Justin Kern

Sarah Hepola’s Five Memoirists on Sex

My dirty secret about literature is that I’m always looking to put down a book. I read slowly. I have places to be. Some restless part of me wants out, which might be why I get so turned on when a book announces itself as something I cannot put down. Nope, the book says, you’re coming with me.

Lately, every author who has captured me like this has been a woman writing about her own sexual experience. These are not mere bedroom confessionals, but the whole messy tangle of physical intimacy: the shame and electricity of the body, the confounding nature of desire, the use of alcohol and drugs to both numb and excite, and the question of whether to run toward the ideal of female beauty, or to reject it altogether. Sex is a subject that can be so dull, because despite all the complication and excitement it can contain, people usually lie. How thrilling when someone tells the truth.


 1. Lidia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water

Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir, as the title suggests, is hard to pin down. It is about motherhood, about girlhood, about drinking and screwing yourself into oblivion and then finding your voice on the page. My copy is dog-eared and filled with underlined passages. “I was using my body as a sexual battering ram,” she writes of her pansexual experiences in graduate school. Of her flirtation with erotic violence, she writes, “I felt like I had pain in me that needed to come out.” The book is about rage, ecstasy, abuse, appetite, bad decisions and grace. It is one of the most full-throated depictions of being a woman I have ever read.


 2. Wendy C. Ortiz, Excavation

Wendy C. Ortiz tells the story of a five-year affair with her high school English teacher, alternating the perspective between the troubled girl who longs for drama, and the adult woman looking back and trying to make sense of it all. How did the entanglement warp her, and how did it instruct her? What was her role? Ortiz’s ability to render the hunger and heat-seeking of her teen self feels scary and familiar. She writes, “This is power in the curve of my hip, the way I turn to face him, the mystery of my turtleneck sweater, power in the sound of my whisper, power in the arch of my back and pout of my lips. This is fire, air, drowning, gushing, purging. This is illegal.”


3. Melissa Febos, Abandon Me 

Melissa Febos’s memoir doesn’t come out until February, but allow me to cheat a tiny bit and include it here. The story is about Febos’s all-consuming love affair with a woman. It is hot, and it is messed up, which is to say: Relatable. Febos’s previous memoir, Whip Smart, covered her time as a dominatrix and heroin user, so it’s not surprising that Febos has developed a preternatural insight into sex and addiction, which become desperately entwined in this tale. As she writes, “When I say that I lost myself in love I don’t mean that my lover took something from me. I mean that there was already something missing and I poured her into its place.”


4. Melissa Broder, So Sad Today

Certain books contain electricity. I feel a voltage in my fingers as I turn the pages, and I confess that after about 50 pages of So Sad Today, a collection of essays by the woman who writes the painfully hilarious Twitter account of the same name, I had to set the book aside for a while. It was so much, all at once. Melissa Broder writes very funny, very raw essays about compulsive sexting with Internet strangers; her desperate need for attention and her mistrust of real people; and a history of anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. She is a rainbow assortment of classic female diagnoses, and I love her for it. There is a two-sentence passage in the second chapter that stunned me. I swear I wrote a whole book on this subject and never approached this kind of direct hit: “When you are lonely and blacking out in strange places, you let other lonely people do what they want to you. You call it free love.”


5. Phoebe Gloeckner, Diary of a Teenage Girl 

I came to this book through the 2015 film of the same name, written and directed by Marielle Heller, which I also loved. Phoebe Gloeckner’s original graphic novel, published in 2002, is the semi-autobiographical tale of a 15-year-old girl who has an affair with her mother’s boyfriend. The book is composed of actual diary entries, which begin with typical rainbow hearts and adolescent delusions and slowly slump into a painful disillusionment. “I used to imagine us hugging each other and being warm in his bed and resting my head on his chest and hearing his heart beat. But it just never happened that way. We just fucked and fucked and it broke my beat and now I feel sick.” Like all of these authors, Gloeckner is trying to figure out the difference between sex and love, and between what she needs and what others want to take from her. She struggles, like of all us, to be the hero of her own story.


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