For my thirteenth birthday, my aunt bought me a book called “Deal With It!”
It was the perfect (and worst) gift for a highly anxious and confused pre-teen to receive. It’s divided into four sections: body, sexuality, brain and life. I was embarrassed and ashamed that all I wanted to do was flip to the sexuality section and learn, learn, learn. Flipping through the page on female pleasure, I still get this rush of excitement. The brilliant artists who designed this book used these very innocent cartoon ways of showing oral sex, putting on a condom, and even doggie style.
So basically, I read this book, learned everything about sex, and now I have a healthy and normal way of viewing sexuality and my own sexual experiences.
JUST KIDDING. Here’s what happened.
Chapter 1: I’m A Sexual Being
This book tormented me from the moment I got it. It came from my progressive, open, feminist Aunt Shelly and I remember thinking there’s something bad about this book.
So, I hid it. I would hide it different places, and forget about it for a while. Then, some nights I would pull it out and shamefully go over some of my favourite pages. Fingering (could I do that myself?), Oral sex on a girl (wait, is that gross?), Lubrication (am I wet right now?), Girls having sex with girls (am I a lesbian?!)
It was happening, everyone. I was a sexual being and I was getting turned on by a book about sex. I convinced myself I just had to pee really badly; those tingly sensations were just a product of a full bladder. Although suppression has proved to be a very useful technique generally in life (rolls eyes), it shockingly didn’t work for me. I started thinking about sex all the time. Considering I was also undiagnosed OCD, these thoughts were intense and did not let up. I would literally be awake all night trying to make myself not think about having sex.
I don’t remember the first time I masturbated, but I know somewhere in that time it started happening. I definitely felt guilty, but it was also a great way to stop my brain from obsessing about sex. Maybe this tingling wasn’t a pee sensation. Hmm.
I need to interject here for a second. How fucking upsetting. I was a young girl exploring my newly sexual being and I could have been feeling adventurous, excited, empowered. Instead, when I could no longer shove those sexual feelings down, I’d let them surface just long enough for me to Deal With It (ha) and then go back to being normal.
This book was printed in 1999, so there are these kinda cool chatroom-like comments about the topic being discussed. I’ve been flipping through the book, reading what I would have read almost 15 years ago, trying to see if something stuck or if something rung a bell. I would like to say that I’m INFURIATED that many of these comments are even published. Lots of them give tips on how to do something, or talk about concerns different girls have had. If there is a question, there’s another chat-room like answer. I get what they were trying to do (I also get that they’re not real chatroom things), but hearing these concerns like “I can’t get my boyfriend off with a handjob,” and “To swallow or not to swallow?” is more anxiety-inducing for a young girl than educational.
Chapter 2: Sexuality and Men
I really really really didn’t want to give my grade ten boyfriend a handjob. Mostly, because I had read something in a book a few years ago (ahem) about a girl not being able to get her boyfriend off, and it being embarrassing for both of them. What if that was me? What if I was the girl who couldn’t get him off with a handjob. He could certainly do it better himself. Should I just give him a blowjob? He can’t do that himself so he will likely like that better. AH. But I don’t want to put a dick in my mouth. AH! AH! Ahhh.
I did give a handjob, and I don’t remember if he got off but I have weird feelings about the whole thing, so it’s up in the air. We were on the couch at his parent’s house (obviously; I was 15) and the whole thing was a bit stressful. I did, however, remember liking the feeling of him touching me. Hmm. This is something I could get into. This was also around the time that I started really drinking and partying. I quickly learned that if I’m drunk, then I feel less self-conscious. It was a perfect solution to my insecurity! Be drunk. Still get some action. It was a match made in small-town addiction heaven. I was officially doomed.
My first blowjob was in grade 12. I was slow to the game, comparative to most of my friends. It was at a place called The Fishbowl. Anyone from my era in our small town will laugh and probably cry a bit at the reminder of this place. It was an apartment (which has since been torn down and turned into a Shoppers Drug Mart) where these 20-year-old hockey guys lived. Some of the guys in our grade (including my bf) were on the team with them, and after the games they’d have these epic parties where they’d get fucking wasted and act like a bunch of assholes. Naturally, you could find me and my crew there on any given hockey night, after a massive pre-drink of Smirnoff Ice or straight vodka.
One night, I slept there, and me and my boyfriend were sleeping on the floor with probably 10 other people in the room. I gave him a blowjob. I remember feeling empowered in the morning. I was so proud of myself for having the courage to do it. It was kind of the good feeling you have after a run. I didn’t want to do it, but I did it. Good for me! He must have thought I was really a great girlfriend. I wouldn’t have sex (such a square) but I would definitely give head at the Fishbowl. I wonder who else saw! I also wonder if this was before or after the entire team “dogpiled” me. Definitely something to be empowered by.
I lost my virginity to that same boyfriend in the summer after high school. He drove to my parents house, and we were in my bedroom in the basement. There was a lot of speculation going around the school about him cheating on me, with a girl who was notoriously “dirty.” To her, my heart sincerely breaks with the horror that must have come with that title. Anyone who knows me from that time will read this and know exactly who I’m talking about. Leave it to highschool to use words and labels to destroy people. I don’t know anything about her life, but I know that I sure didn’t hold back on the name-calling when I found out that my boyfriend and her did fuck. Regardless, these rumors made me think that maybe him and I should have sex so that he wasn’t tempted to cheat (great logic, Em). I acted like I believed he didn’t, but deep down, I just feared I wasn’t good enough. He was arguably the most popular and hottest guy in school, and I just had to have him as my boyfriend going to university.
We had sex, and although it didn’t cause me any physical pain or whatever, I couldn’t stop crying. It wasn’t like “this is beautiful” crying, it was like “oh my fucking God, I am so alone.” He got weirded out, put his clothes on, and left. I chased him to his car, apologizing for being too much. He couldn’t handle me. He left. I went into my brother’s room and sat on the floor next to his bed, sobbing.
Soon after, I found out about three(ish) girls he was cheating on me with. Over the next year I discovered more. I let him talk me out of breaking up with him again and again. Deep down, I just felt like it was my fault. I was too much to handle. I was lucky to have this guy who would deal with me at all.
Of course I ended it eventually, but it was a collaborative effort of all my friends, and all the guys on my first-year residence floor basically forcing me to. It had gone way too far.
Things started to kinda look up. By the time I was 20, I was having sex with someone who really loved me. I remember a lot about our relationship, but I don’t remember ever having sex with him. This is not some hilarious “It was so bad I blocked it out” thing. He loved me, he was very affectionate and gentle with me, and I couldn’t handle it. I didn’t believe I was worthy of that. It was too much, and I broke up with him.
My next boyfriend was older, European, and very sexual. I started feeling liberated with him. Sometimes I would love having sex with him, but other times I would feel really disconnected and insecure. I thought about the other women he’d had sex with (how could I compete with beautiful Scandinavians?) and I basically sabotaged our relationship with my feelings of not being good enough.
There was a guy that I really liked in university-- he was definitely the cool guy in school-- and one drunk night I went to his apartment with full intention of having sex with him. He was wasted, and as we were doing it, he asked if we could stop and go to sleep. The hot, cool guy didn’t want to fuck me. He’d rather sleep. I was devastated, and those insecure voices in my head took over. I suck at sex. My walk home that morning really did feel like a walk of shame. I haven’t worn those shoes in the 6 or 7 years since that night, but I can’t throw them out, either.
I ran off to Australia post-university and instantly started having sex with a guy there. I barely knew him, and felt incredibly uncomfortable, but I was determined to get empowered by sex instead of being a victim to it. We were having sex and I started obsessing about the condom breaking and getting pregnant (not unusual thoughts for me). I had to tell him. He got really weirded out and told me I ruined it. I messaged him and emailed him and he didn’t respond. Inner monologue: not only was I bad at sex, I was also ruining sex with my anxiety, and pushing away men by being too much. Talk about empowerment.
Chapter 3: My Sexual Rock Bottom
Long story short: I was assaulted by a man in Australia. I don’t want to waste more energy talking or thinking about him, but it’s important to mention because, at 23, after feeling insecure about sexuality and being completely disconnected from myself in all ways, this hit me like a massive bag of bricks.
I could now add another ingredient of shame to the pot of fucking stew I was in: YOU DID THIS TO YOURSELF. Ah yes, the classic self-blame. I was 1. Too drunk 2. At his house 3. Willing to do some sexual stuff, just not sex. Oh how the grey area of sexual assault makes my blood boil on a daily basis.
The reason I’m telling this story is to paint a picture of the mental state of my sexual self being at rock bottom. Five months after the trauma I started to have some memories, and a conversation with my brother on Skype (the same one I cried to after losing my virginity) made me realize that what I was going through was serious.
I had to start over if there was any hope of me having a healthy sex life in the future. I didn’t want to be scared of sex, ashamed of myself, and constantly trying to prove my worth through sexuality. I wanted to have sex in the context of loving relationships where I was safe, respected, adored and honoured.Suddenly it was clear that this was the only way I would ever be in a sexual relationship again. Nothing less.
Chapter 4: Self Love, Baby
After this Australia stint, I have had a few notable sexual relationships with really great guys (and also some idiots), but I haven’t had full intercourse. I’m actually really embarrassed about that, and considering not even including this sentence in this story. You don’t need to know it, but in a way, I think it’s important. Many people have asked me: how do you do it? My male friend texted me yesterday and said: I would literally die.
The answer is plain and simple. Of course I masturbate, but it’s a lot more than that. My sexual relationship with myself was so fucking lost, I literally had to start from zero. I had to be that 13 year old girl, exploring sexuality with myself (without all that fucking shame), to reframe what it means to be a woman and a sexual being. I’ve let men in slowly when I feel safe. I’ve explored and had a lot of fun with doing things when I want to do them. It hasn’t been perfect, but most encounters have actually left me feeling good. Not blowjob-on-the-fishbowl-floor proud of myself. Actually feeling love, connection and empowerment in sexuality. I had to take the time to get that from myself.
Ten years after my initial (rocky) introduction to sex, I was forced to start over. When everyone else has been in their “sexual prime” (or so it feels as an outsider), I’ve been sticking to myself, learning to feel safe in my own body. It’s not ideal, it’s not how I wanted it to go, but it’s the truth.
I’ve been using the term “self-love” for a while now, trying to understand what it actually means to me. Of course, looking in the mirror and telling myself how smart/beautiful/talented/awesome I am is really important. I’ve realized, though, that the sexual self love that I’ve given myself (and basically no one else) has been the most important step in the long, windy road to actually loving myself and my body.
Emily Dickinson, Toronto, Ontario