I never planned on influencing anyone to lose her virginity. The idea wasn’t even in my brain’s scope of possibility. I’m a reporter, and as I was doing research for my book on Americans’ alternative sex lives, I never expected to meet virgins.
But in April 2005, I opened an email from a woman who had responded to a post I’d placed on Craigslist seeking people to talk to me about their sex lives. The very first thing “Holly” told me was that she was 23 years old and a virgin. I was shocked. I didn’t know 23-year-old virgins existed in the 21st century. (In a way, I guess that means that virginity after a certain age is alternative sex.) I eventually learned that Holly was a virgin because of her Christian faith and because the man she loved believed in remaining a virgin until marriage vows had been exchanged.
I planned on being a virgin for life.
In part, I could relate. I am a born-again Christian who, at Holly’s age and years beyond, was a virgin and who, like her boyfriend, didn’t believe in pre-marital sex. However, I was born in the 1950s, when saving oneself for marriage was expected and respected. But unlike Holly, her boyfriend, and even my 1950s peers, I never dreamed about, or even wanted, marriage. I planned on being a virgin for life. I moved from Lufkin, Texas to New York to Los Angeles, and through all my moves, my virginity remained neatly packed.
After two years in Los Angeles, though, I briefly returned to Lufkin for a graduate school internship, which had me spending interminable time with my conservative Christian family. Under their constant control, I grew angry and a bit rebellious. In fact, I call what happened after that my teenage rebellion — just 10 years late. I started hanging out with a crowd that my family considered fast, and suddenly virginity seemed . . . unimportant. Archaic. Silly.
It wasn’t that my belief in Jesus had changed. It’s more like my belief in my family had. In fact, I trusted Jesus more than my family. I wasn’t sure my family would still love me if I weren’t a virgin, but I knew Jesus would love me no matter what. So I decided to lose my virginity, as if it were a task to be marked off, and then I could move on with life.
Losing my virginity was memorable only in that I repeatedly called out “It hurts” and, immediately after, my sex partner left. He and I never had sex again. In fact, for more than two decades, I rarely had sex. That was particularly true after I moved back to Texas, where I was bound again in familial judgment and guilt.
Holly wrote at length about how her virginity had become a burden to her, but she had mixed emotions about losing it. She no longer believed she needed to wait until marriage, but she was still in love with the Christian man, despite the fact that they’d broken up long ago. She dreamed that someday they’d get back together, and she feared that if she lost her virginity to someone else, her virginal man would no longer want her.
Holly’s and my email correspondence dwindled as I focused on the truly alternative sexers who contacted me — swingers, kinksters, cross-dressers, and more. But the following June, just as I was emotionally exhausted from my time with my alt sexers, I got an email from Holly. In it, she asked if it was a testimony to her lack of willpower that she just wanted to “have sex for the sake of experiencing it” and stated that it was “almost a battle of willpower” to see how long she could “maintain this virtue.”
In July, she emailed again and rambled for pages and pages before saying, “I feel that since talking with you, I have been able to better understand my own perceptions of sex and what I am willing to accept about myself.” By the end of that paragraph, she wrote that she’d spent the last week in New York City with a man she’d known for two weeks. “He also carried me through my first time having sex, actual penetration.”
I stopped. I stared blankly at my computer screen. Finally, I forced myself to read on.
“I know this may come as a shock to you . . .”
Shock wasn’t the word. Though Holly felt fine with her decision, I felt horrible — as if I had been the one to take her by the hand, introduce her to a stranger, and say, “Here, now, go have sex.” I kept hearing in my mind the words from Matthew 18:6, “If anyone causes one of these little ones — those who believe in me — to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (NAS). I felt like that’s what I’d done, and what I deserved.
Melodramatic? Yes. But I don’t think my feeling was all that atypical for a Southern Baptist-reared, born-again Christian from a small town in east Texas and enmeshed in a family of conservative Christian women who haven’t had sex in decades and whose mother called French kissing “gross.”
I became concerned about the effect I was having on people. I started worrying that some of my other sex sources were doing things to entertain, impress, or shock me — or at least get my attention. After all, more than one of my sources’ sex practices escalated in daring after we started communicating.
Holly disappeared out of my life. Years later, when I reached out to her again, she told me it was because we had nothing else to talk about — she’d lost what had made her unique. She also told me she was no longer happy with her decision. The Christian man she’d loved had rejected her after he found out she was not a virgin.
But Holly wasn’t the only one who lost her virginity after talking to me. A 35-year-old man named “Chris” also did. Worse, he lost it to a prostitute. Again, I felt responsible and guilty. Now, nearly eight years later, Chris tells me that communicating with me didn’t cause his decision — it only sped it up by a few months. But back then, I felt like an influencer.
Today, though, I’m not so sure I feel bad about it.
I have my own guilt and “sin” to worry about, because as my research moved on, I ended up getting too involved in my sources’ lives. I began to have a sex life with some of them. Then my book came out and my family learned that I’m not a virgin, and proverbial hell broke loose. Though some of my family members stood by me, others told me I wasn’t a Christian, that I was going to hell and taking everyone who read the book with me. Even those who stood by me told me never to have sex again.
To my sadness, I haven’t. In part because I haven’t had the opportunity. In part because I’ve made sure I haven’t had the opportunity, since I don’t want to be rejected by my family — and because I don’t want to disappoint those family members who stood by me.
But when one reader of the book emailed me after she’d read it and said that the book had given her, at 36 years old, the courage to come out as lesbian, have a relationship, and lose her virginity, I felt pride — not guilt.