We Need to Talk About This

Give me a minute to step on my soapbox.
Give me a minute to step on my soapbox.

Last month, I interviewed Kerry Cohen, author of Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity. This was my first time interviewing someone after I had read her memoir, which is an experience where the intimacy you feel with someone from reading the personal details of their lives matches with the reality of talking to that person. I found Kerry to be an incredible person, not only as a writer, but as someone who has thought deeply on the subject of female sexuality. I looked up to her as someone who is not afraid to go personal, to say the things that make others feel uncomfortable, and to speak openly about a subject that too often is forced into categories: “shameful” or “secret.” I’m talking of course about sex, a subject I love to talk about. It’s also a subject I love to write and read about.

When we started the PDXX Collective, we wanted to create a space online where women could feel a sense of community as writers, readers, and thinkers. We wanted a place not so much for news and politics (there’s some), but for our own creativity in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. For me, this became a place to explore sexuality through fiction and essays. Once I realized I could use this space for interacting with other writers interested in the same subject, I became even more excited for the possibilities these dialogues could create.

Then I posted Kerry’s interview and commenters broke a piece out of my online sexually expressive utopia. Kerry had warned me that people responded quite extremely to her book, either in the negative or the positive. Unfortunately for our interview, a few commenters came through who seemed hell bent on attacking Kerry. This was the first time the Collective had to respond to this kind of interaction. Honestly, I was caught off guard. I know that the Internet is full of commenters and many of them don’t say nice things, but it shattered my ideal of what a feminist blog community could look like.

I struggled with censorship. The point of the Collective is open dialogue, so to take down comments just because I didn’t like them/agree with them was a difficult choice. In the end, we did delete one particularly nasty comment and noted that it had been removed. The Internet is a wonderful place for people to feel anonymous, and from that anonymity comes the feeling that we can say anything we want. I feel it when I sit alone in my room and rant about sex–though people will read it eventually, at first it’s only the computer screen and me, and that makes it easy to say anything I want. But eventually these words will reach other computer screens. I hope commenters will think about that the next time they post a comment that they hate an author. At the very least, I hope they ask themselves, “Would I say this to this person’s face?”

I’d like to hope the Internet could be a safe place for people to express their ideas (especially women writing about sexuality) without being attacked, but the Internet won’t ever be that until the real world is more like that first.

2 thoughts on “We Need to Talk About This

  1. “I’d like to hope the Internet could be a safe place for people to express their ideas (especially women writing about sexuality) without being attacked, but the Internet won’t ever be that until the real world is more like that first.”

    I mean this with as little snark as humanly possible…

    When did the Internet stop being the real world? Most of us spend more time here than at the grocery store. Doesn’t every community have detractors? Isn’t that what generally provokes deeper thought and productive discourse?

    Doesn’t real feminist strength come from our ability to stand up for ourselves and for what we believe in (whether others agree or not)?

    Though I understand and appreciate your desire for safety and for defending Kerry and her work (I really do – I wish more people were as kind and well-meaning) – Kerry is well-seasoned professional writer who seems (from your comments) quite used to being the eye of the storm.

    Isn’t that, after all, what art is supposed to stimulate? Thoughts, arguments, feelings, reactions….?

    I just wanted to weigh in that my opinion is that censoring a comment that clearly sparked a lively and interesting debate – and lots and lots of thought may not have been the most productive move. What would a community be without the texture and interest provided by discourse?

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    1. Thanks for taking the time to respond to my post. This is the kind of response I like. It’s thoughtful, and while you disagreed with some of what I said, you told me so without throwing unnecessarily mean language around.

      To answer your questions: I think the Internet is different from the real world much of the time because people behave differently on the Internet. There isn’t the same immediate repercussion. If an audience member stood up at a reading and yelled that they hated the author and dropped a few f-bombs, I imagine they would be removed from the reading. That is not always the case with the Internet.

      And I do want detractors! You’re right that our conversations wouldn’t be as lively if we all agreed, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask that people make their arguments without resorting to harsh statements like, “She’s fucked up.” I don’t think hateful language adds much texture to our conversations. The one comment we did remove contained that kind of language and not much else. You’ll notice that we did keep other comments that expressed disagreement with Kerry’s writing because they made real points. From their, others wrote back in defense, and that is how I think these comments should work. Everyone states their opinions and argues their points, but does it in away that isn’t meant to personally break people down. I think a feminist community should be about building each other up.

      I hope I didn’t come across as some kind of censoring overlord. I want people to respond to my posts, but I think people should only say things online that they feel comfortable saying in real life. Do you think that’s too much to ask? I don’t know. I never took debate in high school so maybe I’m just bad at this stuff.

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