It’s pretty much impossible for me to identify a single moment that represents “the beginning” of my new, healthy sexuality. My epiphany — when I realized that I had inherited my mother’s sexual shame — marks the moment when I took full ownership of my own sexuality, but that was only the last step in a long and complicated process.
A couple of months before the epiphany, I’d had an important realization that turned out to be highly significant, even though at the time it didn’t seem especially earth-shattering, and in some ways it struck me (afterwards, of course) as blindingly obvious.
After Wolf and I had been together for about two years and sex had already become infrequent, I continued to get more and more tense about physical displays of affection. I had a set of incorrect beliefs that amounted to a twisted and unhealthy logic. Touch was a continuum, from non-sexual at one end to sexual at the other. If I consented to Wolf touching me in a non-sexual way, that seemed to automatically include (or dispense with the need for) consent to be touched in the most intimate way I had ever agreed to be touched by him in the past, i.e. sex. In other words, if hug then sex, if that’s what he wanted. That conclusion is patently ridiculous, but through a combination of family history and dating experiences, that’s what I subconsciously believed and it scared the shit out of me. This flawed logic led me to conclude that the only way to effectively control or avoid sexual contact was to control or avoid all physical contact. So Wolf agreed he wouldn’t initiate hugs or anything else and would leave that to me.
By instituting this rule, I felt a certain amount of relief because it meant that I didn’t have to be on my guard against unwanted contact. But of course I wasn’t much inclined to initiate. After some time, I mellowed on the hug issue, but still felt uncomfortable with most forms of physical affection.
While Wolf was in the UK not so long ago, I had lots of time and space to think. There was no one around who I could possibly need to protect myself from, so after about two years my guard eventually came down. I didn’t consciously let it down, because I didn’t know how. It simply atrophied from disuse.
Once my guard came down, I got thinking about this history of ours and I calculated how long it had been since I had imposed the no-touch restriction. It had been ages, the better part of two decades, for fuck’s sake. And in the spring two years ago, in that quiet moment while I was leaning on the kitchen counter and just thinking, it finally bubbled up into my awareness that Wolf had faithfully followed the rule I’d laid down for all that time. Was he trustworthy? Yes, obviously! I couldn’t imagine what else he could possibly do to prove it any further. He had gone so far above and beyond. Did I in fact trust him? Yes. Unreservedly.
Because of other difficult things that were going on in my life, I had been reading and learning about boundaries, a concept that was entirely new to me. In some areas my boundaries were too porous, but this was an example of one that was too rigid. Like a person who is too focused on dodging other pedestrians on the sidewalk, or simply on her own feet, I’d failed to notice this 20-foot tall emotional wall made of grey cinder blocks and topped with barbed wire. Huh. Time for some demolition work.
I first imposed that rigid boundary to keep me feeling safe, then maintained it for years out of habit. It had become obsolete without my noticing it; it had served me for a while but I didn’t need it anymore and it had become a hindrance rather than a help. I didn’t have to police Wolf. Rather than maintaining that wall, I could just draw a line on the ground and leave it to him to respect it.
Wolf had been demonstrating his trustworthiness for ages; I had developed a certain amount of trust in him, but not as much as he had earned. After becoming aware of both the trustworthiness and the trust, I allowed myself to relax into my trust of him, to allow myself to be vulnerable because I was perfectly safe with him.
Until very recently, I had thought that this realization about trust was a precondition for my epiphany about sexual shame, but now I think that trust and sexual shame are separate issues and not connected in a linear fashion. Instead, I see them as parallel strands that are equally important. If I’d worked out the sexual shame issue first, perhaps trust would have been the epiphany. Either way, I figured it out.
My new knowledge and attitude was in one sense hard-won: sexuality had been a troublesome issue essentially all my life up to that point.
In another sense though, it couldn’t have been easier. I’d been doing reading and work on personal growth, spurred by some incidents that were entirely unrelated to any of this. I started with interpersonal relationships and “know thyself” type reading, and then, because I decided to follow where my curiosity led, I ended up reading about sex and relationships too. When I finally stumbled over my grand solution, it felt like an unlooked for gift, like a duffel bag filled with stacks of unmarked bills in a garbage can in the park.
Maybe it seemed too easy and thus necessarily superficial. For a while I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.
And then, after I’d forgotten about it, it did.
Anne Katherine, Boundaries: Where You End and I Begin (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1993).
Jan Black & Greg Enns, Better Boundaries: Owning and Treasuring Your Life (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 1997).