I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but when I walked into McNally Jackson’s SoHo location three months ago, I took one glance at the front table and immediately knew what I’d be buying. Senior Jezebel staff writer Tracy Clark-Flory’s debut memoir features a fluorescent orange woman with the words “Want Me” strewn across the stretch between her chest and thighs. She’s in cowgirl, but there’s no one underneath her—we just see her, this crude drawing of a woman fixed in a provocative pose.
I’m of the belief that judging books by their cover usually bodes well, and Want Me is no exception. On par with its showy design, the chapters chronicle stories obviously buzzy and salacious in subject matter. Clark-Flory writes about six-thousand-dollar sex dolls and what it’s like to suck your favorite porn star’s dick, always with the nonchalance of someone who’s been going to porn conventions for years. The book may fall nicely into the genre of pastel-covered memoirs written by thirty-something female urbanites who like talking about sex, but Want Me goes deeper than its counterparts: it ruminates on the reality of losing a parent and filling the void with casual sex, bringing together nuanced ideas of grief and desire. The result is a revelatory summary of what it’s like to be a complicated, messy, sexual woman in your twenties who is increasingly self-aware.
For Lithium’s “Renaissance” issue, Clark-Flory and I talked on the phone about moaning during sex and whether sexual shame can be productive.
Lithium Magazine: So many of my writer friends talk about choosing to keep things to themselves, especially when working on very personal stories. While writing Want Me, did you choose to keep anything sacred?
Tracy Clark-Flory: There was very little that was off limits for me. But in my first draft, I did struggle with writing candidly about my sex life with my husband. I felt very protective of our relationship, and I think it’s harder to write about sex that is full of vulnerability than it is to describe sex that’s performative and done at arm’s length.
Lithium: That reminds me of a Lena Dunham interview I read—she said it was easy to film awkward, detached sex scenes for Girls, but incredibly difficult to do the ones where she had to be intimate and romantic.
Clark-Flory: It’s just a totally different beast. There was a definite shift once my sex life shifted from performative to vulnerable. That was where the writing was really challenging.
Lithium: I always approach personal essays with the perspective of, “these are my experiences, so I feel like they are mine to talk about.” Have you had any issues with people not wanting you to write about them? Did you reach out and let people know that you’d written about them for the book?
Clark-Flory: I agree that you own your own experiences. It’s really about the execution. Like, how do you protect the people that you write about? There are very different schools of thought on how to handle it. Ultimately, I came to the decision that I would reach out to several of the people that I wrote about in the book. I didn’t ask for permission, but I wanted to be direct and let them know that this was happening and that I had taken every reasonable measure to protect their identities. People for the most part were surprisingly okay with being written about, even in this intimate context. The act of reaching out goes a long way. It felt necessary and I was very glad I did it in the end.
Lithium: Have guys in your personal life ever shamed you for your work?
Clark-Flory: Thankfully, no. As a twenty-something, I just thought that guys would be titillated by the idea of getting with a sex writer. But I think men were either frankly a little bit intimidated by it, or treated it as a fun quirk. Because I brought sex toys home from the office. (Laughs.)
Lithium: There was no titillation? So upsetting.
Clark-Flory: It’s surprising, right? But honestly, I think that my being a sex writer just gave my partners permission to have conversations they wouldn’t have otherwise. They were relieved that there was a space to talk about porn and fantasies in a way that was very open and curious. Whether it’s in the context of a relationship or interviewing someone, there’s just such palpable relief about being finally able to speak this unspoken thing.
Lithium: Do you know what your Rice Purity Score is? I’m not sure if this is specific to college students.
Clark-Flory: So, because you told me about this, I had to go take the test. I’m a 21.
Lithium: Oh my God, we’re tied. That’s beautiful.
Clark-Flory: Really? And you’re how old?
Lithium: I’m 20.
Clark-Flory: Nice job! (Laughs.)
Lithium: Have you always felt that your writing about sex was taken seriously?
Clark-Flory: I think sex writing is often treated cheaply. Early on, I had mentors who would tell me that I was capable of writing about more than sex, and I always found that really offensive. The assumption was that sex wasn’t an important or valuable topic. For a long time, I was also stuck in this cycle of writing the lighter pieces that editors solicit about sex—I wasn’t being given time for research and reporting. It was really only after I developed my reporting skills that I was taken seriously and given space to do meaty, meaningful features.
Lithium: I feel like Gen-Z sexual liberation has mostly consisted of people my age getting paid to post pictures of vibrators and making TikToks about how much they love rough sex. Do you think young people are working toward the “right” kind of sexual liberation? Is there a right kind?
Clark-Flory: I think in general, we’ve seen a rise of commercialized, individualized, totally depoliticized sexual empowerment. It’s been separated from its activist roots and its emphasis on collective struggle for collective gain. Instead, it’s been cast as an individual endeavor that one embarks on by way of the right products, the right workshops, the right self-help books. And that totally ignores all of the social and cultural hurdles that stand in the way. My perspective is that sexual empowerment isn’t something you do on your own. I don’t have any problem with TikToks about rough sex or vibrators on Instagram, but I don’t see that as happening within a framework of sexual empowerment—because sexual empowerment is a bigger collective and political project.
Lithium: I’m wondering what your opinion on OnlyFans is, because I’ve seen the discourse around it shift in the last year. During quarantine, it was sold to young women as a means of achieving personal and financial empowerment. Now, I’m seeing people say we shouldn’t have to commodify ourselves.
Clark-Flory: Someone I really love on this topic is Lorelei Lee, who wrote an essay in n+1 called “Cash/Consent.” It’s brilliant and engages in a very nuanced way with these questions around empowerment and exploitation, especially how these conversations often happen in a dichotomized and simplistic way. That piece does a beautiful job of sketching out how to talk about sex work.
Lithium: You’ve talked a lot about sociologists like Erving Goffman who argue that all social life is performance—which makes it hard to have sex that isn’t performative. My friends and I have talked about how fun it is to anticipate men’s desires and purposefully perform during sex, but while sleeping with women I always feel like they can see right through it. Do you think there are different kinds of performances happening during lesbian sex? Should we abandon performing during sex altogether, or can it be rewarding?
Clark-Flory: That’s really interesting. I’ve performed during sex with women just like I have with men, and I never got the impression that the performance was noted as such. But in terms of whether we should get rid of sexual performance altogether, I think that some degree of performance can be fun and playful. Performance becomes problematic when it’s all-consuming, such that it limits your access to authentic pleasure. [When I was younger], I went so full into performative mode that I was distanced from my own bodily feeling during sex. Now, I’m not rigidly restricted to performing sex according to how I think it should look.
Lithium: It’s a fine line to walk, because on one hand I think it can be beneficial for you to moan a little bit so that your partner knows that you like something. But when do you stop doing that and start acting authentically? That’s hard.
Clark-Flory: It’s really hard! You can’t just totally eradicate performance. That’s such a good point, because performance can be communication during sex. You’re emphasizing, do more of that—good job! (Laughs.) It’s especially difficult when there’s so much pressure on the all-out kind of performance that really takes you out of the experience.
Lithium: You mentioned in your Salon interview being in your early twenties and subconsciously having this mindset of “If I’m down for anything, nothing can ever be done against my will.” It’s a means of self-preservation to an end. Obviously it isn’t us that need to change, but how do we get out of this mindset?
Clark-Flory: I think it’s important to recognize that this mindset is a totally understandable adaptation to the realities of the world that we live in and the rates of sexual violence. I constructed all these ways of feeling safer—of believing that through the right series of sexual behaviors and choices, I could guard against harm. It’s a really compelling myth.
Lithium: I also think that being down for anything can just come with being a sex writer. Just wanting to collect experiences as a writer first and a person second, especially a person in your twenties. Did you ever get tired of doing things just so you could write about them?
Clark-Flory: There was definitely a phase in my career where I got tired of the constant demands of content. I turned to material from my personal life and offered it up in a way that wasn’t as thoughtful as I wished it had been, because I hadn’t been given the space to be thoughtful about it. I just used personal experiences because I had a content quota. That was exhausting.
Lithium: I was so interested in your discussion of hookup scripts—these cultural ideas we follow when we know to make out, then take our shirts off, then proceed to oral in that order. Are these at all malleable, or have they been fixed for the last hundred years?
Clark-Flory: Sexual scripts do change with our culture, so certain acts will become more or less acceptable or intriguing or taboo. They’re definitely not static, but some aspects—like the emphasis on penis-in-vagina sex and ejaculation as the ultimate aims of heterosexual sex—remain pretty constant. Once you start to recognize these scripts and the fact that we’re all following them unthinkingly, there’s a possibility of trying to go off script. You can ask, “What if we did it a little differently?”
Lithium: Abandoning the choreography is exciting.
Clark-Flory: It’s sexy, right?
Lithium: Part of the beauty of sex has always been its taboo nature—it’s fun to do something you’re supposed to feel guilty about. Does a sexually liberated world allot space for this kind of sexy shame, or are you hoping we move past sex being taboo altogether?
Clark-Flory: That’s a really good question. I think the key distinction is guilt and shame that feel playful and exist in a negotiated realm of sexual make-believe, as opposed to guilt and shame that come with real-world consequences. I don’t think we’ll ever fully escape shame. (Laughs.)
Lithium: What are the things giving you hope for the future of sexual empowerment?
Clark-Flory: There is some hope, right? I’m hopeful about the growing critical awareness around everything from transphobia to racism and how these issues intersect with sex. To me, those necessary awakenings are by far the most encouraging things happening right now. Thinking about where things were when I was 20 versus where they are now, I feel incredibly encouraged and heartened.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.