I have had two major sexual experiences in my life.
1. I was 17, and a virgin. I met a guy at a party, while very, very drunk. He raped me after I passed out.
2. I was 21, and in love. We had been drinking (a lot). He kissed me, and we had sex. Then he sodomized me without asking if I was okay with it, and wouldn’t stop even as I yelled. He also secretly taped us, as I found out later. He swears to me to this day he remembers nothing of that night.
For these, and many other reasons, sex is a very complicated issue for me. I was raised in a Korean Presbyterian household, which means my parents still have not explained to me exactly what sex is. Several weeks ago, my mother took me to a primary care doctor, who referred me to a gynecologist. She didn’t understand why I needed to have yearly appointments, as I was neither married nor, in her world, had ever really been alone with a boy.
It was drilled into my head my entire life that sex was for after marriage. Girls who did not wait were immoral, lost or unforgivably “modern.” Even as my older (male) cousins grew up in New York City and explored the world of dating, even – gasp! – living with unmarried women, my mother spoke about those situations in hushed tones. Had my cousins been girls, there would have been an extended family intervention.
I never questioned the “no sex before marriage” rule until I got to high school. Sex did not appeal to me; I didn’t even know how it really worked until I was 12, and that was because I watched the uncensored version of Eyes Wide Shut without having any idea what it was about. (I had a Tom Cruise phase. I was 12, so sue me. Also, when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, I had no idea what oral sex meant, and thought they were in trouble for talking sexy to each other.) I was also extremely overweight in middle school and high school, and this issue, as well as the fact that my weight made my father abusive, gave rise to some serious self-esteem problems. Although I was friends with lots of boys, and had deep crushes on a fair few of them, I rarely got anywhere with them.
I had my first serious boyfriend when I was in high school. I went to boarding school, so our relationship was long distance. He was the super cute boy whom I had been in love with since 5th grade; I was the girl who, I think, by virtue of always being there, and understanding him in a way that many of his friends didn’t, wore down his unspoken “but she’s fat” defenses. About a year in, he began to pressure me to have sex. I wasn’t ready. Although, due to my teenage angst and advancement of critical thinking skills, I was less devoutly religious than I had been before and questioned many institutional teachings, “no sex before marriage” was hard-wired in me. It was scary, it was unknown, it was risky especially for the girl. And I was 16 years old.
The pressure became too much, so I broke up with him. He became kind of a psycho, and extremely verbally abusive. He also tried to strangle me the same day he proposed to me. I was glad to be out, and I was glad to have held to my convictions.
I did, however, begin to seriously reevaluate this sex rule. It slowly and mostly unconsciously transformed from “no sex outside of marriage” to “no sex until you are truly in love.” At the same time, most of my friends were experimenting with hookups and boyfriends, and having fun. I longed to be like them, but felt I couldn’t. I had no game; I was still overweight from time to time, as I was yo-yoing back and forth, and I had no confidence or experience.
This was also around the time it struck me how ridiculous the societal expectations of women and sex were. I have found that women are expected to be exquisite, virginal creatures”¦and yet be able to blow men away in bed on their first try. I guess it’s just some hard-wired skill that switches on the first time we see a penis?
I started college still shy, still overweight, but a little more willing to put myself out there. I wanted boys. I didn’t think I really wanted to have sex with them, but I wanted to have fun with them as my other friends did. I didn’t want to be afraid of sexual experiences, even though I didn’t want to go all the way. Most of all, I wanted to be able to carry myself with confidence.
And then there was experience number 1. I was drinking for hours on an empty stomach that night, and met a senior at a party. We hit it off very well right away. I found him funny and smart. I did not find him attractive, and I did find it weird that he was only drinking water all night while plying me with more gin and tonics. I remember going to his room, and remember thinking I should leave. I remember falling onto the bed and passing out. I remember only bits and pieces afterwards, which is, I think, something of a blessing. I remember waking up bruised and cut, and feeling confused and dirty. I remember going home and crying. I remember going to health services at the university. I told the nurse I had been drinking. She said she was sure I was fine, and sent me home. I told nobody for a year.
After that, the very thought of sex made me nauseous. I sometimes freaked out for no reason when anybody at all touched me. I shut myself off from everybody, even my closest friends, for months. I became more confused, and retreated into myself. I took a year off from school and hid at home. In retrospect, this was the worst decision I could have made. I was isolated and alone. I could never tell my parents. No good would come of my mother knowing; it would only break her heart. That, and I knew they would blame me.
I went back to school ready to start over, if only to get away from an entire year of living with my parents. (As someone who spent all 4 years of high school in boarding school, this was an excruciating curtailment of my freedom.) I met lots of cute boys, and had silly crushes on them. I began to once again be more open to the idea of playing around. I wanted experience. I wanted to erase the horror of the first time. I wanted to erase my fear.
And then I fell in love with a boy, who became my best friend. A year into our friendship, I realized this was somebody I wanted to have sex with. I had never felt that way about anybody before.
The night with him – the second experience – was such a strange mix of ecstatic highs and horrific lows. Everything seemed surreal to me at first. I was afraid he didn’t even know who I was, as we were both quite drunk. Parts of that night were amazing, because for the first time, I chose to be with somebody, and it was someone whom I loved very, very much. I remember telling him I had no idea what I was doing, and asking him if he would regret this in the morning. I remember him telling me he loved me, and I remember feeling unbelievably elated for just a second”¦and then replying, “No you don’t, and you never will.” I was drunk, not stupid. I remember the unbelievable pain and deep despair that I felt when he put things in places they didn’t belong. I remember him just responding, “I’ll go slower” when I yelled at him that it hurt, to stop. I remember waking up in the morning, and seeing a camera running on his computer. I deleted the files and left.
This experience was supposed to undo my first trauma. Even if I never got over the fact that he didn’t love me, and never would, I wanted to at least have the memory of one night where I wasn’t at the mercy of somebody else’s strength. I would ask him over and over again in later months why he did that to me; he could offer nothing but an anguished apology. I realized one day that there was no other explanation but that, in that moment, whatever he felt was far more important to him than the hell I was experiencing. And this, from a boy I loved, from a boy who knew what had happened to me before and was furious about it.
I went to a therapist to sort out my feelings. She asked me several times during the session, in reference to my second experience, whether I felt guilty about having sex without being in a relationship. I said no, because I truly did not. She continued to ask, in a way that implied that I should. She also told me I should have fought harder physically, and perhaps all of this happened because I wasn’t strong enough.
I did not schedule another appointment with her.
But I did realize that, though I had no guilt whatsoever about having sex, this was because I was genuinely in love with him. Among the many complicated feelings surrounding the first rape, one of them was this guilt about my “first time” being with someone I didn’t know, with someone for whom I had no feelings. I am aware that it is rather silly to refer to it as my first time, since that implies there was any element of choice on my part. I am aware that much of this stems from the guilt that plagues many survivors of rape. But this is how I felt.
This past summer, I have been working in a big city. I am still more overweight than I would like, but have found myself being hit on daily as I walk back and forth from work. This bothers me when it is violent or vulgar, but most of the time I find it amusing and a bit flattering. I have been asked out by several guys, and really considered pursuing something. For a long while, I was upset with myself for being so afraid of sex, of my body. Why couldn’t I separate sex and emotion? I am a modern woman, and an unapologetic feminist. I admire my friends who can casually hook up with cute guys they meet, and have it just be a bit of fun that they laugh about the next day. I don’t want to be forever tied down by this weight of complication and feeling and fear.
But I’ve realized that although it is frustrating to me at times, this is something I actually like about myself. As much as I wish I could own my sluthood, to echoJaclyn Friedman’s wonderful article in Feministe, this is not something I want to do, and this is not something with which I am comfortable. For me, sex is something intrinsically tied to love. I believe, outside of religion or convention or biological function, that sex is something sacred. I believe people should be better than the drives of their bodies, and that we are not slaves to physical needs. I do not say this as a judgment on anybody else. I mean that. I am not saying that people who are fans of casual sex are no better than animals. I am insanely jealous of people who can see sex as another enjoyable facet of life that doesn’t have to send one into an existential tizzy. But I do believe in the simple fact that people should be better than their instincts, because then maybe I wouldn’t have been so terribly hurt and abused in the first place.
To borrow from the beautiful ideas of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke and the author John Edward Williams, I believe sex is transcendent. “Contrary to what we may believe, erotic love is the most unselfish of all the varieties; it seeks to become one with another, and hence to escape the self.” Sex – for me – is when two people leave the confines of their own bodies and worlds and strive to, literally, be one flesh. I don’t mean this in a hokey, archaic, Biblical way. I mean that I view sex as an exquisite desire for two people to understand each other in the completest and purest way possible, physically and emotionally. And for me, this requires love, and trust. I think there is a reason – beyond the institutionalized misogyny (and homophobia) in society – that sex is a really big deal.
So I flirt. I find boys attractive. I fantasize about them. I get really frustrated with myself at times, especially around that time of the month. No, not that one; the other one. Ladies, you know what I’m talking about. But as much as I want to work to undo my traumas and rid myself of fear and insecurity, as much as I want to become more comfortable with my body and my sexuality, I also do not want to let go of my convictions. This is not something I want to change about myself; it’s something that is an essential part of who I am. I cannot turn to sluthood to fix myself, because for me, this is not the solution. This is not what sex means to me. Perhaps if I had never been overweight, perhaps if I had never been raped, perhaps if I did not daily struggle with my faith, these convictions would be different. But they are not, and here I am. I belong to all that I’ve been through.
More important to me than the issue of sex is fixing this complete lack of self-esteem and self-respect that has gotten me into this mess. I know much of what happened to me was not my fault. I know that as much as I could have chosen not to drink so much, they could have chosen to be decent human beings rather than act like soulless, entitled assholes. But it’s also up to me to sort my life out, to become the awesome person I know I am capable of being, and this is something I have to do myself. As much as I sometimes want to, I cannot put my life on hold hoping for some boy to come along and love me, and treat me nicely. I’m sure having this love would help, a lot, but it won’t fix me. And I say it would help not because I am unfulfilled without a man, but because I am unfulfilled without love – whatever form it takes. If somebody comes along, that’s great. But for me, this somebody will have to be a pretty spectacular person, whom I love and who loves me, whom I can really, really trust, and who understands my feelings about sex. This may mean I will never have sex again. I’m okay with that.