Carmen Maria Machado On Sex When “Women Feel Afraid To Say No”
On Monday, December 11th, PEN America held its last event in 2017 for its PEN Out Loud series. The panel, titled “Reclaiming Our Time,” consisted of four women of color writers, with Samhita Mukhopadhyay moderating the conversation between Morgan Jerkins, Min Jin Lee, and Carmen Maria Machado. The event focused on a broad discussion about how the 2016 election affected the writers personally and professionally, how it has impacted their feminism, the nuances of consent, what it means to be a woman of color in America, and how they’ve personally reclaimed their time in 2017.
The name and theme of the event was a fitting and much needed way to end this year, a year which writer and event moderator Samhita Mukhopadhyay says she has not been able to stop thinking about as “the reemergence of the war on women.” Nonetheless, watching three brutally honest women writers discuss their relatable pains, triumphs, and thought processes felt like a small island of hope in light of the last 12 months.
To begin, Mukhopadhyay touched on how hard it is to know that the man running the White House is someone who is “comfortable with humiliating women, and attacking and harassing them and endorsing people that do the same.” Her first question for her fellow writers revolved around this, asking what each woman’s election night was like in November of 2016.
Responding to the common feeling of despair surrounding the election, author Min Jin Lee said she did feel sad but knew it was better to be “pragmatic” and vigilant than lie in bed feeling sad the morning of November 9th. Speaking about her own form of resistance, Lee says she feels that despairing without taking action is ultimately useless, and that revolutions can take place in many small ways—a hopeful outlook. Lee often asks others to think about revolution and resistance in terms of the questions “What can we do? How can we not despair? How can we resist? How can we have small acts of kindness for those who feel excluded?”
When Mukhopadhyay posited a question about the role of the body and ability in each of the women’s books, Jerkins spoke about the first essay in her book This Will Be My Undoing, which details a piece of her own personal journey of learning what it meant to have a black body as a young black woman. She explained that she didn’t truly realize that she was different until she tried out for an all-white cheerleading squad and was rejected. It was when a girl told her that “monkeys like you don’t make cheerleading squad,” she explained, that she realized she didn’t know if she had been trying out to be “a beautiful girl or be a human.”
Machado also touched on what it was like to write a book—Her Body And Other Parties—that interrogates “the fat body, the queer body, the female body” during a time in history that makes the conversation feel especially relevant. “It feels relevant now, but women’s lives have been garbage for all of human history, you know? It’s not like I invented that or it just happened this year. It’s still relevant. It was relevant for the last five years I’ve been writing it, it was relevant before I was born, it will probably be relevant into, I think, the end of time.” Leaning into the conversation surrounding women, their bodies, and how women’s bodies shape society’s perceptions, Machado said, “I think when I first started interrogating what it was I really wanted to write about, it was the way in which bodies shape us. And I feel like there’s this sort of privileged, very white male position of the pure intellect — the idea that you can be this pure bubble of intellect and that’s it, but no, your mind is filtered through your body.”
One of Mukhopadhyay’s last questions was about the current public conversation about sexual assault and consent, and the cultural moment surrounding #MeToo. In her question, she noted that each of the women have different ways they’ve talked about the nuances of consent in their writing. In response, Carmen Maria Machado pulled from recent discussions about the short story “Cat Person” published in the New Yorker earlier last week, and the complications and occassionally murkiness surrounding sex and consent. Summing up many women’s feelings in part of her reply, Machado stated something powerful about how many women say yes to sex because they do not know how to say no. “It’s not okay for your boss to touch you, it’s not okay for someone to have power over you, to sexually harass you. It’s not okay to be assaulted or raped but also it’s not okay for men to have created this atmosphere where women feel afraid to say no and so they say ‘yes’ technically,” she said.
Ending the conversation on a hopeful and empowering note, Mukhopadhyay asked each of the women how they reclaim their time. Jerkins responded that she reclaims her time by learning there are certain things on the Internet she doesn’t need to respond to. She explained a time that a white man sent her a message asking about statistics on how marriageable black women are, and she clicked it, left the “read” receipt on, and felt empowered by her decision not to answer. “Reclaiming your time is logging off,” Jerkins said, touching on burnout from being online and trying to be an activist all the time. “The fight is gonna be there when you get back, but we need you so do what you have to do to revitalize yourself and then come help out.”
Speaking about how she reclaims her time, Lee said she’s tried hard to say no more. “I’ve learned more about saying no thank you, and I’m more honest about things that I really believe in.” Similarly, Machado said she’s slowly acquired “no” and “nope” themed accessories. “I think learning to say no, asserting yourself, not engaging when you don’t want to and valuing your time and taking care of yourself,” she said of the best way to reclaim your time.
After 2017, I truly think that all of us can learn something from these women about how to reclaim our own time, and hopefully find some solace and sanity in the new year.