I don’t remember losing my virginity. Not because I was drunk or high, but because it was pleasantly mundane. I can’t remember when it was, or where it was, even who it was with. It doesn’t bother me at all.
These are the things I can deduce: it didn’t hurt and it wasn’t coerced (wouldn’t that make the experience more memorable?), it was a one night stand (probably with someone I knew) and it didn’t happen in my parents’ house. As for the rest, well, I’m happy not knowing. It’s likely to have been a relatively close friend, one of half-a-dozen people that piqued my adolescent interest, but I really don’t recall and I don’t feel like that means I’m missing out.
For years I lied about my first time. I fell for the lie in teen magazines and sex ed classes that said my first time should be special, that I should be in love with my partner and that I absolutely shouldn’t take it lightly. Loss of virginity was a rite of passage and if I could help it at all, I should make the experience capital-S Special because that’s what good girls did.
I didn’t know when I was sixteen that this idea, so prevalent among my peers, was the most insidious of slut-shaming, working slyly and slowly to make us acquiescent. Girls who did it confessed they’d done it because their boyfriend had asked them to, not because they particularly wanted to. They had to: any hint that they’d done it for themselves would label them an easy lay and generate unwanted attention. They’d be pressured to do it again. It wasn’t worth the hassle.
So, at some point between the day I turned fifteen and the day I turned seventeen I went from a person who had never had sex with anyone to a person who had. I didn’t tell anyone. It was a something-and-nothing experience, neither traumatic nor ecstatic, merely unremarkable: an adolescent make out session that went a little further than ever before. I didn’t note the date or the occasion because it wasn’t that big a deal and quietly, quickly the experience slipped through the floorboard cracks of my memory.
It’s probably still there, lying dusty in the crawlspace of my mind, but what value is there in retrieving it?
Memory is a curious thing. It’s made up of snippets of information, cues and associations. It fades, it plays tricks on us and it pulls long-forgotten incidents to the forefront of our minds with the tiniest provocation. Memory doesn’t heed convention or propriety. Got an important exam? Here is the theme tune to The fresh Prince of Bel-Air! Need to get that document in the post absolutely immediately? We’re not telling you where you left it!
I can recall with perfect clarity the first time I slicked on Chanel’s Rouge Noir lipstick but not the first time another person touched my breasts. I remember my first taste of boysenberry jam - Kissimmee, FL., March 1996 - but not my first kiss. Are lipstick and jam more life changing than boob-fondling and lip-locking? To suggest otherwise would be to seriously underestimate how good I look in Rouge Noir.
It is, of course, my mother’s fault. She raised me to believe that sex was just a fun thing grown-ups did, and it was only a big deal if you got knocked up so you’d better not until you can look after the resultant child yourself. She mortified me at the age of twelve or thirteen by explaining, with gestures, exactly how condoms worked. When I was fourteen she moved her stash into the bathroom and made sure I knew where they were.
If I was going to do it, she reasoned, I was going to do it, and there was nothing in the world she could do to stop me. What she could do was make sure that sex was demystified and that I was informed.
Sex ed in Britain in the 1990s was not bad, but it was focussed on the mechanics of reproduction and menstruation. Pleasure, that is male pleasure, was mentioned briefly but consent didn’t get a look in. My Mum covered all of that in her way.
She played me like a symphony. Guessing, correctly, that I would resist talking to her on some subject, she left useful resources ‘just lying around’: Betty Dodson’s sex-positive classic Sex for One, a book of Robert Mapplethorpe prints, a history of erotic literature complete with hilarious 18th century illustrations and a host of others.
For my sixteenth birthday she gave me a book of lesbian erotica. Some people might call that inappropriate, but it provided me with an (extremely pleasant) education. Erotica is more than a list of ways to insert tab 2 into slot C: it discusses the emotional aspects of sex and normalises the sort of sexual behaviours that the mainstream tends to avoid. Perhaps sixteen is too early for some people to read about group sex or see graphic representations of BDSM practices, but if she thought I was mature enough, who is anyone else to say I wasn’t?
My mum did the impossible with a teenage daughter: she made sex boring. She talked about it. She joked about it. She normalised it to such an extent that when it came to actually doing it I was so blasé that the whole thing slipped my mind. I sincerely hope I can do the same thing with my own daughters.