Ariel Levy on the rush to lose her virginity at fourteen, recalling: “Nobody would gasp if they heard a fifteen- or sixteen-year-old had lost her virginity. The clock was ticking.”
Photograph via Flickr by Laura Smith
When I was fourteen years old, I decided it was time to lose my virginity. Precocity had always been my thing. As an only child, I spent most of my youth around adults, which made me sound sort of like one. By early adolescence I had become so accustomed to being told I was mature, it seemed obvious to me that this next benchmark had to be hit early in order to maintain my identity. I was curious about sex. But mostly, I had a reputation to uphold. (I was pretty much the only person interested in this reputation.)
The first—and only impressive—expression of my precociousness was when I insisted on learning to read in nursery school. I loved talking and words and once I could write them down I was a step closer to becoming myself. The upside of being a verbal kid is that adults often think you are bright, but children have another name for such a person: nerd. I realized, as I was going through puberty (early), the necessity of shifting my focus from doing things that would impress my parents and teachers to engaging in behavior that would strike my peers as cool. I started saying “like” constantly. I smoked pot when I was twelve. I dropped acid when I was thirteen. Losing my virginity was the next logical step.
The thing I badly wanted wasn’t sex but to be rid of my virginity, the last vestige of a childhood spent trusting and respecting adults, seeking their approval.
It’s not that these things were necessarily fun. Well, the pot, actually, was great—unless you are reading this and you are twelve, in which case it was awful. But the acid was a classic bad trip, during which I thought I heard the breathing of dead people. With sex as with drugs, my interest in the entity itself was far less potent a motivator than my fervent desire to transform myself from tiny dork into Janis Joplin. It felt like my job. I needed to do things that would make people gasp. Nobody would gasp if they heard a fifteen- or sixteen-year-old had lost her virginity. The clock was ticking.
I had a beautiful boyfriend when I was fourteen, with whom I was thoroughly infatuated. Josh had dark blue eyes and long, curly brown hair, which was (prematurely) streaked with silver. He hung out on the steps in front of our high school with other boys who smoked cigarettes and, occasionally, joints in the bushes. Both of our sets of parents were slowly but surely separating, and both Josh and I were paradoxically desperate to assert our independence from them by mimicking the very expressions of rebellion they had taught us. We listened to Neil Young and Bob Dylan. We wore tie-dyes. We read On the Road and The Prophet. When Josh and I started going out I felt that I had been delivered from my isolation, my uncoolness, and my family. It did not occur to me that I got the ideas for my outfits from photographs of my mother taken at a time when she looked happy to be with my father.
Josh and I were unstoppable in our pursuit of ’60s-inflected accessories and experiences, but we were timid about sex. On the occasions when we found ourselves alone in bedrooms or on couches, our bravado dissipated and we became children again, unsure of what was expected of us. We did not have a lot of lust to guide us. We found each other attractive, but we were so young neither of us had ever experienced clear erotic desire. The thing I badly wanted wasn’t sex but to be rid of my virginity, the last vestige of a childhood spent trusting and respecting adults, seeking their approval. Josh, I knew, was as confused about what this entailed as I was. I never brought it up. It was all we could do to get past second base.
After Josh broke my heart, my great regret was not that I had lost my virginity to him, but that I hadn’t. If I was going to be lovelorn, at least I would have liked the consolation of being able to brag that I’d had sex. So, when I was fifteen, I started going to bars with a pack of girls who went to Catholic school in Manhattan and knew how to get fake IDs. We would go to crummy dives in the East Village to drink beer, listen to awful bands, and flirt with grown men.
The experience was so underwhelming, so strikingly devoid of the blissful, painful, or intensely emotional sensations I’d been promised, I wondered what was wrong with everyone for imbuing intercourse with so much import.
Once, I gave my number—or, I should say, my mother’s number—to a bassist with black hair who was twenty-seven. I can’t remember if he took me to dinner or to hear music, but I’m sure I had to be home by eleven, and that our conversation was stilted and humorless. I saw him only once. I was impressed by his advanced age and how shocking it would be if I told people he was my boyfriend, but even I knew that this was not enough grist for a relationship.
I met another guy who was funny and went to film school at NYU. He was twenty-two and had a tiny apartment on Great Jones Alley and I thought he might make a suitable boyfriend, or at least a suitable deflowerer. He was older, he’d done it before, and, I had been told, all men were dying to have sex at all times, so it would be easy enough to get him on board with my project. It was harder than I thought. He was eager to make out and grope, but to my surprise and disgust, he seemed very uneasy about engaging in actual intercourse once I admitted—in the most blasé terms—that it would be my first time. It is possible this young man had located the term “statutory rape” somewhere in the back of his head. Or, perhaps his father or mother had warned him that girls get attached to their first lover—you break it you bought it, or some such. But his reluctance was no match for my romantic poetry: I told him that he didn’t have to worry about me falling in love with him, and that if he wouldn’t sleep with me I’d find someone else who would.
As it happened, we split the difference. He agreed to have sex with me and, to the best of my knowledge at the time, he made good on our deal. The experience was so underwhelming, so strikingly devoid of the blissful, painful, or intensely emotional sensations I’d been promised, I wondered what was wrong with everyone for imbuing intercourse with so much import. But I was thrilled to be done with it. I was fifteen years old and I had lost my virginity, ahead of everyone else’s schedule, if not my own. Or so I thought.
I don’t remember what we talked about, but it didn’t matter. It was clear to all of us that this was special, that we would remember it, and that the night could end only one way.
For the following year I told anyone who asked that I was not a virgin. I’d had sex, I’d done drugs, my parents were getting a divorce—I was not popular, but you couldn’t say I was prissy. Then, the summer before I turned seventeen, I went to work on the kitchen staff at a hippie sleep-away camp. Every morning I got up early to set up the hot cocoa station; every night I put the chairs on top of the tables and mopped the dining hall floor. In August, I had three days off, and one of the counselors and I got in her battered car and drove through the thick summer air from New Hampshire to Cape Cod.
Her boyfriend was in Provincetown, living out of his van, which he parked in the woods outside of town. We sat with him on Commercial Street while he played music for money, and scorched ourselves brown on the beach in the afternoon sun. When night fell, we went with him to a store called Firehouse Leather to meet some of his friends who sold belts and moccasins to tourists. One of them was a tall guy named Austin with a sand-colored ponytail. I noticed he was looking at me a lot, and I didn’t want him to stop. When my friends and I walked away, I turned back and caught him still staring at me, which made us both laugh.
We had a bonfire on the beach late that night. I sat in the dunes with my friend and her boyfriend and the staff of Firehouse Leather, drinking beer and watching a meteor shower flickering in the dark above us. I don’t remember what we talked about, but it didn’t matter. It was clear to all of us that this was special, that we would remember it, and that the night could end only one way: my friend would go back to the woods and I would walk down Commercial Street in the dawn with Austin and get into his bed.
When we had sex, it became clear to me that in fact, I had never had sex before. What had happened on that futon on Great Jones had been a failed attempt; the young man from NYU had not completed my mission. This, now, was something else. It was uncomfortable, then pleasurable, but most of all it was different. It was different from the plodding loneliness of high school, and from the harrowing, cyclical fights with my parents that had become our routine. It wasn’t boring, and it wasn’t uncomplicated, and it wasn’t like taking acid. It was something that was better to do than to talk about doing. It was a door to another place, another way of being that didn’t have to do with language. It would take me many, many years to understand what I wanted from it, but I was so glad to know it was there.
Austin wrote me long letters that I read by the brown lake back at camp—I think I still have one in a hatbox somewhere. I saw him from time to time over the years, when I went up to look at the college he attended in Massachusetts, and when I went back to Provincetown for summer weekends in my twenties. We would sleep together once in a while, if we both happened to be single, and sometimes even if we didn’t, until eventually we both reached the age when you stop wishing you were older and more worldly and start wishing you could be young again.
But he could have been anyone. I wasn’t looking for love, though God knows I needed it. I was looking for myself. I knew so little about sex I imagined I’d experienced it years before this was true. But I knew that sex was a way to discover and communicate who you are. I don’t think I was wrong about that.
Ariel Levy is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where she has profiled the South African runner Caster Semenya, the Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, and the lesbian separatist Lamar Van Dyke. Her work has also appeared in The Best American Essays 2008. She is the author of Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture.
This essay is an excerpt from Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex, edited by Erica Jong and out from HarperCollins this month.