Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment in a series about losing one’s virginity, inspired by this project from Rookie magazine. Earlier authors include Jess, Kate, and Gina. It’s not explicit, but probably not for the easily scandalized.
What is the perfect way to lose your virginity? Every idea about it is soaked in a long history of men deciding womens’ lives for them. It’s perfectly respectable to make a personal choice to wait until one is in a serious romantic relationship to first have sex, but often the sanctity of that choice goes unexamined. What’s the right way to do it? And when?
I have felt like I was behind in my romantic life since I was about 11. One New Year’s Eve, when I was not much older than that, my friends and I tucked resolutions into boxes we’d decorated with puffy paint and sequins. Among other vows I made for myself at that kitchen table splayed with sparkles and craft glue, I wrote this: “This year, I will be kissed.”
It didn’t happen for me that year, or any of the next eight, and I wasn’t happy about it. I was 21 when I finally fulfilled that wish, with a man who pressed me against an adobe wall and took my face in his hands. Whiskey was involved, but laughter was too.
Unlike all the times I’d tried to plan to kiss someone, all the parties I’d scanned eagerly, the spin-the-bottle games I avoided, or the friends of friends I’d tried to coquettishly impress, it wasn’t difficult or fraught. After all the agonized journal entries about how awful and stunted I felt because I finished three and a half years of college before sharing a kiss, it felt like the easiest thing. Though we never dated or were even really friends, I am proud that man was the first one I kissed.
Though some might think having this story out there could hurt my job prospects or be more than a little too much information, here is why I’m writing this: Because my twelve-year-old self needs to hear this. My sixteen- and eighteen- and twenty-year-old selves need to hear this. Maybe there are some girls out there like me who need to hear this. And here it is:
There is no perfect or correct way to first experience physical intimacy. There are a lot of painful and dangerous ways, but as long as you know and can protect your own body, have no shame. If you’re sixteen or twenty-one or sixty-one when you first open your mouth against someone else’s, that experience is true and real and legitimate, because it is yours.
It doesn’t matter that the average age to first kiss or fuck is years younger than you are – you are not an average. Seventeen magazine doesn’t hold the compass to your realest life. Those girls at summer camp who make you feel inadequate, to whom you lie about how many boys you’ve kissed? They don’t hold your map. The raspy-voiced girls when you are in college, the ones who casually mention their genital piercings, they have nothing to do with your timeline. They can’t say what is right. Only you can.
I first had sex less than a month after I first kissed a person on the mouth. He wore flannel and played guitar, and we met because the man I’d kissed introduced us. On the patio of that college bar, we clinked glasses and talked about the books we both loved. I was a literature major and he taught ninth-grade English, and we both loved David Foster Wallace and Catcher in the Rye. He was visiting from New Jersey for the weekend. When he left that patio I got a text: “Not every day you meet a girl who drinks whiskey and has read Infinite Jest, so I got your number from my friend. Come out with us tomorrow?” He didn’t seem like a phony.
It wasn’t a romance, and it wasn’t a transaction. It was, for me, a decision made sober and without apology. There was mutual attraction, he was smart and took me seriously. He was leaving in two days and I never had to see him again. The next night, when I took his hand at the Sonoran hot dog stand and asked him to walk me home, it was without hesitation. The day of texting we’d done about music and literature and cosmic dissonance was all the relationship I wanted or needed from him.
He didn’t know it was my first sexual experience, and I wasn’t going to tell him. Years before I had decided a penis wasn’t the ideal instrument for breaking flesh, so he didn’t have to know. He was a weird, stiff-tongued kisser, and not as good with his hands as I expected of a guitar player. Perhaps it wasn’t what I would have called the ideal, at fifteen or seventeen. But here is what I have to tell those younger desperate selves:
One day when you are twenty-one and tremendously unkissed, it will not be the end of you. Do not lament the days you thought you were the last virgin alive. One day a man who loves books like you do will unbutton his flannel against you and you will be proud to have him between your legs. Never feel like a failure, never feel like less than a woman, because of your sexual experience.
To that fifteen-year-old self, you are not better than your friends because you think you are above sexual urges. To that seventeen-year-old self, you will still have a superlative college experience though you are a tight ball of anxiety about your experience with men. It isn’t a penis you’re searching for, in those hours when it feels like no one will ever take an interest in your lips.
When it was over, it wasn’t really pleasure I felt. It wasn’t love or ecstasy, and it wasn’t pain or regret. What it felt like was relief, a great unspooling of so many expectations I had of myself, all wound so tightly around a knot of nervousness and shame. It felt like release.
Inviting that man to walk me home and into sexual experience was perhaps not the perfect way to lose my virginity. But it was this: Authentic. Free. Mine.