It’s my freshman year of college around 4am. I’m sitting on the concrete floor of my dorm room in a drunken haze devouring pizza with someone I met at a Halloween party, Andrew. I dressed as a sexy nerd. He dressed as a giant banana. My “sexy” costume consisted of two push-up bras, jean shorts four sizes too small, orange goo (tanner) on my face, thick eyeliner, and poisoning myself with cheap vodka.
Andrew interrupts my pizza love-making. He grabs the cheesy treasure out of my hands and throws it on the floor. He proceeds to kiss me fiercely. I proceed to loose my virginity. It’s all quite blurry, but I do remember the moment. It felt uncomfortable. But it somehow felt like a victory. He left the next morning while I was still sleeping.
I celebrated this event with my friends. “Finally!” we cheered. I was the only person I knew who had not achieved this imperative rite of passage. That’s how I learned sex. Drunken. Dark. With strangers. Without emotion. Afterwards sex became a way I measured myself. If I was having sex regularly, this made me worthy. If I was was in the midst of a “dry spell,” there was something wrong with me. It didn’t really matter who I was having sex with, as long as it was happening.
Did I even like sex? Not really. I just liked being liked. And that’s what people talked about. Somehow I got the message that my body was an object of pleasure. Weird right? So that’s what I did during my college years. I served as a vessel for everyone’s pleasure but my own. I floated above my body. I left the premises. I waited until his orgasm until I could safely return.
At the time, I saw no problem with what I was doing. Plus, I always had the best stories. Waking up on a blowup mattress in a random apartment two miles from campus without my phone, wallet, or memory of getting there, for example. I was doing what I was supposed to be doing: studying and socializing. I would later learn that socialization does not need to revolve around a beer pong table in a crowded basement.
Junior year I cracked and fell into depression for a few months. You’d never have guessed by all the fancy photos I was posting of my study abroad adventures in Spain. I was the lowest I’ve ever been. I remember waiting for the metro one morning and fantasizing about cutting open my stomach and letting my fat ooze out. During that time I wasn’t having sex at all because I was disgusted and ashamed by my body.
Senior year I made the radical decision to try and like myself; to simply entertain the possibility that I could like me. I stopped hiding behind dark makeup and tequila shots in dimly lit bars and attracting guys who treated me as the object I turned myself into.
I did more things for myself. I quit a job I didn’t like, spent more time alone, and started saying no to the things that drained me. I became more conscious of what food I was putting in my body. I started to honor myself by asking simple questions like: “What does Kim want?” and actually listening to the answers.
With this sprouting appreciation for myself, my relationship with sex began to change. I began to like it a little. I was able to experience it more. Instead of drifting away, I stayed with my body. That’s when I had the epiphany that I hadn’t experienced sex before. Since my pattern was to check-out during sex (meaning I detached from my body), I never learned how to communicate. I wasn’t there to communicate. I was about as useful as a slab of meat. For the first time, I was a participant in the act.
My increased involvement has been more pleasurable and simultaneously terrifying. It’s scary because it illuminates all the things I do during sex, like getting lost in my partner and forgetting that I have a body, too. And when my partner expresses interest in my pleasure, I often get awkward. I make excuses like: “It’s fine. I don’t normally orgasm.” But what I really mean is:
It’s not fine, but I’m telling you it is because I am ashamed. Asking for what I need is terrifying. I’d rather not have my needs met than be rejected. I learned when I was 15 that it’s rare for a woman to have an orgasm. You’re likely aware of this casual sex narrative. Plus, I know you’re exhausted from your orgasm and I don’t want to burden you.
He quickly falls asleep while I lay wide awake. I’m turned on and I hate myself for not being able to express that. This has been the story of my sex life (that I am in the process of rewriting).
I have always had a confusing relationship with my sexuality. When I was 10 years old, I had the horrifying realization that I did not have a thigh gap like the popular girls at cheerleading practice. From that moment on, my body became the enemy. My mind was suddenly overpowered by the dark, annihilating thoughts that accompany self-consciousness. I spent less time playing outside and more time looking in the mirror. I learned to believe that the ultimate goal of a woman was to be skinny and pretty. And if I could be skinny and pretty enough, I was worthy of sex.
In high school, sex education went as far as telling us not to have sex. I never learned the basic concept of consent, or that it was okay for me to say “No” or “Stop.” I feared speaking up because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, even if he was hurting me. Since I let him determine my worthiness, it didn’t matter how bad it was. All that mattered was that I was attractive enough to be touched by a guy.
That way of thinking doesn’t work anymore. I know I’m worthy and I don’t need to have sex to prove that to myself or anyone else. I’m learning to like my body, despite it not matching the conventional skeletal standards of Victoria’s Secret models. I like my body because it makes a beautiful shape and it’s strong and it keeps me alive everyday.
I’m becoming my own sexual educator. For the first time, I’m learning to ask for what I need and defining my boundaries. I need to feel safe and like I can openly communicate anything with my partner. My boundaries include requiring that my partner ask for consent before we have sex (every time!). When I say “No,” I mean it. Men—asking for consent will make sex exponentially better for you. When you create a space for a woman to say “Yes” or “No” you empower her to tune into what she wants. Although it may be hard at first to practice receiving “Nos,” when you get the green light you will feel the difference.
We are all sexual beings. Our culture has our conditioning wired towards expanding our men and shrinking our women. This imbalance reflects on all levels of our lives, including the bedroom. As women, we are the gatekeepers. In order to rise above societal restraints and deeply rooted conditioning, we have to honor ourselves first.
I’m still confused about sex, but I am heading towards a healthier relationship with it. When I’m able to love my own body, I attract people who treat my body with love. When I’m able to communicate my own needs, I attract people who respect me. I’m learning how to make sex the most profoundly beautiful way to connect with another human being. It starts with being deeply connected to myself.