I was an unwilling virgin at 33

Date

Nicole Hardy

Withdrawal is a survival tactic … Nicole Hardy felt trapped by the conventions of her religion.

Withdrawal is a survival tactic … Nicole Hardy felt trapped by the conventions of her religion.

"Sex isn't everything," my mother says lightly, from the kitchen of my new condo. She means to be encouraging. But I stiffen against her words, as if to defend myself. I've heard it too many times from too many people – that sentence, so reductive it's offensive.

How easy it is for my mother, who married at 20, to dismiss what she's never lived without. I can't help but feel she's being purposefully dense, simply refusing to consider anything beyond the surface. My first impulse is a fierce rush of frustration – the urge to roll my eyes, shout a blistering, condescending "no shit" in the direction of the kitchen, where she's unpacking boxes. Obviously, the problem is not just the absence of sex. Obviously, there are more complex issues at the heart of my unplanned celibacy.

When I turn to meet my mother's eyes, I work hard to keep my voice from veering into sarcasm. "Do you think I'd be a virgin at 33 if I thought sex was everything?"

As if on cue, the CD we've been listening to reaches the last notes of the final track. The silence in the room highlights the trepidation we both feel. "I know you're struggling," my mother says, resting her hands on the counter. An impotent kind of energy is humming around her. She wants to help me, I know. She's trying. For the first time, she's asking.

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Seconds pass before I trust my voice not to waver, before the burn in my throat subsides. "I don't know how to fix it." Ashamed by even that admission, I hold in the heaviest secret, the sentence that frightens me at night. "I don't know how much longer I can live like this," I say finally, half hoping my mother won't hear.

The Mormon Church is a system of absolutes. There is only one right way to live. One complete truth. Either I believe the doctrine of my church was revealed by God to a living prophet, or I don't. And if I believe, I must live the way I've been commanded. I must endure to the end. If I am floundering, drowning, or desolate, my faith should be the solution.

I can feel my mother's fear from across the room, the exaggerated stillness of her body. How can I tell her that over the past two years I have willed myself into depression? The relief of numbness, that saving grace. How can I say I am glad to feel myself withering? That I can almost stop needing what I can't have if I don't allow myself to feel anything.

If I say no, sex isn't everything – those mechanics, that act – but it affects everything, she will say, "Be faithful." If I say that sex casts a monstrous shadow over my life – the visceral wanting of it, the religious sanctions against it, the looming threat of disfellowship or excommunication, and the damaging ways I've devised to resist it – she will tell me to follow the prophet's counsel, and that of his apostles.

If I say sex keeps me from getting near enough to a man to fall in love, because non-members are the ones who want me and I can no longer trust myself around them. If I say I'm unmarriageable in the Mormon community; if I say the crisis of celibacy is a crisis of isolation, that I am wrong in both places, judged by both sides, she will tell me to wait for my spiritual reward. "Look to the afterlife," as if this life means nothing.

There will be no way to respond that isn't sacrilege. No prophet or apostle has lived a celibate life, is what I'd like to tell her. No one who's told me celibacy is a viable option has ever been celibate. They don't even use the word. They say "abstinent", which implies there will be an end. They don't consider what my life will be like if I never marry. Which is likely, given who I am, and the ways I'm different. People stand at the pulpit or they come to my house and tell me not to need what every human needs. Afterwards, they go home and undress. They lie next to the person they love most, or once did. When they reach across the bed, someone is there.

The ship outside my window has travelled all the way from China. I imagine it's full of laptops, T-shirts, lipstick or toys; I imagine a crate full of telephones or headphones – some advanced technology that could help my mother hear me. Make her understand. One of the apostles warned against withdrawing from others. "Such retreat," he said, "may ultimately lead to the darkening influence of the adversary, which leads to despondency, loneliness, frustration." He's got it backward, I remember thinking.

Withdrawal is a survival tactic. Because if I can't get numb enough, if I can't withdraw far enough from my body and the need to feel human, I will end up clinging to a stranger on a deserted beach, again. I will find myself tangled in the arms of another somebody, anybody. It will be some weary, medicinal surrender that destroys everything. One moment of weakness is all it would take to make myself a hypocrite, or a failure.

I open my mouth to explain but there is nothing I can say. I listen, instead, to the steady crash of waves against the seawall. And my mother's voice, which sounds as if it's coming from far away. "Everyone has trials, honey. You just love God. You keep the commandments and you say your prayers." She turns back to the dishwater as if that is all that needs to be said.

We stop for takeout at the restaurant where we had our first real date, then back to my place to pop the champagne. I kick off my shoes and Scott lays his jacket across the arm of the couch. He untucks his shirt, rolls up his sleeves in preparation for our carpet picnic. There are chocolates and music. There is firelight, which inspires Scott to read aloud from The Cosmo Kama Sutra.

"The Sexy Scissor," he says in a deep, affected radio voice. "No other love lock will offer you such a body-rockin' range of sensations." "Sick." I cover my mouth, laughing. "I can't believe you just said, 'body-rockin' range of sensations'."

The comedic horror show of this book is the perfect read-aloud – a ridiculous, hilarious turn-on. "Take off your dress," Scott says, holding aloft the champagne bottle. "I'm going to pour this all over you." I think he's kidding, until he does it.

When he decides it's time, Scott leads me into the bedroom. I burst into laughter, turn around, and lead him out of the bedroom. We lie back down in front of the fire. "Say when you're ready," he says, and we kiss ourselves breathless. Eventually, I stand up and hold my hand out to him.

Back in the bedroom, Scott stands looking at me until I take a step towards him. He reaches for the tie keeping my robe closed. We are on the bed then and when the moment comes, as it has in the nights leading up to this - when both of us are ready, when it feels imminent and welcome – when one of us usually stops and shouts, "Danger!" neither of us does. It is a simple thing, this coupling. It is effortless, and yet it takes my breath.

I feel myself opening in every way there is to be vulnerable to another. Let him break my heart, if he will. Let this be a mistake, if it turns out to be. But enough of living on the brittle surface, enough of keeping myself numb, alone and half-dead from fear.

We find our rhythm among prisms cast from the chandelier, and there is none of the pain I've been told to expect, none of the awkwardness or discomfort. No guilt, no self-consciousness about my inexperience, no loss of self-respect. What I feel instead is something akin to grace. A homecoming.

I'm first to fall asleep, lulled into dreams by a hazy afterglow, champagne and the warmth of Scott's body curled around me. Even before he retrieves the covers, I've drifted into a new state of spirit and mind - where not much, and yet everything, is changed.

Edited extract from Confessions of a Latter-Day Virgin by Nicole Hardy, published by Allen & Unwin, $28, available now.

25 comments

  • Honestly ,for Goodness sake ,sex is everything to the life force of the species.Nothing else matters.Not even faith will create the future generations, no money , no materialism ,not even science can do it without at least the males arousal and ejaculation.

    Commenter
    Lane
    Date and time
    August 26, 2013, 7:39AM
    • @Lane - she obviously is not talking about the continuation of the human species! She is conflicted by her belief system and normal human desires to be intimate with someone! You can't just tell someone "Forget about your faith and upbringing and belief systems, do what you want to do." If it were that simple, she wouldn't have gone into depression and withdrawal.

      I admire her strength and courage to share this story. I kind of know what she is going through. I never went through depression however it was a huge conflict for me as well. A lot of belief systems say "have more faith, pray more, just trust God, wait till you're officially married." That's fine and for some people that's enough. For a lot of people, fighting off the desire to want to be with someone intimately and physically until it's "lawful" is as hard as trying not to eat a 3 course meal in front of you when you've been starving and haven't eaten all day.

      It's easy for some to say "just do it" but for others it's a huge thing. For a lot of people in religion, they are taught that it's shameful to be in a relationship outside of marriage and yet it's a natural desire to want to love someone. This was one of the reasons why I couldn't keep going to church. I just couldn't understand how such a basic human need could be considered a sin just because you aren't married.

      Commenter
      SMN
      Date and time
      August 26, 2013, 10:42AM
    • Hey SMN - I went through this as well and am not married. I was sexually active until earlier this year, and decided to become abstinent because it was conflicting with my relationship with God. I know what it's like to be trying to fight off that desire, but honestly, it shouldn't be about 'avoiding' something or rules etc. It's about pursuing God, and whatever pleases Him becomes your desires. Don't get the motor running (whatever it is) in the first place if you're avoiding the climax. Break off the relationship if your partner doesn't have the same convictions. God wants us to be pure in body and mind, because misusing our bodies really does us more harm than we realise. I'm fighting my flesh everyday, I admit I still have those desires. But my desire to please God is greater and I have strength in the fact that I am on God's side.
      It's not even about becoming 'lawful'. Getting married will bandaid up the problem and you'll be shocked to find it still won't fix the sexual sin problem. It's about having a God-centred mind, and meeting someone who shares the same convictions to be pure and experience the way sex was meant to be enjoyed.

      I look forward to having sex again (in marriage), but I definitely don't think it is a 'basic human need' - there are plenty of healthy, abstinent people. You direct that proactive energy into other things like sports and art. I agree it is a natural desire to love someone and feel loved, in my opinion real love is displayed in a lifetime promise of commitment, to each other and to God. I hope you will one day understand the joy of a true relationship with God.

      Commenter
      Sal Le
      Date and time
      August 26, 2013, 5:15PM
  • Good on you for finding a way to live life on your own terms.

    The hypocrisy and shallow grasp of consequences involved in abstinence-teaching truly are galling, and you've done a beautiful job of pointing that out.

    I remember knowing a girl who had taken The Vow to remain abstinent until marriage. Of course, she explained that this largely precluded her from dating, as most men didn't like the idea of no sex until/unless marriage. I remember asking her if this wasn't a double bind, and she simply said that she didn't worry about it because, "God has arranged an awesome husband for me". She said this with perfect faith.

    I often wonder how that's working out for her.

    Commenter
    Red Pony
    Date and time
    August 26, 2013, 9:34AM
    • In my mid twenties I went out with a woman for about 11 months who had more or less the same rule, no sex before marriage. Her two sisters and one of her brothers had the same mindset. It didn't work out for us (though not because of the lack of sex) but she is now happily married as is one of her sisters. Alas for the other two I think they found dating a lot more difficult, in particular the unmarried sister. Which is a shame as they were all polite, physically attractive, outgoing, interesting people who just decided that they didn't want to have sex before marriage for religious reasons and therefore missed out.

      Commenter
      Hurrow
      Date and time
      August 26, 2013, 3:00PM
  • I was also an unwilling virgin until my late twenties. My parents thought they were doing the right thing by preventing me from going out in my teens. I met someone beautiful at that time but it was not to be. My parents scared him off. Then during my twenties I fell into a horrible depression. Now much older I don't believe that 'good things happen to those who wait'. I feel that I have been stuck with everyone else's rejects and my subsequent relationships have not been good. It seems it didn't matter what I did, my parents were never happy.

    Commenter
    me too
    Date and time
    August 26, 2013, 9:40AM
    • Regardless of whether you're in a relationship or not, the most important thing is that you learn to love who you are. Living up to your parents expectations will not necessarily make you happier. Neither will a relationship. Sex is no panacea. Only you yourself can effect an increase in satisfaction, and you do that by being happy with yourself.

      We're almost always stuck with someone else's rejects, after the age of 18 or so. From a more positive perspective, we're discovering overlooked gems. It all depends on how _you_ view it.

      Commenter
      DeeK
      Date and time
      August 26, 2013, 4:12PM
    • I suspect you feel you're stuck with other people's rejects because you feel like 'the one' for you was chased off.

      I have to confess I find the mindset to be fairly self-centered, because if those relationships didn't work out for whatever reason, aren't you also a reject? Who's to say those men weren't the ones ending their prior relationships, rather than being rejected?

      Sometimes relationships just run their course. Sometimes people find that they 'click' with very few people, although they can have brief relationships with lots. Sometimes people are at different stages of their life. Perhaps, just perhaps, those 'rejects' as you refer to them, have not stumbled across the person who's 'just right' for them. That pretty much applies to all of us who've had a number of shorter term relationships before meeting someone we can see ourselves spending a lot longer with. Are we ALL rejects?

      One of those people might be 'just right' for you in the future, but not those they're currently seeing. Keep your eyes peeled. Don't worry about your parents' happiness either - if they're not happy when you are, they're being selfish.

      Commenter
      bornagirl
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      August 26, 2013, 5:14PM
    • DeeK - what a great comment :)
      if only more people looked at life the way you have described.

      Commenter
      Ed
      Date and time
      August 26, 2013, 5:26PM
  • What a wonderful way to lose your virginity. It almost sounds good enough to have been worth the 15-year or so wait.

    Commenter
    Joel Joslin
    Date and time
    August 26, 2013, 10:29AM

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