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My vagina is tired of compromise

Yes, sometimes I can feel it coming on in slow motion like a head cold, but a head cold of heart, mind, and genitals wherein the pathogen is not rhinovirus but romance. 

This is a flavor of existence I like to call “Compromise Mode.”

I am trying to rig my system so that every time I feel Compromise Mode coming on an alarm bell goes off feverishly somewhere in my nose, which lights up as bright as Rudolph and vibrates like fucking Santa Claus is coming to town the day before Christmas.

Compromise Mode is that state of mind we go into when our sexual and relationship boundaries are pushed beyond where we thought they ought to be, beyond where we thought we would ever let them go. For me, it characterizes both experiences of abuse, and of the low-level sexual aggression we experience often: Little and big ways in which one is disregarded, little and big aggressions, little and big hurts.

This state of extremity becomes the norm.

I.

Here are examples of Compromise Mode.

You see her every day and somehow every day ends with you crying, and you know that if it were your best friend you would say, Listen baby, she’s no good for you, it always ends bad. But you go back all the same.

You tell yourself you will leave if he hits you and he hits you and you do not leave.

You set lines for yourself, you tell him these lines in bed: I am not comfortable with you touching my neck like that. I am not comfortable with anal. He asks and asks again and you say no and no and then you say yes because he keeps asking.

You count down the days until you graduate, change jobs, move from the city — anything that will get you out of the relationship because you feel like you cannot get out of there yourself.

There are a lot of reasons we enter Compromise Mode. Often, we have material, physical, and psychological concerns for our safety. It is not always possible to leave. It is not always safe to leave. We do not always have the resources to leave. We do not always want to leave.

Here I want to play with two ideas. First, that even if we are unable to leave Compromise Mode — even if we do not want to leave — we can still have agency, dignity, and pleasure.

Second — and here’s the utopian proposition — that we can make a world in which we don’t have to experience this mode at all.

II.

I’ve found myself slipping in and out of Compromise Mode often over the past several years, or maybe always. I think many women are often in this state of mind when it comes to love and sex. I think many people are when it comes to most things: Life in oppressive power structures is, of course, compromise.

Now hold up, I know what you’re thinking. Compromise is part of any mature relationship. You can’t have your way all the time. Compromise is only right and natural and it’s harlequins/frigid grandmamas like you who are ruining sex/mating/courtship/the American family/feminism for the rest of us.

To which I say, Jesus you’re rude, go pick on someone else’s column.

And also, I don’t mean that kind of compromise — the healthy kind between two or more consenting and mutually supportive adults who love the hell out of each other but she prefers her popcorn plain and she prefers hers salty, what’s a couple to do?!

And I also don’t mean the genuine other healthy kind of compromise where those two or more adults sort out hard shit with warmth and generosity and each gives a little and each gains some and they build a thing that may just be a life. Lord grant that I be able to experience this kind of love, maybe when I have a job that gives me health insurance.

Nor do I mean the way in which love is always, I think, to some extent, on a spiritual level, unbearable. When love is palpable as a pain, an ache, an endless worry, an endless hunger, unquenchable, the kind of feeling of human solidarity in this short and hard and gemstone-gorgeous life that makes happiness also too potent to bear.

I mean a different pain in love, which is structural, and more contingent.

III.

There are a whole lot of people who accuse feminists of my generation of harping on our sexual hurt, wanting to be protected, confusing protection with activism, and generally slipping into the roll of little delicate woman babies with the frailty of Cinderella slipping into her shoe.

To which I first want to say, Oh Jesus Christ, give it a rest.

And to which I second want to say: Listen, I don’t think the violence I’ve experienced in relationships, and the violence a lot of my peers have experienced — the assaults and the small indignities, the absences of pleasure, the unfulfillments — are themselves the worst things one can suffer. I don’t think we need to hierarchize them in such a way, or understand them as the worst, to understand that we have the right and need to fight them. I believe we can articulate this hurt and right and need without that meaning that we define ourselves by it. And if sometimes we define ourselves by hurt and need? Fuck off.

I talk a lot about gendered violence and also I like to dance and I’ve peed on mountaintops and one time I fucked two different people in two different libraries in one week. Sex is fun! Also, in one of those library encounters my agency felt pretty elided. Sex is ambivalent!

It’s this duel pleasure and ambivalence, and pleasure in ambivalence, that we have to deal with. But if we’re talking about defeatism, the real pessimism is believing that sexual aggression is inevitable. 

Our pain is important because we are human beings and human beings are important.

And our pain is important because it is often produced and maintained by systems of injustice that go beyond and are intertwined with gender, that keep the world at large in a state of crisis. If we commit to fighting sexual violence in its many meanings and traces and manifestations, we must commit to fighting economic injustice, we must commit to fighting racism, we must commit to contending with the ravages of empire, we must commit to understanding the brutal enforcement of gender regimes. This understanding is not inevitable — the most privileged among us can often live without it, and must work to achieve it — but if we commit to tracing our pain, and the pain of our friends, and the systems that spring up claiming to tackle this pain but often redoubling it and wreaking pain elsewhere — courts and prisons and universities, for example — we will find it.

When we as feminists draw attention to this thread of fear in our search for pleasure, we do so out of hope and passion, out of a love for sex, for life and the possibility of the body, and an ache for the fullness of it. 

I write, then, with a profound optimism, a utopianism, even: A belief that, to paraphrase the ever-apt Maya, it is desirable and obtainable for us to say more about our sex that that we consented to it.

IV.

But first, a cartography of the crisis, which we are living through. 

We could, perhaps, point to some cultural elements of female socialization that render our boundaries sand, pushed back and back in the tide of whomever we’re sleeping with. Ideological structures like agreeableness, the lesson that our greatest purpose is attracting and keeping a man or a partner, or beauty hierarchies that make us feel like, fuck, maybe we won’t “do any better” — these things all convince us that violence is inevitable.

There are also material factors: Our partner has a car, and that’s our only ride to work. Our partner has control over our children. Our partner can out us. We make a living from sex work, and can’t always predict or turn down violent clients.

And then, of course, there is love. We tend to forget the loveliness that films, sometimes, like a rainbow on the surface of violence or waves like a bright green fern underneath it. That much of it is rotten makes the lovely bits rotten, but then again they remain lovely.

Once, because I had very good health insurance and I could afford therapy, I went to talk to a therapist about a relationship that had become violent. I said that, while things were now beyond repair, my partner and I had indeed loved each other. She asked me with a smirk like I had just walked out of Stockholm whether that was really love.

I drew myself up and replied in my best stern women’s studies tone. Our behaviors were not loving. Our behaviors were violent. But just because we did not succeed at loving each other, just because it left our hearts troubled and acne scarred, does not mean that there was not love. I am not stupid. I know that it was fucked. But we cannot allow only those with the luxury of safety the capacity for real love.

V.

Which is where we get back, I think, to the question of dignity.

When we speak of compromise, I need to make this point: Sometimes we can remove ourselves from Compromise Mode to a great extent, and sometimes we can’t. There is the potential for dignity and for hope in both of these experiences. Ultimately, we need a politics that stops criticizing individual women and queers for the way we deal or don’t deal with sexual aggression, and focuses instead on the structures at play.

I come back a lot to that scene from Girls. It’s not the one where Adam rapes or maybe doesn’t rape Natalia. This scene, by the way, is still an open question in my book, for the simple reason that we never get to know how Natalia understands the event herself; and because refusing to settle the nauseating not-rightness of life into binary terms is sometimes a great feminist act.

I’m more interested in is the Adam-Natalia scene after that, when we see them in bed together the next time, and Natalia is being sexually very, very direct and very clear.

It’s moments like these when I want to give Lena Dunham and co. a big love-noogie. I think a lot of feminists, seeing that first scene, would never want Natalia to consent to even being in the same room with Adam again, and think it’s anti-feminist of the script writers to put this scene in — as though being a little more vocal in the bedroom can solve rape, or not-rape, or whatever we’ll agree to call it.

To which I say this kind of shit happens all the time. Bad shit happens between our legs and we don’t know how to talk about it, to articulate it, or we do articulate it, and we make peace with it or we don’t, and we go back for more. And maybe the thing sits there rotting like bad milk and poisoning us, or maybe it just genuinely doesn’t, and it ends up okay.

I notice often that the kind of advice I give myself about these things is very different than the advice I give my friends. If my friend were Natalia I would say, BABY WHAT ARE YOU DOING STAY THE FUCK AWAY I LOVE YOU TOO MUCH TO SEE THIS GUY FUCK WITH YOU. And if it were me I would say, Just do it again. Just one more time. Maybe it will be better. He’s cute.

Even if it’s not better, we still have dignity.

Dignity does not mean complacence. We can make a world with a better set of choices. We are on the way to making it. We find love as we can on the way.

VI.

Sometimes during sex I imagine myself as my partner must see me or as I must look to some random camera I hope to God he has not planted on the wall. It’s a man in this image. My hair down while riding him. I’ll slow when it hurts and say something and say something and go faster when I am about to come. I am an Amazon.

A guy I was seeing said once, You really like to maintain control and then when I was about to say something to defend myself he paused and added, Well, I guess I can see why. A comment I folded away under the file Reasons I Can Trust Him. I still didn’t quite.

In this fantasy, even when I am on my back with my legs around him, the encounter is piquant with many things, but not fear.

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing a masters degree in Indian cinema, theater, and visual art at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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