strap-on epiphany

In becoming the penetrator, a woman learns to see sex - and the world - through male eyes.


Virginia Vitzthum
January 29, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)


As a Patti Smith-lovin', tomboy-turned-feminist, I've always resisted the notion that being a woman means being submissive. I want to move through the world as the subject not the object, the bee not the flower. And yet I never minded being the girl in bed. Being the one penetrated is so basic I didn't really see it. It was the one part of female destiny I never mourned. This is partly because heterosexual sex never lived up to the dire warnings it came with: that his gain would be my loss; that I'd get attached, enslaved and heartbroken; that I'd end up yesterday's garbage or, if I was lucky, monogamy's ball and chain. Thankfully, sex never felt like the war described by Republicans and mothers.

Sex, those parties say, is something men want and women deny. The boys hear the same message, which makes them ashamed of their filthy urges at the same time it lets them off the hook. Boys will be boys, and if sex happens, it's the girl's fault. Since sex is our responsibility, I realized early on, part of my job was to obviate the shame that men carried into bed. Though that context has eroded considerably over the past 30 years, women's sexual power is still largely that of withholding something that they generally want too. Though politically I resent this ancient, absurd assignment, it does have its sweetness sexually: Submitting is both transgression and absolution, a blessing bestowed and a taboo broken. Even the most confident lover betrays an initial shock and gratitude that he's welcome inside my body.

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Women's hold on the supply side of sex may explain some of the patriarchy's most tenacious tenets: Outspoken, independent women still get tagged as dykes, bitches, dominatrixes. The rape victim -- if she can be portrayed as sexual in any way -- still asked for it. Single women are suspect while they're nubile, and after that they're invisible. But other attitudes lurking in the public sphere can't be traced to the supply and demand of sex -- especially not nowadays, when women generally do give it up to the men they date. Why has contempt for the slut persisted? Why does the military struggle so hard to keep women and gay men out? And why is homophobia as murderously vehement as ever?

Sociological, historical, economic and biological theories of male
domination and privilege don't fully answer those questions. They can't explain the anger and contempt for women and gay men that keeps bubbling up into the culture. The dissonance is sad and baffling, because I like men and often identify with them. Men are straightforward, generally easy to
get along with, and I like having sex with them.

All these contradictions carved out a blind spot, a gap between the personal and the political that made room for what I can only call an epiphany -- a glimpse of something not in me, but out there, pervasive and invisible as air. I had my revelation about the patriarchy when -- I challenge the gentle reader to put this more delicately -- I strapped on a dildo and fucked my boyfriend in the ass.

Before Adam, I'd never considered the business end of a dildo, partly
because I hadn't known a heterosexual man who wasn't utterly cowed by the taboo. I'm not interested in being anally penetrated myself, but I'm not
interested with much less intensity than the noninterested guys I know.
Women have no analogue to the horror -- not universal but widespread among straight men -- of taking it up the butt. It's so frightening that other men's allowing it is an affront. I've heard tolerant, sane men equate anal penetration with castration, an act with the almost magical power to transform men into "bitches" or "little girls." Adam certainly had lugged this baggage around America, too, but managed to set it down so we could have our adventure.

It was autumn when we took up. We were both coming off chilly partners who'd left us frustrated, each convinced we were undesirable, oversexed. We were as grateful as teenagers to find each other, and we spent eight months in a fever state, a long erotic crescendo. We never fell in love; we were not soul mates, but perfect sexual playmates.

From the start, I noticed role reversals outside of bed. I talked more than he did in groups; he would fret later about not being articulate. (But inarticulate men make the best lovers; as Colette said about a reticent paramour, "Speech is not his language.") Adam was vain and fussed more with his hair and clothes and imaginary fat than I did. He was insecure, which
sometimes manifested male, in bragging and resentful ranting. In bed, though, his desire to please went beyond experienced-guy pride in competence and his affection for me. There was something warm and yielding in him, a sexual fantasy looking for a creator. This self-gifting reminded me of Marilyn Monroe. Since I was writing a play, I decided that made me Arthur Miller. I was the smart one and he was the pretty one.

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But he had the medical information that got us thinking. He told me how the prostate gland was, sensation-wise, an extension of the penis and ran right up alongside the rectum. This was revelatory: I had assumed that all the bottoms of the world, men and women, were just good sports. So I'd not done much knocking at my boyfriends' back doors. Adam was initially embarrassed to tell me how erogenous a zone it was for him because, he said, of the homosexual implications. I assured him that, to me, the fact that his body derived pleasure from certain sensations meant only that. His gratitude for such basic tolerance made me wonder about the women who'd come before me.

Meanwhile sex was getting better than I knew sex got. Adam tended me like a gardener, coaxing orgasm after orgasm from my body. He plowed like a champ too; I'd never been fucked so exhaustively. He could reduce me to a small puddle, and from that grateful goo a resolve formed -- to give back. I wanted him to know the joy of being pounded into, rocked and rolled. And now I knew he wanted me inside him. Still it shocked me when, looking down on his high narrow hips while he slept on his stomach, I heard myself think, "I
want to fuck him." It was the first time in all my gender-questioning, sex-experimenting life I'd had such a thought.

A few nights later, we found ourselves shopping in a marital aids boutique. Adam, always thoughtful, wanted something with a knob that would penetrate me while I wore it, but we found no such animal. We settled on a battery-powered vibrating number mounted on rather ghastly "flesh-colored" rubber panties that Velcroed on the side. It was called the Boss. I kept saying, "Are you sure? This is huge," but Adam nodded stoically. As we picked it off the shelf, a male stranger gave Adam a congratulatory pat on
the back that confused both of us. The sales clerk, a perky dyke, tried to put us at ease as we paid (Dutch treat).

We unpacked it back at my house. I decided not to fill out the warranty card. Again, I worried about the size. Adam closed his eyes, angled it out from his lap and grabbed it with a practiced hand. "Mine's wider," he reassured me. It was true, but I couldn't imagine either one buried in my
butt.

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I felt embarrassed and shy as I Velcroed myself in, unsure of how to play the man. We lubed the thing liberally, than Adam got up on his hands and knees. I gingerly poked at him from alpha doggie position; he stopped me and flipped onto his back. He wrapped his legs around my waist, which sent the first shock of non-recognition. What had always felt rather take-charge from below felt completely passive from above, a nervous welcome. The Boss had a weird consistency, so I rolled a condom over it. As Adam reached up
to help, as I had so many times, I felt the second shock. As his hands fluttered around this missile in my lap, he was like a child playing at a grown-up task. I marveled at how much the penetrator drives every part of this act, something that had never been apparent to me as penetratee. Adam's eyes widened as I pushed in slowly, a little at a time, stopping to ask "OK?" every minute or so. His breaths were shallow; he urged me on.

As "my" huge appendage disappeared inside him, his eyes showed shame,
trust, fear and a sort of helpless adoration. In a way I'd never understood those words before, he was mine. The knowledge I could really hurt this person by being less than careful made me feel responsible, protective. The vulnerability appalled me at the same time; it was vaguely
disgusting that he would let someone do this to him. Mixed in with the disgust was possessiveness. The thought of anyone else penetrating him
seemed revolting. These observations clicked into place in quick succession; I felt like a projector being loaded with slides of maleness, of male seeing.

I saw all this as if from a distance, perhaps because my nerve endings weren't involved directly in the drama and perhaps because Adam and I weren't in love. Were souls entwined, I imagine, the Boss would dive much deeper into power, identity, empathy. But my experience was weirdly sociological and clarified much that had confused me. I saw why men feel
entitled to women as possessions, why women must be protected from other men, especially from sex with them. Why a woman's, not a man's, virginity is "lost" and why her sexual activity inspires disrespect. I also felt the allure of a virgin, of being singled out for that gift.

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This view of heterosexual sex looked far less like a mirror than my woman's view. I realized as I fucked Adam that at some of the most connected-feeling moments of my life, I was having an utterly different experience than the man pushing into me. Regardless of who's initiating, who's on top, or who holds what emotional reins, I realized, surrender is at the center of my sexual experience; invasion at my male partner's.

With the Boss, I was conquering, silent, responsible, the taker. With his legs spread, Adam was agreeable, inviting, ashamed, taken. I felt closer to him that night than any other time, because we changed in front of each other's eyes. Parts of ourselves that had been locked away from it engaged in sex for the first time.

The world looks different since then. I was riding up a steep escalator a few weeks after I took Adam's cherry, idly watching the butts up ahead of me as I usually do -- as a pleasing shape. And suddenly a slide clicked over the round female bottom perched above me: Access. Men aren't just admiring the curve of a butt the way women do; they're negotiating access. It's a hill to be taken.

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And men do love access. Clubs, fraternities, committees, old-boy networks -- they've built a world where access is power. They like slit skirts, open-toed shoes, crotchless panties. They like finding a way in. I think the name of the highest-profile condom brand is no accident -- the Trojan Horse was the original tool of access!

Adam and I never took the Boss out on that particular ride again; we both discovered our loyalty to the home teams. That night shook my
heterosexuality much less than it shook my feminism, my wishful thinking about natural similarity. The fuckers are different. Getting in looks male now, and giving in seems female, something I never wanted to believe. Perhaps fucking, or the man's-eye view of it, is the template for much more
of the world than I ever realized. Which is somewhat limiting in the
bedroom and terribly so out in the world. A template offering two choices to nearly 6 billion people is bound to punish, squelch or misrepresent the female tops, the male bottoms, the complexly gendered and everyone else who falls somewhere between a Cosmo quiz and a Desert Storm on the vast continuum between prissy and macho.

But if our differences do stem from sex, what better place to explore what feminine and masculine really mean? Digging around at the roots of those distinctions was not only more fun than a women's study seminar or a lawsuit -- it was more illuminating.


Virginia Vitzthum

Virginia Vitzthum is a writer living in New York.

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