I was watching a squirrel eating trash through a window one day in middle school when I learned what masturbation was. A school counselor handed out a piece of paper with a list of terms related to sex, and their most basic, textbook definitions — the best version of sex education they could muster at the Christian school I’d ended up attending due to a grand miscommunication with my parents. I started examining the list, which thus far was the most interesting part of the presentation. Herpes: “hmm, okay definitely want to avoid that one.” Condom: “yeah, I think I’ve heard of those.” Vagina: “got it.” And then I got to “Masturbation: The act of pleasuring oneself.” I read it three, four times. While the counselor went on rambling about chastity, purity, God and abstinence, I was gleefully reading the word “masturbation” over and over in my head thinking, “That’s what I’ve been doing!”
I started masturbating abnormally early, around the age of four.
I don’t remember how it began, just that it became a habit around preschool. I was constantly on the hunt for new techniques, new tools. My first was probably the bathtub. I would sit with what my parents had named my “petunia” underneath the faucet until the water was too deep for it to have an effect anymore. Occasionally, if I knew my mother was definitely preoccupied, I’d drain the whole thing and start over. I would slip my legs through the slats in my parents’ footboard, and casually hump a panel while I watched cartoons. I eventually discovered my mother’s neck massager, which became both my favorite, and most dangerous tool, as there was no hiding what I was up to with that one.
Whenever I was “playing alone” — which was the best I could think to call it, having no idea that the world had gone above and beyond with creative monikers for this activity — I wasn’t really thinking about anything in particular. I did not have orgasms. I never touched myself with my hands. I just liked the way it felt when I came in to contact with other things. Much like how if you give a kid sugar, I didn’t care if I wasn’t supposed to — I was going to sneak a goddamn cookie.
Rather than being blissfully unaware of what I was doing, I was acutely in tune with the fact that it should be a secret. I don’t really know how I knew that, but it consumed me nonetheless. My best guess is that since I was taught to keep my petunia covered, I probably knew I wasn’t supposed to be fiddling with it. I knew I shouldn’t whisper to my childhood best friend, “hey try this,” and I knew even better that to be caught by my parents would be an embarrassment I would not come back from, tarnishing the rest of my life with my perversion. I envisioned my future ballet and piano recitals ruined, my parents watching through cracked fingers in horror as their little weirdo gave “Ode To Joy” her best shot. I expected it would get around our condo complex, and the neighbors would stop inviting me over to pet the new kitten or have a piece of cake.
I was not exposed to any explicit forms of sexuality early in life. I didn’t know what sex was. No one had molested me or been inappropriate with me. In fact I didn’t even connect what I was doing with sex. As I grew older and started to get tidbits of very wrong information from other children about what your genitals might be for, where babies come from, etc., like we all did, I still never thought any of that had anything to do with my playing alone. And I still didn’t even have a word for it.
* * *
I had one of those bad-influence friends who was a couple of years older than me. Let’s call her Julia. Julia’s parents had gotten divorced when she was a baby, and she liked to act out, not that the two were explicitly related. Her confidence in everything from singing Spice Girls out loud to stealing snacks from the teacher’s cabinet made it so I never questioned her. Julia told me a story about “Mr. Dingy Dong,” one day at daycare after school. Commanding my attention like she was telling a ghost story at summer camp, I hung on every word about a serial killer who went around cutting off cheating men’s penises. Where in the world she got the story, I will never know. Regardless, I went home and told my parents, and that was the end of my friendship with Julia.
Similarly, one day in kindergarten during reading circle, the wily kid who was best known for his bad-word repertoire, pulled out his penis and showed it to me. Both incidents horrified me, but I never connected them with anything having to do with my petunia.
One of the most sacred outings I shared with my father was going to Blockbuster every weekend. I was allowed to get whatever I wanted, within reason, even if I wanted to rent “Charlie’s Angels” for the fifth time in a row. My dad was patient, never rushing me as I’d walk down every single aisle before I was confident I’d made the right choice. One trip, while rounding the corner of the classics, I came face to face with a homeless man furiously masturbating. He did not approach me, but he did not stop either. I ran to my dad, told him I was ready to go, clinging to what I was not yet sure was the right choice of movie, but this time I didn’t care. I sat cow-eyed, stiff and afraid to move the whole ride home, until my dad finally got out of me what was wrong. Enraged, we got home and he called the store. The man had already left, but my dad was still insistent they check the cameras and call the police, “for God’s sake, there are children in there.” I continued to be shaken up, but never correlated what that man was doing in public with what I was doing in private.
There were a few times that I got caught. Once my mom opened the door to the bathroom while I was in the middle of my bathtub ritual. She very calmly told me to “stop running water on your hoo-ha,” and proceeded to pretty much always leave the door open after that. I was mortified that my mom had seen me in my darkest of hours, but even more devastated that I’d lost a whole third of my resources. From that point on I became convinced that my mom knew everything, and was perpetually about to catch me. It seemed that the neck massager was always on a shelf higher up in the closet, or in a different part of the house. When I asked her recently about the whole charade though, she was baffled. She said she vaguely remembered the bathtub, but it wasn’t something that stuck out, because it seemed innocent enough. The neck massager was news to her. What I perceived as a hide and seek routine between us, was more likely the normal way anyone wouldn’t pay that much attention in putting something so innocuous back in the same place every time.
Because it was never directly addressed — And why would it be? No parent would eagerly have a sex talk with such a young child — I developed a deep, internalized guilt. I didn’t just think I was dirty, I knew it. There was something wrong with me, and I resigned myself to just living with it — until I accidentally ended up at a Christian school.
* * *
The public school I was supposed to attend through the sixth grade announced late in my fifth-grade year that from the next school year on they would be adopting the newer K-4 model. This left my parents in a last-minute dash to figure out where I would go next. The school I’d been attending was an anomaly of public schooling, with various forms of cultural enrichment and liberal families. The public middle school, however, was notorious for violence and ill-equipped teachers, so my parents decided it was time to go private.
Because children don’t typically have community juice mixers, my social circle had pretty much been exclusive to school. But I did have a small handful of friends I’d attended a couple of summers of YMCA camp with. I was not raised with religion. I wasn’t discouraged from participating in it, and if I’d come home and said I wanted to become Jewish or Hindu, I’m sure my parents would have embraced it. But as it was I set myself on a path towards atheism. The YMCA camp was of course a little Christian, with occasional “our god is an awesome god” sing-a-longs. But they had climbing towers and water skiing, so neither I, nor my working parents cared. But my few friends from the camp were very Christian, and went to a Christian private school. I insisted on going to school with them, and my parents said if I got in they would let me attend. By some grand miscommunication, I didn’t realize that it was a Christian school; I just knew that my friends went there. I think my parents assumed I knew, and didn’t want to shun the idea if it was what I wanted.
So there I was. Already set back by my buck teeth, scrawny limbs, and complete lack of understanding of private-school preppy-ness, I was now also surrounded by kids who deeply believed in a god that I didn’t. I quickly became an outcast. I got in trouble for bringing my Destiny’s Child CD to school. The principal, who was basically Ronald Reagan, said it was inappropriate, but I think what he meant was, “that black music scares us like the Devil.” I did not live in the ticky tacky suburbs, but the big, bad city. It was like if Cher from “Clueless” had to spend a day with Harriet from “Harriet The Spy,” but for a year.
Every morning we’d go to our assigned homeroom for prayer. The teacher would take requests, and the kids would excitedly pipe up complaints about paper cuts, or making sure the soccer team got a parking spot close to the field for the bus before the game. I got in trouble for doodling during prayer time so often they told me to leave my notebook and pens in my locker. The bright side was that at least they didn’t expect me to write that shit down. Occasionally the teacher would prod me, “Chloe is there anything you’d like to pray for?” I’d just let out a big sigh. Eventually I started putting my head down on my desk, hoping they would just think I was praying extra hard.
One day around mid-year, if anyone had been unsure, I finally gave them what they needed to cement my reputation as the biggest freak in school. I’d spent the past semester going home in tears. I didn’t have friends, and it was as if the kids learned their bullying tactics from an episode of “Prison Break.” One girl told me that her mother checked her backpack every day for makeup. I responded with a casual, “oh, you have strict parents.” To me it was the same as “oh, your mom drives a Toyota,” a casual comparison of our living conditions. Apparently calling her parents “strict” was the same as if I’d called her mother the Whore of Babylon, and this girl saw to it that I was punished. Her pièce de résistance came on picture day. Because the school was so conservative, it wasn’t the ‘show up and smile’ event it had been in public school. Everyone came in quite literally their Sunday best. Before my class had our photos taken, we had gym class, where of course we wore uniforms. My tormentor took the opportunity to pretend to be sick, retreat to the locker room and hide my nice clothes. No administrator seemed to care, and so I took the picture, and spent the rest of the day crying, in my gym clothes.
My parents were already applying to move me to a liberal private school, the same one they’d initially suggested, and the one that I would ultimately graduate from. They were disgusted with the administration’s lack of reaction to any of the bullying I went through, and just tried to help me hang in there through the end of the year when it would all be over. So on that day, I had nothing left to lose. The prayer requests were flooding in, for crushes, for summer vacation to come quicker, for pizza at lunch. I snapped. I raised my hand and stood up. I proceeded to go on a rant about how five thousand children under the age of five died every day in Africa; how people were starving; how many children never had new things. I pleaded that they please end this useless pageantry of praying for meaningless things. I was swiftly sent to the principal’s office for the rest of the day.
* * *
Then hope came one day that spring in the form of their version of sex education. In true faith-based fashion, there was no science involved. We were separated by gender and a counselor came to address us. Let’s call her Cindy. Cindy was one of those younger school administrators who managed to come off as cool. She wore faith-inspired jewelry like the rest of them, but hers was always the chunky, edgy kind. She wasn’t afraid of heels and a flared hip-hugger pant. She looked like the main demographic at a Creed concert. But she was just like the rest of them underneath her Christian-chic wardrobe. She wrote “abstinence” on the board, and underlined it. She explained to the class that you should not have sex before you were married, because it was not what God wanted. God did not want you to think about it. God did not want you to almost do it. She then wrote the word “chastity” on the board and said, “get it?”
The last five minutes of class were reserved for private inquiries about any of the terms on that fated list that finally gave me a word for my secret. The rest of the girls, in true middle school fashion ran out, balking at the idea of engaging with the topic further. Hindsight is 20/20 though, and from the intel social media has afforded me, those girls really should have taken a second to inquire further about condoms and chlamydia. As for me, my questions had been answered. I’m sure if I’d said anything to Cindy she would have found a way to turn it into a miracle. My deviance was being divinely intervened, and I’d learn the name for my demon for the express purpose of expelling it from me like they’d thrown away my CD. But her lesson had the opposite of the intended effect. She had shown me that my sexual exploration was actually normal; something other people did, too. Maybe it was some kind of miracle, because for the first and only time in my tenure there, I sat and quietly thanked God.
* * *
Chloe Stillwell has a degree in nonfiction from The New School. She is a culture columnist for Spin Entertainment, and previously worked as a humorist at 20th Century Fox. She is currently working on her first book of essays.