Replace "Frantz Fanon" with "Audre Lorde" and I've been singing the same song since I moved to the city after college. A year after that move, it was time to make the song a reality.
In an apartment on the Upper West Side I slid down the bed on my stomach and found myself staring down the dark maw of another person's vulva. I had thought about this moment since I was 13. I was finally going down on a girl for the first time.
"We have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings," writes Lorde in The Uses of the Erotic. After years of battling internalized homophobia, I knew that I craved this girl. Earlier that night, at the party, when she asked if I wanted to return to her place, I was surprised to find a doorman and an elevator. I thought of my five-floor walk-up and felt like I had entered a scene from the movie Carol. While it all felt scandalously adult, I surprised myself by not feeling nervous.
That is, until she wasn't wearing pants.
Oh god, I thought. I have no idea what I'm doing.
As a seasoned masturbator, I knew how to touch myself but had no idea how to perform oral on a person with a vagina. Growing up, I had deep, passionate crushes on girls but instead of sitting with these feelings I always stopped short, fearing that my feelings would dry up when faced with — uh, well — eating pussy. It always came back to the question: "What if I don't like going down on them?"
Unfortunately, my sex education was sorely lacking, with no reference point for queer sex. So I turned to The L Word and free lesbian porn for guidance. But as anyone who has ever watched either knows, they aren't made to be educational. And after some intense googling, tips like "spell out the alphabet with your tongue" didn't help me understand how I was supposed to feel while doing it or how it could be a fun experience for both of us.
After college I still had little information on how to "go down on a girl" — which felt like an essential requirement as a queer woman (regardless of whether that was true). So I continued to look for resources on late-blooming bisexuals. In her 2021 memoir Greedy: Notes from a Bisexual Who Wants Too Much, Jen Winston shares an anecdote of her first time hooking up with a woman in her late 20s (hint: it doesn't end well). Despite knowing I wasn't alone in this predicament, I was still worried that I had missed out on that awkward time in high school and college when the lack of sexual knowledge was mutual.
So I did what any early-twentysomething does when they're afraid — I went dancing, tried to have fun and forget all about my painfully lacking experience. But of course, COVID had other plans. Rather than obsessing over my lack of familiarity with the complicated erogenous zones of genitalia, I looked for different ways to tap into pleasure.
Sources of pleasure to me began to look like wearing the "nicer perfume" even if no one else was going to smell me. Or painting to experiment with colors rather than gain a skill. I'd sip slowly from a glass of cold, pulpy orange juice on humid summer nights to remind myself that life can be sweet and tangy. Anything that brought attention to my senses became an opportunity to explore pleasure — it didn't even need to be sexual.
An internal shift didn't take place overnight. It was a slow burn. As I ran my fingers along the boundaries of my identity to get familiar with my needs and desires, I became responsible for myself "in the deepest sense." In other words, I was growing up.
Lorde writes that the erotic is feared — and "so often relegated to the bedroom"— because it "becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence." Its colors are perspective because the erotic is where we store our curiosity and creativity. This level of clarity is like putting on prescription glasses for the first time, while on shrooms.
Once I permitted myself to take up space, I was wide awake with an insatiable need to taste it all, to "feel full." I could feel everything when I wasn't spending my energy trying to escape the discomfort of trying new things, including the pleasure.
What does this have to do with going down on a girl? Like Lorde's essay, I aimed to move past my ideas of what sex looks like when considering the language of "erotic." Because while the sensation of sweaty palms and dry lips can pull me out of a good moment, learning that pleasure is more than the physical can ground me when I feel unrooted from the familiar.
It became an analogy for the many uses of the erotic. How queerness is not inherently sexual but to allow desire to exist within my queerness is to live authentically. It showed me how a fully lived and expressed life can contribute to a sense of strength. This strength permits you to take risks, to allow yourself to crave. It is, in a small way, sex education.
When I looked up from between her thighs, I caught her eyes with mine and felt a recognition — she was nervous too. Though we were practically strangers, it elicited a point of intimacy, of connection. Without saying anything, I reached out and grabbed her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze.
Then I grabbed her hips and kissed her cunt like it were her lips. Like it was the delicious makeout session I first experienced as a teenager. As I sucked on her clit she squeezed back — hard — with a moan.
"I find the erotic such a kernel within myself," Lorde writes. "When released from its intense and constrained pellet, it flows through and colors my life with a kind of energy that heightens and sensitizes and strengthens all my experience."
To be new at something again was a joy I wasn't expecting. A thrill quickly replaced my embarrassment. Even thinking about her vulva as a cunt felt like reclamation. I rubbed the hard consonants against my teeth. I felt strong in my softness, letting go of the desire to control the outcome — to enjoy.
When we consider pleasure in the context of the erotic, we expect the orgasmic. But joy can look like sunlight hitting the corner of your bedroom as you wake. Those first few minutes when one foot is in dreamland and the other is in the possibilities of reality — that time of day when joy looks like hope.
Looking back on my time in that bedroom, I wish I could tell my younger self that there is no ideal time to be ready for new sexual experiences. And that the elusive "lesbian sex" is just a catch-all category made up by the porn industry and can be so much more than its heterosexual counterparts. Because, frankly, most people don't know what to think about sex that doesn't involve a penis.
The benefit of existing as a queer person in a heteronormative world is that it allows for a level of creativity unique to a marginalized community. Essentially, you are free to play and make the most out of having no preconceived rules, being open to pleasure in whatever form it takes. So rather than trying to be the best lover, perhaps try to focus on enjoying the moment.
"And there is, for me, no difference between writing a good poem and moving into sunlight against the body of a woman I love," writes Lorde. So I will continue to write, touch sunlight, move my body, and love who I love.