By Rich Arenschieldt
A slightly Scottish accent, eyes that see deeply, and an unparalleled approachability. These are the attributes you quickly notice when meeting author and sexologist Catriona (pronounced, aptly, like the hurricane) McHardy. This diminutive hipster/grandma seems an unlikely source for a book titled Making Out Like a Virgin—Sex, Desire and Intimacy After Sexual Trauma. However, her 32-year career at Planned Parenthood, talking and writing about human sexuality, gives McHardy the gentle gravitas necessary to tackle the topic.
“[Co-editor] Cathy Plourde contacted me to collaborate on this project, asking me to serve as a sexuality expert,” McHardy says. “She and a colleague had started a feminist publishing company and wanted to focus as much as they could on sexuality, starting with a book that addressed sexual trauma.” Initially, McHardy had reservations about the endeavor, as some aspects of it were fundamentally contrary to her long-held professional methodology. “My concern was this: throughout my entire career [in this field], I have always maintained a ‘sex-positive’ approach—one that counterbalances the vast amount of negative attention that this subject receives.”
Subsequent discussions led to a shift in focus. “We realized that we needed to look at this subject through a different lens, in a way that hadn’t been done before. There are numerous accounts that address victimization, disclosure, and survival beyond sexual violence. It is always much easier to talk about the fearful elements surrounding this subject, rather than the transformative aspects of it.”
When McHardy examined the available literature, she discovered that “there was not a lot of writing from individuals who had journeyed beyond ‘survivor’ status to a place of actually reclaiming their sexuality.” In order to create a book that addressed this paucity, McHardy and Plourde issued a detailed “Call for Submissions” seeking potential contributors and informing them of the work’s purpose and unique approach. After an extensive vetting process, 17 were chosen—all of whom had very disparate stories. Narratives came from women, men, trans individuals, gays, and straights—a panoply of people, each of whom endured under dissimilar circumstances. Some were skilled communicators, others not; however, each account was equally insightful and visceral.
“Some contributors requested anonymity,” McHardy says. “At the beginning of this process, a young Cairo woman proudly self-identified. As the project progressed, the political climate in Egypt shifted and the government began to retaliate against dissidents and writers. Because this young woman was actively challenging existing cultural norms, she became a target, braving significant risk by sharing her experience.
“Upon hearing these narratives, we immediately began to comprehend how these individuals had evolved,” McHardy continues. “Commonalties among the group were expressed in words, in simple statements or, sometimes, in fears that became apparent in various ways. Reading ‘between the lines’ enables readers to discern the subtleties of each person’s pilgrimage. The youngest contributor, a 24-year-old Asian, gives us a picture of raw physical sexuality. Another older contributor takes a much more spiritual and intellectual approach. Each transformation was distinctive and unique. Some underwent a lengthy process; others discovered that a single intimate encounter was pivotal enough to facilitate healing.”
McHardy emphasizes that “survival” is a stage in the recovery process, not a state of being. “Current culture (and literature) espouse that surviving is the end result. Like a Virgin has another message. We say this: you can achieve something more. You can again have healthy sexual intimacy. You can feel desire, your libido can return, and you can be touched in a meaningfully intimate way.”
While Like a Virgin contains some difficult segments, it is filled with humor, wisdom, candor, and affirmations of all sorts; many phrases resonate weeks after a first reading. These autobiographical vignettes are brilliantly diverse, each offering revelatory snippets of life and love. “One of our writers speaks of ‘owning her sexy,’ eschewing conventional wisdom,” McHardy says. “She writes, ‘My sexuality is whatever the f–k I want it to be,’ echoing the sentiments of many contributors.”
McHardy’s three decades of pragmatic and authentic work in human behavior permeate the book. There are numerous “teachable moments.” Sexologists, and those they assist, often speak of “the process.” The book provides a simple yet effective triad for managing the thoughts and emotions that individuals experience: Go after the trauma. Process the feelings. Reframe the story.
“Go to the trauma, but don’t get stuck there,” McHardy explains. “One contributor used a culinary analogy. His trauma was ‘folded into everything he baked.’” Eventually, a loving partner disabused him of that mindset, enabling him to jettison it. When confronting trauma, many people emotionally separate—from others, from themselves, and even from their own physical bodies. “This happens frequently,” McHardy says. “Even in the context of everyday partnerships—for a multitude of reasons—things just don’t work.”
Those trying to reclaim their sexuality must, in some way, begin anew. Here the reader finds a surprising dose of humor. One writer nourishes her intimacy by saying, “I like to have food before I get nude.” For another writer, reclamation leads to liberation, and (in this case) masturbation. “Every woman should have a very good vibrator. I highly recommend it,” writes a contributor. Individuals need to redefine their own parameters for intimacy.
“Your brain, your heart, and your genitals must all be similarly aligned for successful intimacy,” McHardy says. “People approach love in a variety of ways: intellectually, spiritually, and physically. Some of our contributors led with their heart, and some with their brains. Interestingly, the process of intellectual self-examination sometimes needs to stop so that lust and desire kick in. Sometimes, your genitals come last.”
Like a Virgin is a chronical of resilience in which people utilize a variety of tools and techniques to reclaim themselves. “It is crucial to know that people are doing this, that evolvement is happening,” McHardy says. “The world [today] is completely focused on the negative aspects of sexuality. Like a Virgin moves far beyond that.”
Rich Arenschieldt is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.