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.


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)

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.

Read more…

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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Swipe White

Illustration by Wenting Li

Jennifer Chong Schneider | Longreads | December 2018 | 15 minutes (3,673 words)

Last summer, my friend and fellow English professor, Danielle, was punched in the face by a white man. When she called the police on him, she was arrested for fighting. She sent me this information in an email, and later I saw pictures of her bloody nose, split lip, fractured teeth. She is a black woman, and I can think of no other reason for her arrest.

After this episode of violence, before she left the country for good, fed up with America and its racist antics, Danielle gathered her friends to say goodbye. We were at a bar and there was only one white woman at the table, a salacious marketing peon who regaled us with sex stories in the style of a late 1990’s HBO show. She told us about her current sexual conquest, a Puerto Rican man who is muscular and masculine. Then she looked at Danielle and said she also loves to have sex with black men, adding that all black men have huge dicks, Puerto Ricans are next in line, and Asians have the smallest dicks, because she slept with an Asian person once. She insisted white men were the only group with any diversity. “White men are unpredictable,” she said, “there’s no rhyme or reason.”

I stood up, put my hands on the edge of the table and considered flipping it over, but decided to just leave. Danielle followed me out and asked if I was upset. I told her I was leaving to go have sex with an Asian man with a huge dick, and the anger rose inside of me for a reason I couldn’t articulate at the moment.

In the morning, Danielle forwarded me a pages-long email from the white woman, prefacing it by saying she and another black professor at the table spent hours berating the white woman until she cried; but she cried not about her sexual racism, but because she liked me and now I’ll never be her friend. I read Danielle’s message and deleted the other.
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Blowin’ Up the ‘90s

Mark Terrill, Associated Press / Collage by Katie Kosma

Rebecca Schuman | Longreads | December 2018 | 11 minutes (2,795 words)

The ’90s Are Old is a Longreads series by Rebecca Schuman, wherein she unpacks the cultural legacy of a decade that refuses to age gracefully.

* * *

The 1990s did not end on January 1, 2000. The monumental anti-climax of Y2K — a computer “bug” that was supposed to screech our Earth to a Scooby-Doo foot-cloud halt, but instead did bupkis — was a truly apt expression of the preceding decade. But even discounting Y2K, I’ve got some serious issues with the alleged “turn of the actual millennium” as the endpoint of the most intentionally underwhelming decade of the 20th century. And not just because 2000 (zero-zero) is so obvious and overplayed — though there is, of course, that.

The actual termination point of the ‘90s required an attitudinal shift that would decentralize the role of Generation X as the admittedly-petulant target of all culture and advertising — the thawing of the winter of the bong-ripping couch-slacker’s discontent; the disappearance of gin and juice from house-party bars; the centering of the hot tub on The Real World; the sobering realization that both men and women were from Earth and just sucked; the demise, for that matter, of Suck itself.

In point of incontrovertible fact, the 1990s would not end in the United States until the aughts’ resurgence of aggressive consumerism and even more aggressive vacuity came to dominate all aspects of sociopolitical and popular culture. So the only question is: When was that? There are more potential answers than squiggles on a Fido Dido sweatshirt.

Was it in 2001, when the original Fast and the Furious premiered? 1996, when Blur released that WOO-hoo song? Was it 2010 — you heard me, two thousand and ten — when enough grandparents had shuffled off the mortal coil to make the primary avenue of written news consumption digital rather than paper?

I have spent an unnecessarily and perhaps questionably extensive amount of time researching in this subfield, and I present my findings to you now in a perplexing new format (I believe it is called a “list-cicle”?) that is apparently the only thing young people are able to read.

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The Lasting Effects of the Lolita Complex

Florence Sally Horner, 1950 and Dominique Swain, 1997. Philadelphia Bulletin / Associated Press, Andrew Medichini / Associated Press / Collage by Katie Kosma

Lacy Warner | Longreads | November 2018 | 14 minutes (3,431 words)

It feels like I’m watching porn. The video is grainy and cheap looking, like an old daytime soap shot with Vaseline over the lens. In the corner there is a grey couch that sits against a wall painted the desperate sand-beige color of every strip mall in America. This is a six-minute, twelve-second YouTube video of Dominique Swain’s screen test for the title role in the 1997 film adaptation of Lolita. At the four-minute mark, director Adrian Lyne gives a line reading of the word, “slut.” He says it over and over again. Jeremy Irons, 49 years old at the time, had already been cast as Humbert Humbert. In the video, Swain is 15 years old, playing 14, though in the novel, Lolita is 12. Seconds before the end, she looks toward the camera, smiles, and says in a bad, mock-English accent, “I’m a conniving little slut.”


“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” In 1954, Lolita was rejected by five American publishing houses. Eventually, the down-market French publisher Olympia Press agreed to publish the first edition. Riddled with errors, this initial printing would be Nabokov’s albatross for the next three years. In 1958, Lolita finally saw its American debut, and became a bestseller overnight. Critics and readers alike have called Lolita many things: the great American novel; the great road novel; an allegory for the alienation caused by exile; a satirical tale of the incompatibility between European and American cultures; a great detective novel; smut; high-brow porn — but what it has never been called, until now, is true.

Last September saw the publication of Sarah Weinman’s nonfiction book, The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World. Weinman investigates the 1948 case of Horner, who was abducted as a child by the con-artist and pedophile, Frank La Salle. Horner lived with La Salle as his captive for two years, spending her 12th and 13th birthdays on the road as he took her from her New Jersey hometown across the US to California. Horner’s story is also Dolores Haze’s story. Through careful critical investigation, Weinman maps out how Nabokov learned of, and developed Lolita around, reports of Horner’s kidnapping and abuse.

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Let’s Talk About Sex Scenes

Anna Sastre / Unsplash / Pexels / Collage by Katie Kosma

The first sex scene ever filmed was not a sex scene at all. It was a kiss. And there was way less kissing than talking. May Irwins’ make out session with John Rice, a recreation of the smooch from the Broadway musical The Widow Jones, took all of one second. Filmed in 1896 at Thomas Edison’s Black Maria Studio, the soundless footage — titled, simply, The Kiss — opens with Irwin deep in conversation with Rice. While it is impossible to tell what they are saying, the two actors appear to be discussing logistics. Thirteen seconds in they seem in agreement. Both pull back, Rice dramatically smooths out his moustache and, while Irwin is still talking, he cups her face and the two of them peck. Or, on his end, nibble. All in all, the actual moment their lips touch is almost nothing — 94 percent of the first sex scene was actually the discourse around it.

Were this to happen today, the actors would have had clearer direction. Last week Rolling Stone reported that HBO would be hiring intimacy coordinators for every show that called for it after “The Deuce” star Emily Meade, who plays a prostitute in the series, asked for help with her sex scenes. The network consulted Intimacy Directors International (IDI), a non-profit established in 2016 that represents theatre, tv and film directors and choreographers specializing in the carnal. “The Intimacy Director takes responsibility for the emotional safety of the actors and anyone else in the rehearsal hall while they are present,” their site explains, alongside a standard set of guidelines called The Pillars: context (understanding the story), communication, consent, choreography and closure (signaling the end of the scene). Read more…