I'm going to tell you my first kiss story. By the summer after eighth grade, my desperation for male attention had reached a fever pitch. It's not that I was a late bloomer, but simply awkward in a way that still makes my face scrunch up when I think about it 18 years later. I had a lot of time on my hands without a boyfriend, and I used much of it to imagine in slow-mo how we would make out once I did manage to recruit any old guy. The bar was low. Having watched, enthralled, the then-new drama My So-Called Life, maybe I should have seen the seeds of discord. However, I was resolute. I wanted a Jordan Catalano for real, and I wasn't going to be some wuss like Angela with all these personal boundaries and ideals.
A surprising thing happened when I got to summer camp. Instead of desperately salivating over all possible boys, I found myself pursued by the most attractive guy I'd ever seen up close. He was hot in a way that I 'd never encountered, a league above even the most unattainable of the middle school pretty boys. While it's not really relevant to this story, I should mention that he was funny, a good listener and a sweet human being.
Based on movies and what happened to characters played by Claire Danes, I'd anticipated a few tender brushes of lip against lip, followed by some tasteful tongue action that would really capture our fervency toward each other. In reality, we were on a yellow school bus packed full of campers at the moment he put his face against mine and launched his tongue directly to the back of my throat with the full force of a teenage boy acting out sex with his mouth. I was in shock. I went along with it, although I grew increasingly concerned that with the jostling of the bus, I might actually bite off his tongue. I slunk back to my camp cabin confused and disappointed, but determined to try again. This was the perfect guy! There's no possible way it could go wrong! Take two was not better. Rather than expressing any of this out loud, I recoiled into a shy shell that had nothing to do with my real personality. This little relationship did not last long. But its effects in me persisted.
Why didn't I like kissing the most attractive guy in the world? Was I gay? Or was there something wrong with me? My sexual identity was turned on its head. I couldn't make sense of the situation. All the story lines about sex that I'd ever been exposed to involved two people who wanted exactly the same thing at the same time. Wasn't that what was cool about sex, this miraculous symmetry and telepathy? Rom Coms had let me down. And I didn't remotely consider that there was anything I could do about not being kissed the way I wanted to be. What I also didn't know was that I was hitting up against something darker and more difficult. I'd assumed that hooking up was supposed to be fun for me, but maybe it wasn't. Maybe this wasn't about me at all, and if I wanted to keep getting this important male attention (and affection and closeness), I'd better get over my own desires.
Keep in mind that this was a nice guy. He wasn't telling me any of this nastiness. I picked it up out of the ether and was imposing it on myself. Based on my main inputs of TV and movies, it was pretty clear what guys were supposed to want. But what were girls supposed to want? What were we allowed to want? And separate from all that, what did we want?
Nobody told me that you actually have to express what you want and stick up for it, that doing this is not an imposition and instead is better for everyone involved. Nobody told me that not everyone enjoys everything that you see on TV, and that that's OK, and that you might even want some things that aren't seen on TV, which is also OK. It's not that all these dynamics need to be instructed step-by-step, but in the vacuum where a useful vocabulary for talking about sexual encounters might have been, my mind was instead crammed full of the many hookups from TV, guiding me steadily toward a series of bummers. None of the movie hookups involved communication (not even the R-rated ones), and none of it looked anything like my first kiss felt. So why didn't anybody clue me in? Because people don't talk about this stuff. I should note that I grew up in a blue state with liberal parents and comprehensive sex ed. Could we start talking about this now, or are we still waiting for something to happen?
And this, on paper, is the ideal and most privileged first kiss story. Thankfully I was not abused, pressured or assaulted, like many, many young women who have no say in how they first encounter sexuality with another person. Yet I still feel mad and sad about the whole thing. I feel sad because I wish I could have simply expressed what I wanted and then had the hot makeout session that I so desired. As a grown woman, I wish I had that memory stored away! It could have been awesome. And I feel mad because all this is entirely preventable. If, as a society, we cared about young women having positive experiences, we'd give them the tools to make it happen. But in fact, we'd rather if girls just wrote in their diaries until they turned 18, because we don't respect them as nascent people with their own desires and capacity to make choices. We don't imagine them a few years later as pissed off women coming back for their revenge.
Even with my best efforts, it took me upwards of a decade to unlearn that received stupidity that is our collective gift to every adolescent girl (and yes, I did find the kisses I was after). Even from a point of view that values postponement or abstinence, it's still understood that missing out on sex is a burden and a sacrifice. Would we expect straight teenage guys to be OK with missing out on sex? So why do we expect girls to put their own desires aside for someone else's gratification or comfort? And it's not just young women, it's also anybody who's not straight: Our stories are not convenient. They don't support dominant ideas about how sex works or what it's for. The bitter irony is that between women and the LGBT community, we make up more than half the population. We're the majority. And yet through this oblique silencing, all of our sexuality is marginalized (to different degrees and in different ways).
"What if our kids really believed we wanted them to have great sex?" asked revolutionary sex ed teacher Al Vernacchio to a room full of parents. It's a powerful thought. I don't assume that all kids should have great sex -- sex is not right for everyone at every age, and it's not yet safe in many places, particularly for LGBT youth. I want young people to be able to choose what's right and healthy for them, to honor themselves and their real values and what feels good for them, not based on shame or terror or other people's expectations. But in a cultural backdrop that's so combative toward most people's sexuality, there's no way that we can get to the point of making good choices without talking them through. And while everybody sort of wants to talk about sex, it's hard to be honest and nobody wants to be the first one to speak up. So I decided to go first, not just in this post, but in finding young women to share their authentic stories, which I put into documentary form. Talking is meaningless, though, without listening. It takes guts to share your story, and it takes guts to really listen to other people's. Some of us are ready to talk even though it's not easy and the stakes are sometimes high. Are some of you ready to listen, or am I still that same middle schooler stuck daydreaming about a nicer world with better kisses?