Ask Emma

A column in which I respond to anonymous questions about all things love, sex, and dating! Anonymous submission form HERE

What is my sexuality?

Title is for SEO purposes. This essay explores how my sexuality has evolved as I’ve aged.

Before I get into it—

In the first anonymous submission to the Ask Emma column, I was asked a series of questions about sex and my sexuality. It’s been a long time since I’ve really contemplated where my relationship to these subjects began. As an adult, I feel that I introduced myself to sex too young. Which leaves me to question: what was my relationship to my sexuality as a young girl, and what is my sexuality as an adult?

First I want to preface the obvious, which is that I identify as a white, heterosexual woman. My personal experience with sex and intersecting subjects is limited to that perspective, which is why I don’t intend to use this platform to give advice, so much as share my thoughts as accumulated through experience and conversations with others. For ideas that I can’t personally attest to, particularly those asked through a queer lens, I’ll be interviewing identities who feel comfortable sharing their respective experiences.

Understanding my sexuality as a young girl

For as long as I can personally remember my impression of sex, it was a performative act. It was how I showed boys that I liked them, and got them to like me. The first time I experienced a sexual act that made me uncomfortable was when my boyfriend of two years in the 8th grade fingered me.

I remember looking over his shoulder, making breathless imitations, wondering when it would stop. And yet at the same time, he was standing so close to me that I never wanted him to move away. My pursuit of sex as a young girl was the misdirected pursuit of intimacy. For a long time my attitude towards sex and my own sexuality was intrinsically associated with male approval. Unfortunately, this seems commonplace through the heterosexual lens of sex. I didn’t think that I had to perform like that to get women to like me, so I took those relationships for granted.

How my attitude towards sex and sexuality has changed over the years

In my teen years, penetrative sex started to feel like a merit badge that me and all my peers were working towards. It was assumed that you would earn it before you emerged into adulthood. I romanticized adulthood, fantasizing constantly about my older self and all the things that she would do better. Sex seemed like an avenue to achieving that.

Did I feel pressured to have sex?

Yes and no. I felt a pressure from myself to be a certain kind of person. To me that meant being attractive to my opposite sex. My high school boyfriend and I “lost our virginities” to each other, but I felt no pressure from that relationship. I just thought that I needed to get sex out of the way and it made it easier that I thought we were in love. I don’t think that’s such a bad thing (‘getting it out of the way’), but I may have pushed myself before I was really ready.

My high school boyfriend was emotionally distant for his own personal and respectively valid reasons, but I found myself spiralling with insecurity in absence of his affection. I began to use sex as a means to experience intimacy with him, passively. Once again, I was split between the discomfort of the act and the knowledge that the act was exactly what made him want to be close to me. It was like I was offering up my body, rather than participating in a mutual exchange.

How I confronted internalized misogyny in sex

Should I have asked myself as a teenager, what is my sexuality? I’m not sure that I’d have an answer. I didn’t feel that I had a right to claim pleasure from sex, so it didn’t feel like something that could be mine. I discovered quickly that the only way I allowed myself to enjoy sexual acts were if I felt that I was being being subjected to them.

I have a distinct memory of being in my partner’s small family home, age 17, and him (TW) holding me against the wall of his bedroom and penetrating me from behind. He covered my mouth and proceeded to say things like “you want them to hear you?”.

I was a passive participant in this act, and it allowed me to take pleasure from it without feeling embarrassed. In my mind I wasn’t supposed to be experiencing pleasure, but he was making me and I was relenting. For him, I imagine that the visual inspiration came from porn. This was a media which I hadn’t really consumed but was experiencing the second hand effects of.

In seeking answers to questions like what is my sexuality?, something that I’m only now endeavouring to answer, pornographic media related an insular visual.

This acquiescent attitude towards sex followed me well into adulthood. I still struggle against it, partially because I associate a certain comfort with it. That part of me wants to give up power to the extreme, assuring my partner that I am entirely at their whim.

As seen from that angle, the whole point of sex is to feel wanted, not to want. It’s a performance.

Fortunately, this is no longer the only way that I experience sex. Over the years I’ve learned to dismantle certain insecurities through laughter. I learned that sex didn’t have to be taken so seriously; that I was allowed to have fun too.

Implementing comfort into sex and my sexuality

Despite making strides in my comfort levels, I often feel that I’m not as sexually adapted as I should be. I lack confidence because I’m afraid to try things that might make me appear unattractive to my partner. In an effort to overcome this I’ve begun sharing this thought with partners, explaining that I’m trying to open myself up to a more liberal experience but have a lot of hesitancy and reservations that may take time to surpass.

I’ve been generally fortunate in recent years to have sexual partners who accommodate this, though occasionally someone will do something out of my level of comfort without asking. The first time that I slept with my last boyfriend, he had been on top of me and spun around wordlessly to begin ’69ing’. This was the first time I had ever done this particular act, and I was overwhelmed by the embarrassment of not knowing what to do or how to do it comfortably. Was there a lack of consent in that interaction? Yes.

I think it’s ineffective to assume that ongoing/ enthusiastic consent is an obvious, because a lot of people forget to do it. I’ve had this conversation with a lot of partners, and a number of them did not understand why someone would have to ask for consent more than once during sex. So to reiterate: a person can consent to sex and still not consent to every component of sex that their partner is comfortable with. Everyone has different perspectives and levels of experience, which is why having candid conversations about what is comfortable is so important! Including but not limited to which boundaries you would like to mutually push (if any).

Have you found your sexuality has shifted into something you didn’t expect?

Has my sexuality shifted into something my younger self did not foresee? Yes. More and more, my sexuality is becoming an expression of self, rather than a token in exchange for male attention. When I express that self during sex, I feel playful, vulnerable, feminine, and strong. Those were not characteristics that I associated with my sexuality as a young girl/ teenager.

How did that shift happen?

When I consider how my sexuality has shifted as I’ve gotten older, I notice foremost that I’ve broadened my understanding of what produces intimacy. Note that intimacy was the first thing I ever associated with sex (at the time it was associated exclusively with proximity and attention).

Well as I got older, I started to find intimacy in other aspects of sex: most notably through laughter, verbal communication, fantasy, and consensual boundary pushing. It requires a certain degree of trust, humility and vulnerability to do anything for the first time.

You’re bound to make a mistake, or feel a bit silly; maybe you won’t even like it, but hopefully your partner (s) can hold space for you to experience any and all of that without judgment. That’s beautiful and sexy! And you don’t necessarily have to know a person well for that to happen. You do have to trust them and communicate.

How to deal with a breakup (when you’re the one who felt more)

Anonymous Ask: “What’s your advice on getting over someone you dated for a period of months who didn’t feel as strongly as you did?” Aka how to deal with a breakup when you’re the one who felt more?

First of all, Ouf.

How to deal with a breakup when your partner didn’t feel as strongly as you

I feel uniquely qualified to answer this one. I spent a long time on part of my mental illness, believing that I was the sole reason that all of my relationships had ended. This was because I always fell in love sooner, and harder. I know now that relationships are far too complicated for this to have been the only reason mine didn’t work out, but I was often on the receiving end of the “I just don’t feel as much as you do” breakup.

I think that there’s a heavy emotional fall out to be had over the experience of breaking up with a romantic partner who didn’t feel as strongly. While mourning the relationship itself, I find myself also grappling with the reality that the other person didn’t have the same experience as me. I question the validity of my own feelings: did I make any of it up? Where were the clues that indicated they didn’t feel the same?

Finally, I’m inclined to beat myself up over the intensity of my feelings. I often wish that I’d kept them to myself for longer, or had been able to act more casually in the relationship. Personally, this combination of insecurities and self-doubt make the healing process more difficult.

So I ask myself now: How to deal with a breakup when you’re the one who felt more?

I start by making an effort to mitigate emotional responses.

Establish expectations

When asked how to deal with a breakup, I’ve often said to friends who are harbouring negative emotion towards their ex, that it would help them to decide what they want out of that relationship in the future. Do they plan on staying friends with this ex, or would they be content to not have them in their life? If not content, would the absence of this person make it easier to heal, or would the pain of not having them in their life make it harder?

Obviously a breakup is a very personally felt, and consequently diverse experience. Some people are good at befriending their exes— myself included. I place a high value on the intimacy developed in a romantic interaction, which makes it worth muddling through the pain of a breakup to eventually establish a friendship. Others like a cold turkey approach; out of sight, out of mind.

I’ve had partners who felt less then me who disappeared from my life when we broke up, and I’d like to acknowledge that this may simply have been a more comfortable route for those people. Especially because breaking up with someone is hard and awkward (even more so when that somebody has strong, unrequited feelings for you).

Staying friends with your ex

Of course, staying friends with an ex whom you have strong feelings for is also awkward. I’ve also done this more than once. It is likely that the person who felt less to begin with will have an easier time establishing a platonic relationship, and may move on faster/ begin dating again. For the person who feels more, witnessing this may open up sores that are trying to heal.

Even without these more obvious triggers, the person who felt more may experience difficulty establishing a comfortable, platonic interaction. In the past, I have misperceived an amicable hang with an ex as an indication that they may still be interested in me romantically. This eventually led me to ask them out right if there were any chance for us, and consequently resulted in me reliving the breakup all over again.

How to deal with a breakup: Two avenues of thought

This is why I reiterate: when navigating how to deal with a breakup, especially one in which you felt more than your partner, it’s important to decide what you’re looking for from your ex (friends, strangers, or somewhere in between?). Then hold to your decision. Having this expectation will make navigating tricky emotions easier. Which is not to say that you can’t re-evaluate your feelings after some time, and change your expectations, but that your expectations will pave the route for your healing process.

The avenues that I would generally recommend for how to deal with a breakup when your partner didn’t feel as strongly is:

a) to try and frame your breakup as an opportunity for friendship. Maybe the foundation for friendship was always there, and will be more gratifying in the long run.

b) to acknowledge that you felt more and deserve to be with someone who feels just as much. Moving on may require that this person is no longer in your life.

Any kind of breakup is still a breakup

At the end of the day I try to remember that my emotional experience is valid. One of the main objectives of Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, which is commonly used to treat people with Borderline Personality Disorder or general overwhelming emotions, is to reach a state of wise mind. Here’s a graphic from BPDfamily.com that explains this mental state—

Feelings experienced in any of the above states are still valid, even if disproportionate in the moment of feeling them. When I’m responding directly to a breakup, alarm bells go off in my mind signalling rejection and abandonment and I subsequently experience a flight or fight response. Often this manifests in one of two ways: either I become angry at the person who is breaking up with me, or try to perform in a way that will make them change their mind.

As times passes these emotions become easier to manage, but I do have to actively remind myself that any pains I feel along my healing journey are valid. Especially to the theme of this specific prompt— I try to remember that even though the other person didn’t feel as much, the feelings that I experienced were real and important.

Be soft with yourself

When I contemplate the question, ‘how to deal with a breakup when you’re the one who felt more’, I’m inclined to fall back on some classic breakup advice: be soft with yourself. This applies to any context in which you are mourning a relationship, but particularly because you expended a lot of energy towards someone who didn’t give as much energy back, I imagine that you’re tired. I would be (I have been). So give yourself a chance to rest! Sit with the feelings that you had, validate them, and when you’re ready take small steps towards moving on with your life— whatever that means for you.

If you’re hoping for a serious relationship in the future, I would try not to shy away from intense feelings for fear that they won’t be reciprocated. That happens unfortunately. In my opinion it’s better to be honest about your feelings sooner and be able to identify if your partner feels the same or needs more time to get to know you and the relationship. If you’re like me and you tend to fall in love fast (and hard), I recommend trying to make a goal for yourself, such as not expressing intense feelings until x time has passed. That way, you’ll have given yourself optimal time to validate your own emotional experience while also adhering to a healthy pace that doesn’t put pressure on your romantic partner.

Is my vagina ugly?

Anonymous Ask: “how to deal with being self conscious about your hoooha?”

An insecurity about my vagina is one of the few persistent doubts that I still have about my body as an adult. Through the lens of a cis-gender female identity, I’ve encountered this same insecurity in countless young woman, dating back to shy conversations held by 12 year old friends navigating puberty to the humorous, though self deprecating comments of full fledged adult women.

It’s no secret that many people are self-conscious about their genitalia. But the prominence of this subject poses an interesting question: why do we hate our vaginas?

My first recommendation to anyone who shares this insecurity is to visit the @the.vulva.gallery Instagram page.

The Vulva Gallery is an Instagram page with 600+ thousand Instagram followers portraying vaginas of all kinds, in all of their beautiful diversity. This page of visual affirmation was one that I found in my first year of university (age 17/18) when I was still steeped in juvenile pressure to invent my person and present myself to the opposite sex as “hot”, “pretty” and “sexy”. I have a memory of being that age and having a sexual partner who wanted to examine my vagina up close. No one had ever asked to do that before. I immediately sat upright.

I was mortified that this person would get so close to what I perceived to be the least attractive piece of my body, so as to see the ‘uglier’ details up close. I was specifically convinced that my inner labia was too long, and wrinkly. Overall I was under the impression that my vulva was too big; ‘fat’ if you will. I also thought it smelled weird.

In reality I resonate quite a bit with the illustrations below, which suggests to me that my vagina isn’t as strange as I once thought it to be.

The sentiments shared on this page are that of body positivity, inclusivity and diversity, with extending subjects of sexual health, mutual consent, safe & pleasurable sex, and open & respectful communication. For me personally, it was eye opening to see imagery of female genitalia that looked like mine. It occurred to me even, that I hadn’t seen many images of vaginas in my youth. I simply assumed that mine was faulty, because I was not equipped to think otherwise.


The artist behind the Vulva Gallery account is Hilde, an illustrator living in Amsterdam who uses they/ them pronouns. Hilde’s work is commission based— the vulvas that are added to the gallery are submitted and/ or paid for. A “tiny” digital illustration (as advertised in an “about me” highlight reel on the Instagram account) is free (4x 4 cm) though there is a long waitlist due to the large amount of entries Hilde receives. They paint new portraits every six months. Alternatively you can pay for a portrait that will be sent to your home (selected from three sizes) and hand painted/ signed.

For either option you can contact Hilde for details about your piece, respectively before you send photos of the vulva in question! Contact: thevulvagallery@gmail.com.

You’ll notice that each illustrated vulva is accompanied by a brief excerpt written by the individual portrayed. These words offer a glimpse into the world of insecurity that womxn especially, of all ages, experience in regard to their genitalia.

The bottom line is that it’s not an uncommon experience to feel this insecurity, and I would like to argue that the first step in changing the perception of your ‘hoohaa’, is to recognize that what you’re feeling is not abnormal. Should you open yourself up to dialogue with trusted friends/ family/ your doctor, I imagine that you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find validation in these conversations.

“You think your vagina is weird?!”

“Me too!!”

It will take some courage to initiate this conversation, especially if it’s not a topic that came up comfortably in your youth. If that’s the case for you, I would like to remind you that as an adult you have the ability to change the discourse around your body. If this form of conversation is foreign, don’t be afraid to share your hesitancy.

I’ll use a conversation that I recently had with my partner as an example. He likes the appearance of my vagina, and is happy to reaffirm that perception to me. When I first told him that I struggle with feeling self conscious of it, and in fact feel sexier standing in front of him in my underwear than I do completely naked, he was baffled. He couldn’t understand what I didn’t like about it. What I want to highlight about this dialogue is that this insecurity is so close to me that I often perceive it as indisputable fact, especially when relating it to a sexual partner. But when I shared it with someone who respects and cares about me, who is not uncomfortable discussing these subjects, I encountered new vocabulary and a more accepting discourse.

In these interactions with my partner, I can safely practice affirming the beauty of my vagina. I struggle to use the word ‘beautiful’ personally so it helps that he is comfortable saying it. However, it’s still my responsibility to practice affirmation on my own time.

To this end, I suggest allocating time for yourself to get acquainted with your vagina. Like seriously, you gotta get up close and practice liking it/ complimenting it/ validating your experience as a person with a vagina. I’ll be doing it too, as I have a lot of work to do in this regard. If you’re not sure how to go about this, try sitting down with your legs open while sitting in front of a mirror, standing while holding a mirror below you, or taking photos.Try not to let any embarrassment or shame you might feel get the best of you— these are necessary boundaries to push if you are to change your perceptions.

I also suggest pushing yourself to try out new vocabulary surrounding your vagina in order to encourage the normalcy of subjects like body positivity and self acceptance in your everyday discourse.

Personally, I struggle to use the word “pussy” comfortably, whereas I know a lot of individuals who find that attribution empowering. The way that I plan to practice getting more comfortable with words like this (and with similar connotations) is by forcing myself to employ it in both sexual and non-sexual dialogue with my partner, as well as on my own time, and with trusted friends. Other words you might try include (according to the Oxford dictionary):

And of course, hoohaa, as used by the lovely reader who bravely offered me this question to explore.

I hope that conversations like this become more and more normal in educational streams, and of course with young people and their loved ones. Everyone deserves to feel that their genitalia, much like the rest of their body, is unique and worthy of celebration.

You can visit previous “Ask Emma” responses, here, and here!

Talk soon,

Emma

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