Shannon Lell | Longreads | September 2017 | 9 minutes (2,345 words)
My first sex partner was a homemade three-foot-tall Raggedy Ann doll lovingly stitched together by a distant relative. She wore a tangled mess of red yarn hair sewn in loops around her head like a halo. A cornflower-blue smock hugged her stuffed body in all the right places. Her undergarments were bloomers made of white fabric with eyelets and lace at the bottom. When stripped naked she was smooth, supple, alabaster cotton. She had adorable black button eyes and a sewn-on smile: permanently enthusiastic. I may have preferred Raggedy Andy — it’s hard to tell when you’re 8 — but he belonged to my big sister. I was left to love the one I was with. Full disclosure: At some point I did have a tryst with Andy. But under his denim overalls, confusingly, he and Ann were anatomically identical. Like many girls who played with dolls, this would prove to be my first disappointing encounter with male genitals.
I shared a room with my sister until I was 14. That’s when my parents could afford a bigger house. For 12 years our family of five — parents, sister, brother, and me, the youngest — lived in a modest three-bedroom home in a cookie-cutter neighborhood on a street called Serene. Our family was the median of every statistic: middle class, middle America, moderately educated, mildly religious.
Before my parents could afford to give us our own beds, and during my late-night love sessions with Ann, I took to sleeping on the floor for privacy. It felt like the right thing to do. And besides, my sister was always brooding for a fight.
All through my life I’ve listened to my father play the “what if” game of potential financial windfall. It was always about lottery tickets. “If we won the lottery, we’d take a big family vacation.” “If we won the lottery, we’d buy a bigger house where everyone could have their own room and bathroom.” If we won the lottery has been a common conversation starter with my father my entire life. He and I are the dreamers. When I was 7 I wrote a letter to God asking if we could win the lottery. I taped the letter, with its crude hearts and pleading words, to the top of my bedroom window where, obviously, God could see it better. Because if the God with the white beard up in the sky would see it, he would read it. If he read it, he would grant this wish for my father. But then I forgot about it. One day my sister came bounding into the family room waving my letter in her hand while laughing, “Look what Shannon wrote! She asked God to make us win the lottery! She taped it to the window! It says please, please, please God…” She read it in a baby tone and laughed the dark laugh of ridicule. I felt the uncomfortable warmth of shame fill me. The shame of my private desires made public; the shame of being humiliated for my innocent wants; the shame of believing I had any power at all to make them come true.
While staying home sick from the fifth grade, I accidentally (on purpose) found my father’s collection of porn magazines. They were not-so-cleverly hidden beneath his coin collecting magazines under his side of the bed.
After those furtive nights on the floor with Ann, around 10 or 11, my sexual world cracked wide open again. While staying home sick from the fifth grade, I accidentally (on purpose) found my father’s collection of porn magazines. They were not-so-cleverly hidden beneath his coin collecting magazines under his side of the bed. Along with them, there was an ancient-looking vibrating contraption. It had a rubber piece at the top shaped like a horn with a handle that plugged into the wall. There were two speeds, high and low. Once, when I was younger, I asked my parents what it was. They said a “back massager.” If they used it on their backs I never once saw or heard it because when that thing was turned on high, it sounded like a malfunctioning carburetor on a ’70s muscle car. A setting I came to know well.
There was a range of pornaphinalia under that bed. You had your Playboys — pages full of words, celebrities you saw on late-night television, and beautiful women dressed in satin and stockings with bunny ears and fluffy, bobbed tails. They were poised on heels and lined up like a jewel-toned, candy rainbow. Some held little trays full of crystal glasses. They had sultry smiles. These were the classy ones. There was also Hustler. I might have wanted to be a high-class bunny, but deep down, I was a Hustler girl. Those anonymous, dark-eyed, large-breasted women drew me in like a religious pilgrimage. I quickly got to know the issues, had favorite spreads, and got excited when a new one was added to the rotation.
My dad was an average, married, Midwestern white dude and his porn was a direct reflection of this status. After years of perusing his porn — I even got caught showing some videos to my friends in high school — I can conclusively say that he had no glaring idiosyncrasies in his appetite for erotica.
If I close my eyes, I can still see those lusty ladies of my youth. The women were mostly white-skinned, tanned, flawless. Although I didn’t know what airbrushing meant back then, I’m sure these gals received that treatment. I don’t ever remember seeing a black woman; only the occasional ethnically ambiguous — never a centerfold — and that was as far as it went for racial diversity. This was the ’80s. There was a spray of teased hair and fishnet clothing stretched over shapely but thin figures. There was quite a bit of full-frontal spread labia. Squished boobs were particularly popular. But there was only the occasional penis. This makes sense considering it was my dad’s porn, but as a surreptitious and impressionable young porn enthusiast, I would have appreciated a little more dick. Some breasts were smaller, but never small, and some were gigantic and even to my untrained eye were obviously not natural. The bushes varied from Amazonian to high and tight. But the one thing missing in all photos was fat. I cannot recall even one small, single fat roll or dimpled leg. And trust me, I would have remembered. As far as sex acts, cunnilingus was the order of the day. At least that is what I focused on. Like a kitten seeing string, images of tongues applied to vaginas produced in me an automatic body response, and a terminal desire. Little would I know that it would be many long and unsatisfying years before I would experience this for myself. Although smiling, Ann’s mouth was still sewn shut and by the time I got to messing around with boys, it was clear we weren’t fetishizing the same porn. Theirs was all blow jobs and cum shots to the face.
Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.
Often, these women were portrayed in the most unnatural of stances. I know they were unnatural because I tried to emulate them. I arched my back, cocked my neck, opened my mouth just barely and spread my legs wide enough to cause dislocation. I’d sit on the edge of the bed and arrange my body in those positions, toppling over at the impossibility of it all. My joints had all their natural lubrication and plasticity and still I could never make my body look like theirs.
There was a range of porniphinalia under that bed. You had your Playboys. There was also Hustler.
Shortly after I discovered this stash of nudie mags I started feigning illness on school days so I could stay home alone and masturbate until I was weak. The first time I remember doing this I was in the sixth grade but faking sore throats was a skill I employed well into high school. “Don’t forget to gargle salt water,” my mother would say as she walked out the door to work. I felt a rush of excitement the moment I heard the door lock behind her. If I had five dollars for every time I faked a sore throat so I could spend the whole day masturbating I could have paid for an entire semester of community college. When I couldn’t be home alone, I took long baths using the nozzle to get off. The water bill my parents suffered must have been quite high while I lived at home.
I was a horny young human female. Which is to say, a mammal. And as mammals, we find ways to self-soothe. Before I knew what a joint, a beer, a pill, or yoga could do for my mind and body, I masturbated. It was what I had to calm my mind. And these women, they helped me. They showed me that I had a body that could be used in a sexual way, and I could feel good about that. You might say they became my childhood heroes. In 1986, when I was 9, I chose to be — perhaps more shockingly, my parents allowed me to be — a Playboy Bunny for Halloween, a costume I hand-crafted.
I might have wanted to be a high-class bunny, but deep down, I was a Hustler girl. Those anonymous dark-eyed, large-breasted women drew me in like a religious pilgrimage.
I can’t account for why they said yes. I have asked my mother a number of times and she can’t recall the reason, either. My best guess from our conversations is that my parents were very busy and very tired — my mother in particular — and all she needed to hear was, “I need some ribbon from the craft store to sew a costume,” and the rest of the details were ancillary. Looking back on Playboy Bunny Gate 1986 — knowing my parents have always had the best intentions for me — I think part of their logic was this: they were attempting to raise me in a world they wished for me, and not the one there was for me. A world where girls were empowered by their curiosities and imaginations, not ridiculed. A world where sex was a natural part of life, not a secret act of shame.
I was obsessed with the creation of this outfit. My idea was so unique! So counterculture! Oh, how all the girls would be so jealous! I would be so cool! So sexy! So adult! Surely it would be a homemade masterpiece worthy of admiration.
First, in the Halloween section at Kmart, I found the perfect white bunny ears with pink satin on the insides, just like the Playboy Bunnies wore. It came with a fluffy, round, cottony tail the size of a softball. Next, at the craft store, I bought thick white polyester ribbon, thin black satin ribbon, and snap buttons. With these things I sewed my own collar and cuff links. Over the top I wore a hot-pink spandex bathing suit and spandex teal briefs which were left over from an old dance costume. My biggest disappointment was that I never found fishnet stockings or high enough heels to fit my 9-year-old feet. Today, you can find fishnet stockings and heels in kid’s sizes with two swipes of your smartphone, but back then all I had was a chain store called Spencer’s Gifts which sold fake poop, shot glasses with the words DICK on them, and things that made fart noises. It was my favorite store and I giggled endlessly every time I went inside. But much to my disappointment, Spencer’s didn’t carry sexy accessories in child sizes and I was forced to wear regular sheer white stockings and ballet flats.
I went door to door that night with my neighborhood posse. One older lady stands out as being the most offensive. She came wobbling toward us at the front door holding a large wicker basket and commenting on our costumes. When she came to me she said, “Oh my, what an adorable little bunny! Can you hop for me bunny?”
Indignation washed over me. “I do not hop, lady. I’m a Playboy bunny,” I said, barely hiding my contempt. She ignored my comment and moved on to the other trick-or-treaters. This happened several times. As I posed for pictures with my best friend, even her parents, people I knew well, failed to consider me. No one acknowledged what I was or who I was trying to be. (What bunny wears hot-pink spandex and cuff links for Christ’s sake!)
As a child, my intuition told me my body possessed power. But over time, the world convinced me that this power was not mine to control.
It’s possible I spent more time with these women of the porn mags than is reasonable for a young girl surrounded by prim adults. How much porn is too much porn for a prepubescent mind? I do not know. But what I’m able to say is this: alone, cross-legged, back against the wall on the side of my parents’ bed, I felt no shame over the images of nudity and depictions of sex. I did not feel bad for being drawn to these things or wanting to emulate them. Seeing sex did not make me lust after every boy to cross my path. What I felt was pleasure, my body instinctively reacting in ways that felt good to me. These women with their unapologetic boldness in nudity, their unabashed ecstasy, an ecstasy I was also feeling, felt a little like power, and a connection to myself. I wanted to be that, to feel that . . . liberated. But that feeling changed the moment I stepped out into the world to claim it.
As a child, my intuition told me my body possessed power. But over time, the world convinced me that this power was not mine to control. That my central worth was contained in the perfect arch of my back, the just-so curve of my hips, the discrete cock of my neck and my silent, wide-open mouth. There’s a price for crossing the line between sexuality and sexualization, a debt little girls can never afford.
At 36, after decades spent trying to live up to a more acceptable version of a female — one the world wanted me to be — I longed to find my way back to that little girl, the one who celebrated her body with satin ribbons and bows. The one who believed that if only God could hear her, her dreams might come true. That maybe she had the power, after all.
* * *
Shannon Lell’s work has been published in The Washington Post, The Rumpus, Scary Mommy, and elsewhere. She is a single mother, mountain biking enthusiast, and writing a memoir about her sexual, emotional, and political transformation in her thirties, titled The Conservative Slut.
Editor: Sari Botton