Who’s excited about summer reading? If you’re ready to relax in a porch swing with a book as cool and refreshing as a glass of iced mint tea, bisexual comedian and writer Erin Judge has you covered. Her debut novel Vow of Celibacy, out this August on Rare Bird Books, follows bi stylist Natalie as she swears off sex in an attempt to make sense of her checkered romantic history. (Don’t worry, though–Natalie’s detailed examination of her past relationships makes for plenty of steamy scenes.) At the same time, Natalie launches a new career as a plus-size model, fends off unwanted advice from her dieting-obsessed mother, and helps her best friend Anastaze decide when to go public as the anonymous writer of a hugely popular blog.
As a plus-size, all-gender-loving lady, do I even need to tell you how much I dig this book, or how excited I am for you all to read it so we can talk about it? Fat-positive, bi-affirming, clever, and fun, Vow of Celibacy is the beach read of your dreams.
I chatted with Erin Judge about bisexuality, representation, and what’s next for Natalie and Anastaze.
AfterEllen: I’m trying to think of the last time I read a novel with a plus-size bisexual protagonist, and I’m coming up blank! Does Natalie have any particular literary predecessors?
Erin Judge: Plenty of characters exist who kiss (or who totally want to kiss) both guys and girls, but I can only think of a handful who actually use the term “bisexual” or “bi” when they describe themselves. “Bi” often gets projected on characters or historical figures rather than claimed. Some of the women-loving women who appear in books by Jeanette Winterson or Toni Morrison or Alice Walker might maybe also be read as voluptuous, but that’s a huge maybe. Of course, “plus-sized” is a super contemporary term. Perhaps “bisexual” is too. Both labels are extremely loaded, that’s for sure.
AE: Why did you choose to make Natalie openly bisexual, as opposed to the trendy “I don’t like labels”? Is there anything you hope readers will learn about bisexuality from Vow of Celibacy?
EJ: The acronym “LGBT” gets thrown around all over the place, but bisexual identity is still this tricky thing. It feels kinda earnest and dorky sometimes, even to me. Some people feel “bisexual” erases or excludes gender fluid or genderqueer people, though I personally have not met any bi-identified people who rule out folks who fall outside the gender binary.
When I first learned about bisexuality, I identified with it instantly. It was very intense for me. I think that’s because I was, and am, very equally attracted to both guys and girls. A more accurate way of describing it is that my attraction to another person has basically nothing to do with their gender. In that sense, it feels less like its own sexual orientation and more like the absence of one. It’s as hard for me to imagine being straight as being gay.
Personally, I’ve embraced being bi since I was a teenager, and I really wanted to create a protagonist who identifies with it as deeply as I do. Maybe more people will feel motivated to claim the term for themselves once they read about Natalie. We shall see.
AE: So many of the portrayals of bi people in the media are stereotypical and harmful. How did you approach writing Natalie so as to avoid falling into biphobic tropes?
EJ: Shit, I don’t know if I did! Whoops. I do wonder how lesbians who already roll their eyes at bi women will read Natalie and her arc. The story might even confirm some anti-bi prejudices. I wasn’t worried about that. I just wanted to tell a compelling story that dealt with a bunch of different relationship issues in a genuine and real way. I’m a stand-up comedian, so I am comfortable creating art where the protagonist is part hero, part antihero.
AE: Natalie obviously has a strong sex drive, but you made her feel like a real person, not a “slutty bisexual” stereotype. What were some of the challenges of writing this character?
EJ: Natalie loves sex, and she seeks out great sex on her own terms. She’s lucky to have really positive formative experiences with sex, so once she’s a bit older, drunken random hook-ups simply don’t do it for her.
I myself am really perplexed by what motivates a lot of people hook up. I guess maybe they’re into racking up partners, or being perceived as sexual, or even just doing it for the story. But Natalie is a woman who seeks out sex for pleasure. That’s what motivates a lot of women, including me, but in the media that often gets conflated with being DTF all the time. As if all the sex on offer out there is good enough sex! LOLOL.
Perhaps it’s a bit nuanced, but it shouldn’t be. The more we see authentic depictions of female sexual arousal and pleasure-based motivation for seeking sex, the less confusion there will be over what consent looks like.
I don’t know quite who counts as the “slutty bisexual” stereotype in media. I think Piper on Orange Is The New Black is just kind of a mess emotionally, and, frankly, who wouldn’t be in her situation? In Jonathan Franzen‘s The Corrections, the youngest sibling, Denise, winds up having two secret affairs, with a man and a woman who are married to each other. That’s again just sort of an insane interpersonal situation. And Thirteen on House M.D. goes wild, it turns out, to cope with the fact that she might be harboring a gene that will disable her and lead to her early death. So in these cases, reckless sexual decisions are linked to feeling out of control of one’s own life. I don’t think that’s much different from how the same behavior is used in gay or straight storylines.
I think about Samantha from Sex and the City, who briefly dates a woman at one point. Perhaps temporary bisexuality is seen as a side-effect of a very high sex drive, at least for women.
On a fundamental level, I really just wanted to depict this character and show the inner workings of her mindset, her deep self-knowledge that she is equally attracted to all genders, what that feels like to her, how she becomes aware of it, and how it manifests in her young life.
AE: Did you, at any point in the writing process, deal with pressure to write Natalie as a lesbian or a straight woman?
EJ: I talk about being bi on stage, and the most common question I get is, “So are you really bisexual?” Often it’s even, “But you’re not really bisexual, right?” Hearing that again and again has made me feel so hungry for more representation of bi experience out there in the zeitgeist. In writing this novel, I set out to depict bisexual female experience, so without that, to me at least, there would be no book.
AE: Have you ever taken a vow of celibacy yourself? Are any of Natalie’s romantic misadventures based on your own?
EJ: There’s a line in the book where Natalie talks about how she used to announce vows of celibacy in college in front of her crushes, in order to kind of throw down a challenge. I used to do stuff like that. But no, I’ve never had to step back from sex and take a breather to figure stuff out like Natalie does. I did have one relationship with a woman who wanted to keep it a secret, which is a major theme Natalie struggles with throughout her life. Even though my situation only went on for seven or eight months, it definitely laid bare some of my own self-esteem issues. I had to confront those, and ultimately I learned how to be more clear about what I wanted, even if that would ultimately mean facing rejection.
AE: Do you see aspects of yourself in Natalie? What about in Anastaze?
EJ: Natalie looks like me, and her sexuality is similar to my own. But she comes from a really stable family background, and her relationship patterns are not like mine. In many ways, she’s much braver and more together than I am, and she also really resists being the center of attention, which is nothing at all like me. I actually really hope people realize that Natalie is a fictional character and that this isn’t a thinly-veiled memoir. Beyond sexual orientation, phenotype, and being an only child, none of her autobiographical details are anything like my own. Anastaze is also a hodge-podge of many people I’ve known, but she’s not like me at all, except that she too is an only child.
AE: How did you decide that the focal relationship in the book should be Natalie’s friendship with Anastaze, rather than any of her sexual or romantic relationships?
EJ: My friendships are so important to me. I really feel like my friends are my family, and, for those of us who go away to college and never go back home again, I think that’s a pretty common sentiment. Everything Natalie and Anastaze go through in their college years and in the decade that follows can really only be comprehended by each other. It’s all monumentally important stuff, but yet at the same time, these are not the kinds of challenges that are easy to bring to your parents or family, especially for Anastaze, who is estranged from hers.
AE: Is there anything else you want to say about the representation of bi women and/or plus-size women in literature?
EJ: Natalie’s biggest obstacle to self-acceptance is not her sexuality but her size. I think lots of queer fat women can identify with that. Straight women too. Girls and women of all sizes across our society live with this constant nagging sense that there is something wrong with their bodies. It’s ubiquitous and debilitating.
As LGB folks are increasingly accepted—and I leave off the T there because I think we have a lot further to go in the struggle for transgender equality—it’s so sad to me to see how much shame and self-hatred is still associated with fatness and body size. Fat people in movies and TV and even in books are infrequently presented as sexually healthy or sexually desirable. That is not the way things work in reality. Most people, straight, gay, or otherwise, are attracted to a range of body types, and plenty vociferously prefer larger women. Jennifer Weiner, Retta on Parks and Recreation, Margaret Cho, Lena Dunham, Lindy West and many others have been moving the needle for years towards more humanized representations of women of size. But for the most part Hollywood still really needs to get it together.
I want to see fat women coupled up with thinner men, and tall women coupled up with short men, without those relationships being commented upon. Once those pairings exist all over the place in movies or on TV shows, without being the joke or the spectacle, then we’ll know we’re getting someplace.
AE: Any thoughts on what we should expect from you next?
EJ: My cool comedian and TV writer friends and I are playing around with some TV show ideas based on Vow of Celibacy. I’m so excited to revisit Natalie and Anastaze and give them new storylines. And I’m always traveling as a stand-up, and my tour dates to promote the book will continue through the end of this year. I’m also working on a new book, which deals with marriage equality and why young people today decide to get married—or, you know, not.
Pre-order Vow of Celibacy now!