Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
My name is Dr. Strokes, and I’m your newest sex columnist.
Here are some things you need to know about me:
1. I’m a white female who was raised in a wealthy and largely secular household.
2. On the Kinsey Scale, I consider myself to be around a 1.8. Mostly attracted to men, but also substantially to women, although I have very little sexual experience with the latter and that’s something I want to change. Unrelatedly, I’ve always wanted to say that I’m π queer, but sadly π is just a lot queerer than I am. Maybe it’s as queer as you?
3. I survived sexual abuse and a rape attempt during high school, and most recently (seven months ago? is it really that close?) I survived a stranger rape in a foreign country. I also survived the subsequent hospital rape kit and police interrogation. We’ll talk more about that process later, but let’s just say that cutting my own fingernails now reminds me of rape. I wonder if a manicure would.
4. I struggle to some extent with depression and anxiety, although those problems were at their worst during the period I’ll describe in Bullet Point 5. So I’m on SSRIs. Sometimes I worry that this impairs my sexual experience further. Sometimes I worry that I’ll never get off of them. Mostly I’m grateful that they help me function as well as I do.
5. For a long period between Big Sexual Trauma #1 and Big Sexual Trauma #2, I would experience a debilitating pain in my genital region after sexual activity, masturbation, and sometimes just when I got horny. I couldn’t walk, standing up was painful, and hey, lying down and crying was painful too, but at least then my eyes got itchy so that I could focus my self-loathing and feelings of being an inadequate woman somewhere else. Despite going to doctors and psychologists, nobody was ever able to explain to me what exactly was wrong, just that I was suffering from some sort of vulvodynia (literal translation: pain in the vagina) and that maybe it had physical causes and maybe it had psychological causes but yes, yes, it was pain. Oh yes? Tell me something I don’t know. Although this problem has disappeared in recent months, I continue to worry that if I re-enter old psychological habits, or if I get a skin rash, or if I hit my funny bone the wrong way, the pain will return.
Have you digested that?
This isn’t going to be Carrie Bradshaw’s sex column. This isn’t going to be anything like the sex column at Harvard or Yale. This is especially not going to be Dan Savage’s sex column. How do I know that? When I was telling friends about my plans, one said “Well, Dan Savage says the secret to his success is that he never writes about himself, and when he does it’s a lie.”
I am always going to write about myself. And as far as possible I am going to try to tell the truth about reconciling my identities as a (sort of queer) lover of kinky sex, a survivor of sexual violence, and a possibly recovered, possibly relapsed sufferer of a sexual pain disorder.
I am going to tell you what it feels like to be triggered during masturbation and during partner sex. I am also going to tell you what I’ve learned about working through these triggers and towards a more fulfilling sex life, so that maybe if your next partner is a survivor you won’t be scared when they entrust you with that information.
I am going to tell you about what it feels like to think that you’re the only girl in the world with an aching vagina and an inability to reach orgasm. I am going to tell you what I’ve learned about sexual pain disorders, so that maybe if your next partner has one you’ll be willing to work with them.
I am going to tell you about how I theorize my queer identity and my survivor identity, and how one impacts the other. I am going to tell you about how I reconcile my fantasies about violent sex with my lived experience of rape. I am going to complain a lot about the mainstream media and its depiction of sex, and to counteract it I am going to recommend some way sexier and healthier alternatives.
I am going to give you the occasional “Try this position!” or “Wow, this is a good lube!” sex tip to cheer you up after all the doom and gloom, but really it’s not going to be that much doom and gloom: this is a column about working through your issues and learning to love yourself because of what that working through has turned you into.
Why am I spilling out all of my secrets on the Internet, then?
The first reason is selfish: I am still working all of this stuff out. The best way for me to work things out is to write them down. The only times I feel like writing about painful topics are (1) when it’s 3 AM and I’m drunk and kind of on an adrenaline rush and (2) when I know somebody is going to be reading on the other end. So guess who gets to witness my own attempts at therapy, even to be my Greek chorus of therapists who comment useful things in harmonic unison? Yes, that would be you.
The second reason is entirely non-selfish: These are not topics that people talk about, and the fact that we don’t talk about them leaves people feeling dangerously alone and depressingly unsexy.
I know because that was me just a few years ago. The Courage to Heal, a weighty tome of 600 pages which has sometimes been described as the “Survivor Bible” (and yes, I acknowledge the controversies surrounding the book and will talk about them later) has maybe twenty pages on being a survivor and having sex.
But do you know what kind of healing might well take the most courage of all? Sexual healing. And besides the wonderful Staci Haines, who is talking about sexual healing for survivors and how painful and difficult and weird it can be? Certainly nobody in the mass media. And honestly, not that many people in the public spaces of the Internet, the place where you can find porn of anything and good sex advice on virtually nothing.
So who is sharing their personal experiences with all of these problems (and making them highly Google-able, so link, kids, if you want to be an ally, LINK) so that the rest of the people struggling with them don’t have to feel so goddamn useless and frigid and alone anymore?
…I’m looking around, and the only person I’m seeing is Dr. Strokes.
Let me make a few disclaimers before I leave. First, I don’t want anyone to stop reading because they’re not a survivor or they don’t have a sexual pain disorder. I think you’ll find that even the “normals” can identify with (and learn from?) my column. To some extent, we’ve all had to deal with the same cultural trauma surrounding sex, and we all hear media and cultural messages that make sex out to be something very different from what it actually may be for us.
So if you’re reading about my experiences with dissociation and thinking “Crap, this sounds familiar, but nobody ever raped me!” you should calm down, because contrary to what the media tells us, sex isn’t easy for anyone, and when you get into the bedroom, everyone’s got some sort of cultural and individual trauma they’re going to have to stare down and ultimately work through.
On the flip side, I don’t want anyone to assume I’m speaking for all women or all survivors or all people with a sexual pain disorder or all people who are all that, queer, and have mustard on top.
I’m not. Also I don’t have mustard on top. While some of my experiences may be shared by people who share those identities, in this column I’m only speaking for me. Just because I like having my head rubbed and hate it when people talk about orgasms doesn’t mean anyone else feels the same way.
The take-home message here is “This is the unique way that Dr. Strokes experiences sex, and this is how she’s benefited from spelling that out to herself and the entire Internet. Why don’t you ask your partner to think hard about the unique facets of their experience, but maybe in the privacy of their own bedroom, so that they too can reap the benefits?”
Well, OK, there’s a lot more take home messages where that one came from (one: I want more people to describe their sexuality in terms of irrational numbers, because you are not a fraction, dammit, and you cannot be reduced! and two: is mustard sexy? is an important question to ponder) but for now it’s time to end this meta-column with a meta-reflection: Writing this column is the scariest thing I’ve ever done, but I think that if I do it right it could also turn out to be the best thing I’ve ever done. If you’re in my intended audience, you know it, and I’m really glad you made it here.
Keep on surviving,