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.