Missing the Boat

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

“Virginity is such a personal thing. You can’t judge anyone on it.” – Joyce Brothers, Psychologist and Awesome Lady

We all judge ourselves based on the actions, presentations, and timelines of those around us. As I’ve said before, it’s human nature. Judgey-wudgey was a bear. And there are few places where this is more apparent than the range of sexual experience. We judge the actions of other people too, but for this column, I’m focusing on the ways we beat ourselves up for our own actions, or non-actions.

People have approached me, both as a person and as a columnist, to discuss their insecurities at being “behind the sexual activity curve.” But here’s the problem with the sex curve: we have no idea what it looks like. Statistically speaking, the distribution of moments of first contact is likely normally distributed, but we can’t obtain a clear data set and therefore cannot actually compute an average or a standard deviation. And public perception tends to attempt to skew the data set towards the end of greater experience, simply by the fact of awareness. You are more likely to find friends rehashing Crunkfest stories or tales of bad hookups than you are to hear one say, “By the way guys, I’ve still never been kissed. Just reminding you. In case you forgot.”

But the fact of the matter is that both extremes are present and fairly common. It’s not unusual to have a first kiss at 22, nor is it unusual to start having sex at 14. Sometimes people start kissing in preschool and sometimes they don’t have sex until their mid-twenties or after their wedding, whenever that may be. And everyone’s timeline is completely different.

From personal experience, I can attest that our ideas of where we stand on the sex scale have more to do with those directly around us than it has to do with anything real. I felt like I was judged for coming into college having already had sex, yet I had felt judged at my high school for not doing so until the very end of senior year, and for doin’ it with someone I had been dating for a very long time.

The point is that it shouldn’t be important. I think deep down, we all know that. But we spend so much time wrapped up in criticizing ourselves, second-guessing our decisions, analyzing the “why” of everything, that it can feel impossible to take the step back and say, “It doesn’t matter. I’m going to stop thinking about it.”

And to the people who are “late to the game”: you are most likely a lot better off than you think you are, because you have been watching the rest of us screw up for years. A junior or senior in college who has never had a significant other is unlikely to do what I did the first time I was asked out, which was to respond “I don’t know if I can date you. I have to ask my mother.” Most likely, after you have reached the age of 18, your mom just doesn’t care all that much about your preliminary dating decisions.

I started dating in sixth grade. I didn’t know what a date WAS, let alone have any means to go on one. It took me four years to figure out that if someone asks you out and you are not romantically interested in them, it’s much better to say no that it is to stare at them with terrified bug-eyes and meekly say “okay” and then avoid them forever. I don’t know anyone my current age who would read that last example and go, “Yeah! That sounds like a great idea!” but my twelve year-old brain definitely did.

You are also much more likely to pick a good partner (for sex or dating or whatever), because you have been sitting back, observing, and figuring out what you want and who you like for years now. You’re more likely to be able to recognize when a relationship is abusive, because you have likely seen what they are like from the outside before you experience them from within, which is a confusing and usually delusional place to be in.

And on the physical side: a good person will go at your speed and respect your boundaries. This is not even a qualification of a good partner; this is a qualification of a good person. Hopefully, they will also help you improve your skills and let you know when you totally misstep. But you will have benefits that many earlier bloomers never experienced, including a) increased maturity and b) probably lack of braces. In my experience, braces, especially when combined with very inexperienced kissers, tended to result in minor make out injuries and excessive amounts of drool, which is really just embarrassing for anyone even tangentially related to the situation.

I’m currently seeing someone, Mr. Snuffleupagus, who has had a very different and much slower physical/relationship progression than I have. (He picked his own pseudonym. I think he’s using it as a penis joke, but whatever.) And I can attest that it’s kind of nice. Being in long-term relationships with a sexual rapport tends to make things a little standardized and routine and it’s exciting to go back and relearn, reexamine all the steps along the way.

And now I’m left with the mental image of myself kissing a hairy elephant seared into my brain. Well played, Snuffy. Well played.

Given the time of year, I’m not sure how it’s going to turn out in the long run for Snuffy and I. Most likely, we’ll be parting ways soon, and I find that I’m more at peace with that than I ever expected to be. Having been a serial monogamist for years, I know this probably isn’t the ultimate path for me, but it’s great to enjoy it while it’s here.

As a final note, I would like to formally say goodbye to all of you. Unless something changes, the column will probably not be returning in the fall. I have loved every minute of writing it, and have greatly enjoyed all of your feedback, both through the comments and unintentionally in person. There is no criticism more honest than the kind unknowingly given to the subject, and it’s been nice to hear how many people have loved the column right back. And lastly, I want to thank you all for reading. I wish you the best of luck in all your endeavors, relationship-oriented or not.

Is that mushy? Well, you know what they say: the Serial Monogamist, she’s a marshmallow.

The Phoenix

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