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Investigating the Desire to be Desired with Writer Melissa Febos

Erin: [00:00:00] Welcome to Hotter Than Ever, where we uncover the unconscious rules we've been following. We break those rules and we find a new path to being freer, happier, sexier, and more self aware. I'm your host Erin Keating.

Today's conversation is with award-winning author and speaker Melissa Febos. Her memoir, Whip Smart, is about being a grad student in New York who is also a professional dominatrix and heroin addict. Her writing is so smart, so raw, and so honest. We talk about being precocious and prematurely cynical teenagers. She dropped out of high school as a freshman, which I've never heard of.

And we talked about being girls who were [00:01:00] interested in exploring the hidden or the forbidden in life. Melissa says we're all unreliable narrators of our own stories and that sometimes not telling yourself the whole truth can be a survival mechanism. It's a deep conversation about sexuality and identity and how much better it is to be over 40 than any other age. Here is my awesome talk with Melissa.

I'm so excited about this conversation we're about to have. Melissa Feebos is the bestselling author of four books, most recently Girlhood, the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism, and Bodywork. The radical power of personal narrative. She's the recipient of awards and fellowships from the Guggenheim foundation, the national endowment for the arts, McDowell, Lambda Literary, and so many others. She's also an associate professor at the University of Iowa, which is one of the top writing schools in the country. Welcome to Hotter Than Ever, Melissa.

Melissa: Thanks for [00:02:00] having me, Erin.

Erin: I'm so glad to have you here. You are currently this lauded, award winning professor at a top university with many published books under your belt, but that's not really where you started. Right?

Melissa: No. Yeah. No. That's, that doesn't even describe what it looks like inside my house, most of the time.

Erin: Right. It's so funny what someone's bio is like, wow, this is all tied up with a bow, but life is not like that.

Melissa: No, it's funny. You know, I was just writing this morning and. I was reflecting on how bizarre it is to be a person who has achieved some institutionally recognized success because I had, as a pretty young person, like maybe even still technically a kid, I had reconciled myself to the fact that that probably was not going to be the end game for me.

And that was okay. I just had a set of instincts and interests. [00:03:00] and defiances that were probably going to preclude doing anything that looked sort of normal.

Erin: How old were you when you had this revelation? Because you were a precocious person.

Melissa: I was, and it wasn't a low self esteem thing. It was just, I knew I was weird.

And maybe if I had grown up in a big city or something, there would have been other Kids who were weird and I was weird, but I grew up in a pretty small town where at least everyone was pretending to be normal and the same as each other and striving for that. And it was just like, not possible for me.

It was not an option for me to even pretend to be like everyone else. I was really precocious. I was really emotional and passionate. I had strong political opinions from a weirdly young age, and I just had this work ethic that was enormous if I applied it to things that I cared about, that I felt passionate about. But when people tried to make me do things that I didn't believe [00:04:00] in, I just, there was no way.

Erin: You know, I relate very much to this, even though I think you took everything a lot further than I did in my heart. I was doing what you did in my in my mind. I was as much of a rebel as you were, but at my private school in Baltimore.

Melissa: Totally, totally. And I think if I had been at a private school in Baltimore, maybe I would have stayed in school too. I was at like a public school in Massachusetts. So I was like bored and was not into the sort of rhetoric that was happening in my junior high school classrooms. I dropped out after my freshman year of high school and freshman year, I know it wasn't even legal for me to leave school.

I just, I was skipping school so much that I was like getting A's in some classes and losing credit in other classes. I think I could owe the kind of arrogance of my decision to take a different path, probably to having parents who supported me and were like, okay, this kid is willing to work. She just doesn't like it within this context. So we went to the guidance counselor and [00:05:00] we were like, what are some alternatives? And they were like, Oh no, drop out. And I was like, all right, I'm going to drop out

Erin: At 14 at 15.

Melissa: At 14 or 15. Yeah, I think I would probably had just turned 15. And I was like, well, can I still use the school library? And they were like, I guess. Yeah, sure. No one's ever asked that. So I just homeschooled myself.

Erin: And wait, you homeschooled yourself.

Melissa: So you build your math tutor. But other than that, I just did what I was doing in addition to school anyway, but all the time, which meant basically just reading and writing whatever I wanted. All the time.

Erin: Yeah. That is so wild. I have never heard anyone with a story like that, where you had the intellectual rigor, you have the discipline, you had the passion, but you knew that you didn't want the protocols of conventional education, or at least the way it was being served to you. You were like, fuck this.

Melissa: I mean, honestly, Erin, I'm such a, I'm not going to say I'm a rule follower, but like sort of like [00:06:00] procedure. And now that I work within an institution

Erin: I was going to say you're a professor.

Melissa: I look back and I'm like, who was that kid? Where did she come from? I was super ambitious and like in love with the thing I wanted to do. And my parents were like, this kid is a steamroller. If we try to stop her, it's going to be ugly. So we're just going to try to support her in whatever ways we can along the way.

Erin: Wow. So you moved out and you moved into your own apartment in Boston. How old were you?

Melissa: I was 16 almost 17. Yeah. And I moved in with some friends, most of whom were a little bit older than me. Like they were 18 or something.

They were legally allowed to do it. They were legally allowed to do so. I still had braces. I was Stop it! It was like this little short person in overalls with a shaved head and braces. I was like, I'm going to take night classes at Harvard and I'm going to wait tables full time and I'm going to finally be able to smoke openly. So that was, [00:07:00]

Erin: And you knew you wanted to be a writer. That was the vision from the beginning.

Melissa: Yeah, it was that was part of my weirdness is that I was like in fourth grade being like hi I'm a poet and I'm gonna write novels and the other kids were like, uh picking my nose and it wasn't cool. It was weird and unusual And now I look at my college students and most of them are still figuring it out, which I think is appropriate. And sometimes I don't know what to say because I just had this crazy tunnel vision from the very beginning.

Erin: I can see how it would, it made you make some really wild decisions, but it's such a gift to know who you are, like, early. now.

Melissa: I'm really grateful for it now because it was not a question of what, it was a question of how. And as someone who was lucky enough to be born with some middle class resources and supportive family, there was a how. It was possible. The what is everything.

Erin: Mm hmm. That's what Oprah says. [00:08:00] She's like, the people I know who are successful. I think I've said this on another podcast. The people I know who are successful know what they want.

They know what they want. Yeah. Let's talk a little bit about whip smart and your origin story as reflected in that memoir, um, which is so extraordinary, so beautifully written and every piece of it feels so true. And the amount of reflection and self awareness. that must have gone into writing that. I want to talk about that too.

Melissa: Oh, thanks a lot. So I was this weird, driven, kind of precocious, single minded young person, but I was also a person, and I remain this person, of really kind of bottomless appetites. Like, I definitely identify as a biological addict. Like, I've always been pretty compulsive, always been sort of bottomless when For the kinds of substances and by substances I include like reading when something triggers a thing in my brain It's just more do it more until it starts to [00:09:00] work against me until it becomes life.

Yeah Which helped with my ambitions not so much with drugs So I moved out at 16 and had a tremendous amount of freedom for a teenager and I really exploded in both of those directions of my ambition to gorge my appetites and also to study and be a writer. So I was really doing both of those things.

And by the time I was 18, I was addicted to heroin and doing massive amounts of all kinds of drugs. And I transferred to a Four year college, hoping that moving to New York would solve my problem. Sure. You know, there aren't drugs in New York.

Erin: There's no temptations in New York.

Melissa: No, it would be fine. It'd be starting over. And so I, I ended up graduating college. And shortly after that, I hit my sort of final bottom, which now seems really young. I was 23, but for me, it was not going to last beyond that. And I [00:10:00] got sober and. At that time, I was working as a professional dominatrix. And those things, as you can imagine, paired pretty well together.

It wasn't a super druggie atmosphere, but my whole life was sort of undercover at that point. And when I went to graduate school shortly after I got sober, I fully intended to be writing fiction, I was still writing a little bit of poetry, and kind of on a whim. I ended up writing a short piece of nonfiction about being an addict and a pro dom and it just sort of rushed out of me in a totally unprecedented way.

I'd never really written from experience except in my journals. And I just realized that I had some really big questions about my own experience, and what had happened, and a real drive to tell that story, whether I wanted to write a memoir or not, which I didn't particularly, but

Erin: Because you thought it was more high minded to write fiction?

Melissa: Yeah, and because I was a deeply secretive person, like those things had [00:11:00] both been secrets for most of the people in my life while I was doing them, and never did I ever imagine telling everyone who loved me the truth about them, let alone literally anyone who wanted to know. So I just didn't think about that.

And this probably won't be surprising, but I'm pretty gifted at compartmentalization. And I was even more so back then. So I just put these blinders on and was like, I want to write this book so that I can sort through this experience. And it was a really deep and difficult process. Like I had to take six months off at one point just to go to therapy. Cause I was like, I don't know. Why I did this.

Erin: Yeah.

Melissa: So that became my thesis in grad school and it became my first book, which is as someone who teaches grad students, it's pretty unusual again, but I was, that's tunnel vision came in and I just couldn't stop until I got into the end of that story.

Erin: Right. Well, I would love for you to tell a tiny bit about the story, which. [00:12:00] As a person who has always been really interested in sex, I, of course, ate up every single bit of it with a spoon because I was like, And then you did what? And you did what? And what happened? And he did what? And he wanted what? Oh my god.

Except that you come from this point of view of half in, half out, in a way, of four years of being a dominatrix. And this deeply being your life in the dungeon of Mistress X, um, and then on your own with private clients. And everyone should read the book if you have the same curiosity that I actually mentioned it to my boyfriend.

And I was like, yeah, I'm interviewing this woman who's this incredible writer and she was a dominatrix. And he was like, Ooh. And I was like, No, he's like, what does she write about? And I'm like, well, there's one part that's about poop. And he was like, [00:13:00]

Melissa: I know that's what I tell people when people haven't heard of it. And they asked me about it. I'm like, well, everything you could ever want to know. And probably then some is in the book. I really. Put it all in there, but it's not the sexy tale that you're imagining. It's a narrative of a job. And like any job, there were days where I was really enjoying my work. Maybe not like any job, but like all the other jobs I've had. And then there were days where I had to do a bunch of shit I didn't feel like doing.

Erin: That's a hilarious way to put it. That makes it so super relatable. When I think that most people wouldn't step foot into a dungeon. Wouldn't don't touch the world of BDSM and aren't as in enthrall to servicing men's desires in such a literal way.

Now women who who date men obviously are in relationships with men service men's desires in various ways and they service our [00:14:00] desires in various ways. But this is a very different thing because it is. sex work and transactional and you are there to be an object of desire and to objectify them in certain ways and to make them feel the way they're paying to feel.

Melissa: Yeah, exactly. And that was the reality that it took me kind of a circuitous route to really admit to myself, even though I was. literally living it. Because of the scenes that you're playing, I was almost always playing the top. And there was a kind of narrative, this is total generalization, but among sort of sex work professions, pro doms tend to be pretty educated.

They come, a lot of them come from middle class backgrounds. So there was a kind of rhetoric around the job that was framed. A little bit differently than I had expected. And it was like, Oh, we're feminists. We have other careers, like a lot of queer women, which I think is true [00:15:00] across most sex work jobs.

But there was just a story that we told ourselves and told each other that was partly true, which was that it was empowering. It was different from other sex work jobs and we were in control. And there was a way in which all of that was true. But it omitted the deeply humiliating, unsavory parts of it.

Like most of the stuff I did there, I wasn't into. And occasionally I was, but there were other reasons why I was there. And some of them included wanting to investigate my own desire. To be desired, to be objectified, to play into these stereotypes, and I needed a loophole so that it felt okay to explore those things.

Because I had a pretty simplistic idea of myself as a feminist. That's one of the consequences I think of having been a child feminist is that I felt like, oh, I'm not allowed to dress like a dominatrix and want to be worshipped by men. That's... too typical or too subservient or too cliched or [00:16:00] something and working in the dungeon gave me a space to explore that and then ultimately to explore my sub inclinations. It was a very, very tolerant space and in many ways I learned to be tolerant and to admit to myself what my own desires were and that they were okay.

Erin: Mm. One thing that I I love how deeply you investigate is the desire to be desired and how that feels like a bottomless feeling. I relate to that to a degree because I got separated after a long marriage and then ten years of no sex and the first year out I was slutting around and really just working hard at being hot and being wanted and investigating the degree to which I was desirable.

Um, and really feeling empowered by having all these guys interested in me and playing the game of flirtation and seduction [00:17:00] in a way that felt more liberated because I was older, because I knew myself, because making conscious decisions, because I wasn't looking for people to fall in love with me. I was really on my own exploration that I feel like your exploration.

Is not quite the same as that, but I connected to the charge you get from knowing someone wants you and looking at you in a certain way and conceiving of you in a certain way and objectifying you in a certain way, which as a feminist who was raised by a feminist mom who marched in the E. R. A. And. You know did all of that stuff.

I don't think that we know what to do with that desire I think it sits in this adjacent place that feels kind of shameful of like But I want to be hot and I want someone to want me and I want to turn someone on and I want to know That I have that power. What do I do with that? You know?

Melissa: Mm hmm. It's true. And it's funny, because I've written about this so much, I've had so many conversations [00:18:00] about it, and I wish I could have had those conversations 25 years ago. Oh my God. Uh, because I was like, oh, it's me. I'm just like a bad feminist. I'm weak in this way. And there's just so many assumptions folded into that thought.

It's tricky to have desires and really natural, totally acceptable, non harmful desires with In a social structure that is harmful and that does condition us to think in ways that degrade us or are contrary to our own desires or our own well being, it's an advanced task to tease those things apart and find a sexual liberation and acceptance of one's desires when in some ways they are influenced by a culture that wants to oppress us.

Historically, it's like hearing you talk about your experience. I think, Oh my God, it would have been so much less fraught and more fun if I had been older. Oh, if I were not a 20 year old heroin addict, I would have been able to enjoy the good parts and [00:19:00] just be less judgmental of myself and more curious.

Erin: No, I mean, I love being older and I love being a person who is interested in sex and sexuality and connection as an older person because I'm not as dependent on men's approval. of me. I feel like, you know, awesome if you're into me and like, awesome if I'm into you. And that's great. And that's what we're looking for is some mutual connection.

But I don't have the same impulse to pine for the disinterested men and the moody pitiful men. I mean, at college, I just remember watching this guy mope across campus and being like, Oh, he's so attractive. deep. And I'm just like, that guy's a fucking loser. But, you know, to yours to yours.

Melissa: What a waste of energy. What a black hole of energy.

Erin: And in contrast to you, who is so vital and so alive and so [00:20:00] focused and so driven and sexy, like, what the fuck are we doing? What makes us want to pine for these People who like wouldn't know what to do with us if they had a night with us. You know what I mean?

Melissa: Exactly, exactly. You could not pay me enough to go backwards in age. There's just no way.

Erin: No, no. I mean, that's the origin of this. Podcast and the desire to have these conversations is that we don't talk about all this stuff. We hide it or we ignore it, you know, we deny it. And especially when you're in a heteronormative kind of dynamic where, you know, just a straight marriage with kids and all the conventions.

Where is the room for all of this stuff without feeling like a deviant or a weirdo or a whatever?Where is the room for my desire to be submissive? Where is the room for those conversations and then like how do you [00:21:00] have them when you're inside of a day to day? How do you shift gears into that mode? Um, and, and give that the space that I always wanted it to take up.

Melissa: Yeah, I mean, I think probably like this podcast is a good tool for that too. If you hear someone else having that conversation, it helps you figure out that it's possible.

Erin: I like that you talk about having a curiosity about the perverse and dark, um, in Whipsmart. And I wonder where you think that might come from in you and how has it evolved over time?

Melissa: There's so much that we don't talk about with kids and that's correct in many ways, right? There is such a thing as age appropriate conversation, but there is also just a lot about human experience that kids are experiencing that we don't have any kind of discourse for talking to them about. And by we, it just means generally as a society and the culture in which I [00:22:00] grew up.

And so, As a very far thinking, deeply feeling, erotically curious young person, I was like, okay, so here are these stories about what relationships are. And this was not like the awakened age of the internet where I could Google different types of relationships. I was reading teen magazines and watching the wonder years.

Erin: And reading Judy Blume.

Melissa: Yeah, exactly. Judy Blume was pretty, radical actually. Totally. I was like, I have all of these feelings and curiosities and drives and interests that it doesn't seem like there's any place for, but I see these little trail heads that there are people who are interested in them.

So I'm just going to make it my business to try to find spaces where I can name, explore, Find mirrors where I see my own desires reflected back to me. And I just have a ferity interest [00:23:00] in the unspoken and the forbidden. I don't know, somewhere back there in my psyche, it's linked to my addictive stuff too, where I'm just like, oh, you want to keep it from me?

Let me see if I can get it. So I was really into sort of having secret knowledge and the things that I was told not to investigate. There's a scene in Whipsmart. Where I completed the D. A. R. E. program in middle school and on the last day of the D. A. R. E. program, the police officer brought in this little box of drugs that had little examples of everything and I was absolutely enthralled and I remember thinking very clearly, I'm down for any of it.

I'm down to try any of it and you know what's funny after WorldSmart came out I actually ran into my fifth grade teacher on the streets of my home town once and she stopped me And she was like a wonderful woman and she was like i'm so proud of you You're on the wikipedia page for our town and also I had no idea That's what you were thinking during the dare program. Do you think the other children were?

Erin: No [00:24:00] They were not thinking that.

Melissa: They weren't. I was like, no, Ms. Pat, they were not thinking that.

Erin: They weren't like, let me get my hands on that heroin.

Melissa: I think Erin, honestly, like that interest really had to do with like, I need words for what I'm feeling inside me. I want to know what all of the options are really not just the acceptable ones.

But it's interesting because when I look at myself today, I don't have that in the same way. I'm not like, what's everybody doing secretly? I think because I've cultivated and curated a life in which there is no forbidden. Like if I want to try something or talk about it, I have people in my life where I can do that. And so there isn't this sense of a sort of magnetism to the dark side because it doesn't really exist in the adult life that I've constructed for myself.

Erin: Right. Right. And when you're a child. Everything is so mysterious and you don't understand how anything works. And, and you're not [00:25:00] allowed to talk about sexuality.

I grew up in a house where my mom was like, it's okay to feel good. Sex is nice. Like I was constantly masturbating in the bathtub and had. sex toys and lingerie and all sorts of shit in high school in a locked drawer in my bedroom and my mom knew it was there and would sort of be like, I don't know what to do with this or with this horny girl.

And so we didn't talk about it, but I was clearly very sexually motivated and sexually curious. And then what is the line as a parent to have those conversations? Because maybe those are conversations that you need to have with your friends or your eventual lovers, you know?

Melissa: Totally. It's confusing.

Erin: First of all, what I would have given for a locked drawer.

Melissa: Yes. But I was exactly the same, and, and it's weird, I can just imagine, it doesn't sound fun to talk to your teen about that, and I don't think I would have really been open to it, so I think the initial message of your pleasure is not an occasion for [00:26:00] shame, masturbation is natural, it's okay, like I really heard that and internalized it.

message received. Once I was actually doing it, I was not interested in talking about it with my mother. I'm sure they knew. I wasn't very good at keeping that a secret, but if one of my parents had tried to start a conversation with me about what I was actively doing, I think I would have just been like, no, this is absolutely not.

I wonder now if it is more common for teens to be talking to each other about it. We weren't. I don't know. Even when I found a real friend, Maybe we would refer to it obliquely, but we weren't really talking about it. It was just mortifying. Or maybe if I had been able to look on the internet and see descriptions or message boards having to do with what I was thinking about, maybe that would have given me more language, but it felt like I just would have been absolutely mortified to have an outright conversation about masturbation at 15 or 16.

Erin: Yeah, [00:27:00] it's interesting. My kids are 12, so they're at an age when they still listen to me. a little bit. Um, and my daughter and I actually had a conversation about sex last night where she was like, I watched this show on Netflix with my friends and I saw this guy and I saw his thing and it was really big and it was, she was like, it was really funny and it was so weird.

And I was like, they're not normally that big. And I said, look, the only thing I'm scared of is pornography for you. I mean, I want to be really clear with them. And I haven't had this conversation with my son yet, um, and I want his dad to have this conversation with him as well, which is like pornography is entertainment. It's a gross kind of entertainment when you're a kid and it's not real and it shouldn't set any expectations about how you're supposed to be and what you're supposed to do.

And my daughter was like, I'm going to have boundaries and no means no and [00:28:00] consent is everything and all this stuff and it's like where did this magical girl where did she come from and she's saying those things because she's heard them not because she has any context of what they actually mean and how hard it is to actually implement those ideals in your early sexuality but i like that she's at least in that conversation about empowering herself

Melissa: That rhetoric does have power. The messaging that we get, obviously it is really hard to do it, but I didn't even have those words. Consent was not a word that I used in a sexual context until I was well into my 20s. It just wasn't part of sex education. None of it. Boundaries? Can you imagine?

Erin: I mean, I've only recently learned how to have them. So like, I know, it's a work in progress, you know?

Melissa: Yeah. Oh my god. I am also glad that I didn't have as ready access to pornography as kids do because That's gonna fuck you up. I already had extremely unrealistic expectations and was [00:29:00] thinking about sex in a very sort of performative way. Maybe I saw like a Playboy magazine or something, but That was just from Cinemax movies, not even actual pornography.

Erin: So right. And it's infinite what's available and, and as an adult, I have my own feelings about it. And I'm really grateful that it's not all just professionally produced pornography, that there's a lot of people sharing their sex lives. Um, and feels less coercive, although whoever knows why someone agrees to have sex on camera and get it put on the internet, but as an adult, I have to have conversations with myself navigating it and figuring out what I feel comfortable with and what makes me feel skeeved out and what turns me on. When I'm like, Oh, okay, well that might work for you guys, what I'm watching, but I don't think I want that.

Melissa: The porn that I watch or what I'm thinking about when I masturbate is very separate from what I'm interested in doing with my partner. [00:30:00] I don't envy parents trying to figure out what to talk about and when, because it's not easy and there's definitely no script.

Erin: No, there's no script, but I just try to come from a place of, I want to be straight with her, with my son too. I want to be honest. I don't want to introduce ideas that they are not introducing.

Melissa: Sometimes my mom, because I've written so much about that time period in my life and so much about like my own tussling with sexual identity and my desires and consent and all of that stuff.

My mom has read all of my work and she's asked me many times like, Is there something I could have done differently? Like there is a perfect way to execute giving the information so that your child would never suffer or not be embarrassed or whatever. And I'm very happy to totally confidently tell her, absolutely not.

I think you did a great job. I lived right. And I've even found a [00:31:00] way. So like at this point, because I have put this kind of practice at the center of my life that takes some of my hardest experiences and spins them into insight that I can then share with other people, it actually wouldn't change anything.

I don't want to take it back because I found a use for all of it. And I'm very happy to let her off the hook because she tried really hard and did an exceptional job and there's no such thing as perfection in that area.

Erin: One thing that you talk really compellingly about in. All of your work is about the telling the truth, telling the whole truth, telling the truth to yourself, not knowing the truth yourself at any given time, the truth revealing itself through investigation through in your case in writing as a place to find the truth.

One thing that I really realized. was operating in my life and that a lot of people have shared with me in these kinds of conversations is about These sort of untruths that we tell ourselves or these [00:32:00] things that we do Unconsciously that are running our lives underneath Everything I loved this one thing that you said What, which was that no one could give you advice on how to handle your life because you weren't telling the truth to anyone about what was really happening.

And I think people who are in unhappy long term relationships, they might not know the truth of how they feel and their friends are giving them advice on how to handle the situation, but only as. You tell it in your story, only the stories that you tell them, those are the only things they can mirror back to you and reflect their insights back to you about.

But if you are having a whole other unconscious experience that's running your behavior, how do you even connect with people and get help and evolve?

Melissa: Yeah. Yeah, it's so real and it's so [00:33:00] complicated. We don't always have a lot of agency in that. Like you said, as you were talking, I was thinking, Oh, we all have that friend who's maybe kind of a bulldozer in their life and they're like, well, I talked to my therapist, my therapist thinks I need stronger boundaries.

And you're like. How are those conversations going? Like, are you relaying everything that I'm seeing? Because it doesn't sound. Well, and is it possible?

Erin: It's not possible to know yourself from the outside in.

Melissa: Right. We're all unreliable narrators. And over time, I feel sort of More and more forgiving of that instinct in myself, as much as I definitely see being as honest with myself as possible.

I also do have the fundamental respect for the fact that sometimes telling myself a story that's tilted in a certain direction about my experience is a survival mechanism. It's my psyche trying to protect me from something that I just can't handle. And for me, what that looks like is sometimes I can't look at the fact that the [00:34:00] way someone treated me was not just.

Just rude, but abusive or the ways that I've been hurt. I try to hide from myself, my own vulnerabilities and my own innocences. Sometimes that can be a really dangerous space to be in. And sometimes it's something that helps me move through an experience so I can get to the other side. It's funny because I get a lot of people assuming that I enjoy being honest with myself.

I do it a lot. Because I like it, and it's actually the opposite. I've had to implant all of these practices and people in my life that keep me as honest as I'm capable of being, because left to my own devices, I am such a liar. I'm like, that's fine, that didn't hurt my feelings, this seems like a great idea!

And I'll just be like, best case scenario, just like eating candy and watching Netflix and trying not to have a single feeling for the rest of my life, like that's, uh, only dating married people, whatever. My instincts will lead me to certain destruction, and I have a very powerful [00:35:00] rationalizing function of my brain that wants to enable that, so I have to go to all these recovery meetings and writing at the center of my life and have real intimate friendships where people will call me on my shit.

Because if I don't have all of those things, I'll just run with the story in whatever direction pleases me in the moment. And there's just pain in that direction. It's always temporary pleasure. So yeah, I'm a storyteller in both good ways and bad ways.

Erin: I really relate to wanting to compartmentalize everything, to wanting to be invulnerable, wanting to be like, so above the sort of massive heartache and feelings.

I had a lot of mess and heartache and feelings as a kid and so part of me as an adult is like I don't need that. That's childish. I can handle anything. I'll just power through this. And at this point in my life I'm looking for the places where it's safe to be soft. [00:36:00] The places where it's safe to feel vulnerable and exposed.

Yeah. But I have to learn that because I had a marriage where I really was in an adversarial dynamic a lot of the time, so I didn't know how to let someone. Love me as much as yeah to love me so much. I just it didn't feel safe.

Melissa: Yeah, I totally get it That's also relatable. I mean, I'm just thinking about there's an element of self actualization in there And there's also an element of like dissociation where it's just like this is all too much.

I need to figure out Shortcuts to just being okay, no matter what happens because otherwise I'm gonna be consumed by feelings and feeling powerless and so So I've had to do a lot of work as an adult to undo the self sufficiency of my youth because it really alienated me from all of those soft feelings and the vulnerability.

I went and saw, are you there got a t marker at the movie and fucking cried through the whole thing because I was such a tough [00:37:00] little 12 year old. I was not in touch with those feelings and I just hardened up. And decided I was just going to be like flinty and not affected by things, but those feelings stay in there.

They're just locked in a storage space and it's only through my recovery and my safe relationships, like you're saying, and therapy and all of the stuff to get to those little squishy parts that got kind of exiled

Erin: Totally. I mean, there's a thing in Al Anon in, in the 12 step literature where they talk about the pitiful demoralization of a child of an alcoholic.

No, it's not pitiful demoralization. It's pitiful cynicism. And I was so cynical as a young person. I was so like, yeah, this is how things are and the world is this and I'm tough and cool and I know how to handle stuff and I didn't fucking know how to handle things. I knew how to survive. I knew, I knew how to put up walls. Um, but yeah.

Melissa: I know [00:38:00] in some ways I felt even older as a kid than I do now as a middle aged person.

Erin: One hundred percent. I feel younger today than I did in my twenties when I was fighting to figure out who the fuck I was and how I was going to survive in the world. With my, like, creative ambitions and my degree in theater. Like, what the fuck? Yeah. I'd love for you to read a passage, um, from Whipsmart. There's a paragraph on 256 that starts with, anyone...

Melissa: Anyone who has ever had a good therapist knows the feeling when an obvious truth that you have been committed to not seeing is so neatly pointed out to you. You see, even after four consecutive years of participating in dominant and submissive sexual practices, whether for money or not, I was still telling myself that I wasn't really into it.

It was for the money. [00:39:00] I did it for anthropological interests. I did it for the ego trip. I did it to feel desired, to be bad, to rebel. These reasons were true, but they were not my only reasons. And even if they had been, would they not qualify me as sufficiently interested as into it? I still badly needed to feel separate from my clients to scapegoat them with my own shame and secrecy.

It has been my experience that the people I judge most harshly are the ones in whom I recognize some part of myself after therapy. That day, I walked through the Union Square farmers market with the particular lightness of step that I've come to associate with such hard 1 revelations. Believing myself apart from the people I dealt with as a Dom gave me a sense of safety.

It protected me from the parts of myself of which, despite my bravery in facing tangible unknowns, I was deeply afraid. Telling the truth to other [00:40:00] people about my job, my addiction, or anything I concealed had had the same effect, had been followed by the same lightness of step. Honesty brought my double lives together, and in doing so, made the world a bigger place in which I could move more freely.

Erin: Mm. So good. So that's all still true. So good. So hard won, that willingness to be. Honest. Mm-hmm. . Mm-hmm. .

Melissa: Yeah. That was the big one in that book. When I got to that, it took a lot of work, a lot of exfoliating away, different narratives. I had told myself about myself, and then it's always like when I get to that, the little key under the mattress, I'm just like, oh, it's just you like, It's fine.

You know, it's just like, who we are is fine. It's just piling all of this shit on top of it that creates the shame and [00:41:00] so much work to keep trying to hide things from ourselves. Once I have reached the truth about myself, it's always felt like such a relief to finally integrate that and stop running myself in circles to try to hide from it.

Erin: Right. But you're not ready to look at things until you're ready to look at things. Mm hmm. You know?

Melissa: It's really that safety that you were talking about too. It's like, Oh no, someone's gonna judge me or kick me out or think I'm bad or I'll be unlovable or there's going to be some big, scary, foggy consequence.

And I had to have a really good therapist to get to that point. And I had to have some friends that I knew weren't going to judge me if I was honest about myself.

Erin: Yeah. Don't let those people go. You know once they're in your life because they're hard to find.

Melissa: It's true. What a relief to be like Oh, everyone doesn't have to like me. It can just be the people who actually like me.

Erin: [00:42:00] Yeah, I think what at one point I realized not every person is your person, you know All you need to do is find the people who are your people like the everybody. Mm hmm You don't need the everybody. We live in a niche world now, so it's like we can only, we can find each other more easily. People who are like minded. It's so true. You know, having similar conversations.

Melissa: It's so true. I look at like my undergrads who I teach and they've got a lot of bad stuff that they have to deal with that we didn't, but they have language and they know there's so much more self accepting about their sexualities and their neuro atypicalities and they've grown up having language for things and being able to find like minded folks.

And so there is just a different level of self acceptance that I just feel like. It took me years of fighting to get to.

Erin: That's so awesome to hear that. I worked at Snapchat for six years and our audience was Gen Z and I felt [00:43:00] very heartened by who they are and how aware they are and how much they care and how sincere they are in the face of like all of these things that would, I don't know, all of these good reasons to be cynical.

There's a lot of hope and there's a lot of acceptance and love and optimism out there. So where do you sit with all of this stuff today with the wanting to be desired with your Explorations of your own sexuality and what you want love to hear where you are.

Melissa: Oh boy. How much time do you have? Not that long It's just so surprising. It's always a surprise, right? Cause, cause I am a person who's always changing. I mean, thank God. But at this point I feel like I'm in my forties. Um, I spent a lot of my youth, uh, wanting to be desired and [00:44:00] being desired. And it's different now. It feels like two of the biggest things that I'm dealing with now are feeling one, like I don't want any of it.

I just was so sexuality forward and interested and centered for so long that I'll go through long stretches where I don't really want to have sex. And then there's like this other thing about being. And this honestly is embarrassing sometimes too, because I hate being normal like everyone else, but just like being a woman, being a femme woman in my forties, I'm not at the center of the cultural story of what's sexy.

And there are great freedoms in that. I love not getting street harassed the way I did when I was younger, but I am sort of like, what? is sexy to me now because it's not the same thing as when I was 22. I think I'm in a period of redefining what makes me feel sexy. What do I [00:45:00] do and how do I dress and how do I express these things now at the, as the person I am and at the age that I am.

And it doesn't feel entirely clear to me right now. Like I know what I like. Yeah. But how that is incorporated into my identity as it is visible to people generally, I'm not really sure. And it's interesting because of my work, a lot of the students who come to learn in the program that I teach in, or people who seek mentorship with me are people who are in the throes of the issues that I wrote about 15 years ago.

Right. And I'm like, I support you, but I'm. So not there anymore. Now I'm like, how do I practice like deep, enthusiastic consent within myself? What does that even look like? What am I interested in? Are there things that I wanna keep to myself in my relationship that are just for me? I don't know. And this is part of what I mean about.

feeling younger than ever. This is a result of all the work I've done too, in a [00:46:00] place where I can be curious and be surprised and in a space of not knowing and sort of surprise myself because I'm not working off of a script the same way that I was when I was younger.

Erin: And I think we have to reinvent ourselves. Constantly in every area of our lives. So like, you think you have your career thing figured out, then it's like, Oh, that's not actually working for me anymore. Or you think you've got this marriage that's meant to last the rest of your life because that's what you said when you, when you went all in on it, however many years ago.

And then you're like, yeah, I'm going to rethink that one. Maybe there's something different out there for me that I need today. That's different than what I needed when I wrote the rules of who I am in quotes. Exactly. Exactly. I've been asking people on this podcast, we all have these deals in our lives, right?

These, these kind of contracts with the people in our lives and with ourselves and situations, and [00:47:00] I'm wondering if there's anything that you feel like you would want to renegotiate in your life, the deal that you've made with yourself or the world where it feels like we should probably open this, open these deal terms, see if we can get this to be a little bit truer to what I actually want.

Melissa: Mm, Erin, that is such a good question. I guess what I will say is I'm married now. I never imagined being married and I want to always stay committed to defining that however suits us, because the thing that my wife and I both acknowledged is that however we defined it. in the beginning probably wasn't going to stay the same because we aren't going to stay the same and the things we need and the ways that our union supports both of us are going to change over time.

For me, that is the great unknown. Our relationship is twice as long as any I've ever been in. I'm in totally uncharted territory for me. And I'm a [00:48:00] person who avoids hard conversations. So how can I set this up so that I'm willing to be as direct as I want her to be with me about what I'm thinking and what I need. And, um, we might need to grow together.

Erin: I think being aware that you're both always changing. It's huge and keeping that door open to like, Hey, I know I said such and such was true about me, but now I feel differently or now I want something different or I see you doing something different. Like, are you evolving out of that point of view?

I think that's the key to growing old with someone if that's your aspiration.

Melissa: Yeah, I think so too. And I think I did the. Important part, which is picking someone who will show up for that conversation. She's actually much more tolerant. Even if you don't want to. Yeah. For me, and a point of adaption is I need to pick someone who's actually better at it than me.

Cause I'm not very good at it. So [00:49:00] she's up for those conversations. You know, I think that that's key to sustainability and. Who knows? I'd like to see if it's possible to grow old with someone. I think it probably asks a lot in the area of difficult conversations and evolution, and that sounds exciting. So, who knows? Older I get, the less I know.

Erin: The older I get, the less I know. I think we should end there. Cause that is nothing true or has ever been said. Melissa, thank you so much. I've come to fall in love with you during this reading your work during this conversation.

Melissa: So awesome. I feel the same. Thank you so much for having me.

Erin: Thanks for listening to Hotter Than Ever. Please follow our humble podcast on whatever platform you're listening to right now. Tell your friends about it, and rate and review us on the Apple Podcasts. That really helps people to find the show, who may not have heard about it otherwise.

Hotter Than [00:50:00] Ever is produced by Erica Gerard and Podkit Productions. Our associate producer is Lena Reibstein. Music is by Chris Keating, with vocals by Issa Fernandez. Come back next week for more good stuff. You're so fucking hot.


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