I told my therapist that when I was a young woman, I shaved my bikini line and always wore clean underwear when I went out, just in case I was raped.
“Is that weird?” I asked, hoping to be assured that it was totally normal.
“That’s a little weird,” she said.
I want to call her up to explain myself further. It’s not that I want to be attractive for rapists, and it’s not that I think rape has anything to do with attraction. It’s just that in addition to my perfectly normal fear of being sexually violated, I am afraid of the compounding indignity of being judged inadequate.
I’m an asexual woman in my late thirties, and I didn’t know I was asexual until recently. By that, I mean I didn’t know there was a word for it. I did know (and tried to deny) that I wasn’t attracted to anyone, ever, and that I couldn’t relate to crushes or falling in love or being hot for someone. I knew that the idea of sex and all sexual acts both repulsed and terrified me. Because I didn’t know this was a valid state of being, I didn’t know that I could choose to not reciprocate when someone expressed sexual interest in me.
I was trapped between two conflicting needs. Because I didn’t know I was asexual (and feared that I was fundamentally different in some shameful way), I needed to pretend to be sexual. Yet because of my asexuality and sex repulsion, I also needed to avoid sex—somehow, some way. To complicate things further, I had to avoid sex without directly refusing it, because I didn’t know that I had the right to say no to sex, and also didn’t really believe no would even work. (I should add here that this is where my internalized heteronormativity gets all tangled up with my internalized misogyny and dances with my trauma history).
A solution was to become unattractive, and I flirted with this strategy. I wore my unbrushed hair in a straggly ponytail or stuffed into a loose bun-like arrangement. I didn’t wear make-up. I refused my mother’s efforts to dress me in cute skirts and belly shirts and instead raided my father’s closet for his flannels. I made no effort to do any of the things that the magazines (or my mother) said to do to attract boys and men.
Yet, I wasn’t brave enough to take it all the way. I had internalized an unconscious and unexamined directive from my culture that my value as a woman was determined by my attractiveness to men. This message was also transmitted to me directly from my family. I remember my father criticizing my morbidly obese aunt when she decided to leave her abusive husband. “Doesn’t she realize that no other man is going to want her? She will always be alone.”
So I remained meticulous with my hygiene, showering and brushing my teeth, using deodorant. I took care of my skin with toners and lotions and creams. I shaved my legs and armpits. I employed life-threatening methods to control my body weight, terrified of drifting into the fat-enough-to-be-contemptible zone, desperate for the safety of the too-thin-to-be-sexy territory.
I walked the razor sharp ledge between repulsive unattractiveness and sexual attractiveness, always seeking a sort of safe zone of “she could be pretty if she just tried.”
None of this was conscious. I had no words to understand my struggle. Perhaps if I’d had access to the language I needed to understand and empower myself, I may have prevented a few decades of suffering. Instead, I was a young woman walking scared in the world, covering up an emaciated body with enormous flannel shirts, turning her unexplored and unnamed anger at her culture inward, shaving her bikini line for rapists.