Years later, after I began The Last Romantic blog, I would remember those magazine covers. They suggested something so alluring, so corrupting that they were safe only on the highest shelf, where children and women could not reach. Female sex appeal was dangerous. Sexual desire something expressible exclusively by men. My friends’ fathers, male teachers, older brothers. All of them, reaching for that high shelf. Where, I asked myself then, was my high shelf? And what wonders would I find there?The Last Romantics, Tara Conklin
On an ordinary weekday in 2002, my mother was hurriedly cleaning out her minivan in the parking lot of the auto-dealer’s mechanic shop with my four year old brother standing watch. As she emptied the various remnants of our everyday life out of the cluttered vehicle, my brother came upon a Victoria’s Secret magazine. My mom was so preoccupied with transferring everything to the interim rental car that she wasn’t aware of Joe flipping through the pages of bras and panties until his small voice pipped up with a confident, “Hey, Mom, can I take this to Doug’s house?”
It has been a solid 17 years since this has occurred and yet this story is told time and time again in my family, always with with my Dad’s final bravado of a fist pump and a proud, “That’s my boy!” My younger brother’s straightforward and non-dubious heterosexuality has been a point of family lore for almost two decades. Now, he has a steady girlfriend of three years and their intimacy is completely understood as par for the course, nothing that needs further inspection or parental involvement although he is twenty years old.
In comparison, when I was six years old and caught imitating dance moves of popular icons of the time Britney Spears or Christina
Aguilera (we’re talking “Oops…I Did It Again!” and “What A Girl Wants” era, nothing extreme) I was hurriedly urged to stop. My youthful and harmless exploration of female allure and sexual freedom did not receive the same laughter as my brother just two years later.
When in high school I started to develop adolescent crushes on my peers, my parents would pry and tease. While this was meant harmlessly, it made me feel as if what I was feeling was wrongful and a point of fault. My involvement in drama productions with romantic plots elicited unwanted investigations into my own romantic exploits — of which, there were honestly none. I was subjected to talks at my Catholic high school that separated the male and female populations only to urge the girls that intercourse would only encourage the man to leave while committing you emotionally further, a terrifying thought for someone who had never been even asked on a date. I became shy, romantically introverted, afraid to talk to men in the instance of inciting rumors. This ultimately led to underdevelopment, my first romantic kiss not occurring until age 21 — a point at which many of my friends were losing their virginity and telling me that I simply “didn’t understand.” At a crucial point when I should have been claiming my sexual identity — in whatever form that was — I found myself apologizing for it time and time again in conversations between my family, my Church, and my friends, all of whom saw my status as some form of potentially problematic or downright reprehensible.
When I finally did become sexually active, I was seen as “changed.” While I expected to be welcomed into the club of non-virgins, there was no banner awaiting me on the other side. And it seemed I had spurned those I left on the abstinence track; one close friend even went so far as to say that our friendship would suffer because I wouldn’t understand her struggles anymore. The relationship that led me to that point ran its course, and I was left with the knowledge that I now had the freedom to choose where I went from here, but also the overwhelming and imminent judgement on my actions if I chose to share them with anyone.
Today, I still hold remnants of these beginnings in my bones when it comes to claiming my sexuality. I do not have a right to the grandiose and more moving stories, I do not think, like those of the LGBTQ+ community. But perhaps there is something quietly relatable in the fact that female sexual freedom is still so underwhelmingly represented and passively repressed. When I do start the conversation, I try to keep it light. Severity is threatening to the house of cards we as a global society have so carefully constructed when it comes to sexual liberation and who can have it.
So today, I’m grateful for the women who challenge me and the world to step outside our comfort zones. I’m grateful for Virginia Johnson of Masters & Johnson. I’m grateful for the sex-positive feminists. I’m grateful for those out there who tell women they don’t have to be sexually active to be worthwhile too. I’m grateful for the female (and male) friendships that pushed me to open up and the friendships that celebrated my milestones.
Thank you, women. And thank you, men, for listening to us. May this world be kinder tomorrow because of your bravery today.