As I hold these stories about sex and shame, poring over each one, the thought comes again and again: There is so much heaviness and hope here. It’s not that we have rushed to a happy ending. It’s that in telling a story, we accept it just a little, for all its wounds and all its silliness and all we felt, good and bad. The hope is in the new lightness of letting what was, be, and in the wisdom we find we’ve received from it.
I’m honored to be a part of this process and floored that people—friends and strangers—have been willing to speak. There are so, so many waiting to have this conversation, only hoping that someone else will go first. Thank you, thank you to these women for being the first to step out of silence.
I grew up in a Catholic family. In religion classes in my Catholic high school we were indoctrinated in the purity myth. I rejected this rhetoric later, but at the time, for the most part I bought it, and I decided to wait for sex. For me, it was mostly about self-protection. I thought that if I had sex with a guy, and then we broke up, it would absolutely destroy me psychologically. I didn’t trust myself to be resilient enough to survive that. I had had no bad experiences with men, but I didn’t trust them not to use me for sex and then discard me. Maybe I was afraid I wasn’t lovable enough that a guy would want me for more than sex.
I made a decision that armed me against my own lack of confidence. I would pretend I were so supremely convinced of my lovability that I didn’t need sex to attract or keep a guy. It was a logical response to the rhetoric in my religion class that made sex and love opposites: “If he loves me, he’ll wait. If he doesn’t love me, I don’t want to have sex with him anyway.” I’d been taught to view dating as a marketplace, and sex as currency, so working within that model I made a conscious, deliberate decision to value myself highly, one that, in the end, outweighed my insecurity and poor body image. I set my standard high, and prayed some guy would rise to it.
Ideally, I also wanted sex to be something special that set apart my lifelong relationship from any other relationship I might have. I decided to wait, if not until marriage, then at least until I found the guy I would eventually marry. I thought it through and figured out what was important to me about sex, and especially my first time, and stuck to that decision with such determination that I was actually able to make it happen that way. Not having sex before I knew for sure that I was ready was something positive I did for myself. I’ve never regretted waiting as long as I did.
Now, this didn’t come up in high school at all. No one wanted to date me then. I was a little chubby and a lot of a know-it-all.
I had my first serious relationship in college. We almost broke up after we’d been dating a couple months because it became clear to him that I wasn’t going to sleep with him anytime soon. He was frustrated, but he ultimately decided it was worth it to stick with me and explore our connection. He had to wait almost 5 years. We’re still together, 13 years and 2 kids later.
We didn’t have sex in college, but we certainly had a physical relationship, especially after we’d said “I love you.” There were hands everywhere, there were orgasms, there was nakedness. It was great. I felt sexy, desirable, powerful, in love.
After I graduated from college, I moved back home to go to grad school. My college boyfriend and I continued our relationship long distance. We still didn’t have sex, but when we were together we wanted to really be together. We needed that physical outlet and release, that reassurance and affirmation of our love. It was the glue that kept us together during the weeks we were apart.
Once, just before my boyfriend came to visit, my mom told me she didn’t want me to shut myself in my room with him, using a tone of voice that made me feel dirty about it. She talked about me setting an example for my brothers. What should we do, where should we go, I asked, bewildered. Go park somewhere, she snapped dismissively.
Well, we tried to. We drove around looking for a place where it would be safe to park and get in the backseat and get busy. We didn’t really find one. We got caught by a bored small-town cop who was rude about it, but didn’t do anything.
After my boyfriend went back home, I talked to my mom, saying words I’d been rehearsing in my head all weekend.
“I know it’s your house and maybe to you this is a roommate issue, but the way you talked to me when you told me to go park somewhere really hurt my feelings and made me feel ashamed. My boyfriend and I don’t have sex, but we do other things, and I’m proud of the choices I’m making in this relationship, both the things we do and the things we don’t do. And I would like you to be proud of me too. Also, it’s not my job to teach your sons about sex. If you’re worried about the messages they’re getting, that’s on you and dad to give them the messages you want. And just so you know, maybe it was easy to find a place to go park 25 years ago, but now there aren’t any places where you can do that.”
I think she was so relieved to hear that I wasn’t having sex that she didn’t really hear the rest of it.
And another “everything-but” perspective:
Dear 15 year old me,
Sex is much more than a penis entering a vagina. It is heteronormative and offensive to think otherwise because that is not the way that all people everywhere have sex. You’ve had sex at this point, even though you cling to your all-important “virginity.” It’s OK, you’ve done nothing wrong. Sex and love, either separately or in tandem, are beautiful experiences that everyone should have when they feel ready. Love you, girl!
P.S. You’re not fat.
Some questions come to mind as I’m reading these contributions:
Where do these stories resonate with you?
What ideas that you were taught in adolescence (sex-related or not) have you modified, softened, or rejected?
How do we help more young adults develop sexual selves and partnerships they are proud of?
How do the names and definitions involved in our stories and theologies about sex—from “purity” to “patriarchy,” “modesty” to “virginity”—alter our experiences and perceptions of it?
You can still contribute your own anonymous story (or a guest post including your name if you wish.) Details are at the end of this post.