Say the Hardest Thing | The Sun Magazine

Say the Hardest Thing

Cameron Dezen Hammon on Spirituality and Sexuality

By Staci Kleinmaier, Assistant Editor • March 21, 2024

I have little patience for small talk. I would rather go deep into personal, raw topics than rehash my weekend. That is one of the reasons why I enjoy reading The Sun: it feels like an intimate conversation between writer and reader, and I’m blown away by the vulnerability Sun contributors show. I’m thinking of essays like “Inheritance,” by Debbie Urbanski; “Ghost Dogs,” by Andre Dubus III; and “What to Expect,” by Molly Bashaw—and, as our March 2024 issue hits mailboxes and inboxes this month, Cameron Dezen Hammon’s essay “Kissing Strangers in the Street.” Cameron’s essay is about how she experimented with witchcraft and the sexual practice of BDSM to manifest change in her life. Sun contributors are able to be so unguarded in their writing in part because Sun readers are empathic, understanding, and open to new perspectives. The Sun is a safe space.

“Kissing Strangers in the Street” is Cameron’s first publication in The Sun and is an excerpt from her memoir-in-progress about women, desire, and divinity. She is a creative writing instructor and the author of the debut memoir This Is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession.

I spoke with Cameron about her essay by video call. It was one of several conservations we had as her manuscript went through the editing stages. From our first interaction Cameron was open, inviting, and easy to talk to, which I especially appreciated since I was asking about her sex life and her religious beliefs.


Photograph of Cameron Dezen Hammon.

© Anna Sneed


Staci Kleinmaier: How did it feel to be so honest in this essay?

Cameron Dezen Hammon: It was terrifying. It remains terrifying. But I learned something about myself as a writer: to stay engaged in a topic I have to say the hardest thing. That’s what sustains me through the challenges of draft after draft. It still feels terrifying, but it’s what is interesting to me. I’m curious about why sex and spirituality terrify me equally, and writing is an effort to understand myself.

Staci: Is there anyone you hope doesn’t read this?

Cameron: Everyone. [Laughs.] When I wrote my memoir, I didn’t share it until the final draft because I knew that I would lose my nerve. If responses from early readers, especially my family or close friends, had thrown me off, then I would have pulled the project. With this essay it was a little different. I shared a draft with three people. One of those conversations was really difficult, but it gave me the opportunity to remind myself and my friend why I write nonfiction. I found myself explaining that nonfiction can do things, at least for me as a writer and a reader, that fiction cannot.

Staci: What can nonfiction do that fiction can’t?

Cameron: Reading nonfiction makes me feel less alone in the world. It amazes me, from a skill and craft level, that a writer can arrange facts in a way that is as dramatic and powerful as fiction. I have related to fiction, but not in the way I relate to nonfiction. It’s a noble art, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic. It’s extraordinary. And part of that is because of how vulnerable the writer has to become to do the work. Cheryl Strayed’s Sun essay “The Love of My Life” changed the way I thought about writing and what can be done on the page.

Staci: It goes to the dark places.

Cameron: I love the dark places. And the layered, the hidden. We dismantle shame when we bring those things into the light.

Staci: I think a lot about the phrase “You should be ashamed.” It suggests that you should feel this thing, but you can’t be forced to. Do you think that shame is, at least in part, a choice? Is it something that can be accepted or rejected?

Cameron: Shame, for me, is there whether or not I accept or acknowledge it. It’s like an internal monitoring system. And then women absorb a kind of ambient cultural shame without anyone specifically telling us to feel it. So I am not shameless. I very much am living side by side with it. But I’m not letting it win. And I think that’s due to my curiosity: Why is sexuality so shameful? Why is the expression of desire so shame inducing?

Staci: In our society it is shameful for a woman to have appetite: sexual desire, career ambition, or even a literal hunger for food.

Cameron: The expectation that women remain small is 100 percent a function of white-supremacist patriarchy. It’s capitalism. If we’re second-guessing ourselves and holding back even in a slight way, it benefits the power structure. It narrows the competition. Sometimes I think: A man could write this without shame. He’d be slapped on the back and celebrated. Why can’t I do the same? But I choose not to be kneecapped by what’s expected of me.

Staci: Published in the same issue as your essay is an interview I did with Clarissa Smith, cofounder of the academic journal Porn Studies. Our discussion was about sexuality and desire, and one of the things we talked about is this idea that there’s socially appropriate sex, or “good” sex: married sex, hetero sex, baby-making sex. And there’s “bad” sex: anything considered deviant, sex outside of marriage, queer sex. In your essay you wrote that BDSM was helping you heal gendered trauma. Why do you think that “bad” sex helped you heal when the “good” sex couldn’t?

Cameron: BDSM flipped the gender dynamic that I’d lived with: women are submissive, women serve, and women exist for the pleasure of the male gaze. When I was the dom, the entire experience was for my pleasure. It was about receiving. I think that BDSM—when safe words are established, when there’s acknowledgement of consent—has the ability to give a person access to an experience that they’ve never had in “good” sex. It can be healing.

Staci: Your essay examines a time in your life when you were experimenting with BDSM and witchcraft. How are sexuality and spirituality linked for you?

Cameron: When I became a Christian in my twenties, I idealized God as one might a lover. I saw prayer as akin to communicating with a partner who lives in another state. My relationship to God and religion had been baked into my ideas about love and romance. Historically that’s not uncommon: We see it in Saint Teresa of Avila who wrote about Jesus as lover. Certain mystics and saints saw union with God as some would see union with a romantic partner or a romantic ideal. That has always fascinated me.

When my marriage ended and I found myself pursuing physical relationships that could in no way be deemed “good” Christian sex, I realized that they still had a sense of holiness to them. And I felt a sort of transcendence.

Staci: I see your essay as a rebuttal to the biblical story of Eve. Her pleasure is the root of all suffering, whereas what you’ve written about is a path to a richer life. Did you intentionally write your experience as a kind of counterpoint to Eve’s?

Cameron: Not consciously. But when you said Eve, I immediately thought of Lilith, who is alluded to in the Old Testament. The story is that she was the first wife of Adam. She wouldn’t submit to him, so she left him and became sexually, emotionally, and financially independent—and demonized. I imagine her as a mythological counterpoint to Eve. When we think about women’s pleasure as a path to a better life or a better way of life, maybe Lilith is our patron in that work.

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