Of course I had seen a naked woman before. As a child, I’d flipped through the pages of my older sister’s European fashion magazines where small-breasted models posed languidly on uncomfortable surfaces in black-and-white. I had entertained myself with the Technicolor genitalia illustrations in my grandmother’s medical textbooks that made the crude machinery of the human body look bright and beautiful. I had caught flashes of porno films being played on hand-me-down television sets at college parties. The bleached and waxed and puckered actors were as titillating as oiled-up rubber chickens, a ridiculous sight gag. And, obviously, I had seen my own body, which by my 20s had become like a well-studied map of a foreign country — a land familiar, boring even, yet strange, distant.
But inside Penthouse’s pages was the first time I had intimately viewed the intricate underworld of a female genitalia in all its slippery, complexly layered glory. A close-up shot of a woman’s vagina, or vulva, as new-wave feminists might prefer I call it, was what the Penthouse editors liked to call a “kidney shot,” for its almost medical, vaginal-speculum view. I stared in horror at the varying lengths and shapes of the fake-tanned models’ labia minora — some twice the length of the red, fleshy lobes that hang underneath a turkey’s neck, while others were less generous and remained tucked neatly inside their relentlessly groomed, almost sparkly, outer parts.
Faced with this new visual perspective, my supposed adult knowledge of my own gender’s genital landscape was reduced to a bewildered pre-adolescent curiosity. What is that weird hanging thing? Images that might have been tantalizing for a blue-collar man in the Midwest, Penthouse’s much-researched demographic, were, for me, a confusing lesson on the sum of my lady parts. Like a 3-year-old first discovering her belly button, I sat in my new cubicle panicking that there might be something dreadfully wrong with my anatomy — gone unnoticed for all these years. Then, I took my pencil to a photo of a brunette displaying her anus, with a pull quote above her head that declared, “I’m a perky, small-town daddy’s girl,” and added a period.
I came to work at Penthouse in 2007, two years after I had graduated from college and moved to New York, where I was in search of the kind of life I had once seen in a soft-focus flashback on “Madonna: Behind the Music”: Financial hardship made glamorous with the right amount of imagination, profound delusion and spandex leggings. As much as I would have liked for all of my fashionable suffering to culminate in a triumphant pop song, I was no Madonna. Instead, I was a rhinestone-denim peddler living in a roach-infested one-bedroom apartment with two roommates. The meaninglessness of my life, however thoughtfully cultivated the very unmeaning of it was, began to sink in.
So I set out to live up to the “Best Reader” award I had won in fourth grade. As a student, reading aloud chapters from my textbooks as if I were auditioning for a part in the Globe Theatre’s production of “Macbeth” was my greatest and only academic ambition. I would finish a passage on photosynthetic plants to a classroom-wide standing ovation — and then fail the test. With this singular skill as my weapon, I interviewed for over a dozen editorial positions. All of which rejected me, from no-name publishing houses to a stint as the personal assistant to a famously pretentious editor in chief of a major pop-culture magazine.
I met in the surprisingly modest office of an editor who looked more law office than alternative magazine. He explained to me that they were looking for the kind of person who has the confidence to “schmooze with Elton John.” At this point, things weren’t looking good, as I scarcely had enough confidence to meet eyes with my coffee-cart guy. He took a good look at me, his face so struck with disgust that it nearly folded in on itself, and asked, “Why would you want this job?” Taking my mother’s ill-fated “A Chorus Line”–inspired interview advice, I responded, with such desperate enthusiasm that exclamation points were practically pouring out of my mouth, “Well, this is my dream job!”
As I was leaving their offices, passing Andy Warhol screen print after Andy Warhol screen print, I looked down at myself to double-check that, yes, after such an ego-crushing experience, indeed, I still existed. I scanned my sartorial choice of a gray wool vest layered over a pirate-style blouse and came to the frightening realization that I was dressed more like Paula Poundstone during her 1990s comedy tour than the intellectual-yet-adorably-befuddled Annie Hall look I was attempting. I walked toward busy Broadway Street, the corners of my mouth reaching down to my feet, an unbearable weight. Then I escaped into the subway entrance and wept.
It was by sheer force of my naiveté that I continued on this hopeless employment prowl, clueless to how positively middle-class my résumé must have looked next to all the Columbias, Vassars and Von-peppered last names vying for a cubicle in the privilege- and pedigree-laden publishing industry. What, with my slew of schlubby service-industry jobs and a desperation-tinged cover letter that ended, melodramatically, with the line: “I am eager. I am talented. I will not disappoint you.” Unfortunately, my exemplary aptitude for seating individuals in a fast-paced environment and a flair for dramatic pauses via periods did not impress anyone in the Condé Nast building.
Then, one night, I came across an opening for a copy editor position at Penthouse magazine. Sure, I pondered my lack of porn experience, then rationalized that no one walked into the interview, shouting, “Hire me, I am very experienced in pornography. I watch it all the time!” I pondered my budding feminism — what would Gloria Steinem think? Well, she did disguise herself as a Playboy Bunny once. This could be my feminist experiment, I thought. Though, sadly, it would be more of an experiment in above-minimum-wage employment.
I sent in my résumé. And two weeks later, I was hired.
At first appearance, the Penthouse offices were painfully corporate. To my disappointment, there were no windows swathed in red velvet curtains or naked people serving piña coladas in the lobby. There was just the ubiquitous labyrinth of cubicles under zit-accentuating fluorescent light. But what made these cubicles unique was that they looked equipped for an Armageddon where survivors would rely heavily on back issues of pornography, phallic figurines and Krispy Kreme doughnuts. The office was never short of doughnuts, which were to be eaten intermittently throughout the day. When I once inquired to my desk mate about possible gym benefits, he responded, simply, “Have you seen the people who work here?”
The women in the office referred to him as “French Press.” Every day, he carefully journeyed from the kitchen to his desk, carrying a French Press full of freshly ground coffee. This sight, combined with his mother-appropriate handsomeness and penchant for gentlemanly manners, lent an entirely inappropriate air of class to the office. “Can you believe this story? He had sex with three girls who were on their periods. Consecutively!” He once whisper-shouted to me while clutching his imaginary pearls. French Press had graduated from an elite journalism school and seemed perpetually dumbfounded to be critiquing terrible erotica for a living. I, on the other hand, was absolutely thrilled to be an editor of a magazine. Even if that magazine showcased women licking each other’s butt cracks.
With each story, I strived to find new and inventive synonyms, like “cobra” and “hot bread box,” respectively, for the male and female genitals. I rearranged misshapen sentence after sentence of women casually showing off “wax jobs” and announcing “ram me” to strange men after their weekly karate classes, under the tables at desolate Chinese restaurants, or during routine dental examinations. I did not know whether to laugh at their charmless lack of self-awareness, cry for the demise of humanity, or masturbate.
Wedged between girl-on-girl fetishization and reviews of triple-X movies with titles like “Full Metal Jackoff,” Penthouse did offer wholesome fare. Like sports, something I’ve always been naturally pitiable at: serving volleyballs backward over my head and finishing last in races, once even behind an egg-shaped child who had fainted mid-lap. And it appeared that my grasp of sports journalism was equally as pathetic. After reviewing my edit of the tediously boring, statistics-heavy “Game Time” section, the managing editor pulled me into an empty office to tear my copyediting skills a new asshole, as if I hadn’t already been so well versed in them that I now considered myself a sphincter scholar. “I’m so sorry, but I know absolutely nothing about football,” I said. It wasn’t until the second galley arrived on my desk, aided by an image of a slam-dunk, that I realized the article was about basketball.
To say that Penthouse was an unlikely place for me to begin my career would be an understatement. If there were an opposite of pornography, it would have been me. I had spent almost a quarter-of-a-century as a virgin who couldn’t say the word “sex” without spelling it out. “You had what? S-E-X!” I would often say to my college roommates, completely shaken by scandal. As an eight-year Catholic school attendee, I received my sex education from a nun who used sketches of splayed cats to teach us the male and female genitalia diagrams. And the only sexual clout I ever had came from a pair of anatomically correct, lifelike baby dolls, complete with gruesome umbilical cord stumps, which my normally prudish mother inexplicably bought me, inspiring awe and jealously among my peers. I was 6.
While thankfully I had outgrown the urge to unsnap my doll’s onesie before a crowd of gasping schoolchildren, I was now complicit in a much more unseemly form of exploitation. It was not lost on me that I was participating in the kind of degradation that reduces female sexuality to a cartoonish parody. Penthouse’s one-dimensional portrayal of femininity was, of course, painfully homogenous, often insulting and downright silly, but it was also brazen, unashamed. And in turn, it made me feel less bashful about my own body. What porn severely lacks in creativity and diversity, it makes up for in subversion and moxie — there’s a refreshing fearlessness in spreading your cheeks to the world, no matter your labia size, airbrushed warts and all.
It seemed that I was just one more pinched nipple away from wearing a satin paisley smoking jacket to the office and dangling a Bic pen from my lip as if it were a pipe, when I was next hired at, of all places, a teen magazine. An unusually free-spirited human resources manager had unearthed my résumé from the black hole of Condé Nast’s online submission database. Apparently, the ability to make every sentence shine in stories about cougar orgies and unconventionally placed chilled produce does impress them.
During my first interview, I was asked the question that, despite staring at your résumé, every interviewer asks: “So, where are you now?” I replied, “Penthouse?” posing it like a question in an attempt to take the edge off of the inescapable vulgarity of my statement. Still, though, I felt like I had just admitted that I was a chicken-wing-eating stripper who loves butt sex. She took off her reading glasses, narrowed her eyes at me, and said, “You’re interesting.”
On my last day at Penthouse, I stole nearly a dozen issues in which my name (now forever tainted) appeared on the masthead. I never imagined that I would develop a teary-eyed sentimentality toward kidney shots. Who would? But they had, after all, given me the kind of anatomy lesson the cats never did. As I exited the building, I couldn’t help chanting to myself, Spread your cheeks and fly, young woman. With all of my acrylic-nailed, sexually freewheeling cover girls in tow — Daddy’s-girl Taya, no-frills Ava Rose, psych-major Adrienne — I walked toward busy Broadway. This time, smiling.