It’s not a hot story anymore, hasn’t been for some time. But in some ways I’m still sifting through the detritus of last fall: those ten days in late September when we shared more — our questions and confusions, our secrets about our sexual lives, frustrations, our insecurities, our private violations – than we had in the previous 20 years.
During the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings, I wrote a different essay about an unwanted sexual experience. In that piece, I suggested that our best hope lies the idea of “community justice,” a term used by filmmaker Ryan White to convey the power that comes from collective strength, even as larger systems fail to right wrongs.
I joined with the voices that urged us to share our stories with one another. “I don’t know what is left to do,” I wrote, “but to talk openly and vigorously and continuously about these experiences until it becomes clear that we are not going away, not hiding anymore, and that we number far greater than powerful forces would like to acknowledge.”
But in the aftermath of September, what’s struck me most is how profoundly language fails us.
In those weeks we talked about a whole range of unwanted sexual experiences, times we felt our resistance was overcome through pressure, our desires simply ignored, though they didn’t quite earn the onomatopoeic violence of the terms “rape” or “assault.” We talked about the tightrope of wanting to affirm our beauty and sexuality without objectifying ourselves.
We talked, without knowing what to call them, about the times we felt ambivalent, like Margot in Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” – the times when the strongest motivation for a sexual encounter was the awkwardness of stopping it.
We admitted that many of our sexual experiences fell into a “gray area,” a place somewhere between consent and violation. It was a place where words and definitions failed to capture the nuance of our experiences, where language fell short of meaning, where the silence kept us confused and confusion kept us quiet.
Sure enough, in her Atlantic piece, “Why Cat Person Went Viral,” Olga Khazan marvels at the difficulty of describing Margot’s state of mind as she rationalizes going through with a sexual encounter about which she is unenthusiastic. Khazan wonders, “What is the word for this emotion?” As strongly as this emotional stew resonated with readers, no one knew what to call it.
(In her viral post, “I Was a Promiscuous Teen: An Open Letter to All the Men From My Past,” Marigny Goodyear suggests that “women may not be communicating what they feel deeply because of social and sexual pressures.” Yeah, that seems possible.)
The more I dig, the more this “gray area” expands, touching so many of our experiences of our bodies, our sexuality, and the related emotions.
In interviews for my book on reproductive challenges, these linguistic shortcomings bubble up again and again. “There are many reasons I don’t talk about my abortion,” one woman tells me. “One is that the word just doesn’t feel right. It’s so harsh and clinical; it clashes with that place in my heart, which is tender, where I wrestled with a difficult decision.
“What am I supposed to say – I ‘terminated a pregnancy’? Are we in an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie? In my heart I say that I lost a baby, but I know that’s not right either. Like I’m reaching for solidarity with people who’ve had real tragedies.”
People back and fill, trying to reconcile the phrase “late-term abortion” with the heartwrenching medical diagnosis they faced. They try to explain the irony of feeling thoroughly dehumanized by an industry designed to bring humans into the world.
They try to name the impulse — though they feel no personal shame about their experiences — to use a pseudonym in print. Is it shame? Guilt? Fear? Embarrassment? Privacy?
It is some mix of all of these (combined with the inherent taboo on anything that mentions female body processes). It is something else too, a message received: that the machinations of the female body and mind are available for scrutiny and judgment.
And isn’t judgment so much easier without all the details? Much simpler to debate if everything is simplified, glossed over, lumped together: a blob of clay. Details just muck things up.
So even as I called for speaking out, I was discovering layers of difficulty. How could we speak more freely about these issues with such limited vocabulary? We lack the words to figure out what’s normal, to address what feels bad, and simply, to tell each other what happened — because we’re relying on the language of a system designed to avoid these topics.
Now that I see this expanse for what it is, I want to explode it open. To break the silence, move beyond shame, and claim our power, we need to name the things that matter.
I want language that shines light into the dusty corners of “the gray area,” language that moves beyond the blunt-force creations of a masculine world that runs roughshod over emotional nuance.
I want new words for all the contours of awkwardness and ambivalence around sex. I want “Cat Person” absorbed into regular discourse. As in:
“How was last night?”
“Meh … Cat Person.”
Maybe once we can name these situations, we can start practicing how to extricate ourselves from them.
I want new words for abortion and beauty and virginity (a concept which has surely outlived its narrow usefulness, if it ever had any). I want a word for a female orgasm that celebrates its pulsing peaks and valleys. I want a new word for consent that sounds more like enthusiasm and less like a shrug or a nod or a signature.
For now, words fail, and so we remain quiet. And, quiet, we remain alone, isolated, unaware of our power. Imagine what comfort we could be to one another, if only we had the words we needed.