Here's your place to come talk about sex and love whenever you feel like it.
Until six weeks ago, I lived in an artist's studio in East Harlem, behind a red door. There was a fire escape and no shower, but rent was free. I used a sponge to take whore's baths, as I jokingly called them, in the bathroom at the end of the hall, and I paid for my lodging by promising to pose nude for the artist whose studio it was -- which was how I'd met her but hadn't happened since -- and to babysit the artist's daughter, which I did with regularity.
Having spent years declaring that I'd never have children, never choose to do something that would hinder my own successes, I was deeply nervous about babysitting, but with nowhere else to live, I had no other option. R, the artist's daughter, recognized me the first time I came over, though we'd never met before; she'd already seen me naked, rendered in her mother's charcoal. As our eyes met and I chose not to be ashamed, R forced me to understand how much she saw.
Before long we were getting along wonderfully, two only children with a love for storytelling and trying new fruit, cooking dinner or chasing each other around the block in the evenings. Nobody had ever told me I was good with kids before, and I trusted R to know, since she is one herself.
I came by the artist's apartment once as it was getting dark, to babysit for R. Her mother, E, was already late for a date, and would have to take a taxi instead of the subway. E hated the subway—its crowds, the fear and fragility that welled up inside her when she rode. She was always looking for excuses to take a cab instead. The men she dated often paid for them.
Seriously agoraphobic, anxious to the point that her hands would shake and flop uncontrollably until R held them to her chest, E met men on the internet, and dates with them were one of the few reasons she left the apartment at all. They were usually musicians or writers a few years her junior. But this time, E told me, her date was with a “grownup.” He was nearly forty, the president of a synagogue, and divorced with two little boys.
E kept saying she wasn't used to going on dates with “normal people.” It took me an hour to talk her down and get her out the door. After her mother left, R rolled her eyes and went back to the business of being nine.
Youth in New York City lasts a very long time, especially when you are white and female—like E, like R, like me. As an editor of mine—a bearded, forty-year-old man from Kansas—once said to me, “New York, Manhattan especially, is not real life. It's a playground for adults, and we all pay a premium to be here, to have access to good food and art and attractive people, to buy into the mutually agreed-upon fiction.” Consequences are few; that summer I was young, and the older men I went to bed with only affirmed my belief in my own youth, and its insufficiency. I allowed myself to be fascinated and taken care of by them, something to which I'd previously been allergic, even as I learned to take care of this nine-year-old and her mother, who was taking care of me. The man from the farmer's market wrapped me in blankets and made me breakfast after beating me bruised at my own behest. A German student who I'd had a fling with in New York let a friend and me stay at his mother's house in the Bavarian countryside, and we fucked in his childhood bed; I woke up to a cross on the wall and a bad taste in my mouth; he showed us around Munich all day. A famous jazz musician bought me dinner and then, stoned and naked in his apartment, caressed my body past the point of my own pleasure, past sex, while we listened to his friends' music rattle out of tinny speakers.
I guess I decided it wasn't worth all that. I pay so little to live in West Virginia, where I moved for work. The rent on my double-wide trailer is less than the cost of the cheapest bedroom I ever rented in New York, and I only use half of it; the master bedroom and bath stay behind a closed door, unfurnished and unlived-in. I am so unwilling to make space for such intimacy, the suggestion of another's body.
In the small town where I live, flings are not an option—not just because the population of 270 doesn't offer many possibilities, but because everyone knows everybody else; a one-night stand can never just disappear down the stairs to the subway. If everyone doesn't already know what happened, they'll hear about it at the one gas station in town, where old men show up for the paper and a biscuit at 6am, and the town trades news into the night.
This place is not a playground, and I am not playing at adulthood. The town's size creates accountability, and I've never before lived anywhere where people leave their doors unlocked. I have entered the kind of committed relationship I never imagined living in New York, even if I still talk and talk about the city like it's an ex-boyfriend I can't get over.
Here I work with teenage girls, mentoring, tutoring, and teaching writing, which means I must be the adult, as I was for R and sometimes for her mother, the best training in compassion I ever received. In my West Virginian life I spend Fridays volunteering at the local middle school, which is one of just two in a county with fewer than 10,000 people. In this mountainous area, cell service is spotty when it exists, and WiFi is a rare and coveted commodity, distributed by underground fiber-optic cables.
Which means that middle-school boys are less likely than their counterparts almost anywhere else in the country to have access to internet porn. This seems the only explanation for the fact that a number of seventh- and eighth-grade boys vomited last year after seeing photos of diseased genitals during the middle school's annual sex-ed presentation, delivered by a nurse who travels to the school for just that purpose.
This year, in an effort to better prepare its students, the school decided to have a special presentation for sixth-graders, both boys and girls. The girls I mentor are both in sixth grade, so I attended with them. They were shown a brief video describing puberty and the hormonal changes and “new feelings” that come with it. The school's guidance counselor kindly mentioned that any girl who'd gotten her period unexpectedly was welcome to drop by the office and ask to speak to her in private, to get supplies. The nurse, who was presenting, added, “Girls, you're welcome to talk about that with your girlfriends, but make sure there are no boys around. They don't want to see it, and they don't want to hear it.”
The girls were further advised that if they had “too much” testosterone, which is “the boy hormone,” they might grow a mustache, in which case they should see their doctor to “fix that. Any other questions?” The boys and girls were too nervous to say much while in the room together, and they wouldn't get a chance to be apart for this discussion until next year. But in her official capacity, that nurse might be the only voice of authority on sex and sexuality that these kids encounter, and in her version of things, the biologically determined course of puberty is, for young women especially, a fate to be ashamed of. She didn't trust them with their own bodies.
The girls knew there was more to the story. Later that day, I sat at a lunch table with them and a few of their friends. “That video was so weird, right?” There was a chorus of yeahs and totallys, then silence as they all went back to eating. “I don't know,” said another girl after a pause. “I thought it was pretty interesting. Kinda short.” In English class, a red-haired boy turned to me and whispered, “I'm never gonna forget the things I learned about girls today.” I couldn't quite return his conspiratorial look, couldn't quite admit to him that I'm a girl to whom those things happened.
I get to be privy to those small discussions because I'm not an Adult with a capital A. I sit in desks and at tables with the kids, and put myself physically on their level—I respect them, and in turn they trust me a little more, and sometimes even tell me what they're thinking. In the Appalachian region, sex is still often linked to marriage, or at least reproduction, and the choices of teenagers without access to enough information can have long-lasting effects; adulthood in the form of responsibility comes early and stays late.
Even if those kids want to buy condoms or birth control, the likelihood that the sales clerk will know their parents is extremely high. Instead of shaming their kids, adults need to underscore the responsibility that their children's changing bodies give them by entrusting them with the information to use them wisely, by admitting their own fear and vulnerability, as I did with R. She saw me naked before we ever knew one another, and when we each released the need for power, we were able to build something better.