Loving at Arms Length
Issue No. 1: Sex Ed
Words - Jessica Milton
Photography - Ariana Mygatt
a memoir about living in sexless relationship
As a woman it is difficult to imagine an instance where a man would not want to have sex with you. With all the misogyny, double standards, societal expectations, and disadvantages to being a woman in today’s world, one of the few times sexism benefits us is when it comes to rejection. So infrequently are we subject to being rejected anything physical from a partner, even if your partner is also a woman. Women are so overwhelmingly mesmerizing and enticing, women and men alike recognize that and behave accordingly. Add to that being a woman of healthy self confidence who fits the bill for the standard of beauty, and the idea of rejection becomes truly unfathomable. Yet somehow I found myself there, in a place where I slept next to a man who, night after night, did not lay a finger on me. To say I was lonely would be an understatement. But I was more than lonely. I was embarrassed, I was angry, and I was also extremely selfish.
To give some background to the story, this man and I, let’s call him Christian*, had been in a committed relationship for quite some time. Well, as committed as people can be at the age of 20. We went through my college years together, and had the reputation of being a perfect couple. We loved each other, we had fun together, we rarely fought, and we were truly best friends. That is the one thing that everyone and anyone who spent time with us would be compelled to mention. People loved to spend time with us for that reason. We were never that couple that boo-loved all night at the party. We gave each other space while also being a part of each other's’ worlds. It was a perfect balance.
Balance, however, is delicate, and ours was disrupted. In the common fashion of couples who spend their younger years together, we eventually both wanted to break free from the relationship. We went our separate ways, and I moved into an apartment with my two best friends in an exciting new city. I was just starting my career and dating for the first time in three years. This new balance too was interrupted when Christian* and I decided that we wanted to give the relationship another shot. A year had gone by since the break up, and at the time that seemed like plenty. In hindsight, we both should have known it was premature and we should not have been getting back together then, if ever. But hindsight is a presumptuous bitch who only knows to say “told ya so”. And so we tried. We tried, but the year was 2014, and modern dating is notoriously complicated. Neither of us officially reinstated the relationship, we just sort of fell back into it. So I sort of neglected to cut off other situationships I had going on during the break. To make an already long story short, I was caught chatting up another guy thanks to iMessage on my MacBook. Though we seemingly resolved the issue, and made a solid re-commitment to the relationship, this was the beginning of the end.
We always had what I would call an above average sex life. We had equal drives, great communication, and at the risk of sounding crude, homeboy was packing. He is six feet tall and strong, I am under five feet. Every heterosexual girl’s dream. When this incident occurred, though, his drive nearly vanished. He was having a hard time trusting me, and adjusting to his altered view of me for having betrayed that trust. So I was patient. Sex was still happening, but much less frequently. My lease was running up and somehow the universe conspired in such a way that him and I had the opportunity to move in together. Neither of us was ready, we both knew that, so we did not formally decide we would move forward with it. But when move out day arrived he drove that U-Haul straight to his new place, an unspoken decision we both had made. It was almost as if we were too scared to say it out loud. Our inner selves must have already knew then what we would learn by moving into that house.
For nine months we lived in that house, slept in our room, shared one bed, and for nine months, we did not once have sex. We tried, mostly in the beginning, but it quickly became clear that that part of our bond was comatose. I was too ashamed to talk to my friends about it, so I kept to myself. I knew what people would automatically think, “is he cheating?” and I knew he wasn’t. The tears in his eyes and the pain in his face made that impossible to doubt. This was harder for him than it was for me. And believe me, it was fucking hard for me. The amount of mutual crying and late night conversations that went into trying to soothe this living, breathing wound is unimaginable. I blamed myself, for what I had done, for not being as attractive as I was in my earlier twenties, for being a nag. He insisted it had nothing to do with me, and blamed himself, for gaining weight and battling undiagnosed depression. It did not matter where the blame lay. The problem was there and we had no idea of how to fix it. Then we both stopped trying to. I became a recluse, turning to booze and TV to distract me, and he escaped by being with his friends and at the gym as often as possible. Everyday we kissed, everyday we said I love you and shared meals together, and every night we held each other until we fell asleep. There was still so much love and intimacy between our sheets, but nothing was enough to fill the void of physical connection, no matter how much we tried to convince ourselves otherwise.
Eventually the burden became too heavy. When we did muster the courage to try, it was forced and uncomfortable. Like having sex with a stranger, but sober. We agreed once again that it would be best for us to end the relationship. We were always so good at being honest and on the same page. At that point I thought I would never have a healthy sexual relationship again. I was so terrified of my body not working, of it not doing what I needed and wanted it to do, that I avoided sexual contact for months. When I finally had sex again, it was with a man who I spent months getting to know intimately before taking that step, and even then I was scared shitless. Learning that my body was not broken and never was was more painful than I could have expected. Our relationship is what was broken, and my sexuality was only a casualty of that. Eventually I moved out, and began the process of healing what I would eventually call sexual trauma. He would move on to see a doctor, be prescribed medicine for low testosterone, which would improve his libido and grow back the hair he was losing to alopecia, and we would become great friends.
If I could go back and do it over, there is much I would change, but not with the hopes of a different result. One of my regrets is not sharing this experience with people around me as it was happening. I’ve since met various women who have been in similar situations, and I feel honored to be able to contribute to their healing. I would have given anything to talk to someone in the same position as me during that time, to feel less alone and less humiliated. I also regret not looking inward for answers, and expecting Christian* to have them all for me. Ultimately, though, the way I interacted with him during our hardship is what I have had to forgive myself for the most. I neglected to recognize that he, too, was hurting. That my pride was not the only factor in this problem. He was going through physical and mental pain, and on top of that, holding my emotional pain. That is a lot for one person to carry. He never tried to pass it off on me, though. His love is nothing but pure, and he would never do anything to cause me hurt. But I never hesitated to point the finger at him for not wanting me, for not telling me what I need to do to to make it better, for running around with his friends instead of staying in a pain bubble with me. How unfairly I treated him is my greatest cross to bear.
If you see yourself or a loved one in my story, my only plea is that you urge to them that sexual health is not one size fits all. Just because he is a man does not mean he will be sexually ready and healthy every day of his entire life. His status as a man does not exempt him from sickness and mental illness and other ailments that contribute to sexual health. In these moments, we have the opportunity to examine how the uneven scales can hurt men deeply, as well. My advice to anyone suffering in a sexless relationship is to check their ego at the door, because more often than not, when sexual problems arise they are from within the person, and not a reflection of their partner. To love and support, whether from inside the relationship or out of it (a decision only they can make). And lastly, to read the book “Come as You Are” by Emily Nagoski. Maybe even as a couple. Educate yourself, act from a place of love, and remember that you will rise again, even if the time is not right now.