One of a Kind

On the Healing Power of Sexual Fantasy

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A therapist once told me that a hallmark of trauma is losing the ability to fantasize. The space where possibility was is now filled to the brim with disruptive and painful reality. She told me that when you've been raped — which I was, early in my life as a sexually active woman — your sense of a sensual self shrinks and often recedes.

And it's true. I had enjoyed a rich teenage life of dreams and desires, sitting in my bedroom writing what I called short stories but were actually florid and off-putting erotica. About camp counselors in the Catskills, or a rough but kind woodsman with a glass eye just waiting to be touched by someone who understood him. One story was about two teenagers on the run in the Italian countryside (one rich, one poor, natch). They made Bonnie and Clyde–style sex stops in the bathrooms of gas stations they had held up for cash, hurling each other around like backpacks.

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After my assault, all I could imagine when I thought about sex was not being injured or, when I really didn't like myself, being very injured. That's all there was room for.

And I never got good at fantasizing again. I got good at performing: back arched, hair flying, assuming attitudes I thought were desirable to a partner who watched either porn or foreign films. I got good at making small, meaningless sounds. I got good at those sounds that made my partner think I was having ideas. But, whereas in every other area of my life I was exhausted by my own litany of ideas, sex left me blank and needy.

I never got good at fantasizing again. I got good at performing: back arched, hair flying, assuming attitudes I thought were desirable to a partner who watched either porn or foreign films.

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For a few years I had an on-again, off-again partner I valued mostly because he supplied the concepts I lacked. Quiet and morose in everyday life, in a sexual context he came alive with scenarios and maneuvers so complex that I was left with no job whatsoever except to consent. It didn't matter to me then that many of the fantasies he summoned mimicked the circumstances under which I'd been assaulted — lost drunk girl with questionable self-worth finds herself in the wrong set of hands — but I'd never told him what had happened to me, and he had never asked. I wondered whether I exuded something, a kind of flickering neon brokenness, and started to question whether in fact I'd been asking for this all along. But it felt so good to be engulfed, to disappear from myself, albeit briefly, that I stopped questioning.

After that ended, and during the dry spells when he disappeared, I was forced to return to the world of the living, and only once was I really caught red-handed in the lie that was my sexual persona.

* * * * *

At 22, I projected an almost-cartoonish level of self-actualization: "Hi, I'm Lena. I like awkward jokes, big gold earrings, and dresses meant for grandmas. I have the bearing of an '80s stand-up comedian and the heart of Annie Potts in Dangerous Minds. Please love me."

The aggressive totality of my image wore some guys down, made them laugh and shove me by the shoulder and say, "You little weirdo." Sometimes it made them kiss me in a bathroom just to see what I'd do, how far the fuck-it attitude went, which is how I ended up tripping down the West Side Highway with a beautiful James Dean look-alike, stopping every block to grind against a mailbox or drunkenly debate whether we should be in a cab. It was over 90 degrees and I had on bike shorts, which I told him were to prevent chafing, and he said, "You're somethin' else," and I thought, I'm somewhere else.

Back at my parents' house, he threw me down on the bed and slapped my ass once. I pulled the bike shorts off and turned onto my stomach. And then he lay down next to me, his breathing slow, and he kissed me very gently and looked me in the eyes. And I froze.

I had known how to play it during every step leading up to this one: drunken city kid, hair tangled. Brash chubby queen who will say aloud what no one else will, who will scream over Swedish dance music: "You dumb motherfucker!" Brave creation who will show you their tits in the middle of a crowded thoroughfare. But here he was, pretty and pale and kind, looking at me with wide eyes.

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"Hi," I muttered.

"Hi," he smiled. A beat. "Tell me all your fantasies."

The panic I felt was akin to being asked to explain exactly where I'd been when a murder was committed and knowing I had no alibi, or maybe even that I'd done it in a blackout. My face turned red. I could feel sweat soaking through my polyester Topshop minidress, which I pulled off, hoping my sudden and total nakedness would change the mood. It didn't.

"I … I dunno …" I stuttered. "To, uh … to be fingered?" He began, dutifully and silently, to perform my wishes. My new fantasy became being buried alive.

* * * * *

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It may surprise people who see what I do on television to learn about this almost total lack of sexual imagination. Or maybe it won't, considering the sex scenes I write and perform in aren't exactly bodice rippers. They don't reinvent sex, but rather reenact it, often at its worst. They're verbatim moments from the ridiculous tapestry of life or, occasionally, the deeply heartfelt projections of a woman who just wants to be told she's worth time and touch.

In the past few years I've started to ask myself what I really want out of sex. Like an amnesia patient trying to piece my old life back together, I look back on the fantasies that propelled my solitary teenage lust and I wonder what I'd want now, at age 30, if I were unloosed upon the dating world and presenting a completely new me to someone who had zero relationship to my trauma.

Recently I described one to Jenni, who knows about this struggle like she knows about all my struggles. "I'm wearing a white bathing suit, very casual Christie Brinkley vibe. I give a blow job," I tell her, testing the waters. "When I'm done the guy looks really amazed and says, 'That was fucking unreal. You're one of a kind.'"

She nodded, full of sisterly sympathy. "I think it's sort of sad," she said "that your fantasy involves impressing someone else, not the other way around. What about the other person making you feel good?"

I didn't have an answer for that.

* * * * *

It's hard to know how best to protect yourself right now as an American woman. So much is unclear. So much feels out of our control, like strategy being played out in a remote locked room. So much is up to men who have never seen us and will never see us, who don't even want to see us. We gather to talk about actions to take, about places to donate, about marches and hashtags and urgent causes. It's all important and beautiful. It's all essential and brave.

What if every time you fuck for the next four years, you say exactly what it is that you want?

But what about a single step of your own, one that doesn't immediately help anyone besides you, yet may in fact save our entire world? What about something that tells a story words can't? What if every time you fuck for the next four years, you say exactly what it is that you want? You move the hands on your body to the place you need them to be so that you can get off? What if you take control of systems that were put in place a very long time ago to keep you from getting off? What if you never have sex again where you're just lying there wishing you were somewhere or someone else (and if you've never had that kind of sex, genuine and worshipful congratulations!)? What if you always recognize your voice? What if you ask for more? What if, as a result of this asking, you get exactly what you want?

* * * * *

So what is it, I ask, that would transport me? Can I separate fantasy from trauma, and is it even important to make that distinction?

Maybe I want to look like a Tumblr queen in strappy Helmut Newton lingerie, a few stray pimples visible, having sex against a white wall next to a drooping houseplant. Maybe I want to have sex in a bush at night by the Brooklyn Bridge, like the coolest girl I knew senior year of high school. Maybe I want it on a fire escape, slightly afraid of crashing to my death but too dizzy to care. Maybe I want someone in a ski mask to say "You're safe, but only if you don't speak." Maybe I want to be freezing cold and crying.

I don't know what I want yet. In this one area, at least, I don't know what I crave or what will be good for me. I'm feeling around in the dark. But when I find it, I will know that I am healed.

Lena Dunham talks a big game.

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