This is an excerpt from a much longer essay I have written, called “My Daughter’s Vagina.” (If you are interested in reading an early version of the whole piece, go here and you can either read a different excerpt or download the whole piece.) I am posting it here in response to this discussion about reproductive rights on Alas, where Sailorman has posted a hyopthetical conversation that reminds me very much of this actual one that took place between myself and the woman who was my girlfriend when were in our early twenties:
“But,” Beth leaned forward and whispered through clenched teeth, “you just said you were falling in love with me!?”
“I did, I am,” I stammered, “but — ”
“Then why don’t you want to sleep with me anymore?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Yes you did! You just said you wanted to stop having sex.”
What I had said was that I wanted to stop having intercourse and, frankly, I didn’t understand why this was such a big deal. We’d been, or at least I thought we’d been, more than happy with the sex we were having before she decided she was ready to lose her virginity and I didn’t see why that kind of sex would be any less satisfying now.
Beth wasn’t having any of it, though. The more I tried to tell her I was not trying to kick her out of my bed or my life, the more she seemed to think that was precisely what I was trying to do. It was as if she all-of-a-sudden couldn’t imagine sex without genital penetration, or as if penetration were a right I was trying to deprive her of and that she had to fight like hell to preserve. Or, though this only occurred to me later, as if she thought I was lying through my teeth.
The argument had started when I asked Beth what she thought she would do if she got pregnant. I was twenty one, she was twenty — this was two or three years before the episode I told you about earlier, when I imagined myself beating her up — and we were sitting huddled over the last spoonfuls of the sundaes we’d ordered at the Friendly’s restaurant where her sister worked.
“So, what do you think you’d do?” I asked, pressing to break the silence which had been her initial response.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
“I don’t know…I’ve never thought about it.”
“How could you not have thought about it? You’re the one who gets pregnant!”
“Look, I said I don’t know! Why are you asking me anyway?”
I was asking because of the last word had by a fifteen-year-old girl in the youth group discussion I’d been leading about premarital sex the day before I drove up to Beth’s house to spend the weekend the first night of which our argument had already ruined: “I think,” this girl had said, “that there’s nothing wrong with having sex outside of marriage and nothing wrong with not having sex, but, if two people are going to have sex, they damned well better talk about what they think they’ll do if the woman gets pregnant.” The girl’s name, if I remember correctly, was Courtney, and I remember that I stared at her speechless for about ten seconds before I declared the discussion over and sent the group on to their next activity for the day.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. Beth and I had not had the conversation Courtney was talking about, and I felt embarrassed by the wisdom of Courtney’s words. More to the point, though, Courtney’s statement made me realize that while I knew what I thought should happen if Beth got pregnant — given how young and unprepared for parenthood we were, it seemed to me self-evident that she ought to have an abortion — I’d never thought about the possibility that not only Beth’s idea of what should happen, but also her choice in the event she were confronted with having to choose, might be very different.
So I asked, and the answer I got, that Beth didn’t know what she thought, scared me, because if she didn’t know what she would do — no, more than that, if she’d never even thought about what she would do, or if she had thought about it but was unwilling to tell me, then the meaning of the possible consequences of the sex we were having was completely beyond my control. Beth held in her hand, entirely out of my reach, the power to make a reality in my life, or not, the fatherhood that was by definition implicit for me each time I entered her body.
We were, of course, using birth control, and so it wasn’t like we had to hold our breaths each time and hope that she wasn’t pregnant, but birth control can fail and, besides, the more I thought about it and the more Beth resisted talking about it, the more I came to realize there was a principle involved: the meaning of sex in my life should not be defined by anyone’s choices other than my own, and so, since there was no question in my mind that the decision about what to do if Beth became pregnant was ultimately and irrevocably hers, to continue having sex with her if she would not talk to me about what she thought pregnancy would mean to her was to fail in an obligation I owed to myself to be responsible and accountable for the sexual choices I made. I was not ready even to think about being a father; Beth had the power to make me one whether I wanted it or not. I wanted to be able to choose when and whether to risk that she might, and I wanted to make that choice in the context of our choosing together what risks we were willing to take as a couple I was falling in lover with her, as she had said she was with me, and it seemed to me foolhardy to risk that love and the emerging and still very fragile commitment we felt for each other on something as easily preventable as an unwanted pregnancy. For that, though, I needed her to talk to me.
It wasn’t that I was trying to blackmail Beth into giving me an answer right there and then, though I recognize now she might have felt that way, but if she wasn’t ready to have this discussion — and her resistance had made it clear to me that it was a discussion we had to have — then it seemed to me we ought to avoid all risk until she was ready, and that meant not having intercourse. I was willing to wait. All I wanted was a promise from her that she would think about it and that, when she was ready to talk, she would tell me. I would, I told her, accept whatever decision she came to — even if what she came to was that she had no idea what she would do if she got pregnant — and I understood entirely that she might change her mind were she actually to become pregnant, but it would be a shame for us to have to have this discussion after it was too late.
“What do you mean you’re ‘willing to accept’ whatever decision I come to?” Beth wanted to know.
“I mean,” I said, “that I will not try to change your mind.”
“And sex?” she responded.
“Once you have some idea where you stand,” I said, “then we can decide how much risk we’re willing to take.”
“We can decide?”
“Yes, we can decide,” I said.
“And if I get pregnant?” the fear in her voice was palpable.
“If you get pregnant, that’s something we’ll have to deal with when it happens, but at least if we’ve talked about it beforehand, we’ll be better prepared to figure things out together.” This insight was new to me, though I didn’t quite know how to articulate it at the time: that if we waited until she was pregnant to talk about this, the positions we would be talking from would more likely be ones focused on ourselves as individuals than on who we were as a couple.
“Look, Beth,” I continued, “this is unknown territory for me too, and scary, and I don’t know how to prove to you that I want to have this conversation because I want our relationship to keep getting stronger, but that is why I want to have it. If you don’t want to talk about it now, that’s fine, but until we do talk, I want to stop having intercourse.”
“Okay,” she said, though I could tell she was not happy about it, “I’ll tell you when I’m ready.”
I wasn’t much of a dancer, but when Beth took my hand and started to move to the music Lionel Hampton’s band was playing at Vassar College’s Spring Semi-Formal — this was about a year before the conversation I just told you about — I started to move as well, and soon we were turning in not-quite-graceful imitation of a ballroom dance around the two or three square feet of floor we could claim as ours. When the music slowed, and the crowd thinned to those couples drawing each other close for the evening’s first romantic dance, Beth leaned into me and whispered, “I like the way you move.” I don’t know why, but in her words I heard Bill voice telling me I had “a dancer’s cheeks,” and for a split second I was back in the catering hall and his hand was clamped between my legs and I was trying not to cry out as he pushed and lifted me from behind.
The moment passed, but I was no longer in the mood to dance, so I told Beth I wanted to sit down. The truth was that I felt a little out of place wearing only the plain blue suit that was the only suit I had. To the left of where we sat, a man in a tuxedo wearing Bugs Bunny slippers on his feet began to dance with a woman who’d accessorised her very formal white evening gown with a Miss Piggy nose and wig. Behind them, someone was dressed as the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland and behind him was Gandalf the Wizard from Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings. I could tell because it said Gandalf on his staff.
While Beth saved a seat for me, I made my way to the bar to get us a couple of drinks. On my way back, someone walked very close behind me and put his or her hand on the small of my back to keep us from colliding. I turned quickly, expecting to find Bill’s eyes staring straight into mine, but the person who’d touched me was already gone, and what I felt instead was that everyone was staring at me and that they all knew what was going on in my head. I decided then that I had to tell Beth what Bill and the old man in my building had done to me. I don’t know why, but I felt like I had no choice but to tell her that night, as if the end of the dance were a point in time beyond which my story would no longer be valid. I handed Beth her drink, sat down facing her and took a deep breath. “I have to tell you something,” I said.
“What?” The music was too loud; she hadn’t heard me.
“There’s something I need to talk to you about.” A flute solo left room for me not to shout.
“Okay,” she nodded her head, but her eyes were still on the dance floor and she was tapping her feet restlessly to the music.
“No, really, there’s something about me that you need to know.”
This got her attention. She turned to face me, leaned her elbow against the back of my chair, rested her chin in her hand, and waited.
“When I was a kid, I was mol — ” At that moment, the entire horn section began to play, drowning out the rest of my sentence.
“When you were a kid what?” She had to raise her voice to make sure that I heard her, and I could see a hint of impatience on her face, as if she suspected that what I had to tell her could probably wait until the dance was over.
“When I was a kid, I was molested.” We were nearly shouting and I was praying no one was paying attention.
“You were what?!”
“Molested. By a man who lived in my building.”
“Uh-huh,” her voice was the voice that people use when they don’t know what to say and are waiting to hear more, but I didn’t have it in me to tell anymore, and so I fell silent, and Beth went back to watching the dance floor and tapping her feet to the music. I felt tremendous relief. The words had come out of my mouth and the world had not fallen apart. My girlfriend hadn’t called me a liar, or said that I’d deserved it, or walked out of the dance in disgust at who I was. In fact, when we finished this conversation the next day, she was warm and understanding, and angry for me, and filled with compassion and a tender protectiveness for which I am still grateful.
Beth and I met at the same summer camp where the leader of that training session had said he was only going to talk to us about girls who’d been abused sexually. At the time, she was seeing two other men: the one she thought she was going to marry and the one she was seeing to make sure that the one she was going to marry was really the one. We became friends leaning one night against the telephone pole outside the teen division’s main office. If I remember correctly, we’d come out to watch a lunar eclipse. We talked for hours, though I could not tell you now a single thing we said to each other. I liked Beth immensely, but I had no desire to square the love triangle she was in, and neither did she, but the more we talked — and after that first night we talked as often as we could — it was hard to deny that we were attracted to each other. Then, one night, as we were sitting together on the hill outside my tent, Beth climbed into my lap and put my arms around her. We sat like that for a long time without saying a word, and we sat like that on subsequent nights as well, and while it would be another year before we became lovers, and still another before she broke up with the guy she’d come to camp thinking she was going to marry, when we finally did become an “official” couple, we already knew each other very well as friends.
It was this friendship that I trusted when I told Beth about the men who’d sexually abused me, and it was this friendship I did not want to betray by continuing to have intercourse with her as if we already agreed on what the full significance of that act and its possible consequences meant between us, or as if those consequences did not exist. Or, which was to me at the time the strangest part of our conversation in Friendly’s, as if the consequences were hers alone to worry about, not mine. “It’s my body,” Beth had told me. “Why can’t you let me worry about it?” But it was my body also, and my future also, and the child that was at the heart of the original question I asked Beth would have been ours, and his or her future ours to worry about, ours to provide for, and because Beth and I were such good friends, I assumed that even if the abstinence I was insisting on made her uncomfortable, she too felt she could trust in and would her best to preserve the underlying bedrock of our friendship.
It would be easy at this point to lie and say that we did in fact abstain completely from intercourse until Beth said she was ready to talk, and it would be even easier to say that the times “we fell off the wagon” were initiated by Beth, because I remember clearly that one time was initiated by her — because I asked her about it and she told me she’d gotten “carried away” — but the fact is that I know we had intercourse more than once during this time, and not only do I not remember clearly who on those occasions initiated what; but even if Beth did initiate it, I could have and should have stopped her.
Looking back, of course, I see much more clearly than I could then just how profoundly complex my insistence on abstention was, me, the guy, the one who was supposed always to want sex. All I can say now is that I was in over my head and I didn’t know it. I was, after all, only twenty one and not really equipped, emotionally or otherwise, to set and live by the limits I wanted to set. More to the point, I didn’t know what it was I was over my head in.
I don’t remember how long it was before Beth told me she’d decided she would have an abortion if she got pregnant, but once she did tell me and our lovemaking went back to the way it had been before, I experienced the sex we were having as much more meaningful for having been the result of a fully conscious and conscientious choice.
It was, apparently, a one-sided experience.
Years later, Beth told me she’d thought our conversation in Friendly’s had really been about my wanting sex with no strings attached and that I’d been setting the stage to leave her if she didn’t give me what I wanted. She didn’t believe, however, that I was really “that kind of guy,” so she pretended to take some time to think about the question of an unwanted pregnancy — she always knew, she said, that she’d never have an abortion — and then told me what she thought I wanted to hear, hoping time would prove her right about the kind of guy I was.
I still remember the conspiratorial smile on Beth’s face when she drew close to me and almost whispered that while she’d had definite second thoughts after the two or three times we’d had intercourse when we were supposed to be abstaining — she’d decided to test me, she said, and I almost failed — I’d obviously turned out to be the “right” kind of guy, since otherwise she’d have already put an end to our relationship.
She was trying to say something that would make me happy, but I felt as if I’d been punched in the stomach, and the wind that was knocked out of me was everything I’d believed about who we were and what we’d meant to each other. I could not erase from my mind the image of this woman making love with me and thinking, each and every time, that I was using her. I could not fathom that she would have dared to let me into her body, allowing me to believe that she trusted me, when in fact she did not.
I don’t remember what I said when Beth told me this, or if I said anything. What I do remember is how angry I was, and frustrated, because I didn’t know precisely who or what to be angry at. I understood intuitively why Beth would have felt it necessary to test me the way she did, and I was enough in thrall to traditional sexual and gender stereotypes that I couldn’t see them as a large part of what I had to reason through to understand more fully what had happened.
The fundamentally alien landscape that a woman’s experience of sex is to me.
I try to put myself in Beth’s place, imagine that I’m a twenty-year-old woman from a fairly conservative Catholic background. I’ve just recently started having sex with a Jewish man, a year older than I am, whose background is at least as liberal as mine is not. He says he’s falling in love with me, and I think I may be starting to feel the same way about him, or at least I see that I could love him if I wanted to make that happen. Yet here he is telling me he wants to stop having intercourse while we talk about what I think I would do if I become pregnant. He says right up front that he’s not yet ready to be a father, so I know what he thinks I should do, and then in almost the same breath, he points out that we can still make love the way we did before. He’d been perfectly satisfied with that, he says, and he thought I was as well — which I was — so why not? He reassures me over and over again that he’s not looking for a reason to break up with me. In fact, he wants me to believe our relationship will be stronger when we get through what he keeps referring to as “this process.”
When I say it all back to myself like that, I can hear the mixed messages Beth must’ve been receiving, for I was violating some of the strongest stereotypes we have about heterosexual men, especially young heterosexual men, for whom sex, and specifically intercourse, is supposed to be literally irresistible. As with all stereotypes, this one contains an element of truth, but the irresistibility of sex for men, as any man who’s being honest will tell you, is at least as much about status as it is about pleasure. For the sexual penetration of a woman is both a rite of passage into heterosexual manhood and a way of sustaining your manhood status over time. Within this logic, to choose not to penetrate a woman who is willing and even eager to be penetrated is to choose not to be a man.
Whether or not Beth thought this logic through consciously, I imagine it was part of what made it impossible for her to believe I was being honest. Perhaps even more disturbing for her, though, at least within the traditional way of thinking I’m talking about here, was the fact that what I was saying implicitly called into question her decision to let me penetrate her in the first place, and I have chosen my phrasing here very consciously. For within this tradition women are supposed to see sex exclusively in terms of love and marriage and children, or at least about love and the potential for marriage and children, which means that when a woman chooses to allow a man into her body — or, to put it another way, when she chooses the man to whom she will give her body — she has to be careful to choose someone who will respect what sex is supposed to be about for her. Otherwise, she risks becoming, in her own eyes if not the eyes of those who know her, a slut.
A slut is the antithesis of what a traditional “good woman” is supposed to be in much the same way that a man who chooses not to have intercourse with a willing woman is a kind of non-man. The metaphor of the gift is significant here. When Beth “gave herself to me,” she entrusted me not simply with what is commonly referred among twenty-year-olds as her “reputation,” but also with her own internal sense of who she was as a result of that giving. When I told her I wanted to stop having intercourse with her, in other words, she probably could not help but hear me to be saying that her gift had been “devalued” in my eyes, even though that is not what I meant or what I said.
At twenty — and I’m projecting here, but if Beth was back then anything like many other twenty-year old women I’ve met over the years, I don’t think I’m far off — the internal crisis this “devaluation” threw her into was probably far more real and more immediately frightening than the possibility and consequences of getting pregnant, which explains why preserving her sense of herself as a “good girl,” a woman who was not a slut, took precedence over making absolutely sure we did not conceive a child she would’ve wanted to keep and I would’ve wanted to abort. As long as we kept having intercourse, no “devaluation” of her gift would have occurred.
In fact, of course, neither Beth nor I were as clear-eyed and calculating as I have made us sound here, and it’s possible I have misrepresented Beth entirely — though I have not misrepresented, I don’t think, the questions this story raises about the subversive potential of a man setting his own sexual boundaries, especially in relation to reproduction.