I Haven’t Wanted Sex Since Kavanaugh Was Appointed
After a lifetime of sexual trauma, Kavanaugh’s nomination is what finally killed my sexual desire
I have a finance wonk for a neighbor. The kind with the posture of a cartoon buzzard and no shame. His brain will eat itself if he stands still, so he obsessively walks our pocket-sized neighborhood in flesh-tone knee wraps, a safety vest, and shin-height fluorescent athletic socks.
A female neighbor saw him at a dinner party the night after the hearing. “So… Kavanaugh!” he exclaimed with a grin, apparently thrilled by the nomination. Or so she said. I wasn’t buying it. This was the dude who unabashedly power-walked our Bible Belt neighborhood in bright-colored, mismatched athletic gear, as if it were a liberal college town. The day after the gut-punch that was the 2016 election, when I half-joked that I was sitting shiva, he said, “I’m sorry, who died?” not, “I’m sorry, what’s a shiva?” No way was he a conservative, let alone that kind of conservative. So the next evening, when the wonk and I crossed paths as we walked, I set out to prove my female neighbor wrong. I asked what he thought about the hearing.
“We can agree that her story was powerful,” he began. At dinner parties past, he’d charmed guests with vintage port and little psychology games, designed to test if anyone was as skilled as he at manipulating consensus. So I shouldn’t have been surprised by what came next. “But…” he said, and my heart took a nosedive. It’s never good when a man like him follows “but” with an ostentatious pause.
With a cramp of sudden emotion — shock, disgust, curiosity — my brow scrunched down and my lips curled up. I did not nod, or laugh, or send any of the nonverbal, “yes, please, keep talking” cues women are supposed to broadcast. Part of me didn’t want to hear what he had to say, knowing it would kill my perception of him. But I couldn’t not hear it, either. Like any good nonfiction writer, I had to know the truth. So in a weird, strangled baritone I growled, “Keep going.”
Unfazed by my obvious inner conflict, keep going he did, pulling quotes and statistics out of thin air along with soundbites from the testimony, as though he’d memorized the hearing’s transcription. Standing there, listening to his lecture, I was struck by three epiphanies at once: 1) He’s denying Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, 2) He’s a right-winger in sheep’s clothing, 3) I had considered this man my friend.
I guess I blacked out for a moment, because the next thing I know I’m standing in front of my house, ticking off fingers and sort of yelling.
“The second time I was raped as a teen…”
My husband stands on the porch, silently waving his arms around, like, “Yeah, Hun? This isn’t neighborly behavior.”
In that moment, I’m a 46-year-old woman. I’m professionally respected, happily married, physically strong. And yet, here I am, standing between two men who are telling me, in different ways, each without words, to shut up.
Simultaneously, in some way I can’t define, I’m a six-year-old girl. I’m cornered by an adult male. And I’m being forced to shut up. My head explodes like a Kalashnikov… but only on the inside, where nobody but me will get hurt.
I’m powerless here. I can’t compete with data-point analysis to prove Dr. Blasey Ford is telling the truth. All I have is my flaccid argument: “I just know it, because I lived it.” But lived experience is, apparently, not enough.
My Kavanaughs weren’t named Kavanaugh. One of the earliest was my mother’s second husband. I can’t remember how or when the sexual assaults started, because the brain has this amazing capacity for protecting itself. Remember that elementary school art project where you’d scribble a bunch of swirling colors in crayon, then scrub black crayon over the whole thing? Bright colors, gone. The brain can perform the same trick. So while I can’t tell you how this childhood molestation routine was established, I can share the swirls of memory I still see clearly: six-year-old me going to my mother and saying, “My vagina hurts.”
My mother replying, “Go tell your father. He’ll help you.”
I remember her husband closing the door to the bathroom, me laying down on the gunky, never-washed bathroom rug, and him opening the cabinet for the Vaseline.
That’s where my memory goes black again.
But maybe it was kosher, this Vaseline-y help. When Rachael Denhollander, the first of the USA Gymnastics girls to report Larry Nassar’s abuse, told her female coach about the “vaginal adjustments” Nassar had performed on her, her coach’s cop husband couldn’t find any complaints filed against Nassar. Putting a voice to the universal understanding of where blame belongs, the coach asked Denhollander “how she could have let this happen to her.” In case you’re keeping track: a girl seeking help with her vagina from a trusted older woman? Also not enough to stop it.
When puberty hit, I grew some ovaries and got some courage. Instead of quietly lying down on the bathroom rug, I started loudly fighting back against my mother’s husband. To shut me up, my mother signed me into the controversial “troubled teen” program Straight, Inc. There I’d spend 12 hours a day, for the next 16 months, having the physical and psychological shit beat out of me.
The group in Straight, Inc. was hell-bent on making you admit you were a drug addict. Which I wasn’t. Hoping the group would lay off if I told them what my mother’s husband had done to me, I described the Vaseline. And the beatings. And my mother standing back, watching. In return, they Kalashnikoved.
“You’re a druggie whore!” my peers spit-screamed in my face. “You were a six-year-old slut! What did you do to tempt him?!”
The group finally stopped brutalizing me when, one night in Open Meeting, in front of some 300 kids and 600 parents, I picked up the microphone and apologized to my mother’s husband for “making him hit me. And other things.” I told him I was sorry. That it was all my fault. The crowd of hundreds clapped and cheered.
I was 15 when I got out of there. To survive, I’d convinced myself I was an addict. Except I’d barely done drugs, so that was kind of confusing. Thankfully, I figured out it was food I was addicted to. So I quit eating. And the less I weighed, the closer I felt to being enough. When my weight got so low I stopped menstruating, I was put on the pill to force my period. “It doesn’t matter,” the doctor said, “that you’re a virgin.”
My mother was especially proud of my weight loss. She was divorcing her second husband by that time; she’d lure her new suitors over by describing me to them over the phone.
“My 16-year-old daughter has lost so much weight, all that’s left of her is boobs! You wouldn’t believe how small her skirts are.”
I’d have to wait until freshman year at college, after a seminar called “Alcohol, College Life, and You,” to realize that I had been raped.
I started avoiding my mother’s house, and her man-friends, by attending every “Anonymous” meeting I could find. Overeaters Anonymous. Alcoholics Anonymous. Narcotics Anonymous. Co-Dependents Anonymous. I had sex for the first time after an AA meeting one night. I was with a prep-school boy who had a vintage Chevy Suburban and a packed social calendar. He had a girlfriend, too, but I really, really liked him, and his hand felt really, really good. It was when he tried to push into me that I got scared. I said, “Stop,” and “Don’t,” and “I’ve never done this before,” but he really, really wanted me. And I really didn’t know how to say no to that. The third time he tried, I just didn’t say anything at all.
A minute later, when he was back in the front seat, he said, “Are you sure you’re a virgin? Because you’re really good at that.” Finally, I was enough.
I’d have to wait until freshman year at college, after a seminar called “Alcohol, College Life, and You,” to realize that I had been raped. I’d have to wait until Kavanaugh’s appointment, 30 years later, to realize how disturbing it is for a girl to be proud that her rapist thinks she’s a good lay.
Throughout my childhood, I’d been the lonesome loser. That black-crayon cloud and the secrets it tamps down can turn a kid into a weirdo. Like magic, when I started having sex, people wanted to spend time with me. And it felt great. The attention felt great. Making out felt great. Third base felt great. The only problem was, I was still afraid of actual sex. When the next few boys and men tried to push into me, I’d tell them to stop. When they told me to shut up, they didn’t say it with words.
Sexual predators have a radar for those who are vulnerable to abuse. Jeffrey Epstein sought out girls with backgrounds like mine: whose fathers had died, who were living in single-parent homes, who didn’t have enough money for basic needs. Many had experienced abuse; others were in foster care. The need, in kids like us, is palpable. It begs for human connection. It does not demand respect. It can’t even fathom respect. Would a girl who’d been raised with love and dignity have been violated by the guys who date-raped me? I don’t know. I had been groomed to understand that my body was all I was worth, and violation was what I deserved.
When I turned 20, I moved across the country and started a new life as an autonomous human. No family. No friends. No baggage. I got a job. I got a bike. I got laid by women. It felt good, this untethering.
In the sprawling, 1.6-acre local bookstore, I stumbled upon a wire-bound workbook: The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. Working through it was like dragging a pinky nail through the layer of black crayon. A few stripes of the color swirl were visible now, razor-thin. But I had control over how much I could see. When my body locked or heaved, I closed the workbook’s cover.
The workbook taught me another brain trick. It said trauma survivors can often recount the horrors they experienced like a grocery list, as if the brain took their memories and threw them in the freezer. Over time, the brain can perceive the remembered abuses from a cold distance. This version of the brain barrier is more transparent than the black crayon scribble, which completely hides the memories from view. With the freezer effect, certain memories can be seen, but it’s like they happened to someone else.
Fifteen years after reading that book, while writing memoirs about my childhood, this frozen distance trick came in handy. I could descend into the putrid well of memory like a worm on a fishing line. I could look around without touching the sides, knowing I’d get pulled up and out, back to daylight. I could control what I looked at, so I was safe.
But in those intervening years, the memories stayed stuffed in the folds of my cerebellum. Workaholism helped. Whatever I was doing — bartending, gyming, earning degrees — I did it with a focus that bordered on the lunatic. I didn’t have a social life beyond the one-off fuck, used as a diversion from my work.
That kind of random sex had two components for me: the physical — as in, the stimulation of nerve endings — and the egotistical, as in, “I can get this guy, even though he’s wicked hot/rich/athletic.” I no longer felt the need for human connection. Those nerve endings had burned out before my 20th birthday. The only need I had left was for achievement; the black scribble took care of the rest.
Meeting E created a hairline fracture across the scribble — so thin, it was undetectable. I just knew that this human was different. He was brilliant, and funny, and real. Within hours, my brain was heavy with a brand-new feeling: trust. This person didn’t want me; he wanted me.
To the marriage, we brought our separate sexual playbooks. I don’t know what his says, because I can’t read that language. Best I can tell his rules involve, like, good feelings. Connection. And other weird shit that makes me uncomfortable. But it was okay because, like any couple coming together from different cultures, we operated from our own comfort zones, connecting in the middle. For me, sexually, this translated to, “We can get off, but mostly, don’t touch me.”
Because here’s the thing: If someone touches me, it scrapes a thick, lurid line through the black crayon, immediately transporting me back to scenes of my own abuse. In full-color swirl, no blackout. The ultimate no-fly-zone was my breasts, which had been violated by hands and eyes and other things from the moment they’d broken ground. In my childhood bed, at 11. On a public beach, at 12. On a basement waterbed, at 13. On the street, in a store, at school, on the playground, at the gym, at the doctor, in the woods, in my car, at the club, at work, and in restaurants for the next 30 years. I’d learned to ignore the DD monsters attached to my chest, and preferred others do the same.
Kavanaugh’s appointment — or rather, the denial of Blasey Ford’s testimony that he assaulted her — took a hammer to my brain’s protective fault line.
The rare exception is when I’m drunk. Not buzzed: drunk. It was actually my dog who showed me how this works. He’s the ultimate nervous terrier, my dog. He knows, and freaks out, if there’s a single dot of mud on his fur. He’ll only eat off a Tupperware lid, and leaves exactly one kibble behind at every meal. One day I gave him a mouth-sized rawhide bone. Five minutes later he was lying in a pile of dirt, eyes rolled back in his head, chewing on that thing with abandon. He looked like… a dog. A normal dog, capable of bliss, undistracted by his zillion finicky hang-ups. That bone was so powerful, it bypassed his control barriers and tapped into his base, pre-hang-up pleasure centers.
Three stiff cocktails are that bone, for me. Though I need them less now than I did in the past, on the rare occasions when I do drink that much, my brain’s lug nuts are loosened just enough that I can slip into “normal” human instinct for pleasant human touch. I forget to remember what I’m forgetting.
Kavanaugh’s appointment — or rather, the denial of Blasey Ford’s testimony that he assaulted her — took a hammer to my brain’s protective fault line. My trusted neighbor’s unequivocal belief that “she made it up” swiped all that black crayon away, laying bare my earliest lessons: that my body, that her body, that the female body, is all we are worth. That that kind of violation is de rigueur.
I shouldn’t have been shocked that my neighbor, like so many men, didn’t believe Dr. Blasey Ford. People never believed me, either. Not when I was a small child; not when I was a teen. To believe such claims, one must accept an ugly notion: that men use the female body for sport and entertainment. The amygdala rebels.
But, after 40 years’ work holding up that block between memory and current experience, my amygdala was tired. Brett Kavanaugh ascended to the Supreme Court, my wonkish neighbor seemed to think that was great, and my amygdala walked off the job. The messaging about the expected role of women — to look, act, and be sexually available to men — was suddenly all I could see. The lesson, I realized, isn’t only taught in sexually abusive households. It’s propagated everywhere. It’s in porn; it’s in politics. It is, and always has been, in popular entertainment, from The Little Mermaid, who literally traded her voice to get with a man, to Howard Stern’s public adoration of women with “daddy love me” issues. In pro sports, from the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders’ legendary sex appeal to Patriots owner Robert Kraft being charged with soliciting prostitution from sex trafficking victims. In career advancement, from Fox News’ Roger Ailes to every-movie-you’ve-ever-heard-of’s Harvey Weinstein.
With Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, my conscious mind registered that, in our society, the accepted purpose of the female is sex. In the world we live in, when a woman “complains” of being sexually violated, it’s like a bird complaining that it has to use its wings. She is, by definition, fabricating a grievance. Sex is what she’s there for.
So my body reacted with NOPE. I stopped wanting sex. My very nerve endings were dead; there was no longer a surge of niceness when my showerhead rinsed away the Summer’s Eve Feminine Wash. I took the advice of trusted female friends who advised me to push through my discomfort because “you’ll want it once you get started.” And their strategy worked… sort of. But that brilliant, funny, real husband of mine doesn’t only look at my body. He also looks at my face. And there, he saw a change. In the bedroom, I no longer felt like a human. Having lost the black hole into which I could dive during sex, my self-image warped. I perceived myself as what my childhood taught me I was: a sexual vending machine.
I pulsed with radioactive rage for a while. Watching the news, reading Twitter, driving by the pole dance studio, there was no relief from the messaging. And I knew, via some crackling invisible feminine radar, that many, many, many of us were feeling the same way.
For the first time, I realized that my narrative about sex was my narrative, not the only narrative. That my husband’s brain plays an entirely different cassette tape.
Lying in bed with my husband one day, I tried to apologize for my distance by rubbing his back. I struggled to ignore the lurid Crayola colors, which were on full blast in my mind. When my hand neared his butt, my muscles tensed up on his behalf. Every instinct said to move my hand upward, to make clear there was no impending violation; that I wasn’t moving a coin toward a slot. But before I could move my hand, he sighed. Like, “ahh.” Like, “that feels nice.” And my brain sizzled with newness as it hit me, “There’s another way.”
It was a lightning bolt moment. For the first time, I realized that my narrative about sex was my narrative, not the only narrative. That my husband’s brain plays an entirely different cassette tape. The Crayola hues softened, and in some faint way, like a whisper from the other side of the house, I could imagine experiencing sex like he did: as something that simply feels good, the way the sun feels good on skin.
I decided to try to replace my tape with his. Or at least, to tape over my old recordings with new ones. The first step was turning away from the media. I countered the barrage of prescriptive sex-role messaging by looking out the window, by studying how sex works in nature.
This wouldn’t be hard, as we have a veritable wild kingdom in our backyard. Picking up the binoculars at dusk, when the deer come out to feed, I noticed pale horizontal scarring along the back of a young mama who appeared with her baby. I pointed it out to my husband saying, “I’m always amazed they can leap through the bushes unharmed, but it looks like they do get sliced by thorns.”
“I don’t think those are thorn-scratches,” he said. “Their hides are tough. Those are from the hooves of the buck who helped her make that baby.”
The Crayola colors shrieked. Even for deer, the most gentle of creatures, sex was what the male took, and pain was what the female got? Time to trade the window for Google.
My search for a local sex therapist turned up a few hits. The top-rated was a bright yellow blonde with a come-hither smile. She looked like an ad for a weight-loss facility. Her About page offered up the words, “Wouldn’t it feel great to walk around feeling sexy and attractive each day?” The Crayolas morphed into a tornado.
The replacement cassette tape I wanted had, seemingly, never been made. It was time to get creative. When my husband and I watched Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next, we were both struck by the gender roles in Iceland. The power there, it seemed, was equally shared between men and women. Icelandic people presumably have sex, which means they have a sex drive. Could I transcribe my concept of sexuality with egalitarian Scandinavian porn?
A quick search netted the sad trombone: a majority of Scandinavia’s downloaded porn features lesbian love. Fabulous, but it wouldn’t work as my replacement script for male/female sexual roles.
I sensed a new black hole forming. Was there nothing I could study that illustrated hetero males as — well, as anything other than narcissistic predators? Is the female role a strict multiple choice between celibacy, homosexuality, and servitude to men?
Back on that night in the street with the wonk, looking at my sweet husband waving his hands around, I feel the blaze in my brain peter out. I remember when and where I am. I turn and walk toward my porch, throwing a peace sign up over my shoulder. An hour later I get a text from the wonk’s wife, telling me that he wants me to know he enjoyed our conversation. As if he’s too high up the food chain to send me a message himself. As if his approval is currency. As if there’s any coming back from rallying behind Brett Kavanaugh.
It’s been a year since then and I walk in the mornings now, when I’m less likely to cross paths with neighbors. In the evenings, I take a brain break in front of the TV. That’s what I was doing the other night, when I found the lesson I’d been seeking.
In HBO’s teen drama Euphoria, there’s a “thicc” girl character, Kat. In an earlier episode, she’d been a target for dehumanizing sex, because duh, what else was she good for? It hurts, watching how boys treat her. Because I know. I’ve lived it.
But in this episode, there’s a new boy at her school. Ethan is smart, and funny, and real. And he seems to actually like Kat, which is wild because, as the other boys made clear, fat girls are only good for blowjobs. The two end up in a bathroom at a party, where Kat lets Ethan know that this weird “tender feelings” thing won’t work. And he tells her, without words, to shut up — but not in a bad way He moves his head down and makes her feel really, really good.
It’s me. It’s my husband. It’s a replacement narrative for what’s possible. A man can want to give good feelings. A female can relearn what sex is. I turn off the TV, find my husband, and start relearning. The Kalashnikoving feels like the death of something evil, the birth of something good.
Or maybe it isn’t the Kalashnikov I hear. Maybe it’s a memo coming through the sex-assault-kid radar. When I turn on my laptop the next morning, Google News belts out a headline: “Jeffrey Epstein, Accused Sex Trafficker, Dies by Suicide.” The timing is uncanny, like his death and my rebirth were simultaneous. This actually works out well, because that black hole I used to live in? I don’t need it anymore. So Jeffrey can have it. He can live there from now on.