Is It Down There?

A subterranean mystery lingering since the 1964 World’s Fair has baffled history buffs from Flushing to Florida.

A mid-afternoon rainfall has saturated the dirt just enough that Dr. Lori Walters easily unearths some with the tip of her black loafer. A few yards away, groups of Latino men in bright t-shirts and blue jeans are playing a casual game of volleyball, bumping but never spiking, on a lazy Sunday in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, the largest park in Queens.

Dr. Walters is tired. She has been on her feet for much of the past two days, running an exhibit at a science fair teeming with children and parents. Her fingers brush back strands of brown hair that a gentle wind has blown out of place, and she tucks her hands into the large pockets of a maroon jacket. Her slender body is weary, her voice cracking, and she still has a long trek home to Florida, where she is a history professor.

A wayward volleyball—actually an old soccer ball, which serves the same purpose—hits the hard ground with a thud. Greenery envelops most of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, but not here, where patches of brown grass sprout between large swaths of exposed dirt. Saplings never seem to stand a chance.

Flushing Meadows-Corona Park ; (Photos by Brad Horrigan)
Flushing Meadows-Corona Park ; (Photos by Brad Horrigan)

Surely, trampling takes a toll on the turf. But can that be enough to stop the growth of trees? Might something be down there, obstructing their existence?

Dr. Walters perks up.

“It’s a mystery,” she says, beaming. “Is it there? What does it look like?”

She grows eager and smiles, wondering if something, anything, remains at this spot from nearly half a century ago, when it was transformed into Block 50, Lot 5, at the 1964 World’s Fair.

“We could probably figure out something at this moment if we wanted to just dig.”

Size mattered at the World’s Fair—especially height. Spread across nearly a square mile of Queens were hundreds of exhibits from states, countries and corporations that equated altitude with esteem. The Unisphere, a stainless steel globe that came to symbolize the fair, towered twelve stories tall. Elevators dubbed Sky Streaks whisked passengers 226 feet to the observation deck of the hulking New York State Pavilion. Other attractions had spires or high-pitched roofs.

But not at Block 50, Lot 5.

“Most of the architectural highlights of the World’s Fair spiral skyward,” the New York World-Telegram & Sun reported on November 18, 1963. “And then there’s the Underground World Home.”

*   *   *

Coinciding with the 300th anniversary of New York City, the 1964 World’s Fair offered an awe-inspiring array of whimsical rides, displays of state-of-the-art technology and glimpses of exotic cultures. Many of the 140 pavilions looked to the future, imagining radical, wondrous changes in the life of the average American. Organizers slated the fair to run for two six-month seasons, from April to October in 1964 and ’65.

The 1964 World’s Fair site, taken from the observation towers of the New York State Pavilion (Photo: PLCjr via Flickr)
The 1964 World’s Fair site, taken from the observation towers of the New York State Pavilion (Photo: PLCjr via Flickr)

In the lead-up to the fair, the New York press marveled at the newly constructed subterranean dwelling that most knew simply as the Underground Home. The Wall Street Journal welcomed “a new frontier for family living.” The Herald Tribune extolled the virtues of living with “good old earth on all sides.” By the time the fair opened on April 22, 1964, the Underground Home had already generated headlines in all the major dailies.

Jay Swayze was delighted. A lumber dealer and home builder from Plainview, Texas, Swayze designed the Underground Home in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when many Americans feared an impending nuclear attack. Families hurried to build fallout shelters, but many of them were bland and cramped. Swayze began tinkering with spacious underground homes suitable for year-round living.

Protection from radioactive fallout, as well as everyday noise and pollution, lured a bold-faced name to Swayze’s work. In 1964, Girard Henderson, who sat on the board of directors of Avon Products, the beauty manufacturer, had an underground residence built for him in Colorado. He was so enthralled that he financed Swayze’s Underground Home at the World’s Fair, convinced that the masses would buy into subsurface living, too.

Swayze’s team scored a plot on the fairgrounds between the Hall of Science and the Port Authority Heliport, and they began to dig fifteen feet into the Flushing Meadows marsh. Within a few months they had created a concrete shell of about 12,000 square feet and installed the home’s gypsum board ceilings. Candelabras sat on the Steinway & Sons piano in the living room. A simulated garden featured a bed of plastic flowers, artificial wisteria and an organ.

An unidentified visitor poses beside a fake tree inside the Underground Home (Photo: Bill Cotter of worldsfairphotos.com)
An unidentified visitor poses beside a fake tree inside the Underground Home (Photo: Bill Cotter of worldsfairphotos.com)

Like other exhibits at the fair, the Underground Home incorporated many novel accoutrements. A snorkel-like system pumped air into the ten-room house. The lighting allowed residents to pick the time of day and the season they wanted with just the turn of a knob—like “midnight at noon” and “summer in winter,” as Swayze bragged. He also installed “dial-a-view,” which let occupants pick the murals they would see through the windows. One of the choices was a knight riding a horse to a castle.

The Underground Home was billed as “sub-urban,” in keeping with the clever marketing that permeated the fair. But it was not like other exhibits. A glance at a bookshelf inside the home underscored the chief motivation for buying such a dwelling. One book was titled “Our New Life with the Atom.” Another was “Foreign Policy Without Fear.”

The Miami News ran a telling caption with its profile of the home’s interior designer, Marilynn Motto: “Her designs are enough to calm a subterranean dweller during an H-bombing.”

A sign welcoming visitors to the home (Photo: Bill Cotter of worldsfairphotos.com)
A sign welcoming visitors to the home (Photo: Bill Cotter of worldsfairphotos.com)

These reminders of a nuclear age seemed out of place at a fair with so many bright visions of “the world of tomorrow today.” The fair embraced a theme of “peace through understanding,” while the Underground Home was most appealing to visitors who didn’t think peace would last very long.

“The idea of an underground home in ’61 or ’62 was to protect you from the Soviets—the evil, nasty Soviets,” Dr. Walters says. “Along comes the Cuban Missile Crisis, and you realize we can blow ourselves off the planet.”

Swayze deemed his exhibit a success. Fifteen years after the fair ended, he published a book on underground living that described a parade of visitors roaming the Underground Home, all of them declaring, “This is a dream world.” He boasted that more than 1.6 million people had visited the home, a stunning total.

By most other accounts, the Underground Home was a flop. At a fair where many popular exhibits were free, it had an admission price of a dollar for adults and fifty cents for children. Some doubt that the home enjoyed so many visitors when other, more thrilling, attractions charged nothing at all. General Motors had set up a free ride called Futurama, where passengers witnessed scenes of a jungle, the moon and a futuristic city that had moving sidewalks and midtown airports. Walt Disney designed the equally impressive, and equally gratis, Magic Skyway ride at the Ford Pavilion.

Swayze’s bottom line may have also been hurt by the lack of souvenirs he sold. Only two were available at the Underground Home: an eight-page brochure on underground living, few of which survive today because few were probably bought, and an LP record by Grammy Award-winning singer Johnny Mann, a friend of Henderson, the underground home aficionado and Avon board member.

Also sold, of course, were the homes themselves, at the hefty price of $80,000 each, more than half a million dollars by today’s standards. But visitors, it turned out, were unwilling to radically alter their lifestyles and plunk down so much money on what amounted to an experiment. Near the end of the fair’s first season, the New York Times reported that not a single underground home had been sold.

After the fair ended in the fall of ’65, most of its attractions were demolished so the city could transform the sprawling space into what would become the 1,250-acre Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. Only a few structures evaded the wrecking ball, and most of them remain today, including the Unisphere, the New York State Pavilion, the Hall of Science (later re-branded as the New York Hall of Science) and the Port Authority Heliport (now a catering hall dubbed Terrace on the Park). The rest had to be torn down by the exhibitors, as mandated by their contracts.

Some, however, believe that Swayze, wanting to avoid high demolition costs, removed furnishings from the Underground Home but left its shell intact, hidden beneath several feet of dirt.

“I doubt that Mr. Swayze did more than he had to,” says Bill Cotter, who has written several books on world’s fairs.

Cotter visited the Underground Home on one of many adolescent treks from Long Island to the fair, as part of a personal pledge to see every exhibit at least once. Now 60, he helps run a message board known as the World’s Fair Community, where Baby Boomers who attended the fair have united to reminisce. Many of them had never before been exposed to such culture and technology, so they rank their visits to the expo among the most memorable experiences of their lives. They recall eye-opening demonstrations of computers and picture phones. They remember waiting in long lines at the Vatican Pavilion to glimpse Michelangelo’s Pietà, walking through the Sinclair Oil exhibit to check out the moving dinosaur figures, and visiting the Belgium Village for a taste of a delicacy that would become known as a Belgian waffle.

One of the most popular topics on the message board is what became of the Underground Home. Lively discussions on the site have revealed two prevailing views: Some think that parts of the Underground Home may still exist, while others doubt Swayze left anything behind.

It’s clear where Cotter stands: “If you had a chance to just cover it with dirt and run like hell, or spend money to rip things out, which of the two options would you take?”

*   *   *

Dr. Lori Walters in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, near the former site of the Underground Home (Photo by Brad Horrigan)
Dr. Lori Walters in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, near the former site of the Underground Home (Photo by Brad Horrigan)

Dr. Walters wants to solve the mystery. She cannot turn to Swayze or Henderson, both of whom have died, and Swayze’s book, “Underground Gardens & Homes,” does not cover what happened to the Underground Home after the fair. It’s hard to definitively piece together the fate of the exhibit from newspaper articles and the official records of the fair, which are housed at the New York Public Library.

So Dr. Walters feels that she has no other choice. She must dig.

“It’s probably been roaming around in my head for at least five or six years,” she admits on a recent Sunday afternoon in the park, clutching a worn guide to the World’s Fair.

Dr. Walters did not attend the fair; in fact, she wasn’t even alive then. But in high school she became interested in American history after World War II, leading to research on the fair and eventually the Underground Home. She feels the home nicely bridges two eras: Its conception was rooted in the Cold War mentality of the 1950s, but it debuted at a world’s fair that is considered one of the most significant cultural events of the ’60s, attended by about 51 million people.

Dr. Walters landed funding a few years ago for another World’s Fair project after winning support from the University of Central Florida, where she teaches post-war U.S. history. She partnered with the New York Hall of Science and the Queens Museum of Art—both of which occupy buildings used at the ’64 fair—to create a virtual, Internet-based re-creation of the fairgrounds, known as “Come Back to the Fair,” which is slated to be unveiled soon.

To excavate the Underground Home, Dr. Walters plans to rely again on her university. She hopes her archeologist colleagues will guide the search, perhaps with financial backing from the university, grants and private foundations. (She has already secured grants for her virtual re-creation of the fair from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation.)

With monetary aid, Dr. Walters says her team could rent ground-penetrating radar and scan for anything unusual beneath the dirt. If the crew detects something, they could dig holes large enough for endoscopic cameras that might reveal if the home is still structurally intact or even furnished, as some believe. Eventually, she hopes to utilize camera-enabled robots that would be easier to control.

For Dr. Walters, the project is largely an educational tool. She envisions opening the dig to streams of school children visiting the New York Hall of Science, which casts a shadow on the Underground Home site. Each of the children could have a hand in controlling the robots.

“Everybody thinks of archeology, and they think of going down to Mexico or Egypt or Jordan, but there are a lot of wonderful 20th-century sites,” she points out. “It’s not like something that’s two thousand years old, finding some Egyptian medallion or something like that, but it still gives you the same understanding of the process.”

She is currently developing an excavation proposal for the city Parks Department, which cares for the former fairgrounds, and she is eyeing the summer of 2014, the fiftieth anniversary of the fair’s opening, as the ideal time for a dig.

Winning city approval may take some convincing, though. Officials don’t think the Underground Home still exists.

Zachary Feder, a spokesman for the Parks Department, declined to comment on whether the city would approve an excavation, citing the lack of a formal proposal. In a terse email, he also wrote that the Underground Home was demolished after the fair “to the best of our knowledge.” As proof, he attached a black-and-white photograph that shows debris scattered on the ground above the exhibit. The caption describes the scene as “demolition.”

The picture, though, is not persuasive evidence of the home’s destruction. The shot shows only the surface, where most of the Underground Home was never visible. In fact, the photograph seems to support theories that parts of the home were never torn down: rising about a foot above the dirt are what appear to be three walls.

An image pertaining to show the “demolition” of the Underground Home, after the fair had ended (Photo by Bruce Davidson © Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos, Inc.)
An image pertaining to show the “demolition” of the Underground Home, after the fair had ended (Photo by Bruce Davidson © Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos, Inc.)

It’s not enough to convince Steven Quinterno, 22, who recently graduated with a history degree from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. This spring, Quinterno was watching “Men in Black 3” with some friends, and they began joking about the conspiracy theories propagated by the film franchise. In the first movie, in 1997, the New York State Pavilion was depicted as merely a ruse to mask alien spaceships. By the third one, secret agents zoomed past the Unisphere and met with a prescient alien at Shea Stadium, which opened in the park the same year as the ’64 World’s Fair.

Quinterno got to thinking. His dad had visited the fair and described its enormity to Steven, who couldn’t comprehend how the Underground Home might actually remain beneath the park. “How can something that was part of this gigantic, prominent festival just be forgotten?” he wondered.

Quinterno went on to read several books on underground homes, including Swayze’s. He even tracked down Girard Henderson’s nephew, who politely said he didn’t know much about the Underground Home.

Quinterno also scoured the online database of the New York Public Library, where he found listings for records relating to the home. Busy studying for final exams, he asked a friend from Long Island to go to the library, scan the documents and email them to him in Pittsburgh. These papers, he believes, finally shed light on the official fate of the Underground Home: a pair of memos sent to then-Parks Commissioner Robert Moses in June 1966 listed the home among the exhibits that “completed demolition.” But Quinterno isn’t satisfied. Like Dr. Walters, he still wonders how thoroughly the fair corporation inspected the dismantling of exhibits. There were, after all, hundreds to tear down.

Quinterno, too, wants to excavate the site. He made clear that he does not wish to compete with Dr. Walters, but he feels he may have better connections to launch a dig. He figures that Carnegie Mellon might be in a stronger position to ship its own ground-penetrating radar to Queens than Dr. Walters’ university, a thousand miles away; Dr. Walters, meanwhile, is exploring the viability of renting equipment.

“It’s not something that I’m in a rush to claim or anything,” Quinterno stresses, adding that he senses a calling to find the Underground Home.

“There’s something down there,” he says with absolute certainty, “and it’s something of a time capsule.”

*   *   *

A page from the World’s Fair official guide book (Photo by Brad Horrigan)
A page from the World’s Fair official guide book (Photo by Brad Horrigan)

Digging for the Underground Home doesn’t make sense to everyone who went to the fair. Author Larry Samuel, who researched the exhibit for his 2007 book “The End of the Innocence,” doesn’t share the enthusiasm for excavation. He understands the passion people still feel for the fair—an emotion that he shares, having visited himself—but he believes the excavation would be a misguided attempt to re-live the past.

“You’re not going to get it back by saving the few little relics,” he says. Jokingly, he imagines some fair enthusiasts trying to pull the Underground Home up from the park and haul it away on the Grand Central Parkway with a semi.

That hasn’t happened yet, but some amateurs have tried to unearth the home with little more than a shovel and a crusading spirit.

About two years ago, John Piro, a contractor from Long Island, and Mitch Silverstein, a lab researcher from Nyack, secured a permit from the Parks Department to dig on the site. (They sought and received a blanket permit to dig in any city park, without revealing their motive.)

Piro, 63, who played in a band at the fair, had decided to search for the Underground Home after engaging in chatter about it on the World’s Fair Community site.

The permit allowed Piro and Silverstein to use only a small shovel. They thought that such a manual effort would take too much time and displace too much dirt, all of which they’d have to put back. Instead, the pair stuck a steel rod in the dirt and pounded on it with a shovel to see how far down they’d get.

Piro is gleeful as he recalls what happened. “We were hitting that baby all the way,” he says, referring to the steel rod. “And this baby—boom!—stopped at that four-and-a-half-foot mark. We definitely hit something.”

During the fair, the home was beneath about three feet of dirt, and Piro believes its remains were buried a little deeper—perhaps a foot-and-a-half deeper—after the expo. The home, he imagines, could still be down there.

“It’s the only pavilion that you might be able to go into,” he says. “If you broke into that encasement, there might be furniture in there. You don’t know.”

*   *   *

Online banter about the Underground Home also intrigued Trey Callaway, who grew up in Oklahoma but feels a deep bond to the fairgrounds. His parents went on several dates at the fair, and they joked that he was conceived there. Callaway even proposed to his wife at the Unisphere.

The Unisphere and NY State Pavilion, today ; (Photos by Brad Horrigan)
The Unisphere and NY State Pavilion, today ; (Photos by Brad Horrigan)

It’s not surprising that he picked the enormous globe for that romantic moment. It appears in thousands of family photographs from the fair, with smiling families lining up for a must-have shot. Not so for the Underground Home. It was relatively dark and not conducive to photographs; in the days before cameras had memory cards, a visitor didn’t want to waste a valuable exposure on a shot that might not come out. Besides, the tables and murals in the Underground Home weren’t nearly as picturesque as the Unisphere, or the General Motors or Ford pavilions.

Still, Callaway is captivated by the Underground Home. It has a powerful mystique—like a time capsule unseen for half a century. The fact that there are so few photos of the home itself adds to its allure. So Callaway decided to bring the story to the masses, without raising a shovel.

Six years ago, he became an executive producer and writer for “CSI: NY,” and he began thinking about how to work the Underground Home into an episode. “I knew pretty much from the first time I joined the show,” Callaway remembers. “I was determined to play with that Underground Home lore.”

Nearly five decades removed from public consciousness, the Underground Home made a comeback in an episode named “Manhattanhenge” in November 2009. The show picks up with detectives investigating the so-called Compass Killer, who was once an urban planner before his wife’s death drove him insane. Since the killer has an intimate knowledge of the city, he descends into the sewers beneath Queens, breaks through a wall and enters the Underground Home. From this secret lair, the madman plots his devastating crimes.

The show imagines the place as fully furnished and almost pristine. The “CSI” designers took some liberties with the furnishings of the Underground Home, like adding a gas-powered generator to explain how the killer has light down there. But much of the design was based on the original floor plans from the fair. Shaggy carpeting dated the living room to the 1960s, as did the period sofas, tables and lamps. Even a “dial-a-view” mural was included, this one with a vintage backdrop of New York City.

Acknowledging the passing of time at the Underground Home, the “CSI” team treated the bed sheets and wallpaper with chemicals to make them look older. But the home appeared mostly intact, with few visible signs of water damage and none of the furniture askew. Callaway doubts the real home has fared so well.

“Even if they left everything, it would be so heavily deteriorated that it would be beyond recognition,” he says. “The ravages of soil and water and all of that combined—if there is anything down there, it’s probably a muddy, soupy shambles.”

Talk of an excavation reminds Callaway not of his own work but of another small-screen moment.

In 1986, Geraldo Rivera hyped a TV special called “The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults.” Capone, the notorious Chicago gangster, had supposedly stashed valuables below one of the swankiest hotels in the city, and construction crews were going to bust open the vaults for a live national audience. A medical examiner was on hand in case the workers discovered any bodies of Capone’s victims. The IRS came, too, hoping to recoup some of the back taxes that Capone owed.

“This is an adventure you and I are going to be taking together,” Rivera told the audience.

It was a colossal bust. The vault contained nothing but an old stop sign and empty gin bottles. To hold up his end of a bet, Rivera half-heartedly sang the first few lines of “Chicago” on the air. He later said that he was humiliated.

Dr. Walters has no plans of televising an excavation of the Underground Home, but she acknowledges that her dig could reach a similarly disappointing conclusion. She thinks Swayze probably carted away most of the furnishings from the Underground Home, so she is framing her excavation as something greater than the chance to unearth buried treasure.

“That’s not a good enough reason to try to dig up a section of the park, for the curiosity of people that are interested only in the fair,” she says. “For me, the real value is that we can teach kids about something that happened in their own backyard.”

In fact, Dr. Walters says that even she does not consider the home her favorite exhibit at the fair.

“I think the Underground Home is interesting, but to be honest with you, the coolest exhibits at the fair?” She trails off, pausing for a few moments. “I’m going to go with the stock ones. The GM and the Ford pavilions are tough to beat.”

Of course they are. Both were really, really tall.

*   *   *

Nicholas Hirshon is a journalist who teaches news writing and feature writing at St. John’s University and LaGuardia Community College in Queens. His second book, “Images of America: Forest Hills,” will be published in February.

Brad Horrigan is a photojournalist and multimedia storyteller based in Queens.

Secrets and Nightmares of the Teenage Circumcision Circuit

In South Africa thousands of boys are initiated into manhood each year, but all too often they lose far more than they gain.

The sun is drooping in the December sky as cicadas weave ominous melodies into the summer air. Their shrill vibrato is the soundtrack to Azola Nkqinqa’s last day as a boy. It’s the time of year when Nkqinqa, 18, and about 50,000 other South African boys, come to one of the many remote initiation schools in order to learn how to be a man. This school is located in the Eastern Cape province — the country’s poorest. In the Xhosa culture, the transition into manhood is marked by a month of instruction from elders, who teach the teens how to be a father, a husband. The Xhosa boys are also circumcised during this time, and most years these schools make headlines because dozens of the boys die during the process.  

Nkqinqa is feeling particularly insecure. It is customary for the patriarch in a family to send a boy off, but Nkqinqa’s father has not been a part of his life for several years, and three of his uncles are dead. So a neighbor named Patrick Dakwa has agreed to take responsibility for him. Dakwa is a community volunteer who spends a lot of time trying to make circumcisions safer, running seminars near the Eastern Cape town of Flagstaff, teaching traditional surgeons how to safely dress wounds. However, since previous initiates are sworn to secrecy about the ritual’s details, as he lies in a hut with the other boys, rabid speculation is Nkqinqa’s only close companion. 

The next day, the 13 boys in his cohort consecutively go to see a surgeon. Using a blade about the size of a steak knife, he slices off each of their foreskins. Dakwa and his fellow health volunteers recommend in their seminars that separate, disposable razors be used for the circumcisions so as to eliminate the risk of HIV transmission. But this is an illegal initiation school that shows little regard for regulations. All boys go under the same knife here.  

The surgeon wraps Nkqinqa’s penis with a traditional dressing comprised of medicinal leaves. The pain is unremitting and debilitating, but Nkqinqa tries not to let his discomfort show. He doesn’t want to appear weak in front of the other emerging men.  

When Dakwa returns later for an inspection of all the boys’ progress, he observes that Nkqinqa is faint and unresponsive. The wound has changed shape and color. Urine no longer is discharged from his urethra, seeping instead out of other parts of the shaft. “This guy is beyond the control of the traditional nurse,” Dakwa thinks to himself.   

He brings Nkqinqa to Holy Cross hospital, about an hour away by car, on a Saturday evening at about six p.m. The next morning, Nkqinqa wakes up confused about where he is or how he got into this white and blue gown. He lifts up the sheets to look at his groin area and finds a devastating absence where his penis once was. He sobs bitterly.  

A visit from his best friend offers little consolation. Even though Nkqinqa explains that his penis is gone, his friend cannot metabolize the information. “I will explain when we are out of the hospital,” he says. Then, Nkqinqa begs his friend not to tell anyone about the situation. 

Nkqinqa’s case is not uncommon. Most amputations happen a few days after the actual circumcision, the result of unsanitary dressing practices which in turn lead to infections like gangrene. Once the flesh is necrotic, nothing can be done — though if the doctors can save any part of the flesh they will tend to opt for a partial amputation. 

Dakwa visits Nkqinqa too. Because Dakwa has counselled several amputees in the past, he knows how important it is to dispel the myths that are spread by some traditional nurses — the worst of which being that the penis would grow back. Dakwa addresses the misinformation head on. The penis is gone forever, he says sternly but tenderly, and Nkqinqa should not entertain false hope.  

* * * 

Driving into Flagstaff, the first thing one notices is how incredibly dense the traffic is. Cars must slow down to avoid pedestrians, as well as the occasional goat crisscrossing the main street. This part of the country is where most of the between 80 and 250 penis amputations in the country happen every year. The dire economic and social conditions in the province can be observed in the dilapidated storefronts and the treacherous roads. This state of affairs is inextricably tied up in the country’s past, going back to the decision by the government in 1913 to designate some of the land here a “homeland.” (This term was a disingenuous euphemism used to describe a small section of the country — just seven percent — in which black people could legally own land. The lion’s share was reserved for whites.) The extreme concentration of citizens trying to pursue subsistence farming here has perforated the landscape with divots, caused by rampant soil erosion. In 2015, only 31 percent of the local working-age population was employed.  

It was here that, five years ago, Patrick Dakwa founded one of the few support groups aimed at helping Xhosa men cope with the loss of their amputated penises. The 27-year-old’s bubbly demeanor and perennial smile are challenged as he thinks about the tragic cases he sees. Of the amputees, he says most “have a drinking problem and most of them, they use drugs. They tell me, ‘we’ve lost our penis so we feel like there’s no life, there’s nothing.’”  

Dakwa encourages them to talk about their problems and proudly reports that some have managed to become optimistic about their lives through exposure to the group. A few even manage to attend university.  

But amputation is just one of the possible consequences of a botched circumcision. At least 119 South African boys died between 2012 and 2014 after going to a traditional initiation school and getting circumcised.  

The summer of 2016 was the first season Dakwa can remember in which none of the 3,500 initiates died in or around Flagstaff. “December, last year, we experienced three deaths and four amputations,” Dakwa recounts. “June, last year, we also [had] two deaths and three partial amputations and one full amputation.”  

I ask him why amputations are still occurring, given that he, along with some NGOs, have put a lot of time into training traditional nurses in more sanitary methods. He says that there is resistance from the older, traditional nurses — they are not willing to accept instruction from the younger generations.  

Dakwa has clashed with traditional leaders several times during his campaign for safer circumcision protocol. They are opposed to him talking to the media about the matter. “They say I have no authority to speak. I want to preserve the culture, but if there’s nothing to preserve…” He trails off as anger flashes across his face. He talks about inept politicians who have not been able to secure lasting change. “They do nothing to show that they want to protect the culture.”  

Research looking into the causes of deaths and amputations in the Eastern Cape concurs with Dakwa’s experience. A 2015 study conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council found that conflicts between traditional leaders and medical personnel are a major contributing factor to the perpetuation of unsafe circumcision methods.  

In some cases the problem is that schools are not traditional enough — after all, the rite has been carried out safely on many boys for generations. “There’s been a development of charlatans taking the place of more traditional people who are supposed to be doing the circumcisions,” says Zoelle Horowitz, a doctor who spent many years treating initiates in the Eastern Cape. Many illegal schools have popped up, such as the one that Azola Nkqinqa went to, which charge exorbitant rates from boys who are sometimes under age — legally, initiates must be 18 to attend — and employ negligent practices. “So there [are] a variety of bush schools that one could go to, some being more careful and traditional and proper, and some being a bit careless and seeking money, really,” Horowitz says.   

Unfortunately, botched circumcisions aren’t the only thing taking the lives of young men at these schools. 

 * * * 

Because human rights advocate Johan De Waal’s office is located on Keerom Street, just a stone’s throw from Cape Town’s High Court, the area outside his building is always abuzz with robed figures rushing about like pensive clergymen. I have to brief a guard garrisoned behind an imposing desk and a team of secretaries on the details of my visit before I can see him.  

De Waal himself has graying hair and a gentle voice that conspire to give him an air of grandfatherly beneficence. Almost immediately, upon ushering me into his room, he mentions how intrigued he was to hear that a journalist was poking around a case he had handled almost four years ago. “It’s a total and utter travesty,” he starts. 

The case involved two males, aged about 20, who were attending an initiation school run by its chief, Isaac Monaheng. On November 25, 2013, the pair were brought to Stellenbosch Hospital, 40 minutes east of Cape Town. They were already dead when they arrived; the likely cause was dehydration — initiates are typically not permitted to drink water for up to eight days because it is believed that liquids would slow the recovery from a circumcision. But one of them also had abrasions on his back from an improvised whip known locally as a sjambok. 

De Waal was contacted by the local municipality on December 1 because the authorities wanted him to make an urgent application to the High Court to gain access to the school for an inspection. He shows me an affidavit issued by the Stellenbosch mayor, Conrad Sidego, detailing the sequence of events that led to the court application. According to the document, Sidego and a doctor arrived on November 29 with the intention of investigating suspicions of misconduct precipitated by the deaths. “I am extremely concerned about the state of health of these initiates,” Sidego wrote.  

Many of the young men who die after attending initiation schools do so because of dehydration or septicemia that sets in after a botched circumcision gets infected. Often the boys do not seek medical attention. Consequently maladies which may have been treatable if identified early on, progress to a lethal point.  

Because the property belonged to Stellenbosch municipality, and had been rented out to a group that ran the initiation school, a formal investigation was launched to determine whether this arrangement could continue in light of the fatalities. The investigation eventually concluded that the school could resume operations provided that the municipality was allowed to conduct regular inspections and generally exercise more control over the site.  

No criminal charges were laid against the owners of the school or the immediate supervisors who oversaw the boys, including Monaheng. No civil case had been brought before the court either.  

“I don’t know why the family hasn’t laid charges,” De Waal says. “We cannot say we did not know why these kids were dying, if you look at all the evidence. It’s also embarrassing for all of us.”  

On a national level, the state had opened around a thousand criminal cases over a period of five years in response to deaths occurring at initiation schools. (There have also been numerous reports of kidnappings, dehydration and whippings.) Only ten of those cases were ever heard in court. Nomboniso Gasa, a gender activist and adjunct professor at the University of Cape Town, told the Daily Maverick newspaper: “Often people go to lay charges — those who are brave — and after they have laid the charge there is very little follow-up … Police don’t [act] because in many cases they don’t want to be seen to be going against dominant cultural practices, but also because they don’t see this as something which is urgent. So consequently they think after the outcry, it will go away.” 

De Waal goes a step further. “It is a case ultimately about whether we are serious about black lives,” he says, pointing out that the country’s response to initiation in black and white communities is still very different. De Waal, who is white, uses the example of Stellenbosch University — a historically white institution, which has a long tradition of demeaning hazing ceremonies. “You can imagine, if there’s one child at Stellenbosch University who got injured in a residence because of initiation, then you’d get front page newspaper day in and day out, parents jumping up and down. Here, two people died, other people sjamboked … and there’s nothing done.”  

De Waal is not alone in questioning whether the government truly does value black lives. Since 1994, several acts — presided over by the majority black government — suggest that violence done to people of color is tolerated more readily than in white communities. The most brutal instance of this was seen in the 2012 Marikana massacre, during which 34 striking miners were killed by police with levels of impunity last seen during apartheid. More recently, when student protests for free education broke out in 2015 and 2016, the police’s unequal treatment of white and black citizens became so blatant that the white students would stand in the front row to deter police brutality. It often worked. 

* * * 

I meet Isaac Monaheng, who runs the initiation school where those two 20-year-olds died in late 2013, at one of the swanky cafes that line Stellenbosch’s streets. The atmosphere is decidedly European, not only due to the mainly white residents who patronize the establishment; the tall exotic trees also conjure a genteel Germanic ambience. Though Monaheng, a black man, has spoken to the media many times about the incident, his gravelly tenor voice betrays his discomfort. He orders a hot chocolate that will go almost untouched as he explains his side of the story.  

He starts by going over the business aspects of traditional circumcision. Each year, beginning in November, the initiates typically spend about two months on the property, he says. The entire ritual, which involves the slaughtering of a sheep, costs each boy’s family roughly 4000 Rand, or about $280. All initiates need written consent from their legal guardian to participate. Monaheng belongs to the Basotho people, a group that, along with the Xhosa, practice this form of circumcision. Others, like the Zulu, have largely discontinued the traditional form of the ritual.  

Monaheng says that initiation is an opportunity for men to pass on cultural insight about manhood to the next generation. But also, beyond the verbal tuition, the rite is seen as a test of endurance — in addition to withstanding pain and going without water for days, boys go through a period of eating austere, unsalted food. Surviving the test serves as proof of one’s worth as a man. It remains a highly valued tradition. Even Nelson Mandela went through the Xhosa version of the ritual, an event which he writes about in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom 

When I ask about the two boys who died under his care, Monaheng’s countenance stiffens. “I was in and out of courts, trying to tell these people, ‘We are not taking the boys there to kill them. No. That is not our intention.’ It’s also not nice for us; it was also very very bitter,” he says.  

He leans forward on the table as he recalls the incident. It was very hot, and though it goes against custom, Monaheng says he instructed the caretakers to give a boy water on the third day when he reported feeling weak. The minders followed the instructions and soon the boy began to look a little better. He even got up to go urinate. But the next thing they knew, he suddenly collapsed. As the caretakers were tending to him, the second boy fell to the ground as well.  

Monaheng appears remorseful about the incident. He says that more water should have been given to the boys earlier and he has since built what he calls a halfway house on the property so that initiates can get water without having to leave the school — to depart the initiation process early would be to court stigma. But when it comes to culpability he seems to hold many different views.  

When asked who should be held responsible, he says, “The caretakers, the person who’s been granted permission to do that [circumcision] … of course me as well, as I am the overseer; I should be there very often to avoid these kinds of mistakes.” 

When I ask about the sjambok wounds he says, “That was a mistake.” The caretaker who inflicted the wounds has since run away. But then he goes on to downplay role of the abrasions in the outcome, saying, “I don’t think that is what could kill a boy.” 

Institutions like Monaheng’s are regularly monitored by various stakeholders, and in the almost three decades that the school has been running, no other fatalities have been recorded. Across the country most of the deaths occur in illegal and unregistered schools. In June 2015 alone, 11 boys were rescued from such schools by police. In the same year over 150 unregistered schools were shut down 

Monaheng fiddles with his hot chocolate. “I think I’m doing very good work,” he responds when I ask him if there is anything else he would like to say. “Nobody can stop the culture.”  

 * * * 

Three years have passed since Azola Nkqinqa’s penis amputation. In the intervening years South African doctors at the University of Stellenbosch have twice successfully performed penis transplants — the initial one, in 2014, being the first such procedure in history. The two recipients’ donated penises function completely normally. One transplantee even had his first child in 2015. But as impressive as such innovations are, it will be a long time before they become accessible to rural amputees like Nkqinqa. 

Until that time, booze continues to be the medication of choice for a lot of them. Nkqinqa confirms that he too started drinking heavily, and that he dropped out of school for two years immediately after the amputation. “I gave up on life, once I saw that this thing is no longer there,” he says.  

His anxiety was exacerbated by the ridicule he endured when the other kids at school found out. Girls would giggle when they saw him, boys would mock and jeer. But with the help of the support group Nkqinqa says he managed to adopt a positive attitude. Now he accompanies his mentor, Dakwa, to public events where he has become a kind of spokesperson, encouraging amputees to reintegrate into society. He says too that he doesn’t harbor any ill feelings for those responsible for the loss of his penis.  

I ask him what value he sees in the ritual engaged in by so many Xhosa boys at the many initiation schools across South Africa.  

“They will call you a man,” he says. “And you like that word because it means everything to you.” 

I Met My Long-Lost Brother…And I Was Overcome With Lust

I was 34 years old and it was a primal attraction I couldn’t control. But this was before I discovered Johnny’s dark predilections.

My brother Johnny had just been paroled from the Georgia state prison system when I found my birth family. When the train taking me to the reunion pulled into the Savannah station, Johnny was waiting on the platform with my sister Belinda and my brother Mike. Already in tears, I went for my sister first, and then Mike, while Johnny stood quietly and waited his turn to hug me.

Johnny was dark, like me and our mother, who’d died the previous year. His eyes were my eyes, his lips were my lips. He had a dimple on one cheek that appeared when he smiled, just like me. He was a good-looking man, as were all my brothers. He’d just been released from prison; his body was meaty and well-nourished.

Learning I was related to someone with felony convictions didn’t bother me; I was no saint, for one thing, and I’d also been a criminal defense lawyer for ten years by then. Nothing could shock me, I thought.

Riding that train for twenty hours, I swung wildly between worries and hopes about what life inside a new family would mean to me. My mother had been fifteen when I was born, and just three months later she married the man who would be the father of the rest of her children, a daughter and five sons. I’d been adopted as an infant by a family up North. My siblings grew up with my mother and their father. This would be my first time meeting them. Would they be so different from me that I’d be repelled? Or would I snap into place with them? I’d learned a little about them all from letters and phone calls. It sounded like most of my five brothers were a lot like my clients. Unlike some defense lawyers I knew, I liked my clients – and I liked the no-frills, no-bullshit, blue-collar culture of people who were poor and struggling. I liked rule-breakers.

At the train station, and all during the week of my first visit to Savannah, Johnny and I spent long minutes staring into each other’s eyes. I was under a spell of fascination with the resemblance I’d been missing my whole life as an adopted person, and although I looked like all of my siblings in some way, the resemblance was strongest between Johnny and me. He was the sort of man who wouldn’t look away from another person’s gaze; probably, I thought, a habit picked up in prison, where to look away meant weakness. I was 34 then, and he was six years younger than me. I wanted to be literally in touch, as if separating from him physically would tear off a piece of my skin.

A book I’d read before getting on the train, The Adoption Triangle, had prepared me for those sorts of feelings. Of the many stories of adoption reunions, there were a few of brothers and sisters, and mothers and sons, who fell headlong in love, intoxicated by “deep, unrestrained love” and “intense, incestual feelings.” This didn’t surprise or disgust me when I read about it, or even when I experienced it myself. After all, it’s easy to confuse love with sex and sex with love.

I’d devoured stories of brother-sister incest all of my life: Wuthering Heights, Ada, The God of Small Things, Game of Thrones. It wasn’t me who’d turned those stories into bestsellers and critically-acclaimed classics. The attraction I felt wasn’t a sign of deviance, but I didn’t plan to act on it.

* * *

Soon after I got back to New England from that first visit to Savannah, Johnny was arrested on a burglary charge. Confined in the local jail, he charmed the female relative of an employee into helping him escape. He was picked up again within days. A few months later, I traveled to Savannah again, this time with one of my courtroom outfits packed away.

I dressed up like a lawyer to visit my brother in jail, and brought the maximum number of boxes of Marlboros allowed. We sat in an open visitation area at one of fifty tables. We held hands, the only contact allowed. Rules meant to prevent revealing attire were enforced against female visitors. In spite of that, the women visiting their men turned up the heat with the arch of their spines, the curves of their lips. Their heat spread to me, and I caught myself looking down at my breasts, which swelled against the silk blouse I wore, and I felt the same heat from Johnny.

Psychologists will say we repeat our families’ pathologies because we try, as adults, to rebuild the patterns we know. I’d always been attracted to reckless men like my brothers, even though I didn’t grow up with men like that. Once I met my brothers, I decided my desire was simpler and deeper than trying to replicate a childhood pattern; it was blood calling to blood.illo_2 For the next few years, Johnny and I communicated through letters while he was locked up. I learned, partly through his letters from prison, and partly through what others told me, that he’d been institutionalized at seven years old and given shock treatments and anti-psychotic medications. He’d been sexually abused by staff at that institution, and later in juvenile offender facilities and foster homes, where he was called “hyperactive.”

By sixteen, he was living on the streets, and he’d survived by stealing and prostituting himself. “If the price was right,” he wrote in one of his letters, “but as I got older and wiser, I started just robbing them kind of people.” By the time he reached his twenties, he’d spent half of his life incarcerated.

Johnny’s prison terms and deep dives into heavy drug use kept him away from all but one of the series of beach-house reunions I staged in the first ten years after I found my family. I was fixated on having everyone under one roof at the same time, trying to recreate the family-that-would-have-been if my mother hadn’t given me up, and I was oblivious to reasons why that might not be a good idea.

That one he made it to was in the fifth year of my reunion with my family, after I’d left my first husband and sold my law practice, after I’d started teaching college classes. That year, I began drinking with my brothers, and drinking hard, as I had in my teenage years and early twenties.

My uncle’s redheaded wife was the person in our family who most often told it like it was. When Johnny was released, and it looked like he would make it to the fifth beach-house reunion, she took me aside to tell me to watch him around children, and to explain why her husband – my uncle – didn’t want to be around my brother. When their daughter was three years old, they’d left her in then fourteen-year-old Johnny’s care and had come home to him with his pants down, his penis in the little girl’s mouth, and him saying “Just suck on it like it’s a bottle.”

I wondered why my other brothers, or my sister, hadn’t told me Johnny had molested our cousin. Maybe they believed it wasn’t necessary because he was safely locked away so soon after I met him. Maybe they saw that I loved Johnny, and they knew love had been in short supply in his life. Maybe they wanted me to love him, and they were afraid I’d recoil in disgust. But I didn’t.

In that fifth year, in a crowded two-bedroom beach house on holding over a dozen people, where I was hell-bent on recreating the family dynamic I never had, I lay down on the Berber carpet in the room where four of my little nieces were sleeping in a bed. Johnny lay down a few feet away from me. He and I were the last ones up after a night of full-throttle drinking. Other than the time I visited him in jail, this was the first time we’d been together since my first trip to Savannah. I’d been watching him around the children, the youngest of whom at that time were four-year-old Brandon, who was sleeping on a couch with his mother, and six-year-old Candi, who was one of the little girls in the bed. I hadn’t seen anything amiss.

I punched a pillow down under my neck to make the floor more comfortable, and then I reached back and pulled Johnny to me. It was the familial love, the call of blood to blood, and it was sexual.

“Don’t do that, Michele,” he said. “Please, don’t do that.”

I stopped, realizing the wrongness of what I’d just done, and realizing I couldn’t get away with it. I’d just turned forty, and I was informed enough to know better. And then I passed out.

When I woke at dawn, Johnny was a few feet away from me on the floor, snoring heavily. The girls were all still asleep in the bed. Nothing had happened. But what if? And even drunk, how could I have made that move with the children sleeping in the room? In a life full of bad acts, that move is the act I’m most ashamed of, even though it didn’t go any further than a gesture, even though my brother, the convicted felon, stopped me cold and saved me from myself.

* * *

His final conviction was for armed robbery. By that time, I was of two minds about him being in prison: it was violent, dangerous and dehumanizing, but safer than the street, where there was nothing at all to protect him.

At forty, he was no longer young and strong enough to rebound from privations and beatings, no longer quick enough to evade the rage of people he stole from, and on his way to becoming the homeless man who creeps around the edges of a campfire, snatching at scraps, and getting kicked for it.illo_3

He was in prison in 2004 when my brother Rudy and his wife, who were addicts, signed the papers to give me guardianship of their daughter, my niece Candi. She’d just turned thirteen, and over Cherry Coke slushies, she told me Johnny had molested her, too, when she was about three years old. Her parents had gone out to score some drugs and had left him in charge of her and some other children. He brought her into a bedroom and started licking her private parts. He was an adult, not a confused fourteen-year-old kid. His assault on my little cousin wasn’t an isolated incident. I had to admit my brother had a predilection for molesting little girls.

I wrote to tell Johnny I knew what he’d done to Candi, that she was living with me, that I still loved him, and that the next time he got out, I’d try to see him on his own, away from the kids.

Current research leans toward the conclusion that pedophilia is hardwired, a sexual preference like heterosexuality or homosexuality that emerges in adolescence and is pretty much exclusive to men. But only about fifty percent of the men who molest children are actually pedophiles; the other fifty percent are men with histories of violence or personality disorders. Those men tend to molest family members. I wondered which category my brother fell into, and whether it mattered.

Candi is twenty-five now. I messaged her, told her what I was writing about, and asked, does it matter to her? She told me no, the why didn’t matter, but knowing Johnny was also abused helped her to let go of wondering why. And then she added: “Some of the worst things can become our biggest blessings. I’ve decided to heal and to not let that control me, so I don’t mind talking about it. I’m not hiding anymore.” I was reminded of my little cousin, who is now forty years old, and a conversation she and Candi had about Johnny, how my cousin said, “There can’t be any dark secrets if you don’t keep them in the dark.”

One dark afternoon, Candi and I went to the boardwalk near the pier at Jacksonville Beach to see the ocean after a hurricane. The air was still tropical, and the waves still curled like rows of fists, ready to pound the sand. The wind blew her long blond hair around her shoulders, and we both spread our arms wide to feel the uplift, to pretend we could rise up at any moment and fly.

She didn’t notice the man sitting next to the Coast Guard station, the dark man with wild hair and a wild beard and the ruddy look of someone who’d been outdoors and drunk for months. But I saw him. How could I not? He stared back at me with my own eyes. We held each other’s gaze for a few long moments. I tried to figure out a way to distract Candi so I could go over to Johnny and tell him I loved him. But the boardwalk was empty, and the shops were shuttered closed. I turned my face from his, and hustled Candi into the car with the promise of a stop for Chinese food. I looked back, and he was still staring at me. I did not reach out to him. My brother, who’d had so little love in his life, was not my heart. Candi was my heart.

Back at our apartment, the door closed behind us with a little push from the wind. Inside, the air was cool, the lights were bright, and the dining room table was waiting for us, clear except for a bowl of flowers we’d arranged together earlier that day.

The next day, after Candi left for school, I drove back down to the beach, parked my car, and wandered around where the homeless people hung out. Johnny was gone, like a mirage that disappears once you look away, or once you stop believing in it. I never saw him. I never saw him again.

That Time I Tried Topless House Cleaning

After years getting paid to bare my breasts at more clubs than I can count, when my funds hit an all-time low I pioneered a cleaner brand of sex work.

Topless Housecleaning + Lapdance
Gentlemen, do you need a good, clean tease after a hard day’s work? I’ll clean your house and give you a (1) lapdance
$100/hr – have your own cleaning supplies – no blocked numbers.

When I arrive at the house of the first viable person to respond to my Craigslist ad, I knock on the door and take a step back. He opens it right away. Jim or John, suddenly I can’t remember. He’s young to have such a nice mini-mansion with a swimming pool and younger than I normally like to deal with. I like his work jeans and dirty white t-shirt, though. They feel kind of homey.

I step in, a little flirty, but all-business to begin with. I get him to show me the whole house, which serves the double purpose of planning ahead for cleaning and making sure there’s no one else hiding, ready to pop out for a gang rape later. Just when the tour is complete my phone rings. It’s my security detail — Possum, the hillbilly witchdoctor I’ve befriended, following instructions to wait for me to clear the house and call to be sure everything’s okay.

“Hey,” I say. “It’s all good in here. Call me in like an hour.”

Ayep,” Possum replies in his drawl.

I turn to JimJohn and start to pull my shirt off, then stop. “Business before pleasure, babe,” I say, making the little money sign with my fingers.

“Oh, of course.” He pulls a hundred out of his pocket and presses it into my hand. I shove it down one of my stockings as I take my pants off, because I have always believed that the safest place for my money is right against my skin.

* * *

I’d had eighty dollars left to my name when I drove into Greenville, South Carolina. Half a tank of gas and two blueberry smoothies later, it dwindled to sixteen dollars folded together in the bottom of my pocket. For some people, this might have been a problem, but not for me. I have the magical ability to walk into a strip club just about anywhere there is one and make a few hundred bucks just because I’m willing to get naked and smile at people.

Sex work is my trust fund. When I’ve been broke down on the side of the road with no money, when I’ve been a homeless teenager, when I’ve wanted to buy a house, a car, an education — sex work has always been there for me. I’ve done almost all the sex work: everything from street hustling to dancing in bejeweled gowns to foot fetish parties and erotic hypnosis. Whenever I discover a new form of sex work — the weirder or more interesting the better — I try to experience it.

I’m staying, with my dog, Spot, in my van down by the river next to Possum, who lives in a van that’s much bigger and nicer than mine. Possum drew me a map showing how to get to the two strip clubs he knows of: a big one, and a little one. Big strip clubs sometimes have things like rules and schedules and lots of competition and high house fees, which I don’t like. I decided to try the small one first.

The small one turned out to be a brothel with very little business, where I met some very beautiful, very southern women, including a 300-pound dancer named Hamhock who I wish I could introduce to every teenager worrying about their weight ever.

I was too fat for the big one, or the door guy was having a bad day.

I started to feel a little panic. That’s when the idea of topless housecleaning came to me — purely formed, rising sweetly out of my desperation — so I put up a Craigslist ad and here I am at Jim or John or whatever his name is’ house.

* * *

I do the kitchen first, like my friend Tania who actually grew up in a mansion and knows how to clean explained to me last night on the phone. I keep up a steady stream of flirting while I put his dishes in the dishwasher and move everything on the counter to one end so I can clean it. While I’m stacking his mail neatly I check out his name. Jim. The counter is dirty, covered in stains and puddles of dried-up food and glue and who knows what else. Scrubbing while bending over a counter in six-inch heels, back arched so that your ass sticks up pretty, is hard work. Especially while flirting the whole time with a man you hope is staring at your ass and not your sweaty face.

He asks about me, how I came to be a topless housecleaner. I don’t tell him that he’s my first, or that I’m broke, or that I live in a van. If you watch television you know what happens to broke homeless women: They give $20 blow jobs, not $100 counter scrubbings. Instead I make up a prissy story about finishing my Master’s degree and taking a year to drive around the country in an R.V. dancing. Of course I tried dancing here, I explain, but the clubs are just so dirty, and I’m way too classy to expose myself to such an environment. The crazy thing I’ve discovered is that the snobbier you seem, the more they will pay you.

Jim is amazingly empathetic about the nastiness of the local clubs. A classy woman like me obviously doesn’t belong in places like those. He follows me from kitchen to bathroom to bedroom to living room, staring while I wipe, mop, scrub and vacuum, all while trying to look like I’m not sweaty from doing this work in humid 90-degree weather. His story is interesting. All his time goes to his race-car business, which is like a dream, but lots of hard work. He bought this house two years ago, but hasn’t had the time or taste to furnish it yet, though he does find the time to indulge in the tradition of illicit hooch brewing down in the basement. Steely grey eyes and his young tough look contrast with his docile nature as he tamely follows me around his house. I’m beginning to think all men in the South must be gentlemen.

When I’m done cleaning I settle him on his couch, set my iPod to Depeche Mode, and tell him that he gets one free lap dance with his housecleaning and after that they are twenty dollars, just like in the club. He opens his wallet and peels off another hundred, right away, and tells me to just dance until that runs out.

“No touching,” I remind him as the song starts and I move in front of him. Soon I’m crawling all over him, undulating, brushing my ass across his hard penis through his jeans. He is begging me to let him touch me, and I’m reminding him that I’m not that kind of girl, although I make sure to sound a little confused.

“Come on,” he says, getting his wallet out. “What about for another hundred?”

I pretend to think hard, then: “Okay.” I take his hands and guide them over my body. “You can touch here — my ass, my thighs, my stomach, but no titties or pussy.”

“Two hundred?” he pulls two crisp $100 bills out of his wallet.

It’s not really a question for me. I’ve given this much contact for thirty dollars a song. I pretend to think long and hard, though. If I let on that I have no principles, I can’t pretend to sell them.

“Okay,” I finally say, pushing the bills down my stockings, “but keep your hands off the kitty! That is not for sale!”

He has gentle, well-practiced hands that he swirls around my nipples and brushes softly over my ass. I arch my back and gasp in pretend ecstasy. Soon he wants more again — a hand job, a hundred dollars.

I insist that I’m not that kind of dancer while I consider this through to its logical conclusion. A couple hundred more for a hand job, a couple hundred more for a blow job, a lot more for sex. It could be a grand, easily. But do I want to have sex with this guy? The thing is, I’m a lesbian. The other thing is, sometimes I think I could be bisexual, and every year or two I have a man sex experiment. I can get into men, and right now on this guy’s lap, I’m turned on.

My phone rings again. It’s Possum. “It’s been an hour,” he says, “are you okay in there?”

“Yeah,” I giggle, “I’m having a great time. I’ll be just another fifteen minutes or so.”

Awright.” He hangs up.

“Will you touch it?” Jim asks.

Do I look like that kind of girl? I’m a very classy stripper, I remind him.

“Oh, of course, of course. I’m sorry,” he says. “I hope you’re not offended.”

“No…” I cock my head. “Actually… I’ve always kind of wondered what it would be like to do something like that for money.”

“Well, here’s your chance to find out.”

“Hmm…I dunno. I couldn’t. Well…how much?”

“A hundred?”

“Oh, no. I couldn’t.”

“Two hundred?” He’s got his wallet out, two crisp hundreds in his hand.

“Okay.” I grab them and shove them into my stocking. In my mind I’m counting and calculating miles. This makes 600, or is it 800? That’s, like, 5,000 miles of gas money! Or 2,000 miles and a month or two of groceries and stuff while I explore desert canyons and sky islands. What more could a girl need?

I slide down between his legs and he unzips his jeans eagerly. It is small, with a nice curve and for a second I love it and want to fuck him. Smiling, I bring my face close, admiring it like I’m about to lick it. He gasps and wiggles a little, and I take his cock in my hand. It’s already throbbing, and I just run my hand up it lightly, swirl some of the pre-cum back down it, run my fingers over the whole thing. He moans and half thrusts his hips. I love this. When I finally grab his cock, two-handed, and give it a couple strong, twisting strokes, he explodes right away. Perfect.

“Oh my god,” he says.

I giggle. “No, goddess.”

“Oh my goddess.” He smiles.

“Stay right there, I’m going to get you a washcloth.” I run to the bathroom.

While he cleans up, I pull my jeans and tank top back on over my fishnets and thong. I’m ecstatic and high from the rush of going from six dollars to 800 dollars in an hour with my hustling skills, but I know I won’t have really pulled it off until I’m in the van, driving away. I make myself look totally calm while I throw my iPod and cleaning stuff in the bag I came with, give him a goodbye hug, and tell him he should really call me again to clean the rest of the house.

I don’t start laughing until I’m in the van and Possum is driving us away. Then I fold over in my seat, laughing and clapping my hands with excitement.

“Possum,” I exclaim, “I love having a vagina!

Leaning back, I push my hips up to pull my jeans down and start fishing the hundreds out of my fishnets.

Possum looks over at me with my legs up on the bed, pulling eight $100 bills out of my thigh highs. “Holy shit,” he says, “I do believe I wish I had a vagina too.”

Checking “topless housecleaning” off my to-try list of sex-work gigs makes me enough money to get back on the road. The next day Spot and I get in the van and drive across the country until I find a beautiful desert-sky island in northern Arizona. I stay for a couple weeks, playing in a creek and tracking coyote, before I get low on money again and start over.

* * *

Tara Burns is the author of the Whore Diaries series. She lives in a little cabin in a big boreal forest and she is working on a memoir. Follow her @THEecowhore

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

My analyst and I grew more intimately connected each week of treatment...but I never saw this indecent proposal coming.

It’s the waning moments of my fourth session with a new therapist. I’m holding back — and she knows it. My entire body feels tense, not ideal for the setting. I try to relax, but the plush leather couch crumples under me when I shift, making the movements extraordinary. I’ve barely looked into my therapist’s blue eyes at all, and yet I think the hour has gone very well. Of course it has. On the surface, when the patient has been highly selective of the discussion topics, therapy always resembles a friendly get-together.

“Well,” my therapist, Lori, says, the millisecond after I become certain our time is up and I might be in the clear. “I don’t think I should let you go until we’ve at least touched on what was put out there at the end of last week’s session.”

I so supremely wanted this not to come up. My eyelids tighten, my mouth puckers to the left, and my head tilts, as though I’m asking her to clarify.

“When you said you’re attracted to me,” she continues.

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

Back in session three Lori was trying to build my self-esteem, the lack of which is one of the reasons I’m in treatment. Within the confines of my family, I’ve always been the biggest target of ridicule. We all throw verbal darts around as though we’re engaged in a massive, drunken tournament at a bar, but the most poisonous ones seem to hit me the most often, admittedly somewhat a consequence of my own sensitivity. I’ve been told it was historically all part of an effort to toughen me up, but instead I was filled with towering doubts about my own worth. And since 2012, when I gave up a stable, tenured teaching career for the wildly inconsistent life of a freelance writer, I’ve had great difficulty trusting my own instincts and capabilities. I told Lori that I wish I was better at dealing with life’s daily struggles instead of constantly wondering if I’ll be able to wade through the thick.

She quickly and convincingly pointed out that I work rather hard and am, ultimately, paying my bills on time, that I have friends, an appreciation for arts and culture, and so on. In short, I am, in fact, strong, responsible and “pretty good at life.”

Then Lori heightened the discussion a bit. “I also feel that it is your sensitivity that makes you a great catch out there in the dating world,” she said, to which I involuntarily smiled, blushed and quickly buried my chin in my chest. I was too insecure and too single to handle such a compliment from a beautiful woman.

“Why are you reacting that way?” Lori asked.

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

“Is it because you’re attracted to me?”

I laughed a little, uncomfortably. “How did you know?”

She gently explained she could tell the day I walked into her office for the first time, after I flashed a bright smile and casually asked where she was from.

Now, a week after dropping that bomb, Lori asks, “So, why haven’t we talked about it?”

“I was hoping to avoid it, I suppose.” I tell her the whole notion of having the hots for a therapist is such a sizable cliché that I was embarrassed to admit it. “For Christ’s sake,” I say, throwing my hands up, “Tony Soprano even fell in love with his therapist.”

Lori snorts, rolls her eyes. “I knew you were going to say that.”

I smile, shake my head and look around the room, denying acceptance of my own ridiculous reality.

“It’s OK,” Lori says, grinning. “We can talk about this in here.”

I look again at her stark blue eyes, prevalent under dark brown bangs, the rest of her hair reaching the top of her chest, which is hugged nicely by a fitted white tee under an open button-down. She jogs often, I’d come to find out, which explains her petite figure and ability to probably pull off just about any outfit of her choosing.

I still can’t speak, so she takes over.

“Do you think you’re the first client that’s been attracted to their therapist?” she asks rhetorically. “I’ve had other clients openly discuss their feelings, even their sexual fantasies involving me.”

“What?” I cackle, beginning to feel as though I’ve moseyed onto the set of a porno.

“It’s true,” she says, acknowledging her desk. “What’s yours? Do you bend me over and take me from behind?”

Nailed it.

“If that’s what you’re thinking, it’s OK,” she goes on, earnestly, explaining that she’s discussed sexual scenarios with her clients before so as to “normalize” the behavior and not have them feel their own thoughts are unnatural. By showing the patient a level of acceptance, she hopes to facilitate a more comfortable atmosphere for “the work” — her painfully accurate pseudonym for psychotherapy.

I take a second to let the red flow out of my face, and ponder what she said. I’m a little unsure about this whole technique, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. So I go home, incredibly turned on and completely unashamed.

* * *

One of the great breakthroughs I’ve had in the thirteen months since I began seeing Lori (who agreed to participate in this article, but requested that her full name not be published) is a new ability to accept the existence of dualities in life. For instance, I’ve always had a tremendous sense of pride that, if it doesn’t straddle the line of arrogance, certainly dives into that hemisphere from time to time. I’m great at seeing flaws in others and propping myself up above them by smugly observing my character strengths. I’ve never liked that about myself, but the harder concept to grasp is the fact that I can be so egotistical while also stricken with such vast quantities of insecurity.

In treatment I came to realize that all people have contradictions to their personalities. There’s the insanely smart guy who can’t remotely begin to navigate a common social situation, the charitable girl who devotes all her time to helping strangers, but won’t confront issues in her own personal relationships. In my case, my extreme sensitivity can make me feel fabulous about the aspects of myself that I somehow know are good (my artistic tastes) and cause deep hatred of those traits I happen to loathe (the thirty pounds I could stand to lose).

My next session with Lori is productive. We speak about relationships I’ve formed with friends and lovers, and how my family may have informed those interactions. One constant is that I put crudely high expectations on others, mirroring those thrown upon me as a kid. I’m angered when people don’t meet those expectations, and absolutely devastated when I don’t reach them. Lori points out that it must be “exhausting trying to be so perfect all the time.” I am much more comfortable than I was the week prior, and can feel myself being more candid. I’m relieved that the whole being-attracted-to-my-therapist thing doesn’t come up.

Then, a week later, Lori mentions it, and I become tense again.

“I thought I’d be able to move past it,” I say, adding, “We aired it out, and it’s fine.”

As definitive as I’m trying to sound, Lori is just as defiant.

“I’m glad you feel that way,” she begins, “but I think you owe yourself some kudos. This kind of therapy,” she shares, “isn’t something just anyone can take on.” Such honest discussion doesn’t simply happen, it takes tremendous guts, and Lori can see that I am dealing with it relatively well, so I should praise my own efforts.

“Shit, we both should be proud of ourselves,” she says. “It’s not easy on the therapist either, you know.”

“Why not?”

“Because talking openly about sex is risky at any time, much less with a client.” She explains that therapists are warned any semblance of intimacy can be easily misconstrued. “We learn in our training to not personally disclose, for example,” she says, but adds that, occasionally, transparency can be helpful.

“Still, with you,” she continues, “until I raised the question, I didn’t know for sure that you would go with it; for all I knew you’d run out of here and never come back to risk being so uncomfortable again.”

She’s building my confidence more, and I’m learning that I play a much bigger role in how my life is conducted than I often realize. My treatment wouldn’t be happening if I weren’t enabling it.

Then she says, “And don’t think it’s not nice for me to hear that a guy like you thinks I’m beautiful.”

Crippled by the eroticism of the moment, and combined with the prevailing notion that no woman this stunning could ever be romantically interested in me, I flounder through words that resemble, “Wait…what?”

“If we were somehow at a bar together, and you came over and talked to me,” she says, then flips her palms up innocently, “who knows?”

I laugh again and tell her there’d be almost no chance of me approaching her because I’d never feel like I had a shot in hell.

“Well, that’s not the circumstances we’re in,” she says. “But you might. Who knows?”

I’m confused — Is she really attracted to me or is this some psychotherapeutic ruse? I’m frustrated — I told her I didn’t really want to talk about it. Shouldn’t she be more sensitive to my wants here? I’m angry — Is she getting an ego boost out of this? Most of all, I don’t know what the next step is — Am I about to experience the hottest thing that’s ever happened to a straight male since the vagina was invented?

There were two ways to find out:

1) Discontinue the therapy, wait for her outside her office every day, follow her to a hypothetical happy hour and ask her out, or

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

A week later, I’m physically in the meeting room with Lori, but mentally I haven’t left the recesses of my mind.

“Where are you today?” she asks, probably noticing my eyes roving around the room.

“I don’t know.”

“Are you still grappling with the sexual tension between us?”

Here we go again.

“Yes,” I say, with a bit of an edge in my voice, “and I don’t know what to do about it.”

Lori, ever intently, peers into my eyes, wrinkles her mouth and slightly shakes her head.

“Do you want to have sex with me?” she asks.

We both know the answer to that question. All I can do is stare back.

“Let’s have sex,” she announces. “Right here, right now.”

“What?” I respond, flustered.

“Let’s go!” she says a little louder, opening up her arms and looking around as if to say the office is now our playground, and, oh, the rollicking fun we’d have mixing bodily fluids.

“No,” I tell her, “You don’t mean that.”

“What if I do?” she shoots back. “Would you have sex with me, now, in this office?”

“Of course not.”

“Why ‘of course not’? How do I know for sure that you won’t take me if I offer myself to you?”

“I wouldn’t do that.”

“That’s what I thought,” she says, and tension in the room decomposes. “Mike, I don’t feel that you would do something that you think is truly not in our best interest, which is exactly why I just gave you the choice.”

Her offer was a lesson in empowerment, helping me prove that I have an innate ability to make the right choices, even if I’d so desperately prefer to make the wrong one.

I see what she means. I’m awfully proud of myself, and it’s OK to be in this instance. I’m gaining trust in myself, and confidence to boot. But, as the dualities of life dictate, I’m successfully doing “the work” with a daring therapist, while at the same time not entirely convinced she isn’t in need of an ethical scrubbing.

* * *

I don’t have another session with Lori for nearly three months, because she took a personal leave from her place of employment. When our sessions finally resumed, I could not wait to tell her about my budding relationship with Shauna.

Ten minutes into my first date with Shauna — right about the time she got up from her bar stool and said she was “going to the can” — I knew she would, at the very least, be someone I was going to invest significant time in. She was as easy to talk to as any girl I’d ever been with, and I found myself at ease. Plans happened magically without anxiety-inducing, twenty-four-hour waits between texts. Her quick wit kept me entertained, and I could tell by the way she so seriously spoke about dancing, her chosen profession, that she is passionate about the art form and mighty talented too. Shauna is beautiful, with flawless hazel eyes and straight dark hair, spunky bangs and a bob that matches her always-upbeat character. She is a snazzy dresser and enjoys a glass of whiskey with a side of fried pickles and good conversation as much as I do.

Things escalated quickly, but very comfortably, and since we’d both been in our fair share of relationships, we knew the true power of honesty and openness. So upon the precipice of my return to therapy I told Shauna about Lori, and admitted to having mixed feelings about what I was getting back into. I told her I was at least moderately uncertain if my mental health was Lori’s number-one concern since she always seemed to find the time to mention my attraction to her.

The first two sessions of my therapeutic reboot had gone great. Lori appeared genuinely thrilled that I was dating Shauna and could see how happy I was. I wasn’t overwhelmed with sexual tension in the new meeting room, though it wasn’t actually spoken about, and in the back of my mind I knew it was just a matter of time before it would start to affect my ability to disclose my thoughts to Lori again.

Then, while attempting to ingratiate myself with my new girlfriend’s cat by spooning food onto his tiny dish on the kitchen floor, I hear my phone ding from inside the living room.

“You got a text, babe,” Shauna says. “It’s from Lori.”

“‘I’m so impressed with you and the work you’re doing…’” Shauna reads off my phone from inside the living room, inquisitively, and not happily. I stuff the cat food back into the Tupperware and toss it into the refrigerator. I make my way into the living room, angry at myself for not changing the settings on my new iPhone to disallow text previews on the locked screen. Shauna’s walking too, and we meet near the kitchen door. “What’s this?” she says, holding up the phone. “Your therapist texts you?”

I take the phone from Shauna and say the most obvious, cliché-sounding thing: “It’s not what it seems.”

As I text back a curt “thanks,” Shauna tells me she’s going to ask her sister, a therapist herself, if it’s OK to text patients.

“Don’t do that.” I say, a little more emphatically. “I promise, this is nothing to be worried about. We’re not doing anything wrong.” I explain that Lori’s just trying to build my self-esteem.

“The only reason I’m even bringing this up is because you said you weren’t sure about her in the first place,” Shauna reminds me. I can tell she regrets looking at my phone without my permission, but I completely understand her feelings.

At my next session I tell Lori that Shauna saw her text and wasn’t thrilled about it.

“She probably feels cheated on to some degree,” Lori says. “A relationship between a therapist and a patient can oftentimes seem much more intimate than the one between a romantic couple.”

Lori goes on to point out that the reason she feels we can exchange texts, blurring the lines between patient/doctor boundaries — a hot topic in the psychotherapy world these days — is because she trusts that I’ll respect her space and privacy. “You’ve proven that much to me,” she says.

On my walk home, instead of being angry at Lori, I understand her thinking behind the text. But I’m also nervous about how Lori and Shauna can ever coexist in my life.

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

A week later, Lori begins our session by handing me a printout explaining the psychotherapeutic term “erotic transference” written by Raymond Lloyd Richmond, PhD. It says that erotic transference is the patient’s sense that love is being exchanged between him or herself and the therapist — the exact sensation I was experiencing with Lori, of which she was astutely aware.

According to Richmond, one of the primary reasons people seek therapy is because “something was lacking in their childhood family life,” perhaps “unconditional nurturing guidance and protection.” Upon feeling “noticed” and “understood” by a qualified therapist, sometimes a patient can be “intoxicated” by their therapist’s approval of them. A patient may in turn contemplate that a love is blossoming between them, and, in fact, it sort of is.

From an ethical standpoint, Richmond argues all therapists are “bound” to love their patients, for therapists are committed to willing “the good of all clients by ensuring that all actions within psychotherapy serve the client’s need to overcome the symptoms” which brought them into treatment. This takes genuine care and acceptance on their part. However, a patient can easily confuse the love they feel with simple “desire.” They’re not quite in love with their therapist, so much as they yearn for acceptance from someone, and in those sessions they just happen to be receiving it from their doctor.

Lori tells me that, all along, she has been “working with what I gave her” and that because I flirted with her a bit, she used that to her advantage in the treatment. In employing countertransference — indicating that she had feelings for me — she was keeping me from feeling rejected and despising my own thoughts and urges.

“There’s two people alone in a room together, and if they’re two attractive people, why wouldn’t they be attracted to each other?” says Dr. Galit Atlas. A psychoanalyst who’s had her own private practice for fifteen years, Dr. Atlas has an upcoming book titled The Enigma of Desire: Sex, Longing and Belonging in Psychoanalysis, and I sought her as an independent source for this essay to help me understand Lori’s therapeutic strategies.

Dr. Atlas explains that there are certain boundaries that cannot be crossed between therapist and patient under any circumstances — like having sex with them, obviously. But many other relationship borders can be mapped out depending on the comfort level of the therapist, as long as they stay within the scope of the profession’s ethics, which complicates the discussion surrounding erotic transference.

“As a therapist, I have a role,” Dr. Atlas says. “My role is to protect you.” She says it is incumbent on the therapist to not exploit the patient for the therapist’s own good, but admits that the presence of erotic transference in therapy brings about many challenges. “[Attraction] is part of the human condition,” she observes. In therapy, “the question then is: What do you do with that? Do you deny it? Do you talk about it? How do you talk about it without seducing the patient and with keeping your professional ability to think and to reflect?”

I ask her about the benefits of exploring intimacy in therapy, and Dr. Atlas quickly points out that emotional intimacy — though not necessarily that of the sexual brand — is almost inevitable and required. “An intimate relationship with a therapist can [be] a reparative experience — repairing childhood wounds — but mostly it’s about helping the patient to experience and tolerate emotional intimacy, analyzing the client’s anxieties about being vulnerable and every mechanism one uses in order to avoid being exposed.”

Dr. Atlas says this topic speaks to every facet of the therapeutic relationship, regardless of gender or even sexual orientation, because intimacy reveals emotional baggage that both the patient and therapist carry with them into the session. But this isn’t a symmetrical relationship, and the therapist is the one who holds the responsibility.

“Freud said that a healthy person should be able to work and to love,” she says. “In some ways therapy practices both, and in order to change the patient will have to be known by the therapist. That is intimacy. In order to be able to be vulnerable, both parties have to feel safe.”

After I briefly explain all that has gone on between me and Lori, Dr. Atlas steadfastly says she does not want to judge too harshly why and how everything came to pass in my therapy. “I don’t know your therapist, and I don’t know your history,” she says. But she offers that I should “explore the possibility” that I might have created and admitted my sexual adoration of Lori because one of my fears is to be ignored, not noticed.

Then I offer: “Maybe this essay is being written for the same reason.”

“Exactly.”

Maybe I wanted to interview Lori about erotic transference in my therapy sessions for that same reason as well…to stand out as the most amazingly understanding patient ever.

* * *

“I want to be very clear that this was never about feeding my own ego,” Lori says about her approach to my treatment. “We were always doing this in your best interest.”

I’m in Lori’s office, a tape recorder rolling and a pad and pen in my hands.

“I felt I was doing a disservice to you if I didn’t ‘out’ what I felt was weighing on us, which, honestly, felt like a heavy secret,” she says, pointing out that she discussed my therapeutic process for many hours in her required supervision meetings.

In order for Lori to advance in her field as a social worker, she has to attend 3,000 conference hours with another professional to go over casework — kind of like therapy quality control.

We talk about all of this during one of my scheduled sessions, for the entire hour — and go over by a few minutes, too.

Lori says that when she began her career as a social worker, she decided she wasn’t going to shy away from any subjects. “It’s typical for a client to [have] a habitual desire to sweep things under the rug,” she observes, especially about taboo topics. It can become a cycle of behavior that Lori seeks to break.

I refer back to the time when, unprovoked, she brought up my attraction to her.

She says she mentioned it to avoid what therapists call “door-knobbing,” which is when a patient will purposely mention some huge reveal right at the end of a session so as to sidestep a lengthy conversation about it.

“My only question for you is, was I wrong for bringing it up?” she asks. “Only you can answer that.”

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

“I guess when I said I was over it and could move on, that was an example of my strict black-and-white thinking,” I say, throwing back some language she’s used often to describe my challenge in accepting dualities. In my mind, I was either attracted to her and shouldn’t see her anymore, or I wasn’t attracted to her and could still have her be my therapist. There was no in between.

I realize now that she wasn’t wrong for mentioning my feelings for her, even when I didn’t want her to. Lori noticed that I was frustrated with myself and wanted me to know that an attraction to a therapist is so normal and happens so frequently that there are technical terms for it.

I turn my attention towards the presence of countertransference in our session. I’m trying to come up with an actual question here, but, really, I just want her to confirm her feelings for me are real. So I say, referring to her feelings, with a great degree of difficulty, “It’s funny that they seem genuine to this day.”

“They are genuine,” Lori says, adding a moment later: “I think it might be a good idea if we explore why our discussing it suggests a lack of authenticity.”

“It doesn’t, necessarily,” I begin, then stammer through a few sentences, worried I might offend her by implying she’s been dishonest. I finally settle on, “I guess it comes back to my self-esteem issues. Why would a beautiful woman think I’m attractive?”

Lying in bed with Shauna a few months into our relationship, I ask her what she thought about me the moment she first saw me. I’m fishing for a compliment. But we met on Tinder and I just hope that seeing me in person wasn’t some kind of letdown for her after swiping right on my hand-picked glamour shots. Obviously she isn’t going to say something so awful after having committed to me for so long. It’s a slam-dunk ego boost.

She says she liked the fact that I was wearing a blazer and a tie on a first date. She adds that I was a little shorter than she anticipated, but was content with the two of us at least being the same exact height.

“What did you think when you first saw me?” she asks, turning it around, naturally.

Staying committed to my honesty-at-all-costs policy, I say, “I thought you were really beautiful, but not to the point where I was intimidated by you, which was very important because if I was, you would have gotten a very unconfident version of me, and we probably wouldn’t have hit it off as well as we did.”

Shauna thinks about that for a second, and eventually nods “OK.”

I explain that my insecurity could often get the better of me in dating situations. It was easy to convince myself that I’d be rejected by the girl I was with, especially if I thought she was out of my league. I would then slip into a nervous and reserved state that isn’t at all reflective of my true self.

I’m essentially saying that I was so thrilled to not find Shauna so extraordinarily pretty that I couldn’t accept her being on a date with me. That thought made so much sense at the time I said it, but I’ve since come to realize it is as ridiculous as it is insulting. After ten months of being with Shauna, I’m still completely floored by her, on every level, including a physical one. It gives me great pride to walk into a room with her, and I don’t imagine that changing. Therefore, she actually did meet a confident “version of me.” The way people look doesn’t drastically change in ten months but a person’s perception of self can. It seems my emotional workouts in erotic transference were just beginning to produce results.

* * *

“People fuck up,” Lori informs me during one winter session. “Therapists have slept with clients before, just like politicians have had sex with their interns. But, so you have a full understanding of how this works, we can date.” She explains the parameters as outlined in the social worker’s code of ethics. One of the many stipulations is that we wouldn’t be able to see each other, under any circumstances, for at least two years before dating. She tells me she loves her job, and there’s no way she would ever sacrifice my safety or her career for anything, so she would strictly follow all the dictated rules. “If you truly want to date me, there is the option. But it’s ultimately up to you.”

I know what she’s doing here — putting the onus on me, just like last year when she said we could have sex. The difference this time is the answer I want to give is on par with all of my involuntary urges.

“I don’t want to stop the work we’re doing,” I say. “At this point, it’s far too valuable to me, and, really, I know very little about you.” She’s beautiful, exercises, is smart, funny, professional, enjoys good TV…and that’s about it. Aside from whether or not we’d even both be single in two years, and if we’d be in the correct mind frame to explore a relationship, there are several other things I’m considering here: Would Lori and I really be compatible in every way? Would she ever see me as a lover, a partner, an equal, and not a patient? Could I ever reveal a detail about myself, or even just a shitty day of work, without wondering if she was picking it apart and analyzing it?

Frankly, all those questions could be answered in the positive. But, even if I wasn’t in a happy relationship — Shauna makes this choice much easier, for sure — I wouldn’t go that route. I’d be out a therapist.

* * *

It’s a beautiful spring night in New York and only sidewalk seating will do. Shauna and I are out to dinner at a restaurant near her Queens apartment, and we’re both in good spirits. The weather and the alcohol consumption are partly to blame for that, but, on cue with the season’s change, I feel I’ve turned an emotional corner. Work payments that were past due are finally finding their way into my bank account. As it turns out, my short-term money troubles were not an indication that I had no business being a writer, or that my life changeup was as irresponsible as unprotected sex at fourteen years old.

I’d told Lori as much that afternoon. I took a mental step back from my current situation and realized that in spite of my recent hardships, I was succeeding. I summarize my session for Shauna, who nods in agreement, lovingly pointing out that she’s had the same challenging freelancer experiences as a dancer.

“You’re doing great, babe,” she says matter-of-factly.

“Thank you. That means a lot,” I respond. “I guess if I’m going to be a writer I just have to accept all this and have faith in myself. The way Lori put it was, ‘You just have to go all-in.’”

“Good,” Shauna says. “You should listen to the women in your life.”

* * *

Liked this story? Our editors did too, voting it one of our 20 best untold tales!

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

Michael Stahl is a freelance writer, journalist and editor living in Astoria, New York. He serves as a Narratively features editor as well. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelRStahl.

Casey Roonan is a cartoonist and cat person from Connecticut. Follow Casey on Instagram: @caseyroonan

I’m Married. I’m a Woman. I’m Addicted to Porn.

Countless couples have tackled the taboo subject of racy videos and illicit orgasms. What happens when it’s the woman who can’t stop watching?

This story features explicit situations that may not be suitable for all audiences.

It’s past two a.m. and my husband’s breathing has become long and even. An opportunity presents itself. I slip my right hand down my pajama pants and move slowly, careful not to bump my elbow into his side rib, or bring my hips into it. Too much movement or sound will wake him, and to be found out for something like this is not just embarrassing but potentially destructive. He’ll think he doesn’t satisfy me, and men do not like feeling inadequate, especially when it comes to matters of the bedroom. Or maybe he’ll feel sorry for me. And who wants to fuck someone they pity?

Even worse, maybe he’ll finally say the words I’ve been waiting for him to say since I first told him that I am a sex addict. That he’s bored with it. He’s disgusted. He’s had enough.

I lift my wrist away from my body. I’m careful to keep my breath from becoming a pant, even as my pulse quickens, but this takes much concentration. The body desires the convulsion the mind denies. There is no letting go here though. This orgasm is a controlled, measured, calculated experience.

I have masturbated in this way next to the sleeping bodies of all my serious, committed partners who came before my husband. In some cases, as expected, it was because I wanted more sex than they could give me. I’ve been called “insatiable” and “demanding” one too many times. But this has not always been the story. Yes, I have an incredibly high sex drive, but even in relationships where I have great sex multiple times a week my nighttime stealth for self-pleasure has persisted.

My college boyfriend, burgundy haired and tattooed, had the high sex drive typical of most nineteen-year-old males. We fucked all the time, but even still, I wanted more, something only I could give me. One afternoon, after he’d fallen into a deep post-sex slumber, I serviced myself with my second, third, and fourth orgasm beside him. That was the first time I’d experienced such a level of both secrecy and shame.

I made a promise to my husband and to myself, long before we were even wed, to be austerely honest. He knows I’ve been a compulsive masturbator since I was twelve years old. He knows about my extensive fluency in the hardcore categories of various porn sites. He knows about the bad habit I used to have of hooking up with not-so-nice men because they were available and I was bored — and that I rarely used protection with any of them. And that I believed, for a really long time, that my addiction made me a broken person, a disgusting person, a person unworthy of love. I told him these things from the start because I met him at a time in my life where I was ready and open for change. Because I liked him so much that I wanted to love him. Because I knew that the only way to love him, and be loved by him, was to be myself.

* * *

“What’s your favorite porn scene?”

The man who will become my husband in less than a year asks me this question as he lies naked and vulnerable beside me. We’ve just had sex and although I am naked too, it isn’t until this moment that I feel just as vulnerable as him. While it might seem absurd to some, I know immediately this is a moment of great significance for us. It is an opportunity to finally do things differently.

The possibilities run through my head.

I can describe something vanilla: This one where a busty blonde gets banged by her personal trainer. Or perhaps something a little more racy: These two hot teens swap their math teacher’s cum after he made them stay late in the classroom. Chances are he’ll get hard again and we’ll end up abandoning the conversation for a second round. These are harmless answers. Expected answers.

They’re also lies.

The possibility of revealing the actual truth not only makes me nervous, but also physically sick. I feel a constriction in the back of my throat, a flutter in my belly, a tremble in my extremities. After all, we’ve only been dating a couple of months and he doesn’t love me yet. If I tell him, will he ever?

“Why do you ask?” I reach for the sheet, damp with sweat, a tangle of 300-thread-count cotton across our limbs, and yank it up to cover my breasts.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Curiosity?” He turns over on his side and props his head up on his left hand. His green eyes are wide with wonder.

“Seems like a weird question.” I tuck the sheet into my armpits and scoot my body a little to the left so we’re no longer touching. The tone of my voice has become defensive and he can tell.

“It’s just that I usually pick the porn,” he explains. “Do you like what I choose?”

I see what he’s doing. He’s trying to be considerate since we just had sex while staring at the laptop screen after searching terms of his choosing: Latina, real tits, blow job, threesome.

Maybe he feels guilty for getting off to them instead of me, even though I’m the one who suggested we watch porn in the first place. Even though I’m always the one who suggests we watch porn while we have sex.

“Yeah, sure.” I look up at the ceiling. “They’re fine.”

“Are you sure?”

I wish he’d stop prying, but I realize something else is happening here. Not only is he trying to be considerate; he’s also trying to get to know me. The past couple of months has allowed us to cover most of the basics — what ended each of our most recent relationships, what our parents are like, what we hope to do with our lives in the next few years — but there’s still a longing for something deeper, and I can’t think of anything deeper than knowing a person’s favorite porn scene.

It can speak volumes. For one scene to stand out amongst the rest, when so many others are available, there has to be something below the surface. What maintains its appeal? What keeps a person returning in the deep, dark recesses of a lonely night? Perhaps the answers to these questions are a great source of shame. I never thought of revealing such answers to anybody, and especially not somebody like him, somebody I could really like. It seems far too risky, preposterous even.

It also seems necessary. Too many of my past relationships were doomed by my inability to tell the whole truth, to fully be myself. Now I have the opportunity to go there, and to say to a person, “This is who I am. Do you accept me?”

“Well, there’s this one gang bang,” I start, looking over at his face to see a reaction of surprise and interest register at once.

“Go on.”

I take a deep breath and proceed to tell him, first slowly, then progressively faster about the scene. Like a busted dam, I can hardly hold back the rush of descriptors fumbling from my mouth: “Two women in a warehouse. One dangling from a harness. The other just below her. Both are waiting to take on fifty horny men…” and on and on.

I watch his face the whole time, not pausing when his smile becomes a frown and his eyes squint as if it hurts to look at me.

“Afterward, the women exit the warehouse through a back door while the men applaud.”

For a long moment after I’ve finished talking, there is silence between us, but there is also a sense of relief on my part. I have revealed something so dark, so upsetting, so impacted in shame, and he hasn’t immediately disappeared. He is still here beside me, propped up on his left hand, naked and vulnerable, and so am I. He sees me and I see him seeing me and we are in new territory.

But then he says, “I kind of wish I hadn’t asked.” It’s all I need to hear to send me into tears. Not just tiny, embarrassed sobs, but humiliated wails. I have myself a tantrum. He is confused now as he pulls me close to him, laughing nervously at my abrupt shift in disposition. I try to pull the sheet completely over my head, but he pulls it back down and covers my face with apologetic kisses. He can’t possibly understand why I’m crying. He can’t possibly know what I’ve just revealed to him. “What’s going on? Baby, what’s wrong?”

And so I tell him.

* * *

Addiction to porn and masturbation is often grouped under general sex addiction because they all have to do with escape via titillation, pursuit and orgasm, but I’ve always felt more pathetic about my predilections. Going out and fucking — even someone you don’t really like — is wild, dangerous, but essentially social and shared. Though I had periods of promiscuity throughout my twenties, my biggest issue has always been with what I do alone.

There’s something so sad and humiliating in imagining a person locked away in a dark room, hot laptop balanced on chest, turning the volume down low, scrolling, scrolling, choosing, watching, escaping, coming.

And then realizing that person is me.

But my proclivity for solo pleasure has strong, stubborn roots. I lost my virginity to a water faucet when I was twelve years old. I have Adam Corolla and Dr. Drew to thank for this life-shaking experience; it was their late-night radio show “Loveline” on L.A.’s KROQ that served as my primary means of sex ed during my pre-teen years. This technique is one of the many things I learned, but I had a whole other kind of education going on, which had long filled my head with other ideas — sex is something that happens between a man and woman who love each other; masturbation is a sin. You know, your typical run-of-the-mill Catholic guilt stuff.

Just as oppressive as the Catholic guilt was my femininity. Girls weren’t talking about masturbation and sex. I had no company with whom to share my new activities and interests. And so this silence morphed into shame. I became a pervert, a loser, a sinner.

I tried to stop myself from taking long baths, from late-night undercover activities, from being alone too long, but the more I obsessed about stopping, the more I could not. I joined shame, secrecy and pleasure in a daily orgy, whether I was tired, bored, angry or sad. Whether I was single or coupled, it didn’t matter. Getting off required all of these components and I needed new, more extreme methods to stay engaged — more hours sucked away watching progressively harder porn like the warehouse video, complemented with dabbles in strip clubs, peep shows and shady massage parlors. It became impossible to get off during sex without fantasy, my body over-stimulated to numbness. I was irritable unless I was fucking or masturbating or planning to do either of these things. Life revolved around orgasm to the detriment of any kind of real progress in my professional or social existence.

I was out of control.

* * *

Little did I know that describing my favorite porn scene would be the first of many future admissions that would help peel back, layer by layer, a long and exhausting history of self loathing. My future husband and I quickly learned that watching porn during sex wasn’t a harmless kink for us; it was a method I’d long used to remain disconnected from my partners. It took much discipline and patience for us to expel it from our relationship altogether, though every now and then we slip up.

Talking about my habits led me to examine them, which ultimately led to my desire for change. Holding a secret for too long is like being unable to take a full breath. I didn’t want to feel this way anymore. I needed to share — often and fully — what had for too long been silenced in order to reclaim who I was underneath my addiction. I needed to breathe again.

I found relief in Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meetings, seeing a therapist I trusted, attending personal development courses like the Hoffman Process and writing about my journey. I’ve managed to move away from porn for the most part, but when it comes to this addiction — to something I don’t have to seek out or purchase — control is like a wayward horse and my ass is always slipping off the saddle.

I constantly struggle with whether or not I should give up porn completely, but until I find a way to have some moderation with it, I avoid it as best I can. I wish I could just watch it occasionally, as some sort of supplement to my active sex life, but the whole ritual of watching porn is tangled up in too many other negative emotions. Watching porn takes me back to being that little girl alone in her bedroom, feeling ashamed and helpless to stop it. I can’t just watch one clip without needing to watch another after that, and another, until hours have passed and I’m back to binging every night.

If my husband leaves me alone all day and idleness leads me to watching porn, it’s the first thing I confess upon his return. Sometimes I don’t even have to say it. He can tell by my downturned eyes and my noticeable exhaustion. He shakes his head and takes me in his arms as I make another promise to try to leave it alone. When I visited a peep show on a recent work trip out of town, he seemed more amused than upset about the whole thing.

Unfortunately, I have yet to be as generous. If I find he’s been watching porn without me, when I’ve struggled to abstain for a stretch of time, I react with what might seem like unjustified rage. This frustration is only rooted in envy.

* * *

Masturbating beside my husband while he sleeps is the last secret I’ve kept from him. Although I’m beginning to fear that it’s actually just the latest secret. My resistance in telling him only proves how fragile recovery is. This week it’s masturbation. But maybe next week it’s back to porn binging. Or obsessive scrolling through Craigslist personals. Or lying about my whereabouts. And so forth. Abstaining from these habits, when so readily available, without abstaining from sexual pleasure completely, or the shame I’ve long bound to it, is a challenge I face daily.

That’s why I need to tell my husband.

Not because I need his permission, his forgiveness or to offer him some act of contrition. But because I need him to see me. To witness. The act of telling the truth, especially about something that makes us ache, is often the only absolution we need.

* * *

Erica Garza is a writer from Los Angeles. Her essays have appeared in Salon, Substance, LA Observed, The Manifest Station and HelloGiggles. She is also a staff writer at Luna Luna Mag. Read more at ericagarza.com and follow her on Twitter @ericadgarza.

Iris Yan is a Brazilian-born Chinese cartoonist who completed a one-year certificate at The Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont.