A few years later I showed up to a Halloween party at 2 a.m. dressed up as Hello Kitty and met J later on, while I was waterfalling a fifth of vodka down people’s throats in someone’s bedroom. I met J again the next morning in my bed after he spent the night. He shook my hand and reintroduced himself. We started dating after I told him I’d always be nonmonogamous and he was okay with it.
Monogamy was the shadowy figures that bothered me when I tried to sleep. My childhood trauma trapped me into unsatisfying relationships, and monogamy kept me in their control. Open relationships meant freedom and agency. Every day I chose my partners, and I had sex with them because I desired to, not because I was obliged to.
The sex with J was mediocre at first. Around the time I met him, I started reading more about kink, BDSM, and trauma-informed consent. I read about a scale that a couple used to communicate how interested they were in having sex: 1 for not at all, 3 for possibly, and 5 for “take off my clothes right now.” I loved the scale because saying a number felt less intimidating than telling him I didn’t want to have sex. We adapted it into a cat scale after I ate too much pasta one night and said I felt like Garfield when J asked if I was interested in having sex. The scale changed from 1 to 5 to Garfield, Cheshire, Felix, Pink Panther, and, of course, Hello Kitty. It was ridiculous and we always forgot where each character was on the scale, but I needed it, and J was patient.
Once I finally was able to object to sex—by way of some pop culture cat icon—I worked towards figuring out what I was into. I logged all my sexual encounters and reflected on what I did and didn’t like about each experience. If anything turned me on during the week, I frantically scribbled it in a desire journal I kept in my bag. My observations made me realize that during missionary-style penetrative sex with a man I’d start to separate myself from my body; I didn’t want to be there. Lying there underneath a man, with him inside of me, reminded me of all the times in my early twenties that I stumbled into that position. I was often drunk, seeking validation and pleasure from some stranger who never made me come and put themselves inside me without asking or putting on a condom.
J and I started experimenting with power, submission and domination, and role play. It turned out that being dominated and pretending to be someone else really got me going. When I pretended to be someone else, someone way younger, way older, a student, a teacher, an extended family member, I could generate a voice and communicate during sex; I wasn’t me.
I sat on J’s bed with a legal pad and a pen. It was early summer and the windows were open, animated voices floating from the street to his room.
“So, let’s start with words describing the moods we’d like to embody.” I bounced with excitement.
We brainstormed together—naughty, animalistic, primal, rough, gentle, caregiving.
“Ok. Now, what specific acts are we interested in?”
We decided on spanking, slapping, positive reinforcement, fellatio, and cunnilingus.
J and I invented all sorts of codes and rules to make each other feel safe. Whenever we talked about anything regarding our open relationship, we used the codeword “pomegranate” as a way of asking for consent to talk about a potentially emotional topic.
Because penetrative sex is particularly triggering for me, the rule was that there needed to be verbal consent for it to happen. We had our safewords, of course. Sometimes we planned an entire scene out in explicit detail, and other times we didn’t plan them at all. No matter how intense it got, if he saw me begin to disassociate, or start to shrivel up with shame, he knew to check in. As I extended power to him in the bedroom, I received power back.
Paradoxically, in this very controlled setting, the more similar he behaved to all those men who hurt me, the more I healed. By carefully crafting a scene together in which he treated me like a piece of meat, called me names, told me what to do, I reexperienced my trauma, but in a safe context.
For the first time, I’m in total control of my sexuality. I can now access pleasure through my traumatic experience, instead of being numbed by the pain of it. Nevertheless, a body that has faced trauma can be provoked by the slightest of offenses. I’ve processed and accepted so much of the experiences of my childhood and young adulthood, things I cannot go back and change, and I’ve worked hard to figure out what would make myself and others feel safe. Still, I turn the kaleidoscope wheel and bits of my life are magnified and manifested into new patterns of trauma. I’ve tried to normalize advocating for myself shamelessly, but in moments of panic, I suddenly morph into that little girl who was sexually assaulted.
I was at J’s apartment in his clawfoot bathtub. The flicker from the candles blended with the freckles on his skin. The bathwater smelled like lavender. He sat behind me with his arms gently wrapped around my body. Out of nowhere, I was gripped by a familiar feeling of helplessness and deep shame. I started sobbing and told J that I didn’t want to sleep with him, as I got out of the bathtub. My skin felt like it was inside out. All my organs, my soul, were outside of my body. I felt full of dread and totally alone.
After J repeatedly told me I didn’t have to sleep with him, that I would never have to sleep with him when I didn’t want to, we took an Uber back to my house so I could sleep in my own bed. My system adjusted, and the warmth from J’s body enclosed me like a protective shield. He placed his hand firmly on my chest, where my heartbeat was descending steadily. While the sun rose, I began to regain the parts of myself that had shattered in the bathtub hours before. I fell asleep next to J as sunlight peeked through the thin slivers in the blinds and made elongated shapes on the wall.