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Amy Rose — Feels Like The First Time — Roundtable Sex Croppe
Photography Tina Tyrell, fashion John Colver

Feels Like The First Time

Meet the NY-based creatives traversing online space and printed matter to show girls that “sex is just a way to talk about other things”

Taken from the Spring/Summer 2016 issue of Dazed.

“Sex was the one thing I always told myself I wouldn’t cover as a writer,” says Amy Rose Spiegel. “I didn’t want to be one of those women.” But for a group of New-York-based, 20 something writers who’ve typed secrets into Rich Text boxes since they were teenagers, sharing isn’t a tool of provocation, but a necessity. This generation’s sex writing isn’t thrusting erotica, hidden under winking covers showing swollen, dripping fruit – it’s writing about life. It’s as much about breakfast, or how light falls on skin, as it is about boning.

Something happens to writing about your experiences when you’ve grown up in that online landscape. Words become warm with intimacy, and the complexities of sex – how we own it, who holds the power, how it can veer from ecstatic to painful, from absent to shared or solo – are made vulnerable and relatable. In her upcoming book Action, Spiegel shares an anecdote so small it could be unremarkable, in which Rex, a young Republican, removes her boots for her. “What, guys don’t take your shoes offa you? You’re too good for those idiots.” It’s one of those quietly revelatory moments, in the midst of physical closeness with a new person, when someone is kind – sometimes enough to change the way you think about yourself.

A book “about sex that people won’t be embarrassed to read on public transportation”, Spiegel’s debut straddles memoir and beauty how-to manual, with chapter titles like ‘Steps to Becoming Self-Actualized and Fly as the Heavens in a Jiffy’. Her friend, Arabelle Sicardi, who runs an advice column at Teen Vogue, is a new-generation agony aunt who writes about beauty as a tool of self-care, survival and identity. Larissa Pham’s Cum Shots newsletter for Nerve ended recently: tender and explicit, her e-letters shared snapshots like the grey bubbles of iPhone ellipses growing across a screen mid-sext, or her braindust after a visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art, LA. Ashley Reese writes about the experience of being 25 and not having had intercourse for her Accidental Virgin column for The Gloss. “I’m tired of using my illicit imagination to try and imagine what sex is like,” she wrote in a recent column, bringing a conversation about virginity, and whatever the hell that is, to the table.

All these women write words that spark mutual epiphanies in comment boxes, or in unspoken synchronicity among the recipients of a mailing list: Nobody warned us about this surprise second-coming adolescence! Words that fill a gap, left over from our teenage selves – about what we do with our bodies, and who we share them with. You know that feeling when you’re in the middle of texting a friend, sending flame emojis back and forth and you’re grinning ear to ear, or when you underline a sentence in a book because you feel like a light has been switched on? That’s how reading, and writing, about sex should feel.

You all share a history of writing publicly on the internet. Why did you start writing through those open platforms, and have they influenced the confessional style in your writing? 

Arabelle Sicardi: I started writing on the internet when I was 15. I was one of the first fashion bloggers, and I loved the writing aspect – way more than I did presenting myself as a marketable outfit thing. I wrote so I wouldn’t feel alone. I made friends with people like Amy Rose and other Rookie writers when I was just getting started, and we all learned together. Tavi and I learned about feminism at the same time because Elizabeth (Olson), another Rookie writer, sent us Sassy magazine, so we were having these conversations with women of different generations and they were like our sisters.

Amy Rose Spiegel: Having that place, that outlet, made the internet feel more personal on the whole, I would say. Because I was able to see it as the official ‘forum space’ for all these people that I really loved to go and share their work and interact.

Ashley Reese: I started a LiveJournal when I was 13. Sharing my random shit with people from all over the world has definitely made sharing my sex life on the internet seem not weird to me, especially since I knew that people weren’t talking in terms of virginity past your teens into your 20s.

Larissa Pham: I used to write on Tumblr under a pseudonym, Lotus. I was going through high school, writing poems, figuring out what it felt like to do things for the first time. It was very much this community of women on the internet writing about their lives together, who would write to feel less alone.

Does writing about sex and identity in a confessional way feel like a personal necessity to you? 

Amy Rose: I loved thinking about sex, I loved writing about it for myself and I looked at the degree of fear that I had about sharing it. I was very, very worried about how people would judge me, and then it became clear: it didn’t matter. (Readers) aren’t going to be like, ‘Oh, she’s a person who has decided to do something with her body that literally since time began people have been doing with their bodies.’ That’s not something that I need to be wary of.

Larissa: When I pitched Cum Shots to Nerve I wanted to create this nuanced portrait of a young woman’s sexuality, ’cos I didn’t feel like there were very many representations of it that were interesting to read and not just salacious. No one cares how many people you’ve slept with. And no one really even cares how you have sex.

Amy Rose: Yes! ‘No one cares how many people you’ve had sex with, and no one really cares how you’ve had sex!’ When I understood that in my writing and in my life… it was the best feeling.

Ashley: I got a couple of comments from people who were like, ‘You’re talking about this? How are you talking about your fear of penises on this platform?’ When you’re not talking about sex in the most clinical way, someone will have something to say about it.

Arabelle: All of you have written positively about sex, whereas the only sex writing I’ve done was about trauma and abuse. I wrote that essay about gaslighting (a form of psychological abuse that causes a person to question their own reality) for other people – for the teen girl that didn’t get to read that before she embarked on a garbage relationship, or something. But writing about sex is more about therapy for me than it is about being authentic, whatever that means.

Larissa: I think there’s a misconception for people that (writing about sex) is a sex-positive thing. With Cum Shots, people would text me (saying), ‘Oh my God, you broke my heart again.’ This isn’t happy writing a lot of the time. Sex is just a way to talk about other things. You poke sex and a bunch of stuff comes out: power comes out, abuse comes out, emotions come out, trauma comes out, race relations come out.

“There are as many different stories about sex as there are people. And I just want to read more of them. I want everyone to write about sex” — Amy Rose Spiegel

But what about privacy? How does deciding what to withhold play into it? 

Larissa: I think you can (share) in a way that’s generous and offers something really valuable, but I definitely don’t think that everything I write to figure out my life should be shared with everyone.

Arabelle: Yeah, I love not sharing. My favourite thing is to withhold and remind people that they don’t own my image on the internet. There’s a lot of entitlement in spaces like memoir writing, and writing for women and nonbinary people. People assume they know the entire context of your existence because you try to be honest with them. I had stalkers in high school and college because people didn’t understand boundaries with me as a teen writer. I would rather be a mysterious writer and change (people’s) minds about some things for a while and they can forget me in a couple of years.

Amy Rose: For me, it’s about finding the ethics of writing about myself honestly without impacting the people I love in a way that is unfair. I have a right to my story and I have the space to present my own version of events. My family doesn’t, my boyfriend doesn’t; how do I contend with that? 

Ashley: I definitely feel that. Soon after I started Accidental Virgin I had a date with the person who is now my long-term boyfriend. The column is definitely about me, but he is also a part of it. I’ve never written his name in the column – of course, someone can easily think, ‘Let me see this guy who is on her Instagram,’ but I don’t want to have to do that for them. At the same time, this is about me writing my experiences. It would be hard to be with someone who was like, ‘I don’t want you to ever write anything about your sex life because I’m intrinsically linked to it.’

What were the narratives that you craved when you were younger, that you felt were missing? Are those gaps you’ve tried to fill through your own writing? 

Ashley: Sometimes (in my column) I wouldn’t write specifically about sex, I would write about something like interracial relationships because that’s also part of my sex life. I can’t detach the fact that my boyfriend is white and sometimes that gives me, like, weird feelings. I can’t detach those things from my sex life and how I look at power and gender. This isn’t just about us talking about anatomy. 

Larissa: Something I wanted to do in my column – and that I think about a lot – is what kind of models, what kind of narratives can we offer people? I’m an Asian-American girl, I get fetishised all the time, and I did not see any experiences that looked like mine. I felt like shit through most of college because people treated me like shit and I had horrible sexual experiences, horrible relationships, and there was all this trauma. What if someone had represented that for me? What if someone had just told me, ‘This is what you’re going to encounter, this is what it looks like.’ 

Ashley: I never had a relationship in high school or college so it’s amazing, in a terrible way, that I realised people were hyper-sexualising me regardless. I wish I’d had access to narratives about black women and their sex lives and how they’re just as nuanced as everyone fucking else’s. Where’s the narrative of other neurotic black girls like me who are curious about sex but also terrified of it, and have just as many complex approaches to sex as everyone else?

That’s the kind of thing I also wanted to read when I was younger and starting to be curious about sex, but also really scared and shamed by having my sexuality demonstrated to me by men shouting at me from vans when I was 12. I wanted to figure it out quietly by myself... 

Amy Rose: I’m so sick of seeing people through the lens that other groups have decided for them. Sex workers, people of colour, queer people… all fucking people. 

Ashley: I get uncomfortable with this dismissive tone towards people who write personal things. The fact that it’s also very gendered makes me uncomfortable. Also, the fact is that a lot of this personal kind of writing does give a voice to a lot of marginalised people. 

Amy Rose: I think the most honest and kind and generous sort of writing is when you show yourself to the world and you’re realistic about your experience. It cultivates more of the same from other people. I think that it should, once it’s become clear that you can do this without having to reduce yourself to the stories that are expected of you. It’s valuable for everyone. I think that sex writing can be such a form of erasure if you’re saying, ‘Here’s the rad way to have sex that everyone (else) is doing.’ It’s thinking about what you’ve done and thinking about what you haven’t done, and not being dogmatic. Everything is normal. 

Ashley: Having people write to me saying, ‘This made me feel not so weird anymore’ was important to me. If one post can make someone feel better about not enjoying penetration or something that they think they’re supposed to like, that’s important. Amy Rose: There are as many different stories about sex as there are people. And I just want to read more of them. I want everyone to write about sex.

Amy Rose: There are as many different stories about sex as there are people. And I just want to read more of them. I want everyone to write about sex.

But how do you navigate that line between owning your own narrative, and protecting it from being a process of emotional mining for the benefit (and commercial gain) of others? 

Larissa: I used to write a lot about trauma, but I don’t want that anymore. I know the person who did those essays because she was me. I see that I needed to do it and would not begrudge anyone who wanted to write that – but I’m really grateful that those pieces I wrote did not get me torn down. 

Arabelle: I decided to stop writing personal essays. I didn’t want to be part of the complex where the (online publishing) industry exploits people for their trauma. I’m happy that people can articulate through those experiences, but the fact it’s like this trauma grocery store is weird to me. If I’m going to be writing about sex, I’ll write about desire and wanting through the perspective of beauty. 

Larissa: One of my last Cum Shots columns was called ‘La Cave’ and it was about depression. Someone emailed me after I sent it out and was like, ‘Hey, that was really good and there wasn’t even a sex scene in it’ – and I was like, ‘Yeah, you get it.’ This was a journey, we went on this journey together and we made it out the other side.