Author’s Note: This post discusses sexual assault in a general way. It also explores internalized misogyny, heteronormativity, sexist beliefs, and cultural beauty norms. It is written as a personal narrative and reflects the beliefs and thoughts of an individual woman who is not always the most enlightened person.
I told my therapist that when I was a young adult, I shaved my bikini line and always wore clean, unstained underwear when I went out, just in case I was raped.
“Is that weird?” I asked, hoping to be reassured.
“That’s a little weird,” she said.
I want to call her up to explain myself further (But alas, there are boundaries. I’ll see her next week). Please don’t judge me, I’d say. It’s not that I want to be attractive for rapists, and it’s not that I think rape has anything to do with attraction. It’s just that in addition to my perfectly normal fear of being sexually violated, I am afraid of the compounding indignity of being judged inadequate.
In her novel A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty, author Joshilyn Jackson places one of the main characters, a fifteen year old girl named Mosey, in a scene straight from my nightmares. During an attempted rape, the would-be rapist laughs at and criticizes the size of Mosey’s breasts. Crying and weeping after having escaped, she expresses her outrage: “Like, seriously, he gets to complain?” I understand her fury.
I’m an asexual woman in my late thirties, and I didn’t know I was asexual until this year. By that, I mean I didn’t know there was a word for it. I did know (and tried to deny) that I wasn’t attracted to anyone, ever, and that I couldn’t relate to crushes or falling in love or being hot for someone. I knew that the idea of sex and all sexual acts both repulsed and terrified me. Because I didn’t know this was a valid way to be, I didn’t know that I could choose to not reciprocate when someone expressed sexual interest in me. I didn’t know that I could say no to a man, that NO was a valid choice and option, or that I had a right for my NO to be respected (I should add here that this is where my internalized heteronormativity gets all tangled up with my internalized misogyny and dances with my trauma history).
From my teen years until the time that I identified as asexual, I was trapped between two conflicting needs. Because I didn’t know I was asexual (and feared that I was fundamentally broken in some shameful way), I had to pretend to be sexual. Yet because of my asexuality and sex repulsion, I also needed to avoid sex—somehow, some way. To complicate things further, I had to avoid sex without directly refusing it, because I didn’t know that I had the right to say no to sex, and also didn’t really believe “no” would even work. You can see that I was in quite a bind.
A simple solution was to become unattractive. To some extent, this was a method I employed. I wore my unbrushed hair in a straggly ponytail or stuffed into a loose bun-like arrangement. I didn’t wear make-up. I refused my mother’s efforts to dress me in cute skirts and belly shirts and instead raided my father’s closet for his flannels. I made no effort to do any of the things that the magazines (or my mother) said to do to attract boys and men.
Yet, I remained meticulous with my hygiene, showering and brushing my teeth, using deodorant. I took care of my skin with toners and lotions and creams. I shaved my legs and armpits. I employed life-threatening methods to control my body weight, terrified of drifting into the fat-enough-to-be-contemptible zone, desperate for the safety of the too-thin-to-be-sexy territory.
I had internalized an unconscious and unexamined directive from my culture that my value as a woman was determined by my attractiveness to men. This message was also transmitted to me directly from my family. I can remember my father criticizing my morbidly obese aunt when she decided to leave her abusive husband. “Doesn’t she realize that no other man is going to want her? She will always be alone.”
And yet, being attractive to men was threatening to my very soul, because I was a closeted sex-repulsed asexual who carried a belief that she had no right to her own body. I had to walk the razor sharp ledge between repulsive unattractiveness and sexual attractiveness, always seeking a sort of safe zone of “she could be pretty if she just tried.”
None of this was conscious. I had no words to understand my struggle. Perhaps if I’d had access to the language I needed to understand and empower myself, I may have shaved off a few decades of suffering. Instead, I was a young woman walking scared in the world, covering up an emaciated body with enormous flannel shirts, turning her unexplored and unnamed anger at her culture inward toward herself, shaving her bikini line for rapists.
Today, I say to my younger self, and to all my asexual sisters who have never had someone love them enough to tell them the truth: You are asexual, and this is fine and valid. Your body is yours. You do not have to have sex you don’t want to have. Men don’t get to decide your value. You can take care of yourself and enjoy your body and your beauty for its own sake, not to attract a partner. You are not obligated to give yourself to someone just because they want you. You deserve your place and life in this world, and you never had to earn it by being sexy or attractive. You are enough just as you are.