by Steph Auteri
2018 (Cleis Press)
People often make a lot of assumptions about those who write about sex, especially if they are women: that they must be constantly horny, or insatiably promiscuous, or that their appetite for sexual adventure is boundless. Steph Auteri´s exceptional memoir A Dirty Word: How a Sex Writer Reclaimed Her Sexuality shatters these stereotypes with intelligence, honesty, and humor. Instead of a stereotype, Auteri dares to reveal herself in all of her complexity and contradiction. Her story is about sex and sexuality but is also linked to the experiences of many others. She has a lot to say, and A Dirty Word is worth listening to closely.
Her book begins in New Jersey. While an undergraduate, Auteri has an uncomfortable nonconsensual sexual experience with her boyfriend "Travis" (not his real name), a traumatic event that will come to not only define her identity for years but ultimately galvanize her growth as a writer and as a person. Shortly after this experience, one that is hauntingly violent for how ordinary and familiar it will be to readers, Auteri transfers to a college in Boston--to get away, to start over. Part of what she calls her "shock therapy" to get over Travis involves accepting a writing job writing about sex: reviewing sex toys, watching pornography, and more. Auteri is determined to reclaim her sexuality and her body, and A Dirty Word details her process with eloquence, modest, and openness. While her journalism provides her invitations to sex parties, reviewing various dildos, and taking "immersive strip dancing" classes at her local gym, her candor about her contradictory feelings is what makes this memoir so powerful. This is not a casually-confident revolutionary of sex-positivity, nor is this a prude who doesn´t like sex or who is uninterested in being connected to her body. Auteri´s journey to self-acceptance is one that many readers will be able to relate to.
Writing about sex is her job, and she talks about some of these episodes in the margins of A Dirty Word. The heart of each page is Auteri herself: details surrounding her physical discomfort during sexual intercourse (dyspareunia); the differences between her sex drive and that of her boyfriend (and future husband) Michael, and how this impacts their ability to be emotionally as well as physically intimate; their challenges in conceiving a child; and so much more. Auteri masterfully links her own growth and healing with contemporary discourses surrounding female sexuality, from Emily Nagoski´s Come As You Are to flibanserin. Auteri is interested in how we can shift how we talk about sex and relationships, from sex education to women´s self-defense, strategies to prevent sexual violence, and methods to heal with dignity.
As this memoir reaches its conclusion, the book becomes a kind of in-depth letter to Auteri´s own daughter. A Dirty Word is her powerful chronicle of healing and change, passing on what she has learned from her own experience to her child. The book addresses the author´s various roles as a mother, a writer, a girlfriend, a wife, and a woman. This is an exceptionally vulnerable and well-written book that I cannot recommend enough for anyone who, like Auteri, mistakenly thought they were "broken" after surviving any form of sexual assault.