by Abril Peña
I was eighteen years old the first time I saw a penis outside of a health class. I was boarding the 6 train one evening on my way home from my restaurant job during college. Inside the subway car lay a homeless man sleeping on a row of seats wearing a puffer coat and jeans—his ashy member falling out of the zipper of his pants. In typical New Yorker fashion, I averted my eyes quickly and moved to another car at the next stop. Still, my face continued blushing the entire ride home from Harlem to Queens.
I was twelve years old the first time my body received a man’s attention. In my dad's bodega after a family event and dressed (against my tomboyish will) in skinny jeans and a blouse, I was talking to my cousins; I suddenly heard my dad screaming from behind the counter in my direction at a man I hadn't noticed standing behind me. Papi shouted, "She's only 12! She's only 12! Get out of here!" Papi is not one to raise his voice, so to hear him screaming at a stranger, especially a customer, brought everyone in the bodega to a halt. A pin-drop silence echoed in the store as the man, with everyone's eyes scowling at him, fled the scene. The man had been gazing at me from top to bottom, making comments about the shape of my body, before my dad noticed.
I was eight years old when Mami gave me the “sex talk,” if you could call it that. The conversation wasn't long; she brought it up so unexpectedly that it felt like a parental homework assignment she had forgotten was due. She spoke loudly, annunciating every word as if I was hard of hearing: "When a MAN and a WOMAN love each other, the MAN inserts his PENIS into her VAGINA." That was it. I don’t know if she said anything else after that or if my prepubescent brain blacked it out from the shock. What I do remember is going to school the next day feeling heavy with the information I had just obtained, information that I didn’t want the responsibility of owning.
Throughout my adolescence, I was made to fear the consequences of sex without ever being encouraged to ask questions about, discuss, and much less experience it. Teen pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, and infections, the loss of virginity; were all death sentences. I was applauded by adults for not chasing boys, labeled a “good” girl and a “smart” girl, as if my intelligence was somehow correlated with the number of boyfriends I was able to obtain. In reality, I wasn’t lacking romantic interest but rather protecting myself from the luring eyes of dirty old men and the unwanted touches of curious young boys that I had been warned about time and time again.
“Don’t let them touch you there, or there, or there.” Somewhere between watching the PowerPuff Girls and forging signatures on my reading log, I was charged with the responsibility of guarding the most sacred places of my body. Despite my strongest efforts, I had no way of deterring men from staring at my body when on my way to school, hearing crude comments disguised as "compliments” shouted at me from strangers on stoops, or the occasional graze of my backside on crowded trains. Throughout middle school and high school, I wore sweatshirts three times my size in an effort to hide my developing body. I kept my hair, which was straightened to a crisp at the Dominican salon every week, tied up in an unassuming bun. My mom and aunts would encourage me to wear more 'girly' clothes like skirts and dresses, and in the same breath, criticize girls whose skirts were too short or whose dresses were too low-cut—the same skirts and dresses that become evidence in courtrooms justifying the non-consensual touches of men and boys.
All the while, I wondered, what were the boys being told?
When it came to talking about music or television shows or movies, I was able to blend into the groups of boys I was raised with and friends with in school – but as soon as sex was brought up, I was shut out of the conversation. Perhaps it was to shield me from the unfiltered, often nasty locker room talk, or perhaps they were trying to protect my “innocence” (a concept that at first was well-intentioned but later became patronizing and rooted in misogyny). Boys, particularly those raised in Dominican families, are pulled aside by their dads and uncles at family gatherings and asked by these men with cerveza on their breath, “tienes novias?” Novias – plural, as if their masculinity is measured by how many ladies you can seduce simultaneously.
I was in my early twenties when I began dating. All those years of ducking and hiding from the male gaze, only to later present myself in the form of six carefully selected photos on an online dating profile, left me both excited and anxious. For the first time, I was willing to accept being desired and desire someone back. However, the impenetrable walls I had built up over the years prevented any form of intimacy that was requested of me. I was constantly reminded of how difficult I was – “I thought Dominican girls were far more freaky,” they’d say disappointedly. As a result of my naivete and their persistence, I left my body in the unqualified hands of the men I dated. Not only did I let them discover it on their own, but I let them draw the territorial map and decide on the landmarks. I handed over my body with no guidance, no directions, and no instructions for care. Some partners were more gentle than others, more patient and understanding, like one guy I dated who made me watch a video made for children that explained female anatomy so I knew how to talk to him about my needs, or another who would always check in with me and ask “are you overwhelmed?”
It took a lot of time and healing, and self-reflection to reintroduce myself to my body, mi cuerpo, a vessel that has served me so much in this life. This body that formed scabs over the cuts and scrapes from tumbling on the ground, this body that featured the birthmarks and beauty marks gifted to me from previous generations, this body that bends and squishes and flexes and stretches underneath my clothes or underneath the sheets.
My body was not my enemy; it was not against me; my body is my warm home, where the fences may be high, secured with locks, but where a welcome mat lays in front of the door, where a garden grows, where a breeze flows in and out of windows. All the times I thought my body had failed me were actually times that my body had guarded me against those who tried to sneak into my home, who would track dirt on my floors, and who were not welcome in my home.
Abril Peña. Born and raised in Queens, New York, Abril Peña is a writer, a social impact professional, and the eldest daughter of her Dominican immigrant parents. She enjoys writing about her experiences as a first-generation New Yorker, navigating her career and relationships, and trying to understand her multifaceted identity as an Afro-Latina. Abril works in nonprofit and corporate spaces advocating for youth, education, racial and gender equity, and financial literacy.