Advice Sexuality

Get Real! He’s Queer, I’m Straight, and It’s Great, Except…

Heather Corinna

Can a heterosexual woman have a healthy, happy sexual and romantic relationship with a queer man? You bet. But it might not be right for everyone.

Published in partnership with Scarleteen
elinor asks:

Help! I’m in a relationship with a man (I identify as a straight woman) who identifies as queer. He’s mostly had sex with men in the past (there might have been 1 woman), but this is first heterosexual relationship. It’s also my first relationship with a queer man. I really care for him, but I am struggling with checking my own heteronormative attitudes. For example, I don’t know how to get over the fact that he enjoys watching gay porn, and mostly gets off to men. We still have great sex together and I know he is attracted to me, and I try to remind myself of this when I find myself getting bothered by what turns him on. I’m learning to love, not accept, that he is queer and that he has made me shift my thinking about relationships and sexuality so much. However, I still don’t know how to get myself out of these moments, sometimes ongoing, of insecurity.

I know many people experience different romantic vs sexual attraction, and from talking to him, I feel like he is a little more sexually attracted to men, and a more romantically attracted to women. We also have a very friendly/open sort of relationship (we started off as really good friends) where we talk openly about everything (something that seems to weird out my straight friends, especially when he talks about having sex with men). I love that we have this, but I can’t deny there are plenty of moments when he tells me how hot his favorite male porn star is or how horny he is after watching some video and I feel confused. We have talked about this, and he assured me that he wanted to be with me. Yet, I still feel increasingly insecure. I don’t want to make him feel like he has to repress a part of himself in order to be with me (and he is the type of person that would hide it from me if he saw it was hurting me). Can you give me some pointers on how to deal with this on my own, or what I should talk to him about?

Heather Corinna replies:

I’m glad you asked this question. I’m hoping I can give you some helps to evaluate your feelings, explore them some more, and find some things to talk about with your partner and perhaps work through and adjust together. I do suspect this is something where we might do a lot better having a conversation with some back-and-forth, so when you’re done reading this, if it doesn’t really do it for you, or you want to talk some more, you can hop on over to our message boards here, and I’ll be glad to talk with you.

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Before anything else, I’d be real with yourself about how bothered you are by what, as you say, turns him on. I’m not sure what you mean by that, but if there’s a big conflict between what he finds sexually exciting and wants to do or how he wants to do it and what you’re comfortable with and works for you, I’d start with a step back to make sure that a sexual relationship is really the right one for the two of you, or that it feels best emotionally to be in a sexual relationship with him right now rather than dialing things back to a more gradual place while you figure out what you’re really OK with and what you’re not and how you two do and don’t mesh in this regard. In doing that, I’d encourage you to let go of worries that you’re being heteronormative or heterosexist; figuring out what you’re comfortable with or not in your intimate relationships like this truly isn’t going to impact someone else’s rights and liberties.

One thing I’d say to your questions and issues here, and I say this both as a sex educator and as a queer person, is that something that tends to get lost in translation for people who are only attracted to people of one gender when trying to understand those of us attracted to more than one is that gender is often a lot less relevant—and sometimes even totally irrelevant—for many of us who are queer and attracted to people of more than one gender.

Now, that can make some people feel more comfortable, while it makes others less so. If you’re someone, for instance, for whom gender is a huge part of who you are, then a partner who could care less if you were a man or a woman might feel uncomfortable. You might really want your femininity or womanhood to be something a partner is super duper into—for whom it is very relevant. I can’t speak for you in this regard to know, nor can I say how important or unimportant your gender is to your partner. But, on the whole, gender often is far less important to queer people than it is to straight people.

On the other hand, that gender-whatever thang can be a very freeing thing for people, especially in a world that puts gender so front-and-center all the damn time. And if you have the idea that the fact that you’re a woman somehow makes his feelings for you more iffy because he’s had a lot of history with men, and is also attracted to men, seeing that gender probably plays way less of a part for him as a queer person than it does for you as a straight person might give you some breathing room. At the very least, I’m hoping pointing that out might help you recognize that chances are good that gender in this equation is probably a bigger issue for you than it is for him.

I think if you can take some time to think about what role you want your gender (or gender, period)to play in your sexual or romantic relationships, and how, ideally, you want a partner to see your gender in that regard—how much focus and weight you like it to have—that could give you some good starts for talking about some of this together.

Something I’d suggest thinking about for yourself with this, too, are your feelings and ideas about male sexuality. When I say “male sexuality,” for the record, I’m really talking about however you conceive that yourself. Sexuality is so diverse that while we hear a lot about “male sexuality” and “female sexuality,” and our world tends to often have some simplistic ideas about this that we can’t help but pick up, in actuality there are so very many parts of sexuality for every person, and we all differ so much in our sexualities (and the ways we experience, perform, and present our gender) that I find those terms to be mostly useless because the diversity is so great even amongst people of one given gender. But where they’re not useless is when ideas about those things may be playing a part, as they often are, in our sexualities or sexual relationships: then it makes sense, I think, to explore our feelings about those ideas.

For example, often cultures, media, peers, and even partners suggest, claim, or present male sexuality as the sexuality that is more powerful than any other. It’s easy for women to get the message that their sexuality pales in comparison, is only adjunct to male sexuality (or even only exists when male sexuality is part of it!), or can’t possibly compete. Of course, in much of our world, men, on the whole, do have more power, and sexuality that belongs to men, and is performed by men, is thus also often given more power and freedom of expression. There’s no making those larger inequities just go away in a relationship, but everyone in a relationship can take them into account and be mindful about them while aiming for equity within the relationship itself. We can also be real with each other about whatever feelings we have about them. It might be that some of your feelings about his sexual history and the porn he likes and “what turns him on” have something to do with feelings like these.

Another thing to keep in mind is that you aren’t women. You’re just you, one woman. That’s all you have to be.

You’re not, and don’t have to be, the representative of all women, and I’m sure he’s not elected you for that position. What I was talking about up there about gender likely being less relevant to your partner? That plays into this. With someone for whom it doesn’t really matter what your gender is, or where you wouldn’t have to be a woman for him to have the relationship with you you’re having, you’ve a lot more room to let go of any sense that you have to be The Woman for or with this person. You have more room to just be you, where being a woman is only one of the many parts of who you are. Heck, with a partner like this, you also might have more room to explore your masculinity, or your gender neutrality if you like. After all, no matter how we identify our gender, we’re all some mishmosh or another of this stuff, with some parts of all of it.

I think the more you focus on how he feels about women, as a group of billions of people, the more pressure you’re probably putting on yourself. However he might feel about women en masse really is only so relevant in terms of how he feels about you, the one woman—and probably more to the point, person—that you are.

One thing I’d also suggest you think about is how comfortable you are with your partner per hearing him talk about which guys are hot, his previous sexual history (with men or anyone else), and how turned on he is after watching gay porn. We don’t all have the same thresholds or feelings about a partner talking about any or all of these things, regardless of anyone’s orientation. And it’s okay for all of us to be different in that regard or to need certain things—time, a level of commitment, or the way any of this is discussed with us, be that when, with what language, or otherwise—in order to feel comfortable with these kinds of comments and conversations. Being thoughtful about how we talk to our partners and to what degree we share certain things isn’t asking someone to engage in repression. Sometimes it’s just asking them to remember that there’s another person there who is a different person than they are.

I hear you saying that sometimes you like this openness, but that it’s also making you feel increasingly insecure, which suggests to me it’s not working for you. If you can think about what you might need and want in this regard, I’d suggest talking to him about it, asking for any limits you want, need, or think might help you out. It’s OK to have limits with these kinds of disclosures. Mind, it may be he doesn’t want to have to have them with a partner, so it might turn out that this is an area where you two need to figure out if you’re really compatible. But I think both of you being clear with one another about what you each want, need, and can deal with in this respect sounds like something it’s past time to tend to.

It’s also OK to have wants around this. Maybe, for instance, you want him to tell you more often how hot you are or tell you how horny he feels after interacting with you in some way. I hear you saying you remind yourself of this often; maybe you want him to remind you a little more? Maybe you’d feel better if for as much as he talks about his sexual history, he talked about his sexual present with you, or you talked together about your sexual future? It might be that some of the issue here is that the level of talk about everyone or anyone else feels out of balance with how much he’s talking about you, his sexual life with you right now, and his feelings about you. By all means, if and when sexual partners talk more about their sexual feelings for other people or past partners than they do about you, their partner, I think it’s safe to say that most people would find themselves feeling lousy.

And if you have the idea that you have to try and compete with men, that might be a competition based way more in your head than in his. It may be that when he’s talking about ex-lovers, or men that are hot, or porn that turns him on, you’re hearing Menmenmenmenmenmenmenmen,” while he’s actually saying or thinking, I love how much that person wanted me,” “Great smiles, legs and shoulders are sexy,” and The way they’re so passionate about each other really gets me going.”

How do you think you might do, too, if you both made some efforts to connect the dots between men and you and expressed those, rather than seeing or experiencing this as men and you in some kind of cagematch? In other words, if so much of his talk about sex is about men, it might be that it leaves you feeling a bit like an outsider. But what if the flavor of some of this was a bit different? Chances are that there’s something he loves, loved, or thought was sexy about men in his past, or men in porn, that he also finds sexy or loveable about you. It might be that unionizing some of this a bit more, rather than having it be so segregated, might leave you feeling less you vs. them.

It might also help to think about something big you two have in common here. I’m betting that as someone who identifies as straight, and probably also grew up identified that way, you probably didn’t envision yourself falling in love with a queer man. I’m also going to guess that if that was a surprise, ultimately, it’s boiled down to the fact that you just love who you love and have feelings for who you have feelings for. You’re into this person because he’s an awesome person who it sounds like you get along famously with, not because he’s a dude. That, in a whole lot of ways, is what I think of as one of the essences of being queer and living a life as a queer person. For many of us, we love who we love, we’re into who we’re into, and gender, or a specific gender, just isn’t a big part of that picture. If you can identify how you’re in that spot, it might make understanding how he seems to be with you easier.

You say your friends are freaked out to some degree by this relationship, especially if and when he talks about sex with men. Something else that might help you is to broaden your social circle so that it includes people who are queer or who aren’t but are now dating or have dated someone queer. Especially if any of your weirded-out friends are the “omigawd-he’s-gay-gay-gay-run-for-your-life!”* variety.

*An attitude that I’ve never understood as having any sound basis (outside of usually just being based in homophobia or biphobia) whatsoever, and not just because the people they’re like that about don’t always identify as gay in the first place. After all, relationships can and typically do end or shift for any number of reasons, or turn out not to be a good fit over time for any number of reasons. It’s not like the only reason something wouldn’t work or stay a fit is because someone in it turned out to only or mostly be attracted to a group of people of which their partner wasn’t a member. If people are enjoying the relationship they’re in at a given time, the folks in it want to be together in the ways that they are, why run? That is, after all, what people tend to be aiming for in their interpersonal relationships. For sure, maybe this won’t turn out to be a for-your-whole-life partnership or romantic or sexual relationship, but any sexual or romantic relationship you’re in could wind up, and probably will wind up, being something other than that. And if this one doesn’t wind up being something lifelong or lifelong romantic or sexual, it’s no more likely to turn out differently because of this person’s orientation than it would be based on a thousand other factors.

Having more friends in the place that you’re in or who’ve been there, or more queer friends, could give you more people in your life who are supportive of this relationship and who get that when it comes to gender and orientation, it’s all a lot more murky and a lot less simple than many folks like to think it is, especially for people who aren’t on the binary in one way or another. Having more people around you who feel comfortable with your relationship would probably increase your own comfort with it. I noticed from your email you’re currently in college, and one where you should have no trouble finding some queer community: bonus!

Here’s something else, because it gets a bit stuck in my craw, but I also think it’s important in conceptualizing the relationship you’re in and queer people in general: He’s not in a heterosexual relationship. He can’t be, because he’s not heterosexual, just like he can’t have “heterosexual sex,” (whatever that is) because he’s not heterosexual. Plus, relationships don’t really have orientations—it’s people who do. He’s in a relationship with a woman, but that doesn’t magically make him or the relationship heterosexual, just like if a guy who identifies as straight has sex with a gay guy, that doesn’t make him gay.

I think that’s an important point to hold in terms of queer visibility, but I also think that it might help you with all this. When you take the idea of a “heterosexual relationship” out of this equation, that might dissolve or dilute what sounds like a sense you have that this queer person is going to be struggling with a heterosexual relationship because they’re stepping outside being queer somehow, or trying to be someone they’re not. I think some of the discord in situations like this is an idea that a queer person is trying to do this thing—have a “heterosexual relationship”—that it doesn’t seem like a queer person would do, would want to do, or even could do while still being queer. But when you understand that it’s not likely a heterosexual relationship to him at all, and not something outside his orientation or identity, but instead something that totally fits under the umbrella of queer, that a queer person can do without it being somehow in conflict with being queer, it might be at least a little easier to feel more relaxed and better understand that you don’t have to carve out a place for yourself; a seat was already open for you at this table.

The last thing I want to say here is that ultimately, you get to feel however you feel in this. If you come to the conclusion, now or later, that you’re just not able to feel comfortable or secure in this relationship as a sexual one, you get to feel that way. Feeling that way doesn’t mean you’re not open-minded, that you’re heterosexist, that you’re less evolved or any of that crud. All it’d mean is that this just isn’t the right relationship for you two, or the right thing for you at this time in your lives. We might all come across awesome people who have a romantic or sexual interest in us, and where we share one or both of those interests—we might both even want the same things in a relationship. But sometimes, even with all of that in common, the timing just isn’t right, or something just doesn’t make us a sound fit together for a certain kind of relationship.

I find intimate relationships are kind of like finding a pair of jeans that really truly fit—not that fit in most parts of our bodies, but gap or pinch in another, but that super-elusive pair that actually fits all over, without being too tight or too big, too long or too short, and which still fit even after you put them in the dryer. The pair that didn’t cost you a fortune, but not only fit beautifully, but don’t fall apart after a few washes, and can weather you actually living your life in them.

If you know what I’m talking about when it comes to That Magic Pair of Pants, you can perhaps get what I’m saying about intimate relationships. It can be tough to find a really great fit that works for us even in the short-term, let alone long-term. We’re likely to have to do some trial and error, and explore at least several relationships where we find out that they’re just not that great a fit after all, or where they could be, but we’ve got to make some alterations. If this turns out to be something you’re not comfortable with over time as the kind of relationship it currently is, that says about as much about you or this relationship, I think, as not having a pair of jeans fit just right would say about you or those jeans: it’s just not a right match, that’s all. And while that can be a bummer, sometimes a huge one, it really is okay.

I’m going to leave you with a few links to look at. I particularly think going through the stocklist at the end might be a great thing for you to do, for him to do, and then for both of you to evaluate together. I’m hearing a lot about his sexuality in all of this, but actually, very little about yours, so I’m wondering if in your relationship, as in this post, more room might need to be made for you in this equation, and if so, working that list might help you figure that out and communicate what you want and need more easily.

Commentary Violence

This is Not The Story I Wanted—But It’s My Story of Rape

Dani Kelley

Writer Dani Kelley thought she had shed the patriarchal and self-denying lessons of her conservative religious childhood. But those teachings blocked her from initially admitting that an encounter with a man she met online was not a "date" that proved her sexual liberation, but an extended sexual assault.

Content note: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence.

The night I first truly realized something was wrong was supposed to be a good night.

A visiting friend and I were in pajamas, eating breakfast food at 10 p.m., wrapped in blankets while swapping stories of recent struggles and laughs.

There I was, animatedly telling her about my recently acquired (and discarded) “fuck buddy,” when suddenly the story caught in my throat.

When I finally managed to choke out the words, they weren’t what I expected to say. “He—he held me down—until, until I couldn’t—breathe.”

Hearing myself say it out loud was a gut-punch. I was sobbing, gasping for breath, arms wrapped as if to hold myself together, spiraling into a terrifying realization.

This isn’t the story I wanted.

Unlearning My Training

I grew up in the Plymouth Brethren movement, a small fundamentalist Christian denomination that justifies strict gender roles through a literal approach to the Bible. So, according to 1 Corinthians 11:7, men are considered “the image and glory of God,” while women are merely “the glory of man.” As a result, women are expected to wear head coverings during any church service, among other restrictions that can be best summed up by the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 2:11-12: Women are never allowed to have authority over men.

If you’ve spent any number of years in conservative Christianity like I did, you’re likely familiar with the fundamentalist tendency to demonize that which is morally neutral or positive (like premarital sex or civil rights) while sugar-coating negative experiences. The sugar-coating can be twofold: Biblical principles are often used to shame or gaslight abuse victims (like those being shunned or controlled or beaten by their husbands) while platitudes are often employed to help members cope with “the sufferings of this present time,” assuring them that these tragedies are “not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

In many ways, it’s easy to unlearn the demonization of humanity as you gain actual real-world experience refuting such flimsy claims. But the shame? That can be more difficult to shake.

The heart of those teachings isn’t only present in this admittedly small sect of Christianity. Rather, right-wing Western Christianity as a whole has a consent problem. It explicitly teaches its adherents they don’t belong to themselves at all. They belong to God (and if they’re not men, they belong to their fathers or husbands as well). This instilled lack of agency effectively erases bodily autonomy while preventing the development of healthy emotional and physical boundaries.

On top of that, the biblical literalism frequently required by conservative Christianity in the United States promotes a terrifying interpretation of Scripture, such as Jeremiah 17:9. The King James Version gives the verse a stern voice, telling us that “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” If we believe this, we must accept that we’re untrustworthy witnesses to our own lives. Yet somehow, we’re expected to rely on the authority of those the Bible deems worthy. People like all Christians, older people, and men.

Though I’ve abandoned Christianity and embraced feminist secular humanism, the culture in which I grew up and my short time at conservative Bob Jones University still affect how I view myself and act in social situations. The lessons of my formative years created a perfect storm of terrible indoctrination: gender roles that promoted repressed individuality for women while encouraging toxic masculinity, explicit teaching that led to constant second-guessing my ability to accurately understand my own life, and a biblical impetus to “rejoice in my suffering.”

Decades of training taught me I’m not allowed to set boundaries.

But Some Habits Die Hard

Here’s the thing. At almost 30, I’d never dated anyone other than my ex-husband. So I thought it was about time to change that.

When I found this man’s online profile, I was pleasantly surprised. It was full of the kind of geekery I’m into, even down to the specific affinity for eclectic music. I wrote to him, making sure my message and tone were casual. He responded instantly, full of charisma and charm. Within hours, we’d made plans to meet.

He was just as friendly and attentive in person. After wandering around town, window-shopping, and getting to know one another, he suggested we go to his favorite bar. As he drank (while I sipped water), he kept paying me compliments, slowly breaking the touch barrier. And honestly, I was enthralled—no one had paid attention to me like this in years.

When he suggested moving out to the car where we could be a little more intimate, I agreed. The rush of feeling desired was intoxicating. He seemed so focused on consent—asking permission before doing anything. Plus, he was quite straightforward about what he wanted, which I found exciting.

So…I brought him home.

This new and exciting “arrangement” lasted one week, during which we had very satisfying, attachment-free sex several times and after which we parted ways as friends.

That’s the story I told people. That’s the story I thought I believed. I’d been freed from the rigid expectations and restraints of my youth’s purity culture.

Now. You’re about to hear me say many things I know to be wrong. Many feminists or victim advocates almost certainly know the rationalizations and reactions I’m about to describe are both normal responses to abuse and a result of ingrained lies about sex in our culture. Not to mention evidence of the influence that right-wing conservatism can have on shaping self-actualization.

As I was telling people the story above, I left out important details. Were my omissions deliberate? An instinctive self-preservation mechanism? A carryover from draconian ideals about promiscuity?

When I broke down crying with my friend, I finally realized I’d kept quiet because I couldn’t bear to hear myself say what happened.

I’m a feminist, damn it. I left all the puritanical understandings of gender roles behind when I exited Christianity! I even write about social justice and victim advocacy. I ought to recognize rape culture!


If only being a socially aware feminist was enough to erase decades of socialization as a woman within rape culture—or provide inoculation against sexual violence.

That first night, once we got to my car, he stopped checking in with me. I dismissed the red flag as soon as I noticed it, telling myself he’d stop if I showed discomfort. Then he smacked my ass—hard. I pulled away, staring at him in shocked revulsion. “Sorry,” he replied, smirking.

He suggested that we go back to my house, saying we’d have more privacy than at his place. I was uneasy, unconvinced. But he began passionately kissing, groping, petting, and pleading. Against my better judgment, I relented.

Yet, in the seclusion of my home, there was no more asking. There was only telling.

Before I knew it, I’d been thrown on my back as he pulled off my clothes. I froze. The only coherent thought I could manage was a weak stammer, asking if he had a condom. He seemed agitated. “Are you on birth control?” That’s not the point! I thought, mechanically answering “yes.”

With a triumphant grin and no further discussion, he forced himself into me. Pleasure fought with growing panic as something within me screamed for things to slow down, to just stop. The sensation was familiar: identical to how I felt when raped as a child.

I frantically pushed him off and rolled away, hyperventilating. I muttered repeatedly, “I need a minute. Just give me a minute. I need a minute.”

“We’re not finished yet!” he snapped angrily. As he reached for me again, I screeched hysterically, “I’M NOT OK! I NEED A MINUTE!”

Suddenly, he was kind and caring. Instead of being alarmed, I was strangely grateful. So once I calmed down, I fucked him. More than once.

It was—I told myself—consensual. After all, he comforted me during a flashback. Didn’t I owe him that much?

Yet, if I didn’t do what he wanted, he’d forcefully smack my ass. If I didn’t seem happy enough, he’d insistently tell me to smile as he hit me again, harder. He seemed to relish the strained smile I would force on command.

I kept telling myself I was okay. Happy, even. Look at how liberated I was!

All week, I was either at his beck and call or fighting suicidal urges. Never having liked alcohol before, I started drinking heavily. I did all I could to minimize or ignore the abuse. Even with his last visit—as I fought to breathe while he forcefully held my head down during oral sex, effectively choking me—I initially told myself desperately that surely he wouldn’t do any of this on purpose.

The Stories We Tell and The Stories That Just Are

Reflecting on that week, I’m engulfed in shame. I’m a proud feminist. I know what coercion looks like. I know what rape looks like. I know it’s rarely a scary man wearing a ski mask in a back alley. I’ve heard all the victim-blaming rape apologia you have: that women make up rape when they regret consenting to sex, or going on a date means sex is in the cards, or bringing someone home means you’re game for anything.

Reality is, all of us have been socialized within a patriarchal system that clouds our experiences and ability to classify them. We’re told to tend and befriend the men who threaten us. De-escalation at any cost is the go-to response of almost any woman I’ve ever talked to about unwanted male attention. Whatever will satiate the beast and keep us safe.

On top of that, my conservative background whispered accusations of being a Jezebel, failing to safeguard my purity, and getting exactly what I deserve for forsaking the faith.

It’s all lies, of course. Our culture lies when it says that there are blurred lines when it comes to consent. It violates our personhood when it requires us to change the narrative of the violence enacted against us for their own comfort. Right-wing Christianity lies when it says we don’t belong to ourselves and must submit to the authority of a religion or a gender.

Nobody’s assaulted because they weren’t nice enough or because they “failed” to de-escalate. There’s nothing we can do to provoke such violence. Rape is never deserved. The responsibility for sexual assault lies entirely with those who attack us.

So why was the story I told during and after that ordeal so radically and fundamentally different from what actually happened? And why the hell did I think any of what happened was OK?

Rape myths are so ingrained in our cultural understanding of relationships that it was easier for me to believe nothing bad had happened than to accept the truth. I thought if I could only tell the story I wanted it to be, then maybe that’s what really happened. I thought if I was willing—if I kept having him over, if I did what he ordered, if I told my friends how wonderful it was—it would mean everything was fine. It would mean I wasn’t suffering from post-traumatic stress or anxiety about defying the conservative tenets of my former political and religious system.

Sometimes, we tell ourselves the stories we want to hear until we’re able to bear the stories of what actually happened.

We all have a right to say who has what kind of access to our bodies. A man’s masculinity gives him no authority over anyone’s sexual agency. A lack of a “no” doesn’t mean a “yes.” Coercion isn’t consent. Sexual acts performed without consent are assault. We have a right to tell our stories—our real stories.

So, while this isn’t the story I wanted, it’s the story that is.

I was raped.

Culture & Conversation Media

‘I Could Have Written This Myself’: Jessica Valenti’s Memoir Is Painfully Relatable

Feminista Jones

Jessica Valenti's latest, Sex Object, is a book that many women will read and think, at least 20 different times, “I could have written this myself.”

When I was 11 years old, a much older man followed me as I walked home from school. He made comments about my body in suggestive ways that made it very clear he wanted to do more than simply say, “Hello.”

It was the first time I recall feeling like a sexual object, though I did not quite understand what it meant at such a tender age. I did know that the way that man spoke to me was wrong, very wrong. I knew that I felt dirty, ashamed, and uncomfortable, so much so that I wanted to cover myself up before ever going back outside again.

Nearly every day since then, I have been acutely aware of at least one man on the street or in other spaces who has felt bold enough to engage me as his possession, if only for a few seconds. Never quite a human being, never quite an emotional being whose day can be ruined by licentious whispers or random grabs, I was simply an object, likely one of many those men would pass by throughout the day.

My reading of Jessica Valenti’s newest book, Sex Object, took me back to so many of these encounters, some more painfully vulgar than others.

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Valentico-founder of the popular blog Feministing and author of several feminist tomes confronting rape culture and championing sex-positivityoffers a series of anecdotes in Sex Object on the life experiences that have made her acutely aware of her status as a sexually objectified being.

I immediately connected with her narrative as though I had dictated my life story to her. Not only do she and Itwo highly visible, outspoken feminist women assumed by some to exist at theoretical oddshave so much in common in this regard, but these stories echo the realities of many other women who feel silenced by fear and shame.

Through my work as an advocate for victims of street harassment, I’ve witnessed other women speak out and share their stories of being made to feel like sex objects. Like me, they can certainly connect to the feeling of being repeatedly objectified just by virtue of being women (or girls in many instances). That there are so many of us who can relate to the pain, the anxiety, or even the occasional numbness, is how I am reminded of the importance of the work that I and others do as feminists to make the world safer for women, particularly the work of rejecting the notion that we should feel shame or fear for we are all connected by the universality of the experience.

The feminist movement, particularly in America, has ebbed and flowed in its waves over the last century. With each new wave comes a set of key issues those of us who openly identify as feminists focus more of our energy on. Whether we feel compelled to challenge a new outlandishly oppressive legislation proposed to further limit women’s rights and the rights of other marginalized groups; we rally to protest and demand justice in a series of heinous acts of violence against women, trans women of color in particular; or perhaps we are motivated by reports from leading advocacy groups that suggest women’s equal access to resources, legal protections, and bodily autonomy remains tenuous at besteach generation of feminists rises to the challenge of continuing the fights of those before us.

I appreciated Valenti’s discussion of victimology and how it has factored into some of the splits within the feminist movement. There are those feminists who reject the victim label according to the long-standing practice of denying victimhood based simply on womanhood. There are also those who, like Valenti, understand that “despite the well-worn myth that feminists are obsessed with victimhood, feminism today feels like an unstoppable force of female agency and independence.”

No stranger to criticism from within factions of the feminist movement, Valenti also touches briefly on the challenges of a decentralized movement while acknowledging the value in approaching these issues with an intersectional lens. In the book, she readily acknowledges her privileges as a white feminist woman and notes the efforts of those living at the intersections of gender, race, and sexuality to push the movement forward. At times, she seems to be writing on eggshells, and I gather it might be due to the backlash she has received over some controversial statements or pushback via her Twitter feed. Sex Object is personal, yes, but Valenti’s choice to note the nuances of modern feminism (given her own contributions as a respected thought leader) is admirable.

One could argue that the exposure of conflicts, particularly via social media like Twitter or Facebook, weaken the movement and its broader intentions. But I offer that healthy disagreement has strengthened us allveteran feminists and newcomers alikeas we have been given opportunities to engage each other in ways that our foremothers were unable to.

Followers and subscribers are learning as we share our experiences, as Valenti has done here, and the critical need to respect these unique lived experiences cannot be understated. While some have all but completely bowed out from engaging in what can be an unnecessarily vicious behaviors associated with “call-out culture,” other feminists like me, who are regarded as representatives of particular factions, remain willing to listen, share, learn, and unlearn. And what we who willingly engage in such public discourse have discovered in the middle of all of this is that we do share these common experiences with being objectified as women, regardless of race, class, ethnicity, orientation, or gender identity and presentation, and not always on the street. Many of us encounter this type of harassment in other areas of our life as well, such as at the office or even in our own homes. “The individual experiences are easy enough to name, but their cumulative impact feels slippery,” Valenti notes in her introduction.

One of the most important takeaways from the book is that there is no such thing as a perfect or ideal feminist: We are each humanly flawed and have a lot of learning and unlearning to do. “It’s okay if we don’t want to be inspirational,” she writes. If I had a church fan at that moment, I would have waved it in strong agreement.

The current wave of feminism inspires us to openly acknowledge that our experiences as sex objects have had lingering effects on our mental health, such as disrupting our ability to form healthy intimate partnerships. I appreciated how Valenti opened up about her own process of navigating various intimate encounters and partnerships through this lens. For example, she writes about her own anxiety and how her post-traumatic stress disorder affected her relationship with her husband. Though Valenti and I come from vastly different backgrounds, we connect heremy relationships have been largely negatively affected by the sexual traumas I’ve endured in my own life.

Like Valenti, I sought therapy to deal with my experiences. I’m a social worker by profession and recognized that I needed to engage someone with professional skills to help me address the lingering trauma. Valenti opens up about the therapy sessions she’s had, both alone and with her husband, and how they helped her better understand her responses to certain triggers. It is important, for those who are able to do so, to seek support and not live with fear or shame associated with the negative mental health side effects resulting from sex harassment.

To be a woman in this world is to be aware that, in at least some way, your body is supposed to exist for the consumption and control of men. “It’s not a matter of if something bad happens, but when and how bad,” she writes.

But Sex Object reminds us that we can be vocal about generational sexual trauma and abuse of girls and women because these experiences are common—too common, really. And however feminism manifests in our lives, whether we identify as sex-positive feminists, Black feminists, or womanists, embracing this liberation movement aids us in doing the incredibly difficult work of rejecting the burden of shame.

We can speak more freely about our abortions, as Valenti did in what becomes her signature frank, straight-no-chaser narrative style. Her straightforward, often explicit descriptions of her experiences leave the reader with an understanding that abortion is matter-of-fact and should not be as taboo an issue as it continues to be.

If one takes anything away from Sex Object, it should be the empowering liberation that comes when speaking the truth about one’s experiences as a woman, good and bad, amazing and horrifying, even if only to oneself.

Read this book not as a sex-positive feminist manifesto, but as a personal, therapeutic memoir. I get the sense that writing this book was way more important to Valenti’s own personal growth as a woman, mother, partner, and feminist than it was serving as a feminist guidebook for navigating female sexual objectification. Sex Object is raw; it is relatable and blatant in its (occasionally triggering) honesty. It is a book that many women will read and think, at least 20 different times, “I could have written this myself.”