When and If

Content Notes: this might be a tough read if you’ve struggled with any of the following:

  • Self-image
  • Bullying
  • Abusive dynamics

When you’re young, you believe what people tell you – especially when those people are authority figures. It’s a long time before you begin to realise that there’s a difference between conviction and competence, and you’ll never quite learn to tell one from the other.

When you’re autistic, the world is full of incomprehensible exceptions to unwritten rules, invisible inferences and baffling illogic. You get used to it, stop expecting things to make sense. Go along to get along, and every time you trip over one of those ambush protocols that everyone else ‘just knows’ but you needed an explanation of; you hate yourself a little more.

When you’re a girl and raised Catholic, your early years are grooming for a lifetime of unhealthy relationships with male authority and sexual repression. Burdened with mythological shame, expected – encouraged, even – to suffer with grace and defer to the whims of patriarchs, you absorb the teachings of sin and guilt, learn that your body is a vassal, and the will to which it must be bent is never your own. Here is your duty, they say, and when you question, all you hear is; because He says so.

When you’re book-smart but street-naïve, reading far ahead of your age group, peeking into the world of adults through a glass darkened and distorted; you understand the words but puzzle over their intentions. Between the pages and on the screen, sex is a weapon, love is destiny, beauty is everything.

When you’re all of these things, by the time you turn fourteen, you are an Unfortunate Incident just waiting to happen.

Especially since your late primary and early secondary schooling were fraught with the knowledge that you are ugly; skinny, bad haircut, glasses, wonky teeth, bushy eyebrows. You’re used to being mocked or overlooked, understand that looking like you do means you can have little expectation of empathy or forgiveness from the world – but then you grow curves, discover makeup and hair styling products, suddenly you realise no-one has told you you’re ugly in….well, ages. Wolf-whistles are no longer accompanied by derisive laughter, suddenly you are desirable and it is a heady rush indeed, but you are still lonely. Alone. Single. Desired, but unwanted. You can’t accept the compliments, they make you feel like a fraud – but you must have them nonetheless.

Your friends have boyfriends, they snog at the bus stop before school, entwining themselves into a single unit, greater than the sum of its parts. They’re getting laid and you’re still humping your pillow in the dead of night, yearning for real touch and unable to reconcile your expectations with your experiences. You have the impression that the things you desire are wrong, sins, shameful and sordid. Perverted. Unhealthy.

You meet your mates’ boyfriends and burn with despairing envy; why don’t you have someone to fumble with at the back of the cinema, or grope with on the bus? Because you’re ugly. And weird. A trompe d’oueil, from a distance one might mistake you for an attractive young woman; up close, the illusion comes undone. There’s something wrong with you for wanting, and something even more wrong with you for not getting.

So when boys express an interest, you’re so invested in the idea of being A Girlfriend that you overlook how little you two have in common, or the question of whether you even like him all that much. After all, if a boy fancies you (at last) wouldn’t it be outright churlish to decline his affections? But secretly you know, there must be something wrong with him, or he’d already have one of the pretty, popular girls on his arm. He must have little social currency indeed to be coming to you.

Here begins a pattern. You seldom say no, because you don’t want to be rude or mean, because can’t bear the backlash; only joking, they’d never really waste their time on an ugly skank like you. Your worth is measured by your attractiveness to the male gaze, and your ability to hold its exclusive attention. That’s what the script says. Take what you can get, because you don’t really deserve to have any at all.

Your intense niche interests and odd obsessions, strong opinions and unusual ideas set you apart. You desperately want to enjoy being The Girlfriend, it’s all you can think about most of the time, but nothing seems to work like the books and the movies and the TV told you it would. Disconcertingly, it turns out that your ‘fake it to make it’ strategy does not apply to relationships. You can speak the lines you’ve learned, and make the moves you’ve observed, but when called upon to improvise, find yourself tongue-tied and uncertain, full of feelings and lost for words. It’s not that males are the unknown quantity; it’s that your entire species is largely unfathomable to you. Evidently, you’re flawed in some way, but if you can pretend not to be, perhaps no-one else will notice.

Somehow you get the idea that a man’s boundaries are a test of your mettle and so you set out to prove yourself worthy, as often as you can. Successful more often than not, despite the barriers presented by wives, girlfriends, age differences or honour, you become proficient at sexual aggression masquerading as temptation. Whether you want to or not, when someone takes you seriously and expects you to deliver on your promises, you wonder why success feels so much like despair – but you give what you offered, because you don’t want to be rude or mean, a let-down, or a prick-tease. It’s easier to defer and endure than attempt to explain yourself.

You’re getting what you think you deserve, what you’re asking for and what you see in your desires, but it doesn’t feel right and it doesn’t feel good. You’re incapable of insight, have no clue how to negotiate – all you know is how to put on a performance.

How is it that you always ended up hating the men you had been so desperate to submit yourself to a few hours earlier? Why can’t you have normal relationships like normal people; with dates and conversation and being happy, in love? You’re too damn good at artifice, spent too long believing your own bullshit when you always knew deep down inside, that you were doing all of it wrong, all of it. Apparently, fucking and loving can have different trajectories; who knew? Not you.

You wonder sometimes, how you would have fared, if-

So much if.

If you’d never set foot in a church. If your neurodiversity had been recognised sooner. If you’d been good-looking at an earlier age. If you’d had access to non-clinical sex education, and any kink education at all. If you’d gotten to therapy before medication, or to University, whether you might have found a way to learn about the missing pieces before you fell through the holes they left.

You wish someone had told you. You can only hope you’d have listened.

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