Kiddie Porn

In the sexual counterrevolution, Ginsberg was the antiporn Gettysburg — the battle that turned the tide.

Margaux Williamson, We Made A New Atlas. 2014, oil on panel. Courtesy of the artist.

Is it up, Rod?she panted, undulating her body under his. “Is it up good and hard?”

“Oh, yes,” he whispered, almost unable to speak. “Oh, yes.”

I study these sentences again and again, picturing . . . what? I am not sure.

It is spring 1965, Merrick, Long Island, suburban New York City. I am 12. On my way home from school, I have found Peyton Place in a box of castoffs on the sidewalk, slipped it into my schoolbag with my Warriner’s English Grammar and dittoed arithmetic problems, and secreted the book to the backyard clubhouse.

The club has two members, Ricki Ellen Brooke and me.* We have just finished building the clubhouse, a square shack of plywood scraps with an army poncho for a roof. Activities are posted on the wall — Boatbuilding, Archery, Science — but the most compelling activity was Construction, and with that finished the club feels dinky and babyish.

But now, alone, I am entering another club — a grown-up one. Since its publication a decade earlier, Peyton Place has passed like a totem of initiation from young hand to young hand, to my hands. It’s cold out and my fingers turning the pages are stiff. But I don’t want to bring the book inside, where my brother is watching Million Dollar Movie and my parents will soon return from work.

I search the book at random — the part where Allison MacKenzie touches her breasts in bed and feels her nipples tighten; the passage in which Tom Makris and Constance MacKenzie have sex for the first time: “He kissed her brutally, torturously, as if he hoped to awaken a response in her with pain that gentleness could not arouse.” Tom throws Constance into his car, drives her to her house, carries her upstairs, and rapes her. “‘Now,’ he said. ‘Now.’” Later, inexplicably, they become boyfriend and girlfriend.

As I read, a familiar feeling rises in me: I call it the “bad-boy feeling,” named for its first occurrence — the night I “flew up” from Brownies to Girl Scouts in the third grade. The ritual was short, held at the junior high school. One by one, we girls filed onto the stage, raised a final two-finger Brownie salute, and crossed a little bridge, pausing in the middle to wave. On the other side, we saluted Girl Scout fashion, with three fingers; a Girl Scout troop leader pinned a tiny pair of wings to our sashes. I was the only girl who forgot to wave. An indulgent chuckle rose from the audience. Back in a seat beside my parents, I was antsy with embarrassment and desperate to pee.

I escaped to the darkened school hallway. There half a dozen boys — big boys, maybe seventh-graders — loitered outside the girls’ room. As I approached, they parted narrowly to let me pass.

Maybe they barely noticed me, a child with a pixie cut, only marginally feminized by a shapeless brown dress. Yet something in the way they laughed and slouched told me they knew something I didn’t know — maybe something about me. As I moved through them, power caromed from boy to boy, glancing off me. Had any of them witnessed my humiliation? The thought intensified the zings from their bodies to mine. I wanted to linger and could not get away fast enough.

In the bathroom cubicle I sat on the toilet, my underpants dropping toward my brown knee socks. Inside me something skittered over the surface of a syrupy pool. I sank into the spreading warmth as the echoes of male voices receded down the hallway.

Between that night and this afternoon in the clubhouse, the bad-boy feeling had visited me from time to time. At a contraceptive-medicine convention with my mother, the administrator of a birth-control clinic, I had wandered the floor, examining pills in their powder-puff cases, pressing open the beak of a speculum, and staring at a wall of penises. The penises showed the symptoms of advanced venereal disease, in full color, and looked nothing like the nubbin I’d seen bobbing in our bathtub, attached to my brother. These were the penises of strangers, bearing the stigmata of adult adventure. I returned again and again to that wall.

I’d had the bad-boy feeling at the town art cinema, passing a giant box of Milk Duds back and forth with Allie Mensch, watching the documentary The Sky Above — The Mud Below, in which a tribe of New Guinea headhunters cook, hunt, and dance naked, the women’s breasts swinging, the men wearing long bone penis sheaths cantilevered to replicate erections. The memory remains synesthetic: chewy sweetness, drumbeat, beating heart.

Hidden body parts displayed right out in public; powerful communiqués camouflaged as ordinary interactions in ordinary places, like a school hallway or a convention center; that skittering anxiety, the syrupy pool — such experiences were not easy to come by. But now, in the darkening clubhouse, I am extracting those fugitive sensations from between the covers of a worn paperback, twisting them this way and that, letting them drift, reeling them in. The bad-boy feeling is not just happening to me. I am making it happen. In Peyton Place it is captive. I own it.


mile away, in a bedroom on Woodbine Avenue in Bellmore, Richard Lance Corey might be doing more or less what I am doing. Lance is 15, a sophomore at my future alma mater, Wellington C. Mepham High School. He earns middling grades, gets into fights now and then, and excels at sports, especially wrestling. In an institution committed to academic mediocrity and distinguished only by its wrestling team, it is no surprise that Lance is something of a ladies’ man.

Lance dates fast girls, girls with impenetrable hair and haughty breasts, whose black nylons are webbed with runs, as if to enable the progress of itsy-bitsy upskirt fetishist spiders. Even if I were his age, Lance wouldn’t look twice at me, an advanced-track goody-goody Jewish girl in lace-up shoes. In my imagination, he moves through Mepham’s halls in a penumbra of sex and menace.

Lance is a growing boy with a growing boy’s appetites, in the service of which he likes to keep a renewable supply of visual aids. This does not make his mother happy. Mary Corey, a Catholic self-styled “household engineer,” is a vigilant sentry against assaults on the moral character of her four children. And as is common with this sort of battle, its mission creeps until everything to do with her children’s sexuality begins to look like the enemy. When Lance was 12, she found some brassiere ads under his pillow. Unnerved, she confiscated them and sent her son to his father, Charlie, for a stern sex-educational talking-to. The conversation was less than stern and less than enlightening.

Less than effective, too: Lance kept collecting, and didn’t even bother to hide the contraband more carefully. So sure enough, in the summer of 1965, just before his 16th birthday, Mary opens her son’s closet and finds more evidence of corruption: two girlie magazines. This time she is more than unnerved. She’s apoplectic — and burns the magazines.

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