Opening night of the 1997 Prince tour at the Tower Theater in Philadelphia. (Photo: Jon Stark)
When I heard Prince’s first album, For You, I was a chubby 12-year-old girl with thick thighs, an ample rear and a dirty mind. I was an honor student whose tendency to correct my teachers and point out their flawed logic in class got me called to the principal’s office for insubordination. I was the girl the boys in school either ignored or called fat, while men in cars drove behind me as I walked home, shouting out of cranked-down windows what they’d like to do to my pre-teen ass. I sat next to my dad on the sofa every weekend, watching sports with him while quietly lusting over the quads and abs and glutes of my favorite players. As the youngest of six kids, I read everything my siblings read, from their biology textbooks to porn magazines, and I listened to all the music they listened to, from hard rock to jazz to pop to easy listening to R&B. Musically and culturally, I was ready for an artist like Prince because his category-defying sound embodied my upbringing. But I had no idea at the time what Prince would ultimately teach me about sex and love.
By the time Prince came along, I knew – or thought I knew – all about sex. I studied the pages of my brothers’ Hustler and Penthouse magazines as if cramming for a test, fascinated by both the pictures and the articles. I read their dirty books – The Happy Hooker and Secretaries’ Panties – and supplemented them with all the Harold Robbins, Sidney Sheldon and Jackie Collins novels I could afford. A neighbor’s generous donation of two shopping bags full of romance novels – plus the occasional Planned Parenthood pamphlet my mother would hand me in lieu of actually answering questions about sex – rounded out my education. I was fascinated by sex, and the more I read, the more I wanted to know. But I didn’t realize until I first heard Prince that there was a much-needed perspective missing from the magazines, the books and even the sex-ed literature: the woman’s perspective. My romance novels taught me that women wanted love – a notion the books also never defined – but they gave in to sex. Even the feistiest and most self-assured heroines had to be tamed into submitting to a more dominant, controlling man. The porn mags taught me that men wanted to fuck women, but a woman was nothing more than a pair of titties and a collection of orifices. Nothing I read suggested that a woman wanted – or needed – anything more than to be subdued.
Prince changed all that.
Prince taught me that a woman who wanted, desired and even needed sex was sexy.
The first Prince song I ever heard, “Soft and Wet,” excited me in ways I couldn’t fully articulate at the time. By then, I’d kissed a boy. I’d felt my body react to that kiss. But that physical reaction – my own excitement – was my own private, secret shame. I read endlessly about erections and ejaculations. No one talked about what was going on with the woman. She was a necessary yet unimportant part of the whole endeavor.
So when Prince sang, “You’re just as soft as a lion tamed/You’re just as wet as the evening rain,” I was rapt. Here was the missing piece of the puzzle. Those reactions I’d been having – that softness and wetness – were not only normal, they were a turn-on for men. Prince taught me that a woman who wanted, desired and even needed sex was sexy.
By the time the eponymous Prince album came out, building on the themes of For You in an even more explicit way, I knew exactly what I wanted: I wanted Prince, in every possible sense of the word. And his music made me feel that a chubby brown-skinned teenager with light-colored eyes behind thick glasses had as much of a shot with him as any other woman. Had there been any opportunity for me to travel to Minneapolis, had I been old and bold enough to sneak into the Detroit clubs where Prince was rumored to slip into town and play some sets, there’s no doubt in my mind I would have become a Prince groupie – or embarrassed myself trying. My mother’s strict rules saved me from my more foolish instincts, so I channeled all that pent-up passion toward his music. I wanted so badly to find someone like Prince who would appreciate those freaky, nasty thoughts I had. But I wasn’t so far gone that I was willing to share my Prince-fueled lust with just anyone. The boys and men who looked at me the way I looked at Prince weren’t worthy.
Prince’s Dirty Mind album was my ninth grade soundtrack. The songs were even raunchier, even more sexual, but they still celebrated female desire. My sister and I walked around belting out the lyrics to “Head” until my mother made us stop. The idea of a man being so taken with a woman that all he wanted to do – morning, noon and night – was give her head, was revolutionary. My sister and I, over my mother’s objections, put posters of Prince in a thong on the walls of our bedroom. I stared at them constantly, as if I could make Prince come to life by sheer will.
Soon after, I got as close to Prince as I would ever get when Prince made Detroit a regular stop on his annual concert tours. Prince brought us The Time, Vanity 6 and Sheila E., and I fell even more in love. I wasn’t jealous of the flawless women Prince dated. In Prince’s circle, everybody was gorgeous and a little ethereal. Their beauty wasn’t intimidating; it was simply part of the magic of the Prince universe. It was a world where it was okay to be a nasty girl wearing lingerie. And while my mother wasn’t about to let us walk around in lace camisoles, I started seeing myself not just as a chubby, nerdy kid but a woman who was sexy and desirable.
He didn’t make you want to be underneath him on that bed – he made you believe you were, and that he was making love to you.
From the early- to the mid-1980s, my sister and I went to see Prince every time he came to Detroit. Missing a show was inconceivable. We screamed until we were hoarse, and I felt every note and every word of every song. When Prince performed “International Lover,” he unbuckled his belt so a long strap hung down while he gyrated and dry-humped on a bed. It sounds cheesy, but it wasn’t. He didn’t make you want to be underneath him on that bed – he made you believe you were, and that he was making love to you. No, not only making love to you, but fucking you, dicking you down royally, as only Prince could. The love and the sex were intertwined because they were one and the same. Every Prince performance was an outpouring of pure love. He made love to you body and soul as no one but Prince could.
I wanted a man who could appreciate a woman’s desire and passion. I wanted to find someone who believed, as I did, that being freely sexual was one of the purest expressions of love. Finding such a man has proved to be elusive. There were – and still are – men who shame women who claim their sexuality for themselves. There were – and still are – men who revel in a woman’s sexual freedom in the dark but arerepelled by it in the light. I haven’t given up on finding a Prince of my own who values and delights in a woman’s sexuality. But unless it is fulfilling on all levels – physical, spiritual and emotional – sex, as a physical act alone, is no longer worthwhile.
Over the years, my love for Prince transformed from a desire to be his groupie, his girlfriend or his wife, to treasuring the pure spirit of love that he and his music represented. I still went to concerts, but I didn’t always buy his latest music; I didn’t love every new song, every change in direction. But I never stopped loving Prince.
When I learned of his death, I mourned the loss of my first love. I wept as if I’d lost a lover and a friend. And as the days have passed since we lost him, I’ve been reminded of the eternal nature of love. Perhaps that was the true lesson of Prince all along – it wasn’t about sex and carnality. Or, rather, it wasn’t only about those things. It was always, always about love. Love is pure and incorporeal. It transcends the sickness and death of the physical body. Prince is no longer a being on this planet, but I love him today as much as I did in 1978, as much as I did when he first awakened my mind, my heart and my body. I will never stop loving his music, and I will never stop loving him.