Author, 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.