Advice Sexuality

Get Real! I Don’t Want to Spend My Life Never Being Satisfied by Sex

Heather Corinna

How do you reach orgasm from a given kind of sex when you just can't? And how do you feel satisfied by sex if you're not reaching orgasm?

Published in partnership with Scarleteen

kt21 asks:

I’ve done my reading and I know this problem has been addressed several times … but I still do not have an answer! Until I read this site I thought I was the only girl who couldn’t reach orgasm from sex (so thank you!) I now realize I am not, and understand that nothing is wrong with me, but it still sucks! I don’t want to spend my life never being satisfied by sex. It is extremely frustrating for me, as well as I know it is for my partners who spend so much time and effort trying to satisfy me. I know it is hard to generalize because all women are different and enjoy different things, but aside from the common “find out what you enjoy” answer, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE tell me anything that may be able to make a person like me orgasm from sex! I just want to be able to enjoy sex, and when you know you’re not going to be fully satisfied it gets boring pretty quick. I feel like I am always being teased! Yes, men can make me come from outer stimulation, but it takes a very long time, and we all know boys are impatient. So because I very rarely get to fully enjoy sex I am getting all excited just to be let down. At this point I am considering giving up intercourse all together! Please help me! I don’t know what else to do!

Heather Corinna replies:

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There is a lot to unpack here, but I first want to make sure we’re on the same page with some basics, particularly since my sense is you don’t have an answer to this because you’re not asking yourself the right questions.

You’re saying you can’t have an orgasm from sex, but want to. You’re also saying that there are kinds of sex where you do reach orgasm. Sex can be a whole lot of things. When you’re saying you don’t reach orgasm from sex, you actually appear to be talking about only one kind of sex, vaginal intercourse. You’re saying you want to reach orgasm during that one kind of sex and, so far, you can’t.

You’re using terms like enjoyment or satisfaction interchangeably with orgasm. That’s a problem, because they’re not the same things, even though they can be, and often are, interrelated. Someone can enjoy and feel satisfied with a given kind of sex, or their sex lives as a whole, but not reach orgasm sometimes or at a given time. Alternately, someone can reach orgasm, but find they don’t feel satisfied and/or didn’t enjoy themselves. By all means, for many people, experiencing orgasm is part of enjoyment and satisfaction with sex. Orgasm is only one piece of those things, and also doesn’t have to be a piece sometimes at all. For sure, orgasms can be seriously awesome. I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with wanting to orgasm and liking orgasm. Rather, I’m saying that orgasms alone are not likely to mean a person feels satisfied by sex or their sex lives or enjoys sex or their sex lives.

Even though it might seem silly, let’s clearly define those terms for our purposes:

orgasm: the conclusion of the plateau phase of the sexual response cycle, or the neurological/physiological peak of sexual response. It’s controlled by, and largely takes place within, the involuntary nervous system. It usually includes quick cycles of muscle contraction in the lower pelvis and muscular spasms in other areas of the body, and a general euphoric sensation. Orgasm and those sensations usually last a handful of seconds (though that euphoric feeling can continue for a little while longer than that).

satisfaction: the sense of feeling satisfied; the fulfillment or gratification of a desire, need, or appetite; pleasure (enjoyment, bliss, happiness) or contentment (feeling happy or pleased) derived from such gratification. When we talk about sexual satisfaction, we can be talking about feeling satisfied in a given moment, with one specific sexual encounter, in a given sexual relationship, and/or with our sex lives and sexuality as a whole.

enjoyment: having a good time, having fun, to take pleasure in or with.

Though it might seem sillier still, I’m going to tell you something about my house.

In order to heat the front of it, I need to make a fire in my wood stove. If I don’t, not only will we be very cold, but if it’s really cold outside, our pipes might freeze, which would be seriously bad. I can’t just flick a switch to make that happen; there are things I need and need to do to make that fire. It takes specific stuff, and it takes my attention and effort.

I need the stove, obviously. I need a lighter or matches. I need wood—both logs and kindling—and some kind of paper to get it all started. The wood has to be dry enough, and the flue of the stove has to be open. I also need at least a little bit of time to do all of this, and this particular wood stove has its own particular ways of behaving, so unlike other stoves I’ve had before, for instance, it needs a little more direct attention, and is very specific about how the wood is arranged.

So long as I have all of those things, I can usually make a fire. Not always—sometimes there’s still a fluke—but usually. So, when I have all of that and get it all going, I can make that fire, warm the house, and keep the pipes from freezing. I can achieve that particular goal, get that task done. That’s good stuff.

But what’s even better stuff is when it’s not just about making the fire to heat the house, when the task of making a fire is much more than a task, and the way I do it isn’t so goal-oriented. What’s even better, what’s really lovely, is when I have the time and am in the frame of mind to really enjoy, savor, and devote energy to the whole process, and when what I’m doing isn’t and doesn’t feel like a task, but is and feels like a great way to spend my time with something that feeds my senses, engages my heart and mind, and becomes a wonderful practice in fire-making.

When I go about making a fire that way, I might start by putting on my favorite sweater and boots and walking outside into the crisp air to get wood. That air smells and feels good on my face, plus my sweater keeps me warm and cozy. Looking at the trees all around reminds me of where the wood comes from, how grateful I am for it, and how beautiful the world I live in is. I’ll probably stand out there for a few minutes to soak it all in. Then, I’ll gather the wood in my arms, which will engage my muscles and make me feel strong. I’ll bring it inside; sort all the things I need; settle down in front of the fire; arrange the kindling, wood, and paper inside the stove; and light the paper aflame, which is pleasing to my eyes. Pieces of the wood will start to pop and crackle. I love that sound. The colors of the fire are magnetic, energizing, and calming—all at the same time. I start to smell the fire getting going. I love that smell, and I know that later on, it’ll be in my hair and on my sweater for me to enjoy all day.

I blow into the fire to really get it revved up, which feels good to my mouth, my face, and my lungs. I focus on my breath and what it can do, which relaxes and centers me. I’m patient with the fire, which also makes me feel good, because I’m one of those folks who does think it’s a virtue, so I feel thoughtful, relaxed, and virtuous.

In time, and how much time always varies, the fire usually winds up roaring. It’s beautiful. The heat feels great on my skin; the smell is fantastic. Sitting near it with my coffee afterwards adds to my enjoyment. The coffee even tastes a little different, because of the smell of the fire. I don’t rush away, I sit and relax, revisiting the whole process in my mind, enjoying where it is now in the moment. I got the fire I wanted and needed, I accomplished that goal, but I also just had and made a whole bunch of really lovely things happen that were not only great all by themselves, but which made the matter of having a fire, of that task, about a million times more wonderful and feel much less like a task and much more like a treat.

Not having an orgasm won’t freeze your pipes or land you with hypothermia, but all the same, my fire is your orgasm. It’s the most basic goal, and like orgasm, it’s also something that can’t just happen any old time without whatever specific things my particular fire needs. That goal is part of your enjoyment and satisfaction, but only a part of it. The process of getting to that goal—if you even do get there—is what’s much more related to sexual enjoyment and satisfaction. My process of really taking the time with fire-building, and engaging all my senses, is like the kind of sex that people tend to find most often leaves them feeling satisfied and where they really enjoy themselves, even without an orgasm.

For sure, if I needed a fire and couldn’t start one up, that would be frustrating, but it’d be a lot more frustrating without having engaged in all those steps and enjoyed them. When I do all of that, even if I walk away fire-less and need to try again later, I feel pretty OK because I still got some things that felt good out of the process. If I tried to do it all kind of halfway, in a big rush, or when I just wasn’t in the mood, and couldn’t make a fire then, I’d feel a lot more frustrated, and I’m willing to bet this is part of why you’re feeling so frustrated too.

On the whole, people who go about sex in a way we call goal-oriented, or product-oriented, not only tend to orgasm less often, they tend to feel less satisfied with sex and their sex lives. People who tend to be more process-oriented in the sex they have, with partners and on their own in masturbation, tend to be more orgasmic and also tend to feel more satisfied. If you’re going to have a goal in sex, and want sex that really is enjoyable and feels satisfying, the goal needs to be engaging in that whole process, not just a given or final product or outcome, like orgasm. And if you’re not interested in the whole process, or find you don’t like it, even if and when you made orgasm a goal that you reached, you’re probably going to still feel unsatisfied.

When it comes to sex (not just intercourse) and feeling satisfied, that usually involves a whole bunch of things. When we listen to people talk candidly about sex or look at big sexuality surveys like the Durex Sexual Wellbeing survey or the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, we can see that feelings of sexual satisfaction are about way more than orgasm. Orgasm is often a piece of that picture, but all by itself? Meh. One study found that only 40 percent of people of all genders reaching orgasm reported that that alone left them feeling highly physically and emotionally satisfied (Sex in America: A Definitive Survey, 1994).

The big picture of what satisfaction is and what makes people feel satisfied sexually is a lot bigger than orgasm. It includes things like being in good mental and physical health, personal and emotional self-expression during sex, feeling emotionally connected to a partner (not just for women, either!), and being satisfied with the relationship you’re in overall, such as by having real chemistry with your partner, feeling cared for and respected, good communication, creativity, humor, spontaneity and variety (even with one partner, and this also means doing more than just intercourse), having sexual fantasies, feeling relaxed and not stressed, having sex as often as one would like, engaging in one’s own masturbation, good body image and self-image, and more. Our life histories even play a role, including what our first sexual experiences was like, how we were reared in terms of sexuality and our interpersonal relationships in childhood and adolescence, and even whether or not we’ve had good sex education.

It’s possible that you, like most people, feel you need to reach orgasm with any kind of sex as part of being satisfied or to enjoying yourself. That’s OK, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But, just like with my fire, people tend to need particular things to reach orgasm most of the time, and can’t just orgasm any old way, with everyone, or from everything. You already read enough to know that most women do not reach orgasm from intercourse all by itself consistently. You also seem to already know at least some ways you can reach orgasm. One thing it seems like you’re not getting is that if you need to reach orgasm from every kind of sex you have, especially without the things you know get you there, that’s not going to work. It seems like you also aren’t getting that the reason you feel dissatisfied, bored, teased, or impatient when it comes to vaginal intercourse probably isn’t about not reaching orgasm. People enjoy and feel satisfied with loads of things they don’t reach orgasm from, and usually like participating in many sexual activities that do not, all by themselves, result in orgasm for one or both partners, unless they’re only in sex for the orgasm or really don’t want to be doing whatever it is they are doing with whomever they are doing it with.

What I hear you saying is that you feel like intercourse is boring or unsatisfying for you, because you either don’t know if you’re going to orgasm or you know you are not. Yet, with any kind of sex, even kinds where we or others have reached orgasm before, no one can ever count on reaching orgasm. Even if we orgasm from a given thing every time for years, at some point or another, chances are we’re not going to reach orgasm that way. As well, if we make the “goal” of sex orgasm, we’re often not going to reach that goal, and even when we do, it can feel half-arsed, especially in sex with partners. I suspect you’re not bored because you’re not reaching orgasm, but because of other issues, and because product-oriented sex tends to be pretty darn boring, period.

You say that “we all know boys are impatient.” The thing is, I’d not say that we all know that at all. That’s not everyone’s experience. Impatient or hasty lovers come in all genders, as can patient and responsive lovers. If you’re finding that your sexual partners are impatient, I think you might want to consider that that’s not because they’re men, but instead because you’re perhaps not choosing the best partners for you. I also suspect their impatience may be connected with your own or to them feeling desperate to engage you because you’re not very engaged with them, which can feel awfully uncomfortable in sex with a partner.

It sounds to me like you’re impatient yourself, even though you’re expressing your partners as the ones being impatient. They may very well be impatient too, but I think this is also your issue. You say you feel like you’re being teased, only to be let down. Sexually speaking, drawing out pleasure and desire is usually pretty fun and exciting. Of course, for it to feel that way, we have to enjoy what we’re doing, and when we’re having sex with a partner, really want to be with that partner—rather than masturbating—enjoy that person and like being sexual with them. If we aren’t really into all of that, it’s no wonder we want to race toward the finish line and just be done with it. The good news is that you get to choose your partners and interactions and choose what goes on in them. If sex feels boring with someone or with all your partners, you get to choose not to have sex with those partners or any partners, or take the time with partners to find out what you feel excited by with them.

You sound like you also are short on patience for experimenting with partners in sex. That’s a problem, because often enough, it does take a good deal of experimentation and patience to find out what we like and what works for us alone and in any given sexual partnership. I also wonder if when you’re having sex with partners, you’re really engaging with them. If you’re bored, I’m guessing not. If you’re not connecting in a real way—not just with your genitals—this might be part of why your partners want to please you so badly: They may be trying to find a way to engage you, to have you be all there.

That pressure to orgasm or be pleased needs to stop. That’s something else that simply doesn’t create the kind of emotional and psychological environment where any of us can really enjoy ourselves and just relax in the sex we’re having so that we are likely to both reach orgasm and feel satisfied. Feeling desperate doesn’t feel good, whether it’s about being desperate to please someone or being desperate to be pleased ourselves. Partners driving themselves up a tree to try and please us all the time can give us some clues about what they feel they’re not getting, what we might not be giving them (hint: it isn’t usually orgasm), or about if one or both of us is really in the right space to be sexual together. If we’re all freaking out and desperate, we can know we are not in the right space, at all.

I have a strong feeling that the biggest reasons you’re not feeling satisfied with any given kind of sex or enjoying any given kind of sex are not really about orgasm. Instead I think it’s more likely about things like not really doing things that turn you on and feel good, pushing yourself to try and like kinds of sex or partners you really don’t, not doing or asking for sexual activities in a way that feel good to you, not fully engaging and connecting with partners and communicating with them, possibly being with partners you’re not actually all that interested in being with in partnership in the first place, and maybe even being with partners before you’re yet in the right place in your own personal and sexual development for partnered sex to be enjoyable or satisfying for you (and them).

Here’s my advice, which is only that: my advice. I’d first strongly suggest you take time off from sexual partners and be your own sexual partner, all by yourself, for a good while. In other words, that you make masturbation your sex life for now. I just don’t think sexual partners sound like the right choice for you right now or what you want.

With your own masturbation—which is the way most people learn to be orgasmic—you can have an environment for sex without pressure; better identify what you like, want, and need; and get to know your own body and sexual self better. I suggest you come to your masturbation not thinking about how to learn to orgasm, but about how to learn to enjoy yourself in the way I do when I take the time to build my fire and savor that whole process. If you’re of age to purchase sex toys, you might invest in a vibrator and a toy for vaginal insertion. In combination with those two and your own hands, you’ll probably be able to get a better idea of what you like and what you don’t. With vaginal insertion, you can also find out what you might need to be happening before you begin any of that and also during. You may discover that that kind of stimulation can feel good and/or bring you to orgasm, but only when you’re in certain positions, when it’s very targeted (as in, not something more general like intercourse, but something more like fingers) or when it’s in conjunction with external clitoral, vulval, or other body stimulation at the same time. You may even discover that when you are way more turned on first, feel really comfortable and are in a different headspace than I suspect you’ve been in, that you can reach orgasm sometimes with only intravaginal and internal clitoral stimulation alone.

I’d also strongly suggest you invest time and energy into thinking about your sexual partnerships, what you’ve had in them, and what you haven’t. How do you feel about them? Are you really into them and are they really into you? Do your knees knock and does your head feel dreamy just being around them without sex? Do you feel relaxed and comfortable with them, and do they seem to with you? Do you love spending time with them and love being sexual or sensual with them, even with things like kissing that probably don’t result in orgasm? When you’re sexual with others, are you feeling really turned on before anyone’s clothes come off? Are you openly communicating what you want to them, and are they doing that with you? Is their pleasure just as exciting as your own? Do you want sex to last longer, rather than hoping you can just get off and get gone? Are you as invested in their feeling satisfied as you are in your own satisfaction? Are you connecting in ways that aren’t just sexual? Are you choosing partners who are patient, and who you also feel patient with yourself?

If and when you go back to sex with partners, I’d suggest you first make sure you’re only choosing partners who, when you ask yourself those kinds of questions, the answers are all yes. Those partners are always harder to find, so this is another place where you may need to learn more patience.

When you do connect with a partner like that, take your time getting to intercourse. Heck, take your time getting to any kind of sex at all. Enjoy those feelings of sexual anticipation. When you do start getting to genital sex, go slow. Take your time, both each time and overall. I have a feeling you haven’t been as turned on as you could be with any kind of sex, so stretch things out and see if you don’t feel how your body probably feels a little different than it has in the past. Communicate with each other. You know that, so far, intercourse isn’t the way you orgasm. So, put that out there, making clear that who knows if that will always be the case, but that for now, you know it’s not. If you know there are sexual activities you really like and others you think are ho-hum—a list like this might help you to clarify those—put that out there. Share your sexual likes and dislikes with each other. Since you’ll hopefully have identified more of what you think you need to feel satisfied with sex—physically, emotionally, interpersonally—before you come back to sex with partners, communicate that as well, and ask your partner to share what makes them feel satisfied, too.

If at any time with a partner, you find the process feels like a drag and you’re just wanting to get to the end, check in with yourself and check in with your partner. Don’t just lie around waiting for sex to be over and hope for an orgasm. Make sure you’re not having sex with a partner when what you really want is masturbation, or just to get yourself off. Only choose to have sex with others when feeling engaged the whole time feels awesome, is enjoyable, and where all the moments of sex, not just an orgasm, feel satisfying.

If the whole lot of this, even with time given just to masturbation, even with making different choices around partners, still feels like a drag or not all you hoped for, then it may be that other parts of your life and self need to be more exciting and satisfying, not just sex. Sometimes people are looking for sex to fill in for other things in their lives that are missing, or to provide all the excitement and satisfaction in their lives. Sex can’t do that, though, because it’s just one part of who we are. If the rest of our lives suck or feel blah, or we’re not giving our whole selves enough energy and attention, sex won’t fix that, even if it’s the best sex on earth.

I’m going to leave you with a few pieces I think will help you out. Then, I’m going to go build a fire, one enjoyable step at a time. I strongly suggest that whether it’s about your wood stove or your sex life, that’s what you go ahead and do too.

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!

Right?

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

A Q&A With ‘Never Too Real’ Author Carmen Rita Wong on Why #WeNeedDiverseBooks

Ilana Masad

Rewire had a chance to chat with Wong about her experience finding a place for the work she wanted to create, and what the media often gets wrong when portraying Latina women and other women of color.

Carmen Rita Wong says the characters in her new novel, Never Too Real, are largely invisible in media, which is why she chose to tell their stories. The fictional work is about Latina women who are both struggling and successful in their various fields. Wong says she’s treating this writing project as a mission, a way to tell the story of women like her: Latina women and other women of color who exist in ways other than the stereotypes so often portrayed on television and in films.

Wong herself is a master of media: She’s written for countless outlets, been the host of her own TV show, written books on finance, and now, she’s turned to fiction.

Rewire had a chance to chat with Wong about her experience finding a place for the work she wanted to create, and what the media often gets wrong when portraying Latina women and other women of color.

Rewire: How did this novel come about?

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Carmen Rita Wong: My a-ha! moment came with my daughter; we were walking together and passed a bus stop with [a poster for] a show and she said, “Mom, that poster, all those women look like you. But why are they maids?”

My daughter’s frame of reference is very different from mine: She’s growing up more privileged and with a Black president, surrounded by family where she happens to be a blonde Latina while her cousins are Black Latinas. I waited tables alongside my mom to put myself through college, so I have a deep respect for every form of work. But it was definitely one of those things where you only see yourself reflected in one way—and that’s how I grew up, seeing Latinas being shown in one way; but this is not how I live, and not how my daughter lives, now.

That same month I was having a party, celebrating my wonderful, successful girlfriends. We all came up together, we’ve all supported each other, and we’re all women of color, mostly Latina. I looked around and wondered, how come nobody knows we exist?

So I thought, all right, you know what? Now’s the time. This has just got to get done. I’m in a position to do this, I need to do it. It was very much a mission; I didn’t approach it as a side project.

Rewire: Kirkus Reviews, a book review site, called Never Too Real a “multicultural edition of Sex and the City.” How would you characterize the book? Would you call it that?

CRW: I think that superficially that’s a nice, easy elevator pitch because there are four of these women, they’re glamorous, and they’re in New York City. I think that’s where the similarities pretty much end. The book goes a lot deeper than that. If you had to categorize it TV-wise, it’s a “dramedy”: There’s some lightheartedness, there’s some playfulness, some glamor, but it is really about real issues in your life as you try to do well, if you try to be the first generation to do better than the previous. I think that’s one of the uniting factors of these four women—they’re all … first [in their families] to be born in the United States, and grow up and finish college. And that’s an important bonding issue that makes it very different [from] Sex in the City.

Rewire: Diversity in literature is a widely-discussed issue in the literary community these days, with hashtags like #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Was it hard for you to find a place for your book, to publish it?

CRW: I don’t know—hard for some people is not hard for others. Let’s just say—my agent’s probably going to kill me—but my favorite rejection from a major publisher, which actually confirmed to me that I was on the right track, was (and I have it memorized): “We are not looking for aspirational in this market at this time.”

Rewire: They called it aspirational?

CRW: Exactly. So it was mildly crushing, and then I realized—I’m on it, I am so on it. Because these publishers, who are they, and what have they published? Books by white men. Yes, those publishers are powerful, and yes, they’re rich, but they don’t get it. They don’t see it. They don’t know we exist. What is “this market,” and what is “aspirational?”

When I was coming up in media, in publishing and magazines, I would hear from people, “Carmen, we know you want to get ahead, but we just don’t know what to do with you.” And that’s code. What it really means is, “Carmen, you’re a brown girl, and we can promote this white guy or girl, but we can’t promote you. We just don’t know what to do with you.” But they would never say that to a white male. They would never say, “You know what, Bob? We just don’t know what to do with you.” So to me that rejection letter was just like that.

I remember back in the ’90s, there was a really great push of [books] like Waiting to Exhale or Joy Luck Club. There was just a lot more in fiction about successful, multigenerational, multicultural families. It just was normal and it was not considered crazy. I think there was a trend, and it just became a different trend. And then there was a push for powerful stories, but stories of only one note, for a long time in Latino fiction. I can’t read that stuff, because I lived it already. I want to read stories that make me escape or make me inspired or make me feel heard.

Rewire: In the book, you introduce women who come from all walks of life and economic backgrounds, but they’re all upper-middle-class at the time of the narrative. Going back to your daughter seeing the poster of Latina women portrayed as maids, do you find that economic diversity is what’s often missing in popular and literary culture?

CRW: My book wasn’t as calculated as that, because this is my life, and these are my friends and the people I surround myself with. I think what I saw missing in these cultures was that niche [of successful Latina women].

Latinos in popular culture … I’ve watched it be a very hard process. For example, when I was in magazines, they tried to push me to the Spanish-language property, and I’d say that I don’t primarily speak in Spanish. Why can’t I be used in the English-dominant space? Why? Give me a reason why! And they’d have to say, “Well, because you’re Latina.” So? Latinos speak English! We’re Americans! If you were Black or Latina you’d have to be in that particular space and you weren’t allowed to exist in the general market. And as we’ve seen, and as we see now, that has changed a lot.

Rewire: How so?

CRW: We have huge growth in numbers, but also too, if you look at, for example, ShondaLand, [the production company] on ABC—it’s an example of an openness to seeing and consuming media from all cultures, whether it’s music or TV. I definitely feel that things have changed, there’s a big shift and a huge push now toward inclusion.

I think with social media too, you see the pressure of people saying, for example, #OscarsSoWhite. I grew up in a time when media was controlled by a small group of people and I’ve watched it change, morph, and transform. Fifteen years ago, when I was co-chair of the Hispanic Affinity Group at Time Inc., I was saying we’re here, we consume stuff in English, and you need to pay attention to us. When the census came out [proving what I had been saying], I said, the census, look at the census!

And still the dollars didn’t come in; but when social media happened, that’s when the money started coming in. And finally people started saying, “Oh, they’re, they’re quite vocal, they exist.” [Laughs.] But our ethnicity or color shouldn’t be our only draw. We’re here and have been here. What they’re seeing shouldn’t come as such a shock.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.