Sex in Public
Mike Thomsen interviews xoJane editor and columnist Mandy Stadtmiller about sex, relationships, and Craigslist for TNI Vol. 13: <3
Mandy Stadtmiller is a writer and comic who writes strikingly open accounts of her life, encompassing an array of sexual encounters, from a fling with Aaron Sorkin to filming herself masturbating in an office bathroom (for a man she’d known less than 24 hours). She began her career as a traditional reporter working for The Washington Post, Des Moines Register, and The Village Voice, abandoned it to marry her college boyfriend, and then returned to writing with a popular and sometimes controversial dating column for The New York Post, where she worked until moving to website xoJane.com this fall. I spoke with her about love, sex, and dating on a cold January night in a Manhattan dog park, with her newly-adopted pit bull Samsung running free around us.
Mike Thomsen: Do you think there’s a natural antagonism between being fulfilled at work and being fulfilled in a relationship? It comes up a lot in your writing.
Mandy Stadtmiller: I think that’s because I’ve just gone through a tumultuous year and had a lot of upheaval. This is my dream job in a way and I’m devoting so much of myself to it—but I’ve done that for every job I’ve had. I think it’s funny, I’m such an extremist in everything. When I left newspapers it was to marry my college sweetheart and I was just like “Okay, I’m done sacrificing my love life for work.” When that all went to shit I basically didn’t ever want to lose myself in a guy or relationship ever again. Although I did that again when I had a dating column in the Post and stopped the column for the guy because it was stressing him out. So that was definitely a case where I was getting lost in that. Subscribe to TNI magazine for $2 and get TNI Vol. 13: <3 today.
It’s hard because I do such personal writing that a lot of times I’ll have people direct message me on Twitter asking for advice about their love life not realizing that I’m getting hundreds of messages and it’s not physically possible for me to answer all of them. And then you feel like an asshole because you’re not necessarily giving something to every person. I try to, but then that becomes a sacrifice of your own time, and then I wig out and realize that I’m not being alive as a human being with any romantic or sexual potential, and then I just want to hook up, as I proposed to you over Gchat. [laughter] But we had also been introduced to each other as potentially dating last year, and we were going to have a date so it wasn’t that crazy. It’s not like I would do that to any reporter, you know what I mean? Although that would be an awesome strategy. And part of me likes doing the worst possible thing just to see the results.
TNI: The first thing I thought when you chatted me—and it wasn’t even a thought, it was a sub-rational reaction—was that you identify as a sex addict and I was worried I was going to be contributing to some destructive behavior you were engaged in.
MS: I mean, I’m still allowed to have sex.
TNI: Aren’t you supposed to be celibate for the first year of your sex sobriety? I thought that was the theory.
MS: Well fuck that, then I’m not a sex and love addict. I take back my identification, because hell no am I going a year without sex. I haven’t had a drink or drugs in two and a half years, I’ve got to have some kind of sin in my life. It’s not even sin, it’s just fucking. I don’t think you’re right about the 12 month thing. I think a lot of my stuff comes more from attachment wounding and not having had a functional childhood where I got the kind of unconditional love that contributes to healthy relationship patterns.
My interpretation of the SLAA sobriety is that it’s you abiding by your bottom line. For me, my bottom line is not being intimate with someone where it’s destructive or unsafe or bad for me. I have a longtime friend who I’ll hook up with occasionally. Do I think he’s contributing to addiction? No. I have a friend in Overeater’s Anonymous and she doesn’t do flour and sugar because those are her triggers. For me, if I were to actually go on Craigslist and volunteer to be the woman in a three-way with two strangers who would murder me or something, that would not be abiding by my bottom line, triggering really unsafe, abusive patterns. Having sex with a friend who I’m not going to date but we love each other as friends—I don’t see that as destructive to me. So I re-identify as a love and sex addict. But I counter your claim that I am not allowed to have sex for a year.
The thing I always wonder about with addiction is that it tends always to be self-pathologizing, we internalize the dysfunction as exclusively our own, rather than seeing it as a product of the how we relate to our circumstances. When I wrote about my own sex life I started to wonder if all the self-reflection was just creating an illusion of self-discovery and synthesis while leaving the structural conditions invisibly in place. These days even bankruptcy and credit card debt can cloud over your sense of romantic self-worth—knowing you have debt fills every idle thought with dread and anxiety. And it’s internalized as a personal failure—you were irresponsible with money or you weren’t good enough to get a job to pay all your bills. It invalidates your whole place in society because you are losing access to the currency required to have a place in it.
MS: Are you having a nervous breakdown right now?
TNI: I probably should be. What I was trying to say was there’s a pressure to see a lot of these structural dysfunctions as personal or moral failures, which the practice of confessional writing can entrench.
MS: I don’t see any of these things as moral failures. I’m just a super realist. Sometimes when people starting talking about, “Is it society that’s the problem?” I’m just like “Well, whatever works.” I didn’t like myself as much when I was partying a lot and high and drunk and fucking dudes off Craigslist and doing blow until 11 in the morning. It was just spiritually empty. Do I think that societal constructs contributed to that? Of course, absolutely. Is a lot of 12-step stuff annoying and stupid and culty and laughable? Absolutely. But is there enough good in there that it’s worth doing? Yeah, for sure. I remember one of the girls I talked to at maybe the second meeting I went to and I asked “What about the fact that it just seems like this creepy cult?” She was like, “Yeah, I know, I thought that too. I just shared about it and talked about it.” That made me feel better that it’s more about working within the imperfection of the various programs to see if you can make yourself and other people better. I think I’m a better person and have contributed to other people a lot more. I just like my life a lot better now.
For me, by identifying [as a sex and love addict], it’s made me slow down and not laugh things off as a joke or hilarious story. A friend of mine had introduced me to this artist. He was like, “This guy’s hot, you guys would like each other, but he’s a little crazy. He might murder you so be careful.” He kind of said it in jest, and I thought I could handle it.
TNI: He literally meant he would murder you?
MS: I forget what he said. He might have said he would choke me out or something.
TNI: He was introducing you as just someone to sleep with or trying to set you up in a relationship kind of way?
MS: I think I said, “I want to fuck someone.” I think he meant the guy was just a little unstable. He liked the guy as an artist but he didn’t want to be vetting him and giving the okay. I met up with this guy and that was my sexual bottom. He spit on me during sex. I started crying. That’s the kind of thing you’re supposed to ask consent for. He was really emotionally abusive and the whole thing was just awful. For some reason Courtney Love met him because we were at a bar where she was and I ended up texting with her until three in the morning. She was ready to get him blacklisted and fuck him up. And I was like, “No, I wanted to hook up.” And she was like, “Fucking listen to you! You’re asking for it? What the fuck? You can’t do things like that.” So that was kind of the death of casual sex for me. Which was a good thing. I mean I’ve had casual sex since then, but I try to be safer about it.
TNI: Are you more afraid of it now?
MS: I don’t know. I’m not really that scareable. It scares me to think about the fact I’ve put myself in harm’s way. That has sometimes made me cry. I’ll give you an example. When I testified to the Assistant District Attorney because I’d written about this guy who later had been convicted of rape, she had to really walk me through it. I had to tell her things that I hadn’t written about. How I let him ejaculate on my back because he was just so insistent. I just felt really bad about the whole thing. The ADA told me one woman who resisted, he punched her in the face. And I just started crying because every bad sexual experience came flooding over me. Then later that night I went to some New Jersey Real Housewives birthday party at Score’s and this blonde stripper—it was like her first night—and I was interviewing her and I noticed she had all these little cuts on her arm. I said, “What’s that from?” And she said, “I used to be really depressed.” I said, “You cannot tell people that here. Just tell them that it’s from a car accident or something.” I just felt really protective of her. I wrote someone later and described her as like my own psyche. I got a lap dance from her and told her that after.
TNI: You’re so open about everything in your own life but your first instinct with her was to protect her, to tell her to keep a secret.
MS: At Score’s with drunk asshole business guys who are like mocking her. I just think people could use that information in a way—it’s not like I think there’s anything to be ashamed of. I think strip clubs are very drunk, sexualized places. I watched as this older business guy was feeding her money all night. I guess for me, I’m just protective of people sometimes. I feel like I can take things but I don’t want other people to be exploited.
TNI: That’s a good example of where the environment a person’s in very much affects the emotions they’re subject to. In one case it behooves a person to protect themselves from the structural malformities of the environment and in another case—maybe in both of our cases as writers who are open about our sexual experiences—it behooves us to internalize the murk and nastiness of the larger environment we’re in and turn it into a selffocused kind of naval gazing. It’s an asset in one environment and a negative in another.
MS: I don’t think it’s naval gazing. I’ve had multiple people tell me things I’ve written have saved their lives. Human existence is hard and I’ve felt more alive and happier by reading people like Augusten Burroughs and David Sedaris, even Chelsea Handler—some of her essays have made me laugh my ass off. I think if you’re skilled as a writer then I think it’s fine to do personal memoir. I also think it’s fine to take the piss out of people who do personal memoir. I can do all different kinds of writing. I’ve just found the writing I get hundreds and hundreds of responses on will be ones about my inner life or human experience. I think sometimes being able to distill things that other people may not want to look at—and sometimes I can be too hard on myself—but I think if people are being a little unconscious about how they’re living their lives, reading something can open up their eyes a little, like, “Oh, that’s me, I see that pattern in myself.” That’s totally thrilling to me.
TNI: Has your view of what a date is been affected by your experiences with casual sex? It seems that we categorize these different kinds of social relationships in ways that limit what we otherwise might expect out of them. Subscribe to TNI magazine for $2 and get TNI Vol. 13: <3 today.
MS: This is how I look at dating now: I just ask if I’m getting anything out of this? Is the other person getting more out of me than I’m getting out of them? I have a very peoplepleasing way about me and I’m very good at smoothing things over because I grew up in such a crazy, chaotic environment I became very good at doing that, sometimes people will be like, “Oh, I had such a good time with you.” And my arrogant, asshole-ish response will be like, “Yeah, everyone does. Like, do you think we’re having some special, magical chemistry because I’m fucking fun?” That can deplete me, feeling like I’m entertaining. I want to feel like I’m getting something out of it too, like I’m being stimulated intellectually. That’s my main thing, but physical stimulation is great too.
TNI: We always expect those to exist in separate categories of social interaction, and it’s an anomaly when we get both kinds of stimulation in the same encounter.
MS: I just realistically don’t want to be Gchatting anymore reporters saying, “Do you want to make out?” I want to have a plan of action. I think a lot of people are pretty fucking terrified of me, quite honestly.
TNI: You mentioned that in your Gchat, that your direct, commanding nature intimidates a lot of men.
MS: I think I have certain masculine qualities about me. I had a comedy talent manager tell me that one time, that he was attracted to my masculine energy. I call a lot of things out. I like brutality and awkwardness, going for the jugular. For me, part of that is the comedic equation. That’s one of my favorite things in the world to do, banter with someone, which is aggressive and brutal and cruel a lot of times, or just saying what you’re not supposed to.
TNI: Yeah, all these hyperbolic cruel lines can be a way of getting closer to someone, playing with this shared language.
MS: I’ll give you an example. This one comic, when I was debating not drinking anymore and just ordering a water, said, “You’re a pretty big girl.” I was like, “Hey, don’t ever fucking say that to a tall woman.” And he just started going off on this whole riff about how I was freakishly tall, and I said that’s why I try and be skinny and pretty to have the model thing going for me. And he said, “But you’re not—skinny, or pretty.” The way he delivered it, I laughed my ass off. That was the worst possible thing you could say. Like he was taking the asshole status to say a line like that. Sometimes I’ll do the same thing—that’s how we joke at xoJane.
TNI: Do you think finally the values of dating are unnatural when you have these periodic impulses to just fuck? I think most people would identify with some subconscious, animal curiosity about other people’s sex.
MS: I think it’s possible to fuck someone and then decide you’re going to date. I know some people who hooked up on Craigslist Casual Encounters and then decided to have a relationship. I don’t think it’s contrary.
TNI: Shouldn’t that be the primary way of looking at sex? Not that we’re having too much with too many partners, but that we’re not having enough, and attach to much preciousness to it when we do?
MS: I think a lot of society is super fake and everyone is playing their games and I just enjoy stripping things down a little bit and seeing what can happen. The argument could be made that I’ll end up not ever really finding the right person because I don’t game them the way some of my sister-peers might. For me, I don’t have any restrictions.