The Ultimate Overdetermined Text

Two sex memoirs remind us that one woman’s degrading encounter can be another’s delirium of abandon.

Sexual pleasure is complicated.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

“Society’s experiencing growing pains when it comes to female sexual autonomy,” writes Karley Sciortino in her new memoir Slutever: Dispatches From a Sexually Autonomous Woman in a Post-Shame World. Sciortino, 31, who’s been writing a sex blog since her teens, isn’t wrong about those growing pains. There ought to be no conflict between the Sherman’s March that the #MeToo movement is currently making through the ranks of skeevy, abusive, powerful men and the liberation Sciortino preaches. Yet Slutever, an engagingly devil-may-care account of Sciortino’s many erotic escapades, feels a shade off trend politically. The self-determination to say “Yes” without shame is the flip side of the freedom to say “No,” yet the public conversation seems only able to focus on one at a time. Women who protest having men’s sexual desires imposed on them in the workplace are persistently, even willfully, misread as wilting neo-Victorian pseudo-virgins by #MeToo skeptics, while the harassers themselves seem to believe that women, in choosing to be sexually active, forfeit any right to choose what they do and who they do it with. The madonna-whore complex dies hard.

Complicating matters are the more ambiguous narratives the #MeToo revolution has brought to light, like’s much-deplored story on an alienating sexual encounter a young woman had with comedian Aziz Ansari. Such incidents—more bad sex than outright harassment or assault—demonstrate how sex is, as a Freudian literary theorist might put it, the ultimate overdetermined text. Sex acts in and of themselves have no meaning—which is not to say that people don’t find meaning in them, only that those meanings are always of our own making and can vary wildly from one person to the next. We really drive ourselves nuts when we insist that the significance of blowjobs or anal intercourse or strap-ons or whatever can or should be fixed and universal.

Erica Garza and her book "Getting Off: One Woman's Journey Through Sex and Porn Addiction."
Erica Garza
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Rachael Lee Stroud.

Take another just-published memoir, Erica Garza’s Getting Off: One Woman’s Journey Through Sex and Porn Addiction. It opens with a scene meant to represent a particularly low point: A man Garza doesn’t much care about comes by, as he often has, for a hookup. When they’re done, he departs after a few token conversational exchanges, a pretense of the intimacy that neither one feels. Alone, Garza masturbates to a porn clip and to “the thought of what a miserable slut I am to allow a guy like Clay to use me for sex.” The encounter, not at all unusual for Garza at the time, gives her a feeling of “immediate emptiness.” Even the sex does little for her; she describes staring at the ceiling and thinking about spackling as he pumps away at her. What really gets her going is the memory of how much she’s degraded herself, “an elaborate mix of shame and sexual excitement I had come to depend on since I was 12 years old.”

Garza’s description of that mix makes it tempting to quip that Getting Off could be summarized in two words: raised Catholic. But so could the not-at-all ashamed Slutever: Both Garza and Sciortino grew up in ethnically homogenous Catholic communities (Garza in an upscale Latino enclave in Southern California, Sciortino in a more working-class, predominantly Italian American town in upstate New York). Both became fascinated by sex and pornography as girls. Both are bisexual, and both have gang-bang fantasies. In many instances, Garza and Sciortino relate strikingly similar experiences or relationships, yet each woman interprets these events in a radically different way.

Sciortino, living in New York and dating a depressive musician, became involved on the side with a louche older man whose “casual pervertedness” and mild sadism she found thrilling. He “loaned” her out to a friend visiting from out of town and once sent her a text that read, “Be home at 8. Tired but would be good to beat u.” (“I treasured it like a love letter,” she adds.) He rebuffed all attempts to make their relationship more established, telling her, “Maybe, if you get famous, I’ll consider impregnating you.” Sciortino doesn’t regard any of these incidents as abusive. To the contrary, she views this man as both a playmate and a mentor, “the first person to make me feel like my sex life wasn’t something to be ashamed of but rather part of what made me interesting—like my sluttiness was a sign of my curiosity about life.” The details of these interactions may sound appalling, but in the context of their ironic, theatrical, kinky, debauched relationship, they liberated Sciortino, for whom her lover is “the sort of guy who just didn’t judge you, and who wanted you to be the most powerful version of yourself possible.”

Garza has a version of this relationship, an affair with a shady businessman with whom sex was often “painful. Both physically and emotionally. There was a lot of choking, slapping, and hair pulling involved, and he’d always find a way to verbally demean me … Most of the things he said were things that I had thought before, but nobody had ever spoken them aloud like this.” Like Sciortino, Garza finds all of this arousing, but unlike Sciortino, she feels terrible about it, convinced that the relationship is a manifestation of her own self-hatred.

Later, Garza would live with a filmmaker who promised to pay for everything while she worked on her writing career, a relationship that on the surface looked supportive but that soon devolved into dependency: She’d spend her days obsessively grooming her body, masturbating, and brooding over his exes, and her evenings dreading the moments when his friends asked her, “So Erica, what do you do?” The couple had, she now realizes, little in common. Even though their relationship was her first not to “revolve around sex,” she seems to have been little more than a lifestyle accessory chosen for her willingness to accommodate him in every respect. A recovering alcoholic, this man was the first person to suggest that Garza might be a sex addict. He also asked her to marry him. She said yes, then went on Zoloft, which, combined with Xanax, made her an anorgasmic semi-zombie well-suited to this plan. Yet somehow she managed to get into an MFA program, decided to move out of the filmmaker’s loft, and after that never spoke to him again. Theirs was a relationship full of the conventional signifiers of psychological “health” but nevertheless hollow at its core.

Karley Sciortino and her book "Slut Ever."
Karley Sciortino
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ashley Armitage for Viceland.

For her part, Sciortino, sick of waiting tables, signed onto a website created to connect “sugar daddies” with young women willing to exchange a spectrum of sexual and emotional services for cash. She “dated” five rich men, all of whom she claims to have “genuinely liked,” although not well enough to devote much of her book to them. What she really liked was the chance to be financially comfortable for the first time in her life. For Sciortino, this was a job like any other: “Sure, sometimes I’d be hungover in bed looking at memes, and the last thing on earth I’d want to do was go to the Upper West fucking Side and stroke some millionaire’s ego and then have really performative sex—the last thing on earth.” But in the end, she writes, it was both lucrative and “more interesting than handing drunk people dumplings.” She felt far more exploited, she claims, working for “Vice and at other culture magazines, where my labor was clearly under appreciated and I was drastically underpaid.”

For Sciortino, sex is a perpetual fount of discovery and adventure. For Garza, it’s a minefield. The American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists has issued a position paper asserting that sex addiction—what Garza believes to be the cause of her problem—does not exist, and urging its members to “utilize models that do not unduly pathologize consensual sexual behaviors.” But whatever lies at the root of Garza’s suffering, to argue that she should just learn to experience her desires as Sciortino does would be pointless. People have sex not only for physical pleasure or to feel close to their partners but—more often than they’re willing to admit—for myriad other reasons that may have little to do with the present company. Because they want to feel virile, or feminine; because they want to feel younger or more mature; to compete with or get back at someone else; to avoid acknowledging who they’re really attracted to; because they want to think of themselves as spontaneous or hedonistic or powerful; because the opportunity’s right here and it may not come again; to defy someone who told them not to; because they want to tell their friends about it; because they’re bored. Can anyone doubt that for Donald Trump, grabbing women by the pussy was far less exciting than boasting to Billy Bush about getting away with it? Garza’s life seems to have been a long quest for and a rebellion against externally imposed authority (that Catholic thing); shame may be both the price she has paid for her wayward sexual behavior and its reward, the proof that her disobedience can never be entirely subdued.

Even a self-professed sexpert like Sciortino, determined to be open-minded, can find it hard to respect the infinite variety of human lust. In a recent interview, she condemned sexual assault (because who doesn’t?) but then sounded a disappointing cautionary note about “female sexual victimhood.” “If we want to be able to have the same sexual freedoms that men have,” she insisted, “we can’t be fragile.” But what if you actually are fragile, emotionally and sexually? What if—God forbid!—you’re a sexually fragile man? Does that relegate you to the ranks of the unfree, obliged to endure the boorish overtures and callous treatment of your bolder, freer betters? How free is a freedom that’s not equitably distributed? Sciortino should celebrate her sluttiness, and reclaim the word for a new generation of adventurers. But she, of all people, ought to know better than to lecture other women on how to conduct and feel about their sex lives.

The best sexual encounters happen between people who find similar or compatible meanings in what they do together, whether it’s two holy virgins on their wedding night or Sciortino and her pervy friend. The bad ones, like the evening the pseudonymous “Grace” spent with Aziz Ansari, occur when the participants bring narratives that are diametrically opposed. As recounted, however clumsily, by reporter Katie Way, this was clearly a meeting between two people who envisioned themselves as the protagonists of very different movies. Hers was a romantic comedy about a plucky young nobody who enchants a star—Hugh Grant in Notting Hilland his was a porno about a famous guy to whom women offer themselves up willy-nilly. Their tryst was a threesome, the third party—perhaps the true object of desire for each?—being Ansari’s celebrity. If both Grace and Ansari took too long in recognizing just how badly off the rails the night had gone, it was because they were paying more attention to his fame and their fantasies about it than to each other.

It’s not hard to see why Grace felt violated: Our dreams can be as precious to us as our bodies. But in the conversations I had with female friends after the story appeared, several expressed disgust with Ansari for thinking that any woman would enjoy his porny moves, particularly one in which, as Grace relates, he kept “taking his two fingers in a V-shape and putting them in my mouth, in my throat to wet his fingers.” Yet there are surely women out there for whom the scenario Ansari tried to enact with Grace would be just the ticket—though probably not as many as Ansari wishes. One woman’s degrading encounter can be another’s delirium of abandon.

No anecdote in either of these two books makes this point better than a story Sciortino tells about the “intense, voraciously sexual romance” she had with a Scotsman while she was living in the converted stairwell of a squat in London. She once got her period during sex and “he just reached down, grabbed a handful of blood, shoved it into my mouth and then violently made out with me.” Her reaction? “I was like… ‘Wait, are you the one?’ ” Just because hers is the minority response to such an action doesn’t make her enthusiasm any less sincere or valid. The story is a demonstration of how well the two knew and understood each other, the kind of intimacy that can’t be arrived at by resorting to shortcuts, assumptions, or prefab scripts. It has nothing to do with what “women” or “men” want—nonsensical notions—only with what one person and another person wanted at one particular point in time. And the only way anyone ever learned that was by asking.

Slutever: Dispatches From a Sexually Autonomous Woman in a Post-Shame World by Karley Sciortino. Grand Central Publishing.

Getting Off: One Woman’s Journey Through Sex and Porn Addiction by Erica Garza.
Simon & Schuster.

Read all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.