In Conversation with Grace Simonoff Dunham
Grace Simonoff Dunham
Alfred Kinsey and his researchers conducted over eighteen thousand interviews throughout the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. He published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948, followed by Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in 1953. Kinsey’s sex histories attempted to determine where subjects fell on a scale from zero (exclusive heterosexuality) through six (homosexuality). Since the Kinsey interviews are structured around a binary conception of gender, the scale collapses if the subject opts out of male or female identification (i.e., How can I be homosexual if I fuck women of many anatomies and I myself am neither a man nor a woman?). While the scale offers a limited framework in hindsight, the published reports shifted public understanding of intimate sexual life. The perverse was revealed to be widespread.
I gave myself a version of Alfred Kinsey’s sexual history exam on September 1, 2017, at my parents’ apartment in Brooklyn, New York. The scope of the interview was abridged for the sake of length. The examiners of the original test were instructed to organically cover a list of topics rather than follow a scripted questionnaire, and so I did the same. As the subject, I was forced to counter the interviewer’s underlying assumptions with accounts of my experiences. As the interviewer, I was wedded to the ideology of the questions. The conflict between them felt familiar. It happens inside me all the time. —Grace Simonoff Dunham
Questioner: What is your sex?
GRACE SIMONOFF DUNHAM: I was assigned female at birth. I have a vagina. And a uterus and all that stuff. But I don’t presently identify as a female. I don’t identify as a man either. I’m neither.
Q: How old are you, Grace?
GSD: I’m twenty-five years old.
Q: Where were you born?
GSD: In New York City. In downtown Manhattan.
Q: What is your race, Grace?
GSD: I’m white. My mother is an Ashkenazi Jew. Family from Russia and Hungary. So I guess they assimilated into whiteness in the first half of the twentieth century. And my father is Anglo. His ancestors came to the United States on the Mayflower. So I am very much a white person.
Q: Did you grow up with money, Grace?
GSD: We were never in crisis. They started to make more money right before I was born. The art market changed in the ’80s and it became a thing that people could actually make money at. Not everyone, of course. But they started doing pretty well. My parents and their friends aren’t good at saving money. They spend what they have and their life looks good because of it.
Q: Did you go to college?
GSD: Yeah. I got into a fancy college. Brown University.
Q: Are your parents still married?
GSD: Yep. They’ve been together for thirty-something years.
GSD: One older sister. She’s six years older.
Q: Did you have any companions as a child?
GSD: What kind of companions?
Q: Intimate. Sexual.
GSD: Oh. Yeah. I mean, I did all kinds of things. During the summer we rented this really old, crumbling lake house, which had once been some kind of boardinghouse for teachers. All the bedrooms had sinks and gold numbers on the doors. It was infested with bats. Anyway, these older girls who lived up the street would have me pretend to be their husbands, which was a lot of kissing and humping them whenever they told me to. And I had a camp counselor once who would let me lie on her chest while the other kids played tetherball or whatever, and she’d pet my head while I sort of nuzzled into her. It felt so good, in the moment. I think I felt humiliated by it later, by how much I’d liked it.
Q: These were all females?
GSD: If you’re asking whether they identified as women, the answer is yes. They were girls who’d been told they were girls since they were young.
Q: It makes you uncomfortable when I refer to people as females?
GSD: I just don’t see it that way. If someone is designated female at birth, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel female forever, or ever. It’s a flawed biological descriptor. It doesn’t say much about how someone feels, how someone wants to live. As if a doctor can look at a baby’s body and determine and prescribe their entire social and sexual identity.
Q: How did you first learn about sex, Grace?
GSD: Like, gender? Or fucking?
GSD: My older sister told me about straight sex. She told me people put their penises in vaginas. When I asked my mom how babies were made, first she said something like “Wish to God for a baby and eat a lot of hamburgers,” which was weird because she didn’t even believe in God. Maybe she was thinking on her feet about how to explain the belly getting bigger. Then later she confirmed it’s from “intercourse,” as you called it. Which is just one sex act, among infinite sex acts, that gets lifted up as the baseline of sex because it’s how babies are made. Then my sister told me gay men put their dicks in each other’s asses. And she also told me about rape. As my fantasies about girls became more and more overwhelming, I just started picturing it myself. Picturing what that might look like.
Q: What did you picture?
GSD: Fucking. Intense fucking.
Q: What does that mean to you? What acts did these fantasies consist of?
GSD: Um, I mean, my hands. Using my hands to penetrate girls. And using my mouth as well. Sort of pantomiming straight sex, me on top, but without having a penis, necessarily.
Q: And would you ever be digitally penetrated in these fantasies?
GSD: Well, I wasn’t always thinking about myself. Sometimes just two other people, two girls or two boys. A boy and a girl, sometimes. Maybe I’d picture a boy getting a blow job, and sort of picture myself in his position.
Q: You thought about men together?
GSD: Yes, often. Sexual situations between men with power differentials. Older and younger. Teacher and student. Race and class components as well.
Q: What do you mean?
GSD: You know, like, really different kinds of people. An older black man and a white teenage boy. A coach and an athlete. Things that weren’t supposed to happen or had to be secrets but happened anyway. Illicit things.
Q: Do you remember, in particular, any of these fantasies?
GSD: I got this idea in my head of two men stuck in a mining shaft, like miners who got caved in and were gonna die, so they just fucked.
Q: Did you know any miners personally?
GSD: I grew up in SoHo. Of course I didn’t know any miners.
Q: Do you have any early memories of seeing sex acts?
GSD: Like, porn?
Q: Pornography. Or voyeurism. Sex acts you witnessed, by choice or by force.
GSD: I looked at porn. As soon as I figured out how to clear search histories. I remember at a sleepover once showing all the other girls this video of a woman sucking a horse’s dick. And pretty early on I’d watch these two guys having anal sex across the air shaft in the loft I grew up in. I didn’t tell my parents ever because I liked watching; I wanted to keep being able to watch. Just the intensity of the in and out, one body part penetrating another body part.
I remember every time I saw people I perceived as girls touching each other. Once I was on the swings in Tompkins Square Park and I saw these teenagers, two girls, sitting face to face on a bench and kissing each other’s necks, running their fingers through each other’s hair. One had red nails and the other looked like a tomboy. I imagined being the tomboy, the feeling of the other girl’s fingers on my neck, and got this sinking feeling in my pelvis. Somewhere between excitement and fear. I guess it was arousal.
Q: Was there nudity in your household?
GSD: I was a kid… I was nude a lot. But I always wanted to just wear shorts and no T-shirt, like the boys did. I’d hang out alone in my room like that, or fantasize about playing basketball in shorts and a backward baseball cap, taking my shirt off in the middle of the game.
As soon as I had a choice, I didn’t want to be nude around my father. My sister, mom, and I were nude around each other. My sister and I shared a bed. And to be honest I slept in my mom’s bed whenever my dad went away. Still do, if I’m home.
Q: Are you comfortable being nude during sex?
GSD: Like, am I stone?
GSD: Stone. Doesn’t want to be touched. Just wants to touch the other person. It’s a gay thing.
Q: Is that your sexual preference?
GSD: Sometimes. But sometimes not.
Q: When was your first orgasm?
GSD: I believe I was twelve.
Q: Do you recall the experience?
GSD: I do.
Q: What do you recall?
GSD: I was in my bed before falling asleep. I’d recently figured out which part my clitoris was. And I was just fucking around down there, but not thinking about anything sexual. Just counting. I have OCD, like basically everyone else in my family, so I would count to fall asleep. And when I hit the number twenty for the fourth time, I had this pain in my lower back, like a big aching. And the next day it occurred to me that maybe it was an orgasm, which I’d heard about. So I tried it again, and it hurt again. And I kept trying it until it felt nice and I realized I could pair it with fantasies.
Q: So you were always erotically responsive?
GSD: I don’t know what that means.
Q: You responded to touch? You were able to experience arousal?
GSD: Yeah. Well, when I started having sex it was hard to be touched. I didn’t have an orgasm with another person for a long time. I wouldn’t let people touch me.
Q: Why is that, Grace?
GSD: It’s the stone thing. It’s a feeling. I didn’t know how to be touched. I couldn’t feel my own body. Just channeled my desire into someone else’s pleasure. It never occurred to me to fantasize about my own sensations.
Q: How often would you masturbate?
GSD: [Laughs] Often. Every night. For most of my teens. Then when I started having sex, in a real way, I guess I stopped.
Q: Would you primarily arouse yourself through fantasy?
GSD: Mostly. I mean, I would write whole movies in my head. Not quite pornos, because they were emotionally elaborate and the sex was the pinnacle, not the entire thing. You know, long scripts between myself and whoever I was in love with, scenes that I had memorized and could return to.
Q: What were some of these films?
GSD: Prison stuff, Catholic school stuff, forbidden love stuff… girls in boarding school sneaking off to fuck by swimming holes. Me saving girls from mean boys. Me being a kind of secret protector for whichever girl I loved.
Q: What about imagery? Would you arouse yourself with videos, pictures, illustrations?
GSD: I would watch gay porn. Never between women, though. I don’t know… it was too sacred to me, my desires for other girls, what I thought were other girls. But I would watch videos of men fucking each other.
Q: Would you ever experience arousal at men’s bodies?
GSD: It’s kind of hard to distinguish between envy and arousal. I think I wanted to be them, so I could imagine myself as them when I was watching them, near to them.
Q: Did you have erotic dreams?
GSD: Of course.
Q: Were they primarily about the same sex?
GSD: I mean, sure, at the time they felt like dreams about the same sex. I felt shame about being a girl who had that desire for girls, those kinds of dreams.
Q: You said that in those dreams you had a penis?
GSD: Not, like, a regular penis. Like the feeling of one, more so.
Q: Your dreams, your fantasies, would you say they ever felt… sadistic?
GSD: That’s kind of an intense word. But yeah, I’d say so.
Q: How so?
GSD: I thought about tying people up. Hitting them. Having power and being in control. That kind of thing.
Q: So they were violent?
GSD: If you think that’s violence. [Pauses] My therapist once called my behavior sadistic. That kind of upset me. I think sadism is a sexual proclivity, and if it’s consensual it’s not violence… I think…
Q: What did she say?
GSD: She said I was repressing my sadism due to shame about my masculinity.
Q: How soon after you began masturbating did you have sexual encounters with partners?
GSD: They were hardly partners. Just boys I kissed when I was shitfaced.
Q: What would these encounters consist of?
GSD: Generally getting so drunk I vomited, getting slobbered all over by an older boy, maybe letting them squeeze my tiny breasts or put a finger inside of me.
Q: Were these encounters stimulating for you?
GSD: I would say they were repulsive. I enjoyed the social standing they gave me, if the boys were popular. I gave a few partial hand jobs but nothing more. Once, when I was thirteen, my friend and I gave this boy we were friends with a hand job together, taking turns stroking him. I made him go finish up in the bathroom because I didn’t want to see him come.
Q: How frequently would you have these encounters with young men—and starting at what age?
GSD: Like, thirteen. Pretty often. Every other weekend. But by the time I was sixteen it felt too awful to me. I was so in love with these girls. Kissing the boys made me sick. Still did it every so often, but I had no compass for attraction to them, so I’d just kiss my friends’ boyfriends or whichever boys they were in love with, because if everyone else thought they were cute then maybe they had to be.
Once, this older boy fingered me outside my parents’ apartment building and afterward he told me that he was in love with this girl, and it was actually the same girl I was in love with.
Q: When did you first have physical contact with a “girl”?
GSD: Early on, like I told you. But then again when I was eighteen. I had sex with a girl for the first time the night of my high-school graduation.
Q: What did that encounter consist of?
GSD: Me touching her. I didn’t want to be touched. We had sex in my parents’ bed. I lied and said I’d had sex with a girl before because I felt too embarrassed to be both gay and a virgin. Honestly, I’d thought about it so much that it felt like I’d already done it.
Q: Was it erotic for you?
Q: At this point, have all of your sexual partners been females?
GSD: I have not had sex with someone who identifies as a man. But I’ve had sex with women with different anatomies. Women with penises as well as women with vaginas. People with vaginas who don’t identify as women. But it gets confusing, you know? Not everybody calls their anatomy a penis or a vagina. With imaginative thinking, it’s whatever you want it to be.
Q: Have you experimented with cunnilingus?
GSD: Yes. And analingus and whatever other type of -ingus you’re going to ask me about.
Q: Have you practiced dominance and submission?
Q: How have you practiced dominance and submission?
GSD: Role-play. Bondage. Consensual sadism, like what my therapist talked about.
Q: What role-play scenarios have you explored?
GSD: Babysitter. Rabbi. Daddy. Teacher. Dog. Cat. Sisters and brothers. Teen slumber party. Cousins. Priest. Race play, class play, power stuff.
Q: Were you raised with religion?
GSD: Not in the slightest.
Q: What are your physical preferences in a partner?
Q: Are there patterns, historically?
GSD: I guess so.
Q: What are those?
GSD: Can you ask me more-specific questions?
Q: What has been the racial makeup of your partners?
GSD: Fairly wide-ranging.
Q:Do you have a sexual preference for a particular race?
Q: Are you hesitant to disclose that information?
GSD: I’m just not sure what to say about it. When I was a teenager I always liked Jewish girls. That’s who I was around, mostly. Then it changed.
Q: What about body type? Size?
GSD: I’ve been with thin people and curvy people. Different body types but probably my longest relationships are all within a spectrum of thinness. Desire is fucked-up. Culture teaches us to value certain things. It takes work to unlearn it.
Q: What about genitals? Do you have genital characteristics you’re particularly aroused by, Grace?
GSD: I’ve been with more people with vaginas, but that’s because I thought I was a gay and I’m still unlearning the idea that genitals are who or what you are.
Q: Are there preferences for partner characteristics that you do feel comfortable disclosing to me?
GSD: I like femininity. I don’t know how to define it but I feel it when I’m around it.
Q: What are characteristics of femininity that you are attracted to?
GSD: It’s powerful. But it’s not male power. It’s… to have the capacity to nurture, to listen, to observe and adjust to your surroundings… but to also, sometimes, demand to be cared for. The way someone holds their body, or touches you. Like, light fingers. Grazing fingers, or something. But grasping, too. I love being grasped for. I don’t know. I don’t know how to define it.
Q: Have you had sex in public?
Q: In parks? Bars? Theaters?
GSD: All of the above. Lots of places. [Pauses] What does that tell you about me?
Q: We’re trying to cast a wide net with the information we collect and analyze.
GSD: All right. Well, lots of public sex.
Q: Have you paid for sex?
GSD: No. But I would. I mean, if I needed to, if I was in a situation where I wanted to or felt it was the best way to fulfill my needs, I would, I think.
Q: Do you feel attractive?
GSD: I like my face. And some days I feel attractive and I know I should think of myself as attractive, because there are all these things about me that the world celebrates. At least this culture. Like being white and thin. And I guess signs point to the fact that people find me attractive. I’ve had many partners. But I feel unattractive anyway, a lot of the time. I’m still looking for proof that I’m desirable.
Q: In what ways?
GSD: I just compare myself to a type of body I can’t really have. Like, if I see tall, lean men, with wide shoulders and broad backs and cut arms and legs and abdomens, I feel fleshy and unwieldy for not being that way. But I can’t really be that way, unless I devote all my energy to it. [Pause] And I’m not really sure I want to be that way. I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know what I want. I feel like I do, and then the knowing slips away.
Q: Do you wish you were a man?
GSD: Sometimes and not all the time.
Q: Do you feel that you are a man?
GSD: Sometimes and not all the time.
Q: Have you had sexual contact with animals?
GSD: I was jealous of a horse once. A gray horse who my girlfriend loved to pet. I identified with him. But I was jealous.