Scarlet is a 24-year-old who lives in New York.
Jia: Hi Scarlet! Okay, let’s take it from the top. Tell me about your childhood and family?
Scarlet: I grew up in the Midwest, in the suburbs outside a large city. I have an older sister, my parents got along well. All of it was pretty normal.
What were you into as a kid?
I really enjoyed dance. In retrospect, since I was kind of a chubby kid, I think my parents subtly encouraged dance class as a way of losing some of that weight. But I liked it! Then in middle school I started getting into the Internet. I was really into Pokemon fandom. Lots of forums. Pokemasters. Pokeschool. Yeah.
So you can infer that, for awhile, pretty much all my social interactions were online. But then, toward the end of middle school, I found good friends, and in high school I sort of got off the Internet and became a more social person. An IRL person, if you will.
Over email you said you were raised Catholic?
Yeah. But no one ever told me to keep my virginity until marriage. Or maybe they did it so sneakily that I didn’t even notice? I don’t think Catholicism has anything to do with why I am the way I am, although a few of my friends think I have subconscious guilt going on. With my parents’ blessing, I stopped going to church in high school, and at this point they're mostly concerned that I’m happy and paying my rent.
So what was your early understanding of sex like?
I remember in first grade people were already talking about it without really knowing what it was. Later on, I learned a lot through fan fiction. There are things called “lemon fics,” which are explicit, and “lime fics,” which are sexual, but tamer. In middle school, I wrote a lot of fiction that had sex in it, having no idea what I was doing, just wanting so badly to be an adult.
And then of course there was sex ed in school. First in seventh grade, and then again in high school, when it was less about the mechanics and more about, "here is a never-ending stream of horrifying photos of venereal disease."
Those photos are awful. Also, I’m not sure that they’ve ever done any good?
Definitely not. You don’t kiss someone and get turned on and suddenly start thinking about venereal diseases.
So in high school, were your friends having sex? Was the issue on the table for you?
Both of my best friends freshman year were dating seniors, and they both lost their virginities to those guys. And although both were super sarcastic Daria types who made light of the situation, I could tell that it hit them on a level that was deeper than they’d admit.
As for me, I had boyfriends, but the guys were very considerate and shy. I actually wanted them to be more aggressive with me, but they were very respectful and always let me set the boundaries, which in retrospect I’m grateful for. But, of course, at that age, when someone is holding back from you, you feel like they’re doing it because you’re not desirable, so I was also dealing a little bit with that. And I wasn’t comfortable being openly sexual yet.
Sounds like you just weren’t ready, and you knew it?
I guess! I remember reading The Color Purple when I was sixteen and the main character describes looking at her vagina and I thought, well, I’ve never done that before. And I did it, and I was like, WHOA. I hadn’t really watched much porn at that point. I’d mostly read erotica because it was easier to slip past my parents.
Soon after that, my friend was talking about masturbation, and I told her that every time I touched myself it felt sort of weird. She said, “It’s going to feel weird. You just have to move past it, and when you orgasm, you’ll know.” So one day I knew my parents weren’t going to be home for awhile and I got out the good old Internet erotica and just went for it. And it was awesome, that first orgasm. There’s an Erika Moen comic online where she talks about how after you orgasm you just feel this great appreciation for your body, that you alone can feel this good without anything else, no drugs, nobody.
So, it’s true that I didn’t feel that much of a need to explore sex in high school. Even at that age, the media had sort of impressed upon me that guys aren’t going to give you orgasms — that sex as a woman is often physically unfulfilling. I felt that I’d figured out the best part of sex by myself.
Interesting! Okay, so what about college?
I went to college in New York City, and there was this guy I really liked. When we were freshmen we got drunk and started kissing, and we were going back to his room and I told him I was a virgin and he stopped dead in his tracks. He said, “I’m not going to have sex with you if you’re a virgin because virgins get attached.”
I remember being really shocked. I’ve heard that again since then, from guys, but that was definitely when I got the idea that I couldn’t tell anybody I’m a virgin.
You also said you worked at a sex store. Was this around the same time?
Yeah, I worked at a sex store during the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of college. I couldn’t find a job anywhere else, and my dad wasn’t too happy about it, but he wanted me to earn money and so he acquiesced.
It was really interesting. The store had a binder full of descriptions of all of the toys; they made you do a lot of research before you started selling to people. I became extremely book-smart about what people liked in general before I knew what I liked in particular. But I learned. I had a 50% discount, so I bought a lot of the toys, and that’s when I discovered that I liked anal toys. I got really good at selling those to people.
But I didn’t tell anyone at the store that I wasn’t having sex. I had a boyfriend at the time, so that made it easier to just sort of pretend we were doing it. I thought maybe my coworkers would be offended that I would sell sex toys without knowing what I was talking about. And anyway, I heard so much about sex from all of them that it was easy for me to pretend. Also, I wasn’t totally inexperienced.
Let’s talk about that! You’ve had oral and anal sex, and you enjoy both. How did that start happening?
Well, a lot of it came through experimenting with those toys. I actually never really played with the vaginal toys because I was like, let’s save that area for a real dude. I decided that anal sex was a good idea after I figured out that I could access my G-spot really well that way. And there was this situation: I was hooking up with a guy back home during the summer that I really liked, and I wanted to do something more than what we were doing, but I didn’t want to have sex with him because I knew we weren’t going to be in a relationship.
So we developed a routine. I’d come to his place, he would cook me a steak with blue cheese on top, and then we’d have anal sex. It was awesome! He asked me if I just didn’t do vaginal sex — and I said yeah, without telling him I actually had never done it, that I was a virgin.
Do people ever tell you that you’re not really a virgin?
I definitely know some people would say that, but I do consider myself a virgin.
Do you see your distinction between penis-in-vagina sex and anal/oral sex as grounded in a fundamental idea about one physical act being inherently more meaningful than the other, or do you see this distinction as an arbitrary personal boundary?
Yeah, I think it does stem from a distinction of vaginal sex being more meaningful than anal/oral, but I feel like that's sort of natural? I mean, at the root of it, vaginal sex is at least imitating the act that ends in conception and babies and making a whole 'nother life. Which, while totally awesome, is also some heavy shit.
Also I've heard from the Internet that women, after sex, get more attached to a guy because of "bonding hormones" (to be honest, I've never really looked into this scientifically, so this might just be me being a bonehead), and I'd rather not release a rush of commitment-hormones onto a dude who's a flake.
Part of this is that I haven’t been in a real relationship since high school. I don’t know if it’s just NYC or me, or what. I just see so many guys being total assholes to my friends, who are spectacular, and I don’t think I could deal with that. If I went out and lost my virginity to a guy and he didn’t call me back, I think it would emotionally affect me, destabilize this professional life I’ve built for myself.
And if someone is a jerk after you hook up without crossing that particular physical barrier, it feels like less of a blow?
I think so. Also, I do want to satisfy the people that I’m with, at the same time that I don’t want to cross my weird, personal boundaries. I’ve read about people who do the same thing that I do, but they’re religious and doing it for legalistic reasons — and I don’t identify with that, really. I think my head’s in a different place.
Do you consider yourself a sexually cautious person?
This varies wildly from day to day. There are long stretches when I am not sexually active at all, and I’m fine with it. Some days I do just think, “I’m going to go out tonight and fuck someone.” But I usually end up reminding myself what I really want, which is to establish trust with a person first.
To a lot of women, your perspective might seem like a reversal, right? Having anal sex would be the thing that would require a lot of trust and consideration.
Yeah, totally. I mean, you do have to vet the person first; it’s never something that just happens accidentally. It takes a little bit of time.
But I guess that you can never really know what’s going on with people. Especially with OKCupid, which is basically hetero Grindr now that they have the “who’s in your neighborhood?” feature. You never know how many people anyone else is seeing, what else they’ve got going on.
So you’re on OKCupid?
Yeah. I actually have a date tonight. One of my resolutions for 2013 was to kiss more boys! It’s a nice date too, well-planned, a step up from that normal weekday casual thing.
If you find yourself super attracted to this guy tonight, would you go back to his place and go down on him, or let the opposite happen?
Hmm. I’m not sure. Also, it depends on how many drinks I’ve had!
Isn’t that the truth. Do you talk about being a virgin now or do you still feel as if you need to hide it?
Well, I realized at some point that it’s not fair to withhold this information from guys, for many reasons — one of them being that knowing my sexual history might explain a lot about the way I am with sex and relationships. Although I’m definitely capable of hooking up with someone casually, I think I’m also searching for a relationship more seriously because of being a virgin.
I’m also at a point of being very comfortable with who I am. I used to lie about my virginity so that I could participate in those conversations when everyone is just telling funny stories about sex. But now I’m open about it with my friends, and if I do feel more than just a casual thing for a guy, I will tell him. Of course, not on the first date or anything.
Where do you stand now on your virginity? Do you feel anxious to lose it, worried about keeping it, totally indifferent to the whole thing?
It depends on the day. I really do hope that when I lose my virginity, it’ll be with the right person, someone who knows and understands me. I hope that it will mean something. But also who knows? Maybe I’ll have sex for the first time and it will mean absolutely nothing. Anything could happen!
Can you say more about that? Like, what if it really does feel like it means nothing, or what if you begin to feel like intimacy is even MORE messy and potentially disappointing — are you ready for that as a possibility, and where would that leave you?
I'm sort of prepared to be physically disappointed with vaginal sex, seeing as I've heard enough about "the first time not being as great", etc. (Also it's not like I've never touched the inside of my vagina; there seems to be less nerve endings there than my anus, and it's just not as pleasurable/intense for me.)
Maybe I'm keeping that intimacy at arm's length on purpose, though? Probably because I know how badly I can get hurt when I just give a guy I like a blow job and he doesn't call me back (though this is not true for all blow jobs, there are plenty of dicks I've sucked and been like "meh"). As I said, I've got a pretty great life right now — lots of awesome friends, good career, good housing situation, a vibrator that seemingly never dies. I've worked out a comfortable balance for myself that doesn't really include sex with a partner in the equation. I guess I'm worried that if I throw sex into the mix, it'll unbalance everything, as when I "fall for" a person I become a little bit obsessed (which I think is natural but maybe I am an undiagnosed crazy person).
But then again, who knows? Maybe I won't "fall for" the first guy I have vaginal sex with at all. I thought the first time I gave a blow job was going to be a big deal and it totally wasn't. If I get drunk and decide to go have sex with some rando who I'll never see again and I don't get pregnant or anything, maybe it won't even matter. I go back and forth on it. I can talk a big game about waiting for someone I trust, but ultimately, if I meet a guy who I think is hot and he's diggin' me, and I don't ever have to deal with him again, maybe that would be ideal. There are guys I've screwed around with on the regular, where we both know we have other partners, and I was fine with that — I didn't fall for them. I do IDEALLY want my first time to be with someone I've "fallen for", but I could easily see myself just one day going "fuck it" and finishing the deed with a guy I haven't fallen for, but who I still trust.
Ultimately though, I don't know how it'll happen, and I don't know how I'll feel when it happens. I hope that it'll be satisfying, and I hope that I'll still like the guy afterward, and I definitely hope he'll still like me afterward, though obviously things will have changed — though how they'll change, I don't know. I hope I'll be ready for whatever I discover post P-in-V encounter, though that might be why I'm so hesitant to just go through with it: it's just so uncertain how I'll react.
Jia Tolentino is a writer in Michigan.