I was 13, standing on stage with a group of fellow teenagers, when our pastor announced in front of the entire congregation, “These young people have all made the righteous decision to save themselves for marriage.”
It was the grand finale to a weekend-long purity retreat, which was basically two days of journaling, praying and listening to frightening statistics about premarital sex.
I grew up in a small town in Oklahoma where most of the community belonged to a denomination of Christianity that abstains from drinking and dancing. Growing up, I had conformed to that belief system. The cool crowd at my school wasn’t the partyers but the devout Christians.
In an attempt to fit in, there I was on stage, slipping a silver purity ring onto my finger. I wore that ring for years. I fantasized about having it melted down and turned into my future husband’s wedding band.
I grew up believing two things. One: love and sex are mutually exclusive. And two: my sexuality is not my own. It belonged to Jesus and then, once I married, to my husband. I sensed that my sexuality was something of great worth to other people. Whether in protecting or exploiting it, I understood that it was powerful.
It’s hard for me to pinpoint why I stopped believing. It had to do with the increasingly obvious hypocrisy within my own community.
I was also coming of age, beginning to think for myself, and realizing there are other ways to live my life. I took my ring off when I was 16.
I adopted a sort of quasi feminism in lieu of my faith. I had a misguided idea of what a modern feminist had to be: left-leaning politically, powerful, independent and sexually liberated.
To me, sexually liberated meant promiscuous. I was not promiscuous. In fact, I had made it through my teens without even a second glance from a boy.
But deep down, I longed to be the object of pursuit. It became my mission to lose my virginity.
I thought that once I was no longer a virgin, I would finally be free. I wanted to claim a new sense of identity. I wanted to be free to sleep with other men. I wanted the pressure of my “first time” to be gone.
This wouldn’t happen for me until after I graduated, when I moved New York City for college, lost 30 pounds and went blond.
On weekends, I would go to college bars, dressed in black, and marvel at the guys who wanted to buy me drinks and tell me I was pretty, all in the feeble hope that I might go home with them.
They seemed as if they would do anything. But I had certain criteria for that man. First, I had to be able to trust him. Second, I could not be in love with him. I wanted to have the upper hand.
I was on vacation back in my Oklahoma hometown when my friends told me they had met a group of musicians. I was happy to tag along to the bar, where they introduced me to three guys.
One was Zach, who was tall and awkward with thick frame glasses and a shy smile. I ignored him for most of the night, until the group made its way back to his house.
I took a liking to Zach. He played John Mayer songs on his guitar, which was swoonworthy to drunken 20-something girls. He wasn’t particularly smooth, but his lack of confidence built up mine.
As the weeks passed, I saw more of him. He talked with me in the car one night for three hours while I sobered up. He told me he wanted a vacuum for his birthday, and I thought he was so different from the immature slobs I was used to.
Late one night I ended up at his house. I knew exactly what I had come for.
“I’m thinking I want you to be my first,” I said, “if you’re comfortable with that.” I didn’t want to be some meek little girl who was too scared to ask for what she wanted.
“OK,” he replied with a smile.
“I want you to know, it’s really important to me that we remain friends after this.”
He agreed to this.
I was surprised by how quickly it was over. It was painful yet gratifying. Zach was careful and quiet.
I didn’t stay the night. I wanted to sleep in my own bed. As I drove down the highway, windows open and the radio buzzing, I did feel a sense of freedom and empowerment. I had set out to do something and had done it on my terms.
This sense of satisfaction didn’t come from having a fulfilling sexual experience; it came from the fact that I now thought I had nothing left to lose.
The night I landed back in New York, he sent me a text: “missing you.” After that, our communication was restricted to my drunk texts that went unacknowledged by him.
After a lonely winter, I decided to visit home, and my desire to see Zach played a large part in that decision. I thought if I went home, I could figure out what was going on between us.
The answer was nothing. While I was home, I posted on every social media platform announcing I was back in town, hoping he would see it and contact me. When that didn’t work, I texted him. He texted back but evaded any suggestion to meet up. By the end of my trip, I knew he simply didn’t care.
I hadn’t romanticized my first time. I never thought we were in love. I never expected good sex. I never expected to have feelings afterward. And I certainly didn’t expect to feel rejected. I thought if I did everything right, I could control the emotions involved in physical intimacy.
I was mad at Zach because I assumed he had used me. In reality, I had used him for something maybe even worse than physical gratification; I used him for a feeling of power, superiority and freedom. And when I realized he didn’t care, I let him take those feelings away.
I thought losing my virginity would liberate me, and in a sense it did. I learned that no matter how calculating I am - right guy, right time, right place - I can’t control other people’s feelings, or even my own. And there’s a strange freedom in that knowledge. It allowed me to let go.