This is the last essay in Anatomy Of A Mango, a series where Dani peels back the sweet, tart layers that have led to her “fruitful”, healthy sexuality.
When I was a young girl, my mother caught me touching myself under the covers when I was supposed to be asleep. I say touching myself, but I mean it in a way that is non-sexual. I was mystified by my vulva. It did not make sense to me. My arms I understood, my legs I understood, my eyes I understood. My vulva was a different texture to the rest of the skin I had come to know. This part of my body not covered by my smooth brown skin or hair. Every night I would explore it: folding up my labia and unraveling it in my hands. Trying to figure out why it was outside of my body instead of in. It was my fun, night time, solo activity.
When my mother caught me, she acted swiftly and with violence. She squeezed my wrist and demanded to know what I was doing. I wouldn’t tell her, it was my secret. Badgering me for the truth, she continued to yell in my face and ask me what I was doing. I wouldn’t give in because I knew she would take it away from me. She finally grabbed my wrist, smelled my hand, and knew. I slept on the top bunk and she dragged me down and into the bathroom, cursing all the way, calling me nasty. I remember being afraid but not surprised, it was another day of enduring her meanness and cruelty. I learned at a young age that I couldn’t do much right. My memory cuts out after this, I don’t know if I was met with more violence but I’m sure I was.
Though it had brought me immense satisfaction and happiness to play in this way, I became afraid of my body. For my mother to react that way, what could it be between my legs?
This moment scarred me irreparably for years. I stopped my nightly routine then. Though it had brought me immense satisfaction and happiness to play in this way, I became afraid of my body. For my mother to react that way, what could it be between my legs? Why was it evil enough to warrant physical harm? Though my mother had purchased many of those educational, “don’t be ashamed of your body” books, she had violated my curiosity. I hid the books away and cringed when we skimmed over anatomy in health. When I showered, I kept my eyes averted from my body and refused to linger what I deemed “too long” on certain body parts. Once, the stream of the showerhead lightly passed over my vulva and hit my clitoris and I jumped and shrieked at the sensation. The pleasure felt sinful.
So much of the perception of my body was tied up in Christian concepts of good and evil. My mother’s reaction to my inquisitive nature was a sign that my body was evil, and in order to stay pure, I needed to avoid it.
It took me a while to undo the damage my mother had done, and once I did I was able to view my body as my own, and not in the possession of others.
I finally did begin to explore again my sophomore year of college. For Christmas, my best friend took me to Adult Mart to buy a vibrator.
We had spent the evening having dinner with our dates and friends and then parted to go to Adult Mart with her girlfriend and the rest of the crew. As we walked over, I expected to be met with a tall, brimming building with huge, flashing neon signs that read ADULTMART! PERVERTS ENTER HERE!! but instead approached a sliver of a building with an innocent brick front. The lean stairs led up and out into a wide showroom with wall to wall sex. There were whips and paddles, dildos, harnesses, and video pornography. I felt scandalized and giddy all at once.
My best friend led me to the vibrator wall and my eyes were immediately drawn to a silicone, purple vibrator with a little butterfly wing attachment that was for “clitoral stimulation.” I pulled it off the wall and grabbed a pack of AA batteries to go with it.
The next day I sat up in my room and had my first orgasm. My legs shot up in the air like I was in a cartoon and had been knocked out.
The next day I sat up in my room and had my first orgasm. My legs shot up in the air like I was in a cartoon and had been knocked out. My eye twitched and my stomach fluttered. The explosion of sensation and ecstasy was so much that I almost bit a hole through my lip to keep from screaming. The feeling was astronomical, I felt like I wielded a supernatural power. The next couple weeks of winter break were spent stealing batteries from the remotes in the house. I was ravenous for orgasms and probably drove my family out of their minds in the process.
Having my first orgasm was revelatory. I became so incredibly interested in my vulva, what it looked like, the shape and length of my labia, how my clitoris responded to stimulation. Masturbation was a place of inhibition and freedom for me. It was my first step toward reconceptualizing my idea of my body as my own. I still felt a little sinful, but most of that feeling dissipated once I was back in the habit of masturbating. Somehow, when I started having sex with other people, the story changed.
My first time having sex with another person, I had to get drunk in order to find the confidence to share my body with them. It was a wonderful experience, but looking back, I would have loved to have been sober for it. The experience, while vibrant, was curved in some places, buffed out of my memory. I bottomed my first time, but I remember the urgency with which I threw myself into her, took off her clothes, tried to hide in her body. Bottoming is a very vulnerable act, to let someone pleasure you is to put the body into sharp focus. I couldn’t bear it without the haze of alcohol. Those first sexual experiences with women, I was often near a blackout drunk because I was in that bottoming position. I was still learning how to please and pleasure a woman and so relied on their guidance. Once I found my footing in the world of lesbian sex, I quickly learned that the best way for me to feel safe was to take a more dominant role and control the situation.
When I was a senior in college, I got the chance to hook up with someone I had a crush on when I was a freshman. She had graduated and moved on to different opportunities that I didn’t have the wherewithal to learn. I was of a singular mind in those days, and I was set on hooking up with her after she had rejected me when I was too young for her. We were at a bodypaint party when two of our friends, a couple, started hooking up in the same room as us. We took this as a cue to spend some time on our own as well. We went outside to the side of the house, slowly moving our bodies against each other in the dark, kissing and making promises to bring each other to ecstasy.
Once we got back to my dorm room, a different story unfolded. I was still young and had assumed that a partner presenting as masc meant they would want to be a top: this was not the case. After running to the bathroom to freshen up, I was surprised to find her sprawled naked on my bed in a coy, feminine posture, her eyes cat-like and enticing. “I want you to fuck me” she declared in a sumptuous voice that almost came out as a growl. My heart jumped in excitement, I was ready to do the work.
I assumed the position on my knees and began to pleasure her with my hands and my mouth, I remember being guided by the principle of doing what sounded like it felt good. I asked questions, got consent. When she moaned or screamed, I kept doing the thing that elicited that reaction, feeling my focus sharpen like a knife as I lay on my belly, watching her writhe and purr. With every new move I tried she melted, and with that, I felt a confidence and assuredness in my capabilities.
After a while of giving, I was ready to receive and asked if she would mind switching positions. I’ll never forget the tone of her voice when she replied, “Sorry, I don’t eat hairy pussy.” I was stunned and frankly, ashamed.
After a while of giving, I was ready to receive and asked if she would mind switching positions. I’ll never forget the tone of her voice when she replied, “Sorry, I don’t eat hairy pussy.” I was stunned and frankly, ashamed. I had never encountered a woman who had refused to go down on me because of my body hair and I certainly wasn’t going to hop up and shave after that. The moment made me flashback to the scene with my mother– someone else dictating what was and wasn’t appropriate with my body. It had made me angry, but I quickly snapped out of it, not wanting her to have a bad time because of me. I went back to bring her to orgasm again and again and would wake up with her the next morning, never addressing what had transpired between us.
This interaction colored the rest of my sexual experiences after. I was a Women’s Studies minor and what I considered to be a devoted feminist, so I wasn’t going to shave on account of one person. But I did continue to take the role as a top during sex from then on. I didn’t want another person to shame me, to know my body intimately enough to have the power to shame me. Taking my clothes off during sex was a feat. I often got my shirt and bra off then stopped after that, not wanting to expose what was between my legs due to fear of an adverse reaction. Sex became a space for me to not be a body, and with the aid of alcohol and drugs, I abandoned myself entirely.
When I started entering the world of sex and dating even more after college, I found that I only explored my own wants and desires within the confines of my own mind and during solo masturbation sessions. Sex with others wasn’t much about what I wanted, even though I took a dominant role. This was never more evidenced than during my “relationship” with C. C and I had a tense, sexually charged relationship that started with us innocently drinking wine and would end after hours of sex with us standing outside my apartment, smoking cigarettes at the bus stop as I pretended to be a stone-cold dyke with no feelings who didn’t really care about her.
During sex, I would top her, and then when she tried to please me I would push her away; when she wanted to do things I considered too intimate I would shift the focus toward her desire again. We once had a terse struggle for dominance in which she grabbed my face and begged me to look into her eyes while I fucked her. I couldn’t do it, I could barely let her kiss me on my mouth. In a space of dominance, I could relax knowing I wasn’t the focus. That I could direct my attention on another woman’s body, enjoying her curves and signs she was enjoying what I did to her.
In many ways, my sexual relationships mirrored my relationship with my mother. Everything about me was secondary: my thoughts, my emotions, my wants. My mother was a very domineering force who commanded the love and affection of others, she was a magnet that many people were drawn to or were in the service of. As her daughter, I was one of those people who were in her service. Everything I did was to get a positive reaction out of her, to earn her love. I disappeared when I was with her and became an extension of her personhood. During that scene with her in my bedroom, I learned that my body wasn’t mine, that anything I did to explore myself was forbidden and dirty. It made it easier for people to take advantage of me when I was a young girl and made it easy for me to slip in and out of whatever personality I needed to when I became an adult.
Because of the positive affirmation I received during sex, I began to believe it was all I was good for. When people wanted me, I assumed that meant that whatever I felt was irrelevant; my job was to provide joy for other people, and so I did.
Because of the positive affirmation I received during sex, I began to believe it was all I was good for. When people wanted me, I assumed that meant that whatever I felt was irrelevant; my job was to provide joy for other people, and so I did. I gave myself to a lot of people in that way, only turning someone down occasionally for odd reasons. More often than not I pushed myself further than I was willing to go in these situations and found myself feeling uncomfortable or violated afterward. Sometimes, my reputation caused trouble in the relationship I was in for almost two years. I liked being wanted, it made me feel good, but I found it hard to say no to people when I was in a committed relationship. I flirted endlessly, sent nudes back and forth with women. When my partner wanted to get closer emotionally I found myself wrestling with an internal dialogue not to trust her, that I could turn my love for her off if I needed to, that I was only useful as a sex object and not someone to truly love. She was one of the few people I did trust enough to let her touch me in very intimate ways, but that intimacy often terrified me.
The first person I began to explore my own body with was H, who I talked about in the second essay in this series, Flesh. For some reason, the fact that H was a total stranger to me made it easier to let my guard down, and focus on being catered to. It helped that H was incredibly sexy and skillful — once their tongue touched me I began to melt almost instantly. What I remember the most about that interaction other than the orgasm was my staring up at the ceiling, tightly gripping the bedsheets. I hadn’t shaved and this person was getting a full view of the very thing I had spent years trying to run from. My breath caught in my throat as I tried to relax into the situation, hoping to overcome the cacophony of voices in my head telling me that trying to feel pleasure was useless and I needed to put a stop to this whole thing. H was kind, checked in, was very communicative about what they liked and did not like. I found their confidence comforting and was excited to see them the next time they were in town.
I met my ex shortly after I had hooked up with H, and stayed pretty exclusive in that relationship to its end, and so when I came out of that breakup I was ready to explore myself more. A lot of that occurred during masturbation: I took a few months celibacy stint after getting sober and wanted to refocus my energy on what I wanted, and not what others wanted of me. Masturbation became such a healing space for me, I was in control of my fantasies and the pace/rate at which I could have an orgasm or not have one at all. I could revisit really hot past experiences or make up whole new people that I would want to sleep with.
Sometimes, after masturbating, I would return to that place of play. Just resting my palms over my labia to feel its warmth, slowly touching and exploring it, the clitoral hood, becoming curious again. I needed to learn that I was in possession of a body that I could do what I wanted with, but that I wasn’t just this body. I was more than just the things that had been forbidden to me. When I shared myself with other people, I had to remember that because I was entering into an intimate space with them, I had a right to pleasure as well. Masturbation provided a unique, hyper self-focused place for me to gain back the autonomy I had lost.
I needed to learn that I was in possession of a body that I could do what I wanted with, but that I wasn’t just this body. I was more than just the things that had been forbidden to me.
I don’t want to write this and make it sound like all the sex I had was bad, that having sex with lots of people you don’t know is bad. Being a sexually free woman is a great source of empowerment in my life. Where I went wrong was that I was using the other person as a means to disappear and to not have to reckon with my personhood. Being my own person felt impossible on its own, but when I had to do it in sexual experiences it was downright scary. My mother’s perception of the kind of girl, woman, and person I should be still clouded my own actions and self-judgments.
On bad days, it still does. I recently had an intimate interaction with someone who I didn’t like, but I kept going because this person was into me and I didn’t want to disappoint them. There were many moments along where I could have brought the situation to a halt, but I blew through every stop sign, again, not wanting to be the source of someone else’s “bad time.” I used to think back on these experiences with great shame. How could I not say “no” to someone I didn’t even want? Was I so damaged as a person that I couldn’t even communicate what I needed in a situation as fraught as sex? These questions went on and on in my head and would often wear me down. In this situation, I decided to cut things off with that person and to focus my energy on pursuing people I was really into. I haven’t met anyone I’m super into yet, but I’m looking forward to getting to know these people. Been heavy on tinder in these quarantine days and ready to risk it all!
The seed of a mango is nestled snuggly inside of its pit. I didn’t realize this until recently when I watched a woman separate the seed from the pit with her hands, struggling mightily with each layer removed. Every part of our personalities has a seed, a root that is at the core of our motivations. The seed, of course, is the reason things grow, the reason we bare fruit and flower. Sometimes, if the seed planted is toxic or harmful, it can bare spoiled fruit. The event with my mother was a seed that spurned into an unhealthy relationship with my body, which led to sexual relationships that weren’t fruitful. This is a seed that is implanted in me forever. It has grown into what it has grown into, my job now is to do the work of tending to the rest of my garden, planting different seeds, ones that will sprout into bright orange, sinfully tasty fruit. I’m planting seeds for myself that will blossom into the trees I contend with for the rest of my life, so it is my job to care for them with good intentions and healthy boundaries.
This seed of shame that was implanted in me, what do I do with it now? That shame, while I’ve worked on it immensely, still pops up in my life. It usually rears its head in the moments after sex and masturbation, an impulse to not make noise or to immediately “button up” after the orgasm is over, as if I don’t want to be caught naked and vulnerable. The moments after ecstasy, from someone hearing your sex sounds to seeing your face, are a different kind of nakedness. In some ways, giving someone the power to pleasure you is also giving them the power to hurt you — the two are not so far from each other. I realize now that this is the root of my shame; it is protecting me from being caught like I was as a child. It keeps me alert and vigilant, protected me from what I assume will lead to violence. I have to fight that impulse now and remind myself that I am safe, and that I can let the walls tumble, especially in my most intimate moments with myself. I will always struggle with being afraid to be my fully realized self, in sex and in life, but it is through my writing about it and confronting it that I begin to win that battle a little more every time.