DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: My boyfriend and I are relative newcomers to the idea of enthusiastic consent. Unfortunately, this realization came five years into our relationship. And the last two years have been spent trying to put humpty dumpty back together again. Well, really they’ve been spent just trying to understand what the hell even happened. Not much in the way of humpty dumpty going on (much to his chagrin).
Now we’ve both bought into the idea of enthusiastic consent. But the problem is that it’s very difficult for me to be enthusiastic after so much overlooked unenthusiasm. And my boyfriend generally interprets a lack of enthusiasm as a lack of love or caring.
I recognize that both of our actions have a lot to do with social conditioning—the “gatekeeper model,” as you’ve described it. We were both working in this framework of the man getting what he can and the woman giving what was owed.
There was a long stretch in our relationship where I was really miserable having sex with him. I would have it mostly because I felt some obligation to. He would request sex, but wasn’t excessively pushy about it. But because of my family history (and social expectations at large), I am extremely sensitive to the needs of others, and it would take very little for me to feel guilty about not meeting his needs. But my own emotional and physical needs were completely invisible to him — I didn’t offer, and he didn’t ask.
I didn’t understand what was happening. I didn’t understand why someone I used to enjoy being close to now repulsed me. I didn’t even know I had needs, or that they weren’t being met. And I feel SO STUPID now for not recognizing more of this at the time. But all I knew was that I hated having sex—I would just lay there and zone out, waiting for things to finish. All the while, I could see in him that, from his perspective, he was enjoying an intimate and caring experience. And I would feel both glad that he was happy, and also furious that he could be so oblivious to what this was like for me.
After years of there being “something wrong” with our sex life, I was finally able to start to tell him how I was feeling. An old Jezebel article called “Workshopping Rape” and the accompanying comments helped crystallize the situation for me — so many stories of sex that lacked enthusiastic consent and made women feel used and unloved. That had been happening to me too, and I didn’t even know it!
We went through some couples counseling, which really helped us to communicate better. I’m finally starting to recognize my own feelings and starting to be able to communicate them. Though I still often feel like I am overreacting – shouldn’t I just give him a whatever-job and get over it?
But now what? My partner now understands that he’s hurt me. And he feels terrible about it. When we talk about it, he says it was the worst mistake of his life to not care for me in the way that he should have. Although it was very difficult for me to convince him that this was necessary, we have cut way back on any physical touching. And the only touching now is when I initiate it. Sadly, I don’t yet feel comfortable enough to initiate intercourse. He insists that he doesn’t want to do anything that I don’t want to do. And I go back and forth on believing this.
But he also says that he is hurting so badly – he is hurting because he needs to feel loved. He says he needs physical affection. But, even just touching his arm will sometimes make my heart race or fill my stomach with dread. He thinks that now I am hurting him. Sometimes he feels like I am punishing him, but he also has moments of enlightenment where he realizes that’s not true. But he can’t stop feeling hurt, and he thinks it’s important for me to hear that and be sympathetic. It is very very hard for me to be sympathetic.
I do believe that he has good intentions – that he wants to treat me well, and that with the right guidance he can learn how to. I understand that it’s not easy being a socially-awkward nerd-dude. But it’s not easy being a less-socially-awkward nerd-girl either!
He has already made tremendous strides since we started talking more honestly about all of these things. He is a nice guy, but no one ever taught him how to approach sex as a collaborative endeavor. And based on the portrayals of sex in popular culture, everything was going as it should. We both believed that. But, for me, it was making me feel ignored and powerless. Thanks a lot pop culture!
We both want to have collaborative and reciprocal sex. But we’re not sure how. Any suggestions for how to move forward from here? We can’t be the only ones, right? Or has our past unenlightenment doomed any hope of a future filled with enthusiastic consent?
DEAR LOOKING AHEAD: This is a tough one, Looking. You’re in a really difficult place, emotionally; when someone’s been hurting you – even unintentionally – for months or even years, it can be hard to trust them or open up to them again. There are times when you may not be able to get over those past hurts, no matter how much you may want to. And I’m going to be brutally honest here: I’m not sure you should. Not with your boyfriend.
See, I’m not entirely sure your boyfriend gets what’s been going on. He might get it intellectually, but I’m not quite sure he gets it on an emotional, gut level. He says he does, but… well, based on what you’ve had to tell me, I’m not sure he’s quite processed things. I don’t know if he’s self-absorbed or oblivious or what, but that behavior you mention – is constantly telling you how badly he hurts because you’re not showing him how you love him – is pretty damn manipulative. He’s laying a heavy goddamn guilt trip on you if he’s insisting that you need to listen to his litany of pain and woe because you’re having a hard time feeling comfortable enough to touch him. He wants you to be sympathetic, but to be frank, he’s doing a pretty awful job of being sympathetic. Because you’ve been through some intense trauma and the last thing you need is someone to be pressuring you to recover faster because he desperately needs a cuddle and a handie in order to feel loved. I’m not saying he doesn’t have a right to want to feel loved but he’s being damned insensitive at best right now. Having good intentions is all well and good, but good intentions don’t magically make things better when the actions are hurting somebody. And if he’s framing this as your punishing him… Jesus.
If you want to make this work, you’re going to have to do a lot of communication. If you haven’t told your boyfriend the things you’ve just told me, then you need to tell him too. He needs to hear what his behavior has been doing; he may well think that because he’s not trying to initiate sex any more then he’s no longer hurting you the way he used to. But obviously, that’s not the case. You’ve gone through couple’s counseling, which is crucial. And if you want to make this work, I think you should keep going through it, because you still have a lot to work through. If you aren’t getting private counseling on top of that, then I think you need to get right on that, especially with a counselor or therapist who specializes in sexual trauma. You’ve been hurt badly, and I think it might do you a world of good to have someone to talk to, someone who isn’t also talking to your boyfriend.
But, straight talk time: I don’t think it’s worth trying to save this relationship. Sometimes the damage runs too deep and the scars are too fresh and has gone on for too long to be able to completely relax around the person who hurt you. And like I said, I’m not entirely sure your boyfriend has processed everything. Guilting you into physical contact is not enthusiastic consent. Making you listen to him complain about how hurt he feels is not enthusiastic consent. Equating his desire for cuddles with your desire to, y’know, heal from trauma he inflicted is not goddamn enthusiastic consent. I hate to say this, but I’m not entirely sure you can heal while you’re still in a relationship with this guy. If you want my unvarnished and honest opinion, I think you need to be away from this guy and taking time on your own to heal without him pressuring you to get better faster so the sex can recommence.
This doesn’t have anything to do with your unenlightenment and everything to do with the fact that I don’t know if your guy gets that he’s still hurting you. And as much as he needs to learn, you aren’t obligated to sacrifice your health and emotional well-being in order to educate him.
I wish I had happier advice for you.
Regardless of whether you leave him or not, I want to re-emphasize that if you’re not getting private counseling, then I think it’s important that you do. But no matter what, I want you to look at what you’ve overcome and realize this: you’re much stronger than you know. And you’re going to get better.
All will be well.
DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: There is a guy, whom I will call David because that is not his name, who I have fallen into intense limerence with. It’s like lust but is all-encompassing. He’s hot. We are passionate about the same kinds of things. He thinks I’m attractive. Our hooking up is a phenomenally bad idea. David is still hung up on his ex, he’s significantly older than me, he has a demanding work schedule. I work shifts that are awful, I’m mentally ill and emotionally immature. But dear God, he is so hot.
I knew going into this was a bad idea, but I can’t seem to make my gut stop doing flips when I see him online. And I’ve only seen him online because he’s been genuinely busy since about the point we actually hooked up. (We kissed. It was fantastic.)
This, unfortunately, was also about the time I came out to him as transgender. I’m a trans man, and gay, and it sucks. I would have left it longer but since I forgot to wear my packer to the party where David and I kissed, I was worried he had noticed I wasn’t as, ahem, excited as he was about our hookup. (I was. I have the hormone profile of a teenage boy. I was *really* excited.)
It’s happened before, that some guy who was all into me mysteriously stops calling or replying or wanting to see me after I tell him I don’t have standard-issue male genitalia. And I know they have a right to not date me for any reason at all but when it happens to be THAT reason it’s like several kicks in the gut because although I live a pretty successful life now as a man I will never really be a man in the eyes of people I’m attracted to.
So yeah. I don’t know whether David has stopped messaging me back because he’s busy or because he’s hung up on his ex or because I’m trans and I just want to figure out a way I can stop wanting him so bad.
In fact, it would be great to figure out how to stop wanting anyone at all because I’m so damn tired of having what is, to me, a gigantic cosmic genetic mistake mean that no-one is actually attracted to me. Instead they’re attracted to a clothed me-with-a-penis which doesn’t exist except in their own minds.
Wishing for a Cyberman Upgrade.
DEAR WISHING FOR A CYBERMAN UPGRADE: So I want to preface this with the obvious disclaimer: I’m a hetero, cis-gendered man. I’m at best going to have an outsider’s perspective on this and there will inevitably be issues that I may be unfamiliar with, or even unaware of. If I happen to end up being insensitive or say something offensive, then I want to apologize in advance.
With that being said, let’s do this thing.
Not gonna lie, WCU, you’re in a tough spot. Dating is hard enough. Dating when you’re a sexual minority is going to make it tougher. Adding on the fact that you’re a gay trans man as well makes you a minority within a minority and while we as a society have made a lot of progress over time when dealing with issues about sexual identity, gender expression and the like, we still aren’t at that Star Trek utopia where everyone’s pretty much cool with everyone else.
Just, y’know. Minus the godawful polyester outfits. Geh.
So I want to acknowledge right off the bat that you’re in a tough spot. Dating for you is going to have risks that I as a cis-gendered guy am simply not going to encounter. You have very real, very legitimate concerns for your emotional and physical safety. And, unfortunately, you’re going to encounter people who are going to get hung up over the fact that you’re trans. It sucks, it absolutely sucks. But we don’t necessarily know that this is the case here.It could be that your hunky crush had an attack of what cartoonist Bill Roundy call the Orientation Police – the fact that you’re trans means he’s feeling as though his sexual orientation has been called into question via his attraction to you. Or he might not be quite sure how he feels about the fact that you’re a guy with a vagina and has a touch of gynophobia.
Or, like you said: it could very well be the fact that he’s hung up on his ex or that he’s crazy stupid busy. Or it could be that he’s into you but not ready to date ANYONE yet or any of the other reasons why any of us may make out with someone but decide not to pursue things further. Without more information, it’s hard to say. It’s easy to assume that our number one anxiety is the reason – it’s almost always in the forefront of our minds, after all – but that’s not always the case. Hell, most of the time, that was never the issue at all.
But let’s say for argument’s sake that it is the fact that he’s uncomfortable with you being trans… if all of your awesome qualities and his crazy attraction to you all come in second to his discomfort and he’s not willing to make the effort to get over it, do you REALLY want to date him? Because let’s be honest: you sound pretty awesome, and you deserve someone who knows you’re awesome. If he’s self-selecting out because he’s uncomfortable and he’s not willing to deal with his discomfort, then he’s doing you a favor in the long term by filtering himself out of your dating pool. If this isn’t the case and it’s just “right guy, wrong time”… well, that’s just dating, unfortunately. Womp womp. It happens to everyone, gay, bi or straight, cisgendered or trans or nonbinary.
If it’s about his having an issue about your being a trans man: well, you’ve been freed to find someone who is into you who doesn’t have his hang-ups. You ARE a real man. If he (or any other guy, for that matter) doesn’t see you that way, then you don’t want HIM.
So here’s what I suggest. Message him one last time. Tell him you like him and you’d really like to see him again. If things clear up and he’s available, you’d love for him to get in touch with you; the ball’s in his court now. And then you leave it at that. You’ve made your case, you’ve told him that if he wants to see you, he’s going to have to make the next move. And then… you move on. Either he’ll get in contact with you and you can go out and enjoy those sloppy make-outs and that potentially ill-advised hook-up or he won’t and then you’re pretty much where you are now and you haven’t really lost anything.
I recognize that this is cold comfort right now, because you’ve been rejected and rejection sucks and you hurt and you want his hotness bad. You want love, you want affection, you want pure, animalistic, mind-blowing sex and you have a right to all of that. And like I said: it’s going to be hard. But hard isn’t impossible. Dating at it’s core is a numbers game, and no matter the circumstances, you’re inevitably going to have mismatches and meet guys who’re just not compatible with you before you meet somebody who is right for you. And when you do find him… well, it’s going to be all the sweeter for the time and effort that it took. And they are out there. I promise.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org)