I recently was asked some questions about Pleasure Pie and the Sex Letters Project. Here are my answers! - Nicole
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
A: I've always made zines. As a kid I would make DIY magazines where I interviewed our family pets and gave updates on household happenings. Then when I was in college I started to become fascinated by sex-positivity. I had had some bad experiences with sex, and I was really under-informed about sexuality. So, in an attempt to get over my anxieties and embarrassment about sex, and to learn more about it, I started reading about it online — a lot. I read about sex-positivity, sex education, and gender equality, and took some college classes on human sexuality and LGBT topics.
I own very few sex toys.
Historically, I've found sex toys somewhat intimidating. I bought my first sex toy in my late teens — a large, cheap purple jelly vibrator from Spencer's Gifts at the mall (the only place I knew to find sex toys). I didn't really enjoy using it. The vibrations made my genitals go numb after a few minutes, and it was too big and rigid to feel good inside my vagina.
By Anonymous Pleasure Pie Contributor
A little under a year ago, I started dating a guy (I’ll call him my “partner”) who was especially adamant about me enthusiastically consenting to every sexual thing we did.
It wasn’t that he was asking for verbal consent more often than my other partners. It was that he pretty much begged me to never do anything sexual with him that I didn’t fully want to be doing.
Written by Lori S., Pleasure Pie contributor. Graphics by Nicole Mazzeo.
Look, I’m not trying to romanticize this crap. Pain sucks. Sometimes, when it feels like I’ve been jinxed with the ability to pee sulfuric acid, or my clitoris is in no-chill, angry-like-the-Bride-in-Kill-Bill mode, I curse whatever vengeful deity is messing with my genitals.
But as much as I’d love to completely indulge in hyper-cynicism, I have to admit that dealing with pelvic pain has, in some ways, made my life better. And yes, that includes my sex life.
I know. Bear with me.
By anonymous Pleasure Pie contributor
I am a rape survivor, and I like sex.
And I have nightmares about my abusive ex. And I have trouble orgasming with other people. And I worry about being assaulted most days. And I think I probably have PTSD. And I love being touched. And I like casual sex (and that doesn’t have to be an “unhealthy coping mechanism”). And I like loving and being loved. And I find my body really sexy. And I get insecure about whether I’m “doing” sex right/well. And I communicate about consent, STIs, and desires (theirs and mine). And I have creative, weird, kinky, complicated fantasies. And I remind myself all of the time that my desires (and lack of desires) are valid, and that my pleasure is worthwhile!
By anonymous Pleasure Pie contributor
[Content notice: Rape and sexual coercion]
Last night I went on my first Tinder date, and it was horrible!
By Nicole Mazzeo
Really long intro (Feel free to skip this part)
One of the first things I saw upon waking up this morning was a video of a keynote speech by the Women of Color Sexual Health Network (WoCSHN). They are currently at a conference that I am longingly following on social media called The Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit
By anonymous Pleasure Pie contributor
I regularly see people proclaim that rape is not sex, and should not be called sex. As someone who has experienced rape, this feels unnecessarily limiting.
I think that this sentiment is coming from a good place. It seems to be a reaction to people trying to make the issue of rape sound less serious than it is. I can absolutely see why, when someone calls rape “non-consensual sex” in that context, people would say, “call it rape!”
However, I want to use whatever words I like when talking about my non-consensual experiences (as long as I’m not being insensitive to struggles that I haven’t experienced myself – in other words, I’m not giving myself permission to use racist slurs or anything).
Times I Want to Call My Rape “Sex”
When first telling a friend or loved one about my rape, I prefer not to lead with the word rape, because it is shocking and scary. Even though my rape was shocking and scary, I prefer to ease into the topic, to prevent the person I’m talking to from being startled (for both our sakes). In these situations, I’ll usually say something along the lines of, “He wanted to have sex; I said no; he didn’t listen to me. We had sex, and I was saying no the whole time.”
It’s helpful for me to feel like I have control over how I phrase my disclosures, and, to some extent, how they play out. Especially because part of the pain of my rape was all the ways in which I felt like I didn’t have control over the situation.
Also, there are times when I want to mention some other part of that encounter, unrelated to it being non-consensual. Sometimes I don’t want to go into the heavy nature of the experience just to talk about another aspect of it, like the dynamic of having sex with someone from a low-income country, etc.
There are plenty of other reasons that I, or other survivors, might want to refer to their rape as sex. While I don’t think that this “rape is not sex” proclamation was meant to be aimed at survivors, I want to point out that the issue of word choice around rape can be complicated. Let's think twice before making blanket statements about how others should speak.
By anonymous Pleasure Pie contributor
I’ve always been a very polyamorous person, long before I knew the word for it. I feel like I tend to be very open-hearted, and very trusting. When I was in high school, I participated in a group trust fall exercise, and was about a thousand times better at trust falling than anyone else in the group, to the point that I sometimes fell before my partner was even ready to catch me (they did catch me though).
About a year ago, I went on a date with a guy I didn’t know very well, and he raped me.
I was really surprised by what happened. I mean, he did seem like a sketchy guy, but I didn’t anticipate that he might hurt me in such a serious way. We had had conversations. He had looked me in the eye. My status as a fellow human being should have been apparent to him. Why would someone do that?
It made me question the way I view strangers in general. I had spent most of my life trying to assume kindness and trying to love everyone, unless I was given a whole lot of reasons not to (i.e. the person threatens to kill me or something). Now, this doesn’t mean that I liked everyone. But I did have some form of love for people as a whole.
In the year since my rape, I’ve been in a mostly monogamous relationship, until a month ago.
When that relationship ended, I was excited to be free to be polyamorous again. I’ve gone on two dates so far, and I’m finding that dating feels very different than it used to.
I’m finding that I’m afraid of men until they are proven to be trustworthy. I have been doing “background checks” by asking mutual friends about how safe it is to be alone with them. I can now see why many people are afraid of online dating, because you can’t ask a mutual friend to vouch for the people you go on dates with.
I’m also finding myself having confusing feelings about casual sex. Questions are coming up for me, like, “Is it really worth it to have sex with this person?”
Worth what? What am I losing to connect with this person sexually?
I’m also finding myself asking, “What’s the point of sex without love?”
The space between casual sex and a relationship isn’t usually acknowledged in our culture. It’s usually thought of as either completely casual, or a relationship. But it’s completely possible to experience sex, feelings, caring about the person – even if only for one night.
How this used to feel for me:
Sexuality was a way to connect with new people on an intimate level. I got to see their bedroom, their body, the way they interact with their own body, the way they touch and look at my body, how they express being turned on (like the noises they make, the things they say, the things they ask for, how they express feelings of pleasure, etc.), etc. And I never wondered if sex made sense without love because there was always an element of love: my general love for them as a fellow human being, regardless of how much I liked them or could relate to them or connect with them emotionally, intellectually, etc.
I want to learn to open up my heart again and love people in general, while still trying to do my best to protect myself from assault (i.e. by trusting my instincts when someone seems sketchy). It’s confusing for me to know to what extent I should heed my safety concerns, and to what extent they are a not-useful reaction to trauma. For now, I’m going to try to be careful with my safety, while still pushing past my emotional comfort zone when I do feel physically safe.
By anonymous Pleasure Pie contributor
I recently had sex with a new person, and it was really physically painful. I tried to pretend that it didn’t hurt that much, and we kept having sex until I couldn’t stand it anymore.
After it was over, I felt depressed. I realized that I have all of this emotional baggage around sex that was coming to the surface.
I didn’t want to talk about my emotional reaction with the guy I just had sex with, because we were hanging out to have a friendly, sexy time, not to share our deepest feelings and insecurities.
I want sexual freedom. I want to be sexual with whoever I choose (consensually, of course), regardless of whether we have a deep emotional connection.
But it’s awkward to stop sex in the middle of sex and not explain why. And if I explain why, I am likely to start crying. And I don’t always want to go there!
So I decided to write all the difficult feelings down so I can do my best to work through them.
Here is what my sexual baggage consists of right now:
• It’s often hard to experience physical sexual pleasure.
I try to relax and not overthink it, which works sometimes. I’ve been trying to “relax and not overthink it” for years now though, and it has not been a quick-fix type of solution. I have made progress over time though. Addressing the rest of my baggage also helps.
• I’m afraid of focusing on my pleasure during sex.
I’m afraid of indulging in my pleasure. I’m afraid of asking for things that might increase my pleasure. Plus, I don’t always know what those things are, and asking might make me more nervous, which makes it harder for me to experience sexual pleasure. I know it’s not true, but I feel like it is more appropriate and desirable and attractive for me to cater solely to my partner’s pleasure, rather than paying attention to my own pleasure. It makes me feel aggressive and unfeminine and needy to bring up my own pleasure.
• I’m worried that if I ask for things that would feel good for me, my sex partner will expect that I should orgasm.
And I’m worried that if it starts feeling really good for me, I will start wanting to orgasm, and if an orgasm doesn’t happen (which is likely for me) it could be frustrating.
• I am not worried about my body. It is hot! :)
• I’m worried that I won’t be “good” at sex.
I’m worried that I won’t please my partner, or that I’ll ruin the mood. I’m worried that I’ll be laughably awkward/uncoordinated, or that I won’t move enough/be engaged/engaging enough. On the flip side of that, I’m worried that I will take charge too much.
[This article is the antidote for this insecurity.]
• I’m worried that I don’t even know what sex is supposed to look like! I’m worried that I’m doing it wrong. I haven’t seen much video porn, and what I’ve seen hasn’t really spoken to me. I’m worried that my partner will have expectations of what sex is supposed to be/look like that come from watching porn, and that I won’t live up to them.
I wish sex felt more creative. Like it would be okay to color outside the lines – to re-envision what sex looks like/consists of, and to choose what the tone will be!
Like it could be,
and like we desperately need to touch each other
and like we’re 100% turned on all of the time
I worry that it could totally kill the mood/ruin everything/crush their self-esteem if I am honest about the fact that how turned on/into it I am can fluctuate (and that might not mean I want to stop).
• I’m afraid to say when sex hurts because it could kill the mood/the sexiness of it. And sometimes it hurts a lot. And it makes me feel freaked out and devalued to have someone continue forward with sex that is hurting me and pleasuring them. But they might not know it’s hurting me, or how much it’s hurting me, because I don’t tell them in a straightforward way; I just make gasping sounds that could potentially be interpreted as pleasure, and say things like, “Sorry, your penis is really big.” I think it’s really likely that someone would not realize how painful it is for me, even if they can tell that I’m experiencing some pain, they might assume that I am experiencing at least as much pleasure as pain.
My plan for this article is to match each insecurity with an antidote article that explains a more sex-positive way to think about it. If you know of any articles, stories, illustrations, quotes, etc. that would work for any of the insecurities above, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!
By anonymous Pleasure Pie contributor
I had a dream last night that I was raped by a neighbor when I visited his house. In the dream I was fifteen years old and he was in his late 30s or early 40s.
When I was reflecting on the dream this morning, what struck me about it was how I reacted to the rape in the dream. I was unsurprised. I felt broken, but it felt normal to feel that way. I felt like I was used to being raped all the time.
This got me thinking about how I felt when I was raped in real life. It didn’t feel that strange or unusual, though I had never been raped before. I think I’d had an image in my mind of what being raped would be like, and it was much more violent and out-of-the-blue than what actually happened.
What actually happened was that I went on a date with a cute guy and agreed to sleep at his one room apartment. I was really clear with him that I just wanted to cuddle when he asked me to come over. When we got to his room, he wanted to have sex. I said no, and he didn’t listen to me. We had sex and I was pleading with him to stop the whole time. I didn’t try to push him off of me, and he didn’t physically hurt me. He didn’t use a condom. He stopped when he came.
It took me a couple of days to call what happened rape. I think this was mainly because “rape” sounded like a huge deal, and I thought it would be unlike anything I had ever experienced before. But my rape didn’t feel so unfamiliar. I had been touched without consent many times before (sometimes sexually, sometimes not). This was just a more intrusive version of the non-consensual touching I was familiar with.
You know what this makes me think of? Rape culture. To grow up in a world where being raped doesn’t feel so out of the ordinary because multiple men in my life have touched me without my consent – that’s messed up.
And it doesn’t have to be this way. Kids should grow up hearing, “Only have sex with people who want to have sex with you,” not, “Women who respect themselves don’t dress like that, and you have to respect yourself first if you want guys to respect you” or any of the other harmful messages prevalent in our culture about sex and consent.
I usually avoid using the phrase rape culture because it is pretty controversial, and it seems to pit people against each other. Some people are adamant that it is an accurate way of describing our current society where rape is a big issue that affects a lot of people, and where people often don’t get very good support after being raped, while other people are adamant that our culture is anti-rape and offended by the idea that the general population is being described as condoning rape. So I often prefer to talk about how rape is an issue in our culture (and in my personal experience) without using the phrase “rape culture” because I don’t want people to write off what I’m saying because of that one phrase.
But sometimes it just feels so accurate.
We’re making a zine about masturbation! Why?
Last summer, I was at a sexuality-focused retreat where public sex was allowed, and I wanted to try masturbating in a very public place because I thought it might help me get over some of my shyness and discomfort with sexual expression. I was nervous, so one of my friends said that she would do it with me. Then I mentioned it to a few strangers at lunch, and they were all about the idea, so it turned into a little group of us, all reclining on lawn chairs by the pool, for a masturbation session. We all started touching our individual vulvas – we were all vulva-owners – and my friend looked at me and was like, “What’s with the underwear?” I think she thought I was being shy because I was still wearing underwear, but it was actually that I usually prefer to touch my vagina through fabric for a little while before transitioning to direct vulva contact, especially if I’m not using lube. I told her this, and she was like, “Well then, by all means, I’ll get us some lube!” She quickly came back with a round of lube for everyone, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and we all went about our business.
This experience made me realize: I pretty much never see other people masturbate. Because of that, I don’t know how you all are doing it! And I want to know.
So that is what this zine is about – sharing all our masturbation techniques, routines, stories, visuals, etc.
Tell us how you do it!
Submit a piece of writing (nonfiction preferred), art (ideally based on true experiences), photography, a diagram, etc. by April 30, 2016 to potentially have it featured in the zine. Submissions can be anonymous or not, up to you!
How do you masturbate?
Do you use lube? Toys? Erotica? If so, what kinds?
Where do you always touch yourself? Sometimes touch? Never touch?
Do you have any rituals (i.e. certain times, locations, etc.)?
What do you think about during it? People you know? A partner? Someone you were sexual with before? A crush? Friend? Acquaintance? Stranger? Celebrity? Imaginary person? Vague imaginary person? Something else?
How does your body feel/react? Do you usually orgasm? Does it ever hurt or feel uncomfortable? How does it compare to being sexual with a partner (if that’s something you do sometimes)?
You are welcome to answer some, none, or all of these questions in your submission.
We are looking for submissions from people of all genders. Must be 18+.
Submit a piece at pleasurepie.tumblr.com/submit or by emailing email@example.com.
Please share widely with anyone you think might be interested in submitting a piece!
Thanks so much! :)
Anonymous Pleasure Pie contributor
“Condoms will break, but I can assure you that vows of abstinence will break more easily than condoms.”
I made this plate for an event that a local nonprofit called The Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health had this month to celebrate their fifth birthday. They had an art exhibit called A Place at the Table to honor the history of sex educators who helped move our culture in the direction of sexual acceptance. The installation was inspired by feminist artist Judy Chicago’s exhibit, The Dinner Party.
Chicago pioneered the Feminist Art Movement in the 70’s, and she created The Dinner Party to pay tribute to influential women throughout history. The Dinner Party was originally banned as pornographic and Chicago had to fight to exhibit her work. Through emulating Chicago’s concept, A Place at the Table intends to acknowledge the historical relevance of her contribution to eliminating sexual shame.
On Abstinence Vows
By Nicole Mazzeo
“Condoms will break, but I can assure you that vows of abstinence will break more easily than condoms.” -Joycelyn Elders
As a teenager, I believed that strict abstinence was my ownly acceptable option. This led me to internalize a lot of shame around the fact that I sometimes masturbated, was turned on by taboo things, and had sexual feelings at all. When I finally gave myself permission to experiment sexually, anytime I tried to engage sexually with a partner my mind would flood with anxious thoughts about whether I was doing it “right”, deadlines I had missed, etc. – anything and everything I could possibly be anxious about came to mind when I tried to be sexual. I usually couldn’t relax enough (physically or emotionally) to feel much sexual pleasure, and orgasms were often unattainable.
For the past six years, I’ve been on a journey of reclaiming my sexuality and my right to pleasure.
My experience of sexual repression has led me to care deeply about encouraging young people to make their own choices about sex. People of all ages deserve to have power over their own bodies and their own sexual expression. Educators and caregivers have the responsibility to support young people in their efforts to find healthy, fulfilling ways of relating to the sexual aspects of who they are (unless they find that sexuality is not a part of their experience – then they deserve support in embracing their non-sexual identity). Rather than pressuring young people to make vows of abstinence, let’s give them all their options, and all the information they need to make responsible decisions about sexual expression.
Jocelyn Elders is the former US Surgeon General who was fired by President Clinton in 1994 for her controversial remarks about contraception, masturbation, and abortion, among other things. She is currently a professor in Arkansas.
This piece was made by gluing magazine clippings to a ceramic plate. The text was written with a typewriter, glued to repurposed cardboard, and then glued to the plate.
Photos from A Place at the Table
Is sex dirty? Is enjoying sex a bad thing? Is it only okay if you always do it with the same person? Or if you’ve made a forever commitment with them?
Why do we have so many restrictions on our sexual enjoyment? What are we afraid might happen if we embrace sexual pleasure?
I got really into religion when I was thirteen. At that time I also happened to be going through puberty and becoming very interested in the possibility of interacting sexually with another person. But my religious role models were sending me some firm messages about the need to control one’s sexuality in order to live a moral life. And I took all the values they taught me very seriously.
So I tried not to masturbate. That usually worked until just before my period each month when my hormones would go wild. But I didn’t know anything about hormones, so every time I masturbated and then got my period the next day, I thought god was punishing me for what I had done.
I determined that I needed to stop giving into my sexual (and sinful) urges. I thought that if I could make myself feel ashamed enough, this tower of shame would serve as a self control replacement when self control didn’t cut it. When this method didn’t work, I just kept adding shame to the top of the shame tower every time I slipped up.
Luckily for my young faith, I was never intimate with a person (other than myself) who knew how to make my genitals feel good (what, was I going to tell them what felt good? Ha!). So for that and other reasons (i.e. I was uncool) my sexual interactions with other people were rare.
But that stretch of clueless boyfriends/no boyfriends ended when I was 17. By this time, I was adamantly against the idea of experiencing any kind of sexual pleasure until I was married. But this one guy pressured me endlessly and eventually I gave in.
In my attempts to switch from demonizing sex to having a satisfying sex life, I was surprised to find that I couldn’t orgasm when I was with another person. During sexy times, I found myself having terrible anxiety. I worried about all sorts of things: whether or not I was pleasing my partner, the smell of my genitals, my heaps of overdue homework assignments, etc. And I wasn’t thinking at all about what I wanted or how I could enjoy what we were doing.
I was also afraid to seem like I was enjoying it, even when I kind of was. I know now that whoever I’m hooking up with wants me to enjoy the things we’re doing together, and would probably even be turned off if they thought I wasn’t. But at the time it didn’t even occur to me that part of the point was for me to enjoy it. I thought I would seem gross and porn-y if I expressed that I had any sort of sexual inclinations. I was beyond terrified of putting my true sexual feelings out there for others to see.
My boyfriend would ask me for a lap dance and I would freeze. I had taught myself to hide any trace of my sexuality from my self expression (and I was especially intentional about hiding it from my dancing, since I always heard people lamenting the hyper-sexualized music videos of the world today). Now I was supposed to just switch that off? I imagine this is how many couples who wait until they’re married to have sex feel once they try to embrace sex in the context of their marriage.
So I began a journey of reclaiming my sexuality. I read articles upon articles about sex positivity. I came out as queer*. I visited sex shops and bought a vibrator. I sampled many kinds of erotic media. The list goes on.
Now, eight years later, I’m still unlearning my internalized shame. And I’m up against a culture that has taught me that women aren’t supposed to want or enjoy sex. But I’ve finally learned to ask myself: What do I want? What would feel good or be fun for me?
I indulge in cozy blankets with an erotic story (tailed to my interests!) and have great sexy time with myself. I communicate my desires and sexual fantasies to my partner and – get this – we try them out! I give myself room to experiment with things that I don’t know whether or not I’ll like.
These simple practices are what embracing pleasure looks like for me. It’s appreciating the sexual aspect of who I am. It’s unapologetically saying that I’m horny**. It’s believing that my experience of pleasure is a good thing – something to be celebrated, not something to repent or hate myself for, not something to see as less important than my partner’s pleasure.
I like sexual pleasure. And that’s okay.
*Well, I still haven’t come out to everyone.
**It took me years to be able to use that word without just dying on the spot.
One survivor’s reflections:
Sometimes I try to imagine what it would be like to live in a body that wasn’t repeatedly touched, fondled, and/or used without my consent. My relationship to my body has been shaped by all these experiences of people touching me against my will, since I was a kid.
When I was raped at age 23, it felt weirdly unsurprising and familiar because I had experienced so much non-consensual sexual touching in my life already.
I decided to make a map of my body that shows where people have touched me against my will.
Why do I want to share this with the world?
1. To say, “Hey! This is what sexual assault looks like (or can look like). Recognize it! Acknowledge it!”
2. To share what has happened to me as a part of my own healing process.
3. To bring attention to the complex, confusing, and deeply internalized ways that non-consensual touching can affect a person.
I am trying to reclaim my body as my own – to unlearn all of the experiences that have taught me that my body exists for other people’s whims, and to proclaim that I am the ruler of my body – the only person who gets to decide what I do with it. I have bodily autonomy and I will not give it up!