Will is a 26-year-old guy who lives in Seattle and works in higher education. Every week, he tries to read at least one book and watch one movie. His hair has been black, blonde, blue, auburn, and mallard-colored. He’s lost around 60 pounds in the last 18 months, and his father was once nearly attacked by a tiger.
Jia: Good morning Will! Thank you for talking to me on this nice Sunday, taking time out of your day of worship.
(Will had just made it clear to me via email that he is not a virgin for religious reasons.)
Will: Haha. Actually, where I grew up — 30 miles north of San Diego, right next to a wild animal park where giraffes and rhinos and elephants wander around on the fake savannah — there were, at one point, 140 churches for a population of 100,000.
J: Everything you just said is amazing to me. You grew up on a West Coast savannah? Did you get to hang out with the animals?
W: Definitely. When I was in fourth grade, my school built an annex right next to the park, and we’d have biology classes there.
J: Wild animals and a church on every corner!
W: Yes. But I never went to church or thought about it much. My parents — who are working class with no religious traditions — always said, “You leave people alone, let them do what they want.” At the same time, religion was everywhere. There were a lot of Mormons, big families with seven kids and counting. One day in middle school, I asked my parents why I didn’t have a religion. They told me that I could have one if I wanted. “Okay,” I said, “how do I get one?”
“You get up and go to church on Sundays and you pray,” they told me. And I didn’t think that sounded like fun.
J: How did this environment influence the way people started to date and hook up and think about sex?
W: Well, my friends were big nerds, and not all of them were religious. One was so vocally anti-fundamentalist that he got himself punched in the nose by a soccer mom! But what we all had in common was that we were not the guys that knew what to say to girls. We were not the guys that girls actively tried to date. So I never felt any ownership in that arena, never felt that sex was even a possibility for me. And my parents didn’t get it. Some nights they’d kick me out and say, “Okay now, don’t come back 'til 2 A.M.” They had a hard time believing that I had never drank or done drugs, that I was such a genuine goody-two-shoes.
J: So even with full license, you never felt interested in any of it?
W: No. I’ve got a tendency to go to dark and absurd places with my mind, and I dealt with anger management problems as a kid: for example, I once tried to choke one of my friends because he wouldn’t stop making fun of me. Because of all those things, I was not interested in situations where I could lose control.
Also, my weight had something to do with this general hesitation. I was really heavy as a kid, and though I went up and down in high school, I didn’t start really losing the weight until the summer before college, when I started having regular panic attacks that only went away if I biked everywhere, all the time, like 10-12 miles a day.
J: Wow! So, tell me about college. For so many people — like me — college represented a new sexual culture, an opportunity to start over and change certain things. Did you look at it this way?
W: Well, yes, but for a lot of reasons. I’m a first-generation college student. Actually, I’m the first man on my dad’s side of the family to not become a plumber. So I didn’t know what to expect, and in the midst of experiencing those panic attacks, I tried obsessively to anticipate everything, to plan every aspect of college out beforehand so I could control my experience once I got there.
But beginning at orientation, I became attached to my past through this self-imposed tagline: “not a kiss, not a sip, not a puff.” I think I actually got quite a bit of attention from girls because of this, but I didn’t recognize the attention as flirtatious — or, when I did, I was afraid of it. I had no frame of reference, so I just didn’t respond.
J: I’m realizing that I have not asked this question to the women I’ve interviewed — sorry to love you so much, gender norms — but what about porn? Were you watching it? Did it allow you to deal with sexual frustration in an easier, less complicated way?
W: Yeah, I’ve looked at porn since I was about eleven and found my great-grandmother’s Joy of Sex, which is hilarious. But I actually abstained from masturbating for the first few weeks of college. I wanted to stop relying on it, and I thought I might find a person who I could start a sexual relationship with — which did not actually happen.
J: Why not?
W: I’m still inventing reasons why not! I’m a master of self-sabotage when it comes to sex. But here’s what it boils down to: I’ve always wanted to be the opposite of disappointing, to be as strong and smart and beautiful as I could be when that moment happens.
And I’m a romantic. I never understood how “like” turns into “love,” and I have trouble pursuing relationships if I can’t imagine them becoming real love.
J: So for you, sex is intertwined with love. I feel you on that, but not all people would agree. How much has your virginity been an issue with girls you’ve dated?
W: My dating history is shallow. There was one girl in college who I really connected with, and we started to get physical. The night after we had our first kiss — my first kiss ever — she came over to my room, slept over. I performed oral sex on her, even though I didn’t know anything about her that I couldn’t have found out on Facebook. And I didn’t realize how disappointing that would be.
I had pictured this thing between us unfolding like Beatrice and Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing, but what we were doing didn’t feel exciting or playful at all. I found myself sort of bored, sort of horrified by the banality of it. I eventually ended up alienating her with my response to this incident — I wanted us to keep things above the waist, and then I sort of lashed out at her emotionally — and that was it. First and last experience with oral sex.
J: And then you wrote about it!
W: It was a male version of the Vagina Monologues, basically. The first one I wrote was about a time in high school when I came on my own face: this moment of pride and shame where I realized, “Oh, this must be what it’s like to be on the receiving end of someone’s ejaculate.” It made me think a lot about what sex is, what we ask our partners to do. And then I wrote more monologues, other people signed on, and we performed it four years in a row.
J: Did you write about being a virgin?
W: Not explicitly. Although I have definitely swung back and forth between being ashamed of my sexual history and being completely comfortable with it, I’d say that my virginity has always been an albatross in my life.
J: Where are you at with it right now?
W: Well, I’m not trying to stay a virgin anymore. Since around age 22, I’ve been open to sex, trying to re-conceive it as adult play: a thing where we dress up, buy toys, use our imagination. But sex just has not been the first thing on my list; I’ve been trying to get jobs, move places, figure out my life.
In general, I’m just trying to get rid of my sense of fatalism in relationships. Trying to understand that there’s no grand thunderclap of love or sex or certainty that I need to be building up to. That love at first sight doesn’t actually exist, and I don’t need to be waiting for it.
Still, no matter who you are or what you believe about these things, it can just be hard to meet people that you really connect with. And that’s my biggest obstacle.
J: Have you done OKCupid or other things that could lead to a more casual hookup?
W: Yeah, totally. I’m on OKCupid right now. But, although I’ve had some good dates, I really don’t think I’m inclined towards casual sex. I don’t want to just get it over with, like my friends tell me to; I still want to lose my virginity with someone special.
I can also be a really jealous person. Trust for me would be paramount. I had two childhood experiences that I’m not sure how to label — assault, molestation, neither, who knows — and even though those experiences are absolutely not the reason I am a virgin, they play a big part in the distance I keep from casual sex.
J: Wow. Well, first of all, you seem to know yourself really well sexually, for someone that has never had sex.
W: Thanks! Uh, honestly, I think porn has helped. I’ve seen that I’m not attracted to the brutality of mainstream pornography or the idea of casual, incidental sex. I want there to be commitment, a safety net, a promise to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. And that, again, probably stems from what happened to me as a kid.
J: Sure. Are you comfortable talking about it?
W: Yeah, these are the things that make us who we are, right?
So, when I was ten or eleven, my family friend had a pool, which I loved, because when you’re heavy, it’s amazing to feel light and graceful in the water. This family friend had a 15 year old son, and I was being a jerk kid and splashing him, and he said, “If you don’t stop splashing me I’ll put my dick up your ass.” I didn’t know what he meant, but I kept splashing him, and he didn’t exactly do it, but what he did was very uncomfortable. Then he saw I felt terrible and made me a sandwich. It took me seven or eight years to tell my friends, and I’ve never told my parents.
The next thing: I was in seventh grade, working on a science project with two friends. I was excited to have them over, I’d cleaned the house and put out my coolest toys, which included — because it was close to Halloween and my parents went all out with scary and intense decorations — a pair of working handcuffs. I handcuffed one of my friends to the furniture as a joke, and he got really mad.
So, when I let him out, he handcuffed me to my bed, and he and my other friend were just standing over me and saying, “Hmm, what are we going to do to you?” and they decided. I fought them off wildly for ten minutes as they flicked me on the dick. I kicked and screamed and then collapsed. They uncuffed me. I went to the bathroom, took a shower and sobbed — which, as I learned through getting involved with advocacy groups, was a textbook reaction to sexual assault.
I’ve thought a lot about how these two incidents have affected me, and while they have not determined everything, I know that I don’t ever want to be hurt the way I was hurt then.
J: Wow. Yeah. You are so thoughtful and aware of all of this. Do you ever feel left out of the way male sexuality is represented in our culture?
W: Acknowledging the absolute diversity of sexual perspectives, I do probably know that I’m not nearly as aggressive as most men. I feel like I need permission to hit on someone. I worry that fantasizing about people that I don’t know is wrong. I also can’t wrap my head around the idea of anyone seeing me as a sexual object. I think that’s something that women adjust to, by necessity, much more quickly than men do.
There’s a school of thought that sees male sexuality as — in Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s words — “a dark force streaked with aggression.” I do understand that, I identify with that in a way, but I argue with it. People can call it repression or cowardice, but I think of myself as a feminist and would rather be an ally instead of an aggressor.
J: I think that’s great. I also think your perspective on sex would be really attractive to a lot of women.
W: Sure. Maybe. And then other women would be totally turned off by this degree of introspection. There’s so much intricacy in what people find attractive. That’s part of the reason I like The Hairpin; it gives me little clues about women, feedback that I might be missing in real life.
J: So, what’s next for you?
W: Well, for years, my birthday wish was: let me just get laid. Like it was something that was going to happen to me, not something that I was going to do. Like one day I’d just open a door and be having sex.
But also, I always wanted to travel, right? I always wanted to go abroad, and last year I finally did. And when I came back, I was like, “Wow, I’m the type of person who goes abroad now.” Other countries seem indomitable until you get there, and then all of a sudden you’re speaking bits of the language and the food doesn’t smell weird anymore. So maybe sex is the same way. And so I’m hoping to have sex this year. I don’t think I’ll reach 27 and still be a virgin.
J: I wish you all the luck and happiness in your endeavors! Do not fear the first border crossing; it is really unimportant compared to all the things that will follow.
(Last week, Will sent me another email. He’s seeing someone new, and he’s happy. “I have not lost my virginity yet, but it may not be long for this world,” he wrote.)
Jia Tolentino is a writer in Michigan.