When Jess was fourteen her mother told her that her uncle, who was also her massage therapist, was in jail for sexually assaulting his clients. She was fifteen when her first kiss became public school gossip. Sixteen when a college freshman first shoved his hands down her pants. At eighteen she was kissed by a stranger at night in an alley. Nineteen when she was too drunk to tell the stranger who crawled into her bed to leave. Twenty when she was locked in a bedroom of a frat house. Twenty-one and pinned against the wall at bar.
The consistent sexual harassment, whether abstract or physical, throughout Jess’ years of sexual development caused her to do quite the opposite, never sexually develop. She was, and at times still is, afraid of sex and what it meant, and although she had boyfriends and crushes, she could never bring herself to look at it square in the face and demand her body, and her sexuality, back from those who had stolen it.
Finally on the brink of twenty-three, anxious and aware, she chose to give up her virginity to a boyfriend of a few months. He, like Jess, also had sexual anxieties. It was comforting for her to be held by someone who knew what it was like to be constantly on edge, recoiling from touch and dreading what would come next. While working these emotions out physically, Jess did what she does and approached them photographically as well. She embarked on what was thought to be a typical ten week large-format project for school and photographed everything that fell under the definition of “sex”. Jess turned her camera onto those that were willing to become vulnerable to her, whether it was couples expressing their sensuality together, an individual masturbating, a tattoo on a genderless body or a an awkward embrace of new lovers, it was all there, and more importantly, it was all valid. The project extended and expanded naturally and will never quite be finished. She’s been humbled by the overwhelmingly positive response her project has gotten, and she’s excited to keep going post-grad. To photograph more, to show more — this will only result in a more comprehensive knowledge of what sex is and can be. For now, sex is the smell of sweat on the leather interior of a parent’s car and it’s unopened texts with the read receipt. It’s calls from a best friend asking what it means to be raped, and it’s a glass of water on the bedside table. Whether it’s scary or sticky or anxious or provocative, it’s there, patiently waiting to be witnessed, patiently waiting to be photographed.
Hey boys- two years ago I started The Sex Series as a giant #MeToo project veiled by the wanting to make sex inclusive and comfortable. It never felt this way to me. I never felt fully safe being intimate with any of you. Contrary to what most of y’all think, I did not start this project because I’m sexually progressive or because I love the d or because I like tight crop tops and am comfortable shaking my ass in front of a camera. I started it because there was an issue with being 22 and not being able to kiss any of you without my body physically rejecting the idea of sex. I started it because I never wanted you to take me on a date for fear of what would come after. I didn’t want to give you my real number because I don’t want you to text me every night after I don’t respond for two weeks. I “friend zoned” you because we’re fucking friends. You slept on the couch because I didn’t trust you in my bed. I started this project because it took my ex boyfriend weeks of asking if it was okay to kiss me and if it was alright to take my top off- something very few, if any, of you ever did- before I could let my guard down. Sex was scary, is scary, because y’all made it that way. This has only ever been about you but my girls and I are taking back our autonomy. Plain and simple. Are you listening? We’re done here.