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5 ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ Managing Contradictions Getting in, out, and around Hetero-Relations Not only was I scared about having sex with him, but I was also sort of scared about not doing it. I felt like it was time to put up or shut up and prove to myself I could do it, and to give him what he wanted. I knew he didn’t care about me as much as he wanted what he could get out of me. I felt like if I just said yes I would be cheap or something, so I needed to create in my head what it really wasn’t in reality, like I was being swept off my feet and not directly saying yes, like we were swept away by something bigger than both of us. I mean, I chose to do it, but I couldn’t quite let myself know that. It had to feel like something that just happened, beyond my control. Then it would be all right. But it wasn’t a good experience at all. He was really rough and he was moving me around like I was some sort of prop. Like I was just something for him to act out his pleasure on, not a real human being he was interacting with. It was humiliating , but I just kept thinking, “He really does care, he just doesn’t know how to be gentle yet.” Or, “He’s just so excited by me that he can’t help what his body’s doing.” So many things racing through my head all at once. I didn’t feel any pleasure at all. But I just kept pretending like, “Oh, this is so great,” so he would get it over with and not get mad at me for being a disappointment. Afterward I felt awful, but also glad I managed to get out of the situation as easily as I did. I never told anyone about it until now, because I felt really dumb that I let this happen to me, and sort of weird for not liking it. —Claudia, 21, “heterosexual,” “Caucasian” CLAUDIA’S WORDS SPEAK to the many contradictory feelings possible in any one encounter. They also speak to the psychological strategies young women call on to manage moments of pain, anticipation, and ambivalence . Experiencing mixed emotions about entering into this sexual encounter, Claudia first constructs a private fantasy, creating in her mind “what it wasn’t in reality.” By trying to convince herself that she is swept away with passion and letting it “just happen,” she allows herself permission to step into an interaction she wants (albeit for multiple reasons and with very mixed feelings) but feels unentitled to choose actively. Once in the sexual encounter, feeling hurt and objectified, she attempts to lessen the humiliation of being reduced to a mere “prop” for a man to “act out his pleasure on.” Here, she turns to cognitive strategies to manage her emotional and physical pain, constructing rationales for his behavior (he didn’t know any better; she was so sexy he couldn’t help himself) that allow her to preserve her own integrity, even as she is feeling exploited. Finally , we see Claudia developing a third strategy “so he would get it over with,” without risking the possible consequences of this man’s anger, and without losing face as “a disappointment” to him. By pretending to him (and possibly to herself) that she loved it, she is perhaps able to shorten the encounter and to end it without letting him know that anything was wrong. Even as she reflects afterward on the situation, she feels “awful,” and yet “glad” that her strategies worked as well as they did. While her attempts worked to preserve some physical and emotional safety during the encounter, she is left with feelings of self-blame and a sense of being “weird” for having felt bad in the first place. Claudia’s reflections offer a compelling window on young women’s complex subjective experiences—before, during, and after their hetero-relational encounters. Although each woman experienced her encounters as private and unique, I heard echoes of Claudia’s struggles across countless 112 ❙ Managing Contradictions stories shared by other participants. As I pondered these stories I came to see that, like Claudia, each woman had devised her own strategies to negotiate her way through and around encounters marked by ambiguity and mixed emotions. While these strategies were not necessarily conscious, calculated , or...


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