I’ve got a point in mind, but I need to take you by the scenic route, because without a lot of context I don’t know how much sense it will make. It may take me several entries to get where I’m going. And I’m a little worried that I won’t be able to tell it well enough to make anyone understand. But I know I have to try.
• • •
To say that I was abused as a child wouldn’t really convey the magnitude of the situation. It was a lot more like seventeen years of relentless, purposeful, systematic torture. Rather than digress into a proof of that here and now, for the purpose of this entry I’m going to ask you to just accept that as given.
My mother was a monster at home, but she had an excellent public facade. I suppose it probably didn’t stand up well under close scrutiny — as I think back, she only really had one friend during my entire childhood. (Lacking any basis for comparison, it never occurred to me that this was unusual.) But people who met her in superficial situations tended, so far as I could ever tell, to think she was perfectly normal.
I was about thirteen before I began to really catch on to just how unusual my home life was. But I didn’t breathe a word of it to anyone, because I thought I’d be revealing some horrible thing about me that would cause them to despise me. My parents presented everything as my fault, and I had no one to tell me otherwise.
My sophomore year in high school I got involved in drama, and among that group I made real friends for the first time. After being at best outcast and at worst a pariah among my peers ever since I was in preschool, suddenly I had a sympathetic audience … and the floodgates opened, spilling out the stories of fifteen years of abuse in a rush.
I became a reaction junkie. It was indescribably gratifying for me to mention one relatively small incident and watch the shock and horror it produced in my listeners. Every moment of sympathy and belief from someone else was like cold water on a burn. I’d never had that before, and I couldn’t get enough.
One of my best friends that year was a girl named H. After some months of close friendship at school and through drama, I invited her to spend the night at my house. This was something I rarely did; I’d learned early that there was no quicker way to lose a potential friend, because my mother would humiliate and punish me in front of the other girl. No one ever wanted to come back, and most wanted nothing to do with me after an experience like that.
Like all of my drama friends, though, H knew a great deal about what I went through at home, and hadn’t shunned me yet. So I took the risk. We saw a movie and she spent the night; my mother took her usual tack — pleasant towards H, vindictive towards me. The next day H’s mother came over to pick her up, and she and my mother chatted amiably for — oh, maybe half an hour or so.
That conversation spelled the end of my friendship with H. Her mother decided, after meeting mine, that I was lying about my parents and my home life, and H believed her mother rather than me. She severed our friendship in a nasty public scene in the school cafeteria sometime not long after. I was shocked and hurt by her abandonment, but it was her disbelief that sent me reeling. It was like having the floor yanked out from under me. I needed to be believed. It had become my lifeline.
That was the most severe example. Several other people thought I was exaggerating, or else just made it clear that they didn’t care. I didn’t try talking directly to any adults because I didn’t trust people in authority, generally speaking, and I had no reason to think anyone other than my friends would believe me.
Many of the drama group did believe me and tried to be supportive, but over the months wore thin under pressure. I suspect that I pleaded and pushed for a level of sympathy and attention that would have been enormous for any adult, never mind teenagers who were angst-filled and uncertain in their own right. A couple of them eventually told me that they couldn’t stand to hear about my problems anymore, because the enormity of my situation made them feel like their own problems were insignificant by comparison — but of course it didn’t make those problems go away, it only made them feel guilty and selfish. And they blamed and resented me as the source of those feelings.
I owe an enormous debt to the kids who stuck with me anyway. I was grateful at the time, but also terribly demanding, and it was only years later that I began to truly realize how difficult it must have been for them.
L was one of the ones who offered unfaltering support. I didn’t know when she began reporting to her parents what I was telling her about mine, nor did she tell me that their response was that I had to be making this stuff up for the attention it brought me. I’m not precisely certain why — I’m guessing that the stories were just so … extreme that it was easier to believe that a teenager would be lying than that such things could really go on in an apparently normal upper-middle-class household.
This had been going on for some months when the local PBS station held its annual fundraising auction. My parents both volunteered to answer phones, and I went with them to be a gopher (run around and bring things to people). As it happened, L’s parents were also volunteering, running some part of the auction. L and her younger brother came to the studio with them. (I don’t recall for certain, but I don’t think I knew in advance that L’s family was involved or expected to see them there.)
At one point soon after we arrived, my mother and I ran into L and her father. We all said hello and chatted briefly, and then went our separate ways. Later my mother let me go find L and hang out with her. At which point L got me off by myself and told me that she’d been confiding in her parents, that they hadn’t believed her, and then delivered the following message:
L’s father had met me before, but the surprise was that he’d also met my mother. He worked for the State Department of Transportation, and my mother worked as a transportation consultant or somesuch for the Chamber of Commerce. They’d come across each other professionally at some point in the recent past.
But he’d never, until seeing us that night, realized that that woman had any connection to his daughter’s friend. After seeing us together, L’s dad turned to her and told her that now he understood. And he told her to tell me that very night that if I ever needed someplace to go, I could come to them. Which she did.
I have no idea what had passed between L’s father and my mother that primed him to believe that she was a monstrously abusive parent. I didn’t even put any stock in the “if you need someplace to go” part — at the time that bounced right off me. I was too busy boggling at the fact that an adult actually believed me.
Turns out he meant it, because when I finally ran away from home, L’s family took me in. But that was later, and another story.
Chronicling an event as it happened is fairly straightforward. Explaining a concept — one incompletely understood by the writer and certainly guaranteed to be foreign to the readers — is another thing entirely. I put the blank entry up on the archive site six days ago as a spur to myself because I thought I was almost finished, but that turned out to be wildly optimistic. I have wrestled with this for over a week now, and it’s become one of the most difficult pieces I’ve ever written.
• • •
I always wanted to be easygoing about sex. Not wantonly promiscuous — sex with strangers holds no appeal for me. But I wanted to be the sort of person who could sleep with a good friend just for the fun of it, without a lot of angst and bother.
I tried hard to become that person. For eight years, I tried. I thought I’d made a lot of progress.
I was so wrong.
• • •
I expected it to, the first time; I gritted my teeth through the pain and endured. I just wanted to get the difficult part over with and move on to something better. The second time I approached it with eager happy anticipation.
It hurt even worse than the first time. I was shocked and then crushed; I couldn’t bear it, and I made him stop. I didn’t have sex again for more than two years. I wasn’t seeing anyone I was in love with (my first partner lived in another state and was just visiting), and it just wasn’t worth it for anything less.
During that time I took two different sexuality courses in college and did a lot of reading on my own. By the time I was ready to try again, I suspected that I must have a mild form of vaginismus — which is a psychological, rather than physical, condition. I say ‘mild’ because some women apparently can’t even insert a tampon without pain, and my difficulty did not extend so far. Only penis-sized objects caused me any problem: the larger the penis, the more it hurt. (Size does matter, but not in the way locker-room conversation would lead you to expect.)
So I taught myself how to consciously relax the vaginal muscles, which definitely lessened the pain. But even when I was at my most relaxed, it would still hurt. A gynecologist told me that I had a ‘tipped’ uterus, which essentially means it’s in there backwards, and that this might cause pain during intercourse. A couple of years ago I read some case studies on a medical web site that sounded like mine, corroborating my suspicion that my remaining difficulty was physical rather than mental.
Only once did I ever have penetrative sex without pain; I remember it clearly, because I was so astonished. This was something over five years ago; my sweetie at the time was a guy named S, and I loved him very much. We were also having a lot of sex. And once it simply … didn’t hurt. Nothing was obviously different about that occasion. I briefly hoped that maybe heavy repetition had stretched things out a bit, and it would be easier thereafter.
No such luck. The very next time (later that same day), it hurt just as much as ever. Painlessness appeared to be an unrepeatable fluke.
• • •
If sex hurts, why bother? Well, because I crave love and companionship and intimacy, and people who are offering those things generally want sex too. If I loved someone, I was generally willing to make that trade; after all, part of loving them was wanting to do things to make them happy.
There was a danger, though. I was never raped as a child, but the physical abuse was severe, and as a result I have real trouble with anything that involves having to remain still while someone deliberately hurts me. This makes both dental work and penetrative sex more than a little tricky. If I’m not in the right frame of mind and very good control … it can be a horrible experience.
So I was walking a fine line. Some days I just couldn’t take the pain. I was careful to always and only offer sex in a spirit of generosity, never when I would a) freak out or b) resent my partner for it later.
It was just my luck that I kept ending up with guys whose libidos were cranked up to eleven. I’ve gotten to be pretty good in bed, I think; my partners have invariably been enthusiastic about the quality of the sex, even though in every relationship that wasn’t long-distance I would eventually receive complaints about the quantity. I felt bad for denying them as much as I did, so very early in my sexual career I determined to overcome my distaste for fellatio. I turned out to have a talent for it, which helped — positive feedback is a good incentive. But I never learned to like it for my own sake.
I got used to it, though. I got used to everything. Knowing that this was as good as it was going to get, I tried to convince myself that I didn’t mind too much. I very nearly succeeded.
• • •
Some of you might guess that all this means that I never had an orgasm before, but you’d be wrong. It’s far more subtle than that. I’ve been having orgasms right along, both by myself and with other people. Not from penetration, either then or now — but oral sex has usually been pretty darn successful.
Nor have I slept with a lot of insensitive losers. I had penetrative sex with <counts on fingers> eight different men, prior to G. Those eight, with one short-lived exception, were all sensitive enough to care about both my pain and my pleasure in bed.
Thing is, I didn’t really care very much. Even when I had an orgasm, it was usually more for my partner’s benefit than my own. These sensitive men felt bad if I didn’t seem to get something out of sex, even when I told them I’d genuinely rather have a back massage.
It’s not that G is inherently better in bed than everyone else. It’s just that we happen to match.
• • •
Sex with G hurt too, but it was from the very beginning more fun. It’s difficult to quantify why, exactly, because the obvious details weren’t different.
It’s relatively easy to explain that you don’t like sex because it hurts. It’s the next part that causes me the most trouble: explaining that I don’t like sex because … I don’t like sex.
Over and above the pain, sex for me has always incorporated a persistent feeling of wrongness. Always and forever with everyone without fail, every sexual experience felt … wrong, in a way that I don’t know how to adequately describe. Unpleasant, even when I wasn’t actually hurting.
Well, it was fairly obvious that most people don’t feel that way about sex; clearly this was some problem of mine. Since the level of wrongness varied, I tried to compromise. When the feeling was very strong, I avoided becoming sexual with that person. When it was very mild, I would just do my best to ignore it and soldier on anyway, hoping that eventually it would get better.
It never did.
The wrongness was different with each person, always made up of a random assortment of things. For example, with a couple of people I found I couldn’t watch them have an orgasm, because they made faces that I actually found terrifying. Sometimes it was just something about them physically that I found less than attractive, which during sexual intimacy could expand into full-blown revulsion.
I said before that I wanted to be the sort of person who could sleep with a good friend just for the fun of it. Well, the corollary to that is that I wanted to be the sort of person who was attracted to people because they were good people rather than for superficial reasons of physical appearance.
I tried that, with the best of intentions, and discovered that sleeping with someone I found wholly unattractive physically didn’t work very well at all. So I fell back and regrouped, attempting to at least remain open to the broadest possible range of attractiveness in people. I picked people that I thought were physically attractive in some ways, as well as mentally and emotionally attractive, and tried to focus on those and ignore the unattractive parts.
I’ve never been thoroughly attracted to any of my lovers, before G. I didn’t even realize that I could be that attracted; I thought I was just fundamentally sort of asexual. But I guess it’s possible after all … just extraordinarily rare.
I’m ashamed of the fact that appearance matters so much. I don’t think I can help it, though. I’ve tried for years, and it hasn’t gotten me anywhere.
• • •
A friend of a friend (with whom I’ve corresponded but whom I’ve never met) came up with a metaphor that I liked enough to appropriate and adapt for my own use:
Imagine that you grew up in a room with walls so dirty they were grey. The entire sum of your experience with walls has been dreary and dark, yet all your life you’ve heard other people talk about white walls and how wonderful they were.
So when you get to be an adult, you start scrubbing away at your walls. It’s a lot of work, but slowly the grime begins to slough away. You scrub for years, exhausted but relentlessly determined, until one day you stand in the middle of your room and look around at your pretty, shining white walls and are proud.
A couple of years pass, and someone gives you a can of white paint. With the first stroke of the brush you see that what you’d been calling white was really just a dingy cream, that here is the real white — beautiful and compelling, stark and celebratory, sparkly and intense. And it’s wonderful.
Except now you know that all these years you’ve been missing out on the simple, profound experience of white. It’s painful enough to contemplate all those years of effort and understand that the best you could manage was dingy cream. But the true anguish comes when you realize that you do not have a limitless supply of this sparkly white paint; that when that one can runs out you will sit and stare at the otherwise dingy walls and feel like crying.
That’s what sex has been like for me. I know now what is possible; I can’t settle for less.
• • •
I’ve always hated chocolate. The mere smell of it often makes me nauseous. When I was in kindergarten, the other kids made fun of me for always getting white milk in the lunch line instead of chocolate. So one day, I decided I was going to get chocolate milk and drink it just like everyone else.
I swallowed maybe half the carton before I gagged and vomited all over the lunchroom table.
I’d dearly love to be able to point at something in my past and say there, that little bit of Clockwork Orange aversion therapy, that’s why sex is such a problem for me. The physical abuse of my childhood obviously plays a part, and some of the mental abuse was sexual in nature and has left its mark.
But that doesn’t account for all of it. The truth is that I don’t know why I’m this way, any more than I know why I don’t like chocolate. Which means that I can’t control it any better than that, either. I can’t truly change it.
Of course, when you’re grown up, nobody really cares whether you like chocolate or not. Sure, people tend to think it’s odd; I get teased a little, but it’s not such a big deal. But not liking sex? That’s serious; that makes me a real freak.
The difference is, no one will ever break up with me because I’m not eating enough chocolate.
• • •
Here’s the funny thing. Once, when I was a much older child, my parents took me to a party (probably some business thing of my father’s) where I wandered around by myself and ended up eating a piece of German chocolate cake. I can’t remember why I tried it — maybe I didn’t know that it was chocolate, or maybe I just felt embarrassed, or brave.
I liked it. It was really good.
I thought perhaps I’d start liking chocolate after that, but no, I hated it as much as ever. I’ve even tried other German chocolate cakes, and didn’t like them (although they do tend to be far less objectionable than darker, richer chocolates). I don’t know why that one was different. I’ve never been able to repeat the experience.
For whatever reason, G is my German chocolate cake. This is not a transferable phenomenon. I don’t suddenly like sex with anyone else better — on the contrary, the dislike and the wrongness that I’ve been suppressing all these years has come surging to the fore, demanding to be recognized.
It’s been almost exactly a year since G and I first slept together. I’ve attempted to be sexual with several people during that time, and failed miserably in each instance. (I did actually go ahead and have sex with B a couple of times while we were still living together, after G’s visit, but it made me literally nauseous. Since then I’ve backed off with everyone else before it got to the point of actual illness.)
The only person I know who hasn’t triggered my sense of wrongness to some degree is H. Whether that would continue to hold true if the relationship turned more than obliquely sexual, I don’t know; I haven’t had the opportunity to find out.
I confess that I am more and more tempted to hope lately that maybe I’m just much farther along the gay-straight continuum than I previously thought. I wouldn’t feel freakish about being attracted mostly to women rather than men. But honestly, I think that’s too easy an answer.
I think I’m just wired strangely, for reasons I may never know, or perhaps no reason at all. And — despite what it will cost me — I can’t pretend to be normal anymore.