I was a late bloomer in every sense of the word. By the time I had what most straight people consider sex, I had reached the ripe old age of 25. Talking about it made me uncomfortable, and over the years I workshopped my answer to the inevitable question — why? — until I got it down to a four-word sentence almost guaranteed to cut off any follow-ups: “I grew up religious.”
And while I did grow up with the trappings of a religious upbringing — Sunday school with traditional Indian dance lessons afterward, knowledge of the right Nakshatras to offer the guru during pooja — this explanation was a lie, an easy out. Hinduism was always more a gateway to my family’s culture than it was a set of ideals I truly believed in. I really had no shame around or problem with the idea of premarital sex.
At 29, I can finally admit that what held me back was fear. My mother’s speeches about piousness weren’t what stopped me; instead, it was the whispers of the aunties discussing so-and-so’s daughter who stopped going out because her husband beat her, or disappeared from community gatherings due to a teenage pregnancy, or died from god knows what (but nothing was wrong before she started lying to her parents to see boys). Each of these stories ended the same way: She got hurt. And this kitchen gossip birthed a bogeyman in my brain that whispered insidiously, over and over: Men will hurt you.
The ways in which men could hurt me only seemed to grow exponentially as I got older. Before I understood what rape really was, it was defined to me as a fate on par with death. And each year, the kitchen gossip which once revolved around people I didn’t know and would probably never meet suddenly crystallized when the hurt happened to my friends, my cousins, my aunts; a family friend’s suicide after her divorce was the measuring stick the women of my community used to define pain. In the midst of a bright and happy childhood, I stood waiting for the clap of thunder after seeing the lightning in the distance. Would I end up a cautionary tale, too?
The only thing that mitigated that fear, wrestling it down from debilitating to functional, was the sweet crush of first love. He was a boy who never failed to make me laugh and liked the same music I did, which as a teenager was enough. We’d inevitably spend any social outing gravitating closer and closer together until we turned a small corner into a private date. The dramatics of the following three months were appropriately childish for two awkward 13-year-olds, but I’ll always be grateful for his kindness, which is the thing I still value most about him after 18 years of friendship.
From that point on, I kept searching for that same kindness in each potential romantic connection. Through college and into adulthood there was a string of pleasant, respectful, and unremarkable men. I brought home several of them in an effort to stave off the creeping feeling of what’s wrong with you, you should have had sex by now, you fucking weird adult virgin. But inevitably, by the time we got naked, I’d freeze. It didn’t matter how much I liked my partner, or how good it felt to get off with them; the thought of penetrative sex roused the bogeyman. A penis entering my vagina seemed to be a line that shouldn’t be crossed, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that anything terrible that befell me after that would be deserved. The aunties would say that I knew the risks, and chose to open myself to hurt anyway. So after each initial orgasm (mostly his, rarely mine), I made it a habit to roll out of bed, rush to throw on all my clothes, and toss an excuse about an early meeting or a weekend shift over my shoulder as I was already on my way out the door.
Caught between wanting what I imagined to be one of the fundamental joys of the human experience and a deep-rooted fear cultivated over two decades, I wrote off my hesitance as just not having found the right one yet. It didn’t occur to me until years later that maybe I was approaching everything backward, and that the right one — the only one who could make me feel safe enough to unlock all this glorious sexual potential — was me.
I can’t remember why Marcus (whose name I’ve changed, along with others throughout the piece, to protect his privacy) seemed like the right one at the time; I’m certain the story I spun for myself was a convincing one. We’d been seeing each other for about a month and a half, throughout which I found a litany of excuses not to stay the night. He was the first guy I’d met through a dating app who was genuinely more charming in person. He was a journalist too, and perhaps it was how little I had to explain about my life, which at the time solely revolved around my career, that steadied my impulse to run. I assumed that that level of professional simpatico must transfer to the personal as well.
But in hindsight, there was only one real reason I wanted to have sex with him: I was 25, I was very uncomfortable both with the fact that I hadn’t had “real” sex and with the thought of having it, and I just wanted to get it over with. Marcus cooked me a surprisingly delicious meal, and after we had split a bottle of red wine with it we found ourselves in his bedroom, making out like teenagers. Thirty minutes later, his sheets were bloody and I was shaking in the bathroom while he gently asked me from outside the door if there was anything he could do.
Everything was consensual; I wanted to have sex with him. But I never actually said it. Like a lady in a Victorian novel, I implied where I wish I had been straightforward; I let the shame of my inexperience silence the questions I should have stopped to ask. We hadn’t discussed anything beforehand, or during. I simply invited myself over to his place for dinner and hoped that he’d take that as permission. I just wanted the whole thing to go smoothly, and interrupting a delicious slow build for more lube seemed too rife with chances for embarrassment and hurt. After all, I had crossed that invisible line I’d drawn for myself, and if something bad happened now, well, I had asked for it. Hadn’t I?
I should have stopped to ask. A fun fact about water-based lube: It dries out much faster than someone who is having sex for the first time might expect. Then comes friction and then comes tearing and then comes a terrifying moment in which you realize that wet spot is way too dark to be anything but blood. That I got hurt was a genuine accident, in the aftermath of which I consoled myself with the fact that I’d at least been right about Marcus. He took care of me. He was kind.
At 29, I’ve learned that what happened the first time I went all the way, so to speak, is a fairly common experience. But at the time, all I could hear was the bogeyman’s I told you so reverberating through every anxious second of my gynecologist appointment the next day. The whole experience was nowhere close to the worst thing that could have happened to me during my first time, but the pain was sharp in both body and mind. I saw Marcus for maybe another month after that, but the instant spike of fear I felt every time we tried to have sex shut down any possible forward momentum. Humiliated, it was easier just to slowly ghost on each other. But a month after that, I couldn’t even get off by myself.
That had never happened to me before. Back in my gyno’s office, the air rushed out of the room as she told me that physically I was fine, and whatever was going on had more to do with my mind than my body. I had no idea how to fix that. Neither did she.
Over the next six months, I became my own worst enemy. I laid out the chronology of what had happened to pick apart as if I could logic my way out of this puzzle, as if the answer would arrive neatly packaged, the way it does on episodes of SVU: I had sex. I got hurt, just like I had been told I would. And if I couldn’t enjoy any sexual feeling anymore, that must be my punishment. Despite knowing what I deserved, I felt compelled to work at the problem like I was trying to build good credit, but I only made myself miserable in the process. And then one day, I just gave up. Ignoring sex altogether seemed like a better option than the endless cycle of blame and shame I’d subjected myself to. It felt, if not good, then peaceful. But no one can hide from themselves forever.
There was this woman at work. I didn’t see it for what it was at first, until my best friend pointed out how much I talked about her. There was always a funny work story, or a deep conversation about the country’s political state, or a new piece of hers that I couldn’t help but rave about. I just admired her, I would insist; how could I not have a crush on her beauty and talent? But my friend clearly wasn’t buying it, and after a few weeks I couldn’t really say I was, either.
This wasn’t the first woman I’d found myself drawn to, but she was the first one I allowed myself to consider. What would it be like to take her to dinner? Run my hands through her hair? Kiss her? What had seemed wholly impossible in high school in the context of my family, community, and religion was now open to me as an adult who lived hundreds of miles from all three. But with my body still on lockdown, I talked myself out of it. That same insidious voice snaked through my thoughts.
Are you even into women, or do they just feel safer than men?
Who do you think you are, to lead someone on like that while you use them to figure out your shit?
You know there was nothing wrong with Marcus, there was something wrong with you. Why would it be any different with a woman?
When I found out the woman who had me questioning my sexuality had a boyfriend, I felt an unmistakable rush of disappointment. There was no denying this very obvious crush now. But there was also a sense of relief: Finally, I had a solid answer to hold onto. I flipped my Tinder over to women the same day. It took less than a second to give myself possibilities again. But I still didn’t know if I deserved them.
About eight months after the last time I saw Marcus, I found myself playing darts in a bar with Annie. She was the third woman I’d been on a date with, and the first I’d actually felt a spark with. She was two years older than me and significantly more successful, with a wicked sense of humor that reminded me of my first crush. She had me at the first kiss.
We went back to her place, but she didn’t lead me straight to the bedroom. We split a bourbon between languorous kisses on the couch, drifting in and out of conversation. She asked me all the questions I was too afraid to ask myself eight months ago: How far did I want to take this? Where were my boundaries? Did I clearly understand that all I had to do was say stop if I wanted to stop? Each honest answer was rewarded with a heated touch, and it wasn’t long until we stopped talking entirely.
Later, I caught myself grinning like an idiot in Annie’s bathroom mirror. I could not believe the bounty of wisdom I’d been granted in the last eight hours. I was definitely into women, and specifically into Annie. Sex wasn’t just enjoyable, it was fucking amazing. And any misconceived notions I’d been holding onto about what counted as “real sex” — which, it suddenly occurred to me, I’d actually been having since I was 17 — were completely stripped away.
I finally had the answer I’d wanted so badly to the question of what went wrong with Marcus. It wasn’t because I’d decided to have sex that I got hurt; it was because I wasn’t honest about what I wanted. Lost in my own anxieties, I’d forgotten to vocalize my desires. And when I was honest with Annie, it led to phenomenal sex. It really was that simple.
In the years since then, I’ve discovered that there’s really no way to have good sex with a new partner if I skip the step of clearly articulating what I want and where my boundaries are. Like my body tried to tell me, having sex when I hadn’t made my pleasure an equal priority wasn’t worth having at all. And if I didn’t feel comfortable asking for what I wanted, it was a clear sign that for whatever reason, I didn’t feel safe enough to do so.
So now, I don’t let questions linger. The fear that built up in my mind over a lifetime will likely take another lifetime to unravel, but armed with the knowledge that I can mitigate that fear with something as simple as a yes or no question, I feel like the adult that I always thought having sex would make me.
Because of that level playing field, Annie and I had a good run. Same with Kat, and Gina. By the time Rene — a marketing manager whom I’d seen around my neighborhood spending his time giving free advice and labor to mom-and-pop places that were fighting off the rising tide of gentrification — slid into my DMs, about six months later, I was still perfectly aware of how many ways a man can ruin a woman, even the kind ones. But I also trusted myself to discern whether being with him would be a terrible experience or not. I now had the language and the understanding, thanks to Annie and the women that came after her, to wield consent properly rather than leave it at “Well, he hasn’t hurt me yet, so it’ll probably be fine.”
A first date spent at the Brooklyn Museum turned into dinner, turned into late drinks, and after running out of excuses to keep spending time together I asked Rene if he wanted to come home with me. His smile was enough of an answer, but I operate in absolutes now. Before we even asked for the check, we cleared testing history, boundaries, and consent with the promise of a longer conversation in private, if need be. The nerves that flared as I pulled him through my front door couldn’t possibly be ignored, but just as with Annie they were thrilling, a sign of excitement rather than fear. And just as with Annie, fucking Rene felt safe in a way that meant I could enjoy the adventure, rather than constantly monitor for the point where it might tip into a nightmare.
At 29, navigating dating and sex still isn’t easy, particularly after embracing my queerness, but it’s a million times simpler with an understanding of the difference that vocal, deliberate consent and communication can make. I tend to date women far more frequently than men, but that has everything to do with attraction, not fear. (There’s just a significantly higher number of women who have their shit together enough to be good partners. Competence is sexy, what can I say?) The men who do find themselves in my life share one common denominator with the women: They are eager to have a conversation, or rather as many conversations as we need, about desire and consent. It means that sex is always safe, even if it’s purposefully dangerous. It means that sex at its very worst is mediocre and lacking connection, rather than traumatizing or scary.
Finding the courage to say no — maybe most importantly to myself, when my instinct is to let my embarrassment overwhelm me into silence — is not a perfect shield. Not everyone I meet will be honest when it counts. But finding the right ways to talk about sex, rather than focusing on finding the one and only person I should have sex with, has kept me unharmed so far. Each question, each conversation stacks into a kind of janky lightning rod — one that could collapse at any moment, but is managing to protect that little girl who watched a storm rage in her kitchen from direct strikes. I understand the difference now between the statistical possibility that I might get hurt and the certainty that I will get hurt, and that I’ll have deserved it for daring to want someone. I’ve built not a weapon, but a tool that keeps me safe. And with it I walk through the storm, mostly unafraid. ●
Krutika Mallikarjuna is currently the features editor at TVGuide.com. You can also find her bylines at Shondaland, Teen Vogue, BuzzFeed, and Inverse, but undoubtedly her best writing is in drunk live-tweet form @krutika.