Karen speaks with author and Teen Vogue columnist Nona Willis Aronowitz about her new hybrid memoir, “Bad Sex,” about the history of free love, feminism, and her own journeys in nonmonogamy and beyond.
Wild & Sublime Podcast Transcript
#S3E23 | "Bad Sex," a Pleasure History, with Nona Willis Aronowitz
Nona Willis Aronowitz: Not that I haven't had a ton of bad sex with men. But despite all of that, I still sort of knew in my gut that what I really desired was cis men. And I spent a lot of time thinking consciously about why — not just lamenting the fact that I desired men, but sort of figuring out why.
Karen Yates: Welcome to Wild & Sublime, a sexy spin on infotainment®, no matter your preferences, orientation, or relationship style, based on the popular live Chicago show. I chat about sex and relationships with citizens from the world of sex positivity. You'll hear meaningful conversations, dialogues that go deeper, and information that can help you become more free in your sexual expression. I'm sex educator and intimacy coach Karen Yates. This week, I talk to author and columnist Nona Willis Aronowitz about her memoir, "Bad Sex," which weaves her own sexual journey with the history of the feminist movement and the rise of sex positivity. Keep listening.
Here's some news. I just came out with a new publication, and you can get it free. Yes, free. It's aimed at folks who want to learn easy and effective ways to talk and connect to their partners in bed, leaving the guessing game at the door. It's called "Say It Better in Bed! 3 Proven Ways to Improve Intimate Communication." Whether you're in a long term relationship or hooking up, you will learn some really easy things to say, boosting your sexual communication skills. Go to the show notes, or karen-yates.com to download your free guide. Hey, folks, we don't delve a lot into history on Wild & Sublime, which is unfortunate, because I love history and it gives us a lot of clues about why we do what we do now.
Today, I'll be interviewing Nona Willis Aronowitz. She is a prolific writer, as well as the sex and love columnist for Teen Vogue, and has recently published an intriguing hybrid memoir of her own sexual journey of the past six years, interspersed with the history of sex-positive feminism that stretches back 200 years. "Bad Sex: Truth, Pleasure, and an Unfinished Revolution," published by Plume in August, begins in 2016 as the then-32 year old Willis Aronowitz's open marriage was falling apart. Using that crisis as a starting point, the author delves into what sexual liberation meant now to her personally, but then examines the relationship between women and sex by exploring the pioneering free love movement of the 19th century that informs consensual nonmonogamy today. Willis Aronowitz also showcases 1960s sexual revolutionaries, including black feminist writers and lesbians who espouse a more radical sexual agenda. At the heart of Willis Aronowitz's book is the relationship she has with her own mother, the famous feminist and rock critic Ellen Willis. Nona Willis Aronowitz sifts through her mother's many writings as a kind of north star to guide her.
And I have to include here one of my favorite Ellen Willis quotes that's included in the book, after she began attending women's rallies in 1969: "Consciousness raising has one terrible result. It makes you more conscious." In this conversation, I talk with Nona Willis Aronowitz about her journey after leaving her open marriage, when she then moved through relationships and hookups to explore her own pleasure, as well as how historians tend to minimize the messy emotional lives of important figures. We also chat about the current cultural state of dating. Enjoy. Nona Willis Aronowitz, welcome.
Nona Willis Aronowitz: Thank you so much for having me.
Karen Yates: I'm really excited to have you on, and I'm very much looking forward to discussing "Bad Sex." Nona, let's begin the interview by, I want to find out what indigenous lands you are on currently.
Nona Willis Aronowitz: I'm on Mohican lands upstate, among other tribes. But I think that those were the main people on this land.
Karen Yates: Okay, upstate New York, right? And I am recording from the lands of the council — the unceded lands of the council of three fires, the Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi nations, among many others that were here in the Midwest. So, Nona, it'd be awesome if you started this interview by reading a bit from your book, "Bad Sex." And can you set this up?
Nona Willis Aronowitz: Sure. So, I had just gotten out of an eight-year relationship, and I was kind of what I call "on a trampage." I was really having lots of sex. I was trying and chasing, trying to find transcendent, amazing sex. And I found myself in a rebound relationship that really pushed my boundaries. And I was feeling very vulnerable. And this particular incident was on the heels of that rebound. And I had this hankering to have sex with a much younger person, because I wanted to feel in control. And I wanted to get the feeling that most — I guess, men do when they get with much younger women. And this is what happened. This is a very abridged version, but we can talk more about it.
[reading] "His kisses were awkward. His chest was shaved. His maneuverings needed work. His dirty talk was strange, but it was exactly what I was looking for. Not only did he do whatever I told him to do, he also clearly was going to remember this forever. During our pillow talk, he told me it was even better than he had imagined. I was pretty much done with him after the second time, but when he initiated a third round, I privately conceded that this would make the story better. I decided on a blow job. I was giving it my all. When I stopped for a second to look up, I realized he was filming me. I was too stunned to yell and scream. I just gave him my best ‘very disappointed in you’ look, made him erase the video in front of me, and kicked him out. As I lay in bed for hours after he was gone, the glass of whiskey souring my empty stomach, I felt embarrassed and kink-shamed by the universe. I was angry that my self-assured, all-knowing vibe hadn't protected me, even from a person who in some ways really was more vulnerable than me. If you're a human fucking anybody, but especially if you're a woman fucking a man, invulnerability is an illusion. Yes, I was older and wiser, but even though he was bashful and indie and unassuming, even though I definitely engineered our power imbalance with my '90s records and mood lighting and adult Brooklyn apartment, no matter how much he wanted me, and how little I gave a shit about him, he could still shatter my super-slut power into a million pieces, just by lifting an iPhone to my face when I was blowing him and pressing record.
Karen Yates: You know, I gotta say, that reading — there's a number of points in your book where I got goosebumps, because I could relate so much to what you were putting forth. And this is definitely one of those moments. And thank you for reading it. What I love so much about your book is that it is very personal. But then you wonderfully weave it with the history of the women's movement. And of course, your mother's writings, which we'll talk about in a moment. But for me, this reading encapsulates a lot of what your book is about, is making sense of this now point we are in of, you know, sex positivity and women continuing to make sense of their own sexual desires. How did it feel to write this raw and honestly?
Nona Willis Aronowitz: Well, I had to really push myself. I think my first drafts of these memoiristic chunks of the book were, you know, the typical story that I kind of always told myself, that I had sort of been telling people for months and years, because this is how I got the book deal. This is how I was processing things. I had a somewhat neater narrative about myself. And then editors and other readers pushed me to do more, to be more raw, and to describe the sex more explicitly at times, and to expose my ambivalence. And that was scary. I mean, that was — I actually wrote this at the height of this discussion around cancel culture. I feel actually that it's dissipating a little bit. And I feel so much more at peace with it now. But when I was writing, everybody was getting, you know, scrutinized for the way they were talking about their intimate life, in a way that maybe they aren't even now. It was truly the height of that, and I was worried that — this is actually a perfect example, this reading that I just read. I mean, this guy was 19. I mean, he wasn't underage, but really young. And he was a total dick. But he also, you know, his brain wasn't fully formed either. And I was trying to balance that in the book with the fact that he totally violated my boundaries. And I was worried that I was going to come off as the person who was wrong in that situation. And the way that I navigated that — it comes later in another chapter about vulnerability — but the way that I navigated that was just to say both things. And I had to do that a lot. I had to say, on one hand, this, and on the other hand, this, and these are puzzle pieces of the truth, and to just sort of confidently do that and be honest with it. So that was hard, and I haven't gotten canceled yet or whatever, but I think that when you do that, people really appreciate the nuance of the situation.
Karen Yates: Yeah, I would agree. The parts of the book where you are at your absolutely most ambivalent, I really appreciate it, because I too want a very neat narrative. That's what I want for my life, and in my writing as well. And for me, doing the show is always — it's gotten better, like you said, because this show launched around the time of, like, a lot of cancel culture. And I was always, especially when I started doing the podcast, as opposed to the live show, when it was really out there and recorded, right, and could be played over and over again. I was like, [whispering] oh my god, I'm gonna say the wrong thing... I'm gonna use a wrong label, and they're gonna come after me! You know, I mean, I think it was so crazy, because we're both in kind of the sex-positive world. But it was almost worse, quote, unquote, 'on the inside,' at least for me.
So your book is, as I have said, is a weaving of feminist history, especially the writings of your mom, Ellen Willis, who is a feminist writer and rock critic, and your own sexual history. And I thought it was really interesting the way you used all of these threads to illuminate your story, as well as the relationship your parents had. Your father was socialist organizer and scholar Stanley Aronowitz. How did it feel, because you've edited two of their writings, a collection of writings from your mother, "The Essential Ellen Willis," and her rock critic writings, "Out of the Vinyl Deeps." How did it feel working with her writing in a different way? Like more personally, how was the whole process for you different this time?
Nona Willis Aronowitz: It was really different. I mean, putting together the anthologies, all I was really saying was, people should read these. In their pure form, they were important at the time, and they're still important, and I'm going to collect them and I'm going to put them out in the world. This was really grappling with the ideas, and seeing how they relate to my mom's own life, which I think is controversial. Not everybody thinks that you should do that — you know, like, a lot of historians were very offended by the fact that, for instance, Emma Goldman's life was much messier than what she proselytized, which was free love and absolute independence and autonomy. And she was also wracked by jealousy, which I get into in one of the chapters. And some historians are like, who cares what's going on in her personal life? But I care, because feminism is famously very much about one's intimate, everyday life. And my mom definitely recognized that, and wrote about her own life.
And yet, there was another element that she never wrote about, and I, being her daughter, had access to some of that. I mean, there's some stuff that I'll never know, because she died in 2006. And a lot of her friends aren't around even, anymore. That generation is getting old. But I did talk to some of her ex-boyfriends. I talked to some of her friends and people who knew her really well. Her cousin Judy, who was like a sister to her. And coupling that, all that biographical information, with her writing was a really different experience, because there were contradictions, and there were complications. I think that, you know, once you see a finished piece of writing of somebody's, there's a confidence and there's a self-assuredness that's not necessarily in their actual life and the way that they process these same issues in their actual life. And I find that really interesting, and crucial, actually, to understanding the fruits of the sexual revolution and where we have to go and what we still have to do. And I think honestly, my mom would agree. So I think going through her writing at the same time, I was learning more about her as a person was the main difference.
Karen Yates: Yeah, I found your inclusion of her writing throughout the book — like this wonderful, like, this bright light. And there was this for me, at least, there was this sense of you, you know, she was no longer alive as you went through these more difficult — not difficult, but like, this really exploratory phase of your life. But she was there, guiding you through her writing, both public and personal. That felt so potent to me. And I love what you just said about history, the mess of history, and what ultimately gets codified. And it's good to go back and see, especially with something like the women's movement, which is so tied to sex and sexuality, and owning one's pleasure and desire, because I found especially the Emma Goldman stuff, around basically what is now called polyamory, which was part of the free love movement. I found it really so great to discover that she was wracked with jealousy. And can you talk a little bit about tha? Like, as you were finding these more personal — because what you do is, you go in real deep with these various phases of history as they relate to very modern concepts that we don't think might have a very historical base. I would love for you to talk a little bit about the free love movement, and like, the 'ahas' you had for yourself, being consensually nonmonogamous, polyamorous as you were doing the research.
Nona Willis Aronowitz: Yeah. So the free love movement was a sort of loose group of radicals, I'd say, starting in the mid 1800s, and going all the way to the turn of the century. And it had lots of different forms. It was related to Transcendentalism. But by the time it got to Emma Goldman, it was really affiliated with the Bohemian, downtown Manhattan crowd. And also, I think, with anarchists.
Karen Yates: What year was this around?
Nona Willis Aronowitz: 1900 to 1920 was the peak of her career. And she was hanging out with the Greenwich Village avant garde crowd at that time. She had emigrated from Eastern Europe, and was very gung ho about these ideas. And what free love meant was not exactly what non monogamy can mean here. I mean, they were sort of against casual sex. Like, it wasn't about promiscuity; it was about sharing the love, and having your love actually be a free entity, where you freely love, and if you don't feel it, you move on to somebody else. And you can have some concurrent loves. But the key is love, here. It wasn't like a sex-focused thing. And I think some polyamory is like that, too. But I think also, there are lots of forms of nonmonogamy that really emphasize sexual exploration rather than multiple, intense relationships. So it really depends on what iteration you're talking about when it comes to modern nonmonogamy.
One ‘aha’ moment I had was that jealousy, I think, is much more accepted nowadays, if you are going to be polyamorous or you're going to be nonmonogamous, or in an open relationship, or whatever vocabulary you want to use. People talk very openly about dealing with your jealousy and befriending your jealousy and acknowledging your jealousy, and you can be jealous and you can feel it, you're gonna feel it in your body, and as long as you're not behaving badly towards your partner, it's totally fine to feel it. I think back then, when it was so, so, so out of the mainstream, and there were so many cultural messages pushing back, you had to be very — at least, Emma Goldman felt that you had to be very confident in yourself, and not expose any of your jealousy. I think she felt a huge amount of shame about her jealousy, that it somehow negated her political beliefs, that she was feeling this personal tumult. And I'll also say that the person she was feeling this about was lying to her. No matter what, you're gonna feel really upset if somebody's betraying you, no matter how much you believe in free love. And she also did make this when she was in this relationship with Ben Reitman, who was this kind of rakish, radical gynecologist and nomad, and he was very squirrely about all of his affairs, and he wasn't upfront. And I think anybody would have been hurt by his actions. When she talks about it, she says, like, you know, this person is all I want in the world. This is like, making me question all my beliefs; I can't let him be free, it hurts me too much. And she was writing those things in her letters to him, and telling other people in her life about them. But in her autobiography, there's nary a mention of all of that jealousy.
And so, I think there was a lot of shame around that. Whereas I felt lucky. That was my ‘aha’ moment of like, I felt lucky that all of this, that's this, polyamory ecosystem that exists now really makes a space for jealousy, and that it's okay to feel it. And it's actually a really interesting and relevant emotion, like it's this composite emotion that I find to be very socially constructed, which nobody talks about. They just talk about it as kind of intrinsic. I mean, nobody has, in the mainstream culture, right? But when you start to learn more about polyamory, you start to learn more about the sources of jealousy. Some of it, I guess, is about your own attachment, but also it's about what society deems important, and what we're supposed to be — like, how we're supposed to be respected, or how we're supposed to be loved, and how people are supposed to show love. And you have to reprogram your mind, and I still struggle with doing that. Because my current partner and I, we do have a sort of, like, nonmonogamous relationship, but it's not full-on polyamory. And to me, it's still very scary to think about having multiple, very deep relationships.
So I'm not there yet. But who knows? I mean, honestly, if I learned anything from writing this book, and looking into the history of polyamory, it's that you can't control what happens, exactly. And if you really, truly are going to commit to exploring and expanding, you might really be surprised. And that's actually a beautiful thing. And as long as you come to that with acceptance, and if you see something changing, and it's difficult, like, you have to acknowledge, like, that's just how love and sex is. And it can't really be tamped down, if you give it some space to breathe.
Karen Yates: Yeah, and I did appreciate the end of the book, you talking about how changed you were — like, how different you were, from the person you were in, say, 2016, to where you are now, or at the end of the writing of the book. It felt so potent to me. You know, and I do have to ask you, you said that a whole cache of letters of Emma Goldman's were found in the back of a Chicago guitar shop. Do you know which guitar shop? Because I was just like, where? Oh, my God, what?!
Nona Willis Aronowitz: Oh my God, I can't think of it off the top of my head. But I bet that it's in Candace Phelps's book about this.
Karen Yates: Okay.
Nona Willis Aronowitz: She has an intro where she talks about stumbling upon these letters. In the 70s, when second wave feminism was at its peak, and every feminist was reading Emma Goldman, like, sort of rediscovering Emma Goldman. So, she not only found those letters in a Chicago guitar shop, but she found them at the exact right time.
Karen Yates: Yeah, and I did appreciate that, you know, once again, as you were saying, people didn't really want to hear the real story. They wanted the like, top tier Emma Goldman, you know, about like, this is the way it was. And that was very, very interesting. And so I want to turn the conversation to this idea of being chill, because you write a bit about Alana Massey's essay, "Against Chill," in Medium. And it seems to me, chill is almost that same modern-day equivalent to, 'Everything's cool. I'm liberated. I'm just gonna be.' But actually, it's not cool, and there's all sorts of roiling emotions. And I just want to read a bit that you cite in your book, a section from this fairly well-known essay. So this is Alana Massey's essay.
[reading] "But chill is not the opposite of uptight. It is the opposite of demanding accountability. Chill is a sinister refashioning of 'calm down,' from an enraging and highly gendered command into an admirable attitude. Chill suggests that young love is best expressed as competitive ambivalence. Chill demands that you see a read receipt followed by a 'Hey, I was asleep' text three hours later, and now proceed to throw your phone into the nearest volcano. Chill asks you to be like, LOL, what volcano? Chill presides over the funeral of reasonable expectations. Chill takes and never gives. Chill is pathologically unfeeling, but not even interesting enough to kill anyone. Chill is a garbage virtue that will destroy the species. Fuck chill."
Nona Willis Aronowitz: Mhmm.
Karen Yates: Wow. So this was written in 2015. And boy, do I wish I had read it in 2015. I really needed it at that point in my life, because I was living a very 'chill' existence within relationships. For you, nowadays, do you see chills still existing? And what do you make of the chill dynamic for women?
Nona Willis Aronowitz: I do see chill still existing. I love this essay, because it doesn't make a tautology with, like, emotions and commitment. I think she makes space, as they say, for — or like, holds space for our emotional needs, without coming to the conclusion that more people should be in committed relationships. I think that there's a slippery slope of this, like, conservative bent, of saying, look, see, we're having all this quote unquote, 'casual sex.' And people are not treating each other right, and they're emotionally closed off, and women have emotional needs that men aren't meeting, and therefore they're forced to be chill. And I agree with that. I mean, that is absolutely true. I think a lot of women do have emotional needs that men aren't meeting. I also think that men have emotional needs that they're not acknowledging.
Karen Yates: 100%.
Nona Willis Aronowitz: But I don't think that really has anything to do with committed relationships. As I tried to say in this book, being in committed relationships that aren't quite right can be very toxic too. I think that part of my eight-year relationship was in reaction to having to be too chill, and to navigate casual sex. And I was like, oh, somebody has deemed me a prize pig, I'm now acceptable, somebody is going to commit to me. And that's great. I'm finally getting the respect I deserve. But then, as I discovered, if you're in a committed relationship, and you're not totally feeling it, it's its own kind of prison. And it's not necessarily better than having to navigate the world of chill. You know, I think what Alana was saying was, even if you're with somebody for one night, treat them like a human. I mean, she sort of talks about the literal word chill, how it's icy and cold. And you should be able to be warm and giving and loving, even if it's just momentarily.
And you should also be able to acknowledge when a relationship is developing, even if, like, you're not going to marry that person, or you're not going to necessarily move in with them. Like, you still want to be able to be like, wow, like, my feelings are evolving for you. I feel strongly for you. And I think that that's actually a beautiful thing to say. And there's a lot of daylight in between 'Let's settle down in a committed relationship,' and casual, quote, unquote, 'casual sex.' I am one of these people that says, like, casual sex is kind of a dumb term, because if it's good, there is going to be some element of intensity, even if it's not, like, emotional in the traditional sense. It's like, even if you're with somebody who you don't really connect with emotionally, but they understand you sexually. That's actually a profound experience. And that's a wonderful thing to acknowledge. And you don't have to be chill about that.
Karen Yates: I'll return to my interview in a moment. Did you know all Wild & Sublime supporters on Patreon get ticket discounts to our live show, as well as being able to partake in our monthly Q&A with experts, and get other benefits? Your Patreon membership helps Wild & Sublime produce this podcast, and really supports us. You can also help by throwing some bucks in the tip jar, or forwarding on this episode. All links to giving are in our show notes. Thank you so much. And now, the second half of my conversation with author Nona Willis Aronowitz. We talk about what makes a good one-night stand, heterosexuality and queerness, and the author's recent move into motherhood. You have a quote later on in the book: "Most of the time, a hot one-night stand simply requires being a decent human." I was like, yeah, basically. It's like, you need to be a stand-up person, and everything's gonna work out, at least for that night, right? [laughs]
Nona Willis Aronowitz: Yeah, well, I was talking about this guy that I met in Houston. He was like, totally not plugged into any of these conversations. He was this like, presumably, like, Christian kind of normie guy who had only had sex with one other person. And that was his long-term friend. And he was up on Tinder, like, wanting to connect with someone. And he was actually very vulnerable with me, and said, like, 'Hey, I've never had a casual one-night stand — please be kind,' basically. And we ended up talking very openly about it on our date, and what it might mean to him. And I don't think I connect with his personality on a deeper level — like, I didn't keep in touch with him, we didn't fall in love or anything like that. But we connected in these, whatever, 12 hours, because then eventually we did have sex, and it was great. And we had a lot of sex. And I think we were taking care of each other, and being very, like, open and communicative. And I really appreciated that, even though I don't think we particularly had a future of staying connected.
Karen Yates: One of the other points in the book came on the heels of you examining sexual desire or pleasure and being a super-slut, or like, really owning your sexuality, and going and getting it, and libido. When you entered, as you called it, a fallow period, and really didn't want to fuck all the time. And was that okay? You know, was it okay not to have a raging desire all the time for sex. And I thought that was a really interesting, interesting part of the book, because there's a lot of wrestling as the book goes on, wrestling with the label of queer that you've held up to yourself, and then said, Is this actually true? So yeah, I would love for you to talk a little bit about this idea of being fallow, and like, owning it is a part of everything.
Nona Willis Aronowitz: Yeah. I mean, I can't say that I was great at accepting myself at the time. I was freaked out by my fallow period. I was like, wait, I just ended my long, long relationship, partly because I wanted to explore sexual passion. And that was very important to me. And that was kind of all I'd been doing for the past few months, but then sort of short circuited, and was like, I can't, this is so much. It was taking so much of my energy, and it was draining me, and I just needed to take a break.
And I couldn't, at the time, just accept that, and see the beauty in that, and see how sometimes you just need to recharge and reload and reassess. And that's fine. And also like, just that, you know, your mental space is a zero-sum game at times. And you only have room for so much. And so, if you have other priorities, sometimes sex gets pushed to the side. And that's okay. And I don't think I really had that perspective at the time. But like, later, I started to read about the political celibates, who made that exact point — saying, like, we have a lot to do, and matters of the heart sometimes make people cloudy and crazy and, like, not focused. And unlike my initial interpretation, which was like a mandate to be celibate, I think more of the political celibates' point was that you don't have to be having sex and dealing with love. And if you're heterosexual, that's going to be just inherently politically fraught. You don't have to be doing that 100% of the time.
And in fact, you know, you can reach sort of a higher plane in your life, if you just sometimes take breaks, or if you reject sex that makes you feel bad, or if you reject relationships that make you feel bad. And I think that, while that was, to some feminists, some pro-sex feminists, a real Pyrrhic victory, and not what they wanted to get behind, I did find it useful, in this naturally fallow period. I don't think I could have imposed celibacy on myself for a political reason. But I did see in those writings that there is a space for that, and that's okay. And it doesn't make you be — it doesn't make you a more interesting, fascinating person if you're horny, you know?
Karen Yates: [laughs]
Nona Willis Aronowitz: Which is actually something that Angela Chen, the author of "Ace," points out, when she's talking about asexuality, and how that fits into sort of cultural cachet.
Karen Yates: It was very refreshing, because it's about real life. Part of it is like, you taking a lot of theory and history, and then bringing it in the now and saying, Well, what's going on now? And is it as important to have these tenets, and constructs of living? And it's like, no, this is reality. And we have to start, as you know — at this point in, say, feminism, it's like, needing to live as we actually, really are. And bringing it all in. And I also, I appreciated this thing that I alluded to a couple of moments ago, about you, you know, really working through what being queer was, having — as you had recounted, you'd been with women, you kind of held the queer label to yourself, and then ultimately, realizing you were heterosexual and doubling down on it. And you say the point is to resolve to enact the best version of it. And I would like you to talk about that a little bit.
Nona Willis Aronowitz: Yeah, well, I think that queerness, in a certain milieu, is considered more enlightened and more modern. And acknowledging how toxic heterosexuality is, and just being more expansive as a person. And I think that that's actually kind of a harmful message for people who are genuinely heterosexual, because if you are heterosexual, and yet you engage in what Asa Seresin has called "heteropessimism," which is saying stuff like, "men are trash" or, "I wish I was a lesbian," then you're fundamentally denying your own desires in this kind of glib and tragic way. Like, if you are heterosexual — and I think I am; I did experiment with women, and I hate that word experiment, but it really was dipping a toe in and seeing if anything got sparked that I wasn't aware of, you know. But it really ended up reaffirming my desires for men. Not that I didn't have like a good time. Not that I haven't had a ton of bad sex with men. But despite all of that, I still sort of knew in my gut that what I really desired was cis men. And I spent a lot of time thinking consciously about why, not just lamenting the fact that I desired men, but figuring out why. And it was actually a lovely, lovely thing to do. Because I think that a lot of heterosexual women deny their own desires because they're kind of embarrassed about how fucked up heterosexuality can be, you know, just politically and culturally. But there are amazing things about loving and having sex with men, too. And you have to like, remind yourself of why you put up with so much of the difficulty. I was making, like, literal lists about what type of things I find attractive in men. It was actually much easier to talk about why I was attracted to them physically, than why I felt heteroromantic. And I still don't really understand why I have stronger kinds of love feelings towards men than women. But I now more clearly understand that my physical attraction to them is valid and great. And of course, this might sound totally foreign to very large swaths of this country — who, you know, of course, would value heterosexuality and not have any idea what I'm talking about. But I'm talking about—
Karen Yates: I know what you're talking about. [laughs]
Nona Willis Aronowitz: You know what I'm talking about. Just like, you know, if you get into a certain milieu of like leftists, and more like alternative cultures, like, being a little queer is, like, cooler than being resolutely heterosexual.
Karen Yates: Well, for me, it says, I'm expansive. I mean, that's the thing. I'm expansive. I'm really open to exploration. I'm, you know, I'm fluid, I'm flexible. And I went through the same thing myself. I espouse queerness as a worldview, as an ethos, but I had to really, at a certain point in my 30s, and in my 30s, say, you are heterosexual, and you love men, and you love fucking men, and yay.
Nona Willis Aronowitz: Right. And it's funny, because, you know, some of my queer friends have read this chapter. And they're like, Yeah, I still think you're a little queer. I still think you're like heteroflexible, because like, I did—
Karen Yates: Well, no — hetero flexible, hetero flexible, okay! That's not queer.
Nona Willis Aronowitz: No, no, and I don't feel like part of the queer community, you know what I mean? Not that I was ever claiming to be part of the queer community. But I did enjoy some of my experiences with women. It was nice. It just didn't, it wasn't the same at all. And if it never happened again, it wouldn't be devastated.
Karen Yates: You have a child now. And you're a new mom. How has becoming a mother changed your view, if it has changed your view, of what you've written, as well as your relationship to your mom and her writings around knowing she was a mother, and now you're a mother? Like, what has happened?
Nona Willis Aronowitz: That's such an interesting question. I mean, it's only been, not even five months. So, I haven't fully processed what it's done to my sexuality, let alone what it's done to my writing. Because I haven't done much writing since the baby's been born — like, I don't really know what my next project is going to be, and whether it's going to have to do with sex or sexual politics. I do know that my mom didn't magically stop caring about these issues after having a child. She wrote a lot about sexual politics after I was born. And she wrote a lot after I was born, which actually was one of the earliest ways that I could be reassured that you don't lose your entire sense of self after having a child. My mom had a full career after I was born, although I have to say, you know, from 1984 to 1987, she really didn't write much, which is when I was a baby to three years old. And that's fine. I mean, I think that I already understand how much it just invades your life, to have this human being that you love so much, but also just need to care for so intensely, and I'm really glad that I had done some thinking about the fallow period, because I mean, sex is not my priority right now. But at the same time, I was surprised that I did have, I do have, like, sex now and I have sexual feelings, and I'm not dead from the waist down. And I think that a lot of people assume that new parents are just totally and completely uninterested in sex. And I was surprised to find that there was a part of me that was interested, I wouldn't say disinterested. And there's actually really very little time to do it. And there's all kinds of like, healing to be done after having a baby and stuff like that. But like, pretty early on, there were ways in which my sexuality came out, and ways in which I connected with my partner on a sexual level that I was actually surprised about. Because I really think that it's a lopsided narrative of like, Oh, haha, like, don't expect to have sex for a year! Which is not necessarily true. And I'm not really sure what's normal or what's typical, but I was pleasantly surprised that my sexuality is there, and was there a few weeks after the baby was born. It's just like, in a different form. And I welcome that. I mean, I know that sexual desire isn't static, and I was expecting it to change after a baby. I'm kind of interested to see how it continues to change as baby gets older, and like how my partner and I will go back to nonmonogamy, and how that will look, because now there's a sort of premium on time and privacy. Like, there's just not much time, and not much privacy. So I'm not really sure how that's gonna fit into my life going forward. But yeah, it's been an interesting experience, even in the first few months.
Karen Yates: My last question is, one thing that struck me as I was reading this, because I'm like, a full generation older than you, because you know, my mom was involved in the women's movement, she wrote for her office, kind of the equal rights policy for the human resources, you know. So there was like, there was Erica Jong books, there was like, all the feminist writers were in my house that I could read. But it occurred to me as I was reading your book, I'm like, wow, you know, people under 40 may not have a firm grasp of the history of the Women's Liberation Movement. And was that part of your impulse for writing the book? Or am I incorrect in that assumption that a lot of folks coming up are not as cognizant of the history?
Nona Willis Aronowitz: Oh, I mean, absolutely they're not as cognizant of history. And, Karen, I mean, I was not cognizant of some of this history. I had to really dig deep for a lot of this stuff. I was aware of my mother, and I was aware of the major players of the second-wave feminist movement. And I thought I was aware of Emma Goldman, although I really hadn't delved into her work, beyond a couple of her speeches about free love. You know, I purposely chose people from history for this book that aren't the like, well-trodden people.
Karen Yates: Yeah, I love that.
Nona Willis Aronowitz: Erica Jong does come up for a sentence or two in this book, but it's not really about, like, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, and even like Andrea Dworkin and Susan Brownmiller. And those people come up here and there, but the people that I really closely examine are people who don't usually get much oxygen, but who I genuinely felt were the most relevant people. Like, I'll give you an example. I started the chapter about marriage thinking I was going to talk about, like, maybe Mary Wollstonecraft, or like, some much more famous sex radical. And then I stumbled upon Mary Gove Nichols, who I didn't even know existed until I started this book. And she was really a very early free love advocate, and a really interesting woman who then sort of did an about-face and converted to Catholicism and disavowed her beliefs. And the more and more I learned about her, which was not easy — there wasn't too too much information about her — I realized her sort of more ambivalent narrative was more relevant than some of the more resolute free love advocates. That was a great research experience, but it was also sort of like, okay, let's go past the characters that maybe people my age might know. And really learn about some deep cuts.
Karen Yates: I really love that. I love that you spend a lot of time on Black feminists, and really tracing the roots of sexual racism through slavery on up. And that was wonderful. This is such a fantastic primer on a lot of feminist thinking, with a really refreshing new angle. So, I really appreciate this interview ,Nona. Folks, check out Nona Willis Aronowitz's "Bad Sex." It is a great book.
Nona Willis Aronowitz: Thank you so much for having me. This is really fun.
Karen Yates: To get the book "Bad Sex," learn more about Nona Willis Aronowitz, and to get links to subjects mentioned in this interview, go to the show notes. Wild & Sublime is supported in part by our sublime supporter,Full Color Life Therapy, therapy for all of you, at fullcolorlifetherapy.com. Well, that's it folks. Have a very pleasurable week. Thank you for listening. If you know someone who might be interested in this episode, send it to them. Do you like what you heard? Then give us a nice review on your podcast app. You can follow us on social media @wildandsublime and sign up for newsletters at wildandsublime.com. I'd like to thank associate producer Julia Williams and design guru Jean-Francois Gervais. Theme Music by David Ben-Porat. This episode was edited by The Creative Imposter studios. Our media sponsor is Rebellious Magazine, feminist media, at rebelliousmagazine.com.
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