Don’t Ask Me When I Lost My Virginity

Because I don't really know.

Shannon Ashley
Aug 13, 2018 · 9 min read

Previously I published a story about how my marriage went two-and-a-half years without being consummated before we divorced. It’s ultimately because I had vaginismus and remained afraid of sex long after my wedding day.

People had a lot to say about my story. I found a forum filled with conjecture that I was sexually abused. I wasn’t. Some people complained my story was both TMI and boring. But still others thanked me for talking about such a touchy--or in this case, no-touchy--subject they could relate to.

Like it or not, evangelical Christianity has contributed to some very fucked up beliefs about sex which have left some women feeling far too ashamed to participate.

In my case, I lost my virginity sometime between age 23 and 31. To be fair, I’m not really sure which encounters counted as actual intercourse. But that’s how long it took me to more or less get over my fear of penetration and develop a healthier view of sex. So roughly eight years after my failed marriage.

My whole life was filled with negative talks about sex. Growing up, my mom was terrified that I’d hear too much about sex and have it before marriage. The same can be said for the churches and Christian youth conferences I attended. So, I am the result of an abstinence-only education.

My mom always said I could date once I turned 16--which wouldn’t happen until I was about to be a high school junior. As I began seventh grade, I realized she didn’t want me to date at all. When I tried to explain to her that my Christian peers were dating and attending dances with dates, she always said the same thing--that they weren’t really Christians.

The vocabulary my mother used around sex was probably like a lot of other parents at the time, I suppose. You know, if those parents had been members of the same church as the mom in Stephen King’s Carrie. Sex was shame. It was dirty, filthy, and wrong. It was a sin. There was nothing natural about having sexual urges, and my mom went as far as to warn me against playing with myself before I even knew what masturbation was.

My mother often woke me up in the middle of the night to smell my hands. She called homosexuality a slap in God’s face. She constantly spoke about the dangers of sex, how my father was the only person she’d slept with, and that he’d given her a painful STD. My older sister and I were constantly told by our mom that she never should have married our dad. After hearing that one a few times, it kind of felt weird just to be alive since her marriage was such a regret.

As a result, I learned to date under the radar and not talk about boys to my mom. One day, I dared to let my boyfriend drive me home, and kissed him. My mom caught us and grounded me for not just the rest of my junior year--but my senior year as well. She began calling me a slut after that and threw away any “cute” underwear in my drawer. It didn’t matter that all I had done was kiss a boy. After that she always saw me as rebellious, and she left bible verses around my room about sexual immorality.

So that was normal.

Learning about sex in our home was so unhealthy, that I grew up completely disconnected from my body. I didn’t understand how to use a tampon because I didn’t exactly know where my vagina was. My mom made me sit out of our sex ed class in grade school.

From as early as I can remember and well into adulthood, I dreaded watching any movie or TV show with my mom when characters even kissed. I had to avert my eyes so she didn’t think I had a sexual hangup or preversion. Well, she did think I had perversions. But I didn’t want to give her more any extra ammunition.

Meanwhile, most church groups were advertising courtship and lapping up the book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. The message was clear--sex before marriage meant you didn’t respect yourself or anyone else. Not God, and especially not your future spouse. You were damaged goods.

Giving yourself away was the number one evil. It damaged you and made you impure. Sure, someone would come along to say that sex within the confines of marriage was beautiful, but someone else would be sure to warn you that even within marriage certain sexual acts were still wrong.

On top of all those winning messages about sex, we girls were given a tremendous burden and responsibility. We had to do everything we could “to not entice our brothers in Christ to sin.” We were taught that we had to behave and look like real ladies, but we couldn’t look too sexy. Wear makeup because "the barn needs painting," but don’t look like a hooker. Dress feminine, but don’t accentuate your sensual form.

This was of course, because the poor men of the church could not control themselves if we didn’t help them avoid their lustful thoughts. The church echoed my mother’s sentiments that men are only after one thing--sex! Yet, once they got sex from you they would never respect you.

My abstinence-only sexual education offered me zero preparation for sex, even sex within marriage. They taught us that wives were supposed to perform whether or not we felt like it to keep the marriage alive. Birth control was not covered because we were supposed to have children once we were married.

I never consciously thought, “I’m scared to have sex.” It was much more subtle than that. Or so I thought. I just knew I was squeamish when I even thought about having to "break" my hymen. I looked up stories online about other people’s first times to hear what girls said about the pain.

And I got most of my other information about sex from young adult novels. Or AOL guys messaging me and asking to do things with them that I didn’t yet understand.

When I got married at age twenty, I didn’t expect that sex would be too painful for me to manage. I thought it might be challenging since I couldn’t comfortably wear tampons. But I never imagined to be married for two-and-a-half-years without having intercourse. It’s no wonder the marriage was so short-lived. But that’s what vaginismus does to relationships, and no one at church ever talks about that.

After my divorce, I dropped over 100 pounds that I gained in the marriage. With my weight loss, I felt my emotions change drastically. I wanted to start dating again.

I was temping for a bank vault at the time when a security guard there asked me out. It was my first date out of the Christian bubble and after my marriage, and I didn’t know what to expect. We went to a movie and when he brought me home everything escalated too quickly. I tried to stop him and explain that I didn’t know how I felt about having sex because of my unconsummated marriage. My date told me that he understood. But he kept pressing and undressing me. Not in a violently forceful way. It was just like he thought he could change my mind.

Do you know what I thought about it?

I thought that his pushing was all my fault. That my top had been too low. Or I must have given out the wrong signals. Honestly, that’s what religion had taught me. So I just kept saying "I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know."

My first date after my sexless marriage. He wanted to have sex, and no amount of explaining that I couldn’t have sex seemed to work. The word "consent" wasn’t on my radar in those days. So I let it progress without a huge fight.

Luckily for me, his penis was very... small. At least, I thought it was but my experience was limited at best. Intercourse was still too painful but he was determined, and I didn’t know what to do so in a moment of pain and frustration, I placed my hand at the base of his penis to prevent him from fully penetrating me.

Was that when I lost my virginity? Did it count if it wasn't full penetration? Did it count since he was pressuring me?

Maybe it sounds absurd, but I got by for years with the "hand" trick so I didn’t have to battle the pain of full penetration. Or maybe it wasn’t so absurd because I only had two partners over the course of those years.

Perhaps the most ridiculous thing about it all was that I got pregnant in 2007, at the start of my second relationship after my marriage. It seemed like a joke that the awkward, shallow sex, which didn’t exactly feel great for me, got me pregnant.

And I felt like a whore thanks to the messages I’d been given from my mother and the church. But I also felt like if I was ever going to eventually enjoy sex, I had to keep trying. I was torn.

The pregnancy wasn’t viable according to my doctor, so they gave me a D&C. I was shaking when I had the abortion and thinking about how I’d never even had a pap smear back then--so I was petrified. But I got through it.

The mental and psychological toll took time to wane. My Christian background meant I carried the guilt of being a murderer and a slut. And I still had questions about what everything meant. I still couldn’t handle sex without pain, so full penetration remained impossible.

I sank into a deep depression after the D&C. I didn’t want anything to do with sex for a few years. I languished and regained the weight I had lost.

It took about five years to finally begin losing weight again, but I did it, and in 2013, I decided to finally get off the fence about sex. I told myself that my next relationship was going to be different. I was confused about what “real sex” meant and I still didn’t know what an orgasm was. So I decided that I didn’t want to be in the dark anymore.

Despite my Christian background, I wanted to get over my sexual hangups. Right around the time I made that choice to get off the fence, a blogger in Tennessee began pursuing me online. The timing was perfect for him to hit all the right buttons and make me feel deeply connected to him. The relationship moved quickly and was pretty damn toxic, but the online component meant that we got to talk things out. He knew that I had really weird baggage about sex.

At 31-years-old, I fell in love with someone who knew all my secrets and confusion about sex before we even met. It was a challenge, but we finally met and had sex. Real sex. Sometimes it hurt, but it got better with practice. I was also at 31 when I finally got rid of my guilt about sex and could climax.

Although that relationship ended in terrible heartbreak, it helped me understand that I wasn’t broken. That I could enjoy sex without shame. Of course, it also led to an unplanned pregnancy (again, I had an abstinence-only education) so I’m now the single mom of a four-year-old-daughter.

Today, I’m 36 and I understand myself much better. I’m still not 100% in tune with my body, but I’m getting there. I found out that I had to let go of my religion to finally let go of my fears about sex. And I discovered that I identify as a demisexual. That means I can’t even feel sexual attraction to anyone unless I feel a deep connection first.

It took many years, but I eventually found out that I’m not so odd after all, and that vaginismus doesn’t have to be a life sentence. Not to mention that talking about sex without shame is absolutely vital to our health and happiness.

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