When I think back to my own first time, it is exactly the opposite experience of what I’d want for my two daughters.
The episode was impersonal, rushed, uncomfortable and—I realized later—emotionally damaging. Suffice it say, I wish I could take it back.
I haven’t yet talked to my daughters, who are still too young for such stuff, about my inaugural sexual experience. When the time comes, I will. To hear what they think about it, certainly, but also to have an honest conversation with them about sex.
This may surprise you, but my wanting a do-over is not the same thing as a proof-positive argument that abstinence is the only course for teens to consider. Instead, I’ll describe my poor choices in hopes they might illustrate how not to go about things. I’ll stress how I’ve had to live with the memory of my first time for decades now. It will always be my memory. I wish I’d waited for someone more worthy of the honorary headspace. I hope they’ll choose differently, and I’ll say as much. I hope they’ll refrain from physical intimacy until it’s more than a random act of friction between two unclothed bodies.
I’m writing this anonymously so I can tell you frankly about my first time. I think I’d hold back otherwise, or maybe not even go there at all.
Like this woman, I was raised in a very religious home. There was a disconnect between what I was being taught every week in Sunday school and what I observed about life in general. I was always a girl who felt too old for her age; I didn’t relate to other kids and their concerns. I couldn’t wait to grow up and get out of the house and strike my own path. I considered my virginity to be an obstacle and an embarrassment. I thought it was something annoying to be shaken off, like shoulder dandruff or unwanted advice. I playacted at being tougher than I was.
And being something of a control freak, I decided I would choose the time, the place and the person—someone who would not get emotionally involved. With methodical, almost medical efficiency, it was over before it had begun. His best pal and my closest friend waited downstairs in my family’s rec room, bored and watching MTV, while we did the deed upstairs in my twin bed. They were well aware of the proceedings. They didn’t have to wait long. The rest of my family returned from an evening movie about an hour later. We kept watching videos, as if nothing had happened.
And nothing did. Afterward, I didn’t feel relief. I felt emptiness. My church schooling caught up with me. I’d cast my pearls, and they’d been trampled underfoot. Only it was me who’d helped step on them.
You may think my story is an excellent test case for why teens and sex don’t mix. But I think it’s more complicated than that. Yes, I devalued my own rite of passage. I didn’t honor my own body. But I had other high school friends who were happy with their choices, who really loved their boyfriends or girlfriends, who had positive experiences and who were not at all ashamed about giving and receiving pleasure.
We forget sometimes in our determination to protect our children that they are human beings, too. People with urgent feelings and open hearts—hearts that are perhaps more susceptible to loving deeply, simply because they have yet to be battered, disappointed and betrayed. In some ways, their love may be more authentic because of it.
As adults, we nod patronizingly at the first blush of passion and immediately overlay our lacquered hindsight onto our teenagers, who are in the initial throes of it. Because we know the outcome already—or think we do—we grow impatient with their delusional declarations of “forever.” We rightly worry about consequences, believing we can already see the inevitable conclusions to youthful dalliances. We disregard that our kids cannot. We forget what it is to travel life’s road for the very first time, not being able to anticipate what’s around the next bend. Which is, of course, both the thrilling and the dangerous part.
As parents we hold impossible positions. It’s our job to provide guidelines and set boundaries and serve as impassable walls to what’s forbidden. We fully understand our children will rebel and make their own decisions at some point. We hope our stony enforcement delays that first insurrection.
Yet, if we’re honest—really honest—when we close our eyes, we can remember with a bemused smile that first attractive young person who really made our hearts beat. We can reach back and realize we actually were ready for more than what we believe our own kids are ready for now. Of course, from our wise perches we also spot our own oblivious, stupid moves—ones that sometimes make us shudder at the recollection.
But there’s something else: When we were young and trying to figure out how to live in this world, we fought loneliness, just as adults do. We longed to connect with someone just like us. And, yes, be loved. We wanted more than anything to know what it was to explore that love, to cross some essential threshold into knowledge.
We all have a timeline for growing up. For many of us, like me, the growing got bumpy. If I could have known the future, I would have seen an intense love coming my way just a few months down the road after that empty first time, one that ultimately broke my heart. I wish I’d waited for him, even if the outcome would be exactly the same. Yes, there was sex, but there was more than that, too. There was the thrill of riding on the back of his motorcycle in the moonlight, feeling young and alive. There were shaky pronouncements of deep feelings and spooned embraces. There were sultry summer nights. At 17, I was a quivering nerve ending, feeling everything—a trait I eventually learned to partially cauterize out of self-protection. (Don’t all adults do this, to some degree?) And while it all blew up in our faces before I left for college, I wouldn’t take any of it back, not even the painful part. And why would I? Sure, I got hurt. I really did. But I also gained and grew so much from the experience. I took one more step toward true adulthood because of it.
It won’t be easy watching my own girls venture into the adolescent land of first discoveries. Certainly not now, when so many kids dismissively reject dating for mass hooking up, and universally consider oral sex as innocent foreplay and not the real deal.
Of course, I intend to duly set guidelines (and serve as that impassable wall to what’s forbidden)—this goes without saying. I’ll also advise them to wait until they’re truly ready to take on the emotional and physical ramifications and responsibilities of being sexually active. I hope that will mean age 20 or 21. But I’m too pragmatic not to suspect it will be sooner.
I’ll also try to remember—as best as I can from almost 30 years’ remove—what it was to be a young person giving her heart, soul and body for the first time to another. I’m not so sure anyone can assign an age, or a specific number, to when exactly that should unfold. Because, ultimately, I’m not my daughters. And it’s their story to write, not mine.