It was like getting struck by lightning and it changed my life, but not in any of the ways and not for any of the reasons you are probably thinking.
I was about to turn twelve and I knew exactly nothing about sex or sexuality. In my house with my kind and attentive but asexual parents, “how babies are made” was not a topic for discussion. You know how people clip an ex-husband out of all the pictures in a photo album? It was like my parents had snipped out everything sexual from the photo album of life. (I know you think I’m exaggerating. Keep reading.)
Of course, ,my parents couldn’t snip away sex from the outside world and a sex-saturated culture. I glimpsed it everywhere without exactly understanding what it was. I saw it in supermarkets, magazine covers, billboards, and stolen glances at forbidden TV screens. Once, waiting in the car for my mother, who was shopping for hardware, I saw a young couple making out in a pickup nearby. It was like spotting a unicorn. After that I daydreamed incessantly about kissing. Another time, walking through my backyard to the neighbors, I saw two dogs humping. I instinctually responded to it, somehow knowing that this was what all animals did. But, while I knew there was something very powerful happening in the world, that mysterious thing simply did not exist inside my home or inside the homes of my parents’ circle.
Can you possibly imagine how curious, intrigued, and even obsessed that made me to find out what the hell “it” was? This unspeakable, unacknowledged, something?
Then, one Saturday morning I went to a clubhouse the older kids in our circle had recently abandoned. I poked around, hoping to find secret stashes of candy but instead, under a bean bag chair I found books and magazines. Old Victoria Secret catalogues, a ratty “Portable D.H. Laurence” and a 70s copy of The Joy of Sex.
I read the whole book over the course of that morning and afternoon. Every single word. One particular passage stood out because unlike a lot of it, which I couldn’t possibly understand, this short passage seemed “written for me” like a prophecy or premonition. I studied it like a magic spell. I read it out loud like a mantra. Weeks later, I would know it by heart. It seems quaint and silly now, but for me, who needed to read exactly that, exactly then, it was sublime:
“…the fiat of the hand [fiat?] on the vulva with the middle finger between the lips, and its tip moving in and out of the vagina, while the ball of the palm presses hard just above the pubis, is probably the best method, though few women will climax from this alone. Steady rhythm is the most important thing, taking it from her hip movements, and alternating with gentle lip stretching – then a full attack on the clitoris and its hood with the forefinger or little finger, thumb deeply in the vagina (keep nails short). For faster response, he can hold her open with one hand and work gently with all the fingers of the other (in this case, she may need to be pinned down).
The “fiat” of the hand? Pubis? Pinning what down? Why is she being pinned? Wait, fiat of the hand, FIAT? The first thing I did when I got home, after apologizing for being away all day and not letting them know where I had gone, was grab our dictionary. (Edit: I wasn’t allowed access to the internet.)
Fiat meant “a formal authorization or proposition; a decree.” How does a hand give a “decree?” Next I looked up “vagina,” which I had already encountered in a diagram in an encyclopedia, but the word wasn’t listed. It had been clipped out of the dictionary with scissors. I’m not kidding. Neither was clitoris, which could have been an endangered waterfowl for all I knew. I had always known certain words were clipped from our dictionary. It had always been that way. I made a mental note to do a research project. Days later, I would borrow another similar dictionary, patiently close reference and discover every redacted word, which I would then copy into a notebook – a notebook I would hide in the clubhouse with the magic, spell book of sex. My father had groomed me for academic rigor. He made me read Dickens, like four entire novels, and fill notebooks with vocabulary words. I was an expert at making index cards, and learning shades of meaning. Now, I would use those powers for evil. 😉
So, after discovering proof of the vast conspiracy against me, I calmly told my mother I was going to take a bath. All the doors in our house, including bedrooms and bathrooms, were swinging doors. No doorknobs, locks or privacy anywhere. But, I tried a little experiment. I left the door OPEN as I got undressed, exactly as I had done at age five and six and seven. My mother had no problem watching me undress, right up until the summer I hit puberty. When I was down to just my socks and panties, she came down the hall, and snapped, “Oh Alice. close the door.” She said it in a tone that I rarely, if ever, heard. If you didn’t know her, you wouldn’t have noticed anything, but my parents never raised their voices, ever. Just the slight uptick in pitch, the tightness, just a little bit louder than usual. A hint of a tremor. Maybe I imagined it, but it occurred to me that my not-quite 12 year old body, with sprouting cones for breasts and a blush of copper pubic hair, had frightened my mother.
Whether I was imagining things or not, this felt like a weird sort of power. I decided neither of them would EVER open the bathroom door. I could do anything I wanted. I filled the basin with warm water (We all usually took cold showers. I was told it was healthier. Again, not kidding) and about a pint of bubble bath from a bottle that no one had ever bothered to open. Naked and wicked, I hopped in, splashing water and suds everywhere. “As long as I clean up, I can do whatever I want in here.”
And I did…exactly that.
“The fiat…the FLAT of the hand on the vulva with the middle finger between the lips…” I recited it like poetry. “The ball of the hand” and “lips” were clear enough, so that words like “pubis” and “vulva” suddenly defined themselves. I followed the recipe like an invocation, got confused by “thumb deeply in the vagina,” but then I made yet another earth shattering discovery.
“That’s it. There it is. That’s definitely it.”
then a full attack on the clitoris and its hood with the forefinger or little finger
Attack. Attack. Attack.
Steady rhythm is the most important thing
Steady. Steady. Steady.
The whole day taught me (on top of the obvious) that you can encounter things again and again in your life, but unless you make certain connections, they will remain invisible. I had heard the word “orgasm” before. It had appeared, unredacted, in one of my textbooks. The word appears 199 times in the Joy of Sex, and earlier that day, every single one of the 199 times I read it, I was confident I knew exactly what it referred to. But, I did not. Not even close. I don’t even remember what I thought it meant. It had been invisible, formless, attached to nothing but the sound of of its syllables.
“Orgasm.” I wrote the word down later that night in a fresh notebook, under “vagina” and “clitoris” (which I misspelled) but above “pubis.” Sitting on my bed in my pajamas, hair wet, and cheeks rosy, I read it for the 200th time. But now it was a completely different word. I was reading the word for the first time.
I’m spinning this story in a very masturbation-is-great, sex-positive way, and it is, but its complicated. I couldn’t get to sleep that night. I cried for an hour straight into my pillow. Other things were waking up inside me, things that would haunt my adolescence: anxiety, depression and what I can only describe as grief.
Ha…wait. I forgot the funniest part of the story. I had never, until that day, heard the word “Sex” used as something other than male/female, as you would fill in the blank for sex on a form. Or maybe I had heard it used to mean intercourse a hundred thousand times but had never understood. In any case, it had been invisible. The first time I remember seeing and understanding that the word “sex” meant, well, SEX was when I saw the cover of The Joy of Sex.
Edit: Just to be clear, like any little girl, I had innocently played with myself before this. I had just never masturbated to orgasm, and I had never realized that I had spent my childhood on completely different planet.