In second grade, I was sitting in a circle of my peers while the teachers gave us small gifts from a plate of knickknacks. They were going around the circle allowing each student to choose their gift, and I had my eye on a shiny pink stone. It was clearly superior to every other item on that tray, and I was sure someone else would grab it first. However, all the other children — blinded by the capitalist brainwashing of their environments — failed to see its true merit, opting instead for toy cars and plastic jewelry. Finally, it was my turn, and I snatched it off the tray, still afraid that I might somehow be cheated out of my prize.
While at my parent’s house last week for my brother’s wedding, I found the pink stone in my childhood bedroom. I slipped it in my pocket to take back with me to San Fran, as a reminder of the time when I was young enough to unabashedly want things.
A few months ago, one of my friends asked me what was a good way to approach sex with sexual assault victims. “Well,” I said, “I like it when people just treat me as normal.” Which was true. However, something that’s come up lately that I realize I also like, is when people explicitly say to me “you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.”
Because, underlying all the bad sex, infuriating partners, and sexual violence that I’ve absorbed is one consistent theme; people telling me that what I want is not important. I have often been manipulated, tricked, and (at times) physically coerced into doing things I don’t want to so now feelings of loneliness I associate with erasure have become conflated with feelings of physical intimacy. For years it wasn’t apparent I could have one without the other, and a life without sex seemed preferable to a life with sex and all the pain that it engendered.
When I was assaulted, the primary feeling I had was one of guilt. Emotionally, I felt like I had done something wrong by not being receptive to a sexual act that was forced on me. Those feelings of guilt kept me from talking about, or even thinking about, that night for years, and I keep wondering — where did that guilt come from? And, I think it came from a persistent shaming whenever I failed to meet the sexual needs of my male partners.
We commonly condemn women for being “cock teases” (or, at least we did back when I was first sexually active) so while I knew it was ok to “say no,” I was also under the impression that if I had said yes once it was a failing on my behalf to later say no. This was reinforced by the anger directed at me by my male partners, who would often emotionally withdraw or bitch me out if I found sex painful or if I was too fatigued to finish a blow job. I would feel guilty for having failed them.
When I was finally assaulted, it had gotten so bad that I felt guilty about stopping an act I had never even consented to. The pain I saw on my assaulter’s face trumped the pain I felt in my body, and after he assaulted me, I lay next to him pretending to sleep so he wouldn’t feel like he had done something “wrong.” When it finally became unbearable, I gave him a quick kiss on the head before I left so he wouldn’t think like I disliked him. I walked away from his building, desperately trying to ignore my own feelings loneliness that would complicate my relationship to touch and intimacy for the next 5 years.
When someone says to me “we don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do,” I take that as a reassurance that they’re not going to shame me if I ask to stop doing something. And with that reassurance comes the freedom to want things again. Because wanting things, wanting sexual acts, wanting people, often comes with a high price attached. If I am sexual with someone, because I am turned on, because I want them, this has historically led me to a place where I have to face a choice between my own pain, or braving the anger of my partner. My desire has often placed me in unwinnable positions, so I have learned to detach myself from it.
Unfortunately, being detached from my desire leads me to not knowing what I want. Sexually. Physically. In life. It is a recipe for permanent dissatisfaction, as I can never get what I really want because I don’t know what it is. Something I want from my partners is help creating a safe space for my own desire, because it is so easily lost. Something I want from myself, in life, is to let myself want things even though I may have to face the disappointment of not getting them. It easier to be cool by going with the flow, just taking whatever comes your way, but I find it empty somewhat. To act satisfied with what I get, no matter what it is, is easier in some ways but crushing in others.
I want to want again.