I had my first orgasm at age ten, humping a four-foot George Jetson doll while a homemade tape of vomiting sounds (my own, fake) played on my Walkman. I fantasized that I was Kimberly, a pretty, popular gymnast-girl. I imagined that I/Kimberly was running down the hallway at my school, not making it to the bathroom, vomiting all over the place in front of everyone. I wanted this pretty girl to know shame, the shame that I felt in my own body. This turned me on. At the same time, I felt that Kimberly—as a pretty and popular girl—was beyond reproach. Even when out of control, even at her most disgusting, she would be embraced. I wanted to experience that as well.
–Melissa Broder, “My Vomit Fetish, Myself”
I accepted my homosexuality at roughly 8 p.m. on October 11, 2013. True to melodramatic form, I weathered this epiphany:
- in the fetal position
- on a criminally understuffed loveseat
- clutching a white dishtowel in my fist, hanky style.
Though, to be fair, I acquired the dishtowel completely by accident, not in anticipation of any stormy self-inquiries—it was the eve of a Penn State whiteout; wild-eyed volunteers had swarmed campus to equip all potential gamegoers with the essentials—but, nevertheless, that Terrible Towel became my lone companion on the journey out of the closet. I wish I could say the significance of the white flag, of surrender to myself, hadn’t dawned on me mid-weep, but then I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t thrive on theatrics.
I accepted my bisexuality at roughly 4 p.m. on February 17, 2017. True to slovenly grad-student form, I enjoyed this insight:
- gobbling Skinny Pop
- cocooned in long-unwashed turquoise sheets
- wearing glasses prescribed to me when I was twelve
- ogling Matthew Gray Gubler, a.ka. Criminal Minds’ Spencer Reid, as he uttered the words “stripped naked” and “tied to a goal post.”
Clearly, these revelations are related.
Nothing particularly humiliating happened to me as a child. Once, I came home from school to find my zipper undone, which was embarrassing but not devastating. In seventh grade, I farted during a documentary about Helen Keller, but only my friend Chelsea heard and she found it more hilarious than appalling. In eleventh grade, I learned the hard way that maternity hosiery does not fit the non-preggo crowd (my tights puddled around my ankles seconds before I was set to walk onstage for the winter choir concert). But none of these events are particularly scarring. They’re barely amusing enough to warrant telling at parties.
So my fascination with humiliation has to come from some deeper, more recessed grotto of my soul. It’s past the memory of Oliver What’s-his-name pooping himself in the cafeteria, beyond the recollection of some boy seeing MK’s pubic hair beneath the baggy seat of her bikini, buried behind the image of the snare drummer who cried during sixth-grade band practice. Maybe it comes from a dream I had when I was young, no older than seven or eight: my sister brought a boy—I knew, instinctively, that he was a cute boy, an angel of a boy, the most perfect iteration of boy to ever be iterated—home for me. She and he were climbing the stairs (my dream house, unlike my real house, had stairs, carpeted ones) to my bedroom—where I was naked. Starkly, breezy-beneath-the-seat naked. I sprinted to my bedroom door (ajar, of course), but of course I couldn’t get to it fast enough. I watched in horror as my sister and the perfect boy ascended the last step and found me in all my unclothed glory.
Or maybe it comes from an even older dream, an opposite dream, a dream in which I intrude on my sister and her friend. They’re both naked, but my sister scurries out of sight while the friend doesn’t. The friend stands there and lets me see her, and I stand there and let myself see her. I was five, maybe six, years old.
Or maybe it comes from devouring the Embarrassing Moments column in Seventeen every time I managed to ditch my dad in the grocery store. While he chose between shrink-wrapped chicken cutlets, I pored over stories of first-date blunders and locker-room snafus.
Or maybe it comes from that inconvenient, irreverent tic we (for lack of a better excuse) deem “human nature.”
Actual scholarly literature on pornography exists. Ponder that for a minute. A cursory search of academic databases produces 16,144 articles on pornography and public humiliation, 2,692 articles on torture porn, and 502 articles on humiliation and BDSM.
Within those tomes of information, I couldn’t find answers to all my questions. I did learn, comfortingly, that I’m not the only human fascinated with humiliation (Wayne Koestenbaum, author of the aptly titled book Humiliation, definitely shares my enthusiasm for the subject). I learned the official academic definition of humiliation (“the removal of a person’s dignity or self-respect; the shaming of a person and in extreme cases the debasement of a person to a point where they become an object of disgust”[i]). I learned the semantic and psychological difference between humiliation and shame (“While shame is a feeling that prompts us to want to hide or escape…humiliation, in its narrative of unfairness, unleashes intense levels of passion that, as we know, favours violent actions, revenge, and ‘vendettas’, and which is offered to justify murders, kidnappings, the madness of wars, and many other atrocities”[ii]).
I learned there’s a subgenre of humiliation—one that scholar Daniel Shapiro labels “degradation”—that’s so sadistic, it makes the back of my neck prickle to think about it. Degradation has nothing to do with the accidental humiliations of everyday life, the downed zippers or loosed gases; it has everything to do with power, with manipulation, with making another person consent to his/her own humiliation. [iii] And nowhere is degradation more prevalent than in pornography. While all pornography operates under the illusion of consent, the thrill of the genre comes from the actors’ implicit (self-)violations of said consent. Yes, the actors have “agreed” to having their orifices poked and prodded and exposed, but in order to appeal to the average viewer, the actors must engage in poking/prodding/exposing that no self-respecting person would agree to. Rebecca Whisnant dissects this thoroughly in her article “Pornography, Humiliation, and Consent.” Analyzing the 2005 pornographic film Anal Cumsumption 4, Whisnant untangles why viewers are so titillated by the sight of the star, Jamie, engaging in degrading activities:
No one else is in the frame, handing [Jamie] the glass of ejaculate or encouraging her to drink it, let alone forcing her to do so. She drinks ejaculate out of her own rectum all on her own, apparently. We are to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain or behind the camera: the central narrative of pornography is that it reveals the inner truth about women, or at least about this particular woman. And indeed, what we see in the picture or film is not that this low and dirty thing was done to her, but that she did it.[iv]
From Criminal Minds 3×16, “Elephant’s Memory”:
SPENCER REID: I was in the library and, uh, Harper Hillman comes up to me. And she tells me that Alexa Lisben wants to meet me behind the field house. Alexa Lisben’s, like, easily the prettiest girl in school.
DEREK MORGAN: So what happened? Alexa wasn’t there?
SR: She was there. So was the entire football team. They, uh…stripped me naked and tied me to a goal post. So many kids were there, you know, just watching.
DM: Nobody tried to stop them?
SR: Mm-mm. I begged—I begged them to. But they just—they just watched. And finally, they got bored, and they left. It was, like, midnight when I finally got home. And my mom didn’t…Mom was having one of her episodes, so she didn’t even realize I was late.
DM: You never told her what happened?
SR: I never told anybody. I thought—it was one of those things that I thought if I didn’t talk about it, I’d just forget. But I remember it like it was yesterday.[v]
Daniel Shapiro, author of “The Nature of Humiliation,” would analyze Dr. Reid’s situation as follows: in this multi-layered humiliation situation, Reid is not only made naked (literally and figuratively), he is degraded (“debased, devalued, and dehumanized”). And, as in pornography in general and Anal Cumsumption 4 in particular, Reid appears complicit with his own degradation. As his body was rendered an object of disgust and shame before his peers, he endures the emotional pain that: “I am apparently choosing to degrade myself. I could resist—or I could have. Now, all I have is a terrible feeling of degradation and regret.”
Through vigorous soul-scouring, I’ve concluded that I am not fascinated in, attracted to, or supportive of degradation in any form. (And I don’t say this in a holier-than-thou, clearing-my-name vein—I say it with relieved exaltation that at least my mind isn’t that far gone. (I’d like to thank my well-meaning parents, my catty-but-not-cruel childhood bullies, and the Academy for this honor.)) But there remains the hairy truth that I wasn’t 100% certain of my bisexuality until Matthew Gray Gubler relayed this scene of textbook degradation.
Back in my God-fearing days, I heard a sermon about masturbation that was infinitely comforting. Mark Driscoll, pastor of a now-folded Seattle megachurch, preached that masturbation is sinful because of the nasty thoughts that accompany it, not because touching one’s genitals is inherently sacrilegious. In his eBooklet Porn-Again Christian: A Frank Discussion on Pornography and Masturbation, Driscoll answers the FAQ, “When I masturbate I am not lusting, so is this okay?” He decides: “I would be very cautious in evaluating your heart since only you truly know if you are lusting when you masturbate…it seems possible but unlikely to be sexually aroused without sexual thoughts; I guess you could think of tractors or something to divert yourself, which seems peculiar but not evil.”[vi]
Thanks to Mr. Driscoll, my clitoris had a happy and healthy (and blameless!) high-school career. I felt like the luckiest masturbator alive because I never had impure thoughts. It never occurred to me to picture genitalia, or intimate contact, or anything remotely sexual or lusty, when I was taking care of myself. I was perfectly satisfied with fantasies of wetting my pants climbing the rope in gym class, which was weird but certainly not erotic. To quote the foul-mouthed Catholic woman who worked with my dad, “I was the best fuckin’ Catholic.” (Except I was Evangelical, not Catholic, and I wouldn’t have dared say the f-word—but you know what I mean.)
Nobody wants to be bisexual. No, I haven’t done scholarly research on the subject, but I can’t imagine why anyone would want a sexual orientation that our culture labels “confused,” “greedy,” “unfaithful,” etc. I’ve known many lesbians who wouldn’t (or who would hesitate to) date a bisexual girl because of the fear that she’d “go back” to men, as if men were an island the girl sporadically abandoned. I suppose I can understand that fear: after all, it wouldn’t be fun to watch your ex-girlfriend get married in a traditional wedding that her entire family approved of and attended; it wouldn’t be fun knowing she never had to worry about losing her job or being denied service at a business because of her identity; in other words, it wouldn’t be fun to watch her move through the world with full hetero privilege while you watched from the much-maligned sidelines.
For years, I suspected I was bisexual (read: I slept with both men and women, had feelings for both men and women, imagined futures with both men and women) and treated the secret like an atomic bomb that, if detonated, would implode my and everyone else’s lives. If I dated a man, I pictured the following happening: my Bible-thumper sister would, ever so smugly, tell herself she’d been right all along, that obviously I was straight; my mother would try to hide her glee, but her relief would be cloying as a gallon of perfume; my relatives, who’d never asked about my girlfriend, would trip over themselves inviting my boyfriend to Thanksgivings and Christmases; my former church-circle friends would start liking my Facebook posts again.
I mean, I’d rather grow out my pixie cut again than deal with that level of weapons-grade homophobia.
But I’d also drop everything to go live with Matthew Gray Gubler in his haunted treehouse[vii] and spend every day adoring his crooked smile and quirky sketches[viii], so…?
“Hi! Hello! Hi…lo. I forgot how to say hello! This is off to a terrible start. My name is Matthew Gray Gubler and I’m very honored and flattered to answer some questions today for Rookie’s Ask a Grown…Boy. Man? Ask a Grown…Ask a Grown Boy, I’ll call it.”[ix]
I don’t want Matthew Gray Gubler, in person or in any of his onscreen iterations, to be stripped naked and tied to a goal post. (To be really clear, I don’t want that for anyone.) I do, however, want Matthew Gray Gubler, in all his lanky glory, to be vulnerable with me. Maybe all I’ve ever wanted is for someone to be vulnerable with me, or me to be vulnerable with them, and for it to be okay. For it not to be a matter of “yikes, look how gross you are,” but of “you think that’s a big deal? Show me that and more. Be grosser. Be weaker. Be sadder. And watch me love you through it.”
Women are good at being vulnerable. Even the steely girls, even the condescending girls, even the narcissistic girls—they’re pros at wiping off their eyeliner, shimmying out of their bras, cannon-balling onto their unmade beds, and divulging their deepest secrets. They can snap out of public mode and into private mode faster than most guys can lace their shoes, and it’s sexy and majestic and intoxicating. To see this transformation is like stealing a glance at the universe’s best-of compilation.
Men, on the other hand, fight vulnerability like it’s Medusa’s stare. And maybe some girls, the heterosexual or closer-to-one-on-the-Kinsey-scale girls, appreciate that hardheartedness. All I know is, I never have. One naked nerd tied to a goal post is, to me, worth one thousand stubbly-chinned, steel-muscled men with tobacco in their teeth and barbed wire on their hearts. One Matthew Gray Gubler, in all his illustrious, boyish, non-stereotypically-masculine masculinity, is worth love songs and fireworks and maybe even a festival, one of the good small-town ones replete with funnel cakes and surprisingly talented cover bands. He’s worth the begrudging acceptance of my own bisexuality, and he’s so stunningly good-looking that I don’t even need to go weep into a Terrible Towel because of it.
Alaina Symanovich studies creative nonfiction in the MFA program at Florida State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Sonora Review, Superstition Review, Santa Ana River Review, and other journals. Her essay "The M Word," first published in Fourth River, was awarded Best of the Net in 2016.
[i] Blackburn, Simon. “humiliation.” The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy: Oxford University Press, 2016. Oxford Reference. 2016.
[ii] Bigliani, Carlos Guillermo, Moguillansky, Rodolfo, and Sluzki, Carlos E. The International Psychoanalytical Association Psychoanalytic Ideas and Applications Series: Shame and Humiliation: A Dialogue between Psychoanalytic and Systemic Approaches. London, GB: Karnac Books, 2013.
[iii] Shapiro, D. (2004). The nature of humiliation. Retrieved from http://www.humiliationstudies.org/documents/ShapiroNY04meeting.pdf
[iv] Whisnant, Rebecca. “Pornography, Humiliation, and Consent.” Sexualization, Media, & Society, vol. 2, no. 3, 2016.
[v] Davis, Jeff, and Andrew Wilder. “Elephant’s Memory.” Criminal Minds, CBS, 16 Apr. 2008.
[vi] Driscoll, Mark. “Masturbation.” Porn-Again Christian: A Frank Discussion on Pornography and Masturbation, Crossway/Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL, 2008, pp. 22–23.
[vii] “Why Matthew Gray Gubler Lives in a ‘Haunted Tree House.’” Vanity Fair, 17 Aug. 2015, video.vanityfair.com/watch/matthew-gray-gubler-lives-in-a-haunted-tree-house.
[viii] Gray Gubler, Matthew (GUBLERNATION). “the astounding marta becket, seen here in a sparkly hat.” 27 February 2017. Tweet.
[ix] “Ask a Grown Man: Matthew Gray Gubler.” Rookie, 9 Sept. 2015, www.rookiemag.com/2015/09/ask-grown-man-matthew-gray-gubler/.