When I was 16 and finally allowed to start dating, there was no question in my mind that “dating” meant I would finally be able to have sex. Among my group of friends, I was the only one who was still a virgin. My friends told me all about the sex they were having with their boyfriends, in lurid detail befitting a Jackie Collins novel. Every penis was large, every orgasm was fierce, all the boys went down, and all the girls did, too.
I could only gasp and giggle at these stories, having no close encounters of the penile kind of my own to report. I wasn’t allowed to date or even talk to boys on the phone until I was 16. My crushes and flirtations meant nothing once school let out at 3 p.m. I was tired of being the only one who hadn’t done anything. I wanted a boyfriend – and boyfriend sex.
I turned sixteen the summer before my junior year of high school. For most of junior year, I was like the forlorn puppies in the ASPCA commercials: I gave every boy the same pleading, hopeful stare. When a senior boy actually chose me, I jumped at the chance. He liked me. The boys I liked, didn’t like me back. In what would become a recurring life pattern, I simply went with the boy who chose me.
The day we did the deed, I was super self-conscious, as If my plans were written all over my face. When we got back to his house, it was as if he had announced to his entire family: “I’m bringing my girlfriend back here so we can have sex for the first time. Stare at her and giggle for like ten minutes, then leave. OK? Thanks.” Everyone was there – his mother, sister, uncles, even some neighbors from the block just to round out the picture, and it was like they all knew. My mother didn’t know, but his did, and apparently approved. Suddenly, as if on cue, they all filed out, clapping him on the back as they left.
“Ok, they’re gone, let’s go,” First Boyfriend said, leading me to his bedroom.
I knew what we were there to do. But I didn’t realize until I got to his room just how completely unprepared I was for sex.
My oldest sister got pregnant with her first and only child when she was 17. Sometimes, it seemed like all I’d heard from my mother since then was, “I’m not raising any more babies.”
But sex was a taboo topic in my house. My mother would leave Planned Parenthood pamphlets strewn about the dining room table from time to time. She would say, “If you have any questions, let me know,” but the curt tone of her voice and the tight set of her thin lips made it clear such questions weren’t welcome. I read the books and pamphlets cover to cover, but they didn’t answer the questions I had.
I wanted to know about the stuff my girlfriends talked about – oral sex and orgasms – but even after I was a grown, married woman with kids of my own, I wasn’t comfortable talking about sex that way with my mother. I wanted to know if it was really all that unusual to still be a virgin at 16, because my friends teased me mercilessly about it. But I wasn’t close enough to either of my sisters to ask them the questions I was afraid to ask my mother. I was scared if I told my sisters about my plans to have sex with First Boyfriend, they would tell my mother and I would be in trouble.
I was the kid no one worried about – the chubby nerd whose face was always buried in a book. I was an honors student with a GPA close to 4.0. I never broke curfew, whether I was out with my girlfriends or with First Boyfriend. I spoke of college, not as a hoped-for destiny, but as a foregone conclusion. When I was eight, I told my mother I was going to Harvard Law School; at 25, I did. The AIDS epidemic hadn’t yet hit, but I knew the toll of unprotected sex, in both unwanted pregnancy and STDs. Intellectually, I knew I wanted no part of that. And yet, First Boyfriend and I had never had a single conversation about birth control, disease, condoms, or anything else. The only planning I did for losing my virginity was wearing my best underwear.
I was book smart, but I was still a recklessly stupid teen who believed nothing bad could really happen to me. Consequences aren’t real when you’re 16, even when you see real consequences happen to other 16-year-olds. I had the basic scientific and medical information I needed. But even more importantly, I needed an adult to talk to and help me make the right decision for myself.
I didn’t have anyone to talk to. So instead, I decided to just go through with it.
Thankfully, I didn’t get pregnant. First Boyfriend’s uncle had told him, “You won’t get her pregnant if you don’t let the tip get wet.” He proudly announced her had pulled out “before,” and showed me “after” on the sheets. I was profoundly disgusted. This wasn’t at all the glorious experience my girlfriends had made it out to be.
Just as I was processing what had just happened, First Boyfriend asked, “Are you sure you were a virgin? That was too easy . Plus it felt too good.”
Thanks to that comment, I worried about my anatomy for about a year, thinking something was wrong with me because he hadn’t required a battering ram to enter and I hadn’t bled a geyser all over his bed. A short while later, First Boyfriend graduated and joined the military, and we broke up by mutual agreement. We never repeated the experience. My mom used to chuckle when she mentioned, remembering that First Boyfriend had told her I was “too smart” for him. I always found that ironic.
Once I told my girlfriends I’d finally done it, they admitted they’d been lying and hadn’t actually done anything yet. They started asking me questions. I told them what no one had bothered to tell me: that it’s not that big a deal still being a virgin. Wait. But know your facts.
In the wake of the GOP’s current war on contraception, Iand as the mother of a teenage girl myself, I’ve given a lot of thought to what I can teach her to help her avoid making the mistakes I made as a teen. For me, it comes down to three things: thoughtful, comprehensive sex education; better, safer, cheaper birth control; and honest, forthright acknowledgment of human sexuality. Those are the principal weapons in the only war we should be waging: the war against unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. I had very basic sex ed information when I was a young teen, but I didn’t have access to birth control, or anyone to talk to about what I was feeling. I believe if I had, I wouldn’t have viewed my virginity as a burden and been so eager to give it up. And while I do support teaching young people the value of abstinence, it should be done in the context of an education that begins by acknowledging sexual feelings and desires as normal and healthy, not sinful and shameful.
I can’t blame my mother too much for not knowing how to talk to me about sex. Although she grew up on a farm, she wasn’t allowed to ask why the cow was lowing and the bull was riding her. Asking such questions got you whupped. My mother said that when girls asked what the animals were doing and where the calves that were born each spring came from, they were accused of being “fast” and “mannish.” It’s no wonder my mother avoided answering questions.
I’ve also learned that sex education is lifelong. In her later years, my mother told me she used to pack her vagina with Vaseline before having intercourse with my father. The petroleum jelly was supposed to serve as a rudimentary barrier contraceptive. Since my mother gave birth to six children, I think it’s fair to say the Vaseline was ineffective. My mother remained healthy through all six pregnancies, but she saw her own mother die of kidney failure after giving birth to her 11th child, a child who died a year later. My mother knew all too well the health consequences of uncontrolled reproduction, not to mention the economic burden of supporting a large family on a single income. After I was born, my mother chose to limit the size of her family through abstinence: she refused to have sex with my father anymore. Trading happiness for health hardly seems a fair bargain.
Jill Lepore’s terrific article in The New Yorker about Planned Parenthood, is a great read. Lepore recounts the imprisonment of birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger in 1917 for distributing information about contraception. The judge presiding over Sanger’s case ruled that no woman had “the right to copulate with a feeling of security that there will be no resulting conception.” For decades, women assumed this battle had long since been fought and won. Sadly, in 2012, the battle for women’s reproductive and sexual freedom rages on.
Control a woman’s sexuality, fertility and reproductive choices, and you control her freedom. Women simply cannot afford to allow religious zealots and conservative politicians to erode a century of rights under the false rubric of religious freedom. We owe ourselves and our daughters more than that.