I have intimacy issues, and I almost cringe at how stupidly cliché that sounds — but it’s true. I am in my final year of university and have never had sex and have only been kissed once. (My physical intimacy has really stopped at that one kiss, too — no bases have been reached beyond that.) This lack of physical and romantic intimacy has really threatened to throw me overboard in the past. I used to be really mean to myself about it. Why didn’t people find me cute? Why couldn’t I just get laid? Why, oh why, couldn’t someone’s eye contact linger on me, just once? It’s really hard in college when it feels like everyone is having experiences and you’re not just alone but lonely. I’ve tried working through it on my own by divorcing myself from my sexuality completely. I used to see romance/sex as something that wasn’t for me. That’s actually not as painful as it sounds — I have a good time on the weekends just hanging out with friends and not participating in hookup culture, but I mostly know that’s because I’m used to it. I’m not used to seeing myself as someone who can be desired and wanted (which means I don’t let myself desire or want. I can’t even admit when I have a crush!).
The truth is, Polly, I feel really sad when I think about how I am not a wanted person. I don’t think people know the depth of it. Just for useful background, I am a pretty rational person. I am constantly observing and learning about the world around me. I come across as sharp, mature, and I think unfazed by most things. I am not outwardly emotional, and actually friends would describe me as a chatty, sardonic, smartass. I am not offended by any of this — it’s all true! But there is an underlying romantic in me that drives me crazy. I watch everyone else get to connect, and I just get to sit there watching, offering my analysis, telling people who should text who, indulging in gossip about secret trysts. That’s my role. I just want to be in the thick of it — messy, young, and stupid. I want to turn my brain off and go for it, but I just can’t. What makes me doubly sad is that the feeling of physical unwantedness mixes in with a more general feeling of unwantedness. Maybe people would like to connect to me more if I could just shut up? If I didn’t pick apart every little thing going on to later analyze it? If I was less of a mouthy smartass? If I could play nice and bat my eyelashes at the right dude? I’m smart enough to know that this kind of thinking never gets anyone anywhere, but my lonely little heart won’t quit piping up. On top of the fact that I desire this kind of connection, I know that if someone even tried it with me, I’d run away! I want it so bad, I’m scared and I shy away.
I’ve recently started going to therapy to figure out where my lovelessness comes from and why it cuts so deeply. I connect some of my reluctance to my parents’ divorce. From a young age, I had intimate knowledge of one of my parent’s affairs that lasted a very long time. My parent ended up briefly moving across the country with their partner and my siblings until the relationship became (even more) unhealthy and ended. I always hated their partner, by the way, infidelity notwithstanding. I know that I am working on trusting that romantic and sexual relationships can be healthy and not destructive to the self, partnership, and family. In fact, I KNOW that they can be actively good for the self. I know all of this in my head, so why can’t I let go, Polly? How can I be less afraid and more bold?
Touch Me But Don’t Touch Me
You feel powerless, but you’re not. You need to tune in to how much control you have over this picture. If you want to be in the driver’s seat, you have to get behind the wheel. Right now, you’re at the edge of the racetrack, telling all of the other drivers what they’re doing right and wrong. You’re a color commentator. You fill up your insecure void with words. You use words to feel invincible. You explain reality to everyone around you.
I used to do this, too. I was a beautiful 18-year-old (I never thought so back then, of course), but men are much more interested in me now, as a flawed adult, than they were years ago. Back then, I talked constantly. I told everyone who they were. This wasn’t just insecurity — it was how I wanted to spend my time. I was finally free to express myself in a wild environment, and I felt like people were actually listening for once. My swagger commanded their attention. I could take over the room. I felt powerful for the first time. I showed off with impunity. I added the tag line to every joke.
But I also explained myself constantly, and hovered over people’s perceptions of me in order to correct any mistakes. I built elaborate bunkers out of my words to stay safe. I rationalized everything I did with a mountain of words. I dissected and destroyed the faulty choices of everyone around me with more words. My words were weapons and shields and tightropes and ten-inch heels and whoopie cushions and comfy chairs and lonely treehouses and tunnels under the sea. I was floating on a sea of words and no one could reach me. No one else’s truth had space. No one’s heart could batter through the words and encounter me as a human being — vulnerable, unguarded — in real time.
You can shower someone with your words and they’ll still have a sense of you that exists entirely separate from your river of consonants and vowels. People don’t just take your explanation of yourself and accept it. They make up their own minds. Besides, human animals don’t always want more words. They want to feel their way toward you on their own time.
These days, people seem more interested in me at times because I just show up and feel what’s there. I no longer spackle in the gaps in every conversation with my words. I can sit in total silence and see people much more clearly than I could when I was talking constantly. What’s alarming is that they can see me more clearly, too. There isn’t a mountain of words blocking their view.
When people have a clear view of you and have a chance to decide for themselves who you are, they like you more. When you give them space and time to make up their own minds, they often decide that you own some magic that they don’t. Because it’s rare that people leave you that kind of space in this world. Remaining silent in the company of others is a kind of luxury: The second you stop trying to prove your value, everyone around you starts to see just how valuable you are.
Because we’re talking about college here, it’s almost like some douche bro is interrupting me inside my brain to say, “Yeah, but you’re either hot or you aren’t.” This is the challenge of being a straight woman: Men describe reality to you in ways that aren’t just reductive and debased and sexist but also are completely warped, because they don’t have even the faintest grasp of reality. They have no idea what’s acting on them. You play the jittery jester in their presence and they’ll suddenly find your looks wanting. You sit in calm quiet and suddenly you’re the hottest woman in the room. Never measure your appeal using a man as a ruler. A woman has unfathomable powers when she knows her own body and mind.
Instead of using your analytical mind to spray a steady flow of commentary into the room, use it to separate the bloviating dingleberries from the thoughtful, attuned, present guys. While your mind is doing the slow work of leisurely observation, dial into what your body is doing. Practice tuning in to the strange, quiet song of your heart, your bones, your blood. How do your cells dance in the presence of this human or that one? Your body is already a finely tuned instrument that can pick up readings from the next room. Trust it. Treat it with reverence and patience and respect. See what it tells you.
Neurotics treat themselves like a brain in a jar, then they wonder why they can’t feel anything in the company of others. You have to remember you have a body in the first place. You have to slow down and make room for what your nervous system already knows.
The second you quiet down and honor yourself by treating yourself like the ultimate DECIDER in the picture, you will find a pile of drooling men collecting around your ankles. When this happens, don’t panic. Don’t tell yourself old stories about sleazy affairs and divorces and the poisons of bumping uglies. Your perspective on that situation is a child’s perspective. You have not even the faintest notion of how it feels to live inside a sealed vacuum with another human being for decades and then some stranger comes to rip you out and it feels like salvation. Marriage is not for the weak of heart. I’m writing a book about marriage right now and my time is evenly split between marveling at the glorious mercies of wedlock and gaping at the wretched absurdities of chaining yourself to a single human over the course of a lifetime. Zooming in on sex as the cause of all trouble in the world is like picking out a single tea cup from the wreckage of the Titanic and blaming it for the entire catastrophe.
Sex is just two people feeling their way toward each other. That makes it sound good, right? If it’s patient, it is good, almost always. You don’t have to be carried away by someone else’s agenda. You’re the director and you can make it hot or slow it down as your whims dictate. If a dude is insisting on making it depraved, you have choices. Pack your mind full of the dirtiest scenarios until you understand what your comfort level is. What’s a neurotic mind good for if not imagining a million and one paths to carnal glory? But you also have to stay relatively sober and map out a variety of exit strategies. You have to imagine yourself saying, out loud, “This feels off” or “This isn’t what I wanted exactly,” and then leaving in silence, resisting the temptation to justify your choices or float downstream on a rushing river of your own words. Respect your space, your time, and your boundaries, and behave accordingly.
You can dabble with affectionate flirting and making out until you’re ready for the next step. These opportunities don’t dry up the second you graduate, either, so don’t tell yourself that bad story. The only weapon you need is a sense of your own agency and a willingness to be proclaimed a fucking weirdo by a douchebag who disguised himself as a nice dude just to get into your pants. When a grabby douche calls you a weirdo, that’s a badge of honor, a shiny accolade to be treasured henceforth. You are a true hero who just caused an insecure dweeby dipshit to second-guess himself for a millisecond. His ferocity is a direct reflection of how infrequently the world asks him to examine the contents of his own startlingly empty brain.
So show up and be your sardonic self, but dare to feel your way forward without too many words. Dare to watch and listen and feel. Trust that you are attractive to men when you do this. Physical perfection is a woman’s obsession; men just like shit that turns them on. That encompasses an enormous range of looks, shapes, sizes, etc. Let go of your fixation on your own relative appeal. Quiet presence is the hottest thing in the universe. Reading the words “Quiet presence is the hottest thing in the universe” just rendered you 80 percent hotter than you were before you read that. I’m not even kidding.
Get to know your body and treat it like a treasured friend. Celebrate your own deliciousness in your everyday life. Delight in what you have. Embrace what your cells want you to know about the world around you and the people in it. You are young and alive, so alive, and everything is luscious and tasty. Expect the best and prepare for the worst, and recognize that no twist in the road constitutes a verdict on your appeal or your character. Be prepared to walk out, always, and resist the temptation to second guess yourself when you do.
But most of all, this is a time to understand and relish your enormous power, every single day. Breathe it in. Taste it. Trust it. This is a deliriously precious time in your life. Anything is possible. Nothing will go exactly according to plan. That’s what’s so good about it.
And don’t forget love. Sometimes, behind the odd, awkward, quiet movement toward another human being, there is love. Not always, but sometimes. It’s sweet. Stay present and let it in.
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