Lingerie Wearer or Bra Burner?
I thought my first serious boyfriend was a feminist.
We’d met in our college orchestra, not too long into both our freshman years at UC Berkeley, and started our acquaintanceship on the wrong foot; we weren’t friends at all. As sophomore year began, I shared a status update on Facebook about being lonely. He responded, and about two months later, we had somehow progressed from a comfortable friendship to a relationship where we said “I love you” to each other.
All this was around the time before “feminism” acquired the weight it carries in today’s language. “Feminism” was a word that existed in the dictionary and in my friends’ women’s studies classes, but for laypeople, “feminism” and “bra-burning” went hand-in-hand, which meant the idea was still too extreme for mainstream. Most women I knew, like myself, remained distant from the title. We didn’t shun the term, but we certainly didn’t go out of their way to seek the connection.
My boyfriend established himself as a feminist through his own words. As his girlfriend, I believed him. During our third year, we were having a conversation about women’s lingerie, when he made a comment that felt incredibly progressive for a man, at the time. “I think women should be allowed to wear whatever lingerie they want to wear,” he said, “regardless of the context.” We’d been walking from his apartment to mine at the time. It was about 10 at night, and I remember we were passing by a particularly rough part of the south side of Berkeley campus.
He’d had a conversation with an older female friend that day about women’s choice of clothing, specifically lingerie. The context of their conversation: Lingerie was, traditionally and typically, viewed as risque and suggested the wearer was proud of their sexuality and sexually promiscuous.
The fact that my boyfriend so boldly stated his approval made me feel proud of him, as well as secure in and empowered by his affirmation of my right to wear whatever I wanted. Here was a man who wasn’t afraid of his girlfriend owning her sexuality and wanting to look feminine and attractive, even if he wasn’t around to appreciate it.
“I agree,” I replied to his statement, and we finished the walk home talking about lingerie — though now, I remember it was in regards to how I would look in lingerie, and perhaps when I would have time to purchase some.
A little over a year later, during the fall semester of our senior year, my boyfriend and I had fallen from our days of discussing my hypothetical lingerie into a weekly pattern of hashing out the same unresolved argument.
Since that first lingerie conversation, I’d been inspired to define more clearly my future career pursuits following graduation. I’d taken my GRE while working two internships that summer, and in the fall, I took a full schedule of courses as I simultaneously managed an 80-person student organization. I was more stressed than I’d ever been, and my boyfriend and I had been spending less time together as a result, but I felt I was finally hitting my stride.
My boyfriend, however, was tired of my lack of time — and of our lack of sex.
Although I was happy with what I was doing, my schedule had made anxiety a constant that replaced the libido in my life. I was still attracted to my boyfriend, but my body simply failed to crave sex.
The absence of physical pleasure in our relationship was something my boyfriend began to mention on a regular basis. It began as concern over my schedule, then fear over my attraction to him, and questions about my birth control.
I tired of my constant guilt.
I didn’t disagree with my boyfriend about maybe having bitten off too much to chew, but it was now beyond the time I could reasonably let something go without facing serious consequences. I tried to reassure him that I hadn’t fallen out of love with him, and even tried wearing lingerie with the hope that it would make me feel sexy and get in the mood by the time he and I went to bed together. He accepted my words, but when the lingerie failed to make a difference, we entered the more unfamiliar territory of birth control.
A year ago, I’d started taking the pill, per his suggestion. I’d been fearful of how the hormones would affect my body and how long it would take me to find a pill that actually worked. In the end, he convinced me, and it turned out fine.
But over time, my hormones had changed, and he was suggesting I go off the pill, so we could return to our normal sex life. I now worried about getting pregnant.
He balked a little, then asked, “Are we just not going to have sex again then?”
I stared at him and said simply, “I don’t know.” Because I didn’t. I didn’t know what would happen to our sex life, and I didn’t know what to do about our lack of sex, because I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong by myself.
My schedule was a product of my wanting to spend more time determining what I enjoyed enough to pursue as a full-time job after college. My lack of libido from the pill was a decision I’d made to not get pregnant while being sexually active. I was doing all that I had chosen to do, because it all made sense for my future.
Each time my boyfriend and I arrived at this crossroads of “what are we going to do — I don’t know” again, we would both give up and call it a day. There was little hope of rescuing our time together afterward.
Then, one night, he shot back a new reply: “If you don’t fix the problems you’re having with your birth control, on top of all the stress you’re going through, then I’m going to find sexual satisfaction elsewhere.”
My first response: “No, don’t.”
My second: “I’ll figure it out.”
We’d been together two and a half years by that point. Marriage was such a common topic in our conversations that I felt obligated to continue our relationship to avoid ruining our future plans together. I didn’t want to be irresponsible and drop everything because of this bump in the road. I feared that he would leave me because I wasn’t providing him what he wanted in a relationship, so I fought for him to stay.
There wasn’t anything off-color about his comments, at least not in my mind at the time. What he said made complete sense to me. I would fix my birth control-related hormone issues — and maybe wear some more lingerie to tempt myself into sex again by feeling sexy. I threw myself into researching different pills and women’s responses before I found the guts to call my doctor and request that I change my pill to one with a lower dose of hormones that would stop killing my libido, as per my research.
My doctor warned me about the potential inaccuracy of my research but wrote me the new prescription. Her words sparked a new wave of anxiety in me, so by the time I called my boyfriend to give him an update (we were home with our respective parents over winter break at the time), I was awash with fear again.
A conversation that I had hoped would remain a calm discussion about my doctor’s advice about the pill turned into a two-hour argument. When I shared, “I don’t know if I want to change the pill,” he screamed back, “You need to stop taking birth control so our relationship can go back to normal.”
Suddenly, these words didn’t sound right.
This wasn’t what I wanted my boyfriend — and hopefully future husband — to be saying to me when I was anxious about my health. But because I was still fearful, I didn’t yell back, “fuck you,” and hang up the phone as I would have liked.
Instead, I calmly replied, “You have no right to tell me what to do with my body and my birth control. I can make these decisions for myself. And I am never talking to you about this ever again.”
My boyfriend finally backed down at that point (I can’t recall if he apologized), but I didn’t feel assuaged. I sent him an extensive email later that night, precisely delineating every piece of my anger toward him, hoping this would provide me closure on a now eight-month-long set of arguments before we returned to school in a week.
His email reply was long, professed shame at his anger, and repeated his apologies. But when time came for me to return to school, I didn’t want to see him.
On paper, we’d apparently righted our wrongs and said all the right things — but I just didn’t want to see him. I didn’t want to talk to him; I didn’t want to look at him; and I certainly didn’t want to be in the same apartment as him.
Even then, I still believed that because we had already made our plans to wed after graduation, I couldn’t break up with him.
I decided to ask him for a break. “A week, just so I can get some space, because I think I’m still being overly sensitive and angry about the argument we had, and I need time to get over myself,” I said.
He agreed, reluctantly.
Two days later, he broke up with me.
I was heartbroken, though it was likely more so over the loss of our already-planned wedding details and children’s names.
Our breakup fell less than a week before my birthday. He’d been planning a party for me with my closest friends. And when I told him during the breakup conversation that all I wanted was to get through my birthday and to go on the fancy dinner date we’d said we’d do with the gift certificate I’d just gotten for Christmas, he said, “maybe in a few months.”
I went home and called my mom to cry. Then I called my best guy friend and cried. And then I called my best friend at the time, who thankfully lived across the street and invited me over to her apartment, for a third cry.
We sat at her dining table, sharing her roommate’s good chocolate, as I explained to her what happened. The more I shared, the less the chocolate served as a consolation than it did as a fuel for my anger.
My best friend couldn’t believe what my ex had said to me and demanded of me, nor how long I hadn’t told her about the emotional abuse he’d been leveraging on me. “I always thought you could find someone better than him,” she said, angrily shoving her hand back into the chocolate bag. “But now, good fucking riddance. You deserve someone so much better than a guy who’s going to tell you what to do with your birth control and hold that over your head. That’s messed up. Fuck him.”
Her words — like my doctor’s had when I asked for a new prescription, and like my ex’s had in that final phone call we had — made me reassess. This time, I didn’t return to anxiety. I found fresh anger.
I didn’t know why I had let him control me with fear and threats, nor why I had listened and worn lingerie for him when I didn’t want to feel sexy. I hadn’t been perfect in our relationship, but I was his partner, and I didn’t belong under his control.
By the time my best friend deemed me emotionally sound enough to return home, I was furious. I was done with him. I was ready to burn some bras, and I was ready to call myself a feminist. Back at my apartment, I shoved my lingerie to the back of my drawers (they were too expensive to burn), behind the shirts that I kept because they fit but I hadn’t worn in years. As I began dumping the belongings he’d left at my apartment over the past couple years into a old grocery bag, I received a text from him, checking in on me.
I sent back: I’m fine. I’m putting your stuff together to give back to you. There are still some things I left at your place. I’ll send you a list of where they are. Please get them ready for me, so I can get them back.
I added: Also, I don’t want you at my birthday party, so you can tell my friends what happened and explain why you won’t be there.
Okay, he replied.
I stared for a long moment at his single word of affirmation, then sent back: Also, that movie that I bought tickets for us already, I don’t want to go. You can take the tickets and go with someone else. I don’t care.
They’re your tickets, you bought them, you should go.
I don’t want them, I don’t even care if you pay me back. Just go.
Let me at least pay you back for them.
Getting paid back meant that I would have to see him again (this was a time before Venmo). But if he was so insistent on actually treating me fairly with these quantitative numbers, I wasn’t about to waste more of my life arguing with him about it. Fine, you owe me $27.
Okay. When do you want to get our stuff back to each other?
That was when I realized: I’ll ask Lauren to get it for me, when she also picks up my birthday cake from you before my party. Pay me back some other time.
Okay. I’ll let you know a good time next week.
It’s been almost three years since we broke up. He still owes me $27.
About Courtney Cheng
Courtney Cheng is a first-generation Taiwanese American who grew up in the Bay Area, a recent graduate from UC Berkeley, and an aspiring writer. After graduation, she remained in Berkeley and is currently working as a project manager at a non-profit organization. In her free time, she enjoys reading, baking, taking photos, and Latin dancing.