Hipbone jutting out at the right angle, cocked and loaded, ready to go off like a gun. I used to wiggle down when I walked, because it made all my flesh bounce and the rhythm of my wobble pleased me because it pleased them. It made me feel like the stuff men sink their teeth into. But when they opened up their mouths, sharp rows of teeth were there behind the smiling ones.
Statutory rape began as a property crime. In 1275, the King of England prohibited “ravishment” of maidens under the age of twelve. Some years later, the age was lowered to ten. A girl’s virginity was property to be leveraged for marriage. Her body was a trading card; the trader was her father. Nobody asked her what she wanted.
I used to watch network TV reruns after school. Nothing I chose, just whatever was on. Three’s Company, Mama’s Family, Golden Girls. Once I saw an episode of Married With Children where the daughter, Kelly Bundy, went on stage and claimed she’d learned her life’s purpose: to please men. Her announcement was applauded, and I remember her doing a striptease after.
Early feminists successfully advocated to change the statutory rape laws, raising the age of consent from ten to sixteen for unmarried women. Marriage, then, was the obvious answer, and that was by design. The first wave believed women were better off married than fallen, and they leveraged sex for a husband, a hearth.
There was no pleasure calculus. Nobody asked if she desired, let alone what. Sex was defilement, except in marriage, where it was to be tolerated while thinking of England, procreative It seemed right that pregnant women would want to be provided for.
As part of their larger effort to define and legislate the historical abuse of women, second-wave feminists also changed statutory rape laws. Sexual harassment became illegal, along with spousal rape. The definition of rape expanded to include more than an unknown man forcing himself on a woman using physical violence. Statutory rape became a gender-neutral crime; instead of a man “defiling” a girl under sixteen, it was any person over a certain age having sex with any person under a certain age. For felony statutory rape, the age span between the young person and the older one had to exceed a certain number of years.
Now, at least, some feminists said there was pleasure. Others debated whether heterosexual sex was always coercive under patriarchy. If the catheti are pleasure and consent, the hypotenuse is a single syllable: want.
On the apron of the stage, the spotlight hit and behind the spotlight was Jordan. I knew he was looking at me like it was his job because it was; I was the eleven-year-old lead, and he was the seventeen-year-old spotlight tech, following me with his big, hot, golden light. I wanted to drown in the honey sweet thickness of it. I thought it was important, that what was going to make me real and seen was this yellow gaze. I thought that the spotlight of his eye was the prize.
If I perform the dance of the seven veils, his eyes are on me. I swing my hips, convince him to do my bidding, and risk my credibility forever. I become Cassandra Among the Creeps, my veracity categorically denied by my presentation. Even though rape has the same statistical likelihood of false reporting as any other crime, it is the only crime we say has an “epidemic” of false victims.
He didn’t touch me. I probably dreamed it up. And even if he did, I liked it.
The idea that girls don’t want sex without marriage was antiquated by 1980. But even in schools where we teach sex ed, we don’t teach pleasure. Teaching pleasure means teaching agency means saying that sometimes, the adolescent body desires. That they have skin and nerves that thrum; the whole electric molten world of pleasure and yes comes together. What we say is: under a certain age, your yes doesn’t matter. What we say is: yes or no is the same. But it’s not the same.
What fascinates me is how all of these social and legislative concerns manifest in my own experience. I have felt condescended to, protected from. I was given far too much leeway and not enough sway. I have angled for more power, and I protracted for less. Statutory rape in its current state pulls childhood over the mouth of teenagers, strangling consent with condescension. Every conflicted social and legal narrative lives in the boundaries of my politicized body: a child-hearted, teenager in mom-drag. Here I am. When I close my eyes, I remember my bodies, all of them, stacked, sedimentary. All of their stories are my stories, and all of their voices square mine like a body electric. A whole history of laws press between my thighs: what I can do, when and how, with whom, and under what circumstances. The weight of the law outperforms than my want.
Statutory rape is only a crime for unmarried people. Those first wave concerns about hearth and home are alive. In some states, a child can get married with parental consent at any age. There are children whose parents tell them to marry their rapist to avoid a “messy criminal investigation.” While former-child-brides have been trying to change the laws, our lawmakers have dismissed their stories and infantilized their concerns. They would rather marry them off than listen to them.
Do you know the story of Salome? I was sixteen when I saw the opera. I watched her dance for her father, the King, to get her wish for the head of a prophet. History is strewn with young bodies using sex as leverage. It is the only lever many of us are given. It is a lever we will press over and over again, wrecking ourselves to get the ever-diminishing pay. We are left with a broken handle, and no map.
Here is the only map I know how to draw: It’s not about the hims of the world. It’s not about whatever makes him stiffen. That’s not magic, and it doesn’t give you power. That’s just an autonomic response and it doesn’t mean shit about you. It’s not about you. It’s not about you. It’s not about you.
What is sex about if it isn’t about power?