Over the last year, the men I’ve dated with anything resembling seriousness have all been twice my age, which makes them older than my father. They are all smart, complicated, and notable in their field. Shortly after this year’s New Years, when I began seeing the most recent man, a woman I hardly knew told him to beware of my vagina. She called me a “climber,” and said I was trying to fuck my way up the artistic and social ladder to a place of ease and presumable success. She told another man I dated that I had used my time with him as a sexual and artistic springboard. He hasn’t voluntarily spoken to me since. She did say you have your charms, the second man said to me. It was very late at night and it was his birthday, a cozy and well-attended affair at his home, or so I heard. I did not go to the party. I had to babysit. It was 2 a.m. and I had just biked 9 miles home. He, too, was tired. He was also a little drunk, which is why he told me what she said in the first place. It was something he later apologized for. I told him it was okay: we are all curious, dumb, hungry animals, and I have also said things to someone I care about to get a rise out of them, particularly while intoxicated. 
She said you’re a good listener, he said – or rather, texted. I was flat on my stomach on my bed, scooping hummus from a jar on the floor into my mouth with my hand while I read a book. My phone shook again. She also said that you have really great arms.
When you are operating from a place of scarcity, when you feel like you don’t have many resources in your life and your reputation or your name are all you’ve got, there’s not a lot of room to breathe. You hug everything so tight to your chest you almost choke. It’s hard to inhale to get the air you need to laugh something off. After telling me this woman told him that, more or less, I’m using my labia’s opposable thumbs to try and catch free rides, the man told me not to worry about what she said or thought or said to other people, to let it go. There is no need to be this angry, texted the wealthy, middle-aged, highly successful white man who has never been called a slut in his life. She doesn’t matter, and I heard and understood the inverse of that; the more upset I allowed this to make me, the more I made it matter, and her matter. Don’t act like this bugs you and then it won’t – because it shouldn’t – is kind of the take home message from that sort of thing.
Two days later after he and I have this conversation, my sister calls me up sobbing because the boy she is in love with told her everyone knew. “Everyone knows what?” she asked. “About the photos you sent me,” he said to her. “I told everyone you sent me naked photos. They think you’re so gross.” “I didn’t send him photos, Katie,” she tells me as she hiccup cries.
My sister has a habit of dating men who all come from a similar stock: thick, country, with heads shaped like vaguely squashed marshmallows and names that lend themselves to easy puns. From my dad’s mouth, Keith becomes Queef, Mitchell, Bitchell. It is Will the Woody, however, who is making my sister cry. They dated for a few months this winter, her junior year of high school. Very early this spring, he told her he loved her. A few days later, he told her he was kidding. Then kids started looking at her funny in the hallway.
“You don’t want this one,” I tell her. Woody is twice my height and weight, and while my sister weeps on the other end of the line I imagine the satisfying thump he would make if I ran him over with a tractor. Some men want to smash or control what they know they will never understand nor possess; “Irene, you really don’t want this guy. Do you want to tell mom, or dad, or a teacher? What he is doing is sexual harassment.” “No,” she said. “He can be a nice guy!”
And then, my sister says something that utterly stops my heart, coming as it does out of her young baby mouth: “The thing I hate most about myself is that when he says sorry, I believe him.”
“Irene,” I say, “Sweetheart.” The idea that my little sister could hate anything about herself, let alone a list so long that it required qualifiers like “most” was appalling. And to hate herself for forgiveness? “Letting someone into your heart is never something to regret,” I said. “That is a strength. The trick is forgiving yourself as often as you forgive others. But just because someone apologies, it doesn’t mean you have to stay.”
On the other end of the line, I hear one of my brothers yell, “Irene! What are you doing in there?” “Did you lock yourself in the bathroom?” I ask. “Yeah,” she says, and hiccups again. “Okay,” I say. “I love you. You know Woody is going to end up a drunk-driving, sheep-fucking trucker, right?”
Before the call ends, I ask her to promise to tell me if his harassment continues, and then I tell her basically what my guy had told me; ignore it, no one else thinks this, he’s probably lying to you and just wants to freak you out. Act like it doesn’t bug you and others will follow your lead.
I gave her this advice, and I regret it.
It’s okay to be pissed. She is allowed to be upset, and to behave accordingly. She shouldn’t feel ashamed to yell, to cry, to say fuck you. It’s upsetting when someone takes your sexuality or your heart and hurts you with it, using who you are as an example of why you should be shamed or shunned. But what I didn’t want that upset to do for her is weigh her down, restrict her mind and movements, make her doubt who she is and what good and kind things she brings into this world. I don’t want her to allow one drop of bitterness from someone else to poison her whole well. But, for a while this winter, it did. For both of us, I realize now.
Winter is a place of scarcity. During the darkest months, my only goal is to not set myself on fire. I drink, I gaze out windows, and I hide. This winter in particular. At a party in December, as I passed this woman, she turned to me slightly and said her first voluntary sentence to me. “So, what is it that you do, exactly? Besides follow these men around?”
Well, I’ve given this question a lot of thought, and I’d like to take this opportunity to answer her. It turns out I do a lot of things, Madame, particularly in May. Amongst other things, I throw bottles. When I was 19 years old and it was May, I threw a tampon from a second story balcony onto a seething crowd of drunk frat boys below, because I didn’t want to stop making out with a beautiful girl long enough to take it out in a more discreet setting. You may call it disgusting; I call it punk as fuck. Three Mays ago, I moved from the apartment I shared with a man I thought I’d marry into a wide and uncertain world. Two Mays ago, I forgot to bring socks to a marathon and I ran anyway. One May ago was the first time I was ever featured as a storyteller in this city. This May, I’ve already had some dope nachos, so I feel like I am off to a pretty good start.
I’m sorry that you, Madame, think of fucking in terms of economics. And maybe it is to my detriment, but beyond, “Do you have a condom?” I don’t have a game plan for sex. Or love. I don’t care about the vintage of a ballsack, or even if my partner has one. And last I checked, these arms, which you speak so highly of, carry five bags of groceries up three flights of stairs by their own damn selves. They still have a shitload of student loan debt; they still bounce checks on the regular and they still work the same dead-end customer service job. Nevertheless, you’re right about one thing. I do date people, and fuck people, and love people, to get things. Like orgasms. And help washing my back in the shower. Someone to reach the flour I keep on the high shelf. An opportunity to braid my story with another’s. An appreciation for the complexities of the whole goddamn human existence. And a chance to share simple tenderness with another of this world’s blessed, beating hearts.
(1) For example, when I was twenty, I once called a boyfriend a coward because he wouldn’t come join me in the alley off his apartment as I stood in my Keds and underpants, whipping beer bottles as quick as I finished them at a just erected wall off Sacramento. I understand what it is like to be drunk, and to want something I can’t reach.
Katie Prout is a writer, runner and storyteller who works for A Large Internet Coupon Company in the city of Chicago. She writes about feminism, family, and all things vagina at