As a girl, Joan Didion was in love with John Wayne. She wanted him to carry her on horseback to the “bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow,” a line that she heard and took on from War of the Wildcats.
But — she writes in John Wayne: A Love Song — although she meets and loves many men throughout her life, none of them are John Wayne or build her a house at that bend in that dream-river where the cottonwoods would be growing. This acknowledgement is sore; sore from the sharp prick that early fantasies, even when alien to and incompatible with one’s adult reality, linger in our psyche and remind us of something unachieved, of a need not met, of a love not found.
“When John Wayne rode through my childhood,” she writes. “And very probably through yours, he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams.”
“How do our first experiences and relationships code our romantic and sexual behaviours? What enduring influence do they assert over one’s sense of self, sexuality and body?”
It is interesting to turn to these dreams and their shape. Although Didion speaks of her first conceptions of romantic love, the essay made me wonder as to the effect of one’s first real John Wayne. How do our first experiences and relationships code our romantic and sexual behaviours? What enduring influence do they assert over one’s sense of self, sexuality and body?
Of course, this would be a misleading exploration if I did not admit to its limitations — although I have had fascinating conversations with friends and relatives around these questions (one friend in particular speaks beautifully and candidly about her realisation that the way she has sex seemed to be the way she had been taught to have sex through her first relationship); this piece is necessarily concerned with my experiences. What was my first experience of sex and love? And did it ever die?
If I were to identify a dominant theme in my initial and continued experiences of sex and of romance, it is vulnerability. Although I believe that I should be an equal and dominant partner in any relationship, my deepest conception of my own desirability and sexuality lies in my ability to brand myself as “weak”. If I am to imagine myself in a relationship, it is within the confines of this problematic dynamic: a typical victim/saviour binary. This is a dynamic that I seek and am attracted to — my fancying someone always follows a confessional moment, an instance in which I have made myself vulnerable or sought immediate validation and received it.
An extract from some recent writing on this:
I worry that it is only in vulnerability and submission that I find “femininity”… I worry that “it”, being a victim, may be the only way that I have learnt to perform any kind of feminine “self”. What sort of person does that make me and where does this come from?
While it is an obvious point that we are marked by our experiences — that the self is an ever-changing entity moulded by external factors — it is challenging to identify my ingrained behaviours as separate from my “self”. Further, it is painful to consider that there are defining facets of my identity that may not be innate but learned. In suggesting this, I am presenting myself as malleable. I am accepting that situations and people that I do not consider important or momentous (or that I do not want to be) may have imprinted, as if in wet cement, upon my malleable self. What shape would certain of Didion’s dreams have been if she had never seen a Western?
My first romantic relationships were characterised by vulnerability. As a young teenager, I looked older than I was; I engaged in conversation that was more sophisticated than I could really manage and existed predominantly in adult spaces — and this was the time when I was and felt the most attractive. I saw older men who paid for transport and dinner and drinks and, on one particularly amusing occasion, entry to a strip-club in Paris. I felt, at 15, 16 and 17, more seen than I had ever felt before or have felt since. I also felt, often, intimidated and scared. I learned from these first relationships and this time that my vulnerability — stemming from my age and lack of experience — was what was desirable. I learned that this vulnerability was my selling point, and I married my burgeoning sexuality with it. In order to be sexually desirable and to be romantically loved, I had learned to embody weakness. I learned to stay thin and to stay quiet and to be compliant, subtle and sad. I learned to harness the childlike aspects of myself: my shyness, my voicelessness, and sexualise them. It worked.
My friends and I engage in a frequent indictment of the paedophilic society within which a child is more desirable than an adult. However, we also lament, retrospectively, the transition to adulthood and the comparative invisibility it has brought. We struggle with the emotional and physical growth that has made us less nymphet-like, and we are nostalgic for our girl-woman bodies and the wide-eyed stare of a teenager out of her depth and so desired. We have glamorised these twisted things because they were intrinsic to our discovery of sex, attractiveness and romance. As we have got older, as our our bodies have changed again and as our lives have shape-shifted around things resembling responsibilities, we have found we can no longer be those girls. I recently found a man I once saw on a dating app. I was sixteen, he was in his late twenties. He was kind and intelligent. I could not keep up. When I saw him on the app I realised that his age limit must still be set to ten years his junior. I realised that I was probably too old for him. We are not girls, we are women. This is not a choice but a fact and it feels as horrific as all the magazines and films and anti-wrinkle products make ageing in any capacity seem.
I know, rationally, that it is a good thing that I am no longer so vulnerable and naïve. It is a good thing that I am now surer of myself and less wide-eyed. I have matured, naturally, out of that persona and the relationships it facilitated relationships and reflected on them. I am critical. I have hoped that I might have shed the flawed lessons learned then and thus be able to have another kind of relationship – a better one.
I have not yet managed to. A disturbing, but honest, admission would be that my greatest fantasy, my John Wayne-cottonwoods-equivalent is the dream that an emaciated version of myself, reduced in body and mind to a childlike state, might be carried home in the arms of an unspeaking, unthinking, empathic love-interest to mop my brow and furrow his in concern. I still grieve the power and desirability that I once (felt I) had.
Joy Crookes’ recent single asks, seemingly directed at an old lover, whether she can “cross you out / And unlearn you from [her] body?” And whilst the ‘unlearning’ process is a vital one, I want to emphasise the power of the ‘relearning’ one. Whilst understanding and analysing our behaviours are important and necessary parts of growing up, if we are to completely separate ourselves from them, to mechanically purge them from our lives, we are left in a void. Although I have, and can be, vehemently critical of the sexual and relational behaviours that I learned when I was younger, until I learn new ones, they will continue to define the way that I view myself as a sexual being.
“Work out what you want from a relationship. Work out what you want from sex. If these seem like easily answerable questions than you are far further ahead than I am.”
I was discussing this article with a friend of mine and she made the following point: these are behaviours that you learned from, and in response to, third parties. They did not come from you. The best part of sex and sexuality is trying to work out what you like and you enjoy. This has to be self-guided and self-motivated. You have to be an active adult, not a passive child. You have to accept that you can be this. Step up. Work out what you want from a relationship. Work out what you want from sex. If these seem like easily answerable questions then you are far further ahead than I am.
This is an important point. Even if my early experiences have shaped me, I — and you — can have and orchestrate new experiences that shape us again. We are not fixed entities, and our behaviours need not be set in stone. The version of me that learned passive, vulnerable “femininity” and sex might not ‘die’ (herein lies my titular reference to Soko,) but it can be built on, challenged. We may have all learnt sex and love from our first relationships and romantic experiences. They may have been and often are impactful entities far beyond our control. But, returning to the notion of a malleable self, we can acknowledge this, question it, and decidedly carry on learning and allowing for ourselves to change.