A Thing No Longer Given Freely by Stephanie Vessely

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1. “Do you want to touch my penis?” he asked. I did not want to touch it. I wanted what I had seen on TV, in the movies—a first kiss under a porch light, the promise of a second date, necking at the drive-in. But I did not come of age in the era of drive-ins. Or dates. Or necking. I came of age in the era of expectation. When a boy expected to go up your shirt. When a boy expected to go down your pants. The first time a boy touched me between my legs I grabbed his hand and moved it away. It was instinct, reflex, like a kick of the leg when the doctor taps the knee. We kept kissing, and when we parted he said he would call me. But I did not see him again after that.

2. I did not see the other boy again either, the one whose penis I did not want to touch. By “see” I mean I did not make out with him or speak with him again. I saw him plenty after that—in the hallways at school, riding in the backseat of his mother’s car as they drove past our house. I had done my best to pretend that I knew what I was doing, that I was like the other girls, the ones who were already having sex. I squeezed his penis. I held his clammy and fragile testicles. I acted as though the scenario were familiar, as if I was entirely comfortable. But I did not know what I was doing. I was unprepared, caught off guard. The situation was years outside of my realm of possibility. I had jumped worlds and the rules of one did not apply to the other. No one had yet handed me a guidebook or a map so that I could orient myself.

3. Orientation was only part of the problem. This is when my reflexes stopped working. This is when instinct began to fail me. Or perhaps it is I who failed it. Rather than listen when something inside was telling me “no,” or stop because I was uncomfortable, I knew to push past those feelings, to keep going, to do things I did not want to do. I knew the ways to be liked. Instinctually. In my journal from the night I touched the boy’s penis, dated August 2, 1992, I wrote, “But I know I’d hate myself if I didn’t do anything” just after the line, “I don’t think it’s regret.” At fourteen I didn’t understand that I didn’t need to compromise myself to get boys to like me. I didn’t understand this at 18, or 22, or 27 either. I’m only just now, in recent years, getting this. I am 39.

4. I am 39, and I am still fighting the notion that I have to give him something to keep him around. “Him” being any man I want to keep around. I keep thinking about my nine-year-old niece, wondering if she is absorbing the same lessons I did. I am wondering if she is soaking up our culture’s hyper-sexualization of the female body. I wonder what her parents will tell her, if they will talk to her about virginity the way my mother talked to me. I wonder if they will use words like “treasure,” like “gift.” I wonder if they will tell her how she must protect it at all costs, that it belongs only to her husband, that he will be expecting it.

5. He won’t be expecting it. That’s the thing my mother didn’t understand about the world I grew up in. It was not the same world as the one she grew up in. My generation did not have notions of waiting. The expectations were different. Which is not to say that I am some kind of victim, or that when I finally did have sex, at 18, that it wasn’t my choice or that I didn’t want it. It was. I did. I’m just saying that everyone was protecting the wrong thing. They were all so concerned about my virginity. But by the time that was lost something else had already been taken.

6. What to call this thing that had already been taken? I’m not sure. Innocence maybe. Self-respect maybe. Some might call it virtue, purity. But those terms traffic in the physical and on the surface. It’s something else. Worth maybe. An inherent sense of. Or maybe it’s more about what I had never been given. Knowledge. In this case knowledge would have been like a suit of armor I would have strapped on before I went out into the world to do battle. It would have been the thing that protected me and kept me safe from harm. It would have been power. My power. But the power dynamics were well in place from the beginning—the men marching into my space whether invited or not—and me allowing them to.

7. I allowed them to, because, as it was, no one knew to teach me otherwise. They were near-sighted and couldn’t see what was coming for me off in the distance. Their own experiences had taught them that it was enough to simply say, “Don’t do it until you get married.” For them it had been enough for their parents to simply say, “Don’t do it until you get married.” That covered all manner of dangers. Because when you go to an all-girls Catholic school from kindergarten through college you automatically narrow the battlefield. You don’t find yourself in unexpected territory. You don’t need to know how to handle an advance. But I did not go to an all-girls Catholic school or even to a Catholic school. I was left out in the open. I was vulnerable prey who had no idea I was standing in a land populated by vultures.

8. Vultures. Their glances, their glares, their stares. When a girl’s body changes, so too does her visibility in the world. She is no longer an innocent. She is no longer cute, sweet, adorable. She is hot, beautiful, sexy. Or at least I wanted to be. I wanted to be a thing that was admired, desired, enjoyed. Worse, I grew to enjoy the enjoying. I began to feel seen. I began to crave the attention, to need the attention, to only feel okay when I had the attention. This is how I learned that sex was my power, that I could draw men in with it.

9. I could draw men in with it, but I could rarely keep them. That’s not true. I kept a few. What’s true is that power corrupts, and I was corrupted. Drunk on my power. And no matter who I had, I always wanted more/better/different. More attention. More desire. More sex. Sex/attention/desire mistaken for love. I have given myself to men. I have sought validation in men. I have compromised for men. The power then, isn’t mine, is it? The power then, comes from them, doesn’t it?

10. Doesn’t it? In an essay published in 1976 the writer Karen Durbin argues, “There are worse things than losing a man, all right; there’s losing yourself.” Which is the thing I went and lost while everyone was standing watch on my virginity. They locked my virginity down the best they could, but my self, without anything to tether to, escaped through the bars in the window. And my body became an empty shell.

11. An empty shell that could be filled with anything. With anyone. I never let on that it bothered me, that he had hurt me, that anything was wrong. “He” being any man I wanted to keep around. It wasn’t their fault. I was the one who had the vacancy sign lit. I was the one who said I was open for business. One time, aged 23, or maybe 24, I stood in a bar and shouted for anyone to hear, “I’M EASY.” Which is like a red light in the fog for anyone looking for a place to dock for the night.

12. There were so many nights I had sex when I didn’t want to, with men I didn’t want.

13. Most of the time I didn’t want to. But I knew to give them what they wanted, or else they might not like me.

14. They might not like you anyway, it turns out. It also turns out that it doesn’t matter. I had to figure this out on my own. I had to learn that it was never about whether he likes you, or about the things you do or don’t do with him. The point, you see, never was him. “Him” being whichever man happens to be around. Once upon a time I was easy, but now I am hard. Do what you want with that word. Hard. Think of me as difficult to handle. Or difficult to crack. Think of me as severe. As something that requires a great deal of energy to enter. That last part might be true. Entry being a thing no longer given freely, easily, rapidly. So maybe I am hard. But I prefer the word solid. I prefer the word sound. I prefer the word strong.

STEPHANIE VESSELYStephanie Vessely lives in Denver, Colorado. She holds an MFA degree in creative writing from Regis University, and is seeking publication for her essay collection, You Were Once Wild Here. Her previous work has been published in December Magazine, and she is the editor-in-chief of the forthcoming Inverted Syntax (Fall 2018). She is regularly saved by yoga and is searching for Truth. These are a few places she’s found it: the swaying of tree branches, the ocean, the laughter of her nieces and nephew, and her own heart, when she can be still enough to hear it.


STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Alan Drummond

  1 comment for “A Thing No Longer Given Freely by Stephanie Vessely

  1. S – thank you for giving precise/explicit, fiercely moving, entirely recognizable voice to the lived experience of so many of us. Brava! Including your essay in my list of all-time-favorites.

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