Erin is a recent Ithaca College graduate with a BA in writing. She is currently completing her MFA at Sarah Lawrence College with a focus in nonfiction. She hopes to pursue a career in teaching after graduation. As a writer, she enjoys experimenting with form and rejecting chronology. Her philosophy is to embrace the fragmented and chaotic as this approach allows her to reflect more organically how she makes meaning from life events.
learning to live for me
I was raised without a vocabulary for my feminine sexuality. As a young girl, I was taught that “down there” were private parts that no one ever had the right to touch. I was taught the right way to sit, like a lady, with my legs closed. I was warned that boys were not good friends and that I should be suspicious of them, especially the older ones. All the times as a little girl that I sat on the toilet, hunched over, staring through the crack between the toilet seat and the bowl, staring at the strange flaps of skin where I excreted urine, I never knew that this forbidden wonder of my own body contained such potential for pleasure.
In fact, even as I got older and more exposed to sexuality, I never had much desire to explore. When, one day, I began bleeding between my legs, I was horrified. Was this going to happen every day now? Why was I bleeding? I was scared, but my mother assured me this would only happen for a week, once a month. I wished I could make it stop. My mother explained that it was so I could have a baby. I replied that I didn’t ever want a baby, so I wished there was a way to make this “unclean” phenomenon stop. After I got my very first period was when I began to think of my sex as unclean, gross, and needing containment.
I didn’t want to think about it. I didn’t want to look at it. In health class, when we learned about the male and female genitalia, we drew diagrams and labeled them. Ovary. Follicles. Uterus. Cervix. Vagina. They were words on a page. I would study hard to make sure that I got an A on the quiz. It didn’t mean much to me. On STD day, my health teacher flashed us appalling pictures of infectious genitals. The message was clear. Don’t have sex.
It was clear that male pleasure was something we were supposed to pay attention to. The boys would coax the girls to go home with them for lunch, or just out to their cars. For a girl, this was all about social standing to be chosen, to be picked, for this forbidden act of intimacy. To not be a virgin was something to brag about, especially the more popular the guy that “popped her cherry.” As a girl, if you hadn’t had sex you were shunned, labeled faulty, even called a lesbian as though the word had been created to denigrate a lesser species. It was cruel, and I often was made fun of for not being in or having much interest in having a relationship with any of the boys. Sure, there were a few I was attracted to, but they were way out of my league. I got involved with cross country and used my passionate efforts towards running to explain my apparent lack of drive to explore my sexuality.
Or, that is, to explore my sexuality by way of having a guy “show me how it’s done.” The fact that I never learned how to access my own pleasure during sex, and that men often fail to deliver their female partners the pleasure that women are capable of feeling, led me to believe that the entire act was focused around a man’s pleasure. I understood that women should want to have sex, that it should feel good, that I should be moaning in pleasure like the buxom blondes on the television screen, but I had no idea how to unleash this overflow of sexual drive. I worried that maybe there was indeed something wrong with me.
I first had sex in college. Like many first timers, alcohol was involved. I remember dancing with him under the strobing electric lights. I remember blowing my friend off when I insisted I go with him. I remember blurry bits of the walk to his apartment. When he put me on his couch where I sat drunkenly limp, while he undressed me. When I told him, the curtain isn’t pulled. When he laid me down on his bed while he kissed me, touched me, and finally asked, do you want me, to which I replied weak, yes, gesturing with my arms as though I wanted him to come nearer to me. I remember the snap of rubber, but not much of the act itself. In the morning, there was blood. Even after this, when I had sex, I still noticed spots of blood on my underwear. What was wrong? What was wrong with me? This shouldn’t be happening…
I was not deriving any pleasure from the sex. I had wanted a sexual partner for so long. It seemed the only right thing to do for myself. I had long been overdue to hit that milestone of sexual release. And yet, now I realized, I could not enjoy it. I had physical reminders of my lack of pleasure staining my underwear and I experienced the same kind of horror that I’d had as a girl having my period for the very first time. I was ashamed. I thought that I must, in fact, be defective if I not only could not find the pleasure in the act.
A psychology of women course I took during my undergraduate study was the first place that we talked openly about female sexual desire. We talked about how wonderful masturbation could be, something I had never tried before. Sure, I had tried, only knowing enough to stick a couple fingers in the vaginal opening. But that did nothing for me. I had even read an exotic novel or two, but the only vocabulary I picked up from those was how erect the man’s dick got, how hard the woman’s nipples were, and how it felt for him to be inside of her. Never had I read something about a woman lost in her own pleasure, not unless it was pleasure stimulated by the man’s perfectly shaped, large phallus. What was all this nonsense that we were reading and talking about in this class about the magic of the female sex, the orgasms that could come from masturbation. Sadly, at the time, I couldn’t even say that I had orgasmed.
I sat out to finally try to masturbate. I practiced, like I had heard about, staring at my sex in the mirror. I was not dirty, I was not unclean, I was not faulty. I had the power to unleash my own pleasure within my body. I could take ownership of my sexuality. It offered me the chance to become comfortable enough with my own body to explore the possibilities, to seek pleasure from within rather than worrying about if I was giving enough pleasure. It was perfectly selfish and I didn’t need to feel any shame for it. Why shouldn’t I be proud of my body, why shouldn’t I worship it? I realized in pleasuring myself that how I felt, my own satisfaction, was very important. I didn’t need to be just a body existing to provide pleasure for a man. I should feel, should enjoy, should love, myself. This realization helped me to come into focus, to start living, for myself and not for someone else. After all, who else could I possibly be living for but me?