It’s 2001, and it’s finally happening. After years of whispering the names of various superheroes and members of my multi-denominational Christian touring choir into a pillow, I’m finally going to lose my virginity. My dashing 17-year-old paramour, Steve, has lain me down on his mom’s living room couch, where the smell of our pilfered cigarettes hangs in the air, and our half-finished bottles of Bud rest on the edge of the glass coffee table. The trailer park is quiet tonight, and Steve’s mom is out of town. He and I did not spend as much time studying Latin together as I thought we would, but as the weight of his torso falls over me like a curtain of hormonal moonlight, I regret nothing.
His mouth is making its way up my neck in small, damp kisses, his breath heavy with smoke and beer. As he grabs my thighs in his hands and pushes my knees apart, I begin to literally tremble with naïve anticipation. Grazing my earlobe with his tongue, he whispers,What’s wrong with you?
He stops and sits up suddenly, looking down at me. Why are you shaking?
Because, I say, I’m afraid.
You. I watch a realization drop through his mind like a quarter into a jukebox.
Wait, is this your first time?
Our cultural obsession with doing the nasty is something that all sexually active people have to confront if they’re going to be comfortable pursuing their own pleasure. We’re inundated with opinions and information about every aspect of our sexual identities, from advice columns and Kamasutra photo books to Cosmo’s sex quizzes and religious tracts handed out on street corners.
Sex sells, but virginity—and the supposed loss of virtue that goes along with it—is also a multimillion dollar industry. While we imagine ourselves to have evolved past the days of The Scarlet Letter (or even 16 Candles), virginity still fascinates us; it inspires prurient interest in the lives of teenage celebrities (remember the Jonas Brothers?), and first-time penetration is an entire genre of pornography.
Losing your virginity is often referenced in our favorite songs; from The Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” to Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” and 2 Live Crew’s “Me So Horny.” It seems that every genre of music has hashed out heavy petting at one time or another—even opera. Ravel’s”Bacchanale,” for instance, from the opera Daphnis et Chloé, has more sensual moaning than the extended cut of Donna Summers’ “Love to Love You Baby.”
Though I am loudly and enthusiastically vocal in support of sexual liberation, the circus that centers on the idea of our “first time” feels alien to me. You can trace the root of our obsession with virginity from the days when women were married off as an exchange of property, and while an international trend of surgical “revirginization” for women is primarily confined to fundamentalist societies overseas, we hold massive rallies all over America to encourage Christian youth to save themselves for marriage.
But as women are increasingly perceived as independent people with their own sexual agency, we’ve chosen not to abandon the concept of virginity, but to broaden it—now men can be virgins too. Why are we continuing to place such value on what is essentially a kind of inexperience? Psychologically, our obsession with our first time could stem from something as simple as the primacy effect, which indicates that first experiences are more vivid by definition. Think of it like this: You might remember in detail the first time you were naked in front of someone… but do you remember the third? How about the eighth?
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This doesn’t explain why we continue to think of virginity as something we still want to hold onto, however. Can you imagine if we held a lack of experience as a recommendation of character for literally any other area of adult life, like parenthood, or employment?
I couldn’t tell you why, but that night with Steve, when he declined the chance to punch my v-card, I felt more respected than rejected. Afterward, it seemed like when and how my first time happened would be a pretty big deal. Of course, my recollection of the event itself is much like any other memory: washy footage of a sweat-fogged window, a vaguely salacious disappointment. It’s become one of the more reliable conversation-starters on a slow date, however, right behind,When did you come out? andWhen did you first realize you were into boys?
My first time was super hot, actually, I’m telling Jake, a Midwestern boy in his mid-20s, who works in public policy for the city of Madison. It’s our first date, and he’s asked. I’m at one and a half glasses of cab sav on an empty stomach, which is to say that I’m just tipsy enough to get personal but not in the awkward way. So I skip the story about Steve and how he refused to have sex with me that night in the trailer park, how he’d insisted that my first time had to be with “someone special,” or how I spent the last months of my junior year hung up on him—a boy who thought that he was doing me a favor by refusing to make love to me.
Instead, I get right to the good part, where I give it up my freshman year of college to a high-school sex addict on a school night. His parents were asleep in the next room, and so I climbed through his window, and we made love in total silence. He broke me in with a hand over my mouth, my eyes searing a hole in the ceiling of his bedroom.
It’s a good story, just a little scandalous, I think, but Jake has never been with a man before, and I can tell from how he says good night that he is not going to call again. It’s OK; at least he paid for the oysters. But I think we had a good enough time that Iwonder if he would have taken me out again had I told him the truth:
I don’t believe in virginity, not really. Not beyond the slight preoccupation of a momentary fetish, or a kind of anecdote that people tell to classify themselves as a particular kind of lover: forceful, exotic, romantic, naughty, brave. Honestly, I don’t know how much of me there is to be discovered in that silent bed, the whispers of heat, the swiftness with which my partner ushered me out of his house after it was done. I walked back to my car, parked down the cul-de-sac so as to not arouse suspicion. I stared at my reflection in the rearview mirror, and was disappointed at how little I had changed.
The first time I’d have sex that really mattered wouldn’t be for another decade or so. I’d meet a man in France with a childlike mischievousness to him, who’d have a new smoke rolled between his fingers every time I looked away. Who’d reach out for my body with a kind of confidence and unrelenting hunger that made me feel sexier than I’d ever thought possible. There’d be something different about him, a sweetness, a vulnerability that demanded I be vulnerable too.
One night, he’d stretch beneath me in his bed, a smile spreading on his face so beatific and pure, you’d have thought that we were doing the most wholesome, natural thing in the world. And we were.