by Kelsey Britt
This story contains references to sexual assault and alcohol abuse.
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, you are not alone. For help, please reach out to the support system below.
RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) is the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization. Call 800.656.HOPE or visit https://www.rainn.org to chat with a support specialist and find additional resources in your area.
Your body is covered in bright white satin, your head is adorned with a veil decorated in lace flowers more delicate than the gardenias sprouting outside the stained-glass windows. Hands protected by white silk gloves as pure as the pages of the Good News Bible that your parents make you read every night in preparation for this moment. As you walk behind the other nine-year-old girls down the scarlet-carpeted aisle, your hands clasped together as if you were in prayer, you wonder why you have to wear white and the boys can wear black, but you don’t question it too much. You see, you love dressing up like the brides you see in magazines. It makes you fantasize about the day that you will become a Disney princess too.
You stand before Father John, waiting your turn. Your palms sweating. Less than a foot away from your body, he holds out his left hand and tells you to take off your white gloves to receive the body of Christ.
Three years later, when you hear that there is a place inside of you called the vagina, you are horrified. You thought that you looked as smooth and seamless as your Barbie. No one ever mentioned that there was a massive, gaping hole there⏤that is until that day in fifth grade when they separated the girls and the boys, and Mrs. Thomas brought out a pair of white cotton panties to demonstrate using a pad. You go home from school that day and prop your leg on the bathroom counter in order to see this thing inside of you. As you look at the pink folds and crevices of your body, you worry that water will fill you up, that things will get lost inside, that it will fester and rot, that you will die.
Feeling repulsed, you become determined to never do anything that will lead to anyone coming near this place because you somehow think that if no one does anything to it, you will not die. Even though you don’t know what those things are because your parents make you leave the room when men and women kiss each other on the TV. You decide that you will never EVER kiss anyone, and then, even though you pray every night to your Father, who art in heaven, to give you the strength to stop, you spend the next two years pressing your teddy bear against that place that Mrs. Thomas failed to mention, making yourself feel a pleasure that you know must be wrong because it feels even better than eating chocolate chip cookie dough straight from the tub.
You’re thirteen and approaching your last year of middle school, but still no adult has explained exactly what sex is. Your parents, however, have managed to tell you that girls are the gatekeepers, the ones that have to refuse it because boys are horny and can’t possibly control themselves. You wonder if you’re a freak because you spend a lot of time thinking about what it would be like to kiss a boy and to feel his hands on your boobs. Dying of curiosity, yet unable to talk to anyone about it⏤not even your friends⏤because you can’t say the word sex anywhere but inside your head, you decide to type your questions into Google. You find what you think is great information on Yahoo! answers, which leads you to google terms like dry humping and scissoring and cum and boners and orgasm and jacking off, but before you can figure out if sitting on a boy’s lap while he wears sweaty basketball shorts will make you have a baby, your parents see what you’ve been searching. They ground you, take away your phone for six weeks, and enroll you in Bible camp for the following summer.
This, however, doesn’t stop you from learning about sex.
When you’re sixteen, a boy who you met at the most recent summer of Bible study camp finally gives you your first kiss. He tells you that he knows it is crazy, but that he wants to marry you someday. You’re only a junior in high school, but you believe that what he says is true. Lying together week after week on the grey leather couch in his movie theater style basement, you dream about living in a huge house in the suburbs with a master bedroom and a separate room for each of the four kids you will have. You both will drive BMWs⏤both black of course, but yours will be a convertible. It’s all his idea, but you begin to believe it is yours. Even though you actually want to live in an apartment in New York and hate BMWs and don’t know if you want kids because you get terrors at night thinking about something coming out of that place you so desperately want him to put his penis.
After nearly a year of hand jobs and dry humping and repeating no over and over and over again while re-runs of Friends blare in the background, you tell yourself that even the heroines in the romance novels your mom kept hidden in her nightstand drawer only resisted for so long. That despite what your eighth-grade health teacher said, God would surely forgive you if you had sex with someone you loved, someone that you knew you were going to marry someday.
Soon after, you lose your virginity to him in his room when his parents aren’t home, the floor strewn with his dirty clothes instead of the rose petals that you told him you wanted.
You never manage to have an orgasm from the way that BMW boy’s penis pounds the part of you that he calls pussy. You do, however, keep dating him, keep making love to him, keep fantasizing about the day that you’ll walk down the aisle in tulle and say I do. But the summer you graduate from high school he admits that he met someone else, someone who is waiting until marriage to have sex. She inspires him to be a better man, he says, and so off you go to college four hours from home, a single girl. Your friends Tanya and Ella tell you that he wasn’t good enough for you, that all he wanted was sex. You agree, telling yourself that it never would have worked, and that now, you can fulfill your dream of moving to New York. That you might even be able to get your JD someday. Your parents and your teachers have told you, after all, that you have a bright future. But after months of guzzling cheap beer and grinding with the sweaty boys in the basements of frats and then stumbling home to your dorm room with your other single girlfriends, smelling like green apple Jello shots and AXE, you meet a new boy in your Intro to Organic Chemistry class. He talks about the periodic table of elements with a fluency and confidence that you wish you had, so you start up a conversation. Wanna get coffee sometime, you ask. Keeping it casual. Seventeen told you that you don’t want to scare him with the idea that you might want commitment.
A week later, you are in his bed, thinking that you can forget the pain of not being with BMW boy by being with this new boy’s body. You rub your pussy on his cock, and he slips inside of you. You aren’t sure you’re ready, you definitely can’t justify having sex with him by thinking that you’re going to marry him someday, but you go with it. It’s no big deal. You’ve had sex before. You don’t deserve to wear white on your wedding day. And then, even though he says that he doesn’t want a girlfriend, he invites you over to his apartment nearly every night afterwards, where you watch Netflix and you chill, finally free of the prying eyes of your parents, but not those of God.
You don’t talk to him about STIs, but you do start the Pill, just to be safe. You discover that he’ll tell you that you look sexy⏤if you send him a nude. You use all the techniques you learned in Cosmopolitan so that you can please your man in bed. You base the success of the sex on whether he comes and how many times, and you perfect the art of deep throating thanks to the porn videos he sends you to watch. He doesn’t return the favor and instead tells you that he doesn’t like going down on girls. Thanks to the boys you overheard in middle school, you’re terrified that he’ll think you smell like rotting fish, so you don’t protest the lack of reciprocity. But by some miracle, you do manage to come with him, once, finally, your first time coming with a man, which you tell him⏤and yourself⏤was due to the magic fingers he claimed he had. Even though you know it was because you were watching Penelope Cruz and Scarlett Johansson make out in the background on his flat screen TV.
Even though you’re not Facebook official and your new college friend Abigail tells you that he doesn’t treat you right, you fall in what you think is love, and you start pinning ivory organza wedding dresses to your Pinterest page. However, eight months after you first met him and six shots of vanilla vodka into the summer night, he presses you against a top-loading Maytag washing machine at his best friend’s house party. You don’t mind it. You’ve always liked the way he takes control. It makes you wet. His hands unbuckle your shorts. You push them away. You want him, of course, you always do, but not there, not then. People could walk in at any moment. You heard enough girls talking in high school to know that you don’t want people thinking you’re a slut.
He tells you to stop being such a prude. He puts one hand on your throat, and the other hand back to your pink lace panties, slides his fingers into that place that you once swore no one would ever go near. It hurts, and not in a good way. You can feel the washer shaking behind you. You say no, your voice trying to be flirty, so he doesn’t get mad, doesn’t stop wanting to see you, and you push him away, but he puts his fingers back, presses them inside of you as if he actually wants you to feel pleasure. It hurts worse this time. You can barely breathe. Trapped, you wonder if God will save you now. You eventually stop saying no and retreat somewhere in the back of your head that isn’t attached to your body.
But in the weeks afterward you still think about that night every time you pass by the green-trimmed house in which it happened, and sometimes, even though you tell yourself that it was just fingers and later just his penis and that you were drunk and that boys have so much testosterone and that you could have pushed him away with more force and that you still loved him afterwards, you cry so hard at night that your whole body is sore the next morning.
You can’t bring yourself to want to be sexual with Chemistry class boy after that night, but you also can’t bring yourself to stop seeing him. You don’t know if anyone will love a person who is as tainted as you. It doesn’t matter though because a few months into your sophomore year of college, he breaks up with you. He tells you that you’ve become boring during sex. You feel a lightness that you have not felt in years and so as you begin the spring semester of your sophomore year of college, you decide to weigh yourself down. You get a fake ID and get drunk off Vegas bombs and long islands you swim naked in an ice cold fountain with a guy that you met at the bar and fuck him afterwards in his room letting him take the condom off half way through because you’re so dry that you know it will rip anyway you kiss girls in dive bars for free shots of Sauza and Smirnoff you fuck the hippie guy that your roommate is crushing on saying that there was something about his indigo aura you stop going to confession you stop going to mass god’s gone you can barely make it out of the house much less to class each day and you fail every class that semester your advisor recommends you take some time off you start spending your days working at a department store and your nights scrolling Instagram and buying shit you don’t need and swiping right and Ubering home after sex you scream at your parents who keep telling you to go back to church you ignore your friends who think you should go to therapy eventually they all stop talking to you and soon your only friend is one of the baristas at your local Starbucks who gives you extra whipped cream on your mochas and you tell yourself that this is what it feels like to finally be free.
Almost a year after Chemistry class boy left you, someone messages you with more than just a hi and a dick pic. This man who messages you, he’s from Amsterdam, and he’s only in town for a few nights. When he asks you if you’d like to come to his hotel room, you accept. You wonder if you should be scared, but you decide you don’t care what happens to you, and so later that night, after polishing off the bottle of Menage à Trois, you plant your hands on the cold stone of the hotel shower, arching your back and sticking your butt out for his viewing pleasure. You like the way he says pussy. His accent makes it sound sexy.
As you’re staring at your hands against the shower wall, the water rushing down your back, you believe that you can almost see the tile through the skin and the bone and the tissue of your hands. It proves what you’ve known to be true for a while now: you’ve been disintegrating since that night by the washing machine. This man, he leans into you, and you can feel that place on a man’s body press against you. He’s hard, but you’re dry from what you tell yourself is simply dehydration. He puts his hand on that part of you. Your body freezes, your breath catches in your chest. You hear the water hitting your back, and you picture Chemistry class boy’s face. You think you should have had more wine, anything else, you don’t want him there. Not tonight. Not ever. You just want to forget. You’re saying no inside of your head, but the words stay lodged in your throat.
But just as this man begins to slide his fingers inside, your voice emerges. It’s only a whisper, but you tell him to stop. You immediately tense, start preparing to have to say it again, it’s what you’ve come to expect, but instead of continuing, he takes his hands away and pulls your shaking body to his. He asks you if you’re okay. He asks you what you need, and then he shuts the shower off and wraps you in a white, fluffy towel and helps you to the bed. Once your body has stopped shaking, you say, Thank you for stopping. He looks at you, his eyes full of what you think might actually be kindness, and he says, You said no. Of course, I stopped.
You wonder, almost seriously, whether you should move to the Netherlands.
This man goes back to Amsterdam. You go back to drinking red blends and re-watching Friends. You do, however, stop swiping, and you make an appointment with Dr. Claire Allen, PhD. Even though you cancel the first appointment and spend the next three of them sitting on her ink blue velvet couch and talking about your work at the department store, you eventually tell Claire what happened by the washing machine. She tells you that what happened wasn’t your fault. That nothing you did made it okay for him to do that to you.
The first couple of appointments she tells you that, you don’t believe it. Clearly, she doesn’t know how much you still loved him afterwards. But there’s something in you that wants to believe her. And so, when you see that one of the wellness influencers you follow recommends masturbation as self-care for survivors, you decide to try it. It can’t hurt. You know that you’re lonely and a little horny. You haven’t touched that part of your body in years, not since before BMW boy. This time, there’s no teddy bear and no pillow, just your hands and some coconut oil and the wine in your belly. You don’t prop your leg on the bathroom counter, but you do lay back on your bed and take a hand-held tortoise shell mirror and look at the folds and the crevices of your body. It feels strange to look at this part of you, to know that other people have seen it more often than you have. Even though you no longer worry about water filling you up, you do still feel revulsion, looking at this place that once upon a time you didn’t even know existed.
And so, when you finally get the courage to be the one to touch this part of your body, it doesn’t feel good⏤at first. But you go slow, exploring the curves and the shades of you, running your hands over the softness of you, feeling the eventual slickness inside of you, smelling the coconut oil and the pink saltiness of you, circling and caressing and stroking the folds of you. Giving yourself the care and the love that Claire and the influencer say you deserve.
You don’t come the first time you touch yourself, or the second, or even the third. But the fourth time, you come, and you come, and you come. Feeling your pussy pulse and grip around your coconut oil covered fingers, you think⏤for perhaps the first time in your life⏤that you are worthy of love.
It takes time, but eventually you quit the nightly red blend drinking and the swiping, and you start talking to your family and your friends again. While you don’t go back to church, you keep giving yourself orgasms, and you do continue going to counseling. Clear-headed for the first time in years, you eventually come to realize that everything would have been completely different if Chemistry class boy had simply done what the man from Amsterdam had done⏤stopped. With this realization and with the encouragement of your family and friends, you re-enroll in school for the following semester and re-take those classes you failed, and you find out that you might still be able to go to law school. Claire says to be gentle with yourself, to go slow, but you know, without a doubt, that you’re finally healed. That you’re ready to start again.
So, when you meet this next man, you feel confident that you will be able to express what you want. You’ve done the work, after all. This man, he writes songs for a living. He doesn’t perform them, but he gets paid to write for female artists, about female empowerment. You question that⏤a man writing songs for females about their own empowerment. He shrugs, says that he just takes what they tell him and articulates it in a catchy way. You feel intrigued, ask him for his number, and later, playing games with him on the dance floor to electronic music that is worse than the one cranberry vodka you had earlier, you begin to fantasize about what it would be like to make dinner with this person make love with this person make a life with this person, and so even later when he texts you back every few days and only seems to be interested in you when you talk about sex, you give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, you’re a sexual creature too.
You go out for a drink with him and end up going down on him in the bathroom of the grimy bar that he picked out. His breath tastes of last night’s pasta dinner and he doesn’t care about your clitoris and he calls an Uber five minutes after he came, his semen tasting like the garlic on his breath, but you text him the next day and ask when you can see him again. He doesn’t text you back and then you cry because even though you are on your way to getting your degree and voted for Hillary and you trust your therapist instead of a priest and you no longer care about wearing a white dress on your wedding day and you posted the hashtag #MeToo on your Instagram and you know that your body is not for anyone else’s use, you wonder what it will take for you to no longer be that little girl, dressed all in white, walking down the scarlet-carpeted aisle, hands clasped together as if you were in prayer.
Kelsey Britt (she/her) is a queer writer and sexuality educator based in Los Angeles. A graduate of the MFA in Fiction program at the University of San Francisco, she completed a post-graduate teaching fellowship at USF and is currently working on her first novel. Her work has appeared in Delicate Friend. More of her writing can be found at https://thecuriousclit.substack.com, her blog about sexuality & culture.