Girl on Girl: Kerry Cohen

Kerry CohenAuthor, teacher, and psychotherapist Kerry Cohen made her name when she released Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity in 2008. Her memoir laid bare her sexual experiences as a teenager and twenty-something. This daring non-fiction debut introduced Kerry as a writer not afraid to explore the less pretty sides of sexuality.

When we met in a busy coffee shop to discuss sex and writing, at least one nearby patron craned his neck to listen in.

Is sex writing scary?
Not for me because I’m a big whore [laughs]. I was never private about it. Writing about it is not hard. People’s reception to it can be hard. Nothing makes women hate you more than being an attention whore, so that’s always a problem.

Have you ever stopped and found you were censoring your sex writing because you were afraid of what your audience would think? Your parents?
Totally. I never did before I published because I was naïve. The reason Loose Girl came out the way it did was because I didn’t realize how people would respond to it.

I didn’t think about my parents when I first wrote Loose Girl. Once it was sold I started thinking about them. My father said, “Congratulations, I don’t want to read it.” I was worried about my mother, not because of me and my behavior, but because of how I portrayed her. But they’ve been supportive. I was raised to be open, which kept me from feeling censored. I’m still so open. I talk about sex with strangers all the time.

What is the best response you’ve received from your audience?
All of the fan mail. I couldn’t possibly pick one out. So many notes about how the book has changed their lives. It has meant a lot to so many people, which is deeply gratifying. The book is about how I struggle with intimacy. This book gave me intimacy with utter strangers. There are few things more intimate than a memoirist and her readers. You are laying yourself bare to your readers. They are reading it to be vulnerable with you. It really changed intimacy for me.

What’s the worst?
I’ve told this story so many times. A month before the book came out, I had an interview with Marie Claire. Back when Jezebel was really snarky, a blogger wrote a very harsh post about the Marie Claire interview and me, about me being a whore. The comments that followed claimed that I was making money off being a whore. There was anger and fury. They were also mad that I wouldn’t call myself a slut. This horrible thing took off.  The subject matter and how I approached it pissed people off, but I was just telling my story.

Talk about the double standard between men and women and sex.
I think what’s interesting in the Madonna/whore dichotomy is that it has been around for ages. It’s nothing new. Now, we have this third thing, which I call the “empowered girl,” which I think is bullshit. There are a lot of books written about it. The best is The Female Chauvinist Pig. There are these girls who have this idea that women are free to be completely sexual creatures (wouldn’t that be great?), but my argument is how? We’re not there yet. Can some people have that? Sure, especially when you’re older. For teenage girls, it’s almost impossible to be a sexual woman making her own sexual decisions and not being judged for that. All the old ways of talking about women are still there. The entire mainstream culture is still putting forth these stereotypes.

With this third thing, it’s more than just the double standard. This third thing is very prominent now. We think men and women are sexually equal, but the standards are still male.

What’s the best advice you have for young women interested in writing about sex?
I guess my best advice is to be as honest as possible. When writing about sex, the danger is it turning into porn, meaning sex detached from character. The best sex writing explores who a person it. Sex is one more way to explore character. It tells so much about the two people engaged in the sex act. Women who are trying to write about sex need to study it. It is a craft to be studied. There are narratives in our culture about women and sex—that they are passive during sex, that they are defined by male desire. Women writers need to learn how to subvert. The ways we are allowed to see women having sex in our culture are very limited.

We’re sexual creatures and sex is connected to who we are biologically and emotionally. It can’t be just sex scenes.

Check out Kerry’s website to read more about her books, news, and upcoming events. You can buy Loose Girl and Kerry’s other books at your favorite local bookstore, or online at Powells.com or Amazon.com.

21 thoughts on “Girl on Girl: Kerry Cohen

  1. Thank you for your comments. I’m glad that Kait’s interview has brought in new readers. I hope that you will continue to explore the PDXX Collective’s offerings of literary feminism. Please do remember to keep the exchanges civil. Cheers.

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      1. Thanks, Lisa. We’re trying to build a community of women who support each other in the hope that this will lead to more women in higher-ranking positions in publishing (and beyond), gender parity, and, of course the end of misogyny. Lofty goals!

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  2. Thank you, Lisa. I have indeed read several of Cohen’s books, as it is my job to do so.

    Memoir is a tricky forum. If a talented writer has a good personal story, it’s guaranteed it will be penned and shopped around. Some inspire. Some hit a relatable nerve. Some are unrelatable, uninspiring, and reek of self indulgence. Clearly Cohen’s audience can relate to her, therefore find her books inspiring. However, a vast majority of memoir readers see her works as I do. I’m not inspired–not by her words or her message.

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    1. “A vast majority of memoir readers?” This is always how I boost my position on something when I have nothing useful left to offer. Perhaps you have some inside information to which the rest of us are not privy, because last I heard, Loose Girl is still selling like crazy and Dirty Little Secrets has been nominated for an Oregon Book Award, along with Cohen’s other memoir, Seeing Ezra. Sounds like plenty of readers are inspired by her words and her message(s) to warrant author status among not just Portland writers, but writers everywhere.

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      1. Thank you Carolyn,
        Apparently, insightful posting is also a “tricky forum” and a vast majority of this post’s readers see your work as I do.

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  3. I think Kerry shines a light on something that SO MANY women struggle with in the dark. Does it really seem like an irrelevant idea that a woman would struggle through her early years feeling that the only way to be a whole person in this world is to act out sexually? I think not. It seems to me that it’s a lot more productive to lay it all out there than it is to pretend that we are somehow just born with the ability to feel great about ourselves. Apparently, other’s boost their self-esteem through trite [and hateful] commenting on a blog – if only for a moment.

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  4. I follow many Portland writers and it’s unfortunate this “author” is included in their company. Deep insecurity and self indulgence radiate from both of her memoirs, tales that she claims are meant to inspire actually translate as gratuitous attention seeking.

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    1. Carolyn, I adore that you put the word “author” in quotes…. but also find it telling that you disliked her memoir “loose girl” so much you proved it by reading “dirty little secrets” I sense deep insecurity and self indulgence in your attention seeking post.

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  5. Read this, and loved it, and love her. Kerry’s advice for women writing about sex is brilliant. (And Diana merely underscores what Kerry says about “All the old ways of talking about women are still there.”) Kudos to Kerry for exposing the truths and vulnerabilities behind the stereotypes.

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  6. Diana,
    Have you ever had sex or a hard life at all?… And who are you to Judge someone on their past… We all have skeletons in our closet and she is brave enough to tell about hers… You probably sit at home behind your computer judging people because you can not look at yourself. By the way have you ever heard of a wounded healer…most therapists are so that they can relate to other human beings…ITS CALLED EMPATHY!!!
    This book helped me at a time when I was lost, and I thank Cohen for being brave enough to write this book. Deep inner personal work does not come easy. I passed this book onto a friend and she passed it onto another. It helps to be heard and know that there is someone out there that can relate to you, and give you hope that you can change. Thank you Kerry!!

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  7. Recent controversies like the Steubenville Jane Doe rape case make talking about sexuality in relationship to girls/females more important than ever. I agree that the concept of the “empowered girl” is a nice one, but far from realistic at this point in time.

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  8. I loved this book, and have found Kerry’s work to be inspiring and motivational. When I read Loose Girl (and later, Dirty Little Secrets), I felt like she understood me better than I understood myself. Kerry’s self-reflection helped me to see myself differently. I think it takes tremendous courage to be honest about yourself, even — or maybe especially — those things about yourself that other people and our society have a lot of judgement about.

    Thanks for the interview!

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    1. Diana, therapists are human beings, too. And most of the time their perspective on their own flawed humanity helps them to help other people. Empathy and compassion come from hard-won experiences, often when receiving it ourselves when we least expect it.

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    2. Hate is such an ugly word. Diana, did you read Loose Girl, or just this interview? If you read the book, you should know that its central theme is what you said: boosting one’s self-esteem by being sexually desired. But it’s also about how this is not a healthy way to live. The author wrote an honest portrayal of her early adult life and how she broke out of that unhealthy pattern. It’s a cautionary tale that has helped many women struggling with the same issue. What’s to hate?

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    3. Boy she must be an AMAZING writer… if black and white words on a page can inspire hate (or love) or any strong emotion then the author has “it” I don’t know Kerry personally and haven’t read her book but your post just sent me off to Amazon.

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