You’re Just a Sinner I Am Told: Prince & the Sexual Revolution
I wanted to have sex, to lovefuck, to sweat, open, close, get fucked, taste and kiss and lick, and I wanted to dance.
I was sixteen. I had a beautiful, kinky, experienced boyfriend. D. was nineteen, an athlete, funny. He fingered me under my uniform skirt in the back row of a movie theater in Georgetown while he whispered Prince’s “Jack U Off” in my ear. “Thought I’d take you to a movie show/Sittin’ in the back and I’ll jack you off.” This wasn’t allowed then—is it allowed now? No, not really. If we’re being honest with ourselves about what we do to young women (all women?) around sexual desire and pleasure, we’d have to answer: no, no it was not; no it is not. Girls weren’t—and aren’t—allowed to want sex, to seek satisfaction. Shame prevails. Shouldn’t we be trying to change that?
D. was so dirty; So was I. We listened constantly to Prince, who set me on fire, turned me on, bent me over, got me ready. When he was singing I was all cuntmouthtitsass. Everything was beautiful, nothing was profane, we were love and sex was holy. There was no way to hear his voice and not consider carnality, pleasure, desire. We couldn’t turn away; it just was. Five days after my sweet sixteen, Purple Rain was released. Prince was singing and playing music, and sex was—for both him and me—cri de coeur, existential act, intensely personal, private, exploding, public, right there. I was sixteen. I was a girl, not a boy, but Prince said it was okay that I wanted fucking, now, and wanted to come and be pleased. It’s about my pleasure, at least as much as a guy’s, Prince told me, told those boys who wanted my pussy. You get to come and come and come again, girl, he said. I was a sixteen-year-old girl in America and there were songs on the radio telling me that what was happening in my cunt was a good thing, and for my sake, not the sake of male pleasure. Uh-huh.
Prince and the revolution, indeed.
In a way I hadn’t noticed thirty-two years had gone by, but last week the last vestige of my youth left the building. With the news of Prince’s death, all at once I was middle-aged. “Sugar, the wires are reporting that Prince is dead.” I woke up mid-morning at the Millay Colony for the Arts to that text from D., my boyfriend from 1984. I was finishing up a month-long residency, staying up late at night writing and talking with the other artists at the colony, grappling through ideas such as whether observing art with others is dynamically different than absorbing it solo; authorship and persona in art; whether trauma can or should be depicted—all heady stuff fueling my work, the talks with fellow residents visual artist Roya Amigh and the poet Keith Wilson. Roya is creating an installation which explores sex as a theme, and Keith talks so beautifully about the sadness of objectification of women you know he’s a poet even before you know he’s a poet. We drink coffee, and create, and listen to music; consider what makes us; what sets us free; what we create from the things that excite us, scare us. And now, amidst all of that, Prince is dead. Shit ain’t right.
I am transported to those days and nights of high school. When I met D. I was fifteen and had already fucked three college guys who weren’t very nice to me and one high school guy who was exceedingly smart and loving and cute and kind to me—but this girl was on fire and I wanted something in bed that sweet high-school boy could not provide, though I relieved him of his virginity just before I skedaddled to D. D. talked dirty to me, bought me Penthouse letters and Post-it notes—which were brand new to the market—and had me tag the pages if I wanted to do something in one of the stories. He bought me lingerie, instructed me to go to high school wearing no panties, tied me up, taught me about edging, taught me about anal sex, multiple orgasms, lube, toys. We listened to Prince constantly, went to the Purple Rain tour concert, had wild sex in the car after. They were crazy hot nights and days, all of the music slippery and gripping like desire itself. We wanted to touch everything, and feel everything, and our bodies were gorgeous, and sex was beautiful, and we were floating, the sex injecting us with a kind of cotton candy nitrous. We were coming so hard, our guttural noises frightened our parents, thrilled our lovers, and delighted us. “This is what it sounds like when doves cry” always spoke to me as code for orgasms.
All the while, Prince was shredding. I got detention for having the lyrics to “Darling Nikki” written on the brown paper book cover of my AP American History textbook. “Obscene,” the teacher wrote on my detention slip. During detention I thought about kissing the long neck of a girl in my class, Lisa, who had made me a Marshall Crenshaw mixtape. Wanting both Lisa and D. was totally normal in the Prince-verse. Yet, I was trouble in my all-girls Catholic high school—I was on the pill, I was smart. D. exuded sex and so did I. I had friends suspected of being young lesbians—who were “not allowed” in school. A nun told me one day, “I saw that big black man pick you up and I didn’t have to wonder where you two went.” So sexist, so racist. He was the apocryphal big black man there to defile the white girl—even slutty white girls needed to be protected from big black men in her logic, I guess? I tuned it out, listened to Prince who made love the thing, who celebrated blackness. I swam in the rip current of want he poured and had sex with D. until I ached.
It was all about desire, including women’s desire, Prince’s music. Women were not degraded. They were exalted, body and mind both. Women were royalty but not expected to be demure. Everybody could be queer or not. Men were sexy, women were sexy, sometimes everybody wore high heels, and Prince seemed to just say, We’re all in our undies in our own heads; sometimes we should be in public, too. The whole bullshit of male and female and feminine and masculine was smashed with a purple guitar by a skinny guy in platform shoes and glitter trails who was sex incarnate. It was—and remains—a revolution. The narrative of the dominant culture told—and still tells—girls and women that they are not to be about their own wants, their own cravings, their own desires, their own satisfactions. Women and girls were—and are—told that such things are shameful. Pleasure is a male right, we are instructed.
But not by his majesty. Prince told us all that feeling good was a right, told us not to feel shame, told us sex was beautiful and holy. It was an ideal he lived and sang and danced and writhed. All we had to do—have to do—is be willing to stand free of shame, and be open in our desires, and we too would be the revolution. Important. Necessary. Sometimes, though, a seemingly impossible request. One we should aspire too, though, right? I always thought so.
When he died, I saw women all over social media—women around my age but also much younger women—posting that Prince made them feel like they were not freaks, made them less afraid of their desires and less ashamed. We think it’s so different now for girls than it was thirty years ago. Better. It’s not. I think it’s worse, actually. Girls still aren’t allowed to “want it.” We all have a notion of a seventeen-year-old heterosexual cis guy in his room, jerking off, thinking about girls, wanting pussy. We are a lot more squirmy when we string together the words, “seventeen-year-old girl thinking about cock, thinking about getting fucked. She wants it so bad.” Prince made it okay.
And for the seventeen-year-old boy to want cock, the seventeen-year-old girl to want cock, to want pussy, it was all not only okay, but sacred, gorgeous, right. He treated sexual desire as adult and anointed it divine. He understood that lust was unruly. You could be sixteen or seventy-eight and writhing with desire. I was sixteen when Prince first turned me on, but throughout my life his music has set me on fire. It’s not that Prince lets me feel sixteen again, it’s that he makes me feel that sexy is about inhabiting the body, not disowning it. He made me feel sexy at twenty-five, thirty-two, forty-one, and now, at forty-seven. Sexy is grown-up stuff, not for kids, so if you’re having sex, make sure you’re mature enough—whether you’re sixteen or seventy-one. Sex is for all of us who take it seriously—all of us. Prince was damn clear about that.
Just be an emotional adult, this isn’t kid stuff, Prince said. He sang in “Kiss,”
Women, not girls,
rule my world,
I said they rule my world.
and for me that’s why it’s all so hot. Unlike other musicians whose music I love—Jagger, Richards, Dylan—Prince respected women as women, didn’t relegate them or ask them to be baby-dolls. Women were not props or objects or singing backup. They rule the world. They are Sheila E. on drums. She don’t need a man’s touch. Prince wanted, and sang to, grown-up sexuality. This was about pleasure and desire and owning it, not about being some coquettish creatures existing simply to please a man.
There was lots of kissing with Prince. The other night in a bar, the East Village, 3 a.m., I played “Kiss” on the jukebox four times in a row. This was thirty-six hours before Prince died. I was there with my friend Craig and we were laughing in the wee small hours, like you do. Suddenly, with no one in particular, I wanted to dance and fuck and kiss and shudder and be holy. It was internal to me, not about Craig, or the bartender, or this or that person. My desire was pure, true. “Isn’t this a great song?” I said to Craig, but before he could answer, the forty-something woman on my right and the forty-something woman on his left both said, loudly, “YES.” I laughed while Craig shrugged. Women, not girls, rule my world.
And men, not boys.
I wonder who it will be who dies to mark the arrival of my old age? I wonder if we’ll still be shaming kids, and adults, for their sex. The other night while I was moderating a panel on writing and sex, and thinking about shame and fear—which is always present when we’re talking about sex—I thought what I often think: “Let’s kill shame, shall we?” I also thought, “Let’s just listen to Prince and move through the world the way his music inspires us to do. Surely, it is free of shame, full of lust, and carnal want, and truth. Let’s just do that instead of feeling badly, forever and ever, amen.”
I think about all these middle-aged women who as teens wrote in their diaries about sex in code and felt alone. If we all just talked about sex, and fear, and shame, we’d be so much less alone. That’s so beautiful. “Tracy died after a long fought civil war,” Prince sings in “Sometimes It Snows in April” of the character he played, Christopher Tracy, in the film Under the Cherry Moon. It’s been a long-fought civil war about sex, and freedom, and desire. Prince is dead. This girl is still on fire. Teens and adults are still hiding their desires, and carrying shame, and even killing themselves because they are shamed for being gay, or for wanting sex of some “unconventional” sort, or for the fear they feel for being a gender that is different than their body.
Let’s do more than listen to Prince. Let’s honor him and make this fucked-up world a better place, like he did. Let all of us who ever thought we had to be ashamed of what we wanted to do in bed—or did do in bed—be inspired to live our sexual lives a little more honestly now, in this post-Prince world. Let’s kill shame by telling our truths and celebrating our wants. Let us stand in the purple rain, laughing. Not just one time, but forever.