My father's collection of pornography was all in print, obviously, and there were three categories… There were the men’s magazines of the 1950’s, with titles like Real Men, Man’s Epic, Man’s Life, Man’s Conquest, and True Man. The covers featured odd combinations of Nazis or Castro, semi-naked women in bondage, and exotic, deadly animals. The women were always being tortured
The second genre was the true crime or detective magazines and tabloid papers. Some of these contained pulp fiction, but others contained actual stories from police files, usually accompanied by graphic photographs. I was profoundly traumatized by two stories that I still remember. One was about a father who forced his young son into a shower of scalding water and would not let him out. The other had to do with an ex-boyfriend and battery acid. My mother tried to comfort me by explaining that these were stories about people who lived very far away from us, in neighborhoods very unlike our safe, little suburbs, and that these were a kind of people we would never know. That point was lost on me. What I needed her to tell me was that these stories were made up and that only an incredibly insane and brain-damaged person would find them appealing. But the stories were real and so were the photographs. The person who found them appealing was my own father and her husband, and this monster was inside the house with us in our safe, little suburb.
But… great writers notwithstanding, none of my other friends’ parents had copies of Playboy on their coffee tables.
What was the impact of these magazines on my developing brain? Well, they taught me that women were subhuman. That was clear. They all looked the same, were all the same age, had no careers, no brains, no personalities, and existed as obstacles or rewards for men. They were, above all, available. Both the rescuers and the perpetrators had a crack at them. What did I learn about men? I learned that men in general and my father in particular were terrifying. This did not leave me, a young female, in a very good place. The naked women in these heavily airbrushed images had neither pubic hair or labia, which led me to believe that there was something grotesque and monstrous about my developing body. It occurred to me that I might not be female after all. Frightening as that was to me, it also meant I might not have to be a woman… in other words, subhuman.
When I was nineteen, I read Shulamith Firestone’s book The Dialectic of Sex. It was a revelation, and it brought clarity, purpose, and identity to my tragically dissociated life. Shulamith brought the counter-narrative and the alternative identities that had been absent from my childhood. I began to read feminist writers, women’s history, and especially feminist biography. Eventually I passed through the looking glass all the way into lesbian separatist culture and community. I was home.
Did my sexuality change? Yes and no. I was now present in my own life. No longer dissociated. No longer passing. I was consciously and conscientiously choosing my orientation. This was empowering, but also disorienting. I had moved beyond survival/passing mode, but I began to experience the long-delayed post-traumatic syndromes and retrieval of trauma memories from my childhood. Showing up for myself in bed meant showing up with an array of alarming emotions and syndromes that had never been part of my repertoire in my performative heterosexuality. Sexual liberation for me meant recovery work, confusion, misunderstandings, wildly mixed metaphors, and a confrontation of the deeply internalized images and narratives that had informed my sexuality from childhood. The covers of True Man, the terror of the battery acid, the horror of my own family.
To make a long story short… I am now almost seventy. My life with intimate partners is in the rear view mirror now. These days I am taking stock. I have close to thirty years in Alanon recovery for the damage of being raised by addicts. I have worked hard as an incest survivor, as an autistic woman diagnosed late in life, and as a lesbian feminist to own my own life and my own thinking. My political views are constantly evolving, as is my spirituality. My recovery continues to progress. But my sexuality never evolved. What has changed is my relationship to it. By the time I ended my last relationship about a decade ago, I found myself so spiritually and emotionally alienated by what turned me on that “being intimate” with my partner was actually the opposite. My experience of sex with her did not bring me closer. I had needed to distance myself from her in order to enter the world of sexual tropes left over from true crime and male fantasies.
As I said, what I am doing these days is taking stock. And when I take stock of my relationship history, I think, “I did the best I could with a sexuality that was imposed on me before I was old enough to speak.” I also did the best I could to decolonize my thinking and my choices from all the toxic values of my childhood. I dedicated my lifework to generating narratives, paradigms, and archetypes that would provide women and girls with a different way of seeing themselves.
Yes, I believe there were. There were things I could have done that would have kept me connected—and deeply connected—to my partner. Things that involved entering an altered state and producing endorphins, without having anything to do with biological urges intended to perpetuate the gene pool. Things that were intensely specific to my own needs and the needs of my partner for healing. Things that would reflect and support an evolving spirituality and a deepening intimacy.
Well… What are these things?
Before I explain, I want to credit the woman who discovered them: Rebecca Jackson. She was an African American “eldress” or leader of a Shaker community in Philadelphia that housed twelve to twenty African American Shakers. She had a life partner, Rebecca Perot. For thirty-five years these women lived together , worked together, and slept together in a celibate relationship.
This one is an affirmation of a kind of baptismal purification, one which also washes away fear. It’s also an affirmation of the beauty and autonomy of her partner in an era when slavery was still a practice and when even free Black women had few protections from sexual predation, especially if they worked in the homes of white people.
“I saw Rebecca Perot coming in the river, her face to the east, and she aplunging in the water every few steps, head foremost, abathing herself. She only had on her undergarment. She was pure and clean, even as the water in which she was abathing. She came facing me out of the water. I wondered she was not afraid. Sometimes she would be hid, for a moment, and then she would rise again. She looked like an Angel, oh, how bright!”
And this is a vision that could be read as a lesbian appropriation of the so-called Fall of Eve:
“After I laid down to rest, I was in sweet meditation. And a beautiful vision passed before my spirit eye. I saw a garden of excellent fruit. And it appeared to come near, even onto my bed, and around me! Yea, it covered me. And I was permitted to eat, and to give a portion to Rebecca Perot, and she ate, and was strengthened.”
And what of Rebecca Perot’s visions? Well, here’s one of them that affirms not only their relationship as partners, but also their entitlement to royal status as daughters of African descent.
“I dreamt that Ann Potter and Rebecca Jackson and myself were in England. And Ann Potter took us to the Queen, and she crowned Rebecca King and me Queen of Africa. I then saw Africa with all her treasures of gold, together with all her inhabitants, and these was all given into our charge.”
These women were not using pornographic tropes to gin up a sexuality that was driven by predatory conditioning and biological imperatives. They were starting with the false narratives from patriarchal religions, a history of captivity and colonization, and personal trauma that would disempower them and then, either consciously or subconsciously, they were constructing explicit, vivid, and sensual visions that went right to the heart of their wounds and applied an empowering counter-narrative.They were affirming their own authority and exercising fantastic powers of imagination.
What if I had created time to meditate or practice guided meditation like these Rebeccas? What if I had gone on these imaginative journeys with my partner, or shared my visions later… visions that generated a healing context for both of us? In retrospect, I feel that often my attempts at intimacy would inadvertently result in restimulating my and my partner's traumas. What if we had set aside time and dedicated energies to envisioning the conditions that would make us feel safe with each other, empowered, blessed and held by beings or powers greater than us?
Reading about the visions of these women, I feel they were describing altered states and ecstatic experiences… but ones that did not take them away from their spiritual practices and systems of values, as my practice of sexuality took me away from mine. They chose what would delight them, what would strengthen them as partners. They did not rely on an inundation of endorphins from imported tropes. They were undoing body shame and personal violation, histories of abduction and enslavement, and the false teaching of the depravity and degradation of women. They were fixing the Bible and each other.
Looking back, I wish I had been more creative, and I wish I had had the courage to really interrogate the place that my sexuality, damaged as it was by pornography, should occupy in the kind of life I wanted to lead and the kind of woman I wanted to be.
If you are interested in reading more about the two Rebeccas, see my blog "When Sex Is Not the Metaphor for Intimacy."
If you are interested in what pornography addiction does to the brain, see my blog "Pornography on the Brain."