I read Lolita at a young age. I found a PDF online, as I knew I would not be approved to check the book out at my local public library.
Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, originally published in 1955, is unreliably narrated by a man with the pseudonym Humbert Humbert, who is infatuated with his 12-year-old soon to be stepdaughter Dolores Haze. The novel is not circumspect of the taboo sexual relationship between Humbert and Dolores. I was practically reading erotica before I knew what exactly that was.
I recently repurchased Nabokov’s novel with intentions of re-reading it, hopefully with a more critical lens than my 14-year-old self. Especially after an article about Dominique Swain appeared my social media feed. The story of the then child actress who played Dolores in the 97’ rendition of the film Lolita resonated with me. Swain was fifteen during the time she auditioned for the 14-year-old role. Meanwhile, the actor who played Humbert Humbert, whom she had to film sex scenes with, was forty-seven. Brooklyn writer Lacy Warner wrote about her admiration for Swain’s nymph-like semblance and the way it manifested within herself in her teen years, writing “I didn’t understand anything about seduction — and I shouldn’t have had to — but I did think the way to a man’s heart was in the costume of a nymphet.” This is something I had also internalized.
Re-reading Lolita as a young adult this time was flagrant for me. I saw a lot of myself in Lo during the first reading, but felt more feelings of shame and sensibility during the second. Lo’s yearning for independence alongside her incumbent desire to appease a father-like figure in her life was familiar to me.
Furthermore, I too was a capricious, volatile, needy teen that was helmed in discovering my sensuality. I got my period at eleven, which is relatively early — but not obscene for a prepubescent girl. Soon after, I began to develop boobs, and then pubic hair made its debut. For my next endeavor as a tween– I begged my mom to let me shave my legs, the whole shebang. By fourteen, my boobs were bigger than those of my then 19-year-old sister.
I remember shaving my bikini area the first time around this age, too, and having the few inevitable razor bumps, but feeling cute nonetheless. Although very much a child, some would say that I had the “body of an adult.” Being told such things was always weird to me as my boobs didn’t magically grant me a later curfew or the right to vote, so what exactly about them made me an adult?
By fifteen, my body began to be maneuvered as a site to be gawked at by men — particularly older men. Their Lolita complex seemed to be more apparent than my presumed innocence as a child. I noticed the way men began to undress me with their eyes, looking at me in a way that was, at the time, new to me. I’d be lying if I said it rubbed me the wrong way then — feeling desired and sensual felt gratifying. I didn’t get all too much attention from the boys at school, and like many young girls, I succumbed to wanting that validation from men we are conditioned to believe we need.
Although the sense of rebellion, knowing that it was ‘taboo’ and most people wouldn’t ‘get it’ made me apprehensive, but I was assured that I was in my prime and thus it was normal for older men to desire me. I had received so many “you’re so mature for your age” comments from older men, both online and offline, that I had started to believe it myself.
I only just recently realized that I was never mature for my age. Not particularly immature, however, I definitely didn’t have the emotional intelligence or rationale of someone in their early twenties, or whatever age these men implied I acted to justify their preying on me. If anything, these men were immature for their age, but certainly not oblivious to the power they held over me and how to use it to fulfill their needs — not unlike Humbert Humbert.
Looking back, I wish I could shake my younger self for being flattered by this attention. I had to grow up fast because of this paradigm of prepubescent girls being hyper sexualized — the Lolita complex — and presumably the nymphomania surrounding child pornography. I was, and still am at nineteen, naive. I wish I could say I was one in a million in sending explicit photos of my underage self to men ten to twenty years my senior, but I know I was not. This behavior — that I can now acknowledge was unacceptable — was very much normalized by both my peers and the men in my vicinity.
The lens I began to view my body through and the ways in which I surrendered to desirability politics, infantilizing myself for the attention of older men is something I am still unlearning today.
Sometimes I feel uneasy posting risqué pictures now, despite being of the age of consent, because of the type of attention I may attract. I’ve internalized feelings of shame about the way I expressed my sexuality as a minor, and often blamed myself for such attention I garnered and having been preyed on by older men. I still get men admiring my “baby face” then proceeding to try to solicit sex from me. I only recently became comfortable with not always shaving down there, as I had grown up being taught men like hairless — men like childlike.
Admittedly, I still adhere to a sort of nymphet Lolita like style. I own a fair share of frilly socks and baby doll dresses. I still struggle to navigate relationships with the older men I find myself prone to. It’s difficult to decipher these men’s intentions — if I consented, is it still wrong?
Read Lolita, but read it without solipsism.
Gif by Emi Li. Photos (in order of appearance) by Alyssa Llorando and Willow Gray.