My first time was awful. I was seventeen, not ready for sex by any standards, and I was distracted. When I wasn’t thinking ‘Ow!’, I was thinking, ‘I’m sure he’s supposed to move slightly more to the left…should I say something?’. I was raised Catholic, you see, and because not many people in The Church are having sex, we spend an awful lot of time talking, thinking, writing, teaching, praying, generally theologising about all the biblical reasons not to have sex. We absolutely protest too much. Anyway, so there I was seventeen, doing it, and though it didn’t rock my world, or cause any reaction that was remarkable in any way, I remember it, I will always remember it.
Firstly, because it was my first time. As unromantic as it was (after school, in his room, which smelt like old socks and diet coke, with Blink 182 playing in the background, comically packaged condoms to manoeuvre, rushing to get it done before his mother got home and mine arrived to fetch me) and as unimpressive as he was (poor boy, turns out, part of the problem was that I was the wrong sex), it was the first time. Secondly, I’ll always remember those ten minutes (or was it five) as a rebel yell. Having sex stood against everything Catholic in my life, it flew in the face of everything my mother refused to say to me about it (except to tell me, when I got my first period that I’d better watch out because now, I could get pregnant).
But sex was also a rebellion against something I’d carried in me since I was about eleven. I think that’s around the age that I figured out what the difference between a ‘good’ touch and a ‘bad’ touch was. No one had thought to tell me before then. Something triggered the memory of being four or five years old, at pre-school, and being woken up from nap time by the man who drove our little yellow bus and his friends, so that he could touch me and kiss my skin, and tell me he loved me (all examples of bad touches). I don’t know if it happened just once, or if I have created a composite image in my head of several instances. Accepting that there will be patches of my memory that will always be fuzzy is part of the process, of the journey. I don’t know if it was just me – though I do remember feeling special, chosen somehow (I now know from Oprah, and others, that this is how paedophiles work; they count on their victims feeling special, chosen, loved so that they never tell anyone, and it’s our little secret). In retrospect, there was another little girl, a friend of mine, who I’m quite sure was also a victim (hopefully, she has also survived).
And so at age eleven, I consciously started paying attention to all that information about good and bad touches, and what mothers should look out for in their children. I specifically remember a public service announcement that depicted a suddenly depressed, moody little girl, who eventually reveals the reason she can’t stand the uncle she once loved. I watched that little girl, and her symptoms that played out in sixty seconds, and her courage and eloquence as she told her mother, “It’s Uncle John; he has been molesting me”. I was eleven, I hadn’t the words, and so I didn’t tell my mother. Instead, I looked out for the signs in myself, and where I found them, I tried to fix them, or, failing that, hide them from everyone, including myself.
At seventeen, I knew that I was deigned to become either hypersexual, or petrified of sex, and so, in my attempts to fix myself, to not become abnormal, I had sex. It was for the wrong reasons, in my book: I didn’t love him, the relationship was not deep. But I was seventeen, which I figured was about the average age at which my generation had sex, and so I did it. I fulfilled the first requirement for what I wanted to be average, unremarkable sexuality.
Trauma doesn’t work like that, though. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had categories in my head, lists of how to behave when this, and if that, so that I never conform to people’s ideas of what a survivor of sexual violence is like. I didn’t want to be like the women on Oprah who fall to pieces in order to come together. But trauma doesn’t work like that. I had no words until some years ago, I fell into a deep depression, and I needed to find the words so that I could literally save my life. It ripped my mother, who I’d been protecting for all those years, apart. It fundamentally changed the way my family sees me, and the ways they love me. It changed me, and the ways I see and choose to love myself.
Speaking about what happened is not the end of the journey I am still on but it is key. The other day, I told a room full of students I’d only just met about my trauma (and how it informed my research – I do disclose where the context is fitting, I haven’t told the nice security guard who works the night shift in my apartment complex, for instance). As I wrote the paragraph describing my grainy memory of the actual event/s (and for some reason, it embarrasses me how little detail I have, like there’s a part of me that’s asking, in an outraged tone, ‘Why don’t you know more about this thing that happened when you were only four years old!?’), my hands shook, I felt lightheaded. But I told, I continue to tell, anyway. I tell through my words, I tell through my research, I tell through the way I live my life.
What does all this have to do with sex? So, that first time, back when I wasn’t telling, it sucked. Not because the sex sucked – in truth, it was probably no better worse than anyone else’s first time – but because the sex was a part of my how-to-be-normal list. That sex was a part of the me I was being when I was burying everything, methodically, mechanically.
I fell in love with the man I’m dating now quickly. Which is not unusual for me, but falling in love with him – being in love with him – unsettles all the methods and mechanisms I have put in place to bury my pain. He opens me up and I am somehow more me because I’m with him. To quote Toni Morrison, “[he] is a friend of my mind. [he] gather me, man. The pieces I am, [he] gather them and give them back to me in all the right order”. Within the first two weeks it was clear we were both goners. We hadn’t had sex yet, though we had discussed it, animatedly. I was going to New York for a week-long conference and we were both overcome with the despair of new lovers at the thought of being apart for (gasp!) a whole week(!). So off we went to a quiet, romantic lunch. And amidst the fancy people, food and wine, in a fancy restaurant in Constantia, I told him.
This is before I was telling everyone, mind you. Before I was even telling myself fully, on a regular basis. There he was, loving me. Me. And seeing me. How could I not tell him this huge part of me? This pain I have to carry as part of me that I fought for so long to throw away. We didn’t have sex until after the New York conference (and a few more animated discussions). But we sure meant when we did! It wasn’t the hurried, harried affair I was used to; I wasn’t trying desperately to be normal in some man’s arms. It was me and him, bringing ourselves – our whole, perfectly imperfect selves, respective traumas and all – into a consenting, loving sexual relationship.
Being a survivor of sexual abuse means (for me, anyway) that my relationship with my body, and with other bodies, will always be complicated. It’s taken me a long time to accept this (and I don’t live this acceptance everyday), but it’s helped to be – for the real first time – in a sexual relationship where I’m allowed to bring this complexity into bed.
And for the first time, long after the first memorable but unremarkable time, I’m having great sex!
 From Morrison, T. 2005. Beloved. London: Vintage.