Early Consent and the Lifelong Pursuit of Pleasure as Self-Care.
“Why did you do it? How could you let him finger you? And Paul* too?” my mother’s shrill voice pierced my eardrums.
I was on the couch, mute. My body faced forward with my head craned to the right, giving her the eye contact she demanded. My father, silent and expressionless, was in my peripheral vision. I felt like a prisoner being interrogated.
“I don’t know” was all I could manage. I hated the word finger used as a verb. I hated it even more coming out of her mouth.
“Don’t tell me you don’t know! You let them do it!” she fired back.
I was paralyzed with fear. I couldn’t escape, couldn’t run away. I was 15.
Mark was my boyfriend. We met in P.E. I was taken with his boisterous personality and huge smile. We swam together on the swim team. He and I would hunker down in a seat on the bus that took us to and from the county pool and consume each other with kisses, whispers and laughter. He asked if he could touch me, the space between my legs. I told him about Paul and how it hurt.
He still gently pressed and said that if I asked him to stop, he would.
So I agreed.
It wasn’t terrible. Sometimes it felt good, but when it didn’t, and I spoke up, he would stop. It was awkward making out on the bus, but I was more interested in these feelings I had of being turned on, and having a physical relationship with him. I wanted it because I wanted to explore this new sensation. It was foreign to me, and I was curious to try it with Mark to see if it would be better.
My body was doing all of these things I wasn’t sure about, and hadn’t had much experience with. I wanted to know what it felt like to respond physically in a consensual relationship.
Swim team was replaced with soccer when the season ended, and Mark and I both played.
We wrote letters about what we did, what it felt like, and what we liked about it, as well as the usual chatter about classes and friends. I kept his letters in a binder in the top drawer of my dresser.
One day, my mother found them, Xeroxed a few, highlighted the sexual parts, and with my father in tow, picked me up from soccer practice.
She showed Mark’s mom the letters while he and I stood together on a curb awaiting punishment. Threats spewed from my mother about sending me to private school, as if Jesus was going to extricate the biology of being a human from me, should Mark and I communicate from that moment forward.
Now, sitting on the couch, I had to explain why I allowed this to happen. I felt if I said I wanted to, it would mean that something was wrong with me. If I told them I asked Paul to stop, and I was not the grotesque person I suddenly felt I was, I feared more questions I couldn’t answer: “Why didn’t you tell us?” and “Why did you put yourself in that situation?”
I was stunned into silence. I couldn’t explain that I was interested, that Mark and I were communicating and he wasn’t taking anything from me. I was there and willing because of my curiosity. He wasn’t some random guy, he was someone I chose to be involved with. It felt too personal to talk about. It felt like none of her business.
When she kept pressing, and asking why I let him do it, I finally snapped the truth.
“Because I wanted him to!”
She was appalled. I was not being raised to engage in such behavior, to feel or want such things. My father remained motionless and quiet. I was sent to bed.
I showered, pulled on jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, feeling tired and lifeless the next morning. I stared at myself in the mirror while I dried my hair, wondering what was going to happen, how I was going to function at school. Nothing was safe. Not home, not school, not soccer, and not writing. I wanted to disappear.
I was finishing up when my mother walked in and said, “Hurry up, we’re leaving soon.”
“Where are we going?” I asked. I always rode the bus.
“I’m taking you to school.”
In an effort to control my not communicating with Mark, my mother had me take her to the school principal, and all of my teachers. She explained to them what we did, and told them I was not to speak to him. My English teacher later got in my face telling me I better do what my mother said.
I cried more than I had ever cried in my short life. I couldn’t focus, couldn’t look my teachers in the eye knowing they knew a very personal detail of my life. A part I was just trying to understand, before it was shut down.
I had no idea what terrible thing I had done, why I was being punished so much. I was confused as to why this was happening because I let someone touch me. One would have thought I had committed a felony by the way everyone was acting.
When I got home from school, my mother asked if I had told anyone what had happened. I said Yes, because of course I told my friends. They wanted to know why I wasn’t talking to Mark, why I was crying, why I was so late to my first period Algebra class.
I got yelled at for airing my dirty laundry.
My mother’s fear poured over my sensitive skin. I absorbed it, and took it as my own. I became a container for all her worry, fear and self-loathing. I didn’t know that I had a say. I felt like I had damaged something that was hers, and I was going to pay for it. I’ve been paying for it my whole life.
She told me after dinner that I would be going to therapy to deal with my low self-esteem. For the briefest moment, I panicked. Therapy meant there was something wrong with me, correct? It meant there was something to be fixed, that I was not okay as I was. When that moment passed, I saw it as an opportunity. It was a place where I could speak freely, where I could be heard.
There would be no fear in that room with a trusted professional, and so I relaxed.
The kind, understanding woman I later met and opened up to was the bright spot in a shitty situation.
Physical pleasure was something I couldn’t allow myself to enjoy for years following that day on the sidewalk, standing next to Mark, while my mother pinned a proverbial scarlet letter to my skin that I was to carry around with shame and guilt. I did not have low self-esteem for engaging in sexual activity. I had nerve endings. Thousands of nerve endings that enjoy and respond to pleasure just like any other person.
I didn’t understand that my body was my own. That I could do what I wanted with it. Days before this happened, my mother explained that boys will want to touch me and I was to tell them No. There wasn’t a discussion about consent, about what I wanted, about how to communicate to a partner about boundaries.
The answer was simply No, because “boys will hurt you, they will use you, and they only want one thing.”
There was no conversation about what desire was, only the idea that I shouldn’t have a voracious appetite for anything or anyone. It was like she was trying to shove my sexuality under a rug, and pretend it wasn’t there. I tried as well. I felt if I cut myself off from my feelings, maybe no one would want me, and I wouldn’t have to deal with these pesky sensations or desires.
Fast forward to being an adult, walking around with the idea that I will be used and tossed aside like a piece of garbage, I was simultaneously suspicious of and thrilled by men’s advances. Giving and receiving attention in all its forms was lovely and exciting. On the flip side, I didn’t trust I was liked for who I was because I was told men only wanted what was on the outside.
My appearance better be kept pristine to attract them, but I better not let them muss me up and make me undesirable with their sexual agendas.
I wanted them anyway. I wanted to be tangled up in the messy glorious experience that love and sex are. My sexuality is not something to withhold, to use to manipulate, to keep in a safe deposit box. It is not a currency to be exchanged. It is to be experienced with the fullness of who I am, just like every other aspect of my life.
I practice relaxing, staying present, and allowing myself to respond to being loved, touched, to receiving pleasure, and trusting that it’s okay. Not every man is out to hurt me. Not all men want to have sex.
It was the contrast I experienced at 15 that, over time, has taught me to love and respect my body, to pay attention to it, to heal the torn, shamed and humiliated parts. Carrying the belief that I was wrong and noticing how heavy it was helped me recognize how untrue that is. Those feelings weren’t the ones I wanted to hold, so I sought ones that felt better, ones that lined up with what I truly believed.
I was not, and am not, wrong, uncivilized, or abnormal. My sexuality is a part of being a human. It is just as essential as any other bodily function.
As a result, I have chosen better partners, I speak up for what I want, and receive more enjoyment out of sexual experiences. The pursuit of pleasure is fabulous, and directly linked to self-love and self-care. Having a healthy sex life frees me to create with reckless abandon, enjoy life more, and share authentic connections with people I love.
* names have been changed..
Melissa Lee is a Seattle-based writer and artist. Her work has appeared here at Rebelle Society, xojane.com, refinery29.com, the Garland Court Review, and the Seattle Erotic Art Festival’s 2016 Anthology. She blogs about sexuality and writes erotica. You can contact her via email.