You don’t realize how much people talk about sex unless you’re not having it. Seriously, I should know; from the age of around 15, when my peers started having sex, to the age of 25, when I got married, I got used to being the only person in the room who was deliberately abstaining from sex.
That’s roughly a decade of laughing at jokes you don’t understand. Of looking away from the group when people start the “tell me about your first time” discussion, hoping they won’t get to you. Of the awkward, “So, here’s the thing . . .” moments on dates. Consistently, the hardest thing about not having sex before marriage was not the decision itself but rather other people’s reactions to it.
Just like anyone else’s decisions about their sex lives, my choice to abstain was influenced by different things at different times: Sometimes my motivation was profoundly theological, but sometimes it wasn’t much more complex than a stubborn instinct against being pressured into doing something I wasn’t sure about yet. The one consistent view I held that entire decade was that sex mattered, that even if the whole world was telling me it was just casual fun I knew that my heart craved love and commitment first. Had I tried to pretend otherwise I’d be doing it more to please others than myself.
So I was prepared to wait—even if that meant never having sex. I didn’t know for sure whether the right guy for me was out there, but I was sure that however awesome sex was, it couldn’t be so great that it would make up for the heartache of giving someone my all and then it not working out. I watched friends fall for guys and convince themselves that they were cool with having sex because that was what the guy wanted, all the while secretly hoping the relationship would blossom into some great romance. I watched them get hurt over and over again pretending that they were having fun because it’s all supposed to be so fun, right?
As a teenager I distinctly remember describing the kind of guy I was “waiting for" when justifying why I wasn’t interested in hookups—or even boys in general at that stage—to a friend after drama class one day. She looked at me with disbelief and said, “That’s nice, but you’re never going to find someone like that!” At the time I laughed it off and said “I’ll invite you to the wedding.” But later it dawned on me that I would rather be single my whole life, holding out for someone totally awesome than lowering my standards.
There were many times as a young adult in a world full of porn and sexualized media when I was very grateful for my sleaze filter. I found that deciding not to have sex with anyone before, say, the tenth date, let alone before marriage, is a great way to weed out some of the least desirable men on the planet. And then there were a few other times it broke my heart to tell an otherwise wonderful man that our views of how relationships were supposed to work were just not compatible.
One boyfriend complained that he felt like he was in a childish relationship because he couldn’t have sex. He was the same guy who claimed he didn’t like to say “I love you” too many times because doing so might “wear it out.” I guess I should have thanked him then and there for making it abundantly obvious that physical “maturity” didn’t equal emotional maturity.
Perhaps the hardest part of people’s judgment was that even well into my twenties, I felt like on some level many people didn’t see me as a fully fledged adult if they knew I was abstaining. I often wouldn’t tell people because I liked the way it felt for them to assume I was “normal.”
What astonished me was how unwilling others were to accept that I had made an informed choice simply because it was different from what they were used to. In an age when choice is supposedly supreme, my choice didn’t fit with the cultural narrative, and so it wasn’t viewed as valid. People will make you feel like your life is incomplete without sex, like you’re missing out. They’ll patronize you and pity you, to the point that you might even start to wonder if there’s something wrong with you for feeling like you can live a totally fulfilled and happy life without sex. A well-meaning friend once offered to buy me a vibrator for my birthday, saying in a tone of commiseration, “I thought it might make up for the fact that you can’t . . . you know . . .” Face. Palm.
The thing about being judged all the time is that it can wear on you. By the time I met my husband I had almost convinced myself that I wouldn’t ever meet the guy for me. I had almost bought into the lie that I would never find a kind, attractive, interesting man who made me laugh and was also willing to wait until whenever I was ready—even until marriage—for sex. The din of disbelief I heard for so long had convinced me so thoroughly that meeting him felt like some kind of huge cosmic joke. And then on a picnic one sunny spring day sitting next to a man who was better than any 15-year-old girl could dream up, it dawned on me that I had made a choice back then and stuck to it. To say that I was happy with the results would be an understatement.
Photo Credit: Nirav Patel