On having been the "man" everyone warned me about

Annabelle River's picture

It's been a couple months since Teen Vogue columnist Jessica Simmons wrote her much-linked post "Is Hooking Up Good for Girls?" about how casual sex apparently disempowers women, because apparently it leaves us pining in agony for men to commit to us.  And Kate Harding has already written the great rebuttal:

...[I]f we teach all kids that there's a wide range of potentially healthy sexual and emotional relationships, and the only real trick (granted, it's a doozy) is finding partners who are enthusiastic about the same things you want, then there's room for a lot more people to pursue something personally satisfying at no one else's expense...

To which Rabbit White wisely added that the first step is (surprise!) honest communication.  But as I'm reading these feminist defenses of casual sex, I'm also wondering: Where in this discussion are all the men who have romantically pined for the women who mostly wanted to get laid?  They do, in fact, exist, and I can't possibly be the only straight cis woman who has struggled with the guilt of having dated them.

And before I write on behalf of Straight Cis Women Who Mostly Want to Get Laid, I should disclose that I haven't had much casual sex in the last five years.  In my mid-twenties, I honestly prefer sex with a genuine emotional connection, with people who already know my quirks and vice versa, and I haven't felt the temptation or the energy for seducing casual partners.  Filling out Heather Corinna's casual-sex survey was, for me, a nostalgic walk through memories from my late teens.  At the time, I even considered myself a virgin, because I still oddly believed that oral sex "doesn't count."

I have very few regrets from the casual sex of my adolescence.  I chose boys that also made me laugh, and also had "real" intelligent conversations with me either before or after the petting.  I was on birth control and had access to condoms.  I had fun.

But when I was seventeen, a seventeen-year-old boy that I'd known less than three weeks broke up with me for the reason that our relationship was "only sexual."  I didn't have a good counterargument, because I barely knew him.  But he had given me my first cunnilingus, outside on a starry night with a red dress hiked around my hips, and that memory still has its place in my mental portfolio for masturbation.  When he called our relationship "only sexual," I knew that he was correct, but I was still frustrated and sad.  I had just discovered the epic wonders of oral sex, and it would be a long time before I got to do it again.

Then, about two weeks before I moved to begin college, I started dating a man nine years older than myself.  I had had a lonely summer, and for all my reservations about our age difference, he eased my loneliness.  I told him on our first date that I was moving a couple weeks later, and we spent a night together exactly once: the night of September 10, 2001.  The next morning, my entire country appeared to collapse before my eyes, and the week after that, I started my freshman year of college.

A month or two later, I got a love letter from the man saying that he missed me, and that when he thought of September 11, he thought of the pain of losing me.  I was shocked and frankly terrified.  When I think of of September 11, I mostly remember violent death, fear, and profound confusion.  That fall, when I wasn't thinking about September 11, I was adjusting to starting college.  I hadn't spared many thoughts at all for the guy I'd only been with for two weeks.  His expression of romantic love made me think he was, at best, maudlin and naive, and, at worst, a stalker.  I never wrote back or saw him again.

I didn't tell any of my friends about either of these men at the time, because I wasn't sure how to process them myself.  For all the magazine advice on how to "trap" a man into emotional commitment, there was no script for how to handle men who were seeking emotional commitments that I couldn't give them.  I felt guilty that I had gotten off on people who apparently wanted something else from me, and that despite my straight-cis-female identity, I had become the heartless man that everyone warned me to avoid.  I would hear other girls complain about boys "only wanting one thing," and I would feel silently freakish and wonder the logistics of setting them up with my exes.

For all the formula-driven movies about teenage girls trying to win boys' hearts and teenage boys trying to get girls in bed, few have ever felt as truthful to me as Superbad.  In that one, Michael Cera's character finally gets the girl in the bed, but her sloppy-drunken mimicry of mainstream porn is the antithesis of sexy, and he declines the offer before she vomits on the pillow beside him.  Yes, the genders are reversed from stereotype, and the whole scene is fantastically, refreshingly accurate to my memory of high school sexuality.

Another response to Rachel Simmons that I recommend is Nona's post subtitled "What I Learned from My High School Diary."  Because Nona did have the more "normal" straight-cis-girl experience of pining after lust-driven teenage boys, but she doesn't take Simmons's victim-stance, and she doesn't presume that her experience is universal.  She and I had different experiences, but I still want to call out amen when she writes:

[D]o I regret the sex...? Hell No. It was one of the most exciting, fascinating, and interesting things about high school. Girls deserve to discover themselves sexually at their own pace, to be neither rushed into having sex nor shamed into not having it. They deserve to have their very own “This is bullshit” moments without wearing a chastity belt.

In hindsight, I'm still not proud of having ever hurt or pressured anyone, but I cut myself some slack for adolescent stupidity and experimentation.

The reality is that everyone desires different ratios of sex vs. love at different times of their lives and with different partners, and it doesn't always fall along the clear gender lines that Rachel Simmons believes that it does.  The trick to making any sex emotionally satisfying is self-awareness and honesty about what we're looking for.  It's a complicated puzzle, fraught with trial-and-error, but we can't figure it out by pretending that all men or all women want the same thing.

(Cross-posted at Annabelle's Manifesto)

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