A Chat Room of Their Own
In the fall of 2015, Nina Lorez Collins, a former literary agent, writer and mother of four young adults, including a pair of twins, was experiencing a fairly typical middle-aged malaise. She had a complicated second marriage, and her body was betraying her — textbook perimenopausal stuff, awaking most nights at 3 a.m., heart pounding, soaked in sweat. When she Googled “perimenopause,” it amused her to read that one of the symptoms was “impending sense of doom,” and she noted her discovery in an uncomplicated (until recently) manner: a Facebook post.
Friends wrote back, half-seriously, suggesting she start a group for their cohort, but what to call it? Black Cohosh (for the herbal remedy)? How about What Would Virginia Woolf Do? one friend joked darkly, because of course what Woolf did, at 59, was kill herself.
Within a week or so, Ms. Collins, now 48, had created a secret Facebook group with just that title, inviting her friends into the internet era’s version of a consciousness-raising group, where women of a certain age could talk about things they didn’t want to share with husbands, partners or children.
That would be everything from the peevishly quotidian (complaints about dry skin or men not shutting cabinets) to the truly harrowing (suicide ideation; job loss at middle age; bad marriages; domestic abuse; and children suffering from drug addiction).
And sex. There would be lots of chatter around sex: requests for tips on technique; concern about “the handful of limp” of an older boyfriend; vaginal atrophy; dry vaginas; sex toys; bad sex; no sex; anal sex; the viability of hiring a male prostitute; who has an orgasm first during sex: weird places to have sex; obligatory sex; sex with an ex; tantric sex; group sex; and many, many posts about coconut oil (see “dry vaginas,” above).
Now It’s a Book
Ms. Collins, who lives in Brooklyn Heights in a modish duplex apartment overlooking the East River, is emblematic of a certain demographic: mostly white — though Ms. Collins is half-black — expensively educated and housed liberals. You would assume that group would mirror itself online and stay small and homogeneous. But within a year of its founding, WWVWD, to use its colloquial abbreviation, had more than 1,300 members; the week after the presidential election there was an increase of another 1,000, Ms. Collins said, with many seeking a way to marshal themselves for political action.
The original group, which Ms. Collins changed from “secret” to “closed” (meaning it can be seen by the public), begot subgroups, for those who wanted to focus on philanthropy, activism, business networking and writing. Woolfers in New York City began meeting in person, as Ms. Collins led field trips to Toys in Babeland, the sex accessories emporium on the Lower East Side, and hosted Scrabble tournaments and clothing swaps.
Woolfers have also swapped houses and apartments, rented each other rooms and raised money for groups including the Center for Reproductive Rights and the Trust for Public Land. Recently, four Woolfers spent a day at the Wallkill Correctional Facility, joining a mentorship program for inmates there.
There are now more than 7,600 Woolfers across the country, from New York City, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles, as you might expect, but also from Arkansas, Chicago and Maine. And Ms. Collins, who spent a few weeks last month on a cross-country road trip with a new boyfriend meeting Woolfers in Memphis and Telluride, Colo., among other spots, has a new book, out in April, called “What Would Virginia Woolf Do? And Other Questions I Ask Myself as I Attempt to Age Without Apology.” It is a sometimes wince-inducing primer on fashion, sex, marriage, divorce, money and health gleaned from her experience as Woolfer in chief, and with contributions from her Woolfer sisters.
It also has memoirish elements: Ms. Collins details her adventures in the orgy tent at Burning Man (she and her ex brought their own sheets, and kept to themselves), her struggles with depression and her adherence to an expensive beauty routine that involves fake eyelashes and Botox. She also cops to divorce envy, and notes the benefits of prenups, long-term-care insurance and pharmaceuticals like Xanax. In its breezy candor, the book is as appealing and appalling as the conversations of the Woolfers online, though it lacks the tartness and invective that occasionally erupts there, turning a you-go-girl group of self-affirmers into an unruly scrum.
Because when thousands of women get together on social media, what could possibly go wrong?
‘Assume Goodness, Please’
“We do fight sometimes,” Ms. Collins said. “We’re talking about super-candid things, and people have strong opinions. If you’re talking about whether or not to let your 16-year-old have sex or whether to have an affair or how to tell your colleague at work that she’s a jerk, people will have strong responses.”
When one long-married woman wrote about the heartache she was feeling because her lover of five years had broken up with her, many Woolfers were upset by her adultery, Ms. Collins said, and she had to step in to remove comments that were aggressive, moralistic and vitriolic. When a white Woolfer reported that a black man in a park had exposed himself to her, many in the group were inflamed that she had noted his race.
At first, Ms. Collins read every post herself, to steer the conversation and defuse tension. But when the group swelled to 3,000, she asked some of the early Woolfers to help her moderate; now, about 20 women have oversight of what’s posted. Politics, race and infidelity are topics that reliably lead to problems. “I’ll be out somewhere and I’ll get a text from someone saying basically there’s a huge fight in Aisle 6 and what do we do?” Ms. Collins said.
Early last year, Ms. Collins chastised the group for what she saw as occasional reflexive pettiness. “This is not a liberal arts college, circa 2016,” she wrote in part. “We don’t have to give trigger warnings. Bring on the posts about money concerns and racism concerns and class struggle, but don’t blame fellow members without real cause. Assume goodness, please.”
Jenny Douglas, an early Woolfer and moderator, said, “If there’s a post you don’t like, we say, ‘Scroll on by.’ You don’t need to pick a fight with everything or anyone you disagree with. When we are meeting online and tackling subjects that are so nuanced, you can lose that nuance. Those tender subjects are tricky to tackle in any form.”
Just a few weeks ago, a moderator quit the group after a discussion of moderator practices — how they vetted posts, for example — left her feeling bullied, she said.
There are over-posters, and drunk posters; there are angry, cursing posters — whose words are promptly removed, Ms. Collins said — and posters who are a tad self-righteous. And there are the lurkers and the hate readers, along with those who are repelled or bored or disappointed by the particular window into women’s lives that the group affords them.
“I always think that Virginia Woolf would be mortified at having her name associated with this group,” said Daphne Merkin, the memoirist and cultural critic, who is a member of the group but does not post anything. “At first I thought it was going to be some kind of literary meeting of the minds. That there would be some interesting comments about Jean Rhys. Instead it’s, “What do you do with your dildos?” Or this sort of subclinical despair about no longer having a flat stomach.
“It’s not like that stuff is beneath me,” Ms. Merkin went on. “I mean, I once wrote a story on buffing up the vagina, but these revelations are very cosmeticized. There’s little wit, but maybe wit takes more time than social media allows. This is more like the stuff you tell your girlfriend at the end of the day, the eye-glazing end of intimacy. There’s intimacy that’s thrilling, but this isn’t.”
Conversations have leaked outside the group, like the time one woman wrote of her son’s bad behavior, and another Woolfer told her own child, who happened to know the son, who then told the son of his mother’s revelations about his conduct.
“It was pretty easy to figure out who it was,” Ms. Collins said of the offending member. “I reached out and said, ‘This is super-uncool,’ and we removed her from the group. The way we dealt with it was to write about it, so everyone knew what had happened. Ironically, and because I’m a bigger personality, I’ve probably suffered more than others for this.”
The More Diaspora
Ms. Collins is indeed not only confessional, but also confrontational. In 2013, in an article for Elle magazine, she wrote about being arrested three times: for assaulting her first husband, for assaulting his girlfriend and for violating an order of protection he had taken out against her, by overturning a coffee table. A recent Page Six item reported that her second husband had broken her nose during a fight last September.
“What does it mean to be ‘too much,’ as a woman?” she said. “We talk about this a lot in the group.”
Ms. Collins is happy to share her labial regimen (see “coconut oil,” above), the minutiae of her sex life and the unraveling of her second marriage, which ended in part because of the meddling of a Woolfer, as it happens.
“The marriage was strained, and I had been wanting a second dog for a while,” Ms. Collins said. “My husband didn’t, but like most women I do most of the work around the house and pay my fair share.” She asked the Woolfers, in essence, “Am I a jerk if I just go ahead and get the dog?”
“I thought it would be a throwaway thread,” she said. “But suddenly there were like 600 comments,” evenly divided in opinion. (She didn’t get the dog.)
It turns out that one Woolfer who read the thread was an old friend of Ms. Collins’s husband, and the woman told him about his wife’s query. “He came home pretty angry, and the marriage ended pretty much the next day,” Ms. Collins said.
A revenue model for the Woolfers has yet to emerge, though Ms. Collins is working on it. She has built a website to promote her book, created a newsletter and recorded five sample podcasts — called “Raging Gracefully” — which she plans to release in April. As Ms. Collins has told the group, she received a $75,000 book advance, which she split with an editor and researcher who worked with her. She is as candid about her entrepreneurial behaviors and aspirations as she is about more intimate matters.
“Can we create a digital platform for women over 40?” Ms. Collins said. Fortunes have been lost on the print version of such endeavors, despite economic data that shows the purchasing power of this demographic, decade after decade. And Ms. Collins is not alone in trying to reach them online. Girls of a Certain Age, a six-year-old style site created by Kim France, the founding editor of Lucky magazine, gets about 30,000 unique hits a month and makes over six figures, Ms. France said.
Lesley Jane Seymour, the editor in chief of More magazine, which folded in 2016 after publishing for 19 years and was reintroduced as an online magazine for millennial women, has spent the last two years working on Covey Club, “an online club for women 40+ who want to continue learning, growing and expanding their world by making new friends and deeper connections,” which went live this past Valentine’s Day.
Ms. Seymour was promoting the site at the South by Southwest festival a few weeks ago, joining the stage with Tausha Robertson, creator of Ms. X. Factor, a digital space for Gen X women of color. “I know there’s a business here,” Ms. Seymour said. “The question is how to do it. We can’t just sell content online, it has to be something else. What is clear is that women who are a little bit older feel disenfranchised. They feel no one is listening to them, and they feel invisible.”
Ms. Collins said of her group, “I see it as incredible content potential and, though this sounds a little grandiose, possibly culture shifting. These women are powerful, and they have made me feel more powerful.”
There’s a continuing conversation about whether the group is getting too big and how or if to control for privacy. When the news of Facebook’s breaches broke last week, the moderators again discussed restricting new members or moving to a different platform. “Maybe one day we’ll have an app or some other platform for more intimacy,” Ms. Collins said. “But for now, here we are, basically addicted and not budging.”
Dina Seiden is a Brooklyn-based writer and performance artist, a committed Woolfer and, now, a moderator. The group’s foibles, she said, are part of the draw. “They make aging so much fun. We’re not all saints — no, we’re perfectly human, and that is ultimately good for the group, too.”
Last Christmas she participated in a Secret Santa gift exchange. In a “cheeky nod,” she said, to a topic the group seems to hold dear, Ms. Seiden sent her recipient a vintage vibrator: a formidable, Machine Age relic called the Vitilator she’d bought on eBay for $15, the price cap the group had set. “I mean, kismet!” Ms. Seiden said, truly delighted by her find.
Unfortunately, the recipient was a germophobe, and was horrified to have received such an intimate, secondhand device, as she explained. Did Ms. Seiden want it back? If so, she’d leave it with her doorman.
“But it was a schlep and I just wanted to put the incident behind me, so I never did pick it up,” Ms. Seiden said. “My dream is that the doorman gave it to a woman in his life, or that a slightly awkward exchange ensued in which the doorman had to return the vibrator to its recipient, passing it clumsily to her and in my dream, by the time she gets up to her apartment, she can’t resist, transcends her putative germophobia, and gets herself off like a rock star.”
A version of this article appears in print on March 29, 2018, on Page D6 of the New York edition with the headline: In a Chat Room of Their Own, Some Scuffling. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe