I’m the Sex Doctor’s Daughter

On growing up in the shadow of Dr. Drew

A photo of the writer as a child with her father.
Photos courtesy of the author.

OnOn the way to ice skating practice, when I was eight years old, my mother said, “When you lose your virginity, your father is going to broadcast it on the radio.” My dad is Dr. Drew Pinsky. You know, the guy with gray hair, wire frames, and a serious expression? Looks like Anderson Cooper, but isn’t Dr. Phil? That guy. The co-host of Loveline for over 30 years, my internist and addiction specialist dad became known for giving medically based sex advice on the Los Angeles radio station KROQ 106.7 FM. His career would traverse from radio to television with Loveline on MTV, then Celebrity Rehab on VH1, where he sat opposite celebrities struggling with addiction with his legs crossed, his hands clasped, and a concerned expression on his face as he asked, “Were you abused as a child?”

I have always felt the eyes of the world on me — whether or not they actually are. I learned from a young age that if I ever did anything wrong — like have sex — I would get caught, pants down, in front of the whole nation. My mother’s comment (which she doesn’t remember making) was meant to shame me, to keep me from doing something wrong. The irony, of course, is that my mother can also be quoted as saying, “We’re Pinskys. We test-drive the car before buying.” But that came years later, when I was in my twenties and unabashedly fucking with reckless abandon. However, when I was a little girl, Mom made it clear that America was watching.

There is no universe in which my father would publicly announce, on live radio, that I had been penetrated. But that didn’t matter. My mother’s off-hand remark struck fear into my heart the way that, I imagine, religion does for other people. And now I can’t help but think, was her intent so wrong?

Reading tabloids and watching television taught me that a reckless daughter could ruin a family, a reputation, a lifestyle. I grew up in an age when Britney shaved her head, Paris Hilton rolled onto the red carpet on a motorbike, and Tara Reid posed in a cropped football jersey. The fear that I could be anything like these women lived in my bones. I wanted to be good and loved and accepted and pure more than anything else in the world. So I would just have to stay a virgin forever.

But despite my attachment to the myth of virginity — which I fetishized with a neurotic fervor — I always felt very sexual.

Four years old and in a feverish haze brought on by the flu, I humped the giant, cotton candy pink stuffed bunny the Easter bunny had brought me for being a good girl and giving up my pacifier. Rubbing myself, instinctively trying to make myself feel good, feel better — to fight the illness with an eruption of butter in my insides. When I was six, I remember sneaking into my parents’ room late at night to turn on their bedside television, where I found channels that showed men and women kissing, the warm burning in my stomach keeping my eyes open.

I have always been boy crazy. Even when I was five. My first kiss was Mathew B. in preschool. Under a tire that was half-buried in the ground, we were each small enough to wedge ourselves into one side of the tire before our lips met. Then there were the boyfriends. I had kissed all of the top picks in my class by age 10. In first grade there was Creighton P., in second grade there was Jack P., third grade Kevin C., fourth grade Kevin C. and Jack P., fifth grade Jack P., sixth, seventh, and eighth grade Jack P. — until there was Greg K., who was older and went to a neighboring public school. Greg K. broke up with me after dating for a year and a half because I wouldn’t let him finger me — at the age of 14, I was nowhere near ready for anything below the belt. I still held onto my purity, tight. My mother’s words had cemented in my psyche. I didn’t want him to drink, which he did behind my back. I didn’t want to give anything up, which he resented. He went to a different school, so he told his classmates that we broke up because I wanted to have sex with him. He’s super into God now.

But I have always loved boys, boys, boys.

I love kissing them. I love the way they get all sweaty doing nothing. I love the way they have dirt under their fingernails and strong jawlines. I love skinny ones; I love fat ones. I love it when they smell like earth or even Axe body spray.

But every so often the boy I like-liked listened to my dad on his bedside radio. Which frightened me. What did they know about my dad that I didn’t?

With the onset of puberty, boys expected me to know about sex in the way my dad knew about sex.

More than once, the silence of a boy I had a crush on would make the air dense and hard to breathe before he muttered, “So, like, is it true that your dad is the sex guy?”

I hated that question, but I always laughed too loud, too hard — always embarrassed when the same question came up, time and time again: “HA. Yeah, I guess. I mean, yeah — ”

“So like, does he talk to you about sex stuff?”

I believe this question was always asked out of sincere interest, but I can’t help but think they were testing me to see what I knew. With the onset of puberty, boys expected me to know about sex in the way my dad knew about sex. They were learning from their bedside radios nightly, and they expected that I was learning at my dinner table. But their assumption was wrong. I recently asked my dad when he remembers giving us the sex talk. We were apparently on the way to sixth grade when I asked, “So what’s up with the penis and vagina thing?” He asked, “Are you sure you want to know?” and I said, “Yeah, what’s the big deal.” So he took the opportunity to tell me — and my brothers, who were in the back seat — until I started screaming at the top of my lungs.

Though my dad remembers talking to me about sex on the way to school, I only remember one time, in the fifth grade. It was an autumn night and had just dropped below 60 degrees — freezing, by California standards — and someone at the radio station had given him a couple of stuffed-animal STD viruses as some sort of promo. The one that stared at me from the dining room table was a purple, fluffy cartoon rendering of syphilis; its hard plastic eyes and phony sewed-on smile stared deep into my soul, causing me to chuck it to the ground and sprint out of the dining room.

My 10-year-old logic told me that if my dad didn’t teach me about sex, I would never do it, and I could remain a virgin in my father’s (and the nation’s) eyes.

Loveline started when a friend of a friend asked my twentysomething father if he wanted to give advice on a late-night radio show. They were looking for a doctor, of sorts. In 1983, Dad was back in his hometown of Pasadena, California. A fourth-year medical student at the University of Southern California, Dad was watching fleets of AIDS patients die, day in and day out — and no one was talking about it. So he took his friend’s request as his call to action — a public service — and, with his medical books in tow, he jumped at the opportunity to change the public conversation about the epidemic.

He soon found himself answering sex questions about red bumps and flaky foreskin on a segment called, “Ask A Surgeon.” Noble intentions only go so far — the public was grossly under-educated when it came to sex in Puritanical America. More and more desperate teens and young adults from across the country called in asking questions they were too afraid to ask anyone else: about sex, relationships, and drug addiction. Back then, you couldn’t just type, “How many times is too many times to masturbate,” or “How do I stop using meth?” into a search bar. Instead, you had to call, wait on the line, and pray that you got the chance to ask Dr. Drew.

As for me, I was too scared to try masturbation, meth, and most things my dad’s audience was curious about: As a kid, I would accompany him on his rounds at Las Encinas Recovery Center. It only took watching a young woman going through withdrawal, gripping onto a baby blanket, and having a meltdown in the nurse’s station, to learn not to do drugs. And masturbation? Masturbation wasn’t even on my radar until I got to college and was given a free vibrator for attending a blow job tutorial at a sex shop in Manhattan. (My roommate was writing a piece for the college newspaper. And I like blow jobs.) It was ironic because, while I’d started having sex years earlier, I’d never masturbated — which, in retrospect, makes me feel sad. I was so scared of myself, so scared of being seen as a disappointment, that I skipped a step of my own sexual evolution.

But fear not: I have made up for lost time.

I made my first appearance on Loveline through word of mouth: triplets were on the way, and I was one of them. But once we were born, Dad’s chestnut coif turned gray and I was live on air at age three or four. Multiple segment producers took turns covering my tiny ears — which I thought was funny — while my father and Adam Carolla, his co-host at the time, answered callers. From before I can remember, Sunday through Thursday night, Daddy usually left the house at 9 p.m., after planting a kiss on me and my mother. I could never fall asleep soundly until I heard the crickety electric garage door open and close after midnight, the sound of my father’s footsteps on the hardwood floor after the slam of a door.

One of the nights my siblings and I visited the studio, a rare treat, Carolla said, “Drew, you’re acting like you just got off a cruise ship — you see these kids every day.” But two hours a day barely measured up against a 70-hour workweek, which I am sure left my father feeling shipwrecked. My daddy looked at me as though swallowing me with his pupils could make up for lost time. My daddy wasn’t just mine, but America’s.

My high school classmates assumed that because my dad talked about sex on the radio I was also an expert too. People would want me to play therapist, asking questions like “What do I do about the girl I like?” I’d make up answers that sounded right — things I thought my dad would say. Really, I was full of shit and needed therapy more than anyone.

I heard Loveline on the radio for the first time once I got my driver’s license. Once I started driving, I got to spend every night with Daddy’s voice. At 16, I would turn on 106.7 FM after a long night of studying at my best friend Kate’s house and let dad’s voice guide me home. I wasn’t listening to the words necessarily, just the amplitude. When I did hear his words, it was usually along the lines of him asking someone, “Did you experience sexual abuse in your childhood?” It seemed like childhood was what fucked everybody up. The question stuck out, waiting to be plucked: Where was he during mine?

My high school classmates assumed that because my dad talked about sex on the radio I was also an expert too.

In high school, the vacancy in my childhood home grew unbearable. Celebrity Rehab, the radio show five nights a week, and practicing medicine kept my dad out of the house, season after season. Close tabs were not kept on me because I seemed “perfect:” I got good grades, I went to the nutritionist and ate healthily, I was a figure skater, dancer, and cheerleader, in addition to being the lead in the musical and the co-president of the Girls Service League. I was thin.

The surface? Beautiful. The insides? Empty.

I kept myself “good” and “healthy” by shoving my fingers in my mouth: not much room to talk with a mouth full of fingers. I convinced myself that I wasn’t vomiting to silence my pain; that I wasn’t vomiting to keep myself thin enough to jump higher, to look good; that I wasn’t vomiting to release the anger, stress, and anxiety that was created by internal and external pressure. That I didn’t need my parents. I convinced myself that I wasn’t vomiting at all.

Reflecting on my father’s public career shift from the sex guy to the rehab guy, I became the ultimate teetotaler: no drugs and no booze, in addition to no carbs. Which didn’t make me fun at parties. I was invited to one or two, but witnessing my peers experiment made me judgmental: I could never allow myself to surrender control. They were free to make mistakes, whereas I felt I was not.

I heard my father say that having sex before 16 stunts development. I don’t think he said it to me, just in my presence: a warning, without putting me under the gun. But the gun was loaded: I had someone, and he filled the holes in my chest that vomit could not bury. My high school sweetheart was a football player, I was a cheerleader. We played out an ’80s high school fantasy dressed in orange polyester, but with a fun twist of mental illness. He bought me six cans of Diet Coke a day, he walked me to and from my classes, he brushed my retainer and my hair before he quite literally tucked me into bed at night. He played the role of First Love and Father. In a fleeting moment of clarity and honesty, we both confessed our self-harming tendencies to each other as a way to cement our love and trust. “If you don’t vomit, I won’t cut,” he whispered over the phone line late one night; I thought he was my cure. We exchanged the pain we each carried in our chests, the load lighter when it was not our own.

I loved him. I thought he was The One.

After one whole year — an eternity — I was ready to give myself to him completely. He wasn’t supposed to have sex because of religion, and I was not because of fear.

After the first Friday night football game of the season, I laid naked on the oatmeal-colored carpet of my childhood bedroom closet, my fingernails leaving crescents in my palms. He kneeled in front of me with only a condom on.

I held my breath.

He entered me.

No wetness, only plastic on dry skin.

He moved in slowly, he moved out slowly, he moved in, and out, in and out.

The doors of my closet were wide-open, blocking my bedroom door. If anyone opened that door while he was inside of me, we would have a chance to stand up and conceal ourselves. There were a series of doors to get through before anyone could get to us. But no one barged in.

After that night, we would go on to bang daily — sex became a meal substitute and a workout. His body inside of mine, filling me up, our orgasms burning calories. However, when I found myself sexually sated, it exposed my hunger: sometimes, sex wasn’t enough. Sometimes, I couldn’t control my hands. After fucking in the back of my SUV, I would rip open the center console and eat a fistful of cookies from the economy-sized pack of Chips Ahoy I had bought for him because I liked to watch him eat forbidden food. But sometimes, watching him eat what I craved was not enough. Sometimes, I had to eat for myself.

A family mantra: “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” But how can you recognize you are sick if your secrets are invisible, even to you? How can you see your sickness when everyone is impressed by your thinness, by your “health”? There’s a lot to hold, a lot to close both eyes to so that you and everyone around you doesn’t notice. I was good. I was good. I was good. Love made me full.

It’s not a matter of doing it, it’s a matter of not getting caught.

Once I lost my virginity, I held onto the secret in the way that I was supposed to hold onto my hymen — tightly and forever. My paranoia had not lessened over time, it only amplified: I was convinced that if anyone knew I had lost my virginity, I would single-handedly ruin my father’s career.

But then I went to college. And I started building a life of my own. And soon, by the age of 25, I was asked to film a millennial talk show pilot with my dad and 20 millennial influences.

There is no room for integrity when the camera is involved.

But what is important: a selling dynamic. A boomer and a millennial. Dr. Drew and his daughter.

The two days we spent filming the pilot knocked off at least six years of my life. The producer pulled me into a room with a ring light and a green screen. She stood behind the camera and said, “All right, so we are gonna have you say some lines. The first is, ‘Oh my god, Dad.’”

I smiled. “Okay.” I took a breath, and played up the camp. “Oh, my, god, Dad!”

The producer smiled. “That was perfect. Do that again, but even more.”

“Oh! My god! Dad! I can’t believe that!”

“Okay, great, but maybe a little less.”

I blushed. “Okay.” I unclenched my fists: “Oh my god! Dad!”

“Perfect!”

I nod, unable to think about what I was doing — performing. Performing, performing.

“Now, we’re gonna have you introduce yourself.”

“Um, okay. All right! Wow! What do I say, um — ”

“Don’t overthink it!”

I nodded. I closed my eyes, opened them, then said, “I’m Paulina Pinsky, I’m 25,” my eyes momentarily go wide, “and I’m a writer.”

“Okay, great! Maybe say something, like ‘And I’m Dr. Drew’s daughter!’”

I nodded. “I’m Paulina Pinsky, I’m 25 and I’m a writer — I also happen to be Dr. Drew’s kid.”

“Perfect! Amazing!” The walkie-talkie attached to the producer’s belt loop started to chatter; she picked it up and listened. I stood in front of the ring light, waiting.

“Oh, your dad is here! Great. He’s gonna come in here and do some stuff with you.”

“Okay, sounds great!”

We stood there for a few minutes. I feel oddly nervous to see the man who I’d seen just an hour before, at home.

My dad walked into the room, and everyone turned on: “Hi, Dr. Drew! Welcome!”

“Where do you need me?” he asked. The producer pointed; I scooted over so he could join me on the blue masking tape.

“Paulina, if you could get your phone,” I pulled my phone out of my pocket. “Okay great! So, Paulina, you’re going to pretend to text, and Dr. Drew, you’re going to try to look over her shoulder. Then Paulina, can you say something like, ‘Dad, leave me alone!’ and Dr. Drew, you’ll say something like, ‘I just want to be involved!’”

I paused: “But I would never say that in real life.”

Dad leaned into me and said, “Just do it. It’s fine.”

My stomach sank: The rare occasions that I do spend time with my father include trying to get him more involved. I wondered, is this the only time I’m going to spend with him before I go back to New York? A deep, profound sadness washed over me.

I looked at the camera, looked at my phone, and pretended to scroll.

“Dr. Drew, can you actually stand closer to her? We need you in the frame.”

Dad’s shoulder hit the center of my back. We were stacked in front of the camera.

I started to pretend to scroll; I felt my father lean toward my phone. I knew not to turn my face away from the camera, so I had to create the illusion that I was looking at him: my face at a three-quarter angle, I said with a smile, “Dad! Leave me alone!” to which he replied, “I just want to understand!” We both looked at the camera: me, feigning exasperation. Him, smiling.

Two mechanical monkeys clanging cymbals.

Working with my father has only reinforced my childhood fears: My virginity is something worth talking about.

Day two of filming, the makeup artist rushed the sound stage to powder a few shiny noses, while the sound guy checked my father’s mic. The lights seared my eyeballs. The producer shepherded me away from the lights: “All right, so you’re gonna open this next segment by telling your dad when you lost your virginity.” I nodded as I thought, This isn’t a big deal, this is totally all right. Maybe I can be the change in the media that I want to see. Maybe. Don’t forget: Smile.

“Okay, great! I can do that!”

The producer was relieved: “Thank you, Paulina, you are so amazing! And also, there are so many amazing unique things about you. But the one thing that people can’t copy is that your dad is Dr. Drew. So when you talk to him, say ‘Dad.’ Do you need a Red Bull?” An assistant rushed up with a can ready, straw and all. I took a sip and felt lightheaded. I closed my eyes and when I opened them, I was perceiving color in a whole new way. Words were sitting on the tip of my tongue, but they weren’t formulated.

Another producer walked up and showed me his laptop screen: 1. How old were you when you lost your virginity, Dad?

I said, “Don’t worry, I’ve got it,” before walking back to my seat to put my nude kitten heels back on. In order to keep my father’s integrity intact, I was ready to shatter mine.

“All right!” yelled the director. “Rolling!”

Dad looked at the camera, “So we’re gonna talk about virginity.”

I knew my cue. I knew it was time to tell my dad something I had feared telling him my entire life, for the camera: “Dad,” I waved my arm like Vanna White revealing a new letter, “I lost my virginity when I was 16 because I heard you say that it was unhealthy to lose it before then.”

“Great! Glad to hear it!”

And that was it. A raw fact, one that had haunted me for years, was doled out as an intro. A fear, contorted into a sound bite.

The show didn’t sell. The truth trapped in film.

Turns out mom was wrong. Dad didn’t broadcast it on the radio. I broadcasted it for the camera, with a smile on my face. And it felt just as terrible as I imagined it would.

Words in Human Parts, P.S. I Love You, and Sexography. paulinapinsky.com.

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