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#245: Why am I so bad at picking up on signals?

Buffy teasing Xander on the dance floor.

Buffy is always such a jerk when she comes back from the dead.

Captain Awkward,

I was at a party the other night and a very, very attractive girl was hitting on me. She was stroking my leg, she was holding my hand, she was muttering to me that I ‘don’t realise how sexy I am’, she was winking at me from across the room, and we kissed a bit. My response was laughably wooden: I obviously kissed her back but besides that I just laughed and had conversation with her. I know enough about this person’s character to know that she is fairly uninhibited about hooking up with people in that kind of situation and I think that if I’d returned the ball a bit things could have got more interesting, since she clearly wanted them to, but instead nothing at all happened. I think that on one level when she was saying and doing these things I suspected that she was somehow mocking me, but looking back I realise how ridiculous that sounds, or, if she was mocking me, then she was being incredibly subtle about it. Why am I so bad at picking up on and responding to these things? Am I a robot? To frame it in a way that is closer to how you tend to present most of your advice, what words can I use in the future to respond to this kind of situation??

-Concerned

Dear Concerned:

You originally titled this question “What’s wrong with me?” in your email, which concerned me.

Nothing is wrong with you. I think that maybe you didn’t really want to mess around with that lady, so you responded to her (yes, very obvious) signals of attraction and seduction with deflection. I don’t think she was mocking you, but I think the fact that you thought “Wait, is she making fun of me?” is telling that you didn’t feel the trust and connection with her that would make you want to have even a casual hookup. When you have sex with people, you let your guard down, ergo, you should only do it with people who make you feel okay to let your guard down.

There are a few assumptions or downright fallacies in your letter that made me want to post it instead of just answering you privately, because I think you are not alone in sharing these and they get right at how gender expectations around (hetero)sexuality are messed up.

Fallacy #1: “Young heterosexual dudes are up for sex all the time, and if a hot girl even smiles at them they are ready, willing, and able. If you’re not, something must be wrong with you. Are you sure you’re not gay, dude?”

Yeah, nothing is wrong with you if you don’t want to have sex with someone even if they maybe want to have sex with you. When you are young and not-so-experienced, it’s easy for every encounter or possible encounter to feel like a referendum on Masculinity or Prowess or Who You Are And Will Be Forever. When you are older and more experienced, you might still get that feeling sometimes and it’s usually a sign that something is off – when there is pressure to “perform” in a certain way everything is less fun for everyone. Relax. You’ll get a lot of chances at this.

Pete Campbell Making Poutyface

“Why do they get to decide everything?”

Fallacy #2: “I know enough about this person’s character to know…”

In this case, what you knew about this woman (she likes to hook up at parties) and her behavior (she maybe wants to hook up with me) matched, but I would encourage you to pay WAY more attention to behavior/words than to “reputation.” The people I have had sex with know me as someone who is likely to have sex with them. The people I haven’t had sex with know jack shit about that, and would do well to assume nothing. In fact, “assume very little” isn’t a bad assumption to take forward with you into future dating/flirting/hooking up.

Right now it might feel like she had all the power and you awkwardly choked, but really, you had power and you used it. You weren’t sure about what you wanted, so you held back. If you find yourself in a situation again where a girl is flirting with you and you want to act on it, a good script might be “I’m really enjoying this. Would you like to go somewhere more quiet/private and hang out some more?”  Imagine the shoe is on the other foot where you are making the first move with a girl you like at a party. What things do you most want to know? I’m thinking you want to know “Is she interested too?” So put yourself in her shoes and give her the reassurance you would want.

Now, you’re still thinking about this particular woman days later, right? Do you want to make something happen with her? You may feel like all is lost (and it may in fact be), but what about seeing her around school or work or Facebook and saying “Hey, Saturday was really fun. Can I buy you a drink sometime soon?” If she brings up your lack of going-home-with-her from that night in a way that’s designed to make you feel crappy for not “performing,” that’s a really good sign that you made the right choice the first time. But if she says “I figured you didn’t like me” you can say “I do and I did! It just wasn’t the right moment for me.

I think you’ll do well to take this whole incident as an affirmation of your desirability (she was into you!) and your good judgment (you only act when the situation/person/moment feel really right to you). Those are good things. Really good things.

Now, everybody who has gotten to the good parts of sex and love has had to be brave and make themselves vulnerable to rejection at some time.Trust that when the situation is right, you’ll be so into the person (and she’ll be so into you) that you’ll both make it very easy to figure out what to do next, even if everyone is shy or reserved and awkward.

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38 comments
  1. “it’s easy for every encounter or possible encounter to feel like a referendum on Masculinity or Prowess or Who You Are And Will Be Forever”

    I would do well to remember that myself. I tend to feel like every possible sexual encounter is OMG POSSIBLY MY LAST CHANCE EVER TO GET LAID. Which, while statistically true, does not need to be emotionally true, and prolly shouldn’t be.

    • kathleendonohue said:

      Wow, what do you mean by “statistically true”? That sounds extraordinarily dire, unless you mean that you could accidentally step in front of a bus on your way home.

      • Ethyl said:

        I took that to mean “theoretically possible,” but I don’t want to speak for bibliophibian.

  2. ladidah said:

    Concerned, you mention that she is very attractive, but not how attracted you were to her….and I can’t agree enough with the Captain: it’s ok to not feel like taking up every opportunity that’s offered, and to feel or not feel your own attraction at any given time…

    • Britt said:

      I noticed that, as well. I wonder if there’s not perhaps a certain amount of conflict between this objectively attractive and sexually available woman (who friends/societal programming would lead LW to think he *should* be totally into sleeping with) and who LW is necessarily attracted to on his own? Society has a way of teaching us who we should be attracted to (I think especially men), and it can be confusing/awkward if who we’re actually attracted to doesn’t jive with that.

  3. NessieMonster said:

    Hey LW, I’m kinda confused by how you ask ‘why am I so bad at picking up on and responding to these things?’ when you described right at the start of your letter behaviours that suggest that she was into you. You must have picked up on it at the time else you wouldn’t have been kissing her back, right? So, it doesn’t sound like you’re bad at picking up flirting signals, which, bonus starting points!

    If otoh, your hidden question that you’re kicking youself with is ‘why didn’t I think to ask her home to bed for sexyfuntimes?’ then the Captain is spot-on. It’s totally legit to not want to progress a fun situation into something along the lines of a one-nighter. Go you! Who knows, perhaps she’ll turn out to really respect you for not jumping in! People I have one-nighters with usually don’t turn into dates/flings/partners. People I flirt with a bit and then follow up with later are much more likely to become partners. You aren’t doomed by any means.

    If again, the feelings you had about being mocked is tied in with a lack of self-confidence in your dateability/shaggability, then take her expressed interest as self-esteem boosting for when you meet someone you do want to take things further with. Also, you’re not a robot, or wooden! You said it yourself – you laughed and joked and had a conversation with her. Which is more than some guys do with a lass who’s trying to pick them up. You’ll be ok, promise 🙂

  4. Tosca said:

    Ah yes. I was also someone who can be very wooden and awkward around attractive people who seemed to be into me (I’m married now). And because I’m so shy and don’t get a lot of attention all the time, I thought there was something seriously Wrong With Me that I felt kind of oogie about taking it all the way with these people. They were hot, therefore shouldn’t I!? The answer is no and after some years looking back and soul-searching I realized that *I* was definitely not into them that way. There was nothing wrong with them! I just didn’t feel…IT. And if I don’t feel IT, it’s not going to happen.

  5. So this one time, there was this guy that I wanted to hook up with. We hung out a lot when I was home from school and talked on the phone and I so wanted to hook up with him. Then, one day we were in the basement of my parents house hanging with some friends after the power had gone out. And we’re sitting at this table and he starts rubbing his foot against mine. And I say “That’s my foot.” *headdesk*

    There were multiple incidents like these, and I ultimately came to conclude that the fact that nothing ever happened was for the best. Maybe it was my subconscious telling me that it was for the best? Or maybe it was just that not being “typically” attractive, I don’t get a lot of moves put on me, and I panicked and got confused every time he tried to be normal at me.

    So I feel your pain letter writer, I do. What has worked out well for me is finding someone that I connect with, without ever saying or doing things that one might see in a romantic comedy.

    • JenniferP said:

      I love this story for so many reasons.

      First, let go of the idea that only “typically attractive” people have sex and/or are good at sex.

      Second, as someone who has had a fair amount of sex by the age of 38, I can tell all of you that awkward shit happens all the time. It’s not seamless and zipless and stuff. If desire is so fragile and fleeting that it cannot survive one awkward comment or moment – “That’s my foot” – it wasn’t meant to survive.

      Third, going back to the original letter, why can’t a party where you successfully flirted with and kissed a really hot girl who was into you be a success on its own? Please, please, please learn to view it that way and enjoy it for its own sake. You’ll be so much happier for it.

      • Regarding “Typically attractive”ness, it’s not that I didn’t have sex or was bad at it. It was just that at 18 not a lot of boys wanted to date the 6′ amazon, and if they did they certainly didn’t try things like telling me how soft my skin was, or playing footsie or whatever. At the time I had almost never been hit on at all, so I tended to take everything in a literal way that was often hilarious. Sadly I think it must have seemed like horrible rejection to people who did not realize I am just awkward.

        • Rosa said:

          if they can’t smooth over “that’s my foot” with something charming and not too pushy, they are not all that un-awkward themselves.

          Which isn’t rare, or even bad. But it’s easy for each of us to think we’re uniquely socially inept and not realize that even people we think are hot and socially awesome go home kicking themselves for being awkward too.

      • If desire is so fragile and fleeting that it cannot survive one awkward comment or moment – “That’s my foot” – it wasn’t meant to survive.
        Total, total agreement. I think the measure of people’s sexual compatibility isn’t whether they can avoid awkward moments, but how well they deal with them. If you go “that’s my foot” and everything stops dead instead of anyone following it up with “and do you mind?” or “well, so it is” or something–I feel like there wasn’t that much chemistry there in the first place.

      • DBegh said:

        Oh, the awkward. I was afraid of it even with my interactions with friends. I have a tendency – somewhat inherited from my Dad – to make bad puns whenever it’s possible (or even when it does not actually make sense). And I’d be mortified! BAD JOKE! THEY ALL HATE ME NOW! But they don’t actually mind, and now my puns have even arisen to the status of in-jokes (yay!), all is for the best in the best of all worlds.

        So if my friends can handle AWKWARD, I suppose it’s fair to assume any potential SO or fuckbuddy can do it too.

  6. withywindling said:

    If you don’t want to have sex with someone, please do not! It’s not good for either of you! From the perspective of the partner, it’s pretty crummy to end up suspecting that they’ve convinced themselves to do you because Men Want To Nail Everything So Offers Cannot Be Turned Down.

    • the_apricot said:

      Seconded!

  7. LW said:

    Yeah I think it was me just not being into her for whatever reason on that night. You’re right that I should just take it as an ego-boost that a really hot girl was hitting on me and be glad that I did at least make out with her.

    At the same time, though, what annoys me is that at the time I just didn’t get the really really obvious signals she was sending – it’s only afterwards, looking back, that I realise how obvious it was. The problems were really firstly that I don’t always have the self-esteem to believe that anyone, least of all a beautiful girl, would find me attractive, and secondly that as someone with minimal experience I maybe felt slightly intimidated by someone who is very vocal about how much sexual experience they have had.

    In the future I am going to mentally throw a glass of cold water at myself any time I let myself think that that kind of attention is ‘mockery’. I’ve recently come out of a period of such low self-esteem that I made sure I avoided contact with the opposite sex simply because I presumed anyone would be ashamed to be seen talking with me and while I’ve clearly made some progress from there I still have a few hang-ups.

    Thanks!

    • Eden said:

      Chalk this one up to experience. You might not have picked up on it at the time, in this particular instance – but I bet the next time you’re around an attractive woman who is behaving this way around you, you’ll definitely pick up on it. “Holy cow, she’s acting the same way That Other Lady was acting at the party a couple months ago! This person must be into me!”

      Also, even though you don’t say it, I am going to assume you’re a dude (apologies if I assume wrong, but that’s what I’m picking up). Some women really like taking a less-experienced guy to bed. It’s an ego boost, a chance to play teacher and to know that we’ll (hopefully) be a good memory someone has for the rest of their life. So don’t feel intimidated by your lack of experience – for some women, that might be seen as an asset. And for other women, it’s a great litmus test. Any woman who doesn’t want to be with you because of your lack of experience, isn’t someone you want to mess around with anyway.

    • I read your letter as less “what’s wrong with me for not having sex with someone who wanted to?” and more “what’s wrong with me for having this nonrational reaction that’s keeping me from responding the way I would have liked?” (whether “the way I would have liked” meant “having sex” or “not acting so wooden”).

      I’ve been there, right down to the particular sense that someone’s interest must be insincere and mocking, because when I was younger I had much more experience with people denying or mocking my attractiveness – a “describe the person next to you” writing exercise that turned into a catalogue of my physical flaws, a guy who was fond of changing Alanis Morrissette’s lyric to “it’s meeting the man of your dreams, then meeting jfpbookworm” (which doesn’t even make sense but the intent was clear), overhearing “you like jfpbookworm” as a way of insulting other people, or just plain people coming up to me and saying “hey, you’re ugly” – than with people acknowledging attraction to me. I’d also been mocked for being shy and easily tongue-tied by someone making sexual comments toward me. Those things stick around long past their expiration date.

      How to get past that? I’m still not completely out of it; there are times when a partner has told me that they find me attractive and I’m unable to truly believe it, and can only agree to take their word for it. Since it’s a nonrational reaction, trying to reason my way out of it can only go so far. But the following things have helped:

      * Choosing to spend my time with people and in situations that don’t place an undue importance on physical appearance.

      * Getting older, and interacting with older potential partners who eschew some of the power plays involved with “conventional dating” and who have more experience expressing attraction unequivocally (and do so in ways that don’t trigger that “is she making fun of me?” reaction in me).

      * Finding ways to distract myself from “terrible thoughts” about how unattractive I am when they occur – things that make me feel good or make me feel good about myself. For me that can be things like B-movies or cooking something new.

      * Getting more experience with what sincere expressions of attraction feel like, and with how I can respond to them, and how I could respond to mockery were that to actually happen. Learning to flirt.

      * Lucking out and finding patient partners who understand that I have self-image issues and are willing to work with me in dealing with them.

      • drst said:

        Word to all of this, except I have made almost no progress to get past it myself. My family is genetically incapable of accepting compliments, and I’m so used to people saying horrible shit about my body that whenever someone says something complimentary, I tense up waiting for the other shoe to drop. I still default to blowing them off or acting like they didn’t just say what they just said, in order to protect myself.

        This is not a “crazy” feeling LW. You’re not alone, although you’re clearly doing better at coping than I am. Go you!

        • Ethyl said:

          ::Jedi hugs::

          Sometimes it helps me to remember that being able to take a compliment is a radical progressive act that can help squish the patriarchy (this works for all genders but for different reasons). Other times, I just get all uncomfortable and weird. Maybe this helps? Or maybe I’m just totally exhausted by this class I’m taking and the unreal amount of walking we did today on a field trip and I’m not even making sense?

      • Tosca said:

        OMG this was me growing up too. I was the unpopular girl that popular boys dared each other to ask out and try to “trick” into thinking they liked me, only to cruelly reject me later. I’d cottoned onto it pretty quick, though, and learned to shut it down before I got hurt. And even now it’s hard to really believe someone’s into me sexually or even romantically.
        I dealt with this by later becoming the funny, geeky girl a boy could be friends with. I was the girl the boys could get advice from about the girls they liked, but never the one they liked. Truthfully, although sometimes I crushed on a guy in secret, this felt “safer” to me and I didn’t mind it. **
        My husband was the only guy who did (and still does) find me super-hot, and I only believed it from him because he was just as shy and unpopular growing up.

        **That’s why Nice Guys tick me off. Yes, it IS possible to be the “friend” but not hate the opposite gender because of crushing resentment. And guys who think all women can just snap their fingers and get laid. Uh, NO, I certainly can’t and millions of other women can’t either. Sorry, tangent.

        • lizzieladie said:

          And guys who think all women can just snap their fingers and get laid. Uh, NO, I certainly can’t and millions of other women can’t either. Sorry, tangent.

          Omg, this. I have an ongoing disagreement with an annoying guy in my social circle about why I prefer to drink in bars to drinking at home. I’m pretty sure that I like the atmosphere and the fact that the higher price keeps me from doing anything dangerous with the alcohol, he’s sure that I prefer it because “girls never pay for drinks in bars.”

          That may be true for a subset of women who are both conventionally attractive enough to get drink-buying attention from guys every time they go to bars and are willing to accept enough drinks and spend enough time flirting to bankroll the whole trip. But I can count the number of times I’ve been hit on, ever, on one hand, and none of them have been in bars. I go to bars either on dates or with my friends for the purpose of spending time with my friends, and the only drink buying that’s going on is of the “cute date thing” or “let me buy a round for the table,” varieties. I’m extremely fond of my approach to bars and it’s realllyyyyy annoying when he slots me into both the crowd of people who can get crazy amounts of attention from random dudes right away and the crowd of people that’s only going to bars for that purpose.

    • xenu01 said:

      Just so you know, I met my husband for the first time when I drunkenly kissed him at a party. Apparently, I slurred that he hadn’t kissed me yet and then proceeded to make out with him. I kissed a LOT of other people that evening (I was 24! Don’t judge!), but only one was significant, because after I drunkenly kissed him, he asked me out to lunch. This from the shyest guy in the universe- but when someone makes out with you, it’s hard to tell yourself they’re not interested, I guess.

      And then we had a nice sober lunch two days later (after I got over my awful hangover), and a day after that he rode the train with me all the way to the airport, as alas, I was living across the country and was only in town for a week.

      I also, in my days, had quite a few hook-ups and *gasp* one-night stands that didn’t have a dream of going anywhere. The point is, if it’s going to go anywhere, it will. You’ll find a way. AND. Sometimes a drunken make-out is just that, or I’d be married to half of Philadelphia by now.

    • withywindling said:

      As a woman who is fairly “experienced” and vocal about it, experience doesn’t count for a whole lot. Some of the loveliest men I’ve been with were pretty inexperienced. Enthusiasm and an attitude of “cool, I’d like to try that!” make for the best times. And I also really enjoy teaching/training people.

      I get the insecurity. Like body image and all of that sort of stuff, it takes practice. But I say, it’s more fun being confident. What fun can you have if you let the insecurity win? (Not that I don’t have bad days too)

      • More on the inexperience thing — it’s actually not very important. Because what you learn from one partner does not necessarily transfer over to another. Since all people are different, what feels OMG AMAZING to one person may do nothing for a second one, and be actively unpleasant to a third. Enthusiasm and interest are way more important.

    • staranise said:

      Total sympathies on the low self-esteem. When I was fourteen, someone asked me if I wanted to go out with them, and when I said sure, they turned around with, “Too bad–I don’t want to go out with you!” Ever since then, the thought of reaching out and expressing attraction with a person has been pretty emotionally fraught. So I totally get where the “mockery” idea comes from.

      Self-esteem definitely seems like a place to start. I can’t imagine that sex with the greatest person in the world would be very fun if all you could think about was what a shitty evening the greatest person in the world is having because they’re with crappy ‘ol you. It’s a bit more pleasant to receive compliments (even of the nonverbal “I would like to shag you”) when there’s a chance you’ll believe their truth and sincerity.

      • xenu01 said:

        It took me until my mid-twenties to believe someone could be interested in me without having been sufficiently marinated in my carefully curated Charm and Wit first and for similar reasons! In my case it was the combination of “you’re ugly and smelly and poor and no one will ever like you” and you know, that terrible thing kids do where they play truth or dare four feet away from you and then dare that cute guy who you actually secretly do have a crush on to ask you out in jest and see what you will say.

        It is amazing how much k-12 can f you the f up well into adulthood, isn’t it? I marvel at those who get far far away and FORGET and then tell kids that these are the best years of their life and stop complaining, because REALLY.

    • NessieMonster said:

      Aww dude 🙂
      Coming out of a period of self-esteem that low, and then making successful conversation and being flirted with *and* having a kiss = huge steps forward! Sounds like you’re making loads of progress. As per the other commentators, chalk it up to experience. You now know a few more things to look for.

      As for your inexperience – trust me, that’s not necessarily a problem. My current partner’s previous gf was his first and only and also his high school sweetheart. He’d never even kissed anyone else before her – yaay, all-boys-only-grammar schools! He describes himself as shy and thought he wasn’t very experienced but he’s fun to be with and was willing to try all sorts of stuff with me. And he turned out to be amazing in bed! It’s as much to do with trust, listening attentively (to non-verbal as well as verbal cues) and being willing when you’re curious as it is to do with “skill”. It’s all stuff you can learn and pick up through trial and error. We should probably have an open-thread of embarrassing hook-up incidents. I bet this Awkward Arms has tons!

  8. DBegh said:

    Re: the pressure for a guy to always be into sexytimes.

    Yeah, sometimes it can be hard to navigate through that bullshit. This fallacy managed to penetrate into my circle of friends, and I find it extremely annoying. I’ve told them what I thought was a funny anecdote that happened to me at a party. I’d been chatting with this one lady for a while, and it was fun because I was sharing all these amazing projects I had for the future and she seemed to find it interesting. And then she kissed me on the cheek. It wasn’t really out of the blue, because looking back I realize she was a wee bit flirty, but I didn’t have any intention whatsoever to make out with her. So I just made up an excuse and went to the bar. For me, the lesson here is that flirty situations totally aren’t flirty if you aren’t feeling it (you may be completely oblivious to what’s happening!). For (some) of my friends, the lesson was “dude, you should totally have kissed her and maybe done some other things afterwards, if you know what I mean!”. *sigh*

    Same thing at another party, which we attended together : “why didn’t you make a move on that lady you danced half an hour with?” me: “I dunno, we had fun dancing and just didn’t feel like doing more?”

    I think some people just take time to learn that all gradations on the continuum of flirtation/make-outs/hawt seks are enjoyable and worthwhile.

  9. Griffy said:

    Oh, LW, I feel you. Boy do I feel you. A lot of times when I get hit on, it’s by people in whom I have no or limited interest, and these people expect I am going to want to leap into bed with them with all possible celerity, and I’m just not comfortable with moving that fast. I like there to be lots of eating pizza and watching sci-fi and climbing trees and playing laser-tag kind of getting to know a person, before there is any naked getting to know a person. It sounds to me like you might be the same way.

    Now I am luckier than you in one way because I am female, so I don’t have that horrible pressure that I MUST BE UP FOR SEX AT ALL TIMES WITH ALL PEOPLE OR ELSE I AM SICK AND WRONG AND GAY, which is nice. However, by way of funny anecdote, I will tell you this: one evening in my late teens I was hanging out with some guy-friends and a girl-friend of theirs dropped by. When she found out I was bisexual and single she threw herself at me like a freight train. She was a good-looking young lady with a great sense of humour, but she was hardly more than a stranger to me so I was totally unable to feel romantically or sexually attracted to her. I felt super uncomfortable with her increasingly pushy advances and I emotionally withdrew from her almost completely, in a kind of frozen confusion and terror. A couple days later I found out she’d gone to the pub I worked at (she drank there often) and told all my work friends that I SO wasn’t bisexual, that I was only faking being bisexual as a ploy to get attention from men. Even now, I can’t stay calm long enough to count all the reasons this makes me rage.

    LW, you do not have anything to prove to anybody. Having sex with someone you’re hot for is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Having it with someone you’re not hot for is a dull chore at best. Sex is not a duty, but it will feel like one if you’re trying to do it with someone for whom you are not having pants-feelings. Wait for the pants-feelings! It’ll be worth it!

  10. Leila said:

    This really chimed with me. For years I had similar experiences – especially the insidious thought that the other person was making fun of me when, in reality, they were showing an interest in sexytimes.

    This, in part, was due to super-misogynistic advice Dad gave me, which I took so far on board it was stowing in a shipping container when I finally found it. My belief that I wasn’t ‘conventionally sexy’ left me feeling undeserving of desire, and consequently that someone interested in me must’ve been a pervert, or at least setting me up for some sort of Carrie-style prank. A sprinkle of Calvinist shame on top and there you have it: I had some terrible, unsafe sex with horrible people in dangerous situations. It took me years to even *realise* I’d been raped.

    With that in mind: any sex behaviour which is presupposed by a ‘should’/’ought’/’have to’ is not going to happen on steady emotional ground. Nothing is wrong with you if such experiences feel confusing. We receive so many messages about our sexual ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ that they can drown out our own groinvoice(s). Being not-so-experienced made this an even foggier process for me. (The foghorn which finally roused me, btw, -and which may not be in tune with yours – was one blaring the word ‘GAAAY’ across the shallows.)

    Captain and Commander are right to advise you to find out what you like outside the conventions of popular culture. It took me a long time to realise that the way ‘lovers’ behave in tv shows and rom coms is not a reflection of real life. I spent my teens devouring the stuff and hence my early ‘healthy’ relationships resembled Ross and Rachel! (Although I was sure at the time it was all Jon Favereau and Famke Janssen in Love+Sex). The Captain’s past advice on *really* listening while flirting, and also building self-esteem, has been really really helpful in changing the way I think about sexing/not sexing. Good luck! 🙂

  11. solecism said:

    My experiences sound very similar to a lot of people’s here, and I agree, if you’re not feeling it, it’s okay to miss the signals or read the signals and not go down that path well traveled by others until you have your own groiny feeling.

    I had all sorts of self-esteem issues. My tormenters were in middle school, then for high school I moved to a new city where I knew no one at all. I eventually found a few friends, but I didn’t really socialize with high schoolers, having found a hobby group outside of school that mostly consisted of twenty-somethings. So no one ever really hit on me, and I thought my physical flaws were just too damn big to get past. When I got to college, I went out with the first person who expressed any attraction to me. We were part of the same group of gamers. I warned him that I was completely inexperienced. I believe I expressed it as the scenario where if a unicorn came into a room full of virgins, it wouldn’t hesitate to walk right up to me and lay its horn in my lap. Anyway, I thought that since I was 17 going on 18 and in college, losing my virginity was the thing I was supposed to be doing, that I should be ready for it, even if I wasn’t feeling particularly groiny. I didn’t really know what I was supposed to feel. Anyway, me and gamer boy dated for about a month, with increasing pressure. Eventually, I figured I should get it over with and worried about being a cockteaser (thank you patriarchy!). It was one of the more painful experiences in my life, since I was entirely unaroused and unready and he was entirely focused on his orgasm, and then he dumped me the next morning. And yet, same geek social group and dorm. We never discussed it, and I did my best to act like nothing was wrong as we continued to interact every day. I had perfected the art of not showing my pain and confusion in middle school.

    It took me a decade before I could begin to even talk about it. And it took another decade or more before I realized that I hadn’t really consented, I had simply been compliant. That initial experience (followed by a couple of other not-quite-romantic emotional traumas) scared me away from any sort of intimacy for a very, very long time. As it turns out, I was a late bloomer, and my hormones and sexual desire didn’t really kick in until I was 20 or 21.

    What really helped my self-esteem was spending a semester in Costa Rica. It’s hard to believe you’re unattractive when almost every man around you is trying to catch your attention, flirt with you, invite you to dance, whatever. And I mean pretty much any time I was walking down the street, I attracted a lot of male attention. Mind you, now that would be irritating as fuck, and also highly unlikely. Back then, I was young and blond and shiny. Another boost to my self-esteem: after my hormones became active, I eventually realized that I was able to get laid whenever I was interested in sex, so once again, I couldn’t be that ugly.

    Hopefully, when you do feel it, you won’t feel wooden and awkward and uncomfortable. The fact that you felt all of those in that moment means it wasn’t the moment for you. Take as much time as you need. Find someone you like and trust enough to be vulnerable and awkward. Vulnerable is sexy as hell.

    • Hugh said:

      “It’s hard to believe you’re unattractive when almost every man around you is trying to catch your attention, flirt with you, invite you to dance, whatever.”

      That actually sounds really awful…

      • solecism said:

        Yes, I think under most circumstances it would be truly awful. It certainly would be for me now. A couple years later I spent two years in Panama, and I was more than ready to return to anonymity, and the attention I attracted there was nothing like what I encountered in San Jose. But those unflagging signals that I was sexually desirable was something that I needed at that time to pull me out of my pit of self-loathing since all I had encountered in the United States up to that point was rejection or betrayal, which had convinced me there was something profoundly wrong with me. Such strong balm was needed for the deep wounds to begin healing. Weirdly enough, it helped me stop being quite so self-conscious and inhibited. It gave me the courage to try kissing someone and the beginning of self confidence. But I don’t recommend it in general.

        • Hugh said:

          Well fair enough… I just hope there aren’t any street harassers reading this blog and thinking “Wow, see, girls really do like being sexualised while just trying to go about their daily business!”

          • Enh, even if they are, sharing authentic experiences trumps worrying about what street harassers think.

          • JenniferP said:

            I don’t think we’re real popular with the “street harasser” set. You can’t extrapolate “women love street harassment” from “one lady got some validation from being in another country where it is much more common this one time.” Or, if you can, there is something wrong with you that this blog can’t fix.

          • solecism said:

            Agreed. I consider the experience much like chemotherapy. That shit saved my life, but it is still poison, and administering it on the street casually would be a crime. It simply isn’t appropriate for most people most of the time because they’re not dying and in need of medicine that might kill the disease faster than it’ll kill them. It simply isn’t therapeutic under most circumstances, the fact that it was in my unique case (at that particular time in my life) is a lucky break not the power of magical intent.

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