My breathing is short. I am nervous and disoriented, trying to work out the chain of events that have led to Alan* and I lying on the bed in his bedroom snogging. It is the first time I'm kissing someone with the kind of urgency that generates an aching tension in my entire pelvic region. We both have our clothes on and I am weirdly grateful to be wearing jeans instead of a skirt or dress. Because parallel to the desire I feel, I have a crushing sense of embarrassment about my body. I am embarrassed that a man is touching me, that he wants me, and even though I let him caress my breasts under my shirt, I don't want to take it off or for him to see my naked skin in the light. As he fumbles with the buttons of my jeans, I wriggle beneath him. I don't want to do this yet. Have sex. But I cannot find the words. He interprets my squirming as encouragement and gets up to go to the bathroom, his eyes shining. “I'll be back in a minute.”
When he leaves the room, I quickly tuck in my shirt, button up my jeans and sit at the edge of the bed. Panicked and confused, my mind scrambles through the conversations I've had with my friends at art college. They've all had sex and survived. Enjoyed it even. But I don't feel ready. I feel like a nun, a prude, and I'm scared. Alan is 22 years older than I am, with an ex-wife and two children. He is a grown man, experienced and knowledgeable in love, relationships, sex, and life, more than I can ever hope to be. I love him and trust it will be okay to have sex with him one day. But not today.
He comes back from the bathroom.
“I need to go home,. I say.
“Then why are you being such a tease?” he says.
“I'm not,” I say, feeling naive and lacking in the experience he deserves. “I've just never had sex with anyone before.”
“Are you kidding me?” He laughs. It's obvious he doesn't believe me.
A couple of weeks after this conversation, I did have sex with Alan. However, other than a few drops of blood on the tissue paper when I went to the bathroom, I didn't bleed. Which only made him laugh louder. From his perspective this was clear evidence that I was not a virgin, and no matter how much I insisted, he never changed his mind. In the following months of our relationship, having sex with Alan became a double-edged sword. I desperately wanted the feeling of physical intimacy; skin against skin, kissing, caressing, feeling loved, having orgasms. But the kind of sex we had was anything but nurturing. I endured having my nipples bitten until they bled, and oral sex was so excruciating, where my labia and clitoris felt like they were being sucked out of my body, I often thought I would pass out.
I'd not had another boyfriend for comparison, so I had no idea how sex was meant to be. At secondary school, ‘sex education’ was a short series of lessons on the rudimentary biology of how babies were made. We did not learn about communication, intimacy, pleasure or love. At home, with a deeply religious mother and only female siblings, the mere mention of the word ‘sex’ was taboo. The inherent behaviour I learned towards boys and men was to be wary and mistrustful, to believe that they only wanted sexual satisfaction from me. Which only compounded my early childhood beliefs about my worth as a woman.
During my early childhood in India, when I lived with my grandparents, the belief branded into me as a girl, (into generations of Indian girls, even the ones who had a ‘British’ education), was that I am worth nothing without the love and protection of a man. Everything I learned at home about my worth was measured against the whims of men's needs, specifically my grandfather and uncle. The men demanded the women of the house to serve their meals on time, yet never stepped foot in the kitchen. They went out on mopeds with their friends whenever they wanted, yet saw no reason why my aunts would want an outing away from the confines of the house. My grandfather sent me to school because this was a ‘legal’ necessity, but it was simply to occupy me as a hobby until I was old enough for my true purpose, which was to have an arranged marriage, take care of my husband's household and bear his children. And even though I loved him, I was petrified of his wrath.
Thankfully, the relationship with Alan did not last. However, it was not until my mid-20s, through subsequent, gentler, more loving relationships, that I began to question at a fundamental level the validity of both my family culture at home, as well as my prized British education. The blatant patriarchal system of Indian culture (where men openly controlled women through sexual and mental violence) was not the only form of oppression; Western society also had its more subtle, ego-driven inequalities between men and women.
More importantly, I came to realise that Alan was a product of his culture and education too, driven by fear and shame (his ex-wife was having a secret affair with his best friend during their marriage) to hate all women. Though I did not know at the time, I am sure he had his own #MeToo story, and his hate and fear poisoned all his relationships with women, including me. This is the way with cycles of beliefs and violence, for both women and men.
In hindsight, I can accept there's never a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ about the first experience of something I've never done before, for example, the first time I had sex. In fact, there have been many sexual experiences I've ‘tried’ that I would not choose to repeat. But how else do we learn? The whole notion of ‘legal consent’ is too clinical and impractical, as though in the moment of mutual attraction and passion we can take a pause and have a philosophical debate about the ethics of how to have sex.
For me, it has taken a kind of persistent courage, over years, to continually question my values, culture and education. To label myself a ‘victim’ in relation to the #MeToo Movement is the easy blame. Because blame and guilt and persecution, as we know all too well from the patriarchal power games and lies expounded in every religion, does not move the mountain that stands in the way of genuine transformation. It is in being willing to show my vulnerability, to question my assumptions about men and women at an essential level, and to somehow ‘undo’ my education in order to see something I've never seen before. I am clear the dialogue must include both sides of the divide, men and women, so that we can each take responsibility to enact the small and big changes that impact our individual lives, the people we know personally, and the generations that will follow.
* Alan is not his real name.