"Isn't it really up to THEM to not cheat on their wives? It's not your fault if they do." Talk about perfect justification.
When I was thirteen, I joined a group that did medieval re-enactment. Called the Society for Creative Anachronism (or SCA), this organization has been going strong for about forty years, and our local group appeared regularly at museum-sponsored living history events, demonstrating calligraphy and brandishing fake swords at each other. Now, I realize how geeky we all were: we got together once a week to practice medieval dances, specialized in starting sentences with "Well, actually…" and argued about religion until 2am instead of drinking heavily. At the time, I knew only that I had found a crowd of people that were not only interesting and intelligent, but who found me deeply fascinating. It was another world.
As someone explained to me when I was about 16 and speculating on the origin of my popularity, "You're in the SCA…and you're not fat!" With this distinctly non-charming statement, much is revealed, not just about the kinds of women who were attracted to the island of misfit knights, but the men. At 16, weighing less than 120 pounds, and newly aware of my sexuality, I was every wife's worst nightmare. The SCA creates an atmosphere of permissiveness and dissolute morals: everyone makes sexual innuendo, jokes about bondage, and hits on teenagers. Adultery is widespread, as are threesomes and frivolous nudity at parties and events. Under the ostensible reasoning that nobody in the Middle Ages would have had a bathing suit, we were all naked as much as we could be down at the Ol' Swimming Hole, and spent parties giving each other shoulder massages and giggling. There's no particular reason for this hypersexualized attitude, and it's certainly not specifically medieval; instead, we were a realm apart, outside of the Middle Ages we claimed to imitate, and outside of society, where constant flirting and adultery are frowned upon.
Into this atmosphere, I paraded. I had brand new boobs and a tenuous interest in showing them off; small amounts of research revealed that fourteenth century outfits for women involved tight bodices and stretchy fabrics, so I threw myself into overly sexual velveteen gowns and plopped into the middle of a circle of admirers.
Some of my new friends in the SCA were around my own age. Dorky glasses-wearing boys and girls in cloaks, we sat next to each other at feasts and traipsed through the woods gossiping about the grown-ups, those lofty Sirs and Duchesses who sometimes wore crowns and embroidered their gloves with gold thread. These friendships lasted outside of the SCA, and we played Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons on nights we weren't going to sword-fighting practice. The rest of my friends, though, they were not my own age. They had several things in common: they were men. They were at least thirty. And they were usually married or in serious relationships.
There was a heady power in seeing their eyes turn towards me when I walked past the high table. I followed the same uber-effective path of female presentation that umpteen other too-young girls in skirts have followed: I laughed at their jokes, told them how much I admired their…swords, made subtly nuanced jokes, tilted my head down and looked up at them through my long hair. I came into the room like an army storming a castle; within seconds of arriving, I'd scanned the room for what men were there, which ones I might want, which ones might want me. Usually if they wanted me, I could readjust my opinion of them, no matter what they looked like. The key was being wanted. That was what kept me going back weekend after weekend, drunk on being invited to the after party with the cool kids.
Now, of course, it all seems unbearably creepy. I was 16 years old, new to the power of sexuality, and surrounded by paunchy goateed guys twice my age, all desperate to sleep with me on the downlow. I was the girl that they wanted when they were in high school, young and nubile and slender and willing, the one that would laugh at their jokes and follow after them adoringly. The sexual innuendo that became second nature in my conversation was crude at best, although I thought myself very witty. I think now that I must have been like someone shooting cockroaches with an AK-47: talk about overkill. Friends who knew me when I first joined the SCA now tell me that it took them a long time to warm up to me; my first impression was of a ravenous sex kitten who would bang anyone, regardless of who they were. It was only after they got to know me that they saw I had a personality beyond that.
Now imagine being a young girl under the weight of all this attention and finding yourself at a moral crossroads that you've never had to consider before. Is it even a moral crossroads, when you get right down to it? I remember having a phone conversation with a friend when I was about 17, in which I mentioned feeling guilty for having sex with so many married men. "But it's not like YOU made a promise to be faithful to anyone," he told me. "Isn't it really up to THEM to not cheat on their wives? It's not your fault if they do." Talk about perfect justification. They were so willing, and cheating seemed so common, it barely seemed like a problem at all. There were no boundaries in this society…or there were, but nobody told me what they were or modeled them effectively. Every night, there were jokes about handcuffs and kissing and when we danced our semi-medieval dancing, there were whole segments of the dance where we were supposed to flirtatiously change partners. As in the dance, so in real life.
I lost my virginity to a Duke, the most well-known knight in our area. He had dyed blonde, shoulder-length hair, a neatly-trimmed beard, and muscles like pythons crawling under his skin. He was over thirty, married, and immensely thrilling. He chased me, flirting more aggressively at event after event. I found out later that he considered it his duty to devirginize as many new SCAdian girls as possible, that his wife probably knew what he was up to but never talked about it or agreed. After making up an overnight job in my town, he took me to dinner and we quietly had sex in the front seat of his hatchback. We didn't talk on the phone or go out on a date at any point; it was understood by both of us that we were lying to his wife for only one purpose: sex.
Not that I really knew what that meant, or what exactly I was agreeing to when I said yes, but I said yes just the same. He came to see me again and we spent an hour in the Motel Darlene, out by the highway. I remember he called his wife to check in while I lay sprawled in bed, and gestured at me elaborately to be quiet. The sex was not really that great, and he was much nicer to me at SCA events after we'd stopped having sex and I started acting more like a world-weary barmaid rather than eager-eyed ingenue. A year after I left home, I heard he'd been killed in a car accident: fell asleep at the wheel, rolled the truck, never woke up. His funeral was enormous, and his wife finished her reign as Queen alone, dressed in black.
After the floodgates opened, there was no stopping the rush of attentive suitors. They didn't even bother to twirl their wedding rings off fingers; it was the SCA, everybody knew who everybody was and who they were married to. I kissed them behind barns, their beards rubbing my skin raw. I flirted with a bard by email and let him bend me over the hood of a car in a parking lot when we met, even though I wasn't as attracted to him in real life as I was on our computer screens. I stayed out late around campfires, followed some long-haired man back to his tent. I went out for a walk around the lake at night, and ended up with someone awkwardly shoving their hand down my pants, or on one occasion, requesting I show my breasts to his friend because they were "perfect". I acquiesced to almost all of it. I didn't understand you could say no, or why you'd want to: where before everyone had told me I was ugly, now they said I was beautiful. If the price I had to pay to be liked was boring sex with too many men in mustaches, well…it seemed negligible.
I suppose you could link this back to my father's departure from my life at an early age, thereby cementing both my fear of abandonment and my daddy issues. You could also make connections to having been bullied in grade school, or growing up a latch-key kid. Honestly, while the daddy thing probably has something to do with it, when you get down to the nitty-gritty, it was pretty simple: I had something they wanted, and I loved the power it gave me. I didn't care about their wives, was too young to understand what that meant.
I knew the physical mechanics of sex, having read the entire For Parents shelf at the local library by the time I was nine, but I didn't know any of the intense emotional magic that went along with it. I didn't know the questions I should have been asking or the weight I should have been feeling. I didn't know what it meant to give your body like a coin to people that devalued it to almost nothing. I didn't understand that the kind of person that has sex with a teenaged girl because she doesn't know enough about the world to say no, is the kind of person that shouldn't be having sex at all.
But what do I know? Maybe they were as confused as I was, lost in a permissive world where, instead of computer programmers or carpenters or hotel desk clerks, they were Kings and Knights and Dukes, and attractive nubile young women looked at them with willing eyes. Maybe they felt terrible about what they did to their wives, their girlfriends, maybe they apologized years later for having laid me down on the backseat of the car. Maybe they realized how gross it is to bang someone half your age in a nylon tent, and wished they could apologize to me. I don't know. None of them ever spoke to me about it, and I eventually left the SCA. I went into therapy, learned a lot about my mercantile attitude towards sexuality, and moved on. Every now and then I find myself wondering if there was something about me that made them forsake their promises, something unique that they saw, something that made me shine. But if I'm honest with myself, I know they're still at it; older now and more pot-bellied, they're chasing the girls in fourteenth century gowns with the tacit approval of the rest of society and the quiet acceptance of the wives. They're not anything special, these guys, but from what they get away with, they might as well actually be King.