Me: I’m sorry! It’s just not going in!
Him: Don’t worry – we can always try later…
Me: I’m really sorry! I’m just so scared! (Sobbing. Tearful search for bra.) What if this never works?
That was me and my now-fiancé during one of many abortive attempts to have sex for the first time.
For years, I viewed sex as something like the Ark of the Covenant in “Indiana Jones”: immensely powerful and great beyond belief, but if you tried to use it in an unrighteous way the wrath of God would melt your face off.
I grew up in a church which, like many churches, taught us that sex before marriage was Wrong with a capital W. To their credit, they also taught us that sex within marriage was brilliant, but still. This was a church where one of the pastors hadn’t even kissed his wife until their wedding day. We also learned that in courting situations (we were discouraged from the secular institution of dating; “courting” was the spiritually safe alternative) girls should also dress modestly because men’s thoughts so easily fall into temptation. Although a heated moment could seduce us into wanting sex ourselves, the message was that boys wanted sex and girls shouldn’t give it to them until the wedding night. A quick scan through my own experience, however – especially late at night – would have revealed that girls could feel the pull of temptation just as much as boys.The nature of that temptation was never really discussed. The few teenagers in the church were too embarrassed to ask about it; I know I was. It also didn’t help that this was a church full of middle-aged and elderly Asian people who did not talk about sex.
My mom is third generation Japanese, my father is second generation Filipino, and they never discussed sex at all with me. They never even told me where babies came from, choosing instead to leave that to my elementary school. Like many middle-aged Asian women, my mom was and is extremely open when it came to biological issues (her account of having endometriosis will haunt me forever — the words “needle” and “womb” should never be in the same sentence), but would shut down completely whenever questions about sex arose. When I was 12, I asked her whether sex always hurts for women. She answered with something vague about “the body making it easier because it’s wet,” and looked more awkward than I’d ever seen her. Even in my mom’s inappropriate jokes, sex was dangerous. She once theorized that James Bond’s secret weapon is that he has HIV “and he’s infecting all those women”.
So I stayed a virgin – technically speaking, of course. I did what I referred to as “stuff” with high school and college boyfriends, which (as girls from conservative backgrounds will know) encompassed anything up to but not including penetration. Or, in other words, what I thought I could get away with. When it came to actual sex, I was going to stick it out until marriage or spontaneously combust in the attempt. To be honest, though, it wasn’t just a spiritual issue. The thought of putting anything up there made my body clamp up. I couldn’t even use tampons. The one time I tried ended in panic and a waste of three bucks.
I held on to that resolve and fear even as more and more of my girlfriends started Doing It, or – when I got to college – had already Done It.
Does it actually hurt the first time? I wanted to know. Or is that just something people say? What was it like?
In a nutshell, their answers were: Yes, no, and initially painful, then really good.
Somehow, the only bits of advice that stuck with me were the parts about pain. I managed to convince myself that it made sense for sex to start out as a trial to be undergone before the pleasure could kick in. Of course it would hurt, I thought. Sex couldn’t be easy, especially if you’re not married yet.
These were the fears lurking in my brain when I went off to graduate school and, within a few months, started dating my fiancé M.
His legs were so long … and the way that he carried himself … his deep voice and old-fashioned-but-not-posh British accent … and oh my God, his cheekbones!
This was not just a man I might be able to spend the rest of my life with. This was a man I could see myself sleeping with – and, in my fantasies often did see myself sleeping with — forever. Even if I hadn’t originally planned to have sex before marriage, I’d never met a man like M before and probably never would again, so I should do whatever it took to hold on to him.
But was I just trying to rationalize desires that were spiritually wrong? If we did have sex and for some reason broke up in the future, would I feel unclean or lose a piece of my soul? If I tried to go through with it, would a blast of righteous fury melt my face?
The first month of our relationship mostly consisted of copious amounts of groping and nudity. The questions didn’t go away, but the groping and nudity drowned them out somewhat.
M knew I was a virgin. He’d had a couple of partners before (long-term girlfriends) and saw sex as a serious step in a relationship. And although we were both eager to engage in as much physical contact as was humanly possible, he wanted to give me all the time I needed.
When Month Two rolled around, I thought that time had come. It’ll be okay, I told myself. You just have to get this over with. That should have been a red flag, but what did I know?
He had the condom on. I was wearing the knee socks that he liked so much. Clothes were coming off, and his housemates were out of town.
As soon as we achieved genital contact, though, my muscles tensed up. All those questions, all that past advice, came flooding back. What if it hurt? How much would it hurt? I’d never had anything that size try to enter my body through such a small space. Was I doing the right thing? Or was I embarking on a path of spiritual Wrongness from which I could never turn back?
To quote Liz Lemon, a sage of our times, it was “like Fort Knox down there”.
I started to cry, but I tried to keep going. M insisted that we could try again later; there was no rush.
After I got dressed – through hysterical sobbing – I couldn’t stop apologizing, even though he told me there was nothing to apologize for. I couldn’t let go of the feeling that I’d disappointed him somehow or failed to deliver what he wanted from me.
Even getting one finger inside me was an undertaking. The first time M tried, I screamed. I pushed his hand away and curled up in a ball. All I could think about was the possibility of pain.
But M let me know that he had my pleasure and happiness at heart, and made good on his promise to stop what he was doing whenever I called for it. Knowing that we could stop at any time actually made things a lot easier.
And we talked. We talked about my nervousness, what I’d been taught regarding sex, what I was afraid of, and what I wanted to do.
It began to dawn on me that I thought of sex as an obligation – a breach of my morals that I had to commit in order to keep a man. It was easier to tell myself I was doing this because he wanted it than to admit I wanted it just as much. On the other hand, it was impossible to deny how it felt when M touched me or when he took off his shirt. So how were my morals were really being breached here?
I had to do something I’d never done before: I had to figure out what I personally thought about sex. No seeking the approval of others. No relying on lessons I’d learned as a teenager but no longer adhered to. Just me and my brain and my body.
It was one thing to decide that sex was an expression of love and respect. It was more difficult to conclude that since M and I loved each other — regardless of our marital status — maybe it was okay for us to get nasty in every single room of the house – not just because he wanted that, but because I really, really wanted that too.
One year into our relationship, it happened. By that point, we’d decided to move in together and were already discussing the possibility of marriage in the future. If I could open up my life to this man, I decided, then maybe I could also open up to him physically. And although it was uncomfortable at the start, after a few days of recuperation we were on our way.
I’m not saying our sex life has been 100 percent perfect since then. A few years ago, we had a health scare that turned out to be due to a simple size difference (apparently when a lady is very short and her man is quite tall and well-proportioned, just ramming it up there can cause serious cervical discomfort) and we’ve had our share of experimentation-related mishaps.
But that’s OK; I know we’ll be able to work it out. Not just because M loves me or because I have a ring on my finger – but also because, when it comes to sex, I finally know what I want.