COLUMN: I was taught yes or no, not pain or pleasure
I got boobs when I was nine and my first kiss when I was 16. My body was a woman long before I was.
I had a revolving door of crushes, and not much else, from fifth through tenth grade. My friends were largely in the same boat. While our peers were out smoking in the mountains or drinking at house parties, the six of us would gather head-to-head in sleeping bags, talking about boys. We were quite pretty and by no means awkward. And we weren’t about to remove our glasses and reveal our more adult side. Our intellect was out of sync with our emotions.
On the night I remembered most clearly, I had recently kissed one boy, making me now leagues ahead of this certain group of friends. We started a conversation about who we thought we’d end up dating in the future, when boys would finally start looking our way.
When it came time to guess about me, my friend Laura’s words shot me right out of the mountains of pillows and blankets and straight into the arms of a boy I — for years — swore out of my life story. “Emma, you’re the kind of girl who’ll date gay guys before they realize they’re gay.”
With that, he was naked and standing over me again, telling me I needed to shower and masturbate because I’d given him blue balls. And I was on the floor, not realizing how badly I was bleeding.
While some friends knew how uncomfortable and inappropriate Laura’s comment was, somehow we all laughed it off as she attempted to backtrack. I timidly brought up that I thought Shawn was bisexual when I first told my girlfriends about the guy who liked me. I told them I didn’t care because I was bored and ready for attention. I wanted to be kissed and could not imagine how pain could ever enter so profoundly into the scenario.
Years later, Laura would check up on me to talk about his sexuality, well-known on their shared college campus. I didn’t like to think of it. In my mind, he wasn’t a real boyfriend.
Shawn had a typical “theater boy” callousness that stems from toxic arrogance and profound insecurity. We talked in French to help each other work on our fluency, and when he gave me my first kiss, he quoted a play I’d never seen. He was immensely privileged and I was enthralled by his Upper East Side apartment and confidence in his impending admittance to Ivy League colleges.
But I don’t think I will ever understand why he felt the need to desperately claw for the answers to questions about his identity in the open spaces of my young body.
I started the first feminist club at my high school. But, I was still confused about consent. I understood perfectly well that you could refuse to perform sexual acts on other people, but at a time of burgeoning sexual maturity, no one taught me about receiving pleasure. No one taught me about receiving pain.
So when Shawn took me home and stripped me down and played Édith Piaf and called me beautiful, I only said “no” to giving oral sex. I knew I didn’t like his rough tongue, his fingernails on my insides or his hands as they gripped mine around his confused erection as he worked to feel something. But for years, I still thought I’d wanted it.
Recently, I decided to ask my therapist about him and what he did. On her couch, I was still equivocating.
“But I said, ‘Yes,’” I said. “But I didn’t do things to him. I stopped him when he tried to make me.”
Then I remembered sitting on the hotel toilet days later.
“Dr. Davis,” I said, finally beginning to cry. “I couldn’t pee.”
The tears kept falling. To be honest, they haven’t completely stopped.
I know he didn’t break my hymen because when I had sex for the first time — which was a year later and a truly loving experience — I bled. What Shawn did was different: He hurt me. His fingers cut me inside so badly that I bled for a week and couldn’t pee without a severe sting and a terrifying sense of shame.
I looked up again at Dr. Davis and understood. “How could I have wanted that? I didn’t want that.”
I write this because this fall, on a night when I realized what he’d truly done, I cried on my boyfriend’s shoulders over how I’d survived enough. I couldn’t bear the word assault. I’ve already survived enough.
I’m a feminist, and I’m educated. I asked myself how I could have possibly let this happen without realizing it. Those horrible thoughts have passed.
It is only two months after the realization, and I already feel like I can say his name again after avoiding it for five years. My reactions to him hurting me have been flawed, but they’re natural and they pass. I’m still a bit scared but at least I finally understand.
I don’t wish I’d done anything differently at 16; I simply wish he had listened. I can forgive my young self for wanting to be kissed and held, and I work through this trauma so that I can continue to kiss and hold as much as possible from now on.
Emma Andrews is a senior majoring in international relations. Her column, “Before & After,” runs Fridays.