By Lena Dunham (Vogue)
It was a modern non–love story, the only kind I’d ever really known. But this was my first time at the rodeo in my 30s, a decade so far remarkable for my first gray hair, my first time showing up for jury duty, and my first real heartbreak, stemming from the public dissolution of a six-year relationship I had believed to be permanent. Jeremy (his name has been changed) “slid into my DMs” after I posted a thirst-trap picture in some plus-size panties (fire emoji eggplant emoji water droplet emoji yasss). I was lonely as hell—maybe lonelier, because at least those baddies are all down there together—and I had been programmed by my near miss of a marriage to see off into forever. This seemed like a good way to find someone to spend my possibly long and assuredly messy life with.
During the brief spaces between rebound romances, I’d felt choppy and unrealized, like a vintage TV set without the sharpness adjusted. I had recently become sober after years of dependence on prescription pills, and the new community I was meeting with in rec halls and school cafeterias after hours was happy to call my preoccupation “codependence” or, less euphemistically, a sex-and-love addiction. To me, that was as tricky as calling food an addiction (something I’ve also been warned about, since I love to consume on all levels). What are you supposed to do, quit that too?
Jeremy and I flirted. I was recovering from my twelfth surgery in four years, an oophorectomy (the fancy term for having an ovary yanked out), and he nicknamed me “pajama queen.” I loved it, and I took to thinking of myself that way: Pajama Queen, master of all she surveys (and what she surveys is her bedroom). We graduated from DM to text to late-night calls where he told me about his grad school program and his real estate troubles, his exes, his favorite homeless man outside his favorite diner who turned out to be an esteemed folk artist. His Instagram had given me a time-lapse impression of his life (only the cutest parts, perfectly calibrated to make a woman think he might be able to put together her forsaken IKEA shelves), and the press had given him a tragic sense of mine.
Jeremy lived alone in L.A. He was in his 40s, and the day he followed me on Twitter I made sure to announce that I might like “to try sex with someone who was born in the ’70s.” He texted me photos of the twinkly view from his house, and I didn’t yet know that I’d spend two wonky nights in that sparse bedroom befitting an aesthetically committed modern sculptor and/or a serial killer. (“At least it’s a mid-century,” my best friend Scotty shrugged.)
The early texting game had been golden—nearly a month of mounting familiarity with everything from his niece to his Starbucks order to his preference of boxer briefs—but when I showed up at his front door to meet him in person for the first time, almost midnight and fresh off a plane, I was shaking and not in the fun way. I’ve long given up on my body’s ability to intuit anything besides an upcoming snack, but what I was feeling wasn’t good.
I rang the bell and could see him wandering toward the door, no real sense of urgency, as I waited. He was wearing a wool ski hat despite a heat wave in L.A. I knew he was tall, but I was surprised at just how imposing his towering height really felt. His voice lived in contrast to his body, small and plaintive. Unsure of what came next I wrapped my arms around his redwood of a waist, buried my face in the thick cotton of his T-shirt, and tried to understand—in that quarter of a second—whether I could love him through thick and thin, whether he could raise my adopted child with strength and decency, and whether he would be willing to pull my hair so hard I couldn’t put it in a ponytail the next day if that was what I desired. I hoped that he would care for me when I got a fever or a bad review, that he was OK with an elastic sense of self and an even more elastic waistband. And I hoped above hope I might be struck with a sign, there on the deck with my hands clasped above his tailbone.
“S’up?” he asked.
“S’up?” I said.
Later that night he patted his crotch suggestively just as I was leaving, a gesture that confounded me. In the Uber home I didn’t let the anxiety sink in. Instead I texted, “Do you want to hold me down and force me to finish?”
He said he did and described all the things he wanted to do to me but, as it happened, never would.
I’m so boy crazy that it’s nuts,” I moan to Scotty, bouncing her perfect daughter on my knee and wondering how my first single summer in six years has turned into such a mess of overlapping agendas.
“Listen,” Scotty says, breast pump securely affixed, her second baby conked out in her car seat nearby. “It’s better than drugs.”
My sibling Cyrus often tells me I can summon a love interest out of thin air. It’s not a compliment. “No matter what’s going on with you, there’s always some bozo.”
After half a decade with the same person, I had returned to my dating life with the abandon of a grandma of ten shopping duty-free. I had missed all of this: the anxiety of constructing a new identity worth wanting, the jittery caffeine-high moments before the first kiss, and an introduction to someone’s second personality, the one they have when lust is unleashed. It’s always amazed me how people transform once sex is introduced: Just because a man is over six feet tall doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to be held and caressed like a teddy bear. The hardest I’ve ever been spanked was by a five-foot-one poet with a Mister Rogers cardigan who has since married a man.
But when I emerged onto the free market, what I found was a vastly changed world. Among its many reverberations, the #MeToo movement had made any sensible or sensitive man reconsider his impact on the women he has encountered over the years. I initially pitched this piece as an examination of dating in this new era. But as the months passed and the complexity deepened, I felt less and less confident about speaking for anybody else. The personal is political and the political is personal, and I can barely express myself on this topic.
As a survivor of sexual assault and dozens of trespasses, I was, of course, overjoyed that consent was now a part of the everyday vocabulary. But that conversation around consent—the echoes of “Is this OK?”—served as a reminder of the fact that I was having sex at all. And sex is something I feel infinite shame about and can enjoy only if I’m so caught up in it that my awareness of the act is almost entirely obliterated by the intensity of the approach.
To be clear before we go any further, this isn’t a defense of kink. That has its place and I respect it, but I don’t want to be tied up, whipped, or made into a servant. I don’t want to wear vinyl or wield a paddle. All my fantasies sound oddly cartoonish and G-rated: to be the victim of an almost mundane disdain and garden-variety cruelty. Now that I write it, it sounds like I want bad sex.
See, we’re all learning here.
I thought that because of my aforementioned trauma I was allowed whatever I needed to make sex work for me. It never occurred to me that my desire might be essentially unfeminist until the kind of interaction I tend to be aroused by became punishable by internet lashing. As it should be. I was starting to understand that the men who turned me on weren’t people I wanted to know when my dress was back on.
So what if I could teach someone lovely to give me what I needed? A “good” man just playacting “bad.” These categories are so fluid. A bad man can turn good when he comes to love his child so much that he lies on the floor for hours playing with fancy Swiss dolls. A good man can take one wrong step and suddenly look like a lying stranger, a magic trick that takes my breath away every time. Maybe that explains part of my attraction to bad. Being tricked burns something vicious. What if I could create guidelines and we could follow them as a loving team, my trusted person and me? Enter Jeremy.
The second time I went over with a bag packed for the night, face wash, bobby pins, a protein bar. We sat on the couch and I watched him drink a kombucha, the Silver Lake equivalent of a fine Sancerre, while we talked about movies we liked as children. “You’re so old,” I told him, as if to remind myself that somebody of numerical authority found me appealing.
He laughed and kissed me, reaching for my breast. “No, no touching,” I informed him, promptly removing my shirt. He stared unflinchingly then leaned down, blowing a line along my collarbone. It was gentle and soft and pervy and it felt nice in a very simple way, like good weather or a firm pillow.
The next morning he pinned me down, tickled me, made sure I drank water. He told me that if he were my boyfriend he’d say I wasn’t allowed to get up so easily. His mix of confidence and caretaking felt new and full of possibility. I left smiling and hurried back the following night in a summer dress and sneakers.
He seemed surprised when I pulled out my nightgown. “Again?” he asked. I told him I could leave. “I have a house I like just as much as yours if not more,” I muttered defensively, a reminder for myself as much as him. No, he said, I should really stay. But he seemed petulant as he tidied around me, and when we started kissing he lobbed a filthy phrase, part diminutive and part insulting, and I felt as though I’d been struck on my cheek. He laughed, high and mean as I stammered, trying to explain what I didn’t like about it.
But I’d told him I liked dirty talk, he said. But I’d told him I wasn’t touchy. But I’d asked to be held down squirming like a puppy getting a vaccine.
“But sweetly,” I tried to explain. “I want to be humiliated sweetly.”
The next morning I left and never went back. We hung out once more, in the afternoon, walking along backstreets and sipping from paper cups.
“I wanted to apologize,” he said.
“For what?” I asked.
But he wasn’t sure.
Quitting drugs has its pluses and its minuses. In the plus column: You get back your free will and you can repair broken relationships. As for minuses, you no longer have a valid excuse to eat uncooked tortellini. But the most unexpected benefit of sobriety has been knowing when it’s time to leave the proverbial party. (Ironically, pills made me less social, so the party has always been pretty proverbial.)
If we are measuring romantic relationships in party time, the old me would have stayed until at least 1:00 a.m., despite the fact that I was having an awful time. But let’s say Jeremy’s insult had happened at the equivalent of 7:00 p.m. (too early by any measure); I was out the door and in a cab by a figurative 8:05. My dad always told me nothing good ever happens after midnight, but he didn’t warn me just how much I’d love being tucked in with a book by 8:45.
I’ve learned that you cannot predict who will satisfyingly dominate you and who will leave you feeling like a Thanksgiving turkey in a Forever 21 bralette, gnawed on then left at the table while everybody naps. I ask for what I want. I listen to books and magazines that tell me “taking control is sexy! It’s what adult women do!” But, like a petulant Jewish mother would say to a daughter who married a goy, “I shouldn’t have to ask.” I want to be told; that’s part of my thing. That’s, like,
my whole thing.
I know what it is to be in love, and I liked it. But the bigger issue is, I know what it’s like to make a home with someone, and I loved it. It’s safe. It’s free of shame and pain and humiliation. It was heaven, eating Indian food in front of old episodes of Strangers with Candy, and it relegated me to a life without arousal. This moment in history has forced me to ask why I want what I want, and to consider all the societal forces (gender presentation, race, privilege) that allow me to want it in the first place. I try and untangle it all like a drunken heiress tries to untangle her collection of dainty necklaces.
In a perfect scenario, I’d be seen for who I am and experienced with love and tenderness, which is how I’m just starting to experience myself (literally, just because I stopped reading the internet, so when some of you inevitably find this article troubling, I’ll have zero idea as I happily drink diet ginger ale in my Savage x Fenty thong). I’d walk a gentle path with a lover who has made themselves available to see the world with me and to comfort me when I’m hurting. We would watch a lot of My 600-lb Life and drink a lot of hot green tea and wrap presents for each other when it isn’t even a holiday. He’d also turn into a Bad Lieutenant–style monster when the clock strikes midnight and do things that would make even my liberal mother shudder. I’m not sure those things can all exist in one person or that they’re even meant to. I’ve tried. I still love some of those men, while others seem like nasty dreams. But here I am, manifesting my desire for a sober, emotionally aware pervert with a passion for his craft and the ability to break down cardboard boxes and take them to my recycling room.
In a way this is my first internet dating profile. In a way it’s a declaration of independence. In a way this is my battle cry. But maybe it’s just a reminder that I am alive in this body that makes demands I can’t always understand. These days, I don’t even try.
Watch Lena Dunham Test Drive the Brow Microblading Trend: See the video.