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Why Some Queer Women Frame Sex With Men as Self-Harm

Thanks to a viral Reddit document called ‘AM I A LESBIAN,’ many women are seeing dissociative, self-destructive hetero hookups in a new light

Back when she was in her late teens working in music venues, Harriet — a pseudonymous 23-year-old in Australia — used to sleep with different men, all strangers, between three to five times a week. She says she’d “drink and drink” until she convinced herself she wanted to have sex with these men, and that the purpose of this behavior was to self-harm. “I was doing it to dissociate,” she explains. “I wanted to forget a lot of things, and by letting these men fuck me, I did. I’d let them do whatever they wanted, like choke me and so on, because frankly, I was never really there. Afterward, I’d hate myself and feel sick and disgusted.”

These days, Harriet can see that the reality she was trying to avoid is that she’s a lesbian who doesn’t desire sex with men at all. “At that time, I couldn’t even bring myself to think about the word ‘lesbian,’” she continues. “I told myself repeatedly that being desirable to men is the only way of being, and I was using sex to divorce myself from my body and what I didn’t want to acknowledge it wanted. I couldn’t be a lesbian if I so easily had sex with men.”

According to a popular Reddit document titled “AM I A LESBIAN,” Harriet’s behavior is not unusual. It claims that “using sex with men as a form of self-harm” is a sign that a woman has been affected by compulsory heterosexuality, i.e., that she’s a lesbian who has had the idea that she’s straight — or should be straight — forced on her. But other than crediting seven lesbian Tumblr accounts, the Reddit document has no clear author and cites no sources, and Elise Franklin, a psychotherapist based in L.A., says that this language isn’t typically used in medical or psychological circles. “I’ve never heard of [this behavior] being called self-harm,” she explains, “But the language isn’t really that different from what we usually do describe it as, which is impulsive and/or self-destructive behavior.”

But for about 10 women who shared their stories with me, the language of self-harm for sleeping with men makes sense and they adopt it readily to describe their own experiences. For example, Jyoti, a pseudonymous 24-year-old lesbian sex worker, says that “the clarity of transactional sex makes it clear how close to self-harm wanting unpaid encounters is” and the latter “feel like self-harm in the way that things like drinking way too much or deliberately overexercising your body can,” except that “the guy you’re fucking is your self-harm implement of choice.” And Annie, a 27-year-old lesbian in Chicago, says she’d “fool around with a guy, and feel horrible afterwards, like actually repulsed,” but that horror feeling would “feel correct” to her, so she’d repeat the cycle.

Why would anyone sleep with men when it makes them feel so awful? Franklin says that this behavior often indicates that a person has low self-esteem and potentially an underlying mental health issue like trauma or depression, and many of the women I talk to confirm that trauma, PTSD and addiction play a role in their own lives. But Annie explains that, like most forms of self-harm — which Mental Health America defines as occurring “when someone intentionally and repeatedly harms [themselves] in a way that is impulsive and not intended to be lethal” — the purpose of this behavior is to “physicalize and validate emotional pain.”

And a key source of emotional pain for these women is denial or shame about their sexuality. As Harriet puts it, “If you’re having sex with almost every man who has some form of interest in you, people will stop making jokes about your sexuality.”

“There’s something that’s so deeply validating to me about men finding me attractive,” adds Marie, a 28-year-old queer woman who used to engage in painful, dissociative sex with men. “I got this wonderful satisfaction from having all these men pay attention to me, and I felt that all this sex was adding to my social capital in a way that drugs, alcohol and cutting didn’t. Sex with men made me look like a powerful liberal feminist, right?”

Her comment points to an uncomfortable tension: Since the 1990s, third-wave feminists have embraced sex positivity and framed sex — including casual sex with multiple partners — as being undeserving of shame (aka slut-shaming) and even potentially liberating. Conservative opponents of this model of feminism maintain that “promiscuous” sex is immoral and unfeminine, and often use the language of harm as a rhetorical front for controlling women’s sexual behavior. Trauma, often simplified as “daddy issues,” is an especially popular cudgel against women who engage in casual sex with multiple partners or sex work, even if those women aren’t harming themselves by doing so. People who want to control women’s sexuality constantly pathologize it, regardless of whether women are having “too little” or “too much” sex.

Of course, as the women I speak to attest, sex can be used in a harmful way, regardless of a person’s gender, in the same way that food, drugs and a whole host of other substances and activities that are morally neutral but potentially harmful in excess can be. And if a person is using sex in a self-destructive way, Franklin says that therapy can help them identify and deal with the root causes of this behavior. She says that her clients who use sex destructively are often “people who want connection, but feel or have been told that they’re ‘too much’” so they focus on accommodating the desires of others at their own expense. “Oftentimes, when others want sex, they’ll bend over to give it to them without asking, ‘Am I actually getting what I want too?,’” she explains. “I help people listen to that voice and walk away from situations where they’re not getting what they want.”

And for a lot of women using sex with men as self-harm, what they really want is sex with women, which they say is qualitatively different. “Sex with women feels safe,” Harriet says. “I know that no matter who I’m with, whether it’s a hook-up or a partner, I’m respected. We’re both there because we want to be and because we want the other person to have a good time. I’ve never felt objectified either.” Marie agrees, saying it’s “usually much softer and kinder, and it’s never prescriptive or one-sided,” and adds that she doesn’t dissociate with women like she does with men.

For Annie, coming to terms with her sexuality and pursuing relationships with women she truly desired meant that there was no longer a need to have harmful sex with men. “Being in a relationship [with a woman] where I was super-attracted to her, trusted her and wanted to see her all the time was mind-blowing; I truly didn’t know relationships could be like that,” she explains. “I spent 23 years thinking I was commitment-phobic and hard to get to know, but it turns out I was just gay and trying to be straight.”

“When I dated [a woman], all of those issues went away,” she concludes. “You can be so, so happy if you let yourself live how you want to live.”