David and I are ‘high-school sweethearts,’ and have been together since the ages of sixteen and eighteen. Neither of us had dated anyone previously, so we had only the advice and examples of others to inform us. We’re both touchy-feely people, but when we first got together we didn’t so much as hold hands for two months, and didn’t kiss for the better part of a year. I think David was nervous about how fast our physical relationship would progress if we didn’t keep a tight lid on our desire, and perhaps he was wiser than I. Once we kissed our physical relationship did, in fact, accelerate.
Thus began the guilt loop.
We would ‘cross a line,’ try something new like kissing with tongue, then promptly freak out and have a deep discussion about ‘backing up’ and returning to previous behaviors. We’d struggle for two or three weeks, but of course, these resolutions never lasted. The next time we kissed with tongue the event would pass un-commented upon. This pattern repeated itself with great frequency for over two years, and it was exhausting.
Worse, the constant boundary checking was having a negative effect on my self-esteem. I viewed sexual encounters as something I “let happen,” as though I were a passive participant in a moral failure. I felt guilty for shirking my gender-given role to suppress the sexual aspect of our relationship. I was terrified of being ‘easy.’ (David eventually disabused me of this notion.) Then I was afraid sexual activity would ‘consume the relationship.’ I’d read books in which girls described good relationships turning sour the more physical they became. With David, however, the drama seemed to be a result of resisting our physical inertia, not succumbing to it.
I knew I wasn’t alone. The internet was full of advice threads titled “Am I still a virgin if…?” and “Am I slut if I….?” The hair-splitting technicality of concepts like ‘virginity’ seemed to illustrate their weakness. No one seemed able to explain “how far is too far,” or give me good guiding principles with which to tackle the answer. No one could say how to “guard my heart,” or whom I was guarding it from. Perhaps most problematically, no one seemed able to tell me how to appropriately express my sexuality. I desperately inquired of trusted adults what I was supposed to do with my sex drive, but I don’t remember ever receiving a direct answer.
In the purity game there seemed to be little beyond running, avoiding, and waiting. I knew David loved me, and I couldn’t see any good reason to move at anything less than the pace of our own comfort and emotions. So we did. This has its own set of troubles, but these are not the troubles I regret. After our third anniversary I was done with ‘boundaries.’ The emotional and physical lurching seemed pointless. By this time, I’d known for awhile that I not only wanted David to be my first, but also my last. In my heart was a notion somewhere between fate and the stubborn confidence that I had, with David, an opportunity to live a life I wanted.
It did cross my mind that I may not marry David, but sexual intimacy seemed like the appropriate next step in a physical relationship tracking emotional intimacy and relational commitment. If we broke up later on, I knew I’d be okay. As it turned out, my first time was somewhat anticlimactic. I didn’t feel new emotional bonds. Not immediately, anyway.
Being with David is a conscious choice. Sex did not alter this; sex affirmed my independence, even as it drew us closer. By experiencing it for myself, I discovered that sex didn’t have to be the emotional napalm they’d taught me about in junior high. It was much less explosive, so much better, and for me–completely undeserving of fear. Perhaps like marriage ceremonies, sex doesn’t create bonds so much as it strengthens and declares bonds already existent.
Despite rejecting notions of sexual purity, I’m not a complete relativist. It seems logical that some sexual practices should be healthier or more fulfilling than others–just as some types of leadership, parenting, or communication are more effective than others. But I feel somewhat bamboozled by the mores of my childhood. When I shed the old values I didn’t just start enjoying physicality without guilt, I felt more confident and less ashamed. I was free to embrace my sexuality as a woman, and gained the confidence to be an initiator. My relationship didn’t deteriorate when I abandoned the old boundaries, it improved in correlation with my perception of myself.
Beyond informed consent and adulthood I have few comments on any sexual or relationship practices. It feels strange to live without a set of overarching sexual values, but perhaps this is a good thing. Instead of trying to construct a societal theory of sexual morality, I can focus on what makes me feel loved, respected, and fulfilled. Perhaps this is not only the ideal approach for sexual morality, but (to varying degrees) for all morality. Because even if some leaders, parents, or speakers are more effective than others, every team, every child, and every audience is different.
This era is unique: it’s the era of love-matches and stay-at-home dads. Race and property don’t necessarily dictate one’s potential mates, and gender roles are fluid. Without religious or historical constructs to outline my criteria for a good relationship, I have only to focus on the needs desires of myself and my partner. What is functional for society will reveal itself.