I learned a lot about sex when I was growing up. Thanks to my liberal Manhattan private school education, I had some form of sex ed every year of my life starting in fifth grade. Countless classes led by middle-aged women all too eager to unveil the mysteries of human reproduction to precocious tweens and teens taught me how to fend off the unpleasant sexual side effects. I know the pros and cons of each available form of contraceptive, from the Pill (highly effective, but it’s hard to remember to take it every day, plus it increases the risk of some cancers) to the diaphragm (you don’t have to worry about weight gain the way to do with hormone-based birth control, but it can sure kill the mood when you go off to the bathroom to insert it) to Depo Provera (no pills or contraptions, but you have to go to the doctor every three months for a shot). I know how to put a condom on a banana. I know what a dental dam is – though I really wish I didn’t.
But after all those years of sex “education,” I acquired very little wisdom about sex. My health teachers began each class with the clause, “When you decide to have sex…” They took for granted that we would know how to make this decision. They never gave us any guidance about how to know when, and with whom, we should have sex. Their role was simply to make sure we didn’t get pregnant before we wanted to, and that we never contracted a disease.
So I tried to answer the “when and with whom” questions by example, snatching shreds of advice from watching television, reading books and magazines, and observing my friends’ behavior. Through these varied sources, I learned that the circumstances of your “first time” were very important – most of my friends, both in real life and on television, were in exclusive, long-term dating relationships when they lost their virginities. After the first time, I gathered, it stops being so important whom you sleep with or when in the course of your relationship you sleep with them. I figured I would follow this pattern more or less: sleeping with my first boyfriend when I was sure I loved him, and then being a little less discerning with the sexual partners that followed.
After I graduated from high school, my perspective toward sex started to broaden. The summer after senior year, I read Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. This novel includes a scene where the narrator, a pensive college student named Jack Burden, is about to sleep with his girlfriend, Anne Stanton, for the first time. Their relationship fulfills all the criteria for acceptable pre-marital sex that I had internalized: they have known each other all their lives; they have been dating for months; they love each other. But at the last moment, as Anne is lying naked on his bed, Jack decides not to have sex with her. His decision has nothing to do with a lack of love for Anne, or a sudden fear of unwanted pregnancy or disease. Jack bases his decision not on emotional or physical concerns, but moral considerations. Warren writes,
“‘We oughtn’t,’ I began, ‘we oughtn’t—it wouldn’t—it wouldn’t be—it wouldn’t be right.’ So I used the word right, which came to my lips to surprise me, for I hadn’t ever thought of anything I had done with Anne Stanton or with any other woman or girl as being right or wrong, but as just something that happened, and hadn’t ever thought about right or wrong very much in connection with anything but had simply done the things people do and not done the things people don’t do.”
This passage laid the groundwork for a serious change in my thinking about sexual decision-making. Like Jack, I had considered sex to be something that people did. Accordingly, I assumed that at the proper moment, I would simply do it, too. This scene was the first time I ever saw sex represented as an action that could be right or wrong. Thanks to my countless sources of sexual information, I knew that sex could feel good or bad, and that it could be consensual or forced, safe or unprotected. But I never thought that sex between two healthy, consenting, loving individuals could be wrong.
A few months later, I arrived at Princeton. During freshman fall, I found myself befriending people who, like Jack, saw sex as a moral question. As such, they were waiting to have sex until they married. This astounded me. Of all the different attitudes toward sex my friends had expressed to me over the years – from “it’s like brushing your teeth” to “it’s something you should only do with someone you love and trust very, very much” – “it’s something that should wait for marriage” was one I had never heard before. My sex ed teachers certainly never presented waiting as an option. And the only “waiting” that teenagers portrayed on film and television did was waiting for their parents to leave the house so they could get busy. Even my mother told me that she and my father had slept together before they married, and that she hoped I would do the same. “You should know a person on every level before you decide to marry him,” she said once, over dinner.
The more I thought about it, though, the more waiting made sense. When you have sex with someone, you are naked in front of him, completely exposed, committing the one act in all creation that two people must do together. I understood my mother’s well-intentioned advice that I know my future husband on every level before we choose to spend the rest of our lives together. But having sex with a person when you’re still deciding whether or not to marry him involves some risk that you might not end up with together until death do you part. I didn’t know if I could experience this unique connection with a person and then walk away, whether it be the next morning or two months later or several years down the road.
My own experience was starting to confirm the suggestion that sex was an overwhelmingly important experience that might be best saved for marriage. I had dated only one boy in high school, and over the course of our three-month “relationship,” we only kissed once. (I realized why when he introduced me to his boyfriend the summer after freshman year of college. But that’s another article altogether.) Though I thought about sex a lot in high school – when I would have it, whom I would have it with, what kind of lingerie I would wear – no opportunity arose for me to actually consider having sex.
When I came to college and started going out on my first dates, however, having sex stopped being a fascinating thought experiment and became a realistic possibility. But as soon as sex became a reality, I knew that for me, it was not an option. I would get upset when relationships fell apart with guys I had only kissed – I couldn’t imagine how I would react to having sex with a person and then saying goodbye. If sex is the ultimate experience of connecting with another person, I found it hard to imagine myself committing this act with multiple people in a lifetime. After the first few sexual partners, doesn’t sex start to loose its meaning?
In some ways, it has been very, very difficult to not have sex. I’m an emotional, hormonal, young woman whose body has been ready to reproduce for almost a decade. It’s really hard to look at someone you’re attracted to, someone you trust, someone you love, and tell him you just want to make out. And waiting is difficult on a deeper level, in a way that lingers long after the “heat of the moment” urges pass. At the end of the day, most people subscribe to the sexual ethic that I absorbed in high school: that sex is simply something people do. If Point polls are any indication, only about twenty percent of the Princeton student body is even considering waiting for marriage to have sex. Deciding to wait to have sex means seriously reducing the amount of potential people to date. When I told my best friend from high school about my new attitude toward sex, he wished me luck on finding someone to go out with me. And indeed, whenever I find myself in the midst of a flirtatious conversation with a cute boy at dinner, or in precept, or at a party, I have to stop and wonder, “Is he going to be ok with not going ‘all the way’?”
But when I think of the alternative, sometimes waiting seems like the easiest thing in the world. My sexually active friends are nervous every month around the time of their period because they are worried that they might be pregnant. This anxiety is not a result of their ignorance about birth control, nor of their refusal to use it. They are as educated about sex as I am, and are careful to use the safest and most effective forms of birth control available. But taking a pill or putting on a patch does not provide complete peace of mind. One friend, who is not even sexually active now but has been in the past, says she still feels relief every time she gets her period – the fear of unwanted pregnancy is so habitual that even when she is not having sex, it’s there. And that’s not even getting into the sticky emotional issues that come with having sex before marriage. Even Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw, who hardly blinks before adding a new hunk to her roster, once asked, “Even if you take all the precautions and emotionally try to protect yourself, when you crawl in bed with someone, is sex ever safe?”
A few months ago, I tried to explain to a friend of mine why I was waiting for marriage to have sex. I spent about twenty minutes rambling through all my reasons, and when I finished, he said, “So, you want it to matter.”
Yes. That’s what it comes down to. I want it to matter. And after thinking about it far too much, I’ve realized that the only way for sex to matter – and to continue to matter, even after the first time – is to wait for marriage.