Kerry Cohen’s Loose Girl: Part 2

SM: Loose Girl is a necessary book because it addresses a side of female sexuality that I have hardly heard talked about so honestly, and definitely not this fairly to the guy’s side. In my own search for ways to explain my adolescence I have fielded various interpretations about what I did and none have ever seemed to fit right.

You were emotionally disturbed and as such, fucking around was your way of acting out, or using others to make yourself feel better.
That one at least feels honest, though doesn’t address much beyond the obvious, it doesn’t tell me anything about myself that I didn’t already know.

You were a victim
. Of all the ways that teenage sexuality is presented, the way girls are portrayed as victims, unable to make their own decisions or go after boys on their own, this one has always made me the most insane. It feels like many women are more comfortable believing that we are simple victims of these big bad men forcing this or that on us, and we had no part in our own destruction, much less any culpability for using them for our own purposes and enjoying it. And not just the sex either, I am talking about the whole twisted power trip. To ignore our own motivations in favor of pretending some sort of innocence is to actually lie about what it is to grow up in a female body.

Women are so very good at judging each other, and don’t often acknowledge that we sometimes reflect back to each other what we don’t like to believe about ourselves. The things that other women do that disgust me the most are always things that I have been ashamed of doing as well. Your book’s example of this would be judging the desperate looking woman at the writing conference and then acknowledging how close the behavior was to other things you did. Your honesty about that was refreshing and gave me more to think about. I am really glad that you write YA as I expect your honesty will rub off on at least some of your young readers, and hopefully help them become more sincere and aware young women. When I heard that you got hate mail, I was sad for you, but I also thought, well, that must mean she hit on something true!  

I do get hate mail here and there, but I want to point out that I overwhelmingly get fan mail. Tons of it! I only post the hate mail on facebook because I usually find it funny. I get more nasty comments online on articles I write than hate mail in truth. But in general I think people tend to be really triggered by the sorts of things I write about and how I write about them. Sometimes the anger comes from not wanting to address those issues in themselves. Other times, they have a different experience than me, and rather than simply recognize they don’t relate, they get furious that I’m not validating their experience (which makes me think they perhaps aren’t that secure in their experience?) I have a lot of feminists who get angry with me because I tend to write about experiences that come directly from being a woman, influenced negatively by our culture, and they don’t like me affirming such a thing. They want all experiences to be sex positive, fat positive, etc etc, and when I suggest they aren’t for me, they feel I’m perpetuating old stereotypes, I think, or keeping women down by noting my experiences. 

I enjoyed getting to know your thought process better by reading the questions and answers at the back of Loose Girl. When asked why you wrote this book, your answer was: 

“So many women feel alone with feelings similar to the ones I wrote about in Loose Girl. I want them to feel seen. I also hope readers will gain a deeper understanding of female promiscuity, that more often than not it’s not simply “asking for it” or (another belief growing out there these days) being empowered. It’s a girl who is likely trying to fill her emptiness with what feels like an easy fix. It’s a girl who is trying, and failing, again and again to be loved. It’s a girl who doesn’t love herself.”

Two things about this struck me: being seen and what that means, and the idea that random fucking around isn’t as empowering as we might hope. When I edited Stripping Down I reflected on the fact that I was aware of my own dishonesty even at thirteen.  I love how both you and Sheila Hageman were able to bring that awareness to your stories. I knew when I was trying to fill the emptiness inside by attracting a certain type of attention that I was cheating my way out of an important life test. I understood that even then, and I knew it was easier to continue the way I was rather than change something about the way I was living so that I could be proud of myself for something legitimate. 

The notion that we as developing girls need to “be seen” is something that I have been thinking about since working on Stripping Down. I like to think that as we age, the people in our lives really see us and care about who we really are more than what it was like as a kid when just having someone tell me I was pretty was the high point of my week. These days I hardly ever hear anything about how I look and the people who make me feel beautiful and important tell me the stuff that matters: that they see what I am doing as a mother, wife, writer, editor, friend and appreciate it and find value in the things I do. If you have any other thoughts on this I would love to hear them.

For me, the issue of being seen has been central to my life. I get told that the story I wrote in Loose Girl is tons of girls’ stories, and yet they all felt alone with it. How can this be? How can we have not shared this truth with one another? I believe it’s because the narrative of girls and sexual behavior has been so limiting. There’s the generic narrative: girls don’t want it or do it. There’s the slut narrative: girls are only promiscuous when they’re mentally ill or deeply abused. And then there’s the feminist narrative of empowerment: we do it and we have agency and love it. None of these narratives worked for me. None of them felt true to my experience. And yet my experiences were so driven by my experiences with boys. By writing about my experience, I wanted all those other girls and women to feel seen and less alone.

Your comments on promiscuity as empowerment were interesting and frankly scared me. I write about women who take charge in bed and in every other aspect of their lives; they pursue who they want and aren’t hung up on marriage and who is going to take care of them. My concern was whether or not I am attempting, in my fiction, to glorify negative behavior. Obviously there is more going on in my work, the times when my female character is extremely promiscuous she is aware of this as her own way to drown grief and is not proud of it for that reason. So… I wanted to get you to talk a little bit more about this idea of what it really means for a woman to be empowered and how some may confuse sleeping around with being empowered.  


KC: The empowerment thing has been a real issue of contention for feminists reading my work. They are bothered that I suggest that we aren’t there yet as a culture that girls can have sexual agency and get respected and feel good about it all. I just don’t think we’re there yet. I think women can do this more than teen girls, for sure. But in general, I’d say the messages and pressures from our culture make it nearly impossible to find pure sexual desire and make choices solely based on that without being ostracized or the like.

Since you talked about some women being unable to reconcile the differences in their stories from yours, I thought I would bring up part of how I felt I was different in case anyone else can relate to this type of thinking. 

I had this feeling that the ideal way to be was to have no feelings. I somewhere got this idea that boys had no feelings and so it was ok to use them for things I needed. I wanted to have sex like a boy, I wanted to be tough and trade my ass for a place to stay, cigarettes, food, a ride, whatever. I had this image of myself as some sort of rough and tumble adventurer and believed that I was stronger and braver than other kids my age for being able to do the things I did. Do you ever remember feeling like being able to use your body to make things happen was an asset?  (not that this is an asset, I am referring to the thinking) I thought my ability to disassociate from my body and feelings was what made me strong. It wasn’t until years later that I started dealing with the fact that I had no idea how to connect with my own body.

Body as asset: yeah, sure. I would say Loose Girl is partially about how I used my body and sexuality to try to get things I wanted. 

SM:  I am interested in how you said you didn’t believe in change as a therapist, you only became aware of your problems and began behaving differently. To quote you: “We all have the opportunity to find that place where awareness trumps our actions.”

KC: The main thing that happened for me is I stopped believing in the fantasy about boys, that they would save me from my pain. Once you don’t believe in that anymore, it’s nearly impossible to keep behaving in those ways. 

SM: Thanks Kerry, keep doing what you do.

For more information on Kerry Cohen, please visit her website.

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