Being Vulnerable: How bad sex made me more human


Below is an excerpt from the opening address at the Challenging Behaviours Conference at the Kirribilli Club on Sept 6.

I am not standing here because I am an expert on the subject of vulnerability.

Or because I wrote a book about blowjobs and bad sex.

In fact, I shouldn’t be here at all. I wrote this talk three times. Three different versions. The first time I focused on what science could tell me about vulnerability. The second time, I looked at the psychologist’s point of view.

I decided to be honest. I really only know what I have observed about vulnerability, in myself and others.
So here are my thoughts – with a literary bent because it is the words of poets and writers who have taught me the most about vulnerability.

We are all vulnerable at different times in our lives.

When we are alone, when we are in a crowd, when we don’t fit in, feel different or just feel wrong.
We are vulnerable when we admit we are wrong, we are vulnerable when we tell the truth, and when we don’t know the truth.

And when we are vulnerable, we learn something about ourselves.

Something important. We learn what matters most to us. Because when we are vulnerable we have something to lose. And when we have something to lose, our senses are heightened and we are able, and perhaps willing to see another part of ourselves.

As a writer, I trawl through vulnerability. It is one of our most beautiful traits and like grief it can open us up and shed light on our human-ness.

Well known researcher and writer on human connection Brene Brown said:

Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable.

Writing about love, surely our most stunning human trait of all, was a challenge.

Love changed my main character Bernie, every cell in her body burned and when that love fell apart, so did she.

I am not talking about romantic love, but connectedness, when we see ourselves in the eyes of another.

But what about the bad sex? What has this got to do with vulnerability?

When Bernie’s world fell apart she mistook grief for punishment, and sought refuge in online chatrooms.
When she chatted and met with men who had online names like makemecum or hornyforyou, it was obvious she was putting herself in risky situations.
Her shame highlighted her unworthiness and part of that was connecting with other unworthy people.

Online, these men wanted nothing more than a physical transaction to quell their loneliness.
In real life, they wanted more. They wanted to talk, to connect; they wanted to be touched, not just on their skin but in their hearts. Her own heart was too broken, but along the bumpy path of meaning less sex, a human-ness in themanforyou and pumpuhard came through.
They were as sad as she was. As vulnerable as she was.

We are all reaching out for someone else. We all want to connect.

I have been asked in many interviews how much of my fiction book is true. I have emails from readers who have said they have had similar experiences on the internet or when they reconnected with a past love.
I started the writing of my story as a memoir. I pretended no one would ever read what I had written.

My own heartache and falling down was not something I wanted the rest of the world to read. Needless to say I felt very exposed- and vulnerable.

But there was that flip side that often comes with vulnerability – I felt free.

By turning my memoir into fiction I could tell a story that offered, I hope, insight onto one woman’s vulnerability.

In my book, the brutal sex scenes have been judged by some readers.

Too confronting one said. Like watching a traffic accident and not being able to turn away, another said. I make no apologies for that. That was how it was.

Despite the confronting sexual situations I found myself in, it wasn’t about the sex. It was about loneliness and escape.

It was about being afraid to show vulnerability. If I had been able to admit I was vulnerable, that I needed to be held and I needed support, there were many people in my life who I could have turned to.

But shame kept me quiet.

And shame kept it a secret.

It was as if the very shape of me had changed.

There were times, if I am honest with you, in my darkness that the emotions of vulnerability and shame overwhelmed me and I wanted to put an end to it. Through drugs, alcohol and death.

It was Virginia Woolf who said,

If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.


I’m glad I made it past my own demons. I am glad I learnt that vulnerability doesn’t weaken you, embracing it makes you stronger.
It made me who I am today.

I feel things in a big way. But now I know how to harness that.

In all the noise out there- in the media, online, in our lives . . . and all the noise in our heads – we have to look after ourselves.

We have to allow ourselves to make mistakes. And by embracing our fragility, we can be better human beings and understand the vulnerabilities of others.

Brene Brown, in her wisdom said :

The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle are:
me too.

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