A few months ago, I was out to dinner with my mother, eating our weight in tortilla chips, when we started talking about the various sexual partners I’ve had so far in life. Nothing says casual mom/daughter night out like talking about who has been allowed to see your naked body, eh? And yes, you’d be right in assuming I have a weirdly open relationship with my mother. We used to proudly claim we were real life Gilmore Girls, but maybe more dysfunctional and I was not remotely put together enough to ever be Rory.
Even when she didn’t want to hear it, I ended up telling my mom whenever I had sex with someone new. I didn’t get graphic or share any gross details (saved that for my roommates, you’re welcome guys), but I definitely told her more than the average child tells a parental unit. And this is something I continue to be grateful for. Not everyone gets a mother and confidante in one package deal.
Somewhere between the second and third basket of chips, I made a semi-serious joke about contacting a former flame. I spewed every generic excuse as to why I didn’t want to actually commit to dating at the moment (too busy, still hung up, lazy, etc), but I still had needs. What’s wrong with recycling a little, so long as my intentions are clear and I’m honest in my ex-booty call? This was what I said to my mom. Almost verbatim, minus the use of the term booty call.
Close as we are, Moms still don’t like hearing this. “Why would you want to go backwards?” She said. Good point, Mama-bear. The person I had mentioned wasn’t someone I was ever that into. What’s the point of calling up a guy I casually saw one summer just because I’m navigating through some lonely waters? We often believe just the very feeling of another body can ease the hollow hurt of aloneness. But when the body is attached to the wrong person, it can actually make the dull ache ten times worse. She echoed my internal monologue and said, “You didn’t even like him that much.”
The next thing she asked was said without any judgement or superiority. It was the most genuine and honest question she could ask me: “Is there anyone you regret?”
I don’t have a long laundry list of torrid affairs and one night-stands (not that I have any problem if you do. I’m a sex-positive person. Do you, boo), but yes, I’ve had sex more than once. Most of the time, it was in the context of a relationship. There’s been that love thing. The gushy feelings. The temporary insanity of “I think this is forever.” The crushing devastation when forever had an expiration date. But I’ve also had sex with men I knew I wasn’t going to marry. It’s never been meaningless, but it hasn’t always meant the same thing. But did I regret any of it?
This answer shocked me. I had never felt ashamed of my sexual history and usually managed to pinpoint a learning lesson from each roll in the sack with a new dude. Sex has been fun and beautiful. It’s been distraction and love. It’s been a lot of things, and I’ve regretted certain decisions I’ve made in terms of my behavior: i.e. my inability to let go, my Woody Allen neurosis that cause me to both pick apart every little thing and also deeply desire validation, every time I think I can cut my own bangs, etc. But I never regretted having sex.
At least, that’s what I had convinced myself. We’re good at that, us humans. We’ve figured out ways of rewriting truths. We analyze the most obscure sign and use it as evidence to back up our thinking. She’s definitely the one because our song played on the radio at 1:35 pm and I kissed her January 1st. And…I own 35 socks. Or: He’s gonna realize he made a big mistake because nobody will understand him like I do. We’re pros at this shit. We can convince ourselves of anything. Hell, everyone walked around thinking the world was flat and were outraged when told that was wrong.
Five years later, and it wasn’t until this moment that I said it out loud.
“I didn’t want to have sex with him.”
I never said no. I said, “Okay.” I gave my consent. I was sober. I came over late. I kissed him back. He undid my zipper. I did not stop him. He slipped off my shirt. I did not stop him. He went down on me. I was paralyzed, but not from pleasure. He got on top of me. I did not stop him. He aligned our hips and asked, “Do you wanna?”
I said okay. I am textbook Neanderthal Fraternity Bro, “She asked for it.” And I guess, I technically did.
I have far too many friends who are survivors. The hands I have held. The cheeks I have dried. The nausea from wanting to help, but having no idea what to do. The fury radiating in my fists. The times I have wanted to strangle people for asking bullshit questions, as if some reasoning exists within the answers: What they wore? What they did? Where they were? The moments I have wanted to kill another human being for violating someone I love.
But I also understand just how little I truly understand rape.
What I experienced wasn’t even remotely close to rape, I fully understand this. I said okay. But I have been living with a secret shame, this regret of going through with something I knew I didn’t want to do. I was in the throws of an immobilizing depression, having lost my father and terrified I’d lose my mother to her own grief. I did not feel worthy of my own body. I thought I could be cavalier about sex, that it wasn’t important. My body wasn’t important. I kept replaying images of my father’s decaying body. I thought about how skeletal he became. I thought about dust and ash. I lost myself in the arms of a boy, and when that came crumbling apart, I fell with it. I fell into the bed of someone else.
But I didn’t want to have sex that night.
I think this is a hard thing for us to talk about. We don’t always know how to check in with ourselves and assess how we’re really feeling. We get caught up. We get scared. We’re flooded with shit like movie montage scenes or something we overheard someone saying. I remember thinking, “Maybe this is for the best” as he kissed my neck. This is what I was supposed to do, right? Get under someone to get over someone? Or whatever that shit is we tell ourselves. When we finished, I rolled over onto my side so that he couldn’t see I was crying. I wanted my body back in that moment.
I’m not blaming anybody for what happened that night. He didn’t do anything wrong. Hell, he probably thought I was as into it as he was. I was the one who stopped returning texts afterwards. I was the one who started ducking him in the halls. Maybe I blame myself a little in retrospect. But I guess what I’m trying to say is we should stop acting like everything is so black and white. We shouldn’t be afraid to ask ourselves the tough questions, even if the answers make us uncomfortable. Whether that’s about sex, relationships, or any big life decisions. It’s okay to say, “I’m not sure.” And take time figuring out what you want. We don’t always get clarity. Sometimes, it comes too late. And when that happens, we need to be okay admitting it.
Maybe if we can learn to admit how we feel, even when we don’t understand what it all means, that’s how we will really learn to forgive and love ourselves. I no longer regret having sex that night, but I regret spending so many years convincing myself it didn’t affect me. It did. Let’s practice this honesty. Because frankly, I just don’t want to pretend anymore.