I have heard that a woman’s sensuality is like a flower, to be coaxed open gently and with tenderness. I have always longed to be this woman, as the very essence of that metaphor suggests she can be coaxed open. Gently but assuredly, she will respond to her husband who loves her. I imagine her as a peony, with lush layers of petals that fold into themselves—and when open, she invites him to get lost in her.
But that has not been my experience.
My younger self tossed the seeds of my womanhood under the feet of men who trampled them. By early adulthood, instead of that perfect peony, I was the night blooming cactus—planted on a desert path, thirsty for attention. I bloomed after sunset and wilted before daylight—hoping someone would notice only my beauty and none of my thorns. Those barbs were the strongest form of self-defense I possessed. I now realize that they inflicted pain on no one except my husband—the first man who dared to pull them out, one by one, so he could hold me close.
And as he pulled, I remembered where each came from.
I counted the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. If I were a good girl, I wouldn’t be lying here.
I was fifteen when my older boyfriend didn’t hear me say, “No.”
Didn’t I say no? Maybe I only thought it. Maybe his friends were so loud, he couldn’t hear. There were cheers coming from the other side of the door. I looked at the clock when it started, and then again when it finished. Six minutes to womanhood.
Afterward, he took me out to fast food so we could talk. “If you get pregnant or something, I’ll pay to have it taken care of.”
“I’ll pay for an abortion.”
I hadn’t thought of that. “Oh.”
We ate a little more in silence.
“And there’s one more thing.”
I looked up at him, trying to sift through everything that had happened, trying to redefine our relationship now that we’d had sex.
“I don’t think we’re working out,” he said between bites.
My entire teenage world came crashing down through the smell of garlic bread sticks and ready-made ravioli.
Within the month, he was already dating someone else and they were serious. They went to church together. I heard she told him “no” and he listened. Although devastated, I was becoming educated. For the next decade, I would struggle to forget the following lessons I learned:
- I was disposable.
- There was a large possibility my naked form was repulsive.
- If that guy was good with God, then I am better off without
If he had been my first and only experience, perhaps I would have recovered quickly. Lessons learned. Abstinence sworn. I might have grown up, married, and experienced intimacy freely. But that isn’t what happened. Later that year I started dating a guy who never talked until he drank. As soon as he was drunk, he was all hands and demands. What he lacked in communication, he made up for in longevity, as he didn’t leave me after the first night. During our year of dating, I learned:
- Substances create a numbness that should be part of the sexual experience.
By my junior year in high school, I was convinced life was better if I wasn’t alone. So my next boyfriend and I dated for the last two years. We did homework together every afternoon and scouted out parties every weekend. Monday through Thursday was great, but the weekend was a problem.
My curfew was earlier than his; and when I went home, he would have one hand around a bottle of Jack and one around another girl.
I tried to have compassion; his disloyalty was likely a hazard of his job. He worked in a video store that had everything one needed: tanning rooms in the back, free employee rentals, and a private adult stash—one of the largest in the state. It was such a great video store that several of our teachers would come in after work, deftly darting through the aisles toward the private back room. Some of these teachers were married, and their rental choices offered me an education outside the classroom—pornographic sex must be desirable. Between my boyfriend’s alcohol-induced trysts and my teachers’ unintentional continuing education, I filed away a few more lessons:
- I am not enough and someone else is always willing to fill the gap.
- If I want to keep a man’s attention, I must perform well enough that pornography is not needed.
- Performance, performance, performance secures love.
I was working in restaurants when we broke up. Restaurants are a magical place—food, fun, and recreational drugs everywhere. I managed to take a full college scholarship and dispose of it in less than a semester as I entangled myself in the world of cocaine, prescription pills, ecstasy, and anything else I was stupid enough to put in my arm or up my nose. Fully anesthetized, I was numb. Dating guys who sold drugs ensured I never had to pay cash, thus educating me in the highest distortion of intimacy:
- Sex is a commodity. Trade it wisely.
There are dozens of women with stories just like mine. We are desperate to know there is more than the hardness—the callousness—we feel toward physical intimacy. We want to be able to rewrite these lies with truth but we aren’t sure where to start.
In the early days of relearning intimacy, I started with one honest truth—one thing I desired and believed God desired for me: healing. So three tasks were before me:
- I had to define intimacy.
- I had to define the obstacles to intimacy.
- I had to possess tools to overcome the obstacles to intimacy.
The above is an excerpt from Marian’s book, Inviting Intimacy: Overcoming the Lies Shame. She and co-author Luke Brasel, therapist and fellow Start Marriage Right contributor, would like to invite you on a pilgrimage or sorts—a way of relearning intimacy after a life of promiscuity and shame.