality of my failure crashing home. I had spent countless months putting all my energy into cultivating what I thought was power only to find it was ultimately meaningless, that my “power” had only ever been submission, that desire could only be fleeting, and this realization shook me to the core. I knew I wasn’t a true Estella, but I had lived for so long in her skin, I still wasn’t clear who the real me was. I just knew she was angry, I just knew she wanted to be seen. Because without someone looking, I felt invisible.

Behind the tears, behind the desperation, I probably imagined a camera documenting the whole thing.

My sister didn’t know what to do with me, so she called my parents, who threatened to call an ambulance if I didn’t stop saying I wanted to hurt myself. Which I did want. Not seriously, but just enough for my external pain to match my internal pain. The blissfully unyielding white walls of the Beacon Hill apartment bruised my knuckles and substantiated the howling void inside of me. The pain made me feel grounded.

The boy in the band broke up with me soon after, and a therapist prescribed me something akin to horse tranquilizers should I find myself gripped by another panic attack, which is what the therapist called the flood of feeling that had deluged me on that chilly November night. The pills came in handy once the boy in the band took me back.

Feminist scholar Hilary Schor says this about Great Expectations: “Pip’s authorship is so strong as to make Estella’s story almost disappear, to make Estella almost disappear.” For me, watching Great Expectations at 17 did more than that, it halted a burgeoning self from appearing in the first place.

The irony is no longer lost on me that I spent the remainder of my twenties as a struggling actor determined to be seen without fully knowing or even asking myself what it was I wanted to be seen as or for. I continued to seek validation from men and eventually stumbled across a guy who wasn’t in a band, a guy who wanted to move in together and get a puppy. It was the first relationship in which I felt comfortable to be my ugliest, most basic self. I felt no compunction about wearing a shapeless pair of flannel PJ pants I’d had since high school around him, and this committed relationship felt so good, so restful, so much easier than waiting in open-call lines, so much easier than sending out another slew of headshots, so much easier than asking myself if I really even wanted to be an actress in the first place, and this sense of ease made me think that I had finally figured out what I wanted. I wanted to get married and have kids.

After struggling for so long to find myself, I was relieved that motherhood had found me.

As a mother, I would no longer need to worry about being sexually desirable, about being who someone else wanted me to be, about being “successful.” My nagging fear of purposelessness would disappear, the repressed anxiety that whispered about lack of motivation or ambition or direction would cease interrupting my sleep. I could be earnest and boring and comfortable. I could devote myself fully to a new life, an endeavor so worthy that it couldn’t fail to fill me with joy and satisfaction. As a mother, I wouldn’t need to schmooze or hone my craft or have any craft at all. I would just need to love and be loved. Most importantly, I would care so much about this new little person, that I could stop worrying about myself.

So it was with a heartbreaking sort of recklessness and desperation that I threw myself into wifehood and motherhood as the conclusive panacea to a lack of self-knowledge.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that motherhood did not provide a smooth path to selfhood, but rather made me seriously engage with the work of finding myself for the first time. My body, which used to feel like a magical vessel with which I could choose my own adventure, was stripped down to its most grimly physiological purpose. And the new baby, whose desire for me was insatiable, didn’t care if I was cool, didn’t care if my pores were big or small, didn’t care about me at all, the real me or otherwise.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that motherhood did not provide a smooth path to selfhood, but rather made me seriously engage with the work of finding myself for the first time.

Estella had taught me that to be wanted was everything, and being wanted had gotten me a husband, which had, in turn gotten me a baby. Of course, I had deliberately sought these things for myself, but while cluster feeding my newborn throughout the night, tears moved silently down my face, I felt like this life had been done to me. So blindly had I ridden the roller coaster of objectification, I forgot to ever ask myself, “What do you want?”

I spent the days following my first child’s birth waiting in vain to feel an overwhelming sense of rightness. I held him against me and waited for some sort of feeling that this was always what I wanted, always what I was meant to do, to descend upon me and quiet the voices within that kept persisting in wanting, wanting, wanting. I wiped away spit-up, ran the dishwasher, sat in a circle of smiling adults singing songs about animals, and ached with loneliness. I came to realize that motherhood can never fill an empty person up. On the contrary, motherhood can sweep an empty person away entirely.

Motherhood taught me about feminism with a force that took my breath away, and the ramshackle self I had cobbled together through the eyes of others came tumbling down in the darkness of postpartum depression. I’ve since read and thought a lot about postpartum depression, and while of course, women undergo vast physical and hormonal changes following the creation and birth of a human being that impact their mental health, I have some of my own theories about why some of us are more prone to that particular blackness than others.

Historically, the world has not cared about what women want. The world has only very recently offered this question to women. The world has only very recently thought to ask women whether or not they want marriage. Children. And even though the questions have slowly started to seep into some girls’ lives, many other girls, myself included, were (and still are) raised breathing the air of a male world, a world in which women’s most valuable currency is her ability to be what a man wants, is her ability to starve her own selfhood for the sake of someone else’s.

Historically, the world has not cared about what women want. The world has only very recently offered this question to women.

And for me, motherhood, was the culmination of disillusionment. Especially at the beginning, motherhood takes, takes, takes. And if the new mother’s foundation is a simulacrum, the baby soon takes so much that nothing much is left. To enter into motherhood, a job defined by self-sacrifice, without a strong sense of self in place, is a dangerous venture. Postpartum depression was a brutal teacher who made me realize that figuring out who I was and what I wanted was no longer a luxury, it was critical to me putting one foot in front of the other.

***

After hours of nonsleep, the sun glared through my curtains, and I peeled myself from the breast milk–soaked sheets and limped to the bathroom, where I confronted the mirror. There was no one else left to look at me, no one else that could make me feel seen. I would have to look at myself. My face was gaunt, my skin wan, my eyes heavily shadowed in a shade of exhausted purple, and I saw an abject figure looking back at me. I remembered Miss Havisham.

At 37, I still occasionally think of Paltrow’s slender kneecap emerging from the folds of mint tulle when I enter a dark bar and scan the male faces. Old habits.

After hours of nonsleep, the sun glared through my curtains, and I peeled myself from the breast milk–soaked sheets and limped to the bathroom, where I confronted the mirror. There was no one else left to look at me, no one else that could make me feel seen. I would have to look at myself.

I think of another moment more often — a moment I’ve never seen — the moment after Estella leaves the room. Does she even exist? At 17, I didn’t wonder about Estella’s desires. I do now.

Estella was never asked what she wanted. Miss Havisham raised her to break hearts, to wreak revenge for Miss Havisham’s own broken heart. And lest we judge Miss Havisham too harshly, she had every reason to suppose that living a life free from personal desire would be less tortuous for a woman than risking making one’s true desires known. Miss Havisham desired love from a man; she wanted a man’s love to complete her, and when that didn’t happen, she didn’t know how to complete herself.

And what do I want? I want to have been asked the question in the first place. And I want to use my bitterly earned knowledge to ensure my own daughter knows that asking herself that question should always be her first priority. I want to live the rest of my life giving voice to my anger that she still lives in a world in which she must prioritize her desires, because there’s no guarantee anyone else will. I want to live each day as a continued effort to listen to myself, to fill myself up.

***

Sara’s essays about feminism, motherhood, and the performance of femininity have appeared in The Rumpus, Catapult, Ploughshares, Vox, The Lily, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. She’s working on a collection.

Editor: Krista Stevens

Fact checker: Ethan Chiel

Copy editor: Jacob Gross

Labor Pains: A Reading List

A doctor examines a pregnant woman in Allahabad, India, 2011. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh, File)

Sara Benincasa is a quadruple threat: she writes, she acts, she’s funny, and she has truly exceptional hair. She also reads, a lot, and joins us to share some of her favorite stories. 

Prior to researching this column, I felt no significant babymaking desire tugging at my uterus. This is not to say I have not thought of being a mother or a stepmother. Adoption and foster-to-adopt programs have always held a special fascination for me, even when I was a little kid. But the biological mechanics of what happens at the end of the human assembly line — you know, the manner in which the finished product exits the factory door? That always freaked me out.

According to my mother, Child Me reacted to the discussion of labor and delivery with disinterest at best and revulsion at worst. Mom worried that she’d somehow made me afraid of it. In fact, she had not; she’d always spoken of pregnancy as the happiest time of her young life, and had two relatively swift and uncomplicated deliveries with healthy babies. When she was 24, I woke her up at 1:00 a.m. one October morning and was out in the world by a quarter past four, taking the traditional route. When she was 27, my brother took maybe six or seven hours on a Sunday in early December. She said he “shot out like a football.” I never knew how to react to that, and I still don’t.

As a child, I asked her how painful it was. She said, “Kind of like… having to do number two in a really big way.” She has since admitted this was an understatement, though one often does go number two when one does a vaginal delivery, but says “it wasn’t that bad” and “at the end you get a beautiful baby!”

My mother accepted long ago that making babies was not high on my priority list. She always encouraged my career and creative aspirations. I give her a lot of credit for not pressuring me about it like some women’s mothers do. I’ve told her that I just don’t have baby fever.

But then I researched this column.

And now…

Well, aside from abstinence from sexual intercourse, there is no greater method of birth control than reading birth stories. Add articles about labor and delivery as managed by the medical industry in the United States, and you’ve got a cocktail that should be nearly as effective as the common oral contraceptive.

My hat is off to women who go through with having a baby — and especially those who choose to do it again. That’s wild, lady! But as you’ll see from the stories I’ve collected below, some labor and delivery experiences are less than ideal, to say the very least. I’m glad real women share what really happens to them rather than glossing it over with some fairy tale bullshit. More real stories from real women who don’t pretend everything is easy, please. And more reporting on the way Black women and poor immigrant women are consistently offered a lower standard of maternal healthcare.

1. “I Think, Therefore I Am Getting The Goddamned Epidural” (Rebecca Schuman, Longreads, November 2017)

I despise every hippie braggart Schuman cites from Ina May Gaskin’s creepy-sounding books Spiritual Midwifery and Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth. At one point I also wanted to lightly smack her husband and kick the shit out of her anesthesiologist, though probably not as much as she did.

Dads make mistakes. It is a fact that my dad is awesome and also that while I was being born, he walked into the wrong labor and delivery room, misreading the name on the door. He did not recognize the gaping vagina before him and swiftly made his exit. During my mother’s second delivery experience, with my younger brother, he pissed her the fuck off by a.) complaining about the room temperature and opening the window when she was fucking cold and b.) bringing in a TV so he and the doctor and any orderlies could watch the game. But he turned out to be a splendid dad.

(As for a similar redemption for Schuman’s shitty, bored, Instagram-scrolling anesthesiologist, I have less hope. I’ve always regarded anesthesiologists as the groovy magicians of surgery — they show up, make your life better — or worse, if they want! — and then disappear. This gal seems to have gone to the wrong wizarding school.)

Schuman, who is one smart cookie, talks about Descartes in an accessible way and connects him quite easily to birthing:

“But what then am I?” he asked. “A thing which thinks. What is a thing which thinks? It is a thing which doubts, understands, [conceives], affirms, denies, wills, refuses, which also imagines and feels.” These might not seem to be questions (or answers) that one naturally associates with the act of giving birth, but perhaps they should be. The midwives in my books were asking versions of these questions, after all, and they shouldn’t be the only ones who got to. Indeed, what makes all that mother-Goddess-yoni-orgasm stuff disquieting is not actually its medical dubiousness. It’s the decidedly un-philosophical certainty of the operation.

If I still drank, I would toss back some bourbon with Schuman (though not if either of us were pregnant, obviously). Regardless, I would like to buy her a beverage or a large carbohydrate-based baked substance one day.

2. “The Lavender Room” (Cheryl Strayed, Slate, April 2014)

Cheryl Strayed had an ideal situation: the desire for a baby, good health, access to excellent care. Then she labored for 43 hours and pushed an 11-pound kid out of her undercarriage. I have no words other than “holy shit, what a warrior.” She is very encouraging of other women having their baby the way they want, which makes this a very sweet and loving story. When she mentions laboring while asking her deceased mother to help her, I got teary-eyed.

It also reminded me of how long labor can take. My sister-in-law and younger brother texted me a few hours after her water broke on a Sunday afternoon. I felt sure the baby would be there by the time I arrived to New Jersey on a flight from Los Angeles the next afternoon. Nope! I visited the hospital room, drank margaritas at the Stuff Yer Face in New Brunswick, New Jersey with the other aunties and an uncle and got a full night’s sleep before I finally woke up to the news that a child was born unto us. Now we are all obsessed with him and his favorite song is “Psycho Killer” by the Talking Heads. He is 17 months old and looks like Wallace Shawn.

3. “I’ve Given Birth 4 Very Different Ways – Here’s What I’ve Learned” (Laurie Batzel, PopSugar, June 2018)

I think I love this woman. She curses way less than I do but she does not pull punches.

I’m a former ballet dancer and have performed in blood-soaked pointe shoes through severe sprains and other sundry injuries. My pain tolerance is not insignificant. But there is no pain on earth like having a baby. When the nurse told me it was too late for an epidural, I would have sobbed if I’d had the strength. I had marched around the labor and delivery unit for three hours straight to avoid Dr. Jerk, I hadn’t slept in over 36 hours, and, as badly as I wanted the “traditional” birthing experience, I would have performed my own C-section right then and there to make the pain stop. Seriously, it’s a good thing there were no spare scalpels, letter openers, or jagged shoelace tips lying around, because I would have gone rogue in a heartbeat.

She had two C-sections followed by two VBACs (vaginal birth after Caeseran). She also says that if a guy tries to convince you that passing a kidney stone is as painful as giving birth with no drugs, you can punch him “in the biscuits.” Starry eyes over here! She concludes with the very kind sentiment “there’s no wrong way to become a mother.” What a refreshing antidote to some of the “you must have a vaginal birth with no drugs so that you can be a true woman” bullshit I read while looking through articles.

4. “Lost Mothers” (ProPublica, 2017-2018)

In publishing, any subject can become a trend, a flash in the pan, a momentary topic of national chatter. Sparked in no small part by Serena Williams talking to Vogue about nearly dying after the birth of her daughter, 2018 saw more mainstream publications begin to cover the topic of maternal mortality among Black women. But organizations like ProPublica, NPR, and smaller independent publications had addressed the issue previously, and Black women themselves had been speaking up about it for years.

It is incumbent upon reporters at mainstream publications to continue to report on this humiliating and devastating national health crisis. In the meantime, ProPublica did the legwork with a series of articles about the many, many Black women who experience a ghastly standard of maternal healthcare in the United States.

5. “I Was Pregnant and in Crisis. All the Doctors and Nurses Saw Was an Incompetent Black Woman” (Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, Time, January 2019)

This story is vivid and it is horrifying and it is heartbreaking. Read every word of it. Here are a few: “When the medical profession systematically denies the existence of Black women’s pain, underdiagnoses our pain, refuses to alleviate or treat our pain, healthcare marks us as incompetent bureaucratic subjects. Then it serves us accordingly.”

6. “Why does it cost $32,093 just to give birth in America?” (Jessica Glenza, The Guardian, January 2018)

These statistics are stark. Writes Glenza:

Despite these high costs, the US consistently ranks poorly in health outcomes for mothers and infants. The US rate of infant mortality is 6.1 for every 1,000 live births, higher than Slovakia and Hungary, and nearly three times the rate of Japan and Finland. The US also has the worst rate of maternal mortality in the developed world. That means America is simultaneously the most expensive and one of the riskiest industrialized nations in which to have children.

So we’re paying the most in the developed world for the shittiest treatment in the developed world? Okay, makes sense. No wonder so many women reject the conventional medical approach to birth and buy into comforting “orgasmic birth is possible, babies just slip right out, pain is all in your mind and was put there by The Man, also buy my book and taint moisturizer” pseudoscience, rocketing from one extreme to the other.

As with anything else, it seems, a complementary medical approach is best, blending conventional medicine with alternative or “traditional” healing techniques. But while my complementary medical idea sounds delightful if you can afford to pay out of pocket, how may health insurance plans will pay for your midwife, doula, obstetrician, nurses and 1+ nights stay at some swanky, soothingly lit spa retreat? Oy vey, what a mess.

* * *

The other ways to obtain a beautiful baby without almost certainly going number two in the process have always seemed the more palatable options to me. Of course, the headaches and heartbreaks possible with adoption and foster-to-adopt are innumerable. Taking on the huge responsibility of parenting does not seem simple — nor should it, I suppose.  Plenty of abusive, nasty jerks have kids, and I rather wish they’d give up for fear of poop on the delivery table or too many forms at the agency.

I may yet become a mother. I don’t know. At present, I am glad to be an aunt; I am glad to entertain my friends when they have kids, or to entertain the kids so that my friends can use the toilet in peace or take a nap. I feel enormous gratitude that generations of American women have fought to ensure that women of childbearing age have rights and protections that were unthinkable years ago — as well as the right to prevent or terminate a pregnancy.

I feel energized to work harder to ensure better access to healthcare for all women, and to help make certain motherhood remains a choice. I should say “biological reproduction” because, as Batzel wrote, “There’s no wrong way to become a mother.”  And of course I know — and you now know I know – it is fine to choose to go without children. You’ll sleep more and save money, much of which you can spend spoiling other people’s kids. I can’t recommend that enough.

* * *

Sara Benincasa is a stand-up comedian, actress, college speaker on mental health awareness, and the author of Real Artists Have Day JobsDC TripGreat, and Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom. She also wrote a very silly joke book called Tim Kaine Is Your Nice Dad. Recent roles include “Corporate” on Comedy Central, “Bill Nye Saves The World” on Netflix, “The Jim Gaffigan Show” on TVLand and critically-acclaimed short film “The Focus Group,” which she also wrote. She also hosts the podcast “Where Ya From?”

Editor: Michelle Weber

When Black Male Singers Were Sex Symbols

Philadelphia International Records / Collage by Katie Kosma

Ericka Blount Danois | Longreads | January 2019 | 23 minutes (4,688 words)

 

Driving through blinding rain from Baltimore to Philadelphia recently to see the documentary If You Don’t Know Me By Now, about the life of R&B singer Teddy Pendergrass, I was reminded how one of my first encounters with Teddy was as a life-size cardboard cutout of him my mother kept in our living room. Dressed in an Italian silk suit, he became part of my family as my parents and sister passed him daily on our way out the door to school.

I had already admired Teddy when I would browse my father’s extensive record collection as a kid and stare at the covers. Both the Jackson Five’s Third Album and The Teenagers Featuring Frankie Lymon album covers made me wish I had been born just a little bit sooner so I could meet Frankie Lymon or a young Michael Jackson. I thought Marvin Gaye was handsome, but when I saw Teddy Pendergrass’s album Teddy, I said to myself: One day I will marry a man that looks just like that. I don’t know what made Teddy future marriage material and not just a childhood crush. Maybe it was the handsome face and the masculine beard that looked like it tasted like Hershey’s Kisses. Maybe it was the aloof look and the symphony of gold chains on his chest, surrounded by a silk scarf and shirt. Or that North Philly, rough-and-rugged, raspy, commanding baritone voice. Or the way he talked trash on the album’s interludes. Or the half church, half sexual ecstasy shouts and ad-libs, sometimes full-on sermons and conversations mixed with singing. His weellls, ooohwaaahs, and yessssahs all got you to the point that, when he said with conviction “close the door!” on the cut of the same name, you nearly jumped up to slam it shut. He was the kind of man whose steak you made sure was hot when he came home as you handed him his pipe and slippers. Somehow I knew he was the whole package, a man’s man in a time when this is what it meant to be a man. And I wasn’t wrong.

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