The Boner Backlash: Stop Telling Me You Would Still Fuck Me

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I am too upset to find a better stock photo.

I get asked a lot if I have seen a backlash to my herpes activism. The simple answer is no, because it isn’t the backlash people expect. No one is raising ‘whore’ banners against me, and I largely ignore negative comments on social media when the response I’ve met has been so overwhelmingly supportive. There have been no (articulate) takedowns written about me, no inappropriate questions from journalists. For the most part people are ready to talk about herpes, and to talk about it kindly.

The backlash I’ve actually seen is worse, if I’m being honest. It’s insidious and “well-intended,” so banal I should have seen it coming. It’s the boner backlash: the wave of messages from men who find me sexually attractive and want me to know it. It’s the dozens of Facebook messages I’ve received from (always male) strangers inviting me out for drinks, or telling me I’m gorgeous, or writing that they’d still fuck me in the comments of my own blog like they’re defending my honor. It’s the simple “hey ;)” or “I can’t believe you’re still single” or “I’ll be at [x] bar tomorrow night, just fyi.”

The thing about these comments that drives me insane is that the men who send them think they are being nice. Many of them acknowledge that they might sound creepy, but they assert that what they’re doing isn’t creepy because they are different. Most want their messages to make me feel good about myself. They want to reassure me that my herpes does not make me unattractive. They have read my writing, and they agree with my message. But they also assume a great deal.

So let me make this very clear: When you contact a woman you do not know on the Internet and the gist of your message is that you find her fuckable, this is sexual harassment. It is not a compliment. It is not a thank you. It is not a sign of respect. It is a deeply felt violation.

But Ella, they’re just trying to be nice! They listened to what you had to say and wanted to tell you that they agree! Surely these messages are harmless, right? Why can’t you just smile and take this attention in stride?

A few weeks ago I added a contact form to the ‘About Me’ page of my website so that strangers could share their experiences with me privately instead of leaving them in the comments of my blog. It also proved a useful way for journalists to contact me about interviews and invitations to write for publications. For the most part the messages I receive are heart-warming. Although I do not have the time to respond to everyone, I’ve had some wonderful exchanges. The contact form is great.

And then on Friday, on my birthday of all days, I got a letter from a reader. The first paragraph was respectful, articulate, and self-aware. He had read about me in the news and found my blog, and he was impressed by my bravery and openness.

“To put that all together, and also read about how much you enjoy sex without condoms physically-speaking, everything just points to what a wonderful, sexy, and confident woman you are.  Honestly, I was just like “WOW, this girl is just so damn sexy..”, and I don’t mean it in a perverted way at all.”

Helpful tip: if you ever have to qualify a statement, whether it’s “I’m not racist, but…” or “I don’t mean it in a perverted way at all,” what you’re saying is probably not okay.

The rest of the email slowly went downhill from there.

“I’m not surprised that guys would have sex with you unprotected now.  Reading about you, basically I think you have such a wonderful package inside and out, and herpes is just part of the package you have. I don’t expect you to write back, but let’s say for some strange and extremely unlikely reason you did and one day we actually got to do “it”, even though I don’t have herpes I would probably be glad to do it with you unprotected each and every time, just because I know what you have is an important part of you, and how much physically you enjoy sex without condoms.  Getting something like herpes from you, given what little(but it’s not little..) I know of you, would actually be I think wonderful, because it’s something from a wonderful girl that I would get to keep forever..”

Let me tell you how it feels to get a letter like this. I was checking my email during my lunch break when it came in. The first paragraph was fine. The second paragraph made me uncomfortable but in a “well, he’s probably well-intended but clueless” kind of way—the kind that doesn’t feel threatening but makes me weary because I’m already tired of being a strange lightning rod of male sexual attention. Readers—male readers, let me be clear—often think they know exactly who I am after reading a few of my essays. They are usually wrong. And then that third paragraph, the one I included in full above… I don’t even know where to start.

There was this strangled laugh caught in my throat, my brain wanting so desperately to find the email funny and weird instead of revolting. This guy, I wanted to say. This guy is so oblivious that he thinks I would be flattered by an email like this. He went to such lengths to show that he’s not perverted, and then he referred to getting herpes from me as something wonderful(?!) that he would get to keep forever. I immediately copied the body of the email and sent it to my friend. This friend—notably, a dude who spends a lot of time working on gender issues on the Internet—immediately saw through to its gross core and asked me if I was okay. The violated feeling sunk in slowly. I kept copy/pasting quotes of the email to people, chattered about it at work, was desperate to make it seem normal and absurd instead of terrifying.

This is the flight risk of being a woman who writes about sex. I’d heard about it from erotica authors, how readers project their arousal onto the authors themselves. It wasn’t like men hadn’t been interested in me because of my writing before; the herpes thing was a weird, unexpected twist but when you write about sex with honest, open confidence it is deeply appealing. It must seem like such a relief, to find a woman willing to share the internal thoughts and feelings that they are socialized not to share. Men don’t realize that feeling of connection is purely one-sided. Some men take it as an invitation to my sex life, as opposed to me offering carefully chosen and sculpted public observations about my private experiences. The line between public and private seems blurry, when it really isn’t.

The fact that I write with my own name complicates this—I am a real person with a face, and this makes me accessible. Other erotica authors warned me when I started to write without a pseudonym that they’d had difficult experiences with people who considered themselves “fans.” At what point does my writing end and I begin? Social media makes this even more complicated. It is easy to find me on Facebook, and my Twitter feed is lively and seems unpolished, even though it is heavily curated. It is easy to feel like you know me. It doesn’t seem inappropriate to message this person, this woman whose words have resonated with you, and express interest. She’s so open about her sex life already, right? She’ll understand.

No, I don’t, because I do not exist to arouse. Sometimes I write erotica, but that does not mean I am personally interested in your arousal. And I am a woman who writes about sex, but I am not a woman whose sexuality you are entitled to. I get to decide what I am willing to share with the world and what kind of relationship I have with my readers. I rarely if ever write about current partners on my blog, because the present tense of my sex life is on lock. And on a side note, I should not have to say that I am off the market in order to make men understand that their sexual advances and fantasies are unwanted. Unfortunately, that’s the messed up world we live in.

The email closed as follows:

“I hope you can understand what I’m saying, and again it’s not perverted nor am I desperate, but you’re an incredible girl and you know it I bet.  So yeah.. basically this is meant to make you feel pretty good about yourself.. :)”

To the men who think they are bolstering my self-confidence by showering me in unsolicited praise, I’ll be blunt about a nuance you may have overlooked. It takes astronomical amounts of genuine, raw self-confidence to do what I’m doing. To be honest I would describe myself as borderline arrogant—I know who I am, as much as any twenty-three year old can. This project is not for attention, or for praise, or for male affection. It is to alleviate suffering and put a sizable dent in the deeply ingrained stigma surrounding sexualized illnesses. Beyond that, I write for myself. I write to understand my experiences, to own them and to offer insight that can help other people… specifically, other women.

I do not need your help to feel good about myself. I feel great about myself. In fact, your efforts to praise me actually hurt my mental state. They make me feel unsafe, exposed and gross. I don’t want to know that I’m in your personal spank bank. I don’t want to get drinks. I don’t want to have unprotected sex with you because you’re totally chill about the possibility of getting herpes.

You also don’t get brownie points for being willing to have sex with someone who has herpes. That’s called being a decent human being. By all means fight the stigma and write in comment threads about it not being a deal breaker for you! We need to have that conversation, and we need to normalize it. But please do not tie it explicitly to a real person (i.e. “I’d still fuck her”). That is objectifying, disrespectful, and flattens the conversation. And there’s no need to seek me out on the Internet and tell me you would still date me—it’s the rest of the world that has a problem with herpes. I really don’t need to know.

In conclusion: my fuckabilty is not up for debate. Please, for the love of all that is consensual and respectful, do not try to pick me up or make me feel special. I will report unwanted attention on social media platforms, and I will remove my contact form from this website if it is used inappropriately. Sexual harassment will not be weeded out on a case-by-case basis. This is me saying no.

Recommended reading: How To Talk To Girls On Twitter Without Coming Off Like A Creepy Rando

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17 thoughts on “The Boner Backlash: Stop Telling Me You Would Still Fuck Me

  1. Seriously, reading this I just wanted to copy and paste so much of this onto my Facebook profile! As a sex educator/blogger and performance artist I get this kind of crap all the time and it’s exhausting! Thank you for sharing your experience, it helps to combat the comment section gaslighting that can come up when one tries to speak up about this kind of online harassment.

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  5. the only thing I can tell you Ella, is to keep being as strong a writer as you are, and as true to yourself as you are. the vulnerability and honesty in your writing is always breathtaking…

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  7. As always, I am impressed by your bravery and your ability to convey the messages that you do. I do not intend to show disregard for the theme is this post, but rather to provide this praise as a preface to my comment.

    What you have been through is a problem in and of itself. But it is also a symptom of a larger problem.

    I just recently saw the film “Mean Girls” for the first time, after years of recommendations from my female friends at Wesleyan and my younger sister (who screened it for the family). The film elucidated many of the trials and tribulations of “Girl World”, which often seemed like – for lack of a better metaphor – a foreign world as I made my way through secondary school (middle and high school were on the same campus for me). Your comments, along with recent events at Wesleyan and the surrounding debate, have built upon the experience of discovering how harrowing “Girl World” can be.

    But many of the problems, as I see it, come from the toxicity of what “Guy World” has become. I have experienced “Guy World” firsthand, and struggled with it. Clearly, I have fallen short of being an *ideal* man in many ways – first and foremost, in stature!

    Anyway, “Guy World” can be a very ugly place indeed. From the locker room to the media, boys and men are taught to be “dickish” – in many ways that you have observed and written about. Objectifying and pursuing women? That has become part of “being a man”. Ditto for appreciating and highlighting the beauty of the female form in ways that turn out to be sexist. (However fine the line between sexism and sexuality may be, it has been crossed and blurred). It seems that you have to be confident and cool around the ladies, knowing just how to charm them enough. And we are pressured to get it right – be smooth and not too awkward. We are encouraged to “have game” or get “game” – the slang needs no explaining. Yes, this extends into the bedroom.

    So much for the saying “boys will be boys” – in truth, boys are trying to “be a man” according to cultural standards that often deprive women of respect and jeopardize their well-being. The proverbial “gentleman’s guide” just needs a new revision. Meanwhile, in a culture where you hear overtly misogynistic lyrics on the radio – how many times do you hear explicit references to female genitalia?! – there are few prominent male role models in contemporary pop culture. I cannot name any off the top of my head, probably because I love the pop culture of, say, the Swing Era. How I hope I am wrong!

    I believe that it is impossible to solve the problems in “Girl World” without tweaking the standards of contemporary masculinity, for that may be the ultimate source of the travails described in this post.

  8. The line “I do not need your help to feel good about myself” really resonated with me. It’s generally how I feel when I get unwanted compliments from men and they get all pissy because I don’t fall all over myself in gratitude for their attention.

    • Yeah. If you don’t make the fakest astounded face and go, “ME? Why, I thought I was a hideous terrible person~~~ ” Is the only way men want women, to all appearances. Literally because I just say, “……..I don’t have sexual interest in you, sorry.” after some pervert decides to say “man ur booty fine sexy wonk wonk i wanna touch it” out of nowhere, which is a super polite and accurate response in my opinion, they get injured deep in their idiot souls, and then try to get aggressive the more i stop talking to them, because I’m polite to them and nothing more and nothing less.

      Ok men, imagine a bunch of OTHER men following you around bus stops and hitting you up in coffee shops and squeezing your butt in lines and touching your thighs during normal get togethers and then getting erections while staring fixedly at you. Imagine when you smiled at someone, probably another guy, they wandered over and started insinuating sex every other word and then when you expressed disinterest for SOME STRANGE REASON they would follow you for a bit then take your wrists and slam it against the wall and be shocked when you didn’t respond to this kind of bs (which is always just a ‘guy being a dude/nice’) a huge smile and/or sex. Then they would say, “Man, not all guys are like that, I mean, I’m not like that, this isn’t rapey, I promise.” “Hold on, are you serious? I’m the victim here! I thought you were playing hard to get! My feelings are hurt! How dare you not want to have sex with me!!! Men like you are the real threats to human decency. Anyway you should have been more clearer in your discontent with my stalking. Not that it was stalking! Just normal guy stuff. You know how it is. I was drunk or something and therefore was not responsible for shoving you against the bed. What, you were saying no? Ridiculous. Anyway the part here we need to focus on is why did you kick me??? I thought I was being nice! God, what is your problem with men?” And you think I’m joking but I’m not this has happened at least twice, and probably has happened to a lot of girls. So dudes, what if it happened to you? I’m pretty certain, I can even \guarantee you won’t feel complimented in the least. In fact, you might actually feel like you want to punch these guys for getting all up in your business, you were trying to study/drink coffee/walk to work and they are putting hands where hands should not be.

      Seriously tho why, just don’t do it. Elect to be classy, and also not ignoring everything a girl says.

      (Addenum: if the response is something like “Not allll men, you dont know me,” then you are missing the point. It’s not about you, it’s about events that happen in reality.)

  9. Thanks so much for writing this. I especially resonated with this part:

    “It is easy to feel like you know me. It doesn’t seem inappropriate to message this person, this woman whose words have resonated with you, and express interest. She’s so open about her sex life already, right? She’ll understand.

    No, I don’t, because I do not exist to arouse. Sometimes I write erotica, but that does not mean I am personally interested in your arousal. And I am a woman who writes about sex, but I am not a woman whose sexuality you are entitled to. I get to decide what I am willing to share with the world and what kind of relationship I have with my readers.”

  10. No, it’s not ‘boys will be boys’, but ‘people will be people’. Encountering strange and weird and offensive others is not something solely experienced by women, and there are many different contexts in which this can arise. I speak from bitter personal experience.

    There are inadequate and offensive men, as there are such people more generally. I wish I could wish them away, but I can’t. We all have to negotiate our way through that. Ella’s objections are absolutely justifiable, and the people she is writing about are vile. But they will still be there, no matter what any of us might say.

    • Hudson. Your “people will be people” professes to condemn poor behavior but claims that it’s “such people” who behave poorly assuring that you of course are not one of “such people” and that there’s nothing to be done other than to avoid such unpleasantness by “negotiating our way through that.”

      People are works in progress unless they think that they’re not even potentially part of the problem. I’ve said thoughtless things even hurtful offensive things with both the best of intentions and the thought that I was doing some good. I’ve learned over the years that when I speak I should first listen to what I would say before opening my mouth. Indeed working hard to listen to yourself from as close to the perspective of who you speak to can be hard work. but it’s work worth doing and it’s work worth modeling for others to see.

      It doesn’t matter that there will always be some people who will want to say offensive, demeaning and abusive things. It’s up to society to condemn intentional abuse and harassment in addition to well meant accidental abuse and harassment. By up to society I do mean you and me and any who would “wish them away” Wishes are weak even on the scale of prayers which are useless without action, actions including moderation and direct correction to model what acceptable free speech looks like.

      You say that “they will still be there no matter what any of us might say.” but that is not true of the clueless speaker given a clue. If you give a moment not to the troll but to the commonly misunderstanding and mildly to severely blinded by privilege well intentioned out there, you have a chance to prevent harmful negating or demeaning speech by someone who would prefer to stick needles in their eyes rather than be that kind of person. If you don’t scold people for their misdeeds they have no chance to alter their course in the future through introspection or mindful speaking.

  11. I understand what you’re saying, and I’d rather stick needles in my eyes than write that kind of email to you. And yet, I think you really know that the brotherhood of creepy men is always going to stir their imagined loins wherever a woman talks about sex. They believe that every woman describing pleasure is actually aching for such men to oblige them; despite the obvious fact that no woman in their real lives is going anywhere near them.

    There are plenty of sensitive, caring, self-aware men; but there are also plenty who aren’t any of those things. They are washed ashore in every high tide of a woman’s expressed sexuality, and to be honest you have to step over them gingerly as you walk along the beach. They won’t actually move when you really approach.

    I wish you could express yourself candidly in a world in which such life forms didn’t appear when you do. But we live in the world we live in. Maybe remember that however demeaning their notes feel to you (justifiably), these are sad and lonely men for whom the excitement and pleasure of real life is but a fantasy they never actually experience. God help them.

    • @Hudson Grant

      Um, can you not though? “But we live in the world we live in” and “I think you really know that the brotherhood of creepy men is always going to stir their imagined loins wherever a woman talks about sex.”

      This is classic “boys will be boys,” which is problematic in too many ways to count. For one, it puts the onus squarely on women to adapt to the shitty behavior of the men around them, because of course THEY won’t change. It also portrays men as these ridiculously simple, sociopathic creatures who simply can’t and won’t change if they’re told their behavior is hurtful.

      In short, just no.

      PS – Ella, you’re awesome, and I absolutely adored this article. Thanks for writing it.

      • Ah, the feeling when you gear yourself up to school an arrogant prick only to scroll down and find that someone already did that. Perfect.

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