The case for going public with your deepest secrets and insecurities

Life is easier when we open up.
Life is easier when we open up.
Image: Leah Fessler
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Nearly four years ago, when I was fresh out of college, I wrote an article that went somewhat viral. It was a tale of really bad sex, really high anxiety, and the really important realization that I was not alone in my frustrations with dating and hookup culture. The article launched my journalism career and eventually helped me to land a job at Quartz. 

Recently, I was asked to give a talk at a conference about female empowerment, unpacking what’s motivated me to write, and what specific skills or philosophies have driven my professional achievements. Nearly all the speakers were CEOs or high-level executives at companies they’d founded—besides me. When contemplating why I continue to write, often explicitly about my personal life and mental health, the article from four years ago came to mind.

The essay had struck a chord with people for a reason that transcended sex, romance, or any specific type of relationship. That reason, I realized, has been the key to my own success, small and insignificant as it may be. It could be key to yours, too. It’s a simple idea called “vulnerability at scale.” And it holds that the more we open up about the messy truths of our lives, the more we empower ourselves and others—and deepen our relationships. 

This is the story I told, parts of which are drawn from my initial Quartz essay on hookup culture.

Dating in college ain’t sexy

In high school, I was a straight-A student and three-sport varsity athlete. I had a steady group of best friends, and a few surprisingly lovely boyfriends.

No one outside my family knew that almost weekly, I was consumed by anxiety attacks, screaming and sobbing in my room, my parents completely unsure what to do with me. Or that I silently developed an eating disorder, desperate to control my body in any way possible. By sophomore year, I stopped getting my period. But if anyone asked, I was definitely fine. In fact, I was thriving.

When I got to college, the pressure to keep my messy emotions and feelings secret from others only escalated. In part, that’s because I was surrounded by hundreds of other insanely successful, impressive young people. But it was mostly because I was surrounded by hookup culture.

To be frank, I had a lot of bad sex in college. The kind of bad sex where you stare at the ceiling and think about what you’ll have for breakfast in the morning. I never orgasmed, and lied about it often.

But when I say hookup culture, I’m not talking about bacchanalian one night stands you read about online. In my and my friends’ experience, hookup culture was more about “pseudo relationships,” where you hook up with the same person for weeks, months, even years, but you are definitely, definitely not “official.”

Keeping things casual meant that you weren’t allowed to have feelings for someone you slept with, or be upset when your feelings got hurt. You couldn’t admit that you wanted love, affection, and commitment.

Junior year, I had one of these “pseudo relationships” with a boy we’ll call Ben. We saw each other for a few months. He had pretty blue eyes, and wore scruffy flannels that made him seem edgier than he was. As I wrote in a previous essay for Quartz:

On weekends I’d text him around 10 pm, usually somewhat drunk. We’d meet at one of our dorm rooms, debate philosophy and Fleet Foxes lyrics, talk about our families and aspirations, and then have sex until he came.

When Ben fell asleep, I’d pretend to doze off as well. During the night, I’d pull the covers or brush his toes, craving an arm around my waist. I’d analyze snippets of our conversation. Sometimes I’d leave an earring on his bedside table when I left, before he woke up. A reason to come back.

But I never talked to Ben about how I felt, because to do so would be “clingy,” or, my personal favorite, “crazy.” Hookup culture meant denying my emotions existed at all, which seemed to work well for guys. Months after things ended between us, Ben told me, “I didn’t think of you as a human being while we were hooking up.”

Time and again, this dynamic sucked. And despite my best efforts to brush it off, it made me really depressed, self-conscious, and self-loathing. That lasted for a few years.

Then it just pissed me off.

By senior year, I was completely sick of silently feeling insane for wishing someone would love me, or commit to me for more than two weeks. I was sick of having bad sex and feeling like I was the problem. And worse of all, I was sick of everyone pretending like this whole hookup culture was totally fine, and totally fulfilling.

I had a feeling that we were all lying—to each other, and ourselves. In fact, I knew we were lying to one another, because the summer before my senior year, I spent an unexpected weekend with Ben and some mutual friends in Vermont. I didn’t try to impress him or look cute. The next week, he told me he had feelings for me, and wanted to date. This is the same person who’d told me that he didn’t see me as a human being months earlier.

So, upon returning to campus senior year, I mustered up the courage to do something radical. I decided to write my senior thesis on women’s experiences with hookup culture at Middlebury. It would be a highly explicit, detailed, no punches pulled account of my experiences with sex, love, and lack thereof in college. The boys I’d dated were scared, rightfully so.

To supplement my stories, I put out a call for interviews, asking if anyone would talk to me about their sex or love lives. I expected one or two people to say sure. Within minutes, I had every hour booked for three weeks.

After interviewing and surveying hundreds of people, I learned I was far from alone. One girl, Kelsey, told me of her experiences with hookup culture, “the fact that most of these guys wouldn’t even make eye contact with me after having sex, or would run away from me at a party, is one of the most hurtful things I’ve ever felt.”

Nearly 100% of the women and men I surveyed were dissatisfied. Most people really did want loving, committed relationships. But we had all been too afraid to admit to our own unhappiness and insecurities.

When I published the thesis online, it went viral. It was downloaded by over two-thirds of the campus in days, and hundreds of messages flooded in—from people I knew, people I’d hooked up with, and people I’d never met. They couldn’t believe I’d been so honest.

It was exciting, and weird. But beyond criticizing hookup culture, I felt I was on to something bigger.

In being vulnerable, I’d made people feel less alone. I’d helped people—friends, acquaintances, and strangers—feel seen. I’d inspired them to to tell their romantic and sexual partners how they really felt, ask for what they really wanted, and stand up for their right to love, and be loved.

It was then that I understood the power of publicly opening myself up, and how it could break down injustices and barriers between people. Still, I never expected that vulnerability would open doors for me personally.

Going public

A year after graduating college, I decided to try to publish a version of my thesis for a popular audience. I pitched the story to tons of editors. They all said no. I kept going, and finally, an editor at Quartz accepted it.

When my story was published on Quartz’s global platform, it blew up. Once again, my inbox flooded, except this time the messages were coming from men and women across the world — people of all genders, sexualities, ages, and demographics. They hadn’t gone to Middlebury, but like my peers, they felt seen.

A young woman told me that because of my honesty, she’d ended a months-long, emotionally abusive hookup. A man in his 50s told me he’d seen himself in the guys I hooked up with, and reached out to a woman he dated in college to apologize.

The resounding message was clear: People had been scared to say what they felt. But in being honest myself, I’d helped liberate something in them. 

Beyond these readers’ responses, the essay got me an invitation to speak at the Aspen Ideas Festival, alongside iconic feminist writers like Rebecca Traister and Emily Bazelon, women I’d spent years admiring. It got me a book agent. And ultimately, it got me a job at Quartz, where I’ve been writing since.

Once again, brute honesty opened doors for me, this time launching my career.

These experiences led me to believe that my mission, as a writer but also a human being, is to advance what I call “vulnerability at scale.”

As individuals, we all know that magic happens when we admit our raw, unfiltered thoughts and feelings to those we trust. When we tell our partners that we love them for the first time. When we share trauma with friends, and know they mean it when they say they understand. This magic isn’t always joyful, and our feelings aren’t always reciprocated. But this magic is being seen, listened to, and valued—not for who you wish you were, but for who you truly are, in your complexities and confusions.

This magic is beautiful. What sucks is that so often, it only happens behind closed doors. We’re terrified of being honest on a daily basis, because we’re scared of offending people or harming our own prospects for happiness and success.

Vulnerability at scale means taking this kind of honesty public. It means being willing to publicly admit the anxieties and imperfections that other people won’t, in service of greater, collective healing. It doesn’t mean exposing every detail of your life, but it does mean telling the people you spend time with—and for me, my global readership—that the facade you see isn’t real. That you’re anxious and imperfect. That you aren’t sure societal norms work for you, and wish you could be brave enough to do things differently.

I know that vulnerability at scale can drastically shift culture, because I’ve seen it in action over the past 12 months.

In October 2017, brilliant female journalists at the New York Times, along with Ronan Farrow at the New Yorker, broke bombshell reports exposing Harvey Weinstein as a serial sexual predator. What followed was completely unexpected and life-altering for people across the world, especially survivors of sexual abuse.

The #MeToo movement, at its core, is the epitome of vulnerability at scale: It’s women, and some men, coming forward and admitting the pain that they’ve kept secret, for fear of repercussion. It’s millions of people worldwide seeing themselves in these women’s honesty, in Christine Blasey Ford’s honesty, and saying, loud and clear, Me. Too.

Against this backdrop, I created How We’ll Win, Quartz’s now-annual project on the fight for gender equality at work. As one of the youngest reporters at our company, I argued it was our responsibility as a media organization to expose the vulnerable truths of women in business, across every industry. To not only applaud their names and successes, but to publish their reflections, unfiltered, on the failures, resilience, and struggles that made them who they are today.

In the first part of How We’ll Win, I interviewed 50 of the world’s most powerful women about the struggles that define their careers, the assumptions they’ve proven wrong, and the daily practices they use to sustain meaningful work and relationships.

Software engineer and project include founder Tracy Chou told me that one year into engineering, she remembers “crying herself to sleep many nights, escaping to the women’s locker room at the gym for workday crying, and then berating herself for being upset and expending mental cycles on something besides her engineering work.”

She said it only got better when she realized the problem wasn’t just her. “The problem was first, being marginalized, and second, of being gaslit in that marginalization.” Only when she admitted these experiences and fears to other people was she validated, and given more opportunities to stay and succeed in tech.

The truth is that when we peel off our facades, admit to our fears, and share the stories we think no one else will relate to, we open up ourselves to the world, and the world opens itself up to us. I still hear from people about that hookup culture story, and it reminds me that while the internet can be evil, it’s also a place for all of us to keep finding and relating to one another’s stories. As #MeToo shows, it can be a place for healing, too.

Over the past few years, Ben, the dude who totally dehumanized me in college, has become a friend—one of the few men with whom I can openly debate sex and masculinity. I challenged him to be vulnerable, confronted him about his mistakes, and he stepped up to the plate. Our friendship shows me that forgiveness is essential to social progress, and that few people are beyond reproach, or repair.

I certainly never thought that all these learnings would come from really bad sex in college. So I guess that’s my final note: Keep your eyes open to the people and experiences around you. They’re rarely what you expect.