Stephanie Harper
February 23, 2015 12:07 pm

I thought that by losing my virginity at 25, I was uniquely equipped to handle the experience with wisdom and maybe even a little nonchalance. There were several reasons that I doggedly pursued the possibility of losing my virginity in such a dispassionate manner. One was the sheer fact that I was 25. A mix of my own feelings about the significance of human intimacy, coupled with a perceived societal pressure to “lose it or never use it” made me feel that with every passing year, I was getting further and further away from the probability of ever being anything but a virgin.

I’d convinced myself that the older I got, the harder it would become for people to understand my reason for being a virgin. It wasn’t a decision motivated by any moral, religious or physical principle, but, I believed, by circumstance. I told anyone who asked—as well as those who didn’t—that my virginity had more to do with a lack of opportunity than anything else. I wasn’t waiting because I wanted to, but because the alternative simply hadn’t presented itself in a feasible way. My friends told me that when I met someone who really wanted to be with me, it wouldn’t matter. And, sometimes I believed them, but mostly I didn’t.

See, I had done my research. I had read articles and essays, interviews with men and women who were asked how they felt about having sex with another adult who was still a virgin. The results were overwhelmingly discouraging. Both men and women seemed to fear the inexperience. Men seemed to fear the responsibility of being someone’s first—the attachment of it. I read this and I internalized it. This only increased my concerns, made me even more afraid to put myself out there. I dreaded the idea of having to have “the talk” with someone, as though I was wearing some kind of badge of shame. I put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself with each passing year, setting ridiculous deadlines I had no control over. I turned sex into something that needed to be crossed off a list, a rite of passage into adulthood, into normalcy. Something I simply couldn’t attain.

It probably isn’t a shock that much of this was rooted in my own self-image. I’ve struggled with my weight my entire life and I have spent a great many years as a teen and young adult feeling guilty for the way I looked. I’ve dieted and lost weight, started and stopped a million exercise routines. I’ve apologized to myself and others, made excuses, some valid and some not. It’s genetics. I have health problems that complicate things. I am what I am. But my weight has kept me from putting myself out there, seeing myself as someone that anyone could want, sexually or otherwise. Some of this has been my fault, buying into cultural stereotypes and self-deprecating personal philosophies about attraction and superficiality. Some of this has come from a string of bad experiences, others who have chosen to use my physical appearance as a way to push me away and to hit me where it hurts the most. Some of these people I trusted, maybe even loved, and that has had devastating long-term effects on how I see myself today. I’ve fought hard to battle my inner doubt into submission, to accept myself for who and what I am, and it’s a daily struggle. Sometimes I’m winning, and sometimes I fall a little short. But I am trying nonetheless.

These factors had led me to a place of fear when it came to sex. I feared the possibility of being naked in front of someone else, of exposing myself in such a vulnerable way—after being hurt in the past. I feared that no one could ever desire me in that way because of the things I’d been told before, and the things I’d been telling myself for so long. In this way, sex became a daunting undertaking, something I both craved and dreaded. And it seemed that with each passing year, it only became more of an impossibility.

Enter a man. An old friend, someone I had years of history with, whom I’d known since childhood. We reconnected over drinks and then started spending more time together and I knew fairly quickly that he was interested in me in a romantic way. There were no games and no uncertainties—both things that had plagued my past experiences. This was different than other interactions I’d had. It also became clear that he was interested in having sex with me. This felt earth shattering. I was thrilled and excited, but also terrified. I obsessed over how and when to tell him that I was a virgin, and played out possible scenarios of how he might react. Would he, reviled by me, go running for the hills? I assumed that this virginity thing would be a deal-breaker for him.

When I did finally tell him, in an awkward and overly dramatic conversation—as is my way—he was surprised, but surprisingly unfazed. At this point, I’d come to really believe that losing my virginity was a far greater issue than the act of having sex itself. I was 25. I’d been around the block, so to speak. I believed there was no great mystery for me when it came to the mechanics of it. It was a natural thing—no big deal.

I told him all of this. Sitting in his truck in a Target parking lot, I told him that I wanted to have sex with him too, because I wanted to know him better, in that way.

He leaned over and kissed me on the cheek, and said, “I’m honored that you would pick me.”

My heart swelled.

When sex finally did happen, I was surprised by a lot of things. I was surprised by how easy it was for me to undress in front of him, how little I thought about the perceived faults in my physical appearance in the moment. And I was right about how natural sex felt, how we connected and how easy that connection seemed to come. It was not awkward and it did not end in disaster. Most of all, I was surprised to find that the man I was sleeping with wanted me, not in spite of my physical appearance, but that my appearance enhanced his desire. I hadn’t considered this. I’d assumed that when I eventually became intimate with someone, it would be because he liked me enough to overlook my physical self. I didn’t think my body could be any kind of positive factor. For the first time, maybe ever, I felt good, sexy even.

What I was wrong about was how much sex mattered. I’d expended so much effort trying to ensure him that sex was not a big deal for me, afraid he would fear some “clingy” virgin stereotype, that I started to believe my own schtick. But I had underplayed the significance of sex. It did change things, for me and for us. It turns out that once you expose yourself to another person in that way, you become inextricably linked. I’d underestimated the power of this connection, the implication. My feelings and my desires for him exploded, transformed into something I had never felt before, something I am positive only comes with this level of physical intimacy. I wanted him more than I had ever wanted someone.

And I had him for a while. We explored one another, enjoyed one another, and I felt like a new person. I learned what it felt like to be a sexual being and I liked it. I couldn’t get enough.

What I didn’t prepare myself for was when it came to an end. We parted ways as people sometimes do, over a misunderstanding, a mutual inability to communicate until it was too late, emotions were too high. I felt this loss deeply, perhaps disproportionately, given the time we were together and the nature of our romantic interlude. I felt foolish. Bamboozled even. I had given myself and that hadn’t meant as much as I thought it should. I was angry and I was hurt. Rejected. I started to fall back into the old pit, the one where I told myself I wasn’t enough, could never be enough. I realized my friends had been right. The negative imprint of your first sexual experience wasn’t about the sex itself, it was about the feeling of emptiness that came when the sex ended. How much greater the sense of loss became. That was what I had underestimated so fully.

With perspective, it turns out that the significance of sex, for me, resides somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. It bears more weight than I convinced myself it would, that is for certain. But some of the world-shattering aspects have since mellowed as the dust has settled. I see how sex magnifies things, creates connections that are unique to other relationships, impacts the depth of feeling. It changes how you interpret everything your partner says and does, leaves a lasting imprint on the relationship, a shadow that effects how everything moves forward, or doesn’t. I thought being able to “handle” sex, or at least everything that came along with sex, was an issue of maturity, that I was somehow more prepared due to my age. It turns out that sex is complicated no matter how old you are. I think it has to be. It’s sex, after all.

Despite all the complications, my personal experience taught me something valuable: I can be intimate with another person. I don’t have to be afraid of my own body, or what that other person will think. I can be wanted, and I can want and I don’t have to be ashamed of anything. What a strange and lovely sensation.

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