On the Aesthetics and Fragility of the Body
Ayden LeRoux is an interdisciplinary artist, writer, critic, and educator whose work explores embodiment, eroticism, and illness, in order to complicate narratives about gender, sexuality, and family structures. Her essays, fiction, and translation have been published in Guernica, Catapult, Electric Lit, Los Angeles Review of Books, Cosmonauts Avenue, Palimpsest, edibleManhattan, and Alchemy, among others. She is the Assistant Director of Odyssey Works, a collaborative performance group, and the author of Odyssey Works: Transformative Experiences for an Audience of One (co-written with Abraham Burickson, Princeton Architectural Press, 2016) and Isolation and Amazement (Samsara Press, 2013). Their work has been features in The New York Times, ArtInfo, Newsweek, BOMB, Hyperallergic, the Marina Abramovic Institute, Vulture, NPR's Studio 360, Fast Company, and San Francisco Magazine. She teaches Disability and Popular Culture at UCSD.
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Lianne: I'm Lianne. Welcome to Strippers and Sages.
Today, I'm speaking with Ayden LeRoux, an interdisciplinary artist, writer, critic, and educator whose work explores embodiment, eroticism, and illness, in order to complicate narratives about gender, sexuality, and family structures. Her essays, fiction, and translation have been published in Guernica, Catapult, Electric Lit, Los Angeles Review of Books, Cosmonauts Avenue, Palimpsest, edibleManhattan, and Alchemy, among others. She is the Assistant Director of Odyssey Works, a collaborative performance group, and the author of Odyssey Works: Transformative Experiences for an Audience of One (co-written with Abraham Burickson, Princeton Architectural Press, 2016) and Isolation and Amazement (Samsara Press, 2013). Their work has been features in The New York Times, ArtInfo, Newsweek, BOMB, Hyperallergic, the Marina Abramovic Institute, Vulture, NPR's Studio 360, Fast Company, and San Francisco Magazine. She teaches Disability and Popular Culture at UCSD.
Hi, Ayden, thank you so much for being here with me today. It's really great to have you.
Ayden: It's great to be here.
Lianne: So you are the assistant director of Odyssey Works. Can you start by just introducing Odyssey Works, and how you got involved? What your praxis is? Give us a sense of what it means to have an Odyssey experience.
Ayden: Yeah. So I'm the assistant director of Odyssey Works. I've been working with them since 2011. So just about nine years now, and Odyssey Works is an interdisciplinary performance group. So we work with all different kinds of artists and we study the life of one individual in order to make a bespoke transformative experience for that person. So usually we spend about six months researching their life and then asking ourselves what we wish for them. And it's a very intimate process. And we once we ask what we wish for them, we start thinking about what experiences we can create that will help evoke that sort of emotional trajectory, whatever that looks like.
Lianne: So you've described it before as an exercise in empath, and the magic of paying sustained intimate attention to another person. And I think there's an inherent eroticism in that kind of intimacy, right? In fact, when I took one of your workshops, we spoke about how it becomes almost impossible not to fall a little bit in love with a person once you've come to understand their fears and desires and seen the world through their eyes. So I'd love for you to talk about the role of empathy in Odyssey's work and also about how you think about empathy and eroticism, and how this idea of sustained attention might be applied to sex and intimacy.
Ayden: Yeah, you know, I think I was drawn to the work initially because it was such an intimate and vulnerable experience for me. I was trained as a visual artist and also as a writer, and I've always been interested and drawn to work that has that quality of real vulnerability. And in a lot of ways, I think I came to Odyssey Works through this sense of like, what would it be like for any creative work to feel like you're sending a letter to someone, and I've had a long letter writing process or practice, and always really loved mail. And something about that like DIRECT address and speaking to someone intimately, I think creates a very different quality of discourse and conversation. And so for me, our work, starting with empathy, I think is so profound because it allows us to connect with a complete stranger in a way that we never would. So the people who applied to receive Odysseys, we do about one a year, sometimes two, but very rarely. And then people who apply are so different and they come from, like, it's such a cheesy phrase, but all walks of life. And it's a moment for us as a team of artists to really empathetically understand experiences that are different from ours and offer care. Like to me, also, the act of empathizing isn't enough if it doesn't then extend into this mode of care or generosity and all of our performances are given as gifts. So they're free. And we find other means of funding, whether it's through commissions or through... now we offer classes that we're teaching about our practice in order to help fund an Odyssey that is given as a gift. And sometimes we're funded by festivals or we fundraise. But no matter the case, it's always given as a gift. And I think, inherently, you know, we're really good at giving gifts to our romantic partners. And that's because we're so intimate and close to them. And so I think I'm diverging a little bit from your question, but I think inherently empathy and care and intimacy and vulnerability are all part of this, like, contralateral thing where they're related and they're in conversation with each other. And I think maybe that what's unusual about our work is that these people are strangers. And so we're used to care and empathy and intimacy and vulnerability all being in conversation with the people that were most intimate with, whether it's family or friends or romantic partners, sexual partners, but this is with a complete stranger. Was there a part of the question that I missed? I think I sort of meandered away.
Lianne: No! We'll just keep digging into it. I was thinking that there's an idea of reciprocity as well, right? And real vulnerability on the part of someone who receives that experience. They're really handing themselves over to, to you, to Odyssey Works, to the people who are creating this. There's a complete surrender, right? Someone who signs up has no idea what they're in for. And so I think there's that submissiveness that has has a relation to-
Ayden: Okay, yeah, it's funny cause there are some of these like cues in terms of consent in the work, where every performance before they sign the waiver, we give them a safe word if they ever need to leave some part of it. And we think really carefully before the performance begins about interviewing their friends and family about the sort of like red tape. Where should we not go? Just because we have access to all of their life doesn't mean that we're necessarily going to use it. You know, you don't want to exploit it.
Lianne: Well, I'm thinking that maybe this still sounds a little abstract as a concept. So I'm wondering if you could give an example or a few small examples of the type of experience or moments from experiences to help somebody listening who's never heard of your work visualize in some way what we're talking about.
Ayden: Yeah. It's hard to select.
Ayden: So I mean, it's funny because this is how I got involved. As a documentarian. Because it is so hard to capture and give a really good sense of the performances. I can tell you actually- I received an Odyssey.
Ayden: I can tell you a little bit about my Odyssey because in some ways maybe it's clearer what the impact is. So in November 2016, I was about to move to Texas and leave New York. I lived in New York for a very long time and I was moving to Texas with my then partner, and I have a genetic mutation and braca one positive so I have a predisposition for breast and ovarian cancer, and have been told that I'm... Doctors recommend prophylactic surgery. Preventative surgery, mostly like roughly around the age of 35. Or sometime there before- my grandmother got this when she was 34. And they usually say like 10 years before the earliest incidents of cancer. So I'm risking it. I'm 31 now and I'm still just screening. But the Odyssey that I received was a lot about making me feel safe and ready to have those surgeries. And it began by this artist, [she] came and she made a cast of my breasts- like a wax cast-
Lianne: So even before like, do you know the day that it's going to happen?
Ayden: Yeah, yeah.
Lianne: It's that you don't know what's gonna happen.
Ayden: Usually it's like, a weekend, so we set aside dates. So I knew this was happening. I knew I had given the team... you know, it's funny because I anticipated and knew a lot of what the tips and tricks in our toolbox are but I give them, or any participant, gives a list of the friends and family they want to interview in a dream journal. We keep a dream journal list of important places, things like that. And so I woke up I didn't know what was going to happen at all. But this woman came and visited. I hadn't had breakfast, I just like was woken up and this woman, this artist came in and she asked if I felt okay taking my shirt off, and I said, sure. And then she made a cast of my breasts. And then there was like a ton that went on in between there, but this is like one through line. And I was really interested in art that was a pilgrimage. So I really love land art of the 60s and 70s, which are these big monumental works. Most of the time they're out in the desert. And I have had a number of really transcendent experiences there. And in particular, Nancy Holt, this artist who has a work called "Sun Tunnels" in Utah, had really moved me. I had a completely transcendent experience there with my former partner. And so my whole Odyssey ended up being a pilgrimage to another Nancy Holt work that I didn't know about that was in Virginia. And so I was starting in New York. And there were all these really beautiful moments in New York City, with loved ones, with places that I loved. But the whole time what ended up happening was- pilgrims usually carry an offering. And so I ended up carrying this wax mold of my breasts in my backpack the whole day. And then the second day, I was just walking from Maryland, from Baltimore into Virginia, where along this path where I ended up at the Holt piece, and when I got to this Nancy Holt piece I offered up, because you usually leave your offering at the site, the end point of your place of pilgrimage, so I had to give up this mold. It was really, really hard. It felt like very symbolic that I had this representation of my body this like direct imprint of my body. And I had a group of other fellow pilgrims who are with me and we all offered up our own tokens. And for me, I left my cast of my breasts there and I'm using caste and mold interchangeably and I always forget which ones the positive and which one's the negative... And then, a few weeks later, when I moved to Texas, my former partner gave me this candle. And he and my best friend Sandra had made melted down - it turned out, they hadn't left the offerings there - and so they had melted down the cast of my breasts and made it into this candle, which now sits on my desk and it feels like a safe protection. And again, you're missing so many beautiful moments. But that's just like a little snippet.
Lianne: No, I think that captures really beautifully. The empathy piece of tapping into like you said, what do we wish for this person? What does this person need for their own evolution in this life? And so I wonder from your work, what has engaging with that kind of subjectivity taught you about desire, and I know that you also taught sex ed. And so I'm curious too how your work with Odyssey and empathy and desire informed your work teaching at Flex Factory - what kind of education you were giving, what you were hoping to impart there?
Ayden: Yeah, you know, it's so interesting. I've always felt like I'm... and I don't always say vocalize this because I think sex work is really stigmatized. But I think there is a lot of overlap in the way that Odyssey Works attends to and cares for people, and the realm of sex work and the level of care and empathy and attention to detail that goes into crafting an experience for a client. And I have friends who are sex workers, and that's partly just coming out of conversations with them, and what it's like for them. Um, but I think really, for me, teaching sex ed felt very related to my work with Odyssey Works, even though one I was like on a team of artists, and I was teaching sex ed as an individual artist, and I think a lot of it has to do with curiosity and the, you know, the list of 30 questions: to fall in love with anyone, do, like ask these questions. Those have always felt really kindred in spirit to the Odyssey Works questionnaire, which is how people apply to receive an Odyssey. They fill out this long questionnaire that asks them questions that are quite similar to that study that was done. And I think people just aren't trained to be curious. And so it was really interesting to bring a similar sort of like, curiosity and openness and non-judgmental perspective. And that was really what I was teaching was essentially- how do you communicate your desire? This was also pretty neat too, but I think in a place or a time of heightened awareness around sexual assault and sexual violence against women. And so, to me, there's this real question around consent, how do you express what you want, but also not feel like you're intruding on someone, and how can you really be true to yourself but also not be scared of your own desires? Because I think to me, that's where a lot of the like gray areas of consent and crossing barriers happens, because people don't know how to sort of like, appropriately express desire that doesn't feel needful or aggressive. And so for me to feel very connected in that, there's like an inherent eros to giving anyone and anything attention. I think the big difference with policy works, of course, is that there's not reciprocity. And that's something that's always been really interesting in our process for me is that I as the artist, I'm not as vulnerable as that person who's our participant. And yeah, it's always an interesting thing to navigate. Oftentimes, I want to be friends with our participants afterwards. And I kind of, we always sort of leave it up to that person to decide what kind of relationship they want to have with us, how often they want to be in contact. Most of the time it's like once a year, but it is really hard if you've allowed so many people to be in your life but then you don't know that much about them. Yeah, I think that there is an inherent Eros in attention and, and just care and presence. I mean all these, like, sort of cheesy overused words, but those words gain more power once they're truly active and embodied, I think.
Lianne: And how did you approach those themes in your sex ed course that you were teaching? Was it experiential, or was it lecture? Did you draw on some of the experience design tools?
Ayden: It was all of the above. So there were optional readings each week. It was a month long class once a week, and I had done some one off classes as well for other places. And each week had a theme. And so we talked about different relationship styles in one week. Flex Factory is an amazing artist residency in Queens. And I was particularly interested in presenting this in an art space because I think art spaces are really at the forefront of accepting all different styles of thought. And they're places where the most radical ideas get expressed the earliest in art spaces, I think, and art is a place of protest. And it's a place where we are allowed to have those conversations out in the open, sometimes for the first time. So we talked about the relationship of art and eros and sort of what the task of representing sexuality is in art. And then another week was about sex and community. So because I was in an artist residency, I was interested in talking about, like, dynamics and boundaries that particularly exist within communities and how you navigate them. Because I think oftentimes when I've been in in spaces of community, there's like an unspoken rule that like don't date people within the community. But inevitably, you become closest to those people. So how do you navigate it? If you are within that community and decide to have a relationship. And then the first week was about communicating desire and so, one of the activities that I did, aside from readings, was I gave people practice scripting expressing something that makes them uncomfortable. This is something I had learned in college in a class called the psycho... psychosexuality I think was what it was called? And our professor basically had scripted, like, how can you tell someone that you're interested in scat play? And so essentially it was like you're given this dialogue. And you have to practice just listening and accepting something that maybe feels quite edgy to you. But how do you practice getting curious? And so by having this sort of like roleplay, that wasn't about a particular desire you necessarily have you can get start getting comfortable with what does it mean to listen to someone else's desire and get curious and maybe still say, "No, I'm not interested in you pooping on me. But like, tell me what turns you on about that." Or, "are there other things that we could do that might be related to that, but like, aren't the same?" You know? So it was really just about how do you get comfortable accepting something, rather than like being taken off guard.
Lianne: Mhmm. I love what you're saying about having those conversations in an art space. And I share your interest and passion in recognizing that art really has such a role to play in evolving the conversation around sexuality. And that's why I think erotic art, in particular, has such a role and is an interest of mine. So I'm curious, we had spoken, or we emailed about a syllabus, a mock syllabus you were creating around the idea of: how do you represent sex in writing? And so I'm curious both just what ideas you have as a creator and as a storyteller in terms of how to capture sex and eroticism, through story, through image, through whatever medium, and also what artists or art has moved to you in this realm.
Ayden: Great question. I mean, as you saw from the list are far too many to get to, because sex is everywhere in literature and in art. But I think for me some of the people that I've been reading lately that I'm particularly excited by, I'm just looking over my bookshelf.
Lianne: Yeah. And it doesn't even I mean, I'd love some names. And then, perhaps what is that? What are the themes through that? Or what are what have you learned from those people? And when you think about how, as a creator, how to approach that theme?
Ayden: Well, I think to me, there's a difference between representing sex and having sex. And so I think also, like, clearly fantasy plays into this, right? So we can fantasize things that we never want it in an act right. So, to me good sex writing maybe has nothing to do with my particular taste or what I like, right? Or what anyone likes, or thinks is good. I kind of don't believe in good or bad sex. I just believe in like, people communicating what they want well, and asking for what they want well, but I think like classically good writing of any kind, but particularly about sex is like the strangest specific. And so that's something that Elizabeth McCracken said. She's a writer. And I think about that all the time that like, we don't need another saying it's like about a throbbing member. Like, we've heard that before. So what's the like, specific but weird thing that maybe your imagination wouldn't even come up with? I'm thinking about two scenes in film in particular that have stayed with me that I was actually writing an essay about. One is in Disobedience, and in that Rachel Weisz and Rachel Adams are being intimate and like one of them I think dribbles spit into the other person's mouth. And they think like spit is part of kissing and in all kinds of intimacy, but there's like something so visceral about that like watching this spit come out of her mouth into another woman's mouth. And then I think about the scene in Call Me By Your Name, which like everyone got really worked up about when Timothy Chalamet's character masturbates into a peach, he like pits it and comes inside it. And I think those are like really bizarre and compelling because they're so strange, and they're so specific that you wouldn't think about them. And to me, that's like what's exciting and interesting. I also think a lot about, I just read humiliation by Wayne Koestenbaumis an amazing art critic. And it's a whole book just about humiliation and as a gay man he talks a lot about humiliation of his body of desiring then of a certain kind of sex that's like stereotypical of gay men and cruising and bathrooms. I have to think about like, Ocean Vuong's descriptions in On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous of the characters first time having anal sex. The character has already had other kinds of sex with this man that he's seeing, but the tenderness of... he like doesn't know how, or he hasn't learned how to sort of like evacuate himself. And so there's like this tenderness of being cleaned in her river and I think, yeah, places where there's like unexpected moments and collisions are really interesting to me.
Lianne: Totally. Yeah, I think your thinking about strangeness feels so appropriate because of how idiosyncratic and particular our eroticism is, right? Like the whole concept of queerness is acknowledging both that we are not static and that there's an indeterminacy and, and a particularity to our desire. And so I think you're right, that art can really be a healing and inspiring balm in the realm of sex because it can illustrate just the range as it is in all of the other realms of human activity and emotion for us. So I think that's, yeah, really spot on and beautiful concept and I've just been thinking about, well, what is it in art right? Capital A art that you're describing that does that, for me pornography doesn't often. And, you know, I think maybe there's a delicacy of the treatment or even the artifice is the gateway perhaps, right? Where pornography is both performative yet meant to be actual and real people.
Ayden: I mean, like Agafay has like, the explicit aim of like, you watch this to get off and raise your heart, I think is not bad. And so, if you find it arousing, it's not because you were like, I'm seeking this out. And maybe again, that ties back to the like, unexpected, or particular, where you just get to notice your own responsiveness to something right?
Lianne: Right, totally. You wrote your thesis about the ways that our bodies and our minds are permeable to places, environments, people and art, and that's sort of what we're talking about here, and I've been thinking also especially in quarantine, where I feel like my, my lens and engagement with the world is so much right now through books and films and podcast, right? There's much less direct experience than prior to this pandemic. So also if you think about the erotic or Ebro says this interplayer interpenetration of life forces, it's a similar idea, this exchange. So I'd love to just hear what ideas you were exploring in that thesis. And what led you to be particularly interested in that idea of permeability.
Ayden: Yeah, so it's the book is called Notes On Breathlessness. And it's a book like I say, a piece of nonfiction that's based in my own experience of open relationships and non monogamy. So part of that permeability is just about that. And then there's another component I often admire prose and juxtaposing many different threads. So there's a thread that's about personal experience with non monogamy, there's a thread that's about being asthmatic, and it's just sort of a weird bit of timeliness that I was thinking a lot about breathing for the year coming up to COVID and then it's funny because then I was finishing that I had finished that book and was submitting it right in the middle of the print I'm not kidding and sending it out to agents. And then the third through-line is works of art that are about breath and really I came at it like the project started because I was interested in breathlessness being the like highest praise, I think that one could receive about any work of art or writing, like that left me breathless, and part of the power of that praise is that it's like hearing what an audience or readers physical embodied reaction was. And you can have all the sort of adjectives in the world that are just like it's incendiary. It's magnificent. But I was like, what does that mean? And part of what was interesting to me about the concept of breathlessness was that, like, it's very physical and you know what that is, and looks like in the body of the person reacting. So, I'm just supposing and weaving all these things, thinking about art, thinking about disability, I don't have severe asthma. So I don't really conceptualize it as a disability. But certainly some people have that. So I was thinking about illness and sickness and weakness. And then also the ways that our lungs are permeable. So to me, one of the things that's been really apparent to me about asthma is every place I live, my breathing is different. And so I was thinking about the ways that our bodies are permeable in the spirit, literal way to the environment and the atmosphere around us - the pollen and the levels of dust, and in California, smoke from wildfires - the book starts in the middle of wildfire season. And then I'm also thinking about the way that as an artist, and anyone who's creative and in dialogue with other creatives, that your ideas are influenced and shaped by the art that you see and by the people that you talk with. And so, I was thinking about that too, in terms of dating multiple people, you're having multiple conversations with them, and how do those ideas then sort of like weave their way through your body? Yeah.
Lianne: Yeah, it is. It's that. Again, it's the eroticism of art as well, right? That we can think of other artists and the art that we engage with as - I feel that I have a very intimate relationship with those people and creations, even if I've never personally met those people, sometimes you can develop this intimacy that's even far greater than with the people around you.
Ayden: Or even like I think about, like former lovers or people I've dated and the things that they shared with me like many, many years ago, decades ago, that now I like still revisit and how then those works of art have shaped me. And then I have shared them with other partners that I've had. And yeah, I like to think about that lineage, or that permeability, also sort of like transcending time. And a lot of the book also talks about like astrophysics, and just like thinks about how time is nonlinear, and I think some of that like permeability that we're talking about is about letting the order of things dissolve and like consecutive time not being that interesting. So thinking yeah, just thinking about the ways that like, in some ways someone that I dated 10 years ago is now like influencing who I'm with today, because of me.
Lianne: Who you're with, who you are, what you're making. In your review of Cyrus Grace Dunham's memoir on queerness desire and gender. You wrote, everyone inevitably confronts the fallibilities and betrayals of their own body and the bodies of others, which I think is such an amazing sentiment that you capture. And I have also been thinking right now in this pandemic of how we trust our body, right? Our bodies that can both be sources of absolute pleasure and vitality, and then also the site of agonizing pain and deterioration. And so I'm curious particularly with your history of breast cancer in your family. You wrote also about how it made you start searching for tumors in your budding breast very early on, and how has this knowledge of your genetic predisposition and even now just being part of what it is to be human right now navigating a pandemic, where there's this invisible virus that may or may not kill you - how do you cultivate a trust in the body? The kind of faith that's necessary, I think, for pleasure and sexual engagement.
Ayden: That's a hard question. Well, it's interesting because, so, in thinking about both my relationship to asthma and my genetic mutation, I've become very aware of the weakness of my body and I teach disability and popular culture at UCSD right now. It's been kind of a funny, I like found my way into this. It wasn't necessarily something that I was seeking out originally. But ultimately, I realized that all of my work comes back to disability. And I think a lot about the ways that sickness, illness, like I'm not sick, and I'm really, really fortunate for that. But becoming acquainted with the ways that your body is vulnerable and will fail is something that everyone will encounter in their lifetime. Like when I teach disability and popular culture, one of the first things I say to my students is, first of all, this is the largest minority group, minority quote unquote, group in the United States. It's the largest percentage of the population in terms of a minority group, and also, everyone's body is doomed to fail, even if you're 70, and you, you know, are 75 and you get dementia, that is still that's a disability, we all unless you're killed instantly in a car crash, you're most likely going to become disabled in some capacity, whether it's permanent or temporary in your whole life. And so I think becoming aware of that is really powerful. And then I think, at least in my mind, that translates, or to me like the relationship of writing about eroticism and illness side by side is about first of all, like being held becomes a lot more powerful, I think, when you realize that you could go to pieces in any moment. And I think like your vulnerability comes to the surface more... like to me, sex and intimacy changed a lot after I had that blood test. So that told me about my genetic mutation. The level of trust - like I felt like I couldn't really show up in my body. And I think it'll change even more once I have surgery. It's really hard to be casual or like have casual sex in the same way anymore. Once your body is disabled or alter abled in some capacity, there's like more explaining you have to do. There's less... Your partner can't rely so much on like heteronormative assumptions of what a body is, how it works and what pleases it. So to me, that's the interconnection between the two. And so then the like, contract of care between two people, no matter how casual or serious your intimacy is, becomes a little bit more tight if you have to have a conversation that's about something, anything, any pain, any body weakness or fallibility.
Lianne: It's really all of us too, right? Even if it's not that we're navigating, if we're differently abled in some way, it's again, it's just, here's the idiosyncrasies of my body. And here's the pain that I will feel if this happens and the joy that I will feel if this happens, and in some way, sort of you're having the depth of thought, and this additional reason to have to communicate and deepen the contract of care, I can see how that would directly relate also to you being a sex educator, and to thinking about these things.
Ayden: And I think also like the huge thing that happens in sex with people who are differently abled or queer sex is that like, going back to like my nonlinear astrophysics ramblings about my book is like, nonlinear time, nonlinear expectations of the body are sort of already centralized in queer relationships, and they're already centralized in relationships between people with different levels and abilities, and so the ability to have that conversation doesn't feel quite so radical if you're within a system where that's normalized or a feedback loop, right? And a community that's normalizing that. And that's really like so radically beautiful to me. That there's more upfront transparent care and vulnerability.
Lianne: Totally. How old were you when you took that blood test?
Ayden: I was 24.
Lianne: Okay. But you are aware of the risk from a much younger age?
Ayden: I didn't necessarily. It was more like a hunch. My father's mother died when she was 44. She got sick when she was 34 with breast cancer and she died of ovarian cancer 10 years later. And my dad's an only child and I'm an only child. So there's no other women in the family that I could really trace a history of that through. But I think just as a kid, I could see so deeply how that had shaped my father because his, his mom was, or he was 12 or 13. I think 14. He was right around the cusp of middle and high school. I think he was in high school when she died, and that leaves an impact on anyone to lose a parent, and so I was just very aware of that and, and other people in my father's side of the family have cancer, as well. So I think it was more of just like an intuitive sense. Yeah, but I wasn't counseled properly, I will say, when I got that blood test, the doctor who gave it to me definitely was not explaining the ramifications. I didn't feel understand what it meant or what the potential was and what it would mean if it came back positive.
Lianne: You wrote in your recent essay in Guernica, you described going to this conference on hereditary cancer and that you were looking for other women to fall apart with, but the beige ballrooms deflated you, which is just an exquisite detail. I got everything I needed to know about everyone at that conference from that. And this event just ends up being this big sales pitch by plastic surgeons who are kind of preying on women's pain, which I think is the most disheartening example of our culture's relentless commodification of the female body and exploitation of these hegemonic beauty standards. So you mentioned how none of your doctors like you're saying, a spoke about the sexual implications of the surgeries as well that there might be this loss of libido or sensitivity. And so I'm just curious like what parallels or connections you see in the medical industry's discourse around breast cancer or ovarian cancer, your experience with these at this conference with the plastic surgeons and our dominant cultures' discourse around sex, and how, since you did not find what you were looking for there, you know, what has your sort of process been around navigating some of these themes? Yeah.
Ayden: Well, I will say also that I think I'm a weirdo. And so I'm sure there are women that went to that conference and and did find community. I did meet one one woman who was... I think some of it too is just that it's very rare for women my age to get tested or for women under 30 to be tested. And so I think some of my struggles- I also had gone to support groups and really not enjoyed those. And so some of it had to do with the fact that I just wasn't finding other people like me who were like... especially when I was 24 and single and found out, I was like, what does it mean to hook up with someone or go on a first date, like I really couldn't conceive of what it meant to be robbed of like... you're still young and exploring and dating in this like much more casual way in your 20s, which isn't to say that like in your 40s or 50s, or 60s, you can't do that either. But, I felt sort of robbed in a unique way. And so like, I'm sure there are women who have found great community through that conference and through the support groups, just to me, it felt uncomfortable. And the other thing is, I'm an artist. And so some of my discomfort was like, I'm never going to have a nine to five job, I don't think. And so like my support system. from a professional side of having health insurance and paid time off is a lot different than some of these other women. So some of what I was feeling was just like not at all related to-
Lianne: What they were addressing?
Ayden: Yeah, like we have this one thing in common, but I was like, it's actually quite superficial. Like, I want to find the other young artists who are not taking a stereotypical path in their life and experiencing this. So back to your question, though, I think like the, for me, what is so telling about the way doctors have talked to me is the assumption that you want to be a mother, and that part of your path as a body is to reproduce and I've known very clearly, like this is where I can get really pissed off after doctor's appointments. I have known since I was very young that I didn't want to be a mother. And I think part of the reason that sexuality is not talked about in those rooms, is because your body's importance is viewed primarily through its ability to reproduce. And then that's attached to like being a wife. And so for me, I think that conversation would change a lot if doctors I was it actually listened to me when I said I didn't want kids, they never do. They're like, you're yelling, you'll change your mind, which is also infuriating and fucking condescending. And I've only had one woman who truly listened to me in that realm. And I was like, if that's the case, like, you should have a surgery as soon as possible, but I don't know. I think it's also just like menopause is a mystery. So removing your ovaries, some people don't realize this will send you into menopause immediately. And so, you know, some women may get fine through menopause unscathed. They still have a sex drive. It doesn't change their body's ability to lubricate during sex. And for other women, they feel like they are hollow inside, that the hormonal shift is really extreme, they become very depressed, they lose their sex drive, which if that's a big part of who you are and how you exist in the world is a loss of identity.
Lianne: There's this real theme of Eros and Thanatos, that you're navigating, I think, right?
Ayden: What's Thanatos?
Lianne: Thanatos is the death impulse in Greek mythology. And so what I'm hearing is, okay, you know, you need to have this surgery, the surgery has the potential to greatly decrease your sexual libido. And you get this news at age 24. You know, you don't want to be a mother. And so you could just do it then right and instead you're 31, and you still haven't had this surgery, right? And so there's in some ways, this cording of Eros, or this making space for it like in the meantime I want to live my life, I want to have this vitality I want to be young and sexual and not risk losing that, and at the same time in doing that, then there's that risk of Thanatos that you're engaging with. And so I think there's this really interesting tension there.
Ayden: So I think for me, like I fell in love pretty quickly, like maybe four or five months after I got my test result I met someone and I was with that man for more than five years. And we were partners. And I think a large part of me before we had met, like, when I first found out, I was sort of like, I'm gonna have surgery this summer and I was like coming up against that edge with Obamacare, where I was about to lose my health insurance through my parents. And so I was like, I should do this before. And then really, it was through falling in love with him that I got to, like revel in and feel in my body and feel held for the first time in a really profound way. And so I do think that made me feel safer in terms of like waiting and watching. And I think the more I did my research, the more I sort of was like it's more expensive for the healthcare system if I don't have surgery, actually. It's cheaper if I just have the surgery and then don't have extended care, and seeing the financial ramifications of that to me and like wondering if that's why doctors push preventative surgery is really sort of like disturbing. And, I think, you know, there's also different factors, like the screening for breast cancer is much more effective than for ovarian cancer, ovarian cancer, most women, and this isn't the granik apiece, I believe. Ovarian cancer, oftentimes when it's found, like the majority of the cases, they're stage four, and so the woman is essentially already dead. Or it's terminal and there's nothing that can be done. And that's partly because the symptoms of ovarian cancer are very, very generic. It's like bloating, change of appetite, fluctuation in weight. They're just like very vague symptoms. That could be associated with anything and there's no one thing that's going to raise your flag. But breast cancer screening is very efficient for the most part on the other hand, so to me it like feels I'm far more likely to get breast cancer than I am ovarian cancer, but getting my ovaries removed feels more pressing, because it's more of a wild card. And I think it's interesting that you name the death impulse. Because I think that urgency or like the urgency amount around my creative work didn't change a lot. The fact that I was more positive. I just felt like there was no time to waste and like I could, I felt sort of like, for most of my life, I would, could assume that I was entitled to like 75 or 80 years at least. And then suddenly I was like, no, maybe not. And it made me much more like determined and ambitious, which often is something that like makes people uncomfortable but-
Lianne: Makes other people uncomfortable about you. Is that what you mean?
Ayden: Yeah. But I think also like, meeting women who don't want to have kids and don't really care much about marriage also makes... like my doctors.
Lianne: How did you, because you have experimented and worked in so many mediums, visual art as your training leader and experience design. And now you are teaching poetry and writing and have just written this book? How have you come to hone in on writing as you're, I'm being presumptive, your primary area of focus, at least for the time being.
Ayden: So less than a writer, I think it's just more, to me it's always a question of like, which project needs what medium. And even when I was a kid I went to like writing summer camps and, and I also like took art classes after school. So both have always been really present. And when I went to college I really was like, which major should I have? Same thing even when I went to grad school, I was like, should I pursue an MFA in visual art or in creative writing? And I ultimately decided I had studied visual art more in undergrad and so it's like, I'd like to do something different. And to me, also, I will say there is like a sort of, ah, how would I phrase it like... What I love about writing is that I can do it anywhere and I can take it anywhere and there were periods of time, particularly when I was applying more as a visual art for residencies, that I was like, oh, then I'm gonna have to figure out how to transport certain materials or supplies. And that started feeling like a burden. And so I was like, drawn to being anything that could like make my practice a little bit more limber-
Lianne: And immediate.
Ayden: Yeah, and I think also, you know, I felt sort of great in the middle of quarantine being like, people still really need words and writing and this is a form I like, that I can be alone and produce words still and they still matter. And you know, I actually was talking with a friend who's a playwright the other day, and a couple friends who are playwrights, and it's just like all of theatre has halted, and like they're, especially these friends of mine who are writing shows for Broadway or Off Broadway, like they're in a moment. Or, truly like, for the next few years, there's nothing and like the landscape of theater might be changed forever. And there has been, of course, these like beautiful adaptations to have performances be online or readings virtually, but I'm really proud of the literary world and the ways that our work can translate so easily. And I think some of my attraction to, to writing essays right now is about the like, I can write something and someone can read it. And it doesn't have to be synchronous. And it's, I don't know, it just feels like a form that gives me a lot of flexibility.
Lianne: I'm gonna go back to your art modeling, and that essay that you wrote and just wanting to hear... I read but listeners perhaps haven't read yet - what you can share about how your experiences and art model both prepared to you and then helped you reclaim a sense of connection or power within your body around the time that you got this news.
Ayden: So, for the people who haven't read it, I wrote this piece called the Art of Stillness on Guernica, which is an amazing literary magazine on published online and they're really invested in the intersection of art and politics. And it's a magazine that I really deeply respect and I think really goes to bat for its writers and has a just like very high level of integrity. I've never had such a good experience working with an editor as I did on this piece. And the piece is really about when I was, I think I was 19 I was a nude model for figure drawing for the class for the first time and I had grown up around a mother who was very body positive and both my parents were just like, pretty strongly feminist. But my mom in particular was very body positive, sex positive. And so I didn't really like question being naked in front of a roomful of strangers. And the essay is really about the ways in which modeling nude prepared me for a certain kind of stillness and and the waiting of dealing with my genetic mutation, the stillness of being in an MRI machine which, if you've never had an MRI, particularly a breast MRI, you're inside of this metal tube with like loud jackhammering noises for 45 minutes and you can't move. And you have an IV, and they give me contrast imaging so like I can basically feel this cold liquid moving throughout my body, and it's really uncomfortable and traumatic like every time I go to get a screening. A fear of getting sick re emerges and it feels very precarious every time I go. And so the essay is really just about the ways that modeling nude in front of people was also like erotically charged, I think, particularly the more I did it. And different spaces have had different experiences, I think, but particularly in my early 20s when I was modeling for like a drink and draw class, it was, I think I felt my power and I didn't feel objectified. And a huge part of it was this subversion of classically like, the chauvinist male artist looks at the nude woman and like, sees a muse and is turned on by it and he's exploiting her. And to me, modeling felt like this very radical reclaiming of my body and this sense of like, I could feel my power over people and I felt autonomous in this way. Whereas like when I'm walking down the street if someone cat calls me then I'm objectified. Whereas here, I felt like I was seen as an object, still, but not objectified. Right? Like I was seen as a body and a form to draw, but I was not... People weren't trying to hit on me afterwards or sexualize me outside of my role as a model. And that was where the power really came. And I think it also made me feel prepared for what it would be to like strip in front of doctors and have random men give me breast exams and like, it still doesn't fully make me comfortable or make it easy, necessarily, but it's a step. You know.
Lianne: I also art modeled in my 20s
Ayden: Oh, really?
Ayden: Was your experience at all like that?
Lianne: Yeah, I mean, it's funny because you also described one of the classes was a bunch of older women. So I was modeling at some senior center is very, very safe and benign and not particularly erotic. And then also, you know, a drink and draw in Brooklyn is a different scenario. And I think, yeah, I haven't made this connection for myself. But more recently, I've gotten into burlesque. And so I think there's a similar idea of the agency that you have in your body, and the artfulness with which you can present it to others. And that that is a source of empowerment and certainly just being naked and having choice about what form that nudity takes.
Ayden: Yeah, to me, it really felt like a craft I think particularly because I was also trained as a visual artist. I could understand and I did gymnastics and danced from a very young age. So I felt very in control of my body and my movement, and knew how to make it look graceful in a certain way. But also, to me, there was an element of like, I've been on the other side of the drawing pads, sketching bodies, and I know what lines and angles look interesting. And so I wasn't just like, "oh, this is fun. Let me take my clothes off and stand in front of people." It was like, I'm thinking very conscientiously about, like, how... and it almost felt collaborative. At least every time I've done that, where I'm like, I'm helping you create a certain line or shadow and...
Lianne: Yeah, and how did that... because I'm thinking on the one hand, how, and for myself, too, how does that influence them? My experience of my body with lovers, right? So on the one hand, it could create a comfort on the other hand, there's sort of a different consciousness that one wants to access where I actually don't want to be thinking of myself from the outside, and what compositionally or how my body's being seen. In fact, that's what I want to overcome, because I want to have this really internal, fluid embodied experience. So I wonder-
Ayden: Well, I think that comes back to like what you were talking about with porn versus like erotic art where, you know, the intentions are very different, right? And so, yeah, what you want from your headspace is very different. And it's funny to cause like, when I model, I'm very meditative. And so even though I'm conscious of setting up and framing my body in a certain way, there's the like hyper presence that is sort of similar to, to sex and intimacy. That's good when you're out of your head. And like really just in your body. But yeah, similarly, like I'm not interested in sex where I'm like trying to imitate or perform something that then is about like, sculpting an experience? I don't know. But I think the, yeah, the intention of the two is very different in that matters and like what people are there for?
Lianne: Well, I'm watching the time. So I'll just give you one more question. And so thinking about nonlinear time, as we've been going back and forth, I want to go back to your upbringing. You mentioned being raised by your dad and the comfort that both your parents had around, or.. you were raised by your dad?
Ayden: Both parents, they were just they were separated.
Lianne: I think it's because I read, oh, you wrote about your dad being comfortable getting you tampons and how that wasn't a thing and your mom being the one to say like, here's condoms if you're going to Europe on this trip. So I want to just hear a little bit more about that. Like how you first learned about sex and how that openness influenced you as an adolescence, and just a little bit about your early sexual journey to something you'd like to share about it.
Ayden: Hmm, that's interesting. Um, I guess I might keep this like a little bit vague but I think I was aware from a very young age of, I don't know, I think kids are like very curious about pleasure.. When I took this class on psychosexual behavior, we talked a lot about how adults who like reprimand children for touching themselves, or like masturbating, are often hyper... They're like adding a psychological element to the child's sexuality where they're like, this child is like rubbing on the carpet or something, and that's weird and inappropriate. But like the kid just feels like a nice sensation and doesn't have the like psychological component of sex in their head yet in that moment, they're just like, oh, this feels good, right? Like in the same way that like it's relaxing when mom like rubs my back or like, lightly touches your arm to relax you and get you to fall asleep. And it's not quite as like a sexual development in terms of thinking about another like desire necessarily hasn't entered the realm is what I'm trying to say. So I guess maybe how young do you want to talk about is where I'm like, where I even begin?
Lianne: Yeah, as young as you remember, I guess you could go.
Ayden: I think I was like, honestly didn't have a whole lot of like, physical, sexual, like romantic experiences as a kid. I was like, kind of your stereotypical, like, nerdy, smart, bookish kid who, like, didn't have sex until I was 19. And, you know, like, with, ah, I didn't really feel like I belonged in that place where I grew up, I don't know why I'm having a hard time answering this question.
Lianne: Oh, well, I love where went with it in terms of the psycho spirituality of it. And I mean, when was it a good first experience that you had?
Ayden: At 19? I know wasn't like amazing. Like I think I had, from a very young age, I, like, felt a lot of desire, but just didn't feel a lot of like, a place to have that land, or it felt very frustrated. Like, I think I have a lot of like yearning for a certain kind of relationship at a young age. And I just felt like no one could meet me. And, I think actually, like, I was reflecting recently that I think there was a lot of like, Eros in teachers for me as a young kid, like there was a certain like power dynamic because I was so in my head, and really just like reading all the time. And I was like a good student and whatever. So I think to me that school was one of the only places where I felt like teachers felt like they understood me in a way that sometimes I felt like my peers didn't. I didn't have any affairs with teachers or anything but there was definitely a particular eroticism around that power dynamic for me like into my 20s. And I think also I will say I was raised around a lot of lesbians. And so I was like, quite comfortable as a young kid being queer, and didn't really even feel the need to name it. Or come out. And I've, I think coming out is like a really important rite of passage for a lot of people, and it's an important pronouncement of identity that allows a lot of people to explore and experience and come into themselves and to me, I never felt like coming out was important and I also felt like, in some ways, it had this tone of like, you're straight until proven guilty, like innocent till proven guilty, straight until proven otherwise. And I really didn't like that person. assumption, in the same way that I think it's like really a drag that the default norm is the able bodied or the default norm is a white body. And I wasn't really interested in like, a presumption of a starting place. So to me, yeah, I never I think a lot of my use also revolved around like, feeling pretty free to desire and like, not too judgmental of certain desires and like, knowing from a very young age, like I said, I knew I didn't want to get married. I knew I wasn't interested in having kids. I knew I was attracted to people regardless of gender.
Lianne: Yeah, I ask about, I asked this of all my guests - what their earliest sexual experiences are and how it shaped them and I think because so often the answer is, "eh mediocre" - mediocre to traumatizing, right. And so my interest is partially okay, well, that doesn't have to be that way. How do we like reframe our culture such that that isn't the default either that there's actually education around so much of what we've been talking about, but at a much younger age, and then I'm also always curious if that's the starting point, what helped, how has it evolved? How has it evolved for you into your 20s into your 30s? And I think it's just very healing and inspiring and just... transparency around sex is a big focus of mine, so to hear about women's and everyone's sort of sexual journey.
Ayden: Well, it's interesting because I think some of my like guardedness in answering that is first of all, like I think sometimes your earliest sexual experiences like you don't want to out like the person that it was really if you're very young, right, like you might not want to name someone.
Ayden: If it's like your first kiss or you know, like the first time you masturbated that's so vulnerable.
But yeah, like I think I was masturbating way before I had sex or intercourse. Yeah, I mean, the first thing you have to do first is really the first time you had sex.
And I differentiate those because I like don't really believe in virginity as a thing. I think that's a fucked up concept. But to me, I think maybe the guardedness too, is just like, even though I was raised in an environment where sexuality was embraced and like talked about openly I think, there is like... It's not like I got around shame about the fact that I masturbated or, you know, like I still remember in my 20s having a conversation with some friends and they were like, oh, yeah, like I masturbated at this time. And I was like, Oh, yeah, me too. And they're like, You lied to us! Like, I guess at one point, some friends had asked me if I masturbated? No, of course not. Like, I guess they made them feel bad! I don't know. I think also, there's so much, yeah, even in a very positive environment I could, like I wasn't absolved of any embarrassment.
Lianne: Of course.
Ayden: And I think sex is like, there's so much about sex like, is it the first kiss you have? Is it like when you become when you realize that you're attracted to someone or something or? It's a big question. Well, yeah, I think it's funny too, because I've talked with my dad and his wife now. And I just will leave you with the fact that I knew from a very young age, I was interested in human sexuality and I think that made them uncomfortable. Even if my dad is like a great feminist and buying me tampons or whatever, I like I remember there was a movie called Kinsey that came out and had, who was it? It was a great cast.
Lianne: Ralph Fines? Fletcher?
Ayden: No, I think it's um, I know..
Lianne: Liam Neeson?
Ayden: Liam Neeson. Yes. And oh, Laura Kenny. Yeah. And I remember I think there was like a family movie night and for some reason I chose that film in high school. And I made my whole family like deeply uncomfortable, but I think like, in a lot of ways, and I think a lot about like how films dictate what you think is like erotic and sexual and, like I think about the Titanic. Like that classic scene of rose modeling and like probably that played into my desire to be a nude model, it's amazing. And yeah, so anyways, they always make fun of me. And like a couple times in the past year they've been like, yeah, like, we thought it was really weird that you wanted to watch the Kinsey movie with all of us as a family, when you were 15 or whatever.
Lianne: Well, I got landed in child psychology because my parents found drawings I made that had a very pronounced, with very detail oriented and I drew like the fly of jeans. You know, like, here's the zipper, and not them, but it's like somebody a therapist, solder a teacher and we're like she's drawing penises at the age of eight on all of her fingers. There's like a pathology here. And it just opened this hole. Yeah. This whole rabbit hole.
Ayden: It's funny too, cause like, by I think at one point my mom caught me, like, I was a huge reader and we went to the library all the time. And I think at some point I like wandered into the romance novels section and I started checking out, like, pulp romance books in sixth grade, and she just didn't realize it because I checked out so many books. And then one time I think she, and they were totally arousing. And I think one time she found it, she was like, yeah, talk about throbbing members, not appropriate for a sixth grader. And she's like, you can't be reading these.
Lianne: Yeah. Well, there's so much more than I feel I could ask you and get into but we'll have to save it for one day when we're allowed to connect over a glass of wine or another conversation here.
Ayden: Yeah, thank you for all the great questions, it was lovely to chat with you. Thank you.
Lianne: Yeah. Well, I look forward, I hope that your book makes it into the public realm soon, because it sounds really fascinating.
Ayden: Yeah, me too. Thanks.
Lianne: Well, I'll talk to you soon. And thanks for everything. Yeah. Okay. By Ayden. Hey, go ahead and send me that recording. When you have a chance. I will.
Ayden: Thanks so much. We'll talk soon. And I guess since the some of the episodes over lunch, and I have I have a few thoughts. I and it's
funny, as we were talking, I was thinking about that question about writing. And I was just like, this is a tough, some tough form to crack.
Lianne: Yeah, yeah.
Ayden: Yeah. Where are you at in the process? When are you talking with them? Do you know?
Lianne: No, it's not. It's just about reaching out. We've just been emails back and forth a little bit. But yeah, I've had my hands full with my own things. That you know, Dipsy. Dipsy is erotica for women. Which I think is a much more like as an app, you download these little episodes and I think it's much more appropriate. To me, I feel much more interested in able to tackle that as a form than something that is necessarily trying to be like, creating this engagement between two people but using this disembodied air pod. That is like also trying to script touch and interaction. I don't know. It's, yeah.
Lianne: Yeah, let me know. And let's chat about it when you have some time.
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