I want to take it back to a little time in my life called “Mattie Jo goes to sex therapy.” Okay. It wasn’t exactly sex therapy. It was sexual trauma therapy. Liiiiittle different. It was April 2017, five months after my assault, before I decided to take Planned Parenthood up on their generous offer of free therapy treatment. I don’t know what took me so long. Actually, yes I do. I didn’t think I needed it. A good friend recently told me "If you don't label it as trauma you don't have to deal with the trauma. Just because assault is common, doesn't mean it's normal." Amen.
Eventually my hatred for men and America's 2016 election political climate drove me to complete exhaustion. I was sad, angry, felt all kinds of alone and helpless. Harboring that much hate in my heart --despite it being totally justified--was sucking away at my life. So I decided, since I’m not gay and one day I’d like to marry one of these man monsters (and hopefully be happy again at some point), I’d have to figure out how to hate them less. So basically I checked myself into therapy because I wasn’t gay. This must have been a first for my shrink.
“I was told to reach out to a woman named LeAnne.” I told the social worker.
“Oh, LeAnne is unfortunately completely booked now. We are a little short staffed these days but we do have a new therapist who is super wonderful. His name is Daniel. Would you like to schedule an appointment with him?”
Hole ‘uh, lady.
You want to schedule my sex trauma therapy--which I’m ultimately going to because I literally hate men so much-- WITH A MAN? Ummm, your degree in sexual trauma rehabilitation didn’t ever mention how uncomfortable it might be for a predominantly female clientele who have been assaulted BY MEN, to talk to a man about their trauma? I mean even most men are getting assaulted by men! NO I DO NOT WANT TO SCHEDULE AN APPOINTMENT WITH DANIEL. So, naturally I said:
“Um. Sure. I’ll make an appointment with Daniel.”
I was not looking forward to this. I wanted to slap myself for being so compliant, but I didn’t want to be difficult. A common theme in my life, as I would soon learn.
But I also decided I should be open. Maybe Daniel is super gay and we’ll be best pals! Or maybe sharing all of this and bouncing it off of a man will be good for me? Maybe if the person helping me through my trauma has a penis, I’ll hate persons-of-penis less. One can hope.
Daniel was- if not gay- definitely harmless. Upon seeing him I suddenly felt less concerned with my physical safety and more concerned with how often I’d offend him during our sessions. I mean, he seemed nice. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings! And that’s where we started:
“Does it bother you that I’m a man?”
“You can tell me, Mattie Jo. It’s okay.”
“Okay fine. Yes it does. But only because I don’t want to hurt your feelings. I mean, I hate men. I guess I don’t hate my dad or my Romanian ex-boyfriend or my brother. But really other than that I don’t like you guys at all. That’s why I’m here. And I’m afraid maybe I’ll refrain from saying certain things because I don’t want to hurt your feelings.”
“Do you do that a lot? Refrain from being honest with men because you’re afraid it will hurt their feelings?”
Well shit, DANIEL. Blow up all my sexual, relational, communication in general problems right away, why dontchya?
“Yeah. All the time.”
“Can you tell me about that? If you’re comfortable of course. I would never ask you to continue meeting with me if you aren’t. Only share what you’d like to share.”
I proceeded to tell him about all the times I’d stayed in dating scenarios for far too long because I just couldn’t bring myself to make the dude feel rejected or like something is wrong with him. This carried over to my sexual experiences as well. Even if I wasn’t comfortable with certain things, I didn’t speak up. If I said no, they would feel rejected and unwanted. These men don’t deserve that kind of treatment!
I thought this therapist guy was gunna tell me how to hate men less. Ironically, Daniel helped me discover I was hyper aware of men's feelings, but totally neglecting my own.
Daniel wouldn’t laugh, but it is kind of laughable. The image of me making out with a guy I've only recently met; He’s ripping my clothes off, and I’m mentally scrolling through the different ways I could say “I don’t want to have sex tonight” so as not to “hurt his feelings”. The only feeling men have in that moment is a centralized blood rush. What was my deal???
A very popular sermon from my Evangelical yesteryear was on the topic of selflessness. I'm paraphrasing here, but the sermon goes a little something like this:
Thinking of yourself first is selfish and the Bible says selfishness is sinful. Instead, always think of God first, others second, and yourself third (God First, Others Second, I'm Third. This a legitimate movement. You can read about it here). That way you’re always living with a servant’s heart, just like Jesus! If you put yourself before others, you’re just like the rest of the world. Self-consumed and heartless. But as Believers, we are called to be Godly, not worldly. Having this kind of awareness of others will set you apart from the secular world. People will notice your exceptional selflessness, ask you what made you so selfless, and then you can share the Gospel! Die to your flesh, Mattie Jo. Be like Jesus.
Despite the fact that I hadn’t heard that specific sermon in years, the I'm Third approach was still kickin it hard in my psyche. Jesus-ordained “selflessness” combined with the very clear secular American patriarchal agenda*, left me with years autopilot self-denial. Only a professional "worldy" therapist was gunna get this shit outta my head.
*I recognize religious women are not the only ones who experience this "My needs aren't important" phenomenon. Most women I’ve spoken to struggle with speaking up for themselves against men in varying degrees.
“So if you tell a guy you aren’t interested in having sex or dating him, you essentially feel like you’re doing something wrong, bad, and not following Jesus?
Wow. I never thought I’d be subconsciously applying Philippians 2:3 to Tinder Dates in New York City, but there I was. The definition of a Recovering Evangelical.
“Yes that is essentially it.” I responded.
“What if you try I’m First for awhile? Try not to even give the other person’s feelings a thought until you’ve addressed your own and and acted upon them.”
Why does that feel like it might be impossibly painful to do? Jeez, do other people learn this shit before they’re in sex trauma therapy as a 26 year old???
I don’t want to 100% discount the I’m Third movement. I’m Third did great work in making me super aware of others’ feelings which serves me very well in New York City . Most people are far too self-absorbed to give two shits about those Albanian tourists who desperately need directions to the Central Park Zoo. Or helping people with Trader Joes bags through the turnstiles at 72nd street. Manhattan is hard.
But I’m Third also caused me to believe that by respecting my own needs and wants before anyone else's, I was capital "S" Sinning. Selfish Sinning.
And it’s not just my relationship with men that's affected by I’m Third. This motto still affects my social and work life, even my time in the gym! I tend to over-commit myself socially out of obligation. I agree to work longer hours at work on short notice, even though it totally fucks up my day. I go to the gym at weird hours when no one is there; Just so I can dominate the squat machine for a full hour without I’m Third guilt.
But I really try. I try being selfish. I repeat “I’m First” to myself when I start to feel scared of another person’s response to my honesty (and remember their response is not my responsibility, but that’s another blog). And tbh I’m not always successful. It is still my knee-jerk reaction to think of mens' feelings before my own. Even if I don’t really know the person or can’t stand them, I’m still way too nice. It’s very frustrating.
But what I’ve found in my I’m First quest is that staying quiet for the sake of false amity is not helping anyone learn, grow, or deepen themselves and their relationships. It’s also preventing women from ever getting to know and own their needs because they’re always distracted by others (Which is the point of this tactic. So un-distract yourself, ladies). And ultimately it’s not helping anyone be truly happy (another repeated sermon -- how our personal happiness is not that important. My commitment to the Lord will not always make me happy but it will make me JOYFUL).
So contrary to the multitude of sermons that told me otherwise, putting myself first is actually way better for the world. I’m Third is a great principal for sacrificing my Friday nights to serve at a soup kitchen, but not-so-great when denying my sexual, relational, and gym-going preferences. And isn’t that what we all want in life? Stronger friendships, great sex, and a full hour of uninterrupted squat-rack time? Just me? Well, okay.