‘The only way to find true happiness is to risk being completely cut open.’
– Chuck Palahniuk, Invisible Monsters
You know those love stories that start ‘and as our eyes met across the room for the first time, I knew that this was the man that I was going to marry’ – I don’t have one of those love stories. My story would start more along the lines of ‘as I fell back against the bed, dazed and sweaty after the best sex that I’d had in a decade, I knew that this man was probably going to end up hurting me.’ My story started with a lot of sex and wasn’t really supposed to be a love story. That part caught me by surprise somewhat…
So here we are again; at that old and well-worn question about when it is ‘right’ to have sex with someone new. How early is too early? How long should you wait? For the record, I’m firmly of the opinion that you should have sex whenever you want, assuming it’s safe and consensual, and should never be judged for being too quick or too slow, but I know that this isn’t as much of a general consensus as I’d like.
This is such a well discussed subject that I was loathe to go into it again, and I hope I don’t need to cover too much old ground – it’s unlikely to be news to any of you that most of the judging or shaming associated with having sex early in a relationship falls firmly on women. They’re slutshamed for it, revealing themselves to be cheap or not interested in a proper relationship, and I am deeply saddened by how many men, and honestly how many women, still carry these opinions.
But I discovered recently that there is a new(ish) angle to this old discussion that I hadn’t thought of before, and it made my feminist hackles rise again. It involved the opinion that because women allegedly develop feelings immediately after sex – ‘damn oxytocin’ – men could demonstrate that they respect women by not sleeping with them too quickly, specifically to protect them from becoming too attached. That making an otherwise consenting woman wait shows that he cares. And while this could be seen as a nice sentiment, I can’t help but shudder at the implied paternalistic control. It says to me that women need to be protected from themselves, that we’re not in control of our emotions or our hormones (urgh) and, more importantly, that we can’t be trusted to make decisions about whether we want to run the risk of heartache or regret.
Which brings me back to my own story. I knew myself pretty well when I first met my future boyfriend; I knew that I could handle sex once without attachment but that if I like someone enough to fuck them twice, I do really like them. I knew that convincing myself that something was just about sex wouldn’t stop me from being a little heartbroken when that sex stopped and that the chances are that I would soon want more from someone I was regularly fucking and would inevitably be bitterly disappointed when he didn’t want that too. I knew all this but I did it anyway. I decided that it was worth the risk; he was worth the potential hurt. I steeled myself against falling for him, using my faithful logic to remind myself that it was just good sex and nothing more. Each time something happened that made me fall a bit more in love with him, I mentally prepared myself for that future disappointment, weighing up the risks and choosing to carry on. I managed to trick myself so well that I was completely blindsided when it turned out that he was falling for me too, that this was more than just sex for him. It was a pretty incredible revelation!
But if he had known all that time what I was thinking in the background, how much I knew I could be risking, how much I was expecting to be hurt, would he have let me carry on? (Will he be horrified to read about it now? Maybe…sorry…) But should he have stopped? Should he have backed off because I could get hurt in our as yet undetermined future? Of course not – it was my life and my choice and my risk!
In my opinion, him holding back to ‘protect me’ wouldn’t be showing that he respected me; it shows completely the reverse. It suggests that he didn’t respect my right to choose, didn’t respect my ability to weigh up risk, and borders on not respecting my ability to consent. It’s something I have to counsel the family members of my patients about quite often – we are allowed to make unwise choices and we are allowed to make choices that will ultimately end in disaster, as long as we are aware of the risks we are taking.
It’s almost like women are now being emotion-shamed. The ongoing rhetoric that we can do what we want with our bodies hasn’t reached as far as accepting that we can do what we want with our hearts. Go on, they say, have as much sex as you want…but don’t get attached. Don’t fall in love. If you were serious about someone, if you liked them and wanted to see them again, you should have waited to fuck them – not because doing otherwise makes you a whore, but because it’ll make you a crazy lady who can’t be trusted with their emotions.
It’s another example of when decisions are being made for women in their ‘best interests’ rather than giving them the right to choose, even if that choice would objectively be seen as unwise. For me, I was happy to risk my heart early; I knew myself, I knew what I could take, and I knew I could call time if it was getting out of my control. In contrast to this, others know that having sex clouds their judgement. They know that once they fuck someone they can’t be objective with their decisions and so choose to wait. The key, obviously, is that it’s their choice. We should be allowed to choose.
I don’t mean by all of this that women should throw themselves desperately weeping at the feet of any old fuckboy without thinking of the consequences, and I don’t mean that these fuckboys can use the fact that women have agency to make these decisions themselves as an excuse to treat them like shit. We should treat each other with respect, full stop. Not because we’re not emotionally strong enough otherwise and need to be protected, but because we should treat everyone that way. And we should definitely treat ourselves with respect – always.
I’m staggeringly lucky with how my unexpected love story has panned out with my boyfriend, but I like to think that if it had worked out differently, if he had quickly moved on as I was so certain he would, I wouldn’t have regretted it. I would have hurt and I would have been sad, but I wouldn’t have regretted my choices.
Maybe we should be careful who we fuck and when. Maybe women do form attachments too quickly. Maybe everyone does! Maybe we should be wary of jumping into bed with everyone we meet, but it’s our mistake to make – our risk to take.
And that’s why I wish it was possible to be able to fuck and love and take a chance and risk everything without being judged for it. Give us agency to make our own choices. Let us fuck on a first date and not be thought cheap; let us get attached and wistful early on without thinking we’re desperate; let us make our own mistakes so that we can actually learn from them; let us choose to risk our hearts when we choose. When we choose. Please can we stop being so paternalistic towards women and let us make bad choices so that when these choices blow up in our faces and our hearts are ripped out, our ‘friends’ don’t have the option of saying ‘well, I could have told you it would have ended up this way’ or ‘what did you expect? He wouldn’t respect you for being so easy’ or ‘this is kind of your fault, maybe you shouldn’t have slept with him so early,’ as was once said to my sister (Grrrrr).
Let us fuck and love as we want, without calling us sluts or desperate. Just accept that we know what we’re doing when we fall into bed with someone. Stop trying to protect us from making these mistakes and let us knowingly make them! Give us the option to be vulnerable, to be empowered. Can we stop paternalistically protecting women from themselves when it’s no one else’s decision to make? And can we make it abundantly clear that it’s OK for anyone to have sex when they want and fall in love when they want and get hurt when they want, because we’re willing to accept the consequences and accept the risk.
Please, let us choose…