The girl who was shown how to love herself—
I walked into my first frat party during O-week, clutching my Keystone tightly to my chest and covering it, worried that someone would spike it, and I would be found unconscious in a ditch. Sex to me was a dirty thing, something that a guy wanted to take from me — and take and take and take until I had nothing left to give. I carried the clouds of a variety of my sexual assault experiences and traumatic stories of others with me.
I had sex willingly for the first time three weeks into college. In my new room, under my string lights, I tried to remind myself that it was okay to have sex and that it was okay to have sex casually, for fun. Yet, when he told me “It’s just sex,” it still hurt. We ended up dating for a year after that, but I still remember the first guilt spiral that he sent me on.
I was taught, halfway through my freshman year relationship, that your partner will leave you and hurt you if you don’t provide sex. I was told by my mother that the reason why my father cheated was partially because she stopped giving him her body. I was told by my boyfriend that, after three days of not having sex, even though I wasn’t in the mood because I had lost a close family member, sex was an integral part of a relationship and that, without it, there was no point in a relationship. Later that day, he was on top of me, taking and taking and taking though I didn’t want to give. I thought that the sacrifice I was making was necessary, an integral part of a relationship.
After our relationship ended, I started to try and see sex as a fun part of life. Go out, have fun, be safe. I tried to satisfy myself with random people and friends alike, thinking over and over and over again that I wasn’t normal if I didn’t enjoy the casual sex that others seemed to seek out constantly. The experiences were never what I wanted them to be. I was always disappointed, always left feeling a little more empty, always a little disrespected.
I figured out that I was bisexual in the middle of my sex exploration. Despite this, I was consistently scared of being with another woman. Because I was never pleased, I was worried that I would never be able to please another woman.
Last summer, I finally decided that I had had enough. The only time I had a good time with a fling was when we had actually connected as individuals, and we had determined that we would have started dating if the timing was right. I completely stopped with this exploration, cut myself off from everyone. I viewed sex as something that was foreign, something I was unable to grasp or understand, something that beat me, something that would hurt me over and over and over again. I was convinced that I was the odd one out, the one who couldn’t figure out how to enjoy something that is labeled as a primal and integral part of being a human.
Then, I fell in love with someone. This love felt different from the love I felt freshman year. This love didn’t ask me to give, and give and give. This love did not make me feel fear, make me feel like I owed anything. This love didn’t make me feel that I needed to give my body up. Sex was transformed to a beautiful thing to be shared, where we both wanted to give, where we both moved in unison to show our love in yet another way. The last night before we left campus for quarantine, sex was how we communicated to each other just how much we would miss each other, how much the other meant to us, how much our bodies, much like our minds, craved to be near each other. The person I love provided me a space to be safe, a space where I always had ownership of my body, a space that I felt open to explore, a space where my body was loved for what it is, a space where I was never expected to give and give and give. I am so grateful. Under the same string lights, sex is now magnetic, exhilarating, loving —encapsulating an urgency to be as close to someone I love as possible.
The boy who can’t keep it in his pants anymore—
Freshman year, third week of school, I met an extraordinary girl. She was extraordinarily underwhelming. High school was not a time that I spent getting laid, so the first girl to give me any sort of sexual attention was, as far as I could tell, my best shot at sex. As you can tell, sex was never something special for me: It was something useful, a source of utility, a way to cum.
That perspective isn’t a recipe for success: we broke up weeks later. And for the next two years, my bed was a winding stream of random women, each inhabiting the area, feeding my confidence and leaving after a few weeks to a month. As for me, I suffered from performance anxiety and an inability to orgasm every time. In fact, even when I got hard, the only times I came in the last two years were thanks to my right-hand-woman. And that was when it worked at all. With several girls, everything would be going great, we’d be taking our clothes off, I’d be going down on her, my underwear would come off and then BAM (or not bam, I suppose), my dick was soft. It was entirely psychological. It worked perfectly when I was on my own, and it worked during foreplay, just not when I needed it to. And that became a vicious cycle : Every time I needed it to work, I was afraid it wouldn’t, so the prophecy would fulfill itself.
There was always too much pressure. I was always stuck in my head. Okay, my finger needs to go here, then my mouth here and then I have to put it in and do this thing. Most women I was with did cum, but by the time she was ready for me to “put it in and do this thing,” I was subconsciously overwhelmed and couldn’t do it. It was already so exhausting thinking about all of the mechanics of sex: finding the clit, doing my job well, making sure she cums. I thought that this was what I was supposed to do if I cared about her: Make sure she cums.
Months ago, a friend and I went to a mutual friend’s house together, and afterwards we hung out in her apartment. After having been friends with her for a year, I was starting to catch feelings. Something about her drove me crazy. She’d be on her way out after a fantastic conversation between us that lasted until 3 a.m. on a Tuesday night, and all I would want to do is make out with her and cuddle.
Luckily, one night, she asked if we should date. I would never have risked ruining such a perfect friendship, but she is one of the most courageous people I know. At the end of the night I couldn’t help but put my arm around her, as I had wanted to for so long. Eloquently, I suggested that we “do this thing.” Somehow, it never even crossed my mind that my penis wouldn’t work. I didn’t even imagine having a bad performance. For the first time in my life, sex wasn’t a performance.
Sex was a night to be shared. Sex was about us, not her and not me. For the first time in a long time, all my machinery worked consistently, without thought. I didn’t worry, and I still haven’t worried about it not working. It goes up when it needs to go up. Sometimes it goes up when it doesn’t need to go up. I don’t want to suggest that I have found every man’s cure for performance anxiety or for erectile dysfunction. But for me, it seems to work. Not thinking about it, being with the woman I love, seems to work.
Every time we have sex, it’s beautiful. I want her to have a good time, not just come, but to feel and enjoy everything about it. The smells, the tastes, the touches. All of them make the thing that happens at the end that much better. I can never have meaningless sex again. To me, sex should never be meaningless again. All I know is that, because I love my girlfriend with everything I’d ever hoped I could, the sex is everything I’d ever hoped it would be. And even after writing all of this, and telling her much more, sex is still the last reason I love her.
Quarantine Cuddlers are students at Cornell University. Comments can be sent to email@example.com. Sex on Thursday runs alternating weeks this semester.