By age eight or nine, I had been masturbating for what seemed like years. This was my routine: Steal away to our semi-finished basement, lie down on the industrial carpeting with my head propped against the front of our shag loveseat, and cover myself with a faded cotton quilt. Sometimes, I’d turn on the television. I could only get a picture on ABC and a public access channel, the latter distorted because of some electrical interference.
One night, Barbarella came on the public access channel, and I made the best of the bad-picture situation. I didn’t yet know who Jane Fonda was, but sensed immediately that watching Barbarella prowl around in a one-piece would be a rare opportunity. I knew that my access to women’s bodies—on screen or in the flesh—would be limited for a long time.
In part, it was my age. I knew sex wasn’t something people did until they were much older than I was. More than that, though, other families had images of women that my family didn’t. My house had no pornography, no cable, not even any fashion magazines, which I know provided others of my generation with some of their earliest “material.” My mother, heavily influenced by a feminism prevalent in the 1970s, kept a close eye on my exposure to these things. So strong was her influence on me that I would do my best to ignore a Madonna video on MTV at a friend’s house, to walk away from the Playboys in a neighbor’s basement. But the few glimpses I did catch thrilled me, even as I felt some measure of guilt over the simple act of noticing them.
For several years, beginning when I was 10 or 11, I kept a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue stashed behind a row of encyclopedias that my family kept on the bookshelf in my room. I don’t know how I got the magazine. I know that my father was an SI subscriber, and that my mother wouldn’t have liked him keeping the swimsuit issue around. But did I dig it out of the recycling bin, where it might have been deposited still in its plastic wrapper? Could I have snatched it from some hiding place of my father’s? Did I steal it from the mailbox some Saturday afternoon, smuggling it up to my room under my shirt, the glossy corners digging into my hairless chest?
However I came to possess the magazine, I looked at it often, if with a smoldering shame. Unlike what I could find on television, the pictures were clear and shiny, and seeing women in bikinis showed me parts of the female body I had never seen before—the dimpled lower back, the tendon in the crook between inner thigh and crotch. Still quite young, I wondered what could possibly be left for my neighbor’s Playboys to show. I also wondered how those bodies came to be shaped as they were, so different from the ones you’d see at the pool, at the supermarket, at Chuck E. Cheese.
In those days, my parents’ private counseling practices had become more lucrative. A hot tub gurgled in one corner of the basement for a couple years, filling the space with the smell of chlorine, and my dad bought a used black Toyota Celica GT-S. (I would learn the word “ostentatious” in the early ‘90s, when my parents would explain to me why they’d sold both of these things.)
This injection of the yuppie ethos also changed my mother’s body. I think of her as fit, but when I was young, she struggled with her weight. The time she spent with a second-hand copy of Jane Fonda’s 1982 Workout video inaugurated her transformation from a round woman, like the pre-cultural stone goddess replica she kept on the desk in her office, into something smaller and leaner.
She used to call Fonda “the Shark” for the intensity of the workouts. I’m going to spend some time with the Shark, she’d say, disappearing into the basement. Once, I joined her. From the loveseat, I watched her lunge and stretch on the patch of carpet that I very much considered my own.
Mostly, though, I watched the Shark. Her body could make angles and shapes that my mother’s couldn’t, that seemed almost too alien to be arousing. (This was my first introduction to Fonda qua Fonda; I hadn’t yet made the connection to Barbarella.) I also sensed even then the conservatism of the Shark’s leotard and tights as compared to the bikinis in my magazine. I did not yet understand that within the realm of the heterosexual, the bodies of famous women are decorated sometimes for the interests of men and sometimes for those of other women.
Despite these differences, the Workout video answered an important question for me, demonstrating how Kathy Ireland’s body must have come to look as it did: Move like this, and someday you’ll look like that. It also opened up two new questions, though: Aside from my mother, the Shark, and the swimsuit models, what kinds of bodies were there among women? And would I find them all attractive, or only some?
I worked through these questions most forcefully during masturbation, weighing one picture in my magazine against another for their immediate utility. But I also began to imagine women I had seen—friends of mine and of my parents, teachers I’d had, everyone—as being attractive to some people, even if not always to me. Since I knew some of those people, I also began to think of what their own sexual personalities might have been like, or, in the formulation I might have used then, of what they imagined when they did what I did on the basement floor.
Not long after we bought the hot tub, I walked in on my older sister and her boyfriend Phil having sex in it. My parents had left us for the evening, with my sister as babysitter. When I came downstairs—to ask about dinner, to intrude—I saw Phil’s broad, lumpy back through the steam, my sister’s limbs poking out from behind him. They moved in a way I didn’t understand, for reasons I didn’t understand.
I left in time to avoid ending up with a sister fetish, but, in concert with my broadening fantasies about real-life women, my masturbation took a more sexualized turn soon after. I began to consider not just the mechanical delight of the act I was engaged in, and not just women’s bodies sitting there on a page or in a room, passively attractive to me or to unseen strangers, but also the possible roles of women’s bodies in my physical pleasure. It was a selfish point of view, but I forgive myself for it, since the tween years in men are not often marked by what you might call sexual empathy.
Soon after we sold the hot tub, I rounded out my sexual outlook with the help of a book my mom had bought for my sister and tucked in some out-of-the-way bookshelf—a technique that ran in the family, I suppose. Whenever I could sneak a look at it, Our Bodies, Ourselves proved a gold mine. Besides the line-drawn pictures of women’s sex organs, it included frank discussions of sex acts of all kinds, and interviews with real women about their experiences. Unlike the staid models in the swimsuit issue, these women were presented in a way that privileged their thoughts and desires over their bodies.
My time with that book did more to instill an equitable approach to sexuality than my mother’s constrictive feminism ever could have. In parallel with the authors’ hopes for the book’s intended audience, I learned to get turned on by the idea of a woman’s own arousal and to see women as volitional beings who might be attracted to me or might not—not just as pictures for me to thumb through with my spare hand. And since I knew my mother had brought the book into the house, I didn’t have the same guilty conscience I did when I’d look at the Sports Illustrated.
By the time I reached high school, I’d begun putting these ideas to use, exploring the tamer end of the spectrum of sex acts with willing partners: a kiss here, a grope there, some inexpert dirty talk in-between. I also began to learn what kinds of things could make women of a certain age into willing partners in the first place. I had no interest in being manipulative and too smothering a superego to pull it off at any rate, but I did engage in a certain amount of peacocking, from the nearly literal (brightly colored hair) to the behavioral (badmouthing the police, once very nearly audibly). In short, I rebelled the way teenage boys do, and I did it in part to get girls.
At a certain point, my posturing turned to a legitimate interest in the many philosophies of rebellion that there have been, from communism to religious and taxative freedom to anarchy. In the midst of this exploration, I heard a Jeopardy! contestant ask, “Who is Hanoi Jane?” The name caught my attention; I knew enough to think she must have been a communist figure in the Vietnam War—a seductive spy, perhaps, like Mata Hari.
Entranced by the possibility of a sexed-up rebel heroine, a Princess Leia for the young Marx enthusiast, I went digging. There was no wikipedia, and I still don’t remember how I figured out that Hanoi Jane was Jane Fonda, but when I did, I couldn’t believe it. I remember wondering, Could this be a different Jane Fonda? But no: The Shark, it turned out, had been a communist sympathizer before she found her stride in the exercise video industry—and, I also discovered, after she starred in Barbarella.
Comprehending what was at the time the full public history of Jane Fonda galvanized the lessons I’d begun to take from Our Bodies, Ourselves. I hadn’t yet any experience with mature women, any first-hand evidence that smarts and sexuality could accompany each other in one attractive body—an idea contradicted by the gender encodings both in the pornography I perused on the fledgling Internet and in the SI swimsuit issue I still kept handy. Realizing that Jane Fonda could be a sexpot and an intellectual and an entrepreneur worked more effectively on behalf of my mother’s goals for my relationship to women than my mother was herself in a position to do. Where her rules felt smothering and mistrustful, the Jane Fondas I knew felt exciting, like they empowered me to go out into the world and find women I wanted who also wanted me.
Jane Fonda, Parent
Of course, we all leave the nest inexpert flyers. My own efforts to form adult sexual relationships sputtered in part because of the haunting effect my mother unwittingly had on me. Starting in college, I spent more than six years in a relationship where I couldn’t admit my attractions to other women, not even to myself. Just after my first year in school, a startlingly beautiful woman walked in front of my girlfriend Julie’s car as we waited at a stoplight.
Julie asked me if I’d seen her, and I said that I hadn’t. I was too ashamed to admit I’d noticed another woman, let alone, frankly, been mesmerized by her.
“She was gorgeous,” Julie said, straining against the kinds of insecurities that are so common at that age.
Instead of responding, I locked up, choking on computations that were beyond my programming. And then, after about 30 seconds, I began to cry.
To her credit, Julie tried to convince me that it was not a betrayal to find other women attractive. I couldn’t fully internalize the lesson, vigilant as I was about the slight discomfort she seemed to have in such situations. In exchange for the favor of trying to help me mature, it seems, I tried to protect her from having to do so herself.
Over the years, I tried hard to avoid triggering Julie’s insecurities in part because I unconsciously expected her to try to avoid triggering my own. So extreme was my sensitivity that I once tensely asked Julie for reassurance just because she and another young man both liked a song that I didn’t like. (It was “Quit Playing Games with My Heart,” and years later, I am a fan.) Perhaps I was so sensitive because of a series of infidelities I had dealt with in other relationships, or perhaps it was because my mother reacted so severely to my father’s own gazes at other women. Maybe Julie’s still-forming sexuality made me nervous, or maybe I was just born a certain way.
Regardless, my next girlfriend forced me to confront these issues not long after we began dating. I cannot remember what the first sign of trouble was, but the worst early fight we had came when we ran into a childhood neighbor of hers at a bar in her hometown and she touched his tricep on greeting him. On our way home, I confronted Aubrey about the arm-touching, as absurd as that sounds.
Aubrey, whom I eventually married, couldn’t well break up with me while we were staying in her parents’ house in Cleveland, and she claims to have suspected all along that there might be certain benefits of being with someone with enough situational awareness to have these issues in the first place. So, instead of putting me on the late bus back to Pittsburgh, she went through that fight with me, and through several more over the next year or so, each slightly less ridiculous than the last.
With Aubrey’s help, I worked through my insecurities and my misguided protectiveness in parallel. Knowing that my attraction to other women didn’t threaten Aubrey in the least—and knowing that Aubrey also knew that—helped me accept the opposite case, too. It turns out that the ongoing awareness that either of us could at any time be with somebody else only demonstrates the strength of the choice each of us makes, in an ongoing way, to stay with and stay committed to the other.
The point is not that I lucked out, though. The point is that there is a sum total of my sexuality that has emerged despite the limitations I and others have tried to place on it. Now, days away from becoming a parent, I wonder whether I will show better judgment in raising my own child, or if it matters. Happily, Jane Fonda has a book on parenting.
Rumpus original art by Rachael Schafer.