The V-Word is an honest and poignant collection of essays from seventeen women about losing their virginity in their teens. Five of the contributing authors had a little more to say beyond what they’ve included in the book and we’ve been sharing their guest posts every Thursday throughout March. This post is the fourth of five and comes to us from author Kiersi Burkhart.
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I don’t consider myself a particularly private person—not by design, but by nature. My family is fairly open: we hug, we talk about feelings, we end phone calls with I-love-yous and I-miss-yous.
And this openness has helped me more than it’s harmed me. I’m always willing to spill an embarrassing personal story for the group’s collective amusement. (I hear I make a great party trick.) And it’s easier to corral new friends into your herd when they know what they’re getting into. You’re either totally on board the Kiersi Train, or you’re not at all. When I do make friends, I know they’re the right kind—they’ve seen me at my best and worst already, and it’s only been 10 minutes since the party started.
I believe openness is the stuff of real human connection. When we reveal our inner lives, when we make the tenderest parts of ourselves available to others, we’re asking an unspoken question: will you be kind with what I’ve given you, or will you be cruel? Will you laugh at what I’ve shared, or see it as an opportunity to share yourself, and connect with me?
We signal with our own openness that we’re listening. By exposing our own vulnerabilities, we tell each other that vulnerability is okay. It’s like a détente: I’ve put down my weapon, so I cannot defend myself. Will you do the same? Or will you use my vulnerability against me?
Remember that cheesy phrase from the movie Avatar? “I see you,” the spiritual blue aliens keep telling each other.
But it’s not that cheesy at all. We all lead secret, inner lives. We all, to some degree, feel isolated inside our own heads. We all seek to be understood.
We all desire to be heard and seen as we are, armor laid aside.
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During my childhood I led many separate, secret lives. And for the most part, I kept them all hidden away, like dirty clothes stuffed into a closet, waiting for somebody to open the door and the garbage to tumble out.
I always knew that one day, I’d need something out of that closet again.
The hardest part about writing for THE V-WORD—writing about my messy, ugly first experience with sex—wasn’t the part where I confessed. I’ve been humiliating myself for laughs for years already. I wasn’t lacking frankness, or honesty.
The hardest part was treating myself with kindness.
I’ve always looked on that first negative experience with sex as something I’d deserved. I was paying some karmic debt. What happened to me was merely the cumulative result of my own arrogance, the fruits of a grand mistake.
Through this lens, I treated my own openness and my own vulnerability incredibly cruelly. I laughed and mocked and brutalized my own experience in my first few drafts. That was how this thing worked, right? I was confessing. I was finally admitting to the world one of the few secrets I’d always kept… well, secret.
But something wasn’t right in those first drafts, so I rewrote the essay several times. Though it was factually correct, it still wasn’t true. Something about treating myself that way—as a girl who had asked for it, and who had gotten what she requested—wasn’t honest. No one who read it would really, truly understand what had led me to that not-so-fateful moment, and where it would take me afterwards.
So I rewrote and revised, searching for that magic bit of something that was missing. But no, everything was there—the confession. The humiliation. The crass, sordid details were all filled in. I had played the good storyteller.
But Amber, our lovely editor on this project, still came back to me with the same feedback as I’d had for myself: it was lacking compassion.
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Sometimes I wish I’d been honest with my friends about what happened to me, when it happened. Instead, like most teenagers with a reputation to uphold, I played it off.
I can only consider now, with years of distance, how my experience might have changed. One friend might have told me, “It wasn’t your fault, you know.” One of them might have said, “It’s not always like that.” One might even have wrapped their arms around me and whispered, “I still love you, even if you don’t love yourself right now.”
It’s surprisingly easy to have compassion for others. When a friend tells you she’s just been dumped, we don’t think twice about railing against the injustice, about consoling her that she did nothing wrong, that you love her, that she’s smart and funny and beautiful and flawless.
And yet, why is it so hard to have that same compassion for our own selves? We forgive our friends their small mistakes, but torment ourselves for them. I took my own openness, my own inescapable vulnerability, and smashed it to everloving bits.
To write the essay that truly needed to be written, I had to grow sympathy for that version of me—the one I had disliked for so long, the one I had so brutalized.
She was stifled and tired back then; lost, perplexed, and impatient. She was trapped between a rock and a hard place, like most teens exploring their sexuality in a world that can’t seem to offer any single, healthy view about sex.
But she was open with me. She spilled her heart, and I can’t punish her for that. All I can do is offer the empathy she was too afraid to request for herself.
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Kiersi Burkhart was raised as a cowgirl in Colorado. In addition to her essay in THE V-WORD, Kiersi is the co-author of the middle-grade series Quartz Creek Ranch, which releases in 2017. Contact her on Twitter at @kiersi and at www.kiersi.com.
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Read an Excerpt from The V-Word: