Striking A Nerve
When it first launched in 1997 as one of the first digital-only publications, Nerve raised eyebrows. It’s mission was simple and its moment was singular: create a smart sex magazine that both men and women can enjoy. It was provocative when provocation was still possible, when writing wasn’t yet content, when a site filled with literate smut still shocked people. The stories that make up Nerve’s legendary early years are filled with outrageous anecdotes that make the current media landscape feel a bit parched: wild parties leering on origies, editors streaking in Manhattan as a publicity stunt, even a short-lived late night HBO series. Apart from it’s antics, the site published heavyweight writers on brazen topics, everything from Erica Jong on Bill Clinton’s penis to Mary Gaitskill on the Shangri-Las. JT Leroy chose Nerve to manifest her literary hoax. The site boasted interviews with Camille Paglia and Norman Mailer, fiction by Jonathan Lethem and photos spreads by Helmut Newton. Cultural luminaries Emily Nussbaum and Lena Dunham were early contributors. Nerve has published 12 books to date and at one time headed a print magazine and a dating site.
Nerve’s success brewed in a perfect storm of permission and promise: the dot com bubble hadn’t burst, Facebook hadn’t co-opted our online identities, Tinder hadn’t made us hookup junkys. The Internet is no longer a place to search for candor. Now it’s a deluge of snark and outrage. We want to sustain early Nerve’s sincerity and salaciousness today. Looking ahead we’re broadening the purview of what Nerve talks about. We want to write not just about the erotic but also write erotically about the world. Our editorial site, nearing its second decade, will remain active and we are developing video series and monthly special issues devoted to longform explorations on various themes.
We hope this first special issue will serve as a reunion of sorts for the former Nerve vanguard, and help connect our readers, both present and future.
In her 2003 editor’s letter for Nerve’s Fiction Issue, Mary Gaitskill laments the dilemma of modern sex writing. “Many modern stories with sexual content are clever, intelligent, provocative, sad and funny. But [...] it seems we have lost something—the force of that animal which can come out of ‘nowhere,’ tear your precious personality to pieces, then melt back into the dark to quietly lick its paws.” Over a decade later, on the eve of our 18th birthday, a new iteration of Nerve wants to achieve something similar. Nerve will publish writing that’s both rigorous and brash, smutty and smart, that licks it paws. Mostly we want to publish work that’s honest—writing that surpasses the busy fluff, that strikes a nerve.
Cover illustration by Sara Cwynar.
Sex writing is passé. It’s not shocking because it’s no longer taboo and it’s not rare because it’s no longer stigmatized. You can find it in whatever style you want—academic, confessional, raunchy, literary, spiritual—and you can find it describing any act you want. The notion that our culture is sexually repressive is routed by our culture, which, as panicky social conservatives are quick to point out, wallows in sex. Our media indicates that we, like adolescents, are sexually obsessed. And like adolescents, we’re poorly equipped to negotiate our sexual obsession. We are hampered by the shame and fear intentionally cultivated by a strict monogamy-favoring, heteronormative, gender essentialist system that recognizes the true desires of very few. Consequently, writing that concerns sex is often earnest but incomplete, anxious, unsatisfying, and self-censored.
Intellectual and emotional sexual inquiries remain urgently relevant because, in the words of Lauren Berlant in Desire/Love, “modern ideologies and institutions have installed sexuality as the truth of what a person is.” In our current context, we are what we (allow ourselves to) desire, as well as how we go about getting it, or don’t. Sexuality has been appointed “a structure of self-encounter and encounter with the world.” While one personally may not believe anything important about themselves is revealed by their sexual tastes and habits, society disagrees. And few adults or teens are unaware of where their predilections fall on the scale of normal to deviant.
So of course there exists a steady stream of materials to process and interpret sexual life. We are incentivized to create and consume such content; we’re on a mission to discover ourselves through the intimate actions of our bodies. “Our culture persists in believing that sex holds the magic key to a person’s identity,” writes Chris Kraus, and because our culture insists, the mission is one we cannot refuse to accept. This makes the constriction of allowable sexualities and desires all the crueler: you must define your entire self inside this arena and you are allowed only a scant offering of tools with which to do it.
Many of us don’t get what we want out of sex, and we don’t get what we want out of sex writing. I say that as both a reader and a writer, someone who keeps reaching for the same coal with a hand already burned black, and someone who presumes that though you and I sometimes want mere distraction through what we read (and through our sex,) we usually hope for something much more enduring and profound. After all, diversion alone will not help us satisfy the imperative to uncover our sex-derived truth. If sex is merely “a tiny vacation from the self,” as Kraus claims, the likelihood of self-understanding inside our current culture is very slim.
But one can only be self-absent during sex through concerted effort toward mental departure, or through transcendent physical sensation. Even the most promiscuous among us can confirm that moments of self-obliterating pleasure constitute a relatively small fraction of time spent having sex. It is too steep a plane to dwell on for long and most bodies are not built for it, no matter how many magazine articles insist that most women could be multi-orgasmic if they’d bother to practice coming in the right way. As with any physical act, sex can be performed mindlessly and robotically, but it’s not accurate to call such a trance state “a vacation.” Similarly, it’s entirely possible to be bored during sex, apathetic to the point of non-participation, but that’s no holiday even if it affords minimal exertion or reaction. An impromptu fuck with a stranger met in a bar or selected through a phone app may be an exciting escape from ideas about who one is, or by what rules one is bound, but selfhood is firmly intact for such encounters. The circumstantial thrill and exhilaration (and/or shame and self-loathing) would not be possible without it.
Thanks to the flood of social messaging, it’s rare to have sex without a subconscious notation of what that sex means. For example, sex with a spouse is good; sex with someone else, when you’re married, is not. Sex with a paid provider is wrong, unprotected sex is wrong, sex without love is wrong. (There are a lot more wrongs than rights.) We can reject the most popular public interpretations of our sexual lives—by, say, deciding sex with multiple partners is fulfilling and not a black mark on our characters—but it’s difficult to have no response at all. Norms are maintained as such in part because they’re so internalized; we sieve our intimate encounters through the social stories around sex even when we know those stories are corrupted in service of hierarchies we don’t subscribe to.
And so sex is far more likely to drive us into ourselves rather than out—at least, that’s largely the truth for straight women, and it’s straight (or mostly straight) women who’ve been tasked with managing the disaster that is heteronormative sex. They are jugglers given only bowling balls: expectations to be sexually giving yet not slutty; religious strictures on partners and circumstantial restrictions on birth control; feminist exhortations to fuck politically and demand pleasure; the publicly acknowledged failure of penis-in-vagina intercourse to produce regular climax and the tenacious, maddening sense that it should. Queer women’s work is equally impossible, undertaken from inside a society disinvested in their success and unwilling to admit their sexual drive at all.
Women of all orientations can’t afford to be nonchalant about sex. We cannot take it for granted as a source of delight or pride or forgettable entertainment. For while men are taught that sex is a fun, relatively frivolous activity that proves their masculinity via instinctual biological mechanics—a flawed narrative but at least one with a clear directive—women are told that sex will probably be the site of their ruination, in reputation or body or spirit, or all three. We have to calculate how to have sex in a way that will preserve our selfhood, our un-pregnancy, our virtue. Maybe then, if we are successful, we can attempt the effort of obtaining pleasure. (We are also told that our genitals are complicated and intractable, our orgasms elusive and time-consuming.) Naturally, we work harder to build an architecture of sexual satisfaction, acting as self-taught sex whisperers trying to mitigate the damage done by a persistently hostile environment.
It’s primarily women—and sometimes gay men—who compose first person essays on sexual mistakes and lessons learned, the process of trial and error, the requisite self-doubt and confusion. What do I want? Why do I want it? Who do I want it with? Increasingly, it’s straight women (usually white, usually cerebral and highly educated, with the privilege and respectability padding that allows for outing oneself as a slut) who write book-length accounts of their ardor, their insatiability, their wantonness. This is immediately suspect in a way the more fretful essays are not. In the words of Claire Dederer: “Female desire and arousal have for so long been represented as a form of incitement to men that it’s hard for a woman to describe lust—even to say something as simple as ‘I like sex’—without sounding, perhaps feeling, as though she’s fulfilling a male fantasy.”
There are so many forces at work in women’s accounts of what it’s like to have sex that to write it or even read it is a little like trying to fuck through five layers of clothing. “Women’s sexual experience is diverse and often contradictory,” writes Ellen Willis. “Women’s sexual feelings have been stifled and distorted not only by men and men’s ideas but by our own desperate strategies for living in and with a sexist, sexually repressive culture.” The questions of writer and audience often converge around the same uncertainties: does this seem like it’s pandering to men? Or bragging? Is bragging intentional? Is this feminist and do I care? How can I tell a story that’s titillating when titillation isn’t the point? How does a woman maintain authority if the truth of her arousal dovetails with the most familiar male fantasies?
Meanwhile, most male writers are not yet in the habit of dwelling on the deeper aspects of sex. It’s easy enough to find explicit scenes in well-respected male-penned fiction, and misogynist navel-gazing and cruelly superficial judgments are in abundance when most straight men write essays about their attractions and the sexual state of things from where they sit. But it rarely qualifies as worthwhile analysis. Perhaps without the benefit of a male-led consciousness raising to parallel that of second wave feminism’s, straight men are bereft of a pattern with which to interrogate their sex more intelligently.
So what then do we want out of sex writing? Something close to what we want out of our sex: connection, transformation, liberation. We want to feel valuable and recognized. We want to be freed of all the aforementioned burdens crippling what we’re told should be beautiful yet so often is not, what we intuit could be beautiful in spite of the ugliness it drowns beneath. We yearn for the relief of clarity, whether that clarity comes from uniquely piercing physical pleasure or the moment of absolute certainty in “yes.”
And we’re almost always on the lookout for something hot, no matter how much we may also be looking for something instructive or emotionally revelatory. Whenever I tweeted an apology for the extended blowjob rhapsody (or some similarly graphic passage) my upcoming letter would contain, I received an influx of new sign ups. Sex will never stop selling. It will always be a reliable way to “get clicks,” no matter how glutted the media market is with sex-related advice columns and pop psychology and coverage of the latest female Viagra equivalent. But those sign ups didn’t change my impression of what readers hoped to find in my letter: an insight beyond the physical, a perception begat by but more permanent than sexual pain or pleasure. As it goes for many social desires, I wanted the person on the other end to want what I wanted. And I wanted them to want what I wanted to give them.
“The emphasis on sex that currently permeates our public life [...] attests not to our sexual freedom but to our continuing sexual frustration,” wrote Ellen Willis more than two decades ago. We’re still horses galloping the perimeter of a fenced in field, digging our hooves into deep grooves worn into the ground from so many laps around the same track. We have the energy for inquiry, effort, investigation, but no space for it. Our brains are full of the superficial, the quantitative, the clinical, the biased, the violent, the forbidden, the condemned. Even profoundly intelligent minds have difficulty navigating this cramped maze. We’re hemmed in by history and social climate, and our thoughts and behavior patterns are unavoidably the outcome of both. We want to escape but how? In laboratory experiments, there is no door at the end of a maze. It is only ever a purposefully confounding box.
So this is the challenge: to treat sexuality as the arena for self-realization, one of the truest forms of self-expression and self-actualization (if not self-creation,) yet be severely hobbled from the start. Under such circumstances, fatigue is inevitable. I write sex with all the enthusiasm of Sisyphis putting his shoulder to the rock but I write about sex a lot. It feels like a journey that must be made yet is impossible to undertake with joy. I am determined to say something. I am exhausted by having to try to say it.
It’s this, or reject the enterprise altogether. Disclaim the potential for sex to be self-revelatory, deny that its intimacy is unique or instructive. Certainly this is a radical repudiation of our current milieu, and alluring because of how completely it refuses to participate in the ugly institutions constricting sex. It’s conceivable that under different social conditions, sex would have no bearing on how we treat or see each other, or ourselves. Perhaps it could be regarded as blandly particular as how one sleeps (on the stomach, with many pillows, in pajamas or nude, etc. etc.) so that discrepancies in style are simply personal quirks, not commentary. But pretending to live in that world now cedes sex entirely to the powers—religion, the state—that have made it so cruelly perilous, so corrosive to self-inquiry even as it’s held up as the only path. The more subversive option is not to resign all attempts to parse what sex might tell us about ourselves but to reposition it in a field of other opportunities for self-discovery: how we love and treat our friends, operate within a constellation of extended family and community, utilize creative powers maximally in arenas unconcerned with profit. Better to think of the sex problem as one relating to scale, perspective, and priority rather than one of entirely unearned valuation.
I’m often disappointed with my own writing about sex, and I’m disappointed with many other women’s as well because I’m disappointed by reality. We’re all reacting, and I hate what we have to react to even as I recognize the necessity of addressing it. If I want to articulate what my body responds to and what it doesn’t, I have to articulate the processes of my mind that censor or encourage my body’s response. And my mind is trapped in the maze.
But I comfort myself with the fact that there is no purely personal sex. We are human and humans have always been social animals. It’s time to forfeit the suspicion (or hope) of discovering an ur-sexuality that exists outside the influence of others and that can act as a path to dependable ecstasy. Even the notion of ecstasy as dependable is antithetical. Intensity comes with chaos. “To get at what feels true, which is that endless internal oscillation that happens during sex needn’t sabotage our sexual experience, much less our autonomy,” says Claire Dederer. “If questioning can’t be part of expressing female desire, that is a diminishment.”
I write from the conviction that the closest I’ll ever get to unimpeded sexuality, aka an unimpeded self, is to keep examining the mess. I resent that it’s a mess, but I’m not willing to relinquish a glimpse at the truth underneath. So I will keep writing about it, keep reading about it. Like all journeys, you notice your fatigue less if you have good company along the way. So let’s go deeper together. No—even deeper. Deeper. Yes. Go.
Illustrations by Sam Dakota.
Coming Of Age
A Nervous Archive
Nerve’s first office was in a living room. The then two employees would show up to Rufus Griscom’s and Genevieve Fields’ apartment, where they would write letters to their most treasured writers—Jogn Updike, Toni Morrison, Umberto Eco—asking them to contribute to their new site of literate smut. That was in 1997. A lot happened at Nerve in the 18 years since—a personals dating site, office parties that resembled origies, a few marriage, one divorce, the dotcom implosion, and surviving the dotcom implosion. We culled the best anecdotes and artifacts from the publication’s storied biography to offer you the first segment of our continuos work in progress.