The Clock Striking TwelveBy Anna Wood
March 28, 2012
Prior to our firsts, we call ourselves virgins. Afterwards, we call ourselves people. This transition serves as one of the basic story arcs in western literature, the crux of our mythologies and our odes, the drama of our novels and climaxes of our plays. It has formed the backbone of our libraries from the time of parchment to the age of the printing press, and it remains a viable tale even in the age of the e-book.
It’s this last that’s more than a little difficult for me to comprehend—how virginity can still be so commonly utilized as a plot device, let alone as an element of political discourse or moral diatribe. How we’re still eating it all up, artistically, ethically, emotionally. Virginity and the untimely sacrifice. Virginity and the honorable preservation. Virginity and the religious imperative.
The “loss” of my own “virginity” (we’ll get to the language of all this in a minute) was nothing if not all-American. I was sixteen years old, sprawled out on my back in my own stuffed-animal-strewn bed in my own bedroom, while my POA-wielding aunt and uncle were out of town for the weekend. With me was my dreadlocked boyfriend of a couple months, seven or eight years my senior, a guy who rode a motorcycle, had gauged ears and an AFL tattoo on his forearm and was still living with his mother. (I’d left my own mother at the age of thirteen; let this serve as a trustworthy clue as to Ian’s and my respective developmental curves.)
We used a condom from the box that I’d purchased, giggling, from the 7-Eleven on the little island that I was living on, a neighborhood-sized island connected by a little bridge to what passes for downtown in Tampa, Florida, an island that features two gas stations, a flamingo-themed diner and a pharmacy in addition to a plethora of palm trees and skateboarding twelve-year-olds. (I spent my last two years of high school stuck in a small southern town and suburbia all at once.) The guy at the convenience store, from whom I’d otherwise pretty much only ever purchased Crystal Light Slurpees and chewing gum, told me to “have a nice day” in a tone that had me cracking up for weeks. (It reminds me of the time, more recently, when I picked up a pack of birth control at my local pharmacy in Istanbul, and the clerk automatically told me to “get well soon” as I walked out the door.) After some thrashing, some moaning, and some cuddling, we got dressed and motorcycled out to a rock festival, where Ian heroically lifted me onto his shoulders so I could see the stage. I think Incubus was playing. If not them, the moral equivalent. And that was that.
That this particular that, then, happens to be one of the primary motivating forces of the western literary canon (pretty much without exception up until let’s say 1950), that this particular that occupies hallowed, un-usurpable ground in all post-Genesis Abrahamic scriptures (not to mention the hearts and minds of their various adherents), and that this particular that can still (still!) work up presumably well-intentioned, warmhearted mothers and fathers into a rabid, frothy, vitriolic frenzy is both awesome (in the Old Testament sense) and untenably silly. What’s even more remarkable than the longevity of the virginity myth is its tenacity in remaining relevant even after the publication of a work like Naked Lunch, not to mention, say, the onset of the internet.
The virginity myth is one that, like all good ideological pillars, is sustained and justified on multiple levels, some obvious and others much less so. The first and arguably most insidious of these is the virtually unquestioned, just-shy-of-universal notion that virginity is an entity to begin with, a thing that can be lost, saved, treasured or wasted. That is, the idea that the precoital human (or woman, at least—the word comes from the Greek for “maiden,” and its application to men as well as women is a more recent phenomenon) inhabits a discrete sphere that is fundamentally and inarguably separate from the one s/he will go on to occupy once penis/vagina comes into specific, scripted contact with penis/vagina.
Crucial to this myth is the societal dismissal—particularly before the civil rights advances of recent decades, but continuing even today—of same-sex encounters. Confession: Ian wasn’t my first; he was just my first boy. My actual first time was a tryst that occurred three years prior to that, with my eighth-grade girlfriend Bianca, one of those magical females who goes home from school one afternoon as a gangly pre-teen and shows up in homeroom the next morning as a full-fledged woman of the type male teachers are afraid to look in the eye. With her, I explored the first non-maternal curves of my life, her skin framed by the grimy shower stall at some booze-scented marina on the Gulf Coast of Texas, everything dripping. But because that interlude involved fingers and tongues only, it didn’t officially qualify in my mind, even though I came with her and not with Ian, not that first time. The narrative I inherited, the story society taught me to tell about myself, would always privilege the penis plot, with its template of fear, blood, and attainment. Sex of the sort legitimated by the MTV-saturated, red, white and blue world I grew up in, sex of the sort that justified belt notches, involved more than hands and mouths. If a boy had done to me what Bianca had, he would not have “scored” a “homerun,” and I would not have been “deflowered.” (Florists: my tulip was intact.) And Bianca herself, inspired perhaps by the contemporaneous insistence of the overtly sexual Britney Spears that she was as innocent as her little fans, vocally defined herself as a virgin after the event. Myself, I didn’t find myself revising my own autobiography, recontextualizing and redeeming, until ten years and a slightly larger number of men and women later.
A virgin, then, according to the myth we’re weaned on, is something other than a human being. And though virginity often collocates with childhood, the two are not synonymous; virginity is a realm one can choose (or, if particularly unappealing, be forced) to inhabit until death. Remarkable, too, is the fact that the concept of virginity, particularly the female variety, is unrelated to orgasm, unrelated to sensation or experience at all. Nor is the myth linked to individual agency; sexual assault is a perfectly valid path out of virginity, and no less damnable in the eyes of those helpful members of the peanut gallery who go around damning people for that sort of thing. This purportedly transformative moment that ushers us into the fold of humanity proper is thus unconnected to a) age, b) subjective experience, or c) volition. And yet it is considered, or at least widely presented as, perhaps the most important gateway we pass through to become true members of society; priests and old maids aren’t sequestered away in the cloisters and solitary cottages of our collective imaginations by any accident. As a culture, we simply can’t approach the permanently celibate (let alone celibacy itself).
You can drop out of college. You can become a drug addict. You can beat your spouse. These are foibles, stumbling blocks at best. You can do any or all of these things (indeed, you can do much worse) and still be considered a fully functioning, participatory citizen; you can become Bill Gates or the president of the United States. But there will never be a virginal CEO of a Fortune 500 company; there will never be a president who’s yet to consummate his/her relationship with the First Lady/Gentleman. Virginity, for the electorate, by which I mean for us, is a psychological dead end that, after a certain age, weirds out society (again, us) about a thousand times more than criminality does. Catholics put their faith in Augustine because he philandered first.
With the acknowledgement that the virginity myth is founded neither upon age, nor upon pleasure, nor upon free will (not to mention its traditional disconnect from queer and solo sex acts), what are we left with? What defines this great bridge we’re to cross (but not too soon, and not with the wrong person, and certainly not before marriage or, if we’re going to be really permissive about this, at least within the bounds of a monogamous relationship)? We’re left with a penis entering a vagina, invited or not. This, we have been brought up to believe by our novels, our films, our poetry, our temples and our teachers, is the indelible act that transforms us from virgins into humans. This is the clock striking twelve. This is the fairytale ending. This is us becoming who we are.
It’s surprising, when examined in this light, just how goddamned convincing these various media and mediators have been in disseminating this message. They’ve got us all convinced that until a cock and a cunt team up and get their groove on in this one particular way, we’re imprisoned in a liminal space, unable to cross over into proper personhood. Skin on skin. A ritualized handshake. And then we’re human. And then our lives have begun.
When I try to pinpoint the moment my own life began, I’m struck by a number of competing memories, each vying for the position of zero on the timeline of my adult consciousness. Prominent among them is the morning when I, then twelve years old, opened the door to my mother’s bedroom before school to ask for lunch money, only to find her passed out on the floor, naked and mottled purple, with seven emptied bottles of polysyllabic prescription pills with distant refill dates waiting to be discovered in her bathroom sink. There’s a good argument that I became a true human being the moment I picked up the phone to call 911 and recite the name on each burnt sienna bottle for the calm voice on the other end of the line, which assured me that help was on the way. But it could have been later. It could have been when I finally got out of that house and refused to go back. Or it could have been when the aforementioned aunt and uncle plucked me out of the string of halfway houses and boarding schools that I was being shuffled among, bringing fifteen-year-old me into their home on that little neighborhood-sized island and asking me to try and be a kid again. With that permission to belatedly revert to childhood, maybe I formally set foot into adulthood. Or, no, let’s be realistic. It was probably when I got my drivers license and a car of my very own and could go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted. That was the hallmark of grown-upness in my analysis from the age of maybe four, and there’s a good chance that little-kid me was right.
Or maybe it was none of those at all. Maybe it was way before that, when I started picking out my own clothes, or using the stove without supervision, or maybe it was the moment when I gave myself official permission to keep secrets, to have private thoughts. I’ll never know, not really, and in all likelihood neither will you. What I do know for certain is that my personhood did not commence on the morning that I invited my twenty-something-year-old boyfriend over to put his penis inside my vagina. (And while sex with Bianca was better, I can’t honestly call it transformative, either, particularly once I admit that I didn’t even realize it could potentially represent a moment of transformation until well after the fact.) I crossed no dramatic threshold there among my teddy bears and tossed-aside underwear. Don’t get me wrong; I had fun, of an awkward sort, and I was excited about doing it again, and better. But there was nothing—in either event—that came close to the transformation in my sense of my own individuality, my agency, my rights and my responsibilities that occurred when I stuck the keys in the ignition of my car for the first time and drove away—drove to wherever, because of whatever.
And yet there is no cultural concept of the pre-vehicular life, nor is there a term that describes the stage of life that commences with the terrible enlightenment a child experiences when she realizes, in the wake of her mother’s attempted suicide, that her life really will only ever be in her own hands, then and forever, for better or for worse, ready or not.
Each of us can divide our lives into stages of pre- and post-. The idea, though, that the pre- will be pre-heterosexual vaginal sex and the post- will be post-heterosexual vaginal sex, and that the event that divides the pre- from the post- will be formative and irrevocable and, above all, meaningful, is sheer fallacy. That we are, all of us, one thing before and another afterwards is simply untrue. Ask around. Take polls. Question the mythology.
It’s easy, if not particularly heartening, to understand the emergence of the virginity myth, its roots in the establishment of property and paternity. Recall Rousseau:
“The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society.”
He was also the founder of the virginity myth, dragging a woman into that enclosed piece of ground, erecting walls around her and demanding she cook, clean and breed for him and him only. The utility of conceptualized virginity in a patriarchal system is clear, and its accordingly prominent role in the artistic, religious and philosophical works of such systems is easy to comprehend, as well. (If you’d like it to be even easier, try going back and reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles absent the fawning commentary of your high school English teacher.) What’s less clear is why we’ve continued to let it remain relevant, why we still consider it important to us personally, why it’s accorded such status in our conceptions of ourselves, such a climactic place in the stories of our lives. This is clear least of all in the case of women, who also seem to be the most likely to buy into the importance of chastity, of the “first time,” of making the right choice because the choice supposedly can never be made again.
Why do we still give credence to a concept that tells us that a thirty-three year old woman whose active sex life consists of self-pleasure and gloriously smutty porn is a virgin, but a raped eight-year-old is not? Why do we let such nonsense linger in our brains, inform our art, color our spiritual evaluations? It’s not beyond us to move past even what seem to be our foundational cultural beliefs—when’s the last time your doctor suggested that the cause of your anxiety/stomach ache/STD was an imbalance in your humors? Who’s the last global-warming denier you heard argue that geocentricity be taught alongside creationism?
The transition from the pre-heterosexual-vaginal-sex moment to the post-heterosexual-vaginal-sex moment in someone’s life may indeed be huge, transformative, awakening. But it may not be. It may not even occur. It may exist just as a prelude to an alternative rock concert in sunny Florida. The significance of our experiences, the status of our persons, need not be dictated by concepts handed down by an outmoded patriarchy and the horrendous legacy of the Thomas Hardys who’ve painstakingly explained to us what becoming a person (as opposed to a virgin) means, and how great the risk, how dangerous it all is, how we must be very, very careful and put our trust in our father and our Father to undergo the transition correctly, cleanly. The first time doesn’t need to be a big deal. For most of us, it probably wasn’t. We were not (necessarily) born in that moment. It’s time we discard this dichotomy that is increasingly meaningless, increasingly anachronistic, both rid it from our own personal self-conceptions and free our songs, our stories and our epics from its pat, predictable denouement. The myth has run its course.
We aren’t virgins and then humans.
We are children, briefly, and then we become ourselves, and that trajectory has as many iterations as there are bodies on the planet.
 Relevant examples in each category: Jeffrey Eugenides, any recent high school comedy; the Republican primaries; your next-door neighbors lecturing their teenage daughter.
Anna! Brad was not lying about this piece or you–what a fascinating, cool, auspicious, freaking EXCELLENT debut (or TNB “deflowering,” as it were)…and dear god, yes, “Jeffrey Eugenides.” Seriously.
Thanks, Gina! That means a lot coming from you. I love your new Sundays over on The Rumpus, by the way.
What a wonderful piece! Gina, I had the very same reaction when I saw Eugenides’ name ( and one I still insist on pronouncing it in Spanish)
Thanks for reading, Bibi! I think there may well be a silent majority on the Eugenides issue.
I literally read this and dropped the F-Bomb.
An amazing piece.
Thank you for this essay– those last two sentences are particularly marvelous. I’ve found that the longer I live without ever having had sex with someone, the less it matters, but I’ve never quite been able to articulate why until I read this.
@Markham and @Jess, I’m so glad you both connected with this piece.