Fall in Love With Yourself

It’s one of the privileges of the single person to be stuck with oneself. Doing so will push you through many evolutions, or it should, if you’re lucky. I’ve been reborn a few times over the past ten years. Sometimes I wonder about all the people who got into LTRs in their early twenties and have rarely or never been single since. Did they not need to take the same solo journeys I did? Are they able to accomplish the same growth within a relationship? Or is all this radical understanding waiting for them down the line . . .

In my teens and early twenties I always felt a little tall, a little ungainly, not able to relax in a bathing suit. I spent a long time dating people I wasn’t attracted to physically or didn’t necessarily like that much because I was of the “I’ll take what I can get” mentality. This led to a series of absurd relationships, and worse, I was one of those people who blame most of their romantic ills on the opposite sex.

You can only walk out of the pancake house with a stomachache so many times before you stop blaming the waitress and start wondering, Maybe if I didn’t order the Slam Dunk Breakfast . . .

Then came a period that involved four overlapping romantic and platonic relationships with men (lover, friend, boss, and father all slam-dunked in one three-year period) that altered my course permanently.

Although a great deal of it was painful and conflicted and melodramatic, each of them made it possible for me to become what I am today. The men whose encouragement set me on the career I now have. A man who helped me weather a family trauma, and a man who taught me to trust my instincts. I learned how to write naughty things while in a long-distance relationship with one, and I learned that I was finally a “woman” and not a “girl” from the other.

I could no longer blame the opposite team for my scars–I could now clearly see that we each held swords. And that even the wounds were making me the woman I wanted to be.

Over the years I have asked men for absolution, for validation, for visibility in their more complimentary eyes when my own glance in the mirror was far too critical.

I took every compliment as a challenge, as though each had said, “No honey, you don’t suck, but you could suck even less.” I had to test myself on my own, to prove things to myself: traveling, living far from family on my own, starting a career, navigating life in different parts of the world, teaching myself everything from train systems to CSS.

Maybe (no, probably) that drive is excessive and harsh. All I can say is that when I entered my twenties, I didn’t particularly like myself, and I do now.

I never trusted myself to push myself that hard within the warm embrace of someone’s love. I knew then and still believe today that if I had gotten involved with someone after high school, I’d probably still be there . . . and still feel overweight, uninspired, and not fond of myself.

Tonight I pulled up in front of my apartment after being at an event at my dad’s business and caught, in the corner of my eye, a peek through the half-open blinds into my living room. A mirror and candles on the mantle, a dim light, glints of orange and red. The thought that popped in my head was, “I want to live there.”

Then I realized, Psst–you do live there.

Then I realized, Wow. It’s only taken you ten goddamn years to want the life you’re actually living.

I say this because sometimes breakups happen. Or you’ve been single for too long and feel dry and crusty. If you ever find yourself in that position, make a bucket list. And then do something on it.

Or fall in a crazy counter-intuitive love.

Just . . . take a risk. For yourself. Someday, you’ll be glad you did. And the man (men) who love you will be glad you did, too.

Make Your Bed

I once dated a man who said he’d bought a new set of sheets shortly before he met me. He said that he’d hoped that if he made his bed nice, he might find a nice woman in it.

Although his penchant for yelling at cab drivers and shaming meat eaters eventually drove us apart, those words stuck with me. Sometimes you need to take an action not for its literal impact but its symbolic one. Hogwash? Maybe, maybe not. We all do it at some point: buying a new outfit for a big job interview even though the closet is full of wearable alternatives, or putting on the sexy panties even though no one may see them. Doing so makes you feel in control and ready to be interviewed. . . or bump into your own personal sex god on a Thursday afternoon.

And sometimes we need these little tricks more than others. It’s about building mojo, right? You know that post-breakup phase where you spend weeks on the couch watching TV and eating cookie dough? What’s your ritual for remembering you’re a woman again, finding the chutzpah to put on some heels and go out?

I’ve found that making one’s bed is as good as any other. I recently moved into a new apartment. Nicer, but much smaller than my previous home, it’s required a lot of creative organization and hauling boxes of non-necessaries to a nearby donation center. I’ve enjoyed the process of shaving my belongings down to the basics again, even though it’s taken about seven weeks of hard work to finally banish every box and stack of stuff.

Although I wanted an entryway that didn’t require hiking boots to scale, or have people over for dinner they didn’t have to hold in their hands, what I really obsessed on was my bedroom.

For one, I believe a bedroom should be a sanctuary from not only the outside world but also any of one’s own day-to-day stressors. Stacks of boxes belching clothes and odd stacks of papers made my bedroom feel more like an airport than an oasis.

More than that, the state of my bedroom symbolized my heart. Okay, my libido, but my libido’s issues were my heart’s, not my body’s. I’ve been running this magazine and loving every minute of it without actually having any sex since the day it launched. Or maybe I did, but that’s the point–I can’t remember when the last time was I had sex with the man I was seeing around that time. Our little relationship began calmly, ended calmly, even our fights were calm. Is there anything worse than apathy?

I had had a string of colds and flus all winter, my apartment was falling down around my ears, and the lack of passion I was feeling or eliciting made me feel like a lump of Kleenex.

So, more vitamin C, a new apartment, and no men. Humbug.

Working on my bedroom became a ritual for restoring my interest in the opposite sex. It worked firstly because it restored my interest in myself–I wanted to show off my cute new pad, what a clever decorator-on-a-budget I was, and test the new bed frame. (You can’t really figure out how sturdy it is just by sleeping on it, right?)

It also worked because I had used the condition of my last apartment as an excuse not to let someone in, literally as well as emotionally. Now I was preparing a lovely space I could be proud of, and would have no such excuse if I got involved with someone today.

As I added each new piece to the room–a pair of curtains, a vintage desk, pictures I hadn’t bothered hanging in my old place, I became more and more ready for someone to see all this.

Because there are many ways to reveal yourself other than taking off your clothes–if someone cares to look.

“You didn’t seem very impressed at the way I’d made my bed,” someone teased me a few mornings ago. We were re-assembling his bed and I laughed. I told him I’d probably had other things on my mind the night before than how tightly his sheets were tucked.

“My grandma always told me,” he said with a grin, tossing me a pillow, “That people would like me if I made my bed. I’m gonna have to call her.”

A few nights later he was here, for the first time. The last time he’d come to my home I’d met him down at his car, refusing to let him in, citing “a mess.” Now, his shoes were off and I had taken extra care to smooth the new bedspread across my bed.

I was ready.

Intimacy, or, to Ruffle the Feathers Lovingly

Kevin Kline: To kiss a prostitute, it costs more.

Meg Ryan: That makes sense. A kiss is so intimate. You could probably disconnect from everything else, but a kiss… Two people’s lips together, their breath, a little bit of their soul. (Stops). All I mean is that a kiss is where the romance is.
–French Kiss

We talk a lot about sex. Sex is fun. But even though sex (usually) involves stripping down and exposing oneself to another human being, it isn’t always intimate. It’s very possible to have sex without being fully aware of your partner’s body or emotional state. . . in fact sometimes it’s too easy to do so.

Remember that scene in French Kiss when Kevin Kline’s character explains that a kiss from a prostitute cost more than sex? Meg Ryan’s eyes fall shut as she muses on how a kiss is the truly intimate act. He snorts in derision but by the end of the movie all either one of them wants is just to kiss each other.

If you were having that conversation, what would you define as the most intimate part of sexual contact? Or is your definition of intimacy even sexual? Perhaps it’s the quiet moments in the kitchen when you’re both fixing your morning coffee, or the last moment before you fall asleep together.

I’m not personally a fan of sexual bells and whistles. New poses and toys are all fun but in my opinion should only come later when you want to keep things fresh. At the beginning, for me, it’s all about whatever happens naturally. I’m fascinated by the unexpected intimate moment. Having sex with someone for the first time, whether you know him well or not, is a peaceful form of combat, a discovery of vulnerabilities–a sometimes addictive confrontational exposure. You show me yours and I’ll show you mine. Then what happens?

Bruising, pounding, hand clutching the headboard, trying to catch breath–but no eye contact.

Or, he gets up afterward and turns on his laptop.

Or, he pulls you close, snuggling your head on his shoulder.

Or you’re so spent that you fall asleep without noticing what he does.

Or you roll over, not interested in snuggling.

Or you lay there wondering how long you should wait before getting him riled up again so you can go at it one more time.

Can he make you laugh during sex without either of you losing the mood?

Does he look you in the eye? Do you want to meet his?

Can you recover afterward from an awkward flub? Does it make you feel closer to him or are you just being polite, waiting until he goes?

The next morning when you first see his face, you feel. . .

What is the most intimate experience you’ve had that didn’t involve sex? Did it involve hand-holding, dirty socks, just finally letting down your guard?

I’ve had sex with a man that wasn’t nearly as intimate as an unrelated, PG conversation we had a few weeks later. I’ve had sexual contact that didn’t include kissing–when we finally did kiss it felt far more intimate than anything else we had done. I’ve been pushed to raw uncensored emotional honesty in the bedroom by someone I could barely have a conversation with outside of it.

You just never know what you’ll find, in him, or you, or what you create together. That’s what makes it such an addictive gamble.

Although I’m no expert on longterm relationships I have observed many couples losing desire for each other because there are too many things swept under the rug. A few fights that were never resolved, one of you puts on a bit of weight and feels insecure, the other is always stressed and tired from work, and sex becomes at best a comforting ritual, at worst something to avoid. You can’t be spontaneous and challenge each other sexually because you’re afraid of resurrecting all these stifled insecurities, fears, or resentment.

Sex is, ideally, a spontaneous confrontation. Hormones aren’t driven through the body by boredom, rather, by a bit of fear, a challenge, even anger. One doesn’t connect through apathy.

I recently overhead one coworker exclaim to the other, who was jokingly demonstrating how his neighbor touches his shoulder whenever he greets him, “Omigod! I haven’t been touched like that in ten years!”

She burst out laughing, but I hoped she wasn’t telling the truth–she’s only in her mid-thirties and can’t have been married much longer than a decade. I hope her husband touches her like that all the time.

Whatever your relationship status, I hope the coming week brings you an unexpected moment of intimacy. . . and if it doesn’t, let’s consider it a challenge to seek one out, however many feathers it ruffles.

Why It’s Okay To Not Be “Fun”

As a writer of naughty stories I am on the very outer ring of the planetary system that is public female sexuality, with women who take their clothes off onstage being in the center, models, singers and actresses closely orbiting them, and those of us who only assist others in imagining sexual activity as the little asteroids. And even I, an asteroid, encounter men who hear that I write erotica and immediately assume I am either a sexual enchantress or that I am ready to have sex with them right now.

These attitudes explain why most of the burlesque performers I’ve met tend to have thick walls up. A lot of men still aren’t sure what a woman’s sexuality is for. Just because a woman engages in a sex-themed artistic activity does not mean she wants to have sex with you.

Anne Hathaway’s polite refusal to let Matt Lauer discuss her lack of panties is a beautiful example of drawing boundaries around one’s sexuality without letting someone classify you as a prude or a slut.

This prude/slut thing is the crux of my point.

A couple years ago I had an argument with a male friend about whether or not I’d join him and his buddy at a strip club. “But you like burlesque,” he protested, not understanding that a strip club and a burlesque show are about as different as two forms of entertainment could be. I’m not putting down stripping, it’s just not my bag.

A burlesque routine has a story or a concept. It’s choreographed and costumed by the performer herself. The best routines have a joke or bit of social commentary squeezed deliciously in. Most importantly, burlesque tends to be about what the performer finds sexy, not what she believes her male audience is going to find sexy. You’re either in on the joke, or the turn-on, or the challenge, or you’re not.

I find that entertaining. I don’t find strip clubs entertaining. It took most of my twenties to reach a point where I can say that and not feel defensive, un-sexy or un-fun. I know that I’m fun, in fact, experience thusfar suggests that I am very fun. Just not with that guy who was mad at me for not going to the strip club.

I want every little college girl trying to be a liberated American woman to know that she doesn’t have to be a Girl Gone Wild to be hot. Sometimes you wonder about the Muslim argument that our liberation is not so liberated.

I was disturbed when Cosmo argued in their February issue that more women are going to strip clubs with their boyfriends because they want to be seen as “fun.” If I knew that every one of those guys was reciprocating by going to Chippendale shows with these women, I’d feel a lot better. Somehow I doubt it.

Magic Mike
Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey made me squeal with delight in Magic Mike, but maybe that’s just me.

Even more odd was the article’s suggestion that women are more aroused by a lap dance from another woman, than they are by a Chippendale-style male strip tease. Sure, the Magic Mike thing can be goofy. But a straight woman is attracted to different things than a straight man and usually those things don’t involve another woman’s breasts in her face (not always, but usually). The same thing applies to porn. More and more women are watching porn, whether solo or in a couple, but c’mon, these movies are not being made for women. You have to dig through the proverbial bins searching for something that has a decently attractive male lead or a scenario that might bring a tingle to the lady-parts.

Shouldn’t we be demanding entertainment that appeals to us rather than bending our sexual tastes to what’s available? It’s like, there’s nothing to eat, so I’m going to eat cardboard and say that I find it delicious.

Sex is supposed to be fun. Burlesque and strip tease and pole dancing and belly dancing and naughty stories and dirty movies are supposed to be fun. If you’re not having fun, it’s not you. It’s them. So say so. If he doesn’t get it, trust me, the next guy will.

What Makes Construction Workers Sexy?

What women find sexyWe know why men fantasize about the naughty schoolgirl, dominating nurse or coy French maid. There are stories, lore and cliches associated with these roles that have been discussed for so long that even someone who doesn’t spend much time pondering sexuality could easily explain to an alien, “Oh, yeah, a girl in a short pleated skirt and tall socks is hot ‘cuz being repressed by those nuns makes her ca-razy in bed.”

On the other hand I recently asked a girlfriend, “What makes construction workers so sexy?” and she couldn’t tell me, even though she definitely agreed with the sentiment. Women (in this country, anyway) are so used to being drenched in what men find sexually appealing, from strip clubs and porn to the supposedly female-oriented Victoria’s Secret catalog, that we’re well-educated on what a man finds sexy. But we’re not so well-versed in what we find sexy. Or why.

Women have plenty of their own favorite sexual fantasies: the bad boy, the man in uniform, the brooding Celt. I have cherished fantasies starring a college professor or a prospective employer–a man in a suit, in a high rise building. Mm, a job interview that’s actually fun.

But do you know why you find a man in uniform hot? What is it about the tight white t-shirt, stained Carhartts and usually insolent expression on a guy on a construction site that makes a woman do a double-take as she drives by?

Why the bad boy, or the cop?

Of course, discussing why is fun. But it’s also mission-critical as we as a gender become truly sexually liberated. You know why your boyfriend wants to see you in a white latex nurse’s costume. Does he know why you’d like to see him in a leather jacket and boots?

If not, he should. Discussing it could trigger a whole lotta fun in the bedroom.

The Bombshell Manual of Style

The Bombshell Manual of StyleI’ve carried this book around with me for more than ten years, back and forth from the West Coast to the East Coast (and back. . . and back again). I’ve given it as a gift a few times. It contains a message that, as far as I’m concerned, cannot be repeated often enough to the American woman: It’s okay to dress up.

Unfortunately when women in this country think about looking sexy, they think Kim Kardashian, Victoria’s Secret, and applying foundation with a trowel. Our mainstream attitude toward feminine beauty is in my opinion not particularly sensual or feminine. We want to see ribs, we want to paint every inch of our face into submission, and we want to inject something somewhere. This Allure approach is almost militaristic, resembling an arms race more than a personal exploration of self-embellishment.

The worst part is that when a woman believes Kardashian is the goal, she quickly decides it’s an unobtainable goal and abandons any self-respect in favor of Uggs, sweats and a ponytail.

Bombshellism, on the other hand, is a surprisingly kind and gentle alternative. Yes, Jayne Mansfield’s breasts were large enough to host barbecues on and yes, Marilyn did have plastic surgery early in her career. Not exactly realistic role models for the rest of us. But even if you don’t want to get your jaw professionally broken and re-set (and I don’t want you to, either) the rest of the philosophy can totally be applied to any woman.

I repeat: any woman can be a bombshell.

As explained in a charming way in the book, the bombshell ethos was a lot more au naturale than people tend to think. Many of these actresses skipped bras or panties whenever possible, did not wear foundation or blush, and most importantly, they wore what they found sexy, not what they thought someone else might find sexy. These women were stars because they could identify what worked for them, what gave them confidence, what made them look their best. Whether that was a little black dress that forced a wiggle when walking, or a hairstyle that was just a little bit more undone than the current trend, the style choices of a bombshell were all based on, “Does this make me feel fantastic?”

This attitude often led them to create trends rather than follow them. We’re not all trend-setters but we are capable of paying more attention to what makes us feel yowza-hot and less attention to what is trendy.

Illustrations by Ruben Toledo
Ruben Toledo’s illustrations, which you may have seen before on Daily Candy or in the New Yorker, capture the bombshell’s confident but whimsical spirit perfectly.

Marisa TomeiAlthough The Bombshell Manual of Style maintains a totally contemporary focus on how this attitude could be applied today, it’s also full of fascinating bits of trivia, such as the fact that Marilyn kept dumbbells handy to tone up and that Kim Novak had to defend her right not to wear a bra when playing a character she felt would not wear one. Alongside that are cute anecdotes about modern-day bombshells such as Marisa Tomei (left) and one of the author’s coworkers–proof that they still exist.

Long, long ago in a country far, far away (okay, actually it was just in Eastern Washington about ten years ago, but it does feel that distant) an overweight, uninspired version of myself shuffled into the local library and took this book off the shelf. I checked it out and took it home because I wanted to admire the purty pitchers. But once I started reading it I discovered it contained an important clue that I would use to crawl out of that dum-dum life into the adventures that I later wound up having. . . and the person I’ve since become. That clue was that it’s okay to wear heels for no reason. Funny thing is, doing so makes you want to find a reason.

I don’t think any of us aspire to Liz Taylor’s 42 marriages, Marilyn’s unhappiness or Jayne Mansfield’s early death. And looking fantastic won’t necessarily fix any other aspect of your life. But feeling fantastic helps more than you might think, and this book is full of inspiration to feel your hottest.

Hey, even if you’re already on top of your beauty game and you don’t need any inspiration, check it out anyway. For the purty pitchers.

Who’s Your Villain?

Most of us grew up with Disney movies involving princesses, wicked witches and singing rodents. And most of us take issue with what passive little ninnies those princesses tended to be. The same goes for action movies wherein the hero proves his manliness by rescuing some chick. Whether the story is for a girl or a boy, the girl is the one who needs rescuing.

Bo-ring.

Boring, but still too prevalent. I know too many who wouldn’t think of doing things alone that men do all the time: travel, seeking a new job or promotion, confronting someone, going someplace new. I personally do not think we’re there yet. We get there, not by ignoring those old fairy tales, but by rewriting them.

Modern princess Giselle from Enchanted
Helpless at the beginning of the story, Giselle in Disney’s Enchanted winds up climbing a tower to kill the wicked witch-turned-dragon. Appreciate it for the fact that your nieces and daughters can grow up with more powerful archetypes, or appreciate it for the dancing cockroaches. I won’t judge either way.

Fairy tales are usually wrong about how to deal with the villain. We don’t want to sit weeping on the staircase waiting for a fairy godmother or prince to rescue us. But they were right that villains exist and may even be necessary. While they’re scary and frustrating and wear intimidating eye makeup, they give us the opportunity to become more awesome. Every day we get to build onto a new history–one that is at best fifty to ninety years old depending on when you start counting–where the princess pushes up her sleeves and kicks her villain in the face.

I’m not repeating the classic feminist chant that men are the villains. This magazine is about sexuality; we heart men as a species. I’m talking about your villain. It may be a man, it may be a woman, it may be an entire country. Here’s some examples.

The Wicked Witch

Sleepingbeauty2

I once worked for a liberal, feminist woman who was all about sisterly bonding, managing an all-woman office and fond of taking us to lunches and dinners. She was also a bitch, giving inconsistent direction and fond of fabricating past crimes to justify her rudeness. It doesn’t matter where a woman stands on the traditionalist/feminist spectrum, or her politics, or her age. She either treats her female counterparts with respect and friendliness or she doesn’t.

Your witch may be a boss, a mother-in-law, even a neighbor. Any woman in a positive of authority over you who does her best to abuse it. I only have four things to say about her:

1. Don’t let her do it.
2. Get allies by calmly and firmly documenting the ways you are in the right and she is not. Do not whine, do not squirm, do not cry, it will only make her look stronger.
3. Do your best to defeat her–the empowerment you’ll gain is worth the leg, job or sleep you may lose during the battle.
3. If you can’t (metaphorically) slay her, it is okay to move on. Preferably once you’ve gained the necessary work experience or readied your house for the market. Living well can be the best revenge.

Gaston, aka the Bad Prince

Gaston from Beauty and the Best

I’ve never met a woman who didn’t have a lover-villain personality type that she was repeatedly drawn to. They come in a variety of flavors to suit your needs. The self-pitying, perpetually unemployed artist. The arrogant genius who offends friends and family with his “biting honesty.” The one who ignores you. The one who lies to you. The one who oh-so-subtly makes you feel that all your endeavors are just too cute to take seriously.

Noticing a pattern is the first step to recovery. . . and it’s a long journey. I have a weakness for the “unavailable guy,” whether he lives in another state, is married, is in and out of a hot/cold relationship with someone else, has wildly different values. My dad traveled a lot when I was growing up, so I tend to admire men who appreciate me but don’t have much time to spend with me.

Is that any way for a sexy goddess of life and love to behave? No, of course not. But I’m telling you this for that very reason. I have a villain. We all do. There’s no escaping it. No one is born impervious to Gaston. The story, the transition from princess to queen, is in what you do about it. My only piece of advice: if he’s really a bad prince, staying with him because you love him will not make you feel good about yourself. Ever.

The Evil Stepmother

Charlize Theron in Snow White and the Huntsman
If you have an actual mean stepmother, I am deeply sorry. For most of us, though, this archetype lives inside our heads. “You’re not thin enough. You suck at ironing. Your coworkers think you’re a moron. He wants you to be a shrieking orgasmatron with a symmetrical clit. Your womb is drying up.”

Sometimes she isn’t even remarking on things unique to the female sex, she’s just being a bitch in general: “Why did you wear this shirt? Why can’t you afford a better car? Why haven’t you been promoted yet?”

I once had a boyfriend who confessed he had a confidence-destroying voice in his head that he had learned to (mentally) repeat in a whiny voice. Recognizing and then mocking his evil stepfather helped him learn to shush this voice.

Shushing him or her is absolutely necessary to build healthy self-esteem and peace of mind. But it’s all about how you shush her. Not by eating another muffin, or conversely, by running on the treadmill two hours a day. Instead, try to decide how right she is. So you don’t iron, fuck it, get it dry cleaned. Feeling inadequate at work, on the other hand, may be worth addressing. What would help–affirmations? Brushing up your job skills? Confronting a “dumb blond” joke going around the office?

Figure out what it would take, not to shut up the stepmother’s voice inside your head, but the bits you happen to agree with. Ignoring her completely doesn’t help, and usually requires drugs, carbs, booze or bad TV. Listening too sincerely to that voice is the sort of thing that turns someone into an anorexic. But if you’re big enough to listen, consider, chuck out two thirds of it and keep the rest–you’ll create a powerful relationship with your inner demons.


Here’s a few entertaining film antidotes to passive-princess modes of thinking.
Aliens
Enchanted
Suckerpunch
Snow White and the Huntsman
MirrorMask