Trigger warnings for sexual assault and Too Much Information – like, if you’re a member of my family, you probably don’t want to read this.
Five minutes after my first kiss I was hiding in the toilets. “It seemed less awkward to make out with him than tell him I didn’t want to,” I told my friend. “Kate,” she said. “You are the only person who would think that.”
At the time, I believed her. What’s wrong with me? I told myself again and again. I was unaware that my crippling social anxiety was far from unique. At the time, it seemed something to be ashamed of, to hide away from the world at all costs while I pretended to be a happy go lucky teenage girl.
Which is why, a few months later, I found myself in the back of a car with the same boy, trying to remove his hands from my underwear whilst trying to look after a friend on the other side of me, who was throwing up the evening’s vodka onto her lap. With hindsight, I should have turned round and punched him. But I was worried about being impolite.
Trying to do what I was supposed to do, and fear of being judged, has defined most of my sexual experiences.
At school, I just didn’t fancy anyone. I desperately wanted a boyfriend, but couldn’t understand why the thought of going out with anyone who asked filled me with dread. I knew what I was supposed to be doing, and in theory I wanted it to happen. I masturbated a lot, but couldn’t imagine ever having sex with another person. I thought I was a freak.
Fear of the words “frigid” drove me to do a number of things that probably weren’t the best of ideas. One of which was getting drunk on Jack Daniels and Coke at the Sixth Form Ball, before letting a friend stick his tongue in my mouth in a very public place. I don’t think I enjoyed it very much. The only thing I remember thinking was that he didn’t taste as much of cigarettes as I thought he would, given how much he smoked. I then ran away and hid in the toilets, too emotionally immature to face up to talking to him about it.
Needing to be drunk is another defining theme.
In my second year at university, it finally happened. I met a man who I was attracted to who also seemed attracted to me. I had no idea how to deal with this. Nor did he, I don’t think. We spent a few weeks following each other around campus under the guise of helping each other with our Student Union election campaigns. Or maybe he did just want a campaigning partner, I’ve never asked. What I do know is that he made me laugh harder than anyone I’ve ever met. And on election night, when I didn’t get elected, he was the person I wanted to see (even though he had).
The next night, he came to a party at my house and we shared our first kiss. I was terrified, and didn’t want to be left alone with him for very long. Like the boys at school, the thought of kissing him filled me with dread, and for the first few weeks of our relationship I had to be drunk in order to properly make out. I’m not sure I enjoyed it very much.
But then I did, a lot. And realised that the feeling of dread had mostly been fear. As soon as I relaxed, and let myself trust him, it became pretty fun. It continued to be PRETTY FUN for the next two years, but out of respect for his privacy I’m going to leave this story there.
And so, with a sickening realisation, I thought back to the summer before. I had thought I was developing romantic feelings for my best friend, and had told him as much. But when getting together seemed like he might happen, I freaked out and called it off. I dreaded our first kiss, and I took this as I sign that I had mistaken my feelings before. To later realised that the “dread” was anxiety that would have disappeared fairly quickly, was pretty galling. Again, what’s wrong with me? Why do I find it so difficult to do such normal things?
In 2010 I moved to Leamington Spa, for my first proper “adult” job. I finally had the independence and income that I’d longed for, but I felt ashamed that I’d only ever slept with one person. It felt like a secret I had to hide from the world in order to be accepted. I would make up fictional sexual encounters when the topic came up in conversation. I was desperate to bump up my number, which led to some fairly unwise decisions in the years to come.
The biggest, probably, was a relationship with a big-talking, big-spending South African. We had very different ideas how we should live our lives, but I was hugely flattered by his attraction to me. He was one of the cool kids at school, if I could get him to want to be my boyfriend then I must have made it. Right? He turned out to be a bit of an arsehole, but was an awful lot of fun.
He happened to be the first person who called me out on my sexuality. “You’re gay, aren’t you?” “Bisexual” I corrected. “Well,” he said. “You dress like a lesbian.”
I had my first proper kiss with a woman on a shared holiday to South Africa. She was a friend of his, possibly angling for a threesome, but I kept her all to myself. We were in a night club in Stellenbosch. I remember the barman lining up shots on the bar: twelve each. I finished my row first and got high fives from a gang of strangers. What started as dancing led to kissing and hands down trousers and things that are leaving me feeling aroused as I think about it five years later. But then my boyfriend told me it was time for us to go.
On the way back into Cape Town, I gave him a blowjob while he was driving. It was the first time he told me he loved me.
Oddly enough, this wasn’t happily every after, and I found myself single again. The last time I was single I was a geeky, self-pitying 18 year old with an eating disorder and no idea how to dress myself. Now, I discovered that I was the kind of woman who got chatted up in bars. This was kind of mind-blowing.
I don’t regret going home with anybody who offered. But I can admit that these choices came from a place of low self-esteem rather than empowerment. I felt empowered, I was sticking it to anybody who made me feel like a freak who would never get laid while I was a teenager. But by trying so hard to prove that I was the kind of person who had casual sex, I never once thought about whether it was something I actually wanted. I was just doing what I was supposed to do.
It also turned out that I had not outgrown the “it seemed less awkward to do it than tell him I didn’t want to.”
Scenario one. We had been talking back and forth online for a few weeks before we met. I had high expectations: he was a vegetarian charity professional whose hobbies included running and yoga. But as soon as I met him off the train, my heart sank a little bit. I just didn’t find him sexually attractive. Still, we got on well, had a lovely dinner and a few too many drinks. And then.
“So, I’ve missed my last train home now.” He looked at me expectantly. “A taxi is going to cost a fortune.”
With hindsight, I should have said he should have thought of that before he accidentally-on-purpose missed his last train home. But I am nothing if not spinelessly polite. I told him he could stay over at mine, and, to save more awkwardness, I had sex with him.
Wait, it get’s worse.
When I asked him if he had a condom, he told me not to worry because he could pull out, and I DIDN’T PROTEST. I did what was less awkward. I spent £20 on the morning after pill after he’d taken me out for breakfast (I couldn’t get it for free because it was a Sunday, and there wasn’t a pharmacist working in Boots) and took myself off to the sexual health clinic a few weeks later.
Scenario two (this is where you should stop reading if you might be triggered by sexual assault) was another first date with somebody I met online. We had chatted a bit, but not too much, since it’s much easier to get to know someone and establish if you have chemistry with them if you meet them face to face. We met in a pub that I’ve been to a lot, although not since. He quickly finished his first drink before inviting me back to his. I told him that I wasn’t sure, that I needed to be up early the next morning. I felt a bit short changed – we had barely talked at all! He said we could just watch a film and chat. I told him “Well we’re not going have sex because I’m on my period and wearing a mooncup.” I followed him home.
His housemate was in the living room so we went upstairs. Okay, I thought, we can watch a film in his bedroom. We weren’t in his bedroom very long before he had pushed me onto his bed and started to kiss me. I tried to pull away but he was much stronger than me. He took off his clothes. I tried to distract him with a blowjob. Perhaps he thought this was consenting. I just hoped I could make him come before it went any further. It didn’t work. He climbed back on top of me and pushed himself inside. (Huh, I thought, you can have sex with a mooncup in). Struggling was futile so I lay still until he had finished.
“Consent is just a word anyway,” he said. I made my excuses and left. I cried all the way home.*
REAL TALK. I am not saying that anybody gets sexually assaulted because they are too polite and fail to articulate their needs. People get raped or sexually assaulted because other people rape or sexually assault them. End of.
But to me this was a wake up call. To stop drinking so much around strangers, to stop being the laid back cool girl at the expense of protecting myself, and to stop using sex to prove my attractiveness.
Even now, hearing that another woman has had more sexual partners than me makes me feel bad about myself. I measure my attractiveness by what other people think. My number of sexual partners has been an easy way for me to quantify this. When I think that I want to include my rapist in my number of sexual partners to make it sound more impressive, I know something is seriously messed up.
For most of my life, I have been afraid of speaking my mind for fear of being judged as too boring, too uncool, or too weird. But in failing to speak my mind I have put myself into countless uncomfortable positions.
These stories don’t have an easy conclusion, with a neatly tied up lesson for us to learn. I’m pretty embarrassed by my sexual history, how many of my encounters have been not-quite-consensual, and how confused I generally feel about this stuff. I wanted to write about it because a) I find writing about difficult things cathartic and b) even if I can help just one other personal feel less weird or less alone in their struggles then mine will have been worth it.
Things are less scary when they are out in the open, so let’s talk about sex and self-worth and consent and anxiety and everything else that keeps us awake at night.
*I also went to the police. He spent a night in a police cell, but I didn’t press charges. The police basically told me not to because we were on a date. One of the officers said “I wouldn’t want my daughter to act the way that you have.” There’s a much bigger story here to be explored, but I’m more than done for today.