For two years, I kept track of how many days it had been since we’d last had sex. If it had been more than seven days, I told myself I had to put out. If it had been one or two, my body was my own. The first time I realised this was not normal was when I posted about it on Facebook.
It is June, 2019. We are eight weeks out from my debut, The Girls, being published and I am terrified. I have always struggled with communication, have never felt comfortable asking for what I need. For so long, I have felt unable to speak. This is why I write: to communicate the things I cannot say.
One Saturday night, a year or so after that relationship broke down, I slept in my van at Thirroul Beach. I woke early on Sunday morning when my cousin Glen knocked on the window.
‘Chlo, get up,’ he called out. We’d stayed up the previous night until 2am, drinking, listening to Damien Rice, several of us late-nighters still carrying on after the wedding reception that’d gathered us.
I got up and we bantered and he smoked cigarettes and I drank coffee until I suggested we go for a swim. The light was low, the air crisp and not far off cool. I needed to run but I hadn’t brought my sneakers, and the ocean is the second-best way I know to wipe off a hangover.
My van was reversed, the back open to face the ocean, me sitting on the bed inside, Glen standing outside facing in. A few feet away from us, a solitary middle-aged man was seated in a camp chair, listening to our conversation. We knew this because occasionally, as Glen and I bantered back and forth and came across a question we were unsure of, the man would interject, offering us the answer.
For example, I said: ‘We’re meeting the others at the Headlands Hotel for breakfast at ten.’
Glen replied: ‘Where’s that? Can we walk from here?’
Me: ‘I don’t know, I don’t think so but I’m not sure.’
And the man joined in: ‘It’s a ten-minute drive further north.’
Otherwise, this end of the beach at this early hour was empty. The man’s line of sight did not reach inside the van; I could not see him, only hear when he interjected.
‘Turn around,’ I told Glen. ‘I need to get changed.’
I took my shirt off, layered my bikini over my bra so I could pull my bra out from underneath and at that moment, despite not having moved for the past half hour, the man stood, looped around to walk towards the front of his car. As he did so, he came into view and looked straight into the back of my van before continuing.
Afterwards, Glen laugh-whispered: ‘Did you see that?’
(Why did we feel the need to speak quietly? Why could we not voice our horror?)
I was still high on the dredges of alcohol swimming in my blood from the night before, so I felt attractive. Glen and I continued in the way we do, laughing, talking shit, swapping stories of our inadequacies. It took me a long time to feel comfortable enough in my body to begin wearing a bikini again. I stopped when I was in my early twenties, instead wearing a full-piece to cover my stomach. But now, I am aware that men’s eyes follow my body because it’s female.
The night before that stranger’s perving, when several of us were hanging out by my van, sipping from a bottle of wine stolen from the wedding leftovers, my phone pushing tunes into the ocean-thick air, I sat chatting with a friend, who I’m going to call Jack. We grew up alongside each other, part of a group of families gathering together for weddings, birthdays, funerals, annual holidays. His wife was nearby somewhere, the others there too but around the corner, out of our line of sight. I listened as he told me a story but I didn’t really follow its point because we’d both had a glass or two too many. The others were no longer near us. I rolled onto my stomach, reached back into my van for something and then there was a hand pushing itself under my dress, moving towards the top of my thighs.
‘What the fuck, Jack?’ I jumped up so I was sitting on my backside, his hand thrown off my thigh.
‘Oh shit, sorry,’ he said.
‘What the hell was that? What just happened?’
I am trying to learn how to communicate. In the past I would have laughed it off.
‘I don’t know, I saw it and so I grabbed it.’
‘That’s not ok,’ I said, wondering if this is what good communication is. ‘You have to tell your wife.’
She was somewhere nearby; I could hear a few of them talking somewhere in the small unlit carpark. He agreed to this, and when they returned together a few minutes later I looked at her and she didn’t say anything.
Now, on this dewy Sunday morning afterwards, Glen’s voice again pulled me out of it: ‘Let’s swim, Chlo.’
I carry memories like these in my body everywhere I go.
Other confusing incidents accrued. Like the time a man I had been seeing for several weeks got upset because I would not sleep with him a second time.
It was true that we were in my bed, that we had spent the evening cooking, talking, sipping whisky and ginger beer and these are things – having slept together for the first time the night before – that might suggest we would have sex again.
But I did not want to do it.
One of the things I loved about hanging out with this guy was how affectionate he was. He was always taking my hand in his while we were walking to the ocean to smoke a cigarette, putting his forehead to mine when it was time to part ways, wrapping his legs through mine as we lay on the mattress I put on my living room floor so we could watch movies on the TV.
‘Is there something you’re not telling me? Are you deeply religious or something?’ he asked.
‘No, I’m not religious.’ Mostly, I was skin hungry.
‘Well, I don’t understand,’ he said, exasperated.
It takes me months to workshop this essay, and I twice write to the SRB asking for an extension. Again and again, readers return the essay to me with similar comments, first my father, then my friends.
One friend writes: There isn’t a sense that you’re considering these men as people. You don’t consider the converse – that both genders must see the other as individuals. It comes across as all men just wanting sex.
When I talk to him about it, my father says: ‘You always seem to have this issue, but it appears to be an issue that covers males from one day old to 100 years old where you put them all in the one basket. Trying not to state the obvious, but every male is unique and as such their interaction with females is very different.’
‘But Dad,’ I want to say: ‘Growing up, you always told me men only wanted one thing: sex.
My friend, again: BE HONEST.
The truth is this: I do not know how to see men as individuals. I did not tell that guy I enjoyed his company enough to hug him but not enough to fuck him a second time. I do think men use women for sex. I don’t understand why this belief controls my interactions with men so deeply, and I am writing this essay because I don’t know how else to remove this anxiety from my body.
My friend again: What is the role of sex in men’s lives?
Even my psychologist, who certainly acknowledges the existence of patriarchy, tells me: you have to let go of the context and treat each situation as an interaction between two individuals. Which is to say: within the context of trying to negotiate with a male partner, you must treat him as an individual rather than a representation of the patriarchy. This feels like the hardest thing in the world to do.
Another friend, in her feedback on this essay, writes: This is a thing I struggle with; how do you encounter a man as a human with emotions and a past and a soul when you also have the tools to see the systemic forces which make him sometimes be a total jerk?
From my confused self: This is the problem of trying to date men – they behave in ways that I interpret as symbols of patriarchy. How do I relate to them in intimate ways when this is also a structural problem? These kinds of experiences run through women’s lives so frequently that sometimes all men meld into one and it feels draining to treat them as individuals. And yet, my anger stems from expecting the very thing from them that I have trouble offering in return.
A male friend: Can you imagine what would happen if a man said he found it draining to treat women as individuals?’
I have always been afraid of what others think of me. That I am annoying, or boring, or unintelligent. With men, that I am unattractive. And now that my memoir has been published, that I am slutty – and that this is a bad thing.
I draft a Facebook status:
What I am angry about is this: each time we climbed into bed for the evening, I would mentally count how many days it had been since we last had sex. My scale would vary depending on how much time we’d spent together, but roughly speaking, if it had been more than seven days since we’d slept together, I had to put out. Four days was borderline; there was room for either no or yes. If it had been only one or two days, I was fine: my body could be my own. I could hug you – as always – but was not inwardly obligated to sleep with you.
You never once put any pressure on me; all of this was internal.
Sometimes I thought about trying to communicate this to you, but never could. My main fear was that if I told you, it would ruin our sex life because each time we then slept together, you would be questioning yourself about whether I really wanted to.
I cannot find the nerve to hit ‘Post’.
In 2005, my two sisters were killed in a car accident. The Girls chronicles what came next. My spiral from a straight-A student who’d never had a sip of alcohol and had slept with only my long-term boyfriend, into five years of drugs, sex, psychiatric wards, and travel. But that is all backstory. The bigger question of The Girls is: how do you have a healthy relationship with your parents when you have such different lifestyles, politics and worldviews – on top of the shared trauma? How do I look after my own mental health while supporting my parents? I had written all of the things I previously could not say but as I draft this Facebook post it is finally hitting me: those words are going public in less than two months. I am terrified.
This Facebook status is the most private thing I’ve ever considered posting on social media, and perhaps a rehearsal for a book that admits I once worked as a sex worker. In many ways, this post is asking the same questions: How do I communicate? How do I balance my needs with someone else’s? How do I stop being ashamed of myself? Intellectually, I stand by these questions. But physically, I am terrified of judgement; the fear swells the glands in my neck. I am worried friends from other lives who don’t understand the writing I am trying to do will think it odd and roll their eyes. I am afraid my ex will call the moment I post, or my mother will, and that she’ll do so with an urgency in her voice suggesting bewilderment – or worse, anger – and ask me to take it down. I have always felt that my mother believed sex and sexuality were things to be ashamed of or, at the very least, not to be discussed. She has already asked me to remove the chapter in my book about sex work. I do not.
I think of the time my mother made a derogatory remark about a girl in a film we were watching who kissed or slept with two boys in close succession (neither of whom she was dating). When I questioned Mum about her comment, she turned to me and asked if I would do that. I could not find the words to tell her that yes, I probably would.
‘Why would you post about your sex life on Facebook?’ I imagine my mother asking. She will begin crying, and I will know I’ve disappointed her.
‘Why would you not bring it up with me first?’ I picture my ex saying.
Before hitting ‘Post’, I send a screenshot of the draft Facebook status to a friend and ask for her thoughts. How about setting up a private Facebook group and inviting people whose views you’re interested in? she responds.
My gut says no. We have a back and forth, her talking about privacy. I appreciate her response, but not in the way I anticipated. It makes me realise how strongly I feel about keeping this post public. Isn’t that what we’ve been doing for so long? Pretending that women having sex when they don’t want to is an individual issue?
I hit ‘Post’, and wait.
This post will be the first of many. I do not know it at the time but this form of sharing on social media becomes one of the central ways I learn about my body, and sex, and how to communicate. What I thought were experiences unique to me quickly reveal themselves to be widespread. Again and again, what comes back to me in people’s responses is communication.
Erica Garza, in Getting Off: one woman’s journey through sex and porn addiction, writes: ‘Luc poured me more champagne and smoked the rest of the joint. At some point, he ran out of things to talk about. That’s when he climbed on top of me and I didn’t stop him. He kissed my mouth, my neck, and my breasts while his hands explored my body. There was an urgency to his movements and he seemed hungry, ravenous even. I felt dazed. I knew, for sure, that I didn’t want to be kissing this man, this ex-boyfriend of Helen’s who was older than my own father, but I didn’t want to be impolite. The pot had already taken control of my thoughts, my voice, and my will. Instead, I ran my fingers through his thinning hair, reclined back on the couch, and tried to think of something else, my body working on autopilot.’
A female friend responds: This quote makes me want to cry out: WHY?????
Once, I did a similar thing. I was in Johannesburg and I’d spent the evening at a piano bar talking with a few other travellers. One guy had been good at asking questions, gotten me to open up, bought me a couple of drinks. Outside on the pavement, while smoking a cigarette, he leant in to kiss me and I told him I had been talking with a man who believed in monogamy and although it wasn’t yet a relationship I felt it was important to honour his wishes and see where it led before I made out with anyone else. But in the cool Johannesburg air, this guy was persistent, and I somehow let myself feel connected to him and finally, I caved, and we kissed. When we eventually ended up at my apartment, I was exhausted. I wanted to hug him and fall asleep but felt my actions had suggested otherwise. I let him fuck me until he came – mostly out of anticipated guilt – and afterwards he asked if he could give me an orgasm and I said ‘Don’t worry, it’s fine. I won’t come anyway.’ We went to sleep. In the morning, when I woke, he was gone and did not leave his number.
Another friend: For some survivors of childhood sexual abuse, ‘freezing’ is an automatic survival defence that their body enacts in order to prevent further violence. i.e. if they physically resisted their abuser’s attempts on their body, it could lead to a worse encounter. Survivors can work on retraining the body not to freeze in sex with their future partners by doing therapy that focuses on automatic body responses, but therapy isn’t accessible for a lot of folks, so I’d argue that a lot of people that freeze or go on autopilot during unwanted sex don’t necessarily do this to themselves. It might be more of a complex social problem.
These comments make me think about the twelve months – a decade ago – that I worked in the sex industry. Was that choice was tied to the grief of losing my two sisters in a car accident? And how deeply?
I fight through my terror and hit ‘Post’. I sit in my apartment and wait for it to go viral. I imagine women around the world sharing it, crying out that they’ve also been living this way, too afraid to express it, unsure if anyone else feels the same. We will start a movement together and Twitter will go off with the hashtag: #ICounted
My post does not go viral. Not a single person shares it.
My mother does not call me, crying, asking for it to be removed. My ex does not send me messages saying he is hurt and saddened that I’d not discussed it with him first.
Within minutes, my Aunty replies: What is sex? Her comment comes as a relief, and we all click the ‘laugh’ reaction.
(Friederike: ‘What is sex, to you?’ Me: ‘I don’t know!’)
Then, a couple of women reply saying my Facebook post resonates with them.
An old friend from primary school, Dan, a macho guy who doesn’t strike me as someone who’d identify as feminist sends me a private message. He tells me his wife counts the days. I am shocked by this. Not that she counts, but that he knows. My heart melts for him in that moment.
Dan goes on about the stress he is under due to balancing work and family life, about how he’d been distant from his wife because he’s always been the tough bloke who doesn’t show his feelings.
Then, a message from another male friend, Stephen: Your post is brilliantly written. I assume you explain the anger elsewhere.
I thought it was clear why I am angry. But then, a little later, Ree, who had, the month earlier, begun communicating these kinds of feelings to her partner of 35 years for the first time: I wonder who your anger is for … Are you angry with yourself or something outside the two of you (society, the routine silencing of women, the patriarchy), or all of the above?
And then come the heart-breaking responses, some shared publicly on my post, others sent to me via private message:
There was one guy in particular I felt that with. My first long term relationship was ending. Generally, the sex was pretty good and regular, but I had lost all my libido at the end and we hadn’t slept together for at least a month or two, which was an eternity for us. He complained about it for a week and got mad at me and upset, until finally one night after a fight I said yes because I didn’t want to be in trouble anymore. It was awful. I cried through it, but he didn’t seem to notice until he’d finished.
And another: There’s been some weird situations where I have begged myself to get out of a sexual encounter because I wasn’t enjoying it but generally didn’t because I didn’t want to disappoint my partner.
Someone else: I have to respectfully disagree … If your partner can’t roll with your cycles, then perhaps you’re with the wrong person. A relationship is built around open communication.
And then, a comment from my mother: I think it’s like that with every couple isn’t it?
I am surprised – by her casualness, by her willingness to engage. This makes me love her a little more, even though I disagree with her. I have underestimated her, again – each time I overcome my fear and open up to her, she surprises me with her response.
And in amongst all this, a private message: I read the piece you posted on Facebook. Was that us?
I feel so relieved.
It’s sad that people can spend their lives so closely with another, for however short or long a time, and not know about troubles that flow so deep, you go on.
Was it surprising for you to read?
And on we continue, me sending messages about the things I find distressing about being in a female body, you being sympathetic but measured.
As we are having this conversation, another friend writes about her relationship with her husband: I have never felt obligated. When we have sex, we are both turned on and want it. Just doesn’t happen as often as it used to … Life gets in the way sometimes …
Friederike asks: Isn’t talking about sex part of relationship maintenance? I did not know that.
As you and I continue messaging, what I want from you is outrage at the list of experiences I am chronicling. I want you to feel the same level of anger at the situation as me. You do not.
You write: Of course I feel outrage, but there’s a more unique, immediate aspect to this – that it involves you. A person I’ve shared amazing, loving things with. While there’s outrage and frustration at the culture most women are facing, in this particular instance I can’t deny that’s trumped by sadness of how you specifically were feeling
A male friend tells me: ‘You know men also sometimes have sex when they don’t want to, right?’
I did not.
I write about other people a lot, and getting their feedback is an important part of my process. It can take a long time.
While editing and publishing The Girls, I went through an intensive process of seeking consent to publish other people’s words. It was fascinating. Several times, people responded saying they trusted me, and didn’t need to see what I’d written. One time, a friend, who is now a teacher, asked to have her profession changed and the cigarette removed from her hand in one scene. Occasionally, I sent people two or three whole chapters. More frequently, it was a single sentence or two. But still, even for such small mentions, it felt important for me to check. I was aiming for honesty, not unnecessary exposure. In a particularly horrifying example, I sent a sentence to my cousin to double check and found that I’d gotten her ex-partner’s cause of death wrong.
With this essay, first, I reach out to the people whose Facebook comments I’ve included here. I send them the whole essay to provide context but highlight in yellow the specific sentence or section that mentions them. I ask if they’re comfortable with what I’ve written, if they’d like anything changed, including their name. More often than not, they come back with a quick No problem, publish away!, or Proud friend here! Go you, or No need to check, I’m sure it’s fine. Here and there, someone suggests a small edit to clarify what they meant. One friend has no memory of ever having written what I’ve quoted from her and says it is fine to use if she is heavily de-identified, but that she’d like me to find the document on which she made this comment. These are the situations that trouble me. I mostly keep track of who said what, or which version of a piece they gave me written feedback on that I’ve then layered into the work, but I occasionally lose track between all of the emails, comments on public Facebook statuses, and private DMs that get sent around when I first open one of these dialogues. There are three quotes where I cannot remember who they belong to, and thus, cannot seek consent. To navigate this, I make sure there are no identifying features left in, so I am not inadvertently attributing a belief to someone that might be no longer true for them.
I was particularly nervous about sharing the work with my ex because I know how private he is. But again, his response comes as a shock: he doesn’t have a problem with what I’ve written. But even more so, I was afraid to show the man I call Jack and his wife. Do I owe the opportunity of consent to Jack, when he didn’t seem he owed it to me?
In this strange and highly mediated manner, I am then able to have these conversations with friends and partners and parents in real life. If my friend can be several years into a marriage without obligatory sex, if Dan’s wife can communicate her feelings around this, perhaps these things are possibilities for me also. I swing between anger at myself – for not communicating better – and hope – for the future.
Sometimes, I will be sitting in a café with friends and someone will mention one of these posts and off we go, launching into an hour-long discussion of some private and yet wholly common experience. Slowly, we start to speak about our bodies.