by Deborah Pintonelli
Uncle Sammy was poised for his goodnight kiss, his grey stubble just a couple of inches from my face, his watery eyes pleading. Usually he didn’t care about what I wanted, but for the all-important kiss, he wanted a clear answer. A nod would do. We were finished playing doctor, to which I always said no. My mother had more than impressed upon me that I needed to be nice to him. Free babysitting. Each time she left me alone with him, I felt that she was expressing her hatred of me. The opposite of a mother’s love. She was sick, and her sickness played itself out in vaguely Buñuelian scenarios, complete with shattered, puke-colored interiors and bony, ancient evil doers. I see her self-satisfied figure in retreat, always, her stubby-fingered pimp hands trailing an old wood banister.
The nod “yes” for the goodnight kiss was a sigh of exhaustion, my eyes heavy and wanting to close for many hours. He had pulled a militaristic green wool blanket up under my chin. It itched, and threatened to ruin my rest. I would not let it. The stubble and the wool were irritants that would vanish as soon as the kiss ended.
He thanked me. “You are such a good girl. Goodnight my good girl.”
He was missing his teeth, and so always I could at first see, then feel, the sliminess of his gums. His breath was not bad, as I recall. Bad were the overall smoothness, wetness, and warmth— that I did not want. But I had to say yes to make him go away. The long day with him, to my child’s mind, was endless. Centuries seemed to pass. The earlier image of my nude body prone on a table near the big loft windows, as seen through his eyes, was overly fresh in my mind. I wanted to make it stop, at any cost.
It is a sad thing to have this be your introduction “sex.” Worse still to be so cognizant and that age of the microthin nuances of the negative and the positive within this new context. But the worst by far is having your mother pick you up the next morning and say that you are lying. It is her word against yours— even though she was not there for any of it— and she wants to win. But you don’t give up. It was so clear to you. It takes all your strength to stand up to her, but you do. Goodbye, Uncle Sammy. Hello, Mother, who has it in for you now.
It was a battle that I would not give up, and eventually win. The idea that truth should prevail, that my memory of events was not the cloudy perceptions of a baby, was something worth fighting for. Right or wrong, it set me up for life. I went to live with my Godmother, and my own Mother was forever relegated to the special place where liars live. To her dying day she lived by that code, and to this day there is nothing I despise more.
I have gone through the rest of my life, living in various households, even with her again, armed with this knowledge and the belief that I was forever immune to any more abuse. It is everywhere you look. But it did not happen to me again. What happened to me is what happens to everyone: a society’s interpretation of the sexual that is force-fed at every turn.
At times I have found it necessary to take a break from this and forgo anything intimate. Celibacy, as a way of drawing a polite curtain, opaque or sheer, that says No. Not with you, or anyone else. Not now. Each time that I have, it is because I have found myself so profoundly confused by what it means to be sexual that I cannot be sure of what it is that I really want. And if this is true, then I know I am in danger of making some very bad choices. And I am leaving the door wide open for others to do the same.
This bout coincides with a time in our culture that is electric with reproductive rights clamp-downs, rape, slut-shaming of women and girls, and rape being formally acknowledged as a weapon of war: “The Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, endorsed by the G8 nations”. Then there is the never-ending roll call of violations by members of the Catholic church, and other institutions entrusted with the welfare of children, that it is as numbing as it is breathtaking.
None of this is new. What is new is the truth being brought to light, like a layer of bright, writhing maggots on a bag of old garbage.
To some, it feels as if we are at war. To many of us, it is a war that is never-ending. Not since I was an undergrad reading Mary Daly have things been so edgy. I remember poring over the treatises of the group S.C.U.M. (the Society for Cutting Up Men) while curling up on the couch with my cat, Sid Vicious. Every once in awhile I’d twitch involuntarily, sending him flying. I never signed up for the hate. It just doesn’t do any good.
My anger knows no bounds. It has gotten me into barroom brawls, screaming fights on the street, divorce court, and more. The only time that it crystallizes into something like power is when I am able to articulate it, act upon it, and make a change.
We have to take control of our sexual lives. We need to explore what it means to say yes, or no in this culture. Yes to all of the freedoms we have fought for, and no when we do not choose to exercise them. Women cannot be viewed in one breath as strong and sensible, and in another as incapable of making a decision. Violent people will always be around, making us do things we do not want to do. They can kill us. But they cannot kill what is in our hearts.
Anna March recently wrote an essay in Salon, which drew a very fine, and very brave, distinction between bad sex she had as a teen, and rape. The piece details reactions, pro and con, to an encounter in the season 2, episode 10 of Girls. The scene in question involved a difficult, unpleasant scenario with Adam asking Natalia to get on all fours, crawl to the bed, whereupon he takes her from behind. Then he cums on her chest. She never utters the word “no,” but afterwards says she “did not like that at all.”
March quotes from a 1994 essay in Harper’s by Mary Gaitskill who relates a story about a similar bad sexual experience to a girlfriend. The friend agrees that yes, “it sounds like you were raped. It sounds like you raped yourself.” The fact that both authors were under 18 at time of their encounters simultaneously obscures and heightens the issue. That they knew then, as they do now, that theirs were not rape experiences, is clear. That Anna March had to spend a lot of time after the essay was published arguing the finer points of statutory rape with commenters (it’s different in every state) actually bolstered her argument.
Teaching young people that sex is dirty, demeaning, and that they do not have the wherewithal to make choices, leaves it right in the gutter where perpetrators would like it to be. Then it doesn’t matter what answer the violated person gives, if any. March says, “Not giving, or being able to give, consent and regretting consent are two different things.” She warns that “If [women] don’t take control of their own erotic development early, they may never take control.”
There is a song called “Date Rape” by the band Sublime that high school students find amusing these days. “If it wasn’t for date rape,” the song goes, “I wouldn’t have any sex at all.” This is the sort of irony that imbues the songs my teens listen to. If you tell them that the song is not funny, their eyes roll back into their heads. If you show them graphic pictures of girls being carried around frat parties while passed out, they smirk because they think that living in a cool city enables them to be exempt from such humiliations. All while strapping on their Victoria Secret padded bras and calling thirteen-year-old girls “hoes.”
It is time to acknowledge that we have not done a good enough job of teaching girls and boys about sex. To arm them with that power. We cannot protect them or ourselves with hatred, sanctimony, male bashing, religious intolerance, misogyny, homophobia, or any of the other forms of negation that are so readily available. None of that matters when it is a contest between what one or more persons want, and another does not. If you have a firm grasp on what you did or did not want, then even if it does not go your way, and even if you are hurt, you retain a level of dignity which is healing. If you do not, you are, as it were, fucked.
Blaming the victim, shaming him or her, is society’s way of piling shit onto more shit. Calling someone a victim who is not is the same as denying that they are one. In either case the result is the same: it means that they have been effectively silenced. And that is where the bad work begins.
On my birthday not too long ago I was treated to an extravagant night at the Drake hotel in Chicago. I was not prepared for the amount of paraphernalia my date brought with him;
Two bottles each of champagne, red, and white wine
Fresh berries & chocolates
One brand new five foot length of coated black rope
A small mirror with a kickstand
Assorted Q Tips, cotton balls, etc.
Fresh cigars, shirts, and other stuff he needed
I was astonished. I’m a divorced mother of two, and I’ve been on my own since I was seventeen. I am not a prude. Not much surprises me. And contrary to what one might expect from my having had my first experience at age five, I really, really like sex. Still, it wasn’t the first time I’d set up shop in this particular sexual flea market. Reasons abound. For acceptance, or power, or out of pity for someone. In exchange for a place to live, or for a whole life. Out of boredom, or loneliness. For all these reasons, and just because I could, I have laid it all out.
He had been sexually deprived, he told me. His wife, overweight, neurotic, and bored with him, refused to let him see her naked. He needed to see. He showed me his scarred, uncircumsized penis. The scars were from years of masturbating alone, with a pint of ice cream by his side. I was already in, but I wondered why we had to go this route. I’d just gotten off another, similar track, and now I found myself doing it again. Visiting sex shops. Tied up with rope. Then more regular fare for a few years, and finally, a break up.
Nothing I did, or agreed to do, could penetrate that lonely place of his. My lonely place was of no interest to him. I’m not even sure I have one. His eyes said to me, and to everyone, that his was not accessible. If asked outright why this was so, he would smirk and prevaricate. Or cry. “I’m broken,” he would say. The anger that knows no bounds unleashed itself upon him, but it was too late. I’d already said yes, what more was there to say?
Not much. Except this. I’m pretty close to saying yes again. I want to, but something in me recoils. I know what’s out there, and it’s become tiresome, like a restaurant that can never change its menu. It makes me better understand the reasoning behind seeking out the young. Can it be different? Have they been able to avoid the shame and disgust associated with sex so that they can have it without producing a length of rope? Or is there just a whole other segment of the population that is not damaged in this way? I hope so.