cw for relentless self-exposure and sex mention.
In the first essay of Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl, “Take My Virginity (No, Really, Take It)” Dunham writes about the intersection of sex and identity, recounting the tale of her first sexual encounter with a collegiate friend, its dull aches, its odd noises. Of virginity, she writes, “I was sure that once I let someone penetrate me, my world would change in some indescribable yet fundamental way.” How permanent virginity feels, she notes, but the absence of it is something altogether different – not a permanence or a freedom, but a void.
I had sex for the first time at twenty-three years old with a co-worker from McDonald’s. I’m not really sure why, even to this day. Perhaps to get it over with. I had spent the last two decades self-assured that sex was something meaningful, powerful, even, that the act of copulation formed a lasting bond between two people. This was probably the reason for my rushed engagement and hasty break-up a year prior – the tense, uncertain, embarrassing even, feelings of urgency when I was around my boyfriend, with whom I was convinced sex without paperwork was impossible.
As a teenager, I didn’t understand sex. I was sixteen and it was 2005 before some incredulous classmate of mine informed me a man has to be hard in order for sex to occur, and at nineteen, in my third quarter of college, my best friend drew me a diagram of where a clitoris is. Suffice to say, I probably wasn’t ready.
I don’t remember many identifying details of the boy I “lost my virginity” to. His hair was brownish. His eyes were some light color. I remember he smoked too much weed and his taste was sharp and bitter. We went to a bonfire together. It seemed agreed upon beforehand that we were going to do it. When it was time to have actual sex, he did so without any great urgency, his sleepy eyes stoned, but he made rapid thrusts. It didn’t really hurt or feel intense or feel like much of anything. Afterwards, he put his clothes back on, got in his mini-van, and drove off to meet with his friends.
I didn’t feel different like I thought I would. I had at least expected the floodgates of womanhood to open, a surge of power and prowess. If not that, a loss, perhaps, of some pure innocent part of myself. How permanent virginity feels. And yet, it was as easy as that, the putting on and taking off of clothes. What changed around me was not myself, but my environment when members of my small community heard I’d slept with the somewhat-younger man. I wasn’t in particular sorry or uncomfortable until I was branded the ostensibly shameful half of the Madonna/Whore dichotomy. How strange, as a woman, to be divided into parts, never seen as whole, but fractured by the men who enter and exit your body with such rapidity.
To what end, virginity, the very concept thereof? I spent my youth and upbringing, and even currently believe in and practice Christianity. Sex, then, is described sacred – a bond between two people who love each other. Monogamy isn’t particularly practiced in the Bible – men often had multiple wives, where women were bound to one man or stoned. Even the great love and sex story of Song of Solomon is a little tainted when you realize Solomon had some hundreds of concubines. Is sex only sacred in marriage, but not between a King and his concubines, a john and a sex worker, a boyfriend and girlfriend, or two co-workers? I don’t really know.
Recently, I talked to a somewhat older friend from church about feeling some kind of emotional connection to my ex-fiance because of the sex-ish stuff we did. While not technically intercourse, the emotional connection we had made the memories more powerful, meaningful. She told me I had left a part of myself with him, but I didn’t buy that. If he had some part of me, I said, he ought to give it back. She told me he couldn’t, so I concluded that he didn’t.
Perhaps we inject meaning into situations on the basis of our emotions at the time, before and after. The boy I lost my virginity to didn’t love me, but my ex-fiance did. I could, back then, have had a casual conversation with him that meant more than the entire act of sex with someone else. Lena Dunham sums up the final intersection of sex and identity coming only when she utilized both in her art. She says, “I wrote that virginity-loss scene almost word-for-word in my first film…When I performed that sex scene, my first, I felt more changed than I had by the actual experience of having sex. Like, that was just sex, but this was my work.”
This is true of my writing and art, too. Things often become meaningful for me only after I put them down into words. The act of creation is the missing ingredient. I can process, feel, and experience the same events, but more slowly, with more control, using language and association to enact a meaning that was never there without it.
Perhaps the exception to this rule was California Boy, the one that got away. With him, the sex mattered because I loved him. Art, then, is the substitute for love.