I consider myself somebody who watches a lot of reality television.
Married at First Sight was once my chosen poison, and it is exactly as it sounds: a juicy social ‘experiment’ where, according to objective compatibility standards, two individuals are coupled, only to meet for the first time at the altar. One contestant proved an awkward but charming ‘29-year-old-virgin’; a title the producers continually pinned to him. It’s as if ‘virgin’ was his career, a nationality, a symbol of sorts and not his intimacy status, such as, ‘Matthew, 29-year-old virgin from Queensland, has sat down with his bride to devour some wagyu on their honeymoon’; or, ‘Matthew, 29-year-old virgin from a rural northern town, will kill a man if one more media outlet attempts to pathologise him for clicks.’
Unlike Matthew, I was always fervent about losing my virginity. Not because I considered it a palpable thing. I didn’t want to wittingly throw it into a deep ocean, my virginity lost and sinking (some kind of commemoration, the salty ashes of my prepubescence). Instead, sex seemed gainful, especially the sort of love-making I imagined with Jacob: a picturesque, freshly-turned 18-year-old I became infatuated with after spotting him drawing in the art department at my school. It was never about losing with Jacob, about sacrificing. Instead, it was about finding: about discovering a desperate connection with a young man who smelt of turpentine, smoked weed in the back of his station wagon, and listened to José González.
When sex with him hurt, because of course it did, I held that pain close. It was the pain of opening up, of pulling apart, of strain and percolation, of plummeting into a cavernous love with a boy who would eventually leave, but not yet.
I didn’t—and still don’t—have the language to describe what it meant when it hurt again. Neither did my gynaecologist who, while treating me for vaginismus, prescribed numbing cream. Was I meant to smother my vulva with pleasure paste so he—whomever he may be—could enter me without having to endure the writhing nest of a woman beneath him?
During the second season of UnREAL, an American drama series that aggressively unveils what is involved in producing a reality dating show, one of the main characters battles with a particularly dire back injury. He debates whether or not to take an epidural, and his doctor insists against it. ‘Pain is important,’ the doctor tells him. ‘Without it, we do not know what the body wants or needs.’
Subduing the noise that comes from a woman’s lips (whether it be the lips on her face, or any other lips she may have) feels like all that’s wrong with the world, no? I wanted to tell my gynaecologist, but didn’t.
It has been 11 years since my vaginismus started and four years since therapy started, and I have almost come to forget the look on a man’s face when he realises—during the push-and-pull of sex itself—that the ache between my legs comes from him: his expression a weapon; something swathed in lust and worry; eyes a little bit closed courtesy of the pleasure he unearths in my inner-parts. After the initial sting—and the four or five sweaty gushes that follow—a hesitant ‘Are you okay?’ will (and does) fall from his mouth, only to collect dust on the bed linen we lie on. I no longer wince. Not like I used to. It’s different, now.
John-Paul Flintoff, for the Guardian, once wrote about automatic negative thoughts: the kind of ideas that pop into our heads uninvited, like burglars, and leave behind a mess of uncomfortable emotions.
For something to be automatic, it must first function in a push-button, mechanised way, like small constellations of goosebumps that form when a woman surfaces from a cold body of water, or any old knee-jerk reaction when she is pressed or tickled a certain way. Onions and eyes. All that. But what if it wasn’t an onion, but a lover? One who strokes your cheek and fumbles around with his feelings, which get stronger with every sweeping push, every time he enters, the elation obvious. What then?
I think what I am trying to say is that for every tear I once shed in distress there was a hefty reward. With my pain came his pleasure. I don’t know how to be consumed by desire, it seems, if it isn’t an instrument with sharp blades. Sex doesn’t seem to count for much if nobody gets hurt.
While recovering from the flu, I read an essay by C.J. Hauser called ‘The Crane Wife’: a quiet, unassuming reflection on womanhood, as well as what is lost while pursuing it. Hauser refers to an old Japanese fable in her essay, one about a crane that entices a man into loving and subsequently marrying her the only way she knows how to: by pretending to be a woman. Each night she extracts every last silver feather from her plumage, weary but determined, in a bid to reiterate to him once more her being a human—or rather, her being a woman. Again and again, she plucks. There is no time for sleep when gender is the project—the angry thing that requires maintenance—and one’s natural betrayal of it, be it in the shape and growth of disobedient tufts of hair or otherwise, demands attention.
I want to say I was doing much the same every time I bore the pain of being fucked. What I mean by this is that I’d pretend to be a woman, only to tend to the repercussions later: the throbbing ache, the gloom that squints and wipes its eyes discreetly, unable to tell the lover what I had suffered just now for his touch. Smiling and moaning and in some instances even daring them to fuck me harder, stronger. That’s it! With more weight, as if taunting my body, hoping it would withstand the strain of it all.
One evening I burnt myself while lighting a collection of tea lights I had purchased to make one particular night with Jacob romantic. I can’t remember the occasion. ‘For fuck’s sake,’ I muttered as I glanced down at my reddened thumb. I was so angry, so irritated. This pain is not useful, I thought. It could not serve him or me. It wasn’t convenient, it wasn’t sexy, it was just singed flesh. I don’t know what to do with the knowledge that I am happy to justify mutilation, hurt and resistance if it means fulfilling womanhood correctly. If a crane with wounds where her feathers once were is just a woman, what is a woman with wounds all over, all in, all around?
I had a coffee with a woman I slept with recently, who told me in between sips that she believed that—in same-sex female relationships—there are no tops or bottoms, no unspoken mastery. Leverage in nobody’s corner. I nodded enthusiastically, agreeing, because I don’t think I’ve ever felt fucked by a woman: fucked, as in keeled over and irrupted into. What I have felt, though, is scepticism when a woman has pleaded with me to push into her harder, faster, borrowing phrases from my adolescence and sprinkling them onto her body—my body—like fertiliser, the kind of sex-dressing certified by men and only men.
The last time this happened was with a stranger, who mewled loudly and repetitively, as if there were guys with cameras and hard-ons and cheques in the walk-in robe next to us I didn’t know about, whispering ‘That’s it, darlin’! Give us the money shot!’ into an invisible earpiece she wore as she demanded I go deeper in with my fingers. Harder in! Faster in! Once she ‘came’ (I was dubious about whether she did), she huffed and puffed and rolled around on the bed like a delighted seal before insisting it was my turn. I had already dressed, adjusted my belt and resigned to the fact that I would never see her again.
Aware of (and attuned to) my proclivities for reality television, two friends of mine recently introduced me to The Bi Life, a tacky dating show with an even tackier plug. ‘Follow seven sexy bisexual singletons as they attempt to find love in paradise,’ Courtney Act recited at us with stale precision. Lachie, Edan and I shared a spliff, sipped champagne and devoured the habitual performance of bodies, of tension, and—importantly—of purple, pink and blue. Despite its cheap jibes and clown-like music every time something awkward or odd happened (a quintessential component of Married at First Sight and all heterosexual dating shows, come to think of it), it attempted to make up for it in sincerity, in hopefulness, in here-and-queer-and-ripped-as-fuck optimism. Every date was laced with a compact rendering of how one comes out and continues to come out time and time again: asking for permission, for paternal acceptance, or even just for a lousy root, a cuddle and a kiss at every corner. Because of this, The Bi Life felt exhausting, and no amount of neon-purple signs and illuminated staircases could dice up the labour required of its queer subjects to fill the show with content, with suspense, with peculiarity.
I think it is this—how confession and sex are so intertwined for me—that explains why I’d sometimes leave the lacework of my pain at home, out of the beds and arms of strangers, absent from beseeching conversations about why, how, who did this, when it started, the aggressive stabbing between my legs. I’d grin. I’d bear it. I’d yearn for the banality of off-centre jingles and awkward hand-holding or stomach digestion and accidental burping or whatever else, and not mawkish revelations about sex, self, and hurt.
‘I want to do something ridiculous … like go trampolining or skydiving or something like that on a first date,’ Edan scoffed, entertaining—for a second or even less—that a particular kind of love could be found outside the parameters of dinner and drinks. I always wondered whether or not the wildly unreasonable trajectory of dating on reality television was just to remind us that this—this being romance in general—is a performance. Nothing more, nothing less. Just romance with a more impressive budget and network stakeholders. That when Wee Wee (!) and Joe went zorbing naked in a large, see-through ball on the shore of Panama after having met one another a mere eight minutes earlier in Dating Naked, they were acting out frenetic, circus-like lust and confusion, a little like romance generally, just more marketable. In real life, the performance of love and lust eventually dissipates or changes, but in reality television it remains stagnant, replayable, fit to be paused and turned into a shoddy meme or fodder for three stoned 20-somethings at any given moment.
‘Reality stars, unlike their scripted counterparts,’ Kelefa Sanneh writes for The New Yorker, ‘outlive their shows, and sometimes find ways to defy them.’ After the rose ceremonies, touch-ups and drunken, behind-the-scenes confessions, there is still a woman after all who exists outside network television criteria or—if we’re relying on metaphor—the boundaries of pain, trauma, disapproval and rejection.
How do I find ways to defy my show, so to speak?
In what ways do I live on?
Madison Griffiths is a writer whose work has appeared in the Guardian, Meanjin, Overland and elsewhere. She also produces Tender, a podcast about what happens when women leave abusive relationships.