I wouldn't own a Ken doll until my ninth birthday. I bought him with my birthday money. Eleven dollars swallowed up for a Ken who could shave: my first taste of buyer's remorse, but my Barbies needed a man.
He came with a five o'clock shadow that disappeared under hot water, and with irrelevant but nice-smelling shaving cream. Shaving is hard work, turns out, so Ken’s default look quickly became “Tom Selleck.” Even at nine, Quigley Down Under had made an impression.
Before Rugged Ken's much anticipated debut, my gaggle of Down-To-Fuck Barbies had made do with palm-sized stuffed bears. But they made do with gusto. My oldest sister once walked in on a pair of them mid-coitus. When I froze, so did they, Barbie's rigid lower half smashed against a too-small bundle of fluffy brown fur. I gaped up at Lynn, fresh sweat pricking my hairline, my mouth prepped for a boisterous "oh crap.”
Seven years older than me, Lynn was like a second mother. Would she tattle or lecture me? After a moment she said, generously, "I won't tell mom."
She closed the bedroom door. But the moment was lost. I put the unsated lovers down and pondered my own ebbing sensations, including the shame that flushed hot under my skin. I’d shut the door in the first place because that's where these things were supposed to happen: behind them.
My cousin Susie said that a dick could get as thick as a soda can when bonered. The three of us were conspiring in the dark: me, my sister Marie, and Susie. Cased like sausages in our sleeping bags, we squished together in customary sleepover style. Susie was Louisianan and she spoke her twangy Southern words like “fixin’ ta go,” “tee’en (ten)” and “Mama” with a pride that irked and awed me. Everything she said was framed in exotic importance.
My sister allowed that dicks could probably get pretty big. I wondered suspiciously if she’d ever seen a penis. Marie was in junior high, and of the three sisters, she was the pretty one. She wrote boys’ names in her notebooks, swapping her last name for theirs, and on the soles of her shoes. She plastered our shared bedroom walls with posters of Jonathan Taylor Thomas—the Home Improvement kid. I was three years younger and read Redwall books with an intensity that was an easy target for an older, boy-loving sister who thought it was funny to cry over mice who die heroically. Meanwhile, I was forced to change my clothes under the all-American eyes of her many assorted JTTs. I resented Marie for a number of reasons, the least of which was her illicit knowledge of the things we were whispering about.
Could dicks really get as thick as soda cans? I knew very well that if they did I was in trouble. I'd struggled with a tampon that same year, and those were no thicker than a nickel. Newly blooded, I’d ventured from the pad and didn’t know how far up to stick it so I’d left it lodged in the opening. Wincing and horrified, woven white threads hanging noose-like under my shorts, I hobbled to the kitchen and asked Lynn if it was supposed to hurt.
So I tried again.
At twelve, the thought of even kissing a boy was mixed with equal parts fascination and disgust. But by the time it finally happened, I was eighteen and more than ready—almost. My lips were too dry. Sterling would tell me to lick them, and to stop grinning. Grinning lips weren’t kissable.
He was my first boyfriend, and he did his best to create a flawless moment for me. He even drove his truck through the shore waters of Utah Lake to make the surface ripple in the moonlight. Then he asked if I wanted to switch seats and learn how to drive a clutch.
I wish I could’ve stopped my mind from reading his, because it was suddenly clear he’d set up an elaborately “spontaneous” moment for me. And then it wasn’t spontaneous anymore. Sterling was trying to replicate a scene from our date the week before. He’d stopped the truck in front of my parents’ house, but before he could reach my door, I had jumped out and run to meet him in the headlights. I’d pounced into his arms and hugged him tightly while snow drifted through the air around us, dream-like.
He hadn’t kissed me in the snowflakes. He wasn’t ready. But now he was, and he clearly hoped for a re-enactment, here on the rippling lakeshore. Here he had created a scene that would’ve been perfect if not for its staginess, if not for my stage fright. He’d done his best, but I couldn’t stop smiling through a panic of disappointment and determination. I was ruining what he’d tried so hard to make perfect.
It would become our defining dynamic.
That night he told me he’d always wanted to marry his best friend. We’d only been dating for a couple of weeks. The message was clear: the role of best friend was vacant if I cared to apply.
Within a year, we were married.
I thought I’d orgasmed during a showing of The Phantom of the Opera with Gerard Butler. I was sixteen. "Past the Point of No Return" was underway. The sleeve dropped from Emmy Rossum's creamy white shoulder. Gerard bellowed in his deformed glory, and I squirmed in G14, pressing my thighs together and rolling the word "enchanting" through my feverish mind. My brother Jonny had said the movie version of Phantom was enchanting. I doubt he thought "enchanting" would do this to his baby sister.
God, how I wanted to be fucked.
Except at sixteen I was Mormon and swearing was strictly absent from my vocabulary. Swear words were for people who lacked imagination, according to my mom, so instead of God, please send Gerard Butler to fuck me into liquid or Please, God, what does Emmy Rossum’s creamy white shoulder taste like? I thought, Geez, what the heck is going on down there?
I know now that I hadn't orgasmed. I'd only gotten wet. Dripping. I'd orgasm three years later, two months into my marriage. I wasn’t a virgin anymore, not in the technical sense, having gifted my hymen to Sterling on our wedding night, but achieving climax, for me, proved difficult. We had, by then, practiced a variety of positions, rhythms, and depths, but I repeatedly failed to arrive on cue, or at all. My frustrated, emasculated husband endured the ridicule of his coworkers when on a trip out of town, he stopped at a sex store to buy a vibrator and dildo, hoping to finally coax his Mormon teen wife into orgasm.
Even the vibrator couldn’t do the trick.
Ultimately, his tongue would do—once he talked me into letting him. It was a hard sell: my mom had always said such things were unsanitary. She hadn't used her Mormon voice either. She spoke as a nurse. According to her, French kissing was gross and tongues should never venture farther than a fork, spoon, or knife. So I wouldn’t use my own tongue on Sterling until years later. Many years. The kinds of learning and un-learning that accumulate into something more powerful than “sanctioned marital intercourse” take a very long time. By the time I had become more liberal in other areas than where and what I licked, my marriage was already in its final scenes.
During that first year, I used my tongue instead for starting arguments before bed so I wouldn't have to be penetrated. We accustomed ourselves to falling asleep next to each other in angry, baffled silence. How blissful. I’d think about that other girl. The one he'd almost married before me. The one he'd had sex with exactly four times, but who had managed to catch his baby, all in a three-month blur. I’d think about my husband’s child, a little girl with his eyes, adopted out to a family somewhere in California.
How unlike anything I'd ever imagined for myself. As a teen, I voraciously steeped myself in page-bound romance and refused to believe that sex could be anything but passionate. My imagination was too powerful to believe it possible to lose the magic of something so pinnacle and taboo. My first kiss was followed quickly by electrifying make-out sessions that promised so much more than these rustling, wordless conjugal motions in the dark.
What had changed?
The OBGYN appointment brought sex into the open, into stark, clinical relief, and it became my habit to say that’s where the magic died. A middle-aged man with pictures of his daughters on the wall had put his thumb up my rectum and his pointer finger into my vagina and pronounced me healthy. He'd had to use the thumb because I was a virgin. If I hadn't been, he might've used two fingers in my vulva to determine my status. Without the hymen, it would’ve been roomier, allegedly. Or maybe he didn’t want to risk tearing it. How tragic would that be? Like a bystander ripping the finish line paper before the first runner could reach it. Not cool.
I was a virgin. I remember feeling proud of that. My finish line was intact, just waiting for my future husband to rip through it, the way God and my family intended.
“I'm just strong like that," I thought. “Strong enough to wait for marriage.”
But my fists were clenched near my shoulders, like a toddler getting a diaper change from icy fingers, and while the gynecologist drained the magic from my vagina, my mom looked on. Before she was a mom, she’d been a nurse. When I was eleven, she gave me “the talk” after a Seinfeld episode prompted me to ask what condoms were. She drew pictures: the vaginal hole, the penile shaft—all of it, and I left her room crying. She watched me go, wondering if she’d blundered. She hadn’t; I was just an emotional kid, and I’d never seen an erect dick before, even a sketched one. To think of one potentially inside of me was shocking enough to cry about. I couldn’t reconcile the novice passions of my Barbies with the cold, hard facts of process.
My mom is good with logistics. This is what goes where and this is what’ll happen if it does: babies. I knew what the human papilloma virus was at an early age, because when the vaccine came out for women to potentially protect themselves against genital-wart-caused cervical cancer, she said I wouldn’t have to worry about HPV; the vaccine was for women who had sex with other people who’ve had sex. The conversation that that person might possibly be me one day never took place. That conversation was reserved for Sunday School subtext, or in family counsels where my dad used the children of his friends as object lessons for the Law of Chastity—the law that teaches believers about the sanctity of their bodies and the rules about who can touch them, and how, and when.
“My old mission companion’s daughter is pregnant with some Mexican punk’s baby,” said my Mexican dad. “It just isn’t worth it for—how many minutes, Mommy? Ten minutes?” My mom blushed and shrugged, laughing behind her hand. “Ten minutes of pleasure,” said my dad.
It never occurred to me not to have my mom in the room during the gyno appointment, and when the doctor asked about my virginity with a glance her way, I was reminded that there were some unmarried girls who were not virgins who may not want their moms to know. The doctor knew his audience; odds are he was Mormon too.
In another family counsel, my sisters and I were told that if we were ever attacked by a rapist, we were to scream loud enough to wake the house, and to fight, to struggle even to death—our death—because for a girl there are fates worse than death. Lessons in the subtext. We were girls and our worth was very specific, very precisely connected to the state of our hymens.
I don’t believe that anymore, but I would still fight to the death—his death, preferably, but I would fight for my right to say no; I would fight for my right to consent.
At nineteen, I still believed in chastity. I still believed in virtue. I still believed that there was something special about virginity. I was a “Daughter of God” on the brink of a Mormon marriage. Soon I won't be a virgin, I thought with my legs in stirrups, hardly aware of what that meant except that I was about to be diminished to a degree that was so sweetly, tearfully implied in all of my Young Women’s lessons.
I was about to lose something I would never get back. I was about to be handled. Bruised. I was about to be chewed.
READ THE REST IN PECULIAR VOLUME TWO, ISSUE ONE