Decades after publicly humiliating a high school girlfriend about the smell of her body, Kwame had second thoughts. He finally apologized.
The former girlfriend, Stacy Graham-Hunt, found that the incident still hurt long after she had grown up and become a writer. So she “processed the pain” by dubbing the incident “Vaginagate” and publishing the story, first as a Facebook post, then as part of a series of poignant personal essays collected in a new book called Processing Pain. (She has a book-signing scheduled at the Westville’s Mitchell Branch Library on Saturday, June 10, beginning at 2:30 p.m.)
Graham’s stories about growing up in New Haven and Hamden and moving on to college have struck a chord with other people who have lost cherished friendships, felt guilt about a grandfather’s death, wrestled with difficult relationships with their parents, had an abortion, experienced the cluelessness of white people trying to make white visitors to their homes feel “comfortable,” or been humiliated by a teenaged first boyfriend like Kwame. Even Kwame (his name has been changed to protect the guilty) ended up seeing his actions in a new light after Graham-Hunt revisited them.
In an interview on WNHH radio, Graham-Hunt, who is 34 and now lives in Derby, revisited how telling that story and others have helped her move past the painful moments in her life, and how the act of publishing them has led her and others to see them in a new light. Let’s hear what she has to say about the “Vaginagate” fallout, but first check out how she tells the story in the first place.
The Vaginagate Story
(The following section comes from Stacy Graham-Hunt’s book Processing Pain.)
“Stacy, you look like you could suck dick…but your pussy is garbage,” Fernando Thompson blurted out in our school lunchroom. I was sitting at one table; he was sitting at another table in front of me. He was in my class. We were tenth-graders.
I stared at him. I looked at his buck teeth. I looked at his unibrow. I looked at his off-white flea-market jeans, but I said nothing. This was my strategy anytime anyone mentioned my vagina at school.
People were talking about my vagina at school because I let a boy from a nearby boy’s school put his hands inside my panties at my classmate’s beach party the previous summer. He told people that my vagina smelled bad. His name was Kwame, and he was my boyfriend at the time.
The first time I saw Kwame was freshman year. Kwame made our mutual friend, Jack, walk across three connected gyms at my high school’s basketball tournament to tell me that Kwame “liked me.”
I peeked past Jack to see what his friend, Kwame, looked like.
“Meh, I’m straight,” I said. He wasn’t ugly, but he wasn’t cute enough to make me interested.
“But he really likes you,” Jack pleaded. He was determined to walk back to Kwame with my phone number written on a piece of paper.
“I don’t know, Jack,” I said.
“Well…what if I get his number and give it to you?” Jack asked.
“Okay…I guess.” It seemed like a safe compromise.
So Jack walked back across the gym to Kwame to write his phone number down. Jack then walked back across the gym again to give me a paper with the phone number. Kwame stayed on the other side of the gym.
I looked down on the paper.
“KWAME 203-387-1111,” it read.
“What is that?” I asked Jack.
“A Kwame?” I tried saying his name. I said it so it rhymed with the word “same.”
“No, it’s Kwah-May,” he said.
I rolled my eyes. I didn’t have time for this guy with this high-maintenance name.
“I think you guys are really gonna’ like each other,” Jack said.
“You guys are both funny.”
“How do you know each other?” I ignored his comment.
“Basketball. We play AAU together,” Jack said. “You gonna’ call him Stace? Stace call him!” Jack said pointing air guns to me as he walked back across the gym to Kwame.
Eventually I got curious enough to call Kwame. I didn’t know then that I was supposed to avoid males who let their friends talk for them. His mother picked up the phone.
“Hi, may I speak to K-Kwam…eh?” I was really trying not butcher this name I thought his mother created.
“Kwame! Telephone!” His mother shouted. I could hear Kwame’s feet walking towards the phone.
Then I heard his mother’s voice again. She was speaking low.
“Kwame, there’s a girl on the phone. Who is this girl?”
“Moooommmm stop!” Kwame said frustrated.
He put the phone to his ear.
“Hello?” It was the first time I was hearing Kwame’s voice.
“Hi, it’s Stacy from Hopkins…Jack’s friend.”
For the next few weeks we talked on the phone at all times of the day and night. The night before the last day of school, we stayed on the phone until it was time for me to take a shower and get ready for school. A lot of times we watched the same T.V. shows together over the phone. We were even on the phone the night that car crash killed Princess Diana.
Sometimes Kwame and I had intense conversations about our ninth-grade philosophies. He didn’t think girls should wear sneakers, rather dress shoes, boots and sandals instead. He knew he would never go to a black college because he said he would be more employable as a graduate of a predominantly white college. He also didn’t like girls who wore weaves.
Even though I frequently wore sneakers, I knew I would one day attend a historically black college, and sometimes liked to wear the hairpiece from one of my dance-school costumes as a ponytail, somehow I thought he would make a decent boyfriend. So we became a couple, which eventually led to us meeting at the beach party.
The party happened right at the end of freshman year. My friend Rachel and I were together at the party. Her boyfriend, who was friends with Kwame, met her there too. After we all found each other at the beach, Rachel and I walked off to separate parts of the beach with our boyfriends.
Kwame and I stopped walking after a few seconds. We kissed. It felt like he tried to put his entire tongue in my mouth. He unbuttoned my jeans. I unzipped them. He put his hand inside my floral, maroon panties that my mother bought me from one Victoria’s Secret in one of those 5 for $25 sales. Kwame kind of waved his fingers over my girl parts and then released his hands from my jeans. The whole encounter lasted for about five minutes, and it felt very scientific. There was nothing romantic about this beach make-out session. It was like we had a relationship to-do list, and this was a task that we needed to cross off.
We didn’t talk on the phone for a few days after our beach session, which was odd. Then I got a phone call from his friend, who also went to my church, saying that Kwame decided to break up with me. I have a hunch that Kwame was listening in on the call. This was back when three-way calling and “clicking over” was a big thing on house phones.
Shortly after the break-up phone call, Kwame called me a few days later and told me that I was nasty. He didn’t say how, so for the entire summer I had no idea why he said that. But that was classic Kwame — he would stir up trouble and then run. Kwame was the type of boy who would call my house, but if my father picked up, he would hang up the phone.
I didn’t get any answers until school started again, and we were sophomores.
According to the tenth-grade gossip from 20 years ago, Rachel made out with her boyfriend at the same time I was with Kwame at the beach party. When Kwame and Rachel’s boyfriend got back together, they smelled their fingers and discussed the results. Apparently, Rachel smelled like butterscotch…and apparently I did not.
Kwame told our mutual friends at my school, and his words spread quickly. It felt like people were always whispering about my vagina. We had a student lounge at our school, and every time I walked into the lounge, people stopped talking and/or started snickering. The most obnoxious of the bunch were Fernando, of course, and another classmate named Leah. I’m sure if Instagram existed back then, they would have made countless memes about me.
The crazy part was that there were so many things that I could have ranked on Fernando and Leah about … especially Leah. I could have teased her about her pimply skin, her hair that she forced into a baby ponytail every day, or her weight ... but I never did. I just waited for them to stop.
There was only one girl, who had enough courage to confront me and ask me straight up what happened. We were waiting for our parents to pick us up after school one day.
“Did you let Kwame finger you?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said confidently.
“Well he’s telling everyone you stink,” she said, just like that. She never talked to me again after that.
I didn’t respond. I didn’t have any words. I felt betrayed by Kwame, embarrassed that the girl brought it to me like that, even if she was the only person to confront me. I also felt betrayed by my classmates, who were supposedly my friends, but ditched our friendships for a good laugh. I was humiliated.
They were laughing.
My ex-friends insisting that I had a smelly vagina seemed like too big of a mountain to move. I was already dealing with other mountains. My parents were splitting up, my great-grandmother, the matriarch of my family, had died, and I was still adjusting to my grandmother’s death from the previous year.
Dodging vaginal disses at the same time was a lot.
I did not care about how complex vaginas were at the time and that practically anything could throw off their scent — new soap, old soap, medication, foods, beverages, using new laundry detergent on towels, not washing enough, excessive washing, physical activity, tight pants, the days before your period, the days after your period, your actual period, wearing panties at night, a cold or other illness … I didn’t care. Neither did my classmates.
“The pum pum is so unforgiving,” my friend once said, imitating her Jamaican mother.
The truth was that I did wash my ass before I met Kwame at the beach that day. I was excited about hooking up with him. I felt very prepared. But according to Kwame and a bunch of my classmates, I was not. According to them, I was this smelly chick.
Everything eventually died down by my junior year, but sophomore year was hell to say the least. Because of my experience with Kwame, I wouldn’t let any guy near any part of my body. I didn’t want to give anyone the opportunity to agree with Kwame’s findings.
I had like three or four more boyfriends in high school and talked to other guys on the phone, but I never let any of them touch me. I only let a select one or two kiss me. And if any boy in the state of Connecticut didn’t like me or wasn’t interested in me, I automatically assumed it was because they heard what Kwame said about me. I felt marked. I didn’t let anyone touch me again for years … not until I got to college, and I met this guy named Michael.
Kwame and I somehow remained friends for another year after the VaginaGate scandal. He was even bold enough to start dating my friend Tanya. I didn’t say anything, but as retaliation I kept talking to him and going on dates with him and never letting him touch me. He would often try to convince me to lose my virginity to him. Yeah right. I would tell Leah all of this, knowing that she would tell Tanya. It warmed my heart every time Kwame and Tanya broke up. Rumor also has it that Leah liked him too. She went to his house one day and gave him head after school. Can I remind you that Leah and Tanya were my friends before Kwame came into the picture?
My sophomore year in high school was the year that I learned about loyalty.
A few years ago, my friend and I were bridesmaids together in a wedding. We were dressed and ready to go, but she put on a few more layers of deodorant before we left the hotel.
“I just want to make sure I smell good,” she said.
“Yeah, but that much Monica? Do you really need that much deodorant?” I asked staring at her white armpits that clashed against our peach dresses.
“When I was in elementary school, I started wearing deodorant after I knew that I needed deodorant,” she said. “I was the smelly kid in class. No one forgets the smelly kid in class.”
Actually, I think it’s really us — the so-called “smellies” — who don’t forget.
I think of Kwame every time I use a baby wipe.
Discussing It On WNHH
Following are excerpts from a conversation with Graham-Hunt on WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven” program.
Graham-Hunt: He didn’t tell me first. He didn’t even go to my school. He told our common friends at [my] school … They just laughed at me.
WNHH: And you didn’t know why they were laughing at you.
And I didn’t know why they were laughing at first. Eventually, [one] girl [told me] …
You said that it affected you for quite a while …
You didn’t date other boys for a while?
Or if I did have a boyfriend, I wouldn’t kiss them. I wouldn’t let them touch me in any way. Not until I got to college.… All because of this guy.
I don’t think the whole school knew, I think it was just our group.
But in your mind I’m sure you felt like the whole world knew.
In my mind it felt like the whole city and state knew.
So what I found interesting about this story, Stacy, is that … you get in the head of the teenager. When you wrote the story, you didn’t step back and say what it looks like to someone who’s in their 30s. You’re in your mid-30’s?
And it’s so obvious that Kwame was an idiot, righ? Males, anything about sex, it is their whole life, and teenage boys are incredible idiots, right?
So when I’m reading in between the lines of the story, here is a kid who was nervous being with girl for the first time, and he didn’t really know what to do. He felt very inadequate. So he felt inadequate, not knowing what to do, [his solution] was to trash her to feel big. To boast that he had gone to third base with her and then put her down, and say her vagina felt skanky. Would you think that’s a fair way of putting it?
It’s definitely fair and reasonable. I never considered that.
That’s not to sound more sympathetic. I think it’s worse that he did that. But that’s how I read it as the male who’s 57.
The other thing that struck me about it was, one thing I didn’t know being a male was that you and others go to this effort to affect how your vagina was gonna smell.
And why is that? it’s almost like it’s a given that there is something wrong with the way one smells naturally.
I think that’s society. I think, I mean, even if you go on like Instagram, you see memes about this. People joke about this.
Even when they’re not 16 years old?
Even when they’re not 16 years old.
So what’s the idea? Vaginas aren’t supposed to smell like vaginas? What are they supposed to smell like? I’m sorry, this is the part I didn’t get from your story. This is [the real] “Vaginagate” to me.
This is the adults talking about this.
I’m sure the feminism wave of the ’70s embraced that, right? “Our bodies, ourselves.” And we aren’t supposed to shave our hair, our armpits. We’re not supposed to conform to something that’s not natural. What’s beautiful is natural.
I don’t think everybody feels that way.
Even when they’re grown up?
Even when they’re grown up.
Because I don’t know anyone I think who would say that. That a vagina smells skanky. Or that’s something to be embarrassed about.
I’ve heard celebrities talk about other celebrities and say things like that about them.
Just to be mean, I don’t know.
So, what about when you look back on Vaginagate now, did anything change in how you viewed it in your mid-30’s when you wrote this and published it for the whole world to hear? How is it different writing about it and publishing a story about it now?
Writing about it, I felt all of those feelings again. I could put myself right back at Hopkins. I pictured myself, you know, talking to Kwame on the phone. So that’s why it comes out as if I’m this 14 year old. Because I felt all of it.
Which is good writing, which is getting us in your head in that moment and understanding how a 14 year-old sees it.
Yes, I felt all that again. This was probably the hardest story for me to publish. So, when I hit the post button, as I felt with all my stories, my hands would get really sweaty and my chest would get tight and I felt all of that again. I even remember sharing this with one of my friends before I posted it. And she was like “Oh my gosh you can’t share that one.” And I was like “I have to. I have to get this out.” So, I posted it and I just waited, waited to see what was gonna happen, waiting to see what the response was gonna be.
You posted it [first] on Facebook?
And when people were kind of attacking Kwame, it felt kind of good.
You got your revenge on Kwame 20 years later!
But also, you know, a lot of the woman were like, “Thank you for saying this, because you know we go through so much as women, and we have to keep up our bodies and do all of this stuff.” It can be hard. So I felt a little bit of that. And then Kwame … I change people’s name in the stories. …
Oh, so he’s not really named Kwame?
He’s not really named Kwame.
Oh bummer. I thought you smoked him out.
But he kind of snitched on himself in the comment section.
Oh, he read it?
He read it.
Do you still talk to Kwame?
Just through Facebook.
But you’re friends on Facebook?
We’re friends on Facebook. He apologized in the comment thread.
What’d he say?
He said he was really sorry. He didn’t remember it, and he also didn’t realize what kind of impact that could have. He said he was remembering other kind of jerky things he had done to girls, but this never even like…..
He didn’t know what this had done to your life.
He didn’t even remember it. And now that he knew, he apologized, and then other people in the comment section realized it was him and then had their own conversations with him.
What’d they say? This is so interesting, the power of story 20 years later to revise old wounds.
Some women were very upset with him. There was one conversation he had with a young lady I went to college with, and they kept going back and forth for days. So she was just saying how kind of sexist it was … how, even though he was young, he should have known better, and where’s the respect for women?
So are you glad you did this? Are you glad you wrote about Kwame and publicized it?
I am, ‘cause it was very freeing. It’s not something I feel like I’m hiding anymore or don’t wanna talk about.
Click on or download the above audio file to hear the full interview with Stacy Graham-Hunt on WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven” program.