When I was 15, I went on a date with a guy who I knew had a girlfriend. He was a junior, I was a freshman, and I was desperate for interest from the opposite sex. Our “date” involved making out in his car at the forest preserve. This quickly led him to ask me over to his house (where his parents were not home).
I wanted to fool around this guy, but I wasn’t ready to have sex — I’d never done it before). I told him this. He said OK. Then he proceeded to climb on top of me and penetrate me. I froze. His girlfriend, a popular homecoming queen contender, found out later and crucified me.
My college years were very wild. I was liberated by art and knowledge, and felt free to do whatever I pleased. I experimented with drugs, read about the avant-garde, and bedded lots of lovely men and women. I felt powerful and excited to be alive.
But then, there were some slip-ups. I kept meeting men who wanted to start monogamous relationships with me, and I couldn’t turn them down. Then other men would want to fool around with me, and I couldn’t turn them down either. Out in the world, I was a liberated feminist. In bed, I never told men no. I just froze and let things unfold, which actually made me a liar. My desperation for love manifested as infinite compliance.
Once the ball was rolling in a sexual situation, it felt impossible to make it stop. If a man brushed the hair from my shoulder and looked me in the eye, it seemed inevitable that he’d soon be inside me, whether I wanted it or not. Sometimes these men were wonderful and respectful. Sometimes these men didn’t give a damn how I felt. Sometimes these men had girlfriends. Sometimes these girlfriends were my close friends. Sometimes these men were strangers. Sometimes they were people I knew my whole life.
As my college years went on, in very small ways, I started listening to myself and figuring out what I liked and didn’t like. I started being able to anticipate sexual situations before that bulldozer of a ball got rolling and flee if I didn’t want to participate. I started to really come into my body and have a little bit of respect for myself. When I chose to have sex —really chose it completely — I came out on the other side feeling like a goddess.
So my recipe for sex now included power and joy, ecstasy and growth, and a tiny trickle of honesty. But cheating, desperation, and shame were still sometimes in the mix. Every once in a while, there would still be a lack of consent. And even as I got older, I still froze.
Eventually college ended, and soon my twenties were ending, too.
For the most part, I was proud of my sexual conquests. I came into my own skin while tangled with another’s skin. For the most part, I had a long happy list of sometimes fun, sometimes awkward, sometimes otherworldly sexual experiences. And through all of that craziness— through the parties, and the threesomes, and the resplendent bliss — I gradually learned how to stop and listen. I began to recognize my own signs of consent — the way my pulse quickened, the way my movements softened, the relaxation that fell into my arms and legs — to recognize if what was happening was what I wanted or not.
But on the flipside were my losses: I’d lost friends. I’d lost lovers. I’d lost respect. I had no choice but to start over from the beginning. Instead of working from a foundation of insecurity and pain, I began with a bedrock of trust.
I was older now. I knew what I wanted. I started trusting myself to say “no.” Which means that for the first time, I also got experience the joy of a genuine “yes.” I started learning to express what I wanted. I started to expect to be asked.
Making the choice to trust yourself can be a transformative thing. Trust begets self-respect. Self-respect begets self-love. And, believe it or not, self-love can change almost anything.
Before I get too touchy-feely, before I lose you in the new-age gobbledygook, I should say that there was more to this change than just affirming myself.
Gradually, I had started to realize that there is no easy pleasure, no indulgence without consequence, no buzz without a comedown. I still fancy myself a bit of a hedonist. I’m still chasing the taste of bliss. I still believe revelry is essential for growth and fulfillment. But I think taking responsibility for the waves you make is part of growth and fulfillment, too.
Sex always leaves a trail of breadcrumbs; sometimes it is sweet and sometimes it is rotten. Sometimes those crumbs just blow away in the wind, but sometimes they sprout roots and grow into something you must learn to live with.
I’ve always been an impulsive person. The kind of person not burdened by pangs of conscience in the moment. But after the dust of lust settles, I am prone to recognizing the error of my ways. And as the guilty feelings build, I just can’t keep them in. I always inevitably end up spilling the beans.
So in some ways, this change had nothing to do with enlightenment or trust. In some ways, it is as simple as this: I no longer screw around with dudes I know I shouldn’t, I no longer cheat, I no longer fuck my friends’ boyfriends because I know I can’t get away with it. I always end up telling the truth.
I hope to never have that conversation again. I hope to never have to see the look on a person’s face when I deliver that kind of blow. I hope to never feel that guilty or that bad or that responsible for someone’s pain.
Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy put it like this: “’A lot of people describe having sex with only one person as 'being faithful.' It seems to me that faithfulness has very little to do with who you have sex with. Faithfulness is about honoring your commitments and respecting your friends and lovers, about caring for their well-being as well as your own.”
I spent a lot of time gliding through my sexual experiences without agency or responsibility, as through all of this were simply happening to me. In doing so, I let myself be damaged, and left marks on other people, too.
When you start from a place of trust, when you are open to evolving, when you’re not desperate for attention, when you are overwhelmed by the joy of saying “yes” when you want to, sex can be just about the most beautiful thing there is.
I’m not saying that I don’t have regrets. I’m not saying I flipped a switch and altered my whole personality. But over the years I came to realize that making healthy choices feels wonderful, that making impulsive moves catches up with you, and that the pain of poor judgment — of disrespecting yourself or your friends — last longer than both the buzz of orgasm or the awkwardness of saying “no.”
I came to see that it just wasn’t worth it. And from that place I learned to change.