My mother is reading from the scriptures, as she always does on Saturday mornings. We are trapped—the endless hours of “devotions” as she calls them are required of us every single Saturday. Sometimes two hours, sometimes four. There is no guessing how long my mother will have us sit in the living room and listen to her preach.
Today we discuss Eve. My mother says that Eve was “wicked”; that she led Adam astray. Because of this, women were cursed to suffer. We experience painful pregnancies, periods, and more. Suffering is our constant. Suffering is our joined sisterhood.
I am young, but I am angry. One woman makes a mistake and now all of us are punished? I hate Eve in those moments. I hate her for being stupid, for being naïve, and for all my problems. But I hate God as well. Who punishes someone so harshly?
My mother reminds us that women have the power to sway men to do bad things. How we dress, how we speak to them; all of it impacts what we are and how we should be treated. Men are not as in control as women are and we must use this in a way that pleases God, but mostly men.
I am 7 or 8 years old. We are watching Little House on The Prairie as a family. I, the tomboy and the middle child, am Laura – the best character in my opinion. My sisters are Mary and Carrie, the oldest and youngest respectively. At this age, I am obsessed with this show. I am obsessed with the idea of a loving father (something I never had) and a happy family.
My mother tells us that this show is a good example of what to aim for when we begin dating. A strong, sturdy father, a submissive, dutiful wife, and god-fearing, obedient children. She emphasizes how important it is as wives to be submissive for our future husbands. She reminds us that the bible describes marriage as the husband at the top because they are most important as the providers, the wife below him, and the children at the bottom. She says this, but as a child I am confused. I watch as Ma takes care of the home, the children, and her husband. I wonder who takes care of Ma?
I am too young to question my mother or the bible’s idea of marriage. When Laura eventually meets the man she will marry, Almanzo, I think, “That’s what love will be like for me.” I am safe and secure in this imagined idea of how my love life will bloom.
I am 9 years old. My stepfather rubs my feet and I am so happy. As a child I am obsessed with physical touch, especially having my body rubbed, and usually fall asleep in the arms of whichever adult falls victim to my begging. He tells me I am his best friend; that I am the only person who understands him; that I am special. I smile triumphantly. All I have ever wanted is a father who loves me. What I don’t realize is that he is gazing at me in a way that no child should be looked at.
One day he plays “vampires” with my sister Rachel and me and leaves a fat hickey on her neck. I still hear her screams in my head as she calls for our mother to get him away from her. It seemed painful, whatever he was doing to her, but I giggled nervously in the corner, watching, unsure if this was part of the game or something more. I can tell my sister is scared of her father, but I am desperate. I want him to be my real father. I want him to see me as an ally. I do nothing. Downstairs, my mother hears my sister’s cries and also does nothing.
Another day as Rachel and I lay in bed with him watching TV, she looks over and screams, pointing at a slit in his boxers. “What is that?” she screams, louder, and runs from the room. My stepfather gazes at me, assessing my reaction, and begins to laugh. I am unsure what I am looking at, as I have never seen a naked man, but as we were laying with him, he had taken his penis out in the open, just lying there between our bodies. I do not understand why he is laughing or why my sister ran away, but I laugh with him.
I am 10 years old. I am gangly, awkward, and have more books than friends. At this age I am obsessed with celebrities, and during this year Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston breakup. I browse the magazines and watch the gossipy celebrity shows wondering, “Why would Brad do that to her? Why would he cheat?” Jennifer is beautiful, popular, and white – all the things I want to be at 10 years old and think are the keys to success—and yet, Jennifer has been betrayed. If it can happen to her, I wonder what hope there is for me?
As I am trying to make sense of why people cheat and using my limited 10-year-old knowledge to understand the unwise decisions of men, my mother gives her opinions on the matter, forever shaping how I approach love and relationships. She tells me, “Taylor, men do not want boring. Men want women like Angelina who will satisfy them in the bedroom. Men want a freak.”
She also explains to me that women like Jennifer would always lose out to women like Angelina because men had needs that had to be met. My mother, looking down at me, is proud of this declaration. She identifies as a “freak” and has often boasted of her sexual abilities.
I do not say it, but I wonder: Then where is my father?
I am 14 years old. A boy I pretend to hate is sitting next to me in class while we watch a boring movie. We are teasing each other, and I feel particularly special that he is spending his time with me. He is more popular and more experienced than I am, but I front like I’ve done everything and know everything, using slang I almost never use, like the girls he usually likes. I hate him, but my body feels warm being near him, and he has slowly gotten closer and closer as class has dragged on.
At some point he reaches over, rubs his hand in-between my legs, brushing over my crotch and my body lights up, I feel as if I am on fire. I want more and I don’t. In my head I hear my mother shrieking, “Don’t end up like me!” and I am confused. What does it mean that I liked his touch down there? I hear echoes of “slut” and “whore” in my head; funny enough, they sound like my mother.
He does not do it again, and we do not address it, but it is all I can think about for the rest of the day.
I am 15 years old. I am painting my toenails in the living room and my mother is watching. “You have such pretty feet, Taylor.” She stares at my them longingly and I am reminded of all the times over the years she has criticized her physical features. She hates her hair (“I wish it wasn’t flat and thin”); she hates her body (“I’m so fat”, multiple diets, and a fixation on “health”); she hates her arms (“I can’t ever wear sleeveless tops like you”). I cannot remember the last time she said something nice about her physical appearance, but I can spend days listing all the things my mother hates about herself.
I look in the mirror and I see her face looking back at me. I am a perfect mixture of both of my parents, but right now? All I can see is her. She tells me I am beautiful often, but I do not see it. All I can see are my flaws: all the acne, my frizzy hair, my oval-shaped head, like an egg…
I think, “No one will ever love me.”
I am 17 years old. I am holding hands with the first boy I’ve ever kissed as we walk to a friend’s house. He has finally asked me to be his girlfriend. He keeps stealing kisses and I can’t help but think how lucky I am: to have him, to be able to kiss him, and to be here with him this afternoon. I imagine we will be together forever, and I envision marriage, babies, and all that comes with love in the heteronormative American version.
When we reach our friend’s house, who is not home, we sit on the back porch, and we continue to kiss. I’m not sure if I am kissing right as these are my first few kisses, but I want to make him happy. I kiss with intention and with determination. I want him to think I am a good kisser. I want him to think I am experienced, even though he knows I am not. I want him to forget every other girl he has kissed before me.
Shortly after, a mutual friend joins us in the backyard and sits several yards away. He attempts to engage us in conversation, but we are too busy. We don’t mean to, but we are mostly ignoring him in our cocoon of kisses. Waiting for our friend to come home to let us into his basement does not seem so bad when we have forever in our minds.
At some point during our make-out session my boyfriend sticks his arm down the front of my shirt, under my bra, and grabs my breast. I am stunned. I think, “Is this what boyfriends do?” I am not sure if I like it or if I want his hand there. I think that this is going too fast. Mostly I think about the male friend who is sitting yards away and can see what we are doing. I think, “He must think I am a slut.” This thought gnaws at me.
But I also think about what my mother used to tell my siblings and I about men: that they are sexual beings. That they cannot be controlled. That any woman who is not willing, or able, to fulfill a man’s sexual needs will be left behind.
A thought nags at me, “How do you fulfill a man without being labelled a slut?”
These thoughts all happen in fractions of seconds. I show no outward signs of discomfort. I giggle. I say nothing to stop him.
I am 18 years old. I am on my back, grass pricking my skin, and I am naked. Mosquitos have begun to attack me, and I struggle not to itch. It is the early parts of morning, before cross country practice, and the sun is barely rising. The second boy I’ve ever loved is above me, arms braced on each side, as he attempts to insert his penis into me.
He is very large, I am very small, and at the time I do not realize that lube is needed for this to be painless. He is just as new at this as I am and does not understand that he isn’t going to fit completely. Neither of us realizes that the pain and my fear are making me clench smaller and smaller, making the process far more difficult.
He continues to attempt to fit inside and for me? It feels like a battering ram and I want to scream. It is agony, and without realizing, I am bearing down, clenching every muscle in the hopes of finding the strength to continue. I have been told my entire life how painful sex is for the girl the first time, so I knew this was coming. Another sacrifice women must make, and I am reminded of the lessons of Eve that my mother preached about. Others did it before me, so I contain my discomfort.
Besides… God does it feel good to have him close. And even through the pain my body wants more. I think that this must mean we are meant to be.
He doesn’t get all the way in, and we spend at least an hour trying. When we are finished, I walk home, deciding to skip cross country practice as I am wincing and waddling. I feel changed, not because of the sex, but because I feel as if he is branded on me. My mother always said that sex is different for women because we are more emotional and because we receive, and they take. That the man I give my virginity to would be the most important decision. I wonder if she will be disappointed that I did not wait until marriage.
As I walk home I think, “He is mine and I am his.” I foolishly believe he is just as changed as I am.
I am 20 years old. The second boy I’ve ever loved flip flops daily on whether he loves me. I am nothing like his ex-girlfriend, his first love, who is blonde, blue-eyed, and is curvier than me. At this age, I am still a stick—barely-there boobs, a nonexistent ass, and acne from puberty that has still not gone away.
My mother hates this boy I love. She monitors how often I see him, despite me being a college-aged woman. When I am home for the summers, I have a midnight curfew and she complains about how much time I spend at this boy’s house. “His parents might be okay with you two being alone, but I am not.” She reminds me that she isn’t raising “nasty” girls.
One day while we are in the car together, she is going on and on about how “proud” she is that her daughters aren’t off having sex and are “good” girls who are virgins. Internally, I cringe. I am not a virgin, and I hate that she assumes that having sex removes your status of “good.” I decide to tell her.
“Mom… I’m not a virgin,” I say, prepared for the worst. “I haven’t been for a while now.” And I am smart to brace myself because she does not take it well.
“You’ll regret this for the rest of your life!” She tells me, mid-rant, “Women are meant to have one partner. I never wanted you to be like me.”
I leave her car that night devastated, despite expecting her reaction. But I do not regret losing my virginity, and a small, small part of me, deep down, feels victorious over this, like I’ve won something by proving her wrong, but most of all for making the choice for myself.
I am 21 years old. The second boy I’ve ever loved does not love me anymore and my heart aches for him. I do what I have always done and pretend. I pretend to be more knowledgeable than I am. I pretend to not care. I pretend that I have moved on. I am invited to a party by a boy who likes me, and I want to be desired.
I take shot after shot that he offers me, clinging to his side, allowing him to run his hands all over me and grab my ass. I laugh and squeal, excited, just happy to be noticed, yearned for, wanted. We talk the entire night and before I know it, I’m drunker than I’ve ever been before.
“Do you want to see the basement?” he asks me.
“Of course!” I shriek, and I’m not even sure why I’m so excited. I just feel so carefree. My head is swimming and this doesn’t feel alarming. I sway as he leads me down, down, down. He sets me on a bed and I fall right back, too drunk to hold myself up.
Then suddenly the lights are off and I feel him on top of me. His tongue is in my mouth and we are kissing but I think, “His mouth tastes really gross.” I taste weed and alcohol and I want nothing more than to breathe fresh air. I also think about how sick my stomach feels, how much I miss that second boy I loved, and how I have not shaved my crotch in months.
That is what I fixate on—the fact that my crotch is not shaved—and as the boy attempts to stick his hand down my pants, I manage to get my mouth free. “No,” I say.
“Just a little?” he begs heavily, continuing to move his hand further. “Just a finger?”
“I haven’t shaved!” At least I think that is what I say but fuck is it hard to talk. My stomach has started hurting even more and this boy on top of me is much larger than me. I can barely breathe. “No,” I say again.
He isn’t stopping. He is inches from my pussy, and I cannot move from beneath him. Suddenly I hear a voice yell my name. The lights are back on like a beacon sent for me. The boy leaps off me and my best friend is standing before me, grabbing my arm, helping me up and saying sternly, “We are going home.”
I’m so grateful to him but all I can say is, “My stomach hurts.” He nods and buckles me into the car. Not even halfway home, we have to stop because I vomit every last part of my night all over the streets, my glasses, and my shoes.
I am almost 23 years old. I am finishing up my time in undergraduate and I cannot wait to leave. I do not feel the “sisterhood” that all the other women do and am ready to begin life somewhere else.
During this time, I am working on my senior thesis. It focuses on stereotypes of Black women and is related to a previous paper I worked on during college. I am so proud of this work, and I tell my mother all about it. I tell her about the “Jezebel” stereotype in which Black women are overly sexualized, considered promiscuous and immoral, and use sex to manipulate men. I discuss all the research I did to write the paper and the perfect grade that I received.
My mother interrupts me at some point, just as we are passing a Black woman and her children on the street,
“But Taylor… it’s the truth. Black women are just… different. Why do you think you see so many of them with multiple children and multiple fathers? They are just very sexual.”
She continues, adding a few more points to support her statement, but at this point I have shut down. I do not even remember what else she contributed to that conversation. I am no longer interested in telling her about my research. I am no longer interested in being in this car with her. All I want to do is get as far away from her as possible.
I am the fourth of seven children my mother has had with three different fathers. Does she not see the hypocrisy? I look down at my skin, brown as always, and darker than her pale white skin. I reach up and touch my hair, thick and curly, very different from her straight, thin hair.
I wonder what she sees when she looks at me.
I am 24 years old. I am living in a city I hate, my depression is at an all-time low, and I feel so completely and utterly alone. I want nothing more than to go home to northern Indiana, but I am determined to finish my masters. A boy I knew in high school, from the same hometown, has been casually chatting with me on Twitter and I am momentarily hopeful: a new friend?
We finally arrange a time to smoke weed and watch tv—at least, I genuinely assumed that was the goal. He picks me up, we get fast food, then he drives 2-3 minutes down the road to his apartment complex. He immediately lights up a joint and we pass it back and forth and for a few minutes I am so damn grateful for this. It is peaceful—just the haze of marijuana filling my lungs and no expectations. We put on the TV and sit back and laugh.
Eventually he goes into the bathroom for more weed, dabs this time, and I decline. I am small, even at 24. Any more weed and I will stop existing, I think. He comes back out and suddenly the mood has changed. He is flirtatious. He wants more than I have offered.
He begins to rub against me and I tell him that I am not having sex at this time (a pact I had made with my friends). He laughs it off and begins kissing my neck. It is very wet. It is sloppy. Inside, I am disgusted, but mostly I am scared and unsure of how I will get out of this.
I let him continue to rub against me and eventually I start making all the right noises, so he thinks I am satisfied; that I am enjoying him spitting on my neck and mashing against me. When he tires of not being able to get further than dry humping, he pulls away and I meekly ask if he can take me home.
By some miracle, he agrees, and the whole way home I am thinking, “You fucking idiot.” Not at him, of course, but at me. How could I have thought I had made a friend? How could I have thought I could enter his room without paying a price?
I climb out of his car and into my shower and scrub the parts of my skin he touched, but I feel sick. I feel hollow. I wonder how Eve felt, the day she faced her reckoning. Did she wish she knew then what I know now?