The XX Factor

What One Editor Learned From Reading About Hundreds of Strangers’ Sex Lives

Use your imagination.

For the past six years, New York magazine has published a weekly sex diary, written by a new anonymous contributor each week, documenting all the hopeful first dates, ill-fated hookups, Craigslist scrolling sessions, and failed masturbation attempts one can experience in a seven-day period. (Check out this 2009 feature for an in-depth analysis of their collective romps.) The magazine discontinued the series this week, leaving Sex Diary readers without their weekly dose of voyeurism. I talked with the diary’s most recent editor, Rachel Kramer Bussel (she also edited the recent nonfiction volume Best Sex Writing 2013) about the sociopaths, suspicious gag reflexes, and potential love connections she encountered in 2 1/2 years on the job.

Slate: What was your process for sifting through strangers’ sex lives every week?

Rachel Kramer Bussel: Usually, a diarist would query first and tell me a little about his or her life. I’d have him start the diary and send me the first few days of material to get a sense of what was going on with him. Then, I’d ask him to flesh out the details a little. When people are writing about their own lives, they sometimes forget that readers don’t know the basic facts. At the same time, I was very careful to make sure there were no identifying details in the piece and even took things out that I sometimes felt were too specific.

Sometimes, the diarist would tell me he had a week in mind—like a visit from a long-distance partner or a trip to Burning Man. And I tried to pair them with relevant holidays, like this latest one timed to Mother’s Day. I really wanted to get a fashion insider to write a Fashion Week sex diary, but, as sometimes happened, people would start the diary and then get cold feet. You have to have somewhat of a thick skin to be honest about your sex life, even if you’re anonymous. 

Slate: Did you ever get submissions where you thought, “I don’t believe that actually happened”?

Kramer Bussel: A few. There was one where someone was vomiting from giving a blow job (and kept going), and that detail plus a few others were pretty over the top, so I didn’t run it. That being said, there were several diaries where I knew the diarist socially and felt totally sure what he or she was writing was true; the commenters didn’t. My impression is that when there were mentions of orgies, sex parties, or other things that seemed “out there,” people had more trouble believing them. What amused me was that commenters were generally disappointed when there was minimal or no sex in the diaries, but if there were many partners, the diarists would get critiqued for that, too. Diarists would sometimes apologize to me for not having as much action as they’d expected during the week they wrote about. We can’t always predict how much or what kind of sex we’d want to have. And personally, I wouldn’t want to.

Slate: Did you find yourself having any private opinions about these people or how they were conducting themselves? A couple of them sounded kinda sociopathic.

Kramer Bussel: Not really. Maybe because I’m used to reading about people’s sex lives in the rest of my work, but I try very hard not to judge. I wanted to give them as much freedom to share what they wanted to share as possible. I’m not sure I would’ve been able to do that if I was reading them for likability.

Slate: Do you think the sex diaries attracted a particular type of person?

Kramer Bussel: It definitely attracted people who, on some level, are exhibitionists. While most people were extremely protective of their privacy, a very select few were happy to link to their diaries or drop clues about their identities. But I definitely noticed that even people who seemed very gung-ho at the start would sometimes feel differently once it was out there. It can get tricky when you’re writing about people in your life. Even if you think you’re saying something praiseworthy, the other person may not think so. I’m not sure how many people told their partners they were writing diaries, but I suspect many didn’t. (I think either way is fine). There are lots of people who would have been great diarists but who saw the words sex diary and thought that meant they had to have the most outrageous, amazing, glamorous sex life imaginable, which was not at all a requirement. Some of the best diaries were the ones where the writers had strong opinions—and who doesn’t have strong opinions about who they’re sleeping with?

Slate: What were some of your favorite entries?

Kramer Bussel: I thought this gay sex addict one was particularly revelatory. And I’m not the world’s most organized person, so the idea that someone could be this organized about their lovers charmed me. But one of the most interesting parts of the series was the community that sprang up around the diaries. Readers took the diaries very personally. The diaries were entertainment, but the readers also wanted the diarists to be happy. I just got an email the other day from a former diarist who was interested in another diarist from last year and wanted me to pass on an email. I’d actually have expected to get a lot more matchmaking requests! I thought that was very sweet, especially because it was from a while ago. Obviously, that diarist made an impression. There are things people will reveal in an anonymous sex diary that they wouldn’t put in a personal ad or anywhere else.

Slate: What did editing more than 100 anonymous sex diaries teach you about humanity?

Kramer Bussel: One: We all have insecurities, even people who seem totally self-­assured. Along with the exhibitionism, there was a sense of wanting validation on some level—not necessarily approval, but just validation for themselves as a sexual person. Two: A good sex life is not necessarily about quantity over quality. I think that also goes for a good sex diary. Three: Everyone’s different. That sounds obvious, but I think we sometimes forget that when it comes to sex. What one person might consider hot, another might not. Sex and dating and attraction are very unpredictable, especially when we think we know what’s going to happen. That is probably the biggest thing I learned. 

Slate: So, did you ever write one?

Kramer Bussel: I may have.