Sex, Love, and a Caricature of Autonomous Choice
The normalization of toxic traditions and cultural expectations in romance.
As I sit here shamelessly eating half of a chocolate banana cream pie for breakfast at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, it occurs to me that I’ve never given myself much consideration in romantic relationships. I’ve been living my life as though my purpose is to make other people happy. I’m 37 years old, and I am only just now fully internalizing the belief that I deserve to find what makes ME happy.
This realization leaves me questioning my entire life. Why have I been doing this? Is there anything in my life I’ve done just for me, and not out of pure survival but for happiness? What the fuck is wrong with me that it took so long to unravel this seemingly easy-to-grasp concept that I might actually be worthy of real happiness and more specifically that I deserve a happy and satisfying connection with another human being?
As, I believe, any avid feminist would agree, I feel the fault lies unquestionably amid our culture’s obsession with perceived sexual, romantic, and gender defaults.
What I learned about love.
My parents were fifteen and sixteen when they conceived my older brother and they were married soon after. Growing up, my mother often told me that she and my father knew they were in love right away, that it was Love at First Sight™. She taught me that when it comes to finding the right partner — “You’ll just know.” My father never said anything on the topic, or any topic for that matter.
The only other romantic relationship anyone ever talked about was that of my paternal grandparents. My grandmother was engaged when she met my grandfather and three days later she married my grandfather instead. So again, a Love at First Sight™ situation.
And don’t even get me started on Disney.
When the other kids my age were starting to date, these examples were the body of information I had to work with. Little did I know, I was a gray-sexual kid who wouldn’t experience the beginning of puberty until 17 years old and my panromantic interests would be extremely slow to emerge, and it wouldn’t be until my early twenties that I would first experience a sexual attraction toward anyone. But sure, during a time when social media wasn’t a thing and we lacked access to this language, let’s tell the kid she’s just gonna look at someone and instantly determine romantic compatibility and be super into it. What could possibly go wrong?
What went wrong.
Everything. It turns out it’s not a great idea to go around convincing kids that they’re supposed to be a certain way. I thought I was broken. I thought I just wasn’t good enough to be able to identify whatever it was other people seemed to be seeing in order to determine a potential romantic partner. I thought maybe I didn’t deserve to feel whatever magical feelings everyone was on about, maybe I hadn’t earned it yet. Or maybe I was just a bad person and had no real feelings at all.
I was too embarrassed to admit my defective sense of romance to anyone, so I just tried to do what I thought I was supposed to do. Since I felt the same way about everyone (which was nothing, I felt nothing for everyone), I dated anyone that expressed an interest in me. I felt out of place, broken, fake, empty, and alone. Every moment felt like I was outside of wherever everyone else was. I felt like an alien that had crash landed in a peculiar land and I lacked the skill set to survive the unfamiliar environment. I hated me. I hated existing with these people. My self-worth became attached to my ability to mimic being a member of a club I didn’t understand or even like.
What I learned about sex and my body.
Hollywood is certainly to blame for a significant portion of society’s fixation on penis-centric sex and teaching girls and women that our bodies are objects for men to use to masturbate with, but my father really set that concept in stone for me. My father has always loved his porn. He literally had a room packed full of porn magazines, thousands, maybe tens of thousands of Hustler, Penthouse, Playboy… you name it, he had it. One day, when I was probably around nine or ten years old, my parents were fighting — and by ‘fighting’ I mean that my mother was really upset and my father laid on the bed reading his Penthouse — and my mother said “You never touch me anymore, all you care about is looking at those magazines” to which he replied by opening the centerfold to display to my mother while saying, “Well, if you looked like this I wouldn’t have to.”
So there I was, as a young girl, knowing without a doubt that if I am to find this instant thing called love I will have to learn from these magazines to be worthy of anyone’s affection. I would study those magazines every chance I could. I’d sneak downstairs at night to obsess over every image and word instead of sleeping.
Eventually, Internet was a thing and I had access to more information than I could ever consume. I launched a massive research project that would last for years. I was tormented with the need to know how to become the ideal sexual tool I was obligated to be.
To top off the belief that my body existed to please others was the years of being molested by my grandfather followed by the repeated sexual abuse by the councilor on the bus to church, the older boy that lived up the street, the older girl that would babysit me, and the boy in gym class at school. Reinforced later by the typical street harassment most every woman experiences and the parade of persistent Nice Guys annoyed by my ‘friend-zoning’ them.
How this influenced my relationships.
In the beginning…
The first person to express a romantic interest in me was a boy that lived in the neighborhood and would often have his mother give my mother gifts for me that he would get from quarter machines. Plastic watches, stickers, your basic finds for a ten or eleven year old. When he said he liked me, I didn’t understand at first what he meant. Once I figured it out, I didn’t believe him. He had been my friend, but I couldn’t believe that it was possible for him to like me. I wasn’t even sure if I was allowed to accept affection. I wasn’t at all the person I was supposed to be, so clearly this was a cruel trick being played on me. I literally ran away from him into my parent’s house and never spoke to him again.
The first person I had romantic involvement with was Eugene, in eighth grade. He wanted to sit with me at lunch. Then he wanted to hold my hand at lunch. Then he started writing me love letters. I thought it was weird. I didn’t understand them. I was suspicious of him because I couldn’t figure out his purpose for saying all those nice sweet things to me. I didn’t keep a single letter. I threw them away as soon as I read them. After a month of holding hands and reading his letters, he died, drowned on a family vacation. I wasn’t even upset by it. I didn’t feel close to him nor did I feel like I knew him well. Only later, in adulthood, would I realize regret for not appreciating his emotional openness and shame for not remembering his last name.
Eventually I would have many relationships with many people. I would have sex when I didn’t want to because I thought I had to or because I didn’t know how to say ‘no’, or maybe I didn’t know I could say ‘no’. I would be pressured into actions and relationships I didn’t want, on a regular basis, feeling a sense of obligation to perform and make others happy. This was, after all, my purpose as a female.
I would later decide to date women because maybe the reason I didn’t feel this ‘love’ everyone was talking about was because I was dating dudes. I would eventually develop my first romantic attraction. It turned out she liked me as well, so we began dating. I didn’t know how to please her sexually because as far as I knew, sexual pleasure was for men. I didn’t even really think about it because I wasn’t sexually attracted to her. I wasn’t sexually attracted to anyone. But I wanted to kiss her and hold her and tell her how great I thought she was. Eventually she tired of my lack of interest in a sexual relationship with her and she moved on, while I remained oblivious to the idea that my body didn’t belong to men.
In my early twenties I would experience my first time of being sexually attracted to someone. I thought, “This is it, this is the thing everyone’s been talking about. This must be Love at First Sight™, this must be the person I’m to spend the rest of my life with.” Why he got just as caught up, I’m not sure, but less than two months after meeting him we were married. A few months into the marriage he started losing his temper often. I’d put the sugar on the wrong shelf in the cupboard so he’d throw something across the room. Or I would have an opinion different than his, so he would pin me to the floor to scream into my face nose-to-nose because that’s what I needed to ‘get it through my thick skull’ that his opinion was right. This cycle would repeat about once or twice a week for the next three years. I married him and I took that very seriously, and after all I was supposed to be forgiving. Coming from a physically and emotionally abusive childhood, it felt pretty normal. Eventually it would become more than I could handle, and I would divorce him.
I would date more people, many of which were not very nice to me. I then became fast friends with a coworker. He and I would share a bond over social anxiety and develop a codependency on one another for enduring social situations. We would talk all day every day and after a couple of years I would experience love for another human being for the first time in my life. That’s when I learned what it was like to really know another person and to feel understood. That connection was the most important thing in the world to me. But he was an alcoholic and was only romantically interested in me when he was drunk. I let him destroy my emotional state for quite some time with the bouncing back and forth between ‘he loves me’ and ‘he didn’t want to acknowledge my existence’. But I’m grateful for him, nonetheless. If not for him, I would have never known what it takes for me to feel connected with someone. I wouldn’t have known that I need an extraordinary level of openness and vulnerability from a partner. And from then on, I would end relationships quickly if I didn’t feel we were able to communicate as openly as I needed. That terribly unhealthy relationship was probably my first step toward a more healthy perspective on dating.
I went on to a few more short, yet slightly more empowered relationships and even began to realize that sex and romance were different things, both of which I began to believe I deserved as much as my partner did.
The final wake-up call…
I then met a man that was very pushy on our first date and talked a lot about his fuck buddies. I declined a second date because he had made me uncomfortable being so handsy and he didn’t seem interested in a monogamous relationship, which is what I was looking for. We agreed to remain friends and he continued to come to my weekly game nights. Eventually he would convince me that he was just nervous and said things he didn’t mean because he was trying to impress me and that he really did want the kind of relationship I was looking for. That was all easy for me to believe because I know I’ve said things I didn’t mean out of nervousness before, so who was I to judge? I went on more dates with him.
I felt we were getting to know each other deeply and he said everything I needed to hear. He felt safe, comfortable, and familiar. After less than two years of steadily dating we got married. Six months later I would discover that he had been cheating on me (physically, sexting, phone sex, video chats, pretty much any way you can think of) with over thirty women. Some were his friends that he had me hanging out with, some craigslist pickups, some sex workers. And it had been going on long before he had met me. He fooled me into thinking my concerns about his disinterest in monogamy were imagined. He convinced me that when I felt like these ‘friends’ of his didn’t like me, that I was experiencing excessive jealousy. I was spending time researching what was wrong with me and how to fix myself. I went right back to feeling broken and out of place while trying to figure out how to make someone else happy.
It turned out that he was a sex addict, but more importantly he was a highly skilled conman that had been living a complete double-life. Everything I thought we connected on was just a calculated algorithm of conversation progression that he had with every woman to get what he wanted from them. I was simply one of many. I just happened to be the one who bought into it enough to marry him.
It wasn’t until I was talking with a friend about it later that I realized my first husband had also been a sex addict and that my father was as well. I had been such easy prey for this conman because the behaviors and environment were very familiar to me. It all felt normal, like it was supposed to, so it was easy for it to go unnoticed.
So, what now?
Now, I acknowledge that I have been living my life under the influence of unhealthy social pressures and forgive myself for walking into so many harmful relationships. I do this by understanding it takes time to learn that everything you’ve been taught about this area of life is a lie and no one can be expected to inherently know this.
Then, I get angry. I get angry that I was forced to learn this all the hard way. I get angry for all the others that are being forced to figure it out this way right now. I get angry at parents being pissy about schools teaching comprehensive sex ed classes who then turn around and teach their kids they’re supposed to be straight, cis, and monogamous, find Love at First Sight™, and want nothing more than to make someone else happy at the cost of their own happiness while frantically trying to get married and make babies.
When we spend our entire lives being brainwashed it’s laughable to consider anything we do a real choice.
Stop limiting the conversation about romance to perceived societal defaults that are far from the reality of the diversity of gender, sexual, and romantic identities and orientations. You’re ruining your kid’s life.
Finally, I fucking own it.
I am too trusting.
I always assume the best in people.
My level of optimism is unhealthy.
And I don’t care. I’m going to keep being this person. But now, with the addition of focusing on myself. I deserve to be happy and to never settle again for less than exactly what I want. I don’t want to stop trusting people, I want to find someone who deserves my unconditionally trusting nature. I don’t want to assume the worst in people, I want to find someone who never has questionable intentions. And I will always be ridiculously optimistic and be excited about love interests from the get go, seeing nothing but the good in them and the possible happy life that could come from knowing them, instead of timidly approaching them with suspicion and fear.
I deserve a happy and healthy relationship with someone that I’m romantically and perhaps even sexually attracted to that I can play, explore, and connect with, who accepts me as I am — An extremely open, unshaven, anxiety ridden, angry feminist, who doesn’t want kids, and is wandering with no attachments to a place, while just wanting to enjoy life before it’s over.
And the world can just fuck off with it’s expectations about what I’m supposed to want and do with my life, my body, and my affection.