Two hands reaching around my waist snap my vision back into focus. I’m in East London, my own hands splayed on a dirty wall behind a station, legs spread, spine flexed. Less than ten minutes ago the man now clumsily grasping at my knickers in an alleyway was a stranger. He was a bit annoying, actually – insisting on talking to me, pacing at the side of me as I stomped to the Overground, ignoring that my eyeline remained fixed just ahead of me and my responses monosyllabic. In the end, when he asked for my number I just relented and said, "Want to fuck instead?" and so we did.
A week earlier, in the dark basement of a Soho bar, I hooked my fingers in the loop of a stranger’s jeans as she straddled me, tugging at her vest-top with the other hand and rolling her brown, pierced nipple over my tongue.
Days before that, it was the performative banker I met as the pub closed who pushed my head down on the bed and whose dank sheets smelled of leftover sex. At some point, I can’t remember exactly when, there was the waiter-slash-jewellery designer who apologised the whole time.
In bursts of a few weeks each time, usually after another breakup that left me feeling outside of myself, there were more of course. Most were unremarkable, so soporific that they made me angrier and sadder than I already was – I didn’t know it at the time, but the beginnings of a severe depression had grown roots inside me.
It felt like claustrophobia, mixed with a peculiar homesickness. A feeling that I’d been displaced; shifty, like I couldn’t get comfortable and I couldn't go home, either. Instead I drank in pubs alone, or lied to friends I was out with, claiming to be going home but instead heading to another bar or anywhere I might find someone to fuck.
There were many moments when I liked it. I liked to feel like a slut. Or at least something – or someone – different to the reality of how I perceived myself to be: boring, ugly, hollow, grey, abnormal. When my body felt heavy with fear, sharing it felt good. It felt so simple, like, here, have it. Maybe you have some use for it. I never came, of course. I never even got close and I never faked it. No need. It wasn’t the point, which was lucky, I suppose.
I didn’t tell anyone either. If housemates – or, once, a partner – asked where I’d been, or why I was so tired, I would lie. The compulsion was too hard to explain, and I was disinterested in judgement or reasoning. I lied to the people I slept with too. I’d learned early on to give a fake name and profession, after one guy – an American, with gleaming teeth and body odour – followed me on Instagram the day after I spat on his dick and sucked it in a closed off public garden at 2am. I blocked him, naturally, and then blocked him from memory too.
I told myself frequently that it was fine. Everyone has one-night stands, everyone shags strangers; I’m just participating in desire. I thought about the politics of it – why should men’s sex be indiscriminate, while a woman having reckless, risky or just "too much" sex is a deviant, or mentally ill? Lots of sex does not indicate that something has gone wrong, I told myself. But God it’s humiliating to convince yourself that snorting coke off a stranger in a toilet and letting them finger you is just fourth wave feminism.
While I tried very hard to leave the memories in alleyways and toilets and other people’s beds (never mine), they perforated the days and weeks after with burning hot cheeks and hammered on the wall of my chest. Then one night I smashed my phone, lost my bank card and cried as a man fucked me from behind. I crawled into the office at 4am, physically unable to get home this time, and the next day I cried with my friends, too, and called my GP.
This sex is still a secret part of me, though I’m less ashamed now. I’ve told some close friends and found that it’s actually a common behaviour in people with a difficult mental illness and/or a traumatic incident in their past. I’m managing both very well now, with the help of regular therapy. I don’t know my 'number' and, if someone I’m dating asks, I just edit out this period. I’m still disinterested in judgement. Occasionally I wonder what the people I met think of me, or if they thought anything of me at all in those minutes or hours. Mostly, I move forward.
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