Content note: bad sexual experiences, like it says on the box.
There’s something I’ve wanted to discuss in a feminist context for a while, and I guess now I have the platform, right? I find myself nervous, though, because discussing it involves talking about some personal experiences that I usually prefer not to publicize.
I’ve mentioned in the past, I think, an impatience with what I have experienced as sex-positive feminists being unwilling to discuss negative experiences of sex, to dismiss them as not having “full consent” and therefore not being really sex, or something of that nature. Sometimes I can feel quite alone in having had many experiences of sex that were really very bad. And no, they weren’t rape. They were experiences to which I fully and freely consented. They were also experiences that were horrible, in some cases traumatic–but with one exception, I really don’t think they were rape (the exception I try not to think about). I do think they are heavily inflected and dependent on a misogynist culture that keeps women from trusting themselves, feeling good about themselves, feeling good about their bodies, feeling confidence. And maybe men have experiences like these too? And just don’t talk about them? I honestly don’t know.
When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time hanging around a given bar scene in NYC. Giuliani had just come to power, and it was hard to get into places if you were under 21, which I was, so if you were a teenager and you found a friendly bar that would pour out for you, you tended to stay. This scene had a number of bands circulating through it, as scenes do, and I had a crush on a big man in one of those bands. He was–and is–significantly older than me and married. Like, my father’s age. (It’s probably not irrelevant that my father had just left my family and he and I were not on speaking terms.) Dude was cute–insofar as my quirky definition of cuteness goes. He was very smart, which was important to me, because I’m very smart (no false modesty here, I don’t have time), I was at the time, and I don’t have a lot of patience. And he was very, very political in a way that I have a hard time finding outside of my immediate family, in a radical-left, know-your-history kind of way. I still find that deeply alluring (one of the reasons my current favorite band is my favorite is because when I first heard them a few years ago, one of their songs referred to the police as “the pigs” and I hadn’t heard that since I was a little girl, so I fell immediately in love).
And at first, he was rather sweet to me, in a flirtatious sort of way, but in a way that indicated that he knew I was underage and had a crush on him. Then two things happened. One was that I turned 18; the other was that his girlfriend moved away (this is a whole other kettle of fish not worth going into right now). I guess he had some spare time because he moved in on me hard. There was a lot of buying me drinks and taking my hand going to secluded parts of the bar and staring deeply into my eyes and telling me that age didn’t matter, what mattered was how two people felt about each other. You can tell that age does matter and that I was 18 because I fell for this crap. And then there was a lot of making out in taxis and the hallways of the various buildings where I was living and once in my apartment. And then I think the reality of what it meant to get a teenage virgin who’d never been kissed before to fall for you crashed in on him and he…stopped. Just cut me dead. The first time he saw me after going to bed with me for the first time.
Even before that, though, something had started to go wrong. I’d stopped feeling anything when we were fooling around–not excitement or arousal or anything. I just felt…detached from the whole thing, like I wasn’t really there. That’s a feature of depression, certainly, but it scared the shit out of me–had I lost the ability to enjoy sex? I can look back and say poor baby, a middle-aged married man fingering you in a taxi is not conducive to a kid’s sexual flowering, but that wasn’t my perspective at the time. And understand this–he checked in with me every step of the way. Did I want to be here? Did I want to be doing this? I always said yes. But in a very real way, I wasn’t there at all. My therapist at the time told me it was dissociation. But it terrified me. It was like I couldn’t feel anything.
So why did I keep saying yes? I didn’t want him to stop liking me (fat chance). I didn’t want him to think I wasn’t cool. Nobody else had ever found me attractive. And while I knew I was smart–I had all kinds of support and validation for that–the idea that somebody thought I was pretty? Attractive? Beautiful? It was powerful. It was important. I really, really needed it. But understand: he never said anything like that. He never put any pressure on me. But I still ended up doing things I didn’t want to do and didn’t enjoy. My decisions were no doubt the result of a misogynist culture that taught me to value myself and my sexuality poorly; they were no doubt the result of rape culture that taught me to prioritize his experiences over my own. But there were mine. I was of age. I consented, repeatedly. This wasn’t rape.
I don’t mean to exempt this dude from blame. He was an asshole, no doubt. He should have known better–hell, he probably did know better. It wouldn’t have taken a genius to realize that I was uncomfortable and unhappy. It wouldn’t have taken a genius to realize that there was no way this situation was work out well for me. It wouldn’t have taken a genius to think that a schoolgirl’s first sexual experiences should not have included giving a married man a blow job in a hallway that smelled like urine. It’s just that he wasn’t a rapist. And that’s a low bar to set. He’s still scum. (We actually have enough interests in common and NYC is a small enough city that I run into mentions of him from time to time, interviews, that kind of thing. I have no idea if he runs into mentions of me, or, if he does, what he thinks.) And for years I had several symptoms of PTSD related to these experiences–intrusive thoughts I couldn’t control, for instance. I couldn’t talk about this in detail in therapy without dissociating–when I tried, I became literally nauseated.
The thing about dissociating during sex is that once you learn how, it’s pretty easy to do, and doing it–counting ceiling tiles until it’s over–often becomes easier than saying “this isn’t working for me,” so I’ve done it a lot, though not for a few years. And the thing about what happened to me is that I lost all faith in my desire. My gut reaction to feeling attracted to someone was to stay as far from them as I could, on the grounds that nothing good could come of that. When you combine those two things, well, I ended up making myself sleep with men I wasn’t attracted to because I really liked them and they treated me well and it would be a great relationship, women I wasn’t attracted to because I started out being attracted to them but then they started being really nasty to me when it seemed too late to turn back, men I started out being attracted to and whose technique turned out to lack a certain je ne sais quoi. And that’s a lot of lousy sex too. A lot of wondering what was wrong with me that I wasn’t enjoying sex, like I was supposed to. It really did a number on my head. And my body.
And none of that was rape either. It was all stuff I did to myself. I made those decisions. I consented. I often initiated, because I could think of a good reason not to have sex and “I just don’t really feel like it” didn’t seem like a good enough reason to me. I’ve been to bed with men because it just seemed easier to get it over with than deal with me not wanting to.
I will never do any of that again. But it lasted for a long time, years, years of therapy. I was really fucked up, and I have never found a good feminist analysis of the situations I kept finding/putting myself in. For so many years feminists have had to keep hammering home that rape isn’t “just” bad sex. That’s so important. But I’d like to talk about bad sex now. Is it gendered? I feel like my experiences have got to be gendered. I’ve never heard a man talk about anything like this, but of course my experience does not have to be universal.