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Emotionally Safe Sex

I should love myself enough to know that I deserve someone who will value every part of me.

“She’s hot but I would never date her, man. She’s kind of weird — did you see the clothes she wears? I don’t know, I think if she had longer hair and normal clothes she’d go from like a 7 to a 10.”

The general male populace of my school was all too eager to share this opinion of me from the moment I hit puberty, when my body curved, twisted, cinched, and grew. These boys repeated the same phrases that, though expressed in different variations, only ever ranged from offensive to offensive.

One boy — let’s call him Bob — called me a “weirdo with a good ass.” He had large arms and a chiseled chest he sculpted every day at the school gym, lifting weights and grunting at his reflection as he flexed, pouted, and clenched. When someone asked, “Would you go for her?” he replied, “Sure, if she was at a party, I was drunk, she was drunk, and it would be a one-night thing. Nothing more, obviously. But man, she should really grow her hair and wear some clothes that don’t look like she’s a mix between a grandma and an ugly painting or something.”

Bob said this during my freshman year, on his way to the tennis courts for physical education. It was halfway through February on a cold winter’s day in England. The frozen grass crunched under my sneakers, goosebumps formed on my arm, the tips of my ears stung, and the tears flowing from my eyes stained my face.

I was always aware of these opinions of me. I have also always been aware of my independence and have wondered if perhaps being a little more quiet or dismissive would make me more likable. It’s unusual that I am the way that I am, considering that during the 12 years I lived in Jordan, I went to Friday lunches at my grandparents’ house, where women cleaned, gave birth, and cooked. At Ramadan, I sat with the women and the men sat meters away. I saw women’s lips sewed shut.

I thank my mother for my independence, but at the age of 15, I went through a time where I despised her for it and wished she would sew my mouth and cloud my mind. I wondered what I could do to make boys stop viewing me as a sex object — albeit one they didn’t desire or deem appropriate “girlfriend material.” I wondered what I could do to make them stop refusing to see the rest of me.

I eventually exchanged my true feelings in order to attempt to feel that I fit in, to be deemed more worthy by my male counterparts. I wore clothes I didn’t like but knew they did — boring tank tops and skinny jeans instead of the long shimmery skirts, vintage t-shirts, lacy long sleeved-blouses, Stella platforms, and black berets I longed to wear. I would sit idly in class and Snapchat instead of study. Social media allowed me to appear however I thought others wanted me to, so I sent frivolous photos with a pout or a generic smile, as well as the odd provocative mirror selfie. On Instagram, I wanted to post photos of the art that inspired me, the brief snapshots of my life that I found beautiful. But these posts were misunderstood as more reasons for the argument of my “strangeness.”

But should I slip and dare to reveal my quirky, independent self, I would immediately go back to being a sculpture in their museum of lust and nothing more. Never talked to directly, only addressed in short, suggestive phrases and looked upon with raised eyebrows and tilted heads that wondered why I was the way I was. I couldn’t tell them why, I couldn’t give them a reason, so I decided to let everyone else decide. I let Bob and all the other Bobs tell people who I was going to be, so if you wanted to know who I was, I would tell you to just ask Bob.

Walking this line became even more puzzling when I went to parties and the familiar boys who criticized my romantic viability but praised my physicality — now with lowered inhibitions and looking for a quick hookup with a girl worthy and attractive enough to get them a pat on the back from their comrades on Monday — were suddenly interested in me. For a fleeting moment, they genuinely wanted to talk to me. They wanted to hear what I had to say to fulfill their underlying incentive of hooking up with the attractive but unusual feminist with a once-puzzling fashion sense. Too unworthy to actually talk to sober, but just right for a quick, drunk canoodle.

There was a rumor during the beginning of sophomore year (I was 15) that a boy, an intimidating senior, had a crush on me. He had green eyes and shaggy hair. One day, the sun made a rare appearance (for England), and I sat outside, perched against a bench listening to Kweku Collins and Russ. This boy — let’s call him Jim — came up to me. He was walking purposefully. I was immediately overly aware of my flaws and idiosyncrasies that I knew would deter him.

He introduced himself and asked how I was doing. I said I was fine. Jim then went on to ask what I was listening to. He didn’t know the artists and scrunched his nose in a disapproving grimace. I blushed, pretending to bask in the sunshine while I really just basked in embarrassment. It only escalated when Jim declared, “Your hair’s interesting, but I think maybe you should grow it. I mean, it could look so good, you know? But you’re cute and I want you to come to this party tonight, OK? When you get there, text me.” He smiled sheepishly and began to walk away, then looked back over his shoulder and gave me a suggestive wave.

I lost my virginity that night, to green eyes and shaggy hair.

I generally was never very sentimental about my virginity — at least the physical aspect of it. I never really felt an emotional connection to it but just saw it as science, as biology.

That was before. While I don’t regret losing it, I also don’t believe that I really knew what my virginity was, what sex really was. It’s all good and dandy to sit through an hour-long sex-ed lecture while girls squirm uncomfortably in their chairs and preadolescent boys sneer and giggle at the sight of a banana wrapped in a latex sheath. Sex ed is incredibly essential, and I truly believe it is an extremely fundamental lesson for every single person in the world. I learned the logistics of intercourse — the repercussions, the diseases, and how to do it safely — and therefore knew that the physical way I lost my virginity was safe and clean.

But I was never taught how to protect myself internally. There is no birth control for that.

I was never taught about the shame that came with sharing intimacy with a boy who had previously degraded my character, someone who looked at me as if I had no complexities. It wasn’t like me at all, to give myself to someone who didn’t really want to know me, who wanted me without my thoughts, my opinions, my quirks. He didn’t care that my toes squirmed when I got nervous, or which shows I binge-watched, or the music I listened to. He didn’t want to know any of that because he only wanted me based on what I looked like. It is a hollow validation, an abrupt flattery followed by perpetual dismay.

I remember returning to my house afterward, expecting to feel funny — to feel womanly, maybe? I recall thinking, Should I cry now? But I didn’t feel much of anything. I didn’t think about it as much as I’d assumed I would; it was too easy for me to shove it to the back of my mind, to dismiss it. It didn’t feel real. Emotionally, I was numb.

I have since realized that I was refusing to acknowledge that the way I lost my virginity was in a frivolous hookup. I didn’t think about it for a long time to protect myself: I knew that if I thought hard about it, I would hate myself even more than I already did for trying to live in a way others would accept. In a bid to be seen as a whole person, I ended up acting in a way that felt personally degrading. The girl I once was had allowed herself to turn mute. She wanted to. All because she didn’t feel validated by the people around her, when really the only person’s approval she needed was her own.

I want to repeat: I do not regret losing my virginity. I regret the circumstances under which I lost it — that I did so as a product of who I thought I had to be at the time rather than who I actually was. I have clarity now, and I can acknowledge that I was too young, too fragile, and too desperate for all the wrong things.

But this wasn’t a mistake. A mistake would warrant regret and I don’t feel that — only that I learned something very important: I learned how to have emotionally safe sex. I learned that my body is more than one-dimensional and I should love myself enough to know that I deserve someone who will value every part of me, who will care not just about my face or body, but the way my toes squirm when I get nervous, the shows I enjoy binge-watching, and the music I listen to. If these demands seem extreme, then, boy, it is extreme for you to think I’ll give away any part of myself to you.

I can’t change what happened, and I don’t feel sorrow or anger about it. I just feel glad that I have moved on, that while I don’t have my virginity, I have self-acceptance, which is far more valuable.

The author’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

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