The thing was that while my mother had fully apprised me at a very early age of all of the mechanics of sex—biological, anatomical and medical—she had neglected to expound on one detail: why people fucked. By the age of six, I knew how you had sex, I knew what happened when you did, I even knew too well how to protect yourself from pregnancy, but I didn’t know why you would. In her intermittent and unending narrative of sex, my mom had left out the pleasure part.
I had to learn about that on the streets.
Actually, it wasn’t on the streets. Technically, it was in the enviably candy-striped bedroom of my childhood friend Miriam. I was about twelve. It was the morning after a sleepover, and Miriam and I and her cat Maia and Miriam’s sister Debby were all lounging on Miriam’s terrifically pink and jealousy-inducing bed.
Debby, about sixteen, the bad girl in the family, the one who was doing drugs and running away and sneaking off in the dead of night for Led Zepplin-soundtrack assignations with her long-haired and skulking boyfriends, was petting the family cat.
“Come, pussy,” she said and giggled.I didn’t get it. I looked quizzically at Debby and her sister, who were sharing conspiratorial glances.
“Come, pussy,” Debby said again, “pussy likes being petted. Come, pussy, come.” She giggled. Miriam giggled. I was clearly completely left out of the loop.
I asked what was funny. Debby dropped the insinuating voice and the pussy innuendo and immediately transformed into the very antiseptic model of a school nurse, all crisp efficiency and medical terminology. She explained that when women’s vaginas were stimulated they felt pleasure and when the pleasure built to a crescendo, women orgasmed, which was known in common parlance as “coming.”
I was dumbstruck. This was all news to me. Previously, I could not even begin to fathom why my mother would do what she did on the living room floor with boyfriends (and later with my stepfather), why the quiet night would be pierced with howls that sounded like nothing so much as animals in pain, why my mom would actually choose to engage in the whole distasteful and grunting penis/vagina thing, especially when she had to protect herself so dutifully in the anxiety that she would become pregnant. It all sounded like such a major gross and nerve-rattling hassle, I didn’t understand why do it at all.
But an orgasm made sense. That put it all into a perspective I could get.
Being the kind of person that I am, even at twelve, I immediately needed confirmation of this radical and frankly dubious information. I couldn’t take Debby’s word for it—not with her questionable taste in music and men. I returned home and immediately located a volume on my parents’ bookshelf that seemed helpful: Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). Was there ever a book whose title was more a more perfect union with the information sought? I thought not, noted where it was on the capacious bookshelf, and the very next time my parents were out, I took the volume down from the shelf, sat on the steps in right front of the bookcase, and read it.
Debby, I found out, was 100% correct. Women’s vaginas actually did feel pleasure. And, apparently, we had something that Debby had neglected to mention: a clitoris. I read with a fervid hunger. I swallowed diagrams whole. I learned my anatomy inside and out (I couldn’t quite, however, bear to look at the penis pictures. They made me feel squidgy on the inside, squirrelly and like the receptacle for too much information. I concentrated on my own parts). I became an orgasm autodidact.
I memorized the anatomical and biological information, and then I found the sections that explained in clear and precise terms how females like me masturbated. It was an epiphanic moment when I realized that I didn’t need a male with a penis, a body part which at twelve was foreign and faintly nasty, to achieve orgasm. I could, I found in this blessed book, make myself come.
I read about touching the clitoris with my fingers in a circular motion. I read about how various common household objects from candles to cucumbers to broom handles could simulate the penis in a needful pinch. I read that some women used three fingers, one finger each on clit, in vagina and in the asshole, to masturbate and that this method was named, completely inscrutably, “Italian.” I read about how blind girls would sit on their chastely stockinged heels and grind to a quiet and invisible orgasm (I wonder now about that particular piece of information, a section told in such loving detail that the writer seemed to linger over it in an erotic languor). I read and I read and I read.
And then I tried it myself.
I can’t exactly recall the first time I came, but I can recall the giddiness with which I greeted the revelation that I could. I know that at first I tried to rub my tiny clit nubbin with my dry and naked finger. I know that I learned to moisten it with spit. I know that I first masturbated in the way I still basically do—on my back, my knees apart, my middle finger on my clit making tiny, always clockwise, circles. I know that my orgasms then were petite, but small as they were, they held in their tiny budding beings an apotheosis. I was suddenly sexual.
Once I learned I could come, the question then became how many ways and how often. I stood in my closet, cosseted by the dark of the closed doors, the jumpers and floral print blouses, my middle finger between my chubby thighs, the endless spirals on my increasingly sore clit. I made myself come standing in the dark, my breath ragged and panting, some small gasps heralding my orgasmic arrival.
I tried lying face down on my hand too—the book suggested that this was one method to elude detection in a shared sleeping space—and I came raggedly and silently prone on my pillow. This skill turned out to be very helpful when later that summer I would be at camp, in a bunkhouse with eight other thirteen year-olds. I tried inserting things—brush handles (too weird), carrots (too rough), the cool glass necks of a washed soda bottle (rather nice, actually)—I had limited success. But I didn’t stop my erotic experiments.
I realized that my fecund mind was a big help, as was my generous memory for narratives. I recalled things I’d uncomprehendingly read years before in my uncles’ Playboys and Penthouses—stories of a guest surprising a pair of hotel maids in flagrante delicto and joining in, tales of female roommates watching their girlfriend sit in oversized chairs and touch their spread-open privates like they were reading a gossip magazine over her shoulder, narratives that began with “I never thought I’d be writing” and ended with some guy buried face-first in one twin, and cock-deep in another. I recollected these stories and I replayed them all, private blue movies flash-flashing on the intimate walls of my mind, as I lay in my virginal bed and rubbed my clit till it was raw and I was moaning.
I found in my newly pleasured existence a validation of myself. I am woman, hear me come, I seemed to cry out to myself in a hushed and mangled voice. However small and insignificant the echoes of my adolescent orgasms were, they were mine, mine, perfectly pure and good, and I didn’t have to, nor could I, share this pleasure with anybody.
I could come; therefore I was. It seems somewhat hyperbolic to state that idea, but it was true then, true as it is today. What we like defines us, at least to ourselves, especially when it’s us alone, under the covers, just our minds, our fingers, our soft cries, and this world that in that moment begins and ends in our solipsistic pleasure.