Content Warning: sexual harassment and assault
Image capture by RetyiRetyi.
Sex is fun. I’m always in a good mood afterwards. It’s good exercise. It helps my insomnia, sometimes. So, yeah, I’m a fan. “Who isn’t?” you might ask. Well, past me, actually. I haven’t always enjoyed the idea or the actuality of sex for a lot of my life.
People like to pretend that sex isn’t complicated, that it’s biological, part of any animal’s existence. I agree that the last two points are valid. It is a biological urge. Most animals get it on. But it is complicated for some people. It was for me.
For most of my life I had pretty serious body image issues. I was fat when I was young. I was A LOT taller than most men and women throughout my public school career, and I was often made fun of. I eventually just tuned people out. I stopped caring about other people, what they thought, what they liked. I grew to love what I loved, regardless of what other people thought about me: reading books, taking long walks, writing, acting, and creating art.
Eventually, people caught on that I knew I was fat and stopped caring about the taunts thrown my way. I began to be noticed as a person who was comfortable in her own skin, cool in a geeky way. To the men in my life, I was a buddy, a pal, one of the guys. I wasn’t, after all, worthy of affection in a physical way. I was fat. I was smart, funny and geeky. But I was not hot. That was the message I got, anyway.
Until my Junior year of high school, when, suddenly, I lost weight. I was pretty with the weight on, but afterwards people started talking, treating me differently. Before that point, I was the funny sister of a very hot older sister, who was a blonde, busty cheerleader. People told me how much I resembled my brother. If I ever revealed that I had a crush on a boy I was kindly, gently let down. “I feel like we’re better friends. You’re one of my best buddies. Let’s not ruin that.”
Not after the weight dropped, though. “You’re getting skinny, Hannie,” my mom said. “You’re getting too thin, darlin’” my grandpa confirmed. He’d always treated me as pretty, but when he looked at me now, he looked worried. But I hadn’t done anything but hit puberty late. I didn’t know where that worry stemmed: from a man who knew men.
Suddenly, I had too many offers to contend with. Men my older sister’s age were hitting on me, sending me inappropriate texts, telling me what they wanted to do to me. For the most part, I was mystified. At worst, I was grossed out and upset. Those talks left me feeling dirty, like that call at my dad’s house so many years ago.
I was six and a man called my dad’s landline. I picked up. “Who is this?” He used my father’s name, but my dad was in the chair behind me. David couldn’t be his name. My David, my dad, never said the things this man was saying. Like what he liked to do to little girls. He told me he’d like to see me in little girl high heels in red or pink and he’d take down my panties and do fun things to me. But it didn’t sound fun to me. It sounded like sickness and it made me nauseous, dizzy and scared. My palms sweated as I threw the receiver down. My father asked what was wrong, he held me while I cried. I never told him what the man said. Only that I didn’t like it. I never told him this, but I was afraid of him that day. Not because he deserved it, but because his name was David and the man on the phone was David. And after that day, I hated the colors red and pink and avoided dressing like a girl. Just in case.
That’s how those texts from men felt to me as a new woman, too. When I was 17 a man came up behind me and slapped my ass when I was just trying to bowl. I slapped his face in return, but the anger, the fight didn’t erase the touch. I used to hate my fat, hate how it made me look. But I didn’t like my new body either. It made me feel dirty. It made me feel like a target. And I wanted no part of it.
Until I dated one of my best friends and his touch was wonderful, and his kiss was a part of me. I liked that he loved how I looked, even though we didn’t last. He made me feel beautiful, not dirty, because he touched me like I was sacred. And maybe that’s why I was so sad when we split. No other man made me feel safe. But I’ll always love that he set the bar high, gave me hope. Women need that. They need to see how it can be.
I dated an older man, after him, who wanted me so much he’d tell me he touched himself before I came over, so he’d behave. But that confession made me feel like he’d touched me instead. It made me feel disrespected. When I went to college, boys from my high school would friend me on Facebook. They weren’t who I thought they were. A dick pic later, unwanted advice about how I should touch my own body, and I wondered if there were any men out there who’d not make me feel dirty or fat or unloved or wanted in the wrong way.
I went to my first party at 19. I was lonely and trying to make friends in an unfamiliar town. None of that should matter when it comes to consent. My friend was drunk. She didn’t hear me tell her cousin that I didn’t want to have sex, that I was a virgin, that I wanted to stay that way. But she sat with me the next day, when I was no longer myself or I was pieces of myself. It was my first time drinking. It made me tired. I thought he was offering me a place to sleep, but I learned the hard way that he’d been feeding me drinks for another reason. He said he loved me after, and though I couldn’t love him, I no longer loved me either. So I stayed with a man I didn’t love. I stayed with a man who treated me not much differently than the man on the phone, the man at the bowling alley, the dick pics and the pricks.
I met my husband not long after that day. He was soft spoken, shy, and sweet. He struck me as the kind of person that most women call a friend because they are morons. And I wanted him. His body, his heart, his hand in mine. And he saw the hurt I tried to hide and was a gentleman. The first time he touched my naked body, his hands shook. Like I was a masterpiece he was afraid of breaking. And he still touches me that way. Sometimes it’s fire and passion and sweat. But his touch is still light, still just right. And it’s because, I learned, that there’s respect behind it. People always swoon over the idea of love. But there can be love without respect. It’s just not enough.
20 lbs heavier than when we married, I’m bombarded, still, by dick pics, pick-up lines and inappropriate comments. I get rape threats in my author inbox, and I shrug them away. Those fake Davids don’t scare me anymore. I’m not a little girl. I am not a new woman, either. I am used to the expectations and the shit, and I discard most of it. I wish it were different. I hope the world my son & daughter grow up in is full of men who touch, talk and love with underlying respect. But I’ve not seen it yet. So I will talk to them about sex and respect and love and respect and make sure they know it’s all tied together. Without respect, our images of ourselves and others is warped and wrong. It took me too long. But now I know.