Tell us a bit about your earliest experimentation with sex.
I grew up in a family where sex was only discussed in the anatomic sense. One day I asked where babies came from, and the next day my parents whipped out an anatomy book and explained that Tab A goes in Slot B and you make a baby – but only with somebody you love. The most I got about the emotional side of sex was that I should only have sex with somebody I would consider marrying, and that I should definitely not be having sex before college. As a result, when I had my first boyfriend at fourteen, I was not considering sex of any kind as an option. It wasn’t something my friends were doing and it wasn’t something I thought I should be doing either. Unfortunately, the guy I was with didn’t quite get that. The day before I was leaving for summer camp, the two of us were making out in my room and he started running his fingers under the waistband of my jeans. I told him I didn’t want to, but he didn’t listen and fingered me anyway.
How did that make you feel?
There were a lot of reactions all at once. At that point in my life I still considered getting felt up under the bra to be risqué, so I was not at all ready to be doing anything below the belt. I also felt like this was something I just shouldn’t be doing at all – it was slutty and wrong. However, at the same time, when somebody has their hand between my legs, my body is going to react. The fact that it felt physically good made me feel even worse. In short, I went as rigid as a board, my boyfriend realized something was wrong, and after probably less than thirty seconds he stopped.
What was it about your upbringing that created that stigma surrounding sex?
I think it was just prudishness. My mom is uncomfortable talking about sex with me, and dad won’t talk about it at all. From the few conversations I’ve had with my mom about sex, I’ve gathered that sexual exploration just isn’t her thing. When she tries to talk to me about sex, she doesn’t even have the vocabulary to talk about it. She’ll say, “rubbing his penis” instead of “handjob” and things like that. Whatever it is that causes her hang-ups, it resulted in her recommending that I wait a long time to have sex and not “put my mouth on his penis” because it would be demeaning.
What happened after the unfortunate incident with your boyfriend – did you stay with him?
Yeah. I went to camp, and as planned we did the whole long distance thing – old school letters and all. Meanwhile, I was losing my shit. The closest I’d come to telling anybody what had happened was confiding in my best friend that my boyfriend had tried to finger me. I was too ashamed to admit that it had happened. Reading my journal from that summer is just depressing. I felt worthless and spent the next month or so hitting on guys way older than me (to no success, thank God), trying to drink, and basically attempting every other stereotypical way a fourteen-year-old can try to feel “bad.” I was blaming myself for what happened. By the time I returned home, I wanted the relationship to be over, but didn’t have the guts to tell the guy. He was emotionally manipulative and gave me reason to think he would kill himself if I broke up with him. (What a winner, right?) Finally, after he shoved his hand down my pants two more times, I was so furious that I loudly dumped him in the middle of the hallway at school.
Good for you! With that newfound confidence, what was next for you? When and how did you lose your virginity?
There were a LOT of steps between that and losing my virginity. I finally opened up about what had happened to a friend I made at camp and realized that getting fingered doesn’t make you a slut – even at fourteen. Two years later, I fell in love with a great guy. The two of us were completely inexperienced sexually and completely determined to figure it out together. We were this adorable combination of dorky and kinky. We’d go online and read tips from men’s magazines or Cosmo, send each other the links for stuff we thought sounded good, and then try it the next time we hung out. We stuck to hand stuff and oral, but I would consider that relationship to be when I gave up my sexual innocence. It was a completely different relationship than the one I’d had with the first guy. We always knew where our boundaries stood, which gave us the freedom to explore all kinds of fun stuff within them. After that relationship though, things got more difficult. I went to college and thought I was completely past everything that had happened with my first boyfriend. It was something I just didn’t think about, but it all got dredged up when I tried having a casual hookup with a friend. I walked over to his dorm thinking I definitely wanted to hook up with him. Once we were in bed and he started putting his hand under my pants, I had a flashback and once again went rigid as a board and couldn’t go through with it.
Walk us through how you overcame those flashbacks to finally do the deed.
I tried seeing a campus therapist after the flashback to talk about what had happened, and it was a really disappointing experience. Like a lot of the friends who I tell about what happened, she seemed to trivialize it since it wasn’t sexual assault in the way we typically think about it. She pretty much told me that casual sex is just a bad idea in and of itself, and as long as I’m comfortable being sexually intimate in a relationship, that should be good enough for me. There was a lot of slut shaming. I told her that I disagreed with a lot of what she was saying and walked out. Not what I needed to hear.
Ultimately I got to know the guy I was seeing better, and after we’d had a couple talks about exactly what we wanted (no emotions, just fooling around), we ended up having a great time. Screw that therapist. In comparison, losing my virginity ended up being the easiest step I’ve ever taken sexually. It happened a few months later with a boyfriend I loved. At that point, I’d fooled around with a number of people in and out of relationships. I knew that I needed clear boundaries and trust to make sex a good experience. I had all of that, I was with the right guy, and it ended up being a really great first time.
What age were you by that point, and are you still together?
I was eighteen. The relationship was really great in most respects: we had all the important things in common, had fun together, and could really talk. Unfortunately, we were also both overachievers and, in the end, his commitments at school meant that he didn’t have the time or energy to devote to a relationship and we ended things. Still, I have no regrets about losing my virginity to him. There were times just months before when I was worried that sex would never be pleasurable and I’d always be haunted by something that had happened almost half a decade before. Being with him has given me a lot of confidence sexually.
What have things been like since? In what ways is sex pleasurable?
I think the biggest change I’ve seen in myself sexually is that I so get off on being in control. I absolutely love giving a guy head and getting him to the point where’s he’s just about to finish and then stopping what I’m doing so it lasts longer. I’ll do this until he wants it so badly he’d do almost anything. Maybe it’s a function of having my first sexual experience being entirely out of my control, and maybe it’s just the fact that it’s awesome to have somebody dying for your body. I’ve also realized that I’m pretty adventurous. It’s sort of like jumping off a cliff and finding that afterwards, previously intimidating things aren’t so scary anymore. I got past somebody making my body a terrifying place to be, so after that, can trying anal with somebody you really care about be that bad? As it turns out, with enough lube, it’s pretty fun. So far I have yet to date a guy who’s open to a threesome (even with two girls – who are these guys I keep picking?) but it’s something I’d love to try.
We appreciate your contributions to the series on this very sensitive subject. What’s your recommendation for young women trying to overcome something sexually traumatic?
Since so few people are willing to talk about their sexual trauma, I’ve never been able to compare notes with any friends who’ve been through something sexually traumatic, so I don’t know if what I’ve learned will apply to others. Also, what happened to me, while it had a big effect, is tame compared to all the other bad things that can happen in bed. But what I’ve learned from this can apply to everybody: you need to talk in bed. If you’re hooking up with somebody and you’re too shy to say exactly what you want and don’t want, you’re going to waste a lot of focus wondering if the person you’re with is going to try something you’re uncomfortable with. Whether or not you’re going to have a flashback as a result of somebody going past your boundaries, it’s much easier to relax and enjoy yourself once you know that everybody’s on the same page. Plus, once you start talking, you’ve opened up a whole new window for dirty talk and experimentation. Silence is never sexy – it’s actually pretty boring.