I spent my childhood getting more erections than I knew what to do with. When I was a small boy, I had no clue whether this inexplicable stiffness was normal or not, and for that reason I was ashamed of it. I’ve often considered blaming my shame on Catholicism, but I don’t remember anyone at church teaching me to feel one way or the other about a stiff penis. What I remember from church is the smell of incense, the backs of old people’s heads, the glossy brown pews, the rewarding thinness of the missal’s pages, beautiful songs sung by below-average singers, and my erection tucked underneath my waistband.
I thought I had a health problem. And maybe I did. To this day I’ve never heard anybody talk about getting hard as often as I did. People laugh about pubescent horniness and untimely erections, but nobody talks about getting them before puberty on a regular basis. I was aroused whenever nothing was demanded of my limbs or mind — in class, at church, on the bus, in the car. Once, I even got hard at football practice while staring off at the Catskill Mountains and half-assing my way through groin stretches, my cleat bottoms pressed together, my butt cozy against the cool autumn earth, my dick jammed against the back of my cup. Maybe this was normal. I don’t know. I haven’t asked other guys if they were, from kindergarten through early high school, hard more often than not, because if I did ask, the question would just lead to laughter, and I wouldn’t be able to gauge the truth.
For the first nine years of my life I knew nothing about erections. I’m sure other boys talked euphemistically about them and it just went over my head. I struggled as a kid, as I do now, to understand nonliteral language, and I was so nervous around my peers that I focused mostly on not appearing nervous, which made it tough to pay attention to what anyone was talking about. To make matters worse, I wasn’t good at admitting confusion or asking questions. I thought that if you were a smart person — and I wanted, more than anything, to be a smart person — you just figured things out on your own. To this day my go-it-alone attitude decreases my quality of life.
I couldn’t imagine asking my mother and father about what was happening between my legs, and I’m sure they couldn’t have imagined telling me. Here’s how I know: they gave me a VHS tape in lieu of the Talk. I was in fourth grade, in my bedroom doing God knows what — probably something obsessive, like cataloging baseball stats in a composition notebook for a league that existed only in my mind, or arranging stuffed animals in two lines and tying them together with jump ropes so they could be Santa’s reindeer — when Dad came home from his job teaching middle school and told me he’d borrowed something for me from the school library. He averted his eyes and said, “It’s about sex,” as he handed the tape over. I don’t remember the video’s title. The cover displayed a bunch of smiling kids wearing rugby shirts and khaki pants. “You can watch it in the living room,” Dad said. “I’ll take your brother and sister into the basement so you can have some privacy.”
So there you go: In my family, sex was a private thing. We didn’t talk about it.
I remember only one scene from that video: A crude outline of a naked man faced a crude outline of a naked woman against a royal-blue background. The man’s penis, at first flaccid, elongated and became erect. Then the man moved toward the woman and — whoa, this caught me by surprise — the erect penis went right into the woman’s vagina. This was way more intimate than I thought two people could ever get. I instantly realized my parents did this, which I found horribly unsettling. Dad went inside Mom? It seemed like a violation of them both.
Then a bunch of arrows shot out of the man’s penis, and I understood, thanks to the narrator, that the arrows represented semen. The arrows started shooting out right when the male outline entered the female outline, and they continued until the video cut to something else. I interpreted this to mean that the man was supposed to ejaculate instantly and nonstop. When I started ejaculating a couple of years later, I worried that my penis didn’t work right because I could only spurt three or four times before my erection would die out. I feared I’d never be able to have kids because I didn’t produce enough semen, which I thought was supposed to spill out in a constant stream during sex — an activity that I assumed, thanks to my literal interpretation of what TV characters often said, was supposed to go on all night long. It never occurred to me that this would make an unbelievably large mess. It wasn’t until eighth grade, when I watched porn at my friend’s house and saw a man ejaculate onto a woman’s stomach (something else I found incredibly confusing) that I realized ejaculation marked the end of sex for the guy. This was a big revelation. You were supposed to build toward the climax and enjoy the process.
But back in fourth grade I knew none of this. Watching that VHS tape unsettled but also relieved me. The stiffness had a purpose. It was for sex! Before that, I’d thought sex meant rolling around naked under the sheets while kissing, but evidently there was more to it than that. My favorite TV characters — Ross, Chandler, Joey, the Fresh Prince, Tim the Toolman Taylor — were always talking about sex, which meant they were always talking about getting hard, the very condition I couldn’t escape.
Their penises stiffened just like mine.
Unfortunately, once I’d associated erections with sex, I began to fear I had unhealthy sexual attractions because I got hard while staring at or touching various objects. Here is an abridged list of items I feared I was sexually attracted to: chairs, crucifixes, shutters, swimming-pool ladders, copper pipes, piano keys, disposable cameras, chalk, couches, overhead projectors, clocks, sneakers, heating vents, pillows (big time), pencils, video-game controllers, gloves, socks, pants, shirts, keys, football helmets, baseball hats, catcher’s masks, chest protectors, shin guards (basically all sports gear), headphones, CDs, seat belts, school-bus windows, school-bus seats, gearshifts, coats (windbreakers especially), dog leashes, Trapper Keepers, cleats, stuffed animals, scotch tape, hairbrushes, lamps, and once a dustbuster.
The possibility I might be some kind of freak who was attracted to inanimate objects didn’t trouble me as much as the erections I got around boys. These felt more intense and important, and I really didn’t want a guy to think I was getting a hard-on because of him. It was the nineties. Homosexuality was considered disgusting in the rural area where I lived. I wasn’t brave or rebellious. I wanted to fit in. But my penis loved boys, especially if I was sitting next to or touching them. I hated this so much, because it meant I was something called a “faggot.” Faggots were, I understood, men who behaved like women; they always had limp wrists and deserved to get beaten up. I don’t remember precisely when or how I internalized this definition. It just existed inside me, and for that reason I decided I’d never tell a soul how my penis reacted to boys.
I took great solace in the fact that I also got erections when looking at or brushing up against girls. To counteract my sexual response to boys and inanimate objects, I’d tell myself to think about girls whenever I got hard. My reasoning was simple: if I learned to associate erections with girls, this would help me grow into a normal man.
In late elementary school I forced myself to think only about celebrities — Pamela Anderson, Jennifer Aniston, the Spice Girls — when hard. I feared that if I thought about girls from school, my peers might read my mind and know who I had a crush on.
Why did I fear somebody might read my mind? Who knows. I always felt lonely inside my head, and I suspect I secretly wanted somebody to see my thoughts so I wouldn’t be so alone. I also had a hyperactive mind. I was wide awake for the majority of every night, traveling down all kinds of booby-trapped psychological corridors.
Eventually it dawned on me that people couldn’t read my mind, and I was free to fantasize about whomever I wanted. Still, it was a letdown. To this day I’ll occasionally pretend that my loved ones are listening to my thoughts and feeling my feelings with me, and it breaks my heart that they can’t really do that.
By middle school I was masturbating — feverishly, three or four orgasms in a row — to thoughts of girls from school, always the ones most approved of by other boys. I thought I was training myself to like the correct girls. It never occurred to me that this intense need to appear “normal” was a sign that I was atypical. I actually believed everyone else, too, was vigorously training themselves to be attracted to the right people.
I was most focused on this at night, when I could neither shut off my brain nor get my erections to leave me be. What did I do? For one thing, I would kiss my forearm and hump my pillow. I often found myself, especially before puberty, deeply confused about why I was humping. I always waited until my younger brother, who slept in the top bunk, fell asleep. While he was still awake, I would talk to him about whatever sports or movie obsession I had that day. I liked reciting both real-life sports statistics and the statistics for my imaginary baseball leagues. I also liked talking about fan fictions I’d thought up in my spare time: the Ghostbusters and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles team up to fight Darth Vader. That kind of thing. I could recite entire movies — specifically Little Giants, Ghostbusters, and Hook — and I was damn proud of it. My brother would often be asleep by the time I made it halfway through a script, just when I was really caught up in the story.
If my incessant jabbering bothered my brother, he never showed it. I’ve asked him as an adult if he remembers being annoyed by it, and he says no, that he looked up to me because I was his big brother, and he enjoyed hearing me talk. It’s possible he’s lying to avoid hurting my feelings, but I don’t think so. Either way, I was lucky to have him. My brother was the only person I could talk to freely. Everyone else, both my peers and adults, would tell me to shut up, and this caused me to become shy in most contexts. Although I had a lot to say, experience had taught me that my unfiltered, enthusiastic way of saying it made people angry.
Once my brother had fallen asleep, my humping commenced in silence. Remaining quiet was difficult, though, because I had an almost violent urge to make a gentle humming sound. It was like scratching an itch inside my throat — an itch that appeared only when I was surrounded by silence. Sometimes the urge became so severe that I’d let the humming sound squeak out.
I attempted to ask for help with my insomnia only once: at breakfast when I was around seven. Dad was reading the newspaper at the kitchen table, and I said, “Dad, I can’t sleep. I’m up all night.”
He waved his hand as if shooing a fly and said, “You’re actually sleeping more than you feel like you are. You only think you’re awake all night.”
I took this literally. For the next few nights I lay in bed humming quietly to myself, asking my brother if he was awake, sighing when he wasn’t, humping my pillow, wondering whether my stiff penis was normal, and generally just being my obsessive self. But the experience had a new layer to it: I told myself I was asleep. I only thought I was awake.
I almost asked for help on one other occasion. It was the middle of the night. My whole being was inflamed with what I now know was desire, but which I didn’t understand at the time. (This was well before Dad gave me the VHS tape.) I took off my pajamas and rolled around in bed, humping my pillow and writhing in confusion, wanting something I couldn’t name or comprehend. I got scared: What did my body want? Why was it so on fire?
Uncomfortably hot, I threw off my sheets and got out of bed flushed, erect, sweating, and naked. I went into the bathroom and paced, looking at my penis and wondering what its deal was.
There was nothing I could do. This was the fact of my body. I was stuck with it.
My parents’ bedroom was across the hall from the bathroom, and they slept with their door open. I can’t say whether I did this intentionally or not, but when I opened the bathroom door to leave, I didn’t turn off the light like I normally would. I left it on, so that it shone right into my parents’ room. Dad sat up in bed, the golden Saint Anthony pendant around his neck glimmering in his chest hair. I quickly walked back to my bedroom. I don’t know what Dad saw. It’s possible I was backlit and my nudity and erection were shrouded in shadow. Then again, I did turn to go to my bedroom, meaning that the situation with my penis was probably shockingly clear, if only for an instant, to Dad.
I put on Dad’s Mickey Mantle T-shirt — my “pajamas” at that time — got under the covers, and listened. Dad was moving around. He grunted, crossed the hall, turned off the bathroom light, then stuck his head into my bedroom.
“J.P.,” he said, “are you OK?”
I could see the dark silhouette of Dad’s head in the open doorway. His eyes reflected the little Jesus Christ night-light my brother and I had in our room. He stroked his mustache with his thumb and forefinger, as he did whenever he was thinking.
“Are you sure everything’s OK?” he asked.
“Yeah, everything’s OK,” I answered quickly.
I thought: Tell him about your penis. But I didn’t know what words to use. I had the sense Dad was unsure what to say, too.
“All right,” he said, rapping his knuckles against the door frame. “Let me know if you need anything.”
“OK. I will.”
Would my life have gone differently if I’d said something? If Dad had? Ultimately these are pointless questions. I didn’t say anything, because I was who I was. Dad didn’t say anything, because he was who he was. I don’t begrudge my father his inability to broach these subjects. He wasn’t good at talking about things that made him uncomfortable, like sex or the fact that one of his kids was a little strange. My father was limited, and that’s fine. Nothing makes more sense to me than inexplicable limitations. My body is full of them.
I hid my frequent arousal the way I’ve hidden a lot of what’s atypical about me — all the impulses and desires that remain unactualized, since I don’t wish to freak people out. I want to hum in quiet spaces like classrooms, but I don’t. I want to pontificate at length about my favorite subjects, but I don’t. I want to cry when I’m socially overwhelmed, but I don’t. I want to look away when people meet my eyes, but I don’t. I want to talk loudly and emphatically, but I don’t (unless, of course, I get comfortable with someone, in which case I fill the room with my big voice). For three decades my sex drive has been, like so many other aspects of who I am, something to stow away and keep private. Even with sexual partners I’ve been deeply concerned with not wanting to have sex too often. I sometimes overcorrect on this front, and my wife teases me about how ridiculously apologetic I am if I make a move when she’s not in the mood.
I don’t know if I’ll ever relinquish this sexual shame. At this point it’s almost become a bodily function, like digestion or breathing. But I’m starting to unmask a bit, shame and all. I’m acknowledging — finally, at the age of thirty-five — what I’ve always known: I’m different. I tell friends, family, and colleagues now when I’m overwhelmed. I confess when I’m having trouble interpreting a joke or a figure of speech. I tell people about the ways I was strange growing up. And even though I still feel that habitual shame, I have also invited compassion into my life. People laugh warmly at my stories. They say, That must’ve been so difficult.
This has been a pleasant surprise. I’ve always expected to be mocked or dismissed for my atypical qualities, perhaps because I learned to hide them so well during childhood, when my peers were meaner and less forgiving, when my dad didn’t know how to talk to me about my body, and when it felt so important to be “normal.”