I don’t remember the first time I agreed to have sex when I really didn’t want to. Mostly I wasn’t aware I was doing it. I didn’t even realise afterwards, having learned how to kill that inner voice of dissent from an early age.
I’m not sure when I first absorbed the idea that sticking up for myself and asking for what I wanted was, for women, an unacceptable form of rebellion. It’s only fairly recently that I realised unenjoyable sex is not something that must be endured, a price that must be paid in exchange for compliments and romantic dates, a necessary compromise if you want emotional support from a man.
Perhaps this is why the viral New Yorker short* *story 'Cat Person', struck such a chord with me. It tapped into all the times I broke my own boundaries and said yes to sex when my body and heart were screaming no. All those times when I pretended I wanted it, abandoning my own needs to please him, or because I was afraid I couldn’t handle his hurt feelings. The semi-automatic acquiescence to being joylessly penetrated because I couldn’t find the words to leave without making everything worse.
It wasn’t that I didn’t try. One time when I didn’t feel like it, I apologised and said as much, even though he’d travelled some way to see me. I saw his face sink and wrinkle as I offered cuddles instead. I went to embrace him and felt his body retract, I worried I was neutering him with my PG offer. He said it was fine but I remember how he tried to get me in the mood with these clumsy rubs and grunty noises. I’ll never forget the sweaty pawing at my breasts and God, in the end it was so painful to feel him failing that I relented and had sex anyway. My ego could cope with it, and I was worried his wouldn’t.
Then there was the time where a different man wanted to do it doggy style and I knew I wouldn’t like it, but I didn’t know how to say that in a way that wouldn’t make things strained between us or make me sound like a ‘frigid bitch’. Maybe it would be better with him? And anyway, isn’t life a compromise, so I did it anyway, bending over and instead tried to use the time productively, zoning out and trying to think of how a writer would describe it. I would actually narrate my own life - anything so I didn’t have to feel. Then it actually began to hurt and I flipped over and said as much. I tried to soften my words a bit, saying he was too big and apologised. I didn’t want to emasculate him.
Sometimes, when I really wasn’t feeling it but I knew the man I was with wanted it, I would just skip straight to penetration. It was best that way - at least it would be over with quickly. And I would put on a very enthusiastic performance, bucking and moaning, because I knew that would get him to the end faster. It was good to focus on this, at least better than watching his reddening face looming above me. I remember, with one man, watching a bead of sweat rolling down his forehead, growing more and more bulbous and threatening to splash on to my face. When it finally did I felt more violated by that unwelcome spatter than the numb thrusting I’d tolerated for twenty minutes.
It was an odd sensation. When we cuddled afterwards and all I could feel was disgust and resentment curdling inside me. Quite often, I have felt like Arya Stark, adding names to a list of those who had wronged her.
What I have rarely seen, though, is how I was wronging myself, subverting my value to his. How perverted this use of my imagination was, being put to work to think of ways to emotionally kill him and zone out instead of trying to figure out how I could communicate my feelings and ask for what I wanted.
Looking back, I try to be compassionate with myself about this. I’m not angry at those men either. I don’t believe any of them wanted to sleep with a woman when the very act triggered a hatred of herself and them.
There’s just no board-approved syllabus for how to be in relationships. Most of us pick it up from the people around us, who in turn weren’t taught how to relate. It’s embarrassing to talk about. Perhaps we look to films, songs and books, all written by people who also muddled their way through. Much of what’s out there is contradictory, confusing, impractical and covert.
Sex might sell when it comes to men, but as a woman I was sold romance. Particularly pernicious was the concept of this mysterious prince who was somehow able to read my mind and my body, who always knew what I wanted without me ever having to tell him. No wonder I struggled with yes and no.
Over time I've had learn to let go of a lot of these ideas and commit to having difficult conversations with potential partners prior to sex in order to have the physical intimacy I want. I tell my lovers I will no longer continue to have sex if it stops being fun. I say it’s no reflection on how much I’ve enjoyed our intimacy up until this point, it’s simply that, like a good meal, sometimes I will have eaten enough even when my plate is not cleared. I ask them to do the same: let’s just stop when we feel like it, not when we’ve both climaxed. Who even makes that rule?
It might be frustrating, and I’ve been left craving more at times, but I’d rather have that honesty in my relationships. At first talking about it seemed awkwardly clinical, but it actually allows me to feel safe and really let go if we’ve had this discussion beforehand.
I’m noticing all the places I say yes or no and mean the opposite now. It takes practice. For me, just committing to trying to do this feels important. I worry about how we can talk about teaching consent, when in my own case, so often, what I was saying didn’t match what I was feeling. Even today, it’s still difficult to find a language for that.
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.