When thinking about virginity
We were walking through the Diag when Lauren first told me that her mom walked in on her losing her virginity. Life went on around us in Ann Arbor: Diag noises. Whir of a bike tire. The stir of leaves on a tree. The way she spoke was almost blasé, with the laugh I’ve grown to know well. Initially, I didn’t believe her. She’d been my best friend for more than a year, and yet this story had somehow never come up during our late night conversations in sticky Pizza House booths. After going back and forth for a while, she’d managed to convince me, despite the fact that I was initially surprised by her emotionless declaration of virginity (or lack thereof.) As I reflected upon her confession, I concluded the situation wasn’t the end of the world — crippling embarrassment and the awkward fumbles that come with a “first time” magnified a thousand times when your mom opens the door. I realized that years later, she is no longer scarred from the memory, she looks back on that day with a lighthearted attitude and a dose of humor.
It’s just sex. Right?
I asked her what happened next — how her mom reacted or what she said. The answer was nothing; her mom was completely silent, until the next morning when her dad woke her up and simply said, “We’re going to church.” This was ironic considering Lauren had never really gone to church throughout her childhood — her dad always went alone and she wasn’t ever religious. The car was quiet while they drove to the church, the silence was uncomfortable and large, awkward and inevitable. She sat in the pew, next to her father and figured maybe she was supposed to meditate on her sins for a while. Maybe, since her first go at pre-marital sex was so awkward, God would give her a get out of jail free card — just this once.
“What would you have said?!” she remarked through laughter.
I thought about losing mine. It wasn’t such a catastrophic event like the one she just described — but, rather, pretty unremarkable, in the way losing your virginity can be. It’s a milestone built up to be such a life changing moment, but often times you leave that moment quite the same.
Diag noises. Whir of a bike tire. The stir of leaves on a tree.
The year is 2015 and I am 17 years old. I’m standing in front of a full length mirror in my bedroom, gazing at my reflection. My eyes are green, and I narrow them as I look at myself, scrutinizing every last detail. I never wear makeup, so I don’t know why I’d spent time shakily brushing mascara against my eyelashes. I don’t feel like badass Rizzo in “Grease” when she sneaks out of her window to go pick up football player Kenickie and drive to the infamous lover’s land on the edge of town. Instead, I feel a contradictory mix of reserve and anxiety –– calm in my choice, but anxious in the buildup. I’d never been so self-aware before — in a state of wondering about myself in the most inward way, scrutinizing everything, reflecting on everything. I feel the beat of my heart against my rib cage, and feel tranquility in its rhythm. I sit down on the edge of my meticulously made bed, smoothing out the denim of my loose-fitting jeans. The outfit I’d planned feeling somehow not right. It’s one of those moments when you know you’re about to do something that you think is risky and mature and provocative, but looking back on it now, it was just a first-time life event –– losing your virginity. Something that most people experience in the course of a lifetime. They say there’s a first time for everything, but when you're 17, there’s something frightening about only getting the chance to have one first time. I run my fingers through my hair and tug on the hem of my softest sweater. Is this the kind of outfit you wear to lose your virginity? This all felt like a whispered secret between me and my boyfriend and my sweater. After overthinking my outfit for far too long, I forfeited any attempts to change my appearance or change my mind. I was sure of myself. I was sure of my choice.
I went downstairs.
“I’m going to Daniel’s house,” I said to my mother.
“Make good choices,” she responded. I got my car keys and drove to his house. My hands were shaking.
Make good choices.
I thought about her words as I drove. Was this a “good choice”? I’d certainly thought my decision through plenty; I trusted the other person, had dated him for a long while before this night, and we both felt ready. But did all of that mean it was a good choice?
I couldn’t tell if sex made me nervous, or if the stigma surrounding sex made me nervous.
Sex and religion are tightly bound when you are raised Roman Catholic. I was taught at church and in Bible study about what I was supposed to do and what I wasn’t supposed to do. In fifth grade we had to take an abstinence Bible study course through our religious education. The teachers showed us pictures of deformed genitalia in attempts to scar us for life, then told the boys not to masturbate as everyone giggled under their breath. At the end of the course, we had to take a pledge of virginity, writing our promise down and signing our sloppy, 11-year-old signatures on a piece of paper. We then had to drop our pledge into what my religious education teacher called “the chastity box.” I wrote, “I promise I will be a virgin until college (maybe)” on the paper, signed it and sweat profusely as I put it in the box. I didn’t want to promise God something I wasn’t sure I could stick to. I didn’t want to go to Hell.
With sex as a staple of American culture, and an even bigger hallmark of college hookups, societally, sex isn’t widely regarded as an action of sin. If everyone had to go to church every time they had sex, some people would never leave. When I was growing up, the stigmas attached to sex shaded the act not as an adult choice, but rather a life-shattering sin that could guarantee my eternity in Hell. I wondered about how many people waited till marriage. I respect them for this choice, yet back then, couldn’t help but worry that in order to be a good Catholic, or a Christian at all, I had to abstain, too. In religious education, they treated the subject as though I’d go to Hell the minute I broke my chastity box promise. But six years later, there I was — promise broken, in my Jeep Wrangler, driving home and not toward Satan’s gates. I came home that night and thought about the 11-year-old pledge I’d just shattered.
Something about it all made me feel guilty, or immoral. Like I’d done a truly bad thing. I went upstairs and took a shower, and stood there under the hot water for an hour. I was not trying to wash off what I’d done, but rather attempting to wash away my guilt for what had just happened. To wash away feeling like I’d sinned, or feeling like I was going to Hell, or that God hated me, or that I couldn’t be Catholic anymore. I thought about how people cherry-pick the Bible. There are people who believe that God hates gay people, but they aren’t virgins. There are people who go to church every Sunday, but who also cheat on their spouses. There are people who get divorced, but pray to God every night. Religion to me suddenly seemed overwhelming and impossible to navigate. I couldn’t imagine that God or Jesus would now hate me because of something that felt so trivial, especially when I’d always tried my best to find a connection to my faith. I also thought about Mary Magdalene, whom the Catholic church links with penance (reconciliation of sins) because she was arbitrarily identified as a prostitute, despite the fact that she was one of Jesus’ largest supporters and witness to his crucifixion, burial and resurrection.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I tossed and turned for a few hours, thinking about the implications of my decision swirling in my mind — wondering if it’d ever find a way out. Wondering if I was sorry, deciding that I wasn’t. After a while, I didn’t know what to do anymore, fighting exhaustion and the inability to close my eyes. My legs like lead, my head heavy, my body different — but my mind the same. I thought about all the plausible solutions for an impossible predicament for so long I could barely think straight any longer, so I put my hands together, and I prayed.