An abusive relationship with my first boyfriend left me feeling lost and broken. A career spent exploring BDSM and an endless variety of vibrators helped me feel whole again.
The first sex toy I ever tried was the Tantus Feeldoe. It was a smooth, silicone, double-ended dildo, six inches long on one side, just a couple inches long on the other, each end expanding into a bulb about one and a half inches in diameter. I’d chosen it out of a whole slew of erotic devices jammed together in the naughty drawer at the office. I was an intern for an alternative weekly in Boston, creating erotic content for an adult dating site, and the drawer contained a pile of silicone and rubber that was shiny, colorful and absolutely terrifying. I was drawn to the Feeldoe because of its extreme and glossy purple-ness — my favorite color. I tried to imagine I was accessorizing, in much the same way I once had my childhood bedroom painted a restrained shade of lilac.
In preparation for my evening with this new toy, I brushed my teeth, stepped out of my pencil skirt, and slipped on something more comfortable: boxer shorts and a soft, gray T-shirt. I sat cross-legged on my twin bed, looking down at the giant purple dildo and the bottle of lube beside it.
I could feel a slight pounding in my temple. The piece grew large in my mind as I stared at it, like one of those scenes in a horror movie where the focus goes in and out, ominous music slithering through the air.
I swallowed, and my throat was dry.
Grasping the toy, pliable yet firm in my hand, I realized I didn’t know which end was supposed to go inside me. The only phallus that had entered my vaginal canal up to that point was my ex-boyfriend’s, an emotionally and sexually abusive man who had — quite literally — taken my virginity two years earlier when I was nineteen. The thought of him still made my nether regions clench in fear, and it occurred to me that I might be in over my head.
After deciphering the illustrated instructions, I determined that the shorter, more bulbous end was meant to be used as a convenient strapless strap-on, held in place by my PC muscles. I was then supposed to thrust the longer, lightly curved shaft into my partner. Well, crap. I was all by myself.
I leaned back against my pillow, the dildo resting lightly in my palm. I cocked my head, thinking, considering. I felt strongly that the show must go on. After all, I had a review to write, and I wanted that review to be a goddamn work of art. I grasped the dildo with more surety. This smaller bulb will make a nifty handle, I told myself. I slapped a dollop of lube against the shaft and stroked the length of it, up and down. Then I gripped the “strap-on” side of the dildo in my right fist and brought the head of the shaft to the opening of my vagina. I held it there. I held my breath
It’s not so big, I told myself, panting lightly. It’s lubed up. It should slip right in.
I pressed it gently against my body, then pushed a little more.
Just a little harder, I told myself, trying to pep talk my way into it. Just a bit more pressure.
I pressed an eensy bit more. The folds of my skin seemed to resist it. I felt tight. Unyielding. Tense.
Comeoncomeoncomeoncomeon. My grasp on the dildo tightened.
Then I relaxed my grip and let out a breath. I couldn’t do it. Unable to foresee myself deriving any actual pleasure from the thing that had been manufactured to do just that, I was, in fact, afraid it would only hurt.
* * *
Only two years earlier, I had been in a different place. Instead of writing about sex toys in Boston, I’d been writing about cute cafes and sandwich shops for a small newspaper in New Jersey. On top of that, I was in love.
At the beginning, Travis (not his real name) was sweet, attentive. I was over the moon. But two months in, bodies tangled together on the couch in my basement, lights off, finding our way through breath and sound and feel, he announced he wanted to have sex.
I wasn’t ready. I was saving myself until marriage. It’s just the way I was raised.
As he straddled me, I held my breath, frightened to the point of near paralysis, only able to tighten my thighs together. He pushed his way inside me anyway.
I cried after he left, feeling betrayed and sick to my stomach. But I didn’t know quite how to explain these emotions. Where were they coming from? I’d never uttered the words “no” or “stop.”
He had taken so much of me and, because it felt like there was nothing left to save, I let him have me again and again and again.
But in giving so freely of myself, I ended up losing so much. Throughout the course of our relationship, he slowly became crueler, repeatedly belittling my inexperience, my body, my hushed quiet in bed.
When he wanted to try something new with me, something I wasn’t prepared for, he wore me down until I eventually gave in.
To this day, he is the only man I have ever had anal sex with, and he did it without a condom. Without lube. Twice. I cannot remember how it felt, only that I am fearful of ever trying it again.
By the time I left him, livid because he had refused to show up for my grandmother’s funeral and sick of his thoughtlessness, I was afraid of sex. I felt unsure of myself, broken, self-conscious about my body and my performance. I struggled to find pleasure in sex, engaging in it only out of a sense of obligation to my romantic partners. If a guy simply said “come on,” with a slight smirk on his lips, I didn’t think of the man in front of me. Instead, I thought of him, who made me feel silly for being so scared.
* * *
I transferred schools, moving to a city four hours away. One year in, I interviewed for the internship that started me writing adult content. I showed up the day of my interview thinking I was competing for the chance to write about concerts and literary events. When I learned the company needed writers for the two personals sites it also owned, I closed my eyes, held my nose, and leapt in. It was out of my comfort zone, but it was also a chance to write in my own voice — and under my own byline.
Though my very first experiment with the Feeldoe went poorly, I soon learned that, while penetrative play might not be my thing, there is a whole other world of adult products out there.
My supervisor was excited to send me home with the Rabbit Habit vibrator, for example, made popular by Sex and the City. And while there was a lot going on with that particular toy — tumbling pearls meant to stir up feeling in the vaginal walls and a shaft that swiveled in a way no actual penis swiveled — its rabbit-shaped clitoral stimulator taught me that vaginal orgasms were not the only orgasms.
Then there was the Water Dancer. A waterproof version of the popular Pocket Rocket, it didn’t look like much. But when I took it home with me, slid in a single AA battery, and twisted the base to turn it on, my orgasm blindsided me, exploding through my pelvis and leaving my entire body tingling.
With that, I realized this internship could be a doorway to sexual normalcy for me. A dare I could give myself, something that might force me to move past everything I’d experienced with Travis. When I’d left New Jersey, I was still too skittish to experience intimacy with anyone new. At the very least, this gig could give me power over my own pleasure, could teach me about my body and what it might like. At the most, it could help me accept that not every man was Travis, and that sex did not have to be a thing that was wrested from me.
* * *
By the time I earned my B.A., wrapped up my internship, and began packing up my Boston apartment in order to move back to New Jersey, I had an entire trunk’s worth of vibrators, erotic films, riding crops, and condoms. Still, I continued to hold men at arm’s length, forgoing true intimacy in favor of the pleasure I could give myself. When men assumed I was some nymphomaniacal sex kitten just because I wrote about sex, I froze, not letting them get close enough to find out. I was sure that, once they discovered the truth, they would only be disappointed. I would only be humiliated. Then I met Michael, the man who would eventually become my husband.
The first time we came close to having sex, we had only known each other a week. We were dry humping the living daylights out of each other when he whispered in my ear, “We’re going to get ourselves in trouble.”
My muscles tensed, so subtle he didn’t even notice. “Why?” I asked him. “We’re not having sex.”
Four years earlier, Travis had trampled all over my intention to save myself until marriage. In the intervening years, I had come to terms with the fact that sex did not have to be this sacred thing I waited to give away. It could be something I took for myself. Still, it was another two months before I slept with Michael, and I didn’t do it for me. By that point, I knew he was different than the other men I had dated. As corny as it sounds, I missed him when he wasn’t around. When I looked at him, I saw someone who would make a good father. I saw my future. Because of this, I felt he deserved sex. We were together, and that’s what people do.
Then one day, he straddled me in bed, trying to convince me we should take another tangle in his bed sheets. “Come on,” he said, a slight quirk to his lips.
I was taken back to memories of Travis so instantly I gasped from the whiplash. Curling over onto my side I began to cry. He touched my shoulder. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
Embarrassed, I apologized and after a moment explained that he’d taken me back to a dark place in my past.
I grabbed a tissue, wiped my face, blew my nose, and then revealed that sex had been a struggle for me ever since.
Michael was understanding, but he was also a man who wanted sex, and I was a woman who did not. I carried so much guilt because of this, feeling inadequate because of my low libido. I began to experience sharp and jagged pain during intercourse that ripped me apart upon penetration.
I was desperate to find the thing that would boost my sex drive and cure my hurt — both physical and emotional. And because I was learning that editors were hungry for writers who were willing to write openly about sex, I turned back to that.
Which is how we ended up at a sex party. I was interviewing a popular sex party hostess about her thoughts on raunch culture when she extended me an invitation to her next soiree at a Midtown Manhattan loft she was renting. It sounded unlike anything I had done before, and I wondered if it held the key to jump starting my sex life.
Michael wasn’t so sure. “Is this a swingers’ party?” he asked. “Will people be swapping partners? I don’t think I’m comfortable with that.”
“There will be no wife swapping,” I explained, “except among those who want to play with others.” I shared with him typical sex party etiquette as it had been explained to me, stuff like “set ground rules with your partner beforehand,” “always ask permission before touching,” and “feel free to say no to anything you’re uncomfortable with.” Michael agreed to give it a try.
In the lead-up to the party, I felt awkward, anxious and excited. I agonized over my outfit, not wanting to seem as if I were trying too hard. Michael, meanwhile, gyrated around our bedroom wearing nothing but black sweatpants and a black bow tie, bearing an uncanny resemblance to a pale, scrawny Chippendales dancer (a getup I ultimately vetoed).
Next, I packed my bag: wallet, lip gloss, and a bottle of cheap wine. I also slipped in a variety pack of condoms, my favorite vibrator, and a pair of handcuffs. It seemed silly to bring the entire contents of my naughty drawer but, then again, it seemed silly not to. What if everyone were engaged in mutual masturbation? What if we were walking in on a giant orgy? What if I were asked to take part in a BDSM scene involving restraints? I had to be prepared.
After arriving, we pushed through hallways, around corners, through beaded doorways. We found an S&M room for those who enjoyed flogging, bondage and humiliation, along with a tickle room filled with feathers and fluff and soft-to-the-touch cocoons. There was also a space containing one enormous bed that was being used for a hands-on oral sex seminar called Sword Swallowing 101. Later in the evening, nude bodies would eventually clench and intertwine across the bed in a never-ending orgy.
A young man in the main cocktail area, wearing a shiny leather skirt and a corset, worshipped a woman’s bare foot. Another man casually threw his arm around a girl’s shoulders, cupping her breasts, which were spilling out over the top of her corset. On another couch, in a second corner of the room, a shapely woman in black, lacy lingerie was on all fours as her partner smacked her behind in time with the techno beat playing over the speakers.
Looking around, I wished I could be as un-self-conscious as the other party guests — I couldn’t even let myself go when it was just Michael and I, alone in bed together. I had never felt the surge of desire that might allow me to lose myself in sex and arousal and a pleasure that vocalized itself in sighs and moans and whispers. I was always too distracted by the voices in my head, thoughts that were echoes of every bad thing Travis had said or done to me.
Maybe it was the constant flesh or pheromones in the air but, after awhile, my skin began to tingle, nerve endings on edge. My insides seized up and my nether regions ached desperately, swollen and slick and hungry. I hadn’t felt this way in months.
Michael and I located a dark, empty room that was more like a causeway between the cocktail area and the orgy room. We grasped at each other, pressing back into the throw pillows on an overstuffed couch, his hand burrowing into the waistband of my jeans, my hand slipping into his boxer briefs.
As we bucked and rubbed against each other, feverish in our want, I noticed someone in the doorway. He leaned against the doorjamb to watch us, sharing a smile with me when he caught my eye.
I didn’t care, consumed as I was by a desire I hadn’t experienced for so long. Or I did care, and this stranger’s presence only intensified the experience for me. I wasn’t sure. But either way, after months of resisting Michael’s advances, turning my back on him in bed, feeling guilt and frustration over my sexual indifference and my lack of passionate need, this scene brought nothing but relief.
Was I an exhibitionist? Maybe. But whatever I was, I wished I could make that feeling last forever.
* * *
Enlivened by our experience, I threw myself back into sex writing, trying to chase that feeling, grasp it, hold onto it forever. The party led to my first paid and bylined clip, a travel piece on sex parties around the world for Playgirl. (The sword swallowing instructor had shared the editor’s contact info with me.) But I was looking for more than a byline and a paycheck.
Michael and I went to a handful of sex parties, though we were unable to replicate that first intense experience. After swinging by an erotic art opening at a small gallery one night, we went to a porn release party at the Pussycat Lounge in Downtown Manhattan, where we watched burlesque performers bump and grind to Esthero and dodged the free porn DVDs that were tossed out to the crowd. I went to a lingerie launch party and convinced Michael to buy me a set I’d lusted over. I wore it once. We went to a cuddle party another night, and learned that cuddle parties made us both uncomfortable. We snuck out near the end, when everyone piled up into one large pile at the center of the room for the closing “cuddle puddle.”
I reviewed a variety of sex toys and sexy how-tos, trying out vibrators that heated up or buzzed in time to the music playing on my iPod. I even tried out the since-discontinued Sexerciseball, an exercise ball to which you could attach a variety of dildos. Over time, I began to suspect that immersive sex writing might not be enough. What made things especially difficult was that I was not necessarily trying to reclaim something I had lost. Rather, I was chasing something I never really had. Something I felt I should have.
When I finally read a review copy of Emily Nagoski’s Come As You Are, a book that led to the realization that I was simply happier with less sex — that I was not dysfunctional in any way — I wept. My husband slept beside me, my hands clutching my comforter, my tears hot against my skin, generating a relief.
Nagoski, a sexuality educator and researcher, had written a book about the female sexual response cycle, and about all the things that might hinder a woman’s desire. “If you have sex because you have to or you feel like you’re supposed to,” writes Nagoski, “you won’t have much sex and you probably won’t enjoy it when you do.”
I had spent the past ten years trying to boost my libido to match someone else’s desires and, in reading Nagoski’s research, I felt free knowing I didn’t have to anymore.
After that, I didn’t write to fix myself. Instead, I wrote to connect with others who also felt broken, moving away from reviews and how-tos and shifting to frank and unflinching personal essays and academic articles. In writing about myself and about recent sexuality research, it felt as if I were shouting into a vast silence, one that in breaking I hoped to help other women struggling with their sex lives realize they were not as dysfunctional as they had feared.
This shift in mindset eased the pressure I’d placed upon myself for almost fifteen years. While I still don’t want sex as often as my husband, I’ve given myself the space to feel desire. To feel want. As a result, when I engage in intercourse, I enjoy it much more.
All of this seems important to me now, especially after bringing a daughter into the world. Whatever stigma sex writing has, and however embarrassed she might be by the work I do as she grows older, I want to contribute to a culture in which openness and education might help her grow up to be self-confident and comfortable as she comes into her own as a sexual being.
I want her to make the choices that would be best for her — the ones I didn’t make.
* * *
Steph Auteri is a freelance writer and editor, with a focus on female sexual health. She has written about sex for Salon, Jezebel, Nerve, Brain, Child, and other publications, and regularly collaborates with sexuality educators, researchers, and mental health professionals. Follow her on Twitter @stephauteri.