Between The Sheets With My Readers
Each character in Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues who speaks the words my vagina is, in a very real sense, standing in front of her audience naked, not just because the audience already knows, more or less, what her vagina looks like, but because for her to say the words My vagina is for her to say This is how I experience the world through my vagina; this is how, through my vagina, I lay claim to a presence in the world that is mine and that cannot be defined otherwise because it is my vagina. This invitation to enter imaginatively, through language, a woman’s embodied experience of the world is, or ought to be, both compelling and frightening. We’re all interested in what other people do with their bodies, with whom, how often, in precisely what way, and why. At the same time, we also know how scary it is to let someone touch who we really are in our bodies, and we all know as well the responsibility we owe to those who allow us truly to touch them.
An essay of mine, still in manuscript, is called “My Daughter’s Vagina.” I wrote the piece when my wife and I still thought we would have a second child—our first is a boy—and it is a meditation on how to respond as a father to a daughter’s erotic life in a world where almost everywhere you look her body is trivialized and exploited and reviled, and in which the father’s body, my body, whatever else it may mean, is by definition implicated in that which trivializes, exploits and reviles her. This is how that essay begins:
The fundamentally alien universe that a woman’s experience of sex is to me. That mine is to her. So fully do we romanticize heterosexual lovemaking as a communion of souls, a synthesizing of opposites, the fulfillment and expression of our deepest emotional needs, that it’s easy to forget just how inaccessible the interior landscapes of male and female embodiment are to each other. And of course it’s not just male and female. Gay and lesbian lovers may have a kind of access that heterosexual men and women don’t to what their partners feel physically in the act of making love, but the meaning of that physical experience will still be different for each of them, as inaccessible to their partners as my lover’s experience of our lovemaking was inaccessible to me.
To write autobiographically about sex and sexuality is to try to make your version of that experience accessible to an audience much larger than the individual or individuals with whom you have shared a bed: It is to kiss and tell, and, if you are completely honest about it, it is inevitably to confront yourself with the question of why you want to do it, and that is what I’d like to tell you a little bit about: How it is that sex, sexuality and gender—seen through the lens of my own erotic life—became the central concerns of my work.
I started writing poetry in my early teens as a way of making myself visible to myself. At the time, I was attending a yeshiva high school in a program designed to bring Jewish kids from non-religious backgrounds into the religious fold. We were called baalei t’shuva, literally masters of repentance, though the word repentance does not capture the full connotation of t’shuva, which also means return in Hebrew. To perform t’shuva is to return oneself, spiritually, emotionally and psychologically to what is generally understood in orthodox circles—or at least was understood in the circle that educated me—as an essential Jewish self for whom following the path of traditional Jewish life is as natural as breathing. As my teachers explained it, the work of this return was hard, intense, requiring levels of honesty, self-awareness and vulnerability we had never before experienced. Our task was to bring fully into consciousness that we were, at every moment of our lives, even in the dreams we traveled in at night and over which we had no control, living in the presence of the omnipresent and omnipotent god almighty, whose knowledge of us was absolute and whose judgment was infallible.
I felt more at home in the yeshiva than I’d ever felt among my own family. Orthodox Judaism, I thought, held out the only hope I had of becoming other than the person I thought I was: someone who at the core of his being was not merely rotten, but empty, eaten away by a corruption I could not name, and left dangling for the winds of the world to whistle through. The daily practice of Judaism that I learned in yeshiva seemed to me a way of replacing that emptiness with meaning, bringing myself fundamentally into sync with the kind of life that would make me a good person. The kind of life my teachers told me I was, as a Jew, meant to lead. Or, to put it more bluntly, that god expected me to lead. My family, however, was not at all religious, and so, at least until I could move out of my house, I was limited in the degree to which I could make my life congruent with what I was learning in school. This inability to be fully the religious person I wanted to be only increased the intensity of the double life I understood myself to be leading, presenting to the world the face of a relatively happy, healthy and well-adjusted teenage boy who resembled not at all the dead and dried out husk of a person I knew myself truly to be.
The only time this internal conflict seemed to resolve itself was when I was writing poetry. Not that my poems were religious per se, but the self I saw reflected in them was as close as I’d ever gotten to saying who I really was, and so I began to think of my poems as prayers, of writing them as a way of baring my soul before god, moving myself through such self-revelation closer and closer to what being a baal t’shuva really meant. By the time I was a senior in college, though, something had changed. My poems had become more like a series of masks for me to hide behind than windows of revelation into who I was. As a friend pointed out to me at the time, the voice I was writing in had become didactic, and the poems, almost always addressed to an unnamed “you” who had something to learn from me, seemed intended to direct the reader’s line of sight away from the me who wrote them. What, my friend wanted to know, was I hiding?
What I was hiding was this: At two different times during my teens, two men—one a complete stranger, the other a casual friend of the family—each took my body as his playground and his plaything and abused me sexually. Each man was a predator and each used my need for a surrogate father to lure me to him. My own father, after my mother sued him for divorce, left our house when I was three. As he walked out the door, he said to me that maybe—though of course I took it as a promise—maybe he’d be coming back. He never did.
I survived both these traumas, though the fact of my survival did nothing to soften my conviction that they had tainted me, deeply and irrevocably, and that I would never again be worthy of another’s love. I became so deeply attracted to Orthodox Judaism because the orthodox way of life appeared to offer me a kind of salvation: monotheism’s god, after all, is the ultimate father, and I believed that if I could gain this heavenly father’s approval, then I would be good, and nothing, nothing—no matter what I’d done or had been done to me in the past—could ever undo that achievement.
I can still conjure for myself as clearly as I see the words I am typing on the screen before me the penis of the first man who abused me looming swollen and purple in a half-erection in front of my face. I was sitting motionless on the edge of his bed, and he was standing with his hands on his hips asking me to play with it, at least to touch it, but then I am somewhere else, somewhere where it’s snowing, and I stay there until I see myself unlock the door of his apartment and walk outside. I don’t know for sure what happened while I was in the snow, but I do have an idea. In Secret Life, his memoir of sexual addiction, Michael Ryan describes what it felt like to take the penis of the man who abused him into his mouth.
I read those words when I was in my early thirties and I retched. I knew exactly the taste he was talking about, though I’d never thought about it consciously before I opened his book, and I spent the rest of that day wishing I could, like a snake, shed the skin in which I had this knowledge and emerge newly born into a new flesh in which I’d be free of what I’d learned.
T’shuva, I was taught, involved a similar kind of shedding, except instead of new flesh, you emerged into a new self, one through which your yiddishe neshama, your Jewish soul, shone like a beacon, and when you stepped out of your body entirely and ascended as pure soul to the seat of heaven, it was the condition of that soul, free at last of the body’s earthly constraints, that would determine your worthiness in god’s eyes. There were rituals intended to bring into consciousness an awareness of the body as that which had to be left behind. I remember in particular learning how important a part of our clothing a belt was since it symbolized the separation of the upper body’s sacredness from the lower’s profanity, and I have no doubt that my teachers would have insisted that this symbolism, understood properly, was actually a way out of the physical self-hatred that consumed me, and I have no doubt as well that there are people for whom such symbols have worked in precisely that way. They did not work that way for me. Whenever I imagined myself standing in front of the divine being I wanted to think of as my father with the fact of the abuse written on my soul, no matter how hard I tried to do otherwise, I could not escape the image that came to me of a stern and angry deity staring down at me in judgment, frowning, and then, to borrow a biblical phrase, turning his face away.
This inability to imagine for myself a god compassionate enough to accept me in spite of, or perhaps I should say because of, the physical violations I’d experienced not only magnified the shame and humiliation I already felt; it resulted in a series of rebellions against the religion I’d been telling myself I wanted live by. I became very interested in the occult, for example, and for a while contemplated it as a serious alternative to Judaism, and in a burst of self-hatred that lasted for many years, I very consciously belittled the rigors of orthodoxy to the great amusement of my non-Jewish friends. Most of all, however, god’s rejection of my body—because even if it existed only in my imagination that was what his turning away from me meant—helped to make the world of heterosexual pornography or, more precisely, the world as heterosexual pornography suggests it ought to be, feel like the only world where I truly belonged.
One of the things sexual abuse does to people who survive it is make all expressions of their own sexuality feel abusive, as if they were behaving just like the person who abused them, and so it’s not uncommon for male survivors to find in heterosexual pornography a kind of safe haven. In the pornographic world, everyone and everything is sexualized; this sexualization is valued above any other kind of relationship; and so treating people as sexualized objects is the natural way to behave, meaning you can feel sexual, act on that feeling, and as long as you remain within the world pornography offers you, what you are doing cannot be defined as abuse. As opposed to my friends, in other words, for whom pornography was primarily a kind of instruction manual for how to be sexual in the real world, pornography was for me a place where I could cloister my sexuality, and therefore my shame, shutting it out of the life I lived in the real world and creating the illusion that I had put the shame and the abuse behind me.
The picture that changed forever the way I looked at pornography was in a magazine called Puritan, in the bottom right corner of the right hand page. The man was seated on a chair with his legs splayed out in front of him, his face and upper body hidden by the woman, who was sitting with her feet on his thighs, her legs bent at the knees and spread wide so you could see how deeply she’d taken his penis into her. Her head was tilted slightly forward, and her eyes, which were round and moist and oh-so-innocent, were looking directly at the camera. Her lips were full and pouty. I don’t know why, but what I saw was not the sex kitten she was supposed to be, but rather a little girl made to open her legs for the world to see the “slut” she “really” was, and this perception touched my own sexual shame, and I got sick to my stomach, and I started to cry, and I could not bring myself to look at the picture again, even though I kept it in my desk for weeks.
I understood perfectly well that what I thought I saw on that woman’s face—like the frown I saw on god’s face when I imagined him turning away from me—was my own projection, and that it might well have had nothing to do with what she herself was feeling, and I understood as well that other people looking at the same picture might see something very different. Precisely because of that understanding, however, I found I couldn’t look at images of people having sex anymore without wondering about the degree to which the interior landscape of the performers’ experience corresponded to what I thought I saw in their performance. This change in perspective transformed sex for me—not only as something I did, but as an idea about what it meant to live in the world—into a whole new kind of danger, terrifying and yet thrillingly inviting at the same time. I wanted to know what it felt like when you allowed yourself fully to inhabit the sex you were having, and I began to see sex not simply in terms of particular acts of lovemaking with particular people, but as a way of knowing, not just a method but literally a path into knowledge, and walking that path, laying claim to that knowledge, helped me feel for the first time, more firmly than I ever had when I tried to imagine myself good in god’s eyes, that I had a right to the physical presence I inhabited on this planet.
In his book The Jew in the Lotus, an account of a dialogue that took place in the 1990s between a delegation from the Jewish community and the Dalai Lama of Tibet, Rodger Kamenetz quotes one of the Jewish participants’ description of the Baal Shem Tov’s “doctrine of strange thoughts.” The Baal Shem Tov was the founder of modern Chasidism.
In Jewish mysticism, Kamenetz explains, this idea of “raising up” sexual feelings finds a more fully developed expression in a series of meditative practices designed to align “physical and spiritual energies” so that practitioners can “work past the…contradiction…between the mind and the body” pervading Western thought. In other words, if you overlook the gender ideology implicit in equating a man’s daydream of a beautiful woman with a lust that needs to be overcome lest it sully the holiness of his prayers, Judaism already seems to contain a method for laying claim to and sanctifying the erotic presence of the body. However, examine the Baal Shem Tov’s suggestion of what should be done with the image of that beautiful woman a little more closely and what you find is that it actually preserves the contradiction it is intended to resolve. For he does not encourage men to experience what the image makes them feel, but rather to interrogate it intellectually as a way of diminishing the power of their lustful desires.
According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest meaning of the word lust was pleasure or delight. The association of the word with sexual desire, and with moral condemnation of that desire, came later, probably—though I am neither an etymologist nor an historian—as a result of the Church’s growing influence on European culture. I’m thinking specifically of the early Church’s hostility to the frankly sexual celebrations and symbolisms of the pre-Christian pagans, and of the belief in which those celebrations and symbolisms were rooted, or at least what seems to me to have been the belief in which they were rooted, that the body per se, the material existence that renders us irrevocably of the earth, is the source of our humanity and the bottom line of our human worth.
How could such an idea not be anathema to a religious institution in which human beings realize their ultimate value by transcending the body, or at least attempting to transcend the body, especially the sexual body, to become pure soul? To the adherents of such a religion, I imagine, the internal chaos that is part of what makes lust so compelling could not help but appear as an intolerable kind of meaninglessness, a nihilism sent straight from hell. And lust is dangerous. All too easily it can lead to emotional and physical and even spiritual self-immolation, and yet I can say that it was out of a kind of lust—the desire to articulate a lived experience of my body without apology or equivocation—that I first began writing poems and essays about what the men who abused me did to me. I described in detail each act and each body part, articulating for the first time how the abuse had shaped what Kamenetz would call my “imaginal body” the “private map of…feelings and fantasies” that constituted what I understood the meaning of my body to be.
Most of that writing was primarily therapeutic and correspondingly unsuccessful as art, but each time I named some part of what had happened to me, I peeled away one more layer of the mystification of self that is the legacy all abusers leave to those whom they abuse. Writing, in other words, became for me a way of returning to my body, a t’shuva very different from the one I pursued in yeshiva, and what I found through this other return was mystery, and wonder, not a mystery, as in a problem to solve, but mystery, and I mean that word almost in its Christian theological sense: something that can never be fully understood and that can be apprehended only through revelation. This revelation, however, had nothing to do with god. Indeed, the more I wrote about my body the less I cared about the approval of a god who valued my soul more than the flesh and blood in which I existed.
I’m sitting in my office as I write this, listening to Rickie Lee Jones sing “We Belong Together,” a song that I knew by heart when it first came out fifteen or twenty years ago, and I’m thinking of the women who have been my lovers, from those with whom I spent many years to those whom I knew for only a short time, and in the quiet of this nearly empty building, as the voices of the last few students of the evening echo through the halls, the feeling that comes over me is one of immense gratitude. In sharing with me the gift of their desire for me, in their willingness to accept from me the gift of my desire for them, those women helped me to reclaim my body as the territory of my own being, for sex is nothing if it is not that: an exploration of the body as the territory of our individual and collective human being. It is ironic, therefore, that “My Daughter’s Vagina,” the manuscript I quoted at the beginning of this essay, should have been inspired by the body of a girl who will most likely never be born—though it is of course also true that she is born every day to millions of men and women all over the world. I write about sex the way I do because she deserves—for her sake we all deserve—a world very different from the one we live in now. I write about sex the way I do because that world will never be fully realized until we have a language that makes it real to us.
Kamenetz, Rodger. The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet's Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
Ryan, Michael. Secret Life: An Autobiography. New York: Pantheon Books, 1995.
Richard Newman is a poet and essayist who has been publishing essays on gender and male sexuality since 1988. His work, prose and poetry, has appeared in Salon.com, The American Voice, On The Issues, The Pedestal (thepedestalmagazine.com), Prairie Schooner, ACM and other literary journals. His poetry manuscript, The Silence Of Men, is currently looking for a publisher and he is at work on a collection of personal essays, "Inside The Men Inside Christy Canyon," which confront in a more elaborate way many of the issues raised in "Between The Sheets With My Readers." Most recently, he signed a contract with Global Scholarly Publications to produce literary translations of classical Persian literature. He is an Associate Professor in the English Department of Nassau Community College.