"Have you considered changing your name?" the message from my aunt read. "Our name is too obscure and boring, don't you think? The famous do better with something catchy and bright."
This wasn't a compliment. It was a very polite way of saying that what I was doing with my life -- writing about sex -- was not in keeping with the image my father's family desires for itself.
"Shocked woman on laptop" via Shutterstock.
The message was without a doubt engendered by photos I had uploaded to Facebook of the conference BlogHer '10, where I had participated in a sex panel alongside incredible women who have dared to breach the topic of sexuality, which in many of their communities continues to be taboo. It was a timely message, as during the panel we had discussed anonymity and the repercussions of being discovered by family and community members.
I understand how a sex blog can affect a person's life, having seen friends' sex blogs take center stage in divorce proceedings, custody battles, and employment situations, but this knowledge is entirely theoretical, not practical. I live far from my family and have made most of my friends through my blog. Also, I live in Los Angeles, a city that is largely permissive of -- well, just about everything.
Having had little contact with me over the last few years, my aunt didn't know that I do happen to employ a pseudonym -- not because I am ashamed of what I write, but because I started playing around online in the '90s, long before it became common for people to use their real names. Having already amassed a readership, it didn't make sense for me to rebrand, besides -- it helped me keep myself at arm's length from the assumptions people make about a woman who writes about sex. It'd be folly to pretend that a contingent of my readers aren't more interested in who they think I am than what I write, and my relationship with them has always been adversarial at best. In this sense, I like the space a pseudonym provides.
But I didn't feel like explaining any of this to my aunt, so instead, I simply wrote back: "I can't possibly have it worse than Chuck Palahniuk."
It was unpleasant to have someone suggest I should excuse myself from the family, but I knew also that she wouldn't respond to my message. I thought the matter would rest there.
Then I received a message from her sister.
Forgive what I am going to say, but I think your behavior is a gross disrespect to the entire family. You would do well to exercise some decorum in how you communicate on Facebook. I don't know when you graduated in sexology to be giving these lectures, but this is a subject that much be breached delicately, with maturity and professionalism.
I decided at that moment that the discussion suffered from a grave lack of information. It was clear they didn't read my column, didn't understand the purpose of the panel, and didn't know my commitment to openly discussing sexuality. In the interest of an informed discussion, I began to compose a mission statement.
Before I could post it, however, I received a message from my uncle, brother of the two aforementioned aunts, who wanted to let me know that the family, having been shamed by my participation on the panel, had begun to scrutinize my profile on the social network, and that there were several photos that they considered to be inappropriate. He warned me, that -- while he didn't agree -- that others may think I am a degenerate.
I went back to my mission statement, which I translated into Spanish to ensure everyone read it in my own words regardless of their language preference, and I posted it as a note on Facebook, tagging all parties involved.
I write about sex.
Anecdotes teach. The difference between an academic text and a personal anecdote is that the latter affects us on another level. As with the old argument newly popularized by marketing firms of our time that say that it is more effective for people to hear about a product from a source they trust than to simply bombard them with advertisements, so too do anecdotes from people we know have more power than any public service announcement.
I didn't learn the difference between bacterial vaginosis, chlamydia and a common urinary tract infection at school, though I am sure I read about each of these things. I learned the difference -- and I will never forget it -- from conversations with my girlfriends and many terrifying moments of hand-holding in clinics. The information we read in textbooks is easy to forget. A story that touches your heart, on the other hand, with all the details -- details that aren't sanitized to be more palatable -- stays with you for much longer. Anecdotes have no fear of being ugly, of being inappropriate, or of breaking your heart.
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and while a picture of a sexually transmitted disease is gruesome, it exists outside of us and our reality. It's not the same as the experience of someone you know, with the pain, the fear and the complications that it brings. This is the difference between fact and anecdote and it is a significant difference.
Another advantage of sharing about sex is that sharing isn't limited to the health aspect. We can speak about technique, about pleasure, about the nature of pleasure, about the myriad sexual desires that exist -- all of which are important to health and wellness of a human being.
An article in the New York Times in 2009 entitled "What Do Women Want?" brought to my attention how far we have yet to go in terms of understanding the nature of desire. The title references a question asked by the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud over a century ago. In more than one hundred years we have made technological and political leaps, but we still don't understand the nature of sexual desire -- especially female sexual desire.
The truth is that we live in a strange duality -- a culture that seems to foment and support sexual expression and a society that still operates under a "don't ask, don't tell" mentality and in which people continue to judge one another -- and not only judge those who share about their sexual lives, but those who share their desire to abstain from sex until marriage or for some other reason.
At Harvard, one of the best known educational institutions in the world, there is a bloody battle between feminists who believe that a no-holds-barred approach to sexuality is the only way to rebel against the patriarchy, and those who believe that remaining virgins or abstaining is the only way to effectively rebel against sexual commodification.
You're either a prude or you're a slut. You best keep your mouth shut.
The problem with this is that silence makes us into islands, alone in the task of learning about sexual health, preventing pregnancy, understanding the nature of our desires, and how to enjoy these and our bodies in a healthy way.
Today we have Google, where many of us can search and find the answers we need. But the web is a wide sea and it is a difficult one to navigate alone. And in the end, it matters little how much information we have, we're still alone and loneliness is not something in which the human animal can thrive.
This is why I write about sex, and why when I can, I do it using my own experiences and the cases I know personally. I talk about discovering oneself, discovering one's own body, and the diverse desires that exist among people. I bring to the table discussions to confront the general silence -- because everyone is silent, though many engage in these things. I write manuals about how to do things, I interview attorneys about these issues in the eyes of the law, and I speak with those who live these realities.
But I don't limit myself to these things. I know that sex and desire are tied to the limbic system and that's why I also write about relationships, about love, about rejection, about divorce, about marriage, about cheating, about being single, about being a part of a triad -- everything.
In the fifteen years that I have written about these things due to my own convictions and the two that I have done it for vocation, I have received more letters and comments from people the world over thanking me for providing them a place where they could finally be honest with themselves, than I have comments to the contrary, calling me a degenerate. The messages from those who can finally share their truths and secrets are testament that what I do has merit.
Even so, if you want to say that I am a degenerate, you have my benediction. I am not afraid of being photographed nude and share these images because I understand and love the body with which I have been blessed; limited, fragile and mortal though it may be. Further, I feel that many would benefit from ceasing to criticize themselves and take a moment to appreciate their own bodies. I am not afraid to try new things because I know that experience teaches. I am not afraid to share my successes and failures in my relationships and my own bed because we all live these things and I know that anecdotes have the power to teach and to heal the wounds of the heart.
And if one thing I write makes one person feel less isolated, then my mission is complete.
Know, too, that I don't write about these things because I think it's safe or because I live with my head in the clouds and think it's perfectly acceptable to do so, but because I know it's not safe and it's not acceptable in this or any other society. This isn't a popularity contest -- it's a call to arms. This is the resistance.
In telling my stories I am liberating others to do the same, whether privately with me in my inbox, or in their own lives. My voice, along with the brave voices of others on the web and in traditional media, give people permission to accept themselves, to look at themselves, to explore themselves, to reflect on their desires and share their experiences. Together our steps take us from isolation to an open discussion, as a community, where we can learn and understand ourselves better.
I won't be silenced. I accept what it means -- to be taken less seriously than other writers, to be the favorite topic among gossip mongers at dinner parties, to be exposed to more ridicule, scorn and danger -- among other things.
And now I offer you the opportunity to show the same courage and delete me as a Facebook friend instead of continuing to stand there whispering about how much I shame you. Love isn't a passive resignation to accept someone in spite of their perceived flaws. Love is cherishing someone in their entirety. The well-known saying that pits friends against family states that blood -- the family -- is thicker than water, one's friends. But blood -- in fact, the entire human body -- is 80 percent water. Without friendship, there is no family, just as without water, there is no blood.
My aunt responded almost immediately: "I have no interest in reading this sort of cheap reportage. I only want you to respect your family. One must wonder what your parents must feel to see what you are doing with yourself. If you were my daughter, I would be mortified. A good writer with any level of intellect would never enter this niche. In the end, I don’t care what you do; I am only concerned with our family name. This is a type of pornography closely linked to prostitution. I beg you that if you choose to continue with your grand sex column, you consider a pseudonym so our name doesn’t become involved in something so disgraceful and low-brow."
She's right: pornography is linked to prostitution, the adult entertainment industry being a decriminalized form of sex work. What this has to do with anything, I do not know, but I wasn't about to get into a discussion about my views of sex work with someone who was clearly not willing to read anything I had to say.
I responded simply: "Forgive me if I treat further correspondence from you with the same attitude that you treated my own when you refused to read it." I then unfriended her.
"If your deletion of me resolved how I feel about the manner that you are conducting your life, I'd be the happiest woman on this earth," she responded. "May you never regret what you are doing with your life and one day come to value what the word 'family' means."
Meanwhile, the note I had posted with my mission exploded with comments from my uncle:
Individual rights end when ones actions collide with other people's rights. This is a concession that makes our world more civilized and allows people to live in peace. Facebook is a great thing. It helps people come closer together, but it can also work as a means to invade other people's privacy. You may enjoy or hate, but not ignore, the fact that you are well-known because you are the daughter and grand-child of so and so. I'm not asking you to change your lifestyle; I'm not trying to interfere with your thoughts. All I'm trying to communicate is that you've got to be aware of what you generate in Facebook and other media and make a correlation between that and the possibility of hurting loved ones. You should consider a pseudonym.
Apparently, the jury was out. No one had any need to read what I had posted or deliberate on what I'd said. They had made a decision, and come at me from all angles in real-time.
Just then, an e-mail from my mother dropped into my inbox. The e-mail was directed to my father's siblings and copied my father (whom my mother would later tell me had actively collaborated on the creation of the message). She'd BCC'd me on the exchange:
I have followed your communications with my daughter closely; the only reason I am taking the liberty to interject is that you have expressed concern several times about how my husband and I feel about the situation. I will elaborate on this subject for you: for us, the freedom of expression is a fundamental right -- a human right, recognized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, and in all constitutions of democratic systems. This freedom of expression, from which we derive the freedom of the press, lies at the foundation of the battle in the name of equality and the respect of human life, without which, we would be sentenced to lives in oppression.
My siblings and I, through our family's prominence in politics, learned to cherish this vital freedom from a young age. While in many cases exercising this freedom resulted in complications, including the risk of incarceration for my father and uncles, we never ceased to embrace it and fight for it. I have reared my daughters on this rich foundation of values, educating them about the constant threat under which this precious freedom resides. I also reared them to know that the fight for this freedom belongs to us all, and it begins with our individuality. To respect the opinions of others, regardless of how unlike our own they are, is to respect our own liberty of expression.
Having said all this -- what do we think about our daughter? Allow me to express with pride that my husband and I find ourselves extremely satisfied in how she shares her own experiences and thoughts. You think we should feel ashamed but we fail to find reason to do so. We raised a daughter who stands firmly on her beliefs and values despite strong opposition. There is no shame in that.
I wear your family name with pride because I love your mother and enjoy the union of our families, not because I think there is any tangible value in a surname. In my opinion, the value of a family is directly related to how much those within it admire and respect one another. Nevertheless, I shall sign this message with my maiden name, lest the words I express here injure your good traditions.
Immediately after sending it, my mother posted a YouTube clip of "I Am What I Am" from La Cage Aux Folles on my Facebook wall.
I don't cry very often, but I cried that evening. I'm fortunate to have a mother who believes in freedom above social norms, and a father who isn't afraid to disagree with his family. I have no words to express my gratitude for being loved as I am, and supported in what I do.
Many are not so lucky -- many go through life hiding their achievements, even their loves, because their families don't support their life choices. I didn't realize how important this acceptance was until this incident. We can do without this kind of acceptance, esteem and pride, but how strongly we can grow when we have these things.
Let this story serve as more than a cautionary tale about how far we still have to go as a society to accept sexuality and embrace the freedom of expression -- let it serve as a reminder that our love and support of others makes a difference. Let's be more open-minded, let's be more accepting. Let's try to see things from the perspectives of those we love before we form judgments.
It makes all the difference in the world.
AV Flox is the editor of Sex and the 405 -- what your newspaper would look like if it had a sex section.