(I originally wrote this piece to read at Unchaste Readers - Women Reading Their Minds in Portland, and later adapted it for publication on The Manifest-Station.)
I was five years old. It was a white hot summer in upstate New York, and I was playing with a neighbor kid, Maureen Hammill. We crouched on the curb of my family’s big corner lot and poked at the tar bubbling up on the street. Our fathers talked about the Dutch Elm Disease that was taking the trees in the neighborhood, block by block. I sat back on the grass and crisscrossed my skinny legs, trying to wipe tar off my white sneakers. Mr. Hammill looked down at me and said, “Well, aren’t you pretty!” I had never thought of myself as pretty or ugly or anything in between, but I smiled like crazy at that compliment.
Later that afternoon, my father shared this with my mother as she scrubbed sticky tar off my fingers. She said, “For God’s sake. What’s the matter with him?” She sounded angry at Mr. Hammill, but she glared at me and scrubbed harder.
I would hear, “Well, aren’t you pretty!” well into my teen years. My father said it in a lilting voice, to tease me, or to irritate my mother. By then I wondered why it bothered her. In her eyes I often saw Mr. Hammill as a leering, dirty old man, although I didn’t remember him that way. If she thought he was creepy all those years ago, she did nothing to keep me away from him. Maybe she thought he was teasing me, or lying. She never said I was pretty. She criticized my stringy hair, my close-set eyes, my legs that weren’t so skinny anymore. Maybe my father kept it alive for so long to soften her criticism, to tell me I was pretty without owning the words and making my mother angry at him, too.
I was six years old. My older brother Ed and I were playing with Maureen and her older brother Timmy in the Hammill’s basement. Timmy and I had decided to get married when we grew up. That day, he tugged me aside and told me that babies were made when a man stuck his penis into a woman’s privates and peed. I was so horrified, I told my brother and made him promise not to say a word to our parents. In under an hour my mother stood over me in my room, demanding I repeat exactly what Timmy had said. Once I blurted it out, she went downstairs and called Mrs. Hammill. She yelled at her for a long time, referring to Timmy as, “That little shit!”
I expected my mother to tell me that Timmy was lying, that having babies didn’t involve anything as disgusting as penises, but we never talked about it again. I decided then that Timmy and I would not be having children when we got married. If we got married. Our future together wasn’t looking so good.
My mother and I would never have the talk, the one where she was supposed to tell me that sex wasn’t disgusting and that it wasn’t just for making babies, either. I learned how sex might make me feel good from smutty books I snuck from my parents’ bookshelves and dirty magazines I found in my brother’s bedroom. I learned how sex might make me pregnant in high school health class. But without any real life context, sex was mostly just something that upset my mother.
Sex was naughty, and the older I got, the more appealing that became. For most of my life, I enjoyed sex only if I believed I was doing something dirty. I needed at least one of the following criteria: an inappropriate partner; a public, “what if someone sees us?” venue; or a bit of kink I’d never tried before. Over the years I pushed those boundaries hard.
I was seven years old. Having reached the “age of reason” in the opinion of the Catholic church, I was gearing up for my first confession. I worried about it for weeks beforehand because I didn’t know what to confess. I never stole candy or pulled the legs off of ants. Sometimes in bed at night I put my hand in my underpants. My body was fascinating to me, especially my bits and pieces. My mother saw me doing it once and told me to knock it off, so it was likely sinful. But I couldn’t confess my embarrassing touching secret to a Catholic priest of all people. And what if my mother found out? She couldn’t blame this on any of the Hammills. When I knelt in the dark, musty confessional, I panicked and said, “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned. I took three cookies out of the cookie jar and lied to my mother about it.” We didn’t even have a cookie jar. I made that shit up on the spot.
The story of the cookies I never took would be my first and last confession, which was probably best for my immortal soul. When my family left New York for northeast Washington, my mother left the Catholic church. I never again had to choose whether it was scarier to lie to a priest than to chance making my mother angry, although I suspect that choice would not have changed.
I was eight years old. Men came to our house with boxes labeled “Mayflower” and started to pack our things. One of them looked like Freddie Prinze from Chico and the Man. He had a shy smile and he smelled of damp earth and musky flowers. I shadowed him, darting close enough to catch his scent and then giggling as I ran away. I ignored my mother when she scowled and shook her head. I ignored her when she said he was on the clock and I should let him work. I vied for his attention, his smile a thrill, his smell with me in bed at night. After three days of this, I didn’t care about my parents’ promise that we would have horses in Washington. I didn’t want to go. When my mother told me that Musky Flower Moving Guy wouldn’t be driving the truck, that I wouldn’t see him on the other side of the country, I ran to my bedroom and cried.
I would carry his scent with me during the four-day drive to Washington. When I started third grade, I had imaginary conversations with Musky Flower Moving Guy. He comforted me until I made friends. For years I was drawn to older men with dark hair and mustaches. I never asked if they happened to have empty moving boxes we could play with.
When we left upstate New York, we had lost every towering Elm tree that shaded our yard. All that remained were 13 tall, naked trunks that my father never cut down. I had lost something, too, something intangible yet protective like shade, but invisible. I had shed a layer of innocence, that carefree childhood oblivion that let me feel okay in the world.
My mother could have smiled when she heard that Mr. Hammill called me pretty, or, if she saw a teachable moment, she could have told me it was more important to be smart and kind. She might have assured me that Timmy’s version of baby-making was a bit shaky, that one day I would find the idea less disgusting, natural even. She could have told me that touching myself was fine if I did it in private. She could have giggled with me, instead of at me, about my crush on Musky Flower Moving Guy.
The conversations I didn’t have with my mother left me vulnerable in a confusing world where being pretty could be sexualized, and sexuality could be considered dirty. My mother’s views of sexuality and the physical body were informed by Catholic doctrine, which teaches that sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, rather than purposes of procreation. Yet the catechism also teaches that everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept their sexual identity. Maybe my mother, like many Catholic parents, didn’t know where to begin teaching a sexually precocious little girl how to properly embrace her sexuality.
From the time I was eight to eighteen, Second Wave Feminism was in full swing, but not on my radar. I knew nothing of objectification or sex-positivity. What I knew was that there was something wrong with wanting to be a pretty girl. There was something wrong with talking about how women got pregnant. There was something wrong with exploring my own body. There was something wrong with having a crush on a cute man.
There was something wrong with me.
That something would live inside me for almost 40 years. I didn’t invite it in, but I let it stay, dimly aware of how it warped most of my sexual experiences with men, and a few women. Holding tight to being a dirty girl was less a choice than a “fuck you” to all I didn’t know about how to make sex right instead of wrong. When I finally realized, accepted, believed, that there was nothing wrong with sexuality, that there had never been anything wrong with me, I evicted the ghost of that “something” and took back my body, my sexuality.
My need for naughty had been more limiting than freeing. Naughty sex is still fun, but so is sex that is urgent or lazy, mad or sweet, funny or intense, sex that wakes me up in the morning or helps me go to sleep at night. Married sex.
After my family’s cross-country move put the kibosh on my already tenuous engagement to Timmy Hammill, my first boyfriend was Tommy Doyle. He asked me to go steady in fourth grade. He even gave me a ring. He was a nice boy who grew into a nice man, a man with whom I’ve shared secrets, but never sex. He would have been the perfectly inappropriate partner—my friend, Father Tom Doyle, a Catholic priest.