As a Female
I experienced my first adolescence in the disease-paranoid late-’80s, fully conscious of who I was but could not risk revealing. By the time I started middle school, I had developed a firm understanding of myself as a young woman living through a temporary assignment to the boys’ club. I had a firm understanding that if anyone found out, I was at great risk for sexual violence. I kept to myself. By the time I got to college, my social anxiety was unprepared for the intimacy of dorm living. But it was my best escape plan from my hometown.
My first girlfriend, who met me in my dorm on move-in day, figured out my Devastating Secret within a couple of weeks of frenetic first-year socializing, and her encouraging reaction fueled me to pursue my transition to female. From that point forward, she helped me struggle through the very awkward second adolescence that is early transition. Our First Time was actually Heavy Petting. We continued with vanilla experiments for a couple of years, while I was desperately trying to figure out how I worked. By the time we broke up, I hadn’t figured out much more than that I didn’t like being touched. I grew to prefer to avoid sexuality altogether, and continued to make dating choices to reflect this. There were a couple more First Times in those difficult, error-laden years, and the less said of all that, the better.
The First Time I want to tell you about—the First Time that matters—came more than a decade later when I was near to completing my transition and dating someone who really energized me, who never doubted my womanhood. He and I fell into a furiously joyful reverie. He was just beginning his transition to male. Wherever he went with me, walls crumbled down. He was easy and lighthearted, and he loved me, which meant he was my polar opposite.
We moved in together after dating for six months or so, taking separate rooms in the same house. One day I was working at my desk, distracted by thoughts of my boyfriend upstairs. I daydreamed him pushing down my door and pulling me into bed. I tried to send him a psychic message. Too bad texting hadn’t been invented yet.
In that moment, it occurred to me that I finally had agency, and I didn’t have to wait for him to come to me. I didn’t question his attraction to me. I could ask him for what I needed, even though I’d grown to accept the idea that I was always already a damaged, lesser sort of woman, undeserving of happiness and sexual fulfillment. But why did I continue to let these internalized messages destroy my self-esteem, even at the happiest time of my life? I had to stop carrying that self-defeating narrative with me.
I shut off the computer, checked myself in the mirror and headed upstairs, unhooking my bra.
In his doorway I took off my shirt and said, “Hey, are you busy?”
He grinned and welcomed me in.
As a Porn Star
I’m a gay woman. But when it comes to watching porn, I’m all about straight men. Their physiques—they speak to me— chiseled, flexing abdomens so taut yet impersonal. In focus, out of focus, in, out. The beads of sweat that race down their protuberant stomach veins, below their belly buttons, uniting in a watershed just above their groins where, more often than not, there isn’t a hint of body hair.
It’s a corporeal attraction. I don’t want to be on the receiving end of these fellas’ lascivious motions, be they tame or unhinged.
My point: I want to be the one making these motions with women myself, and all while possessing a similarly cut male-porn-star physique.
There was a point in my life when I almost had such a build. I was in my late teens when my body, for some reason, did an about-turn and refinagled its proportions to look less like those of a woman and more like those of a prepubescent boy on the verge of discovering his pectoral muscles were finally beginning to protrude thanks to all the weightlifting and whey protein shakes.
I was suddenly a miniscule mesomorph—all leg, stomach and arm muscle. I had no stereotypical “womanly” curves of which to speak, save for the breasts I hated and wanted to cut off—no concave hips nor convex waist, no butt. I developed male-pattern hair growth—most noticeably in the form of a fuzzy little love trail between my navel and crotch. And I suffered what seemed like hourly outbursts of acne on my neck, where a peach-fuzz beard might have sprouted any day.
But then these changes stopped mid-evolution a few months later, when I discovered a strange white substance oozing from my left breast. A couple doctor visits and several blood tests revealed a massive hormone imbalance had been responsible for my metamorphosis the whole time. I was told to take medicine to reduce my off-the-chart testosterone count and given birth control to regulate the way my ovaries and adrenal glands pumped out various hormones. The latter I agreed to, but I ignored my doctor’s request to synthetically lower my testosterone count—a decision that has left my physical self, to this day, in a pleasantly suspended state of boyish womanhood.
I first ventured into straight male porn around this time. Discovering my proclivity for the widespread—if not altogether unavoidable—“genre” was like meandering into a room I’d never been in before to find my own personal party waiting. It allowed me to think on what I could have been, what my body could have become—a boy-woman making love to their partner in a hundred different sexy positions.
And these days while I’m watching, I look down at where my taut stomach muscles once were, replaced now by a little belly not terribly unlike that of my dad’s in middle age—a tad loose above the buckle, peppered with patches of soft hair—and it makes me smile.
In a Theater
We thought it was a lark: an adventurous double date with another young married couple in 1972 to see “Deep Throat.” But not at some skeevy sticky-floored XXX-rated porn/peep-show dive. “Deep Throat” was “porn chic”—within weeks of its New York City opening, it was playing to upper-middle-class audiences at art houses across the country. Celebrities and grandmothers were waiting in line to see it.
So one autumn night my husband and I and our friends took seats in the balcony of a downtown movie theater in Grand Rapids, Mich. On a different weekend, it might have been showing the more wholesome “Sounder.”
We had no idea what “Deep Throat” was about, not even its silly premise that a young woman unable to have an orgasm discovers—surprise!—that her clitoris is not in its normal position, but in the back of her throat. Her search for orgasm leads to a lot of mouth time for a lot of male organs.
We just knew it would be our first porn flick, a deliciously naughty amusement. We were sophisticated! After all, we’d been married almost three years. We knew about sex.
But what we didn’t know was vast—the difference between the Sahara Desert and a kid’s sandbox. They both have sand, but oh my.
I can’t remember whether we could even look at each other on our way out of the theater. My husband, a clever man, might have made a joke. I was dazed. After the incessant fellatio, I never wanted to see another penis.
Later, some critics would argue that the movie’s real message was this: A woman has a right to discover sexual pleasure. If so, the idea was lost to me behind that looming forest of demanding penises.
Indeed, the movie almost undid my own (slow) awakening.
Earlier that year, in the winter, my husband and I had stopped off in Florida for a few months. We were traveling the country in a Chevy van, looking for America and ourselves. In Florida, we found jobs at a hotel near the newly opened Disney World and rented a small apartment in an old house. Directly above us lived a couple who left their windows open on warm nights.
Their noises—loud and soft and urgent and thumping—those ecstatic sounds were the sex talk I never got from my mother or my older sisters. It thrilled me. I knew I was missing something.
I had married too young, too early, too unaware. Not long after we saw “Deep Throat,” we would be unmarried.
The movie schooled me about worldliness far outside my experience, but it was a seedy, sleazy world of misogyny. It frightened me. I knew that the woman I saw on the screen was not meant to be a person, only a mouth. Years later, the star, Linda Lovelace, charged that she had been beaten and coerced by her pimp of a husband into her role in the movie.
But I had heard the joyful sounds of those upstairs neighbors in Florida.
I haven’t seen a porn flick since.
The first time I performed sex acts on camera, my audience consisted mainly of my friends and family. And I basically wanted to die of embarrassment.
A few weekends before our wedding, my now-husband and I invited some friends out for a low-key bachelor and bachelorette night of drinks at The Owl Bar in midtown Baltimore. That’s who we are as a couple—low-key. After we taxied home, both pretty drunk, I checked Facebook from my phone to view photos from the evening that my friends had shared.
But Facebook had just released an update to their mobile design, including a new, trigger-happy Live button that streams directly from the phone’s front-facing camera to all of the user’s Facebook friends, as well as the public.
That’s all there is to it: One inadvertent tap on your screen as you connect your phone to the charger cable, and suddenly, you may be broadcasting live from your bedside table to everyone with an account on the world’s most popular social media platform. Without your knowledge.
As you prepare to get freaky with the man you’re about to marry.
I wish I could say there were warning signs that we were performing live on camera, but as a rule, my phone’s notifications are purely silent—so although the microphone still recorded sound, we sure as heck didn’t know what was happening. And before bed, I always lay the phone screen-down on the bedside table to make sure any overnight notifications don’t light up the room.
The light from my screen—which would’ve indicated that we were recording the sounds of our amour for anyone with a Facebook account—was facedown next to box of tissues and a book of poems I’ll probably never finish reading.
Twenty-six minutes later, we were at the height of our passion when my phone began vibrating. We ignored the call, but it buzzed a second time. I picked up, and saw it was my cousin calling. I also saw the series of texts she had been sending: “PICK UP THE PHONE!” and “STOP RECORDING U ARE ON FACEBOOK RIGHT NOW!!”
Not only was I unknowingly Kim Kardashian-ing myself, but Facebook, the self-promoting media giant, had been sending out notifications to all my friends that “Saralyn is Live!” to encourage them to check out their new video capability. Not only did my husband and I ignore my cousin’s phone call to warn us, she could hear us blowing her off in real time.
And not only were we humiliated, but we were loaded. How do you manage a crisis when you’re literally drunk in love? My husband—not a big social media user himself —had to Google how to shut down my Facebook account in order to scrub our sex tape from the internet. Into the wee hours of the morning, we suspended and un-suspended my account, checking and rechecking that the video had been deleted. I updated my privacy settings, cried a lot and called my mom. I text messaged anyone who might be awake to ask them to try to view my account and tell me what they saw—video or no video? We grappled with difficult questions about how to handle the situation. Were we pornographers?
Eventually I satisfied myself that the video was no longer available to cyber voyeurs, at least not easily, and I reactivated my account. When our wedding day arrived, the best man’s speech included only one reference to Facebook Live. But again and again, our society learns the lesson that nothing is ever really erased from the Internet.
I worry when the other shoe will drop—audibly.
This has been a (red-faced) public service announcement.
Jo shifted her head back from the kiss to catch her breath, gathering her hair over one shoulder. We sat propped up in bed.
“You’re sure this is all right with Ann?”
“She knows you’re here, and she knows that you’re staying the night,” I said. “We talked yesterday, and we’ll talk more about it when she gets back into town.”
I sat up a little straighter.
“How are you feeling about this?” I asked her.
“Good—I’m good. I just wanted to be totally sure.”
Jo and I had been attracted to each other for a long time. We were colleagues at work for a couple of years, and we maintained our friendship even after I left for graduate school. We had always understood the attraction, but work, relationships or distance had kept us from acting on it until that moment.
We kissed again, and our hands found each other’s hips beneath the covers.
Jo’s hips were the first that I touched like this outside of my then six-year relationship with my (unmarried) partner. Though Jo and I didn’t really date, like some of the people I’ve seen since Ann and I opened up two years ago, she was the first overnightstay, the first “remember to buy condoms,” the first “are you sure this is okay with Ann?”
Those conversations with Ann weren’t always easy, but by the time Jo spent the night, Ann and I had already talked for hours about the subject. We had read the popular books on polyamory, ethical non-monogamy and relationship anarchy. We had subjected ourselves to all sorts of “what if” scenarios. We had talked through making sure that we were both entirely on board with the reality of the other dating, sleeping with or even falling deeply in love with someone else.
Because of this groundwork, when Ann got back home on Monday, the conversation felt almost routine, despite its being our first.
“Jo and I slept together this weekend.”
“How was it?”
“Different, I guess. How are you feeling about it?”
Ann paused, considering. “Not as jealous as I expected to be. Pretty all right, actually.”
She kissed me and got up from the couch, getting to the business of unpacking from her trip.
“I love you,” she said.
Watching Ann unpack, I was reminded of how much I love her too—how much I’m in love. Though it can be hard for some monogamous folks to understand, the fact that we enjoy that spark of falling for new people doesn’t mean that the feeling of being in love with each other gets replaced or even diminished. It’s a sort of love that entails an honesty that rejects notions of ownership, an honesty that has helped us both grow, as partners to each other and as individuals. An honesty that has led us to ask each other, recursively, “How are you feeling about this?”
On a Mountaintop
Wildflowers colored the campground purple and yellow, up there at 9,800 feet. We’d slept comfortably the night before on the banks of a mountain lake, inside a tent, high above Idaho’s stark and beautiful Lemhi valley. That morning, we made coffee cowboy-style, mixing grounds and water in a pot over a fire.
Nearby, a trail sign promised a higher point than even the campground, higher than either of us had ever climbed or stood. Meadow Lake Peak, 10,750 feet.
“We have to,” she said. “When will we ever be back?” I said.
We were much younger then. But we’re still those same people.
The climb was short and steep, unforgiving. Soon, we were above the tree line, the sun naked and relentless. With a few hundred feet to go, the trail entered a scree field, an otherworldly landscape of loose shale. We spent most of the time staring at our boots and the rock underfoot, trying to keep our balance and not sprain an ankle. The trail became nothing more than an occasional signpost with a sightline to the next one. Finally, we reached the ridgeline and followed it to the peak.
If we’d been explorers, we’d have stuck a flag between the rocks. Never had either of us stood in a spot so high. We raised our chins to gulp water from of our bottles, and we celebrated with a kiss. She shivered. Though it was summer and the sun blinding, the wind carried a chill.
We were overcome, I suppose, by the view—uncountable mountains, an endless bending horizon, the light blue air. My wife lay back on a small boulder, but our lovemaking was awkward. The boulder was no bed, but rough and cold, and my wife’s body had a strange bend as she shaped herself to the rock. I took care to stay balanced and not to crush her. She kept her gloves on.
Then we hiked back to the campsite.
And when I think now of that moment, I remember the astronaut Alan Shepard hitting golf balls on the moon. His club was makeshift, built with the shaft of a NASA rock-collector. His swing was clumsy, one-handed because of his bulky spacesuit, and though the ball traveled a great distance, the act carried none of the regular joys that accompany golf. No green grass, no birdsong, none of the necessary focus, no beer at the 19th hole. Just a single memorable stroke, and only that.