Scarleteen, sex ed for the real world

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Alice asks:

I’m eighteen, and I’m madly in love with my boyfriend. We’re supposed to get an apartment together in December and I feel like I could spend every day of my life with him. I’ve been with a few (ok, 6, or 5, depending) guys before, and one night he got trashed and told me he would never marry me because I’m “dirty and used”. In the morning when I asked him about it, he said he didn’t mean to be that harsh, but in all honesty, he won’t ever marry me because I’ve slept with too many people. What the hell?

Heather Corinna replies:

Before I say anything else, let me just say that I'm so sorry you had to have this experience. Sadly, very few women who have had even the smallest measure of sexual experience will go through life without at least one person responding like this, but it's particularly painful when the person saying it is someone we care for and someone who is part of that sexual life experience, no less.

You know, when people want to excuse someone's behaviour, "They were drunk, they weren't themselves," is a pretty common quip.

The problem with that is that it isn't at all true. Alcohol doesn't have the power to make any of us be anyone other than who we are. What it does tend to do is loosen our inhibitions and cloud our judgment, so that, for instance, we say things that we do probably mean or think, but would know better than to say out loud sober.

I don't know the details of your conversation with your boyfriend the next morning, but suffice it to say, if he said this to you, I'd take it as something he did/does feel.

And as you know, that's a really problematic sentiment. (It's also one that tends to be applied to women WAY more often than it is ever applied to men.)

Nothing that I'm about to say is going to sound like great news, I'm afraid.

If the two of you haven't really discussed this in depth, that's the first place I'd start, if you still want to stay in this. It'd certainly be understandable if you didn't: I'd personally be inclined to walk away, myself, because I wouldn't know how to feel close to someone who devalued me that way.

Like I said, it's likely your boyfriend does feel this way, so talking isn't about making effort for him or you to verify that he doesn't. Rather, the talk to be had would be to determine if he's interested in evaluating those feelings and interested in looking to change his mind about them.

Some folks have that idea, for instance, because they see marriage or long-term commitment as a sort of ownership, and figure that someone having only them as a sexual partner gives them a fuller ownership. Others cling to the idea that women, period, are not supposed to have had any sexual experiences -- either with anyone, or even with them -- when they get married, or that the "kind of girl" you marry needs to be a different "kind" of girl than the one you have sex with, or have less serious relationships with. Of course, too, like it or not, we still live in a world in which women's value is considered to decline with every sexual partner (whereas, on the other hand, for men in many ways, it's considered the opposite), and in addition, there is still so much ignorance about women's bodies that plenty of people still think sex can "wear out" the vagina. Any or all of these ideas are obviously incredibly sexist and a very real barrier to having a partner who sees you, for real, as a whole person, just like them; as an equal partner.

So, if you want to try and work through this with him, the first step is to suss out exactly what his feelings are on this matter and then find out if he's willing to work on rethinking them.

If he's unwilling, I'd just advise you walk away from this. You're with someone who clearly isn't a casual sexual relationship for you: you're envisioning a life with him. If he isn't with you -- for whatever reason, let alone one like this -- it's time to move on and cut your losses. Really, even if you were in a casual sexual relationship, I still wouldn't advise anyone to be having sex with someone who sees sex as something that devalues them. That's a big recipe for feeling like the dirt under someone's shoe.

If he IS willing, then this will probably be a bunch of different ongoing conversations between you about this. I'd also suggest that you ask him to be as honest as he can throughout: if he really thinks at any point he's not going to change his mind, you need to know that so that you can make whatever choices you need to for your own well-being and self-esteem. You might also suggest he talk to someone else about it, too, or even do some extra reading about these kinds of attitudes and how badly they impact women and male/female relationships.

I'd also put off moving in together until you resolve this, either way.

But in all of this, I'd lastly advise you to go with your gut, and also think with your head. All I know about this guy is this one incident: I don't know why you envision yourself with him for life or what his other qualities are. Sometimes when someone says something like this to us, it seems very outer limits, but other times -- often right in that moment -- we can feel a certain weight of the truth, of something illuminating other issues that we couldn't put a finger on before. So, if you had a moment like that, or have other reasons to doubt this, have felt not-quite-right about this in the midst of the big love, pay attention to that.

The older I get, the more life experience I have under my belt, and the more, in my work and my life, that I hear people talk about love and partnership, the more I've come to realize that it's more about timing and willingness than anything else, and also more about friendship and respect than hearts and flowers. In other words, rather than there being some mystical One out there, it's about when any two (or more) people happen to connect at a time when they're both open to that, and to do so with real respect and acceptance for the other person. And without all that, you can't have a solid partnership -- when someone earnestly thinks a person is somehow "dirty" or "used up" there's no respect or acceptance there, in a very real way. Believe me, too, there are plenty of enlightened men out there who do NOT think this way, plenty of whom have made a very real effort to choose not to latch on to such sexist ideas, even if they were raised with them.

If this guy isn't it -- and to be frank, based on this post, I'd say he isn't -- for you, that's okay. We're a planet with an awful lot of people on it, and an awful lot of opportunities to connect with people who enter into relationships with us in the same spirit of respect and love that we do with them (and frankly, finding THE long-term partner at 18 is beyond ususual -- it generally takes us a bit more time than that, as well as at least some taste of our independent adult lives to know what we really want and need).

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