Ok, I need to go on a rant for a minute here.
Well, first of all, hi. Sorry it’s been forever since I’ve updated. It’s been a few weeks and lots of things have been happening. If you’ve been following my photoblog over at http://scenesfrommylunchhour.wordpress.com, it’s at least been a little busier over there.
Secondly, Mom and Dad, if you’re reading, you may want to stop. This entry is going to be of a highly personal nature. I am releasing these thoughts into the ether both because it will be cathartic and comforting to me, and also because it may help someone else stumbling through the internet looking for solidarity on complicated life stuff. But that does not mean it’s something I would ever discuss directly with either of you, even though I love you. But I can’t stop you from reading, so if you want to, you will, and I’m okay with that.
Ok. So I’m ranting a little bit about how much it sucks to be a woman today.
Because I can’t say it as concisely or articulately as hundreds of other people have already said it, I’ll skip the whole part about how women’s sexuality is far too closeted in our society and almost always when it is taken out of the closet (pardon the choice of words, not meant to be a homosexual reference) it’s done in a way that is exploitative and degrading rather than educational or supportive. And I’ll also skip the part about how the lack of open dialogue about the huge range of important topics in women’s sexuality leads to a far higher than should be acceptable rate of incidents of violence against or control of women. It is amazing to me that on the rare occasions I’m talking with one or multiple female friends and feel comfortable enough to discuss my previous experience with sexual violence, how often they come back with confessions of similar experiences, or solidarity of having heard similar stories from other friends. I actually feel like I have more female friends who have experienced sexual violence than who haven’t.
But violence is actually not the point of the post. It’s important setup though. Because what’s hard for people who have never experienced it to understand is how its effects always stay with you, no matter how much time has passed. How there are a number of triggers, some of which are identifiable and can be prepared for , but plenty more that are surprising and unique, that hit you like a mac truck you never saw coming.
Say for instance you are a woman in a relationship with someone, and you are performing a fun and consensual act on your partner – like oral sex. Normally, this would be an act that’s inherently a little more submissive for whomever is on the receiving end, in this case the male, because things like the speed, aggressiveness, technique are all in the woman’s control if she’s making the choice to perform said act. However, as with most sexual acts, there are ways to play with the element of control, and things a man can do to make him feel like he has more control over what’s happening. He can provide verbal instruction. He can place his hands over his partners hand(s), or perhaps along the sides of her face just to feel more participatory. Or, and here’s the toughie, he can choose to hold her head in his hands and control things like speed and depth by forcefully moving her head. Under normal circumstances, this might be totally fine, and even fun, for both people, to playfully take and relinquish control in turn. But I think it’s fair to say that once you have experienced sexual violence, there are no such things as normal circumstances. And a behavior such as the one I just described can suddenly turn an enjoyable consensual activity into a frightening and confusing flashback to previous incidents of sexual violence. Even if the act itself was not a part of that experience initially, just the feelings it evokes can be enough to trigger the memories of those experiences and all their associated trauma. But it’s not like it happens every time that situation occurs, or even any time. The point is that it is random and unpredictable what will trigger a victim, or when those triggers are turned on or turned off.
So the reason for this incredibly detailed and graphic setup is to explain that when a person who has experienced sexual violence chooses to be intimate with someone, it is a REALLY BIG DEAL. Because we are taking a chance that the partner who we are trusting with our sexuality will for starters treat us kindly and as an equal, but furthermore be understanding in the event that a trigger should occur (which, inevitably it will at some point during the sexual relationship, if the actual relationship continues for a lengthy amount of time).
It is both incredibly easy and incredibly hard to make that decision. Easy, because as easy as it is for someone who has never experienced violence to jump into bed with someone they’re really excited about, it is 10 times easier for someone who feels they have diminished rights in a sexual partnership. They jump into bed with someone they’re really excited about because they are conditioned to do so. They understand attraction as something that inevitably leads to sex. But it is incredibly hard because it is frightening as all hell to put that amount of trust in someone, the trust required to experience things as equals and to deal with triggers when they arise. It makes the victim of previous violence feel completely and totally vulnerable. To try to analogize, it’s like saying, “Oh I want to give you a present because I just met you and I like you and want to use gift-giving as a way to help you understand that I like and appreciate you, but oh by the way, this present is actually the most important thing I have to give to someone and please don’t break it or devalue it or throw it away or it might irrevocably crush my spirit and bring back all sorts of trust issues I’ve been trying to work through for 10 years.”
Can you imagine actually saying that to someone? Or how about the real life version of that? Every time I have had to make the words come out of my mouth, it has been a physical challenge. Moving my lips, forming sounds. Saying, “I do want to make love to you, I really do. But I need to warn you about something. Nine years ago I lost my virginity through date rape and was the repeated victim of a controlling person who took advantage of me sexually, and because of that, I still struggle even now to form normal sexual relationships with people. I may react to things we do in ways that are unexpected, or abnormal, or upsetting to you or me. I’m a lot better than I was, and as time goes by I continue to get better, but its something you must know about me in order to engage in this type of relationship with me.” It’s nearly impossible to say. Every time. But it is essential. Open communication is the key to a successful relationship, both in the bedroom and outside of it. And if you can’t be open about something so foundational to your behavior in a sexual relationship, how can you possibly expect it to succeed?
There are arguments to be made that it might be worth waiting a while, until you are more comfortable with the person or have established a solid ground in that department. But to me there are two risks there. First, that a trigger happens before you’ve had the conversation, causing your partner to be (A) uncomfortable because they don’t understand what’s happening, and (B) upset that you didn’t trust them enough to share that information initially. The second risk is that a partner may not believe that your explanation or history is legitimate, or have a harder time understanding it, because they’ve seen you act “normally” in a sexual situation several times already, and can’t reconcile that normalcy with the idea that you may now blow up at any time. It will be harder to compute and therefore seen as an insurmountable impediment, rather than a vague possible threat that you already know how to deal with, if addressed up front. So for these reasons, I see it as essential that potential partners understand what they are facing when they get involved sexually with a former victim.
As we have already discussed, however, this leaves the victim feeling incredibly vulnerable. Not only from the risk-taking inherent to disclosing the history and engaging in the sexual experience, but also the sheer visceral effort required to make the disclosure in the first place. The way your potential partner reacts to this information then becomes critically important, as it will determine if your vulnerability is (partially or fully) soothed or worsened. Furthermore, the way they treat you after your first sexual encounter carries a lot of tension because if that worry has not been completely pacified, the victim will need more positive reinforcement than usual when faced with said vulnerability.
Unfortunately, most people are not in the habit of providing that reinforcement. Nor do they necessarily understand that it’s required. And it can be tough at the start of a relationship, when people are still trying to get to know one another, to say, “Hey I promise I won’t always be like this, but I’m feeling extremely needy right now so can you please let me know that you like me, you’re comfortable with my issues, and you promise you won’t hurt me?” Because the other person doesn’t necessarily know the answers to those questions. That’s what starting a relationship is all about. Getting to know the other person and figuring out if they’re someone you like, you want to become close to, and someone whose issues you can put up with.
So all I’m saying is, as much fun as the start of a new relationship can be, it can really suck too. And as much fun as sex is, it can really suck too. But these challenges are exponentially harder for victims, most of whom unfortunately tend to be women. Add to that the other pressures faced by women in sex and relationships - concerns about body image, sexual performance anxiety, and so on, and you can see how it is just really hard to be a girl sometimes. Relationships are tough. They are high-risk high-reward business. They are putting yourself out there and maybe getting crushed, or maybe getting lifted up higher than you’re ever been. And they are scary as hell.