Perverts Like Us

There was a creative storytelling aspect to sex, and a form of intimacy we didn’t share with boys.

Heather O’Neill is an award winning writer living in Montreal. Her books include
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There was a time when I had orgasms that had nothing whatsoever to do with fantasies. I had them by accident. I remember having them in gym class all the time. We had to prepare for some Canadian Fitness Exam. We had to take it very seriously. As a child, you are supposed to accept what adults put in front of you and denote as important. There is an element of nonsense in the life of any child. That was why Nonsense Literature is so appealing to children.

In any case, we were told this was important and that we would be receiving an iron-on badge when our scores were submitted. I really wanted a gold badge to iron onto my grey hoodie. I was hanging from the chin up bars against the wall. My body hit the wall as I rocked and it brought me to a climax. I would hang there, oblivious to the time passing. My arms would have held me up even if I were 500 pounds. All of my body became focused on a singular feeling.

I climbed up a rope and similarly achieved an orgasm. I had no idea what it was. 

*

I befriended a girl named J. Her mother had three children with different fathers. They were each devastatingly beautiful. This meant her mother had beautiful genes. It was a lot of work to produce three beautiful children. After it she went to bed for the rest of her life. She sometimes left the bed to put on lipstick and go sit at the Jupiter Café. Her beautiful children roamed the neighborhood. Going mad, the way that unsupervised beautiful people do. 

We were delighted to find out we had both discovered our bodies had this wonderful feature.

J loved to share with me the different ways she had discovered to masturbate. She told me about how she masturbated in the bathtub, scrunched up under the faucet. She had made love to every electrical appliance in the house, from the hair dryer to a vacuum cleaner.

She made love to appliances in public too. She really had no shame. She didn’t have a washing machine in her house. She went to the laundromat. She wrapped her arms around a washing machine and held it as tightly as she could. We went to the swimming pool. She stood in front of the tube that new water poured through, her head tilted back in ecstasy.

She had big eyes. And lips. When she closed her eyes, she looked as though she were in a permanent state of bliss.  

*

I met a girl with long stringy, dirty, blonde hair. I liked kids who didn’t wash their hair regularly. It meant (to me anyways) that they were wild and had parents who were more permissive. She lived in a building right next to the swimming pool. She wore her bathing suit everywhere that summer. Another friend said we shouldn’t speak to her, as she was possibly amphibian. 

I put my bathing suit on to go and see her. I knocked on her door and, sure enough, she answered in her bathing suit. She tied a blindfold around my eyes and decided to tell me the definition of certain words that had to do with sex that I was unaware of.

*

A girl in my class came up and invited me over to her house. She had a peculiar style. She had bangs and two ponytails she wore oddly high on her head. I didn’t want to go because she always wore plaid and I had an aversion to it at the time. I don’t know how to say no to any girl’s invitation. But she told me her grandfather had moved into the duplex apartment underneath her. And rummaging through his unpacked things she had come across an entire box of dirty magazines.

We sat in the narrow back staircase of her house. It was covered in yellow carpeting and we felt so snug sitting on the stairs. Our bums were crushed together and our running shoe clad feet were piled on top of one another. We turned the pages, looking at all the naked women and men in extreme postures. It was a rare find this box. It would most likely be seized at any moment. There was no time to be erotically stimulated. All we could do was consume the information the photographs contained before they were confiscated. Her grandfather had a right to look at all these naked female bodies, but we, as girls, did not. 

What I liked most about that day was that we were together, looking at the magazines together. We had triumphed over the adults. We were doing things they could never imagine us doing. It was our collective secret that we were obsessed with sex. Our sexuality was kept secret from us, while it was exhibited, examined and exploited by men.

The secrecy of it all made me feel guilty and troubled, of course. I thought I might be headed to a life of perdition. Until I befriended the most intelligent girl in my grade, named P. She had a thick black pony tail and baby hairs on her forehead. She had a collared shirt that she buttoned at the wrist and up to her neck. Her ability to concentrate was phenomenal. She was hardworking and conscientious. She was never late with her assignments. She was always taking notes as though the teacher had just given her winning lottery numbers.

She was from Uruguay. She had an overweight sister who couldn’t get anything right. She was always daydreaming and fainting in gym class. They made a wonderful pair.

She invited me over one day. She suggested we become best friends. She had examined the prospects in the class. She decided we had the most in common. Which meant we had the closest grade point average. We both were reading above our level. We both read in very different ways. There are as many different ways to read as there are people.

P. brought me down to her basement.

She had a tape recorder. She said she used her tape recorder to tell short stories. These seemed elaborate. But it was really to be expected of her organized personality. She asked if I would like to hear a story she had recorded. I said certainly. She played it. It was a very filthy story about her and a boy in her class.

When it was done she looked at me and asked, “How did you like it? Did you think it was well written?”

There is a creative storytelling aspect to sex. When the fantasies came, they were in the form of stories. When I was writing my novel The Lonely Hearts Hotel, I wanted to capture a childlike attitude to sexuality, perversity and pornography that I once had. 

This was a form of intimacy we did not share with boys. They were already intimidated by the sexuality and bizarre amorous assertion of girls in the class. Girls would pursue them around the schoolyard trying desperately to kiss them. They would receive anonymous love letters and marriage propositions.

I was more interested in the sexuality of girls and their physical presence back them myself. The girl who sat behind me one day reached forward and took my hair in her hands and began to braid it. It felt so good, as though each strand of my hair was coming out of my scalp and falling out around me.

*

I had a boyfriend when I was a teenager who had a job cleaning up a public library after hours. Whenever he would find a book in the remaindered section that he thought I might like, he would bring it home to me. He didn’t really know anything about books so his choices were always based on the covers.

He brought me a book called The Delta of Venus by Anais Nin. I had heard of her before and was delighted. I loved the photograph on the front. It was of a girl in a cloche hat on a chair holding up her dress and revealing her skirt and slip so that one of her stockinged legs was exposed to the viewer.

I saw clearly on the cover beneath the title that the word Erotica was written. He had either missed it or did not know the meaning of the word. He saw I had the book in my shoulder bag a few days later. “How is that book?” he asked.

“It’s absolutely wonderful! It’s so dirty. People are having sex on every second page. You can’t sit down in this book without someone crawling on their knees to give you a blow job.” 

He insisted I hand the book back to him. He was furious that I had been reading porn. He demanded to know if I had masturbated while reading this book. I was taken aback. I mean, obviously. Was there something wrong with that? 

Why in the world did he feel threatened by a book? Especially since these were characters who had nothing to do with us. They were so pathetic. They lived in small attic apartments in Paris. They didn’t have refrigerators. They were always cold and couldn’t pay the rent. They dipped a stale baguette into a glass of wine and they were still hungry afterwards. They pushed the mice away from their plate with a fork.

These people were no longer alive. What did it matter if they were turning me on from beyond the grave? It was surely a victimless crime. It seemed a pity because in giving back the book, I was giving him back any trust I had with him.

*

I gave up the boy but not reading porn. It seemed too fundamental a difference anyhow.

*

I hoped to grow up and meet someone as perverted as me. I wondered what this wonderful pervert would look like. Would he wear nothing but mismatched socks as he read paperback novels on the windowsill? He would be like nobody I knew. In part because nobody I knew loved me. That was what his perverted heart would be capable of doing. He would be capable of loving me. He would stand on coffee tables and say intelligent things. He would be broke because he would be much too cool to have a job. Ah! The life of artists. That would be a way I would get to be a pervert and be proud of it.

I went to the library to find another copy of The Delta of Venus. I was young and filthy and it didn’t occur to me there might be something a little dingy about checking a dirty book out of the library.

I loved novelists who wrote about sex. Who included the perversity and filthiness of the whole thing. And the lovely awkwardness of it. The early twentieth century, any writer who lived in Paris was engaging in a miraculous sex life. It was so philosophical and political. They were trying to be free through having sex with as many people as possible. And why not? It was a noble pursuit. 

If you are a fallen woman, then you wouldn’t be able to be married. You would be outside conventional society. The women in Victorian novels decided they would kill themselves.

But in the 1930s they went to Paris to join other groups of the fallen. And write and live to excess and discuss philosophy. And to write down their pensées which would change the way people thought about women and war. They would murder God. At which point it meant nothing to be fallen.

I liked the 1930s as a time period, aesthetically. And I had been planning to write about it since I was very young. In The Lonely Hearts Hotel, one of the main characters, Rose, becomes involved in 1930s black and white pornography. I began researching it.

One fascinating collection of pornographic photographs of prostitutes was taken by a man who called himself Monsieur X. They are beautiful and somehow speak, to a modern viewer, as portraits of innocence rather than wantonness. Unlike in modern pornographic photographs, the subjects seem like ordinary women who you can imagine having inner lives and interests that do not revolve around sex.

Two girls sit reading a newspaper. Their legs are spread. They have no underwear on, but they are wearing stockings and pretty high heels. They look like they are two girls reading comics after a slumber party. They prefer not to look at the camera, as they are shy.

Another pair of girls squat in an unnatural position to reveal their privates. They have the awkwardness of non-athletic girls in gym class. One has a run in her stockings. There is, of course, the messiness of pubic hair.

One girl, alone in her photo, leaning on a chair partially undressed and smoking a cigarette, looks at the camera. She has a tinge of Henry Miller’s wife, June’s, pride about her. She doesn’t care that she is in a pornographic photo, she is still better and more accomplished than you. 

In a 1928 film called Le pompier des Folies-bergère, a fireman goes to see the naked dancing girls of Folies-bèrgere. When he comes out, the revue has made him lose his mind. He imagines every woman he sees naked, including a subway worker played by Josephine Baker. Every man he sees turns into a naked woman, including his fellow firemen, a priest, and a bus driver. He tiptoes around the city blowing kisses to everyone. These films seem like Charlie Chaplin movies until everyone takes their clothes off. 

There were films that were shown in Mutoscope peepshow machines. These were also called “What-the-Butler-Saw” machines, because they gave the viewer the perspective of looking at a scene through the peephole. You put a coin in and put your eyes against the goggles and saw a film created by a circular rotation of cards. It’s the same effect as when I was in high school and we all used to draw flip books on the sides of our dictionaries. Then we would pass them around. Little stick men would shoot each other in the head or a stick figure with a penis would have sex with a stick figure with breasts. 

In The Lonely Hearts Hotel, the character Pierrot sees Rose star in a movie in one of these machines and thinks it is the most beautiful, lovely film he has ever seen. Neither of them is ashamed of it and they love each other more because of their sexual pasts and experimentations and exploitations. Rose and Pierrot have a gender fluid relationship and they are best friends. They have been searching for one another since they were separated as children. There is something that remains childlike about their love and attraction for one another, causing them to be innocents. They share their sexual awakenings and desire with the same curiosity and wonder that I did with other girls.

Even though society says girls are not as horny and perverted as boys, they truly, truly are. And when two people share the secrets of their perversions with one another, they become free of the false mores that society puts in place to clip our imaginative wings, not only in sex, but in all walks of life.

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