The Sex Education of Gen X’s Most Revolutionary Sex Educator

Sexpert and activist Tristan Taormino taught a generation of people that anal sex was not the sole domain of gay men. In this poignant excerpt from A PART OF THE HEART CAN'T BE EATEN, the debut memoirist recounts her late father's coming out experience alongside her own.

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I went on my first real date in sixth grade, with a boy in my class named Mike Jupiter. He was smart and funny and came to pick me up at my house. I wore my favorite jeans and a blue Members Only knockoff jacket I got at a thrift store. We walked to the pizza place, where I ordered one cheese slice and a small Coke. We stood against the counter and ate our pizza as “Billie Jean” played on the radio. About a half-hour later, he walked me back to my house and told me he had a good time. I felt giddy at the idea he might become my boyfriend. When I got to school on Monday, my friends asked for the full details of my date, but really they only wanted the answer to one important question:

“Was Mike a good kisser?”

The moment they asked was the moment I realized: We didn’t kiss. It never occurred to me, and he never made an advance. But something told me that was not the tale I should tell, so I simply said, “Yes,” and left it at that.

While my dad was in the army during the Vietnam War, he had his first relationship with a man. Page 62:

I was in the PX looking through record albums. Some folk singers were whining over a defective PA system. They sounded like they were underwater.

This guy next to me, a Marine, said, “Do you like Judy Garland?”

I said, “Excuse me?”
He repeated, “Do you like Judy Garland?”
I started laughing.
“What’s so funny?”
“I didn’t think Marines were allowed to like Judy Garland.”
“I mean, I didn’t think Marines liked Judy Garland.”
“Well, this Marine does!”
I started laughing again.
“What’s your name?”
I pointed to my name tag.
“No, your first name.”
“No, Bill.”
“I prefer Will. In fact, much better than Will, I like Willy. Willy!”
“Whatever. You’re the Marine. It’s done. Willy it is.” We both laughed, and I began to relax.

He then looked into my eyes, so directly, so receptively, and for so long that I flinched. He seemed to be juggling a question and giving an answer, reassuring me and taunting me. He was the first man to look at me so candidly. I felt exposed. I turned away.

The Marine walked me back to my barracks, and the next day, after work, my houseboy handed me a package that had been delivered earlier. It was a Judy Garland album. No note. No card. I played it over and over again on the company’s miserable hi-fi. I found it emotionally intense and addictive.

The following week I did two things: I started dating a WAC named Paula, and I began to hang out with the Marine. I was lonely and horny. Paula and I had nonverbally agreed that there would be no sex, no romance. We went out once a week. I saw the Marine the other six nights. There wasn’t much to do on the island. Mostly we got drunk on sake and 7-Up.

I was teased by other students throughout elementary school. Patrice Harris, the ultimate dirtbag-bad-girl-who-looks-older-than-she-is, called me out, announced to the class that she was going to beat me up after school. She ended up pushing me down hard on the concrete, and my new purple sweatshirt skirt from The Gap got dirty. Kids taunted me for being smart; they taunted me because I was one of the shortest, smallest kids in my class; they taunted me for what I wore; they taunted me for my acne and my often frizzy, can’t-quite-get-the-hang-of-the-curling-iron hair. But things really heated up in sixth grade. They began to make fun of me because of my flat chest (since this was a time when many girls were hitting puberty, and I, quite obviously, was not).

Their favorite thing to tease me about was that I was excused from all gym activities except for swimming. By the time I was ten, my knees began to randomly pop out. I didn’t twist it or trip or hit something—it seemed like it happened for no reason. I called it popping out because that was the sensation: my leg gave way underneath me suddenly, and I felt a searing, excruciating pain. The medical term for this is patellar subluxation, which refers to a partial dislocations of the kneecap. Unlike when I had yellow snot running out of my nose, my mom took this medical problem seriously. After a few incidents, we went to a doctor, but she declined the recommended orthopedic surgery on the grounds that I wasn’t even fully grown yet (also, there was no way we could afford it). She opted for physical therapy, and I got out of gym class, which, for uncoordinated me, was a good thing. But kids loved to call me a weak cripple. At some point, I got fed up.

One day, we were all lined up outside our classroom after recess, boys on one side of the door, girls on the other, waiting for Mrs. Kuehn to let us in. José and Mike (the boy I went on a date with who became my boyfriend briefly) began saying mean things to me, and I just snapped.

I gave them the middle finger and said, “José gets hard when he sees a hole in the wall.”

I have no idea where I heard it, but I knew it was something damning about his sexuality. He came over and deliberately kicked me hard in the knee, which predictably dislocated instantly, and I fell to the floor. We all got called to the principal’s office, me with an ice pack from the nurse, but I got in more trouble than José and Mike. This prompted my mother to type a letter to the principal:

Tristan made that obscene gesture out of provocation and frustration. … José and Michael, and possibly others, have repeatedly taunted Tristan about her “handicap” this year. As you [and several teachers] know, Tristan and I have worked very hard to deal with her disability, and you have all been very cooperative and helpful. If all that effort is to be blown away by a malicious boy with an overactive sociability, I am beginning to wonder: Are you, even unintentionally, giving tacit approval to José’s contempt for disability and “differentness”?

When she was provoked, you couldn’t mistake her outrage and the middle finger in the subtext. It was a moment of her protecting me, which I cherished. I was invited to be the guest speaker at our 20-year high school reunion; because I use my legal name in all my work, everyone I went to school with has found me on Facebook, and they are all pretty titillated by what I do. Two decades later, most of them were drunk and seemed exactly the same.

José pulled me aside with clear eyes and apologized for being mean to me when we were kids. It’s so weird, the things you hold on to.

Although I knew what I said to José was about sex, I didn’t know much else about sex. My mother never said a word, my peers never buzzed about anything beyond making out, and, like for millions of other young people, there was no real sex education at my school. One day, all the girls and boys were rounded up and taken to separate classrooms for what the teacher called health class. The girls’ group was shown an old film about female anatomy, menstruation, and reproduction. I hadn’t gotten my period yet, so none of what was discussed seemed at all connected to my body or what I knew about it.

I had been rubbing myself several times a week ever since I first discovered self-pleasure, to feel the rush in my body, to fall asleep, or both. No one mentioned masturbation in the presentation in sixth grade. By then, I had been fooling around with girls in their basements when their parents weren’t around, feeling sparks and shocks in my body similar to when I touched myself. We were curious to explore each other’s bodies, and I would’ve loved some more information. But there was no sex in the ed we got. All I remembered from health class was where my fallopian tubes were, hoping that might come in handy later. It didn’t.

My mother did take one interesting approach to my sex education. She had a ton of books all lined up on built-in bookshelves in our living room. Among her Ngaio Marsh mysteries, the autobiography of Lillian Hellman, and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique were several sex manuals, including a book with a soft beige cover: Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex, a bestseller in 1972. I could take any books off the shelf and disappear them for months at a time, and she wouldn’t say anything about it. On one shelf, propped against a book, was a polished wood drink coaster with a photograph of a gorgeous auburn-haired naked woman posing against a scarlet-red curtain. Her back was arched, her head thrown back with one arm up covering half her face, her knees bent, and her breasts fully jutted out. It was the iconic Tom Kelley photo of Marilyn Monroe that became Playboy’s first centerfold in 1953. My mother displayed it as an art piece. My dad wrote in his memoir that his stepfather, Nino, had that same photograph hung in a makeshift pinup gallery behind the bar in their basement, and he thought it was demeaning.

There was no big sit-down on the birds and the bees, just a tiny naked woman and an all-access library. I consider The Joy of Sex to be both the first sex education I read and the first porn I saw. I am not sure anyone else would call it porn, but it fits a definition: explicit images of people having sex—where you could see naked bodies, genitals, and penetration—that turned me on. Most kids I knew engaged in the age-old ritual of finding their dad’s stash of Hustler magazines, breathlessly flipping through pages of glossy naked women, hoping not to get caught. The Joy of Sex accomplished two goals at once: mate- rial for me to recall when I touched myself and words that brought sex to life and piqued my curiosity: friction rub, mouth music, chastity belt, perversion. The men in the drawings had long hair, the women had full bushes, and they all looked relaxed and connected, like they were having a good time. Sex appeared to be really fun. Today more than a hundred sexuality books line the walls of my living room, organized by subgenre: instruction manuals, sexual politics, porn scholarship, kink classics, nonmonogamy, art and photography, and erotic fiction. Along with The Good Vibrations Guide to Sex, Whores and Other Feminists, and Speaking Sex to Power sits The New Joy of Sex.

When someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always gave them the same answer:

“A Solid Gold dancer or a teacher.”

I really liked school, and teaching was a very practical job I could do. But I was obsessed with Solid Gold, the 1980s TV show hosted by Andy Gibb and Marilyn McCoo. It featured pop music hits and guest performers, but its unique hook was a multiracial troupe of dancers who performed original numbers to the top 10 songs of the week. It was the closest thing to sex I could watch in prime time.

The costumes were everything: skimpy gold lamé ensembles, skintight hot pants, beaded bodysuits, bikini bottoms with suspenders, shiny headbands, fingerless gloves, and sequined tube tops and leg warmers. Darcel, the lead dancer, was a vision in long braids that swept the back of her knees; she often wore some embellishment to set her apart, like a bejeweled belt or headpiece. The men wore see-through tanks, open shirts, and spandex pants that drew attention to their dicks. The guests themselves were trendy and daring, like Boy George in his signature black derby hat and full makeup with killer eyebrows.

I was mesmerized by the way the dancers moved their bodies together while wearing clothing that looked painted on to songs whose meanings required no translation. Tonight She Comes. The dance styles moved seamlessly from jazz to lyrical to modern. The choreography was athletic and risqué, expressing desire and sexuality: performing frequent splits, showing their butts to the camera, gyrating in pairs or groups, writhing on the dance floor. One night Sheena Easton lip-synched to her hit “Strut”:

Strut pout, put it out, that’s what you want from women

Come on baby, what’cha taking me for
Strut pout, cut it out, all taking and no giving
Watch me baby while I walk out the door

I won’t be your baby doll, be your baby doll

I liked the message of a woman being in charge and not letting a man walk all over her sexual autonomy. I also wondered what it might be like to be someone’s baby doll. In my adolescence and tweens, I had crushes on boys and boyfriends and loved making out with girls my age as each of us took the role of boy or girl (I played both). Eventually, we got to an age where none of the other girls were initiating that kind of play and focused all their attention on boys. I was still interested in kissing girls, but it seemed like no one else was. Well, not no one.

In junior high I used to mess around with a girl named Angela. Angela was one of those girls who developed early; in sixth grade she already had big breasts. She lived in a one-bedroom apartment on Main Street above the fancy lingerie store where her mom worked. When we got home from school, we had the place to ourselves. We mostly kissed and touched over our clothes, and we played out various scenarios. With her, she was always the boy, and I was the girl—my early femme roots.

“Please come into my office,” she said sternly.

“Yes sir,” I replied.

I walked past the Japanese screen to where her bed was. “You know that your work hasn’t been up to snuff lately. You need to prove to me that I shouldn’t fire you. For starters, suck my dick.”

I knelt in compliance, and she pushed my face unmercifully into her crotch. I could smell her scent through her thin poplin pants—it was musky, it was salty, it was overwhelming. My body reacted on its own. I didn’t want it to end. I liked being bossed around, too. The drama of it all—the force, the degradation, the games—really got me off. After that, there was no going back to simple kissing and groping. I was hooked on the power. 


Excerpted from A Part of the Heart Can’t Be Eaten, by Tristan Taormino, © Duke University Press, 2023.


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