The title of Cris Mazza’s new memoir, Something Wrong with Her, refers, in part, to the condition of anaorgasma, the inability to achieve orgasm. But that’s only part of the picture.
In fact, there is a very short list of sexual experimentation that Mazza has ever actually enjoyed, and she knows what you’re thinking: in one of the book’s many subtitles, the term “sexual dysfunction” is crossed out, and “frigidity” is scrawled in. This was, after all, the age of sexual liberation, where women were supposed to be more in touch with their sexual selves than ever before. If a woman wasn’t getting it and loving it, there must be something wrong.
But here’s what I’m thinking. I’m a young woman, not the prettiest, not conventionally feminine; as a teen I was more concerned with books than boys (although that was partly because I actually liked girls.) Sex was not high on my to-do list, and the same was true for a lot of my closest female friends.
But, by and large, we all got over the self-consciousness and fear that sex caused use. We have sex now. We like sex now. What makes Cris Mazza so different from us? If you would have asked her five years ago, she might not have known either. But in what is one of the most dogged pursuits of the truth this side of Watergate, she dug through old journals and letters and emails in search of answers.
Yet Something Wrong With Her is not exactly a memoir of anorgasmia. Aborted sex is written in snippets and not scenes. Even less time is devoted to the treatment of Mazza’s thorny sexual conditions.
It’s a memoir of thwarted emotion: those of Mazza’s young adulthood, when she puts her faith in the wrong people , and those of her high school boyfriend Mark, who once told her she didn’t put out enough, and once stuck his hand down her pants, and regretted both actions ever since. Mark loves Cris—she doesn’t realize she loves him. They talk music, they break apart, and they reconnect, 30 years later, just as Mazza begins her great investigation.
Mazza’s relentless analysis drives Something Wrong With Her like a spiky bass line in a song. She combs those journals, those emails, those short stories, those 17 books of fiction that she’s published rife with fully imagined sex scenes. Mark’s comforting frankness and naked emotionality (even as the less writerly half of the duo, he still knows how to sketch a moment) plays counterpoint to the questions, the judgments cast.
It’s not the answer that everyone—Cris, Mark, and reader—arrive at that makes Something Wrong With Her so sharp: it’s the real-time process. To that end, Cris Mazza and I spoke over email about the book’s genesis, assemblage, and implications, as well as treatment for her condition.
Liz Baudler: A lot of young women lived through the sexually repressive conventions of your time, and many will encounter similar conditions today. Why do you think it affected you as strongly as it did?
Cris Mazza: I came of age after the sexual revolution. And it was before AIDS, so sexual freedom was uncomplicated. Culture-altering milestones came via books, and “trended” much longer than a day or two. Hite’s Sexual Honesty, By Women, For Women, and The Hite Report on Female Sexuality; Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden: Women’s Sexual Fantasies; Jong’s Fear of Flying; Betty Dodson’s Liberating Masturbation, not to mention Our Bodies, Ourselves.
Sexual experimentation may not have been publicized via Twitter and Youtube but it certainly existed and was expected. Look how my supervising teacher took me to an XXX video store. Young women were in therapeutic groups sitting in circles with mirrors examining each other’s vaginas.
Sure, Farrah Fawcett was a sex symbol in a red one-piece suit and now a young woman has to simulate sex on stage wearing a g-string to be a sex symbol—everything amps up. But the culture of “my time” was far from sexually repressive, and that was my whole puzzle when writing this book: why I was seemingly so different from my peers and the culture (in Southern California) in which I’d come of age.
I don’t have one of the standard answers, except that my first boyfriend (before Mark) barely talked to me, seldom laughed, we never went anywhere together, and all he ever did was try to immobilize me so he could get his hands into my clothes.
Before him, there was some standard stuff, when I was taught by my peer community (and I suppose the adults played their parts) that I was not attractive, not desirable, so I chose to androgynize myself. (The fact that androgyny was one of the staple fashions of the time did not protect me from being noticed by the jerk who was my first “boyfriend.”)
Being taught that “pretty” or “sexy” is power, and also learning that not having those gifts means lack-of-agency, starts very early for girls. Girls who learn they have the power also learn, easily, how to use it. I suppose that’s part of the mix for me. But why sex terrified me like it did? Why one horrible boy’s bad intimacy habits could start a snowball that allowed me to wreck my whole sex life? I have no definitive answers, only the story, and my relentless cogitating and re-evaluation.
LB: If you had had more information about sexual and emotional health, do you think that would have been helpful to you?
CM: Possibly. The information was out there for me, though. There was a big movement to get women more connected to their sexuality. Our Bodies Ourselves was huge. I could have walked into a bookstore and bought it, but I didn’t. Instead I got Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). Probably because it had the word “afraid” in the title.
It was organized on questions, written by a man, and did not contain any of my questions. The same man wrote a book called Any Woman Can! I’m glad I didn’t know that or I might have gotten it.
Am I denigrating male sex therapists? Well, they intellectually know what’s biologically supposed to happen. But, really, can a woman know the emotional ramifications of erectile dysfunction for a man, and counsel him on that basis? Women needed what Our Bodies Ourselves proposed to do, and I, in some kind of patriarchal ignorance, went the wrong direction for information.
LB: I am very curious about some of the therapies you used in treating vaginismus. I wrote an article about it for Ms. Fit last year, including definition and diagnosis, but I wasn’t able to talk to someone who had extensive experience with treatment. Would you care to briefly illustrate some of the therapeutic options you tried? And perhaps running over your exact diagnosis would be helpful.
CM: I discovered physical treatments for vaginismus fit into two basic camps (not counting the emotional therapies one might engage in with a sex-therapist). Of the two physical treatments, one—dilators—is commonly recommended on the internet, and the other—pelvic floor therapy—seems to be what doctors use.
Some of the internet sites do quote doctors, but I don’t know if those are paid-for endorsements; nor am I saying that the dilator treatments offered by these sites don’t work. But even though using dilators to stretch the vagina might seem to more directly treat the problem, pelvic floor therapy actually attends to more of the cause—the muscle spasms themselves.
So when I (finally!) went to a doctor with this problem, I was then referred to an urologist. The urologist was not surprised to get the referral, and he immediately put me into the pelvic floor therapy program which was run by a nurse practitioner. Why an urologist? Because pelvic floor therapy is the common treatment for after-childbirth and menopausal incontinence.
At first, as they prepped me for the therapy—measuring how much urine I retained after I urinated, having me measure my liquid intake and urine output at home for a week, etc.—I kept telling them that I’d never been incontinent. They said the therapy was for “my problem” as well.
To begin the actual weekly therapy, I had to purchase an electronic vaginal probe. Each session featured bio-feedback and electrical stimulation. Bio-feedback is exercise with a visual image of what you are exercising. So, with the probe inserted and other sensors stuck to my abdomen, I watched a screen that showed me when I was tightening my stomach muscles and when I was tightening my pelvic floor muscles (the Kegel exercises). The pelvic floor musculature are those that, for example, stop the urine flow during urination. Once my brain could see when I was using stomach muscles, I could then differentiate and only contract my pelvic floor muscles.
This helped me to do my homework—Kegel exercises—and know I was using the proper muscles. The biofeedback also showed me something else: the muscle spasms. During moments when I was supposed to be relaxing the pelvic floor muscles, I would sometimes see sharp spikes on the screen’s graph even though I didn’t feel anything. The practitioner explained those were involuntary muscle spasms. If I’d been having sex, they would have been almost constant and causing the pain.
During the electrical stimulation portion of a session, a small electrical charge was sent to the muscles via the probe. This was “only” as painful as a quarter-hour long pelvic exam, and included a rhythmic insect-sting somewhere farther inside than the probe was jammed. My understanding is that it causes the pelvic floor muscles to tighten and relax on a non-spastic schedule, simulating normal function.
The whole 8-week therapy is aimed toward building muscle tone in the weak muscle that is in spasm which will bring back a more normal behavior of the muscle. I kept thinking women who are incontinent need these muscles to be tighter, but I need them to be looser. Actually I needed the muscle to be strong enough to be able to relax. The therapy did work. But the exercises have to be maintained or the condition returns.
LB: Why did you spend so much time focusing on the emotional component of your anorgasmia as opposed to the physical?
CM: Because our sexual selves are so much a part of our identities (and this is pushed along by a sex-charged culture), it was the negative emotions that had actually impacted my life. Sex being painful and not ever having orgasms doesn’t really impact the physical body, mainly only the person’s sense of self, quality of life, and quality of (or detriment to) relationships.
After that long description of the physical treatment for vaginismus, the caveat is that those spasms were caused by something, and while a damaged pelvic floor muscle could be to blame, it’s more likely it was something the psyche was doing. And I know how my brain had built a monument of fear regarding sex. Even being past that fear didn’t stop the muscle spasms, because I then had a fear of the muscle spasms themselves which actually keeps the vicious circle going.
I still worry, every time, will it come back, will it hurt and ruin the intimacy? A self-imposed causal nexus.
LB: How did you feel about exposing letters and journals from this time? What do you think they added to it?
CM: There’s no other way I could have truly tapped into my emotions of 35 years ago. One can try to remember, can try to describe, can pretend to write as that person, but I don’t believe anyone can give any kind of accurate representation of how they thought, how they reacted when there’s any distance of time (even 5 years).
That’s the beauty of memoir: the writer is dealing with the unreliability and slipperiness and fragility of memory, wound around our own humanness (i.e. there’s no such thing as personal objectivity).
The dual selves being created on the pages, author and character: that’s the struggle that makes memoir fascinating and complex. So I wanted to include an artifact of how I thought and reacted back then, and let the me-now who was writing be amazed or embarrassed or flummoxed or chagrined. I wanted the amount of authenticity the journal could provide, and also that layer of tension, that complexity.
LB: What would you say to someone who feared intimacy, physical and emotional? And while asexuals don’t fear sex or intimacy, (nor perhaps is that accurate in terms of you), would you consider referring to yourself as asexual?
CM: If asexuality is lack of sexual attraction or low or absent interest in sexual activity (Wikipedia), and I claim to not know what physical sexual desire feels like, I suppose I’m right there. I don’t refer to myself as asexual because I wanted to feel sexual attraction. I have been attracted to people emotionally (wanted to be in relationships). And when I finally got over my fear of sexual relationships, I have been able to become aroused when engaged in sexual behavior. (I am still anorgasmic.)
My fear of sex was something I helped grow to bizarre proportions. And that fear had a lasting effect once I was no longer specifically (and abjectly) afraid of being in the sexual situation: my body remained afraid and involuntarily reacted (vaginismus) with muscle spasms that made sex painful. In turn this would go right back to the brain: worrying about it, expecting it, dreading it, so of course it is not something the body is going to be able to just forget even though I want it to.
What I would say to someone else who has fears of intimacy would depend largely on what exactly they were afraid of. Mine was an actual fear of what sex involved physically, not a fear of being used or hurt or pregnant or too-tied-down any of the other many and various fears of intimacy there are.
To someone who is afraid of the physical act of sex, I would say that yes, we do have to face our fears or they’ll never be conquered, but going into sex while afraid can cause lasting consequences, unlike riding a horse or taking a high dive. Because sex is so much a part of our emotional lives, our relationships, our identities. Riding a horse or diving off a diving board or standing on the edge of a cliff aren’t.
LB: How did writing Something Wrong With Her help you come to terms with this history, and have there been any new developments in your life as a result of your analysis?
CM: My life is completely changed as a result of writing this book. The reason it’s subtitled “a real-time memoir” is that while writing — during the first six months — when I thought it was going to be a somewhat different book, I got back in touch with Mark.
Our communication then became part of the book. Our budding re-connection then became part of the book. Our struggles over what to do with what we were feeling and wanting became part of this book. His anxiety and real personal turbulence as he tried to extract himself from his life entanglements became part of the book.
The book did have to end somewhere, so it does end before “our story” was able to completely resolve. But because we were in revision and editing stages while my relationship with Mark was continuing to progress, that progression is contained (more subtly) in comments inserted (with dates) that indicate he and I advanced our predicament beyond where the book ends.
Suffice it to say, Mark is now living here with me. There couldn’t have been a bigger development in our lives as a result of our first reconnection and having that reconnection be entwined with the memories and introspection on which the book was focusing.
My sex life has undergone growth as well. I can’t call it resolution or complete fruition because physical dysfunctions that result from emotional or psychological conditions are difficult to erase simply because one wants them gone. Otherwise there’d be no nail-biters, no toe-tappers, or other worse psychological conditions like OCD.
I am still anorgasmic, despite a partner who is neither selfish, inhibited, nor ignorant. I do my Kegel exercises daily to reduce the vaginismus muscle spasms, and I don’t try to reach orgasm. Sexual intimacy can be “complete” without it.
Want to learn more? Buy Something Wrong With Her here.