I grew up in a family that never discussed sex. When I was a teen, there was no “sex talk.” I don’t think my mom and I ever spoke about birth control until after I had a baby.
In the later part of my marriage to Caleb, I wrote an essay that had a refrain: “Everything I learned about sex, I learned from afterschool specials. Everything I learned about sex I learned from church.” That essay was about all of the ways I had opened myself up to others. It was also about all of the ways I had closed my self off. There was a lot of sex in it.
That essay was a litany of shame.
That essay finished with a moment of supposed redemption. I had portrayed myself as the Queen of Swords. In one hand, she holds a sword, but the other hand is reaching out.
The final sentences of the essay read, “We had both found a place where our brokenness could fit, not to keep hurting, but to stop. I didn’t want to be the Queen of Swords anymore. I put down my sword for him. I gave him both hands.”
In some ways, the essay was true, but the ending wasn’t redemptive. I had given Caleb both hands, but I should have kept clutching my sword.
Before I started dating Caleb, I tried to take a poetry class from one of his fellow MFA candidates. That poet was handsome and charismatic: a complete ladies man. I had run into the poet one night at the same bar where I later met Caleb.
It was the Neurolux: a dark, hipster bar with shiny, red booths that were easy to sink into with someone else. The poet sat next to me. I was flattered. He was completely high, but we talked for a while. He kept leaning in closely. He kept saying, “You are so funny. You have such perfect skin.” He reached out and touched my face. “How do you have such flawless skin?” he asked.
The entire encounter was almost funny. Later, a friend said to me, “He’s married. He always falls apart when she leaves him, but they always get back together.”
I felt sad for him then. And also angry. I couldn’t help but understand why his wife would keep leaving him. He seemed like such a womanizer.
Still, when a spot opened up in his poetry workshop, I registered for it. It was his workshop or an 8:30 am workshop, and I am not a morning person. I thought that he had been so high he would have forgotten me.
But, he hadn’t forgotten. When I entered the class, he looked flustered. Then, as we did introductions in a circle, my turn came. He said to the class, “The last time I saw Kelly, I think I was this close to her face.” He held up his hand right in front of his face. He was basically admitting that he had hit on me.
Right there in front of everyone, he looked at me and said, “You really do have nice skin.”
The woman across from me rolled her eyes.
He stared; he smiled. It was all very awkward. I don’t even think he was attracted to me. He just wanted my attention.
Later, he wrote in the margins of my papers, “Bullshit! and “Fuck this!”
It was classic negging.
I told the director of the Writing Center (where I worked as a tutor), and he was appalled. He suggested that I drop the class, even though the drop date had passed. I had to ask for permission, which was embarrassing. I didn’t want to say, “I feel like my teacher is sexually harassing me.” Instead, I just said that the poet was “crude,” that he had made me uncomfortable and written swear words on my papers. The MFA director let me start attending the 8:30 am class as an alternative. Showing up in a new class near midterm was so awkward. Everyone clearly wondered what had happened, but for the most part, I kept my mouth shut.
Still, it was a small community. The poet was friends with Caleb. Soon, Caleb and I started dating. The poet said to Caleb, “She dropped my class because I was crude, but she’s dating you? That makes no sense.”
The poet was right. It made no sense that I had chosen Caleb. I wish I had believed the poet.
The first time that Caleb took me to his cabin in the woods, the other men who lived there treated me like a whore. One of them (a married man with a toddler), said to me, “Does the carpet match the drapes?”
I hadn’t heard that question since I had been in high school, and the boys would yell “fire crotch” down the hallway at me.
The other man who lived there called me, “Fourgasm” because Caleb had told him we’d had sex four times the first time we were together, which felt like a huge violation of my privacy.
I was uncomfortable by their comments, but I was sassy.
I was tough.
I said to the first man, “You will never know whether my carpet matches my drapes.”
I said to the second man, “Caleb is the only one who had four orgasms that night.”
I made them laugh, but I did not make them respect me, and I did not respect myself.
I recently found out that the man who had called me “Fourgasm” had once thrown his girlfriend off of the porch of one of those cabins and broken her arm. This explains why that man, after I left Caleb, was so willing to tell a mutual friend of ours, “Well, I heard that they beat up on each other,” when the friend confronted him about his support for Caleb.
Long before that, Caleb had told me a story about that man and his girlfriend. Caleb had said that the girlfriend was volatile. She was “crazy.” I had only ever found her to be kind and quiet and incredibly subdued, but I chose to believe Caleb.
Caleb said the girlfriend had driven away while the boyfriend was holding on to her car. Caleb looked at me and said, “Can you believe that?”
Only recently did I look back on that story and think, Why on earth was the boyfriend holding on to the car while his girlfriend was trying to get away?
Bros stick together. Bros have each others’ backs.
I will never be one of the bros. I will only ever be one of their bitches.
Caleb has a classic Madonna/Whore complex. He wants women to be either virginal or completely sexual. Caleb sexualized me early on, and I let him because I thought that was what “cool” girls did. I didn’t think highly enough of myself to do otherwise.
Soon, he realized that I was actually quite innocent, and that I was faithful and trustworthy.
Caleb married me because I could be both his Madonna and his whore.
My friends tease me sometimes because they say I have a high sex drive. It might be true. I enjoy sex quite a bit. Am I even allowed to admit that? Are women allowed to admit that? Of course we can admit it in the company of our friends, but are we allowed to admit it publicly? I no longer care. I enjoy sex, and I don’t think that makes me a bad person. I have left behind the ideals of church and afterschool specials. Those ideals never worked for me. Those ideals put me firmly in my abuser’s path.
Caleb and I continued to have good–amazing, actually–sex right until the end of our marriage. This is a difficult thing for me to admit. It is a difficult thing for people to understand. A lot of abusive relationships include rape, but mine didn’t. Instead, mine included a lot of great, consensual sex. At the end of our relationship, we were having more sex than ever.
It was all a manipulation, but I’m not sure whose manipulation it was. It might have been his, but it also might have been mine. The truth was that we didn’t want to leave each other, and we had found a way to ignore the pain. We had sex, then told ourselves it was love.
You know how people refer to “make-up sex” as the best sex ever? Well, that’s how abuse sex was for me.
I know that is fucked up. It is so incredibly fucked up.
But after he hurt me, he held me. And I had never felt so loved.
I do not want to be hurt during sex. That has not become a part of my recovery. It is for some survivors, but it is not for me.
I only want to feel safe.
I am a survivor of domestic violence who enjoys sex, and I am not quite sure how to reconcile these things.
Not dating is a foolproof way to avoid abuse; still, I am a woman who wants to be held.
I am not able to have sex with someone without some kind of emotional connection. This doesn’t mean that I have to be in love with the person. I don’t even have to be in a relationship with them. But I do have to feel something for them.
I have discovered that being respected by my sexual partner is sexy. Intelligence is sexy. Kindness is sexy. A sense of humor is sexy.
But consent is the sexiest thing.
Safety is the sexiest thing.
I have been with other men since Caleb. Each time has been a decision that I made willingly. I have been in control of my own body.
I used to worry that, when I would have sex, I would crack wide open; but I am open, and I have not cracked.
I have not been with very many men since Caleb. I am not making that statement as an apology (it would be perfectly acceptable if I had been with many men), but as an observation. For the most part, I have spent any spare energy that I have focusing on my own emotional growth.
But I have been with some men, and I have had to learn that I am rather inexperienced at all of this. Also, that all of the emotional growth I have been focusing on has helped me realize what I want.
I want to be respected. I want to feel safe. I want to laugh.
I will not rush love because I am confusing it with sex.
Someday, I would like to be loved again. But until that happens, I’ll focus on being respected.
I’ll focus on being safe.