Maya is a 26-year-old woman nearing her first year of residency in a research hospital in Washington, D.C. She comes from a large, loving Arab-American family that goes to church every Sunday and returns to the Middle East whenever possible. She met my friend Clara in first grade P.E. at their private Christian school (both of them were trying to get out of kickball).
Jia: Hello Maya!
Maya: Hey Jia. So you know I’m not like Clara, right? I have no vivid memories of consecrating my vagina to God in middle school.
J: No, I know! Variety of human experience! So you didn’t grow up thinking of sex and virginity in terms of the church?
M: Not completely. I have two older sisters who never tried to shelter me, and I think I saw sex as something that happened in movies, not really a huge deal. I mean, my parents raised us to be Christian, but their traditional framework was almost more cultural than religious. Like, “You’ll stay a virgin until you’re married, because that’s what we did in the Middle East.”
J: That’s really interesting. So even though the country where your parents were born has such a diverse religious heritage, all of those sects and denominations still teach virginity until marriage.
M: Absolutely. In that way, what I heard about sex at home was the same as what I heard at church. And within the Arab community here in America, your social reputation is still very important, and that means behaving a certain way. Dating only Arab-American guys, preferably the ones in business or medicine, and never living with them before marriage.
J: Do you remember ever processing the reason why virginity was such a big part of both your religious and your cultural communities?
M: Ha! Well, you know, I actually do have a really vivid memory of something that — ironically — Clara told me at camp in middle school. We were having girl talk late one night, all of us in our cabin, and Clara said, “Your purity is like a rose. Everyone you sleep with takes away one petal.”
J: That is so funny. And ridiculous! That is an image that would never, ever be applied to male sexuality.
M: But you know, it was fine for me to hear that at that age. I didn’t want anyone in my business!
It’s funny, she probably has no idea how much that stayed with me even until now. “Do you only want to have a stem for your husband on your wedding day?” What an image, right? Actually, one of the first times I ever drank in high school, I found out that one of my sister’s friends was sleeping with someone way younger than him, and I remember just like yelling at him, “You’re taking away her petals! You’re not good enough to be taking her petals!”
J: So did you become protective of your own petals?
M: Gross! No way. I guess I’ve just always had the idea that saving myself made sense, and my experience corresponded to that. The first time a guy felt me up — freshman year, in the school chapel, ha – I didn’t feel like I’d done anything wrong. I just knew that I wasn’t ready for anyone to touch me like that yet.
J: So this wasn’t a “Genie in the Bottle” situation. Your body was not saying "let’s go."
M: Yeah. Throughout the rest of high school and college, as I started to slowly push the boundaries, I would always stop pretty quickly. I never ended up dating anyone seriously, and since I genuinely wanted to save my virginity for the person that would become my husband, I was never very tempted.
J: And that was a personal desire, not a faith obligation?
M: Yes. It does link to my faith, of course. I think of it in terms of the Bible verse describing the body as a temple. Some people use that idea as a source of guilt — but for me it was the opposite. My gratitude and love for myself, my body, and how God made me makes me want to keep full knowledge of it for someone who really loves me and who I really love.
J: Do you think having sex before marriage is a sin?
M: I believe in the Bible as God’s Word, and the Bible says that it is a sin. But I also fully believe — as one of my biggest priorities in my faith — that I cannot speak for God or grade people’s decisions. I have no right to dictate anyone else’s right and wrong.
J: Sure. But sometimes moral issues require a certain amount of dictating, even if just in terms of public policy. You are a Christian and you’re about to take your medical boards. Do you believe in abstinence-only sex education?
M: No. Absolutely not. Teaching abstinence-only is ignorant: there’s no other word for it. But I do think that there’s plenty of room to encourage abstinence, particularly at a middle-school level, and I think teenagers really need to understand that sex carries some serious risks, and that they can and should wait until they’re ready.
J: So. You made it with clarity and without too much temptation all the way through college. What about afterward?
M: That’s when the problems started for me. In the world of young professionals who like to go out, I found that it was almost impossible to find a guy who was cool with not having sex. So for the first time, my virginity became something that I hid. I felt like I needed to be ashamed of it. Maybe I was.
J: You didn’t want to be seen as a prude, or a fundamentalist.
M: Yeah, and I hate that word: “prude.” Whatever I decide to do with my body, it doesn’t mean that I’m not open-minded, and it certainly doesn’t mean I’m consigning anyone to hell.
This is a strange and really powerful burden to have to feel, as a young woman who embraces contemporary life and culture. I don’t feel like I’m an antiquated thinker. I respect and value everything that’s changed in this world for women. Yet if I told most people that I believed in keeping my virginity for my husband, they’d almost instantly see me as a Bible-beating Victorian.
J: I think that’s a fair assessment. I also think that, if women didn’t have to fight so hard to assert sex-positivity and control over our bodies, if a woman’s “worth” weren’t so wrapped up in how closely we follow normative sexual behavior, then you wouldn’t have to be dealing with any of this.
M: For sure. But nevertheless, it was really upsetting to feel like a pariah for my virginity. It made me feel like our world wasn’t nearly as progressive as I thought and hoped it was. Everyone was mounting this campaign, like “GET MAYA LAID,” and I hated it. There were guys who would tell me they were attracted to me but didn’t want to even hook up because they knew it “wouldn’t go anywhere.”
I got to a point where I almost gave in. And afterwards I was furious with myself: that I even considered having sex just to feel wanted. That is what I have always wanted not to do. But that’s where my life was leading at that point. No one wanted me unless I would have sex with them.
So I moved to D.C. for medical school, and I started studying nonstop. Once a month or so I’d go out, drink a ton, and make out with people on the dance floor to deal with my feelings of sexual frustration. It was a protected zone: there was only so far you could go. And then by that point I had fake boobs so no one thought I was a virgin, and that was that.
J: Wait. We have to talk about your boobs.
M: Sure! I love my boobs. Well, after college, when I lost all the weight I’d gained over those four years, my ass was still Kim Kardashian and my tits looked like Mary-Kate and Ashley. And I can say this with clarity because there was no one in the picture, even on the horizon: I wanted those boobs for me. I wanted to look good in clothes. I wanted to look sexy — for me. And when I got them, I was so happy. Everything looked right again.
And listen, I know I give off an impression that doesn’t reflect my sexual behavior. I know how I dance, how I dress. But I have a right to these contradictions, even though I’m aware that some people believe I don’t. I am well aware that our society thinks you’re not supposed to look sexy if you’re not going to follow through.
J: Yes. What a violent idea.
M: But it’s everywhere. I still wonder what kind of a guy would understand that both my sexuality and my virginity are important to me. To this day I’ve met almost no one who understands this. I sometimes wonder if my only choice at this age will be to just go full right-wing and just start dating a church guy who will want me to wear cardigans and stop drinking wine with dinner.
Anyway, the whole “making out with a third of my class at parties” thing was unsatisfying. And then everything changed, my whole life came apart last summer. You know this. I was raped.
J: Yeah. Could you say the basic story of what happened to you? However you want to say it?
M: I was pretty much blacked out. I was at an after hours bar. I was dancing around, dancing on tables. I don’t remember much until I got pulled into a stairwell, and very quickly it went from being a consensual kiss to a full-on attack. It was the guy who had been serving us drinks. I can only remember the worst parts. Getting attacked from behind and screaming, being forced to do things.
My friends found me afterwards crying hysterically. They said I had no color on my face. I don’t remember any of this, but they said that I kept saying that I’d had everything taken away from me. That I wasn’t a virgin anymore.
And I think, even then, I knew that what had happened was anal sex. But it didn’t matter. I’d never thought of virginity as a legalistic act. It was me protecting my body, saving it. And I hadn’t done that. Someone had taken what I’d been wanting, for so long, to give.
J: What happened after your friends found you?
M: Late the next day I went to the hospital. I had my clothes as evidence, they did a rape kit. But honestly, even though I’ve been around hospitals all my life because both my parents are physicians, it was an incredibly traumatic experience. I tried to keep things clinical, but the cops came and they got really upset that I didn’t want to press charges.
They told me, “If you don’t take action, this will happen to someone else.” Which is true, and it broke my heart. But at that point I couldn’t even walk my dog. I could in no way handle the possibility of going to court and hearing him say, “She asked for it. She wanted it.”
And of course I was already assigning myself blame. I kept thinking I’d just ruined my life because I wanted to go out and party. I couldn’t understand how this could have happened when I was wearing such a modest outfit. Even my dad told me that he’d been worried that I’d been drinking too much, which hurt me really deeply. I just kept circling that thought. Is it my fault, is it my fault, is it my fault?
J: Deep down, do you understand that it’s not?
M: Yeah, of course. It is no one’s fault when they’re raped. But it’s going to take a long time for that question to disappear completely from my psychology.
J: Have you felt supported by your friends, as you’ve told them?
M: Yes. Yes, of course. But, you know, people don’t really know how to talk about this. They get uncomfortable when you use the word “rape.” And I don’t want to make people uncomfortable.
I really wish people would understand that the best thing they could do is listen. Listen, and use the same words that I’m using, and don’t give me advice when I’m not asking for it.
J: Are there any resources that you feel are missing, or unhelpful?
M: Well, I was on the Internet a lot right after it happened and I got really caught up into the survivor websites, which I do not think helped me. I became so busy trying to be a survivor — to have already moved past it — that I never really dealt with my pain, and it’s only been recently that I’ve been working things out in weekly meetings with a really wonderful counselor.
And I can’t do support groups yet. I feel alone within them. I’ve never met another girl who was raped by a stranger as a virgin, like I was. And although all of these pains are equally shattering, they’re different. Also, there are almost no Christian women who are coming out and saying they’ve been violated. I would really love to be a part of that when I’m ready, when I’m healed.
J: Would you still define yourself as a virgin?
J: You say that like it’s taken a long time to come to that conclusion.
M: Yes, it has. And even though I still claim my virginity, it doesn’t mean that I don’t feel like I’ve lost something. I’ve lost a lot of my innocence, my true physical innocence. It would be hard for me to say that I don’t feel tainted, that I don’t feel worthy of someone’s love.
But I can honestly say that I would never take back the promise I made to myself and to God. I do not regret that I was a virgin when I was raped. And you know, for awhile I thought I would just start having sex after it happened. But I didn’t, and realizing that — living through every day, coming to see that I am still myself, that the centrality of who I am has never changed — has been a revelation. I still have my promise. I still have everything to give. Yes. I’m still a virgin.
Previously: Interview With a Lapsed Christian Virgin.
Jia Tolentino feels grateful to live in a world with women like Maya.
Image via Flickr/Fractalive