Let Me Smell Your Fingers: A Memoir

Trigger warning: Emotional abuse

It is hard to touch myself when my partner is watching.

It is hard to touch myself when we are having sex, even if he can’t see me do it.

I want to touch myself in front of him. I like it when he tells me to. Telling me to touch myself helps me feel more at ease about doing so. But it is still so hard to let go of my anxiety, to know that it’s okay if he catches me mid-masturbation, that it’s okay for him to watch me over Skype or Google Hangouts.

I have been touching myself for as long as I can remember. I have no memory of the first timeScreen Shot 2017-03-29 at 8.22.28 PM I did it. I do remember, however, that I was constantly getting in trouble for it.

My mother, throwing the door open. My legs untwisting under the sheets, straightening out in front of me as she throws back the covers to see what I’ve been doing.

My legs twisting together in class during a boring lecture, images of kissing a cute boy forming in my mind. My teacher calls my name; I blink away the thoughts and sit up straight. She asks me to stay after class while the other kids go to recess. Everyone looks at me, confused as to what’s going on. Alone together in the room, I stare at the desk, embarrassed, as she asks me if I know what it is I am doing. I say no, wondering if she will tell me, if I will finally get an explanation for what I am feeling. She excuses me to recess without another word. I am confused as to what is happening to me, why I am in trouble.

My grandmother tells me to let her smell my fingers, as if somehow my activities of the previous 10 minutes have left a scent in the room. I look down as I stretch my hand out. She takes a big sniff and scoffs, telling me how much they stink. I am ordered to go wash my hands. 

It is dark and quiet out in our country house. My parents are sleeping in the room above me. Sensuous thoughts flash through my mind as I sneak my hand under the covers, rubbing, humping, exploring my body. The house creaks; the bed upstairs squeaks on its aging hinges as someone rolls over. I freeze, heart pumping, expecting the door to slam open. Surely, through the thick logs of the house and the heavy blankets covering my body, they can smell my fingers, hear them slide over my wet vulva.

I begin to use porn at 13, ever aware of my surroundings. I know the age and speed of the computer I am using, how long it will take to close out of the window, how many steps the nearest adult must take to get to me. The pictures on the screen turn me on, fuel my fantasy and my curiosity, make me yearn to be touched.

Junior high, I am invited to a birthday party. There as three of us there, all girls. They joke and tease and experiment. I crave to be a part of it all, to know what it feels like to be physically wanted. I am allowed a kiss from soft lips, and that is the end of playing for me. I have braces; I must only watch now.

Screen Shot 2017-03-29 at 8.22.53 PMI am in high school, and still have no words for the sensuous feelings in my body. My mother finds the term “sex videos” when clicking in my search box. I get a long sermon on the sins of porn and those who take part in it. From then on, it is more difficult to watch, because I myself am being watched. I turn away from the screen, to the videos in my head, waiting for the day I am on my own with no one to judge me.

A friend ushers me and the others into her room, closes and locks the door. She takes a cardboard box carefully from under the bed, and pulls out a small silver device, similar to a lipstick tube. It is a vibrator. She turns it on, showing us its features. I am jealous of her confidence in her privacy, getting a box shipped to her door. I want a vibrator of my own; my fingers get tired long before ever reaching climax.

I apply to college; I get in. My roommate goes to class and I browse online for a bullet vibrator. I memorize my roommate’s class schedule (she’s very punctual). The box arrives. I place the vibrator on my clit and remove it quickly. It feels so wonderful. Is this allowed? Will I get in trouble? What will happen to me if someone finds out? I place the vibrator again between my thighs and come quickly. Eventually the watch batteries die and I cannot find replacements in any department store. I move on to a bullet with AAA batteries.

I discover a course on human sexuality that satisfies a core credit in my psychology major. Excited, I sign up for the class. My parents laugh at my questions about things in my textbook, never taking me seriously. I become passionate on the subject, and soon find a job opening at the local sex shop. I receive commission, a wholesale discount, and good friends in my coworkers.

It was only at 20 that I made the connection between the term ‘masturbation,’ and touching myself. No one had ever said anything regarding my actions. I had been touching myself for as long as I could remember and had only ever felt shame for the pleasure I experienced.

It is only after becoming sexually educated that semester that I engaged in my first penetrative sexual experience; my first time doing more than kissing, humping, and turning away in embarrassment. It was with a good friend of two years, someone I trusted. We never developed a committed relationship, and I loved that, because I felt no obligation or pressure to sexually engage with him. My sexual wants and needs were finally up to me.

The negative experiences of my youth skewed my view of my body. It was a vast expanse of Screen Shot 2017-03-29 at 8.22.07 PMforbidden pleasure, something I so badly wanted to explore and become familiar with, but that led only to fear and shame; fear of what others would think of my body; fear of how I smelled, how I looked, how I sexually expressed myself. I was ashamed and embarrassed of my sexual interests and feelings.

When a sexual partner later on surprised me with cunnilingus, I was pleasantly taken aback. I could never ask someone to stick their face into my unsavory vulva. I was glad he went for it on his own. I enjoyed it, I relished it, and I remain grateful for the experience. With one act, he upended my delusion. I thought perhaps my body was not as offensive as I had been led to believe.

My parents take my work with a grain of salt. They don’t agree with any of it, but I am an adult, and they are proud of me for advancing in my field, albeit a field they only grudgingly accept my involvement with. I talk animatedly about my work like any passionate person would; they nod, maybe ask a question here and there, but don’t have much to say on the topic.

All those years and I had never learned about feminism, that masturbating was considered a radical act. College made me feel alive; I broke out of my good-little-Christian-girl shell, dismissed my religion as patriarchal bullshit, and embraced sex positive feminism as one of the loves of my life.

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