Does anyone have a straightforward relationship with sexual desire?
If someone does, I’ve never met them. Like many women, I long kept mine hidden. Sure, I devoured the sex scenes in my mother’s romance novels, but I hid the books under my bed. No one could know what I wanted.
I don’t remember when shame began but desire’s first hook is still vivid. I was paging through a romance novel and found one of those bodice ripping scenes. You know the scene: he presses against her, persuading her to give into her desire. The idea of women requiring persuasion, or worse coercion to be honest sexually is cliché and deeply problematic for me today. As a teenage perfectionist, however, surrender was a mind altering high. It was hot and I wanted more.
Like most millennials, I found a smorgasbord on the internet: smutty fanfic, Yaoi manga, and erotica that makes 50 Shades of Grey look bland. I was aware of whole worlds of fetishes, BDSM, and the importance of lube early on. Hiding on the internet was even easier than with books — one click cleared my cache, erasing my trail.
Why did hiding matter so much? Sex wasn’t the problem, needing something was. In my mind, wanting romance, sex, even food, made me imperfect. Needing anything outside of myself was a weakness that made me unlovable. I couldn’t stop my hunger but guilt kept me eating in the dark. If I didn’t admit to it, I didn’t have to admit to being a weak, emotional woman.
So I lived split. I was trying to please everyone else on a daily basis. As an empathetic INFJ, I was a master at reading everyone but myself. My fantasies were stolen at night, or early mornings, reading these stories. In them, I could explore my desire without feeling ashamed. There was no risk of disease or worse, rejection. Even then, I couldn’t fully believe these stories. I held a belief stronger than fantasies: my needs were too much. If I said them out loud, then I’d be thrown away.
I tried to survive like this, taking only bits and pieces. It kept me alive, but was I really living? I thought I was for far too long.
The next step at accepting my sexual desire came with my first real orgasm at 20. I hadn’t gone on more than a handful of dates at this point. I was too scared to take risks and tell people how I felt. I didn’t know how to reach out and kiss someone. My fears told me I wasn’t pretty enough, wasn’t cool enough. So I held myself in, indulging only in my fantasies.
It all changed with a dual stimulator, a purple dildo with a hummingbird in front. The first time was a revelation. I had touched myself, but I hadn’t ever felt like that. It was bliss; it was free; dear god, how had I missed out on this for so long?
In a dramatic way, my vibrator began to open me to my body and my desire. I began to recognize signs that I needed to get off. More than just recognizing them, I could feel good after satisfying them. Sex could feel great and I liked how it felt.
More importantly, masturbating protected me from rejection. My vibrator couldn’t tell me I wasn’t good enough. It couldn’t tell me I was an inept virgin, unable to please a partner. It never judged me for needing time. It never said no: It just needed a new set of batteries . Rejection, which had stymied so much of my desire, wasn’t fettered here. I was free in this safety to explore myself and enjoy myself.
Looking back, I didn’t realize how much I needed that space. I needed to feel sexual without judgment. Masturbation gave me a safe space to explore my sexuality outside of anyone else’s gaze or expectations. It gave me a foundation to enjoy sex outside the Madonna-whore complex so many women struggle with. Seven years later, it remains a foundational tool in my self-care and self-love.
Wanting of course, didn’t end with orgasms. I wanted men, but my desire was complicated. An astrology reader summed it up best: selective yet voracious. With my natal Mars in Cancer, picky could be my middle name when it comes to men. For years I thought something was wrong with me. Girls would ooh and ahh over certain heartthrobs. Sure, they were objectively attractive, but I wasn’t attracted to them. It left me wondering about my sexuality. Was I just not attracted to men? Worse, it fed into my fear that my desires made me unworthy. I wasn’t good enough for the men I wanted.
The truth was, I had a very specific type. Even in first grade, my crush was Jacob a boy taller than me with brown hair. By college it had solidified to men about six feet tall or taller, brown hair, with lean bodies. I had no rhyme, no reason, just a reluctance to turning off men’s Olympic volleyball.
Blame my natal Lilith in Libra: I am selective but still hungry. When I see my type, my pelvis turns into a radar system. When I see a tall man with a lean torso heat runs straight to my core. Add good cheekbones and dear God, I’m shamelessly staring.
So at 23, I faced my fears and began dating. From the beginning, I wanted something more serious in order to explore my sexual side. As a virgin, I didn’t feel safe in casual sexual relationships. I needed someone who I could feel safe with, communicate with. I wanted an ongoing partner in order to have a deeper dive. A one night stand wouldn’t give that to me.
The lingering fear of wanting too much affected how I dated. At first, I tried to expand my palate. I’d give men chances even if I wasn’t crazy about their looks. Still, ambivalence would nag me. It wouldn’t let me ignore the truth: I just didn’t want them sexually. Giving myself permission to be selective took time, and thankfully, a gut that wouldn’t compromise.
In order to dismantle these views, I had to recognize how I’d internalized the views we have about women and relationships. Being a picky woman is not acceptable. You’re too selective; you want too much. Women are supposed to prioritize everyone else’s wants over their own. The bind seems to be even tighter for women of color or other marginalized groups. The overall messaging reverberates: we should be grateful that any man wants us. Who are we to say no to their desire?
The only way I knew to get around this was to see my lack of desire as a good thing. I wasn’t rejecting them because they weren’t good enough. I didn’t want to waste their time on me. They deserved the right partner and it wasn’t me.
Finding the right partner, however, hasn’t been so easy. I’ve never been able to separate sexual and emotional vulnerability in the bedroom. So far, I haven’t found a man willing to do both. It amazes me how many struggle to even discuss their sexual history. One partner tried to reassure me he didn’t need to be tested for STIs because he “wasn’t a Casanova”. His comment wasn’t just dismissive, it was dangerous. If I can’t trust you to discuss your sexual health how can I ensure you listen to what I need in bed?
We want to believe sex is something that is purely physical, a magnetic experience our bodies just know how to do. Despite so much sexual media, we don’t know how to talk about it in the real world. Too many girls feel stuck like I did, afraid of not being perfect sexual creatures and ashamed they didn’t have more sexual experience. Today, sex remains another way we value women by male desire.
If anything, I wish I could go back to my fifteen-year-old self and tell her the truth. I wish I could explain that sex is physical intimacy with yourself and with others. I’d reassure her that feeling awkward is totally normal. Her virginity isn’t shameful because sex is different with each partner, like driving a new car. I wish she could see her sexuality like I do: a beautiful and natural desire to give and receive pleasure together.