He wanted me to wear short-shorts. Like Daisy Duke short-shorts, half-inch-inseam short-shorts, the kind one could purchase from Victoria’s Secret’s lovely outerwear collection in the mid-’90s. He gave them to me under the guise of some gift — our one-year anniversary, perhaps — but I had not worn them outside our dorm-room walls, likely because they were a bit (go figure) short for my comfort. I would happily wear them at “home,” or in “the bedroom,” both of which equated to our respective campus housing cells, as I did not mind spicing up our nascent sex life. But I did not take it upon myself to go anywhere (where would I go in these, anyway?) with them barely covering my ass in everyday life.
Then, suddenly, he was angry with me. Sulky, barely-speaking, passive-aggressive angry. At first, he refused to tell me why, insisting I should instinctively know. Then, after some seriously frustrating phone conversation — our first conflict in more than a year of dating — I dragged it out of him: He was mad I had not intuited his desire for me to don the short-shorts for Dillo Day, an outdoor music festival at Northwestern University (that is, alas, not as dirty as it sounds). Apparently it should have been obvious by his buying of the shorts and presenting them to me in the early spring that I would then be obligated, by my undying gratitude for said shorts, to frolic in them at the pinnacle of the season.
I told him he was nuts, he told me I didn’t understand his tender feelings. But I moved past it, resigned to sometimes not understanding the love of my life’s every thought.
Or at least I’d thought I’d moved past it.
In reality, I’d have the same fight with the same man again and again, and again, from the time we met in college when I was 19 to the time we finally broke up for good 10 years later. The garments and desires changed — sometimes it was a thong, sometimes it was a miniskirt with no underwear, sometimes it was a dirty picture, sometimes it was a threesome. But it was always the same tiresome dance: He’d ask me to do something I didn’t like, I’d express my hesitation, he’d accuse me of being cold to his advances, I’d be left to agonize over whether I should stick to my guns in the name of feminism or give in in the name of trying new things for the man I loved.
I never got out of the cycle until I got out of the relationship. But this constant struggle wore its way not only through our sex life — which was otherwise, it should be noted, quite robust, and not at all vanilla — but through my self-esteem as well. I didn’t come to college with a wide frame of sexual reference, as the only two boys I’d loved in high school were a strict Catholic and a closeted future-gay-best-friend. When, during my sophomore year of college, I found the man I thought I was going to marry, I truly wanted to make him happy. Until, it seemed, he told me exactly what would make him happy. These weren’t the typical things you read in women’s magazines that you don’t have to do if you don’t want to. They seemed kind-of, mostly, harmless. I would find myself thinking, Why don’t I want to go to the bar wearing this short skirt with no panties? What’s the harm in giving my future husband this little thrill? This line of thought soon unraveled into something more like, What’s wrong with me that I don’t feel comfortable doing this? Why am I so frigid and unsexy?
I think this urge, to look for what’s broken in ourselves when our sex life isn’t going as planned, starts, like so many neuroses, with women’s magazines. When we are constantly bombarded with 57 Ways to Please Him Tonight (or 75 Naughty Sex Moves Men Crave Most), we think it is our duty to go through these checklists, one point at a time, and accomplish sexiness the same way we accomplish career or academic success, relationship or baby-raising success, beauty or fitness, in our idealized-super-woman times. If we do not accomplish these successes, the reasoning goes, it is because we are not doing everything possible to do so. Therefore, to not do so is a personal failing, a sign of defect.
It is telling that I did not share these struggles with anyone at the time. I wanted so badly for my friends and family to believe that my relationship was perfect, that I had pleased my man the same way I’d pulled my undergrad grade point average up to a 3.5 after dipping dangerously close to the 2 range my freshman year (hint: don’t take three lit classes at once; also, statistics is a hard class) — by beating it into place with my iron ambition and steel will. Meanwhile, as we moved in together, he was complaining that I never initiated sex, and, well, he was right — I was afraid that starting anything would lead to something I didn’t want to do. The non-vanilla sex life devolved into a barely existent one. We decided this was a spectacular time to get engaged, naturally.
Even as I said “yes” to his “Will you marry me?,” I couldn’t parse the question at the core of our relationship: What happens when your partner’s sexual wishes constantly irritate you? Do you give him what he wants in the name of love, as I so often did? Or do you stand up for your own feelings in the name of feminism? The fact that this all bothered me so much bothered me in itself: Wasn’t he supposed to be telling me what he wanted in bed? Wasn’t that what all the sex self-help books told us?
We eventually broke up for a million interrelated, complicated reasons, the buildup of ten years of sacrifices and regrets compounded by two lives pulling in opposite directions until they shattered. I never figured out the answers to those questions. At least I didn’t think I did, until I noticed two curious, related phenomena in subsequent relationships: One, I broke up with anyone whose tastes in the bedroom didn’t blend seamlessly with my own. And two, I tend to initiate a fair number of sexual favors for my current, true love of my adult life. Following a checklist — whether dreamed up by Cosmo or your man — just never feels sexy. Making your own fantasies together, as a couple, does.
Having years of emotional distance from the whole ordeal with my ex also helped me realize what was truly getting to me about his sexual requests: They seemed to come from a pre-approved list from Maxim magazine or something, the ultimate markers of commodified female sexuality — I wasn’t even sure he wanted them, per se, as much as he wanted to prove he could have them (the same way, I must admit, I’d wanted an engagement ring from him just to prove I’d won at life). This was borne out one day, late in our relationship, when I danced on the bar at Coyote Ugly (yeah, just like the movie) at his urging, and he seemed more embarrassed than exhilarated.
The fact that my more spontaneous expressions of sexuality, the ones that came from the real me and not some trussed-up hussy version of her, weren’t enough for him degraded me doubly. If this sounds familiar to you — fake sexuality being forced upon someone while her genuine sexuality is devalued — that’s because it’s called the society we live in. I don’t — I can’t — blame my ex, who was as young and dumb as I was at the time, for ideas foisted upon generation after generation through everything from porn to ads to magazines.
But if you’re wondering whether to shoot that amateur porn or wear that uncomfortable crotchless latex onesie or enter that stripping contest at the request of your loved one, make sure you — and he — really want it to begin with. And if not, maybe it’s time to find a new lover whose fantasies you fulfill just by being you.