Adolescent sex in my youth was a sport in which women were simultaneously the opponent, the playing field, and the ball. Nobody asks, but the moves occur in silent negotiation—an advance, resistance, a retreat; or no resistance and another move forward.
Guys talk about it afterwards in baseball terms—“first base,” “second base” etc. As in, “I got to third base…” But it is also a gentlemanly sport, with an unspoken understanding that a girl gets to call a time out, or even to end the game, at a moment of her choice. The guy will not attempt to overpower her or force her against her will.
The girl’s role is one of subterfuge. As the object of seduction, she cannot admit that she enjoys it. Nor can she acknowledge, even to herself, where she intends to “draw the line.”
If anything, she pretends to be giving her boyfriend temporary rights to possess various parts of her body, without admitting that those parts of her body exist. And she is supposed to lose control of her emotions, yet retain it; by allowing herself to be fondled and aroused–but only up to a point.
I understood the rules, but I didn’t play by them. I played by my own set of rules.
A Secret Contract
At home in my bed under the eaves on the third floor, I write secret notes to myself in my diary; notes that I will have trouble deciphering the next morning. Am I ashamed of my behavior? Not really. You see, I have developed a social contract–with myself.
The contract is simple and elegant: I can do whatever I want as long as I get straight A’s on my report card, and as long as I don’t get caught.
Getting A’s on my report card meant fulfilling my obligations to my parents, to society and to my future. Doing whatever I want meant pleasing me. By doing “whatever I want” I wasn’t thinking of committing crimes. I meant sexual freedom. And “getting caught”, of course, meant getting pregnant.
I had been reading the Existentialists, and I took seriously the idea that the choices and the consequences were mine, and mine alone to bear.
If I were a cat on the prowl, the rule would be “no kittens.” I can’t afford to get pregnant. Pregnancy would destroy my life, shame my parents, prevent me from finding a place in the world where my light could shine.
Abortion is not a possibility. There are no abortionists (at least none that I know of) for many hundreds of miles. Abortion is illegal. (It didn’t become legal until 1973.) And I have no money and no way of slipping away unnoticed for the time it would take to get there (wherever “there” is) and back and recover.
I know there is some risk involved in unprotected sex, but my periods are regular, and I know when I am ‘safe’. The risk itself—because I can contain it– provides proof that I am safe, that I am in control of my self and of my fate. (The ability to draw the line is also proof of control.) That I am not forsaken.
Because by this time I feel forsaken. I have lost my friends when they became cheerleaders and I chose not to go that route. My boyfriend, with whom I “lost” my virginity (to use an archaic turn of phrase) before he left, is off in Vietnam.
Rejecting the Social Order
I have gone from being an outsider to outright defiance, rejecting the social order which rejected me. I had spent most of the summer in Los Angeles, visiting my mother’s sister and her family. At the YMHA in West LA I met a boy who kissed me behind the building and told me flatly that God didn’t exist. I immediately recognized this as truth because it confirmed what I already knew.
But if there is no God, and I have already rejected the small town version of morality represented by my family and neighbors, then I am really alone. I don’t belong to this family. I don’t belong to this world. I don’t belong to anyone but myself.
Safety in Promiscuity
Marriage is a dead end for women. (I infer that from my mother.) And besides, there are no suitable men to marry. Promiscuity is my refuge, my safe haven. Promiscuity becomes a way of defying and defining my relationship to the existing social order. It reinforces my outsider status and creates for me a “reputation” (as a friend of mine from Michigan Tech took me aside and warned me) which ensures that I have no choice but to leave.
I know I am burning my bridges, and I want to make sure they are well and truly destroyed. I need to find my own place, where I can thrive.
Dance with the Devil
There’s safety in numbers, so let’s count. Between the time my boyfriend left and the end of the summer before college I had slept with—i.e. had sex with—five or six different guys, some of them more than once. That’s not a lot, perhaps, by contemporary standards; but it was enough to damn me in local eyes; and sometimes, even though I did my best to reject the judgments of small town morality, in my own. If society (as Durkheim claimed) is God, then small town society in Upper Michigan was not a God I recognized or wanted any part of. I preferred to dance with the devil.
A therapist once asked me (many years later), “Were you a ‘bad girl’?. “Yes, definitely” I said, without a pause. As if that defined me perfectly. But now I wonder—what does that mean? Is that how I saw myself then? Is that a convenient short-hand for how my contemporary (i.e., in the moment with the therapist) self sees my adolescent self? Or is it a convenient short-hand for how I would have been viewed by adults at that time? Is it positive or negative? Is that the voice of shame talking or the voice of pride? Who is passing judgment on whom?
Is promiscuity another way of postponing commitment? What do you think?
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