When I learned to say NO

Leah talks about healing from childhood messaging about her body and sexuality, learning to say "no", and how women protect men's feelings during heterosexual sex.
Good Girls Talk About Sex
Good Girls Talk About Sex
When I learned to say NO
Episode art "When I learned to say NO"

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In part 2 of my conversation with Jessi Kneeland, we talk about working through the messaging I received as a child about my body and sexuality, learning to say “no”, and how women protect men’s feelings during heterosexual sex.

Thanks to Jessi for interviewing ME! I highly recommend following her on Instagram and signing up for her weekly #TransparentTuesday emails.


In this episode we talk about

  • Being assaulted by my dad, but not believing it was sexual because his hands didn’t get under my clothing
  • Confronting my father about the assault
  • Silencing and gaslighting
  • Detangling violence and sexuality in my brain
  • Learning what consent actually means
  • Learning to say “no” so that I could have a real, strong “yes”
  • Protecting men’s feelings during heterosexual sex
  • The body image work I’ve done
  • Conversations I heard about my mother’s body and how that affected my own body image
  • What it’s like to carry conflicting beliefs about myself
  • AM I NORMAL? question – Is it normal that I have no sex drive during quarantine?
  • Leah’s answer – YES! How stress affects our libido and our touch need

Full episode text

LEAH: Welcome to Good Girls Talk About Sex. I am Sex and Intimacy Coach Leah Carey and this is a place to share conversations with all sorts of women about their experience of sexuality. These are unfiltered conversations between adult women talking about sex. If anything about the previous sentence offends you, turn back now! And if you’re looking for a trigger warning, you’re not going to get it from me. I believe that you are stronger than the trauma you have experienced. I have faith in your ability to deal with things that upset you. Sound good? Let’s start the show!




LEAH: Today I’m bringing you Part 2 of my conversation with Jessi Kneeland, where she turned the tables and interviewed me. At the end of the last episode, we were talking about how the messages I got from my father about sexuality left me with a belief that sexuality and sexual assault were inextricably linked, which meant that if I ever displayed my sexuality or overtly expressed my femininity, I would be putting myself in danger. We pick up the conversation again there, talking about the assault I did experience which added even more confusion to the situation.




LEAH: The ideas of sexuality and assault were very, very closely tied in my head. There was not really one without the other.


JESSI: Were there other examples of how they became linked other than just the threat of that if you engaged in it, someone would get beat up?


LEAH: Well, my dad actually assaulted me once. And this is became really confusing for me because his hands never went under my clothes and so in my teenage brain, I thought, “Well, that’s not actually sexual assault.” So I’m not allowed to go to those groups for like survivors of sexual assault because that’s not actually what happened.


But when I think I was 12-ish and my dad had had a huge amount to drink. He had a large bottle of wine and my mother didn’t drink, so when the bottle was empty at the end of the night, it was clear that he had had it all. And he came into my room as I was getting ready for bed, and he threw me down on the bed. And he rolled around on top of me, and tried to kiss me, and ran his hands over my body. I think he was too drunk. Had he been able to get his hands under my nightgown, I don’t know what would have happened. But I remember that at some point, I froze. I stopped breathing. I didn’t struggle. I just laid there, stiff and waited for it to be over. And then at some point, he climbed off of me and he started talking as if nothing had happened, sort of his drunk rambling.


And he was at that point, travelling a lot, and so he was gone soon after that for a few weeks. And I told my mom immediately what had happened, and honestly, I don’t remember her response. I know that she believed me. There was no question that she believed me. But I don’t remember what she said or what she did. But she made it clear that if I wanted to say something to him, she would be with me.


And so when he came home a couple of weeks later, I sort of was silent. He was there for three or four days and I kind of stayed in my room. I didn’t speak to him. I kind of just kept my distance. And then at the end of the weekend, when it was near the time that he was going to go, I finally got up my courage and I said to him, “It’s not okay. Here’s what happened.”


And that was a big deal. I never spoke to him like that. And his response was, “That never happened. I can’t believe you would think I would ever do anything like that.” And then it wasn’t spoken again for 7 years. And then I brought it up again when I was in college, I had sort of a mini breakdown when I was in college my sophomore year. And I was in college close, it was just like a 15-minute drive to him. And he was supposed to come over and take me out for dinner, and I called him, and I said, “I can’t see you tonight. I’m having a really hard time.” And he said, “That’s fine. Take all the time you need. No worries. Just let me know when you’re ready.”


And so I took a couple of weeks, and I called him on Thanksgiving, which was a couple of weeks later and I said, “I’m going through some really tough stuff and I’m trying to sort it through.” And his response was, “You have no idea what your actions do to other people”, as if it was my fault. And he hung up on me, and then we didn’t speak for 2 and a half years.


JESSI: Was he referring to your actions of taking the silence?


LEAH: Taking the silence. I found out when we got back in touch, that he took that whole thing as me accusing him of sexual assault.


JESSI: But you didn’t say anything.


LEAH: I didn’t say anything.


JESSI: Oh my.


LEAH: And I found out later after he had passed away from the woman who was his wife at the time that he had told her this whole other story about what happened that night. That I had made this whole thing up, about what happened the night that he assaulted me. He had made up this whole story, and I have to think that he kind of believed it. I think he was blacked out and he didn’t remember, so he just made up a story.


JESSI: Really?


LEAH: Yeah. And that night, when we got back in touch at the end of college, was the last it was ever spoken of.


JESSI: Wow. So I mean obviously there’s so many layers to how the message of sexual abuse and assault being so linked gets reinforced in that, not the least how it was received. I mean the action itself, bad enough, but all that silencing, gas lighting, even if it wasn’t intentional, even if he was black out drunk. I mean that really sends the message that not only is it dangerous and somehow your fault, but also if you speak up about it, you’ll ruin cherished relationships. You’ll push people away and make them mad at you. You’ll be put on trial.


LEAH: Yes, all of that.


JESSI: That all starts to feel like an assault.


LEAH: It was safer to just not to participate in any of it.


JESSI: Sure.


LEAH: Yeah.


JESSI: And in your adult processing and healing or unpacking I should say of all of this, how have you untangled violence and sexuality for yourself?


LEAH: I remember one night. It was within the first couple of weeks that I had started working with you and I was travelling around the country at this point. I was visiting a friend in Maryland who she used to be a Clinique makeup counter person and I’ve never worn much makeup. The girly things were not something my mom ever taught me how to do because she didn’t do them.


So my friend Lara put my makeup on me and we went out and got mani-pedis and so I had nail polish on. And I remember walking into my hotel room, or the lobby of the hotel, that night and having an absolute panic attack that I was wearing makeup and nail polish and therefore, I was marked as female. I was performing femaleness to the extent that somewhere between the entrance to the lobby and the door to my hotel room, I would be assaulted. I was absolutely certain that I was going to be assaulted. And I wasn’t, I’m sure nobody even looked at me. But I think that was the beginning of that untangling with you, and that was the point at which I think I was crying through most of my sessions with you.




LEAH: I started recording the sessions, and there’s a whole bunch of them where I’m just like sobbing the whole time.




JESSI: It’s an important stage of the work.


LEAH: Oh, for real, for real.




LEAH: And over time, as I went through those sexual explorations, which I’m sure we’ll talk about, I think I started having really consciously working on making decisions and trusting myself to make good decisions. I had a vetting process. I was very careful and trusting myself to not put myself in dangerous bad situations. To the point that at some point, a few months into it, I was at a nude soaking facility in Portland, Oregon. And I was there with a date because in Portland, people go to places where you can get nude on a date.




LEAH: And yeah, it was like a second or third date. And we went to soak in this large hot spring, and he had gotten out to go into the sauna or something, and I was still in the hot tub, and I was aware that it was just me and five or six guys.


And I remember looking around and thinking, “Oh my god what happens if one of them grabs me or assaults me?” And then watching that thought cross my vision, and then immediately after, me being like, “Oh, that’s interesting. I don’t actually believe that anymore. I’m not worried about that.” And coming to this moment of being like, “Oh, if one of them grabbed my boob, I’d be pissed. That’s not okay.” But they wouldn’t actually be taking anything away from me. That’s on them. I’m not in any way diminished by somebody else grabbing my boob.




LEAH: And that was a major moment for me.


JESSI: And for anyone who’s listening, it sounds like you flipped a light switch and somehow, this was a magical black and white choice that got made like, “Oh, I guess I won’t be having anything taken away from me.” But you know, we both know, how much you don’t have that option until you have that option.


LEAH: Yeah. It takes time to get there.


JESSI: So much. I’m curious if you can even try and put into words like how you came from “That would take something away from me” into “That takes nothing away from me.” What is that journey?


LEAH: Interesting question. Well, I think it has a lot to do with learning about consent. I went through my life thinking I was consenting to sex because I wasn’t saying no. And then, I got into my early 40s and I started learning about what consent actually means. Consent is not, not saying no. Consent is an enthusiastic yes.


And once I started saying and experiencing enthusiastic yeses, those not saying no experiences became a whole different tenor for me. Like A, that was just really bad sex but also I wasn’t present. I wasn’t able to give myself over to the sexual experience because I was doing it for doing somebody else’s enjoyment. I was doing it to fulfill someone else.


And I think when I started to get clearer about what consent actually means and what it feels like when I saw a real, wholehearted yes, I became less afraid of having my agency taken from me. Because now I’m confident that if somebody says something that I don’t want, I’m capable of saying, “Stop.” I mean I still have sort of the everyday walking around concern that I think every woman has, of violent random assault, but I’m talking about like the date situation, the “If I kiss him, if he buys me dinner does that mean I’m required to have sex with him?”


JESSI: So just hearing you put it that way, that thought just struck me. Do you think that learning to say yes, not only that you get to say yes, but you actually have to say yes, then you start saying yes, do you think that gives you sort of an opposite but equal permission and responsibility to say no? Does it make it easier?


LEAH: Yes. Absolutely. I actually think it goes the other way. I think you have to be able to say no before you can say yes, at least that was my experience and that’s been the experience of some people I’ve worked with. That until we start clearing out all those times when we’re saying yes by default, and we get really, really clear about our no, then that opens up the space to be like, “Oh, I really want to do this.”


JESSI: Sure. It’s super interesting to me as well just to imagine that the absence of no being viewed as consent means you literally never need to talk. You don’t need to give any feedback. It puts you in a super passive role. Whereas if you’re required out loud to speak out a yes or a no, you immediately have more agency and if they’re not allowed to move unless you say one or the other.




JESSI: Like if that’s the way we’re picturing appropriate sexual escalation, then you have to be a more active participant. You have to open your mouth and say the words “yes” or “no”.


LEAH: That’s such a good point, yeah. Because so much of my sexual experience was just silence. Just shut up and take whatever they give you because at least they’re touching you.


JESSI: Yeah. And I think also the way that we are taught about sort of catering to male pleasure and male sexuality. There’s also the feeling of like, “Who am I to deny if this is what they want?”


LEAH: Yeah.


JESSI: And so silence is like, “Well, at least I didn’t deny it.”


LEAH: Yeah, because I might hurt their feelings.


JESSI: I might hurt their ego.


LEAH: If it’s male partner, I might emasculate them.


JESSI: Yes, yes.


LEAH: Fucking hell, that’s just such bullshit.




JESSI: The nuanced thing to that on the one hand, there’s the really old trash thing where women should never emasculate men because they deserve to be masculinated, whatever that is.


And then there’s some more new age-y, sort of more abstract thing, which is we should never emasculate men because that’s going to come back on us as like the most annoying amount of emotional labor. I’m going to have to comfort him all night. I don’t want it.


LEAH: So true.




LEAH: Yeah.




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Now let’s get back to the show.




JESSI: So you obviously did a lot of work to start untangling these messages. In your adult life that you had to undo a lot of what you had to learn about sex as a kid, is there any part of that journey that you think was the most impactful or powerful for you? Other than consent, it sounds like it was a big part of it.


LEAH: Oh god. I think a huge part of it has been confronting my own beliefs about my body. Because I had this super loud voice telling me that because of my body no one would ever love me, I mean that’s how it was framed by my dad. “You don’t have pretty legs. Your legs look like your mother’s. Boys don’t like girls who don’t have pretty legs.” It was all super heteronormative also.




JESSI: That got internalized for you?


LEAH: Totally. I went through my life thinking A, I can’t show my legs and B, even if I  were to trap someone, once they see my legs, they’re going to run out of the room.


JESSI: It’s hard to have sex without someone seeing your legs.


LEAH: Kind of, yeah.




LEAH: And I got a stomach. I got hips. I got thighs. I’m not a skinny girl. And that has been incredibly hard. I think so many people can relate to this, there have been times when I couldn’t leave the house because I couldn’t find clothes that I thought were not even suitable, that I wouldn’t be laughed at out of the room.


JESSI: Laughed at out of the room for what?


LEAH: For not looking right. Even today, probably my biggest fear in going in any social situation is, “What can I wear so that I fit? So that I’m not the person who gets looked at and laughed at?” Even though locally, I now understand that that is a fallacy that my brain has made up, it still has a lot of hold over me.


JESSI: What were the messages you got from your mom about your body? Were they similarly in line?


LEAH: I didn’t get messages from my mom about my body, but I heard a lot from my mom about her body.


JESSI: What are those?


LEAH: That she was fat, that she was unattractive. I also heard a lot of conversation between her mother and her. So her mother would say to her, “Well, if you just lose a little weight, I’ll take you out shopping” or, “You would look so pretty if”, things like that. So it was very, very clear that not only was my mother not acceptable, her body was not acceptable, but also, it was framed as sort of a moral failing. And I took all of that on, so I very much believed the fact that I didn’t have a skinny body was a moral failing.


JESSI: Meaning that you were what?


LEAH: I was a second-class citizen. The only way for me to have any success in life was to be the smartest person in the room, the most motivated, the person who worked the hardest, the most perfect. Basically it was perfection like the most perfect in every way. That was the only way that I would have any worth in life. And I could never live up to my own expectation of what that would look like, and so I just walked around thinking I was completely invisible.


JESSI: Now I’m curious if you could speak into the conflict like because you talked very eloquently about unconscious feelings, beliefs, and ideas that I think a lot of people experience. And there’s a lot of conflict in there, because on the one hand, you learned that you should not be sexy or female or feminine or any of these things because it would cause danger and put you in danger’s way.


And on the other hand, you learned that you should be those things in order to have worth, and that if you don’t live up to it and be perfect that you’re invisible and you’re worthless. So can you speak to the fact that you carried such conflicting unconscious beliefs about yourself for so long? What is that like and how can that even be?


LEAH: it’s incredibly painful. I think it’s crazy making. I think that I have spent a lot of my life feeling crazy. Not helped by the fact that my father was a pretty significant gas lighter, so that was just sort of baked in. But also, yeah, this “I’m supposed to be one thing but I’m supposed to be another thing, but I can’t be any of these things and so who am I?” They say that two conflicting thoughts can’t live in the same space and yeah, I was trying to fill that space all of the time.


JESSI: Right. Crazy making feels like an important note, just for anybody else who might be experiencing this kind of conflict, the loss of self trust when you’re trying to reach for two impossible and mutually exclusive goals in life. How crazy making that can be.


LEAH: Let’s leave it here for now. In two weeks, we’ll pick back up talking about the conflicting ideas I was trying to hold and how it led me to a series of unhealthy and borderline emotionally abusive

relationships. And now, let’s take a hard-left turn, and get to our new segment, “Am I Normal?”


Every other week, I’m answering your “Am I normal?” questions that you can call in at 720-GOOD-SEX. It seems like almost every question I get is, at its core, a question about whether the person is asking is alone in what they’re experiencing. So, let’s get to it.




QUESTION: Hi, Leah. Is it normal for me to not want to be sexually intimate at all during this pandemic? Is it normal for me to be pretty turned off? Even turned off by myself in regards to just masturbating. I have very low interest in sex and masturbation in general. Is that normal?


LEAH: What a great and important question! Thank you for calling in to ask. Yes, having your libido during a time of significant stress like we’re experiencing now is completely normal. And on the other side, it would also be completely normal if your libido cranked higher than you’re used to. Both are normal and both are common.


There can be hormonal reasons for your libido tanking during times of stress. Our bodies can release chemicals that have a physical effect on our libido. But it’s also important to remember that our brain is a significant sexual organ. When we’re focused on things that stress us out like, “Am I exhibiting symptoms? Whether we’re going to have enough income to continue getting groceries? And dear god, I never wanted to home school my child”, it can be hard to focus on getting turned on.


Alternately, some people use sex as a way to release pent-up energy and anxiety, so their brain may be telling them that it’s time to go in for another round. And it’s really important to know that neither response whether your libido tanks or cranks is a gendered response. You might have heard what I said a moment ago and assumed that women’s libidos will tank and men’s libidos will crank. Not necessarily. Men’s libidos are just as likely to crater, and women’s libidos are just as likely to go up. No matter which of those things happen, it’s totally normal and there is nothing, absolutely nothing wrong with you.


If your libido spikes during stress, that does not make you a pervert. It doesn’t make you a sex addict. It doesn’t make you somebody who is thriving on the misery of others. And if your libido tanks during times of stress, it doesn’t mean that you’re broken. It doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with your libido or your body or your brain. It just means that you are responding to what is right now, an unprecedented level of individual and communal stress. It’s natural. That’s what happens. It’s also completely possible that your libido will remain about the same, so if you still have your usual desire for sex, that’s great! Keep doing what you do!


Now here’s the next sort of obvious question, what happens if you’re sheltering in place with a partner and you have opposite libido reactions? This can cause tension in an already stressed out home. So here’s a simple exercise that can help the higher libido person get their sexual needs taken care of, while the lower libido partner still has their boundaries seen and respected. Lay down with the lower libido partner holding the higher libido partner. This could be both of you lying down or one partner sitting up with the other partner lying in their lap, whatever feels comfortable and natural to the two of you. The lower libido partner is going to hold a warm and loving space, stroking their partner’s arm or hteir hair or anything that feels comfortable.


The key is that this can be sensual and nurturing touch, but there is no pressure to turn it into a sexual touch. When my partner and I do this, I like to put my hand on his heart because that makes me feel really connected to him. Meanwhile, the higher libido person masturbates, maybe with a hand, maybe with a toy. They enjoy the connection and the touch as part of the sensual experience but it’s important to not push the lower libido partner into turning it into sexual play. The point is for the higher libido partner to be totally in charge of getting themselves off, while also enjoying the physical connection with their partner.


Here’s the thing. The physical release of the orgasm is important, but it can happen in the context of a connected space without it having to be a partnered activity. The lower libido person’s body is not required to be a vehicle for the partner’s release. In this way, both partners can feel like they’ve participated, while no one’s boundaries were crossed.


Now, what about if you’re sheltering alone? Please be aware that your libido being low does not necessarily mean that your touch need is also low. In fact, during times of stress, our touch need can become much higher than usual even while our libido tanks. Touch is vitally important for most people. It releases all those yummy chemicals in our brains and can calm body functions like heart rate and blood pressure.


It’s one of the reasons that people who spend long periods in solitary confinement develop mental issues. It’s the reason that babies who aren’t held enough develop a condition called failure to thrive. As adults, we would call it being skin hungry or touch starved. However, in our culture, a lot of people aren’t aware that they’re allowed to have a touch need, let alone how high or low it is. So it’s not uncommon for people to be going through touch hunger or skin starvation and the associated emotional deficits that go with it, but think there’s something wrong with them mentally rather than physically. It can result in symptoms of anxiety, depression, difficulty sleeping and increased stress, because that’s what we all need right now.


So how do you get your touch needs met if you’re sheltering alone? If you have a pet, that’s the first line of defense. Cuddle with your dog or cat or hamster, as much as they will allow. Touch doesn’t need to be sexual, and it doesn’t even need to be human. It just needs to be comforting to have the desired effect. If you don’t have a pet, or even if you do, pay more attention to the ways and times that you touch yourself. Take time during your shower to touch your body with care and attention. Again, this isn’t about sexual or masturbation type touch. It’s about focusing on caressing your skin with loving kindness.


A friend of mine who is a therapist offered these other suggestions to boost oxytocin, which is the chemical that you get from touch in quarantine. When you’re on a video chat, spend a few extra moments doing silent extended eye gazing. Wrap up in a soft blanket. Some of you may even have weighted blankets that can be helpful. Cross your arms over your chest and squeeze each shoulder in alternation. If you can, have a loved on speaker phone sharing words of love and connection with you while you do this. Watch videos of cute animals, this can absolutely give you a dose of oxytocin.


During next week’s regular episode, which is an interview with a woman named Cathy, you’ll hear us talking more about this subject because she is currently solo sheltering in place and finding her own methods for filling her touch need. I’ll come back to Cathy in a moment.


But first, I want to wrap up this up and remind you that if you’ve got an “Am I normal?” question, you can call it in to 720-GOOD-SEX and I may answer it in an upcoming episode.


Now, back to Cathy, I want to give you a sneak peak at next week’s episode. She’s a woman who has experienced extensive molestation as a child, causing her to dissociate from her body and feel huge shame about having a body. During our conversation, she talked about gaining a large amount of weight. She now describes her body shape as “round”, which left her feeling like no one would ever want her.


But this is not a depressing story. In fact, we laughed a lot while we were talking because she’s done a huge amount of healing, and now feels passionate about helping others know that they are lovable and acceptable just as they are. And we also talk about sheltering in place by herself, only able to have physical touch with her cat. It’s a great interview and I’m really looking forward to sharing it with you next Thursday.


In the meantime, if you have a friend who you think may benefit from hearing open and honest conversation about sex, please share this show with me. That is the best way for this show to grow and gain an audience. And until next week, here’s to your better sex life!

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