Written by Ilana Slavit.
Art by Cameron Tyme Edison.
TW: sexual violence
From age eleven to eighteen, I had a pathological fear of men over forty. Ever since I was a child, my brain processed potential threats vividly and somatically. When I learned about stranger danger, I had nightmares of being kidnapped for years. I’d lay in bed awake for hours, imagining every creak or thump was a villain out to get me. So when I first learned about sex, I assumed that all men wanted to violate my body.
My middle school sex education was prevention-based, warning us about the terrors of rape, pregnancy, and STIs. We were told to be on high alert for pedophiles and abusers, the type of men who watched us through the fence during gym class, ignoring that my peers also had the capacity to sexually abuse. As someone with a neurodivergent brain, I took these scare tactics very personally. I believed that one day I would be raped, and I had to be mentally prepared for when that day would happen.
Regardless of what I was doing, eating at a restaurant or walking down the street, I believed that every unfamiliar man within eyesight wanted to hurt me. Specifically men over forty, as these were the sort of perpetrators highlighted on the news. I developed a habit of leaving public spaces whenever I saw these men, or suffering panic attacks in silence as those around me continued whatever they were doing, unaware.
I was vigilant and on guard, my body in a permanent state of anxiety and adrenaline.
I was vigilant and on guard, my body in a permanent state of anxiety and adrenaline. I was obsessed with rape revenge narratives, devouring YA books with gruesome storylines until late hours of the night. I didn’t want to leave my bed, because if I did, I might be in danger.
At the same time this was happening, a popular group of boys were routinely sexually harassing and assaulting me in front of my entire eight grade history class. Every day it was something new: grabbing a new part of my body and seeing how far they could go. But from my perspective, it was just a joke. It couldn’t be assault if everyone was laughing. Only men I didn’t know, strangers who hid in bushes looking for underage girls, could violate someone like me.
While I was an extremely romantic person throughout high school, I shut down any sexual feelings I had out of fear and repulsion. I didn’t drink, smoke, or seek out any kind of sexual connection — I avoided all behaviors that could result in victimhood. Despite being left-leaning both politically and socially, I took the conservative sex education messaging I received in school very seriously. If I dressed a certain way, I could be raped. If I drank or smoked, I could be raped. So I wore baggy clothes and looked at the ground and wallowed in self-resentment.
I’d never been raped, I thought, so why was my body behaving like I had?
During my first week of college I met a group of sexually liberated, queer kids at a karaoke night. These friends became the sex education teachers I never had. They shared that sex is not dangerous; rather, a fulfilling experience that requires communication, just like any other activity. I realized that I had been masturbating since I was ten years old, but never understood that was what I was doing. I unpacked my body dysmorphia and internalized biphobia and transphobia, eventually identifying as bisexual and non-binary.
Processing my sexual repression was a longer process. While my friends opened my eyes to the possibilities of sexuality, I still had difficulty acting on it. Whenever anyone tried to kiss me I would physically freeze, even when I was attracted to the person. During my first sexual experience at age nineteen I began to shake so uncontrollably that my partner had to hold me for thirty minutes, until I eventually stopped.
For a long time, I loathed my physical responses to sexual stimuli. I’d never been raped, I thought, so why was my body behaving like I had? The erotophobia I’d internalized as a safety mechanism affected my dating life and consensual sexual experimentation. I overcame the physical manifestations of my erotophobia by slowly easing into sexual experiences in a checklist-type manner. First, I tried kissing. Then dry humping, fingering, and so on. Exposure therapy essentially saved my sex life, although I still have issues communicating and getting out of my head in sexual situations. But my big breakthrough was realizing that my inadequate sex education was one of the root causes of my erotophobia.
Consent and pleasure-based sex education improves our sexual health and relationships in a society that is both repulsed and fascinated by sexuality.
Sexual health scare tactics are inherently sexist, ableist, and anti-LGBTQIA+. That is why I am in the process of becoming an ASSECT certified sex educator. Sex educators who teach youth to fear sex are also implying that their outward appearance (their body, their gender expression, their way of exisiting in the world), makes them a victim. Blaming the victim ignores individuals’ trauma and mental health. In my case, this messaging prevented me from experiencing pleasure. Centering sex education in conversations of consent and pleasure encourages communication between partners and helps prevent sexual violence. Consent and pleasure-based sex education improves our sexual health and relationships in a society that is both repulsed and fascinated by sexuality.
I’ve been given a number of diagnoses over the years: Generalized Anxiety Disorder; PTSD; Highly Sensitive Person. While it would be a relief to label myself, none of these exactly fit. Mental health exists on a spectrum, just like the greyness of defining sexual violence. But for once, I’m content to exist in this fluid state. I’m currently recovering from the end of a two-year relationship and a (separate) sexual assault by an intimate partner. Yet, I am not experiencing intrusive thoughts or panic attacks, as I did in the past. Realizing that responses to trauma are normal, however drastic they may seem, gets me through each day. I am not alone in my struggles with erotophobia, and maybe, I can help others to move past it.
About The Author
Ilana is a sex educator and filmmaker passionate about reproductive justice and intersectional media representation. In their free time, she likes to watch 90s teen horror movies, collage and dance to hyper pop. You can find more of their work at ilanaslavit.com.
Follow on IG: @ilana.s3xed