Advice Sexuality

Get Real! Why Am I Scared to Touch My Own Vagina?

Heather Corinna

Feeling anxiety or shame about one's own genitals happens. Here are some things to consider and some approaches to learning to accept and embrace these body parts.

Published in partnership with Scarleteen

birthdaycake123 asks:

Hey. I’m 14 and I’ve never fingered myself. I’ve done other things, but the thought of fingering myself just seems gross. A couple times, I’ve tried to, but then I get to thinking about how gross vaginas are, and I chicken out. I know this is irrational, but do you have any advice on getting over this? Thanks.

Heather Corinna replies:

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Well, I don’t think vaginas or vulvas (or penises or anuses or mouths or ears or eyes or fingers or kidneys—any body parts) are gross. I think they’re really freaking cool and totally fascinating, whether I’m talking or thinking about my own, or all vulvas or vaginas. But you’re making it quite clear that you feel this way, and I wish I knew more about why.

No matter what, you don’t have to ever masturbate or touch yourself in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable. Masturbation is about seeking our own pleasure and comfort with our own bodies, which means that if there’s anything that doesn’t feel pleasurable or comfortable, we don’t have to do it, just like we don’t have to do anything that doesn’t feel physically and emotionally good with a sexual partner. There aren’t right or wrong ways to masturbate or have sex in this regard: just what feels right to the person or people involved. If you don’t want to put your fingers inside your vagina, you don’t have to, just like if you don’t want to touch your elbow you don’t have to, and you don’t have to stick your finger in your nose if you don’t want to do that.

For the record, inserting fingers into the vagina as masturbation all by itself isn’t that common, even though that’s usually not about a sense that the vagina is gross, but about that sensation not feeling like much to write home about all by itself, or your own fingers not offering the kind of angle or leverage for that to feel as good as it can. Likewise, “fingering” by a partner, when people choose to do that with partnered sex—when all that’s going on is fingers inside a vagina—often doesn’t feel like anything for anyone to go super-bananas about either, mostly just because the vagina, all by itself, isn’t as rich with sensory nerve endings as other areas of the genitals, like the clitoral glans. If you have the idea that if you or someone else doesn’t now or ever put fingers into your vagina that means you’re not fully sexual, know that just isn’t true. Our sexuality is a lot bigger than what we do or don’t do when it comes to sexual activities, and isn’t defined by what, if any, tab goes into what, if any, slot.

If you don’t want to touch any part of your vulva at all, you don’t have to do that, either, though that’s going to make things like using the toilet and dealing with menstrual periods more than a little tricky.

But feeling really grossed out by our own bodies is a very emotionally uncomfortable thing that doesn’t tend to make us feel good about ourselves. So, whatever you choose to do or avoid when it comes to masturbation for the time being, or even forever, I think that trying to work through the way you’re feeling around this is going to be of benefit to you. I don’t think you’re going to feel very good now or through life feeling fearful about or grossed out by your vagina.

Like I said, I don’t know your reasons for thinking and feeling the way you do. But you’re nothing close to the first person I’ve heard from who’s felt like this, and I’ve talked in depth with others feeling like you are, so I have a good grasp of some of the common roots of or reasons for feeling this way.

Does your vagina seem gross because it’s a canal into your body? If so, how about your mouth and throat? Your ears? Your rectum? These too are all canals into the body from the outside. If they’re not gross, or even one of them isn’t gross, then why would the vagina be gross? Or maybe you just have a hard time when it comes to thinking about you or anyone else’s insides? If either of these things feel like an issue, it might help to do some thinking about how your body is both insides and outsides; one is no more or less gross than the other, even though they tend to look different. Plus, without our insides, our outsides would look pretty darn weird—not at all what they look like now. Our insides have a lot to do with our outsides. If you’re just feeling funny about insides, period, have you yet taken a health or biology class at school? If you haven’t, I’d see if you can. Some impersonal, academic exposure might help you. You might still feel like bodies are weird (and they kind of are, but that doesn’t mean they’re gross), but you probably won’t single out your vagina so much afterward.

Does it seem gross because you don’t know or understand it? Not knowing the deal with a body part can feel pretty weird or scary sometimes. What’s mysterious can sometimes feel exciting, but other times can freak us right the heck out. So, if that’s part of this, how about finding out what’s in there and how it all works? You can read about that here or here. Your vagina doesn’t have to be a mystery to you.

Does your vagina seem gross because all genitals seem gross? If so, why? What makes genitals, when it comes to being gross or not, different from other body parts for you? Is it about them having fluids? If so, our eyes have fluids, our mouths and noses have fluids. In fact, we’re all mostly fluids; our bodies are made up of around 60 percent water. Is it because fluids can have something to do with reproduction? Or menstruation? Or because of messages you’ve gotten growing up about them being way different? With this one, I think it just pays to spend some time thinking about why genitals would be gross, but, for instance, squishy gray brain matter isn’t or the bottoms of our feet aren’t.

Does it seem gross because it doesn’t quite feel like yours yet? Even though, if you were born with a vagina, you’ve had one your whole life, during and around puberty, your vulva—much more so than your vagina—changes a lot. Those changes can happen in a way that feels fast enough that it can sometimes take a little while for the vulva or vagina you have now to really feel like yours—to feel like a part of you that you know and identify with. With something like that, it may just be that you need some more time to get used to these parts of your body, and that’s OK. You get to take all the time you need. As our bodies change, as they will throughout our lives, we’ll find that sometimes we need some time to adjust to them, time that can be minutes or time that can be years or even decades.

How about your feelings about your gender? Sometimes extreme discomfort with genitals is about gender identity. For instance, if someone very strongly feels like one gender when they have body parts that are “supposed” to be those of a different gender or sex, they can feel very uncomfortable. Sometimes even when someone feels like the gender that “matches” the body they have, if they have strong negative feelings about that gender, or things people say about that gender, or ways they feel pushed to be that gender, they can have these kinds of feelings. Some body parts, like our genitals, mean we can get gendered by others in ways we may not be comfortable with, or at a pace that doesn’t feel comfortable. That too can be a reason for feeling the way you’ve been feeling. Anything like this is something a qualified counselor can help you with.

Does it seem really gross, and have you been feeling severely uncomfortable, and not just with masturbation? Some folks have what’s called body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), a term used to describe when someone has an extremely pervasive and negative body image when it comes to a perceived defect of their physical features or body parts—when something seems to them to be very, very wrong with one or more parts of their body, so wrong that they experience profound emotional distress about it. The Mayo Clinic sums BDD up as “imagined ugliness” and says, “When you have body dysmorphic disorder, you intensely obsess over your appearance and body image, often for many hours a day. You may seek out numerous cosmetic procedures to try to ‘fix’ your perceived flaws, but never will be satisfied. Body dysmorphic disorder is also known as dysmorphophobia, the fear of having a deformity.” If that sounds like you, your best bet, again, is to talk to a qualified counselor who can help.

Does your vulva or vagina seem gross because there are parts of your sexuality you’re not comfortable with? If so, this is something that you might just need to give yourself some more time with. Feeling at home in our sexuality is often a process, and in a lot of ways a lifelong process. Being all the way there at 14, especially in a world where there are so many messages that support feeling bad or freaked about your sexuality or your body, would be pretty unusual. It’s OK not to feel totally comfortable just yet, and it’s OK for getting there to be a process that takes time. You don’t need to try and push yourself to do anything that doesn’t feel right to you.

Or is this really about the idea that entry into vaginas is gross, rather than the idea that vaginas themselves are gross? Vaginal, anal, or oral entry can be loaded for plenty of people, with or without a partner, and it can also seem like a very different thing than external genital stimulation (probably in part because, in some ways, it really is different). For more on that, reading this might help: Let’s Get Metaphysical: The Etiquette of Entry.

Also, the idea of inserting something into our bodies can sometimes get paired in our heads with thoughts of other kinds of sex we might not want or want yet, feel comfortable with, or feel like have anything to do with our sexuality. Just know that if you do ever have the desire to explore your vaginal canal yourself, that doesn’t mean you have to want or choose to engage in any other kinds of sex with vaginal entry if that’s not something you want, now, soon, or later. Or maybe your sense is that the other things you do don’t “count” as masturbation, but putting fingers in your vagina would. If you’re externally rubbing your genitals for pleasure, that’s just as much masturbation as putting fingers inside your body would be.

Those are some of the most common things I tend to hear come up around this issue. One or all of them might be true for you, or maybe your feelings are about something else entirely. But if even after reading all of this, you’re not sure what’s going on, then I’d say the first thing you’ll want to do is to just think more about this over time so you can have a handle on the “why” of these feelings. It’s hard to move forward with something like this when we don’t have a sense of what we’re trying to move forward from. And sometimes just getting at the “why” gets us most of the way past something negative all by itself.

If you’ve got a library nearby, I have some books to suggest that I think will help you out. One I’d strongly suggest is Natalie Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Geography. I think that’d be a great one for you. It talks about your whole body and body parts with a whole bunch of cool facts you might not know and perspectives you may have never heard. But the best thing about that book, I think, especially for you, is that Angier basically totally geeks out about bodies in a really joyful way. She’s someone who clearly finds the vagina and other parts really interesting and neat, not at all gross, and her enthusiasm comes across in her writing: it’s quite contagious, and I think you could use those good vibes right now.

In fact, she says a few things about vaginas I think you could stand to hear right this very second:

The vagina, now there’s a Rorschach with legs. You can make of it practically anything you want, need or dread. A vagina in its most simple-minded rendering is an opening, an absence of form, an inert receptacle. It is a four- to five-inch-long tunnel that extends at a forty-five degree angle from the labia to the doughnut-shaped cervix. It is a pause between the declarative sentence of the outside world and the mutterings of the viscera. Built of skin, muscle and fibrous tissue, it is the most obliging of passageways, one that will stretch to accommodate travelers of any conceivable dimension, whether they are coming (penises, speculums) or going (infants)… The vagina is a balloon, a turtleneck sweater, a model for the universe itself, which, after all, is expanding in all directions even as we sit here and weep.

…The vagina is its own ecosystem, a land of unsung symbiosis and tart vigor. Sure, the traditional concept of the vagina is, “It’s a swamp down there!” but “tidal pool” would be more accurate: aqueous, stable, yet in perpetual flux.

See how someone like myself or Angier, thinking and viewing this body part in these kinds of ways, can pretty much only think, “Whoa, awesome!” or “Wow, that is cool!” instead of, “Eeeew, gross”—especially when all of that and more is part of your own body? I mean, seriously, how cool is it that that’s a part of you? If you ask me, very.

I’d also suggest checking out Nancy Redd’s Body Drama and Our Bodies, Ourselves. If you’ve never read it, The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler is a great thing to read when it comes to feeling in good company with some of the feelings you’ve been having and getting some messages that help explore and counter feeling crummy about your vagina. If you like the way I’ve talked about this with you and what you’ve seen at Scarleteen, you might also find my book helpful. It has a whole chapter about body image, including with genitals.

One big thing that runs through all the possibilities I brought up in that list up there is that we really can get a lot of negative messages about vulvas and vaginas, some so sneaky we don’t even realize that we’ve gotten them and internalized them. If you can figure out where you might have gotten or might still be getting messages that make you feel gross about your body, one big helpful thing you can do is to learn to change the channel. In other words, you’ve had the negative, so you switch to some more positive messages, like I’ve been talking about here and like the books I’ve suggested. Doing that can also make it a lot easier to just tune our or turn off the negative messages, and when we hear them, even just inside our own heads, they tend to sound a lot more silly and a lot less powerful.

Analysis Law and Policy

Indiana Court of Appeals Tosses Patel Feticide Conviction, Still Defers to Junk Science

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled patients cannot be prosecuted for self-inducing an abortion under the feticide statute, but left open the possibility other criminal charges could apply.

The Indiana Court of Appeals on Friday vacated the feticide conviction of Purvi Patel, an Indiana woman who faced 20 years in prison for what state attorneys argued was a self-induced abortion. The good news is the court decided Patel and others in the state could not be charged and convicted for feticide after experiencing failed pregnancies. The bad news is that the court still deferred to junk science at trial that claimed Patel’s fetus was on the cusp of viability and had taken a breath outside the womb, and largely upheld Patel’s conviction of felony neglect of a dependent. This leaves the door open for similar prosecutions in the state in the future.

As Rewire previously reported, “In July 2013 … Purvi Patel sought treatment at a hospital emergency room for heavy vaginal bleeding, telling doctors she’d had a miscarriage. That set off a chain of events, which eventually led to a jury convicting Patel of one count of feticide and one count of felony neglect of a dependent in February 2015.”

To charge Patel with feticide under Indiana’s law, the state at trial was required to prove she “knowingly or intentionally” terminated her pregnancy “with an intention other than to produce a live birth or to remove a dead fetus.”

According to the Indiana Court of Appeals, attorneys for the State of Indiana failed to show the legislature had originally passed the feticide statute with the intention of criminally charging patients like Patel for terminating their own pregnancies. Patel’s case, the court said, marked an “abrupt departure” from the normal course of prosecutions under the statute.

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“This is the first case that we are aware of in which the State has used the feticide statute to prosecute a pregnant woman (or anyone else) for performing an illegal abortion, as that term is commonly understood,” the decision reads. “[T]he wording of the statute as a whole indicate[s] that the legislature intended for any criminal liability to be imposed on medical personnel, not on women who perform their own abortions,” the court continued.

“[W]e conclude that the legislature never intended the feticide statute to apply to pregnant women in the first place,” it said.

This is an important holding, because Patel was not actually the first woman Indiana prosecutors tried to jail for a failed pregnancy outcome. In 2011, state prosecutors brought an attempted feticide charge against Bei Bei Shuai, a pregnant Chinese woman suffering from depression who tried to commit suicide. She survived, but the fetus did not.

Shuai was held in prison for a year until a plea agreement was reached in her case.

The Indiana Court of Appeals did not throw out Patel’s conviction entirely, though. Instead, it vacated Patel’s second charge of Class A felony conviction of neglect of a dependent, ruling Patel should have been charged and convicted of a lower Class D felony. The court remanded the case back to the trial court with instructions to enter judgment against Patel for conviction of a Class D felony neglect of a dependent, and to re-sentence Patel accordingly to that drop in classification.

A Class D felony conviction in Indiana carries with it a sentence of six months to three years.

To support Patel’s second charge of felony neglect at trial, prosecutors needed to show that Patel took abortifacients; that she delivered a viable fetus; that said viable fetus was, in fact, born alive; and that Patel abandoned the fetus. According to the Indiana Court of Appeals, the state got close, but not all the way, to meeting this burden.

According to the Indiana Court of Appeals, the state had presented enough evidence to establish “that the baby took at least one breath and that its heart was beating after delivery and continued to beat until all of its blood had drained out of its body.”

Therefore, the Court of Appeals concluded, it was reasonable for the jury to infer that Patel knowingly neglected the fetus after delivery by failing to provide medical care after its birth. The remaining question, according to the court, was what degree of a felony Patel should have been charged with and convicted of.

That is where the State of Indiana fell short on its neglect of a dependent conviction, the court said. Attorneys had failed to sufficiently show that any medical care Patel could have provided would have resulted in the fetus surviving after birth. Without that evidence, the Indiana Court of Appeals concluded, state attorneys could not support a Class A conviction. The evidence they presented, though, could support a Class D felony conviction, the court said.

In other words, the Indiana Court of Appeals told prosecutors in the state, make sure your medical experts offer more specific testimony next time you bring a charge like the one at issue in Patel’s case.

The decision is a mixed win for reproductive rights and justice advocates. The ruling from the court that the feticide statute cannot be used to prosecute patients for terminating their own pregnancy is an important victory, especially in a state that has sought not just to curb access to abortion, but to eradicate family planning and reproductive health services almost entirely. Friday’s decision made it clear to prosecutors that they cannot rely on the state’s feticide statute to punish patients who turn to desperate measures to end their pregnancies. This is a critical pushback against the full-scale erosion of reproductive rights and autonomy in the state.

But the fact remains that at both trial and appeal, the court and jury largely accepted the conclusions of the state’s medical experts that Patel delivered a live baby that, at least for a moment, was capable of survival outside the womb. And that is troubling. The state’s experts offered these conclusions, despite existing contradictions on key points of evidence such as the gestational age of the fetus—and thus if it was viable—and whether or not the fetus displayed evidence of life when it was born.

Patel’s attorneys tried, unsuccessfully, to rebut those conclusions. For example, the state’s medical expert used the “lung float test,” also known as the hydrostatic test, to conclude Patel’s fetus had taken a breath outside the womb. The test, developed in the 17th century, posits that if a fetus’ lungs are removed and placed in a container of liquid and the lungs float, it means the fetus drew at least one breath of air before dying. If the lungs sink, the theory holds, the fetus did not take a breath.

Not surprisingly, medical forensics has advanced since the 17th century, and medical researchers widely question the hydrostatic test’s reliability. Yet this is the only medical evidence the state presented of live birth.

Ultimately, the fact that the jury decided to accept the conclusions of the state’s experts over Patel’s is itself not shocking. Weighing the evidence and coming to a conclusion of guilt or innocence based on that evidence is what juries do. But it does suggest that when women of color are dragged before a court for a failed pregnancy, they will rarely, if ever, get the benefit of the doubt.

The jurors could have just as easily believed the evidence put forward by Patel’s attorneys that gestational age, and thus viability, was in doubt, but they didn’t. The jurors could have just as easily concluded the state’s medical testimony that the fetus took “at least one breath” was not sufficient to support convicting Patel of a felony and sending her to prison for 20 years. But they didn’t.

Why was the State of Indiana so intent on criminally prosecuting Patel, despite the many glaring weaknesses in the case against her? Why were the jurors so willing to take the State of Indiana’s word over Patel’s when presented with those weaknesses? And why did it take them less than five hours to convict her?

Patel was ordered in March to serve 20 years in prison for her conviction. Friday’s decision upends that; Patel now faces a sentence of six months to three years. She’s been in jail serving her 20 year sentence since February 2015 while her appeal moved forward. If there’s real justice in this case, Patel will be released immediately.

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.