Over a year ago, when I had just turned 25, I lost my virginity.
The phrase “losing my virginity” is fraught with problems, as it implies a couple untrue things. I did not misplace my virginity. Nor did I have it violently taken from me. I gave up my virginity willingly, after weeks of contemplation. I gave it up. I didn’t lose it. Losing signifies negativity. You don’t want to lose things. You don’t want to lose a basketball game, or your iphone, or your mind.
I didn’t lose my virginity last year. I started having sex last year. That’s not it, entirely, either, but it’s more true.
And as built up as sex had been, raised as an evangelical and believing early on that true love waited and that my virginity was a present meant to be unwrapped only by my husband, I was strangely at peace with the sex I was having. I didn’t believe it meant I wasn’t a Christian anymore. I didn’t believe it meant I was tainted in any way. The God I had come to trust (kind of) and call on (occasionally) wasn’t the kind of guy (ungendered supernatural being) who would be shaking his head in disappointment at my mid-20s encounter with penetration.
So I began having sex, and then we broke up, and then the sex stopped. And I was fine. Many months passed.
But a few weeks ago, I watched a documentary about purity culture, Give Me Sex Jesus. The opening scenes are just bits of interviews, gay men who grew up in fundamentalist homes that sent them to “rehabilitation” camps, women who were still rocking their virginity into their late 20s, a couple who had waited until they were wed to kiss, a man who refused to budge in his aggressively literal interpretation of the Bible.
Almost immediately, I was crying. I didn’t know why. I am an empathetic crier, this is true, but I wasn’t crying because of the stories on the screen. I was crying for myself, for my own story.
Before moving to Los Angeles, I attended a conservative Christian college in a suburb of Chicago. A lot of my college friends waited until they were married to have sex. And they married early, at 22, 23. But when I talk to them now, I don’t ever feel like this is the path they would have advised for me. It was a fine decision for them, but I don’t believe exactly what they believe, and I don’t know when, if ever, I will marry. And I used to think they would be disappointed in some of my life choices, but that hasn’t been the case. Last month, I visited San Diego to do some comedy, and I told a college friend to come out for a show. I hadn’t seen or talked to him in four years. And he watched as I told the audience about losing my virginity, as I made jokes about hand jobs, as I said I was after “that vitamin D.” I had a good set, I think I made him laugh, and yet I knew I was also revealing a lot about myself, a lot that had changed since college. Back then, I questioned the rules our school had in place – no drinking, no drugs, no sex outside of marriage – but I still adhered to them. I made out with guys I wasn’t dating (taboo), but I never took my clothes off for them.
We talked after the show. I asked about his wife, his job, his church involvement. He had, it seemed, continued on the path that our Christian college would’ve wanted. I had not. “Are you disappointed in me?” I asked him, timidly, spurred on by my glass of wine. “Why would I be disappointed?” he laughed. “You are doing what you were made to do. This fits you. It makes so much sense.”
So if all of that had already happened, why was I crying as I watched the documentary?
The couple who waited, they referenced their dating relationship, when he had asked her a couple times to not wear certain shirts because they caused him to “stumble.” They talked about how, even now, even married, he has to close his eyes during certain parts of movies to remain faithful to his wife. And I was shocked at their commitment to this ideology. When I hear about couples like this, I am waiting for their enlightenment. “So, when did they STOP believing that bullshit?” But this couple was so happy. So deeply sure they had done the right thing by waiting.
And maybe it was the right thing. For them. That doesn’t mean it was the right thing for me, and I had done the wrong thing. I knew that. But as I watched them talk, I lost certainty. I thought, “Maybe I should have waited. Maybe I did mess up. Maybe I am tainted now.”
I thought all those beliefs had been eradicated, but they are still there. Which makes sense. I grew up listening to Rebecca St. James, who has a song called, “Wait for Me.” I listened to Barlowgirl, who sang, “No more dating, I’m just waiting like a sleeping beauty – my prince will come for me.” I grew up reading the Christy Miller books, whose protagonist writes love letters to her future husband, promising that she will save herself for him. I read books whose heroines wore purity rings. In middle school, I myself signed a purity pledge. “Although I don’t see the need in signing this,” I told my parents. “I was planning on waiting anyway.”
These days, I joke about this. I don’t bemoan it. I talk about it like I’m removed from it. But it’s still there, inside me – it made me. And whether or not I believe all that purity dogma is true doesn’t matter, because occasionally it still feels true. It feels like I have made a horrible mistake. It feels like the more men I have sex with, the less valuable I am, the less I have to offer.
One of my problems, I’ve come to name, is that I’ve tried to rid myself of this way of thinking about sex but haven’t replaced it with anything concrete. Evangelical Christianity made it really easy to know what was right and wrong. It was easy to know when I was supposed to feel guilty (most of the time). I never really had to think about what I wanted in regards to sex because all that mattered was what the Bible said. And now I have to constantly question, “How do I feel about this? Will I regret this? Does it matter that I don’t know him that well, don’t like him that much, don’t think this will lead anywhere? If he does this, should I do that? Because I want to? Because he wants me to? Because it’s expected? Because I’m drunk? Should I do anything when I’m drunk? What is this saying about me? Does this say anything? Am I saying yes because I am horny or because I want to be nice? Will this change our relationship? Do I care? When is it okay to leave?”
And those questions are exhausting. Those questions are what usually keep me from having sex. I am not in the moment enough to do what I want. I don’t know what I want enough to be able to do it. I don’t have enough confidence in this new way of doing sexuality to not be prey to the old ideas causing me occasional, crippling bouts of self-doubt and remorse.
Someday I hope I will be able to celebrate the fact that I am a sexual being, and I hope I can have sex with complete peace. But for now it is a headache, a source of anxiety, a Pandora’s box I wish I had kept closed not because that would’ve been the right thing to do but because it would have been easier.