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Writing the Body
Poem by Dakota Parks
"Citizens Speak" Exhibit, Pensacola Musuem of Art, 2021
Image by Angela Manning
This project intertwines elements of Audre Lorde’s essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric which utilizes interview style prose poetry. In Citizen, Rankine uses the experiences and stories of black men and women experiencing microaggressions and racism in America in grocery stores, therapist offices, babysitting, and simply existing in their day-to-day lives. She uses their responses to her questions and writes prose poems, often set in a second-person narrative to saturate the reader in the experiences. Using Rankine’s interview-writing-style as a model for the project, I decided to base my interview population on a wide variety of women and pose them a single question based on Lorde’s essay, which argues that female eroticism is socially ostracized: “Can you tell me about a time or an experience where you were shunned, embarrassed, or received negative backlash for either your sexuality or sexual desires?”
To collect the ten stories that I wrote for the project, I interviewed and spoke with around 24 people from various backgrounds and identities including white, black, Asian, Latinx, lesbian, straight, bisexual, and pansexual women, as well as transgender women and nonbinary people. To my surprise, the stories overlapped and contradicted one another, meshing together in a collective consciousness that transcended gender presentation, race, ethnicity, and sexuality. My goal for the project was to see if anything has changed since Lorde wrote her essay in the 1970s, specifically considering that third wave feminists now embrace sex-positivity and support women in the sex industry. Although, I spoke to women from a wide variety of backgrounds, even including some women that work in the sex industry or were raised by women that empowered them and actually taught them about their bodies and desires, nearly every woman I spoke to was still able to tell me at least one story.
Many women told me experiences where they were shunned for having too much sex, while other women told me they were shunned for not wanting to have sex. Some spoke about how the porn industry makes their identity feel tainted and fetishized by men, while others told me how porn was the only safe outlet to learn about sex. An overwhelming number of stories came from LGBT+ people navigating a world where sex education, if it is even offered in grade school, is heterosexual education. By far the biggest overlap in themes came from miseducation and under-education in anatomy and sex education, as well as dismissal and disapproval from religious institutions.
The room is filled with teenage hormones, sweat-slick plastic chairs, shuffling feet under desks, and relentless nerves. The boys behind you are making “yo mama such a slut” jokes, punching one another in the arms at every punch line to ease the tension in the room. You are waiting for class to start, creasing the notebook paper on your desk and arranging your color-coded pens. The class calendar has been counting down this day for the last two months. You’ve seen this play out in every young adult film you’ve ever watched: the girls and boys are separated into two classrooms, where girls learn about menstruation and are forced to watch a black and white film reel of a woman giving birth. The video pans back and forth from the woman screaming to a bloody baby head emerging through her vagina. The same film has been shown to students for the last 20 years as a scare tactic for abstinence. And the boys, well, they’re taken into another room where they learn—something. You’ve never seen that in the movies. Suddenly, class has started, and everyone is still sitting together. Your male health teacher, who also teaches P.E. and coaches football, is putting up diagrams on the overhead projector. One is a misshapen penis and the other looks like abstract art or something like a Rorschach ink blot because the printer paper smudged. In the middle of class, your teacher is telling everyone about erections and that masturbation is a normal and healthy way to cope with so called “morning wood.” This metaphor of wood confuses you because you just learned about deforestation in science class. Right before the lights come on, a girl raises her hand to ask if morning wood can happen to women and the class erupts into laughter. None of the girls in class are laughing but your teacher says firmly, “No, girls don’t have body parts like that… and they especially don’t’ do that.” The bell rings. Class dismissed.
Her fingers are greasy with movie theatre butter when she intertwines her hand with yours for the first time. Your heartbeat flutters and your cheeks are hot from blushing, but she can’t tell in the dark. Popcorn crunches under your feet. The floor is sticky from spilled soda. On the big screen, Jay Gatsby is soaking wet in his white suit and Daisy looks like she’s standing in the middle of a floral shop, but you’ve read the book and you know what happens next. You also came last weekend to watch the movie alone, so know you can’t do this at the end before the credit reel because everyone will be crying. When you wrap your arm around her shoulder and lean in for your first kiss, she moves the hair away from your face. Suddenly, you hear one of the men sitting behind you whispering, his voice breathy and guttural: Fuck yeah, I LOVE lesbians.
Band room, 7th grade. Someone knocks over a metal music stand, four students practice the same song in four different spots, the teacher yell-talks to the student at her desk above all the noise. When your band instructor finally releases you from rehearsal, you watch every couple partner off and take a left out the band room doors to the stage, where they will make out among the shadows of the closed velvet curtains and disassembled theatre props. In the bathroom, you find her waiting for you like normal and you are so excited that you can’t help but kiss her before retreating to the safety of the blue stalls. Just then your band instructor walks in. You have never heard such words hurled at you before: Dirty dykes, disgusting faggots, Sapphic sinners, deviants! When she kicks you out, you are so embarrassed that you don't even call your parents for a ride home. You trek home alone in the muddy Vancouver snow. On your way to the principal’s office the next day, you see your best friend crying, accompanied by her father and she won’t look at you. When you sit down, you see the evidence splayed on the principal’s desk like roadkill: a Hello Kitty backpack from grade 7 that your friend scribbled a tiny penis on with a Sharpie marker, sketches of girls kissing, poetry from class with questionable themes, and a broken binder cover you threw away a year ago with both of your initials scratched into a heart. Behind your tears and your mother’s fury, the principal tells you that are you too deviant to remain a student at the Catholic school because your behavior might spread and corrupt others like a disease. You are only 12 years old.
The stores have become consumed by spells of red and pink, filled with totems and trinkets of affection and professions of lust. You’re not sure how to define your love-style or if words even yet exists for what you feel. You are too poly for that taxonomy, too hot for that cool sip of water, too insatiable for any solo, singular love bite. But her lips remind you of Hershey’s kisses and you want to write poems on her body using only sweetheart message candy. Your mother grows suspicious when she hears the landline ringing at night— that voice too soft to be a gentleman caller. When you come home on Valentine’s Day with a skip in your step and a box of chocolate, balloons, a love letter, and her sweet tooth sunk deep into you, your mother is determined to beat it out of you. She thinks she can save you by whipping you on the ass with a Bible flipped open to Romans. To put the fear of God in you.
He watches you undress for the first time, sees the sticky-white film in your black panties as you slip them down your legs. You ball them in a fist and throw them in the corner, crawling up the bed, dripping with desire. With a grimace on his face, he tells you, I don’t think that’s normal. That stuff in your underwear. Maybe you need to shower more. You feel like he has just socked you in the belly with his fist. You go bone dry between the legs, hang like a rag doll in his arms. He groans, You're so tight, like it’s a compliment, an honor. You want to tell him that isn’t how vaginal muscles work, but you don't. Finally, he finishes and leaves, and you never speak to him again. Every time you shower, you will impulsively scrub yourself raw with antibacterial soap, pretty pink bottles that promise you a healthy PH balance, and spray perfume between your legs after towel drying. It takes 7 years and chronic yeast infections for your OBGYN to finally get the story out of you, your body heaving in a sob as you tell her how dirty it made you feel.
Whenever you talk about sex, your mother looks at you like you’ve grown four heads. The women in your family exist within a personal mythos of women-empowerment-but-socially-conditioned-sex-shaming where women that enjoy sex are irrevocably whores. In the living room, your cousins and aunts start talking about a horrendous picture they saw online of a “clit dick.” Pushing your way into the conversation, you mention that some women can have a naturally large clitoris and that it’s also perfectly normal in queer communities if someone has started testosterone to medically transition. Faces scowl into a grimace and suddenly everyone has turned to you to say, “Ew, don’t say that word—it’s dirty.”Clitoris.
Your mother squats down in a blue-wash pair of denim jeans. She is holding a green plastic tube between her legs trying to teach you how to insert a tampon. This is the first time you have ever heard the words vagina, lips, labia. You tell her you don't have the same parts, the same holes. At least, you don't think so. Ten years later, your friends talk about vibrators and cock rings over mimosas and omelets, so openly and flippantly like they’re menu items. They’re shocked you have never tried them. You don’t even know where people buy those at, but you find out. You order a vibrator on the internet and hide the contraband in your nightstand. It remains untouched for five months until another friend recommends masturbation to get rid of endometriosis cramps and stress headaches. You’re still trying to believe that women actually masturbate. Another two months go by before you find the courage to try.
You can feel the questions coming before the words leave your lips: “HOW?” “I don’t believe you!?” “You lived together for how long and didn’t have sex?” “Was it a religion thing?” The women in the office start talking over each other, staring back at you like a caged zoo animal: you waited until you were married? No matter who you tell, they all ask the same questions, assuming you were a prude or repressed for wanting to wait. Images of your wedding night flash across your eyes. Your mother, who covers her eyes during sex scenes in movies and never gave you a birds and the bees talk, scatters rose petals in your honeymoon bed, stocks the fridge with energy drinks and chocolate covered strawberries, and drapes cheap, scratchy, purple lace lingerie from a sex store by the Navy base over the bathroom door. It takes several years of marriage for you to learn that sex isn’t just about the men.
The first time you really felt damned was when a Methodist pastor told you, “if you’re gonna go to hell, don’t take her down with you.” At the ripe age of 13, the Catholic church asks you not to come back to the congregation. You keep your faith, tiptoeing through different congregations and the always-present scowls. In school, the boys treat you like a personal encyclopedia or unpaid anatomy teacher because you know and love women’s bodies better than some women do themselves. One guy wants to know why he keeps hurting his girlfriend during sex when he hits something, and you get the pleasure of explaining what a cervix is to a group of eager teenage boys. Another guy with a girlfriend of his own admits that he finds your girlfriend attractive. When he finds out that you’re together, his lip starts quivering. You think he might cry, but he doesn't. I’m going to put my dick in her soft and watch it get hard. The words burn themselves into your memory.
You are looking for the sexiest cat costume on the rack. Each year, Halloween is your little escape into femininity—just for a night. You convince your mom that all the boys in class are dressing up as cats, and she shrugs it off: boys will be boys. As you get older, you start cross dressing behind closed doors, hiding the clothes at the back of your closet like they are something you should be embarrassed about. Even after you start to transition, the dating apps are a quick reminder that your body is a fetish—an object for men, a box on a checklist, something they just haven’t tried yet. Porn only reinforces it, slandering and misgendering the women in the videos like some freakshow distortion of cis-hetero porn.
You’re sipping on a vodka lemonade at the only bar in town, in the safe company of friends. Shopping for groceries, going out for dinner, simply existing in a small town is so hard after a scandal. The goosebumps on your arms memorize the pointing hands and whispers. After being married to your ex-husband for ten years and having two kids, you came out to everyone and started dating a woman. At the bar, a man that knows your ex-husband starts flirting with one of your friends. Then he directs his attention at you: I don’t think you’re really a lesbian. You’re just looking for attention. You’re a fucking idiot for leaving such a good man. The words blur together into a drunken rage. You can see the ink on his arms that your ex-husband tattooed onto his skin as you imagine the needles stabbing him over and over and over again.
The words, stories, and images overlap and contradict each other in a million nebula strings, fuse and shatter from narrative into poetry and back into memoir. Confused bodies. Tears. Shame. Parents that yell, scream, beat their children for exploring their bodies. Churches that cast out and rebuke entire populations. Partners that poke and prod at bruises slowly forming under skin not yet made tough by society. Teachers that flat out lie, miseducate, and misinform developing brains and bodies. State funding to women’s clinics that provide free education and bodily autonomy is repeatedly cut, shrunken, reduced, redirected. This sprawling social monster eats at a collective consciousness that transcends gender presentation, race, and sexuality. How do we rewrite the social narrative so that women, queer, and nonbinary people feel comfortable in their bodies, sexuality, and eroticism?
We rewrite the body, rewrite the story of ourselves, one interview and memory at a time.
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