The episode of Parenthood where Haddie tells her parents that she is no longer a virgin had me sobbing for hours. Granted, I’ve cried at the end of many a episode, but this experience was particular memorable. Her dad, Adam, completely lost it and couldn’t even look her in the eye once he knew. Eventually, he calmed and came to her soccer game to reconcile, confessing that he still saw her as his little girl.
I cried because I sympathized with Haddie, who was struggling to live up to her parents’ expectations, but mostly I cried for Adam who couldn’t reconcile the image of his daughter as a smart and sensitive young woman with her sexuality. I cried for Adam because I am Adam, except I don’t have any children. It’s my own sexuality that I am struggling to make peace with.
I was around eleven when I became aware of myself as a sexual being and that was a very bad thing. Or so I was raised to believe. The message I received in church was consistent: the flesh is bad, the flesh is lustful, die to your flesh. Die to your flesh, so you can be spiritually pure.
I didn’t know how to process the desires and emotions that were racing through my body. As an external processor, I needed to talk to someone, but there was no one. My sister shared a room with me and she seemed to not be sharing my experiences. Maybe she was holier than me and not plagued by the sin that haunted me, so I couldn’t talk to her. I couldn’t talk to my sister and definitely not my mother, not after the Christina Aguilera incident of 1999.
I was obsessed with Christina Aguilera’s self-titled album, but my mother had a strict no-secular music rule in her house. If it wasn’t gospel and it was in my mother’s house, it wasn’t long for this world. My dad’s house was a different story. For Christmas, he bought me that tape and I played it the whole day. When my dad took us back to my mom’s house that evening, I begged my dad to let me take it in the house. I had experienced pure happiness and I couldn’t wait two more weeks to reach that high again.
He shot me an all-knowing look, “Andre. No. You know what’s going to happen.”
“No, Daddy. I’m going to hide it well. It’s going to be fine, I promise.”
I know for a fact that the Holy Spirit intervenes on my mother’s behalf because when I returned home from school the next day, my mother was waiting for me on the couch with my cassette resting beside her. “Andre, come sit down.”
I had to sit there with her and read all of the lyrics aloud and explain why they were problematic. I knew I was going to crash and burn with songs like, “When You Put Your Hands on Me,” but I thought “Blessed” might redeem me. But, no, t’was not to be.
“She said she wants to wake up beside him. Is she married?”
“Ok then why is she waking up beside him?”
That cassette went the way of my brothers’ Timbaland and Magoo mixed tapes and my sister’s teen magazines: the trash can, or as my mother liked to refer to it: File G.
I didn’t know what to do. I started thinking something was wrong with me, perverted. I tried to ignore it and when that did not work, I created fantasies. In these fantasies, I was a twenty-something charismatic and wild woman of the world. I had about four ongoing fantasies and these alter-egos enabled to me to indulge the passions coursing through me without tainting the sweet and innocent person I was when I opened my eyes.
The problem is, I’m now as old as these women in my fantasies, but I still feel like that twelve-year-old girl. It’s strange. In so many ways, I feel much older than my years. People always tell me that I have an old soul and I have a hard time reconciling that fact with my sexual and emotional immaturity. But a beloved pastor of mine once said that where there is trauma and turmoil in our lives, our growth will be stunted there. I could very well be mature intellectually and spiritually, but my emotional self could simultaneously be three years old.
In college, as a young woman with the same desires and same fears, but the space to make more choices, my coping mechanism changed a bit. I would stay on the straight and narrow until I couldn’t and then I would let that liquid courage help me make poor life decisions. And when I woke up the next morning, I would feel empty and gross which reinforced the belief that what I was doing was inherently evil. I would vigorously cleanse myself and resolve to never fall prey to sin again. Thus, a vicious cycle was birthed. It wasn’t until I discovered Audre Lorde in law school that I started to see a way out.
“… [W]hen we look away from ourselves as we satisfy our erotic needs in concert with others, we use each other as objects of satisfaction rather than share our joy in the satisfying…”
I have never kissed a guy that I liked. To like him, I would have to know him. To know him, he would have to be in my world and I couldn’t handle that. When I look at my friends, I don’t want to see that version of myself in their eyes.
I went to a formal once in college and I made out with this guy afterwards. The next morning, I brushed my teeth about ten times, told my best friend about it, and put the episode to rest. Later on that day, I was studying with some friends in a study room in the library when a friend who had been at the party rushed into the room grinning at me.
“Where did you end up last night?
I lost my peace. My eyes shot out of their sockets, my heart started hammering in my chest, and the yelling commenced.
“Get out! GET. OUT!”
She recoiled and quickly departed. My best friend shot me a sympathetic look and we went back to studying. She gchatted me, apologizing, and I felt terrible. I had teased her in the same manner before and she had nothing to be sorry for, but her question unglued me. That was never supposed to happen to me. I keep that part of me separate from my regular life for that very reason. That’s why it has to be that guy from the internship or that guy from the Harvard-Yale when it was at Yale. That kind of behavior can’t become me; it can’t define me.
“…[W]omen have been made to suffer and to feel both contemptible and suspect by virtue of [the erotic’s] existence… It is a short step from there to the false belief that only by the suppression of the erotic within our lives and consciousness can women be truly strong.”
In The Women of Brewster Place, one of the central characters, Tee, is haranguing her lover, Lorraine, about how being a lesbian means that she is different and she must identify as Other. Lorraine fights back with beige bras and oatmeal:
“There are two things that have been constant in my life since I was sixteen years old – beige bras and oatmeal. The day before I first fell in love with a woman, I got up, had oatmeal for breakfast, put on a beige bra, and went to school. The day after I fell in love with that woman, I got up, had oatmeal for breakfast, and put on a beige bra.”
For women, so much of our identity is structured around our sexual relationships for the purposes of categorizing us in neat boxes. Does she sleep around? How many people has she slept with? Is she a virgin? Is she a prude? Does she have a boyfriend? When is she going to get married? When is she going to start having children? It is endless. Our sexuality cannot just be a part of our identity; no, it must be the defining trait. And the pressure is not always external; we do it to each other. I couldn’t give myself the space and complexity to allow my erotic nature to live as one with all of the other facets of my personality because I don’t give other women that freedom. But, I’m getting better.
“Oh I couldn’t follow a religion that wanted me to suppress my sexuality,” one of my coworkers says to me. “It’s a part of how God made you, so what is the point of being ashamed of it?” She laughs as she alludes to her college years when she was growing in her sexuality. Had I met her a few years ago, I would have pressed her for details. What all has she done? I would have needed to know to get a clear picture of the person I was spending my time with. But it doesn’t matter. She could have slept with the entire of football team or kissed one boy on the cheek. The what and who doesn’t tell me nearly as much as the why. This renewing of the mind has drastically changed my interactions with other women. When I stopped paying so much attention to other women’s sexual activity level, I noticed how much it didn’t matter.
If I continue giving other women the freedom to be full, complete, sexual beings, then maybe there will be enough grace left over to liberate myself.