The night I had sex with someone other than my husband for the first time, my soul woke up.
Blurry, alcohol-tinged memories of that night are interspersed with moments of clarity years absent from my life.
Running across the parking lot as a light snow fell through the beams of the streetlights, the hotel room bed, the laughter, and unbridled joy. The sex itself wasn’t even a fraction of the amazement I would experience, but I discovered that night that multiple orgasms are a thing that people actually have.
I met my now-ex-husband a month shy of my 19th birthday. For both of us, the relationship marked our first serious one; I’d dated before, but my longest relationship was less than two months. We were inexperienced in every way, babies who spoke of marriage and babies of our own.
I didn’t know how much I didn’t know.
We were together for 14 years, married for 10 of those. Neither of us had ever slept with anyone else. Before things started to fall apart in other ways, I don’t remember being unsatisfied with our sex life. I don’t remember ever having a particularly high sex drive, but when we did do it, it was fine. I didn’t know how much I didn’t know.
After having two babies, my 30-year-old self decided that I must have just…changed. I never wanted sex, and I assumed it was hormonal changes. My body had been through things, I was tired all the time, and I was okay with the idea of never having sex again. The shroud of denial grew thicker as the pressure to have sex was mingled with blame and disappointment and the weight of being told nothing about me was ever going to be enough.
There was an ebb and flow to the end of my marriage and the end of accepting that I was worth more than I was getting. Somewhere in the last month of the years-long two-steps-forward, one-step-back dance of a dying relationship, my libido awakened.
I remember the precise moment it happened. In a darkened theater during the opening weekend of “Wolverine,” my lips parted involuntarily as I watched a shoeless, shirtless Hugh Jackman pad around his apartment. I was overcome with a shocking jolt of lust that felt wholly unfamiliar. My secret exhilaration made me want to watch the movie again and again.
I’d been living in a fog—the pain, stress, and trauma of a relationship that wasn’t working affecting every aspect of my life. I’d lost myself completely to other people’s needs. My ex and my children took up every single iota of my brainpower and my emotional capacity. Now, in the in-between moments when I had a break from my kids, I was finally able to focus on myself for the first time in my life and I was ready to figure out who I was.
When you couple up in the forever way at 19 years old, you never know yourself as a singular adult. As time went on, I grew increasingly grateful that I was experiencing this heady self-discovery in my 30s. I was done taking sh*t from other people. I called the shots, and I knew what I wanted, and what I wanted was men. Lots of men.
In the six months after my marriage ended, I had more sex than I’d had in the eight years prior to the end. I had good sex. I had bad sex. I had sex that was a means to an end and nothing more, and my orgasms poured from my body with explosive force. I kissed men in darkened clubs and in the passenger seat of my car parked in a residential neighborhood. I discovered the things that turn me on the most, and the things I could do without. I fell in love with men then realized I was really falling in love with myself.
My heart and my legs opened and I bloomed with the discovery that I was alive. I felt for the first time what it felt like to be wanted, to be asked, to be begged for, and to be the one who said yes, or no. I would give myself, but only when I chose to. I was desired. I was catered to. I was powerful.
I experienced joy for the first time in a long time. My soul was badly damaged by years of emotional neglect. In these men, I found a worth that I’d thought I’d lost, and that worth led to a reservoir of self-worth that built and built.
The pain and self-doubt of my failure was staunched with skin to skin contact, the weightlessness of passion and desire lifting me off the sharp points of the million pieces my heart had broken into. Within the grieving of the future I’d planned, sex was a way to remember what life could be.
Beyond sex, the human contact it allowed through moments of intimacy was a salve on my lonely soul. Like an animal locked in a cage, I was desperate for warmth and connection, and when I started to finally get it, it was like one tiny miracle after another.
I was discovering who I was as a person.
I read The Ethical Slut and I thought about relationships and intimacy and my future. I started to learn about sex-positivity and realized how much I cared about the idea that sex between consenting adults is always a good thing. I wasn’t just discovering who I was in bed, I was discovering who I was as a person—what intimacy and relationships and power and feminism meant to me.
I stalked Craigslist, posting ads with titles like “Intimacy Without Expectations,” “Toucha Toucha Toucha Touch Me,” and my favorite Easter weekend gem, “Forget Church, Worship Me This Sunday.”
Sexy selfies and late-night rendezvous let me feel beautiful and sexy and desirable in my body, despite being told by everyone for so long that it wasn’t an okay body to have. I bought pretty underwear and I started wearing dresses more. I looked in the mirror and I felt alive. I had never felt so confident or sure of myself. I started to become strong.
All of this sex was so much more than just sex. It was the beginning of a life beyond anything I’d ever imagined. These moments and hours were lessons in the light that would finally chase the dark away until the nights were just nights and my despair was in check.
If you sat me down today and asked me to name all the men I’ve ever had sex with, I couldn’t do it (I have a record somewhere, but my love for spreadsheets and lists is a whole different post). Despite this, I am grateful for the role that every single one of them filled in my life.
Healing from abuse, trauma, gaslighting, crippling self-doubt, and the absolute knowledge that you are unlovable is a long process. Pieces of your soul return to you from places you never expected, from job interviews that go well, from being paid for work that’s important to you, and sometimes, from a one-night stand.