My Sluthood, Myself
Last summer, I suffered the breakup of a relationship that I had thought would be permanent. Now, I’ve been through my share of break-ups, even of quite serious relationships, but nothing ever broke me like this one.
Since then, I’ve had sexual interactions of the orgasmic kind with 9 different people, none of which I was at any time in a committed relationship with.
I’m not telling you this to shock (though I am specifying the number because we all need to get over the whole “OMG! Be ashamed of your NUMBER! It’s either too big or too small!” thing). I’m telling you this because of something else that’s also true about me: I’d really like to be in a long-term, probably monogamous relationship. That’s right, folks, I’m a slut who craves a stable, loving, committed relationship. File me under “Lookin’ fer luv: ur doin it wrong.”
That’s the story we get sold, right? That women who sleep around are destroying their chances at True Love. Something to do with bonding hormones getting all used up? Or is it that we have so little self-esteem that no one could love us? Or maybe it’s that we’re all used candy wrappers or dirty masking tape. I can never remember.
Thing is: I’ve done it the other way. Until my mid-30s, I was largely a serial monogamist. Not for any grand ethical or philosophical reasons – it was just what felt comfortable to me. That’s not to say that I didn’t have some wild adventures in college, or never went to bed with someone on a first date – I did on occasion. It’s just that when I did, I’d often wake up the next day in a relationship. Let me tell you: not the best recipe for partnership bliss.
I’m thinking of one particular instance in which I had what was for me a very painful dry spell: a year and a half in which I barely got to kiss anyone, and didn’t get to do anything other than that at all, sexually speaking, with anyone. It… yeah. Didn’t feel too good. Made me feel like I would never be touched or loved again. Made me feel, in a word, desperate. You know what’s not a great emotional state for making important life decisions? Desperation.
To wit: after this year and a half of nothing, I went to bed with a woman I barely knew on our first date. Nothing wrong with that, we had a great time, and seriously, did I mention a year and a half? The problem came the next morning, when it became obvious that she was much more into me emotionally than I was at that point. Did I tell her that? And potentially get exiled back to my affectionless desert? I bet you know the answer. What followed was a two-year relationship in which we were unhappy for about the last year and a half.
Fast forward through a few more relationships to last fall. As I crawled out of the acute grief stage of my breakup and into the Land of Reboundia, I launched myself somewhat full-throttle into dating. It was comforting to me to find that there were other people I found appealing who felt similarly about me. But each person I’d meet, if there was any kind of a click at all, I’d throw myself at them whole-hog, wanting so badly for them to be The One that proved I wouldn’t have to do die alone with a shriveled-up vagina and no cats. (I’m allergic.) And then (sing this with me if you know the tune), when something would inevitably go wrong, however silly or minor, however nascent the connection was, it would feel overwhelming. Like I was dying. Like I was broken all over again.
And then a miracle occurred. Via the unlikeliest source of miracles ever: Craigslist Casual Encounters.
I had never thought of my self as a Casual Encounters kind of girl. I’d read them on occasion, sure, out of fascination, horror, horniness. I’d even, once in a long while, in lonely desperate moments, posted an ad, not with the intention of actually meeting anyone, but because sometimes knowing you have a bunch of bad options that you’re rejecting feels better than feeling like you have no options at all. And it was that exact state I found myself in one Friday night last fall, after having been blown apart yet again by some minor rejection that felt so huge it sent me to my bed. I hadn’t showered or shaved or left the house in days. And so, glass of wine in hand, wearing a robe and dirty sweatpants, I posted an ad just so I could watch the replies come in and feel like I had some kind of choice in the world. That somebody wanted me, even if they were gross and I’d never want them back.
And then B. responded. He was smart and charming. His picture looked cute. He seemed like a grown-up, and not like a psycho. He knew how to banter. He made a funny joke about punctuation. And, after a few emails were exchanged, he wanted to know if I’d like to meet him for a drink. That night. Then. And, to my great shock and terror and excitement, I found that I did. (What writer can resist a good punctuation joke?)
The next hour was a blur of furious grooming, during which I kept up the following internal monologue: I’m going to get axe murdered. I’m going to get axe murdered. You don’t have to do this, you can call it off. No, I want to. I can handle myself, I have good instincts and great training. Oh, god, I’m going to get axe murdered…
I’m telling you this because sluthood is scary. Because we’ve been taught to fear it all our lives, and that training doesn’t just go away because we understand the agenda behind it. And because there are real risks involved. Society likes to punish slutty women. And so do a lot of individual men, some of whom frequent Craigslist Casual Encounters.
I left my roommate a note telling her what I’d done and where I was going and to call me at 11 and if I didn’t answer to call the police. (What they were going to do about the fact that her 30-something roommate had gone on a CE date and wasn’t home after two hours I mercifully didn’t wonder at the time.) And then I went down to the local bar and met him.
You’ve probably already guessed that I didn’t get axe murdered. Instead, we spent a lovely hour chatting over a couple of glasses of wine, he used the phrase “male hegemony” critically in a sentence (entirely unprompted by me), and then he asked me if I wanted to go back to his place, which was nearby. And once again, to my shock and terror and excitement, I found that I did. Though not before asking him for his address, calling my roommate with it in front of him, and letting him know I had extensive self-defense training.
Reader, I fucked him. Three rounds worth that night. And it was awesome.
Driving home late that night, I was overcome with an uneasy feeling. What had I just done? What did it mean? What would my friends think? Was this who I wanted to be? I sat in my parked car, paralyzed, for ten minutes that felt like an hour. And then I climbed upstairs, slid into bed, and fell into a troubled sleep.
So much of what changes us in life is accidental. The split-second decision. The whim indulged or squelched. I woke up the next morning feeling unmoored. Like something inside me had been knocked loose, but I didn’t yet know if it was a part I needed, or something that had been in the way. At brunch with friends that day, I nervously let slip about my little adventure, and exhaled as they cheered and pumped me for details. Emboldened by their lack of judgment, I told a few more friends, found more wicked delight.
I’m telling you this because sluthood requires support. Because any woman who indulges these urges carries with her a lifetime of censure and threat. That’s a loud chorus to overcome. A slut needs a posse who finds her exploits almost as delicious as she finds them herself, who cares about her safety and her stories and her happiness but not one whit about her virtue. A slut alone is a slut in difficulty, possibly in danger.
Slowly, I realized. A picture came in to focus. I had the fierce love of my friends. I now knew how to find a lover. And knowing those, I admitted what everyone around me already knew: I wasn’t ready for a new relationship. I couldn’t handle the vulnerability required. It was hurting me too much, too often. But suddenly, it was OK. Suddenly I saw that I didn’t have to keep trying. There were other options.
Of course, things are never as simple as you want them to be. I went back to the CL well trying to find more men like B. with little success. He was, perhaps, a needle in a haystack that I never thought would contain a needle in the first place. There were bushels of disgusting replies, some other flirty email exchanges, a few dates that didn’t make it past the first cocktail, and a scant handful of sexual encounters, only one of which, aside from B., was worth repeating. And even that one fizzled out after a while.
But it didn’t really matter. Because sluthood isn’t an action, it’s a state of mind.
I’m telling you this because sluthood saved me. Sluthood gave me the time and space to nurse a shattered heart. It gave me a place where I could exist in pieces, some of me craving touch, some of me still too tender to even expose to the light. Sluthood healed the part of me that felt my body and my desires were grotesque after two years in a libido-mismatched partnership. Now I felt hot, wanted, powerful. My desire and enthusiasm was an asset, not an unintended weapon. Even now, with more time passed, now, when I am actually ready for and wanting a more emotional connection, sluthood keeps me centered. It keeps me from confusing desire and affection with something deeper. It means I have another choice besides celibacy and settling. It means I won’t enter another committed relationship just to satisfy my basic need for sex and affection. It gives me more choices, it makes room for relationships to evolve organically, to take the shape they will before anyone defines them.
I’m telling you this because, as scary and dangerous as my sluthood is, it’s built on privilege. My paid work will never be in jeopardy because my sluthood is exposed. My work also means I have a lot of practice with direct sexual communication. I’m old enough to be fluent in my own desires and limits, and also old enough that no one expects me to be virginal anyhow, so the risk of stigma is less. I’m cisgender and able-bodied and relatively mentally heathly for now, which makes these assignations a lot easier to mange on multiple levels, I would imagine. I have extensive self-defense training, which assures me I can stay in control of my own safety even in most situations. As a survivor of sexual violence, I’ve been privileged to have access to good long-term therapy and other resources that helped me heal at a deep level. I’m also white, which means that no one expects my behavior to represent my entire race.
I’ve also had some obstacles to overcome. Fat girls don’t have the same pick of partners that smaller women seem to, though I’ve been pleasantly surprised and moved that there are more people out there who are attracted to me than I’d thought. Being a woman who’s “pushing 40” doesn’t exactly expand the pool either. My trauma history means I still have triggers to manage, so I’m a stickler for people who respond respectfully and immediately to direct communication – that rules out many more people than I wish it did, and my instincts on that front are quite good, but not perfect.
In other ways, too, sluthood isn’t always pretty, and I’m not always good at it. Whether from years of habit or something more intrinsic to my personality, my heart seems to want to attach, and after a couple months of playing together casually, and having long, rangey talks naked in bed together between rolls in the hay, it started to with B. Neither of us handled it particularly well. There were tears; there were accusations. But even that was an education: somehow, the conflict that erupted demonstrated so clearly the ways we wouldn’t work together in a more serious arrangement, leaving us free to pick up where we’d left off as lovers. A thread in a needle in a haystack, I suppose.
Meanwhile, via CL and other sources, I’ve had emails and dates and crushes and flings, and one thing that looked like it might get serious and then quite abruptly disappeared. I’ve explored some sexual experiences I’d only fantasized about, and learned which ones are better as fantasies and which ones I want to explore even more. I’ve remembered how much I like pleasure, and how much of it there is in the world. I’ve had to learn how to reject people nicely but clearly, and learn how to appreciate a generous rejection when it’s aimed at me. I’m building my emotional muscles again, and I’m starting to think I could eventually wind up stronger than ever. At the moment, I’ve got another connection simmering over a low flame; not sure yet what it’ll boil down to.
And yes, I still want love. Make that Love. The brass ring. The whole enchilada. A partner in crime, a permanent teammate. A mutual admiration society of two. Someone who feels like home, and who feels the same about me. Someone to catalogue my wrinkles as they form. Whatever you want to call it. When I think about it, it involves monogamy, but who knows. Maybe I’ll find it with someone. Maybe I won’t. I can’t pretend I don’t care. But most days, sluthood helps me be patient. It keeps desperation at bay. It reminds me to enjoy the life I have now, instead of waiting for someone to come start it. It helps me know my heart better, and my libido. It makes me better at communicating about both of them, and much less likely to confuse the two. To my mind, far from ruining me for real love, sluthood is preparing me for it.
I’m not telling you because I think I’ve discovered something new – countless women have certainly known this before me. I’m telling you this because so many people still don’t seem to understand. I’m not telling you this because I think you’re a slut, or should be a slut. I don’t know you. I don’t know what you need, or what you have access to. I’m surely not telling you this out of a desire to expose my private life to the internet. Writing this here means facing the judgment of some members of my family, some colleagues, and other people whose opinion of me matters. It means my ex will probably read this. It means I’ve left this out here for people to find in the future, possibly hurting my life in ways I can’t predict. Surely some of you reading this now will mock me, or criticize me, or give me uninvited advice because you feel like you now know me, or take this as an invitation to hit on me. (Hint: IT’S NOT.)
I’m telling you this because juries still think women who even look like they might possibly be sluts are “asking for it.” I’m telling you this because some people still think it’s OK to drive a teenage girl to suicide because she was probably a slut. I’m telling you this because our policymakers would rather girls get sometimes-fatal diseases than be perceived as condoning sluthood. I’m telling you this because it’s important for everyone to understand: Sluthood isn’t a disease, or a wrong path, or a trend that’s ruining our youth. It isn’t just for detached, unemotional women who “fuck like men,” (as if that actually meant something), consequences be damned. It isn’t ever inevitable that sluthood should inspire violence or shame. Sluthood isn’t just a choice we should let women make because women should be free to make even “bad” choices. It’s a choice we should all have access to because it has the potential to be liberating. Healing. Soul-fulfilling. I’m telling you this because sluthood saved me, in a small but life-altering way, and I want it to be available to you if you ever think it could save you, too. Or if you want it for any other reason at all. And because even if you don’t ever want sluthood for yourself, you’re going to be called upon to support a slut. I’m telling you this because when that happens, I want you to say yes.
(Cross-posted at Feministe.)