Beginning in my adolescence and continuing throughout my young adulthood, intimacy had always been defined as only being healthy and valuable if it existed between a man and a woman. It was implied that this man and this woman would be monogamous, cisgender and exclusively experience sexual and romantic attraction toward the “opposite sex”.
Messaging from my Christian household and from the private, Catholic primary and secondary schools I attended built upon this cisnormative and heteronormative definition of intimacy. It was made clear to me that to deviate from these norms meant to devalue myself in the eyes of not only God, but in the eyes of my family and myself.
What remained ambiguous about this definition of intimacy was consent. More specifically, can we call it “intimacy” if it’s without affirmative consent?
When this question first became most pertinent to my life, I was not even old enough to have asked it. I had only been old enough to know that the way that my uncle would touch me was unlike the way anyone else had touched me before or would touch me again for years after.
Respecting one’s elders is one of the first lessons children in Latinx families are taught, so I did not know any better than to sit silently each time my uncle would plop me onto his lap and begin to kiss me. I did not know any better than to politely thank him each time he’d look me in the eyes and tell me I was “too cute [for him] not to”. I did not know any better than to assume that I had devalued myself in the eyes of God, of my family and of myself and that no amount of prayer could fix this, fix me.
The belief that something inside me was broken was only confirmed for me again at eighteen years old when I was raped by another man. My second assaulter was almost a complete stranger.
I remember thinking: it’s me. I reek of victimhood.
It did not matter that I did not go out after 10 p.m., that I had carried mace everywhere I went, that I had learned how to smile politely at men who catcalled me, that I had been so careful all of my life.
Being careful could not protect me. And so, I allowed my second assault to completely decimate all progress I made after surviving years of childhood sexual abuse.
I began abusing painkillers, engaging in frequent, unwanted, unprotected sex and I relapsed into my bulimia.
I also began to experiment sexually and romantically in ways I had not previously allowed myself to out of fear of deviating from the Christian values I grew up embracing. I suddenly did not care about being intimate in the way God intended, since God did not care about me.
Since I was a four-hour drive away from my hometown, there was no one to tell me that the love I felt and the pleasure I experienced was illegitimate. I was as close to free as I'd ever been.
That summer, I fell in love with a woman. Though the relationship has since ended, the love I had for her serves as a reminder that everything I’d known about intimacy was not true.
I loved her. She was the first thing I thought of when I woke up and the last thing I thought of before I went to sleep. I would spend 10 hours at a time with her, doing absolutely anything she asked. When we had sex, it did not feel like an obligation; it felt like love. It was love. Every single day I would lie and lie and lie to my parents just to see her again. I risked everything for her.
It was only after our relationship ended that I acknowledged that what I felt with her and the emptiness I felt in her absence was actually intimacy. We had been as intimate as I imagine two people could have been.
I also finally acknowledged that even if what we had together did not meet the standards of my family or the church, I preferred what I had with her over every other romantic and sexual experience I had before her.
That break up was the first time I had ever had to be alone. I did not have men to cycle through and I was too insecure in my gender identity to pursue another woman. I spent a lot of time thinking about how I got here. Eventually, I found stability and now I’m relatively at peace. The abuse I have survived is not my fault. My queerness and transness are not byproducts of abuse or a secret shame.
I am not incapable of healthy intimacy.
While this is not a conventional way to learn about intimacy, it is the way I learned. Given the commonality of experiences of sexual violence in the QTPoC community, I am sure that pieces of my journey mirror that of others. For those who may still be learning, I am sure that you understand how the fear, the emptiness and the pain I felt and continue to grapple with makes one wonder: “is it me?” I did.
However you arrive at the answer, what is important is that you define intimacy for yourself.
I promise that it is not you. You are not an abuse magnet. You are not incapable or undeserving of love. You deserve to be and will be loved -- and it will be on your terms.
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