Melissa Febos on the Soft Power of 'Girlhood'

·12 min read
Photo credit: Bloomsbury
Photo credit: Bloomsbury

To heal from the traumas of sexual violence and the psychological marks of girlhood, Melissa Febos had to go back in time to excavate and exile the gender norms that had become part of her body and mind. This work required Febos to revisit some of the most intimate, violent, and confusing events of her past, uncovering the limits of her own agency in a patriarchal society. The result is her new memoir, Girlhood, which is out in paperback this month. When it was first published last year, it became a national bestseller; was hailed by Mary Kerr as a "classic"; and won Febos the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism.

Gilrlhood is Febos’s third memoir, following her essays on being a sex worker in her first book, Whip Smart, and her exploration of intense bonds of love and the human need for connection in her second memoir, Abandon Me. Febos is a master in investigating her own psyche and unraveling the stories we tell ourselves about our most painful and humiliating moments. Employing a mixture of research, reporting, memoir, and philosophy, Febos tackles issues of grief, anger, power, and pleasure in Girlhood, always electing to be vulnerable, soft, and compassionate to her past selves, and teaching the reader how to do the same.

Ahead, I speak with Febos about her new memoir, the process of reframing painful experiences, the complications of consent and agency, and more.

In Girlhood, you explore how painful girlhood and womanhood can be, and you engage in deconstructing several instances of gendered violence after the fact in order to understand your experiences better. The book really thrives when you’re trying to name the things you were previously too scared of naming. This is particularly true of an essay you published in The New York Times Magazine about the nuances of consent and touching. How do you approach this frightening process of discovery both in your life and as a writer?

The harder task in some ways is just to become aware of these experiences before naming them. There are so many pathways that are well trod in my psychology and physiology that lead to my behaviors and are linked to my childhood and beyond—it's inherited. So for me, the hard task is finding that awareness and building strategies into my life for becoming conscious of why I'm doing what I'm doing and how it affects me. And asking myself if and how much agency is involved. That’s why I'm a big journaler and I like to talk about things. And when I feel weird about something, I push myself not to stop there. That's how the essay about empty consent came to be, because I went to this cuddle party, and I was like, “That didn't feel good.” And then, I was like, "Why?" But it takes a lot of work just to become aware of what's going on in my own behavior, in my own mind.

One way to describe my process of writing this book is that with each essay, I really took an event or experience from my adolescence about which I had a particular narrative that in many cases originated from close to the time when it happened. Which means that those stories were often the thing I needed to tell myself to get through the experience, or I believed an explanation for that experience that came from an existing cultural narrative. Or there was an internalized patriarchal, misogynistic voice that said, “It's not a big deal, nobody cares, it's your own fault.” When those understandings of my own experiences come from that far back, I can carry them for a really, really long time without ever being like, "Wait a minute, do I actually believe this?"

So I think the essays in Girlhood take those narrative artifacts and press back against them. And the real story [of the event I’m deconstructing] was almost inevitably something really different. That experience almost always affected me more than I previously thought, or it was more abusive than I thought it was. But peeling away the old story for a truer story often resulted in a lot of joy and healing and connection with other women. And connection with myself and my own body. So it was a very layered experience of looking, and discovering, and grieving, and connecting, and celebrating. And that’s all wrapped up in every single one of those essays.

What’s interesting about the essay about empty consent is that you talk about consent in the context of nonsexual touching. That’s a rare approach to the conversation of consent, which tends to focus on sexual violence. How did you get to the conclusion that consent should be a more expansive concept than just in relation to sexual touching?

I was introduced to this more expansive idea of consent at the cuddle party I attended that inspired the essay. The first 45 minutes were basically a workshop on consent, and it's all about cuddling, so it's not sexual. I had known the definition of affirmative consent, but only in the context of a sexual interaction. In the cuddle party, where all we do is platonic cuddling, it really clicked that it should be a convention of touch manners that we ask for everything and give verbal consent to everything. I think that opened the door in my own thinking and made me think about all other forms of touch, from someone walking by and touching the small of your back at a party to squeezes or hugs with people we don't really know. And suddenly, I just became aware of something that had been so deeply embedded in my consciousness and so automatic that I had never realized that had been happening my entire life and how much it had affected me. It was chilling and astounding to realize that.

Another thing that was really fascinating in that chapter is your recounting of the experience of realizing you don’t want to be touched after it’s already happening. When I read that in your essay, I thought, “Oh, this is why sometimes I'm in the middle of something, and it doesn't feel right. And it’s so hard to say, 'I’ve changed my mind about this.’” So I think your contribution in this book is making conversations about consent more textured in that way. Would you agree?

I'm so glad to hear you say that, because that’s really my goal. But that wasn’t my goal when I started out. I was just trying to be a detective about my own psyche and my own body, and trying to figure out how to have better boundaries and feel more present in my own body and my own experience. And to accomplish that, I had to figure out the things that were alienating me from myself.

I spent most of my sexually active life having sexual experiences that weren’t always horribly violent, but that if I had not cared at all about anyone else's feelings, I would not have participated. So it's been so profound to really look at the ways that I've been conditioned to do that. And even in the moment, I would be aware that I wasn’t really enjoying that experience. And instead of thinking, “Oh, we should stop doing this,” I would get anxious and be like, “What's wrong with me?” Or think, “Oh, no, I have to fake it.” And it’s such a cliché—at least for straight people—of women faking orgasms. It's so common that we'll be not feeling something but feeling like we just can't stop. And it's so intricate, the ways that I internalized those scripts and really sort of held myself responsible and devalued.

I think it does make me feel hopeful that the reception of that essay that ran in The New York Times Magazine—just the fact that people are interested in naming those more nuanced experiences gives me hope. Because for a long time, people cared about women not consenting to having sex and being penetrated, but nothing else. And I think it says something about a culture when you start having more nuanced conversations like this.

When you have words for something in a culture, it matters. It's the signification of our values: What do we value? What do we talk about? What do we think about? What are we aware of that we don't have words for? And when we start to have more words for it, it says something about the conversation breaching a different level in public. So it does make me feel hopeful that things are glacially moving in the right direction.

You write about these topics not just from the perspective of being a queer woman, but also from the position of being an ex-professional dominatrix. What do you think this adds to your writing?

That job and the culture around it gave me a language for consent that I didn't have before. I didn't really understand that consent could be a conversation you were having, that you could talk about it and even negotiate it. And it was the first time that I was prompted to think, “What are my boundaries? What are my limits? What am I okay with? What am I not okay with?” And it was also a situation where there were huge rewards for consenting to things that I didn't actually want to do, but that I just wanted to get paid to do. So it really, really helped me develop a vocabulary for consent and understand what my own boundaries were. But it also created a theater for me to transgress those boundaries over and over again, and in many ways to become dissociated from my body and my actual desires.

There’s an essay in Girlhood where I recount the experience of being peeped on and stalked by a stranger. In that instance, being a domme really messed with my head. Because there were social and historical factors at work telling me that experience wasn't a big deal, that I should be flattered. But also, the fact that I was a sex worker made me feel inhibited about asking for help. And it also caused me to blame myself for what happened, as if by making money off of men desiring me, I made it happen to myself. Like most experiences, it was really mixed, though I have no regrets. And I have tremendous respect for all sex workers and dominatrices. And it was something that profoundly changed me and my psyche forever in ways that I value and in ways that I've had to work really hard to undo.

As someone who openly writes about your sexuality as a queer woman, do you feel like there’s a certain pressure to write about your experiences in a way that fits diversity quotas and fulfills a mold of being a role model?

As someone who's written from multiple marginalized identities—from writing a sex worker memoir to writing from my perspective as a queer woman—I have actually gotten some of the most painful critiques and backlash from those communities, which is a heartbreaker on one hand. And on the other hand, I totally understand that. But that’s what happens when an identity is written about in a very specific, personal way, and that identity has been historically negatively represented. There's this pressure where we want that person to speak for all of us, or for us specifically. And no memoir is going to do that; they're only going to tell that person's story and have some things in common with other queer people.

I didn't really understand this until I published my first book. And when I did experience it, I became so passionate about advocating for a great multiplicity of queer stories, and sex workers stories, and women's stories, and other gendered stories. The answer is not having the “right” story, or an airbrushed, perfect universal one, because that doesn't exist. And if it did, it would be a lie. And we would all hate it anyway.

This means we need to get our stories out there. And once we do, we need to elevate other people and try to rush as many people through the door as possible. Because what we want to represent is flawed, beautiful, human, everything of us, right? Queer people are, like everyone, full of contradictions, full of flaws, full of beauty, and brilliance and all of it. And no one person could ever represent all of that.

You also talk about softness and how being soft has been important for your healing process. We live in such a brutal capitalist society where softness is really frowned upon, and there aren’t many people making the case for building a better world through softness. Could you say a little bit about that?

I will second everything you just said, which was really, really smart, and really true. I developed this idea—and it seemed like it was my idea, but it really wasn’t—that I just needed to be tough. And I needed to not feel my feelings or ever be vulnerable. And in some ways, it makes sense, because it is brutal out there. And I did get hurt, and it was self-protective. But it also made me a stranger to my own feelings. There’s so much joy and intimacy and fun that comes in softness. So much of the good parts of being a human being come through softness—maybe all of them. And I was alienating myself from all of that by doing that for years.

It's really hard to experience love; you have to be soft to let people in. It really took me a long time to recognize that. And I think it wasn't really until I got sober in my early 20s that I understood that, because I had to ask people for help. And that was so vulnerable. And when I did that, I suddenly had these relationships that were so deep in a way I hadn't experienced them before. Being vulnerable is what brings connection with other people. And obviously, we have to be safe in order to do that, but there are ways of cultivating safe spaces where we can do that. And I think it's just so necessary. You can't thrive without having places where you can be soft. Softness has changed everything in my life.

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