Ophira Eisenberg's new book, Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy.
During the Melbourne Writers Festival recently, I had the great pleasure of hosting a conversation with Canadian-turned-New Yorker Ophira Eisenberg. Eisenberg is a comedian and public radio host with a cracking wit and a killer hairdo.
She’s also boned a lot of dudes.
Eisenberg’s debut book, ‘Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy”, is an exceptionally funny memoir about her sexual history. Beginning with her first kiss on a dance floor at age 11 and ending with her unexpected marriage, it’s a beautiful journey through romantic and sexual exploration and how it has the potential to enrich a life. And what I loved so much about it was its refusal to apologise for or even address the idea that copious amounts of sex from a young age with lots of different partners will necessarily damage or break a woman.
From the outset, Eisenberg admits to having been fascinated by sex - both having it and embracing its many possibilities. Desperate to rid herself of the cumbersome virginity that stands in the way of her greater sexual escapades, she makes a pact with her best friend that sees her losing her virginity at 15 to a stranger on a bathroom sink. And - SPOILER! - the experience doesn’t shatter her self esteem or damage her for life. Rather, it emboldens her to continue exploring a world that’s suddenly opened up to her.
Some people might be shocked that such an episode could be spoken of so cavalierly, or even modelled as something that might have a positive impact.While the law acknowledges that 15-year-olds are not yet emotionally equipped to give informed consent (which is why sex with a minor is and always will be a crime) the reality is, that teenagers do have sex. And it's not helpful to cast teenage girls as gatekeepers to the ravenous sexual appetites of their indiscriminate male peers - all of whom are assumed to be incapable of viewing girls as whole human beings while being equally incapable of their own vulnerability. But because chastity belts are considered relics of a medieval age, we place caveats on the kinds of sex girls ‘should’ be having. Respectful. Gentle. Perhaps surrounded by candlelight with Boyz II Men’s Greatest Hits playing in the background.
The justification for most of that is the idea that sex is some kind of sacred ritual that has the power to irrevocably damage girls, because it’s assumed they enter into it lacking any kind of agency or power. Respect should be part and parcel of any sexual encounter, but perpetuating the idea that girls and women are automatically passive is a large part of the problem.
Reading Eisenberg’s book, I never got the sense that her experiences weren’t fully driven by her or welcomed, even when they were less than satisfying (as sex occasionally is). Physical pleasure is just one part of the reason why humans boink - it’s also not the only thing that provides satisfaction. My own sexual experience might best be described as ‘moderately colourful’, and I know that many of things I reflect on fondly or with interest have little to do with the sex itself but more to do with how they fed a boldness in me or emotional growth.
If there are any lessons to be imparted by Eisenberg’s memoir, they are perhaps these.
1. Sex on the beach is scratchy, and uncomfortable;
2. Haitian love spells do not work, and;
3. Even relationships that end badly are meaningful, and nothing can take that away from you - not even finding yourself stuck next to them for hours on an international flight.
What you will not take away is any combination of the following.
1. Losing your virginity to a stranger will irrevocably damage you for life;
2. Sex is bad and women only have it in order to secure love; and
3. When you meet ‘The One’, both you and they will regret your colourful sexual history and increasingly resent you for it.
The idea that we might regret our choices so deeply that they cause irreparable scarring is ludicrous. The sexual lives of girls and women are full of victories, mistakes and moments we might even forget entirely. Even the ones that cause us to curl up in bed randomly, groan-laughing as we remember drunkenly attempting to give a wristy while an entire pub watched, are fodder for great stories. It is violation and abuse that harms women, not sex itself. And by not properly arming girls to be empowered by their sexual choices and desire, we make it easier for the more common examples of sexual coercion and inequality to occur.
Empowering girls sexually has everything to do with empowering them to make their own decisions and be confident enough to pursue what they want - even if that means sometimes saying yes to situations that make other people uncomfortable. Eisbenberg’s memoir is a perfect example of this. By refusing to engage with the narrative of slut-shaming, she provides an exemplary model for how we can actually create a generation of girls able to say no AND yes in equal measure, and understand that such things simply don’t have the power to destroy them.