I remember being little, about 11 years old, and watching “Show Girls.” I probably shouldn’t have been watching “Show Girls” when I was 11, but it happened.
I remember this one scene where Nomi—with her long legs, flawless shiny skin, and perfect ass—is giving this man a lap dance. She moves with masterful control and leaves him bulgy eyed and completely incoherent.
This, I thought, was the epitome of female sexuality. She was sexy, strong, and beautiful. I remember feeling a complex mix of arousal and shame. I didn’t have long, skinny legs. My skin wasn’t shiny like that. Neither was my ass. I took a deep breath and swallowed hard. There was a lesson in all this. If I was ever going to get a man to love me, I’d have to learn how to give a lap dance.
I also remember talking to my older sister* when I was a teenager. I remember the sincerity in her eyes when she told me “You will either get a man who wants to have sex with you all the time, but he will never be faithful. Or, you get a man who will be faithful to you, but he will never want to have sex with you.”
I nodded and swallowed that, too. I would meet men, from that day on, and the more sexually attracted they were to me, the more I’d mistrust them. The more they wanted me, the more I pushed them away. You won’t fool me, cheater, I thought. I know what guys like you with your libido and lolling tongues want.
A few years ago I was working at a sex shop and this CEO came in to buy a vibrator. Her hands were laden with expensive rings and she carried herself with the air of someone who knew she was important. My coworker Sandy* and I, excited by her ultra-powerful presence and happy to put vibrator dusting on hold, leaned over the counter, wide-eyed, while she explained to us what we needed to know about men.
“You see, girls,” she leaned closer to us, her Chanel perfume swimming in my nostrils, “The key to men is—never give them everything. If you give them everything, you lose. Then, they don’t want you anymore. You have to always keep them chasing you. Never quite give them what they want. Don’t ever, ever tell them how you feel about them. Never tell them how much they mean to you. You know, that’s how Kate Middleton got the Prince. She always kept him wanting more.”
The problem was—the thought of giving a lap dance made me want to projectile vomit and run away. The other problem was—I have a lot of feelings. When I love, I love hard. I swallowed that, too. I guess I would have to keep my psychotic neediness to myself. I guess I would have to learn to be sexy and withholding.
Sandy and I exchanged looks and nodded. This was the truth. It had to be. This was why, as my sister said, the sexually virile man would lose interest and find someone else. It was because women out there were giving these men who were really attracted to them everything that they had. They were giving them their hearts. I felt privileged that I would no longer be one of those women.
Now I knew what I had to do. If I wanted a good relationship, I had to find a man who wanted to have sex with me and then keep that man’s interest by withholding my feelings and by learning how to give a proper lap dance.
Over time, I practiced. I read sex tips. I learned tricks. I withheld my feelings. I never, ever told anyone how I felt about them. I still didn’t know how to give a lap dance and I still had a tendency to love way harder than anyone I knew, but I learned to do other things that I thought were just as drool-worthy and I kept my feelings nice and hidden. Overall, I thought I had everything perfectly under control.
Then, one day, I fell in love.
I met someone with whom I could talk into the late hours of the morning night after night. Someone who made my body swim with endorphins at the sheer sight of him. Someone who shared my values. Someone who was funny and charming. Someone who was really sexually attracted to me. Yes, I thought! This is my chance! My chance to do it right! My opportunity to do what other women would never think to do because they were ignorant to these facts that I knew about men.
I would succeed where other women had failed. I would be the perfect girlfriend. Withholding and sexy.
I thought I was doing really well. I never told him I liked him. I turned him down to hang out with me all the time. He would compliment me and I would accept his praises without reciprocating. If I did reciprocate, it was mild. I couldn’t tell him how I really felt, after all, because then he would get bored of me and leave, so I was vague and sparse. I did everything I was supposed to do as a modern-day Cosmo Girl. I felt really confident that I had managed to be, finally, the perfect girlfriend.
It went well until, very suddenly, it didn’t. Quite suddenly, I got really angry. I was really angry because I didn’t feel like I was sexually satisfied. I was angry because I didn’t feel loved. I was sad because I didn’t feel like I was seen.
The more I thought about it, the angrier I became. It must all be his fault. I did everything right and he still didn’t appreciate me! I did all the things that you’re supposed to do to make a man happy, but he still didn’t love me like I deserve? I guess men were even harder to please than I thought.
I tried to keep all this stuff in, I really did. I tried my best to not be one of those psychotic girlfriends that we women read and hear about and secretly fear becoming.
One of those girls that, when I was 17, I most definitely was. One of those girls I swore I’d never be again. I canceled all my plans with him. I made excuses. I very seriously considered ending it though these thoughts made me feel nauseous and depressed. Was it him? Was it me? Was I so hard to love? Was he selfish? Was it men? Were we all doomed to suffer in painful, unsatisfying relationships forever?
A few days into my discontent, I went home to visit my family. I went out for dinner with my sister and her husband. We sat in a cozy booth at an East Side Mario’s during Labour Day weekend. I picked at my sad excuse for vegetarian food and watched them interact with each other.
I watched him say things, without eye contact, that caused my sister’s face to twitch, her lip to curl, and her head to shake slightly. She would say things and they had no such effect on him. She sat beside me and I felt how his words, his innocuous comments about his coworkers, made her shake. I realized, quite suddenly, that my sister really, really hated him. Everything suddenly made sense. She really did. She really, really hated him.
And it hit me. Who is my sister to be giving me relationship advice?
My sister is miserable. She’s in a relationship with a man who cheated on her. A man she hates. A man she never forgave. She told me what she told me because she believes it. She believes it because that’s her experience.
I thought back to the CEO. She was 40-something and single. I remembered—with the lightning speed that previously insignificant details come during an epiphany—that she also mentioned her divorce and hiring young men from escort agencies as dates to corporate functions.
These women, I realized, had horrible experiences with relationships! These women were not gurus in the relationship realm. These women were not experts on the minds of men.
These women were bitter, lonely, and seeking to share their pain.
I watched “Show Girls” again. In that scene, Nomi’s getting paid $500 to give a lap dance to a stranger by a woman who is trying to convince her that she’s not a performer, she’s just a hooker. After she gives it, she feels cheap. That is most definitely not the epitome of female sexuality.
It’s not about love, beauty, or strength. It’s about money and show business. Definitely not a place to be getting beliefs about how relationships work.
I could hardly wait to tell my partner this as my bus home rolled in.
I still remember the look on his face when I told him why I had been so withholding both emotionally and physically. I remember that sigh. I remember that relief. His realization that my behaviour made no comment about him, only me. My realization that every time I withheld my emotions and my intimacy, I made him feel rejected.
I was trying to do all these things to be perfect, but all I was doing was constructing this completely false, inauthentic reality that, in the end, really hurt both of us. It made both of us feel unsatisfied and unappreciated.
It made us both feel like we weren’t enough.
Before this, I thought being authentic was about my appearance. I thought it was about coming to terms with what I look like.
This experience taught me that being authentic was also about coming to terms with what I want. I want to be loved and appreciated.
On my journey to spread the message of authenticity, I’ve learned something very valuable. That I’m not alone. That to feel loved and appreciated is what we all want. That so many relationships are thrust apart by the very same dynamics that mine was. That some couples out there never figure it out and walk away because they both feel so inadequate. We try so hard to be perfect for each other, but we fail because we’re not being ourselves.
I’ve learned a lot and I keep learning. I’ve heard it said that we teach best that which we need to learn the most. For me, it’s authenticity. Even after I learned to share my positive emotions, I’ve still had trouble with sharing negative ones. But I keep learning and growing.
It’s hard, sometimes, to live in a culture of gender stereotypes. It’s hard, sometimes, to believe in lasting, powerful love, in effective long-term relationships, and in gender equality when all we hear are sob stories.
I hope that, if you can only take one thing away from my story, it’s this—sometimes, we make our own sob stories. We believe that the world is a certain way because of what we were told or what we’ve experienced. Then, we filter the rest of our life through the lens of that belief. It doesn’t mean that we weren’t hurt. It doesn’t mean that people weren’t hurt. It doesn’t mean that our beliefs aren’t justified. It does, however, mean that our beliefs are often opinions, not truths.
I think that the truth about men and women is—we’re more similar than we are different. We just want to be loved and appreciated for who we are and what we do. We all deserve that, too. So let’s give each other that and expect it in return.
* Not really my older sister, and not really named Sandy, respectively; these identities have been obscured to protect their anonymity.
(This article first appeared at Good Men Project. and is reprinted here as part of a weekly content sharing partnership with elephant journal).
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Ed: Kate Bartolotta
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