By Laurel Hermanson.
I was five years old. It was a white hot summer in upstate New York and I was playing with a neighbor kid, Maureen Hammill. We crouched on the curb of my family’s big corner lot and poked at the tar bubbling up in the street. Our fathers talked about the Dutch elm disease that was taking the trees in the neighborhood, block by block. I sat back on the grass and crisscrossed my skinny legs and tried to wipe tar off my white sneakers. Mr. Hammill looked down at me and said, “Well, aren’t you pretty!” I had never thought of myself as pretty or ugly or anything in between, but I smiled like crazy at that compliment.
Later that day, my father shared this with my mother as she scrubbed sticky tar off my fingers. She said, “For God’s sake. What’s the matter with him?” She sounded angry at Mr. Hammill but she glared at me and scrubbed harder.
I would hear, “Well, aren’t you pretty!” well into my teen years. My father said it in a lilting voice, to tease me or to irritate my mother, or both. As a teen I began wondering why it bothered my mother so much. Through her eyes I often saw Mr. Hammill as a leering, dirty old man, although I didn’t remember him that way. If she thought he was creepy all those years ago, she did nothing to keep me away from him. Maybe she thought he was teasing me, or even lying. She never told me I was pretty. She criticized my stringy hair, my close-set eyes, my legs that weren’t so skinny anymore. Maybe my father kept it alive for so long to soften her criticism, to let me know he thought I was pretty without owning the words and making my mother angry at him, too.
I was six years old. My older brother Ed and I were playing with Maureen and her older brother Timmy in the Hammill’s basement. Timmy and I had decided to get married when we grew up. That day, he tugged me aside and told me babies were made when a man stuck his penis into a woman’s privates and peed. I was so horrified, I told my brother and made him promise not to say a word to our parents. In less than an hour my mother stood over me in my bedroom, demanding I repeat exactly what Timmy had said. Once I blurted it out, she went downstairs and phoned Mrs. Hammill. She yelled at her for a long time, calling Timmy “that little shit.”
I expected my mother to tell me Timmy was lying, that having babies didn’t involve anything as disgusting as penises, but we never talked about it again. I decided then that Timmy and I would not have children when we got married—if we got married. Our future together wasn’t looking so good.
My mother and I would never have the talk, the one where she was supposed to tell me that sex wasn’t disgusting and that it wasn’t just for making babies, either. I learned how sex could make me feel good from smutty books I snuck from my parents’ bookshelves and dirty magazines I found in my brother’s bedroom. I learned how sex might make me pregnant in high school health class. But without any real life context, sex was mostly something that made my mother mad.
Sex was naughty. Rather than acting as a deterrent, that notion became more appealing as I grew older. For most of my life, I enjoyed sex only if I believed I was doing something dirty. I needed an inappropriate partner, or a public “what if someone catches us?” venue, or a bit of kink I’d never tried before. I had sex with my college boyfriend in an empty classroom. I slept with my much-older boss my first year out of college. I let a man I hardly knew and didn’t trust tie me up. Over the years I kept pushing those boundaries hard.
I was seven years old. Having reached the “age of reason” in the eyes of the Catholic Church, I was gearing up for my first confession. I worried about it for weeks beforehand because I didn’t know what to confess. I never stole candy or pulled the legs off of ants. Sometimes in bed at night I put my hand in my underpants. My body was fascinating to me, especially my girl parts. My mother saw me doing it once and told me to knock it off, so I thought it might be sinful. But I couldn’t confess my embarrassing touching secret to anyone, much less a Catholic priest. What if my mother found out? She couldn’t blame this on any of the Hammills. When I finally knelt in the dark, musty confessional, I panicked and said, “Bless me Father, for I have sinned. I took three cookies out of the cookie jar and lied to my mother about it.” We didn’t even have a cookie jar. I made that shit up on the fly.
The story of the three cookies I never took would be my first and last confession, which was probably best for my immortal soul. When my family left New York for northeast Washington, my mother left the Catholic Church. I never again had to choose whether it was scarier to lie to a priest than to chance making my mother angry, although I suspect that choice would not have changed.
I was eight years old. Men came to our house with boxes labeled “Mayflower” and started to pack our things. One of them looked like Freddie Prinze from Chico and the Man. He had a shy smile and he smelled of damp earth and musky flowers. I shadowed him, darting close enough to catch his scent and then giggling as I ran away. I ignored my mother when she scowled and shook her head. I ignored her when she said he was on the clock and I should let him work. I vied for his attention, his smile a thrill, his smell with me in bed at night. After three days of this, I didn’t care about my parents’ promise that we would have horses in Washington. I didn’t want to go. When my mother laughed and told me Musky Flower Moving Guy wouldn’t be driving the truck and I wouldn’t see him on the other side of the country, I ran to my bedroom and cried.
I would carry his scent with me during the four-day drive to Washington. When I started third grade, I had imaginary conversations with Musky Flower Moving Guy while I hid in a bathroom stall at school and cried because I didn’t know anyone. He comforted me until I made friends and no longer felt alone in a school full of kids. For years I was drawn to older men with dark hair and mustaches. I never asked if they happened to have empty moving boxes we could play with.
When we left upstate New York, we had lost every towering Elm tree that shaded our yard. All that remained were 13 tall, naked trunks that my father never cut down. I had lost something, too, something intangible yet protective like shade, but invisible. I had shed a layer of innocence, that carefree childhood oblivion that let me feel okay in the world.
My mother could have smiled when she heard that Mr. Hammill called me pretty, or, if she saw a teachable moment, she could have told me it was more important to be smart and kind. She might have assured me that Timmy’s version of baby-making was a bit shaky, that one day I would find the idea less disgusting, natural even. She could have told me that touching myself was fine as long as I did it in private. She could have laughed with me, instead of at me, about my crush on Musky Flower Moving Guy.
The conversations I didn’t have with my mother left me vulnerable in a confusing world where being pretty could be sexualized, and sexuality could be considered dirty. My mother’s views of sexuality and the physical body were informed by Catholic doctrine, which teaches that sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, rather than purposes of procreation. Yet the catechism also teaches that everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept their sexual identity. Maybe my mother, like many Catholic parents, didn’t know where to begin teaching a sexually precocious little girl how to properly embrace her sexuality.
From the time I was age 8 to 18, Second Wave Feminism was in full swing but it didn’t cross my radar in our conservative, rural town. I knew nothing of objectification or sex-positivity. What I knew was that there was something wrong with wanting to be a pretty girl. There was something wrong with talking about how women got pregnant. There was something wrong with exploring my own body. There was something wrong with having a crush on a cute older man.
There was something wrong with me.
That something would live inside me for almost 40 years. I didn’t invite it in, but I let it stay, dimly aware of how it warped most of my sexual experiences with men, and a few women. Holding tight to being a dirty girl was less a choice than a “fuck you” to all I didn’t know about how to make sex right instead of wrong. When I finally realized, accepted, believed, that there was nothing wrong with sexuality, that there had never been anything wrong with me, I evicted the ghost of that “something” and took back my body, my sexuality.
My need for naughty had been more limiting than freeing. I missed out not only on simple physical pleasure, but also emotional intimacy. I sometimes wish I could have those years back and live them differently, but I look forward to the next 40 years. Naughty sex is still fun, but so is sex that is urgent or lazy, mad or sweet, funny or intense, sex that wakes me up in the morning or helps me go to sleep at night. Married sex.
After my family’s cross-country move put the kibosh on my already tenuous engagement to Timmy Hammill, my first boyfriend was Tommy Doyle. He asked me to go steady in fourth grade. He even gave me a ring. He was a nice boy who grew into a nice man, a man with whom I’ve shared secrets, but never sex. He would have been the perfectly inappropriate partner—my friend Father Tom Doyle, a Catholic priest.
Laurel Hermanson is Editor-in-Chief of STIR Journal. Her first novel, Soft Landing, was published in 2009. She was a weekly contributor at Role Reboot, and her essays have appeared online at Everyday Feminism, Daily Life, Jaded Ibis Press, and Ravenous Butterflies. She lives in Oregon with her husband, daughter, and a bouncy pit/boxer/beagle/lab mix. Follow her on Twitter at @laurelhermanson.
Jennifer Pastiloff, Beauty Hunter, is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Check out jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up: South Dakota, NYC, Dallas, Kripalu Center For Yoga & Health, Tuscany. She is also leading a Writing + The Body Retreat with Lidia Yuknavitch Jan 30-Feb 1 in Ojai (1 spot left) as well as Other Voices Querétaro with Gina Frangello, Emily Rapp and Rob Roberge. She tweets/instagrams at @jenpastiloff.
Oh man, this essay hit home. For me, it was my father who made me feel dirty from a young age, who called me a slut for talking with boys, for chastising my sister when a friend (who was a boy) called her to ask her about the homework for the day. Our mother never corrected his message, as she was terrified of him. I did many of the same things you did, and when I grew older dated several married men at once because I could, feeling powerful in my sexuality when I was with them and like a dirty slut when I was alone. It has taken me 50+ years, a good and kind husband and raising a son to understand myself and to forgive my father, ultimately setting myself free. Thank you for your words.
This essay is amazing. I was drawn into it like a fly to honey. Your words captivate. I did not grow up with the same feeling you did but I did grow up with unexplained feelings. From a little child as young, as I could remember, men were attracted to me sexually. I can not explain it but it happened more than once touching, molesting, etc. Different much older men, different circumstances. Why!!! I never knew. As I grew up and looked back I thought it was because I was a little girl lost and that was a sign I wore. So I grew up the good girl though I easily could have gone the other way. I just loved your story.