As tweens in the 1990s, before online porn and sex advice were as ubiquitous as they are now, we learned sex from magazines. We bought them with pocket money, or borrowed them from our mothers and older sisters. I still vividly remember fragments from this patchwork self-achieved sex-ed: a letter to an advice column, for example, asking, “How many fingers does a boy use when he fingers you?” Well, girl, it depends.
Knowing what was expected of us, we learned sex as technique, as mechanics. I had a working knowledge derived entirely from trashy magazines and hearsay of how to perform that ancient oblation, the blowjob, by the age of 12. When I finally met a hard dick in person, I was astonished to discover that it was possible to work out what you wanted to do with it from your desire rather than from technical expertise. This brief happy discovery was short-lived; through my teens, as the gender machine redoubled its crushing work, my pleasure receded and was overshadowed by sexual duty.
Off the glossy page, there was a whole world of sex out there that adults coyly warned us about. You weren’t supposed to accept gifts from strangers, wander too far off the path in the nature reserve, or go into the toilets in the park. The people who populated this forbidden realm were exclusively men; some of them wanted to have sex with children, we were told, and some of them wanted to have sex with each other. But I was thrilled by these glimpses of sex, which felt to me like promises. The legendary men who lurked in shadowy places were on my side, because they did what they liked, and I thought that when I grew up I too would be able to do what I liked.
There was a beautiful park with an old, wild forest that our parents would sometimes take us to. Everyone knew, and so children knew too, men met there to have sex. This knowledge thickened the sunlight that hung in the trees’ foliage and deepened the shadows at the mouths of the caves. Once I succumbed to this faint vertigo and got lost there. Strangers helped me find my way back to my family. Who were they, my mother wanted to know, urgently, and was suddenly and completely reassured when I explained that I had been helped by two men who were holding hands. I remember her and her friend doing the thing that adults do over kids’ heads when they think they don’t know something, the shared secret laughter. But I felt superior to them because I was the one who the forest had briefly swallowed and taken for its own. Because most of the adults in my life wanted to hide sex from me, or half-hide it, or mistook children for ignorant people who didn’t know what sex was, I felt an immediate and natural allegiance with those adults who fucked in public.
Through the AIDS crisis, many cruising spots in the UK were destroyed by local councils. Sex-as-play was being banished from the world just as it was being banished from my life. Maybe my understanding of this war on public sex as a terrible historical defeat for proletarian sociality is autobiography masquerading as analysis, and maybe that doesn’t matter. I emerged into puberty from a childhood in which sexual play and experimentation, outside the utopia of my siblinghood with my brother, was mostly conducted with other little girls. But most of us understood early, and without being explicitly told, that sex with boys was a duty that we would do well to find pleasing.
Confronted with those terrible, quasi-scientific girls’ magazines which told young women how to give men sexual pleasure, I turned to novels by gay men to find out why I should bother: for an education in how to love men’s bodies. Between the local library and my bookstore job, I worked my way through several books a week, unimaginative but thorough: Edmund White, Alan Hollinghurst, James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, Derek Jarman’s memoirs, every play by Tennessee Williams; I also read writers who weren’t gay men but wrote about them, like Pat Barker and Michael Chabon. I bought a second-hand copy of E.M. Forster’s Maurice and it turned out to have a love letter handwritten on the inside cover. These were books about people who knew how to be consumed by desire, and how to take desire lightly. I thought they revealed the mysteries of the secret adult world of sex.
I read gay men as a lesson in masculine pleasure, and as a revolt against the unpleasure of femininity. I read them to learn how to be a man. An eccentric neighbour gave me a copy of Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers when I was about 15 – an incredible gift. There I read the immortal line, “A man who fucks a man is a double man!” Typing the sentence out now, it still strikes me with the force of truth. It pleases me because it means, perversely, that a woman who has sex with a man is a man too, and a woman who has sex with women is a double woman. You are what you fuck, and what fucks you is you already, by tacit admission. (Though a friend recently pointed out to me that doubling might not mean intensification but splitting, complicating, fragmenting.)
Often no amount of desire seemed enough to convince straight boys that girls actually wanted to sleep with them; most of them persisted in acting like they had to trick or otherwise force them into it. Or they would say during sex, wonderingly, “It’s like you really like it!” For years I heard this as self-loathing, and assured boys that they were beautiful and sexy – only later realizing that it was a slur not against the male body, but against female desire. My own desire corroded under the pressure; a passionately sex-curious, wildly affectionate child, by my late teens I barely remembered what sexual pleasure felt like, and had to re-learn it from first principles, a precarious and damaged gift that I’ve found and lost over and over again. And I think this is not an unusual story, but only a story about being born a girl.
Boys, however, could be girls without losing themselves. As a romantic teen I loved the tacky but heartrending scene in the movie Stonewall where a drag queen takes off her make-up and, temporarily transformed into a soberly dressed boy, promises her lover, “I’m your knight in shining armor, baby, your boy and your lady. I’m your momma lion, I’m your man.” In queerness, you could be all things to all people, or to just one if you liked. But whenever I slept with a man I was only a woman, and men found so many ways to remind me of it. I was in dance school the first year I was in London, surrounded by beautiful, witty and physically ingenious gay boys; they did everything better than I did. Looking back at the gay men I knew in my extreme youth, I realize that I tried to learn both masculinity and femininity from them. I have always had many women in my life, as friends and lovers, but for whatever reason I couldn’t find my image of myself among them.
I suspected, and books and porn confirmed, that sex between men did not have to leap the impasse of one person’s disbelief in the other’s sexual pleasure. Yes, I knew one or two girls who slept around with the enthusiasm and freedom of boys, but almost nowhere between men and women did I see the collegiate, unpretentious sexual warmth that seemed to abound among men. In the gay world that I intimated in fragments, taking a dick was a form of mastery. I treasured the line in an early episode of the wonderfully graphic UK drama Queer As Folk: “He said he wanted to stay inside me forever, and I wanted him to. I can still feel him, like he’s still there.” In the straight world, there were few representations of how a receiving body strains and reshapes itself: Being fucked was fashioned as biological destiny, as if all bodies with pussies are born knowing how best to receive. After a particularly terrible early sexual experience, my body rebelled against this. I didn’t return to that form of sex until my first months at college, when I fell into a love affair with a friend, a man who was mostly only attracted to men. We made up the kind of sex we were able to have as we went along, clumsily and without special grace, but in the process I was somehow convinced all over again that sex was a place where pleasure might be found.
The rest of my time at college was shaped by my best friend there, a stoner who liked to tell stories about his trips to men-only saunas where people knew bodies first and names only later or never. He also taught me a lot about the practice of longing for straight men. Friendships between women and gay men are often depicted as research labs on how to be femme, but I think what a woman might look for among gay men is masculinity, not femininity. I didn’t (only) want fun sex gossip or advice about clothes, both of which were in plentiful supply among my woman-identified friends; I wanted to feel like a boy. If I had to be a girl, I wanted be the kind that men meant when they called each other girl. I was so dis-identified from (white) womanhood that straight men’s desire for me, when it happened, felt like an unexpected transgression that I often didn’t know how to respond to. Or I wanted it to be that way, because I had learned a deep suspicion of what men’s desire did to people who allowed themselves to be women. I wanted sex without love, I wanted sex to be love, I wanted to be anonymous, I wanted my own desire and not to be only desire’s object.
I know this is a wildly optimistic reading of what gay sex culture promises women, in a world where women are conceptually if not legally still property as well as people. Arguably gay men are the most committed of all to the brutal practice of manhood because their desire as well as their sociality is fraternal. Like every reality compared to its daydream image, in real life gay men can disappoint by being no more or less than men after all, just as the white women with whom I assume comradeship sometimes side with whiteness. We are all fragmented in relation to structures of domination, and trying to survive them. But I wanted an excuse to love men, or a safe way to love them, and this is where I found it. Everywhere in the straight world, masculinity reigned as patriarchy. But in my image of gay men, distorted by longing, I found masculinity in a form I could bear.