There I was, sitting in the windowsill. Everyone was laughing. I was laughing with them. I was home from my first semester of college, and by college, I mean Brigham Young University, a conservative, religious institution with strict rules of moral conduct. BYU students are routinely kicked out for having premarital sex, drinking alcohol, “exhibiting homosexual behavior,” and for various other moral transgressions. Combine my current educational experience with my years of swallowing doctrine and internalizing my own personal guilt quilt, and all my physical walls were up and my doors were triple locked.
As a result, I was indoctrinated into the belief that all men are predators. And by predators, of course, I mean they are technologically-advanced extraterrestrial hunters that bleed luminescent green blood. If I interacted with said predator, I would obviously get pregnant. As such, even touching this man-beast, even say letting him comb my hair (because all men want to comb women’s hair, right?), I would arouse him and I’d ultimately be responsible for whatever happened. Seriously, folks, this is the cautionary story a BYU religion teacher told the class. Something about random students sitting on the grounds of the Provo, Utah Mormon temple. As they sat on their blankets, the boys were obviously combing the girls’ hair. And as the combed the beautiful locks, the boys became aroused (obviously). This totally weird story only served to reenforce my firmly held belief, which was that touching men or letting a man touch me, even in the most seemingly innocent way, would cause us both to sin.
Once I had aroused the predator, my actions clearly would cause both he (the predator) and me (the provocative prey) to be thrust straight into hell, or better, be called out by a BYU peer-informant, and then excommunicated from our church — which really seemed worse than actually going to hell. Then (and if you are still following), sprinkle in a little childhood sexual abuse, and me being the youngest child (meaning plenty of opportunities to witness my older sibings’ makeout sessions), so I promise you, no one was unlocking my kissing doors, or any other part of my body.
For proof of my deadbolt status, just ask the boy from that one church dance. Finally, at the end of the night, he put his arm around me, held his face close to mine, leaning in like he was going to tell me a secret. Then he promptly stuck his tongue into my ear. He actually did whisper,
“Beth, you have been flirting with me for months. You told me you liked me and wanted to kiss me. What’s up?”
(Ok. In fairness to consent, I did tell him I wanted to kiss him — and I had been telling him this for months.) And he should have asked me before sticking his slimy tongue into my ear. YET, the bottom line is this: Go easy on him. He was respectful, and I did want him to kiss me.
There were other boys I wanted to kiss. So in response to these cute boys and slimy-tongue guy, I say the words I could not say back then:
“Please know that the stakes were way too high. I really really wanted to kiss you. I thought about it. I even practiced kissing you on the side of my hand. In truth, I had no idea how to get past my firm belief that touching you would arouse you, arousing you would be my fault and that we would both go to hell — again because of my carnal desires. Forgive me.”
That is why I knew that all men were sharks. Naturally, all logic told me that the water I was standing in was only two feet deep. You cannot trick me. I was also told about hell and sin and unwanted pregnancy. And when I learned about hell, I learned that you sharks would lead me there. It is true. Instead, you looked more like a cute koi fish, but I knew you were great whites, at least that is what I had been told. You sharks can kill me, (or at least make me lose my eternal salvation). Needless to say, here is what I was thinking way back when: right in the moment, you know that moment when your eyes lock with mine, as you move your face closer to mine, all the while holding me closer, thoughts consume and circle round me. In the tone of a very inexperienced Lady MacBeth, I think, “Out damn spot!” I feel evil and am now convinced you are too. My thoughts swim, “maybe tongue-in-my-ear dude and the rest of you cute koi boys, well maybe, you are sharks. Are you a shark? Yes. You are cute. I want your lips to touch mine. You cannot fool me. I know you are a shark. You will eat me and it will be my fault.” The moment is gone. I pull away — afraid. As you walk me to my car, or shout to me from your dorm window, I nervously giggle and tell you, “let’s kiss tomorrow,” and we never do.
I only wish my kissing fears had started with these cute boys (sharks). They did not. I told you it was a long road. I have three older sisters. All three of them, (at least from my [young] vantage point), knew how to hold hands and offer affection. They were kissing pros. Additionally, they had perfect hair, well placed teal blue eye liner and hickies they could cover with heart turtlenecks. In fact, I spent many years idolizing their smooth moves and cool ways. Often, because we had this rule that you could not date until you were sixteen, I was the third wheel on their dates. Yes, I was the instrument that enabled my parents to feel safe about my sisters being alone with boys. What this meant is that I spent many of those “dates” hanging out, and obscuring myself while said sister and her boyfriends made out. As I tried not to watch, I was always horrified when I caught a glimpse of the occasional tongue or passionate grasp. And honestly, I was not horrified by what they were doing. I was horrified about my ability to measure up: how would I be able to perfect these moves with such skill and finesse? “Daunting.” I thought. I was daunted!
Let me roll the clock back a little further. There I was. I had just finished the sixth grade. There was a pool table set up in our garage. Somehow the neighbor boy and I were also alone in this very garage. I had been told (I am not positive if it is true), that he had “dated” my two older sisters. He was a year older than me. I knew he liked Elvis and hot rods. I was impressed that he “dated” older women (my sisters). At the end of our game he said,
“Beth, I want to be your boyfriend.”
I was like, “Um, yes. Totally.”
Then I said something totally smooth (NOT) about keeping our love in the family. I stood by the door that led into the house. As the words left his mouth, then mine, I quietly freaked out. I knew the phrase, “my boyfriend” meant we had to kiss. I wish you could feel my fear. Imagine a great white coming at you (those who have been bitten by sharks, please forgive my insensitive analogy). Ok. You are in the middle of the ocean. Your leg is bleeding. You know the shark will get you and bite your freaking leg off. That is how I felt as my new “boyfriend” edged closer. I really wanted to kiss him (even at age 12), but how? Instead I bolted for the door and ran into the house, I never kissed him, even when he tried. Eventually, I think we broke up, or better, we stopped speaking. He was actually very nice. I remember when I was like 6 or 7, he made me cinnamon toast and then we (age-appropriately) hung out in his tent.
As all my included evidence suggests, I was terrified of men. In all seriousness, I was actually terrified about what I had been taught about men. Regardless of the input-pathway, I started to believe that men would get me pregnant, make me sin and lead me to hell (or the lowest kingdom of glory and I would never ever see my family again). As a result, it felt more comfortable hanging out and opening up to women. Women were never sexualized. I was never told a woman would get me pregnant or cause my eternal damnation. I also never had to worry about kissing them. Though my first college roommate, years later expressed, (well her partner, now wife, proclaimed), that my roommate once had a huge crush on me. I loved her. She was rad (still is). I thought we were friends. I did not want to kiss her. It never occurred to me. And because it was not sexual, she felt safe. I only wish I had also felt safer with men.
While many of my high school friends were having sex for the first time, I was eager to have my first kiss. Alas, as my title suggests, I finally did. There I was. Back home during the break after my first semester of college. My high school best friend had invited me to a party. She was attending the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, which I will declare is the antithesis of Brigham Young University. Instead of moral codes and fears of hell fire and damnation, there were coed dorms, cigarette butts in the hallways, liberal expressions and progressive ideas. At this party, there were drugs, alcohol and clove cigarettes. 1980’s alternative band, The Cure’s, “Boys Don’t Cry” was playing in the background. I caught someone’s eye. I did not know him. He had beautiful curly brown, shoulder-length hair. I think my friends called him “Chuckles,” either because he laughed a lot or maybe his name was Charles. I really do not remember. He was attractive, but not intimidatingly so. He had been drinking. I did not drink. As we talked he asked if I wanted to go to his house. He lived just down the street. He was also a student and seemed to know many of the same people my friends did. I was blinded by my commitment to have my first kiss before I turned nineteen. Thus, I dove in head first, took a deep breath and went with him. Honestly, his house was cool. It was an old victorian with beautiful wooden floors. Once inside the living room, he showed me his record collection. It was massive. Like he had over 2,000 albums on vinyl, or at least that is what I imagine. Like a line out of a cheesy RomCom, he said he wanted to play me his favorite song. I don’t expect you to know it. I will never forget it. It is from the band This Mortal Coil. The title of the song is “Song to the Siren.” I heard the needle scratch and the music began to play. The music was angsty, stunning and beautiful. He walked up to me. I felt panicked. We locked eyes. Then I looked away. Of course my mind was flooded with thoughts about sharks and hell and predators. I really wanted to run. Instead, I willed myself in place. He moved closer. He looked at me and told me I was pretty. He held my face and said he liked talking with me. I was terrified. Then he put his mouth to mine and inserted his tongue. I almost collapsed.
“What do I do? No. Really? What do I do? Am I doing it right?” I thought.
He gently and clumsily moved his tongue around. I did the same. He did not complain. Consequently, I imagined everything was ok. Eventually my panicked subsided and kissing began to feel nice.