How Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville Helped Me Reclaim My Sexuality

A personal reflection on the seminal album that turns 30 today

Music Features Liz Phair
How Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville Helped Me Reclaim My Sexuality

Liz Phair’s seminal debut, Exile in Guyville, turns 30 today. Originally released on June 22, 1993, the record was hailed by music critics as a landmark indie-rock album by an emerging female musician. Three decades later, that sentiment holds true as the record continues to reach a new generation of teenage girls (and others) every few years.

On Exile in Guyville—conceived as a track-by-track response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Mainstreet—Phair pioneered a messy and provocative approach to sex that fought through the male-dominated musical landscape of the time as well as against oppressive norms hindering female sexuality. Here was a voice saying that it was okay for a young woman to like sex and explore her sexuality—that this inclination didn’t make her “easy” or a slut. It’s a message I wish I had heard much sooner.

I never had the Almost Famous-type narrative of an older sibling bequeathing an old vinyl or CD to me and telling me that it’d change my life. And even though I was living in the Pacific Northwest—where it’s perpetually the ’90s and flannel and Doc Martens are still very much in style—I was more into the jangly indie-pop of the aughts like Modest Mouse, Arcade Fire and Death Cab for Cutie. I wouldn’t discover Liz Phair until several years later in my early twenties.

But let’s start at the beginning: Since a young age, I’ve always been fascinated by sex. Early sexual trauma piqued my interest (a common effect of sexual abuse), leaving me teetering between intense curiosity and nagging obsession. I wanted to make sense of what had happened to me as a young girl and figure out why something so horribly wrong could still biologically feel good (another dilemma of sexual abuse). The shame and guilt followed me for years to come, and it started at as young as 10 years old.

For instance, I’d stay up late, long after my parents and siblings had gone to bed, and put on the Cinemax channel—its after-hours programming nicknamed “Skinemax”—and just watch. I would study the movements, the acts. I’d feel what I later identified as the beginning sensations of pleasure, and I wouldn’t look away until an overpowering sense of guilt came over me and sent me running to my parents’ bedroom to tell them what I had been doing. Instead of talking to me, my parents’ solution was to add child locks to the television, only reinforcing that what I was doing was, indeed, something to feel ashamed about.

My curiosity and obsession with sex didn’t subside as I got older; in fact, it only grew. It took the form of masturbating multiple times a day, but under the sheets to hide my shame and guilt. These roaring teenage hormones manifested themselves not by compelling me to check out the boys at school but rather my male teachers. I had always been horny, but now I was old enough to start acting on those urges—and to be judged by others for them. I would get dress-coded in jeans and a fitted sweatshirt because I developed early and had more curves than my female classmates. I was called a slut because of it. Again, all messages reinforcing the idea that I was to blame—that something at my core was wrong.

The first Liz Phair song I ever listened to was Guyville’s gut-wrenching “Fuck and Run.” Here Phair sings about the darker side of sex, the emotional wringer that it can put us through, and how it can be used to numb the pain deep down inside. I was 24 when I first heard this song, and in the midst of my first real heartbreak over a guy too chickenshit to call me his girlfriend. I listened to Phair coo, “I want a boyfriend/ I want a boyfriend,” choking up because that’s all I thought I wanted, too. Or, at least it’s what I thought I should want.

However, it was the titular lyric of the song that really got me: “It’s fuck and run/ Fuck and run/ Even when I was 17…” That line transported me back to my very first encounter with a shitty guy, the one who I lost my virginity to at (you guessed it) 17. The same one who ignored me the next day at school. Had I done something wrong? Did I give it up too easily? Could he not love someone who would? There I was: literally exiled in Guyville. And for years I felt like a permanent resident.

This type of ambiguity in relationships happened consistently in my early twenties. My past made me believe that I had to find love first before enjoying sex. That if I didn’t find that “Big L,” I was only being a whore. So, I went with it. I sent nudes, dirty text messages, and slept with countless men, many of them much older than me. In hindsight, it’s not the actions that bother me. It’s that I put myself in risky and dangerous situations (both emotionally and physically) because it was beaten into my head that girls who like sex were wrong—that we deserved to feel badly about our desires, perhaps even punished for them.

“Canary” was the other song on Guyville that immediately spoke to that confused girl inside of adult me. Phair drops cutting insights into so many of the polarizing emotions and social realities that teenage girls universally face. How, from an early age, society depicted our sexuality as a conflicted, torn construct—oscillating between enjoyment and shame, pleasure and danger. Being taught in Sex Ed that the boys couldn’t help themselves, and it was our job, as young ladies, not to tease. Implying that girls don’t get horny or that we’re only there to climax on command. “Canary” sings about the loss of innocence in becoming this object for men while still trying to figure out where we stood sexually—not that it mattered because our feelings didn’t count. “I sing like a good canary,” laments Phair. “I come when called/ Come, that’s all.”

Proper sexual education requires learning about the complexities of relationships, the push and pull of desire and the profoundness of sexual attraction. Exile in Guyville, even as an adult, helped prepare me for the experience of being vulnerable (sexually and emotionally) with strangers, with myself, and, maybe most importantly, it urged me not to be silent in sexual encounters—to ask for what I wanted, to be more than that dutiful, well-trained, sweet-singing canary in a cage.

Phair’s meditations on cowardly boy-men and meaningless hookups spoke to me throughout Guyville. And when it comes to the female point of view on bad dudes, bad relationships, and sex, Phair’s direct lyrics are both validating and indicative. “It’s harder to be friends than lovers/ And you shouldn’t try to mix the two,” she warns on “Divorce Song.” “’Cause if you do and you’re still unhappy/ Then you know the problem is you.”

And that was Guyville’s most important message. I wasn’t the problem. I didn’t need to torture myself by thinking I needed to be in love or have a boyfriend just to enjoy sex. Waking up next to strangers wasn’t bad if that’s what I wanted, neither was sending nudes or chasing older men. Guyville reinforced the idea that my sexuality belongs to me and that nobody else gets to define it for me or, just as importantly, determine how it makes me feel.

Now, having just turned 29 this spring, I listen to Exile in Guyville with a newfound reclamation of my sexuality. Like Phair sings about on her song “Flowers,” I can look at men and imagine them on top of me. I can “get all wet between my legs” and aspire to be a “blowjob queen.” I can like sex and I can want sex. And that’s alright.

Because Liz Phair said so.

And now, so do I.

Samantha Lopez is an Oregon native currently living in Chicago. She has been a gigging music journalist for nearly a decade, with work appearing in Consequence and Paste. In recent years, she has also turned her focus to personal essays and poetry that explore ideas of trauma, mental health and identity in a modern context. She is currently working on a debut collection of essays, a children’s book with her partner, and scripts for film and television. When not writing, she enjoys traveling, live music, and giving belly rubs to her black lab, Leopold Bloom.

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