This Is Us

Stop Worrying About Virginity

Rigid definitions of sex distracted me from enjoying my experiences

Black and white image of a dried rose.
Black and white image of a dried rose.
Photo: Enrico Figlia/Getty Images

“If you don’t have sex by your 21st birthday, let us know.”

I had no idea how to respond to the offer. Was it a kindness? A joke at my expense? I barely knew these women from the dorm, but everyone knew about my “problem.” I was 20 and hadn’t had sex.

I considered myself a late bloomer. I didn’t have a single date during high school. I didn’t even chastely peck someone on the lips until the week after I graduated. I was rushing to make up for years I felt I missed out on. Or maybe I wanted evidence to counteract the feeling that I was an undesirable nerd. “Virgin” wasn’t just a label for an activity I hadn’t done yet—it was woven into my identity. It was how other people knew me, along with my fondness for sharks and carrying a guitar all over campus (I’m sorry, it was 2001, and I thought being the guitar guy was cool.) Sharky Brian, the Virgin.

What I really wanted was a relationship. I wanted a girlfriend. But with each passing week, month, and year, I felt like there was something wrong with me when sex never happened. It was like everyone else had years of experience under their belts — ha! — and I hadn’t even had an erotic internship yet.

The fact of the matter was that I’d already had sex. In my first semester of college, I made out, touched, and exchanged oral sex through a string of failed relationships. But I didn’t think of that as sex. I didn’t realize that I had imbibed the lie that intercourse is the main event. I was after a certain defining activity rather than just enjoying myself with my partners, foolish young man that I was.

I didn’t know that the original meaning of “virgin” was “not owned by a man.” That the entire concept involved men feeling entitled to women’s bodies, seeing them in a binary of pre- and post-intercourse, enshrined as the de facto symbol of sex for centuries. (There’s been some talk of reclaiming the term, but I don’t think it’s going to fly.) And despite the religious fixation with virginity and purity, the idea was secularly enshrined as well. When it came to orgasms, Freud and the psychological elite deemed vaginal orgasms from intercourse to be “mature” and all others to be lesser or a mark of halted individual development. You’re not really a grown-up until you’ve had intercourse and enjoyed it. How fucked up is that?

Heap on toxic masculinity, my own upbringing, and the idea that you’re not really a man until you’ve had intercourse, and it’s no wonder I was so screwed up.

When I finally got to that moment I’d craved for so long, it wasn’t at all what I wanted. I’d wanted to have intercourse with my first serious girlfriend, but we broke up before we did. I started dating someone else, a few years older, and one day she just pounced on me on my bed. There wasn’t really any romance or intimacy. It was something to do. Maybe I was something to do.

It was easier to tell myself that something was wrong with me rather than question what had happened.

In the dark of my bedroom, things happened fast. I figured they would and tried not to say sorry. I broke the seal, as I had joked leading up to this moment. Now sex was definitely on the table. Or at least on my twin bed. But then my lover whispered, “I want you to know what it feels like,” and slid back onto me, this time without a condom.

What? Wait! I felt frozen. Wasn’t I supposed to want this? Wasn’t I supposed to like this? I’d been careful, but I might as well not have for what happened next. We were casually dating. We never talked about safety. We never talked about STIs. I didn’t feel right, but I told myself that I should’ve liked what we did. What had happened.

Like so much else in my life, it was easier to tell myself that something was wrong with me rather than question what had happened.

Did it really matter that I didn’t have intercourse until 20? No! Of course not. I wish I’d known better then. It wasn’t a matter of “saving myself,” but that I put way too much pressure on this nonsensical concept that the only sex worth having is sex that appeals to male physiology. I just fixated on having sex, but I didn’t give much thought to the sex I wanted to have or that I was already having.

Virginity isn’t a virtue. If you choose to abstain from some or all sexual activity, good for you! Seriously. But the word “virgin” is steeped in millennia of control and sets up so many people for hurt. People who feel ashamed of their bodies. People who feel there’s something wrong with them if they’re not having sex while everyone else is. People who fixate on one particular activity, adding pressure to intercourse as if it’s the only sex worth having. (Heads up: It’s not.)

I love sex. It’s a wonderful, pleasant, playful, and intimate act. If I have any regret, it’s all the years I spent worrying about the kind of sex I wasn’t having instead of thinking about the kind of sex I’d like to share with someone.

Distant cousin of T. rex. Author of Skeleton Keys, My Beloved Brontosaurus, and more. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @Laelaps.

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