People have been talking to me about sex since I was in high school. As a sexually curious teenage girl in suburban 1970s Boston, I asked lots of questions about sex, which drew damning suspicion. Worse, I couldn’t get any answers. The internet was just a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye at that point, so I had to go to the Turner Free Library in Randolph and ask the person on the desk—often someone who knew my mother—for books that they’d refuse to give me.
I didn’t know I was queer then, but the activity itself—of resisting the silence, disinformation, and stigma around my nascent desire—was certainly my first queer foray. Ergo, everyone started telling me their sex secrets. And there were many. In my tiny town, teen rape survivors talked to me, undercover gay boys befriended me, slutty Irish girls relayed the mysteries of their popularity. When I was 17, I had my first significant sexual experience with my boss’s 45-year-old brother and embarked upon a two-year affair that not a soul knew about—not even my sister, who knew everything, literally everything else.
Later in life, many a feminist therapist attempted to frame my affair with Lenny as serial sexual assault, an exercise in manipulation and abuse. But I’m here, nearly 60, a former director of a rape crisis center and a sex coach of 25 years, to say, emphatically: nope. There’s no question that my first lover was a complicated man who could not rise to the challenges of women in his peer group. He much preferred novices in the sex department, and he took his responsibility as my first lover seriously. But was his perhaps arrested development and that relationship more destructive than say, the option of sex with the 17-year-old boys in my peer group—who found me (take your pick) bossy, too loud, fat, too ambitious, fucking feminist, etc., etc.? Was working out my sexual questions with him more damaging than hanging with those Randolph High boys who tore me down and alternately came after me, didn’t know how to fuck, and had little to no interest in my pleasure? Lenny loved all of it. He nurtured my ambition, told me I was going to have a zillion great lovers, taught me how to give a killer blowjob, and spent an entire year bringing me to my first (of many) orgasm(s).
Sometimes we learn amazing things about ourselves from people who have significant limitations.
Hence, my enduring belief in the power and complexity of our sex stories. As a femme dyke of a certain age, I’ve survived addiction, the AIDS epidemic, the Lesbian Sex Wars, government-fueled opioids and crack abounding, a massive shift in the distribution of resources, endless war, white-supremacist destruction of my neighborhood and my city, and now the assimilative creep and de-sexing of the LGBTQ movement. As I look over the lip of 60, what seems most important is to keep doing generative work, to keep believing in the radical politics that brought so many of us into the movement, and as the prow of that ship—to keep talking about and reveling in our queer, queer genders, sexualities, and sexual practices.
Last year, I took my sex workshop, Desire Mapping, all over the world to LGBTQ and feminist global leadership conferences. I sat in rooms with queer, transgender, and feminist activists from over a hundred different nations and listened to sex stories in a half dozen languages. I watched gathering after gathering light up with the power of possibility, the sheer joy of sharing those moments when we are most vulnerable, most open, reaching for each other. For the past 10 years, I’ve mounted the workshop on college campuses, in tiny community centers, and at large-scale conferences. I’ve listened as people have groped through their memories and exposed parts of themselves they’ve been forced to hide. Whether in Arabic, French, Spanish, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, or English, repression sounds very much the same, and the liberating impact of claiming ourselves against state, religious, and interpersonal violence is both quite specific and universally enlivening.
In October, I launched a podcast based on this work, Just Sex: Mapping Your Desire. Through the pod, I am collecting the local stories told in the workshops from Russia to Cyprus, New Zealand to South Korea, Nairobi to Cape Town, from Denver to Dallas to Detroit to D.C. Here, every month, I will share a story or two with you. And first up, mine.
One thing I remember so clearly about my relationship with Lenny was how freeing my time with him was in the context of my youth: 1970s Catholic, suburban life within a parochial first-generation Irish-American enclave. Often, I’d leave my work shift and walk around the back of the restaurant to his car, parked in the dark behind a dumpster. I’d feel the thrill of getting over on everyone: his prickly brother, my boss; my parents; the church; those shitty boys I endured in class every day. And then we’d drive to the town reservoir, to the woods where all the Irish kids who had grown up in the poorer section of town with me were drinking and drugging their clumsy way into their sexualities. Once there, we’d park near school pals who would never in a million years have imagined me—straight-A, Sunday-school-teaching, honor’s society Jaime—having multiple orgasms in the back of her old man’s dark-tint-windowed station wagon. Despite the cramped quarters, or perhaps because of them, we gave each other tremendous pleasure in the back of that wagon, starting me on a path toward insisting on taking up space—in bed, at home, at work, in the world.
One of the things that became crystal clear to me in my time with Lenny was this: The things I loved about my working-class family of raucous Irish storytellers and survivors came at such an enormous price around my gender and sex. After I chose to have this affair—terrified, with no one to confide in—I realized I was going to have to choose myself, over and over again, even if it meant disappointing my parents beyond measure. And indeed, after I came out as lesbian in 1984, I spent almost 10 years in exile from my family and my clan.
This, in my humble opinion, is one of the superpowers LGBTQ people bring to the party in any liberation project—the terrible genius of surviving being targeted and often cast out around our genders and our sexualities. The daily decisions we’ve made to embody ourselves and connect with the people we lust and long for—these choices are the clay and the fuel of our vision for a more expansive, more just world. Even as the costs to us have been so monumental.
The bravery of living into our queerness and choosing our pleasure when everything in the culture commands and demands that we do otherwise—that is the bravery and visioning “juice” we need to rebuild this devastated and dying world. This is what we can draw on to power us through the day-to-day and the very, very long run. If I have any kind of belief that borders on “religion” in my life—that’s it.
I believe in us, in all of our queer, queer genders and our unacceptable, uncontainable desires. Let’s share and savor them here.