As a high school student, it seemed that after a certain period of time being in a romantic relationship, sex was the status quo. I was open to losing my virginity, especially if and when the time felt right. And then I grew to love the first boy I ever really dated.
I don’t think anyone knows exactly what they’re getting themselves into when they enter their first romantic relationship. I know I sure didn’t. When I said “I love you” for the first time, I really had no idea what those words meant. I think I loved him. Time and time again, I returned to him, but no one around me could understand why. The course of our relationship dragged on for a couple of years before I finally left for good. And he left me with a sick understanding of what “love” was.
Love was late-night frozen yogurt runs; it was investing in growing together and as individuals. It turned into broken promises; it was being locked in a bedroom with tears running down my face and scars on my thighs, facing numerous forms of sexual assault.
“I love you” was a reminder that no one else could (or would) love me better.
Despite the fact that he raped me on a frequent basis, I didn’t consciously acknowledge it. I was afraid that naming it would make the experience real. I tried to return to being the carefree, loving girl I knew I was. But beneath the layers of my fabricated self-confidence, the abuse was still very much alive in both my physical body and emotional mind.
I found myself unable to truly connect to anyone else romantically. Logically, I wanted to love other people—I could go through the motions of loving someone, but because I had mastered the skill of dissociation, the closer any male seemed to get to me, the further I seemed to go from myself. Eventually, the constant dissociation made it impossible for me to connect to anyone around me. So I’d leave a relationship seemingly out of the blue or sabotage it to give them a reason to leave first.
Two years after leaving my abuser, I decided I was asexual. I still desired monogamous relationships and knew intimacy was one of my core values. But emotional, intellectual, and spiritual forms of intimacy felt like the only ones I could ever grasp. Sexual intimacy felt like a form of self-harm.
One night, I met a boy and we developed an unexpected relationship. He had no idea that I thought I was asexual when we met. We had fun together. He treated me the same in private as he did when we went to parties. I found myself opening my heart again, even though I hadn’t entered with the intention of doing so, and we started dating. Eventually, physical intimacy seemed like the next natural step. There was no reason for him to believe sex was something I didn’t want.
It was a slow process. He always asked before we did anything. And while he had no idea what I’d gone through, he never questioned me when I told him “no” or “not now.” Throughout our relationship, I was able to stay connected to reality in a way that kept my heart and body feeling open rather than closed. When I did feel the need to physically leave to be in my own space, he never begged me to stay—although I know he didn’t want me to go. He respected my choice, even if he couldn’t understand it. The longer the relationship went, the easier being physically intimate became. I still felt scared, but I was also curious and appreciative. Over time, the physical aspect of our relationship seemed to help me feel even more connected to him. And it was an insanely healing experience for me.
Eventually, our relationship ended. It was at this point that I finally acknowledged and labeled the experiences I’d had in my first relationship as abusive. I realized that I’m not asexual and that perhaps my aversion to sexual intimacy was a byproduct of the trauma I’d faced—not an inherent part of my identity.
I do think I appreciate meaningful physical intimacy. Physical touch is one of the most grounding things for me when it’s with someone I trust. More stereotypically “innocent” forms seem to be the ones I appreciate most. Being held is comforting; cuddling is something I feel safe doing 99% of the time; the majority of the time, kissing is enjoyable. Today, there are days when sex is fun. And under the right circumstances, I’m just starting to look forward to it. But even with someone who I really care about and feel safe around, there are still times when physical touch triggers memories of being assaulted. And then I need to stop.
Photo by Kara Birnbaum for Refinery29