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‘I haven’t had sex in 3,089 days’: comedian Sofie Hagen on being celibate for more than eight years | Life and style

‘I haven’t had sex in 3,089 days’: comedian Sofie Hagen on being celibate for more than eight years | Life and style
‘I haven’t had sex in 3,089 days’: comedian Sofie Hagen on being celibate for more than eight years | Life and style

I first had sex when I was 16; I have since had quite a few people inside my body. Some were more welcome than others – like the surgeon who removed my inflamed appendix, and that incredibly hot Dutch photographer in a Utrecht Airbnb, to whom I would have given my appendix, had he asked. Others have only penetrated me with their words or in my fantasies. Some of the experiences feel unreal, like the guy who referred to himself as “Big Mike” and claimed that he was moving to Finland the next day, despite there being no packed moving boxes or suitcases in his house. I wouldn’t be able to pick him out of a lineup today.

I am torn between two different versions of that story. In one, I was twentysomething, wild, confident and single. I met a hot guy in a bar and we went back to his place. He read me some of his poems, I elegantly undressed and we had sex. Twice. The next day, when I was deliciously hungover, I revelled in the fact that we didn’t even exchange phone numbers, as if I was in Sex and the City.

Then there is the other version. The one in which I felt honoured that someone that conventionally attractive was interested. The one in which I was very aware that I was one of the only people left in the bar when he approached me and I ignored all the red flags – like the obvious lie about moving to Finland – clearly told so I knew this was just sex. The version in which I did leave him my number; he just never called. Though, a few days later, a friend of his got in touch and basically requested sex because he had heard I was “willing to do it with anyone”. In this version, while still at the bar, I desperately drank as much alcohol as I could afford because I needed to drown out the inner voice telling me that I didn’t really want to do this. I wanted to feel wanted, I wanted to orgasm, I wanted to feel safe. Instead, I settled for what I thought would be better than nothing.

Both versions feel true. Part of me is adventurous. I do love sex. I am not looking for a relationship; I love my fat body and I don’t particularly need to care about someone to have sex with them. But another part of me is shit-scared. Of intimacy and rejection. Of not being desirable to potential sexual partners.

Right now, as I write, I haven’t had sex in 3,089 days. (If I had known that the last time I had sex was going to be the last, I would have looked at the penis a bit more. I would have waved it off like a woman saying goodbye to her lover in 1941 before he went to war, never to be seen again.)

Not having sex seems to be taboo. In theory, I don’t think it should be, but based on people’s facial expressions when I tell them, it is.

“What? How?” they ask, horrified, as if that’s not exactly the same question I have for them when they tell me they recently had sex. How? How did you do that? I have a friend who had sex with her Uber driver last week. Another had sex with her boss. People seem to meet in all kinds of places and I don’t know what happens between, “Hello, my name is” and, “Shall we have sex now?”

Photograph: Jay Brooks/The Guardian

So when I want to ask “How?”, I mean – psychologically, how? Particularly if you have been existing in the world as an outcast or a target. Girls are sexualised before they become women; trans bodies can often be made to feel like cages; Black bodies are subject to violence; the patriarchy rapes, and we are all taught to hate our bodies for various reasons. Aside from this, most of us will have experienced heartbreak. Mistrust. Feeling unsafe. So many of us are suffering from depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD and more. And while I grew up in Denmark, I have lived in the UK for long enough to know that you people, here, are mildly sexually repressed.

So how do you just do it? How did I just do it?

I would, in theory, like to have sex. I have a sex drive. I like orgasms. I like being touched. Sometimes I try. I sign up for dating apps and swipe “Yes, please” to anyone who feels safe, which is, let’s be honest, not that many. Sometimes, I get a match. I will open strong. They reply and … a wave of discomfort overwhelms me. My abdomen feels tight, I start to sweat, my eyelids are heavy and I don’t want to have sex any more. I delete the app and get into bed, under my duvet, where it’s safe. And I stay there. Unsexed and unfucked. And then it’s suddenly been nearly a decade and I wonder what is happening to me and why.

I try to explain it to my friends.
“It’s been a while since I had sex,” I begin.
“I haven’t had sex for two months,” my friend exclaims hopelessly with a sigh. I’m surprised she’s even capable of breathing, let alone speaking, after suffering from such intense deprivation.

“Me neither,” I say. It’s true. So many two months have gone by.

She shakes her head, “It’s so frustrating.”

She continues to swipe through her Tinder matches, unmatching with people if they wear the wrong shoes. Meanwhile, I don’t remember ever having standards. I have never known how to say no, so I have done some utterly appalling things. I once fucked a man in a bush who had a pregnant fiancee at home because he pointed at the bush and said, “Wanna fuck in that bush?” and I simply nodded, because what else do you say? Hindsight is beautiful, isn’t it? “No, thank you” is what you say. You say, “No, thank you, I will not be having sex with a drunk, engaged, mediocre comedian in a bush – which will later turn out to have been not much more than a lone ficus – in central Copenhagen on a Tuesday.”

What I am saying is: what shoes people are wearing is clearly not going to be what keeps me from sleeping with them. So what is the obstacle?

Learning to love my body is a tricky journey, but is easy, compared with learning to trust that other people can love it. When it is just my mirror and me, I can look at my fat stomach, fat thighs and my double chin and I can love them with all my heart. Trusting that there is someone out there who would also love my fat stomach, fat thighs and double chin is a whole different battle.

I grew up watching shows like Friends, where Fat Monica is the butt of the joke, and Desperate Housewives, where Gabby tricks her chubby daughter into running next to her car because she wants her to lose weight. The same anti-fat message has been drilled into me from the moment I could understand words. And even in the past 10 years, when I have been actively working on unlearning it, it still appears in the comments under my posts on the internet.

There is also the fact that my relationship history has been littered with men who have kept me a secret because I am fat, or because they had wives or girlfriends. Their girlfriends were always thin. I was once waiting at a bus stop late at night and a guy stopped his bicycle to talk to me. He looked excited to see me, like a little boy at the zoo seeing a giraffe for the first time. He asked for my number so enthusiastically that I gave it to him. As he called the number to check I had given him the correct one, he said, “This is great. I just got engaged, but I’ve never tried sleeping with one of your kind before, so I want to try that before I get married.”

I never did sleep with him, but I wonder if the difference between him and many of the people I did sleep with was that he was upfront about it. The others – those who claimed they were stuck in loveless relationships and that, in time, we would be together – probably knew that it was never going to happen. Or perhaps they believed the lie, too.

The truth is, the underlying insecurity that comes from an entire lifetime of fatphobia is a huge part of the reason I have behaved in ways I do not like. I have never wanted to be the person someone cheats with. I have never wanted to sleep with people I do not fully respect. But the voice in my head – the one that refuses to let go of the fatphobic statements – will whisper things such as, “But what if this is your last chance to have sex? What if he is the only one who wants you?” I have definitely made bad decisions out of desperation. Desperation to be loved and wanted.

There have also been times when it has felt as if the bad decisions were made for me. In my early 20s, I remember passing a bottle of rum to my friend Sally, who would slug it and pass it to her friend Erik. He would take a sip and pass it to me. It wasn’t until the next day I realised that I only assumed they drank from the bottle, too. In fact, they hadn’t. That is how I ended up drinking an entire bottle of rum, while Erik and Sally remained in control of their minds and bodies. I was drunk. Being fat and quite hardened by the Danish drinking culture meant that I still had some of my consciousness left.

Sally left the flat, winking at me and Erik, as if this whole thing had been a setup for us to hook up. I remember lying down on his bed and grabbing my phone. I sent myself a text that said, “He has LPs on the shelf, a blanket from Ikea and you are very drunk.” A few seconds later, I received that text. Good, I thought, I’ve informed myself of what’s happening here.

I remember gathering all my strength to focus on saying one sentence, and on saying it with as much force as possible: “Whatever happens, I do not want to have sex.”

Erik, who was now lying next to me, started sulking. “Come on!” he said. (Did he pout, or am I just imagining that now, in retrospect?) I do know that he would not stop pleading. Come on. Please. I just want to go down on you. I love going down on women. Come on, please let me.

I said no, and I qualified my no: “I don’t want to. Besides, Sally and I have been on a two-day drinking tour of Copenhagen – I haven’t slept and I certainly haven’t showered.”

Erik kept pushing me, “Come on, I really, really want to, I promise it’s fine, I don’t care how it looks or smells or tastes, I just love it.”

Fine. My resistance was bothering him and I felt guilty. I stumbled into the bathroom, where I tried to wash my vagina over the sink as well as I could. I walked back into his room and laid down on the bed. He placed himself between my legs and began doing what I had specifically asked him not to do only a few minutes earlier. Then, he quickly stopped and pulled away.

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“Ew, that tastes disgusting. Oh god,” he said and lay down next to me. My entire body recoiled in shame. The room that had been spinning around me came to a sobering halt. I wanted to leave my body, float out of the room and never return.

He then had sex with me. I don’t remember anything about it, other than that it happened. I woke up the next day and grabbed my bag and my clothes. I didn’t dare to get dressed in case he woke up. Instead, I put my clothes on in a snowy Copenhagen street in late December.

I met up with Sally to go over what happened. We talked about it as if it was a consensual, pleasant hookup. We giggled and discussed whether or not Erik like-liked me. I didn’t tell her about his comment about my vagina. I didn’t tell anyone for over a decade, nor did I let anyone’s face near my vagina. I either didn’t tell her that I’d said no to the sex, or I did tell her and we laughed at how funny it was to make such a comment.

It would be years before I realised that it had most likely been planned. That Sally had brought me to her friend’s place, that they had decided to get me drunk enough so that she could leave me with him. So he could have sex with me. I learned much later that Sally was psychologically slightly unwell – which is my attempt at not pocket diagnosing someone. Of course, I can’t know for sure. Perhaps it was just Erik’s doing. Perhaps there was no plan. Erik probably didn’t plan on raping anyone that night and perhaps he still doesn’t think he has raped anyone.

A couple of months later, Erik texted me and asked if I wanted to go on a date. We hadn’t spoken since that night. I said yes and got ready, did my hair, makeup, the whole thing. I went from my flat in west Copenhagen to a street corner in south Copenhagen to wait for him. I don’t recall how long I stood there before I realised it was a prank. He didn’t reply to my messages after that and I never saw him again. I felt stupid for falling for it. It wasn’t until much later, when I began to reframe the night in question as “rape” instead of “drunken sex”, that I began to feel stupid for agreeing to a date with my rapist.

It’s challenging to write about a rape that occurred in 2008. The way we discuss sexual assault, rape and consent as a society has changed dramatically, and so has my own definition of it. When I was 10 years old, I remember being told that rapists hid in bushes and would jump out and attack you if you walked past. My grandfather told me, in no uncertain terms, that if ever someone tried to rape me, I should kick them in the dick or bite it off. I remember nodding and saying, “OK!” and immediately internalising the idea that if I was raped and didn’t end up with a bloody penis in my mouth, I probably should have fought harder and so it was my fault.

I did not at the time consider that what happened with Erik was rape. And even now, I struggle to refer to it as such. And yet, if a friend had told me the same story, that is exactly what I would have called it. I would have worn a T-shirt that said, “Shut up, you were raped, you didn’t do this to yourself, he is a bad man” until she accepted it. But it’s not someone else, it’s me. And I have this deep, lurking feeling that people would get mad at me if I called it rape. That I should take responsibility for drinking so much, for “giving in”, for not fighting him physically. I changed his name and there is no way for anyone to trace this story back to the real person behind it, and yet I feel guilty for telling it. What if it makes him sad?

I am endlessly more protective of the men who assaulted me, attempted to assault me or emotionally abused me than I ever have felt of myself in situations with men. I have reluctantly said yes to sex, even though I did not want to, because the guy wanted to and I did not want to make him sad. I didn’t want to be a prude or a tease.

Besides, I knew that a “no” would be up for debate. “But,” they’d start, “you said you would. You were flirting with me. You went home with me. You slept with my friend. You’re fat, you can’t play hard to get. I came all this way. I really, really want to.” All of which are sentences I have genuinely heard after saying no to sex. My boundaries became a hurdle to leap.

Still, I do want a sex life. I want a happy, healthy, joyful sex life. So I wrote a book about it – about everything that stands between us and sex. And as I was about halfway through writing it, I got scared. I was afraid that I would discover that I was alone in this. That I was a bit of a freak. And that I am very broken, in a very specific way, which would prove to be both unfixable and unrelatable. I nearly let this thought stop me from finishing the book. Then, on a whim, I posted on social media: “Hey, I feel like there is a big obstacle between me and sex. Can anyone relate?” Within 48 hours, I had received 1,800 responses from people of all ages, genders and backgrounds from all over the world and realised that even though none of us had the exact experiences, trauma plays a big part in everyone’s stories.

Out of the 1,800 submissions, a total of 30 did not include a sexual assault of some kind. From being flashed at by a stranger on a bus to being repeatedly and systematically raped, they showed me that almost all of us have experienced something that overstepped their personal boundaries.

Set design: Sandy Suffield. Hair and makeup: Dani Richardson using Dermalogica, Haus Labs by Lady Gaga and Davines. Photograph: Jay Brooks/The Guardian

As well as reading these submissions, I spoke to a relationship and sex therapist, a sex educator, a drag king, comedians, a flirtologist, sex workers, porn stars, trans activists and writers, to get to the root of the many obstacles to a satisfying sex life. It would be oversimplifying it to say it’s all about trauma. I have also had to come face to face with my gender experience – how my newfound non-binaryness makes me feel quite confused. How do I have sex without all the gendered sexual scripts? Not to mention my queerness – or rather, my being a 35-year-old queer person who has only ever slept with cis penises. On top of everything, I am socially awkward and often diagnosed-by-the-internet-as-autistic. But interrogating my traumatic experiences – and trauma in general, including from childhood – is my first (and hardest) step towards figuring all of this out.

In exploring this in therapy, things began to make sense. There is something about sex and intimacy that feels threatening to me, or unsafe, or dangerous. So my nervous system gets dysregulated and I go into shut-down mode. This has happened so many times before, and there is something oddly calming about knowing what went on in my body in these situations. I feel privileged that I have been able to get help with this.

Sometimes, I try to imagine what a future sexual encounter might look like if I take on board everything I have learned so far. I can already immediately rule out picking up a stranger in a bar; it would have to be with someone I already knew a bit in order to feel safe. I would make sure to check in with myself. Do I want to have sex? And if I don’t feel present enough in my body to know the answer, it is a no. And I will be brave enough to say no to whomever I am with. Because I no longer suffer fools, this particular person will be very cool with it. They will say something like, “That’s OK. I am happy enough just stroking your arm for hours, and also my name is Lea DeLaria and I played Boo on Orange Is the New Black and I will now marry you.” (Shut up, it’s my fantasy.)

I suspect I will eventually feel quite safe with this person. Safe enough that I can exist in my body without feeling scared. Then, I might feel turned on and ready to have sex. I will communicate this, like a grown-up adult would. And, as we go, I will continue to stay present. And communicate. And listen for signs from myself or from them. Body language, eye contact. And hey, if I no longer want to have sex, I will simply say, “Hey, can we take a break?” And Lea will say, “Of course. I want you to be comfortable.” And we will spoon instead. All the while, I am listening to my body and my desires, I set my boundaries and I stay in the moment.

This sounds like what sex is meant to be. I have never had that sex before. But if I am ever to have sex again, it is the kind of sex I want.

This is an edited extract from Will I Ever Have Sex Again? by Sofie Hagen, published on 23 May by Blink. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from Delivery charges may apply.

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