Dating After Trauma

Photo by Chelsea Victoria via Stocksy.

Trauma comes in all shapes and sizes. It can be the result of a toxic relationship, physical or sexual assault, a manipulative ex, substance abuse, a mugging, a death—whatever the reason, there is no trauma that is insignificant. And one thing they all have in common? Traumas leave us emotionally vulnerable. And, unfortunately, there are bad people who prey on and take advantage of the emotionally vulnerable.

So how do we protect our heart when we are ready to expose it once again?

Ask yourself not just, “Am I ready?” But is this what I really want?

After enduring trauma, it’s understandable to seek comfort in other people. And even without trauma, people tend to rebound after a breakup. But even if you do feel ready for a relationship, is that what you want right now? Really examine and unpack that, because it’s not just easy, but tempting, to jump into a relationship before you’re ready. Unfortunately, that often leads to heartbreak, and can actually compound your trauma. If you don’t already have one, consider seeing a therapist. They will be an impartial sounding board to help you figure out when you’re ready and what you want.

Don’t share your trauma with the other person too early, even if you trust them and like them.

I once dated a guy who spent the entire first date casually asking me about my previous relationships and why they didn’t work out. In the back of my mind, I thought, “This is weird. It’s not really appropriate to ask these kinds of questions on the first date.” And yet I was trusting and answered them anyway, thinking that he just genuinely wanted to get to know me. But first dates are for getting to know each other’s favorite music, movies, what we like and don’t like about our jobs, and funny anecdotes about siblings and family. They are not the place to unpack emotional baggage. Ever. Be wary of anyone trying to gather information and learn specifics about the kind of person you do and do not want to date; they might just use that information to pretend to be that person for awhile. It’s definitely a red flag that you might be talking to a manipulative person. That being said...

Be wary of the signs, and trust your gut.

The guy who asked me all of those questions about my past relationships on our first date? And the voice in the back of my head telling me that it wasn’t the right time to reveal these things? I was right. That relationship ended shortly thereafter, and it ended with me heartbroken. Your gut will never lead you astray. The heart can convince the brain of damn near anything, but your gut is there to remind you that things are fishy and to proceed with extreme caution. Or run.

First dates don’t get second chances.

Let me be clear: You owe no one a second chance. But especially someone you just met. Did they say something that made you uncomfortable, even just for a second? Did they do something you didn’t like, no matter how seemingly small? Don’t go out with them again. We have a tendency to want to see the best in people, and we wind up subconsciously making excuses to fit that narrative. We might think, “Well, this person might be damaged and has been through a lot.”  But even if that were the case, that person isn’t ready for a relationship. It’s best to end it before things escalate.

You do not have to apologize or justify if you need to wait before getting physical.

If you aren’t ready to take things to the next level physically, you don’t have to explain why. A good person, one interested in a relationship with you, will understand and respect your boundaries. If they don’t, or if you feel like you need to put out to get that person to stay, that person isn’t relationship material and it’s time to bounce.

Don’t blame yourself.

If it doesn’t work out, don’t tell yourself that it’s because you’re too damaged or you’re not worth it. It’s hard to put yourself out there. You live and you learn. Keep a lookout for red flags. Respect yourself for the amazing person that you are, and don’t accept anything less than a partner who sees all of those amazing parts of you. You may have experienced trauma, but you are not a victim; you’re a survivor.

By Kaitlin Konecke

Beyond the Gravel Field

Photo by Pok Rie

My hands burned against the blistering concrete as I practiced my cartwheels and handstands. Empty shopping carts filled the parking lot like tumbleweeds in a desert. The radio from my father’s car blasted music as he attempted to replace the oil in his car. The day was hot enough for the seagulls to want to hide. I looked around the parking lot to see that it was barren and boundless, truly unsuitable to be any child’s playground—yet, it was mine.

In between the local Kmart and the National Wholesale Liquidator off Route 440 in Jersey City, there is a parking lot where I spent countless hours as a child with my father. Whenever my mother was busy, she would ask my father to take me out and instead of going to the playground, he would take me to this very parking lot. It was a strange place to be taking a child, yet I always found pleasure in the vastness and possibility the parking lot provided. My father’s old Chrysler was always in need of repair. As he spent time fixing and cleaning his car, I patiently waited for him to finish and passed the time by creating my own games.

The cement stoppers that separated parking spots were my balance beams as I pretended to be an Olympic gymnast, carefully treading the lines as if the whole world was watching. The seagulls roaming around the parking lot and desperately looking for bread crumbs were my attentive audience as I pretended to sing to hundreds of thousands of people, rocking out to the songs blaring from the car radio. The gray concrete was my canvas as I used my colorful pieces of chalk to create what my child self believed to be works comparable to Picasso and Monet. I could be whoever I wanted to be in that parking lot. I was no longer the shy, quiet third-grader that everyone knew, but a painter, a rockstar, a gymnast. My identity could be created again and again through those pretend games.

After my father was done, we would sit alongside the lonely tree that faced the stores. We would watch people coming out of Kmart and try to figure out their life story based on the items they had bought. In the parking lot, my father would tell me about the countries in Europe and their capitals and histories. He would tell me basic etiquette rules that I still carry with me today, like to never turn around while you’re walking or point at people. My father also showed me where the radiator and the transmission were located under his car’s hood. He told me stories of how he had met my mother and his youthful days with his friends in Algeria. When it grew dark, my father and I would lie down in the small bed of grass in the middle of the parking lot and gaze at the glittering stars.

I didn’t see it back then, why the parking lot was so important, but it was there where my father and I bonded the most. It was in this very parking lot where I learned the most significant life lessons. Playgrounds were a false representation of life to my father. In a playground, children were already given the equipment to have fun, but in this empty parking lot, it was up to me to create my entertainment. My days in the parking lot taught me that nothing in life would ever be given to me easily. And because of the parking lot, I developed a love for storytelling. There, I fostered my most important quality as a writer: my imagination. The parking lot was my tabula rasa, my blank slate, my utopia in which I was the painter of a world that I could create. I learned how to be a better listener, to be more aware of my surroundings, and to be more introspective. My times in the parking lot have taught me to see beauty even in the emptiest of places.

By Melissa Ouhocine

Your Guide to Reading in Bed

People have been fucking since the dawn of their existence, so it makes sense that they started writing about it not long after. Though it’s impossible to consolidate all of the highlights from centuries of literature on the subject, I’ve selected a few for an extremely abridged version. Enjoy!

Sex Tips for Girls by Cynthia Heimel

Written by feminist satirist Cynthia Heimel and published in 1983, this book isn’t exactly well known among the Millennial and Gen Z contingents. This, in my opinion, is a crime. I noticed this weird little book collecting dust at the bottom of my parents’ bookshelf one day when I was seventeen, and I plucked it right off and carted it off to my room. Now, I know stealing is bad, but I have literally no remorse about this incident because Sex Tips for Girls is hilarious and my parents have not once since remarked that their book entitled Sex Tips for Girls has gone missing, so they must not miss it.

I was expecting this read to be full of weird 1980s Cosmopolitan-like sex advice, and this is true to an extent—but it’s also so much more. The writing is matter-of-fact and refreshing, the social commentary is apt, the glimpse into an era gone by is intriguing, and much of it is just downright funny. Take, for instance, the section called “What About Sex and Drugs?” in which Heimel proceeds to narrate each sexual scenario as if she has taken the drug she is evaluating for it.

The book does have its flaws—simply put, it’s dated, heteronormative, and its feminism is pretty much exclusively second-wave. That being said, I highly recommend this read for the experience of a unique cultural artifact and a laugh.

S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College by Heather Corinna 

Written by Heather Corinna, one of the earliest sex-positive advocates on the Internet and the founder of, this book touches on a range of issues relating to sex, gender, and identity. In all of her work, Corinna has continually worked to be as inclusive as possible, and S.E.X. is no exception. The book assumes nothing about its readers, approaches sex in a realistic manner, and was updated with a second edition in 2016. Although some of the content still covers the reproductive basics, S.E.X. is a good choice for anyone wanting advice who has gotten past the “what is sex/puberty?” stage to which most guidebooks cater.

Kama Sutra by Vatsyayana Mallanaga

One of the most ancient surviving texts on sex, the Kama Sutra has a lot of wisdom to offer not only on all things erotic but also on how to live an emotionally fulfilling life. The text’s popularity has spanned time and space for a reason. The Kama Sutra is also intensely interesting to read from a historically or anthropologically curious standpoint, and may surprise you with how pertinent some parts of it remain to modern life. There’s something in there for everyone; it includes verses on same-sex relationships, methods for regaining an ex’s interest, and respecting sex workers.

The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti 

In The Purity Myth, established feminist writer Jessica Valenti takes an in-depth look at how women, even in the Western world and present day, are effectively valued only for their (perceived) sexuality. This book tackles a single issue rather than a general review of everything relating to sex, but it is an extremely important one tying in to how we view and conduct sexual relations.

As previously written, this is obviously by no means an exhaustive list. However, if you don’t have a lot of time on your hands to read (about sex or otherwise), these four are an eclectic and representative set to get you started. Happy perusing!

By Calla Selarfous

Black Boys Look Blue: Radical Softness and Individualism

Within our everyday lives, there are countless manifestations of privilege and oppression. Sometimes these manifestations are evident, but in most cases this prejudice presents itself in the form of microaggressions. Such subtle oppression gives multifaceted individuals a scant scattering of boxes to check, thin margins to live within. I lean more toward Whitman’s philosophy that we contain multitudes and contradictions. In this photo series, my subjects and I visualized this by pairing intensity and softness, haze and saturation. We explored the strength in fragility by emphasizing radical softness.

Radical softness functions as a political subversion, an existential resistance antithetical to stereotypes and images of black men that systems of racism perpetuate; it’s a movement of self-acceptance and exploration of fluid, intersectional identity. Black existence is inherently political, and so radical softness brings suggests that black nonconformity in and of itself is a revolutionary thing.

The series is largely inspired by these ideas. It also draws influence and namesake from Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight both visually and thematically, conceptually portraying the subversion of hypermasculinity within the black community, and a commentary on the pressures and expectations put on young black men. Visualizing the quote “In the moonlight, black boys look blue,” I attempted to craft an image of black men that beholds them as ethereal beings possessing an elusive beauty and boundless complexity. Saturation, dreamy, refracted light, and foggy visuals weave a visceral experience of intimate expression, a utopia wherein identity, nonconformity, and vulnerability are all celebrated within the expression of black men.

By Erin Davis

Debt to Society

Photo by Sam Kaplan for Refinery29

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness starving hysterical.” This famous line from beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s classic 1956 poem “Howl” sought to capture a generation of people disillusioned by the industrialization of America, driven mad by the poverty, violence, commercialization, and filth of modern society.

But like all great and timeless works, these lines still ring true today in my generation, through the disillusionment and madness of the changing landscape of America for millennials: My generation, buried alive in student loan debt. Colleges are extremely expensive. They are so unaffordable, in fact, that for many people to even have the opportunity to attend college, they must take out student loans. Eighteen-year-olds with no income to speak of incur tremendous debt before they’re even allowed to legally drink. The result is that millennials have entered the workforce saddled with potentially a lifetime of debt.

Before the crash of the stock market in 2008, millennials were raised on an assertion that we could be anything we wanted to be. Follow the typical post-high school trajectory and you’d have it made: Go to college, get a degree, get a job, get a house, live your life comfortably. Study your passion because all you really need is that diploma to make that paper. And so we followed that path, borrowing money to get us there. And then America changed and those promises crumbled like sand castles in high tidethere were fewer job opportunities and less money to be made. Companies were laying people off, not hiring.

Look, I “followed my passion” and “lived my truth” and got a degree in Electronic Media and Film because I was a dreamer with no concept of reality. I was textbook millennial: Helicopter parents, completely entitled, thought I was smarter than everyone else, would rather die than make my own doctor’s appointments, believed the rules didn’t apply to me, couldn’t handle criticism of any kind, the whole nine yards. And I was never a plannerI could be anything I wanted to be, right? I’d learn how to make films and then go traipsing off to Los Angeles and be a film director, see you at the Oscars in four years!

To be clear, I don’t regret my degree at all, and there was a lot that I got out of college. But it did little to prepare me for the real world, and I had $80,000 of debt upon graduation with a six-month head start before I had to start making payments. I could tell you all about the French New Wave, and what verisimilitude was, and I could load a 16mm film camera, but I had no concept of healthcare, a 401K, or what constituted a livable salary. I didn’t know what a deductible was until I was twenty-two. When my parents explained a mortgage to me, I almost threw up. I had to take a nap when I first compared my net salary to my gross income. Living is hard and I’m not even enjoying it!

I know that I sound cynical, and I am, but I’m also pragmatic. My experience is not the universal experience, but it’s also not unique. Looking around at my friends and colleagues, we are all in the same boat. We are smart, well-rounded, and talented, with a lot to offer the world. And yet, we can barely survive in this world with so much debt weighing us down.

I have seen student loan debt cripple people. I have seen people who had no other choice but to defer on their loans because they couldn’t afford the minimum monthly payment. But even with the deferment (which can only be temporary), they were still responsible for the interest accruing, resulting in more debt piling onto the debt they already could not pay. The only solution was to take out more loans and put necessities like groceries on credit cards, work two jobs, hustle like hell and still barely scrape by. Falling farther and farther behind until they were crushed and drowning and nearing bankruptcy. And at that point, was a Master’s degree in creative writing even worth it?

Of course there is a lot of value in higher education. Colleges teach you how to thinkhow to analyze, and research, and make educated arguments, and come to informed conclusions. There are connections to be made, intellectual conversations to be had, and great professors who care about their students’ education. But higher education can’t be the only thing we place value in.

While there are many jobs that can’t be done without a higher level of learning and testing—engineering, speech-language pathology, computer programming, etc.there are also many jobs that can be performed successfully with nothing more than the skills you learn on the job, particularly entry-level positions. There are plenty of jobs that someone could be good at with an Associate’s degree, or even just a certification in a skill (graphic design, for instance, requires you to know how to use the software, not a Master’s degree). Most of the practical skills that I possess were learned from doing my job. And for all careers, you just have to get your foot in the door first and build experience from there.

But here’s the rub: Most jobs won’t even give you an interview unless you have at least a Bachelor’s degree. In this job climate, when entering the workforce you could be earning as little as $30,000 a year (if you’re lucky.) Which means you may have gone to college for four years to get a Bachelor’s degree so you could get a job that won’t pay you enough to pay back the college education you had to get in order to even get this job!

We need to stop placing the baseline employment value of a person only in the degree they received. Community colleges have great teachers; an Associate’s degree should still be enough to get people an interview, even when going up against applicants with a Bachelor’s. We need to stop frowning at community college and considering it a lesser quality of learning (many teachers who teach at four-year colleges also teach at community colleges!) We need to stop looking at trades as less ambitious, or seeing apprentices in plumbing as less intellectual than someone going for their Master’s in cultural studies (you don’t know what books that plumber checks out of the library!) We need to stop telling teenagers that there is a right path, one that they should take.

There is a lot that is broken with the education system in America, and it won’t be fixed overnight or maybe ever. But one easy way to start changing things even a little is to give opportunities to more people, not just to the ones with a Bachelor’s degree on their resume. College is great and I loved my experience. But I would also love to retire one day, and I can barely put anything towards that while paying off student loan debt. And so, we have to embrace the merit of all levels of education, and of all fields of study. Going into medicine, engineering, law, or tech may be where all the money is, but the world needs more philosophers! And historians! And women’s studies graduates! And math teachers! And museum curators! And ice cream shop owners! And a million other things! I’m not saying don’t go to college. I’m saying to just really, really think about what you want, and tread carefully. Can you make your dreams come true without incurring massive amounts of student loan debt? If you can, follow that path. Because student loan debt destroys lives. Don’t put your worth in your degree. Truly, it’s not worth it.

By Kaitlin Konecke

Rubber Ducks and Writing: Little Ways I Changed My Life

Impulsivity isn’t in my nature. I like what I know; I like knowing that by repeating the same actions constantly, I’ll be safe. Routines and unchanging habits have been pillars on which I can depend, and up until last November I didn’t see the problem with that arrangement. I didn’t see the issue with constantly participating in the same things and the same crowd that I had been for years on end; I didn’t know that I wasn’t living.

Changing the way you live your life doesn’t have to be some big, dramatic, cinematic thing. Not only is that impractical, but it’s also highly impossible; the most change stems from the little things. With that in mind when I resolved to extend the boundaries of my comfort zone last year, I knew that I had to be very particular about how I did it. Three manageable objectives fueled my journey toward living a fuller life, and fulfilling those goals has provided me with a plethora of experiences and opportunities that I would not have encountered otherwise.

Taking chances was the first and most dominant principal I adopted last year. It was easy to be fearful of change, as change had always signified breaking the rules. To convince myself that it was okay and valid to adopt new things into my life was both difficult and liberating, as I realized that change doesn’t have to be a villain. I began to put myself out there more, taking chances by going to events where I would be exposed to new people and new ideas. One of the simplest ways I learned how to be comfortable with taking risks was by wearing clothing with prints and patterns that scared me! Last year, for instance, I came across a rubber duck-printed dress that made my heart happy and my head terrified. I could imagine wearing the dress, and a part of me wanted nothing more than to do just that, but I was mortified as to what people would say about it. Somehow I still ended up buying it, and I forced myself to wear it.

Ultimately, the decision to wear the bizarre duck dress came down to one thing: the dress made me happy, so why shouldn’t I wear it? I knew that, even if people had mean things to say about it, it wouldn’t have mattered because it wasn’t their dress, it was mine, and it brings me a lot of joy. The ducky dress, as I’ve come to call it, is one of my favorite things that I own now, and I laugh at the fact that I was afraid to wear it at one point. It always puts a smile on my face, and it has since come to symbolize my habit of taking risks in fashion. Among other small changes (such as speaking at local poetry slams to reduce my fears of performing or deciding to attend social outings where I get to meet new people), I learned how to extend myself comfortably without caring what people thought of my actions. Taking chances didn’t mean I had to force myself to go skydiving or leave home to travel the world—it meant incorporating new things into my life that hadn’t been there before.

The second item that worked to fulfill my life a little bit more was the pursuit of the things that I’m passionate about. Writing had always been a prominent part of my life—it was a hobby that I was happy practicing on the side. I had never allowed myself the freedom to see it as a career or something that could be pushed to the forefront of my life. But I was encouraged by an English teacher to stop thinking about the potential lack of monetary gain or competition regarding the job, and to instead focus on how I could apply my hobby to my life because it made me happy. She encouraged me to submit my writing to publications and websites because she believed I have a future in the field. And I listened. I allowed myself to listen to her and send my work out to websites and get rejected a million times before I was published. But regardless of what the outcome of each submission was, writing frequently made me happier than I’d ever been. By granting this craft the prominence it demanded, I granted myself a sense of purpose and passion that I had never encountered before, and this choice has impacted spheres of my life beyond my career. I’ve felt more freedom to be creative since realizing I could pursue what I’m passionate about instead of following the money. It’s easier for me to say yes to opportunities that allow me to be expressive, and I’m grateful for that. I realize that to be young and not as concerned with money as adults is incredibly special. In a lot of ways, my writing career has provided a sense of invincibility, and that has fueled me to pursue passion projects with a fervor I never had before.

Lastly, choosing to be positive has improved my life immensely. It was always a reflex of mine to be pessimistic and cynical about life and the events in it because that’s what I felt like I was supposed to do. Having a negative mindset was draining and counterproductive, but I didn’t know how to convince myself to behave any other way. The change was subtle for sure. It started with me wanting to be positive for other people, to be someone who others could look to for positivity. Obviously, it isn’t realistic to be upbeat and happy all the time—I’m prone to being as upset as the next person. But I’ve begun to choose positivity when presented with the opportunity; I think it’s more fun to look at the world with a smile on my face. This method has single-handedly become the guiding force in my life, and I couldn’t be more thankful for it. Be it finding the will to go to a school dance or trying a new type of food, keeping a positive mindset has improved the way I participate in my life, allowing me to face new things without the skepticism I retained before.

With all that being said, I do understand that it isn’t possible for everyone to say they’re going to change their lives in the same ways I did. However, I’ve learned that the outcomes far outweigh the effort taken to change, and I encourage anyone who has the ability to assess their lives to see if there’s anything that needs to be altered. Ultimately, there’s no better feeling than knowing I am able to become the kind of person I want to be; there’s no better feeling than knowing I am not stuck in a finite mold.

By Sophia Moore
Illustration by Sabrina Oliveira

Behind the Neon Curtain

Carving out space for spirituality has been an important part of my growth into young adulthood. As someone who didn’t grow up with religion, I always felt somewhat spiritual and mystic, but wasn’t drawn to any major religion. Last summer after watching Anna Biller’s pulp film The Love Witch, I felt drawn to pick up texts on Wicca. Things clicked into place—finally, all my ideas about spirituality were being represented in a way I felt connected to. I have now been practicing and self-identifying as a witch for almost a year.

These portraits are of other witches in my community, many of them my best friends. While we all practice in different ways, we share a deep appreciation for the strange and mystic that connects us. Behind the Neon Curtain creates a space for expression of ourselves at our witchiest, sharing rituals and connecting behind closed doors.

Personally, Wicca has helped me get through some low points in my life, and helps me feel connected both to my fellow witches and the mystic parts of life. As witches, my friends and I each have our own talents we share with one another. I am adept at reading Tarot, one of us reads palms, and another one of us knows a lot about crystals and herbology. While we all practice in different ways, Wicca connects us to each other and the beyond. Finding this community has been one of the most meaningful things about my college experience and experience as a young adult thus far.

By Carly Rene Hough

In Conversation with Isa Mazzei, Writer of Netflix's 'CAM'

Photo by Marina Fini.

An abridged version of this interview will appear in Lithium's SEX print issue, set to release in June.

Alice Ackerman is very much a normal girl. She has a family, a pet cat, hopes and dreams and insecurities. Alice is also a cam girl, broadcasting live shows from her bedroom under the screen name “Lola_Lola.”

Isa Mazzei wants you to know that these states of existence—being a normal girl and being a cam girl—are not mutually exclusive. When we chat over the phone, Mazzei is quick to tell me that there is, in fact, ‘no normal’—a sentiment evident throughout all of her film CAM, currently streaming on Netflix. Here, Mazzei’s script reads like a masterclass in portraying the humans so often treated as anything but: sex workers. Directed by Daniel Goldhaber and partially drawn from Mazzei’s own experiences as a cam girl, CAM’s Alice exists in a world entirely different from the one sex workers in film have been forced to inhabit for so long. 

This world is bright, fun, welcoming. Talkative patrons crowd the cam site on which Alice hosts shows. In the makeshift studio space of her bedroom, powerful Alice calls the shots.

But where Mazzei truly shines in her portrayal of Alice is how she showcases Alice’s duality. How she holds power; where she loses it. This is a horror film whose plot is deeply rooted in the insecurities that come with being online in the 21st century, and so our protagonist struggles with social media, just as we do. She battles episodes of crippling self-doubt and hyper-comparison after seeing her ranking on the cam site drop; she frantically checks user engagement the same way we robotically refresh our Instagram likes. So the thing is, Alice—flawed, relatable, multifaceted—isn’t just strong or just weak. She is, like any other human being, both.

Repeated misrepresentation has reduced the sex worker in film from a whole character to a dimensionless, hyper-victimized trope. But at the end of this film, Mazzei’s Alice is a character, a person, whose choice to participate in sex work does not mark her as a broken thing to be saved or fixed. And so Alice Ackerman, and everything she represents, is someone worth celebrating. Even more so is the woman who created her.

Photo by Marina Fini.

Lithium Magazine: CAM felt like it was, above all else, about control. Like, I went into it thinking, “It’s about a cam girl,” when, at its core, it was more broadly about a girl losing agency over her very carefully curated online persona. As a writer, how did you approach this script so that it was so relatable—so that it could apply to essentially anyone?
Isa Mazzei: Wow, what a good question. How did I do that? [Laughs.] I think that the most important thing for me with this movie was always to bring an audience into a cam girl’s experience and have them empathize with her. For that, I knew that I needed to have a really relatable thing happen to her that everyone could understand. I think what’s so cool about camming is that it’s very similar to a lot of other online work. It’s very similar to YouTubing, or Instagramming, or even just people who have Facebook or Twitter or Twitch or TikTok or wherever you’re posting about yourself—there’s a lot of similarities between that and camming, because you are, in essence, curating a digital identity. So the movie, yes, is about a cam girl. But it could be the same story about anyone in any of those online mediums. And I think that’s what makes it so relatable, because it is about control. It’s about a loss of agency over your image. And for Alice, that’s magnified, because it’s not just her image; it’s also her body, and her sexuality, and that agency. I think that we all have this experience of putting images of ourselves out into this void and then almost waiting for validation on that whenever we post anything online.

Lithium: I think that’s what it made it so scary for me. Being a teenage girl who’s constantly tuned in to social media, the themes of validation and comparison were so real.
Mazzei: Yeah! Thank you. I wanted to show that with how the site ranks these girls, which, you know, is how a lot of cam sites actually rank their models. But, more than that, it’s how all of these online platforms rank us and give us validation and almost control the kind of content that we’re posting because we want to get more likes, we want to get more comments and engagement. We’re kind of continually being directed on how to express ourselves on these platforms.

Lithium: You said in a past interview that you looked to the films Whiplash and Black Swan for inspiration. Both are films about the lengths people go to for their art. With CAM, how did you balance portraying sex as both an art form and as a business?
Mazzei: I think a lot of that was balancing the actual things we were showing and then how we were showing them. So Danny, the director, and Emma Rose Mead, our production designer—a lot of our early conversations were about how to show the camming space and what it should be like. We made a very deliberate decision to make it very rich and colorful and almost oversaturated. With the lighting, Kate, our DP, did such a good job with that. It’s this fantasy space, it’s expressive, it’s fun, and it contrasts a lot with Alice’s offline spaces, which are messy and kind of boring—her furniture is still wrapped up and a lot of stuff is still in boxes. We show this ultra-colorful space to show that this is her creative outlet. You want to be in that space. You want to view that space. A lot of what was going through my mind while I was writing the script was like, How are we going to show this space as a really creative, artistic expression of Alice? Then, balancing the work side of that was like, Okay, within this space, how are we going to demonstrate the ambition and the hard work? And that was literally just showing those moments that I feel are so often lacking in depictions of sex work in media. Her with her calendar, writing down all of her token amounts and the dates that she’s doing, and that scene where she’s watching Baby, who’s the number one camgirl, and she tells her cat, “Go away! I’m studying!” I think it’s so important! I remember a guy actually tweeted about that scene, like, “Shit, I had no idea camgirls were watching game tapes like Kobe Bryant,” and I was like, Yeah, that’s exactly what I want people to think! When they watch this, I want them to see that and think, Oh! This is like an athlete watching game tapes, or any other comparison they want to draw that helps normalize and destigmatize this field of work.

Image courtesy of Netflix.

Lithium: I feel like there are often these assumptions or expectations that, because you’re hot or sexually in touch with yourself, you can’t be...normal. What specific things did you do while writing CAM in order to portray Alice as someone so different from the sex worker that audiences might expect?
Mazzei: Well, I think a lot of that just came from drawing from my personal experiences. I live in a very liberal, progressive area. I was very open about being a camgirl, and, luckily, the most common response I got from telling people that I was a camgirl was, “But you’re so normal.” I was very lucky to be sheltered from more derisive, hateful comments. But even amongst very open-minded people, I still did get this, like, “You’re not what I was expecting! You’re not who I thought!” And I realized that, when I looked at my camgirl friends, we were all just normal people. We were all camming for different reasons, we all were camming different amounts, and we were all very normal, because, like, there is no normal. You know what I mean? That was what was so frustrating to me. So, with writing Alice, I really wanted to write a girl that could very easily be your best friend. She could be in college with you, she could be the girl that lives two doors down—she’s just a normal girl. She’s got her family, she’s got her brother who supports her—that’s another misconception, I think. That all sex workers are not supported by their families. A lot of sex workers are supported by their families. A lot of sex workers are married, a lot of sex workers have children, and a lot of sex workers are open with their children about what they do. There’s all these misconceptions about it that I really wanted to break by trying to make Alice super relatable and super approachable. At the end of the day, the Alice that ended up in the movie is a combination of the Alice that I wrote, the Alice that Danny directed, and the Alice that Maddie brought to the character. And I think that’s what makes her so dynamic and so likeable.

Image courtesy of Netflix.

Lithium: When you partnered with Blumhouse Productions to make this film, they had just finished Get Out, so I definitely felt like they understood the political genre kind of horror. Did you feel respected and seen by them in your work and in your creative vision?
Mazzei: Oh, yeah. One-hundred percent. I mean, Blumhouse was incredible. They were on board with the politics, they were on board with the vision, and, more than that, they trusted me. They understood why I was co-authoring the film. They understood why I was producing the film. They understood why I needed to be on set. They carved out that space for me. They understood why that was important, you know? That was really unique to Blumhouse, and I’m incredibly grateful to them for that, because I think with Get Out and now with CAM, they’re understanding that, to tell these stories in a way that is going to resonate with viewers, they need to allow for that authentic representation. And they’re really—for lack of a better word—putting their money where their mouth is. It’s not just lip service; they’re not just saying, “Oh, we need a camgirl to consult on this,” or “Oh, we need this.” No. You wrote this, you’re producing it, you’re going to be on set, you are as involved as you need to be. And I really, really am thankful to them for that.

Lithium: Do you feel that the portrayal of sex workers in media has improved recently in any way? Do you foresee more of that kind of change happening soon?
Mazzei: I hope so. I’ve been a little hopeful because, since CAM has come out, I’ve been approached by some people in Hollywood who are working on things about sex workers, who have asked me to advise them. That’s a really good sign. But, on the other hand, I’m also talking to a lot of my sex worker friends who have projects that they feel like would be doing some of the similar work as CAM, and they’re very talented, creative people who are still not being taken seriously by the industry, not getting the momentum they need, not getting the producers that they need. It’s this frustrating juxtaposition of, like, on one hand now, people are somewhat listening to me, but on the other hand, I’m not the only one doing this work! There’s still so many other sex workers out there that could be bringing brilliant films and brilliant TV shows to the mainstream market who are still not being listened to. I’m hopeful because there are so many great projects out there and so many great voices out there, but I’m still not convinced that everything is—you know, we still have a long way to go. We still have a long way to go.

Photo by Caitlin Fullam.

Lithium: Do you have any advice for people looking to get into writing for film? I sometimes feel like there’s no linear way to get into it, and that kind of confuses me as someone who wants to possibly pursue that.
Mazzei: I think it’s hard because there isn’t a linear way. Oftentimes, a lot of people have different opinions on what the linear way is. People were telling us, “You need to write a short first. You can’t do a feature before you do a short.” People were very confused by me. They’d say, “Oh, but you’ve never written a screenplay before!” and I said, “No, I’ve never written a screenplay before. But I’ve written other things.” There’s no experience that you need, necessarily, to write a screenplay. The most important thing that I did was that I watched movies and I read screenplays. You mentioned earlier Black Swan and Whiplash. I looked at Whiplash, and I said, Okay, what’s happening in this story? I literally traced out the emotional plot of the movie. Like, when am I happy? When am I sad? When am I anxious? When are things going bad for him? Where are the turns? On a minute-by-minute basis throughout the movie, you really understand the structure of story. You can watch really conventional films and really commercial films and then you can watch more experimental films and contrast them and figure out the balances of what you want. CAM, at the end of the day, follows a pretty standard structure. We introduce the world, we say, Oh, something’s going wrong, and then there’s a turn in the third act. It’s a very standard story, but it doesn’t feel that way because it’s set in a really fresh world. I think the more that you analyze films you like, it gets easier to see these underlying structures that are universal in a lot of stories, and that can really help with your writing. The other thing that I think is really important is to just observe people and how they talk and what they talk about, because I think that writing people, one thing that I do—I don’t know how involved you want me to get, I have so many things.

Lithium: Just go for it.
Mazzei: One thing that I do is I write what I call garbage drafts. I’ll write the first draft of the full screenplay and it’ll be, like, a hundred pages long. And it will just be utter garbage. But it’s got the story beats where I want them. Some of the dialogue is literally just like, “ALICE: Says something that expresses she’s disappointed in her mom.” And then, “LYNN: Says something supportive of Alice but politically incorrect.” Whatever. That’s what some of the early ones are, because I know the emotions that I want to be in that scene, but not necessarily how to get them. And that’s where literally just listening to people and eavesdropping and observing the world around you comes in. You know, I was watching some family at Starbucks one time and the mom was kind of trying to be woke, but was actually kind of fat-shaming her daughter, and I watched this interaction, and I said, Okay. That’s kind of the emotional thing that I want to happen in that moment when Lynn says, ‘I understand this female empowerment thing.’ She’s trying to be supportive, but in this really dated way where she’s trying to be a good mother but she doesn’t quite understand what that means. I just borrowed that moment, and said, Okay, how do I translate this moment into this context? Yeah. I don’t know if that answers your question.

Lithium: It definitely does.
Mazzei: But I think the other thing to get into screenwriting that’s more of an overarching thing is to, like, just do it. Just write a screenplay. Like, write a movie. There’s no right way to do it. And share your work. The other thing is, I did not write this in a bubble. I shared it with hundreds of people, and kept getting notes, and kept getting feedback, and kept getting told why it was bad or what parts were good, and the story changed so much from sharing it with my friends and learning and adapting. People would say, “Oh, have you seen this movie? This movie might be a good reference,” so I would watch that movie, and all of that is so important. I felt very precious over it at first. I think there’s this kind of emphasis on, like, protecting your ideas. But I think that ideas in and of themselves aren’t as valuable as the execution. And you’re the only one who’s going to be able to execute that idea with your vision in the way that you want to. So feel free to share it, and feel free to get feedback—it’s good for practicing when you’ll be working with production companies in the future, because you’re learning how to take feedback and criticism and not take it personally, and which notes you want to take and which notes you don’t want to take and why, and that’s a really important practice to, you know, rehearse before you’re actually doing it, too.

Lithium: How did that process, of getting your script on board with everyone, work?
Mazzei: I mean, again, it’s different for everyone. We got our script to Blumhouse through a friend of a friend of a friend, who sent it to them, and they called us in for a meeting. Like you said, they had just seen the first cut of Get Out. And they called us in and said, Okay, we like this script. Tell us about it. What’s the vision behind it? How is it not problematic? What are you doing with this? So we just had a really open and honest conversation with them. And their main note from the beginning was, Okay, it’s great, we like it—it needs to be more of a thriller.

Lithium: Interesting.

Mazzei: And that was kind of the direction we wanted to take it anyway. They were very helpful with that, with helping make it feel scarier. But what was so cool about Blumhouse, because they were so on board with the vision behind the film from the beginning, their notes never conflicted with that. They never said, Oh, well, Alice can’t go back to sex work in the end.

Lithium: It was definitely important for her to go back to sex work in the end.
Mazzei: Right! And they understood that! It was really nice to be able to work with [their] notes—we took a lot of them, we didn’t take some of them. But at the end of the day, we made the exact movie that I think we both wanted to make. The notes process with production companies depends on what production company you’re working with, depends on the movie you’re making, depends on how finished the script is when you bring it into them. But I think the most important thing we did was that we wrote a manifesto. It was this document of things that were so important to us politically and ethically behind the film. As long as notes didn’t conflict with that manifesto, we were willing to consider anything. It was like, the whole plot can change, as long as the vision of the film doesn’t stray from this. I would recommend that for anyone with any film going in, you know? Decide what is really important to you to protect, and then be open to changing things beyond that. You don’t ultimately have to take all the notes, but they’re coming from a good place. Your production company wants you to make a good, successful film. Be open-minded to changes. Don’t be precious and don’t be defensive. I think that will get to the best product in the end.

Lithium: So, I think I read that you studied comparative literature in college?
Mazzei: I did.

Lithium: Yeah. How did you feel that that course of study prepared you for working in film as you do now?
Mazzei: I read a lot of weird books, which was amazing. I read a lot of books from different countries, which was also amazing. I think college in general opened my eyes to different viewpoints and different cultures that I hadn’t been exposed to. College also made me really uncomfortable at times, which I think is really important. And I think studying literature is an incredible way to experience a lot of viewpoints and periods of time. Reading a lot, writing a lot of papers, analyzing things obviously help with understanding story and character and plot.

I actually just wrote a book. What was so funny to me is I remember in college writing so many papers, you know, you’re kind of trained to write, like, “The author uses X to show Y.” And I remember writing this, like, fifteen-page in-depth paper on some book and just thinking, There’s no way the author did this on purpose. Like, I’m just inventing this. There’s no way that this is intentional. And then having gone through the process of just writing a book, I realized it really is intentional. I was having all of those thoughts, but from the other side, from the side of author: How do I thread this motif through my book? How do I utilize names in a way that—I did that with CAM, you know? Like, the switching of names. When you’re using usernames, when you’re using real-life names, when Alice is Lola and when she’s Alice. Those are so important and I realized that that is really deliberate. And so I think it’s really important to learn how to read a book or any piece of writing, and how to pull those things out of it, because that will help you when you’re trying to put those things in your own work. I also was on a lot of literary journals in college, which was really helpful, because it allowed me to read a lot of student writing that wasn’t my own. I became a lot stronger of a writer because I had the way that I wrote essays. And then I would read other people’s essays. Some of them were academic journals; one of them was a literary journal, so I’d read other people’s fiction, other people’s poetry, other people’s essays, and it was really nice to see what other people my age were producing, and it really encouraged me to find my own voice and figure out how I wanted to write as well. To be fair, though, the one thing I think that was interesting is that I actually came out of college thinking I would be a very different type of writer than I actually am. And I think that’s about being really open to figuring out your voice. Like, I remember when I started writing my memoir, I was like, This is going to be a very serious book. And I just couldn’t write it and it was so bad, and I was so frustrated, and I remember I was walking down some, like, street in Santa Monica, and all of a sudden I was like, Wait. Maybe it needs to be funny.

Lithium: Like that lightning moment.
Mazzei: All of a sudden, it was so easy to write, it was fun to write, I sold it really quickly—everything just cracked open because I had this shift where I was like, Maybe I’m actually supposed to be a funny writer. That was something that had been introduced to me in college, the idea that pop culture literature or commercial film could be taken seriously critically. When I went into college, I was like, There’s only one type of writing that’s serious. And when I came out of college, I had taken some classes that had introduced me to the idea that there are things worth studying in pop culture. So when I had that revelation, it was after college, but it brought me back to that moment, and I realized, Hey. I can be a funny writer. I can write funny, commercial things that are poppy and fun and they can still be taken seriously and they can still be doing important work. So that’s the other thing. I think the greatest thing about college is that it allows you the space to explore. Like, take the weird classes. Take the weird astronomy class. Take the classes that are not related to your major. Take the things that interest you, and see college as this space to really explore and figure out what you’re interested in, what your style is, what you want to learn more about. That’s the greatest thing you can get out of college, because no matter what major you do, you’re going to come out of college as a better writer and a better reader if you apply yourself. The best thing you can do is really take advantage of that opportunity to just learn new things and new ideas and new ways of looking at the world.

Lithium: That’s really good advice.
Mazzei: Thank you! I’m glad. I hope it’s not too general. But I read some weird-ass books in college. Like, bizarre Russian avant-garde stuff that influenced CAM so much, I can’t even explain. When you read something that’s so bizarre it’s almost fragmented, and then you watch a really commercial horror movie, you say, Okay, I want to bring really weird elements into my movie, but I still want it to be accessible to people who maybe don’t like super weird stuff. And it’s a really fun thought experiment! Or maybe you want to make the really weird, experimental movie. But I think the more you can read things that you wouldn’t normally pick off a shelf, the more you develop yourself as a writer and as a creative in general.

CAM is currently streaming on Netflix.

By Julianna Chen