Modern Sex

“You’re making me feel like I’m forcing myself on you,” he says, pulling the waistband of my leggings down around my hips. After tugging my clothes in the other direction, having already turned away from him in bed, I finally grab his hand and push his clammy fingers away from my body. This doesn’t deter him – but in my experience, that’s never been enough.

“Women who say ‘no hookups’ are almost always willing to fuck on the first date,” my friend with benefits told me. Despite this and his many other absurd observations, he was the fuck boy that ultimately broke my heart – and hardened what remained, to the point someone would later describe me to his friends as “hilarious, but covered in blood splattered armor.”

When I met him, I was ready to love and desperate to be loved. Over time, he made me realize the truth about dating: women do not win this game.

Later in the same year, a guy I was dating who didn’t allow me to leave his home for work before having unprotected sex with me more than once, echoed the same belief. “They put in the app that they don’t want a hookup, but they’re always down to come back home with me,” he had said, during a conversation comparing me to the lesser members of my sex. His criteria for a woman worthy of a relationship was vague and did not factor in his own shortcomings. Lucky me, I thought.

With both men, I was an idea, shaped to fit the category that best suited their own lives. And with both, at various points, I wondered if they realized I was a person, a woman who struggled every day for her autonomy and independence and happiness, rather than a gaping hole where they could stuff their emotions and their dicks.  

Because I don’t know how he’ll respond to the truth (so, you turned out to be pretty fucking weird and offensive, but I’m here and I’m tired), particularly after listening to his drunken rants about eating disorders and how his sister never loved him (how did I get here again?), I lie and tell him I don’t like to have sex when both parties are inebriated.

“I’m not drunk,” he protests. (They always do that, don’t they? That, or it’s some variation of “I don’t have a problem.” Grown, financially independent men who choose alcohol over therapy – gotta love ‘em.)

Am I just a walking sheath? Dump yourself into me, is that what my expression reads? Your baggage, your cum. I can’t imagine anything better than the burden of a broken man who is not aware that their brokenness is not special, unique, that I too suffer and desire and need and that I am not a sieve, I do not catch the shit and the debris so they can leave with the best parts of themselves.

“You ladies say no when you really mean yes,” another man told me, back when I was dating around, aimless and half-heartedly seeking a distraction from Mr. Fuck Boy. The context of his proclamation was troubling, to say the least: he had just rolled off of me after using me like a pump and dump and was sweating profusely onto my sheets. I did not want to have sex, but our night concluded with him finishing on my stomach despite my protests.

Of course, I had experience allowing my mind to slip away from my body, so it wasn’t all that bad, him fucking me even as I said no. For three and a half years, the span of my last serious relationship, I thought it was normal for men to harass you until you gave in, that it was up to you to say no even after you already did, to stop something with words that already failed you. So when this man violated me, I channeled apathy because the alternative was to blame myself.

In the past, I’ve given myself over to the wheedling of men. But I’m exhausted in a new way, unable to bear the thought of yet another disappointment, another trip home feeling disgusted because it was safer to say yes.

Maybe it’s because I’m tipsy, but I think to myself that I’d rather die than let another man take off my clothes when I just wanted to sleep. If trying to connect with another person culminates in exchanging my bodily autonomy for safety, I can’t do this anymore anyway. If the choice is between being alone and playing some kind of rapist Russian roulette with men, then let one of them just fucking kill me already so I can be done with this game.

You could’ve just said no. You could’ve been firmer with me. You’re responsible for your own safety. Why didn’t you just leave? It’s your fault. Slut.

“I’m going to leave,” I say. I don’t wait for a response before I abandon his bed, because after a decade, I can act on what I know. Whether casual lover or girlfriend or something in between, men choose – no, control – when you are a person and when you are a thing.

Abuse and Selfishness

Mid-March, freelance writer Richard Greenhill contacted me to discuss a Reddit post I made about my then boyfriend, as he was interested in writing about cuckolding and hotwife fetishes.

If you’ve read my blog, you already know from some of my earlier pieces that my ex of three and a half years was obsessed with sexual fantasies involving me and other men. (You can read Your Bulimic Girlfriend, Wedding Bells, and/or The Bulimic and the Sex Addict if you want more insight.) While having particular kinks is not bad by any means, my ex took things to an entirely new level, where our sexual activities included (almost from day one) demands for me to change my body (get implants, plastic surgery, dye my hair, get my nails done, do my makeup so it’s “sluttier,” and all sorts of things), as well as his articulation of strange and dangerous scenarios at gas stations, glory holes, and more. I didn’t enjoy this; we fought often about his inability to talk about any other subject. Sometimes I had the nerve to bring up how sexually unsatisfied I was, my needs and wants elided by his all-consuming fetish, only to suffer through the same one-sided sex talk later that day. To make matters worse, he never respected my boundaries, or when I told him “no.” He would continuously beg me to help him get off, whining and needling me, and not allow me to go to sleep until he got his way. Whenever I dug my heels in (which wasn’t often), he’d become increasingly manipulative. He would tell me that rejecting him made him feel unloved, especially because I was so terrible at showing my affection in any arena outside of sex.

Looking back at my Reddit post, where I asked for relationship advice and reassurance that his behavior was not OK, I cringe. Writing the above, and knowing that I endured his sex addiction despite the pain it caused me, makes me feel like a fool. My post to Reddit wasn’t even completely honest: I wrote that our relationship was fine aside from our sex life. Well, it wasn’t, even aside from the relentless sexual coercion I faced. I developed Bulimia during the course of dating him. I was financially dependent on him, having gone back to school at his urging, and was reminded every day that I should feel lucky and grateful to have his (or his family’s) roof over my head. Prior to leaving for residential treatment at Renfrew for my eating disorder, he had cheated on me. He was still talking to the girl when I came back, hiding that he had a live-in girlfriend.

Even during my time at Renfrew, when I was supposed to be healing and focusing on myself, he’d ask anytime I called him if I told my therapist about “how we are sexually.” I didn’t even tell my truth when in the best setting to do so, as I subconsciously knew that my treatment team would likely intervene. (My therapist was already concerned I wouldn’t do well in recovery, given that he was such poor support, and that was without her knowing the more gruesome details of our relationship.) Worst of all, when I left for residential treatment, we had promised we’d both work on our compulsive behaviors – and while I took the steps I needed, he spent my two weeks in a psychiatric unit for damaged girls and women watching cuckold porn and talking to the chick he cheated on me with.

These are not details I discussed with Richard. His Vice article, published earlier this month, focuses on when the cuckold and hotwife fetish puts strain on a relationship, and uses my story as one example (among a few others). After writing about my experience at Richard’s request, the part of our conversation he featured in his article is the conclusion I came to as I tried to answer some of his questions. Cuckold/hotwife fantasies differ from other fetishes because they involve the objectification of both your partner and the relationship between you. (Striped socks have nothing on this kink.) In understanding this, I also understand how many red flags I ignored as I fell deeper and deeper into a shared life with a sex addict. I could rattle off the list, but they all suggest the same thing: he didn’t see me as a person, and he was selfish.

While the men featured in Richard’s article were able to identify wrongness in their obsession (even if they couldn’t overcome it), experiencing – much like my ex – an inability to be intimate with their significant other, my boyfriend of three and a half years was unable to acknowledge the damage he inflicted. Not just on me, but also on himself. As part of his unwillingness to handle his sex addiction, he lied and cheated and manipulated. When we ultimately broke up, the story he told didn’t include three and a half years of sexual harassment. He didn’t tell people how he made me feel insecure by constantly demanding that I change my body, how I dress, and even how I do my makeup. No, the story he told was that I was a crazy girl with an eating disorder. Because disclosing my medical history (even the “crazy” part) to everyone we knew mutually (and those he met afterward) was more OK, and more socially acceptable, than acknowledging his role in destroying my sense of self.

Don’t mistake writing about my ex as dwelling on a situation I’ve left behind. While it’s only been a little over a year, I normally don’t think of him outside of trying to create a poem or some prose based on a period of my life that was emotionally rich. There are triggers, of course: I’m angered whenever I feel like someone is controlling what I can say or do, since my relationship also involved trying to control how I dressed and behaved outside of sex. There are also areas in which I’ve grown as part of my experience, as much as I hate to admit it. I’m not quiet when I feel wronged, and I’m learning how to express myself. I stand by my opinions. And I am likable this way, even if my ex made me fear that I’d have even less of a life simply by being myself, that I needed to be quiet and demure to be both loved and liked.

As much as I attempt to move on, however, I’m in recovery. It means that even if I’ve put the past behind me, I’m still dealing with how a sexually abusive relationship affected this present version of myself. Due to my abusive father, I went into my adulthood with an inability to distinguish healthy relationships from unhealthy ones. And then I stumbled into my ex after a relatively OK marriage (where the man I was involved with made me feel lovable and worthy of love for the first time in my life, even if things ultimately ended between us). My ex undid a lot of the progress I made, and he undid it gradually. So when I decided to leave him, I was somewhat lost.

Although I’ve attempted to rebuild my life instead of allowing it to fall apart, I’ve made mistakes. I thought being upfront about my past would protect me to some degree. I wanted to know what it was like to have fun, to live. I also didn’t want to get hurt. So I was fun, and I tried to weigh the risk of being vulnerable and being hurt against the reward of finding love. In the trysts I fell into since, I learned that being hurt and finding that you’re still capable of being vulnerable enough to offer your heart to another are not mutually exclusive. But it’s also scary, sometimes, to see how little progress I’ve made in identifying my own boundaries. I only see evidence that they looked at the partial picture and intentionally avoided the strokes that didn’t fit their fantasy after the fact. I’ve let the reasons they used to justify their bouts of selfishness be the seeds of doubt. I’m not good enough.

At this point, nearly fourteen months after leaving a relationship I thought would culminate in marriage, I want my core belief to be that these people were not good enough for me, leave alone worth the time I invested in them. This is the benchmark of recovery, the thought that will let me say, I’m an abuse survivor, and not an active victim.

Change

I put my change in a mason jar

A piece for every lie you told

Bar the most important one

Love’s Lessons

In our time apart, we grew closer; words eclipsed distance faster than our feet covered ground. With each infatuation, I learn something new about myself. You taught me that love, in its infancy, is easiest when miles separate the subject from the object of a verb.

Age of the Water Bearer

From the beginning, you journeyed for a more favorable sign. Still, I adored the problem that was you, even as the trials became more than I could bear. I was challenged through my hope to divert your path to my constellation. In the end, I did myself no favors. The mythology of “us,” by way of oral tradition, remembers me reckless, elides the contradictions that passed your lips.

I lost my own course in chasing you, water bearer. You were immutable and animated by air, drawing oxygen from the lungs of nymphs. At times, I felt your equal. More often, you reminded me that I was not. You did not desire complementary angles; the shape you sought in the stars overlapped with yours, as if you needed some version of a her that reinforced your bones.

Even as the sun’s proximity to Venus predicted our lives would decouple more abruptly than the event of their crossing, I was unprepared for your absence. Devastated by loss and to lose. And I’m more sorry than your audience will ever know, both for myself and (as time goes on, less) for you. Because you see, I never wanted to fall in love.

LCD Soundsystem

Vibrations travel through the heels of my boots, intermittently and inconsistently interrupted as I take a few strides. I pause more often than I’d like to find a direction that will bring me back to Mike. The venue is crowded; what little air exists between and above the bodies of LCD Soundsystem’s fans is cloying. Whenever I can’t uncover an opening between the throngs of people, I stop, pivoting to change course. Part of me considers simply abandoning my date and enjoying the show on my own: I’m not sure he’s worth the trouble of discovery. But he drove us to Brooklyn, and I don’t trust that I’ll find my way back to Harrison on my own.

I commend myself for recognizing my own discomfort, for not pushing away the bits and pieces that tell me to enjoy myself but to not let this man into the interior of my life. I count two accusations of lusting after other people that I’m not sure are jokes, and one awkward conversation about our feelings on political correctness. (He’s not a fan, he told me. Most white men aren’t, I’ve found, and I’m not surprised.) Still, I can be polite and enjoy a good show. So however much it tests my patience, I continue through the venue, eventually finding the balcony’s stairway.

The way he looks at me doesn’t hurt. I may not think he’s handsome, but I could tell from the moment we hugged how pleased he was to see me.

If I were to be honest with myself, I’d admit that it’s intoxicating to know that I’m desired, even when I’m certain that I don’t want them. My high is a positive correlation, in terms of the lust in their eyes. But it’s the most innocent of my addictions, and I’ve worked on myself enough for the year.

So rather than dwelling on my inadequacies, I decide to enjoy this version of myself. This is me in my element, I think, finally reaching the upstairs balcony. A year ago, I wasn’t in a position to brave the crowd brought in by Brooklyn Steel, locked away with girls and women terrified by the relationship between their death wish and the calories they (had not) consumed. And on this exact date, Scott visited me with his mother. Today, on December 26th, I remember the impatience that infested his bones like termites, his leg jumping as he sat on my therapist’s couch. I can even remember Nicole’s assessment of my then boyfriend after our session, nearly verbatim: As hesitant as I am to tell you this, I have my own fears that you’ll go home and not succeed. Both are memories I recall more clearly than his appearance. In a way, I’m pleased.

I break from my brief reverie when I bump into another concert-goer and hear their “fuck” in response. After I dart to the left, wanting to avoid the assignation of “culprit” regarding his spilled drink, I reach what I had previously identified as the best spot on the balcony. I now see that I’ve caught Mike’s eye, my date standing a few feet away, and a flash of white teeth breaks up his doughy head. His face suddenly reminds me of a dog that has dropped a toy at my feet, the grin akin to the lopsided expression of most canines: even without words, he is able to demonstrate that he’s absurdly and ridiculously pleased with himself.

At the time, I don’t realize that this is the wrong comparison.

 

Trauma is not finite, I learn. This too shall pass, my ex-husband used to tell me. So I wait under Mike’s body, feeling like something of a corpse as his stomach flops against mine.

When “no” ceased to work, I started to distract myself with a variety of thoughts, most of them revolving around dating. The sound his body makes brings me to the absurdity of my own insecurities when meeting men. In addition to sounding like a wet sponge hitting the wall, he’s overplayed his alleged commitment to the gym, his body more Rubenesque than my own. Like many men with thinning head hair, it’s as if the strands that once belonged to his skull migrated downward and then somehow multiplied exponentially.

Scott taught me that it’s easier to give up and give in when a man will not accept your protests. Silence will be easiest, and it ensures he’ll leave. But in addition to feeling dirty, I also feel stupid. Where’s your roommate? he had asked me early on, before we had even reached the venue. When he brought me home and I was ready to leave his car, he asked to use my bathroom. I allowed him into the apartment.

I didn’t think this is how my night would end, sweating under his weight, waiting for his grunting to stop.

And even then. Even then. He finishes and rolls off of me, prone on my bed, likely to leave a large sweat stain on the spot I usually sleep. He laughs. “Girls are so confusing,” he says. “They say no, but they really want it.”

I want to scream. I don’t.

Contortionist

For too long, I played the contortionist, bending without breaking until I fit the shape of the scripts you provided. My existence in your life was carefully curated and intentionally finite. Amber, you were fun. You were easy. Even then, my performance was reviewed in the context of your narrative, my character some reduction of fiction designed only to advance the plot.

But no woman wants to live as someone else’s story. When I refused to be reduced, you destroyed the version of me you created. Worse, you were vindictive over my exit from the role; you made me doubt that I could live as more than just a subplot, too desperate in my need to be at the center of the tale and too broken to deserve it.

A Weekend in January

I thought about the story my father told me, of when I was a toddler playing with a “shape sorter,” surrounded by plastic figures, a small box with matching holes in front of me. I said my first string of words as I tried to shove a square block against a round opening: “Jesus Christ!” Whether my father’s story was true or not, I had no idea — given his lifelong hobby of humiliating my mother, I was apt to believe the tale was meant to shame her for cursing around his children. Our daughter’s first phrase, a blasphemy! But fact or fiction, trying to fit into spaces that would only reject me was a common thread in my life. I viewed the story as part of my own personal mythology, as it explained something that was otherwise difficult for me to comprehend. Instead of putting effort towards aligning myself with something or someone that fit, I began my new chapters by knowing they’d end in failure — and that frustration would define the space in between the beginning and end.

Gemini to Gemini

Reality is created in the culmination of our experiences, I told Scott. What we call logic is pieced together. A tapestry suggests intention; as a metaphor, it’s also trite. No, logic is more like an installation of scattered stars, the universe from an abstract view. Our thoughts are nebulae and black holes. They’re formed and reborn as they pass through time. How we reason, and all the things we pretend to understand, cannot contain supernovas, cannot bypass the gravity of passing meteors.

You overthink everything, Amber, he said. I wondered how often I disappointed him, the course of my reality set in opposition to his own.

In knowing Scott, I began to wonder – when a Gemini is born a twin, are they less than half a whole? We all enter this world under fire, our dispositions determined by the placement of the sun. With two Geminis, there are four minds. But he always feared himself a fraction, dependent on his brother’s shadow. I’m afraid my friends only invite me out because I’m his twin, Scott had told me. The universe didn’t anticipate you, I wanted to respond. You’re not broken. You were simply born incomplete.

Of course, I knew to keep this to myself: he never spoke to me for my opinion. In his reality, a woman’s orbit circled his needs. We reflected his light, but not out of love. No, to satisfy his need to finally feel like the sun, he diminished our potential, allowed us only to be stone and never stars.