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When I’d left my husband the thought of dating and sleeping with other men hadn’t even crossed my mind. I’d just wanted out of a marriage that had grown increasingly abusive and unhealthy.

Before we’d started dating I’d shared details about my sexual past with my ex-husband. I’d told him, with the help of a half bottle of wine, about my childhood sexual abuse, my crazy religious family and their abstinence-only dogma, and about the rape in my mid-twenties.

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And then, over the course of our eight year relationship, he’d thrown them all back in my face. If I turned down sex, I had too many hang-ups. If I didn’t like what he liked in bed, I was a prude. I was damaged, broken, and lucky to find someone willing to put up with me.

One morning, shortly before I left him, I was lying in bed in that half-asleep-but-not-quite-awake stage when I felt my ex’s hand between my thighs. He slipped his fingers inside me. At first, I froze in shock, but then I leapt from the bed and screamed, “What the hell?” My whole body shook convulsively, a precursor to a breakdown. “I never get to feel my wife’s pussy anymore,” he complained. “God, being with you is like tiptoeing around a fucking minefield.”

After I left him, he refused to move out for eight months. He’d follow me around the house alternatively criticizing my body — no man’s going to want to fuck you now that you’ve had a kid — or telling me that men would "hit it and quit it" once they figured out I was crazy. He frequently expressed how grateful he was that soon he’d get to fuck "normal" women again.

I survived eight months of daily criticism that blamed me for a past that had supposedly left me so damaged that I should never be in a relationship again. When he finally moved out, I had no desire for sex. I’d stopped masturbating — hard to do when he’d walk in on me — and the thought of another man touching me made me shudder in revulsion.

Slowly, over the course of the next year, my libido returned. At my therapist’s urging, I put myself out there in the scary world of thirty-plus dating. And then I met David, and it came back with a vengeance.

I was so insecure that I sent my first nude pic to a queer friend of mine before I sent it to him.

“Do I look okay?” I texted her. “I know my stomach isn’t flat anymore.”

“God, Dena, you’re gorgeous, just send it!” she responded.

So I did. And then, over the course of a month, I sent a lot more. Sending him nudes, and receiving pictures in return that *cough* displayed his reaction to them, helped rebuild some of the self-esteem my ex had destroyed.

David found my post-baby curves sexy, instead of criticizing me for not getting back to a size zero. It was fun to find creative ways to take new pics, adjusting the lighting and angles, and posing in various locations — even if my phone did end up sitting in a bucket of rice after I dropped it in the bathtub.

It took about a month of texting before we could actually meet in person. And during that month, I acted like the woman I wanted to be — confident, sexy, and bold. I described doing things with him in explicit detail...even though I’d never actually done at least half of them. And I didn’t tell him about my past. There was no room for it in the middle of the flirting and dirty pics we exchanged, and I decided not to bring it up. I was not going to be defined by my past trauma, I was not going to let another man hold it against me, and I was, finally, finally, going to enjoy sex.

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 I was, finally, finally, going to enjoy sex.



My friends had been concerned that he sometimes came across as a player, and one of them had even insisted on coming to the bar with me after she’d read his more PG texts. Bruised and insecure, not trusting my own judgment, I’d told her I needed her permission to go home with him. She’d liked him immediately and ditched us at the subway.

When we’d arranged to meet, I’d crafted a narrative in my head of how it was going to go down. I’d rehearsed it, practiced my lines, and played it out in my head. And then life happened.

We got back to his place, started kissing and undressing and...suddenly I felt shy. Lying with him, being touched by him, I felt vulnerable and raw. Turned out it was a lot easier to fake being someone else over text than it was in person. Could he tell I’d only slept with three men? Had he figured out I’d grossly exaggerated my experience? At one point, when he asked me what I liked, I had to resist blurting out, “I don’t know!”

But David? He saw me.

In the middle of sex — literally — he pulled out and said, “Wow, you’re really tense.” Then he gently pushed me down on the bed and massaged my back until I relaxed.
Face buried in the pillow, I fought back tears. Throughout the four hours we fooled around that night, I went to the bathroom a few times, but not just to pee. To pull myself together, to wipe away the tears and to look at myself in the mirror and whisper, “You’re okay with this. You’re really okay with this.”

It is amazingly freeing to discover that, nope, the problem wasn’t you. That maybe, just maybe, I didn’t like sex with my ex-husband because he made no real effort to please me. Because he didn’t see me as a whole person, but damaged, and did nothing but dismiss and minimize my trauma. If I was tense, he never would have pulled out and taken the time to reassure me. In fact, the first time we had sex post-partum, I was in pain — tears streaming down my face, biting my lip and tasting blood — and when I asked if we could stop he told me to "just hold on" because he was close to coming. One night with David was more respectful than eight years with my ex-husband.

I’m not friends with my ex, and never will be. I’m still friends with David. I haven’t told him about my past, though I have a strong suspicion that he guessed. Just like I’ve never been a fan of the idea that a man’s penis is necessary for a woman’s sexual awakening, I’ve never believed that sex with one man could be magically healing. But after that night, my view has shifted somewhat.

It’s not so much that I think it was healing because of the sexual acts themselves. I think that it was healing because of what it showed me about myself. That I didn’t have to pretend to be someone I’m not in order to enjoy sex. That I could, metaphorically speaking, shut the bedroom door on my ex, jump in bed with David and enjoy myself. A lot.

And that I can reject the words others have used to define me — broken, damaged, unlovable — and, instead, chose to define myself.

A desirable, strong, and, yes, a little bit shy, survivor.

Top image: Girls

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Dena Landon is a single mom who eats raw cookie dough, passionately debates intersectional feminism and frequently tangles herself in yarn. Her work has appeared on xojane.com and in Dance Teacher and Dance Spirit magazines. Her first novel was published by Dutton Children's Publishing in 2005. She blogs at femmefeminism.com, and can be found on Instagram or Facebook

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