This week in therapy, I’ve been unpacking an icky little family anecdote that popped into my head unbidden recently, like a mean thought about a stranger’s body.
In the memory, I am 14? 15? I am out with my father – in a rare bonding experience, he’s accompanied me to the open mic night where my parents dutifully dropped me off every week. I love it there, a weird kid hanging out with friendly adults who used to be weird kids in a college town pizza place reimagined as an evening home for acoustic guitar strummers and frustrated Oklahoma poets. My dad wishes he had a cigarette.
“I can get you one,” I say, maybe adding a “Watch this,” before flouncing over to a nearby table seating a group of young (older than me) men. I lean over their table and press my tits together, smile brightly, put on a honey-sweet voice like a Southern waitress peddling my own teenage ass as I bum a Marlboro Red. My clumsy sexuality is too obvious, cloying, annoying probably, but then, I’m 14. 15? It works, anyway. It’s hard to be too obvious for most men.
I’m aware of my father’s eyes behind me. I am trying to impress him with my newfound skills, to show him how I can get men to give me things. I have been groomed for this; I think he will approve.
I don’t think I’d hit my teens when I first realized how to be powerful in this way. It’s like finding out one day that you’re a teen witch, or that you own a shiny red Porsche you aren’t licensed to drive yet. That doesn’t stop groups of men from gathering around and low-whistling talking about “Look at them headlights” and “I bet she rides fine.” Your engine idles and roars.
At 12, I already had the kind of overstuffed body that a lot of men like, and low levels of seratonin and self-esteem, which a lot of men also like. Murmurs and nasty whispers followed me home like stray kittens. In the slender period between my development and the vicious assault that would precede my rapid weight gain, I was pretty but felt ugly, the most dangerous combination for a girl.
At home, I could have roller-skated past my Dad’s arm chair on fire without tearing his attention from his stack of cheap paperback thrillers. At school, I was tormented daily by my classmates, whose unspecified hatred I deflected by erecting an impermeable shield between my emotions and the world. But from the grown men of the world, I found attention, kindness, and what felt to me like love. My body seemed a small trade.
I lost my virginity a week after I turned 12, to rape, then commenced giving it away to whoever wanted it from then on.
During my teen years, it never occured to me to consider my own wants and desires when it came to being sexual with another person. Each time anyone desired me, it felt like an unexpected gift, each lusty, husky-voiced compliment a diamond. I was astounded, geniunely, every time someone found me worthy to copulate with. What was attraction, anyway? All I needed to see was a favorable reflection of myself in his eyes. The yes was a foregone conclusion.
I have never found anything that feels more powerful to me than that moment, that intoxicating twilight when I have something that a man wants, desperately; when I hold all the cards and his undivided attention. It’s power — some may think it an empty, silly little girl version, but wielded deftly, it can do all the things “real” power can do, if only by manipulating the men who hold it. Besides, it was the only power I had access to.
Of course, I wasn’t seducing kings. I was only playing my sad little girl games long enough that they passed into a compulsion. By young adulthood, my thinking was fucked, my worth completely tied up in my appearance and the sexuality that I felt made me lovable.
Logically I knew that who I was was more important than how sexy I looked (which, by the way, was never sexy enough), but I’m not sure I emotionally comprehend it even now. My talent, my brain, the love of family and friends — no accomplishment gives the same electric thrill as the guy who would like to stick his dick in me, something so common and cliché it means practically nothing.
I try to unravel these threads in therapy. I grieve for my teenage self. I remind myself that sexual attention never filled me up for long. It’s a bowl that needs constant refilling — a receptacle that holds only other’s opinions of you has no bottom. I am learning that while it helped me once, it’s not a viable solution in my life anymore. I haven’t fully developed the resources to replace it. I still equate “charm” with flirtation, still lean a certain way when I want something from a man, still have whole eye affairs with men on the train. It is no coincidence that I grew up to talk about, write about, think about, sex.
Of course, it gets less and less cute, less effective at 30 than 15, 50 than 30. It’s largely a young woman’s power, and we hate them for knowing it.
But is it so strange to see young women accessing with our bodies something that is still largely denied us in the world? So strange that we settle for the knock-off version of power when the deck is stacked so heavily against us ever achieving the real thing? So strange that we are obsessed with our bodies, when they are our most primal weapon?
The strange part, I think, is the way we turn around and shame the women who use the only tool they have been given, for seeking shortcuts to power. The way we judge so harshly as if they chose this system or are failures for not being immune to it. No woman would be able to sell sex if someone wasn’t buying it, couldn’t use sex to get ahead if someone wasn’t rewarding her for it. Inside those of us who learned to cope this way, there may be a little girl like I was. Maybe she is only saying, “Look, Dad. I can get men to give me things.”
I can relate to a lot of this and have felt the same way as the author did when I was a young teenager.