By Jean Marie S. Place
AT AGE 25, I politely asked my nervous boyfriend to give me my first kiss. He granted the request, but reluctantly. At age 30, I was five measly years removed from the Virgin Lips Club but despite valiant efforts to get married, still quite virgin everywhere else.
So when I planned a trip to Mexico to collect data for my dissertation, I was surprised when a woman from church approached me: “Mexican men are the most persuasive,” she cautioned. “I’ve seen more gringo women pregnant than a few.”
I assured her that I would be vigilant but headed South of the Border anyway, confident that if my history was any indication, I would find myself caught in no romantic entanglements.
At first, the only dating I did in Mexico City was through e-Harmony emails with men living safely in the States. One Navy dentist, stationed on the coast of Virginia, stopped writing back soon after I revealed that I had donated to Obama’s re-election campaign. In my final email to him, I typed in a huff, “I know I have something valuable to give.” Thankfully, he never asked me to clarify; his guess was as good as mine as to just what the “something” was.
Rejection from the right-wing dentist stung. I went to an Institute dance that evening feeling discarded, like an item at the grocery store that had just been returned to the shelf. I sat on a chair next to the wall, but a Mexican man’s soft smile drew me out of myself. He strolled toward me through bodies undulating to salsa music, orbited me closely, and then took my hand in his. He asked me to dance. I followed him to the middle of the floor and with every step sensed I was being led into radically unknown territory.
The next day, he took me to the city plaza and we sat on a park bench as I talked about wanting to visit the pyramids. He kissed me mid-sentence, my finger still holding my place in the guidebook.
He invited me to his grandparents’ large estate the following week. I was surprised to see that the outside wall of the living room was nothing more than a chain link fence. Buzzards and bugs crossed its borders uninhibited. We were upstairs, alone, with four impermeable walls around us when he touched me in ways and in places that set off a brush fire inside my body.
Both of us still fully clothed, I blurted out, “We have to be careful!” I was frantic, but I also felt wanted. The last time I remembered feeling desirable in any way was back in the States when I was trying on jeans at Target, admiring my figure in the dressing room mirror. But if this was kissing—and it was certainly a world away from the half-hearted pecks of my previous life—then wasn’t sex right around the corner?
I extracted myself and sat alone in the guest room, wrestling with equal parts joy and terror. The joyful part was that my “engine” (as a former church leader had liked to call the libido) was purring just as it should. The terrifying part was that I wanted to wait until marriage to have sex. Up until this point, my commitment had not caused me any stress, but now I remembered the warning from the woman at church. Was I a match for the newfound sexuality this man had aroused in me?
One night, in his 1991 Golf, my boyfriend took my left hand and wrapped a plastic twist tie around my ring finger. “Trying on for size,” he said as he reclined the driver’s seat and kissed me. I closed my eyes. My old Facebook profile pictures popped to mind and I ached to be that unwanted girl again. She didn’t know how it felt to have a man touch her this way, physically or emotionally. Electricity buzzed through me. I felt like a cat just loosed from a cage.
Finally, I called my old Institute teacher and threw the facts on the table: First of all, a man I liked liked me back. Not only that, he kissed me back. Before I could tell him about how tenderly my Mexican cared for me, like the time he brought sunflowers to brighten up my research, or the way he would smile patiently through endless selfies of us in front of Mexico City cathedrals, my teacher responded, “Run the other way.”
Was he pointing in the direction of the frogs from my previous dating pool? Returning to half-hearted affection was a safe choice, but it was also the last place I wanted to go. My boyfriend was different. He didn’t just have dazzling footwork and a gift for making really good soup, he also had a sexual self-concept. While I saw sexuality as a sin, he saw it as a spectrum.
If it was a spectrum, how far could we inch forward before crossing into the danger zone? This was a question I would have to answer strategically, I decided. Every move I made in the next few months became a calculated risk. In my journal I began documenting our romantic expressions as if they were forays into enemy territory. I dredged up warnings from decade-old Young Women lessons, admonishing, berating, and reprimanding myself when I felt that I had sallied too far. Guilt, as much as hormones, was stopping me from thinking straight.
None of this was helping. Desperate, I tried asking myself another question: How can I safely explore my sexuality while still obeying the Law of Chastity? Phrased that way, the answer seemed obvious. I had to start talking about sex. Out loud. This was not something I was used to. Church lessons on chastity left me bewildered, blushing, and scared. If a steamy scene showed up in a movie, I covered my eyes. I whispered “s-e-x,” as if it were a three-letter swear word. If others would applaud my purity, it’s also true that I was completely unprepared for a healthy sexuality.
One Thursday afternoon, I sat down at the foot of my bed and said the word “sex” to my boyfriend. I talked about how I wanted it, how it caused a brush fire in my body, and how I was afraid of it. Instead of backing away, he sat with me and talked. Over the next few weeks, we discussed sex until it didn’t feel like an alien force anymore. We also decided that we wanted to keep our commitment to chastity before marriage. In this shame-free space, we recognized that the Sunday afternoons spent in his bedroom served only to dim the lights in our heads, so in the future, we would take late afternoon walks instead.
It turned out that having a spiritual self didn’t stop me from having a sexual self as well. Having a sexual identity didn’t prevent me from remaining chaste while we dated, although it took a lot of talking and many long walks.
And it also turns out that I was right when I told the Navy dentist I had something valuable to offer. When my boyfriend and I got married in the mountains, I gave my husband a wife who had become friends with all aspects of herself. It was well worth the work.