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, We are eight weeks out from my debut, The Girlsbeing 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.
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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.
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.
Otherwise, this end of the beach at this early hour was empty. 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. 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.
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. 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.
She was somewhere nearby; I could hear a few of them talking somewhere in the small unlit carpark. 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.
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. 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. It comes across as all men just wanting sex.
Trying not to state the obvious, but every male is unique and as such their interaction with females is very different. 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. 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? 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.
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.
Reminder successfully set!
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. 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. Inmy two sisters were killed in a car accident. The Girls chronicles what came next. 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 ly 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. In many ways, this post is asking the same questions: How do I communicate?
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 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. 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. 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. At some point, he ran out of things to talk about. 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. 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.
Once, I did a similar thing. One guy had been good at asking questions, gotten me to open up, bought me a couple of drinks.
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.
In the morning, when I woke, he was gone and did not leave his .