*Trigger warning – passing reference to sexual harm
Summertime and we’re staying with friends in suburban Toronto. I am eight years old, our friends’ daughter Bonnie, is eighteen. The middle child of five, she is vivacious and spirited – a law unto herself; even at eight, I recognise this and I love it about her. With long flowy skirts, jangly jewellery and boho sandals, she is full of panache. Her hair is always messy, but a gorgeous type of mess, as though it could be deliberate. Bonnie is the older sister I never had, yet wistfully imagine and always long for. I am absolutely in awe of her, and in my little-girl mind, she is every bit as wildly glorious as I dream of becoming one day.
Early risers, we are out on the hills walking together, sometime after 7am, just me and Bonnie with her family’s two dogs. Bonnie does the talking and I listen quietly, mesmerised by her lyrical stream. As she chatters away about ‘teenagery’ things, I am only half paying attention to her stories, busy drinking in the magic of the hot summer morning, the buzz of cicada bugs in the grass, and the wonder of Bonnie.
Suddenly, I hear her say the word “sexy” in a sentence.
I stop in my tracks, my eyes wide and sparkling with the childhood naughtiness of hearing her utter the ‘s’-word, and I clamp a small hand over my mouth to stifle my nearly-escaping giggles. No one else is around, but I relish in the delightfulness of Bonnie’s rebel act, knowing full well children aren’t meant to hear that word – I mean everyone knows it’s a ‘swear’!
Bonnie stops, too. She looks at me intently, as though she can hear my thoughts, and speaks to me now in a gentle, serious tone: “Hey – ‘sex's is not a swear word, you know. Sex is beautiful! With the right guy, it is the most amazing thing ever – it’s incredible…. Don’t forget that, you’ll see one day, when you’re older….”
We reflect in silence, pondering her short soliloquy which hangs between us in the humid July air. Bonnie’s expression becomes dreamy as she gazes into the distance, drifting someplace else in her mind. I feel like she’s shared an adult snapshot of truth with me that I am not meant to know, and I can’t yet fully understand. Feeling a rush of uncontainable excitement, I hold onto it tightly.
Bonnie can’t possibly ever know how the grown-up secret she gives me out on the hill in the mid-summer heat that morning will stay with me. Neither can I, for that matter. Her words remain preserved in a dusty file on a shelf in my mind until I need them. And need them I do – many times over, in the decade ahead.
As a teen, my outlook on sex becomes all-too-soon tainted by distress left in the wake of harmful sexual encounters – including sexual assault, harassment and stalking. Intimacy, even when safe and respectful, leaves me wrestling with a rising panic. Any possibility of personal pleasure is trampled on by my hurried steps to conceal my fear and control the anxiety. Alcohol is my trusted security blanket, reliably creating a comforting haze around my awareness and helping me relax. Simply put, drunk sex seems the easiest solution.
During these years of flightiness, partying and short-term relationships, I revisit Bonnie’s legendary words in that dusty file in my mind frequently, and they continue to intrigue me. What had she meant? How did she find the utopian moments she had vaguely alluded to that day on our walk? I never doubt the validity of her message – she had spoken from her heart with such earnest conviction.
Though I struggle to see little, if any, evidence of it now. What I fail to acknowledge is that this illusion of negativity I carry is merely a falsehood created by previous sexual harm, which is blighting my perspective on it all.
It’s early autumn, I’m seeing someone new, and after a few dates and lots of great conversation, we have dinner at my house. Wine, more talking and kissing on the sofa ensue. The mutual attraction is palpable, and I ask him to stay the night. He eagerly accepts the invitation, even happens to have a toothbrush with him?! But he then makes it clear that he is not assuming we will have sex our first night together.
Yeah, right…. A ploy, surely! I am no genius, but I’m not stupid, either.
But no, he truly means it, and in that very moment, as the pressure vanishes, those gloomy clouds which cast their shadows over sex begin to dissipate. For the first time, it doesn’t feel like a demand, or an expectation that I have no control over.
I could end it there, though that’s perhaps cruel….?
Okay. Yes, he stayed, no we didn’t, and yes I went into work tired and smiling the next morning. And not long after, yes, we did.
Then, Bonnie’s immortal words she had told me all those years ago, finally made sense.
Bonnie, if you’re reading this, you were right – thank you x
Written byJudith Staff
Judith Staff is an early years teacher, a safeguarding lead, and a trainer. She is a member of her Local Safeguarding Children Board. Dedicated to issues affecting children and families, Judith promotes child safeguarding and works collaboratively to address sexual violence in society. Visit her website where she blogs regularly on social issues she’s passionate about.