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My Body Is No One's Personal Receptacle
What we talk about when we talk about intimacy
I always believed it was important to maintain intimacy in a relationship. It’s too easy to let life take over or to just get lazy. I also thought it was necessary to on occasion, take one for the team…do it when you’re not in the mood…fake it till you make it. Too often is the story of the tired wife/mom who’s never in the mood and the sad dad/husband who isn’t getting laid.
I still believe parts of this, intimacy IS very important, but things aren’t always black and white. I should’ve allowed myself exceptions to my own rule.
Like breast cancer, I should not have worried about keeping my partner satisfied during this awful time. Even worse, I stressed hard about it and my ex didn’t help, he would pout ALL THE TIME. He’d very intentionally make me feel guilty. I found myself on so many occasions having sex, not a single hair on my entire body, only one breast, tired and sick from chemo. I’m a different person now and I cannot believe I allowed this to happen.
Whether it was the trauma, the chemo induced menopause or the hormone therapy I’ll be on for the next 10 years, I came out of cancer with no sex drive and it’s still no where in sight. I had a pretty healthy sexual appetite before this experience and never realized how much of my time was consumed thinking about sex, dating or when my next relationship would be. It’s oddly freeing. If and when my drive comes back, I will never ever have sex when I do not want to. My body is no ones personal receptacle and I don’t know why I ever thought it was. It’s so weird to think about now!
When I was a freshman in high school, I found myself, against all odds, dating my first older boyfriend.
I was a friendly but shy English honors student. He was an all-star athlete. Varsity everything, soccer, football, track, other sports I am likely forgetting. His parents, two radiologists, raised him and his younger brother in a wealthy enclave of an already wealthy neighborhood; it was the first time I’d known someone with a whole other, second house, in the backyard behind their real house, separated by a swimming pool. Let’s call this boy Smith.
It was my freshman year of high school, and Smith’s attention catapulted me to a new realm of social status. A year older than me, a gulf of accomplishments between us, I was flattered just to walk next to him. A letter jacket! He was so young, a sophomore, but already wearing one. Out of which stretched a hand, whose fingers encircled mine. I was Molly Ringwald. This was my moment.
A few months into our relationship, Smith started asking for a blow job. I should admit to you some internal debate just now, considered typing “oral sex” instead, but I’ll opt for his real words over a sanitized version.
“Tolly, I want a blow job.” “Tolly, the penis is just like an arm.” “Tolly, the penis is not dirty, I promise you it’s not.” I heard this many, many times.
One day, when I was over at Smith’s house, his impossibly cool older cousin, a Jeremy Allen White rebel chef type who worked at a French restaurant, swung by on his motorcycle. “Hey Tolly,” Smith’s mom said, “would you like to take a ride on that motorcycle?”
I didn’t really want to, but everyone was looking at me expectantly, and oh look, an extra helmet in the garage. I thought we’d cruise around the block, and how bad could that be? I hopped on.
He roared the engine to life, and drove down the street. He drove past the lawns and the neat hedges and the rose bushes winking pink. He drove past the drugstore that still sold malts, the ones in ice-cold metal glasses. He drove past a gas station, past the last remaining signs for residential streets, and onto a highway entrance ramp climbing up, up, up.
I was 14. I was wearing jeans my mom had bought me at The Gap, a striped tank top from The Limited, plastic clear jellies with glitter inside of them, and an enormous white helmet knocking against my head. He tore down the highway, and I held on, terrified.
When we finally stopped – at his own, adult house – Smith’s cousin took me inside, and sat me down for a talk.
He asked me if Smith and I were having sex (no). He asked me if I wanted to do that (not sure). He asked me if Smith had ever pressured me, because he was a good kid, but even good kids get over-eager sometimes (ok). And the refreshing part was, he was talking to me like a peer, which I guess is what Smith’s parents had in mind when they set this whole thing up.
By the time we left, I felt more adult than I ever had in my whole life. I also felt my new responsibility: to control Smith’s impulses, to dam up both his hormones and mine, to be the voice of reason next time we made out and Smith whined for a blow job.
I got back on the motorcycle, a 14 year-old woman.
“Women are set up to be the babysitters of male sexuality.”
I heard this recently on a podcast episode I researched for work, from Elise Loehnen, author of the brand new book On Our Best Behavior: The Seven Deadly Sins and The Price Women Pay to Be Good.” And between hearing her say that, and reading this story submission, a question rattled loose after 27 years:
Did Smith’s cousin ever talk to Smith himself?
I’m almost positive he didn’t.
If he tried, it did not take.
Because Smith still implored me for blow jobs, every time he got the opportunity, until I caved and finally did it, and he came to my house the next week, and dumped me in my front yard.
That last part is a story for another time. But it underlies something invisible, something I want to try and make visible and legible to my story submitter:
The babysitting part.
I went on a walk in my neighborhood before I wrote this post, repeating these four words like a mantra:
My neighborhood is beautiful in the springtime. It’s modest, and the houses aren’t huge, but flowers explode onto sidewalks, and you can walk right through them, pretending to be a fairy or a woodland creature.
I thought about a scene I’ve seen before in several movies, where the camera is angled overhead, looking down on a straight couple having sex in missionary. The man is on top, we see the back of his head, we hear him grunting; the woman is on bottom, quiet, staring at the ceiling.
He comes, he rolls over, asks her: “was it good for you?” She smiles a closed-lip smile, and we all laugh. Ha ha ha!
There’s a phrase I learned recently, “service sex,” from the research of Dr. Marta Meana at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Dr. Wednesday Martin wrote about it in one of my favorite books, Untrue: Why Nearly Everything We Believe About Women, Lust, and Infidelity Is Wrong and How the New Science Can Set Us Free.
Here’s Wednesday, talking about what happens in almost every single long-term, cohabiting, monogamous, and hetero relationship:
“Women start providing service sex. ‘He wants it, I really don’t but I will get it over with’. Then women get into the cycle of thinking, ‘I guess I don’t really like sex’. It’s actually that they’re not liking sex with the partner they’ve been with for many years.”
It’s a larger argument about female sexuality being designed for partner variety. Which is a fairly threatening concept to our current social order, and not what I actually want to focus on here. But I thought about service sex in relation to those four words (intimacy, tired, sad, receptacle), and I thought about Elise’s words, “women are set up to be the babysitters of male sexuality.”
Which prompted a question, one I’ve thought about many times before:
Why do we have sex?
The easy answers are: reproduction, and/or pleasure. But we also have it for “intimacy.”
Intimacy. What do we mean by intimacy?
In hetero world, is that actually code for: a safe space for men to be vulnerable?
Whether you’re one of the women in Dr. Marta Meana’s experiments, who fell into providing service sex for their husbands because they wanted to keep the peace, or you are like this submitter, who’s too tired to enjoy sex herself because, I don’t know, she’s got fucking cancer, I’m interested in the mainstream prerogative of “intimacy,” if it actually requires one party to give over their body for the pleasure of another.
Isn’t that the opposite of intimacy?
Doesn’t that mean one person has to disassociate?
Ignore the fact that they don’t want this?
Is that, actually, intimacy?
When one person is having a kind of masturbatory sex that culminates in orgasm, and the other person is a fleshy receptacle.
Is that intimacy?
Whether or not you’ve heard of Dr. Meana’s research, you’re probably familiar with the hetero stereotype our submitter articulated here, of the tired wife/mom who’s never in the mood, and the sad dad/husband who isn’t getting laid.
If the woman is tired, maybe it’s because she really has been turned into a babysitter.
And if the man is sad, maybe that’s because he really has been turned into a child.
No, no no – I’m not getting Freudian. I’m just stating the ways this set-up serves no one. Because while my first reaction upon receiving this story was a heart-cracking pain for the submitter, I came to feel pain also, for the man she was with.
So often, we deny men the ability to explore and express a whole range of feelings, carving out penetrative sex as one little shelter in the wind, where they can be emotionally vulnerable. Like, last week, I watched a Queer Eye episode where they made over a fraternity, and it was the first time in four decades plus of life I have seen fraternity brothers cry tears, and comfort one another.
Why was this so novel to see? Almost radical?
Why don’t we let men mature in this way?
Smith whined; our submitter’s partner pouted. We keep men emotionally stunted when we grant them the ability to desire, but not the ability to withstand discomfort, to accept honesty from their partners that might sound something like: no. See me. Behold me. I’ve got fucking cancer. The price of entitlement is immaturity (see: Donald Trump), but discomfort is an essential part of being human.
If you’re like one of the women in Dr. Meana’s research, your honesty could be: see me. Behold me. It’s not that I don’t like sex. It’s not even that I don’t like sex with you. But I do need variety. Maybe you do, too.
Paging Esther Perel here, we really do place a whole village worth of needs on one person’s shoulders. And then, we wonder why one partner is tired, and the other partner is sad. That is not intimacy. That is a recipe for dissociative sex and for loneliness. In the long run, it doesn’t serve anyone, not even the one who is coming.
I guess this is my pitch, then: to redefine the word “intimacy.” And to stop using it as shorthand for sex, but for something a little more expansive and true in the context of a relationship, something like:
Hey. I’m always going to be my authentic self around you. But before I do that, I’m going to figure out who my authentic self is, and figure out what I need to thrive, sexually and emotionally, and collaborate with you on that. And then, I’m going to show you who I actually am, in bed and in everywhere, because you’re someone I feel safe with, and whether I want to experience the erotic-soaked joy of sex with just you or with other people or with NO people, I trust you, because there’s only so many souls in this world I can show all of my many sides to, and wow, fuck, you’re one of them, and I’m grateful you’re here, witnessing me, and I’m grateful I get to witness you too, you kaleidoscope of beauty and change. I love all your sides. And one of the best ways I can love you, is by taking care of myself. And if you’ve got, say, cancer, I’ll be good.
That’s what I want intimacy to be.
On the way home from my walk, I queued up a song. Permit me to be the 36th white girl in your life who knows all the words to “Shoop,” but that is what I played, and that is what I sang, that female gaze anthem that slipped in under the door of 90s music, that Salt N’ Pepa cruisy come-on that’s funny and sexy and, ok, not all of it has aged well, but plenty of it has, especially this part:
Don't know how you do the voodoo that you do
So well it's a spell, hell, makes me wanna shoop shoop shoop
May the voodoo you’re feeling yourself submitter, of freedom and clarity, be a spell that lasts forever.
Thank you so very much for your story.
What I’m currently, voraciously, consuming:
QUEER EYE! This season in New Orleans is amazing, I weep every episode and text my mom about it. Watching it makes me feel better about America.
To prepare for this post, I asked Dr. Wednesday Martin if she coined the term “service sex,” and she clarified that it comes from the research of Dr. Marta Meana. Here’s her study that looks at hetero couples and female low libido.
Submit Here’s Instagram!! We’re currently small but mighty.
Your stories from Submit Here’s submission page! Omg! I get so unreasonably happy when one of you sends something. Keep them coming!
Directions on chevron friendship bracelets. Guys, my daughter is almost 9, and my friendship bracelet game is severely lacking. Send help.
Coming next week:
“I am told not to move. My unfortunate predicament is, I like the consequences and I like to follow his rules. A little of both ensues. He says the right things. His punishment is swift and controlled. Not too much. Just enough. He guides my hips, allowing me movement when he determines it. I ask longingly. He strictly denies me, creating only more frustration in my body. He touches my most tender place and still upholds the rules.”
Join me next Monday, 5/29, for a lil’ conversation about erotica.
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