Five Books That Changed My (Sex) Life

You will be unsurprised to know that, as a writer, books hold an extremely important place in my life. There are many things I am grateful to my mother for (she’s a pretty awesome lady) but one of the biggest is instilling a love of books in me when I was very young. Through the toughest points in my life, I’ve turned to reading for information, for comfort, for that priceless feeling of not being alone.

But this is, after all, a sex blog. So today I want to tell you a little about five of the books that profoundly impacted my sex life.

A shelf of books
Image by me, feat. one of my many bookshelves.

Come As You Are – Emily Nagoski

I read this one on a flight to Italy. Goddess knows what the people around us thought, when I kept reading out interesting snippets to Mr CK!

Nagoski’s message is, in brief, that we are all normal and we are all fine exactly as we are. She explores concepts such as spontaneous vs responsive desire, and the congruence gap between reported mental desire and genital response. (If you haven’t watched her recent TED talk on this very thing, please do so, it’s fucking brilliant).

Come As You Are taught me how to stop worrying so much about being “normal”. It taught me how to stop saying “I should feel X,” and start saying “I feel Y, and that’s okay”. And perhaps most important, it approaches these concepts through actual, hard science that cannot be argued with. It’s a warmfuzzy affirmation of your deepest desires wrapped up in a blanketof irrefutable evidence, and it’s perfection.

“Even if you don’t yet feel that way, you are already sexually whole and healthy. The science says so. I can prove it.”

Get your copy now.

The New Topping Book & The New Bottoming Book by Dossie Easton & Janet Hardy

Okay, I’ve cheated here because these are actually two books. But I kind of conceptualise them as two halves of one whole, so they’re getting a shared entry.

These were the first two books I ever read about BDSM, when I was barely nineteen and only just coming to the realisation that I wasn’t the only person in the world who got aroused from being spanked and verbally degraded.

As a new submissive, I devoured The Bottoming Book. I absorbed all its lessons on how to get horrible things done to me by wonderful people in a safe and respectful way. I credit it, in large part, with quelling the rising sub-frenzy and preventing me from spiraling too quickly down a path I was ill-equipped to handle. Even now, I throw it at new and young submissives frequently. I’ve lost count of how many people have borrowed my copy.

I’ve actually read The Topping Book twice. Firstly, from a purely academic perspective – as a submissive, I wanted to understand the Dominant perspective better. It fascinated me, but I didn’t feel any pull to do those things. Much later, when I started exploring my switchy side, I read it again with a more practical application in mind.

These books are, even all these years after their initial release, still the best 101 guides on the market, bar none.

“We bottom in order to go to places within ourselves and with our partners that we cannot get to without a top. To explore these spaces, we need someone to push us over the edge in the right ways, and to keep us safe while we’re out there flying.”

rel=”nofollow”Get The New Topping Book.
Get The New Bottoming Book.

Trauma and Recovery – Dr Judith Herman

I debated long and hard about including this one. It is not actually a book about sex, kink or any of that good stuff. But actually, it had such a profound impact I couldn’t not include it.

I first approached this book, a dense academic text, at twenty-one and barely out of my first long term abusive relationship. I’ve since referred back to it countless times, especially over the last three years as I try to recover from the worst abusive dynamic of my life.

What this book taught me is that my response to the trauma I’ve suffered is normal. It reassured me that I’m *allowed* to struggle with PTSD even though I’m not a military veteran or childhood sexual abuse survivor. It spoke so profoundly to what was going on in my head, and in my life, that I was frequently reduced to sobbing reading it. I usually couldn’t read more than a few pages at a time. Through Dr Herman’s words, I learned that I could recover with time and the proper support… but that it was and is 100% okay to not be fully “there” yet.

“In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure no one listens.”

Get your copy.

Opening Up by Tristan Taormino

There are a lot of how-to books on polyamory on the market now. However, amidst all of them, Opening Up stands out to me as the most rational, sane, compassionate and balanced of them all.

What I love about this book, which I read when I was relearning how to do polyamory after escaping an abusive situation, was how many options Taormino presents the reader with. She doesn’t dictate, as so many how-to books do, that Relationship Anarchy and The Church Of No Rules is the only way to do things right. Instead, she treats relationships as a create-your-own-adventure story, and offers us a smorgasbord of possibilities to pick and choose from. Amidst all this, there are practical tips on time management, communication skills, jealousy busting, and more.

This book came into my life at the perfect time. What it taught me is that I do not have to live up to anyone else’s idea of The Perfect Poly Person, no matter how many books they’ve sold or how many events they’ve spoken at. Instead, all I need to do is collaborate with my partners to create something that works for us.

“Nonmonogamous folks are constantly engaged in their relationships: they negotiate and establish boundaries, respect them, test them, and, yes, even violate them. But the limits are not assumed or set by society; they are consciously chosen.”

The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti

Ah, virginity. Has there ever been a topic to provoke so much judgement and angst and stigma? A long time ago, the man who I first had PIV sex with (I don’t believe “losing one’s virginity” is a meaningful concept) made it clear that my value was in my “purity”. I was precious to him because no-one else had touched me, like an expensive work of art you keep behind a glass case lest anyone else get their dirty fingerprints on it. A while later, the second man I had PIV sex with berated me for not having “waited for him,” because – being the youngest woman he’d ever fucked – I represented the closest he’d ever come to “taking a girl’s virginity”. A right, he believed, that I had denied him by shagging someone else three years before I met him.

As a result of these experiences, I’ve dealt with a lot of shame around my level of sexual experience. I fuck a lot of people, and have a lot of casual sex, and 90% of the time I’m more experienced than my sexual partners regardless of their gender. This book showed me how the “cult of virginity” has been manufactured by the patriarchy in order to control women’s bodies, and by extension women’s lives. It showed me that virginity is a medically meaningless concept, and that the only value it has is that imbued by sex-negative, patriarchal, anti-woman culture.

Valenti’s book gave me the permission to go “yeah purity is a bullshit concept”. It helped me to fully embrace my sexual experiences, past and present, as part of the rich tapestry that make me who I am. As a feature, if you like, not a bug.

“The idea at play here is that of “morality.” When young women are taught about morality, there’s not often talk of compassion, kindness, courage, or integrity. There is, however, a lot of talk about hymens.”

Get your copy.

What books had a profound impact on YOUR sex lives, friends?

If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting me on Patreon or buying me a virtual coffee! It helps me keep doing what I’m doing and bringing fabulous content to you all.

Communication When Your Partner is Carrying Trauma

It’s #KinkMonth! I’m celebrating by writing posts inspired by Kayla Lords’ fabulous 30 Days of D/s project. #KinkMonth is brought to you by Lovehoney, who are currently offering 2-for-£15 on gorgeous sexy stockings, as well as lots of other exciting sales.

Today, we’re discussing my second favourite c-word. No, not CUNT (that’s my first favourite.) It’s COMMUNICATION. Communication, the experts will have you believe, is the key to life, the universe and everything. (Or was that 42? I forget.)

Anyhow, today, Kayla and John ask:

What is your communication style? What happens when you try to communicate your thoughts or needs?

I can be hard to communicate with. This is a thing I know about myself. I do consider myself to be overall a good communicator, but these skills have been hard won and it hasn’t been smooth sailing. Sometimes I jump to the worst possible conclusion in a single leap, sometimes I find it hard to believe what my partner is saying to me even as they’re spelling it out in plain English, sometimes I look for the hidden meaning behind their words when there isn’t one.

This is all because I am still carrying trauma from past abusive relationships. Of course, it is my responsibility to deal with this stuff, which I am doing with the help of a therapist. However, there’s definitely a role for my partners to play. So here are a few things I’ve learned are helpful in communicating with me. Everyone is different, but if your partner is carrying trauma, here are some communication hacks I’ve found to be helpful.

Be prepared to offer reassurance.

Your partner might need to hear that you’re not mad at them, or that the discussion at hand – even if it’s a conflict – doesn’t mean the end of your relationship. They might need to hear that you still love them, that you value them, that they’re a good person, that everything is okay. Ask them what reassurance is meaningful to them. This is especially important if their love language is “words of affirmation.”

Be prepared to repeat yourself sometimes.

These things might not go in the first time. Or even if they do, they might need repeating the next time a conflict or important discussion arises. When someone is traumatised through abuse, the trauma is drilled into them over weeks, months or years – they’re hit with it again and again. You cannot expect to say something once and have it overwrite a trauma-driven narrative immediately.

Say exactly what you mean.

This isn’t the time for coded messages, hidden meanings or vagueness. Be clear, be xplicit, and don’t play head games where they have to “work out” what’s going on.

Speak and behave calmly.

Don’t shout. Try not to raise your voice. Watch your body-language and make sure it’s not intimidating. Clenching your fists, hitting or throwing objects, or even standing over someone who is sitting or lying down can all feel really threatening.

Don’t succumb to personal attacks.

“I felt upset when I came home late and had to do the dishes, despite you being at home all day” is a statement of what happened and your feelings about it. This is a great place from which to start a conversation! “You’re so lazy” (/stupid/inconsiderate/etc.) is a personal attack. You shouldn’t do this to anyone, but doing it to a person with relational trauma can be triggering and can seriously erode trust.

Above all: ask.

Ask your partner how they want to be communicated with! Ask them what makes them feel safe and heard, and what makes them shut down. And most importantly: listen to the answer and behave accordingly.

Kinky item of the day: This lovely blindfold, which is currently on sale. Sensory deprivation can be sexy as fuck!

Sex Educator Interview #3: Dawn Serra

The latest interview in this series comes from Dawn Serra, sex educator extraordinaire and host of the amazing Sex Gets Real podcast. I’ve reached out to Dawn for advice before, as have many other people, and I’ve always found her to be one of the most open-minded, affirming and compassionate educators around. I’m absolutely thrilled she agreed to take part and give us a little peek into her world.

The header image of the Sex Gets Real podcast by Dawn Serra

Tell us a little bit about you and the work you do?

Officially, I’m a sex educator, sex podcaster, and a sex & relationship coach. But what those titles actually mean is I’ve dedicated myself to shame reduction, resilience building, emotional & sexual intelligence development, and helping people find words for things that feel scary or awkward. I’ve learned that what people really need is permission – permission to ask questions, permission to explore, permission to let go of stories that hurt them, and I try to do that every day by connecting the dots between the cultural stories and systems of oppression that keep us all trapped in pain and disconnection, and then giving people new tools and skills for moving in the direction they’d like to move.

What first made you want to be a sex educator and run a sex podcast?

I’ve always been the person my friends came to with sex questions and confessions, even in middle school and high school. Then, in my early 20’s, I started selling sex toys with one of those in-home party companies. While the company & products were problematic, it gave me a chance to talk with hundreds of women, one-on-one, about their deepest fears and shame.

It cracked me open in ways that surprised me, and I knew it was work I wanted to keep doing. It was fascinating to watch groups of women socially interacting with each other around sex. Many of them were loud and laughing, telling these wild stories about their sex life, very Sex and the City, but then behind closed doors with me would admit they’d never had an orgasm or didn’t know they were allowed to use a sex toy with a partner. Others would be quiet and shy during the group portion of the party, and then break down crying in private with me over their deep sense of shame, of being a disappointment to their partners. I started realizing just how many of us are performing what we think sex is supposed to be and look like without actually experiencing it in a way that made sense for us.
That was the beginning.

My podcast, Sex Gets Real, got started was because my friend, Dylan, and I heard some terrible advice about strap-on sex from a shock-jock Playboy type of podcast. We just could not let it go. We were angry at how wrong it was, and that people were actually listening. So, on a whim, we decided our voices were needed. A few days later, we recorded our first episode and now I’m nearing 200 episodes and 3 million downloads. Whoa.

How did you break into the industry and how does one ‘make it’ as a sex educator?

That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? I still don’t have it all figured out.

But for me, it’s always been about relationship building in the industry and finding ways to promote and lift up other voices. I knew that if I helped everyone around me, they’d in turn want to help me win and celebrate. I started attending conferences like Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit, promoting all the speakers, and stepping outside my comfort zone a bit by introducing myself to folks I’d long been a fan of.
The podcast also was a huge help. Even in the very very beginning of the show, I found that if I asked nicely, told someone why I thought they were super awesome, that they’d almost always say yes to an interview. Having them share the show helped me grow organically, which built some buzz, too.
Now I coach sex educators and therapists around building an online presence, creating online summits and courses, and my number one piece of advice for getting noticed is always be yourself. It’s SO tempting to want to emulate, copy, parrot, and follow in the footsteps of other educators. But then people don’t really know who you are. Be bold around stating your vision for a new world, your beliefs of what’s holding us back, your story and why it matters. Learn about social justice and oppression and then find ways to be unapologetic around your values and ethics in those spheres. Apologize when you’re wrong or hurt someone (because you will), and always always always take feedback graciously.

That more than anything has helped me to show up and be known for the sex educator I am today. The money stuff I’m still trying to figure out because the bottom line is people don’t want to pay for sex education unless it’s built on shiny promises and magic bullet solutions. To offer something more real and honest means a lot of swimming against the current. It’s possible, but it takes some grit and determination. And never, ever feel bad if sex education is your side hustle while you have a day job that pays the bills. Some of the biggest names in the industry do the same thing.

What does “a day in the life of a sex educator” look like for you?

For me, a typical day is a whole lot of admin work around the podcast, projects I’m working on, managing client updates and emails. One a good day, I’ll have a chance to do one or two podcast interviews with ridiculously amazing people. I may have a client session or two for personal or business coaching. Loads of social media writing and planning. Nurturing my Explore More group on Facebook. And then making big plans for future workshops, summits, webinars, etc.

What’s the best thing about being a sex educator, in your opinion? The worst?

The best thing is seeing people have massive shifts – seeing their relief, seeing their eyes light up at the possibilities they never knew could be theirs, hearing their vulnerable stories and knowing they trust me enough to hold them so gently and tenderly. That feeds my heart and soul.

The worst is how sex education is treated in the world. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – they all ban ads and promoted posts from sex educators because they consider sex education the same as pornography. Google Ads won’t allow you to buy ad space for the same reason. Getting the word out can be so tough because so many people are so filled with shame and embarrassment they aren’t willing to share your posts, even if they love them, for fear of people seeing them consume the content and thinking something is wrong.

Also, people don’t realize just how badly they need support around sex, love, relationships, and their bodies, so they aren’t willing to pay for webinars and workshops unless they’ve reached a total place of crisis. I wish more people understood that the sooner we all start practicing and learning together, the less we ever have to be in crisis or deep shame. But the world isn’t quite ready for that shift. Until then, we hustle and we persist, even in the shadows.

What’s your favourite episode of the podcast and why?

You have no idea how much I agonized over this question. I decided to go with one of my more recent episodes, simply because I’m incredibly proud of it.

For episode 162, I interviewed law professor and author Carol Sanger. It was the first time I dedicated an entire episode (or more than a few moments) to the topic of abortion. Carol’s book is truly spectacular, and to honor the seven years she spent writing it, I asked listeners to send in their abortion stories. I received about a dozen submissions. Each and every one was raw, real, and deeply personal. I felt like I was holding some of the most precious stories on earth – stories many of these people had never told another living soul. I read some of them on that episode, and Carol and I held them together. It wasn’t a super popular episode because I think too many people are scared of or biased around abortion discussions, but I am so so proud of that work.

Tell us about a book that changed your life/perspective completely?

Bessel van der Kolk’s “The Body Keeps the Score.” As a trauma survivor with PTSD, it was the first time my body, my reactions to situations, my trauma actually made sense. I started understanding what was happening inside of my body, inside of my brain, and it felt like pure relief.

Until I read that book, I considered myself broken in a lot of ways, incapable of healing or moving beyond certain things. I carried tremendous shame around my triggers, especially as a sex educator since my PTSD tends to come up in sexualized situations with strangers.
The research, the techniques to move towards integrating and recovery gave me hope. That book also gave me new language that allowed me to not only create permission and space in my own trauma, but around the trauma of the people I work with.
It led me to Peter Levine’s work and Somatic Experiencing. It took me down a path of learning more about being trauma-informed. It made sense of so many of the things that seem to not make sense in the world.

I am forever grateful for that book and the shift it caused in me.

Who inspires you, professionally and personally?

Professionally, Meg John Barker. Their work is powerful. They turn a lot of cultural stories and myths upside down, and in a way that doesn’t feel super threatening. I’ve found that so much of what I thought to be true is actually not true at all thanks to them, so I keep a close eye on their work. It’s always radical and permission-granting. Kate McCombs, Karen BK Chan, and Megan Devine in their work on empathy and emotional intelligence. That has done wonders for my professional work, how I work with clients, and my personal relationships, as well.

Personally, I’m inspired by folks who are brave and fighting endlessly for justice. The more I learn about my own racism, transphobia, fatphobia, ableism, classism, the more I grow and can lift others up. People like Ijeomo Oluo, Kelly Diels, Monica Raye Simpson, Jes Baker, Feminista Jones, Audre Lorde, Conner Habib… I feel rich with the people who offer me tough questions and who challenge me. It’s my favorite place to be, even when it feels terrible.

Also, as sappy as it sounds, my husband. He is so ridiculously smart. He reads endlessly, he listens to brain-growing podcasts all the time, and he knows more about all the things than anyone I know.

If you were stuck on a desert island (sorry, sorry, I HAD to do a ‘desert island’ question) and could take one sexy book, one sex toy and one kink item, which would you pick and why?

For my sex toy, I’d bring a rechargeable Magic wand. We’ll just pretend the island has a source of power for charging it. It’s deliciously diverse: I use on myself, I use it on my husband, and we use it together for sex in all sorts of configurations and positions.

For my kink item, it would have to be rope. I was tempted to say a flogger, but we could fashion a flogger from rope because it’s versatile like that. Then I’d have rope for both the kinky stuff (I’m imagining being tied to a palm tree and fanned with palm leaves) and practical island living stuff. Ha!

One sexy book… I have to go with Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty trilogy (it’s a box set, so I’m counting it as one). The first time I read those books I was probably 19 or 20 years old, had never heard of kink or BDSM, and they terrified me. Absolutely terrified me. I couldn’t understand why I kept feeling aroused by these very very unusual (to me) activities. In fact, I couldn’t finish the 3rd book because it was too much. A decade later, I picked them up and had to laugh. By then, I’d dabbled in all sorts of kink, had a chance to exploring shifting identities, and met people into all the things in the book. Now, they’re a fun escape that’s sexy and hot and full of delicious ideas.

What’s something you used to believe about sex/relationships but don’t believe any more, and what changed your mind?

I used to believe men wanted sex more than women. I used to believe there were only two genders. I used to believe monogamy was the only way to do relationship. I used to believe fat bodies were rarely, if ever, desirable. I used to believe that love was enough. I used to be in soul mates and true love and fairy tales. I used to believe if you loved someone enough that sex would be automatic and natural, with no need for words or explaining myself or awkward moments. I used to believe you couldn’t come back from betrayal.

I’m sure there are hundreds of other things I used to believe, having grown up on Cosmo magazine and Sex and the City. What really changed my mind was listening to peoples stories and realizing that it’s not that every single person is broken or inadequate in some way – it’s that the system, the stories, the culture are fundamentally flawed.

Reading powerful books on racial justice, reproductive justice, and sexual autonomy helped give me words and new questions which led me on a journey to overturn and question nearly everything we’re taught. I have a talk called Everything You Know About Sex is Wrong. It’s not because any individual is wrong, it’s that everything we’ve all been taught is wrong.

What’s the one thing that you wish everyone in the world could understand about sex/relationships?

I wish more people realized that we’d all be a lot better off if we normalized a lifetime of learning and professional support BEFORE crisis struck in both sex and love.

I wish people knew just how much pain, shame, uncertainty, hesitation, anger, resentment, confusion, and regret they could shed if they worked with folks like sex educators, sex coaches, sex therapists, relationship coaches, relationship therapists, trauma counselors, sex workers, body workers, etc.

So many people spend months, years, or decades silently suffering, worrying, not sure what’s changing or why things are so tough, and if they only knew how much permission and relief they could find with the help of folks trained to do this. No one should have to wait until they’re in deep pain or betrayal to begin to do the work that could genuinely move things forward for them.

There are a lot of amazing people (and even more pretty terrible ones, so be particular, folks) doing incredible, affirming work in all of these rich areas. Even professionals need a safe space to process, to learn and grow, to grieve and mourn the things they’ve fucked up or gotten wrong, to gain a little perspective. So if professionals needs it (goodness knows I do), then everyone does.

If we could all celebrate asking for help and having places to turn to constantly ask new questions together, I suspect we’d have a world with a lot less shame and fear and so much more connection and pleasure.

What do you think is the most toxic myth that our society perpetuates about sex/relationships?

In my humble opinion, all myths that we have are built upon one myth that feeds them all. It’s the myth that tells us the answers we need are outside of ourselves.

We are a culture that teaches children to turn to others to tell them who they are. We are trained from the youngest of ages to accept labels from people who do not know us, from people who are not us, and we are a culture that thrives on conformity (while claiming to admire independence).
Because of that, we get trapped in stories that tell us to compare ourselves to others, to let outside forces dictate our identities and our worth, to tell us what a normal life or romance or happiness look like. It is a myth that says you are not the one with the answers. We don’t know how to trust our bodies, how to speak up for ourselves, how to advocate for our pleasure because we, our bodies, our lives, are foreign to us.
And yet…we are the only ones who live in our bodies, who think our thoughts, who feel these sensations, who experience these feelings. If we can begin learning how to listen to our bodies, how to trust those sensations and the wisdom we have about what’s best for us, how to sit in our feelings and ask ourselves questions about what we really want and feel, we’d find that we have tremendous power and sovereignty over our own lives.
Sex wouldn’t be about performing what we think sex should look like. It would be about intimately knowing our bodies and what brings us the most pleasure on our own terms without worrying if it looked like everyone else.
Love wouldn’t be about achieving a relationship status or adhering to external, superficial factors, but instead about connection and curiosity and knowing based on a deep trust of ourselves.

Entire industries would collapse, but wow what a world that would be.

What’s one question that you wish people would stop asking you?

I love that you asked this, and at the same time, it’s difficult to answer because my goal is always to create space to reduce shame so folks can ask the hard questions. By answering, do I, in turn, create an atmosphere where it’s no longer safe to ask this question? Possibly, yes.

To answer the question, though, I wish people would stop asking how to “make” their partner orgasm because they’ve decided, on their partner’s behalf, that their partner having an orgasm is somehow vital or a huge puzzle piece is missing from their partner’s pleasure experience.
Our cultural focus on orgasm is bananas, and it’s created tremendous pressure on everyone to be orgasming all the time in all the ways, and to feel terrible if they aren’t.
I love people getting curious about their own pleasure and their own bodies, finding new words and tools to advocate for their explorations, and demanding recognition of their pleasure especially if they’re in a marginalized body, so what I think causes a lot more harm than good is people who make their partner’s experiences a personal mission.
Too many people feel like their sexual success, or being good in bed, is tied up in “giving” their partners an orgasm. It’s not really about the partner (though many say that it is). It’s actually about their own stories and needing to feel successful in some way because their partner’s orgasm is tied to their own identity.
That’s not to vilify folks who ask this question, but to point out that the sexual stories we’re given tell us this is normal. That orgasm is the end-all-be-all, and so of course we should want to do whatever it takes to make someone we care about get there. But at what expense? Making them feel more broken or abnormal?
The bottom line is expectations suck when it comes to sex – whether the expectation is a hard penis or certain feelings or an orgasm. It’s the fastest way to turn off pleasure and create distance, because even if an expectation goes unspoken, it still gets communicated – loudly and clearly – to the person who isn’t orgasming that something about them isn’t good enough. And they are good enough.

Instead of worrying about orgasm as a goal, I always invite people to simply focus on maximizing pleasure and being present for each other. Curiosity, space, time, and fun are much more likely to give everyone the peak pleasure experience they’re hoping for, anyways. And yet… no matter how many times I offer this answer, people still ask this question. So I’ll continue repeating myself until we have a cultural shift that takes this pressure off us all.

And just for fun, because it is “Coffee and Kink”: do you like coffee and how do you take it?

I love coffee. The floofy, fancy kind. A latte with caramel or an iced coffee with cream and lavender syrup. It’s a decadence that I treat myself to from time to time rather than a daily kick start.

Thanks again to Dawn for her time and amazing insights – and for being the amazing, fabulous educator she is. Coming up soon, we have educators including Cooper S Beckett, Dedeker Winston and Dirty Lola. Watch this space…
The image featured in this post is the header for Sex Gets Real the podcast. It is owned by Dawn and must not be copied or reproduced without her permission.

“Pretty” is Not My Success: On Being a Swan

I grew up ugly. Well-meaning family would probably tell you otherwise, but by conventional Western 21st century societal standards of attractiveness, it is objectively true. I tried not to be, of course. In a rough English secondary school in the early 2000s, ‘ugly’ was just about the worst fate to which one could possibly succumb. But whatever I tried, it didn’t work. I would always be too fat, too frizzy haired, too hairy, too unfashionable, too this, not enough that, to be anything other than a perpetual joke.

A baby swan swimming along in some water. For a post about being an ugly duckling

The words people said to me for the first seventeen years of my life were so vicious and cruel that even now, I can barely bring myself to repeat them. I still feel the pain when I think back, like an old injury that still twinges from time to time.

Growing up, The Ugly Duckling was my favourite fairytale. I used to dream that one day, maybe I could wake up and be pretty. Then everyone would realise I’d been a swan all along! I very much painted this hypothetical scenario in my head as a kind of justice, perhaps even revenge. When I was pretty, they’d realise they were wrong about me. They’d see I had never deserved all the cruelty they threw at me.

I actually got my wish. Okay, it wasn’t quite so sudden, but sometime between seventeen and nineteen I got hot. It’s taboo for a woman to love herself at the best of times. Typing these physical attributes that I like about myself is surprisingly difficult, but here goes: I have a pretty face, hourglass figure and an ass to die for. I’m pretty fucking cute.

For a good couple of years after I finally escaped the constant bullying for being ugly, I would frequently comfort myself with the thought that I’d got the best possible revenge by becoming pretty.

Being pretty affords me certain privileges. Of that I am absolutely certain. It is well documented that people perceived to be “beautiful” are often treated better by society. It also comes with some downsides, which Emilie Autumn described better than I ever could.

But you know what? The Ugly Duckling is fundamentally a lie. Growing into my looks and becoming pretty wasn’t the thing that saved me. It sure as hell wasn’t what made me happy. And it ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN AS ALL EVERLOVING FUCK wasn’t what made me grow into the amazing, worthwhile human I am today.

We shouldn’t be reading a story to kids where the moral is “don’t be mean to someone who isn’t pretty because they might be pretty some day”. How about, “don’t be mean to someone who isn’t pretty because looks are 99.9% genetic and seriously how decorative they are is literally the least interesting and important of a million awesome things about them?

I’m a success despite the intense trauma I experienced as a child and young adult. I’m smart, I have a killer work-ethic, I put myself through two grueling degrees. I have a job I love that makes a real difference to people’s lives. I’m indulging my passions for writing and sex education and starting to build a name for myself in those worlds. I have amazing partners who love me. I generally strive to be kind and compassionate and make a positive difference in the world.

If I’d stayed ugly, I would still be absolutely everything else on this list.

My “fuck you” to the bullies wasn’t growing up to be hot. It was growing up to be a hundred awesome things that have absolutely no bearing on whether I’m hot or not, and that will make a positive imprint on the world long after my looks have faded.

Pretty is not my success. Beauty is not my justice. “Hot” is an accident of biology lining up at least somewhat with arbitrary societal standards. I didn’t not deserve the cruelty I received because I was a swan all along. I didn’t deserve it because I’m a goddamn person and people should not judge me on my decorative value.

So fuck that story for teaching me that I’d eventually become pretty and then it would all be okay.

Can we have a realistic version where the “Duckling” wakes up as a swan and then spends ten years in therapy to overcome the horrific lookist bullying he suffered in his formative years?

Or better yet, a version where the Duckling goes “oh fuck this shit, these people are petty bullies and pretty is only surface deep” and whether he becomes a swan or not is totally immaterial because he’s off curing cancer or flying to the moon or becoming a badass sex educator and saving the world with dildo reviews or some shit?

[Offsite] Guest blog for Kayla Lords: “Abuse, D/s and the Art of Knowing the Difference.”

I was honoured to be asked by the amazing Kayla to guest blog for her site. After sharing some of my story with her when we met at Eroticon, the topic became obvious.

Here’s the teaser of ‘Abuse, D/s, and the Art of Knowing the Difference’:

We’ve all seen the lists. The ‘if your partner ticks more than five of these behaviours then you’re being abused’ lists, that is. There are many of them available online, so I’ve pulled out the one that helped me to leave my last abuser for the examples used here. Anything listed is far from exhaustive and ultimately, if your relationship makes you feel unhappy or unsafe, you should start thinking about making a plan to leave.

Read the whole post here.

I’m Looking for Baggage that Goes with Mine

Roger: I’ve been trying, I’m not lying, no-one’s perfect, I’ve got baggage…
Mimi: Life’s too short babe, time is flying, I’m looking for baggage that goes with mine!

[If you don’t know what this quote is from, go and educate yourself immediately. Go on. I’ll wait.]

Close-up image of a pile of old fashioned suitcases. For post about baggage.

How often do you see dating site profiles and personals ads staying the owner is looking for someone “low drama” or with “no baggage?” Whenever I see this, I smirk wryly to myself, close the ad and move on to the next one.

Look, I hate unnecessary drama as much as the next person (though not as much as I hate people who use “drama” as a stand in for “has opinions” or “doesn’t tolerate my shit.”) But I’ve got baggage. And, I’m willing to bet, so do most of the people reading this post, to a greater or lesser extent. And you know what else? So, I am sure, do most of the people writing that they want to date someone with “no baggage.”

Unless we’re supremely lucky as well as immensely socially privileged, very few of us make it to adulthood with no baggage at all. With an estimated one in 4 women and one in 6 men suffering some kind of abuse in their lifetimes, and approximately one in 4 adults suffering from some kind of mental health condition at any one time, the odds of any given person having “baggage” of some description is high to say the least.

When I got together with Mr CK, he knew about some of mine and I knew about some of his, and more came out as we fell in love and learned to trust each other. With every turn, one or the other of us feared that the other would decide our baggage was too much to handle, turn tail and run. So why didn’t we? Lots of reasons, but one of the fundamental ones for me was simply this: he gets me. We can relate to each other’s experience, and we can speak to each other on a level that says, I understand.

I can’t relate to people who’ve had everything easy. I can’t relate to people with no baggage, no trauma, no scars. I relate to survivors, to people who have had difficult times, to people with their own struggles and hang-ups and anxieties and brain weasels.

I keep telling my newish sweetie, The Artist, that they’re dating Ms. Trust Issues. They are supremely kind and supportive about this while also not in any way denying or downplaying that my trust issues are, in fact, very real. Because I am more than my baggage and, for now at least, they’ve decided my baggage is not beyond their ability or desire to handle.

There are people with baggage which would absolutely not go with mine. Think about (not an example from my life) this situation: a survivor of childhood abuse due to an alcoholic parent, and someone who struggles with substance dependency issues. These two people should almost certainly not be in a relationship, because their respective baggage clashes in such a way that it will likely just amplify the issues for both people and make them thoroughly unhappy.

I’m learning to recognise the things I simply cannot deal with in another person. Someone with anger management issues, for example, should absolutely not ever be in a relationship with me, a girl who has a panic attack at yelling and shouting. Having baggage that is incompatible with mine does not make someone a bad person, too fucked up, or any other gross judgement you can think of. It simply means we will not be good for each other and one or both of us may be harmed more if we try to have an intimate relationship.

So, Well Meaning Person on a Dating Site who wants a relationship with as little unnecessary angst and conflict as possible: you’re not actually looking for someone with no baggage, unless you’re looking for someone who’s barely into adulthood (ugh, I hope not) or you’re looking for a robot.

What you’re looking for is someone whose baggage is compatible with yours.

The image featured in this post was offered for use under Creative Commons licensing.