Melissa Tapper Goldman, from Needham, is the founder of Do Tell, a crowd-sourced compilation of anonymous, true, personal stories about sex and sexuality. This story-sharing blog is an extension of her oral history documentary “Subjectified: Nine Young Women Talk about Sex.”
Why Do Tell? Because we live in a sex-saturated culture with precious little honest and authentic discussion of sexuality. Because speaking our truths, with all their complications and imperfections and beauty, challenges a culture of shame that impacts us every day. Because our voices and our histories matter.
You said in your Salon interview, “I love the chutzpah that it takes to tell a story like that.” Tell me more.
It’s hard to talk about sex. I should say, we make it hard to talk about sex. When you start to think about the ways that silence and shame make it hard to live our lives authentically and hard to have the intimacy we want, it’s easy to see how speaking up about our stories really changes the conversation. It takes chutzpah in the sense that it requires taking a risk. It’s not the same risk for everybody, but it’s a meaningful risk.
From a Jewish perspective, we’re taught that we need to speak up when we see injustice, even if there is risk involved. Silencing is a form of injustice because it dehumanizes people and puts them in many kinds of danger. Speaking up starts to address that.
My Jewish practice also helps me cultivate deep listening. That is, the ability to sit with a story and really be open to its nuances, its emotions, its messages—even when they’re disturbing—and to let it be what it is. The practice of listening deeply to other people’s stories takes a different kind of chutzpah.
What have you learned from other people’s stories?
In my own relationship, sometimes an issue will come up and my spouse will say: “This situation reminds me of X’s story. We should talk about how that works for us.” It’s so helpful to have the language to talk about these issues and to be able to draw from experiences other than our own.
Joy’s story from “Subjectified” was interesting because she’s someone who’s very in touch with her body and her boundaries. I asked her whether she listens to her body in making choices about having sex. I expected to hear how she respects her body’s wishes. Instead, what I heard was that she’s in a conversation with her body. If her partner really wanted to have sex and she was tired and not motivated, but generally open to it, she might try to motivate herself. That’s an internal process, but certainly inspired by her interaction with her partner. She never said, “I’d go along with something I don’t want.” She said she would make an effort to shift her mindset to one where she could experience pleasure because her partner’s desires were important to her. This is very tricky to figure out, especially when women often internalize the idea that their pleasure and desire is not important. Too often we err on the side of expecting women to do things they don’t want to do for someone else’s sake.
It also becomes hard to talk about saying no when we’re trying to avoid sex negativity. But developing skills to say both yes and no is very important, and it starts by really believing the idea that you have a right to say both yes and no.
It’s hard to get to know your own boundaries when you do want to bring joy and pleasure to your partner. This involves a lot of checking in with yourself over time. We hear mixed messages about consent. For example, if on some level we believe that a woman’s role is to be pleasing, to offer pleasure to men, it’s difficult to expect women to value their own boundaries and consent without any model or script for doing that.
What can people get out of sharing their own stories?
It can be great to feel witnessed, to feel that other people are seeing and accepting you for who you are. For many people, the expectation to keep silent can be isolating and alienating, especially for people whose experiences have been traumatizing. I think many of us don’t realize how we’re hurting other people by expecting them to keep silent.
One of the most heartbreaking parts for me of working on “Subjectified” and Do Tell is hearing people say: “What? Me? Nobody wants to hear about that.” People, especially women, are taught that our perspectives are not valued, that our consent is not required or even desired. So the first obstacle is resisting an assumption that people aren’t important or valuable. This is true in one-on-one relationships and on a bigger scale, in our communities.
Making the time and the space for these conversations really helps. Honesty is always going to be a little bit scary because it’s intimate. That’s why it’s important to have relationships where you feel safe taking the risk of expressing yourself honestly and building those relationships if you don’t already have them. Make a coffee date with your friend or your sexual partner and share stories back and forth. It’s never a “good” time to talk about something totally new. And during sex is a tough time to start a potentially difficult conversation!
The difficulty of breaking the silence is why I made a Movie Party Kit for my oral history, “Subjectified.” We came up with card games that start conversations with questions. What’s your experience? Where did it come from? Look at the positive and the negative experiences. It’s completely cheesy but it works!
Do Tell is part of that as well. It’s hard to be the first one to talk, to cross a line where there was silence before. That’s why I’m so grateful to the people who have shared stories through “Subjectified” and Do Tell.
How can people participate in Do Tell, if they want to?
Anyone 18 and over can send in a true story about sex or sexuality over at dotellstories.tumblr.com. Detailed instructions are up on the blog. Each story is posted anonymously, with the option to include your name, age, location and any other identifying information that you think is important to help people understand who you are. We are collecting new stories in celebration of March as Women’s History Month, but people of all genders are invited to share their stories and read each other’s. Submit by the end of March—do tell!
*Photo by Julie Jira