Editor’s note: The following deals with an account of sexual assault and may be triggering to some people.
I was sitting in the passenger seat of his beat-up Toyota, my body tense and my breathing constricted. I could hear him talking animatedly about getting drunk and picking up girls at some San Francisco bar, but only in disjointed bursts, because my own thoughts consumed me.
Fucking anticipation. It felt like hours of elongated dread because he insisted on talking first, getting to know each other, before some awkward and cramped interpretation of sex. We were smoking weed out of a glass pipe, passing our saliva back and forth just to take the edge off. But I could feel the edge in my stomach digging into its lining and begging me to vomit and eject my disgust. We stayed there for a while like that, me flopping like some slimy, pathetic fish between his clumsy, oversized bear paws.
Then he locked the door, and something shattered. It was like he had finally caught me in his net, like a layer of glass had been shoved between me and what I considered the rest of my life, like I had been doomed to captivity without any chance of escape.
I felt myself melt into something I wasn’t as he pulled me into the back seat and ordered me to take off my clothes as I strained against him out of repulsion. And then my memory comes in splotches of searing pain and disgust and disbelief.
Yet despite its horror, I broadcasted the experience to my friends after because I had finally had sex in some way or another. And they congratulated me and asked what it was like and maybe looked at me in a different way. I had found some sort of new power, a sense of satisfaction in keeping up with the curve so great that I almost forgot how disturbing it actually was.
I told myself that a lot of people had bad first sexual experiences, that it always hurt the first time. I convinced myself that I had made a conscious decision to lose my virginity and that I would have to live with the consequences.
Except I was starting to believe with increasing conviction that something was missing from my experiences with intimacy. I had tiptoed through my freshman year going through the motions — pushing myself to go on dates and hook up with guys every once in a while — and it wasn’t horrible. It just felt so one-dimensional, nothing like the mind-blowing way that sex was presented in the media. My desire for sex was driven not by lust, but by the pressure I put on myself to be like my peers, who counted on their fingers the number of guys they had slept with each weekend.
That summer, the lasting effects of my sexual assault became evident when I went to a movie with some friends from high school — some corny rom-com that I was just seeing because everyone else wanted to. At first it was what I expected, and then the wind was abruptly knocked out of me by its images of heterosexual couples.
I had recently come to the conclusion that I was gay, something I had always kind of known but never admitted to myself. I was just starting to feel comfortable in my identity, telling my closest friends and family members and thinking about its implications for the rest of my life. But the re-emergence of the trauma of my first sexual experience complicated things.
I saw the heterosexual couple getting intimate on a bed plastered across the massive movie screen. I heard the familiar sounds and watched their bodies move together in a disjointed dance and felt my lungs filling up with molten lead. As my friends stared neutrally at the screen, I leaned back in my seat and took deep breaths, my mind racing.
What if I was simply repulsed by men, not attracted to women? What if I couldn’t experience my “true” sexual attraction to men because of my association with discomfort? Within this logic, my sexuality wasn’t an intractable part of me, but it was instead imposed on my life by an outside force, preventing me from accepting the reality of who I am.
I attempted to gain some clarity on my first real date with a woman, but things just got even more confusing. We decided to meet at Caffe Strada after talking on Tinder for a while. She was much shorter than I expected. It felt weird forming an opinion of her — attempting to figure out how her short curly hair and bright sneakers fit into my “type.” I found myself trying to force her into my expectations, inscribing meaning to our surface-level conversation about movies and family members, imagining our potential for a future.
After we said goodbye, I watched her speed back towards her apartment, and I realized that I still felt like something important was missing. I didn’t feel connected to her in the way I had expected. I felt no electric charge or overwhelming attraction — nothing I wouldn’t feel with any other stranger.
I now realize that not being attracted to one woman doesn’t speak for my entire sexuality in the same way that one negative sexual experience didn’t cause me to write off all men. I realize that sexuality is fluid, individually (re)defined and strongly impacted by societal constructs and pressures. My first sexual experience impacted me in many ways that intersect with my identity, but I’m trying not to linger on its impact when defining my sexuality.