I gave a reading at the Knitting Factory last night. This is the first piece I read: written on the day of the reading, no doubt too rough to work outside of the reading, yet transcribed (post-several-drinks) so that you can feel you were there. To those of you who did not attend, or were asked not to: don't worry. You were there in spirit, and in the piece itself.
Because, as previously indicated, I am writing this on the second floor of the Union Square Barnes & Noble. And it has porn.
Three feet to my right, several teenagers are poring over a photo book, the principal subject of which is naked ladies. It's the Suicide Girls book, actually; you can find it in the Women's Studies section. These teenagers are mostly boys, clad in aspiring-teen-rocker gear, which I am comforted to note has not changed much since the late '90s: longish hair, wallet chains, baggy pants and band tees over bodies they haven't learned to deal with yet. They're not cool yet, these boys, but you get the sense that in a few years they might be. Their pictures from this time will be hidden, or burned.
(Is that a Puddle of Mudd t-shirt? Do they still make Puddle of Mudd t-shirts? Am I looking at evidence of time travel?)
There are girls as well, two of them. Their clothes are tighter, and more stylish. Girls learn how to present before boys, always; the concept of the body as spectacle comes to us earlier in the game. Still, they look awkward and half-formed. When they go to college, they'll discover American Apparel and try to forget that their eyeliner ever looked this way.
The boys are staring at the book with raw fascination, offering little critiques and murmurs of approval as they flip the pages. The girls are looking alternately at the book and at the boys. The boys are having the time of their lives, it's clear; the girls might be too, though it's hard to tell, because they rarely speak.
"That one's beautiful," says the blondest and heaviest of the boys, pointing at a photo. "I don't even want to see the titties or nothing."
So sensitive, this boy! One of the girls - a slight pixie girl, dark hair drawn back in a bun and four studs glinting in her ear - lifts her eyes to his face and nods, making a small wordless sound of agreement that echoes in her throat. Mmmmhm.
I wonder how much she's heard. I wonder if she hears him saying that there is a difference between thinking a girl is beautiful and wanting to see her titties, between pretty and sexy, between the girl you admire and the girl you fuck. I think about this, and I wonder about the rest of her life.
My friends and I wrestle with these concepts constantly. We talk about them, write about them, negotiate our positions on the spectrum with every man we meet. I know girls who won't sleep with their boyfriends because they don't trust those men not to disappear, and girls whose boyfriends lost their sex drives once the word "love" was exchanged. I know girls who accompany their dates to strip clubs and feel guilty or crazy when jealousy enters the picture, and I know girls who strip, saying that they've never felt more desired in their lives, but that their clients swear at them, call them names, put their hands where their hands aren't supposed to be, and that they wake up on some mornings feeling angry at the entire world without quite knowing why. All of us want to be liked and respected and cared for, and all of us want to be well and frequently fucked, and all of us, for some reason, take it as a foregone conclusion that we can't have both. Our conversations - those marathon IM therapy sessions or late-night rants in bars - all end in the same way. What do you expect? This is the way things are.
I used to think that all of this had changed, or was changing. I took it for granted that I would have more choices than my mother, and that my daughters would have more choices than me. Hooking up was supposed to change everything, right? People just sleep with each other, sometimes for months at a time, with no commitment, because sex is no big deal. Yet, when I look at these teens, and the world they live in, that seems wrong: virgin and whore are spinning farther and farther away from each other, in a decaying orbit. We synthesize stars so cartoonishly virginal that the sight of one draped in sheets, with an inch or so of back exposed, can incite mass panic; Jordin Sparks can take the stage at the VMAs, her voice gripped with hysteria, and announce that she has to wear a purity ring because she doesn't want to be a slut, as if she - and we - had only two options. Other girls talk about reclaiming their sexuality by appearing in Girls Gone Wild videos, and for every Miley Cyrus, there is a pop star sanding her personality down until she presents nothing but sex, and only the kind of sex that her marketing team thinks most men will find appealing. I kissed a girl, and I liked it; I hope my boyfriend don't mind it. There's always a boy watching; his reaction, his respect or pleasure, is always what matters most.
So I wonder where this pixie girl will end up, in the bedroom or in the kitchen or somewhere in between, what compromises she'll make to get what she wants. I wonder which parts of herself she'll give up, and when, and why.
Here, for those keeping track, are the reactions that I received:
- Dude #1: "I was one of those boys."
- Extremely Admirable & Accomplished Feminist Writer: "That was great. No, I mean, I'm not just being supportive: I really liked it."
- Dude #2, With Whom I Have A Past: HIGHLY UNCOMFORTABLE FACE, accompanied by "congratulations, good job."
- Dude #2's Girlfriend: "You just took everything in my head and said it."
- Dude #3: "The thing is, the thing is, when a man loves you, you will know it. You can't change a man, girls try to, you can't change a man. When a man loves you, you will know it."
- Dude #4: "I liked your reading. It taught me how to pick up chicks."
Favorite part of the reading:
- The fact that everyone in the audience put down their drinks and stopped chatting when I said the word "porn."