I once had a discussion with my current partner which, for me, ended with “You’re lucky that you’ll never have such a difficult and complicated relationship with sex.” That conversation and others like it frequently weigh on my mind, especially when I hear men – and I’m going to be using this phrase to refer to cis, straight men – try to pull the “If your girlfriend/wife isn’t putting out, they’re responsible for the downfall of your relationship.” In all likelihood, while both parties are often at fault for the downfall of the relationship, the lack of empathy for how women view sex in any context probably doesn’t help.
It’s also true that my partner, and an overwhelming majority of men, won’t have the same kind of complicated relationship with sex that many women have. From young ages, many of us are sexualised by or are the recipients of minor sexual behaviours from grown men. This includes cat-calling and inappropriate flirting or gestures from older men, and it includes far more severe behaviours, too. This particular aspect increases, particularly in Western cultures, for women of colour and vulnerable populations, such as refugees. When it comes to the media that we consume, a study that was commissioned by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and backed by the UN found that girls as young as 13 years old were as equally sexualised as 39-year old women. And it gets worse when you start realising that we believe sexualised girls to be less intelligent or less deserving of help than others.
We’re frequently the focus of the majority of all dress codes at schools and work because our bodies “might distract boys and men,” but yet the market conveniently focuses on one whole style of clothing for girls and women that doesn’t even pass those dress codes. And rather than question male staff on why they feel uncomfortable when a girl is near them showing her collarbone, wearing leggings, having visible shoulders or knees, or wearing clothes that enable people to see our bra straps, we’re out there telling the girls to cover up; we’re not one bit worried about the men in the profession who are talking about girls as if they’re being sexual by merely sitting in class, but we’re concerned about the girls who just exist in those classrooms wearing clothing. And we’d rather shame girls who ‘violate’ the dress code by giving them detention or forcing them to wear intentionally humiliating clothing.
All of that is just the tip of the ice berg when it comes to how women have to interact with their environments; it’s not even getting into the rates of sexual violence (assault, rape); how we have incomplete, inaccurate, or conflicting data regarding the actual numbers of victims because of things like victim blaming; how we frequently neglect understanding that rape and sexual assault have, for so long, been part of war; and how we respond to people who have been assaulted, especially when it comes to law enforcement. This was far more poignant when the letter written by the Stanford rape victim was publicly released, and the father decided to tell the judge his son needed a light sentence because of ’20-minutes of action’, seeming to completely forget the life his son completely altered in that time.
Now, before I continue, let me reiterate that I stated the overwhelming majority of men will not experience these things; at no point have I stated that it won’t ever happen to men. I do not deny the existence of boys who have been sexualised or sexually abused while our culture either normalises it (‘sex with an older woman’) or forces it into quiet spaces. Many cultures openly make fun of men who are on the receiving side of any form of abuse when it’s perpetrated by a woman, which is absurd. So I’m not overlooking the fact that men can be and are abused, but I’m just not talking about it here.
It’s hard for me to have what people perceive as a ‘normal’ relationship to sex; throughout school, particularly from middle school on, I had questionable experiences with male teachers and my male peers. I can recount far too many instances that have changed how I view sex, that have changed how I view relationships with men. Too many things have happened for me to just ‘get over’ it, as my partner wishes I would do; like most men, he views how it affects him rather than realising that these are things I’ve had to live with and experiences I’ve had to learn from in order to survive. But all of those thoughts have made me realise that it’s past time for me to share my experiences. Not because I feel I’m obligated, but it is because I feel it’s right to do so.
When I was in high school, my geology teacher made every girl in his class uncomfortable, as he’d go to great lengths to get as close to us as possible, look down our shirts, leer at us, or ‘accidentally’ touch us; some of my friends were so uncomfortable that they refused to ever ask him questions and would’ve preferred to fail the class, as they’d rather not risk being alone with him after class. As far as I know, he did so for decades; I remember talking to my mother about this, and she recalled him doing the exact same thing when she was in high school. Yet, despite our years of complaints, no one did anything about it. He was left alone, and we were forced to cover up as much as possible to avoid his unwanted attentions.
I remember, when I was a sophomore, I was playing the part of a page in Youth & Government. It was our final meeting, and we were allowed to use the State Capitol building in Springfield, Illinois. I had to run between the chambers and offices that we were allowed to use, taking messages to the Senators and Representatives. I remember getting cornered in the corridors multiple times by male pages, in areas that were unwatched by teachers or other authority figures. When I brought this to the attention of the one teacher that I trusted who went, he was (thankfully) livid that it was even happening; when he took it to the people running the program, they told him that no boys could ever sexually assault the girls. They were smart and academic; they were good boys, and it must have been me who misunderstood their actions. Nothing was done to add more staff to the corridors, and I either had to stay in the hotel room for the duration of the trip or perform my duties with another page from my school. These events still happened, I had a witness, complaints were made, and nothing was changed.
I’ve had to deal with male stalkers frequently. Breaking up with men often led them to follow me around, demanding further reasoning for why I didn’t want to date them any more despite the fact that “I don’t want to date you” should be enough of a reason. One such bloke decided to interrogate my friends for months on end, and he would verbally assault anyone he thought I was going on dates with; he followed me to my places of employment and demanded further answers for ‘why’ (as if doing that didn’t make it already obvious). He tried repeatedly to gain access to my residence regardless of whether or not I was home, and he would leave notes for me on my car; he called me late in the night, leaving voicemails that demanded I give him another chance while also insulting me.
When I finally transferred to another school, leaving Illinois behind in favour of Kentucky, I found myself in a relationship with a particularly abusive individual. I didn’t know he was abusive, though; he was amazing and intelligent, and I was young and thought we had so much in common. I never saw the signs, and it was too late by the time I did, which was when we were already living together. He wanted to use me for everything, being too lazy to go out and get a job; he preferred to spend all of his time playing video games, and he refused to even make an attempt to pull his own weight. I was exhausted from working and doing my university classes, and it grated my nerves to have to take care of two people when it was hard enough caring for myself; I decided to confront him about his (lack of) actions, requesting that he make an attempt to pull his weight. That was when he became physically abusive, and it was around that time that I decided to change the locks because I wanted to protect myself.
But though it was only my name on the lease, he still had legal rights under Kentucky law; he ‘believed’ that he was subletting, that it was his residence, which gave him rights. I had none. It didn’t matter that I was scared; he was still able to send police officers to my door, telling me that I had to let him in. They didn’t care that I was scared of him. His rights trumped mine, and it took me ages to get him to move out and leave me alone entirely. It was the first of many lessons I would learn about law enforcement and how it relates to domestic violence and sexual assault.
Fast forward to my postgraduate life in Australia and another boyfriend that I was living with. He frequently coerced me into having sex, declaring that he may as well go pay to have sex with prostitutes since I was so unwilling. We would get into fights that would turn to silence for weeks on end, regardless of what I did to try to end them; he would give me the silent treatment any time I did something, anything, that angered him. He’d verbally abuse and physically accost any man who tried to pay me attention, even if it was as a friend. He’d scream at me if I didn’t come home immediately after class, and he used my lack of ability to work (due to my university schedule) and him ‘supporting’ me (despite my student loan) against me frequently. He tried to remind me how worthless I was. When I ran away, he tried to apologise for everything and promised things would change; obviously, they never did. When I finally moved out, he tried to move back in with me; he tried to make it up to me by taking me to dinner and, at the end, trying to force me into having sex. When I refused, he got physically violent; my neighbour threatened to call the cops if he didn’t leave. That was, thankfully, the last I ever saw of him.
Another guy that I had decided to date ran off on me after I said that I rather liked his company; I shrugged his departure off, knowing it was for the best that we weren’t together because our interests didn’t coincide. A year later, he showed up at my apartment door unannounced at 10pm one night; I was startled but let him in. He apologised for running, telling me that he was scared; he told me how he felt stressed about the demands his family was making of him. I told him it was fine but that I wasn’t interested, and I tried to impress upon him how rude it was for him to just show up without calling ahead of time. After a long discussion, he left; I thought that would be the last of him. Except he decided, despite me telling him my boundaries about just showing up at my home, to come back unannounced and late at night; I decided to ignore him, and I watched as he peeped into my bedroom window using the light on his phone and pounded on my door for three hours straight. I was scared, and I didn’t really know what to do; that’s why I hid, hoping someone else would deal with it.
Being friends with men has also been hard. So many assume that if they befriend you, it means they’re somehow entitled to get into your pants; they believe they’ve waited patiently enough for you to finally see them as something else, and then they complain about the ‘Friend Zone’ (which doesn’t exist) when they finally realise their plans have been foiled by your autonomy. One such person, a man who I’d believed to be a great friend, used my trust in him to spoil our friendship in one of the worst ways. He’d been studying late at the university, and he’d missed the last bus back home; I offered to let him stay with me, as I lived down the road. I told him that he could sleep on the couch, which he initially did; he then crept into my bedroom, crawled into my bed, and raped me. He left the used condom in my bed, which I later disposed of.
At the pressure of some friends, I tried to report it but later gave up when I started getting the stereotypical responses from law enforcement. Why did you let him into your home? Why did you let him stay the night? What did you do that may have made him think you wanted to have sex with him? How much did you have to drink? What were you wearing? What were you doing? Did you want to have sex with him? I couldn’t take it; I kept breaking down into tears, and they kept getting angry. I walked out, never returning and never trying to report it again.
Fast forward again to my life in Taiwan. I started dating an expat bloke shortly before I moved to Taoyuan who lived one city south of me; while waiting a few days for my apartment to be ready, I stayed with him. He tried to hard to tell me how great of a man he was and how he respected me, but he routinely kept pushing my boundaries and intentionally ignoring anything I said. He kept pushing me to have sex with him no matter how much I kept telling him no; I’d tell him I wasn’t interested, and he’d still forcefully touch me and crawl on me. I kept telling him that I wasn’t interested in having sex with a drunk man, yet he’d still continue to be sexually aggressive. I was new to the northern part of the island, and the nearest people I knew where in the south. In so many ways, I ended up stuck and feeling trapped; everything I owned was in his car, and I couldn’t get access to it. It wasn’t until my agent called and let me know my apartment was ready that he was willing to let me leave, dropping me and my belongings off. After that, I pushed him away and never looked back, ignoring every phone call or message he’d send me.
Overwhelmingly, I’ve been lucky despite all of this: I’ve been able to get away and find new safe places, even though running is tiring; I’ve had access to resources that I could use to protect myself (or people with access to resources who have willingly come forward to help me). I have had patient friends who have learned to love me for who I am and have been forced to become, who have leant me their shoulders to cry on; they’ve sat quietly to let me talk things out until I couldn’t bare to do it any more, leaving us to sit in silence as they found some ways to comfort me. I’ve had friends who have let me run away, even if it was temporary, to spend time with them so that I could try to collect my thoughts or momentarily forget everything. Not everyone has people who are willing to be supportive of them.
These are events, most of which I’ve never shared before, that have left me with such a difficult and complicated view of sex; they’ve changed my relationship to it, making it harder for me decipher what it is that men, in particular, are really looking for when I enter into intimate relationships with them. It’s made me more cautious and less trusting. It means that anyone wishing to be my partner must work harder and have more patience, and I know that’s not something many people are willing to put up with because it is quite a lot of time, effort, and energy; it requires a lot of willingness to learn, as there may be boundaries that my partners might not be aware of.
But I also know that I’m not alone in this. It would just be nicer if more men – rather, more people – would have more empathy regarding it. Women, regardless of the amount of or type of sex they engage in, are taught to guard themselves. Much of the time, it can be completely subconscious and without us even realising; other times, it’s far more intentional than we ever wish it had to be. We’re often forced to question the relationships, particularly those with men, in our lives; we don’t get a choice, and those thoughts creep up on us without warning.