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Puberty, Slut-Shaming and Cuddle Parties in Melissa Febos’s ‘Girlhood’

GIRLHOOD
Essays
By Melissa Febos

Nearly a decade ago Melissa Febos reflected on her decision to publish her debut memoir, “Whip Smart,” under her own name and not a pseudonym: “It didn’t stop people from thinking of me as a former sex worker who also happened to write a book about it, instead of a writer who happened to tell the story of her own experience in sex work.” Nobody disrespects Febos anymore. Her 2017 autobiographical collection, “Abandon Me,” about a toxic love affair, her birth father and the sea captain who raised her, was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and on many “best books of the year” lists. The former professional dominatrix now teaches nonfiction at Iowa.

Febos’s ambitious new collection, “Girlhood,” comprises eight essays about growing up in a female body that reached sexual development at the age of 11. “It was a race that I had won without trying,” she writes, “and to win it was the greatest loss of all.” The book is a feminist testament to survival: years of dehumanizing sex with boys and men, harassment by women, being stalked, drug addiction and what she describes as “a growing certainty about the ways in which I have collaborated in the mistreatment of my own body.” The story she tells is not just her own: Febos interviewed many other women about their sex lives and incorporated these testimonies into a far-reaching narrative.

Febos revisits her own girlhood in the style of a collage, interweaving her memories with snippets from her omnivorous reading. She includes six pages of source notes, and draws from Lacan, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Samuel Johnson. Lily Bart’s “ruin” in Edith Wharton’s novel “The House of Mirth” reminds Febos of how her classmates hated her for having what they wanted — a woman’s body. As a believer in animal rights, she identifies with a caged orangutan named Jenny; and she’s obsessed with cruel psychological experiments on nonhumans, such as Harry Harlow’s rhesus monkeys, deprived of touch for a year.

Yet Febos isn’t relentlessly grim. In “The Mirror Test,” she riffs ingeniously on the expression “loose as a goose,” which other kids used to slut-shame her. The geese in their town left droppings everywhere, she recalls. “Sometimes they flew in a V formation, their muscular wings beating in unison, their bodies’ improbable masses gliding over us in an arrow, honking as they sliced into the sky.” Then, after she masturbates, these literal geese are transformed into a portrait of the writer as a young woman: “I felt loose as a goose alone in my bedroom, my magnificent wings beating the air, flapping the pages of all my books.”

“Thank You for Taking Care of Yourself,” the longest and messiest — Febos might say sluttiest — piece in this collection, is partly set between two cuddle parties, where neither nudity nor touching anyone’s “bikini area” is permitted. (Febos informs us that these gatherings were invented in 2004, and that Cuddle Party was incorporated in 2016.) The essay’s title comes from what rejected people are supposed to say when another person refuses their touch. The cuddle party scenes read like a short story, with memorable characters, especially Febos’s supportive and beloved girlfriend, Donika — “the kind of person who fast-forwards to the end of the porn video after her orgasm to make sure that everybody comes.” At the first party, Febos role-plays saying no, then passively grants permission to those who want to touch her, an experience she finds mortifying and enraging. Then the narrative moves into manifesto territory: Febos recounts interviews she conducted with former strippers, all of whom had “consented on the job to touching that they didn’t want or enjoy.” Their recollections lead Febos to believe that her own experiences are, unfortunately, normal. At Donika’s suggestion, Febos goes to another cuddle party as a “mistress of no” — intending to practice denying anyone who wants something she doesn’t feel like giving — with great success. At the end of this piece, Febos credits her empowerment to “listening to the truths of other women.”

The final essay, “Les Calanques,” puts a spin on the usual “double perspective” in memoir. Melissa today is sober, and a published writer at an art colony in the south of France, where she hasn’t been in 20 years, nearly half her life ago. The earlier Melissa had fled to France from New York to escape a boyfriend who, like her, was addicted to heroin. She found a new companion in a gay Algerian immigrant who had been subjected to much of the same abuse and shaming Melissa had. They created an idyllic, dope-sharing friendship that transcended gender, sexuality, the demands of patriarchy. Now, in Cassis, Febos spends her mornings doing physical therapy for a back injury she’s suffered after many years of running. The two Melissas, however, aren’t at odds with each other, but dear friends, whose “bodies curl in identical parentheses.” The compassion Febos has discovered for her younger self is inspiring.

I could have done without some of the other voices in this book — Lacan’s, Wharton’s, even those of some of her interview subjects — if only because Febos’s own voice is so irreverent and original. The aim of this book, though, is not simply to tell about her own life, but to listen to the pulses of many others’. In her author’s note, Febos writes that she has “found company in the stories of other women, and the revelation of all our ordinariness has itself been curative.” This solidarity puts “Girlhood” in a feminist canon that includes Febos’s idol, Adrienne Rich, and Maggie Nelson’s theory-minded masterpieces: smart, radical company, and not ordinary at all.

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