I could feel the space between me and S. getting smaller and smaller, our legs slightly touching. My knee found its way to hers underneath the table, and she didn't pull away. Neither did I. I picked up the glass of wine in front of me, smiled at S. over the rim, then nervously glanced out at the idyllic rooftop view of Brooklyn.
“Do you want to come downstairs?” she asked, nodding towards the stairs to her apartment.
My heart skipped a beat as I looked up at her, and then across the table — at her boyfriend, V. I gulped down the rest of my rosé. “Yes,” I breathed.
I knew what that meant. I was about to have a threesome with a couple I'd just met hours ago. And I felt exhilarated — this was way out of my comfort zone, but at the same time, it all felt strangely natural. It felt like I was barreling past the boundaries of what was expected of me, especially as a survivor of sexual abuse.
If you're a survivor too, you know there’s a lot of pressure to be the so-called “perfect,” pure victim — meaning you must be "virginal," pretty but not hot, and must have never, ever told a lie. (Spoiler alert: The perfect victim doesn't exist.) If this isn't you, you can easily be accused of being "hypersexual" as a result of trauma. I consider myself neither. I’ve found my own way in a world that loves to put people into boxes.
Most people think of the "perfect victim" narrative as one that's thrust upon people — often women — who are in the midst of abuse or who are at trial after reporting it. A recent example of this was the trial of Amber Heard and Johnny Depp, in which he sued her for defamation after she published an op-ed referring to herself as a survivor of domestic abuse without naming a perpetrator. The case turned into a worldwide media circus. Heard was branded as an unstable, lying, hysterical villain — far from an "ideal victim." The trial was a case study of the extreme harm that this "perfect victim" myth can cause — the repercussions can follow you long after your abuse or any ensuing legal entanglements.
I know this from experience. At 19 years old, I experienced stalking and image-based sexual abuse (formerly known as “revenge porn" — a troublesome term that implies consent in creating porn and that someone deserves "vengeance") when my ex posted my naked pictures online. With the help of my lawyer (who’s now my boss), I took him to court, and he got a record and five years probation — I got a lifetime restraining order. But my sentence didn’t end when his started. The entire time he was stalking me, I felt like I was in my own prison, one that he had put me in. He had tried to control me and then weaponized my sexuality against me.
Spoiler alert: The perfect victim doesn't exist.
This was all especially difficult to process growing up in a world where sex and shame go hand-in-hand. In my Cuban-American, Christian home, I was raised to believe sex was only for marriage. I was committed to this ideology. I was a preteen in the height of purity culture of the 2000s when purity rings were the thing (mine was a thin silver band with the engraving True Love Waits) and pop culture was obsessed with the virginities of teens like Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers. I was in middle school when High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens’ nude photos were leaked, and she made a public apology for it. Back then, in 2007, it made sense to me. It was considered a sex scandal that Hudgens took part in, instead of a horrible violation — a crime — that had happened to her. Meanwhile, I was eating up the problematic ideas that Disney royalty was feeding me. Hooking up needed to be "special," I believed then. Although I eventually had sex with my first boyfriend, I didn’t “get” the point of casual sex… until I did.
After years of carrying the weight of working to heal from the trauma, I started going on more dates, seeking casual, sexual relationships. But I mostly found the sex unsatisfying. Eventually, I realized I was ready to make a bold change and take control of my sex life — to cast shame and expectations aside. I began to demand equity in the bedroom, which meant the people I slept with needed to see me as an equal in the world, outside of sex — even if our connection was based on sex. I needed to know the person inside me respected me. Meanwhile, I was in therapy trying to process my internalized shame and its ties to the "perfect victim" narrative.
Without overthinking it, I decided to open my Tinder up to men and women. I didn’t know what that meant in terms of my sexual identity, but I was curious, knew I was physically attracted to women, and I was open.
That’s when I first matched with S. and her boyfriend, V. Both in their 30s and living together, she sent me pictures of the two of them. I was instantly attracted. That’s how we ended up moving our date from a local wine bar to their rooftop to their bedroom.
V. told me that when we were together, it wasn’t "them" and "me." It was the three of us, because we all wanted to be there. We had strong chemistry (I think it's partly because we rep the three fire signs) and slept together after descending the stairs that steamy night on the roof.
Without realizing it, I was starting to discover these parts of my sexuality that were so important to me, that I'd never allowed myself to explore — whether that was because of purity culture, my trauma, the expectations I felt had been placed on me as a survivor, or a combination of it all.
Many of us who've experienced trauma may feel we don't deserve positive outcomes or pleasure, according to Nicoletta Heidegger, LMFT, a therapist and sexologist. But, she says, "Eventually being able to receive pleasure and feel deserving of it can really be healing," though, she adds. “It teaches your mind, your brain, your soul, [and] your body that you are able to experience that.” It took me years to learn to listen to my own desires, and it wasn’t until I started dating couples that I realized how much pleasure I was capable of having. With every encounter, I realized how much I enjoyed group sex, and physical intimacy with women — and accepted that all of this is okay. In fact, it’s more than okay; it’s freeing and lets me know myself on a deeper level.
Even as I’ve learned, accepted, and embraced these parts of myself, I’ve had to grapple with the lingering idea that my sexuality and identity will always be tied to what my ex did to me. This is common for trauma survivors. We often wonder: Am I "this way" because that’s who I really am, or is it because the trauma changed me? This can get even more complex in a world where our sexuality is constantly weaponized against us and used to shame us into silence. But we’re all a product of our genetics and our experiences, and I've found the best we can do is live as authentically as we can — and learn what that means for us.
As Heidegger explains, when it comes to sexual desires, “I think sometimes people get too stuck on the 'why.'” Specifically speaking of trauma survivors who are into kink or non-monogamy, “The question ‘why’ can come from a shaming place, because it’s of the mind that if we figure out why and ‘fix it,’ you won’t like these things anymore because they’re bad,” Heidegger continues, “as opposed to saying that it’s okay to be into this or that, and maybe curious about where that comes from.”
It’s true that what my ex did affected my dating life — but, as I've processed the trauma over the past eight years, I decided to take life into my own hands and do what makes me feel whole. That’s what it means to go from a victim to a survivor, or — as we say at the law firm where I work now — a victim to a warrior.
I decided to take life into my own hands and do what makes me feel whole. That’s what it means to go from a victim to a survivor, or... a victim to a warrior.
After my experiences with my ex, I was scared to ever let someone in again. I spent much of my 20s feeling very “anti-relationship.” I thought that getting into one would mean sacrificing a part of myself — that it would make me vulnerable to someone close to me trying to undermine my independence.
S. and V. have shown me what I'm capable of and how to set aside expectations of society and shame. But they've also shown me what relationships can be, beyond what I'd learned from my family, friends, religion, the Disney Channel, and other forms of pop culture. S. and V.'s openness, trust, communication, independence, and commitment stand out to me. I'd never admired a couple until they came along. They can have sexual experiences with other people, together or apart, and let it be a beautiful, non-threatening part of their relationship.
Over two years after that first date with S. and V., I still see them on and off. We met on the basis of sex, but we developed a deep friendship along the way. We go on vacation together, and I attended their wedding ceremony. S. and V. are two of the closest people in my life, and sex is a part of our relationship, even if it’s not romance. I don’t know exactly what to call it, and don’t think it needs a label anyway.
By intimately experiencing relationship dynamics that don’t necessarily fit a mold, I've learned that relationships are whatever you make them. The idea of sexual freedom drew me to the concept of non-monogamy, but the impact, for me, has gone so much further than sex. It's helped me process my trauma, shed the idea that I need to be perfect, and change the way I approach dating and being single. In fact, since I started dating couples, for the first time, I feel a lot more open to starting a relationship of my own again someday.
I do eventually want a partner. Because a relationship where you can make the rules with someone —that doesn’t sound suffocating or scary. In fact, it sounds ideal.
Welcome to The Single Files. Each installment of Refinery29's bi-monthly column will feature a personal essay that explores the experiences of being single right now. Have your own idea you'd like to submit? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.