In my twenties, I went to a fancy party as an older man’s plus-one. That was the only way I could have been there—I was far too poor to have been invited otherwise. The host’s apartment had amazing art hanging everywhere: originals by Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, and Robert Mapplethorpe. This was real art, art I had only seen in textbooks and museums, far cries from the posters my friends and I had in cheap plastic frames. Around me, young women stared pensively at the photographs displayed, pretending not to notice the men staring at us. Our first real leather handbags dangled surreptitiously from our shoulders; our opaque tights hid the same unblemished legs. This was the game: look at a photo of a nude woman while letting a male guest look at you.
That was when I saw it: hanging above the sofa, on an eggshell-colored wall just a hint beyond white, was the photograph I hadn’t seen since I was thirteen.
When I was in middle school, I had a friend named Naomi, whose dad was an amateur photographer. He had an art book called Teenage Lust that was full of photographs of teenagers doing drugs and having sex. The image I remember best is untitled; it shows a blonde girl of about fifteen or sixteen, nestled in the crook of her boyfriend’s armpit in the backseat of a car. Both of them are naked. Their two flat mouths are mashed up against each other. The girl’s eyes are closed. She’s not lying on top of him exactly; instead she’s lying against him, her body cheated toward the viewer. Her hand is wrapped around his penis, while his fingers slip between her legs. Together they are splayed open like a book parted in the middle, waiting to be read.
After lights out, Naomi and I would sneak down to the rec room and look at the book, rubbing ourselves raw on anything we could find. We especially loved pillows, the armrests of the couch, or the family sleeping bags—little mounds still stuffed in their casings. We called masturbating “our power.” All I wanted was to look and look, to feel full with looking the way I did when I ordered dessert after a meal that had already given me a stomachache. I remember thinking: I didn’t know you could kiss sideways. I didn’t know a boy was going to want me to hold his penis that hard. I didn’t know a girl could get off from being looked at—whether by the boy underneath her, the man taking the picture, or by me, the thirteen-year-old girl staring at the photograph two decades after it was taken. I wanted the kind of power she had.
Around the same age, I had my first kiss, with Naomi and our other friend Donny. Donny’s parents had money, and instead of fashioning their basement into a wood-paneled suburban rec room like other families did, they’d built a wine cellar. It was dank down there: the air was always wet and stayed close, like a second layer of skin. The three of us reeked of orange rinds left on radiators, of the menthol cigarettes we smoked to confuse our moms, of our swampy parts that needed a wash every day but we still thought we could neglect. We had ventured into the cellar with the intention of having a séance. Only what we conjured wasn’t dead. Halfway through, with Donny pushing the small heart-shaped piece of plastic across our Ouija board, one of our candles went out. Naomi reached over and blew out the other two. None of us said anything; without being able to see there was suddenly no need for words. Hands reached across the blackness and we found each other. There was no time to think. We became a pile of slime, flicking tongues in and out of mouths, moving our heads side to side. Only moments before, I had been asking the spirit world if my crush, Paul Q., would come to my birthday party.
Did we enjoy any of it? Naomi and I weren’t really hot for each other. And all of us pretty much knew Donny was gay: not being into girls made him less threatening, or easier to overlook during our make-outs. I didn’t care about what he could give me, or how his hands would make me feel. But I was desperate for something I could only get from Naomi. I longed to understand what it felt like for someone to kiss me—what it felt like to them, to be kissing me. Rolling my tongue back and forth on the underside of Naomi’s lips was the closest I could come to projecting myself onto another body, another girl body like my own. I kissed Naomi so I could feel what it was going to be like for a boy to touch me, and I stared at the girl in the photo so I could understand what it was he was seeing when he looked at me.
I had seen porn, but it wasn’t the same. On a school camping trip in seventh grade, I followed a kid named Luigi to his tent, lighting the way with my baby-pink Hello Kitty flashlight. On the bus ride, he had asked if I was interested in checking out his copies of Hustler. I knew I was a feminist and wanted to believe I was both tough and progressive; in my mind, that meant I should be cool with porn too. Sure, I told him.
So after bed-check, I pulled on a pair of jean shorts over my white-and-blue-striped bathing suit. It had underwire cups, and I was slowly beginning to fill them, but not as fast as I was filling out the lower half. I wanted my breasts to be bigger than the soft stomach I was always tucking into my pants. All the girls in my class were fighting against things: we struggled with being too thin, being too chubby, having the crimson animal-like claw lines of stretch marks mapped out on our breasts, our thighs, even behind our knees. It felt like every waking moment was given over to learning how and what to hide, how and what to expose.
Luigi and I positioned ourselves next to each other on his cot, our knees gently touching. I could see his Star Wars pillowcase peeking out from beneath a flannel blanket, and felt a flash of embarrassment for him. He pulled out a backpack that seemed to weigh as much as he did and unzipped it, revealing a thick sheaf of magazines, more than a dozen. Gingerly he took one out and laid it in front of me. I could tell he feared my reaction, and for a brief second, I was the powerful one. Then I opened the magazine. It seemed like each photograph managed to capture the moment before the female model grimaced, or dry heaved, or winced. I felt myself flinching with every turned page, in anticipation of what would happen after the camera fluttered its lens. Worse were the actions: the deep throating, the probing penetrations; they looked painful, almost surgical. Woman after woman stretched and opened up, her insides flipped outside. Next to me, Luigi sat transfixed. Not knowing what was more disturbing, the photos or his trance, I caught myself gagging. I got up and ran, leaving Luigi worried I would rat him out for his contraband.
When I got back to my tent, my best friend was snoring. Her neon retainer lit up her mouth; it looked nearly holy. Lying next to her in the plush safety of my own cot, I thought all the orifices in the porn looked like gaping wounds, dripping with a kind of violence that couldn’t flip my switch.
It never occurred to me that Luigi might have invited me to his tent to try to seduce me. I honestly believed that he and I would simply flip through the magazine, like friends, like we were both boys: equals. Even in my bathing suit with the underwire top that was beginning to cut into my sides, I was too busy looking at the women—worrying about what men saw—to realize I was being looked at too.
While the photo book Teenage Lust was different from that kind of porn, it was also different from the Joy of Sex, which my parents had on a bookshelf in their bedroom. The pictures in the Joy of Sex were, ironically, sexless. The women had no real defining features: their bodies were flawless but average; there was a kind of uniformity to every pose. No one’s faces betrayed any reactions; each remained as blank as the bored expressions of my classmates during a fire safety lecture. The whole book was about as arousing as a dated exercise manual extolling the joy of calisthenics.
The photograph of the two teenagers in the backseat in Teenage Lust played on a completely different field. With all its ambiguity, the image was harder to read, harder to understand.
When I looked at the photograph back then, I never studied the man. My sole obsession came from trying to get to the bottom of the thin blonde with perky tits—tits that existed in the pale negative space of tan lines. I didn’t think of his penis other than as something she had her hand on. She was different than the women in Hustler, women who cocked their pelvises aggressively towards the lens, but looked out of the pages with flat, dead eyes. The teenage girl’s eyes are closed, like she’s praying. The corner of her lips curl up as though she’s just about to smile. I wanted to believe she was enjoying herself. I wanted to believe she was in control. I thought about how she couldn’t be more than a few years older than myself. The blonde to my brunette, she was a girl at once familiar to me and unlike anyone I had ever known. She was, in a sense, aspirational.
At thirteen, the compass for my own desire was already faulty. I could make myself come looking at that photo, but I’m not sure it aroused me. I had orgasms, but I also heard a constant ticker tape running through my head, clocking all the ways my body could never be deemed attractive. I’d look at the photo and feel something I didn’t understand projected onto me, then I’d kiss Naomi and project something I didn’t understand onto her. I wanted to know what the boy in the photograph wanted. I figured that through his desire, I could know what mine was.
This is what it is to be a teenage girl. I could never separate the knowledge that my desire was dependent on someone else’s, even while I was desperate to stake a claim to my own teenage lust. The boys got to discover what it was that turned them on, what it was that they wanted. But for us girls, how could we ever know an essential passion that wasn’t tied to the thrill of feeling a man’s hot breath on our ears, of hearing him whisper, “Turn around, let me get a good look at you”? Even so, I longed for the power that came with being seen, of being recognized in the world.
When I saw the photo again at that fancy party, all the chitchat around me, the sounds of fizzy drinks and wine being poured, went silent. There was only white noise: the same kind that washed over me when I first learned to make myself come. The same soundless sound I hear now when I’m having really good sex: sex on the floor good, sex in a car good, sex in front of a mirror good.
Then a man walked over to me. He seemed at odds with the photograph hanging in front of us: clean, compact, his energy drawn within his lines. Otherwise he looked the same as all the men at the party. I could tell he was in his late thirties, successful enough, wearing the same three-hundred-dollar jeans as the men around him, but in a different hue. He coughed into his scotch, poured neat, and asked with a schoolboy’s smirk if I liked “the Larry Clark.”
Suddenly I realized I had never even known who the photographer was. When I first saw the image at thirteen, I hadn’t known anything about the male gaze, or how to read a photograph—or even that it was supposed to be a piece of art, not simply masturbatory material.
Without knowing that Clark was the eye behind Teenage Lust, I had spent a lot of my adult life dismissing his work. I thought it glamorized misogyny and racism. There’s a scene in his movie Kids where a pack of white boys beat up a black man—but the way it’s shot creates a feeling of orgiastic pleasure that never read as critical enough for me. That whole movie felt like watching my deepest nightmares about men come true: that they will always fuck you up, even go out of their way to do it. Especially chilling to me was how the boys I knew reacted to Kids. I could never tell if the violence and rape escaped them or if it stirred them—either way, it didn’t seem to stick. They’d emerged from the theater in a kind of fog, the ugly teenage hedonism of the film fusing with dreams of skateboards and one-way tickets to New York City. There were plenty of these dudes, boys who believed Kids was a kind of bible, a guidebook to everything they ever thought they deserved or were owed.
But it turned out I had also been a thirteen-year-old virgin who depended on a narrative Clark constructed for me.
In 2008, in an interview promoting his gallery show Los Angeles 2003–2006, Clark told The Guardian that Teenage Lust and his previous collection of documentary photos, Tulsa, were records of his secret teenage life. Though he was older than the teenagers he photographed, both books stand as autobiographical accounts of Clark’s own sordid post-pubescent years—their world through his knowing eyes. It’s a testament to the staying power of the work that the countless pictures of young people shooting up, fucking, and handling guns felt (and feels) apt even forty years later. When he spoke to The Guardian, at the age of sixty-five, it was clear Clark still relished his Peter Pan status. “A lot of adults see my work and go, ‘Oh this is Larry Clark’s fantasy. Teenagers don’t live like this,’” he told writer Sean O’Hagan. “The thing is, the kids themselves always get it. They can always tell if it’s real or not.”
When I was reunited with the photograph at that fancy party, the authenticity of the image was no longer, to me, simply about sexual awakening. This time, there was nothing sexy about it all. Somewhere along the way sex had become about more than desire. For boys, it seemed it could always stay that way—sex would always be straightforwardly predicated on what turned them on. I’d thought the girl was enjoying the sex, because I wanted to believe she was being acknowledged; she is, after all, the focal point of the image. But so many years later, I understood I’d had it wrong. I’d made her a kind of victim, weighed down by my own false hopes. After a while I could barely bring myself to look at her. It was too painful to be reminded that even as a grown woman, I was still waiting for my turn at recognition.
For the first time, I forced myself to pay attention to the boy in the photo. Though the image is black and white, the boy comes across as tan, with sandy hair. His chest is hairless and strong, with ropey muscles rippling over his stomach. Turned toward the girl, his face is hidden from the viewer. We can’t see what it is he’s feeling. The boy’s not performing for us; he doesn’t have to. Without seeing his face, we can believe his feelings are less messy than hers.
I felt the man at my side give me a once-over. I knew he was clocking the thinness of my ankles, the length of my skirt, the stark ratio between my waist and ass, the narrowness of my shoulders, the perk of my own tits. Could he tell the difference between me and the girl in the photograph? I turned and locked eyes with the stranger. He looked right back.