My dad called me last week to tell me he’d read this blog. He’d found it through a series of Google searches after spotting that I was using a different name (this one, rather than my given one) on Facebook. I’m too angry, uncomfortable, and, frankly, afraid that he’s still reading (though I asked him not to) to go into much detail about my reaction just now.
But I do want to talk about why I write about sex on the internet.
A few of the people I talked to this past week seemed to take the stance that I’d brought this on myself. I was the one who decided to write about my sexuality on the internet, where everyone can see it. My old profession would have felt similarly. I remember back when my coworkers and I were all adding each other on Friendster, then later on MySpace, Twitter, and Facebook, I mentioned to someone I saw as a mentor that it was hard to know what to say about myself in front of my coworkers. His response was breezy, as if it were all laughably simple: “Just don’t say anything stupid.”
In other words, don’t talk about the abusive relationship that was formative in my life; don’t talk about the joyous, healing series of flings and discoveries that came four years later; don’t talk about my ongoing relationship with the bdsm scene, even though I was spending most of my mental energy there; don’t talk about my emotions; don’t talk about the fact that not talking about any of this poses any kind of hardship.
Before you assume I was some sort of corporate shill, let me explain: I was a youth librarian. I cared deeply about my work. I was making a difference in the lives of teenagers, or at least I hoped I was. And there was a sense among my colleagues—the ones I saw every day and the ones I only saw online—that we were all in this together. Of course we wanted to talk to each other outside of work. Who else would understand the maddening business of advocating for teens against a hostile administration? Who else would appreciate the thing that one wiseass kid said that had everyone in the room in stitches in spite of ourselves?
It took a while to notice all of the things I wasn’t saying. And by the time I did notice, it was too late. I’d invited my colleagues into practically every corner of my online social life. Now I was stuck with them. The weird thing was, none of them seemed to mind. “I just let it all hang out,” a colleague once told me, when I asked how she felt about sharing her online presence with other librarians. And sure, our colleagues didn’t much care when she posted a picture of herself with a wineglass or live-tweeted episodes of Glee. I suspect they’d have felt differently, however, about me RSVP-ing to a bladeplay workshop or linking to a blog post about trauma and D/s.
I remember how much work it used to take to find appropriately bland things to say about myself, how constantly I felt the surveillance of my coworkers, how, eventually, every friend request from another goddamn colleague felt like one more violation, cementing more and more the demand for me to show up in these ostensibly social spaces in business casual drag, unrecognizable to the queers, kinksters, and radicals with whom I’d begun longing to be in community.
Not that I wanted the queers and kinksters and radicals to see me, not like this. I came to dread the moments at kink events when fellow attendees would ask me what I did in the rest of my life. I didn’t want to tell them I was a librarian for fear word might somehow get back to my colleagues that I’d been here. And I didn’t want to be fetishized (as often happened when I did reveal my line of work) as a “sexy librarian.” There was nothing sexy about my work with teenagers, and besides, librarianship was the force in my life that insisted I have no sexuality at all.
Online, getting friend requests from queers and radicals felt almost as as bad as getting them from colleagues. I didn’t want them to see this watered-down version of me, didn’t want them to think that librarian was all I was. I was proud of my work as a youth librarian, had done some activism within the profession that I was glad to share with friends and colleagues alike. But in the parts of my life I couldn’t show publicly, I was aching for connection. Allowing people with whom I thought those connections might be possible into a space where those parts were once again made invisible was almost too painful to bear.
The bitter irony here is that my desire to work with teenagers was in large part animated by the abuse and sexual coercion I’d experienced as a teenager myself. I wanted to be a boundaried and trustworthy adult for the teens I encountered in my work. I wanted to help create spaces and communities that made their lives bigger, treat them with care and respect, and connect them with information, resources, and stories that would matter. But I found I could rarely do more than toe the party line. Like my coworkers, I listened to the teens when they came and talked to me, brought books and comics and magazines into the library that spoke to the teens who were there, and introduced a number of new teens into the citywide community of adolescent geeks, queers, goths, and gamers that was growing in our little library space.
And, like my coworkers, I let a lot of things slide. I didn’t speak up when security guards harassed the teens on their way into the building. I never had a larger conversation with the teen manga fans who complained about “those ghetto kids” who shared the library space. I never addressed the profession’s insistence that there were “girl books” and “boy books.” I never, at least not in any meaningful way, spoke to the boy I heard unleash upon his girlfriend string after string of verbal abuse.
I didn’t then have the skills to address those admittedly thorny and deeply rooted issues, but I believe I had the capacity to learn. After my abusive relationship in high school, after all, I’d spent a year teaching myself how to recognize and understand my own feelings. The years I worked at the library, I was constantly educating myself. I read book after book on kink, went to class after class, wrote journal entry after journal entry, trying whatever I could trying to heal that aching rift between myself and my desires.
I’d like to think I could have applied similar efforts to my work with teenagers, but I also know, looking back, that it felt impossible. My sexuality, at the time, was a black hole of unmet need. I was lonely, hurt, and unable to fathom devoting my energy to anything else—in part, I imagine, because of how cut off I felt from community and support. Not to mention that after a while, just thinking about the library outside of work became painful. The library was the place where I didn’t get to be me.
Let me be very clear. I am not suggesting that the solution here would have been to share information about my sexual practices and process with my colleagues, or (god forbid) with the library teenagers. What I am saying is that I needed space. The demands of the library profession—coupled with the particulars of social networking and the cultural stigma around sex—made it impossible for me, an abuse survivor still struggling with sexuality, to access the resources and support I needed. In fact, the demands of the library profession recreated the conditions that made my abuse possible. When I was a teenager, I was lonely and isolated. I had few resources around sex, and nobody in my life even acknowledged—maybe nobody believed—that sexuality was an area where one might need resources. Now, here I was again, cut off from support networks, enmeshed in a community that saw attempts to talk publicly about sexuality as simply “stupid.”
I write about sex on the internet because I want things to change. I can no longer stand to be told that this part of myself that is hungry for community and connection, this part that is a site of work and joy, struggle and healing, is not worth attending to. I write about sex on the internet to create a resource: to share the work that I’ve done and to start conversations about the work that others are doing. I write about sex on the internet because it matters, and I am no good to anyone when I pretend it doesn’t. I write about sex on the internet because I am tired of feeling alone.
And, yes, I am taking a risk in writing this publicly, even under a different name. My colleagues could read it, more family members could read it, even one of those library teenagers could read it (though I’d like to think they’d find it either too boring or too icky to read very far). But I write about sex on the internet because I can’t afford not to. I’m glad my writing is out here, ready to be found by those who need it. I only hope that those who don’t want to see it, who find these topics trivial, tacky, titillating, or just plain unpleasant, will have the decency and common sense to keep their distance.