Digital Darling

Susan Coffey is a shy girl from Jersey who seduced the Internet—but can she conquer the elite New York fashion world?

On an October evening in 2010, Brad from San Diego was online, looking for flesh.

He scanned through a picture-sharing forum, another repository of beauty, famed and anonymous. “This was not the first time I had looked at pretty girls on the Internet,” says Brad. “I flew through photos.”

Then, he stopped.

She wore a sleeveless gray top and black underwear with a hint of lace. The Greenwich Village sun cascaded on her mane of auburn hair. Her gaze was soft, otherworldly.

Her name was Susan Coffey.

One of the first photos of Susan Coffey that Brad came across (Photo courtesy Inush Yoon)
One of the first photos of Susan Coffey that Brad came across (Photo courtesy Inush Yoon)

“Wow.” Brad Googled her.

The results were unsatisfying, a smattering of social networks, but no central place of worship. On a whim, Brad registered the domain name SusanCoffey.net and began gushing, declaring her the “faerie queen of beauty” and “Miss Stunning.”

Two years later, Brad’s site is the first result when a Google user searches for Susan Coffey. With her blessing, he meticulously catalogs hundreds of photos, writes rapturous blog posts and even interviews Coffey’s collaborators. Yet, Brad lives three thousand miles from Coffey and has never met her in person.

“There’s something about Susan that makes you want to help her,” says Brad, who works in the healthcare industry and tries to remain semi-anonymous to protect his own privacy.

A banner image from susancoffey.net
A banner image from susancoffey.net

Brad’s site is the most visible example of the phenomenon that is Susan Coffey, a 22-year-old independent model from suburban New Jersey who has been propelled into digital ubiquity by thousands of strangers after first surfacing three years ago on the website ModelMayhem.

Roughly a hundred new people “like” Coffey’s Facebook page every day, and her total fan count recently exceeded 103,000. On DeviantArt, one of the largest online creative communities for sharing artwork, photos of Coffey have attracted over 29 million views, and the company flew her to last year’s San Diego Comic-Con as a representative.

“It’s incredible. She’s become the Internet redhead,” says Sito Alvina, a Toronto-based photographer who is Coffey’s most frequent collaborator. “Susan is like the Queen of DeviantArt.”

Beyond her control, Coffey’s image is plastered onto YouTube trance songs, consumed and repurposed for desktop wallpapers and drawn in tribute by fans in pencil, ink and paint. She is a fixture on the social news site Reddit, the anonymous image board 4chan, and virtually every forum that skews toward testosterone. Even her identity is up for grabs, with dozens of fake social media accounts leeching off her recognition, regurgitating her photos to steal a sliver of her adoration.

A sketch of Susan Coffey by Brad posted to DeviantArt, based on a photo by Sito Alvina
A sketch of Susan Coffey by Brad posted to DeviantArt, based on a photo by Sito Alvina

For Brad, promoting Coffey has become a mission, and she is his creative muse, prompting him to rediscover an interest in drawing. He doesn’t have any aspirations to enter the fashion industry and considers his site to be a one-time endeavor. He briefly added advertising to susancoffey.net, but found that it “cheapened” the site, so he removed it. Ultimately, Brad expects he’ll pass control on to another committed fan, and he tries to keep his subject in perspective, to remember that Susan Coffey is a real person.

“You start to form this image of her,” he says. “But she’s just a girl, with good points and bad points.”

Still, perceptions have begun to move reality. In August, Coffey was featured on the cover of Mexico’s Maxim en Espanol magazine, which approached her through Brad’s website. In July, she was on the cover of an independently published romance novel called “The Heart of Aces.”  Her face has appeared in advertisements on the PATH train for a 125-unit condo tower in Jersey City. She’s occasionally recognized by riders when she takes the train into New York for photo shoots.

*   *   *

There are thousands of attractive women on the Internet, many of whom pursue more sexually explicit paths. And there are the unknown faces, who surface for a few blog cycles, only to be buried by the next nubile thing. But no one has achieved Coffey’s prominence and longevity with so little context. She is an enigma, a tabula rasa for desire. She has no agent, no publicist and no outside financial support. “She’s not trying that hard,” says Brad.

In fairness, Coffey’s attention is captured by the mundane. She spends most of her time studying at Rutgers University, going to class and doing homework. Her modeling concerns are rudimentary: paying for gasoline or train tickets, obtaining outfits and filling her schedule.

But the “girl-next-door” persona has made her all the more appealing. In an age of disturbing diets and exotic workouts, Coffey appears effortless. She is lithe and long-limbed at five-foot-seven and 110 pounds, and says she never exercises, aside from the rare session of yoga. She has, however, been a vegetarian for nearly five years because of her love of animals; she has a fluffy white dog named Luna and a green frog, Potato.

Coffey’s only obvious unnatural enhancement is her hair, dyed L’Oreal Feria Rich Auburn True Red, which she settled on after trying blond and other shades to replace her natural brown. It has become her signature look, flowing seamlessly with her pale skin.

“Word of mouth is all about authenticity,” says Jonah Berger, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, who has extensively studied online virality. “You feel like you are helping her by sharing her,” he adds.

After studying the sale of consumer goods, popular YouTube videos and The New York Times’ most-emailed articles list, Berger has concluded that sharing is tethered to human emotions, but that not all emotions are equal. Items that evoke sadness or contentment are unlikely to spur the clicks and conversations that lead to virality. In contrast, articles that induce indignation (think insensitive jokes about rape) or anxiety (bomb threats, anthrax attacks) create a “physiological arousal” and fuel sharing, according to Berger.

But the most effective emotion for transmission is “awe,” a revelation that transcends surprise. Or, close to what Brad was feeling two Octobers ago.

*   *   *

Coffey regards all this attention with a mixture of gratitude, unease and disbelief.

“I’m thankful for it, because otherwise I wouldn’t have anything right now, but it definitely does make me feel uncomfortable sometimes, she said in an August meeting at a café in her hometown, a leafy hamlet of around 13,000 residents in central New Jersey. “It goes both ways. Sometimes it’s a little creepy.”

In person, Coffey has a subtle spray of freckles, which are usually concealed by makeup. Her skin is tanned from a recent trip to the beach, richer than the alabaster of her images. Her hair is also darker, as her red dye has faded, and she’d recently gotten bangs, which cascade across her forehead. She is pretty, but approachable.

Susan Coffey in New Jersey (Photo by Roland Li)
Susan Coffey in New Jersey (Photo by Roland Li)

Coffey’s town, the name of which she’d rather not reveal, has one main street lined with small shops and trees, bisected by a railroad line that transports commuters to the bowels of Penn Station. She lives with her parents and fourteen-year-old brother, a natural redhead who just started high school. She’s lived in the same house her entire life, set on a quiet corner, with a big yard and a well. Her room is in the attic.

She regards her trips into the city for photo shoots as a necessary burden, with urban crowds and the sprawling subway system denying her the freedom of her Honda Civic, which she calls “possibly the most generic car ever, but it gets ridiculously good gas mileage.”

“I like to feel like I’m in control of where I’m going,” she adds.

The irony of Coffey’s ascent, and her image being plastered all over the Internet, is that she is far from an exhibitionist. Her perpetual self-description is “shy,” and she enjoys the solitude and quiet of her pastoral upbringing. She doesn’t hunger for fame, and her popularity still baffles her.

Coffey remembers taking the train into the city for her first New York photo shoot around three years ago. The dread is still palpable in her voice as she recalls being convinced that “something horrible was going to happen” as she strode up the stairs to meet a stranger at a photo studio. “I thought the guy was going to be crazy,” she says, but it was all in her head. Soon, the shoots became routine.

Months later, Coffey would work with a New York photographer named Brandon Herman, who runs a Meetup.com photography group called the New York Pinup Club. Coffey, wearing a Navy blue coat, posed among the lush, saturated colors of landmarks like Grand Central Terminal and the Brooklyn Bridge. In those photos, the fear is gone from her face.

If she’s able to find work as a fulltime model, Coffey would probably move to the city to cut down on her commute. But it’s a transition that sounds like a concession, rather than one sparkling with ambition. “I don’t really like it, to be honest,” says Coffey of New York. “I would accept it because I know it’s the fashion capital.”

When Coffey first expressed an interest in modeling, back in middle school, her parents were open to the idea. “They’re not the kind of parents that would tell me that I can’t do something,” she says, but they didn’t have the time to help her.

Susan Coffey on the New York City subway (Photo courtesy Brandon Herman)
Susan Coffey on the New York City subway (Photo courtesy Brandon Herman)

After high school, she enrolled in Montclair State University in hopes of working on the design or merchandising side of the fashion industry. But the small, suburban campus became too familiar. “I wanted something different,” she says. Coffey enrolled in Rutgers, after initially having balked at the idea because so many students from her high school class of 120 had chosen to go there. But with over 40,000 undergraduates, it was the new environment she had been seeking.

Coffey, who commutes to school for financial reasons, attempted to charter a community service sorority in the spring; it decided it didn’t want to be associated with her modeling career, and turned her down. So, she has stayed away from school organizations, but is kept busy majoring in communications and minoring in psychology—a route that is flexible but unfocused. “All the stuff I like couldn’t be a career. I’m just thinking typical office job, but when I think about it, it makes me kind of sad,” she says. “Monotony kind of scares me.”

*   *   *

Coffey has constructed a cocoon around her personal life. Although she checks her DeviantArt page every day, she rarely reveals more than an image. She abandoned Twitter after a short stint because she didn’t see a need for it. She keeps her online identity, particularly risqué lingerie shots, quarantined from her friends. If pictures spill over into her personal Facebook account, she untags herself. Although her friends are supportive, Coffey considers any social reminder of her second life to be “awkward.”

She has a boyfriend, whom she says is also supportive, but he bristles at the virtual advances of strangers, who regularly chime, “Let’s go out,” or “Let’s get married.” Coffey is not phased. “They’re so arbitrary,” she says. “I just take it as a compliment.”

Sometimes, Coffey wonders if she would have been better served using a pseudonym, rather than her real name. “I’m worried one day I’ll want to get a real job and that was kind of a mistake. But it’s too late to go back, so I’m not holding back,” she says.

After years of work that has drawn a loyal Internet following but only small financial paybacks, Coffey now seeks validation. In the coming months, she plans to submit her pictures to the major New York agencies and attend open casting calls. “I feel weird saying I’m a model, because I’m not with an agency,” she says. “I want to be official.”

At 22, Coffey is already old for high fashion, where models start as early as thirteen, and she’s a few inches short of the five-foot-ten ideal that struts the catwalks (there are rare exceptions: Kate Moss is also five-seven). Coffey’s massive fan base is a powerful tool, but one that might not impress the establishment.

Photo by Roland Li
Photo by Roland Li

“I think she does have a gorgeous face,” says Shae Cooper, director of new faces for BMG Worldwide, a boutique modeling agency. But Cooper swiftly adds, “It’s not just about being a pretty face. It’s about the whole package. It’s not just about a guy who thinks she’s hot and likes her on Facebook.” Cooper says that Coffey’s shyness c0uld be an obstacle, and she would have to deal with the whims of a client who could force her to make tough choices such as abandoning her signature red hair to conform to a job.

Although fashion is a gigantic global industry, with over $1 trillion in annual sales, models are often treated more like migrant laborers than movie stars. The industry has long been voracious, churning through an endless stream of anonymous waifs. But even those who get regular work can struggle to survive. There are no salaries, only one-off assignments, which provide compensation in the form of clothing, prestige and money, in often unfavorable ratios. Health insurance and 401ks are alien concepts. Nothing is permanent. It’s a testament to the powers of marketing and fantasy that drive so many to seek so little.

So far, Coffey has done all of her work independently, which means that she keeps all of her fees, but she finds it hard to get paid gigs. She is currently seeking another job, while she attends Rutgers, in order to fund her travels. In contrast, an agency will typically pay for a model’s initial portfolio, which is seen as a standard investment, and then take a commission fee of around twenty percent of future work. The agency is essentially a matchmaker that connects clients like corporations, publications and designers to hopeful young men and women.

“We tell our models, we can put you in front of any client. At the end of the day, it’s your job to book it,” says Cooper, of BMG.

But it’s hard to differentiate yourself enough to get to that point. “There’s so many people. It’s overwhelming sometimes,” says Coffey. “The online world is so different from being with an agency. I don’t think they’re comparable.”

Even with her popularity, Coffey’s life is a constant hustle, but she is not picky and says she is open to any type of work. When asked if there was a dream photographer or designer that she longs to work with, Coffey demurs. “It’s not something I could obtain right now. I’m so used to taking what I can get,” she says.

As Coffey was returning to Rutgers in September, thousands of models descended on New York’s Lincoln Center for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. The red carpet of the 2012 Style Awards was dominated by celebrities; the media assailed bold-faced names like Katie Holmes and Carolina Herrera with barrages of flashing cameras. Meanwhile, anonymous models, striking with their towering bare legs, strode behind the cameras, plucking wine glasses from stone-faced servers and disappearing in the crowd. On Fashion Week’s runways, it was Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors that provided the buzz, not the girls who wore the clothing. The key question always is, “Who are you wearing?” rather than, “Who are you?”

Scenes from 2012 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week (Photos by Roland Li)
Scenes from 2012 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week (Photos by Roland Li)

Ashley Mears, an assistant professor of sociology at Boston University and a former New York model herself, calls it a “winner-take-all” economy, where the few women at the top earn most of the spoils. But even that halo has dimmed. The days of the imperial supermodel are over, and magazines favor celebrities from film and music over chilly imports from the runways. Editorial work is also hardly a breadwinner; most models earn just a few hundred dollars for appearing in a holy tome like Vogue, and some publications will offer snacks instead of money.

The U.S. Department of Labor reported that the median model’s income was $33,000 in 2011, but typical salaries vary dramatically. Highly successful catalog models earn six figures, while the less fortunate may end their careers after just a few months with thousands in debt. To become a superstar with a million-dollar fragrance campaign “you still need the machine behind you,” says Loretta Volpe, acting associate chair of direct and interactive marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology, who has worked with brands like CoverGirl, Clairol and Izod. There are a few Internet success stories, like Kate Upton, the bubbly insurgent who used her own YouTube fame to break into Vogue, defying the traditional look of high fashion, but she is definitely an exception to the rule.

But the prospect of a career is still alluring. For Coffey, modeling has not yet become lucrative but it has grown from a hobby into the most likely way of transcending her small town existence.

“There’s just not a lot of stuff that I can picture myself doing as a career. I know it’s so rare that you can do what you love for a living,” she says. “I have this opportunity and I don’t want to pass it up. I really want to give it all that I have. At least if it doesn’t work out, I know that I tried.”

At an impromptu photo shoot in her hometown in August, Coffey glows in front of the lens, angling her body precisely toward the camera and offering a crescent moon of a smile. She is looking less shy girl from Jersey, more ready for another magazine cover. Still, she’s realistic about her chances. “I dream about being a big model, but I know I need a backup,” she says.

Balancing between art and reality is nothing new for Coffey’s family. Her mother used to paint as a hobby and now works at a chemical company. Her father is employed by Sharp Electronics, the U.S. division of the Japanese television manufacturer, but Coffey remembers him playing guitar around the house when she was young. He tried, but failed, to get her into classic rock. Instead, like so many teenagers of the early 2000s, she fell for the emo scene. One of her early favorite bands was Something Corporate, a piano-laden rock quartet from southern California. Coffey took piano lessons for a couple of years at the end of high school and now loves covering pop songs. She would pounce at the chance to become a musician, but fears she doesn’t have the talent.

Her other big hobby is “World of Warcraft,” the enormously popular online role-playing game, which has ten million active players. Coffey plays as a female Draenei Elemental Shaman, an earth disciple that flings arcs of lightning and jets of lava at her foes.

Coffey’s boyfriend introduced her to the game, although he was initially hesitant to disclose to her that he played at all. Then, about a year-and-a-half ago, he asked Coffey if she wanted to try. Reluctant at first, she soon had to get her own account because she was playing so often. Like many players, she was taken by the variety of rewards for tasks that vary from killing dragons to catching fish. “I get obsessed with achieving stuff,” she says.

However, Coffey tends to avoid the game’s largest dungeon expeditions, known as raids, which require a mixture of number-crunching keyboard gymnastics and often lead to volatile emotions. “It’s not a good community there. You suck, and they’re just like, ‘Get out,’” she says. “I like to help people out or just talk to them.”

Coffey rejects the notion that playing “Warcraft” satisfies a desire for a new identity, yet her modeling work shows that she understands the need for constant reinvention; she is keenly aware of her fans’ perpetual hunger for new and different images. “I feel pressure to post constantly,” she says. “I get anxious when I know I haven’t posted in a while.”

*   *   *

The mythology of many top models begins with a singular discovery, a chance encounter where an agent whisks an unknown away to gilded catwalks and the pages of glossy magazines. Coffey had no such revelation, but her ascent has been steady, thanks to the help of strangers, like Brad. It has been a journey, not merely physical, but a path that has built a web of fellow artists, who all cope with economic reality.

Shortly after college started, Coffey was working as a cashier at a local Victoria’s Secret, wondering how to begin modeling, when a customer directed her to Mike Kortoci, a photographer near Ridgewood, N.J., about an hour to the north.

She remembers arriving at Kortoci’s studio in October 2008,  filled with dread, and then being taken aback by his boisterous direction. And there was the camera.

“It kind of freaked me out at first,” she says. “You kind of expose yourself.”

Kortoci told her to mentally chant, “I’m so sexy, I’m so sexy,” turning perception into reality—and it seemed to work.

It’s been years since the shoot, but Coffey’s image has stayed with the photographer. “She’s one of the girls that I have a hard time forgetting,” says Kortoci, who calls her face “a polished diamond.”

He touts Coffey’s physical gifts, which require minimal makeup and postproduction, and he also underscores her willingness to learn and gain control of her body. “A girl that is just pretty is not enough,” says Kortoci, a former sculptor from Albania who speaks with a light Baltic accent. “You have to perform in front of the camera.”

Distinctive images still have undeniable value. Kortoci’s best-known photo of Coffey is heavy on sheen. He’s studded her eyelids with silver and transformed her into a windswept cover girl that ended up on Kortoci’s business card and the front door of his studio. “I want to look like her,” clients would tell him.

“She was worth not charging,” he says.

Photographer Mike Kortoci (Photo courtesy Mike Kortoci)
Photographer Mike Kortoci (Photo courtesy Mike Kortoci)

After creating a portfolio with Kortoci, Coffey was directed to ModelMayhem, an online social network that is a proving ground for aspiring models, photographers and stylists. Members create profiles showcasing their work and can send out solicitations or announce open calls to diversify their portfolios.

Coffey began working with unknowns, assembling a portfolio shoot-by-shoot and vetting references to ward off creeps, and fleeing in the rare uncomfortable situation. After toiling for a few months, Coffey was approached by Insuh Yoon, the first photographer who stood out to her, in the spring of 2009.

Yoon’s primary tools are simplicity and sunlight, a style which produces shots that have become quintessential Coffey, including the first photo that Brad saw, shot in a rented studio in Greenwich Village. Yoon, who was born in Seoul and grew up in Queens, is benign in person, exuding a serenity that’s a blessing when dealing with new models. “I don’t consider myself part of the industry,” says Yoon, who takes graduation photos by day to finance his more artistic pursuits.

Coffey and Yoon spent a scorching summer day in 2010 at Coney Island with Layla L’obatti, of lingerie and loungewear brand Between the Sheets. Coffey rotated through a dozen outfits, changing inside a makeshift cover of shower curtains and plastic piping.

Yoon has since moved in a more explicit direction. He recently launched an “Anonymous Erotica” series, where he photographs nude women without revealing their faces or names, allowing them to fully embrace their sexuality. In some shots, Yoon puts his left hand into the frame, appearing to fondle or even penetrate his subjects with his fingers. But as Yoon recalls from his first meeting with Coffey, she was always adamant about staying clothed. She had drawn a line.

That barrier likely stemmed from an incident at the dawn of Coffey’s career. In early 2009, she went on a photo shoot with Vincent Arthur, an amateur photographer in eastern New Jersey. In a forum post on ModelMayhem the following year, Arthur describes working with a new model on her first nude shoot, around the same time he shot Coffey, and paying her “modestly.”

Arthur writes that he’d been contacted by the model two months after the shoot, requesting that he remove her name from the nude photos. She was worried that they would cause “problems” in the future, he adds. Arthur complied, but kept the images in his portfolio, and a year later they began circulating around the Internet and were linked to Coffey. He notes that the model—whom he never named publicly—offered to buy back the photos for the price of the shoot, but he hesitated.

“The photos in question are special to me because they were the best I had ever taken at the time. Some might think they still are. Either way, they were a breakthrough to another level in my development,” Arthur says in the post.

When he realized that the photos were being spread widely without his consent, he resolved to take action to have them removed. Arthur also eventually agreed to delete the photos from his website in exchange for the original fee and another clothed shoot with the model. But despite his efforts, the photos are still out there, like a scar that’s impossible to remove.

Coffey initially denied she was in the photos, but no longer does. Still, her actions, seen as a deception, prompted a maelstrom of callousness from her online followers, upset at a lie that they saw as a betrayal. One user on Reddit was indignant, posting that “she could have easily benefited from it. A public desire to see certain content from a person can easily be turned into money for the performer, but she ruined that possibility, and at the same time, a lot of her credibility.” Other users scolded each other for considering her a “pure thing,” while simultaneously lusting after other girls.

“I’m just trying to never mention them again, and maybe it’ll just go away,” says Coffey now. “There’s nothing I can do.”

The incident reflects the duality of Coffey’s relationship with her audience. She is adored as a feminine ideal, yet she’s often treated like a commodity rather than a human being. Perhaps that isn’t so different than being a big-time model.

Although Coffey is determined to evolve, there’s pressure to be complacent and give the crowd what it wants, which is typically a natural look, preferably in lingerie. Coffey braces for complaints when she’s photographed with heavy makeup, or when she tries something different, like dressing up in latex and brandishing knives. Yet another complaint is that she appears expressionless or aloof. She seldom smiles on camera, and almost never with teeth.

“The problem is, if you’ve already branded a look and somebody’s shooting you, that’s the look they want,” says Coffey. “A lot of times I get stuck in that.”

Coffey’s greatest artistic leaps have been with Alvina, the Toronto-based photographer, who was born in the Phillipines and studied photography at Humber College in Toronto. He learned the techniques of a lost age, film processing and darkroom development, but went on hiatus as digital photography became dominant. A friend rekindled his interest, and he moved into glamour shots. In an age of quantity, Alvina stood out to Coffey for his selectivity. He is picky in choosing collaborators, and each shoot becomes part of his endless pursuit of perfection.

*   *   *

On Nov. 29, 2009, when Coffey was 19, she and Alvina drove to the Essex County Jail, an abandoned brick prison, overrun by vegetation and graffiti, in Newark, N.J.

Built in 1837 and closed in 1970, the jail has become a magnet for the curious. For Alvina, a science fiction buff, urban exploration is not merely a glimpse into the past, but a look into the decaying future. “In a million years from now, this is what the world will look like,” he says.

Coffey and Sito Alvina at the Essex County Jail site (Photo courtesy Sito Alvina)
Coffey and Sito Alvina at the Essex County Jail site (Photo courtesy Sito Alvina)

He documented the trip and posted a video on YouTube, which now has over 100,000 views. Coffey wears a red Rutgers hoodie, jeans and thick black books and carries a bag of clothing and a point-and-shoot camera. She squeezes through a gap between the stone and corroded bars.

Parts of the building are shrouded in darkness, so Alvina switches to night vision, creating a sort of benign “Blair Witch Project” effect. Documents and debris are strewn across the floor.

Coffey gasps at deserted dining halls and grabs the files of an inmate for a souvenir. She punctuates her excitement with some profanity. The duo strides across a row of corroded prison bars and a mess hall, encountering a suspicious lump in a cell. The footage soon cuts to their departure.

Coffey in Essex County Hospital (Photo courtesy Sito Alvina)
Coffey in Essex County Hospital (Photo courtesy Sito Alvina)

In between, Coffey strips down to a striped shirt and underwear, braving the chill. She transforms from a giddy teenager into something more. It remains Alvina’s favorite shoot. “It was rewarding because she appreciated being there,” he says.

The following spring, Coffey and Alvina went to the nearby Essex County Hospital, an imposing brick complex in Cedar Grove, N.J., nicknamed Overbrook Asylum because it commands a view of the diminutive Peckman River. For decades, Overbrook served as a mental institution with a morbid history, before closing in 1975. The New York Times reported in December 1917 that its boilers failed, leading to the death of 24 patients.

Overbrook has had a restless afterlife. There have been various efforts over the years to convert the site into housing or parkland, and segments have been demolished. The Red Bank, N.J.-based developer Hovnanian Enterprises wants to erect new apartments, but remains locked in lawsuits with the township. A few buildings remain, stone ghosts in a world that has moved on.

The remains of the past—surgical masks, a broken scale and an out-of-tune piano—appear in another YouTube clip of Coffey’s photo shoot. On one wall, “Phantom” is spelled out in blue marker. Coffey wears a wedding dress, juxtaposing purity with the decay. Her hair is an elaborate tangle of maroon, courtesy of Selda Cortes, her favorite stylist, who accompanied the pair.

Cortes is a kindly hairdresser from Spain, who dreams of getting her work featured in Vogue and opening her own salon. When she was growing up, she would practice styling hair with her sister. “Girls always like to play with dolls. She was my doll. She was my sketch,” says Cortes. “I love people and making them feel comfortable.”

Cortes attended makeup school in Spain and began as a freelancer after moving to the U.S. She now works at a salon in Tribeca, but mixes in more artistic projects through online connections like ModelMayhem.

Like many, Cortes marvels at Coffey’s natural glow. “She has a unique look” Cortes says. “She transmits that.”

One of Coffey’s biggest gifts is that “she doesn’t need that much,” says Alvina. “What really charms me as a photographer is when I’m shooting someone, I don’t have to tell them what to do.” However, he hopes that she can become more assertive. As they moved around the hospital that day, he repeatedly adjusted her pose.

Selda Cortes and Coffey (Photo courtesy Sito Alvina)
Selda Cortes and Coffey (Photo courtesy Sito Alvina)

As the day faded, the trio prepared to depart, but they ran into one final obstacle. A policeman caught them as they returned to their car and began interrogating Alvina about why they were trespassing. He bluffed that he was practicing wedding photography outside and feigned ignorance about the hospital. They escaped.

Three years later, Coffey and Alvina have since collaborated in Toronto, where they shot the photos that appeared on the cover of  Maxim en Espanol. She’s crisscrossed the northeast and hopes for future trips to Europe and beyond. But most days, she wakes up at her parents’ house in suburban New Jersey and drives to classes at Rutgers that fail to excite her—at least compared to what she feels when modeling.

Coffey will graduate in January and faces a looming decision: build upon the fantasy or trudge into reality. “Am I going to pursue this?” she wonders. “Or am I going to get a job and accept my grown-up life?”

It’s clear which way her fans hope she goes. As one of them wrote recently on her Facebook wall, with no sense of hyperbole:

“Dear God, thank you for our Susan.”

*   *   *

Roland Li has written about business and culture for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and New York Observer. You can follow him on Twitter and see more of his photography here.

Secret Life of a Search and Rescue Volunteer

When someone goes missing on a frozen mountaintop or in a wildfire, my team heads out to help when no one else can — even if all we can do is bring back their bodies.

Three kids are missing on the mountain. They missed their check in, and search and rescue (SAR) has been tasked with finding them. It’s what we do. We track down the lost and injured and bring them home. I’ve been a member of this unit, primarily based around Mount Hood, Oregon, but working wherever we are needed in the Pacific Northwest, for about three years. Given my profound lack of experience at the onset, I’ve only actually been useful for about a year, maybe two.

We have a general idea of where the three kids are, or at least where they are supposed to be. At the base of the mountain, where most climbs start, is a climbers’ register where parties write down their intended route, expected return date, and what equipment they have – vital information in just this type of situation.

It’s cold and windy. Visibility is low. No one wants to be in the field on days like this. But, as Rocky, a veteran member once told me, only half joking, “We’re mountaineers. We suffer. It’s what we do.” That suffering is accepted because this is what we volunteered for (and almost all of us are truly volunteers – only the sheriff and a few others are paid). It’s made tolerable knowing that there is someone worse off, someone who needs us.

We will trace the most likely path and hopefully find them hunkered down in a snow cave or some other shelter, but alive. Bringing a victim home alive is why I go up. The satisfaction is like no other. After more than a decade in medicine, as an EMT initially and now as a physician assistant in a busy urban ER, I have revived cardiac arrests, treated trauma and dealt with just about every other medical calamity, but mountain rescue is different. People get injured in the mountains and back country, we get them when no one else can or will. Even if all we can do is bring back their bodies.

And I know how important that can be.

On the night of my first high school dance, the police showed up bearing somber news to my mother. She took me into the back room of the house. “There’s been an accident. Dad’s dead,” my mother told me, barely a quiver in her voice. She was trying to hold it together, but saying that out loud, she couldn’t. My brother, mother and me stood in that back room, with the lights off, and hugged and cried and lost track of time.

He fell while out hiking two states over. Local SAR was bringing the body out of the canyon. They couldn’t save him, but they could return his body to his family. We grieved while we waited for his return, which would take a day or two. It didn’t become concrete or tangible until we had the body. A tremendous service was done for my family by strangers.

Now it is my turn.

I will do for others what had been done for us. I will bring them home, do what I can to prevent further backroom suffering. Paying a debt to the universe makes the insufferable tolerable.

* * *

We are a team of 15 – physicians, general contractors, business executives and even an animal chiropractor, with personalities as varied as the professions. But there is a core tenet among us all: to help those in need.

A resort at the base of the mountain provides a Sno-Cat that transports us up through the groomed ski fields. National forest regulations prohibit mechanized travel beyond certain boundaries, but occasionally, we get permission to ignore them, to save a life. The driver takes us up as far as we can go before the Cat starts to backslide.

This is where the hard work starts. From here on out, we will be on foot. Once over the ridge and onto the next glacier, we break into smaller teams of three or four and separate to search different areas. Bob, a tall, slender guy who made some wise business decisions and retired early, is my team lead. He is tasked with interacting with the other team leads and Incident Command, as well as making sure all of us come home alive. Then there’s Keith, an engineer who makes dad jokes without being a dad; Christopher, an occasional school teacher who’s fond of instigating shenanigans and watching his work unfold; and me, the newest member of the team – the low-man on the totem pole.

The winds are up. The temperatures are down. Visibility is minimal. Freezing fog deposits a thin layer of ice on clothing. Beards freeze and develop icicles. Any exposed skin quickly turns red and raw. The moisture from my breath freezes my goggles. Periodically, I use the rubber handle of my ski pole to scrape the ice out of the goggles. This only provides a brief window of clear vision.

We follow the kids’ intended route up the mountain, up the gentle snow slope, bearing west. It’s a short distance, but it takes us an hour in these conditions. We come up into a bowl, relatively protected from the wind. The route travels up from the bowl and over a ridge. Once on the other side we must be hyper-vigilant. We will be travelling across a large crevasse field, hidden in dense fog. The route leads up a snow and ice gully from the far end of this crevasse field. This is one of the two more common routes for teams to take after they have previously completed the standard route. It represents a step up in technical difficulty, presents complicated route finding, and is an overall longer route. Most of us on the rescue team have climbed this route before, individually or as a team, but not in these conditions.

A fall from their route could have spit the kids out onto this crevasse field. We must search it exhaustively. First, we rope up – tying ourselves together so that if one of us falls into an unseen crevasse, theoretically, the rest of the small team can arrest the fall and retrieve the teammate. A rescuer becomes a liability if he is dead. As the newest, least-experienced member, I’m in the middle of the rope. Bob, on point, has to choose a path around the crevasses. The man in the back is the last hope if the first team members can’t arrest their own fall. Bob scans the snow for signs of weakness indicating a crevasse. I follow the footsteps exactly.

Slowly, methodically, we spread out to search the area. Ice axes are at the ready in the event a rope mate goes into a crevasse. My eyes strain to look for clues through fogged-up goggles. Even a light snow can cover vital clues. We move westward toward the terminus of the route the three kids were attempting.

“I need to search that area down by the big crevasse. Keep eyes on me,” Bob says. Rather than continue with our roped travel, Bob will move more cautiously down towards the crevasse on his own. I head up a ridge and plant myself in a vantage point where I can maintain constant visual contact. The area looks lousy with crevasses, with more likely hidden. Bob is belayed down into the field by Keith, who is anchored to the snow. Any fall should be terminated quickly. Should be. Our gloves have a layer of icy grime, so holding the rope during a fall would require more effort than in more pristine conditions.

He goes out, searches, and returns. No incident, but no evidence found of our three kids either. We’re preparing to keep moving when our radios start crackling and we hear someone from one of the other teams say, “I think I’ve found something.” We all stop and put lift our radios to our ears.

“Should we head up to you?”

Silence. Crackle. “…Yeah.”

My team was searching the lower end of the glacier, so we are some of the last to get to the scene. As we approach, I see the other teams standing around a body. If it weren’t for the people standing around him, I might have walked right by; he was nearly invisible in the waning day, under a fresh layer of snow. I see that no one is frantic. No one is pulling a medical kit out. Our kid must be dead. His mouth is open, in the shape of an “O” and full of snow. I get to him and place my hands on his body. He is stiff and frozen. His base-layer shirt and soft shell jacket are unzipped. There is blood on his thigh, though no obvious deformity or injury. I see no grossly apparent signs of blunt trauma. Some distance away, there is climbing gear strewn at the bottom of the route. One of the other teams had continued searching and found it. It looks like he walked some distance away from the debris field.

Maria, a newly minted ER doctor, digs a little bit of the snow out of his mouth. Not much, just a little. I’m not sure why. It is an image that will stick with me.

“Hey, why don’t I package the body? Not everybody needs to see this,” I offer to the overall rescue leader. Some of the team members have never seen a dead body before.

He pauses for a moment. “Yeah, do it.”

I’m new to mountain rescue, but seasoned to life’s grim realities. The body must be packaged for extrication. He will be covered with a protective plastic tarp and placed into a litter. The litter is like a backboard with small walls and rails. It proves difficult to package him. He is frozen and did not have the foresight to die in a position conducive to packaging. But, I make it work. I have to.

Looking at what’s in front of me, I know what is ahead for the family. I know the sound. I know the dark, backroom scene, huddled in a private anguish that comes after the authorities deliver the news. There’s a wail that comes with unexpected death. It comes from the gut. It’s a sound I heard time and again in those first few days after my father died. I lost a parent, but they have lost a child. I package him as gently as I can. We will get him back to his family. The importance of our task is visceral. I cannot fathom what mourning without the body is. This family will not have to try.

* * *

The radio crackles again. The sheriff is thinking that we should package the body, anchor it someplace safe, and mark the location on GPS. This would allow us to keep searching for the other two. The freezing fog has turned to heavy snow. It was early afternoon, a time in the Pacific Northwest when the sun begins to set, and we are worn. We wouldn’t have more than a few hours of daylight left and still had to get off the mountain.

This is a dilemma. He’s dead, but the other two kids may not be. Until we find them, there’s no way to know. The weather forecast calls for continued lousy conditions for the rest of today and the next few days. Extrication is a lengthy process. Under the best conditions, in more easily accessed terrain, extrication by foot takes half a day. Do we begin the extrication of the body and leave our other two kids to try to survive another night? Do we try to place our first kid somewhere we can find him later and keep searching? In these conditions, among the crevasses, with the accumulating snowfall, it’s unlikely we would be able to find him again. Even anchored in a corner somewhere, location marked on GPS, any manner of event could prevent us from retrieving him. Avalanches could change the landscape of the entire field. There is the risk of continued snowfall and burial. An anchor could fail, leaving the body free to slip into one of the crevasses below.

It’s unbearable, in my mind, to leave him to keep searching. The thought of having to tell the family that we found the body, but left him on the mountain, is crushing. It seems inhumane. But then what would we tell the families of the other two kids if we left the mountain without knowing whether they were alive or dead?

I’m supremely thankful not to have to make that call. There are benefits to being a rookie.

The medical team, my other team, has setup nearby, in an area safe from crevasses or avalanches. There is a tent to escape the wind and warm drinks are being brewed. The medical team is solely concerned with the living. In the absence of proof of life of the other two, the medical team bears watch over the rescuers. The tent is for the rescuers. The warm drinks are for us. Periodically, people have to take a breather, to warm up and mentally recharge. It’s amazing how beneficial something as simple as a warm cup of tea can be in these situations. As one of the new guys, I still feel like I have to prove myself. I stay in the crevasse field and suffer.

Conversations between the rescue leaders in the field and the sheriff’s SAR deputies have been ongoing since we packaged the body. I haven’t been listening. I have no input to offer. Just feet to carry me to wherever I can be useful.

“The sheriff wants us to keep searching.” Word is spreading. My heart sinks into my stomach. I am exhausted. There is no good decision to be reached. I look at my teammates and can tell many are feeling the same. We don’t want to keep searching, but we will.

“SAR base from Team One.”

“Go ahead Team One.”

“Yeah, hey it’s Rocky. We’re not going to do that. It’s cold, it’s late. We’ll never find the body again. We’re bringing the teams in.”

A respected member and veteran of decades of mountain rescue has shut down the sheriff’s plan. Ultimately, it’s the sheriff’s call, but a good leader knows when to listen to experienced heads.

“O.K. Team’s coming in.”

We re-cross the crevassed glacier, this time with a sled with a body in it. Once at the eastern end of the glacier, we raise the whole package up and over the ridge, which is accomplished with ropes, pulleys and brute force. Eventually, we reach the waiting Sno-Cat. The packaged body lies between two rows of bench seats. The seats are full of rescuers. The layers of ice that had been our constant companions begin to melt. Steam rises off each living person’s head. Some people are looking through the camera we found among the scattered belongings. Perhaps a clue will be found to lead us to the other two kids. Perhaps there will be some indication as to what went wrong.

We reach the familiar transition point at the base of the glacier. We get out of the Sno-Cat and unload the package. A short distance below, snow meets parking lot. Rescuers meet sheriff. I head inside. There is to be a debrief. We are reminded of the resources available to us, should we need them, if anyone is experiencing grief or stress from recovering a body.

The body is brought inside the lodge. I can hear the family. By the end of the debrief, the family of our first kid should be well on their way to the city with the deceased. They are not. Word is traveling. The family of our first kid is staying on the mountain to support the families of our other two kids. I can’t imagine how they came to that decision. Their boy is dead. Yet, they remain with the other two families, while the body of their boy travels back to the city.

When I hear this, I remember that the ache I’m feeling all over is just physical pain. It is temporary.

* * *

I return to my warm apartment. The two kids are still up on the mountain. I’m mentally preparing for a return to the cold and misery tomorrow when the page comes through. We are grounded. No searchers will be deployed tomorrow on account of the horrendous conditions. Officially, this is still a “rescue.” The longer our other two kids are out there, the less likely they are to survive, if they are still alive at all. But they are up there, somewhere. I have little faith that this is going to be a rescue.

I feel utterly helpless, sitting in my kitchen, in a worn-out old chair, head back, staring at the ceiling. The debt I set out to pay remains. I am unable to provide the service that was done for my family. Logically, I understand it is out of my hands. The dangers and risks are real. This is a rational decision. In my gut, though, I have failed. This was my task. Bring the bodies home. Yet they remain on the mountain. There is only failure now.

So, I get drunk, the only solution I can think of.

Over the next few days conditions continue to deteriorate and eventually I have to go back to work. Finally, the search gets called off completely.

The following summer, I’m returning from a wildfire when the text comes through from my good friend Bob G., a member of the medical rescue team.

“multiagency effort. found the other 2.” He gives me no context. He doesn’t need to.

There is a great deal of discussion and speculation as to what happened. It doesn’t matter to me. I don’t particularly care how they got there, just where they end up – back with their families.

How It Feels to Be the Biggest Woman at a Clothing Swap

Great, actually.

My bedroom is completely ransacked – clothes are thrown everywhere, purses piled high on my bed. I’m frantically throwing nearly all of my clothes into large plastic bags. Some are still wrapped in the plastic they came in, hanging from metal hangers, as if embalmed and exempt from the passing of time. First to go are the tight designer t-shirts, then the dresses – so many dresses. The black satin cocktail number that once made me feel sexy, but that I could never zip up now. The turquoise one with animal print from Century 21 and the red flowered dress that knocked everyone’s socks off at the company party ten years ago. I used to be so audacious with my wardrobe. Now, I want fewer eyes on me.

I planned on walking, but the load becomes more than I can carry. Instead, I throw the clothes in my car and take off, headed for my first ever clothing swap – where women get together to trade things they no longer want. I’ve been invited by my new friend Sarah to participate in this feminine ritual. This is more than the usual spring cleaning for me; I need to get rid of these painful reminders of the woman I outgrew, literally and figuratively. I no longer want to feel body-shamed by my closet, which is stuffed with clothes that are literally six sizes too small, some that have hung there, unworn, for over a decade while I tried to convince myself I could be someone else.

As I schlep my bags of clothes up to Sarah’s pre-war walk-up, I start to worry that, as a size 12, I’ll be the biggest woman there and nobody will want my offerings. But there’s no turning back now.

* * *

My obsession with fashion started when I was a teenager, when adolescence brought with it a horizontal growth spurt. I didn’t object to my new breasts and butt, but the rapid increase in my thighs and belly made me want to buy every piece of fabric ever made just to cover them up. I was convinced that buying the tightest jeans possible could stymie my out-of-control thighs and shrink them back to their original size. If my clothes were cool enough, stylish enough, expensive enough, everyone would just focus on them and not the fact that I had blown up underneath them.

At 16, the author playing dress up at a friends’ house in Park Slope, Brooklyn. (Photos courtesy the author)

By the time I was 14, I was a size 12, and no fashionable clothing could hide the discomfort I felt. It wasn’t enough to have nice clothes, I still wanted to be thin like the other girls. To be what I thought was normal. Through my teens and 20s, I tried every trend: cleanses, the lemonade diet, the cabbage soup diet, no carbs, low carbs. I tried taking diet pills, Dexatrim every morning with endless glasses of water, but it only gave me headaches and constant trips to the bathroom. Nothing worked.

Finally, I spent one full year when I was in my thirties eating pre-portioned frozen food out of a box and getting up every day at 5:30 in the morning to work out. It worked. I dropped to a size six; in certain styles I was even a four.

I had always hated dressing rooms – the bright lights zooming in on my imperfections, the dread of nothing fitting right. But then, the first time I went shopping after the weight loss was a revelation. Almost everything fit. I remember the moment I pulled a red cotton Brooklyn Industries dress over my head and caught sight of my new self in the mirror; it was as if it was made for me, and I looked incredible. Even though I was thinner, I still had feminine curves, and this dress brought out every one. The cleavage, the thin waist. I wore it out of the store, crumpling up my old clothes and having the cashier cut the price tag off of me at the register. I felt taller, sexier. I bought a whole new wardrobe for my new start. At 38, for the first time, I began to love the warmer months, when dress season was in full bloom.

But the sacrifices I made to get into those dresses meant, ironically, that I rarely went out to dinner or parties because I was afraid of gaining weight. It’s amazing how often people commented about me not drinking or eating, often making me more self-conscious. When I did give in and go out I’d gain weight instantly. Every single time. It was a total Catch-22. The whole purpose of those clothes was to show myself off, to push me to socialize more, but in reality, they kept me in my studio apartment, away from the world, afraid to live.

The author, far right, during the last week of senior year in college.

Eventually I tired of the restrictions and disappointments and took a break from a life of deprivation. The weight crept back on and then some. Most of my favorite clothing no longer fit, regardless of how many pairs of Spanx I wore. Still, I held onto them for over ten years, hoping to someday return to that size, that woman. I had tried to stick to discipline, but eventually being a certain size just wasn’t worth how hard I had to work. It was one thing to say no to dessert or put the bread basket away, but to constantly be hungry and depleted felt at odds with my energetic personality. I wanted to go out, socialize, travel and taste different foods, have different experiences. Being thin without enjoyment defeated the purpose of trying so hard to look the part. I wanted to be part of my own life.

Now, at 47 I’m packing up all of these dresses that belonged to a woman I’m no longer trying to force myself to be. A woman who needed to give up everything for how others might see her. A woman whose biology was never destined for the petite rack. I still miss how I looked in those years of denial, but I don’t miss how I felt.

* * *

I carry three large bags filled to capacity; the plastic handles digging into my skin, turning my fingers red. I walk up four flights of stairs to Sarah’s apartment, where there are tall green plants in every corner and books falling off the shelves. Sarah comes to greet me, her brown hair flowing down to her shoulders, bouncing as she cheerily introduces me to her friends. My heart sinks as I realize most of the women here are in the size six range, a zone I hit just once, and briefly, in my life. I doubt there’s going to be anything here for me.

Sarah pours wine into small glass jars and spreads out homemade pesto sandwiches with brie and bacon marmalade. As we sip our wine and scoop up the melted cheese, the swap begins. Each woman takes a turn presenting her items to the group. Even though everything is being donated, you still want to make sure someone takes home your once-treasured goods with a little pitch. Great color but I have outgrown it. Perfect for summer but too revealing for me. It says, “Love me I’m a Vegetarian,” but I eat meat now so…

A thin brunette with a lot of energy bolts up to the front of the room. As she begins to describe her clothes, all the attention is on her. People start raising their hands and laughing, this is actually kind of fun. “This is the one I got when going to the holiday party last year,” she explains. “And this one my mother-in-law got me but is clearly not my style.” Some of the women talk of ex-boyfriends as they explain the stories behind their clothes. Some of their new jobs. Everyone here wants to get rid of their pasts too. Hearing each story – vignettes about their items, their lives, brings me closer to the women. I feel connected. While they physically appear different than I, they too have stories of wanting to move on in their lives and away from a time that has passed. The clothing swap allows us all the opportunity to release our nostalgia.

I’m surprised at how comfortable these women are in their own bodies. One short woman with a black long bob actually takes off her blouse and begins to try on the clothes right in front of us, her white cotton bra bright like neon lights. She throws on blouses, sweaters and even dresses as if no one is watching. Some of the women know her and her fashion show just blends into the background for them. But I can’t stop staring. I am no prude, but how can she take off her clothes in front of all of these people like she’s in a Loehman’s dressing room? What is that like, to be confident enough in your body to strip down in front of strangers like it’s no big deal?

Eventually it’s my turn to present. My palms begin to sweat. I want the ladies to love my clothes as much as I once did, to realize how important these items were to me in my life – my nostalgia, my years of trying to change myself, and this final moment of release as I let all of that pressure go. Each garment on display represents my sense of self when I bought them. I almost feel like if they reject my clothes, they will be rejecting a part of me. I’m afraid they might ignore me because of my current size, like some men do when we meet for the first time.

The author today.

I take a deep breath and go to the front of the living room. I open up my shopping bags and begin with an apology. “I used to be a variety of sizes from six to 12, so hopefully you will find something you like,” I say, as I start to pull out one meaning-laden item after another. I take out long flowy dresses that I wore when I first lost considerable weight in my 30s, when friends had asked if I had an eating disorder, but it was a combination of Jenny Craig and 5:30 a.m. workouts. I pull out my favorite red dress and it’s snatched up immediately. I feel much better about being here. Then I pull out a black strapless dress I never even wore. It was my “just in case I get invited” dress for parties I never went to, wanting to be someone’s plus one but often being passed over for a younger, more petite date. Someone takes this one, too, and I can feel the load lighten, all of those years of watching and wishing, falling away as I give away one too-small dress after another.

It’s a bittersweet feeling to let them go, knowing that I bought these clothes hoping for a different type of life. Now I am saying goodbye to the woman who wore them, or hoped to. Maybe wisdom really does come with age, but whatever finally let me let go of the insecurities of my youth, I’m no longer willing to base my self-worth on an arbitrary standard that I’m biologically incapable of attaining. All of my old insecurity isn’t going to disappear overnight, but passing along my clothes, my past, and my younger self feels noble, graceful, and it leaves room in my life for me, the real me.

I’m a Fifty-Year-Old Mom. I Just Had Sex in the Back Seat of a Car.

Sometimes acting like a teenage rebel is the only way to feel in control.

On a hot and humid night last June, I steered my car over twisting country roads toward a small lakeside town for a romantic rendezvous. I had spent the day at a funeral, reflecting on the fact that at fifty, I had more miles behind me than ahead. Oddly, my paramour had also spent the day at a funeral, and as the summer sun disappeared we made plans to meet halfway between our towns for a drink.

It was nearly eleven when I turned my car onto Main Street, and James was growing impatient. We were speaking on the phone when I caught a glimpse of him. Strikingly handsome, he looked at least a decade younger than his 61 years. Running and doing chores on his rural property kept his body lean and muscular, and his face betrayed few traces of the anguish I knew lay in his heart.

James met me at my car, and as we walked toward the restaurant he put his arm around me. I felt a shudder of excitement run down my spine and I pushed in closer to feel his body. When we sat at the bar he swiveled his chair, pushed his knees against mine, and leaned in close to talk. Our faces were pressed within whispering distance and I inhaled his scent. The drinks we ordered were superfluous; this was all a graceful dance of foreplay.

The bar was teeming with a coarse-looking crowd of men and women who had deeply lined faces and leather jackets. The fact that we were completely out of place only heightened our excitement. We huddled and made witty comments about the antics of other patrons, parting only to fling our heads back in hysterics. We sat at the bar laughing and kissing, and before long James ran his hand up my leg and under my skirt. On previous dates he had teased me about being a Puritan in public, but X-rated in private, but that night I made no attempt to be discreet.

It felt mischievous to be strangers in a raucous tavern far from home in the middle of the night. We reveled in escaping the constricting bonds of our everyday lives – him a lawyer, me a divorced single mother. Our behavior was an unspoken act of defiance against the taunt of age, and the gloom of funerals that had become a common part of our lives.

Outside the restaurant James kissed me deeply and with a new fervency. We were passionately entangled while patrons passed by, and I whispered that we needed to go somewhere private. James began walking me to my car, and I assumed I would follow him to the adjacent hotel, or to his house an hour away.

When we got to my car he told me to get in the back seat. I refused, saying that my kids had left a mess in my car. James took my hand and led me across the lot to his immaculately clean Mercedes.

“Get in,” he said again.

“I’m not having sex with you in a car,” I replied laughing, while thinking of how improper it would be for a middle-aged mother to do so.

“Just get in,” he repeated, smiling mischievously as he opened the rear door.

There was no point in arguing; I knew I’d get in, so I slid onto the back seat. James was right behind, and before I heard the click of the door closing he was kissing me. It was futile to fight the longing we had been feeling for the past hours. Soon, all thoughts of motherhood and what was proper disappeared. We had been together many times before, but that night we devoured each other.

“I can’t believe I just had sex in a car in a public parking lot,” I said afterward, as I searched for my bra in the front seat.

“It was exciting, like in high school,” James replied, looking flushed and exhilarated.

As I drove home in the wee hours of the morning I felt furtive pride that James and I had taken a rebellious stand against the inevitability of age, and society’s expectation that we go gently into the night. In the days and weeks that followed we frequently reminisced about our romp in the car, and how it brought us back to our adolescence; a time of freedom and endless promise, a time before responsibilities and painful regrets.

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

My analyst and I grew more intimately connected each week of treatment...but I never saw this indecent proposal coming.

It’s the waning moments of my fourth session with a new therapist. I’m holding back — and she knows it. My entire body feels tense, not ideal for the setting. I try to relax, but the plush leather couch crumples under me when I shift, making the movements extraordinary. I’ve barely looked into my therapist’s blue eyes at all, and yet I think the hour has gone very well. Of course it has. On the surface, when the patient has been highly selective of the discussion topics, therapy always resembles a friendly get-together.

“Well,” my therapist, Lori, says, the millisecond after I become certain our time is up and I might be in the clear. “I don’t think I should let you go until we’ve at least touched on what was put out there at the end of last week’s session.”

I so supremely wanted this not to come up. My eyelids tighten, my mouth puckers to the left, and my head tilts, as though I’m asking her to clarify.

“When you said you’re attracted to me,” she continues.

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

Back in session three Lori was trying to build my self-esteem, the lack of which is one of the reasons I’m in treatment. Within the confines of my family, I’ve always been the biggest target of ridicule. We all throw verbal darts around as though we’re engaged in a massive, drunken tournament at a bar, but the most poisonous ones seem to hit me the most often, admittedly somewhat a consequence of my own sensitivity. I’ve been told it was historically all part of an effort to toughen me up, but instead I was filled with towering doubts about my own worth. And since 2012, when I gave up a stable, tenured teaching career for the wildly inconsistent life of a freelance writer, I’ve had great difficulty trusting my own instincts and capabilities. I told Lori that I wish I was better at dealing with life’s daily struggles instead of constantly wondering if I’ll be able to wade through the thick.

She quickly and convincingly pointed out that I work rather hard and am, ultimately, paying my bills on time, that I have friends, an appreciation for arts and culture, and so on. In short, I am, in fact, strong, responsible and “pretty good at life.”

Then Lori heightened the discussion a bit. “I also feel that it is your sensitivity that makes you a great catch out there in the dating world,” she said, to which I involuntarily smiled, blushed and quickly buried my chin in my chest. I was too insecure and too single to handle such a compliment from a beautiful woman.

“Why are you reacting that way?” Lori asked.

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

“Is it because you’re attracted to me?”

I laughed a little, uncomfortably. “How did you know?”

She gently explained she could tell the day I walked into her office for the first time, after I flashed a bright smile and casually asked where she was from.

Now, a week after dropping that bomb, Lori asks, “So, why haven’t we talked about it?”

“I was hoping to avoid it, I suppose.” I tell her the whole notion of having the hots for a therapist is such a sizable cliché that I was embarrassed to admit it. “For Christ’s sake,” I say, throwing my hands up, “Tony Soprano even fell in love with his therapist.”

Lori snorts, rolls her eyes. “I knew you were going to say that.”

I smile, shake my head and look around the room, denying acceptance of my own ridiculous reality.

“It’s OK,” Lori says, grinning. “We can talk about this in here.”

I look again at her stark blue eyes, prevalent under dark brown bangs, the rest of her hair reaching the top of her chest, which is hugged nicely by a fitted white tee under an open button-down. She jogs often, I’d come to find out, which explains her petite figure and ability to probably pull off just about any outfit of her choosing.

I still can’t speak, so she takes over.

“Do you think you’re the first client that’s been attracted to their therapist?” she asks rhetorically. “I’ve had other clients openly discuss their feelings, even their sexual fantasies involving me.”

“What?” I cackle, beginning to feel as though I’ve moseyed onto the set of a porno.

“It’s true,” she says, acknowledging her desk. “What’s yours? Do you bend me over and take me from behind?”

Nailed it.

“If that’s what you’re thinking, it’s OK,” she goes on, earnestly, explaining that she’s discussed sexual scenarios with her clients before so as to “normalize” the behavior and not have them feel their own thoughts are unnatural. By showing the patient a level of acceptance, she hopes to facilitate a more comfortable atmosphere for “the work” — her painfully accurate pseudonym for psychotherapy.

I take a second to let the red flow out of my face, and ponder what she said. I’m a little unsure about this whole technique, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. So I go home, incredibly turned on and completely unashamed.

* * *

One of the great breakthroughs I’ve had in the thirteen months since I began seeing Lori (who agreed to participate in this article, but requested that her full name not be published) is a new ability to accept the existence of dualities in life. For instance, I’ve always had a tremendous sense of pride that, if it doesn’t straddle the line of arrogance, certainly dives into that hemisphere from time to time. I’m great at seeing flaws in others and propping myself up above them by smugly observing my character strengths. I’ve never liked that about myself, but the harder concept to grasp is the fact that I can be so egotistical while also stricken with such vast quantities of insecurity.

In treatment I came to realize that all people have contradictions to their personalities. There’s the insanely smart guy who can’t remotely begin to navigate a common social situation, the charitable girl who devotes all her time to helping strangers, but won’t confront issues in her own personal relationships. In my case, my extreme sensitivity can make me feel fabulous about the aspects of myself that I somehow know are good (my artistic tastes) and cause deep hatred of those traits I happen to loathe (the thirty pounds I could stand to lose).

My next session with Lori is productive. We speak about relationships I’ve formed with friends and lovers, and how my family may have informed those interactions. One constant is that I put crudely high expectations on others, mirroring those thrown upon me as a kid. I’m angered when people don’t meet those expectations, and absolutely devastated when I don’t reach them. Lori points out that it must be “exhausting trying to be so perfect all the time.” I am much more comfortable than I was the week prior, and can feel myself being more candid. I’m relieved that the whole being-attracted-to-my-therapist thing doesn’t come up.

Then, a week later, Lori mentions it, and I become tense again.

“I thought I’d be able to move past it,” I say, adding, “We aired it out, and it’s fine.”

As definitive as I’m trying to sound, Lori is just as defiant.

“I’m glad you feel that way,” she begins, “but I think you owe yourself some kudos. This kind of therapy,” she shares, “isn’t something just anyone can take on.” Such honest discussion doesn’t simply happen, it takes tremendous guts, and Lori can see that I am dealing with it relatively well, so I should praise my own efforts.

“Shit, we both should be proud of ourselves,” she says. “It’s not easy on the therapist either, you know.”

“Why not?”

“Because talking openly about sex is risky at any time, much less with a client.” She explains that therapists are warned any semblance of intimacy can be easily misconstrued. “We learn in our training to not personally disclose, for example,” she says, but adds that, occasionally, transparency can be helpful.

“Still, with you,” she continues, “until I raised the question, I didn’t know for sure that you would go with it; for all I knew you’d run out of here and never come back to risk being so uncomfortable again.”

She’s building my confidence more, and I’m learning that I play a much bigger role in how my life is conducted than I often realize. My treatment wouldn’t be happening if I weren’t enabling it.

Then she says, “And don’t think it’s not nice for me to hear that a guy like you thinks I’m beautiful.”

Crippled by the eroticism of the moment, and combined with the prevailing notion that no woman this stunning could ever be romantically interested in me, I flounder through words that resemble, “Wait…what?”

“If we were somehow at a bar together, and you came over and talked to me,” she says, then flips her palms up innocently, “who knows?”

I laugh again and tell her there’d be almost no chance of me approaching her because I’d never feel like I had a shot in hell.

“Well, that’s not the circumstances we’re in,” she says. “But you might. Who knows?”

I’m confused — Is she really attracted to me or is this some psychotherapeutic ruse? I’m frustrated — I told her I didn’t really want to talk about it. Shouldn’t she be more sensitive to my wants here? I’m angry — Is she getting an ego boost out of this? Most of all, I don’t know what the next step is — Am I about to experience the hottest thing that’s ever happened to a straight male since the vagina was invented?

There were two ways to find out:

1) Discontinue the therapy, wait for her outside her office every day, follow her to a hypothetical happy hour and ask her out, or

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

A week later, I’m physically in the meeting room with Lori, but mentally I haven’t left the recesses of my mind.

“Where are you today?” she asks, probably noticing my eyes roving around the room.

“I don’t know.”

“Are you still grappling with the sexual tension between us?”

Here we go again.

“Yes,” I say, with a bit of an edge in my voice, “and I don’t know what to do about it.”

Lori, ever intently, peers into my eyes, wrinkles her mouth and slightly shakes her head.

“Do you want to have sex with me?” she asks.

We both know the answer to that question. All I can do is stare back.

“Let’s have sex,” she announces. “Right here, right now.”

“What?” I respond, flustered.

“Let’s go!” she says a little louder, opening up her arms and looking around as if to say the office is now our playground, and, oh, the rollicking fun we’d have mixing bodily fluids.

“No,” I tell her, “You don’t mean that.”

“What if I do?” she shoots back. “Would you have sex with me, now, in this office?”

“Of course not.”

“Why ‘of course not’? How do I know for sure that you won’t take me if I offer myself to you?”

“I wouldn’t do that.”

“That’s what I thought,” she says, and tension in the room decomposes. “Mike, I don’t feel that you would do something that you think is truly not in our best interest, which is exactly why I just gave you the choice.”

Her offer was a lesson in empowerment, helping me prove that I have an innate ability to make the right choices, even if I’d so desperately prefer to make the wrong one.

I see what she means. I’m awfully proud of myself, and it’s OK to be in this instance. I’m gaining trust in myself, and confidence to boot. But, as the dualities of life dictate, I’m successfully doing “the work” with a daring therapist, while at the same time not entirely convinced she isn’t in need of an ethical scrubbing.

* * *

I don’t have another session with Lori for nearly three months, because she took a personal leave from her place of employment. When our sessions finally resumed, I could not wait to tell her about my budding relationship with Shauna.

Ten minutes into my first date with Shauna — right about the time she got up from her bar stool and said she was “going to the can” — I knew she would, at the very least, be someone I was going to invest significant time in. She was as easy to talk to as any girl I’d ever been with, and I found myself at ease. Plans happened magically without anxiety-inducing, twenty-four-hour waits between texts. Her quick wit kept me entertained, and I could tell by the way she so seriously spoke about dancing, her chosen profession, that she is passionate about the art form and mighty talented too. Shauna is beautiful, with flawless hazel eyes and straight dark hair, spunky bangs and a bob that matches her always-upbeat character. She is a snazzy dresser and enjoys a glass of whiskey with a side of fried pickles and good conversation as much as I do.

Things escalated quickly, but very comfortably, and since we’d both been in our fair share of relationships, we knew the true power of honesty and openness. So upon the precipice of my return to therapy I told Shauna about Lori, and admitted to having mixed feelings about what I was getting back into. I told her I was at least moderately uncertain if my mental health was Lori’s number-one concern since she always seemed to find the time to mention my attraction to her.

The first two sessions of my therapeutic reboot had gone great. Lori appeared genuinely thrilled that I was dating Shauna and could see how happy I was. I wasn’t overwhelmed with sexual tension in the new meeting room, though it wasn’t actually spoken about, and in the back of my mind I knew it was just a matter of time before it would start to affect my ability to disclose my thoughts to Lori again.

Then, while attempting to ingratiate myself with my new girlfriend’s cat by spooning food onto his tiny dish on the kitchen floor, I hear my phone ding from inside the living room.

“You got a text, babe,” Shauna says. “It’s from Lori.”

“‘I’m so impressed with you and the work you’re doing…’” Shauna reads off my phone from inside the living room, inquisitively, and not happily. I stuff the cat food back into the Tupperware and toss it into the refrigerator. I make my way into the living room, angry at myself for not changing the settings on my new iPhone to disallow text previews on the locked screen. Shauna’s walking too, and we meet near the kitchen door. “What’s this?” she says, holding up the phone. “Your therapist texts you?”

I take the phone from Shauna and say the most obvious, cliché-sounding thing: “It’s not what it seems.”

As I text back a curt “thanks,” Shauna tells me she’s going to ask her sister, a therapist herself, if it’s OK to text patients.

“Don’t do that.” I say, a little more emphatically. “I promise, this is nothing to be worried about. We’re not doing anything wrong.” I explain that Lori’s just trying to build my self-esteem.

“The only reason I’m even bringing this up is because you said you weren’t sure about her in the first place,” Shauna reminds me. I can tell she regrets looking at my phone without my permission, but I completely understand her feelings.

At my next session I tell Lori that Shauna saw her text and wasn’t thrilled about it.

“She probably feels cheated on to some degree,” Lori says. “A relationship between a therapist and a patient can oftentimes seem much more intimate than the one between a romantic couple.”

Lori goes on to point out that the reason she feels we can exchange texts, blurring the lines between patient/doctor boundaries — a hot topic in the psychotherapy world these days — is because she trusts that I’ll respect her space and privacy. “You’ve proven that much to me,” she says.

On my walk home, instead of being angry at Lori, I understand her thinking behind the text. But I’m also nervous about how Lori and Shauna can ever coexist in my life.

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

A week later, Lori begins our session by handing me a printout explaining the psychotherapeutic term “erotic transference” written by Raymond Lloyd Richmond, PhD. It says that erotic transference is the patient’s sense that love is being exchanged between him or herself and the therapist — the exact sensation I was experiencing with Lori, of which she was astutely aware.

According to Richmond, one of the primary reasons people seek therapy is because “something was lacking in their childhood family life,” perhaps “unconditional nurturing guidance and protection.” Upon feeling “noticed” and “understood” by a qualified therapist, sometimes a patient can be “intoxicated” by their therapist’s approval of them. A patient may in turn contemplate that a love is blossoming between them, and, in fact, it sort of is.

From an ethical standpoint, Richmond argues all therapists are “bound” to love their patients, for therapists are committed to willing “the good of all clients by ensuring that all actions within psychotherapy serve the client’s need to overcome the symptoms” which brought them into treatment. This takes genuine care and acceptance on their part. However, a patient can easily confuse the love they feel with simple “desire.” They’re not quite in love with their therapist, so much as they yearn for acceptance from someone, and in those sessions they just happen to be receiving it from their doctor.

Lori tells me that, all along, she has been “working with what I gave her” and that because I flirted with her a bit, she used that to her advantage in the treatment. In employing countertransference — indicating that she had feelings for me — she was keeping me from feeling rejected and despising my own thoughts and urges.

“There’s two people alone in a room together, and if they’re two attractive people, why wouldn’t they be attracted to each other?” says Dr. Galit Atlas. A psychoanalyst who’s had her own private practice for fifteen years, Dr. Atlas has an upcoming book titled The Enigma of Desire: Sex, Longing and Belonging in Psychoanalysis, and I sought her as an independent source for this essay to help me understand Lori’s therapeutic strategies.

Dr. Atlas explains that there are certain boundaries that cannot be crossed between therapist and patient under any circumstances — like having sex with them, obviously. But many other relationship borders can be mapped out depending on the comfort level of the therapist, as long as they stay within the scope of the profession’s ethics, which complicates the discussion surrounding erotic transference.

“As a therapist, I have a role,” Dr. Atlas says. “My role is to protect you.” She says it is incumbent on the therapist to not exploit the patient for the therapist’s own good, but admits that the presence of erotic transference in therapy brings about many challenges. “[Attraction] is part of the human condition,” she observes. In therapy, “the question then is: What do you do with that? Do you deny it? Do you talk about it? How do you talk about it without seducing the patient and with keeping your professional ability to think and to reflect?”

I ask her about the benefits of exploring intimacy in therapy, and Dr. Atlas quickly points out that emotional intimacy — though not necessarily that of the sexual brand — is almost inevitable and required. “An intimate relationship with a therapist can [be] a reparative experience — repairing childhood wounds — but mostly it’s about helping the patient to experience and tolerate emotional intimacy, analyzing the client’s anxieties about being vulnerable and every mechanism one uses in order to avoid being exposed.”

Dr. Atlas says this topic speaks to every facet of the therapeutic relationship, regardless of gender or even sexual orientation, because intimacy reveals emotional baggage that both the patient and therapist carry with them into the session. But this isn’t a symmetrical relationship, and the therapist is the one who holds the responsibility.

“Freud said that a healthy person should be able to work and to love,” she says. “In some ways therapy practices both, and in order to change the patient will have to be known by the therapist. That is intimacy. In order to be able to be vulnerable, both parties have to feel safe.”

After I briefly explain all that has gone on between me and Lori, Dr. Atlas steadfastly says she does not want to judge too harshly why and how everything came to pass in my therapy. “I don’t know your therapist, and I don’t know your history,” she says. But she offers that I should “explore the possibility” that I might have created and admitted my sexual adoration of Lori because one of my fears is to be ignored, not noticed.

Then I offer: “Maybe this essay is being written for the same reason.”

“Exactly.”

Maybe I wanted to interview Lori about erotic transference in my therapy sessions for that same reason as well…to stand out as the most amazingly understanding patient ever.

* * *

“I want to be very clear that this was never about feeding my own ego,” Lori says about her approach to my treatment. “We were always doing this in your best interest.”

I’m in Lori’s office, a tape recorder rolling and a pad and pen in my hands.

“I felt I was doing a disservice to you if I didn’t ‘out’ what I felt was weighing on us, which, honestly, felt like a heavy secret,” she says, pointing out that she discussed my therapeutic process for many hours in her required supervision meetings.

In order for Lori to advance in her field as a social worker, she has to attend 3,000 conference hours with another professional to go over casework — kind of like therapy quality control.

We talk about all of this during one of my scheduled sessions, for the entire hour — and go over by a few minutes, too.

Lori says that when she began her career as a social worker, she decided she wasn’t going to shy away from any subjects. “It’s typical for a client to [have] a habitual desire to sweep things under the rug,” she observes, especially about taboo topics. It can become a cycle of behavior that Lori seeks to break.

I refer back to the time when, unprovoked, she brought up my attraction to her.

She says she mentioned it to avoid what therapists call “door-knobbing,” which is when a patient will purposely mention some huge reveal right at the end of a session so as to sidestep a lengthy conversation about it.

“My only question for you is, was I wrong for bringing it up?” she asks. “Only you can answer that.”

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

“I guess when I said I was over it and could move on, that was an example of my strict black-and-white thinking,” I say, throwing back some language she’s used often to describe my challenge in accepting dualities. In my mind, I was either attracted to her and shouldn’t see her anymore, or I wasn’t attracted to her and could still have her be my therapist. There was no in between.

I realize now that she wasn’t wrong for mentioning my feelings for her, even when I didn’t want her to. Lori noticed that I was frustrated with myself and wanted me to know that an attraction to a therapist is so normal and happens so frequently that there are technical terms for it.

I turn my attention towards the presence of countertransference in our session. I’m trying to come up with an actual question here, but, really, I just want her to confirm her feelings for me are real. So I say, referring to her feelings, with a great degree of difficulty, “It’s funny that they seem genuine to this day.”

“They are genuine,” Lori says, adding a moment later: “I think it might be a good idea if we explore why our discussing it suggests a lack of authenticity.”

“It doesn’t, necessarily,” I begin, then stammer through a few sentences, worried I might offend her by implying she’s been dishonest. I finally settle on, “I guess it comes back to my self-esteem issues. Why would a beautiful woman think I’m attractive?”

Lying in bed with Shauna a few months into our relationship, I ask her what she thought about me the moment she first saw me. I’m fishing for a compliment. But we met on Tinder and I just hope that seeing me in person wasn’t some kind of letdown for her after swiping right on my hand-picked glamour shots. Obviously she isn’t going to say something so awful after having committed to me for so long. It’s a slam-dunk ego boost.

She says she liked the fact that I was wearing a blazer and a tie on a first date. She adds that I was a little shorter than she anticipated, but was content with the two of us at least being the same exact height.

“What did you think when you first saw me?” she asks, turning it around, naturally.

Staying committed to my honesty-at-all-costs policy, I say, “I thought you were really beautiful, but not to the point where I was intimidated by you, which was very important because if I was, you would have gotten a very unconfident version of me, and we probably wouldn’t have hit it off as well as we did.”

Shauna thinks about that for a second, and eventually nods “OK.”

I explain that my insecurity could often get the better of me in dating situations. It was easy to convince myself that I’d be rejected by the girl I was with, especially if I thought she was out of my league. I would then slip into a nervous and reserved state that isn’t at all reflective of my true self.

I’m essentially saying that I was so thrilled to not find Shauna so extraordinarily pretty that I couldn’t accept her being on a date with me. That thought made so much sense at the time I said it, but I’ve since come to realize it is as ridiculous as it is insulting. After ten months of being with Shauna, I’m still completely floored by her, on every level, including a physical one. It gives me great pride to walk into a room with her, and I don’t imagine that changing. Therefore, she actually did meet a confident “version of me.” The way people look doesn’t drastically change in ten months but a person’s perception of self can. It seems my emotional workouts in erotic transference were just beginning to produce results.

* * *

“People fuck up,” Lori informs me during one winter session. “Therapists have slept with clients before, just like politicians have had sex with their interns. But, so you have a full understanding of how this works, we can date.” She explains the parameters as outlined in the social worker’s code of ethics. One of the many stipulations is that we wouldn’t be able to see each other, under any circumstances, for at least two years before dating. She tells me she loves her job, and there’s no way she would ever sacrifice my safety or her career for anything, so she would strictly follow all the dictated rules. “If you truly want to date me, there is the option. But it’s ultimately up to you.”

I know what she’s doing here — putting the onus on me, just like last year when she said we could have sex. The difference this time is the answer I want to give is on par with all of my involuntary urges.

“I don’t want to stop the work we’re doing,” I say. “At this point, it’s far too valuable to me, and, really, I know very little about you.” She’s beautiful, exercises, is smart, funny, professional, enjoys good TV…and that’s about it. Aside from whether or not we’d even both be single in two years, and if we’d be in the correct mind frame to explore a relationship, there are several other things I’m considering here: Would Lori and I really be compatible in every way? Would she ever see me as a lover, a partner, an equal, and not a patient? Could I ever reveal a detail about myself, or even just a shitty day of work, without wondering if she was picking it apart and analyzing it?

Frankly, all those questions could be answered in the positive. But, even if I wasn’t in a happy relationship — Shauna makes this choice much easier, for sure — I wouldn’t go that route. I’d be out a therapist.

* * *

It’s a beautiful spring night in New York and only sidewalk seating will do. Shauna and I are out to dinner at a restaurant near her Queens apartment, and we’re both in good spirits. The weather and the alcohol consumption are partly to blame for that, but, on cue with the season’s change, I feel I’ve turned an emotional corner. Work payments that were past due are finally finding their way into my bank account. As it turns out, my short-term money troubles were not an indication that I had no business being a writer, or that my life changeup was as irresponsible as unprotected sex at fourteen years old.

I’d told Lori as much that afternoon. I took a mental step back from my current situation and realized that in spite of my recent hardships, I was succeeding. I summarize my session for Shauna, who nods in agreement, lovingly pointing out that she’s had the same challenging freelancer experiences as a dancer.

“You’re doing great, babe,” she says matter-of-factly.

“Thank you. That means a lot,” I respond. “I guess if I’m going to be a writer I just have to accept all this and have faith in myself. The way Lori put it was, ‘You just have to go all-in.’”

“Good,” Shauna says. “You should listen to the women in your life.”

* * *

Liked this story? Our editors did too, voting it one of our 20 best untold tales!

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I’m Married. I’m a Woman. I’m Addicted to Porn.

Countless couples have tackled the taboo subject of racy videos and illicit orgasms. What happens when it’s the woman who can’t stop watching?

This story features explicit situations that may not be suitable for all audiences.

It’s past two a.m. and my husband’s breathing has become long and even. An opportunity presents itself. I slip my right hand down my pajama pants and move slowly, careful not to bump my elbow into his side rib, or bring my hips into it. Too much movement or sound will wake him, and to be found out for something like this is not just embarrassing but potentially destructive. He’ll think he doesn’t satisfy me, and men do not like feeling inadequate, especially when it comes to matters of the bedroom. Or maybe he’ll feel sorry for me. And who wants to fuck someone they pity?

Even worse, maybe he’ll finally say the words I’ve been waiting for him to say since I first told him that I am a sex addict. That he’s bored with it. He’s disgusted. He’s had enough.

I lift my wrist away from my body. I’m careful to keep my breath from becoming a pant, even as my pulse quickens, but this takes much concentration. The body desires the convulsion the mind denies. There is no letting go here though. This orgasm is a controlled, measured, calculated experience.

I have masturbated in this way next to the sleeping bodies of all my serious, committed partners who came before my husband. In some cases, as expected, it was because I wanted more sex than they could give me. I’ve been called “insatiable” and “demanding” one too many times. But this has not always been the story. Yes, I have an incredibly high sex drive, but even in relationships where I have great sex multiple times a week my nighttime stealth for self-pleasure has persisted.

My college boyfriend, burgundy haired and tattooed, had the high sex drive typical of most nineteen-year-old males. We fucked all the time, but even still, I wanted more, something only I could give me. One afternoon, after he’d fallen into a deep post-sex slumber, I serviced myself with my second, third, and fourth orgasm beside him. That was the first time I’d experienced such a level of both secrecy and shame.

I made a promise to my husband and to myself, long before we were even wed, to be austerely honest. He knows I’ve been a compulsive masturbator since I was twelve years old. He knows about my extensive fluency in the hardcore categories of various porn sites. He knows about the bad habit I used to have of hooking up with not-so-nice men because they were available and I was bored — and that I rarely used protection with any of them. And that I believed, for a really long time, that my addiction made me a broken person, a disgusting person, a person unworthy of love. I told him these things from the start because I met him at a time in my life where I was ready and open for change. Because I liked him so much that I wanted to love him. Because I knew that the only way to love him, and be loved by him, was to be myself.

* * *

“What’s your favorite porn scene?”

The man who will become my husband in less than a year asks me this question as he lies naked and vulnerable beside me. We’ve just had sex and although I am naked too, it isn’t until this moment that I feel just as vulnerable as him. While it might seem absurd to some, I know immediately this is a moment of great significance for us. It is an opportunity to finally do things differently.

The possibilities run through my head.

I can describe something vanilla: This one where a busty blonde gets banged by her personal trainer. Or perhaps something a little more racy: These two hot teens swap their math teacher’s cum after he made them stay late in the classroom. Chances are he’ll get hard again and we’ll end up abandoning the conversation for a second round. These are harmless answers. Expected answers.

They’re also lies.

The possibility of revealing the actual truth not only makes me nervous, but also physically sick. I feel a constriction in the back of my throat, a flutter in my belly, a tremble in my extremities. After all, we’ve only been dating a couple of months and he doesn’t love me yet. If I tell him, will he ever?

“Why do you ask?” I reach for the sheet, damp with sweat, a tangle of 300-thread-count cotton across our limbs, and yank it up to cover my breasts.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Curiosity?” He turns over on his side and props his head up on his left hand. His green eyes are wide with wonder.

“Seems like a weird question.” I tuck the sheet into my armpits and scoot my body a little to the left so we’re no longer touching. The tone of my voice has become defensive and he can tell.

“It’s just that I usually pick the porn,” he explains. “Do you like what I choose?”

I see what he’s doing. He’s trying to be considerate since we just had sex while staring at the laptop screen after searching terms of his choosing: Latina, real tits, blow job, threesome.

Maybe he feels guilty for getting off to them instead of me, even though I’m the one who suggested we watch porn in the first place. Even though I’m always the one who suggests we watch porn while we have sex.

“Yeah, sure.” I look up at the ceiling. “They’re fine.”

“Are you sure?”

I wish he’d stop prying, but I realize something else is happening here. Not only is he trying to be considerate; he’s also trying to get to know me. The past couple of months has allowed us to cover most of the basics — what ended each of our most recent relationships, what our parents are like, what we hope to do with our lives in the next few years — but there’s still a longing for something deeper, and I can’t think of anything deeper than knowing a person’s favorite porn scene.

It can speak volumes. For one scene to stand out amongst the rest, when so many others are available, there has to be something below the surface. What maintains its appeal? What keeps a person returning in the deep, dark recesses of a lonely night? Perhaps the answers to these questions are a great source of shame. I never thought of revealing such answers to anybody, and especially not somebody like him, somebody I could really like. It seems far too risky, preposterous even.

It also seems necessary. Too many of my past relationships were doomed by my inability to tell the whole truth, to fully be myself. Now I have the opportunity to go there, and to say to a person, “This is who I am. Do you accept me?”

“Well, there’s this one gang bang,” I start, looking over at his face to see a reaction of surprise and interest register at once.

“Go on.”

I take a deep breath and proceed to tell him, first slowly, then progressively faster about the scene. Like a busted dam, I can hardly hold back the rush of descriptors fumbling from my mouth: “Two women in a warehouse. One dangling from a harness. The other just below her. Both are waiting to take on fifty horny men…” and on and on.

I watch his face the whole time, not pausing when his smile becomes a frown and his eyes squint as if it hurts to look at me.

“Afterward, the women exit the warehouse through a back door while the men applaud.”

For a long moment after I’ve finished talking, there is silence between us, but there is also a sense of relief on my part. I have revealed something so dark, so upsetting, so impacted in shame, and he hasn’t immediately disappeared. He is still here beside me, propped up on his left hand, naked and vulnerable, and so am I. He sees me and I see him seeing me and we are in new territory.

But then he says, “I kind of wish I hadn’t asked.” It’s all I need to hear to send me into tears. Not just tiny, embarrassed sobs, but humiliated wails. I have myself a tantrum. He is confused now as he pulls me close to him, laughing nervously at my abrupt shift in disposition. I try to pull the sheet completely over my head, but he pulls it back down and covers my face with apologetic kisses. He can’t possibly understand why I’m crying. He can’t possibly know what I’ve just revealed to him. “What’s going on? Baby, what’s wrong?”

And so I tell him.

* * *

Addiction to porn and masturbation is often grouped under general sex addiction because they all have to do with escape via titillation, pursuit and orgasm, but I’ve always felt more pathetic about my predilections. Going out and fucking — even someone you don’t really like — is wild, dangerous, but essentially social and shared. Though I had periods of promiscuity throughout my twenties, my biggest issue has always been with what I do alone.

There’s something so sad and humiliating in imagining a person locked away in a dark room, hot laptop balanced on chest, turning the volume down low, scrolling, scrolling, choosing, watching, escaping, coming.

And then realizing that person is me.

But my proclivity for solo pleasure has strong, stubborn roots. I lost my virginity to a water faucet when I was twelve years old. I have Adam Corolla and Dr. Drew to thank for this life-shaking experience; it was their late-night radio show “Loveline” on L.A.’s KROQ that served as my primary means of sex ed during my pre-teen years. This technique is one of the many things I learned, but I had a whole other kind of education going on, which had long filled my head with other ideas — sex is something that happens between a man and woman who love each other; masturbation is a sin. You know, your typical run-of-the-mill Catholic guilt stuff.

Just as oppressive as the Catholic guilt was my femininity. Girls weren’t talking about masturbation and sex. I had no company with whom to share my new activities and interests. And so this silence morphed into shame. I became a pervert, a loser, a sinner.

I tried to stop myself from taking long baths, from late-night undercover activities, from being alone too long, but the more I obsessed about stopping, the more I could not. I joined shame, secrecy and pleasure in a daily orgy, whether I was tired, bored, angry or sad. Whether I was single or coupled, it didn’t matter. Getting off required all of these components and I needed new, more extreme methods to stay engaged — more hours sucked away watching progressively harder porn like the warehouse video, complemented with dabbles in strip clubs, peep shows and shady massage parlors. It became impossible to get off during sex without fantasy, my body over-stimulated to numbness. I was irritable unless I was fucking or masturbating or planning to do either of these things. Life revolved around orgasm to the detriment of any kind of real progress in my professional or social existence.

I was out of control.

* * *

Little did I know that describing my favorite porn scene would be the first of many future admissions that would help peel back, layer by layer, a long and exhausting history of self loathing. My future husband and I quickly learned that watching porn during sex wasn’t a harmless kink for us; it was a method I’d long used to remain disconnected from my partners. It took much discipline and patience for us to expel it from our relationship altogether, though every now and then we slip up.

Talking about my habits led me to examine them, which ultimately led to my desire for change. Holding a secret for too long is like being unable to take a full breath. I didn’t want to feel this way anymore. I needed to share — often and fully — what had for too long been silenced in order to reclaim who I was underneath my addiction. I needed to breathe again.

I found relief in Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meetings, seeing a therapist I trusted, attending personal development courses like the Hoffman Process and writing about my journey. I’ve managed to move away from porn for the most part, but when it comes to this addiction — to something I don’t have to seek out or purchase — control is like a wayward horse and my ass is always slipping off the saddle.

I constantly struggle with whether or not I should give up porn completely, but until I find a way to have some moderation with it, I avoid it as best I can. I wish I could just watch it occasionally, as some sort of supplement to my active sex life, but the whole ritual of watching porn is tangled up in too many other negative emotions. Watching porn takes me back to being that little girl alone in her bedroom, feeling ashamed and helpless to stop it. I can’t just watch one clip without needing to watch another after that, and another, until hours have passed and I’m back to binging every night.

If my husband leaves me alone all day and idleness leads me to watching porn, it’s the first thing I confess upon his return. Sometimes I don’t even have to say it. He can tell by my downturned eyes and my noticeable exhaustion. He shakes his head and takes me in his arms as I make another promise to try to leave it alone. When I visited a peep show on a recent work trip out of town, he seemed more amused than upset about the whole thing.

Unfortunately, I have yet to be as generous. If I find he’s been watching porn without me, when I’ve struggled to abstain for a stretch of time, I react with what might seem like unjustified rage. This frustration is only rooted in envy.

* * *

Masturbating beside my husband while he sleeps is the last secret I’ve kept from him. Although I’m beginning to fear that it’s actually just the latest secret. My resistance in telling him only proves how fragile recovery is. This week it’s masturbation. But maybe next week it’s back to porn binging. Or obsessive scrolling through Craigslist personals. Or lying about my whereabouts. And so forth. Abstaining from these habits, when so readily available, without abstaining from sexual pleasure completely, or the shame I’ve long bound to it, is a challenge I face daily.

That’s why I need to tell my husband.

Not because I need his permission, his forgiveness or to offer him some act of contrition. But because I need him to see me. To witness. The act of telling the truth, especially about something that makes us ache, is often the only absolution we need.

Want to know more? Check out our behind-the-scenes interview with Erica Garza on Continuing the Narrative.