It was one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had. We had been talking for four months, officially dating for two. I was sprung. Infatuated. In love. Whatever you want to call it. For a while, so was she.
Then she started to drift away.
I didn’t know what to do. She started talking to other people. An ex. A high school love interest. The end was coming, and soon.
I didn’t want to acknowledge it.
Not fully, anyway. We separated, we patched things up. Then we went on a “break”—still talking, still sleeping together. We couldn’t have been further apart.
I should have ended things then. I tried to, halfheartedly. I started to make myself emotionally unavailable. The hours-long conversations we had every night became shortened and sporadic, the hundreds of text messages exchanged every day dwindled down to single digits. She noticed. She was always observant.
“Why can’t we talk like we used to?” she asked one night.
“Because we’re not together,” I said. A four-word copout. A lie.
“Fine,” she replied. A one-word death knell. The truth.
One thing was keeping me around. The thing that cuts deeper than any knife could. The thing that pulls two people together closer than any magnet—and the thing that can repel them even further apart.
A week later, I bought a motel room for us for two hours. A week after that, she walked right past me without saying a word.
I called her. She said she was leaving me for her ex. I wished her the best, but the usually pleasant-sounding words came out harsh and strained as they navigated their way around the rapidly expanding pit in my stomach.
“I hope everything works out for you,” I said, somehow sounding even more disingenuous than I had over the past few weeks.
Could she hear teeth grinding as my jaw clenched? The sound of knuckles cracking as my hand balled into a fist?
“I don’t think we should talk anymore,” she said. She knew.
I hung up. We haven’t said a word since.
The hurt that comes with being left has now dulled to the occasional ache, but I don’t think it’ll ever go away. I don’t want it to. I deserve it. It reminds me of what I did wrong.
I was using her for sex, and now she was gone.
* * * * *
When we broke up the first time, I fought to get her back. When things started getting rocky the second time, I took the easy way out.
It’s not something I’m proud of. I saved myself some pain by keeping her at arm’s length, and I honestly think that she would have left me anyway. But what I can’t do honestly is look myself in the mirror and say, “David, you did everything right. It’s not your fault.”
That hurts more than anything. Still does. At first I tried to forget about what happened, but anybody who remembers a difficult breakup knows how impossible that is. For example, in December she introduced me to the song “Thrift Shop.” Now I wake up every morning hoping this is the day the DJs run Macklemore out of town. (Ryan Lewis can stay).
I found myself struggling with the decisions I made; yet I couldn’t find a way to deal with it. The coping found me.
At the beginning of April, I interviewed Lisa Wade, the chair of the sociology department at Occidental College. Wade was hosting a workshop titled “The Promises and Perils of Hook-Up Culture.” While I didn’t think it applied to me, Wade said something that forced me to reconsider:
“On campuses where there’s a [dormitory] life, there seems to be the idea not that you can have casual sex if you want, but that sex should be casual,” Wade told me for the April 3 edition of the Clarion. “That’s a really new thing.”
The statement hit home. “This isn’t just happening to me,” I thought to myself. “This is going on everywhere, and it isn’t good.”
I wasn’t so much concerned with the whys and hows this phenomenon was occurring. I just wanted to know how to prevent anybody else from making the same mistakes I had. But it started with me. So when I went to interview Human Sexuality professors Rick Brown and Jim Skalicky for this article, I decided to pay special attention.
* * * * *
Rick Brown: The impact that [sex] can have on a relationship can really, really destroy someone. Unintentionally, let’s say some young guy who’s wanting to have some fun ends up destroying a life for someone who viewed a relationship in a different way. It would be for selfish reasons, but [the damage done] is entirely unintentional.
Jim Skalicky: That which you try to control, ends up controlling you.
RB: You sound like a guru.
JS: It is guru material, if I do say so myself. But it is a solid statement . . . because you can’t control love, you can’t control sex. When you’re trying to use sex as a weapon, you’re obsessed with the person, you’re trying to get the person to do this and that. It just doesn’t work.
It depends though. Sometimes you can withhold sex and use that as a weapon, or you can demand too much sex . . . almost like a bartering tool.
I’ll give you another clichéd statement that I like to use. Traditionally—this is a stereotype, I know—women use sex to get love, and men use love to get sex . . . but when you’re using sex as a weapon, you’re playing a game.
RB: A game you intend to win.
JS: But remember, when you play a game, there’s always a winner and a loser. That’s why games shouldn’t be part of a real meaningful relationship. You want to move from game playing to real understanding, [to get to] where you don’t know where one person starts and the other one ends . . . When people first meet, it’s like tit-for-tat, keeping score—you do this and I’ll do that . . . But ultimately, when you’re in a real loving relationship, it’s flowing with things that you do [for your partner] without even thinking about it.
* * * * *
These guys were good. Too good. I felt like they’d been hiding in my windows. I couldn’t take all the blame for our breakup, but my own blame was inescapable. I had tried to control someone. I tried to manipulate them. And I was the big loser in all of this.
She had rebranded herself as a phoenix, a mythological bird that rose from the ashes of fires.
Did that make me the ash?
No. I wasn’t going to let this happen again. By me, or to me. The best way to do that was to understand why I did what I did, because once I could identify it, I could prevent it.
At first, I thought I wasn’t able to let go purely for selfish reasons—that I wanted to hold on to something that wasn’t there anymore. But somewhere along the way, the reasons changed. Skalicky helped me find out why I—and others—have used sex as a weapon.
“Your generation suffers from communication problems, so there’s nowhere for intimacy to develop,” Skalicky said. “If the sex becomes just a one-night stand or a commodity, when does [someone] learn how to really communicate and have intimacy?”
“The idea of being able to be intimate and being vulnerable to another human being [is good]. I make myself vulnerable to you and you’re vulnerable to me, then we grow and learn within our emotions,” Skalicky continued. “If it’s just a one-night stand, the sex doesn’t mean anything. It’s no different from looking at pornography. What does that say about the development of that human being? What kind of [parent] is that person going to be?”
“You always have to focus on the value of the relationship and what it means. Ask, ‘Am I losing this potential relationship by making it so cheap?’”
* * * * *
Brown and Skalicky also agreed that the targets of sexual abuse are more prone to use sex as a manipulative tool. Often, if victims keep quiet, their abusers will give them gifts for their silence. It’s not that much of a jump to see how the psychological effects can carry over into the adult relationships of child abuse victims.
“It also has to do with self-esteem,” Brown said. “[Child abuse victims] don’t believe that they can have what they want any other way, which leads them to use sex as a weapon . . . self-esteem issues can almost always be traced back to childhood trauma.”
Skalicky mentioned that he hoped the readers of this article would be able to see the signs of sex manipulation in either themselves or their significant others. The sooner one can recognize and stop it, the easier it is to recover from the symptoms, he said.
“It’s more important for you to be the right person, than to find the right person,” Skalicky said. That is so essential to your sense of self-worth, to who you are. It means valuing yourself. It doesn’t mean being narcissistic, it means really having a sense of being centered and confident.”
Brown agreed, but also observed that one can find self-worth in more than one place.
“It goes kind of against common sense, that you have to learn to love yourself before you can love someone else . . . [but] I think you can learn to love yourself through the eyes of another as well,” Brown said.
“The foundation of a relationship should be nurturing. That’s just the most important thing,” he said. “Today it doesn’t matter who you are. The nurturing aspect will take the relationship to another [level], and then there’s no room for sex as a weapon. It should never be used as a weapon.”
Consider this writer disarmed.