Part One: Uncharted Territory (When You Don’t Have Enough Self-Esteem to Navigate)
“Sex had been a faraway country to her once.”
This is a line taken directly from a short story I had published about a young woman who must make a tough life decision. That line in turn was taken from a crappy poem I had written about myself. Except in the poem, the line is in the present tense and firstperson POV. And in life, the same holds true:
Sex is a faraway country
And I am a foreigner.
Which is a fancy wannabe-poetic way of saying, I’m a virgin. Or, if you want to eliminate the misogynistically perverse connotations that come with that word, I am a person who has not had sex. And before you attempt to challenge the heteronormative implications of that, I have not ever (as of this moment) been a giver or receiver of oral sex, or digital sex, or even ear sex (sorry, I swear that will be the first and last joke I ever take from Family Guy).
So yeah. No sex of any kind. Why?
Very good question, and very complicated (even if 90% of the complicatedness stems from my unfailing ability to overanalyze everything). There are some things I am willing to discuss, and others I will decline to share in too much detail. But first things first: my “virginity” has nothing to do with wanting to wait until marriage, (why wait for something I distrust and am conceptually against, but that’s a whole ‘nother post) nor does it involve any personal religious inclinations (again, another institution to distrust, another post for later–maybe).
Really, the easiest explanation for my lack of sexual experience is that I’m a twentysomething hetero woman stumbling her way through life on a road less traveled by men.
In the story I mentioned earlier, Tamara, the protagonist, briefly recalls the cruel things her mother would say to her about female sexuality. Those words were, borderline transverbatim, things my own mother would say to me and my sister over the years, as we grew from blissfully ignorant little girls into bittersweetly aware young women. The shame that Tamara had internalized from her mother is the shame that weighs me down to this day. According to my mom, showing skin automatically meant that you were a slut, a terrible woman with no morals, a woman who wanted men to take her dignity and self-worth by having sex with her.
Anytime the slightest hint of PG-rated kissing occurred in some TV show or movie we were watching, my mother was quick to vocalize her disgust, at the actors and at her perverted offspring for watching them. It’s gotten so that every time I watch or feel or do something remotely sexual, I feel a little bit dirty or guilty. I don’t even feel comfortable watching love scenes in films or shows with other people. I cringe at public displays of affection. I had never thought to examine my vulva until I got to college (well, more specifically, Mills), because my mother had always made it clear to me that female sex organs were filthy, abject things. Now I’m in the process of unlearning that shame and that fear around my body and my sexuality, and I can’t say it’s been a smooth ride. It is incredibly difficult for me to see myself as a sexual being. Yes, on occasion I will slap on a tight skirt and some red lipstick and dance the night away, both reveling in and reviling the male gaze, but that’s all smoke and mirrors; a simulacrum of sex appeal. Past the surface is a naive girl who spends most of her time looking at her reflection and seeing everything that’s wrong with her.
My mother, while a primary factor in my lack of sexual exploration, is not the singular cause of it. Let’s not pretend that we don’t live in a culture that favors a female’s appearance over her humanity, that inhibits female sexuality in favor of male dominance. I will not name names, but growing up, there was always somebody policing my appearance, my desirability, and my mother wasn’t the only person who felt entitled to this job. There was always something wrong with me. I was too skinny. I had too much body hair. I had too much acne. X Girl was pretty. I was not. I felt like a monster most days, and wanted to hide from the world. I still get those days. I’m sure everyone does at some point. It really does something to your psyche though. It did something to mine. I felt unattractive, even to myself. It only justified the rationale that I was undesirable, inside and out.
Going to Mills opened my eyes to the possibility that my self-concept had been warped by years of senseless, internalized ugliness, and that it was high time that I unravel those knots of self-loathing. The goal wasn’t that a guy would call me beautiful. The goal was that I would look at myself and my body and see someone beautiful and worthy of self-exploration. Attending a women’s’ college and being in a space where I wasn’t constantly evaluated by the male gaze or internalized misogyny affirmed what I had suspected all along: there’s more than one way to be beautiful. Agency is beautiful. Confidence is beautiful. Consent is beautiful. The makeover I needed to undergo started and ended from within. The rest, was arbitrary and optional.
While I do feel I have improved in the areas of self-esteem and confidence, that was only the first step. The next step was to have my sexual awakening. Right?
Part Two: Mapping Desire (When You’re Geographically Confused and Sexually Awkward)
Being the strong, independent woman that I am (or at least am becoming/trying to become/think I am becoming/oh shut up inner nagging voice let me have this goddamn moment of fucking self-empowerment for once), a sexual awakening to me means making myself orgasm without the use of another person.
This is the battle where I haven’t covered much ground. I have tried, off and on, to derive a sense of pleasure from the use of my fingers. I felt an inkling of something, maybe, at one point. But mostly I ended up feeling like an incompetent idiot trying to self-administer a vaginal exam. A friend of mine has suggested that I’m overthinking it, which is stating the obvious. Of course I’m overthinking it; I overthink everything. But couldn’t I be neurotic AND get myself off? Were the two that mutually exclusive? Was it really all those years of sexual repression that were holding me back? Was my mother’s stigma inescapable? Had my self-worth not been solidified enough? I started to think I was maybe asexual or frigid in some way. I grew frustrated, especially hearing my friends’ success stories with masturbation. I envied their abilities to pleasure themselves. Why couldn’t I do the same? I felt like a feminist failure.
Simple solution: get a vibrator.
My high school friends had both bought me vibrators at one point, but those dinky things did nothing for me, which was maybe explained by the fact that they had been purchased at Spencer’s Gifts, which I don’t think is known for its high caliber of sex toys. I needed something with quality assurance. So a trip to Good Vibrations, accompanied by sexually experienced and knowledgeable friends, was in order (an excellent bonding activity, I swear). I started having second thoughts as I browsed through the vibrators of all different sizes, shapes, and colors. Wasn’t there something phallocentric in needing a vibrator to get off? Or was the phallocentrism rooted in thinking that vibrators were phallic? “Just get a vibrator!” one of my friends exclaimed before I could finish overthinking my way out of buying a sex toy.
So I did get a vibrator, one approved by my other friend, whom I semi-jokingly refer to as my Sexuality Sensei. As I left the store with my new purchase, I felt giddy rather than guilty, and interpreted that as a good sign.
Then came the time for me to try the damn thing. I had just gotten out of the shower. I looked at myself in my bedroom mirror, and accepted myself as I was. I decided not to get dressed, and instead would watch The Girl’s Guide to Depravity in the nude, as a prelude to my autosexual debut. The episodes I watched were more funny than arousing, so I stopped and played some calming acoustic music to set…some kind of mood. I laid on my back, enshrouded in blankets because it was really fucking cold, vibrator in hand. I took deep breaths, tried to relax. Then…I turned it on.
Its power pulsed through my fingers. Down it went. I closed my eyes. I tried to think of someone hot. Like that gay guy from How to Get Away with Murder, which is a little weird, but now was not the time to be analyzing my penchant for being attracted to queer-identified dudes (fictional or not). The sensation was pleasurable, in a muted sense. Was I doing this wrong? Maybe I wasn’t probing the right area. That was when I hit the spot. Again and again and again.
Thrills of ecstasy shot through me. It was exhilarating. It was electrifying. Porn star noises escaped strangely and seamlessly from my lips. I had to stop, because the tides of pleasure felt like too much. I laid there, marveling over what a little stimulation could do. I don’t think I orgasmed, but whatever I had felt had definitely felt good, which was infinitely better than the nothing I had felt in years previous.
And honestly, the best part of this adventure was being able to do it alone, without involving someone else in my experience of myself. Another body, another mind, another pair of eyes, would have been nerve-wracking and disorienting. Maybe I’ll get to that point. Whether or not I do isn’t the point, though. The point is, I can now tap into a reserve of happiness I had once felt I could not access. As my Sexuality Sensei said, the journey is about figuring out what I like. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that (or with a little mechanical help). I am looking forward to continuing to explore and learn about my body and my desires, which are mine and mine alone. That, in itself, is an incredibly liberating, beautiful feeling.
tl;dr Masturbation is nothing to be ashamed of. Plus it’s fun! Oh also love yourself and stuff kbye