I suffer from social anxiety, and I’ve been known to use my sexuality as a way to hide it.

I came from a family that didn’t talk about sex. In the first grade, I asked my mom where babies came from, she told me that you ask God and He gives them to you. I remember when I did learn about it, about two years later, I followed my mom around the kitchen and then outside to where she always smoked, behind the garage in the backyard. As she lit a cigarette, I told her that I knew what sex was, and relentlessly taunted her with my knowledge, in what I now realize was anger that she had lied to me and refused to talk about it.

The next time we talked about it was when she found out I had started using birth control and I don’t think she was very happy about it. I was a senior in high school and that year was fraught with a lot of crazy emotions as I struggled to navigate through sexual waters on my own devices. It was that year that I realized I was sexually attractive to guys. I suppose it’s an average time for a person to lose their virginity, around age 17, but I was so naive at the time I might as well have been 12.

I’d been pretty unhappy throughout high school, but no one really knew. As I mentioned before, I struggled with undiagnosed social anxiety disorder. Deep down I think my mom did know I was unhappy, because she was the person I’d always complain about my problems to. But sex was a topic that was off limits.

As a person with social anxiety, I never approached or flirted with guys. I had huge crushes on guys throughout middle and high school, but it was always from afar. My sport was gymnastics, which was primarily a “girl sport,” I was physically a late bloomer, and I grew up in a family of four girls, so I didn’t get much contact with the opposite sex. I had a very limited concept of how to talk to or get to know them.

My senior year, I started having casual sex. I’d go to teen night clubs and have fun meeting cute guys– unlike the ones who wouldn’t give me the time of day at my own high school. It was like I had an alter ego– during the week I was quiet and studious and on the weekends I was a sex object. I’d spend lots of time getting ready, doing my makeup, wearing tight outfits, and then go to the teen clubs where I would dance/make out with several guys. I loved the attention. I felt so behind everyone else because I’d never had a boyfriend, and there I felt like I was catching up.

I met one guy there named Corey* who I ended up losing my virginity to, in the back of my minivan. He lived about an hour east of me, and I even drove to his house one weekend when he was home alone. Looking back it was super risky for me to do that– we had hung out a couple of times before but I could’ve easily been hurt. He would pressure me to have sex, and I did want to lose my virginity, but I liked the temporary power I had over him.

Eventually we did have sex, and lo and behold, he basically stopped talking to me afterward. It went from 100 to zero– at first he would text me literally 24/7, even getting upset when I took more than 10 minutes to respond, and I’d laugh about some of the dumb things he would say to me with my girlfriends. He was constantly talking about his ex girlfriend, who he referred to over text as his “x,” which bothered me, (both because of how often he talked about her and that he used the letter “x” instead of typing “ex”) but I didn’t say anything to him. I saw pictures of her on Facebook and I judged her as being fat and ugly. Even though I claimed I didn’t really care about him, I now know that I was looking for something deeper–I was looking for love, respect, and companionship (AKA, a relationship). But I didn’t think I was worthy of it.

After I lost my virginity to Corey, he posted on Facebook “9 and counting,” which I knew referred to the number of girls he had slept with. I was humiliated. I texted him about it angrily and he eventually deleted the post. I blocked him on Facebook and vowed to get my revenge.

A couple of weeks later, I met a new guy, Ben*, through some mutual friends. He approached me at a bonfire and I thought he was cute. He was older than me–20 to my 17, and I liked the idea of that. Again, I loved the attention he gave me, both in person with the flirting, to the texts when we were apart. The first time we hung out after the bonfire, we had sex.  I was drunk, but it was consensual. The next day I angrily texted Corey “2 and counting,” but the revenge didn’t feel as sweet as I’d anticipated.

Ben continued to hit me up, and some of my friends were also hooking up with his friends. It was like a big weird teenage orgy… Though one of the guys was 25. The unspoken agreement was that my friends and I would drive the 30 minutes to their neighborhood and they would buy us alcohol and provide us with a place to party. One time, Ben* took me out on a date… one of my first real dates, to… drumroll please… COSTCO! (My first date was a movie and McDonald’s, so maybe this was a step up?) I thought it meant he liked me because he bought me a hot dog for a dollar. He didn’t have a car, so I had driven the 30 minutes to pick him up, and gave him a bj in the back of my minivan. (Moral of the story– don’t let your teenagers a minivan, weird shit will go down)

Eventually though, he stopped texting me. Just straight up ghosted me in 2010, before ghosting was an actual term. About a month later, Facebook told me he was in a relationship with another girl. I was secretly heartbroken but felt I had to pretend not to care. My friends and I just bashed him and his friends, and I continued this cycle and series of men on and off over the years until I started dating a guy I truly cared about at age 20.

By that point, I’d had sex with about 8-9 guys (I didn’t keep track very well), but had made out with probably somewhere around 50 to 100, and done other stuff in between with maybe somewhere around 10? Around the time before I met that first real boyfriend, I had been dumped by a guy I really liked, and heartbrokenly decided I was done with the no strings attached hookups. I always felt horrible the next morning, usually hungover from alcohol and the lack of male attention. Then it was back to the books and back to school, and by the end of the week I’d do it all over again. Don’t get me wrong– I had a lot of fun during that time, but it was an emotional roller coaster. My desire for companionship and love was only being filled temporarily by a series of penises attached to men, which was no longer worth the anxiety and heartbreak. Oh, and disclaimer– none of the sex was good. Most of it was numb, uncomfortable, or even painful. But again I didn’t know any better.

I eventually started looking for resources online, to advice from friends, and to self-help books to help me deal with the pain I was experiencing. I learned a lot, and I no longer accept negative treatment from anyone intimate, whether it be friendly or romantic, in my life. It’s a work in progress but at least I know now that I’m both physically and mentally safer.

The part that’s still a work in progress is realizing even to this day, how much of my self-worth is dependent on what people, especially men, think of me. I’ve been blind to it, but starting in high school, I’d judge myself and part of my worth as a person based on how many men I’d catch looking at me, how many men approach me, or how many compliments I get from my boyfriend about my looks. And I continue to do it to this day. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I think a lot of girls do it. It’s especially easy to fall into that trap with social media and basing our self-worth on the number of likes and comments we get on a post.

Women are taught that our worth is in our beauty from a young age. The beautiful princess gets the man and lives happily ever after. Several self-help articles I’ve read state that looking your best will lead to feeling your best. I understand how that might be true, because it can be an act of self-care to really doll yourself up and dress in your own personal style… But personally I can’t be expected to do that everyday! I still want to feel beautiful and worthy everyday though, and so should everyone, but I know that feeling comes from within.

I’ve learned not to blame myself for being this way, and I don’t blame any other person for feeling it too. Sex sells– references to sex and good looks run rampant throughout advertisements, social media, movies, TV shows, and even video games. We are inundated with it. I’d like to say that I’m above it all because I’ve become more aware of it, but I’m definitely not. I know that it affects me and will likely continue to affect me for a long time to come. It’s something that I haven’t thought about in a while because I’ve been so consumed with my grief and other stressors. But I just started a new job that I have to dress up for, and ever since, I’ve started noticing how much my self-worth can fluctuate depending on how I look on a particular day. It’s toxic.

Looking back, as a female, it’s no wonder I started using sex appeal as a way to gain a sense of worth, love, and attention. It was a way for me to make connections without actually having to do much socializing, and thereby triggering my social anxiety. I was afraid that if I really let people get to know me, they wouldn’t like me. So I just kept men I was attracted to at a distance, like the crushes I had in middle school.

I see so many girls and women in real life, and especially on Instagram, who likely struggle with similar issues. This is why slut shaming is so toxic. The blame is placed on a woman who 9 out of 10 times doesn’t know any better, is likely already feeling insecure, and it just keeps makes it worse by further isolating her. For that reason, my relationship with women over the years has also been rocky– some girls I trusted as friends would either blatantly or passive-aggressively deem me a slut, and I’ve unfortunately lost a lot of trust in women. I’m not perfect– I have a lot of fucked up shit in my head to work through, but sharing my story and being honest is the first step.

I don’t have any solutions other than honest dialogue– men and women alike teaching girls that their looks don’t define them, through our own actions, the way we treat women and the way we treat ourselves. Making sure girls understand that the women they see in the media all around us are real people just like us, that they have their own problems too, and that we are all just humans trying to survive. Showing them that “getting pretty” might feel good in the moment, but it isn’t what will ultimately make you happy. Talking about sex openly and honestly. Not making it so taboo like it was for me, that I felt unsafe talking to anyone about it and about my feelings surrounding it.

Of course, if it weren’t for sex appeal, I probably would’ve found some other way to self-medicate the social anxiety. Alcohol and marijuana played a role in that for me too. Social anxiety is something that to this day I continue to struggle with, but I’m getting help and I do want to work through it.

Feminism is still really new to all of us. Sure we’ve come a long way, but there are tiny nuances that many of us consider to normalize that are really harmful and destructive. This is true of racism, homophobia, and other -isms too. Just because these topics can be uncomfortable to admit to and discuss, doesn’t mean we should avoid them. Just because many who struggle are silent or even unaware, doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist. It’s almost like we need cultural CBT,  a retraining of our collective societal mind.

It can be fun to dress up and, in the words of Jenna Marbles, put on our “hot girl disguises,” but at least for me, I now want to make sure it’s coming from a place of self-love, not a form of self-destruction, serving as a bandaid for the pain and loneliness inside, distracting me from what really makes me a worthwhile human being– just existing :).

*names have been changed