I am many things. I’m 25, I’m white, I’m a female-identified human. I’m from Texas, I’ll eat Pad Thai any time of day. I write, I act, I am heterosexual. I have two siblings, I don’t watch Game of Thrones. I do watch Outlander (and I am unashamed).
My eyes are green, I played left midfield on my high school soccer team. I don’t know how to write code, but I do know how to drive stick shift. I’m a Unitarian Universalist, my parents are still married, I wear a size 8 ½ shoe. I was sexually assaulted when I was a kid, my birthday is in the summer.
My Unitarian Universalist-ness means I go to church on Sundays, but feel the need to let people know I’m not Christian, though I have great respect for Rabbi Jesus (as my minister says). My shoe size is such that strappy sandals are not my thing. I’m a heterosexual woman, so I have a male partner. My parents are still married, which means I go to one house on holidays.
I have two siblings, and one of these siblings gives me shit for not watching Game of Thrones. The other was my inspiration for playing soccer. I drive a Mazda with a standard transmission, and I wear green to bring out my eyes. My birthday is often the hottest day of the year. I don’t engage in casual romance or sex, because I was sexually assaulted as a kid. Many people are adverse to casual sex/relationships. Childhood sexual trauma is not the only reason, but I’ve identified it as mine.
It’s taken a lot of work to integrate what happened to me into my larger identity. It’s as much a part of me as my eye color or how many siblings I have. It still takes work to remember that, and to stay standing some days, especially when sexual assault is in the public conversation, as it is right now.
“Boundaries are something that most kids learn in elementary school. When I was in elementary school, I was coping with the aftermath of being assaulted.”
What happened completely shaped how I see sex, romance, objectification, men, the patriarchy, and how I fit in to all of that. I was five. My brain didn’t have enough in it to contextualize my experience, so upon it I built a series of very unhealthy assumptions about myself/my sexuality, and how to relate to the world, which led to more negative and non-consensual experiences throughout my childhood and teenage years. When I think about my assault, I often don’t think of the actual event—I think of the series of patterns and thoughts and choices it set off in my life. I could go on, but I won’t. It’s a lot. It’s depressing. The anxiety is rising in my stomach as I write this.
Dating/sex has and will always be fraught for me, though I’m just now realizing to what extent. It’s fraught for everyone—romance and sex are parts of our lives that are affected by our most fundamental formations of identity, which are often unexamined and problematic. I have spent innumerable hours of my life talking to friends of all different stripes about these problems. Tinder, Bumble, etc. It all sucks. Breakups are hard. Ghosting is shitty. Fraught! It’s all fraught. And it’s fraught in different and interesting ways for everyone.
This is a little bit of how it’s fraught for me: boundaries are incredibly difficult for me to implement. The concept of boundaries is something I didn’t really learn about or start to work on until I was about 23. Boundaries are something that most kids learn in elementary school. When I was in elementary school, I was coping with the aftermath of being assaulted. Boundaries didn’t mean anything to me. I learned that speaking my needs and desires got me nowhere and nothing, so it’s better to fit my needs and desires to the people around me so as not to create conflict or a scenario in which my needs will, once again, be denied. And if those people’s needs and desires are different than my own, it’s best not to interact with them at all.
So I retreated into myself, only to come out when I felt like it was safe, only sharing what was agreeable, and then not understanding why others would sometimes keep me at arm’s length when I did. I’m learning how to healthily protect myself while not cutting myself off from experiences and other people. I’m trying to connect with others while both setting and respecting boundaries. I’m expressing my needs and desires more and more. I’m doing the best I can.
This has meant, that for me, casual sex and dating has largely been impossible. It’s deeply unappealing on many levels, both superficial and fundamental. Due to boundaries not being secondhand for me, and also because I’m a sensitive person in general, I’ve developed a way of relating to people that is very intense. I’m sort of all in or all out. Going on a date with a stranger from the internet to just “see” if they’d be a fun diversion is something I physically cannot do. Whenever I think that’s what I’m doing, it develops into something deeper. This has ultimately been an incredible blessing, as hardships often turn out to be. My relationships, both platonic and romantic, are what I am most grateful for, and my willingness to “go in” with people is why I have them.
After every breakup, my peers have encouraged me to try and be casual. They’ve extolled the idea of our teens/twenties being the “time to go nuts” and “we shouldn’t settle.” I went along with this for a while, feeling increasingly shitty about myself because I couldn’t seem to ever do this. I thought maybe I just wasn’t cute. I thought, maybe I’m a coward and I have to push myself to come out of my shell. I thought there was some kind of collective joke that I was missing. I thought a lot of things, and none of it was ever productive or positive.
What I’m here to say is that there is no right way to do sex and romance as a survivor. For other survivors it may look very different. For other survivors, emotional intimacy may be impossible. Physical intimacy may be a language that is easier to speak.
I’m also here to say that survivors, especially survivors of childhood sexual trauma, are often erased in all these conversations about modern dating. Millennials and their online dating! Millennials and their casual relationships! Millennials are just eating avocado toast and getting wasted and DOING IT! Hashtag hashtag. Just go on the Tinder date, they said. It will be fun, they said. My friends, it’s not fun for me. And it’s not fun for you either, most of the time. Who are these pronouncers of what we are like? Who decides? The copywriters at Buzzfeed or Brother or Cosmo?
You are only wasting your youth if you think you are. And I am not. I’m taking control of my life for the first time in 20 years by fully accepting myself and the world in which I exist. I’m not forcing myself to live our cultural idea of a “healed life.” I am healing, and my life looks like what it looks like. I “get out there” and “come out of my shell” in many ways.
You are never too young to take care of your heart. The time to “go wild” is whenever the hell you want, however the hell you want.
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Natalie Houchins is a graduate of Northwestern University, with
degrees in Theatre and Gender & Sexuality Studies. She is a writer and
actress based out of LA, who is perennially homesick for Austin, TX.
She currently spends her free time hiking, watching Battlestar
Galactica and resisting the Trump administration. For more information, visit her website: www.nataliehouchins.com.