In her memoir Night Terrors, Ashley Cardiff explores the important things that affect us all: sex, dating, nightmares that involve Prince, and the unique horror of associating with the kind of man who “looks like his penis was wearing a wallet chain.” We spoke with Cardiff about this stuff and about how she never wants to be called a sexpert, a wish we fully understand, though we’re tempted to disregard it completely. Sexpert, sexpert, sexpert!
So, you wrote a sex memoir. How’d that come about?
It wasn’t intentional! I was working in publishing and, to make ends meet, I started contributing to The Gloss, where my college friend Jennifer was deputy editor at the time. I had to write everything pseudonymously because publishing is pretty traditional, and the pseudonym, unexpectedly, kind of became this character. I got an agent and we shopped it around as satirical essays by said character, but the houses we talked to kept insisting it would do a lot better if it was written by me in my voice. One night, I gutted the proposal and put my voice in, and we sold it soon after—so I never really had a moment to sit down and think, “Do you really want to write about sex and dating and your own life?” Because the answer would be a firm no. So then I got the book deal and kind of had to decide right then and there how I was going to approach writing about sex as someone who was just inherently uncomfortable with the task. The other problem is I’m not terribly interested in sex as a topic. Luckily, I realized, I’m very interested in anxiety, and over the years, sex and dating have given me plenty of that. So I thought, “ok, I can do this through the lens of my dread at any given point.” Sometimes that manifests as ridiculous shit—like the profound existential angst I felt when I first saw pornography at a slumber party—and sometimes it’s serious, like being with someone who refuses to be monogynous and not being able to be honest with yourself about how that feels.
But can you still teach me something about sex? I’m
allowed to call you a sexpert in the headline, right?
Noooooo! Oh, god. Please don’t call me that. I guess “Ashley Cardiff, person who is equally fearful of and ambivalent about sex but who ended up writing about it anyway” is wordy.
Are you a terribly anxious person? Do you think anxious people tend to be more sex-obsessed than the general population?
I suppose I am fundamentally anxious. I’m afraid of a lot of stuff. There’s a paragraph early on in the book where I just list the weird things that I’m deeply afraid of—mountain lions, home invasion, children in formal wear—and I realized that list could have gone on longer than I wanted to think. As for being sex-obsessed, I wouldn’t characterize myself as such, but I think anxious people tend to be quite obsessive in general, yeah. I’m more obsessive about spaghetti westerns and cool shirts.
Do you think intelligent people tend to be more sex-focused?
That’s a hard question! I would hesitate to describe “intelligent people” any one way. Moreover, I have a couple really smart friends who identify as asexual. I do think certain kinds of intelligent people tend to be anxious, though I don’t consider myself “an intelligent person who is anxious” so much as “a middling intellect that is fucking terrified of everything.” But I think it’s hard for anyone to not focus at least somewhat on sex; everyone is always insisting it matters from when we’re a very young age.
Should I stop asking you about sex? The book is also about Prince and the dreams you had about him as a child. This really spoke to me because I had really disturbing dreams about John Travolta as a child. Why do you think children are so screwed up? Also, what strange celebrity have you dreamed about lately?
I want to hear everything about your John Travolta sexual nightmares. Also, I don’t think children are screwed up—well, if they are, it’s not really their fault. Speaking from my own experience, I was a hyper-curious, weirdly analytical kid with extremely permissive parents who let me watch whatever I wanted on television, etc. Anyway, for kids like me, we start piecing together this impression of a thing we really aren’t supposed to know about, and if you’re a kid working from such limited data, you start to imagine and believe things about sex that are wildly, hilariously untrue. I used to babysit a kid, for example, who’d use the bathroom and come out and tell me, “I just had sex,” because he faintly recognized that those parts down there had something to do with this nebulous, forbidden sex thing. To adults, that seems weird and offputting, but for kids... they’re just trying to figure it out. And I don’t really have sex dreams anymore! Certainly not to the degree that I was terrorized by Prince as a kid, forever chasing me on a giant purple tricycle.
Some of my favorite parts of the book had to do with dating, especially when you wrote about your bad experiences with the mothers of the men you dated. The takedown of these women was particularly pointed. How glad are you not to be on the dating scene anymore? Are you good at giving advice to your friends who have to meet terrible parents?
Thank you! I guess I’ve never really been on the dating scene, which I’m thankful for because it sounds like a bloodsport. I’ve only dated people who were friends initially, so I’ve managed to avoid a lot of the indignities of going on dates with people you don’t really know and having those kinds of strained, stilted conversations. As for giving advice, I’m inclined to say that anyone who claims to be good at giving advice is probably pretty lousy at it. Moreover, advice is particularly useless when it comes to making nice with your significant others’ parents—they either like you or they don’t. The most you can do is be polite and omit casual swears, I guess.
What’s up for you next?
I haven’t gotten good at answering this question, because I feel like it’s weird to talk about projects that are still kind of in my head. Yes, I’m working on the proposal for book two, and I’m working on some other stuff, too. I’d only ever written fiction before this, so sitting down and thinking about more essays is an unusual challenge. But I’m working toward getting to a point where I can stop writing about myself! Does that sound disingenuous? Please remind people to buy my dumb sex memoir. Thank you.