I recently read Guy Branum’s spectacular memoir “My Life as a Goddess,” and it is a side-splittingly funny book when it isn’t busily breaking your heart. Though I love memoir as an art form, it occurred to me how few of them I have read by queer writers, and how little their queerness often features when I have. (I realize that this is partly because I prefer books by people who aren’t men, and people who aren’t men are often punished for any untoward display of their sexuality.) One thing I have loved about queer community is that it has taught me that I have the right to define my own firsts. Branum’s book does that beautifully when he dissects his first time doing stand-up: not his literal first outing in a comedy class, nor his first time at an open mic, but the real first time. The time when he found his groove and fell into it. That’s when it counted. That was the first time for real.
I am telling you this combination of things about queerness and Guy Branum and comedy, because I want to talk about sex. And if you’re wondering why I’ve couched it this way, see the parenthetical above.
The high school that I attended in a rural, conservative town in nowhere, California, was obsessed with vaginal virginity. Maybe all high schools are; it certainly forms a plot point in many coming-of-age stories. But believe me when I say that mine was more so than usual. We lived in the nexus of seven very different very powerful Christian denominations, all of which placed a great deal of pressure on their teenage members to convert their friends. Dating people to convert them was a common tactic. Climbing on to a lunch table while crying and demanding that people pray with you was only slightly less so. On one notable occasion, a group of boys dragged a net of some kind through the hallway whilst one of them read aloud the Bible verse about being “fishers of men.”
Nobody put any kind of stop to this behavior, and reporting it would only get you a stern lecture about how students had the right to express their religious beliefs because of the First Amendment. (That same amendment would suddenly experience very short supply when my friends and I started an underground newspaper, or organized Pagan rituals around the flagpole in the morning. But that’s a story for my own memoir someday.)
If you went to any high school in America, you know what happened next. The friction of one social group upon another among teenagers made everybody itch. The goths got gothier, the punks got punkier. The queer kids got daring (a friend of mine told a cheerleader her boyfriend was hot in a crowded hallway and the school football team broke his jaw for him.) And everybody thought constantly about the mythical unstretched hymen.
The Christian girls (from Mormons to evangelical protestants to the gaudy Catholics of our valley) knew that the litmus between their legs was the only way to measure whether they were good or not. The goth girls fetishized it, as they did with any combination of blood and sex. They wrote each other smutty self-insert RPF about being deflowered and drained dry by vampires all in one magical, black lace night. The punks didn’t romanticize anything, but they had the same problems we did: a lack of access to reliable birth control and a weird societal fixation on penis-in-vagina intercourse.
The queer kids were another story, and that story was my salvation. While everyone around us was convinced there was one kind of sex that mattered, we were busy having the kind they didn’t even know about. Were we virgins? We gold-star lesbians lifelong virgins? Could you break your hymen with a tampon? Did boys even have a virginity to lose? I remember the term “buhymen” coming into shockingly common usage. The school was as fiercely anti-gay as a California public could be at the turn of the Millennium. Our classmates were free to endlessly tell us we were going to hell, to tearfully pray for us, call us f*****s and dykes and hermaphrodites, but we were never permitted to retaliate in word or deed. That kid with the broken jaw never got anybody suspended.
But a strange thing happened the year before I dropped out. There was some clandestine cross-pollination between the Christians and the queers. Obviously, some kids belonged to both tribes, but I didn’t know any who did so openly. The questions and answers on virginity were answered by such heterocentric logic that someone realized that queer sex not being real sex formed a kind of magical loophole that the straight kids could exploit. Dan Savage did not coin the term “saddlebacking” until 2009, but he was just putting a name to something that had been going on a long time.
Queer sex wasn’t real sex. Ergo; oral, anal, manual, digital, and tribadism (grinding), didn’t count toward losing your virginity. They were passing the word like wildfire, excited that they had hacked getting off. The godsdamned straights had Columbused foreplay.
As a budding and desperate baby bisexual, I was frustrated and elated about this by turns. I had an absolutely Elysian time fucking girls. I feel like I went to a finishing school in how to get women off, and learning what worked for me at the same time. I have since learned that a great deal of women who primarily or only sleep with men sometimes take years to learn the same things about themselves, because they’re rarely empowered or encouraged to seek their own pleasure. However, I felt rejected anytime I was with a cisgender male and he didn’t want to do the traditional deed. We’d do everything but; I sucked dick like a pro before I was old enough to have a profession, and I was basically the goodwill ambassador of the clitoris for a lot of straight guys. I found these acts perfectly satisfying if there wasn’t a dick in the room. But the minute there was, I was a pouty monster of evolutionary biology, demanding to get fucked in the land of the fuckless.
It wasn’t until years later that I would be able to untangle this from my own internalized homophobia, insecurity, and Freudian bullshit. It also wasn’t until years later that I realized that saddlebacking made us all into better people.
I had all these conversations with women who were married to men who did not reciprocate oral sex. Who couldn’t be bothered to jack off a clit for five minutes, or frankly do anything but get up, get in, and get off. Where did that behavior come from? Ah yes, from their earliest sexual experiences, when nobody knew that they wanted (or how to ask for) anything else. I thought about all those straight kids who had basically learned to have gay sex; which is to say that they learned to deprioritize PiV and decenter vaginal virginity from their identities. We had all graduated not only from high school, but also from a boring and restrictive definition of sex. And we had brought with us some very marketable skills.
So I must return to the question of a first time. Virginity is a garbage construct designed to commodify women and normalize one specific sexual narrative. When we were kids we used to try to prevaricate and clarify: what if your first time wasn’t consensual? What if you didn’t remember it? What if you didn’t do PiV, but you both came? What if you were a lesbian? When did your first time really happen? When did your life begin?
Why would you let anybody but you answer this question?
Remember being so young that you thought fucking somebody changed who you were? Remember being so young that it did?
Your first time was when you found your groove and fell into it. Your first time was the time that it felt right. Maybe it was momentous and maybe it wasn’t. Maybe you saw yourself afterward and thought that you changed, maybe you didn’t. Maybe the P went in the V, maybe the D went in the A, maybe you got effed and the only place you felt it was your heart.
My name is Meg Elison and I lost my virginity to a girl in a swimming pool. To a boy in Germany. To a dragon I met only in dreams. To my husband. To my own fucking self.