Dear Carolyn:

Am I doing the right thing? I'm single, mid-thirties, never had consensual sex with a man. I was raped twice when I was little. I've never had a relationship and, frankly, don't believe love exists. I have given up on finding a person to build a life with. I'd like for sex to feel normal, to feel that someone could find me attractive. My plan is to go to a bar, meet someone and go home with him. Three close friends have voted against the idea, citing disease, possibility of meeting a nut, etc. I'm tired of being alone and feeling like I must be the most repulsive thing anyone has ever seen. If I were the kind of person someone would have a relationship with, it would have happened by now. I think a one-night stand would at least give me some reassurance. What do you say?

Given Up on Love

If someone asked me the best way to feel alone and repulsive, one of my first suggestions would be to go to a bar, meet someone and have a one-night stand. Your circumstances are unique and distressing, but seven years of mail from seven years of unhappy people has a way of herding individual cases into a discernible whole. One-night stands don't work. Using sex to alleviate self-loathing doesn't work. Giving up does not work.

I could pretend I had as easy a list of things that do work, but you've been jerked around enough for several lifetimes, so I won't. Truth is, everything that works takes work. And an open mind, many trials, many errors -- and dumb luck, because no answer is for everyone.

Therapy, for example. Life-saving when it's good, hope-sucking when it's bad. (In your case, I urge you, seek competent, experienced care. Try the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, 800-656-4673.) Faith is another example -- filling or draining, depending on the vessel.

Love is one that rarely disappoints and so deserves more credit from you. You love those friends, no doubt, and they you. There's nothing that says a man can't see in you what they do, if you're willing to give the same. There's also nothing that says remaining single must mean you're repulsive. Your friends serve as proof that you're not. And don't say you meant physically, because I don't believe you. You led with the rapes. Any damage from those is internal -- and no one-night stand will repair it.

Nor, frankly, would "building a life" with a man. I'm going to have my Society for the Prevention of Simplistic Cornball Advice membership revoked for these two paragraphs, but: You're the only one in a position to declare yourself worthy of love. So go find a mirror, and declare it.

And then laugh at yourself for talking to a mirror.

Believing yourself won't be so easy, obviously. That's a matter of making a million little decisions in your own favor, every day, from what to eat to where you go and with whom. Starting now.

Starting with, "I'm going to get professional help until my self-image isn't repulsive." And, "I'm better than one-night stands." And, "I was raped, not ruined for life."

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