Kate Zahnleiter was raised by a single working mother and a television. She writes that “not a day goes by in which I’m unable to relate something which occurs in real life back to an episode of something I watched as a child, teenager or young adult.” In Life and My Box, Kate shares the lessons she has learned from TV.
For a long time I imagined I’d end up a job which required a white lab coat. Partly because I hate deciding what to wear to work in the morning, but mostly because I wanted to be one of those people who discovers things. Which is probably why last year I got so jazzed about Masters of Sex, the show set during a time when everyone is all GOO about sexy stuff and not really interested in female health because it’s the 50s and because most doctors are men and because penis trumps vagina. It focuses on the pioneers in the science of human sexuality, and the lengths they had to go to for women to understand and take control of their bodies and actually be seen as people for the first time in their lives. Also, Allison Janney is in it.
It never really occurred to me that there was once a time when people didn’t know these things. I assumed everyone grew up watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show, or had a religion teacher who explained puberty in such graphic detail that he was eventually fired for inappropriate conduct. My love of diagrams and need to never be pregnant at any given moment ensured I was always hypervigilant about sexual education. I didn’t realise that our present day understanding of the human body was acquired through challenging a room full of gross white men, and hours of painstaking intercourse with creepy repressed sex robot Michael Sheen (sidebar: for most of the series I told people he reminded me of an ex-boyfriend, I just couldn’t place which one. Until I realised the ex in question was actually David Tennant. Because I thought I once dated David Tennant.)
Early on in my life, the stage seemed set for me to be a great sex researcher myself. I can’t actually remember the day I first learnt how babies were made, but according to my mother the discovery inspired me to approach several male strangers in the local shopping centre and ask each one if they had a penis, just to make sure I was on the right track.
Armed with this knowledge, my sexperiments continued into preschool and early primary, with my best friend and me using our Barbies as guinea pigs. Barbie—the victim of cruel genes which left her with a severe drug and alcohol dependency and an overactive libido—often embarked on a career in prostitution, all set to the soundtrack of Madonna’s Erotica. We documented her sexual misadventures with john after john—my Cabbage Patch doll, a stuffed Roger Rabbit with suction cups for hands (our mothers wouldn’t buy us a Ken doll, but given what I knew of his anatomy Applejack the My Little Pony would have been just as effective anyway). It was basically like all those scenes with Bill Masters in the brothel, but with a lot more pauses in activity to go eat Snack Packs and watch Sooty.
By the time I got to high school, a whole new world of easily accessible test subjects had opened up itself: nobody is weird like they’re weird on the internet. My gal pals and I would get comfy in our Looney Tunes boxer shorts, crack open a packet of Doritos, and have pretend virtual sex with strangers in chat rooms. Elaborate pretend virtual sex. Often food related. It was a collaborative study, with various members of the team suggesting along the way that, for scientific purposes, we see how the data would alter if we introduced, say, a few donuts or a tin of Golden Circle pineapple rings. We’d wait until our lothario reached the crucial moment of no return, then reveal that we were actually a gaggle of 13 year olds taking advantage of our parents’ dial-up. Experimental feedback was provided in the form of swears and all caps, and all that trailblazing lulled me into a peaceful sleep free of any thoughts of child sex offences.
It made sense then that when school was over I would apply my keen and inquisitive mind to a science degree. For a whole year I donned goggles and wrote down numbers with decimal points and dreamed of what new and exciting things I’d discover. I was Virginia Johnson except without being at all ahead of my time or rocking finger curls. But unfortunately, the thing about actual science is that it’s pretty repetitive and mostly just boring. I had to get up at 6am on Mondays to get to the laboratory in time, and my lab partner Russell had ridiculously long fingernails and smelled like a combination of cigarettes and feet—I didn’t see a ground-breaking partnership blossoming there. Plus they made me do physics, and what the actual fuck???
I turned off my Bunsen burner and hung up my white coat, and just like that my research days were over. I now appreciate how much effort it takes to make science, so I suppose really what I want to say is thank you to Lizzy Caplan for having not only the passion but the stamina to figure all the stuff out. I am now allowed to be awkward about sex not because I don’t understand it and not because I’m female, but because I’m awkward about most things. Isn’t that liberating.
Lesson learned: It’s a slippery slope from sleepover hijinks to employment with To Catch a Predator.