Erica Garza’s memoir, Getting Off, about her struggle with porn and sex addiction concludes with her looking back on a photograph on her as a young child wearing a bright orange T-shirt with ‘BOYS’ emblazoned upon it in thick black letters. “Look at me, BOYS,” Garza writes, summoning the voice of her child-self, “I’m a girl and I am sexual. I’m a girl and I have desires. I’m a girl and I am proud. Look at me looking at you.”
Though this might seem to gesture towards Garza’s self-confidence, this could not be further from the truth of how she actually feels throughout her adolescence and even into adulthood. The interplay of “I’m” and “I am” carefully illustrates Garza’s discomfort with herself, her uncertainty about her identity as ‘a girl’ being reflected through the linguistic contraction each time. Though she has always embraced her sexuality and desires, her relationship with her gender has been more problematic. Garza always sees herself as a ‘girl’ not a ‘woman’ until she has learned to overcome her addictions, memorialising herself as ‘the girl’ who is ‘waiting for someone to show her some interest so she can put the loneliness away for a few hours.’ In Getting Off, Garza’s loneliness has a personality and personhood of its own. It takes the form of many different things through the memoir, but most frequently, that of Garza’s own self-destructive and transgressive sexual addiction and desire. She fills herself with a penis only to feel empty again following the encounter. Even the concluding lines of her memoir indicate this: “look at me looking at you,” portends to this estrangement and the distance which has been created between herself and the “boys.”
The protagonist of Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, Astrid, ends up in foster-care after her mother is imprisoned for the murder of a formerlover, and also casts herself into metaphor: “I’m a fish swimming by Ray, catch me if you can.” The fluidity of this image and Astrid’s quickness at selecting it indicates that her sense of her own sensuality is as malleable and ever-changing. “My loneliness tasted like pennies,” Astrid complains after writing a letter to her mother who encourages her to nurture her feelings of isolation. “Loneliness is the human condition,” Ingrid declares. “Cultivate it. The way it tunnels into you allows your soul room to grow. Never expect to outgrow loneliness. Never hope to find people who will understand you, someone to fill that space.” This image of emptiness is a familiar motif of female writing where there is always a sense that they are waiting for something to come along and complete them.
In Anne Sexton’s poem ‘The Touch,’ the narrator describes her hunger for human contact and her ecstasy when she makes contact in the final stanza. “And all this is metaphor,” Sexton explains, “An ordinary hand – just lonely / for something to touch / that touches back. / The dog won’t do it.” The reference to her pet makes these lines almost bathetic whilst simultaneously exposing the very real effects of loneliness which can pervade through a persona completely. This disjoint between the real and the imagined is carried through by Garza who opens chapter five, ‘The Mean Girl,’ with the proclamation ‘We’re not making love […] We’re fucking.’ Anaïs Nin comments in her 1930 diaries that “Man can never know the loneliness a woman knows. Man lies in the woman’s womb only to gather strength, he nourishes himself from this fusion,’ whereas when women engage with their sensuality, they turn always to metaphor and speak in oxymoronic expressions. “I burn the way money burns,” Anne Sexton writes in her poem ‘The Breast’.
Sex and death are fundamental to the human experience and therefore the literary one. What is then most powerful and unusual about Sexton’s poetry is the fact she does not shy away from these taboo themes. She speaks openly of the female anatomy and sexual desire to the extent that her work might almost be deemed pornographic, her poems deliberately descend into allegory and metaphor in order to avoid such an indictment. The title: ‘The Ballard of the Lonely Masturbator’ already seems ironic, as if Sexton intends to exploit our own discomfort about such private acts. The ‘masturbator’ is by their very nature ‘lonely’ as if they were not ‘alone’ they would presumably be engaged in a sexual act of a slightly different nature. Similarly, Uterus is full of people, which bizarrely contradicts the sanctity of this physical ‘realm’ from which life comes forth, as the opening lines show: “Everyone in me is a bird./I am beating all my wings.” With this intense focus on the female anatomy, implied by the poem’s title, there comes a strange dislocation of the woman herself from her body as she morphs into some sort of visceral case to house birds, deriving her strength from these birds’ energy.
This can become a metaphor for looking at writing by women as the language they use is inherently a masculine one, according to Helen Cixious in The Laugh of the Medusa, a “[w]oman must write herself…must put herself into the text.” Yet what we see here is that there is no space left for the female voice to enter the poem, or her own body, as both have been overrun by “[e]veryone” else.