You may look at my byline and know me as the Jessica Wakeman who wrote all over the internet about how much she loves being spanked. Or about my challenges as a twentysomething feminist trying to find a noncreepy dude who shared my fetishes.
That’s because for nearly six years, I wrote online in extreme detail about the most intimate aspects of my life. And now I’m trying to figure out how to be a journalist who explores topics on sex and feminism, but who also wants to maintain some semblance of privacy — when so much information about my sexual experiences is already out there.
Writing for The Frisky, one of the earliest female-focused blogs, was a dream job. At that time, feminist blogs — of which The Frisky was one, albeit on the fluffier side — talked back to print magazines geared toward women, which were slower to embrace change. I could write about anything that interested me, whether it was about books, reproductive rights, or the best mascara. And although this wasn’t what I had intended to do with my journalism degree from NYU, I frequently wrote personal essays.
Many of the essays explored the usual topics about dating you might find in media geared toward twentysomething women. But I did something different: I wrote candidly about my sexual desires for BDSM and kink.
I hadn’t seen these topics represented in many places that resonated with me (and believe me, I looked). There was the film Secretary, a 1996 essay in the New Yorker by Daphne Merkin, and the work of erotica writer Rachel Kramer Bussel. Beyond that, the way BDSM was presented in pop culture as well as online was intimidating and, to be honest, sort of icky.
So I decided to be the kinky, basic white girl from Connecticut who wears Uggs and drinks Starbucks who I wished to see in the world. I wrote about fetishes and paraphilias, attending sex parties (and a spanking party), being sexually violated and needing Plan B — and even “facials.” I shared my good experiences as well as scary ones. Everything we now call “oversharing,” I wrote about on the internet under my own name.
Sharing my sex life so candidly was hard for a lot of people to understand, even among people who thought my openness was brave. The most frequent question about it was: “Does your family read the stuff you write?” (The answer is that I’ve asked them not to, and on the few occasions that my mom indicated — usually with concern — she had read something she wanted to discuss, I shut the conversation down.) However, I eventually came to understand that what people actually meant when they asked that question was: “Aren’t you embarrassed?”
And the subtext of that question was: “You should be embarrassed.”
I’ve felt shame over many things, but not my sexual behavior and not my sex writing. Some of this is a matter of principle: Sex content is so often dismissed as silly, tawdry, or, worse, clickbait. Quality can vary widely by the outlet, of course, and The Frisky was, at heart, an entertainment website. But I believe that we brought relatability and approachability at a time when Cosmopolitan was still suggesting eating doughnuts off your boyfriend’s dick.
The real reason, however, is that I know about shame. And I know a lot about overcoming shame.
See, I grew up in a family that has struggled with substance abuse and mental illness. That alone would be difficult for any child. But many painful experiences in my life and my family’s life behind closed doors became public knowledge — thanks to the police blotter in the local newspaper and good old-fashioned gossip. The fine differences between “secrets,” “privacy,” and “intimacy” were exceptionally muddled for me for a long time.
In middle school, a frenemy repeated unkind comments that her parents had said about my family. When I was 16 and my older brother went to prison, his former teachers at our high school sought me out to talk about it. Neighbors, family friends, and extended family would often ask me how I was doing. I know they meant well by checking up on me, but I found the mere acknowledgment of the existing problems deeply humiliating, because I saw them as reflection of me. I marinated in shame over what a former therapist once callously called “the worst-kept secret in Connecticut” and experienced deep bouts of depression and debilitating panic attacks throughout my late-teens and early twenties. I felt that my life happened to me. That I held no control.
The shame surrounding my family’s open secrets felt impossibly prickly and hot and absolutely was the reason I flung open the doors on my privacy. By the time I began working at The Frisky at age 25, the mere whiff of concealment — however justified — felt deeply uncomfortable. I did not want to be someone who kept secrets.
This why I often view concerns about the largely female-driven “personal essay economy” and mining one’s personal life for #content as well-intentioned but off-base. Rather than bringing about humiliation for admitting I sexualized punishment, writing so confessionally about something I knew others expected me to keep in the dark felt enormously freeing. We conceptualize vulnerability as making the subject defenseless, more susceptible to pain. To me, my vulnerability felt like strength, of owning who I was and not being ashamed about any of it. Finally, it was something I could control.
My editor’s philosophy was that readers would connect with authenticity — and she was right. To this day, I still have notes, primarily from young women, saved in a folder titled “Nice Emails.” They appreciated that I was not only normalizing their sexual desires but also showing that a feminist could enjoy submissive sex. I heard from men, too, who were grateful that I was acknowledging that dominant behavior in the bedroom could be welcomed (with discussion and consent, of course). Other men connected with my authenticity on a different and more gross level. (I have a different folder for those emails.) Many writers want to know that their work resonates with people, validates their experiences, and helps them feel less alone. I know my writing accomplished all of that.
My life, and my work, changed when I met the man who would later become my husband. While I had once worried that I may never find a life partner who would be comfortable with my level of self-confession, I found the perfect partner for me: a stand-up comedian. He has told jokes onstage about our sex life, and we wrote an article about teledildonics last summer for Glamour. But he is more guarded as a person, and so, by necessity, I dialed down on writing personal essays. Almost a year after we married, I left The Frisky. I felt ready for something new.
I’m 34 now; I’ve been happily married for almost five years and did a lot of work with a great therapist who painstakingly walked me through what is my responsibility regarding my upbringing and what is not. I’ve also held a bunch of “normal” jobs in journalism (although none that I’ve enjoyed as much as The Frisky) that don’t involve strange men emailing me pictures of their penises.
Sometimes it feels like an entirely different person wrote those essays. She is someone I feel a lot of compassion toward. She was working through a lot of messy shit. And I’m reckoning with the fact that there’s a lot of very personal details about my sex life online from a specific time of my life that was pretty different from the one I have today.
I’m grateful for what my writing did for readers and, of course, what it did for me. All the heavy, confusing emotions I felt (and still feel) could have sent me careening in an entirely different direction. But during my years as a sex writer, I didn’t put much thought into how I might feel in the future. I didn’t conceive of a time when my life wouldn’t be as freewheeling as it once was, or that I would learn to enjoy the stability and privacy my husband’s presence ushered in. And I can’t deny that my relationship with my husband feels more precious to me because it is only between us. (It makes me wonder whether one particular relationship tanked, in part, because of how candidly I wrote about it.)
For all these reasons, I don’t think I would share as much about my sex life online today. I don’t judge other people who do, and, in fact, I find them especially brave because I know exactly what awaits them professionally and personally. I look back fondly on those years, and I miss that time when I felt so fearless. But I am moving on from my former online self — where I control what happens to me, and it’s not the aberration but the rule.