When I call Karley Sciortino, my hands are shaking. Only a little bit, but still. I read Slutever the summer after my junior year of high school and have been following her ever since, watching her interview dominatrixes and sex-robot engineers and the women behind Mormon porn. (It’s real. Google it.) She picks up on the first ring, and immediately I hear that oh-so-familiar voice. I stutter my way into an introduction, frantically scanning my list of questions for her. I, like, really don’t want to fuck this up. She’s warm, though, and immediately starts telling me about her quarantine in LA. She just moved to the West Coast and is now stuck in an apartment with her boyfriend of three years and their dog. The apartment is big enough that they don’t have to hear every syllable of each other’s Zoom calls, but still—quarantine is trying. Karley’s dealing by kickboxing. Oh, and she’s started a podcast, Love in Quarantine. Each episode centers on a different facet of intimacy a lá corona: diminishing libidos, live-streamed weddings, domesticity ad infinitum.
It feels like every twenty-or-thirty-something in a burgeoning coastal city has started a podcast in quar, but what sets Love in Quarantine apart is that it’s good. It’s smart and self-aware, a natural extension of the sociological work Karley’s been doing for years. In honor of the pod’s final episode recently airing and the global crisis that is corona horniness, I asked Karley about everything from Carrie Bradshaw to the slutty silver lining of bad sex.
Lithium Magazine: Did you start the podcast so that you had something to do? Or do you think it was more so a continuation of the work you’d been doing in a new format because of quarantine?
Karley Sciortino: I think it’s a combination of those things. During [quarantine], if you can find a way to fill your time and feel productive or passionate, that’s a major gain. What’s been the most connective for me is hearing other people’s stories. People are suffering in a lot of different ways—whether it’s because someone in your family is sick or you’re taking care of three kids or you and your boyfriend are fighting a lot. So, selfishly, being able to talk to people about that stuff feels good for me—but I also hope that these conversations will be helpful for other people. We’re all OD-ing on horrible news right now, so the podcast is optimistic. It takes people’s struggles seriously but has a sense of humor about all the sex and relationship stuff we’re dealing with right now.
Lithium: I was listening to the episode about FaceTime dates the other day, and I loved when you said that sex is a shortcut to intimacy. Right now, we aren’t being afforded that easy out. I’m wondering what you thought of Too Hot to Handle, when its whole premise is that abstaining from sex allows for more emotional connections to be made. It seems antithetical to a lot of your work.
Karley: It is antithetical to a lot of what I’ve written about. One of the things I find most interesting about quarantine is that a lot of people are dating now without sex, which is something our generations don’t even consider. For us, sex often comes before love—it’s almost like sex is an interview where you assess whether or not you want to go on a date or dedicate real time to the person. That’s indicative of how far we’ve progressed in terms of sexuality. As women, we can sleep with people that we’re dating on dates one, two, or three and we’re not shunned from society or labeled “damaged goods,” you know? It’s a sign that the sexual double standard is beginning to fade and that we’re beginning to rectify a massive history of cultural slut-shaming. All those things are really positive and are part of the reason why I can have a career writing about sex. But I think it’s naive to not acknowledge that with these cultural gains, we’ve lost something. We don’t have the experience of long-term courtship or pining for someone or falling in love before having sex. And those are valid experiences too.
Lithium: I see the merit of what the show is trying to do, but so many of my friends’ relationships started with hookups. And that’s really the blueprint for people my age right now. I don’t know anyone who’s following long-term courtship. But those are still people making valid, meaningful emotional connections, and they were born from physical connections.
Karley: That’s the thing. I met my boyfriend and other people I was dating by having sex early on and establishing a deep connection through sex. And conversation and blah blah blah. (Laughs) But I think it’s worth trying the waiting, too. I was forced into waiting once when I dated this guy who was like, “I’ve never felt comfortable having sex early on, and when I’ve tried I literally didn’t get a boner and my dick was telling me it wasn’t for me.” So we dated for a month before we had sex. We were calling each other boyfriend and girlfriend before sex, which is, for me, completely unheard of. That first time we had a full penetrative sexual experience, it did feel different. It felt meaningful in a different way. There’s something about delayed gratification that makes something exciting and deep. Is it better? I don’t know. Did I keep doing that? No. But I did think that it was worth having the experience.
Lithium: I think that’s valid.
Karley: It’s kind of vulnerable, right? To have to just talk and talk? You can’t just use that crutch of, “Oh, yeah, I’m going to grab your dick.” (Laughs)
Lithium: I also really liked when you said that quarantine is an intensifier, which is why we’re going to see more marriages and divorces and a higher birth rate after quarantine. What do you think the dating landscape is going to look like when this all ends?
Karley: In the fifth episode of the podcast, we interview Dr. Lehmiller, a researcher at the Kinsey Institute studying how this pandemic is affecting relationships. And [in the ninth] episode I interview Dr. Helen Fisher, an anthropologist who studies love and intimacy. I essentially was asking both of them—what’s going to come out of this? Is everyone going to be on a fucking slut rampage? Or is there going to be a period of people looking for more stability? Both of them said that after being in crisis, you often see people pushed to make bigger commitments. People’s priorities shift. Maybe the idea of slutty, sexual freedom doesn’t seem as sexy anymore.
Lithium: Totally. Even beyond priorities, logistically you’re just not going to be going to clubs and making out with random guys anymore because of coronavirus. So I feel like casual sex isn’t going to be as prominent as it was before, if only because of health reasons.
Karley: That’s spot on. We have to be more careful about who we choose to be intimate with. You look at the AIDS epidemic—that changed the way people had sex. It was an end to that period of sexual experimentation and revolution.
Lithium: I also think it’s really interesting that you said people can’t curate their presentation as much over FaceTime dates, when in my experience I’ve felt the complete opposite. I can control the angles a guy sees me in and what parts of my room I show him, et cetera. Do you think there’s room for people to hypercurate how they’re perceived on virtual dates?
Karley: Right. I can put on a fucking filter. You know how on Zoom—I just learned this, there’s a filter where your skin looks smoother.
Lithium: It’s like Facetune.
Karley: Yeah, and I use it! (Karley and Olivia laugh.) You’re totally right. You’re angling yourself so your double chin is hidden and there’s light shining on your face. You can strategically place smart-person books behind you. I guess it’s different sorts of posturing, because—okay, so tell me if you think this is true. There have been many times where I’ve gone on, like, four dates with somebody, and you have an idea of them, who they are, and then you go back to their apartment and you’re like, “Wait, what?”
Lithium: Yes! Also—I’ve always felt like I’ll do anything once and that I collect experiences so that I can write about them, and I’m wondering if that’s ever been the case for you. Have you ever done anything just so you could write about it later?
Karley: Oh, 100%. That was my whole 20s. (Laughs) Having a blog about sex was an additional incentive or maybe just the courage I needed to do something that I maybe wouldn’t have done otherwise. Like, “Should I go home with this guy? Should I have this threesome? Well, it would be a good story.”
Lithium: Exactly. You have to.
Karley: Right! Or it’s like, “Well, this is the sort of identity I’ve crafted for myself.” Which is kind of sad, because then you wonder—am I doing something because this is who I am or am I doing this to fulfill this sort of brand that I’ve created about who I am? It’s a gray area. Do I think you should have sex with someone just for the story? No. But I think that we all tell ourselves stories all the time about who we are and often it’s ideas of who we are that are motivating our behavior.
Lithium: I know that, in my experience, the most unrealistic part of Sex and the City was Carrie being able to write about sex and relationships without any of the guys in her life caring or bringing it up with her. I’m wondering if your writing has made dating harder, or if there are ethical standards you feel like you have to ascribe to when writing about people you actually know.
Karley: Good point about Carrie. And none of her friends, either! But no, it’s had a huge impact on my dating life. I mean, I started my blog when I was 21 and had a boyfriend at the time who I’d been dating for a few years. My blog was a pretty big factor in our breakup because he didn’t like that I was talking about my sexual experiences before him. I hadn’t learned how to be respectful of other people’s privacy or my partner’s feelings in my writing, so I was just doing whatever I wanted. I eventually realized I didn’t want to hurt people or make them feel like their privacy had been invaded, so now I ask ahead of time. I don’t think that being a woman writing about sex is alienating to every single guy, but I do think it’s alienating to a lot of them. Is that your experience?
Lithium: I don’t think I look so much like a relationship person to them as I do a hookup person because that’s what they see in the writing, which sucks. Have you ever felt pressured to write about other subject material just to prove to people that you’re more than sex?
Karley: That’s such a good question. The prime genre of email I get from guys is like, “You know, you don’t have to write about sex to have validitity!” A lot of it is this weird, delusional idea that they’re the only person who can truly see me, like, “A lot of people think that you just write about sex in a superficial way, but I know that you’re actually really smart.”
Lithium: Oh my god.
Karley: It’s like—LOL, thanks? Thank you, white knight savior with a fucking Yahoo email address! I now feel like a valid person. Those people are idiots. Also, you can write about whatever you want. Do I think the only thing I’m going to write about for the rest of my life is sexuality? No. What I’m writing about has changed over time given my situation. I used to write a lot more about casual sex, and now that I’m in a relationship I find myself writing more about long-term relationships. You write about what feels relevant to you at the time. I imagine if I have kids, that’ll be what I’m writing about. As your life changes, your priorities shift and your interests shift.
Lithium: Have you ever had guys expect a certain degree of sexuality from you because of your work? How do you grapple with that?
Karley: Yeah, you kind of feel like you have to be down for anything. And then you end up doing stuff you’re actually not down for because you’re trying to live up to some internet brand that you created. That was really detrimental for me. It’s self-compromising. But a certain kind of person is going to see you in that two-dimensional way and then a lot of people won’t, and those are the people that are more worth your time.
Lithium: How do you walk that line of oversharing versus censoring yourself when writing about intimate experiences?
Karley: I’ve gotten better at understanding when I’m saying something for shock value versus something genuinely vulnerable. When something feels uncomfortable to say, that’s vulnerable. It’s like what you were saying—writing something because you think it’s cool to say or makes you come off in a certain way versus saying something that offers a real experience or complicated emotion.
Lithium: Do you have any tips for young sluts?
Karley: Sexual curiosity is an incredible quality that, for me, has satisfied a sense of adventure and put me into bizarre, funny, surprising situations that I never would’ve found myself in otherwise. But I would be prepared for the fact that not every sexual encounter is going to be a great, connective LOL-fest. It’s high-risk, high-reward, right? You’re going to have a threesome that you leave feeling jealous or uncomfortable or left out. Or you’re going to go to a sex party and then be like, “Oh my God, I felt so exposed.” These crappy situations are par for the course, and I want to make the distinction between sexual assault and shitty, uncomfortable dates or sexual experiences. So if you can, remind yourself that all these kinds of situations are learning experiences. We come out of these things wiser, stronger, more resilient, more aware of what we like and dislike. And with more funny stories. Not every sexual experience has to be 10/10, fucking transcendent and enlightening. Just think of these things as learning experiences.
Photo by Ben Taylor for Interview Magazine