This blog is a collection of a young woman's random thoughts, many tangents, and occasional
short stories and novel excerpts. Stay tuned for plenty of bull and brief moments of brilliance.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

How I Learned to Love Myself: Sex, Strangers, and Stigma

Somehow, I’m 25. I get logically that I’m halfway through my twenties and I know I’m now closer to thirty than I am to twenty, but seeing 25 down on paper is actually more jarring than I thought it would be. They say so many people have what they’re calling “Quarter Life Crises” but personally, I think I’m safe from any giant meltdown about getting old. I have a feeling wedding planning and freaking out about that will supersede any other fear of my own mortality.
In the past five years though, I’ve learned an insane amount about myself. As the ever self-reflective person I am, my recent birthday and upcoming nuptials have me thinking about my college years and years immediately following more than usual.
The biggest, probably most cliché change in my life? Learning to love myself (try not to gag, I’ll attempt to keep cliché statements to a minimum). So, here’s a quick story of my five year (unintentional) journey to find Molly.
When I was 20, having only been in Ireland a couple months, I very much so felt like my life was some sort of indie romantic drama (to be fair, a lot of my time in Ireland reads like a plot of an indie romantic drama, but that’s another story for another time). I had a very set idea that men were not interested in me, that I was somehow oddly over sexual, that I was obnoxious and unlovable, and many more similar thoughts. Many of these “unlovable” thoughts are likely manifestations of earlier childhood abuse and being told by my abuser, more than once, that no one else would ever love me but her.
You can understand then why I had a hard time not believing her.
Growing up, people rarely used physical attributes to compliment me. I was “kind,” “energetic, “ “full spirited,” “full of life,” “witty,” “smart,” “funny.” At times, I was “cute.” The energetic stuff always felt like coded words from teachers trying not to say that I was a rambunctious child who refused to sit still and asked too many questions. Should we compliment people on their accomplishments and personality more than their physical beauty? Yes, of course. But when you find few would say you were a “pretty girl,” you start to wonder why the word is avoided.
Now no one ever flat out called me ugly—that would have been a little harsh—but the absence of physical compliments made me internalize their nonappearance. Sometimes I was called pretty or beautiful, but it more often than not referred to my soul or being rather than my looks. I was only called hot if there was something else tagged on at the end, like,
“You’re nerd-hot!” “You’re hot, but like in a different type of way.” “You are, like, hot, but not in an in-your-face way!”
You get the idea. Liz Lemon and Tina Belcher were my kindred spirits.

So by the time I hit 20, still very much so a virgin, I was convinced I would have to run through the streets naked for someone to want to tap this. I had never taken virginity very seriously (already railing against the patriarchy) and did not understand why it was something I was supposed to hold sacred. The ideas all seemed wrapped up in patriarchal religious ideals I was not sure I believed—and eventually would come to realize I did not—and so I landed in Ireland with at least one goal in mind.
I didn’t study abroad to have sex, no, but if I left still a virgin I was going to be upset. Virginity for me was a pesky clingy sticker on a CD that prevents you from opening it easily: I just wanted it fucking gone so I could get to the good stuff inside. I had calmed down with my Quest to Lose It by the time I flew to Cork, but all of it was still at the back of my mind.
Now, my “losing it” story is fantastic; I’ll tell anyone that. As awkward as any and all romantic or lovey encounters I had had up until this point, somehow the big one ended up going perfectly. I had sex for the first time with an Irishman, while studying abroad in Ireland, on St. Patrick’s Day. He and I fell together by random coincidence, a case of mistaken identity, and we started chilling together around Mardis Gras. By the time St. Patrick’s Day came around, we had been hanging out for a month and it felt right. All of it, to the light from the dark rainy streets sprinkling in through his blinds, to the way he looked at me with a perfect mix of concern and attraction.
Having sex for the first time made me feel like a normal fucking human being.
I woke up the next morning, went to a convenience store on the way home, and bought myself a croissant. I walked confidently into my apartment and looked knowingly at my roommates who high-fived me. Sex for me was not validation of my importance in life, but validation that I wasn’t some hideous unlovable monster. I was normal and the lies I had been telling myself were untrue. Molly was okay and it was okay to be Molly.
The next couple months I leaned into me more than I ever had. I talked more to people, built friendships, accidentally fell in love, and loved who I was becoming. Every bit of myself I felt on the inside suddenly came pouring out in a beautiful symphony to which I could not stop myself from listening. I traveled Europe with three friends, not enough cash, empty stomachs, sleepy eyes, and full hearts. On the plane home, I cried for many reasons. But when the wheels touched down in Milwaukee, my heart caught in my chest. I felt a switch go off I had not anticipated. A voice inside of me said, “It’s over, it’s gone, it’s not coming back.”
After coming back to the US, I dove into two very opposite relationships back to back. I loved that feeling of freedom I felt in Ireland and wanted to replicate it back in the states. Chasing it in whatever way I could think of made sense. I remember being in my shitty apartment right before leaving Cork and thinking to myself, “Remember all the things you learned while you were here. Don’t lose any of that!” Somehow though, I did.
I tried desperately to be a sorority girl, or at the very least, what I thought a sorority girl should be. I felt suffocated and unloved by my sorority sisters and drama in the house seemed to follow me no matter where I went. Friendships seemed to boom loudly and then explode without warning. I felt like a sane person surrounded by insane and vice versa. I talked to myself a lot, wrote a lot, blogged a lot. My heart and head did not feel like mine. I wasn’t depressed but I was trapped, and what I was trapped by and in what way was a mystery to me.
As that summer ended, so did my second real relationship. Only weeks before did I officially quit my sorority. Suddenly I felt nineteen again. I felt like everything I had tried to learn about myself was untrue or worse, a lie. Was I lying to myself about who I was? Why was I so desperate to try to be someone I was not?
It all kept coming back to this idea that I was unlovable.
Whatever fleeting solace I had found in Ireland was wrapped up in the glittering almost half-reality of living in a different country. Of course I could be myself there! What possible threat to my selfhood was there in a place with people I would never see again? So often we “find ourselves” in places we least expect, but when they are in places removed from the rest of our everyday life, how effective is that self-realization? Answer: not that effective. Now, before I explain how I started loving myself, I want to preface this by saying…
Actually, you know what? Fuck it. No, this is the way I started loving myself, or at the very least, started on my journey to loving myself. And I’m not ashamed of it. I started loving myself through casual sex.
Didn’t see that coming, now did you? As long as I could remember, I had never understood the heavy stigma around one-night stands, specifically toward women. Why was it so horrible to have sex with a stranger, or a friend for that matter, outside of the confines of a relationship? I had been told time and again that if I had sex randomly with someone I didn’t know well, that I’d be hurt. I’d wake up in the morning feeling shitty about myself and worthless and the more I did it, the number to the entire thing I would feel.
Sex and love have always been separate for me. Sex was sex, love was love, and if they went together that was great, but they did not need to for either to be valid. Sex being inherently wrapped up in love always felt problematic to me. Now, this is not knocking anyone who doesn’t like sex outside of relationships or doesn’t like sex period, but the implication that sex was integrally tied to love 100% of the time for 100% of people felt like a dangerous broad stroke.
This is what we’re told from a young age, that sex was bad unless you were married, that sex was evil outside of true love, that it was meant for only ___ and ___ in ___ way. Everything else was, of course, wrong in one shape or form.
I didn’t come out of a relationship running around desperately trying to get laid out of insecurity; let’s get that straight off the bat. I found myself single for a long stretch of time for the first time in a long while. It was the first time I was single since being sexually active. The first person I knew well and it happened by sort-of-accident. I call it sort-of-accident because it was one of those situations where you knew what was likely going to happen and neither actively tried to stop or initiate it. The second time I also knew the person, but not nearly as well and it took me entirely by surprise.
Did I feel bad either time? Not in the slightest, and I felt guilty not feeling guilty. I should be shattered emotionally, raw and vulnerable, but instead I felt no different than I had before. I only did it two more times and those people were more complete strangers. What I found most interesting was each time, the guys would try to convince me afterwards that they would call even though we both knew that wasn’t true. Did they think I would go crazy and hit them if this was a wam-bam-thank-you-ma’am type of transaction? That I would be offended?
I remember distinctly the last guy walking me home in the morning. He only walked me half-way home, which was awkward enough to begin with, and then turned and said, “Well, I’ll call you sometime,” and started to walk away. He paused though after a couple steps and looked back at me with this terrified expression. He and I both knew that he didn’t know my last name, let alone my phone number. I chuckled and played along, “Sure, sounds good, we’ll talk real soon.”
There seemed to be a fear in these men that I had slept with that I was going to be worried I had been used unless they validated me in some way. They had to validate me with a phone call, with a promise of a Facebook friend request, or a later outing to grab coffee. What they didn’t know was that my having sex with them had nothing to do with needing them to validate me. They were wrong.
I would leave in the morning not feeling weak or used, but like a motherfucking boss.
What I was doing was exercising an independence I had never before known. I wanted something, went and got it, and slept fine the following night. I didn’t slut-shame myself or feel like a whore, and more than anything the entire six month experience made me reexamine my own using of the words “slut” and “whore.” Even though I had always thought slut-shaming was wrong, I had inadvertently done it to myself by assuming I had to feel a certain way after having casual sex. I was placing these preconceived ideas of how a woman was to react after so clearly flaunting her womanly prowess.
Between these experiences, I was writing more. I was taking more walks and hanging out with friends more, real friends who didn’t make me question my every word when we spoke. I wasn’t walking on eggshells around other people as much but more importantly, with myself. I felt free again, and why exactly I still wasn’t sure.
Having sex with people you don’t know well doesn’t make you free, let me make that clear. It won’t make you happier or a more complete person. But for me, it made me finally untangle the idea of beauty and my beauty being controlled by another person. When I was a kid, the girl who abused me for many years held my self-worth in her hands (and even for years after). When I went to college, “friends” and boyfriends held that in their grasp. I relied on everyone else to solve my problems of worthiness instead of Molly.
I was, in those moments, entirely in charge of my own being. I realized later that that was the feeling I had so acutely felt while living abroad: the feeling of being my own savior. Independence means different things to different people, but for me it’s always been the choice to make a choice. Each time in my life I’ve lived without regrets or without feeling sorry that I was not doing it in way someone else would want me to, I’ve felt freedom.
So by the time a handsome guy with a deep, booming voice messaged me on Facebook, I had had time to sort myself out. I went into a relationship loving myself first and learning to fall in love with someone else second. And I’m forever grateful I did.
As the years pass with him, I wonder what with us was so different than the other people I’ve met and been with in my life. A lot of that likely has to do with my own maturity and what a kick ass individual my partner is, but it does come down to me. I never loved me entirely when I was with anyone else. And I realized again that I had never loved anyone else entirely before because something was stopping me. Learning to love yourself before you love someone else is an old adage that likely feels tired to most, but for me it was everything.
Now I sit here, ring on my hand, 25, at the cusp of adulthood, ready to get married. If you had told me five years ago I’d be engaged and getting married at 25, I would have punched you in the throat for lying to me. I never thought I’d be beautiful enough, hot enough, worthy enough for sex, let alone love. I’m still reminding Molly every day that she’s worthy of love, and Lou reminds me it too, but self-love is a tough journey. At 25, sitting here now, I can at least say I love who I am so far. I am hot, whether or not someone likes my Instagram selfie. I am beautiful and I am worthy and not because anyone told me I was.
I am all these things because I tell myself I am. That is all that matters.

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