I've been writing about s-e-x professionally for a few years now. And since I fell into it almost totally by accident, it's still a bit of a learning curve. (I didn't study sex in school, formally, although I did go to Bennington, so extract from that what you will.)
One of the things I struggle a lot with my own writing is personal boundaries. Okay, I mean, I'd struggle with personal boundaries at a Cracker Barrel -- it's just in my unfiltered, shameless nympho nature. But especially in this particular ethical arena.
I think many people who write about relationships for public consumption do. I recently mentioned this in an interview, too, that many women feel pressured to write about their private lives, which can be both personally and professionally problematic. It's all about where you, personally, draw the line, and if you want to write about your aunt or your cervix or your lesbian phase, that is one hundred percent a matter of your comfort level and your personal relationship with your subjects. (I hear Emily's fupa is getting calls from agents for a retaliatory book deal, so there you go.)
Things become fuzzy when you're writing about somebody else. While there are no hard and fast rules for writing about sex (heh), I have a personal one about ex boyfriends and girlfriends or people I've slept with. I don't write about them unless they explicitly give me permission. In the past, I've made oblique references to former experiences, and even though I never provided enough information to make anyone readily identifiable (except for this guy, because he's a great friend and encourages me to call him goofy names for sweet magazine money), I still have a crazy sense of guilt about it. Some writers don't, and again, it's a matter of personal preference within reason.
But as a consumer, it's another story. I made a resolution sometime after quitting a nightmarish job at a television tabloid that I wasn't going to read celebrity gossip anymore. For the most part, I'm pretty good about this, although I have the occasional Michael K or Gawker Blind Item relapse; I'm not made of stone. Every once in a while, I want to know who's snorting vodka, doing her sister, or having Hollywood mom lesbian playdate orgies.
I also love a good non-celebrity gossip -- like Jezebel Crap Email from a Dude and The Awl's Worst Boyfriend in the World series (both of which often involve two anonymous parties), and I read Modern Love fairly religiously.
I like reading about other people's wacky relationships. Sue me.* And when they're properly disguised, they serve a distinct narrative function, funny or therapeutic or instructive. I feel okay reading about some poor asterisked-Not-His-Real-Name schlub or someone with a good, Anne Landersy sobriquet like "Tunafish Lulu" or "Bobby Centaur Penis." I'm less comfortable when I'm reading about, say, the sex game of a guy from Hoobastank. (I interviewed a rock groupie memoirist for a men's magazine once -- she told me that Hoobastank was the best lay of her life. I feel okay using Hoobastank as an example for this reason. Also fun to say and type. Hoobastank.)
Sure, some people write in anger or to humiliate an ex. But perfidy, "creep shaming," or intentional malice aside, I tend to think of most names-redacted memoir as a low-impact encroachment. Written well and with generosity, remembered relationships and sexual encouters are like war stories or campfire tales, much more entertainment than anymore more sinister or revenge-driven.
Recently, though, I've been on a massive memoir kick. And the guilt is just now setting in.
In a college course on Salinger, we read Joyce Maynard's disturbing vita on sleeping with the author as an eating-disordered teen. (It's better than you can imagine.) Ever since, I've had a taste for "I Nailed This Guy!"-type memoirs, even though I find them a skunch ethically inconvenient.
Right now, I'm in the lurid thick of a juicy adultery memoir. Yep, that's a genre, and this one has all the kinds of telenovela-gasp moments you'd hope for. It was written by minor celebrity, but it's clear from the acrimonious nature of her divorce that her ex-husband would probably not want to be written about. When I feel too guilty about enjoying the collapse of someone's marriage, I switch to one by lady who followed around a boy band for the better part of the 1970s, who uses whole first and last names to describe individuals to, uh, less-than-complimentary effect.
As much as I'm enjoying the books, it's personal catharsis at the expense of calumny. I even feel guilty reading "The Dirt" because I worry that the fat girl Motley Crue slept with so they could use her sweet car for cruising has read the book and recognized herself (I also don't like giving Neal Strauss money, but that's neither here nor there). I'm even afraid that, literary pretext aside, reading Norman Mailer's wife's autobiography is essentially tantamount to looking photographs from a hacked phone.
Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling's books make liberal mention of family members and former boyfriends, but both are noticeably reserved when it comes to sex. They avoid graphic detail, and politley conceal all those formatively inconsiderate boyfriends via fake name. But there's a real sense of deliberate and courteous (if a little studied or cautious) privacy afforded to the third parties in both memoirs.
Rachel Dratch's "A Girl Walks Into a Bar" even has sort of an apologetic post-script. The book includes a (very honest!) account of unplanned pregnancy in the early stages of a casual relationship; in the back pages, she thanks her co-parent and acknowledges that the story is as much his as hers, and told in maybe more detail than he would have liked. I'd wondered about this as I read it, particularly when she got into the specifics of their surprise conception and used some very vivid high-school health class imagery.
I feel a twinge of guilt even for the most unlikable "characters" in these accounts. Reading about a country star's drunk yokel dad is entertaining for me, but what about her drunk yokel dad, and his drunk yokel feelings? Can I ever enjoy my effed up musician or celebrity offspring stories without guilt?
Obviously, this is the tip of a vastly complicated issue iceberg, one that goes far beyond me wanting to read what a penis Chevy Chase was on SNL, how Noel Coward came on to Eddie Fisher in a sauna once, or about Nikki Six fucking a breakfast burrito. There are even more issue here -- notably, that a relationship or sex memoir by a woman will be received differently than one written by a guy, and that women have recently been criticized for relying too heavily on mining their "interior lives" for material.
But those may be bigger issues than just being addicted to addiction memoirs, and full of all the attendant shame.
I'm of the school that believes that women who writing about sex and periods and episiotomies is important and helps to celebrate and demystify sexuality, but unless you're writing about masturbating (which, go for it) or speaking about sex acts in fairly broad, catholic terms, you're including somebody else who maybe doesn't want to be included. This applies to bad emotional behavior.
Is it different when a lot of time has passed? I tend to self-absolve a little in this way, the way I don't wear fur but bought a fur-lined vintage dress once because the lady at the consignment shop said, "Oh honey, that thing's been dead for years."
When you write for public consumption, it's a little unfair, because you're the only one in control of the work that's going out there. I've never really had my privacy compromised before, but the lack of control you feel when someone shares any information about you without your consent creates a sense violation -- I imagine someone being paid for your secrets compounds that sense somewhat. (My ex's band has a song he wrote where he calls me a whore, but it's not by name and I like to think of that as a tribute. Musical immortality!)
Of course, I may be hypersensitive. I've never dated a writer per se, but I live in fear of one of my exes taking up a pen to yak about "that one time" I ate noodles with salad dressing. It's part of the reason I have such a complicated name, I figure most of the people I sleep with probably won't be able to spell it and mess up my Google.
But, as I'm now in the habit of coming to you guys with all of my moral quandaries: Do you have memoir guilt? Am I being a Senstive Sally? If I am, I have a bunch of really awesome recommendations for your summer pool reads.
*not literally, please, Famous Person's Ex who once sued me.