Blacking Out and the Female Experience: An Interview with Sarah Hepola
I meet Sarah Hepola, the author of Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget on a sunny sidewalk in downtown Missoula. With the Montana Book Festival in town, the café I had suggested for our interview is packed.
“I saw this cool building yesterday,” she says, pointing towards the Art Deco silhouette of the Florence Hotel.
The questions I have for Hepola about her years of hard drinking and her determination to get sober will have to wait while we walk the few blocks.
The Florence is no longer in business. In place of steamer trunks and railway magnates, there is a small café selling home-made chocolates. We order coffees and contemplate the empty red leather sofas and chairs, taking our seats kitty-corner to each other near the fireplace. She kicks off her shoes and makes herself comfortable.
The previous evening I had seen Sarah Hepola in a black cocktail dress speaking at the Book Festival alongside Kate Bolick, author of Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own. That these two women should be talking sex, feminism, alcohol abuse, Tinder, and Internet dating in Missoula, the town that provided the setting for Krakauer’s excoriating exploration of campus rape and cover-ups feels meaningful. It seems to me that Missoulians, like hundreds of college-town inhabitants across the US, are finally facing that uncomfortable intersection of booze and sex.
I can’t resist asking Hepola whether she has read Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town.
Her response is instant and she flicks her palms upward: “Oh my god, that book was a shit show of drinking!”
We talk about the axis of drunkenness and sexual assault, tiptoeing around it, aware that in Hepola’s words, we are walking on a “loaded minefield”. She admits to being disappointed at Krakauer’s reluctance to make a connection between the levels of alcohol consumed by students involved in the sexual abuse cases at the University of Montana and the murkiness around the idea of consent. I tell Hepola that I had naïvely never really given the idea of consent and its relationship to booze much thought until I read Blackout. The idea of consent was always secondary to desire when it came to my choice of sexual adventures, but conversations on campuses today don’t seem to feature desire and pleasure much; they feature “consent” and “rights”.
When Hepola writes in Blackout that “We can drink however the fuck we want,” she does so knowingly nodding towards the paradox that while drinking however we want, we also often reap the rewards of some pretty unwanted behavior from ourselves and those around us. Hepola is good at holding two slightly opposing thoughts in her head, which is exactly what is needed for this conversation: drinking to excess can make you vulnerable; because you are vulnerable does not give anyone license to abuse you—whether you are male or female. Yet, out in the real and virtual worlds these two thoughts have become divisive rather than inclusive.
Susan Brownmiller has recently been called a “slut-shamer” and “victim-blamer” across the Internet for saying that women “think they can drink as much as men, which is crazy because they can’t drink as much as men.” The Twitterstorm over this has been fierce. This is the very same Susan Brownmiller whose seminal 1975 book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape brought an awareness of sexual abuse to the forefront of the agenda of second-wave feminism. How can this be?
Sarah Hepola tells me how in the 1990s while she was at the University of Texas it was important for her to “drink, dress, and fuck like a man”. This felt empowering to her, as it did to many of us who were young and sexually active at that time. And this bravado among women has continued to the point where it is considered a right. Yet, drinking like a man when you are, like Hepola, a petite five-foot-two, is exactly what led to her blackouts, to her “losing the narrative” of her life—which is presumably what Brownmiller is referring to. A false sense of empowerment in Hepola’s case led to an extreme vulnerability and a deeply ingrained addiction. Acting like a man can be seen as liberating, yet more often than not, it serves as a reminder of the power that is still wielded by men in our society. Drinking and fucking like a man are not the same as drinking and fucking as a man.
Hepola thanks me when I tell her that reading passages such as “I needed alcohol to drink away the things that plagued me. Not just my doubts about sex. My self-consciousness, my loneliness, my insecurities, my fears” was like a synthesis of hundreds of conversations I have had with female friends throughout my life. I go on to say that the examination of her ambitions as a writer, her fears of sobriety and her sexual desires and their limitations resonated profoundly with me. Blackout, while being seen and sold as a book about getting sober, is at heart a feminist book. When I put this to her, she sits up straighter. She admits to being surprised that more feminists didn’t use her book as an opportunity to discuss the muddy waters of consent and sexual politics that she explores with such acuity and honesty.
She acknowledges that there is a link between her own drinking and blacking out and the expectations on young women to perform sexually and professionally. And it is a connection that feminists in the blogosphere and in print have not wanted to confront. “I think feminists see my book as a general good, but they don’t want to have to untangle so much mess,” she trails off. The messiness of sex so often gets in the way of logical arguments.
But it is exactly that mess that interests me, I tell her, finally getting to the question I have been dying to put to her: “Where do you think feminism is today?”
“Now you’re getting serious,” she laughs. She slides her feet under her and pauses, “There just isn’t one answer,” she replies, telling me that she is writing on this very subject and is also finding it hard to pin down.
We agree that at the moment, feminism feels fragmented, as if the personal and political arguments of the 1970s have been pulverised and sprinkled throughout the Internet, throughout the fractured dialogues around gender equality. The problem with writing about feminism now is that the plurality and inclusivity that groups like the UK’s Southall Black Sisters or Boston’s Combahee River Collective struggled hard to achieve in the 1970s make it difficult to speak about one coherent political body. While we can applaud the fact that women of all races, religions and sexual orientations have carved out their own platforms within the feminist movement, I can’t help but feel that despite this huge gain, something has been lost.
“Within feminism there has been a distinct shift away from the collective towards the individual,” I say, testing out this thought on her. This shift coincided with the Thatcher-Reagan double whammy of privatisation and the emphasis on personal wealth and agency. Feminism, despite its communally-oriented origins is not immune to the thrust of rampant consumerism and its focus on satisfying one’s self. Hepola relates the consumerism of 80s feminism with the Carrie Bradshaw phenomenon when “brands and shopping ruled”.
I ask her about her own trajectory as a feminist and she admits to coming to it in her early 30s after conversations with other women, like her Salon colleague, Rebecca Traister, and editing the site’s feminist blog at Salon starting in 2007.
“I went into a silent panic,” she says. But adds that this is where she opened herself up to feminist dialogues. “Sexism revealed itself through the conversation around Hillary Clinton running for president against Obama. It was a big national feminist awakening.”
When Hepola first started working at Salon, she was told to “keep feminism out of the headlines”. But now it’s a “click word”.
I can’t decide if being a click word is good or bad.
Hepola also talks about her route to becoming a feminist in the introduction to Blackout. But true to the way her mind seems to work, her awakening arrived with a pile of very real contradictions: “Activism may defy nuance, but sex demands it. Sex was a complicated bargain to me… It was hide-and-seek, clash and surrender, and the pendulum could swing inside my brain all night: I will, no I won’t: I should, no I can’t.” I tell her how much I like the way this passage gets to the heart of the consent debate.
“Feminism today is about identity politics and consent. We didn’t use the word consent in the 80s, and now it’s everywhere,” she exclaims. But even this seemingly straightforward word has its problems, which Krakauer probes to some degree in Missoula and which Hepola also dissects in Blackout: “I drank to drown those voices, because I wanted the bravado of a sexually liberated woman. I wanted the same freedom from internal conflict my male friends seemed to enjoy…. My consent battle was in me.” When your consent battle is within you, how can it be legislated for? It can’t. And this is the problem.
“OK,” I say, “You can’t talk about campus hookups and booze-fuelled nights without coming to porn.”
She throws me a knowing look. “Yes, porn.”
Hepola feels that the connections between drinking to excess, porn, and sexual violence are not linear or causal ones, but much more subtle. Many young women are drinking to excess before having sex, “so that they can be porn stars” to the audience of young men around them, some of whom expect them to be liberated to the point of accepting any sort of sexual act. After all, what college kid wants to look like a prude?
“In the ’90s porn seemed to become ubiquitous,” Hepola says, uncurling her legs. “And now, all of us single people have unwittingly signed up to this idea that we should all be sucking each others’ genitals on a hookup!” She pauses. “In our society alcohol is socially acceptable, but if you had to take heroin in order to have sex, people would see that as toxic.”
According to the Canadian researcher Simon Lajeunesse, most boys have sought out online pornography by the age of 10. If your formative sexual experiences are with porn actors rather than girls your own age, then surely this is having an effect on your view of women and their sexuality? Hepola goes on to tell me about a male friend who asked her to look at various porn sites and give him a report. Finding a lot of the stuff made by men “horrifying”, she admits to falling for the “clichéd softer, gentler” porn made by and for women. “I found I really liked watching two women,” she says, sounding surprised at this, or maybe surprised at how easily she is revealing this to a stranger. The simple act of watching was interesting, as the visual stimulus allowed her to “get out of my head and into the abandon.”
But getting off on porn as a thirty-something woman and as a nine-year-old boy are very different realities. When your selfhood is being formed and your empathy is still being developed, surely this is the wrong time to be watching women being finger-fucked towards fake climaxes. And if young women are drinking themselves to a state where they physically and emotionally cannot resist doing things they might not want to because of the pressures coming at them, then further questions need to be asked.
In our search for equality, women have gained much ground. But, read Hepola and Krakauer’s books and look at what’s going on around you and tell me there isn’t something more than a little off with the porn-booze-sex Venn Diagram. For most people drinking is fun. As is exploring desire for the first time and tasting freedom from parental supervision with a few beers and some impromptu sex. But what I am seeing around me doesn’t look like much fun.
As Hepola says, “We are drinking away our inhibitions and along with this our judgment.” How and when did parties get so scary that one of the prime goals for the female guests is to disappear through the rabbit hole of alcohol-fuelled oblivion? Is sex for college-age men and women so alienating that the only way to perform it is to do so while semi-conscious? These are the questions I can’t seem to shake. And ones that Hepola looks at forensically through the lens of her own life in Blackout.
Sarah Hepola and I end the interview accepting that although we have questions, there is not one simple answer that would be applicable to the wide range of women out there. “Maybe the questions are good enough”, she says before slipping her shoes on. But as I watch her open the heavy doors of the Florence Hotel and step out into the dazzling Montana sunshine I can’t help feeling unmoored by this axis of self-inflicted oblivion and sexual vulnerability. An axis that feels like it has something to tell us about where young men and women are today with their drinking and sex lives. Like Mr Jones from Dylan’s Ballad of Thin Man, I know something is happening but I don’t know what it is. This is great in a song, but doesn’t feel so good in real life.
Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget is published by Two Roads and is available in paperback for £8.99.