Sex has always felt dirty to me.
I remember my mother, without any identifiable provocation, brusquely insisting to me on the car ride to grade school that ‘sex’ was merely “whether you are a boy or a girl, and nothing more.” I’m uncertain who was the more naïve party then: my mother for believing that I, perhaps in the second grade at the time, possessed no appreciable conception of ‘sex’ beyond its definition that pertains to biological classification, or me for thinking that playground conversations, inquiring AltaVista search queries, and clandestine sessions of playing “doctor” had provided an accurate understanding of the thing.
I was not raised in a religious household, but principles internalized by my parents after more than 25 years of combined Catholic school education naturally bled into my upbringing. As long as I can remember, I understood the unspecific concept that boys and girls somehow fit together like a lock and key to make babies during an act that was absolutely never discussed by decent people holding respectable conversation. At the same time, my mother, a healthcare provider, actively (and purposefully) abetted a detached, scientific understanding of the human body, including those parts ultimately used during intercourse. A penis was just a penis when considered in isolation. I was tellingly informed that girls had not a vagina, but a vulva, thereby omitting recognition of the internal reproductive capability of the female body. In any case, a vagina (or vulva) was just a vagina (or vulva), so long as the line of questioning failed to proceed. It was only when a pair of these organs were considered together that the notion became forbidden. These were “private parts,” I was sternly instructed, not to be shared with anyone else. Yet without further explanation, the directive became contradictory: what was between a person’s legs was a non-issue on the one hand and a shameful matter on the other.
My curiosity was piqued: the nether regions of the human body felt mysterious, confusing, terrifying, fascinating. The budding empiricist I was at the time, I set out to explore. With the boy who lived across the street, I would reveal myself, and he to me, and we would touch, stroke, taste, and tickle. With my older sister’s friend — she would guide my hand across her chest (in effect, anatomically identical to my own at the time), then beneath her skirt. It was then that I learned the differences (and similarities) between the male and female forms. There were others: the slightly older dark-haired boy who lived at the end of the cul-de-sac, the quiet freckled boy from school, the blonde girl who lived on a farm with a dozen cats or so. It may seem like I was some prepubescent sex addict, but these exploits in truth served more as anatomy lessons. Regardless, I knew each time that I was doing something wrong. I bore a weight of shame. And I felt dirty — both psychically and as a literal condition. We partakers would conduct our explorations away from the disapproving gaze of the adult world, escaping into forests and corn fields, or hiding inside tree forts and playground structures. We brushed the soil, sand, twigs, and leaves from our bodies before returning from our brief exile. The earthly debris was a manifestation of our uncleanly act.
Then, the filth piled higher as I began to discern something else. My inquisitiveness began to narrow on exclusively the male form, and I sensed a fire, a passion with which I held it in my gaze.
I cannot say for certain the exact moment that I realized I was gay. I ensnared that sort of self-recognition in denial and doubt for as long as I could. It broke through once, in the sixth grade, when a friend tracked my wandering eyes toward a toned and tanned lifeguard beside the swimming pool. Then again, in the eighth grade, when I realized my proclaimed attachment to the girl in my class with long brown hair and rosy cheeks would soon prove unsustainable. Each time, I tasted the rot of shame in the back of my throat — a gooey mass of bile, blight, and filth. A layer of oil and mud formed on top of my skin. There was no better refuge than that of the bath. I would lock myself in, sealing outside the dirty complexity that was consuming my world. I gargled with mouthwash until breathless. I scrubbed at my teeth and gums until they ached and bled. Then I would soak in the forgiving downpour of the showerhead, turned high to a scorching stream, as the steam built high until I lost sight of my own hand stretched out before me. If I stood there long enough, maybe the shame, the fear, and the filth would leach from my pores and swirl down the drain.
It didn’t work. In the moment, I was unaware of what drove my compulsion, but the indissoluble link between sexual impulse and feelings of filth would soon become clear to me. I had come to terms with my sexuality in the cursory sense — as in, I would freely divulge its true condition to both myself and those around me. But I was far from comfortable in my skin. I had mostly extinguished from my mind the conservative rhetoric of my upbringing that would have specifically prohibited such a thing, but just as I feared dirt, I also feared death. The specter of disease, of AIDS, lurked behind my every interaction: brief kisses, clasped hands, the soft tug of skin, before the fear and filth set in each time. But then, I finally pushed forward: he had a lanky frame and dark spiky hair, but I presently remember little else about him aside from how he tasted. He was bitter, soapy as I descended from his lips, to his neck, his chest, and continued farther still. He encircled my torso and pulled me toward him. I summoned my general familiarity with pornographic acrobatics and ergonomics (for no one ever taught me how to have sex with a man) to complete our final act. It was overall a perfectly reciprocal exchange, but I was left with something missing — or perhaps something unwanted gained: the dirt was back, piling up on my flesh. And the filth was frankly there as well: streaks of brown had stained the underside of the condom. I hastily yanked it off of me and hurled it into the trash. I bolted into the bathroom and scrubbed at my hands and wrists.
We parted ways and, as though driven by reptilian reflex, I retreated to the shower and curled into a ball. But why? I felt no hate — not from myself and not from others. I felt no shame. I had no apparent qualms over the act in which I had just engaged. But the feeling of absolute filth remained, ingrained in my subconscious like the sooty debris marking the grouted tile floor beneath me. I stood and steadied myself. I would wash off the grime for one last time, and then — well, the next time it would pile on a little less strongly, or I would surely feel slightly less dirty, no?
No. Sex still feels dirty to me.
But maybe that’s because sex is dirty: writhing, unwashed bodies steeped in oils, musk, and fluids; sour tufts of breath and spit staggered between caresses and gasps; and yes, sometimes there is shit on the condom. It’s no wonder that there’s only one place I feel completely comfortable having sex: the shower. Down the drain it all goes: the murky misdirection of my mother, foliage I brushed off of my childhood clothes, the crud of self-hatred and shame, polluted thoughts of incurable infection. And yes, the sweat, spit, semen, shit, and bodily scum otherwise — all down the drain. And I feel clean, maybe, for now.