In This Episode
Former young girl and memoirist Melissa Febos joins to discuss the pressures and paradoxes in how society treats female children. Her most recent book is called “Girlhood.”
Ana Marie Cox: Hi, I’m Ana Marie Cox. Welcome to With Friends Like These. The first thing I want you to know about this week’s guest is that talking to Melissa Febos about her book, Girlhood, was personally healing for me and my producer. The second thing you should know is that we talk about sex and about consent and about lack of consent, and I would give more formal content warning here, but I asked Melissa at the top of the interview to give her version and to give her pitch to keep listening. This is a hard conversation, but it is so necessary. Melissa’s book, Girlhood, is about how people learn what patriarchy wants from girls, what it feels like when you’re someone that doesn’t fit into that definition, or what it feels like when you try too hard to fit into that definition and you wind up losing some of yourself. Melissa Febos coming right up.
Ana Marie Cox: Melissa, welcome to the show.
Melissa Febos: Thank you for having me.
Ana Marie Cox: So I loved your book and I love your writing, but in full transparency, both my producer, Alison and myself found ourselves having really profound reactions to your work. There’s a lot of stuff that comes up. You know, you write about unwanted touching, which in and of itself I had not realized I would have such a strong reaction to. And I’m going to put a content warning at the top of the show as people listening right now probably will know, but I wanted to invite you to say something, maybe to listeners who might have some anxiety or tension or ambivalence around diving in to the stuff we’re going to talk about.
Melissa Febos: Sure. And thank you so much for that invitation. I will say that while there are some hard topics, as you said, in this book, I did my very best, as I was writing it, to take generous care, both of myself and of the reader, and I try to bring that same kind of care to my conversations about the book. And so there won’t be any horrible surprises, if that makes sense.
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah, if we veer of course we’ll say something, but I think we’ve got it covered. And now we can dive into our conversation. And I wanted to start with a reading, if you don’t mind.
Melissa Febos: Absolutely. I’m going to read from an essay called “Thank You For Taking Care of Yourself” which is in the second half of the book. And I think it’s pretty self-explanatory, and also that we’ll get a little bit more deeply into it in our conversation. Maybe the only thing to know is that Donika is my then girlfriend, now wife.
Melissa, reading: Near the end of the cuddle party, a man approached Donika and asked if she wanted to cuddle. He explained to her that most of the participants at the cuddle party had rebuffed him. He had thanked them for taking care of themselves. He was sad at the prospect of leaving with his skin hunger still so voracious. My girlfriend felt no obligation to him, but she did feel sympathy. He was desperate but not entitled. He had come to the place for cuddling and had not been cuddled. She did not want to cuddle with him, but she asked herself what sort of touch she would be comfortable with, if any. We could sit on that bench and hold hands for a bit, she told him. He agreed, and so they did. It was nice, she told me afterward. Donika is the kind of person who fast-forwards to the end of the porn video after her orgasm to make sure that everybody comes. She is deeply empathic and sensitive to others feelings, but I cannot imagine her ever giving consent to someone with whom she did not want to cuddle, which is to say that empathy and accommodation are not synonymous. In fact, I suspect that the instinct to subsume one’s own desires or comfort for the desires or comfort of another may ultimately inhibit empathy. Her impression of the cuddle party was not marked particularly by the desperation of others, because she did not feel threatened by their need. She said no easily. Also, she was interested in cuddling, which is all to say that it wasn’t the cuddle party, it was me. As we continued our conversation over the days that followed, I came to understand that my consenting to cuddling that I did not want had been motivated not by empathy, but by something else. When the man in the teal onesie had proposed spooning, my yes had traveled down some well-worn pathway, sure as a street car in its layed track. My body seemed to have recognized the situation as one in which complacency was the only option. Its own interests instantly became secondary to this instinct. As the days passed, I was increasingly shocked by how deftly the mechanisms of accommodation had engaged. My lights had instantly dimmed. I remembered staring at the worn blanket as the man had stroked my arm, my silence as that woman had touched me without asking, the way I’d bargained with the young man for a massage I did not want. I told Donika how I’d grimace like a frightened dog during the roleplay, when we’d been instructed to say no,. What had possessed me to negotiate with that young man as if I were obligated to strike a deal in the exchange of my body? I knew it wasn’t just pity. The world was full of lonely people to whom I owed nothing. Why had the air of annoyance in his voice not deterred me? More importantly, why not my own lack of interest? I was mystified and more than a little unnerved by my response. I think we should go back, she said.
Melissa Febos: And I’ll stop there.
Ana Marie Cox: That’s a perfect place to start because that’s actually the essay that I found myself really grappling with, personally. I think maybe we should contextualize it for those who haven’t read the book yet, which is let’s start with what is a cuddle party? What were you doing at a cuddle party?
Melissa Febos: Well, a cuddle party is basically what it sounds like, which is a cuddle orgy. And it’s you know, people get together for a couple hours, they RSVP, pay, I think, $25, and then they arrive and there is basically a workshop in affirmative consent that takes place for about 35. 40 minutes at the beginning of the cuddle party. And during that time they sort of share the rules of the cuddle party, which include things like if you’re a yes, say yes, if you’re no, say no. If you’re maybe say no, that clothes stay on at all times. And then we do sort of a role play where people practice inviting one another to cuddle and saying no. And then the response that people are instructed to give when someone says no, I don’t want to cuddle is: thank you for taking care of yourself. And then there’s sort of an open cuddle, but—
Ana Marie Cox: And just to emphasize, it’s non-sexual. The whole point of it—
Melissa Febos: It’s non-sexual, right.
Ana Marie Cox: This is a non-sexual orgy, as you said in a way. Yes?
Melissa Febos: Yes. Sweat pants are prescribed. Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: And this cuddle party wound up sort of sending you on a journey. It’s really one of the core experiences of the book, I feel like. And the essay to me winds up being kind of a meditation on consent. And two ideas that I hadn’t considered before, one of them being the great violation that unwanted touching can be, and also this idea of empty consent. And I wonder if you could get us from the cuddle party to empty consent.
Melissa Febos: Sure. It will be a lot easier to summarize than it was to live, which is basically what I describe in the essay. So a friend texted me a link to a listing for the cuddle party and said something to the effect of this seems like something you would like, haha. And when I read that description, which basically was the synopsis I just gave you, I felt this like bone-deep cringe. And being the person that I am, with the life experiences that I have, I took that to mean that I should probably go to the cuddle party. Because when I have a reaction that profound and instinctive, it usually means that I have some work with whatever the thing is that produced it. So I RSVP’d and I asked my then-girlfriend if she would be OK with me going to a platonic cuddle party and she said yes, would you be OK with me joining you? And so my friend who suggested it and my girlfriend and I all went to the Upper East Side for this cuddle party and we did the workshop in consent, which I found somewhat excruciating, but also recognized as totally radical and amazing. And then we had the hour of cuddling and at the end of that hour, I felt really weird and bad and pretty detached.
Ana Marie Cox: I want to pause right here to point out that for people who may not have gotten your full bio, this might be a somewhat unexpected reaction for people that know you or only know your bio.
Melissa Febos: That’s right. That’s right. I worked as a professional dominatrix for some years in my early 20s. And it feels relevant also to say that I’m basically a lifelong feminist, and have felt—
Ana Marie Cox: You write about these intimate topics like you are, you are not a shame-based person it seems like, right? You like to touch and write about touching. [laughs]
Melissa Febos: Yeah. Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: And so this is a super interesting response that you had.
Melissa Febos: Yeah, it was it was a surprise to me. And weirdly, I don’t think I even put this in the essay, but when we got in the car, I didn’t volunteer that information, like how I was feeling right away, because I felt, I had this weird instinct to sort of hide it. Like I felt embarrassed that it had not, that I felt so weird afterwards. And I asked my girlfriend and my friend how they had found it and they both had an amazing time. And then they asked me what kind of time I had and I said, I feel horrible. I feel horrible. And you know, what emerged over the conversation that followed and the many conversations that followed between my partner and I and me and my friends and me and myself, is that I had had a horrible time because I had consented to cuddle with people that I didn’t want to. And then, you know, the sort of psychic mechanisms that engaged to, and have engaged in the past, for me to help me get through a physical experience that I feel I have to tolerate, engaged. And that it was a very sort of old, that was an old feeling for me. And so the question, all of that emerged pretty quickly within maybe 24 hours after the cuddle party. And then it sent me on a kind of, a detective story into my own history, into our country’s history, into the lives of other women, and the question that drove me the sort of major dramatic question was why? Like, why? How can I spend, you know, at that point, you know, 37 years of life sort of immersed in feminist atmospheres, and read that many books about consent and go to a cocktail party and consent to cuddle with, like, random dudes who I had never met.
Ana Marie Cox: One thing that is a thread through the book that you’ve touched on is this kind of meta shame, I’m going to say—not necessarily shame, maybe it’s more guilt—that we who think of ourselves as feminist, as self-actualized, as smashing the patriarchy can in an instant find ourselves doing something that supports that system that we hate so much. And it’s just instinctual. It just happens without us thinking about it. My favorite example in the book is the one you have of the feminists whose inner voice then says don’t eat that! Yup, which hit home. Hit home.
Melissa Febos: Yep.
Ana Marie Cox: And talk a little bit about that. That kind of like untangling the desire to be this person that does this good work and then knowing you still have more work to do on yourself.
Melissa Febos: Yeah, it’s one of those, it’s one of those things that I am simultaneously not aware of, like it is unfolding invisibly inside of me all the time, and I also have been aware of my entire life. I remember, I have journals from when I was, you know, like 11, 12, 13-years old where I am writing about this kind of, you know, double consciousness, where I am suffering from an active eating disorder and simultaneously identifying as a feminist and thinking, how is it that I can know? Like even then, even as an adolescent or young teen, I knew about the media, I knew about capitalism, I knew about feminism, I knew about impossible beauty standards and I still was like trying to get by just eating string cheese that day or whatever, you know. And spending a huge amount of my conscious hours obsessing about trying to control my body and to manifest it as a different body. And, you know, so I, but there is still a part of me that thought maybe it, I’ve done so much work, right?
Ana Marie Cox: Right.
Melissa Febos: Spent all this time in therapy, I’ve been in all of this like basically consciousness raising groups. I’ve written multiple books, and it’s still, the functions are still in there and it takes a little to engage them.
Ana Marie Cox: It’s just so pervasive. I mean, patriarchy, capitalism, white supremacy—they just, you know, they’re the sea that we swim in, the polluted sea we swim in. And I think that gets us to this idea of empty consent. Please define empty consent for us.
Melissa Febos: Sure. So as I was doing this sort of detective work into my own experience of consenting to touch that I didn’t want as a 37-year old lifelong feminist, I interviewed a bunch of other women and I started with friends of mine. They started just as conversations over coffee or I was doing the dishes on the phone, and then that sort of grew outward until I was sharing surveys with women I never met about their experiences. And I found myself repeating a different sort of paraphrases for that sentence, “consenting to touch that we don’t want or feel ambivalent about.” And it’s a cumbersome mouthful, right? Though, you know, as a writer, I was like swapping words and synonyms and trying to figure out different ways to say it. And I thought, you know, I’m referring to this dynamic, so I need a word for it and there’s no word for it. And so empty consent arrived to me really as a kind of provisional descriptor. I wasn’t even sure it would stay in the essay. It was kind of a shorthand for me when I was writing it. And it became useful because when I started saying it to the women I was talking to, they immediately grabbed onto it and they started using it. And it became very clear to me through the course of those conversations that we had needed a word. And one of the reasons we hadn’t had those conversations yet is because we didn’t have one.
Ana Marie Cox: It’s amazing the power of language. If you just don’t have the words to talk about something, you can’t. And once you have the words, you can organize, and you can change, and you can explain, and you can forgive yourself, and you can forgive others. And I want to dive into this idea of empty consent even more because it did, it just, I immediately knew what it was. And in in that essay, it sort of folds into this other topic where you write about having had experiences that you cannot classify as assault, right, but you look at the longitudinal effects and see the ripples that kind of seem like trauma responses.
Melissa Febos: Mm hmm. Yeah, I, you know, I had a conversation with—I just felt my shoulders go up—I had a conversation with my partner as I was writing this essay, as we were, you know, well actually I wasn’t even, I was still months away from writing the essay. It was just in the wake of the cuddle party and we were just talking about consent and early sexual experiences, and we actually had had a version of this conversation at the beginning of our relationship years before where I had described I had, I had been telling her, you know, we’re sort of downloading the important information at the beginning of a relationship, and I had said, you know, I’ve never been sexually assaulted, but I did have, I did not have great early sexual experiences with men and boys.
Ana Marie Cox: I see you’ve already, I’ve already picked up so much from your essay. I cringe to hear you frame it that way.
Melissa Febos: I know. And that is probably a blunter reiteration of what I said than what I actually said, which was probably much clearer. I’ve never, I probably just stopped the first time we ever talked about it and said I’ve never been assaulted. And then she said, well, you know, some of the things you’ve described to me, you know, they actually turned a little . . . And I was, it was like a, like a metal gate just slammed closed in me and I was like, no. That’s not. And it felt like it was coming from a place less of sort of protecting my own consciousness, which, of course, it was also doing that work, but out of a kind of reverence for the people I have known, the many, many, many people I have known who have experienced what I then qualified as sexual assault,
Ana Marie Cox: Real.
Melissa Febos: Real sexual assault, which is like, you know, anything that that we can classify as rape. It certainly didn’t include the things that would fall under the banner of, like, empty consent.
Ana Marie Cox: Right. And I want to tell listeners, we were using air quotes around real when we said real sexual assault, [laughs] because that’s an invented category. So . . .
Melissa Febos: Yeah, which I didn’t know I had. These are the things that really sort of came into focus in the process of writing this essay. And, you know, as I was doing this work and following my own experience at the cuddle party, and I started moving back through time and I started writing out those early sexual experiences, which—and I’m sure you can relate to this, I know a lot of people, all the women I talked to could relate to this—these were episodes that had existed in my memory. They’re very familiar to me. They were events that I had sort of touched on, like a little deck of cards, you know, and I had looked at the face of them, which was an image, a narrative I had decided upon, maybe in the moment, maybe a few years later, it was an old story which was like eh, it wasn’t great, but it was normal. Air quotes again. Right? That was just like—
Ana Marie Cox: Wasn’t a victim, that’s for sure.
Melissa Febos: Exactly. I was not a victim. I was sexually precocious. I had a story about myself as promiscuous. I was an adventurous and promiscuous, troubled adolescent, right?
Ana Marie Cox: I was gonna say, we when we do that, we sort of define ourselves out of normal, when we use those qualifiers of like, well, you know, I was a promiscuous adolescent or I was sexually adventurous adolescent. We are marking ourselves.
Melissa Febos: Right.
Melissa Febos: You know?
Melissa Febos: Exactly.
Ana Marie Cox: And that should tell us something is what I’m saying. [laughs]
Melissa Febos: Yeah. And it is amazing to me how vast of an oversight it was. You know, like this was an interaction I had had with myself many, many, many, many times. Something that I was thinking about recently that I was actually writing about, was in an interview I think it was after my first book came out, an interviewer asked me something about my adolescence and if I had had a kind of, some kind of experience in my adolescence. And I quipped in this like now very cringey way: oh, no, I didn’t do that, I was busy getting finger banged behind the mall when I was 12. Right. Which is I think in the moment it felt like I was being funny at the expense of my . . . right? Like I can hear—
Ana Marie Cox: It makes sense to me. I think also a braggadocio—I’m not going to say, I just back up. I think also sometimes we boast when we really feel shame.
Melissa Febos: Yeah, exactly.
Ana Marie Cox: You know, we try to turn the tables and there’s some power to that. I don’t, that can be a good strategy. But I hear myself and in what you’re saying as well. And that’s a way to take ownership of it. Right? Like, I’m a feminist. I’m claiming, claiming my sexuality.
Melissa Febos: Right. Like it didn’t mean anything. It’s what kids do. I was a rough and tumble kid. But you know what, I wasn’t. I actually wasn’t. I was hypersensitive and overly aware of everything. And it did not feel like once I had said yes, I was allowed to say no. And so whatever basically happened after that felt like something to withstand rather than to choose. And when I spoke to other women about their experiences, it was, there was a consensus that that had been all of our experience.
Ana Marie Cox: It’s so pervasive and it is something that until you stop to think about it and have a name for it? The Metoo movement, I think we struggled with this in trying to name—when we had this whole conversation about hugging, do you remember that? Like, oh, I can’t even give you a hug. And I’d be like, no, you can’t. Please don’t.
Melissa Febos: Sorry, stranger. No, you can’t actually wrap your arms around my whole body and press it against your body. No.
Ana Marie Cox: The missing piece, I think for the not all men was, why is that bad? Like, why would you say no?
Melissa Febos: Right.
Ana Marie Cox: And I think this idea of empty consent and the history that we have built up that almost all of us, I would say, and probably some men too, you know, and definitely people who identify as female, have had with all of this unwanted touching and not just sexual touching and not just touching that we say no to.
Melissa Febos: Mm hmm. Mm hmm.
Ana Marie Cox: But I think you say in the in the book, like the pats on the belly, the, you know, the playful tickling, all of that stuff just drains us. To the place where a strong feminist goes to a cuddle party where you get training in saying no. [laughs]
Melissa Febos: And still the other training has been operating for so much longer. And it really, you know, I did get to a point where it was like holding a prism of my own experience and suddenly I tilted it like to the left and all of my early sexual experiences and so much of my corporeal experience of just living and being in the world, it just looked completely different. And honestly, I know that there are people who sometimes tilt the prism and then tilt it back and put that shit down. Because it is, once I decide to look at it differently and to really be curious and welcomed the knowledge of how that experience has affected me, it is an undertaking I can’t necessarily then again, put down, right? It changes the way that I move through my life from that point onward. And that happened for me while I was writing this.
Ana Marie Cox: We have to take a break for some ads.
Ana Marie Cox: I’ll just say to those who might be thinking about this really hard, someone that’s helped me a lot likes to say that in trauma work the motto is: you go slow to go fast.
Melissa Febos: Yep.
Ana Marie Cox: So you can turn that prism and then just stop for a bit. [laughs] There is no minimum speed to do this work.
Melissa Febos: Yeah, that’s probably the thing, I get asked a lot about writing about trauma. And that is the number one thing that I say is you cannot force it. Forcing it is just a recipe for re-traumatization and whatever that deeper integrative processing that happens, like we have to be awake for it. Right? And a stranger starts like rubbing a circle on my back without consent, and I’m gone. Right? So walking back into the diorama of my own hardest memories has to be painstaking.
Ana Marie Cox: And the more I think about what that friend told me, the more it makes sense, because so much about repairing trauma is about trusting yourself. And this idea of going slow to go fast, I think, because I think I know that from, I’ll just stick with myself, there was a part of me embarking on therapy and whatnot where I was like, well, I don’t fucking have it. I’m thirty something, I’m forty something, I haven’t figured it out by now, I guess I’m too slow. I guess I’ll just never figure it out. I’m not cut, I’m just going to have to be damaged. And to re-contextualize that as I will do it when I am ready, is a thing that a traumatized person has trouble saying. The first step to trauma work is to say I’m ready for it, you know, and then you can stop whenever you want to. A lot of this book, I’m so glad you brought up this idea of a prism, because it is a consistent theme in the book, this idea that you look back to your girlhood and memories that you thought you knew are no longer what you thought they were. And I’m wondering if you don’t mind sharing, like, the biggest surprise that you might have had in going back and looking at those things?
Melissa Febos: Let’s see, I guess. You know, my first instinct is the sadder one, but I’ve got a little, I’ve got a footnote of hope on it.
Ana Marie Cox: We love footnotes and we love hope. So that’s a great combination.
Melissa Febos: You know, each of these essays really represent sort of an episode or an event or a moment that I’m sort of moving back through like a doorway, I’m moving through in the present to the past, or that I’m coming from the past into the present. And in all of those, I think I realized, you know, we’ve been talking about this the whole time, just that it got me I was affected more than I wanted to be, more than I told myself I was, more than I thought I should be, I had infinite arguments for why I wasn’t affected, I shouldn’t have been affected, I didn’t deserve to be affected, I brought it on myself—whatever, all of the stuff. And I have been carrying it. You know, with this, with the cuddle party essay for instance, like those, no matter how heavy that gate that came down and said, no, that wasn’t assault, it didn’t affect me, it was a regular, it doesn’t matter. You know, what I came to understand was that I carried those experiences in me and I reenacted them for 25 years, you know? So whatever else you want to say about it, you know, it it defined so much of my experience that followed, and comprised so much of my work for the rest of this life. And the other thing that I came to recognize over and over again, such that by the final essays in the book, I came to expect it, was that somewhere in that past self, that younger, always softer and more innocent than I ever wanted to be, you know, I tried so hard to shatter my own innocence, you know, so that I couldn’t be hurt and it just didn’t work. But what I found back there was also this instinct for radical self-love that would spring up like it’s going to make me cry—I totally did not expect this, but it would spring up like this little sprout in these moments when I was completely submerged, you know, like I was completely in it. And there would be, and I describe this in one of the essays, there would be these moments where I just suddenly felt this overwhelming love for myself and this resiliency. And I just knew that that was the truest part, right? And that that would be there whenever I was on the other side, whenever I was ready to be on the other side. And, you know, it was, you know?
Ana Marie Cox: That there is a real other side to that work that one does. And it happens all along, too. Sometimes I think when we talk about getting to the other side of trauma work or getting through something, it’s like, oh, it’s a binary, right? You’re either, or trinary, your either not doing it, in the middle of doing it, or you’ve done it. But it’s not quite like that. You’re nodding your head so I want you to maybe talk a little bit about that.
Melissa Febos: Yeah. I, you know, it’s sort of like I think that this is analogous for almost everything that I find interesting or meaningful in life, right, like, there is no hard line between sorrow and ecstasy and joy, right? Like it’s all mixed up together. We’re doing the work and we are enacting the old scripts and we’re writing the new ones with the other hand, you know? So I think that the fear that I felt when I left the cuddle party was that, oh, it didn’t work, right? Like, I belong to the patriarchy, you know? Or like I’ve. it’s something’s gone wrong, you know? And it just, it’s just hard to hold the whole truth all the time, which is that I am healed in many ways. I am healing. I am broken. I have multiple scripts running at a time in my mind, and sometimes I don’t get to choose. But increasingly, with intention, I have a growing agency in what directs my behavior, my relationships, my work, right? And that has been the overall trend, right? But it’s all happening at once. And, you know, I apologize in advance to—and, you know, it never seems to be done. I don’t think.
Ana Marie Cox: I had someone tell me, the bad news is this work never stops. And the good news is this work never stops.
Melissa Febos: Exactly.
Ana Marie Cox: And I also want to say that another thing that I think is frightening about when you think your quote unquote “beginning trauma work” is that exactly this: you have been doing it. You have been doing it wherever you are in your life. You have been doing it perhaps without intention, but your body and your spirit has been giving you chances to do the work. And this is hard, this is very hard to believe, incredibly easy to say: there is a temptation to have shame over all those, what you might think of as missed chances to do the right thing, those times that you reenacted over and over and over. You were doing the work. That’s still the work.
Melissa Febos: Mm hmm. Yep, that’s been my experience, that it, it is always there when I am ready.
Ana Marie Cox: Mm hmm.
Ana Marie Cox: [ad break]
Ana Marie Cox: So we talk a lot about unintended harms on this show, when people mean to do well and it’s not necessarily that they do evil, but that things don’t turn out as people wanted them to turn out. The help is not accepted. The help turns out not to be help. I see some of that in your book. I guess I’ll ask you what you see, if you see that in your book? And then I have an idea about it.
Melissa Febos: Mm. Oh, boy. I guess one of the examples, two examples. OK. One is myself, the ways, the many, many ways that I have tried to help myself and the methods of help that I have relied upon that have often been the best option I had at the time. I know that you understand this. When we have a defense that we reach for in a moment when we’re desperate and we outgrow it. And for me, one of those examples would be the story that I wasn’t harmed, the story that I was in control of situations where I had very little control. The story that I, that I was the actor and not the acted upon. And I needed that when I was younger and it served me very well. And it took some real work to sort of chip it away so that I could get at a bigger truth.
Ana Marie Cox: Just spoiler alert, I guess, that was going to be my question to you: whether you were not the one doing the more, the unintended harm to yourself. But we also had to be careful about saying harm. Right? Because as we keep saying, and I don’t mind repeating this, I think it’s so hard to get your head around, even when you feel like you’re not making progress, even when you feel like you’ve fallen back into old patterns, that is not a reason to beat yourself up. You are still doing the work. There is some part of you that is there trying to do it differently and taking on the information that it needs from this different, but still kind of the same, experience, you know?
Melissa Febos: Yeah, in some ways, I think, you know, addiction has been such a good teacher in that area for me, because I definitely didn’t get it on the first try. And everything, you know, I’ve heard a lot of people say this and it’s true for me, too: everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks all over it, you know? And in many ways for me that, you know, it’s a slightly different sort of model but in terms of recovering from, you know, my own sort of interior wounds, the stories and survival methods that I had early on, I’ve had to hold on really, really tightly to those too. The same way that I have like compulsive exercise, or heroin, or like jelly beans.
Ana Marie Cox: Eating.
Melissa Febos: Yeah! Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: Eating or not eating as the case may be. Yes?
Melissa Febos: Yeah. Human beings.
Ana Marie Cox: Anything to not, it seems like to me, is almost anything to not be intentional, right? Like that’s, I was going to say sometimes the language we use, especially in the rooms, is around not doing the work on yourself, like you do these things to distract yourself. The addiction is a distraction or a protection of some sort.
Melissa Febos: Mm hmm.
Ana Marie Cox: But it almost feels like in terms of some of the stuff we’ve talked about in trauma work, when I reach for the things that I do compulsively, that is by definition not intentional. I am avoiding intention. And at some point, that’s all I could do, Right?
Melissa Febos: Yep.
Ana Marie Cox: Forgiving yourself for ever having used, I think, is something, you didn’t say that exactly, but that is something I think people struggle with. But it’s something you have to do. Like, that’s why we say the things we say that, you know, when we introduce ourselves.
Melissa Febos: Yep. Yep.
Ana Marie Cox: It’s one way of undoing shame is to just say it, you know, claim it. But like I said, there’s sort of some people don’t like that.
Melissa Febos: Yeah. Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: So there’s an example when you adapted the cuddle party essay for The New York Times, you mentioned the kinds of unwanted consent that are not necessarily physical. Like when we agreed to have our brains picked, which, you know, every time I think about that from this my new perspective, I’m like, yeah, that sounds terrible. God, who would want their brains picked.
Melissa Febos: For the price of a cup of coffee, no less.
Ana Marie Cox: And yeah. Did you, do you think, do you think that that kind of boundary, the boundaries around consent that’s not physical, are they as important? And are they as difficult to learn, to really inscribe as the ones that we, especially women raised in this society or people who identify as women raised in a society, have trouble on the physical side?
Melissa Febos: Mm hmm. I mean, big answer: yes, definitely, definitely, definitely. I mean, I think there’s an order of priority, similar to sort of letting go of things, letting go of compulsions, like the order of lethality, right? You have to sort of, for me, it’s been important to figure out the sort of bodily sovereignty. That feels sort of primary, because if I’m not in my body, I can’t do that other kind of work. I can’t work on the more sort of metaphysical areas of consent. But it’s kind of all the same thing, you know? Like for me, the same way that I was conditioned to say yes to being groped by men or to shaking a stranger’s hand that I don’t particularly want to, I also have been conditioned to say yes to having my brain picked over coffee by a stranger or, you know, to help even help an acquaintance with a favor rather than work on my overdue book manuscript, you know? Or just all of the way saying no is so uncomfortable and it’s not, it’s learned. You know, we are taught to be deeply uncomfortable saying no so that we will say yes, and keep the world of men running the way that it is, right? And so for me, I really do think that the sort of the work—and this is not just for me in my life, but for all of us, right—is to not apologize when I send an email six days after I got one, to not apologize when I say no or I can’t do something or someone doesn’t want to pay me my full fee or whatever it is. Like saying no is like saying thank you for taking care of yourself. It’s teaching other people to be able to accept it with grace.
Ana Marie Cox: You identify as queer. You mentioned your wife and you say in the book, correct me if I’m wrong, you haven’t had a relationship with a man in a while. Many years. Many years. The only reason I foreground that is because I’m curious about this empty consent, when it happens between women. Not necessarily sexually either. Because I think about workplace relationships between women, you know, where it can show up as well. What do you think about that?
Melissa Febos: It is easier in some ways for me. It’s easier in a primary relationship with a woman, it has been easier for me, maybe partly because we’re both freaked out by saying no so we can sort to get to a real conversation about it sooner. They won’t just accept, you know, without also feeling uncomfortable. Which is another way, another explanation for why women have so many more orgasms. There are studies! I’ve read the studies. We’re very concerned about what the other person is doing.
Ana Marie Cox: Topic for another show. [laughs]
Melissa Febos: But I have, one of the things I discovered when I was sort of researching my own history of touch, was that in all of my relationships, men, women, I had said yes when I didn’t want to. I had had sex that I didn’t want to. I had done physical acts that I didn’t want to, because it was easier to detach from my body than it was to tolerate someone else’s hypothetical disappointment, you know? And in, you know, in work environments, in other environments, it’s you know, it’s not physical. It doesn’t, I think, have the same kind of interior longitudinal effect, but it’s the same dynamic, where saying no, just feels so cringey. I just can’t or haven’t been able to bury it. You know?
Ana Marie Cox: I think in talking about this, I realize both in the case of the non-touching, non-physical consent issue and also in thinking about it between two people who identify as women, the good news is maybe those are places you can start if you’re uncomfortable, you know? Because like you said, if it’s another woman, primary relationship, work relationship, whatever, you might be able to say, hey, you know, I want to say no right now and it feels weird. What do you think?
Melissa Febos: Yeah. Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: And also an idea, the idea is and even if it’s a dude, but if it’s not physical, it might be a place to practice, an easier place to practice saying no with no apology, no explanation.
Melissa Febos: Mm hmm.
Ana Marie Cox: Even though that might not be the most urgent place that you need to do it.
Melissa Febos: It has, it has become so clear to me, really, over the process of writing and then talking about this book, how important it is to have allies in this work. I am, you know, as I think we all are, but I’ll only speak for myself, I am a sponge. I am easily influenced. If I spend time with one of my friends who is restricting her eating and comparing her body to other women’s bodies, like it’s in my head rattling around for the rest of the day. And if a friend you know, my partner, I’ll use the specific example, like when I was in a relationship with my partner, she was like, I love your armpit hair, it makes me sad when you shave it. And I was like, oh, great, never did it again. You know? I am free. And so as much as you know, we all, I think, have internalized this like bootstraps American individualist nonsense, we are so social and we deeply affect each other. And if I don’t have sort of partners in this work, the, my prospects of sticking with it long term, of really practicing a different relationship to consent and to my own body, they just deteriorate so quickly if I don’t have other people that we’re working on it together.
Ana Marie Cox: Something I got out of your answer there is also that we all are sponges, but we also all can radiate. So this idea that if you can in your own life and making your own decisions, start to claim your space and claim your consent, who knows who might see that.
Melissa Febos: Mm hmm.
Ana Marie Cox: And not even consciously, necessarily be like, oh, that’s what I should do, too. But it, just seeing it in the world makes it possible for other people.
Melissa Febos: It’s really funny, the reason that I thought of the armpit hair example is because I got a message, I got a voicemail from an old friend of mine that I was, we were meeting together with a group of our friends on Zoom for the whole first half of the pandemic, and I got this sort of message from her. I didn’t listen to it for a few weeks and I never listen to my voicemails because who does? And when I listened to it, it was just like her rambling for a few minutes, and the whole point of the message was she was like, I just wanted to tell you that one of our early Zoom calls, you were wearing a tank top and you reached your arm up and I saw your armpit hair and it just looked so good and cool. And you look so free, that I stopped shaving my armpits and I haven’t since, and I just thought I would want to know if that had been me so I decided to call and tell you. Which it felt like, it just like filled my heart completely, you know, because we really don’t know. And it’s, I feel really keenly aware of this right now, because this book group that I’m in is, has been reading Sonya Renee Taylor’s The Body is Not an Apology, which is, you know, all about radical self-love and that radiation.
Ana Marie Cox: Friend of the pod.
Melissa Febos: Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: [laughs] I’m glad you brought up the pandemic, however tangentially, because, you know, reading the cuddle party essay and contextualizing it within the pandemic, we all know what skin hunger feels like now. And yet I think I will have to keep it with myself, but I do not think I’m alone in the touching, the idea of touching other people is a little terrifying to me right now.
Melissa Febos: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: What are your thoughts? What do you think? How should we navigate this? I know you don’t have answers, but—
Melissa Febos: I have ideas.
Ana Marie Cox: Yes. Ideas, ideas are welcome! [laughs]
Melissa Febos: I think, you know, it’s almost we have this opportunity right now and it’s sort of like an elimination diet. So my dog was once having this weird allergy where he was like biting off the pads of his paws. And I had to take him off all of his food and his treats and everything and slowly add things back in to figure out what was doing it, right? And the way that I’m looking at changing my relationship to touch, going back into sort of social life and public life, is that I am going to add things back in one at a time and see how it feels. Because if I just go right back to how things were, you know, nothing changes if nothing changes, right? And there are some things that I really want to do differently. And so I am slowing myself down. And when someone thrusts a hand forward, I’m asking myself—and this is the space I’ve created over the course of the pandemic and also through writing about this—create a little space where I can pause and say, like, do I, hey body, do we want to shake this person’s hand? Do we want to walk into this hug or do we want to say no? And let the disappointment fall where it may. Because we don’t get, we don’t get a restart. There’s sort of a moment here that I don’t think most of us have ever seen where we’re in this sort of squishy place where I think other people are going to be respectful. If we say I’m not, I’m not, I’m not ready for hugging yet. People are going, oh, of course. You know, because of germs. And it could be for whatever reason they actually want, you know? So I’m going to try, I’m going to try it. I have been, a little bit.
Ana Marie Cox: You mentioned in the book and you referenced in this conversation that your work continues, as it were. That you’re still processing. You were, as you wrote the book, still processing some of the ideas and experiences that that you’ve dug up, sent through the prism. I wonder if there’s any coda you want to give us, since you turned in that last draft?
Melissa Febos: Yeah, there definitely is, and I would say sort of, the most important thing, and this has been true of a lot of the things I have written about in the past too and I worried that it might not work this time. And what I’m talking about is a changed relationship to the past, to those stories, to that little, that little deck of memories that I have a particular narrative about that was really familiar, that was not leaving room for my whole experience and was keeping me from moving through it. There is nothing like taking a number of years to work my way through my early sexual experiences, my own girlhood, and then having conversations with friends and then having conversations with people, like you to really digest those experiences. And it’s helpful for me sometimes to think about it metaphorically in terms of temperature and so a lot of the memories and subjects that felt hot, they don’t feel hot anymore, you know? And I’m never aware of it in the moment that it happens because there never really is a moment. But what I can say now is that mostly in talking about them, I can stay open. Right? Even if there’s sorrow there. Right? Like, I don’t have to close down. I have to close up shop. I don’t have to leave.
Ana Marie Cox: This might be the most important question I ask you. How do you take care of yourself?
Melissa Febos: So many ways, I am so high-maintenance.
Ana Marie Cox: No, no, I’m going to stop you, because you’re kind of othering yourself when you say that.
Melissa Febos: I am. I am.
Ana Marie Cox: You’re marking yourself as different.
Melissa Febos: We are so high-maintenance.
Ana Marie Cox: Yes. Humans, humans are so high maintenance.
Melissa Febos: This is the thing. Right? I, I’ve been thinking about this a lot because as the practices, as my set of practices that I basically need to feel fully myself grows and grows and grows with each passing year, it really prompts me to think. Because my first reaction to that is like, oh God, this is so fill in the blank: self-indulgent, I’m so high-maintenance. Like, how can I need so many things to feel OK? But what I actually think is that it’s just capitalism. Like our lives, we’re not taught to have lives that integrate ways of taking care of our body and our spirit and our community and our intellect into the work that we have to do, right? Those are seen as separate. And so they’re truly just isn’t enough space. Right? But these are, these are meant to be integrated into everything that we’re doing all day long. So that’s my theory about it. Here are the things that I do.
Ana Marie Cox: We can talk about capitalism, too. Like I can do that another whole podcast. So.
Melissa Febos: Oh, God, I know.
Ana Marie Cox: The commodification of self-care, another subject. I’d love to get into it next time. Go ahead.
Melissa Febos: Now, I will share with you my modules. And this is something I’ve written about in the book. But my wife, when we first met, I said, look, there are a number of practices that I have to do every week. I don’t have to do them all every day, but I have to do like at least two or three of them every day. And if I do them all in a day, it’s a great day guaranteed. And these things are probably never going to change. And so, just so you know, there’s going to have to be space for this stuff and some of it’s going to come before you sometimes, they’re not negotiables. And those include some kind of spiritual practice, meditation, my recovery meetings, exercise, some like presence in bodily activity, creative practice usually writing, therapy, meaningful contact with friends and beloveds—all of those things. Sometimes I can get them all into one day, but usually it’s just one or two or three. But they are the things that keep me on an even keel.
Ana Marie Cox: So I’m actually going to turn the floor over to Alison for the last question that we have, because. it’s where she’s coming from. Alison, you want to want to step up?
Alison Herrera: Yeah, so I am the mother of a 14-year old daughter and she is just entering puberty. She started her period last year. And I want, after I read your book and I read some of the reviews, I wanted to ask you this question: what support can I offer my daughter to empower her to say no, and to feel comfortable in her body so that she doesn’t have to grow up and, you know, later on have had to look back like I have looked back and process some of these things that I now realize are really traumatic event?
Melissa Febos: Thank you so much for that question, Alison. I, little tears almost shot out of my eyes when you’re asking it. Yeah, I, two things, and the first one is more practical and the second one is more important. And the first one is a direct answer to your question, which is just talk to her about it, you know, talk to her about your experience, go buy books, bring women into her life who offer an alternative model. And the second thing is, like all of the results, it might take decades for you to see how that support works in her life. My mother was ready to have the conversations, Ms. Magazine was all over my household. Like I saw the documentaries. I saw Gloria Steinem speak as a teenager. Like I got a lot of good input. One woman is not enough to counteract all of it. Like we all get hurt, you know, but the love and the conversations and the resources that I was given, were there. I had them the whole time, and I came back to them. And that is why I am standing here talking to you today. So just hold out.
Ana Marie Cox: Melissa, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Melissa Febos: Thank you so much for having me.
Ana Marie Cox: And that is it for the show. This podcast is a product of Crooked Media. Alison Herrera is a senior producer. Izzy Margulies books our guests, and our other producer, Jordan Waller, is leaving us to go to grad school next month. Jordan wasn’t with us for very long, but she made an enormous impact and I believe she’s going to make a difference in the world as well. Though I do think that’s true for all of us. The fact that one of us will make a difference in the world doesn’t lessen the impact that any of us can have. Which brings me to the thing I really wanted to say something about today. You matter. You are enough. I say this because I’ve been talking to some friends and I’ve heard a few times about the idea that maybe the solution to their stress and pain and struggle is ceasing to exist. I won’t call this suicidal ideation, because when that was happening for me, I didn’t call it that. And that’s why I didn’t tell anyone, and that’s how the thought eventually did become suicidal ideation. And then I made actual suicide attempts. I am grateful to my friends that told me about that thinking, because sharing it is the best way to defuse it and it’s a step on the journey past whatever it is they’re going through. If you find yourself maybe even thinking in a joking way: wow, things are so hard, I’d rather just not be a part of life. Do not dismiss that thought. Please do not dismiss that thought. That is your brain ringing the most desperate alarm it can. It is a code red. It is a three-alarm fire. The good news is that there is still time to do something about it. And so please do something about it. Talk to a friend, a professional, call a helpline, text a helpline, get a therapist—do whatever it takes. But please, take care of yourself.