If readers were expecting Samantha Irby to write the new Fifty Shades of Grey, they would likely leave disappointed.
In Irby’s latest book, the New York Times bestseller We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, the writer and creator of the blog Bitches Gotta Eat discusses the first time she had sex with her wife, Kirsten Jennings.
If someone else were writing about the encounter, which took place in a rented room at the Acme Hotel, it would be breathlessly described as the consummation of blossoming love and mutual infatuation giving way to hair-pulling, tongue-lashing passion.
What’s so special about Irby’s work is that she says what many of us are too afraid to admit: Sex can be really awkward.
Real-life sex is weird
“It wasn’t until I felt her definitely female fingers fumbling awkwardly with the zipper of my hoodie in that hotel room downtown that it dawned on me: I don’t really know how to fuck a lady,” Irby writes in Mavis.
“My stomach dropped as I tried to recall every article I’d ever read about G-spots and nipple sensitivity,” she writes. “My arms stiffening at my sides as she bent down and pressed her lips into my neck. I assumed it was up to me to do the man stuff…Waiting for her to yell at me because I hadn’t taken the garbage out. That’s how this works, right?”
Irby refers to We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, as her “big coming out moment” during our interview. Mavis, which takes its name from the pseudonym Irby uses to refer to Jennings, marked a milestone in her writing.
Samantha Irby and her wife
Her wife appeared briefly in the 2015 story Lesbnb. But Irby’s second book marked the first time she discussed their relationship with the same depth, and unflinching honesty, applied to her relationships with men.
What first attracted her to Jennings, Irby says, was that the two were complete opposites.
Irby is the type of person who “eats peanut butter out of the jar with a spoon while trying to remember where [she] last put the chips.” Her wife, meanwhile, is a “going to the blueberry patch kind of person.” Jennings likes kale and makes herself acai bowls for breakfast every morning.
During a horrible Airbnb experience, the two ended up in a sketchy neighborhood. One with “mangy dogs walking around with human limbs in their teeth.” Jennings still went for a 7 a.m. jog.
But while Mavis was the first time Irby has gone into detail about her relationship with Jennings, describing it as a proper lifting of the curtain would be false advertising. She has been open about her sexuality in her writing for years.
Opening up about your sex life
“I’m into love from wherever I can get it,” Irby writes in Am I On A Date Or Are We Just Two Pretty Girls Hanging Out?, an essay about all-too-relatable confusion of trying to figure out whether that Meshell Ndegeocello concert is leading up to sex.
“And I have been known to wear a pair of work boots in the winter, and I also find women in neckties incredibly attractive. I’m basically happy to be around anyone cool, whether I have to learn how to use a dental dam or not.”
No matter how many times she opens up about her sexuality, it appears to take her fans by surprise.
After Irby recounted the couple’s misadventure in the appropriately titled Lesbnb, Irby got a slew of emails from shocked readers who claimed they had no idea. “Why didn’t you tell us?” they wanted to know. Irby says that she responded, “Well, maybe you aren’t reading very closely.”
Irby argues that she often makes jokes about her attraction to women. It’s perhaps easy to gloss over these details and dismiss them as just her being funny.
Samantha Irby on being queer
But as often as she plays coy about her sexuality for laughs, Irby is very overt about her queerness. Take this line from Pretty Girls Hanging Out, for example: “Sometimes Samantha Irby wants to have sex with dudes. Other times, Samantha Irby wants to have sex with ladies.”
Erasing what is a significant part of her life bothers her. Yet, Irby says the misreading of her work primarily stems from the fact that most people know her because of her essays about men. Which is somewhat by design.
Irby began writing a decade ago when she started a Myspace blog to impress a guy.
A friend she was crushing on told her he was really into girls who wrote poetry. Her early posts were intended to show that she was “breezy and funny.” The kind of person you could imagine sharing a laugh with over drinks. She started penning short, off-the-cuff posts about her favorite things, including tacos and the Bachelor franchise.
Evolving as a writer a queer person
But as Irby’s work evolved, it became a critique of masculinity, speaking truth to power. Many of her most popular posts call out the toxic male behavior that women have long been conditioned to accept.
One particularly memorable essay in We Are Never Meeting in Real Life catalogs all the guys who have suggested that Irby (e.g., an overweight black woman with Crohn’s disease) should be grateful for sex. The long list includes a handyman who took out his genitals in her mother’s bathroom, apropos of nothing. Irby was 15 at the time.
Although it’s a bit passé to describe memoir as “therapy,” her work has an element of emotional exorcism. She describes writing to relive all her most painful experiences “one last time before shutting the door on it.”
Same-sex relationships, same-old routines
But why hasn’t she purged the demons of her same-sex relationships, I ask? Irby has to think about it before she responds. It’s a difficult question, and she wants to get it right.
But Irby doesn’t want to keep the “lesbians are boring” rumor alive. Still, she says all of her relationships with women were.
She was never cheated on. There was never getting led on by someone who wasn’t actually interested. No drama where you find out that your girlfriend was going on trips with another woman to Barbados. Which a guy actually did to her (go figure). And she has just never been involved with a woman who merited a takedown.
“People want the jokes,” she adds. “Most of my relationships with men have been jokes.”
Part of the difficulty with writing about her female exes stems from a personal philosophy. Irby refuses to denigrate other women. She feels that women “have it hard enough” and don’t need her. Complaining about some girl she went on two dates with who was “afraid to try zucchini.”
And as Irby points out, it’s just not that funny. When it comes to her current relationship, Irby draws not on the rejection that has long fueled her work but on the inherent difficulty of being an outsider in a new place.
Samantha Irby and Jennings tie the knot
After the couple tied the knot in a small private ceremony in 2016, Irby moved from her home in Chicago (“a one-bedroom where I could see all of my possessions at the same time”) to Kalamazoo, where Jennings lives with her two children from a previous marriage.
Today, the writer once described as Chicago’s “most talented, inappropriate woman” in a Tribune profile is living the life of a Michigan housewife. But when it comes to her new role as a parent, Irby is characteristically candid: She doesn’t have one.
Early on, she and Jennings decided that she would have limited duties in the household, which usually entail helping out with homework that isn’t math. (The fractions are too complex, she laments.) Irby explains that being a mother was never something she wanted, which hasn’t changed.
She still doesn’t want to be on the PTA or the school board and doesn’t care about being a “model lesbian.”
“I could tell my wife’s kids all the mistakes I’ve made,” Irby says, “and if I see them headed toward a big one, I could say, ‘Well, the time I did an 8-ball and drove a car, it didn’t work out well for me.’ That’s about it.”
While most queer moms balance work and family, Irby is about to have even more on her plate.
Samantha Irby’s next steps
FX ordered a pilot script based on Meaty, which she has been developing with Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson. Shortly before Irby and I spoke, their team had just submitted a second draft. Should the pilot get picked up, it would put her in the same breath as household names like Louis C.K. and Marc Maron. Both comics have shows on the cable network. That’s a huge step forward for someone who got her start reading her essays in a room of 20 people.
Editors note: That script? Fricken’ Tuca and Bertie. Congrats, Samantha!
Since her life is very different from when she first started blogging, longtime readers might expect whatever she writes next to be a radical departure from her previous work. But Irby says her fundamental worldview is the same: “I’m always going to be that person who can look at a beautiful day, and tell you everything that’s wrong with it.”
The unshakeable pessimism of Samantha Irby
Irby came by that unshakable pessimism, honestly. In high school, she was the girl who lived in Section 8 housing and took care of her disabled mother while her classmates went on vacations. As a budding adult fumbling toward maturity, Irby struggled with depression and degenerative arthritis while everyone else was Instagramming their yoga classes. Now, she’s just a different kind of outcast: the only black woman at the mommy book club.
“I want to dispel this myth that you get a marriage license and everything changes,” Irby says. “Everything else doesn’t change. It’s just one more person that you have to deal with that you can’t even walk away from easily without getting the courts involved.”
“Things are still terrible,” she adds. “I just have to file my taxes jointly now.”
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