The List started when I received a panicked phone call from a girlfriend. She found her boyfriends “list.” It was three pages long, front and back. Her concern was she recognized some of the names; what fascinated me was that each name represented a chapter in her boyfriend’s life, a chapter they had shared together. I began to wonder: If a person could piece together the stories, could a person create a patchwork of someone else’s life?
I decided it was an idea worth exploring.
Initially, I intended to advertise on Craigslist in the hope of finding a stranger to volunteer their list. But what was in it for them? Why would someone offer me such intimate access to their love life? I was also concerned about that practicalities of the project. How many people can recall the first and last names of everyone they’ve had sex with?
On my 27th birthday, I mentioned the idea to a friend who subsequently told me that he had been keeping a spreadsheet since high school, complete with first and last names and contact details. He was happy for me to document his love life; he was excited about it. It is the most unique gift I’ve ever received.
I spent a year tracking down the people behind the names, interviewing and photographing them in the hope of painting a picture of who he could be, as seen through the eyes of his former lovers. Usually he’d reach out to the women over Facebook and ask if they were open to being a part of a photography project documenting his life. I would follow up with a friend request and details. I couldn’t have completed the project without his help.
At first, I was very focused on my friend as the silent but central character. But the more I explored the project, the more I realized that what makes this story unique is that it’s told by women — who are not the stereotypical women as objects of desire, not almost passive participants experiencing themselves through the male gaze. In fact, The List reverses this dynamic. It was refreshing to hear about women wanting sex and exploring their own desire. Now I began to question whose story this was — his or theirs?
At the same time, that earlier question remained: why would these women share their stories with me in the first place? Let’s be real, it’s not difficult to get women to dish the dirt on their ex, but some of their stories brought up more serious concerns. Number 20 presented a question of consent. She feels shame over an experience that she was pressured or coerced into. It’s a hard read but I challenge the audience to draw a line in the sand: Where does consent begin and end, or is it ongoing? People understand consent; ignorance isn’t the issue. Consent is the excuse for a power dynamic that has been exploited for far too long.
So why would Number 20 share her story with me? I believe it was her way of sending a message to my friend — and to other women.
Here’s one of my favorite questions about The List: How many people did my friend have sex with? I can usually ballpark what other people think his number is, as well as who will be shocked that he’s had 38 sexual partners and who will seem unfazed. One of the women described him as a “rookie” and boasted that her list was three times as long. I was so delighted by this reaction, I wanted to give her a hug. We’re so used to women playing down their sexual exploits and men exaggerating theirs. Women tend to ask “How many is too many?”; men tend to ask “Am I enough?” Opposite ends of the spectrum, but both deeply rooted in the fear of being judged. At the beginning of the book, I ask my audience to question their own list, to ask “How many people have you had sex with?” The answer doesn’t matter. How it makes you feel does.
At some point while working on this project, I realized I was writing a script. The voices of these women needed to come to life and thus the project was adapted for the theater. Our casting call drew inquiries. Women wanted to be a part of an all-female show that uses sex as a means to explore, not exploit. It was exciting to feel like we were creating our own opportunities and, in the process, moving the needle.
In the end, The List is an opportunity to reminisce. It’s the ultimate walk down memory lane. The conversation I opened surrounding female sexuality was something I discovered along the way. I hope the project leaves people questioning their own past experiences and how others might interpret their narrative.
The List runs Fridays and Saturdays, May 18-26, 10pm, at the Steve and Marie Sgouros Theatre (115 MacDougal St., NYC). For tickets, click here.