I was 17 the first time I touched a penis. It was a warm spring night, and I went over to Matt’s* house in my coolest extra-tight boot-cut jeans and a flowy white hippie shirt. I was excited and nervous. I had already felt Matt’s hard penis rubbing against me when we made out on his bedroom couch up in the attic, and we had gone a little farther each time I came over, first making out, then grinding against each other, then sort of humping. This time, I swore to myself, I wanted to actually touch it (i.e., his penis).
I didn’t want to “go all the way”—heck no. I was Mormon, after all, and making out like Matt and I had been was totally forbidden already. I was definitely not going to have sex with him. Sex—as in penis-in-vagina straight-people intercourse—was for marriage. Making out with Matt, however, was fascinating and new, and I got so turned on when I felt his boner pressing against me. It made me feel incredibly sexy, like here is proof of how much he wants me and how desirable I am, and I wanted to see how far I could go with him without going “all the way.” As long as I didn’t actually have intercourse, I told myself, I could just repent later in my prayers and I’d be fine with God.
Matt didn’t go to my high school. I had met him at the coffee shop I went to nearly every night in downtown Green Bay, Wisconsin, where he was a barista. He was tall and thin, with gigantic brown eyes, beautiful long hair, and thin, delicate fingers, and he had already recorded his own CD of guitar and mandolin songs. Matt’s parents were rarely home, and whenever I went to his house, we went right up to the attic. We would sit on the floor and Matt would pull out his guitar to play me a song he’d been working on. I’d pretend to listen, but my mind would be on the couch behind us and how to transition into being on it, doing stuff.
That spring day the transition went like this: Matt finished playing his song, looked at my face, took my hand, and pulled me onto the couch. We started kissing, and he eased his way on top of me. I felt him get hard and pressed my body up against his. He started rubbing on my jeans, and I snuck my hands up his shirt to feel his warm skin. His hand grazed my breast tentatively, and I grabbed it and put it up my shirt. We kissed like that for a long time, and then I pushed him off of me and sat on top of him, still kissing. Then I put my hand on the lump I saw in his jeans. Matt went still. I slid my hand between his jeans and his boxers. He looked at me. I slid my hand under the elastic of his boxers. There it was.
It felt warm and interesting. It was hard but not like rock-hard—it still felt like skin, but stretched over something stiff. You could put your hand around it, and I did. He had hair down there, which shocked me. I had never even seen a boy naked, and I didn’t know they had pubic hair—although when I thought about it for a second, of course they had hair; why hadn’t I figured that out? I liked holding his penis in my hand, rubbing it gently, and seeing the look of absolute desperation in his eyes. He wanted me. He needed me. I could help him, if I wanted to.
“What do you want to do?” he whispered.
“I don’t know,” I said. But I did know—I was doing it. All I’d wanted to do was touch a penis; I had no interest in doing anything with it (yet). We made out for a while more, then I went home.
Over the next few months our activity progressed to my giving him hand jobs, which I actually loved doing. It was all about power for me. I loved seeing him vulnerable, needing something from me. I never went any further than that with Matt, even though I kind of wanted to give him a blow job—I just wasn’t ready.
We broke up, amicably, a few months later—we didn’t actually have much in common aside from our attraction to each other—and I didn’t have a serious boyfriend again until my first year of college. During the time between Matt and my next boyfriend, a lot happened. A lot. I went off to the University of Minnesota. I discovered I liked kissing girls as well as boys. I took my first few feminist-theory classes, left the Mormon church, and was suddenly reading tons of books about women, about feminism, about power and privilege and the patriarchy and gender roles. In these classes I learned that men dominated everything in this world, from almost 100 percent of the “classic literature” I was being assigned in other courses to most of the positions of power at my school. Men seemed to dominate everything, pretty much. Why had I never noticed this before?
This was my first introduction to any of these ideas, and I pretty much immediately became a proud feminist. I also became extremely angry at men, at the way I’d been raised in a heavily patriarchal church, at the way society treated and valued men and women differently. I saw injustice everywhere, as if I’d been sleeping my entire life and my eyes had just snapped open.
I started seeing Will* in the middle of my freshman year. He was five years older than me, a graduate student, and really cute. After we’d dated for a short while, I was ready and eager to do more than just hand jobs. I was ready to try giving blow jobs! Will knew I had never done that before, and he cheerfully volunteered to be my teacher. (How nice of him!)
For my inaugural lesson, we went to his room, where he sat on the edge of the bed with his jeans off. He pulled his dick out of his boxers, and I got down on my knees and put my mouth on it. He told me what to do and how to do it, and I complied. I felt respected and safe with him. And you know, I liked it! It was fine! (I had been worried, because so many of my friends had told me how much they hated giving blow jobs.) I paused in the middle of the fun to look up and tell him I was really enjoying this. He was leaning over me, his hand on the back of my head, guiding me where he wanted me to go.
All of a sudden, out of nowhere, I heard something: a shrieking, panicky, judgy voice in my head going, Look at you—on your knees for a man, bowing down before the phallus, performing an act that is designed solely for a man’s pleasure. Don’t men get enough pleasure? They already have everything, they get to put it in our mouths, too?
This was a pretty startling turn of events. There I was giving my boyfriend my very first blow job—and enjoying it—when I was suddenly being watched and judged and scolded. I had thought I was doing something I wanted to do (it had been my idea), and it felt warm and loving and exciting; but when I stepped back and saw what it looked like from the outside, from the point of view of this disembodied voice, I saw myself kneeling in front of a guy who towered over me with his hand on the back of my head, like I was totally submissive to him and he was controlling me. I was horrified.
What the fuck, I thought. I was having fun a second ago. I tried to tune out the judgy voice, but it was determined to ruin my good time (and apparently my sex life). I wanted to successfully complete this milestone act, and I did, and it was fine, but I was severely weirded out by the whole experience.
After that, I never had a sexual encounter with Will, ever, that was not a threesome with that voice, whom I’ll call Freaking-Out-Feminist-Krista. Every time we got down to business, FOFK reminded me that I was betraying my feminist values as well as every other woman in the world. I felt like I was carrying the weight of thousands of years of female oppression into each sexual rendezvous. A blow job was no longer something a boy and I did for pleasure: It was a manifestation of women’s oppression by men. If he held my head, he was controlling me rather than guiding me. If he leaned back without touching me during the act, he clearly felt entitled to be sexually serviced by me, like I was only there for his pleasure.
We broke up.
After Will, FFOK followed me into every relationship I had with men, poisoning what could have been intimate and lovely times. Later, when I was having P-in-V sex with dudes, if my partner wanted me to face away from him, I’d hear her immediately: He doesn’t want to see your face when you have sex because it doesn’t matter who you are—you’re just a body to him, a warm hole, really. You could be anyone. If he wanted to be on top, she would sneer, He just wants to dominate a submissive woman. If he came before I did, she’d go, Cool, wow, I guess sex stops after he comes, whether or not you have. No matter what we were doing, FOFK was always there in the bedroom with us, relentless, watchful, nagging. Her voice haunted every potential sexyfuntime, guaranteeing it would never get too sexy or too fun.
Keep in mind: I was not dating assholes. Pretty much across the board, my boyfriends were sweet and friendly guys who were anxious to please me in life and in bed. They asked what they could do to help me come during sex. They asked what they could do for me in general. But they couldn’t do anything about this problem I was having. It wasn’t them; it was me, and it was her.
Meanwhile I was also sleeping with women, which I found I vastly preferred to sleeping with men, but good ol’ FOFK crept in there, too. Most of the girls I was attracted to at the time were butch—meaning they exhibited what are traditionally seen as “masculine” styles and behaviors—and I transferred my panic about sexism and heteronormative gender roles onto them. I couldn’t let go of the idea that they were trying to dominate me, too, since I have always presented myself more on the femme side of things. I started to question why I was attracted to these particular women: Was it because I secretly wanted to be with a dude but couldn’t handle the head-trip? So now I was a bad straight person and a bad queer! And THE SHAME SPIRAL KEPT RIGHT ON SPIRALLING. I found it impossible to let go and enjoy myself with anyone of any gender; I over-thought every motion during sex, analyzed each position, and assessed who had the power at any given moment. If someone penetrated my vagina with a penis or their fingers or a toy, I felt guilty about enjoying my clearly powerless, submissive position. If I was the one doing the penetrating, I felt guilty about taking the role of the evil, dominating man. I couldn’t bone without wondering if whatever I was doing was fair: fair to me, fair to my partner, fair to women, fair to feminism.
(FOFK would also pipe up when I was just flirting with girls. If I caught myself glancing at a girl’s cleavage while talking to her, I went into a tizzy of self-flagellation. OH MY GOD, I would think, I AM JUST LIKE AN EVIL HETEROSEXUAL MAN. Basically, I was driving myself mad.)
I started having trouble having sex at all. It just took too much mental energy. I had not relaxed and just enjoyed being physical with someone since I first touched Matt’s penis when I was 17, when it was all relatively simple: just a boy I liked and me, two people who wanted to have sex. I wanted to get back there, but I didn’t really know where to begin.
So I started small: I’d try making out with the person I was dating without analyzing who was holding whom where, and whose tongue was more aggressive. If FOFK’s voice tried to invade my thoughts, I’d just think “NO” and refocus on how holding this person felt. I’d practice being mentally present during sex, telling myself stuff like, This feels nice. I like her. She is hot. I like that. Over time, I graduated to being able to shut down FOFK’s nagging voice pretty quickly when she started whining about gender roles and power during sex, and replace it with my own positive thoughts, such as: It doesn’t matter who’s taking on the “masculine role”—in fact, there is no masculine role; we are just doing what turns us on. We are just two people who want to have sex, that’s all.
It took about a year of dedicated effort to be able to shut Freaking-Out-Feminist-Krista up entirely, but I have, and I’m so much happier now. These days I allow myself to be a sexual person who enjoys having sexual relations—it turns out that giving myself permission was the key all along. That means acknowledging that I am a sexual creature who wants and enjoys physical pleasure, and that that is OK! I know it sounds obvious, but it took me forever to totally believe that. It’s all right to want sex. Most humans want sex. Some people want heterosexual sex and some people want queer sex and some people want both and some want something entirely different, and all of those things are just fine. We are not doomed to wander the earth, fighting the patriarchy with our own personal sex lives.
If reconciling your feminist values with your sexual preferences is something you’re struggling with, don’t panic. But try to believe what I’m about to tell you, because it’s true: It’s healthy to want and seek pleasure. It’s generous and kind to want to make your sexual partner(s) feel good. You should do stuff with someone because you want to, not because they expect or feel entitled to it, and the same should be true for them. Whatever you do during sexytimes is between you and your partner—not you, your partner, and feminism, and not you, your partner, and the Gender Roles Police Force. Everything doesn’t always have to be equal—unless you want it to be. The only things that matter are that everyone’s having fun, and everyone’s feeling respected by and respectful of their partners the whole time you’re doing whatever it is that you get up to. Because in the end, that’s all that sex is: Two people who want to have sex, alone in a room. No judgy voices allowed. ♦