Melissa D. Sullivan and Steph Auteri alternate writing the column “All Write Now.”
By MELISSA D. SULLIVAN
For Montclair Local
It never occurred to Stephanie Auteri that she should be ashamed about sex.
“My supervisor was like, you can use a pen name if you want,” Steph told me, sipping a Thai iced tea. “And I was like, dude, this is my first regular writing gig writing in a fun voice. I want my byline on this. It never occurred to me that it could have repercussions in the future.”
As one of her earliest writing jobs, Steph agreed to write about “adult content,” without being sure what that entailed. She soon discovered that it meant reviewing sex toys.
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For Steph however, the main repercussion is that her first book, “A Dirty Word: How a Sex Writer Reclaimed Her Sexuality,” will be released on Oct. 9. (Steph details her journey to publication on the book’s Facebook page).
In her book, she writes about using her job as a sex writer as a type of therapy to address what she viewed as her own sexual dysfunction. She details her struggles with painful sex, infertility, negative body image and her marital issues, stemming from an initial negative sexual encounter, through a set of interlocking essays.
Through old writing pals and the Montclair Write Group, Steph and I have known each other for several years, but a first book is a special sort of milestone for any writer. Over a plate of pad thai on a late summer day, I asked her how she achieved her success, with the plan of stealing everything I could for my own writing career.
“By the time I was 5, I knew I wanted to be a published author,” she said. “In elementary school, I started writing terrible, terrible poetry.”
In college, she tried fiction workshops, but they didn’t ring true. “I felt like all of us were writing true stories thinly veiled as fiction. [It was] an institutionalized form of group therapy,” she said.
Steph decided to drop the veil and wrote a personal essay that her writing classmates found hilarious. Soon, she found her home in creative non-fiction, using elements of fiction, such as character, dialogue, and scene setting, to bring a true story to life.
BECOMING A SEXPERT
At that early job where she agreed to write about adult content, she started to build an expertise in sex writing. After graduating in 2003, she starting pitching stories to several magazines and found that there was a real need for this kind of writing.
“This was before every single publication had a sexpert,” Steph told me. “At the time, the editors were really hungry for writers who were writing opening and honestly and with humor about sex.”
So she became a sex writer.
When it came time to write a book, she thought she could offer a different perspective. “I felt I had a good hook in that I was a sex writer who was trying to fix what she saw as a sex-deficient life.”
So she began working on a chronological memoir, with some self-help advice capping each chapter.
“I got positive feedback from publishers, but they all felt it was too bifurcated,” Steph said. She floated a few ideas with her agent, but nothing seemed to work. “After a while it felt like I was getting further and further away from the book I wanted to be writing. So I thought, oh my god, maybe this book won’t happen ever.”
WRITING THROUGH MOTHERHOOD
Then, she got pregnant, which as you will read in her book, was a very desired event. However, with her new status as mommy, she was worried that she was never going to write again.
“Then I read an essay by Cheryl Strayed, where she wrote about feeling like writing as a mother was like trying to write with an ankle weight on… and [how] she too felt like she too would never be a writer now because she was now a mother,” she said.
Inspired by Strayed’s success, she slowly went back to writing, working on short articles on a freelance basis. Then one day, in a bookstore, she picked up a book that was on a topic similar to her abandoned memoir.
“I was like, holy crap, what am I doing with my life?,” she said.
So she refocused her approach. Two years later, she had a new agent and her first signed book deal.
As one of Steph’s critique partners, I had read selections of her memoir while it was a work in progress, and it was on every page, an honest telling of a woman’s struggle with her body and how it affected those closest to her. So I was a little surprised to learn that no one in her family had yet to read it.
“I just figured that when the book came out they would either read it or not read it, whatever they felt comfortable with,” she said.
Still, she is determined to have an open dialogue around these topics that carry so much silence.
“The things I write about I often write about because I struggled with them myself and I didn’t know who the heck to talk to about it,” she said. Writing about them for her readers “makes me feel less alone, and I’ve been told that it makes them feel less alone. I’m happy to be able to do that.”
Her advice for her younger self? Steph said, “Don’t even bother with the poetry, girl. Just stop.”
But for other aspiring writers, she warns them not to get discouraged.
“They are going to think that everything’s already been done before,” she said. “The thing is that you have your own unique experience, you have your own unique voice that you bring to every story you tell. And yes, every single story has been done before, but only you can tell it in a way that you can tell it.”
Excerpt from “A Dirty Word: How a Sex Writer Reclaimed Her Sexuality”
My daughter is now at that age where her legs dangle over the edge of her changing pad, and where every errant flip or flail of her chubby thighs can knock over tubes of diaper rash cream and body lotion or send her hurtling off the table and onto the hardwood floor.
So I distract her by quizzing her.
“Where’s your head?” I ask as I undo her diaper and wipe her down, and she brings both hands to her head.
“Good job! Where’s your stomach?” I ask as I put a new diaper in place, and she taps her belly.
“Yup! Where are your toes?” I ask as I bring the diaper flaps across her belly and Velcro the whole shebang shut. She extends her legs and looks at her toes. “Wee wee wee?” she asks, because that is what she calls them ever since she learned “This little piggie.”
“Yes!” I say, pretending to eat her toes. “And where is your vulva?” I ask.
She does a Michael Jackson crotch grab.
“Yes!” I say. “Yay!” I say. I wrestle her jeans up to her waist and wrestle her feet through the leg holes as she smiles and claps her hands.
“Yay!” she says and claps her hands together. “Vulva,” she says, and it is the most adorable thing ever.
In my two years working with AASECT, I learned so much about sexuality, information I couldn’t learn from sex toy test drives and sex parties alone. I grilled sexuality educators in particular for information on how to raise a sexually healthy child from birth on, on how to impart the sex-positive values that would best serve them as they grew older. This—teaching her the proper names for her body parts—is easy.
But I know that being my daughter’s educator will only become harder. That the lessons will become more complicated.
I am only just now starting to consider how I might best teach her about gender and privacy and body agency. What will I do when she someday walks in on me and Michael having sex? What will I say when she starts asking questions about masturbation or sexual decision making? How will I handle those warring needs to have a daughter who is sexually autonomous and confident, and to have a daughter who is safe?
What will I teach my daughter?