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Slut-Wannabe

Illustrator: Daniella Batsheva

I decided when I was fifteen that I was going to be a slut when I grew up.

I had my first kiss when I was two days shy of my fifteenth birthday. My best friend Maya and our mutual crush Omri (who is getting married this June to a lovely man; they’ve been together for over five years at this point) all exchanged first kisses in the stairwell of Omri’s building. Then Maya and I exposed our bras to him and asked who had the nicer breasts. From his limited vantage point (we both were wearing the kind of bras that hide the shape of your nipples when it gets cold), he decided that Maya did.

This was the kind of relationship Maya and I had. We talked about everything, from Inuyasha (an anime series that was being aired in Israel for the first time and which cemented our friendship) to all things sexual. We were both virgins and both had very specific ideas about when and how we wanted to lose our virginities. Maya wanted to be seventeen when she lost hers. I wanted to be sixteen. We had our first sexual experiences in the same rooms. First with Omri and another boy we knew (both of whom turned out to be gay, which Maya and I knew, to some extent, though neither of the boys admitted it back then, despite making out a lot with one another when we weren’t around) and later with our first real boyfriends, who were best friends. This was shortly after my father died, and I was desperate to feel like a teenager rather than the grown-up I had become during the eight months he was dying.

I lost my virginity rather quickly to a boy who told me he loved me the day after he met me, via text, because his best friend (Maya’s boyfriend, you remember) told him that this was what girls wanted to hear. I thought that was stupid of him, but still, I was proud of myself. He was hot – a guitarist, skinny and lanky, blue-eyed, uncircumcised (a rare, rare find in Israel, land of the Jews) and he wanted ME. Me, the then pear-shaped, bespectacled, awkward goth girl.

Sex was fun. I liked it. It was both less and more than I’d imagined it, but I was ready for it and welcomed it with open, well, legs. And even though I decided I loved this boy (I didn’t, not really), I also knew that I still wanted to be a slut.

Let me clarify what this term meant to me, though. Many Israeli children are taught not to say בן-זונה (ben-zona)—or son of a whore. Similarly, many American children are encouraged not to say shit. Most, if not all, radio and cable TV channels in the US don’t allow swear words in their broadcasts. Swear words in another language, however, are allowed—on a recent episode of On The Media, the NPR and WNYC radio show and podcast, a guest used the word merde, which was not bleeped out or censored in any way. We think about words differently when they’re in languages other than our own.

Israeli children use the words fuck and shit all the time – in English. “Sheet,” a little kid will say when she stubs her toe. “Fahk,” another child will say when he falls down in the playground. But if one of these children says בן-זונה (ben-zona) their parents or guardians will tell them to watch their language.

The English word slut is used similarly in Hebrew (pronounced more like “slaht”) and, when I was a teenager, the word carried fewer problematic connotations (in Israel) than it does today. In recent years, there have been slut-walks held in Tel Aviv (I went once; it was fantastic), there are gender-queer message boards, and in certain circles, discrimination is discussed far more openly when it comes to women, LGBTQIA people and minorities (other than Palestinians, which is a whole separate issue that I’m not getting into right now). The language used to speak about these issues has evolved, as language does.

So when I was a teenager, the word slut didn’t carry the same weight as the word sharmuta, which is Arabic for slut or whore. Calling a girl at school a שרמוטה (shar-MU-ta) was way more insulting than calling her a slaht. English, while mandatory at school starting in third grade and spoken by so many Israelis, simply doesn’t carry the same weight when interwoven with Hebrew.

All this is to say that being a slut didn’t mean to me what it might have meant to girls in high school in the US. To me, being a slut meant being promiscuous, and being promiscuous meant being desirable, and being desirable meant being powerful.

The boy who said he loved me, who played guitar and was so cool that I smoked my first cigarettes and drank my first underage alcohol with him (and Maya and her boyfriend), was also kind of dull. We had nothing to talk about. So when I met someone else, who I thought was the love of my life (at the time, he did too), I very quickly transitioned into a new relationship with him. Sex with the new boy was better; he wanted me, all of me, body and brain and heart.  

During this long relationship, my friends—to whom I’d come out as bi when I had my first girlfriend (and first relationship) when I was fifteen—stopped believing I was still bi. They said I was de-facto straight for being with a dude for over three years. Even though I thought he was my forever, I still had no doubt in my mind that a) I was bisexual and b) that I’d have sex with a woman eventually. As it turned out, he wasn’t the one, and once we broke up, a whole new era of my life began. The era of becoming what I’d aimed to be since I was fifteen.

I slept with a guy at my college. He got attached; I didn’t. I was the one in power, the one desired. He wanted to read to me and for me to spend the night. I wasn’t into the intimacy. I wanted to fuck and leave. But I loved that my body was the one in demand. Being a commodity never felt like a problem – I chose when I wanted to be objectified and to this day I also choose when to objectify others. Attraction and objectification go hand in hand, though they are not one and the same. I can be attracted to someone, incredibly so, and thus objectify them, but that doesn’t mean I will see them as nothing but a set of protruding bits or orifices. I will see mind and personality and kindness or lack thereof and I will respond appropriately, not as a panting, humping lump of hormones.

I slept with two friends of mine, a couple, and popped my lady-sex cherry with one of them. I had a whirlwind summer romance with a ripped dude with a really big penis. I went back to college and fell in love with a girl, slept with her, screwed things up, and slept with another couple and then a good friend before the girl and I got back together. We broke up, I went to Oxford, I slept with a lady who fancied me the first time she saw me and a stranger whom a friend of mine had hooked up with. I slept with a visiting American who was a friend of a friend. I slept with a man whose brain was the most attractive thing I’d ever known and to whom I was attracted almost solely based on his intelligence. I slept with an incredibly hot dyke over the summer when I went to a writers’ workshop to which I’d earned a half scholarship. I slept with a friend. I slept with a woman I’d met at a nightclub who wanted me to stay the night, and though I refused, I still appreciate her more than many other random hookups I’ve had because she thought I was so interesting, so smart, whereas I normally felt (and feel) boring. I slept with a man I met on OkCupid who had the same birthday as mine and who made me wait until our third date before we had sex, and who said we would be something before lying about moving away (thanks, Facebook, for exposing that lie). After all this, I started a steady relationship with the person I am with now.

I may have forgotten a few in that oversimplified list, but I do know that my current tally stands at twenty-one. I’m proud of that number. Sometimes I think I want to add to it. I know people with over thirty notches on their belt or bedpost or wherever the kids are keeping track of the numbers these days. (There’s got to be an app for that, right? A sort of L-Word chart that connects you to other people and who the people you’ve had sex with have slept with. If there isn’t an app yet, I want full credit from the start-up that picks it up and a percentage. Also I want a Nobel once the scientific community realizes that we could trace STDs and STIs this way.)

Even before the term slut was reclaimed, I knew I wanted to be one. I wanted that power over my body and its pleasures. I have low self-esteem and always have had, but I’ve also always known I’m smart. I don’t take my brain for granted, but it’s also something I don’t feel I deserve praise for. It’s natural to me. It’s my body that I’ve always felt ill at ease with; it’s hard to feel comfortable in my skin. I have a body that hurts: it’s full of migraines, joint aches and shooting pains that no medication or treatment has been able to assuage, which makes me even less comfortable living inside my muscles and sinews and flesh and blood. My constant aching, as well as the remnants of a teenage eating disorder, lead me to dismiss my body and try to ignore it as much as possible.

My brain overcompensates by being loud and intense and unstoppable, taking my attention away from the body I don’t like but have no choice but to live with. Sex, however, shuts my mind off and makes my body feel supple and useful, capable of pleasure and comfort. During sex, I’m able to appreciate my limbs and organs and skin. I don’t take this for granted either: I am thankful for my ability to orgasm, for my ease and comfort in sexual situations. I am exceedingly lucky that any sexual harassment I’ve had in my life has never escalated to the point of assault or rape. I am incredibly privileged to have had the education and the means to practice safe sex.

It’s not just the act of sex, though. Being good at sex – and I know I’m good at sex – and having had many different partners who desired my body and to whom I’ve brought pleasure has given me strength. Being desirable, physically, makes me feel powerful. Nevertheless, I am a product of the patriarchy. How could I not be? I feel empowered by sex, having achieved my goal of breaking into the ten-partner realm and far beyond, but I can’t deny that the reason my body’s attractiveness matters to me so much is because I’ve been conditioned by society that, as a woman, I must be a vessel for another’s pleasure.

It is my choice, however, to reclaim that power, to use it to bolster my own self-worth in a way that makes sense to me and has nothing to do with anyone else. And it is my choice to look back at the awkward fifteen-year-old me and give her a big grin and a fist-bump. I did it, I tell her. I’m not just a slut-wannabe anymore. I’m a slut.

 

 

 

 

About the Author
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Ilana is an Israeli-American writer living in NYC. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Printer’s Row, The Rumpus, The Toast, The Butter, Hypertext Magazine, Split Lip Magazine, and more. She is also the founder of The Other Stories at theotherstories.org, a podcast that makes it just a little bit easier for writers to get heard. She tweets a lot @ilanaslightly and writes sometimes at slightlyignorant.com