She approached me to ask if I wanted to do a follow-up to last year’s interview, where we delved into her struggle to stay true to her Christian value of no premarital sex, while navigating her first romantic relationship. A twenty-three year-old virgin who had been opted out of sex ed in school by her religious parents, she was facing an experiential chasm in her relationship with her thirty-five year-old, father of two, divorced boyfriend. I’d handed her my copy of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” and a three-pack of condoms at the conclusion of our first conversation.
She was working to come to terms with her identity as a Christian virgin and the fierce sexual desire this man had awoken in her. Flash forward one year and that man has fallen away, unmasked as a lying, cheating, manipulative bastard and she’s moved in with a new man. In between her sexual awakening and cohabitation was a year of heartbreak, a thorough exploration of Tinder, an examination of her religious beliefs and her first time having a penis inside her vagina.
“So much has changed in a year, and the biggest things are allowing myself to change the rules, change my identity to who I want to be not who I should be,” she began. A few weeks prior she and I agreed to re-read her first interview for a sense of perspective and direction for the second. Post re-read, she expressed a sense of wonder about her transition from defining herself as a Christian virgin to exploring her sexuality and beginning to understand her multi-faceted nature. We’d been in touch during the year, and I watched her react to falling off the pedestal on which she’d placed herself, above the fray of the petty dramas of human relationships, sex and nuance. I welcomed her to the human race.
Upon joining the human race, she discovered her first boyfriend wasn’t actually divorced, just separated, and that was devastating to her Christian value of no extra-marital sex. She confronted him, and demanded he lay out all other information he might be hiding. He swore that was it, but a public records search revealed he had another child, a teenager whom he didn’t see, or care for, or pay child support to. He was a liar, an alcoholic and a manipulator. He cut her loose, but continued to play mind games, exploiting her vulnerability and trusting nature, keeping her on the hook without staying in the relationship. She loved him, and experienced the intense attachment many of us feel to the first person with whom we become sexually involved. Not that they were having sex…exactly. It was an “everything-but” situation, something I remembered from high school, a physical/relationship state where risk of unintended pregnancy is extremely high, which I learned at Planned Parenthood.
Enter Tinder. Her sexual appetites stoked and her need to connect fueled by her ex and her physical awakening, she turned to the app. A revolving door of scumbags presented themselves, confusing her mental and emotional state further, while creating an addictive rush of attention. An internal struggle ensued between her newly-discovered natural, biological need for sex and her strict religious values, on which she’d founded her identity. She dealt with it by trying to satisfy both sides: swiping right on Tinder, meeting up for a late-night date and telling the guy within the first hour that she was a virgin and he could forget having sex with her until their marriage. Most late-night creepers responded to this news poorly, rejecting her and sending her on to the next man. She lived in a constant state of exhaustion and exhilaration.
All of this was compounded by an important factor we did not discuss much in the first interview–her weight loss surgery and recovery from binge eating disorder. She had the surgery a few months before meeting the first man and was dealing with a second puberty of sorts–as the weight came off, her hormones changed and she began to develop a new understanding of her body. Staying on the pedestal above the human race, not entering romantic relationships and maintaining her virgin status had been part and parcel with her shame and anxiety about her obesity.
Back on Tinder, a man presented himself, asking to meet for coffee during daylight hours. Respectful and forthright, he didn’t blink when she made her big virginity speech. They went out again. And again. She forgot about her ex. They spoke openly about themselves, creating a dialogue around sexual behavior, making choices together. A few months later, she chose to move in to his place, a bold decision, her religious value of no cohabitation before marriage let go. Did I mention they had sex?
Turns out, she explained, you can be a Christian and have sex before marriage. She did internet research, reading study after study, discovering a small percentage of people actually wait until marriage. “I wanted to douse myself in knowledge to make myself feel better.” Finding out that the struggle between nature and religion is a common one, and not hers alone, helped her reexamine and begin to redefine her beliefs.
Another important discovery came. Perhaps her lonely life atop the pedestal and subsequent fall wasn’t entirely the responsibility of her church, parents, and childhood. Perhaps much of it was self-inflicted, the messages from each held and enforced by herself. “I held myself to high, rigid standards. I’m off the pedestal into life.” She feels the first man was a critical step in her personal evolution. “Intuitively I understood he wasn’t right for me. There was no comfort or safety with him. I won’t vilify him because I understand him.” Maybe the bad lovers do pave the way for our growth, providing the opportunity for deeper understanding, finding happiness.
This time she wanted to talk about the surgery, which is interwoven into everything. “I wasn’t physical before because of weight-related insecurities.” She grew breasts at a young age, which attracted men. “Men approached me when I was way too young, inserting themselves into my physical space, assuming I was older than I was.” Leaping onto a high shelf where they couldn’t reach her felt like the safest option. “I gained 100 pounds between eighth and tenth grade.” While the weight created a protective barrier, it came with clinical depression, medications that caused panic attacks and suicidality.
Her parents were hard on her about her weight, but unable to model healthy behaviors related to food and exercise. Around the time she was gaining the hundred pounds, her mom was choosing to have weight-loss surgery to address her obesity. Soon, her mom was out shopping with her daughter’s peers, for youthful clothing to dress her decreasing frame. It was a mindfuck. She was wearing old lady clothes, because they fit. Between the mature outfits and older appearance, she felt even less in touch with her peers, finding it easier to connect with adults.
“I was scolded, bribed to lose weight by my parents. They came from a loving place, masked in fear, and they were very harsh.” To her, weight-loss surgery seemed like self-mutilation, the post-operative diet an eating disorder, and she fought to understand why anyone would choose it. Leaving the small town in which she was raised for college in a large urban environment was the tipping point. She was open to the idea of surgery and began to do the research. After informing her family she’d made the decision to have the procedure, they apologized to her for their years of intense criticism and stepped up with financial support.
When the new man entered the picture, she “had to put up a wall to see if he’d climb over it.” Talking to him about sex began to open her mind to new possibilities about what sex meant. To him, it was the deepest form of human connection and an expression of trust. Sex wasn’t a one-time act, but a shared experience returned to by partners who shaped and evolved the practice. They talked about her fears and reservations. They talked about the role of religion. He expressed being tired of her comparisons between herself and his former partners. She talked about its effect on her confidence, her need for protection, assurances and guarantees. But the feeling arching high over all their discussions was amazement that someone wanted to be physically intimate with her. Perhaps she had missed the point, making sex the end-all, be-all of a relationship, a one-wedding-night stand.
She decided she wanted to have sex with him. Because she’d been taught her virginity was a precious gift, she wanted a special setting, the perfect moment, lingerie. “I had an image of sex from movies. Rose petals, wine, nighttime, wedding night.” She had sex for the first time on a weekday morning, a time they’d normally be getting ready for work. “It was a wonderful experience. He wasn’t expecting it. Not premeditated. Oddly, that was the best part.” He was kind about her vaginal bleeding, though she wanted to die of embarrassment. She called out sick to work. They had breakfast together and she stayed in bed all day.
I asked how her decision to have sex before marriage integrates with her religious beliefs. “I’m going to be a Christian no matter my relationship status. If you’re really thinking about the values, you know God loves you no matter what.” On the pedestal, she hadn’t realized she could evolve, striving instead for rigid consistency. It weighs on her mind that she signed a pledge at her church she wouldn’t live with a partner until after marriage. The church was a place to find community when she was single, and she feels strongly god brought this man to her. There’s a sense of guilt about going against the institution on which she leaned during some of her hardest times, yet she’s sure she’s making the right decisions for herself. Maybe it’s time to find a new church that espouses values that align with hers.
There are moments she panics about her choice to begin a sexual relationship before marriage. Like the moment she found herself wanting to go to an adult toy store. Or the moment she found herself wanting to be dominated, during sex, roughed up. Or the frequency with which she craves sexual activity–it’s not just a weekends and special occasions thing. Are all of these new feelings what her religion warned her about, that once she started she wouldn’t be able to stop? “I think you’re just exploring your sexuality,” her partner tells her. And so she follows her physical desires, and explores some more.