I was eighteen when I lost my virginity. A few weeks into my freshman year of college, I met a hipster with gorgeous blond hair and an obscure instrument slung over his shoulder, and a few weeks after that, we had sex. It was not altogether a memorable experience. What stuck with me weren’t any romantic details or awkward moments; I mostly remember thinking is that it? Not because the entire affair was over in a few minutes—we were kids, who can blame us—but because I expected to feel changed afterward. For all of my young adult life, friends and teachers and television shows had told me that my virginity was one of two things: a precious gift I should save for the love of my life, or the only thing of value that I had, the loss of which would ruin me. Instead I just felt sore…. and eager to have sex again to figure out what the fuss was about. After all, it was my first time, the first of many times, and that realization was more exciting than the sex itself. This was the beginning of something.
After all, I was a smart baby feminist. Reading Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth had taught me that virginity was a bullshit, socially constructed lie, and I hadn’t bought into either of the messages (soul mate or value-based) about what my virginity was supposed to mean. But I did expect that sweet blond hipster to matter to me in the long run, even though he wasn’t my boyfriend and I didn’t necessarily want him to be. I figured I would look back at him in a few years and feel something, some connection or warm fuzzies, to demarcate him in my heart as important.
Five years later, I have forgotten he exists on most days. He pops up every so often on my Facebook feed and it’s nice to see he’s still out there in the world, playing obscure instruments and writing statuses in languages I don’t understand. He’s a good person, but not particularly special in the grand scheme of things. I’m glad I had a partner who was kind and respectful the first time I had sex, and that the experience was as unremarkable as it was. Most people are not so lucky. But that’s about all I feel for the matter.
He sees an intelligence in you that he likes, rooted in emotional capability and self-reliance uncommon on this campus. It feels good when it clicks into place, the discovery that this attraction is mutual. He knows about your HSV, asked, “So what does that mean for your sex life?” and clearly wasn’t too perturbed by your blunt and uncensored answer. He is unapologetically himself. He likes you for unapologetically being yourself. You wonder how long you will last before the pressure builds and pops.
Losing my post-herpes virginity was different. For one thing, I really liked the guy. Not that I hadn’t liked my freshman year hipster, but this guy was something else. We drove around the forest and bantered about campus issues and social politics and health. It was platonic in the beginning, at least for me—I was still learning how to feel comfortable in my body again, attraction to anyone new coming slowly and riddled with anxiety. In my brain, it wasn’t a given anymore that men would find me desirable, even if I was still the editor-in-chief of the campus sex magazine. But when I did become aware of how my nerves stretched and tightened in his presence, of how I grabbed my cellphone every time it lit up with a text, I was terrified. I wanted to have sex with a boy, and I had herpes. Fuck.
The bright side of developing a crush on a friend was that he already knew my status. It had come up indirectly in conversation, unrelated to the possibility of us becoming an “us”. The first time he kissed me, he had already thought the decision through. There was never a “You should know this, do you still…” and that made it easier. Instead we jumped straight to logistics: I could start taking Valtrex daily to lessen the risk of transmission, which would require visiting my OB/GYN back in my hometown. Meanwhile, we did other things, became comfortable with each other and built up remarkable anticipation. By the time I was on Valtrex, I had never wanted anyone more in my life.
But I was still terrified. Absolutely, completely terrified. I was convinced he would change his mind with all that time to think. It wasn’t like we were dating, and there were hundreds of other girls on campus he could have sex with who didn’t have a sexually transmitted infection. What was so special about me, really? Okay, okay, I knew the answer to that. But I had my doubts.
And what if the condoms and the Valtrex weren’t enough? Could I really keep him safe? How would he react if the worst happened? Would he be as cruel as my ex? Could I handle that guilt? What if we slept together and he regretted it? What if he stopped wanting me as soon as the moment finally arrived and the reality of what he was about to do settled in?
Before I got herpes, sex was easy for me. I was an arrogant little shit, to be honest. I knew I was attractive in an unconventional, snarky way. My confidence and reputation made me glitter just a little bit, and I’d never had any trouble finding willing partners. While casual sex wasn’t necessarily amazing, I could meet someone by 11:30pm and know how his shoulder blades felt under my fingers by 2am. Sex had almost always been impulsive, fun, and simple. It wasn’t meaningless, but it didn’t have to always be meaningful.
I kept waiting for him to change his mind. I texted him as I picked up my Valtrex prescription and wasn’t reassured by the smiling emoticon he sent me in response to the news that we could finally have sex. I felt much younger than twenty-one.
He looks at you differently than anyone else. When he looks at you, it’s as if he has finally found you. You’re both equally busy, equally arrogant, equally battle-scarred. The casual nature of this gives you time to focus on your thesis and the magazine and your friends, a few hours every few days to get each other off and let down your guard. You find yourself doubling up in giggles more often in his dorm room than you do anywhere else. It’s hard to adjust to silliness after so many months of darkness.
He must have been nervous too. When the night finally arrived, some unremarkable weeknight in October, he pulled a Ziplock bag out of his backpack full of condoms and lubricant samples from the student health center. I remember sitting on my bed and waiting for him to chicken out as he lined up the condoms on my desk with his cellphone and room keys. But he didn’t show any sign of second-guessing, and he pretended not to notice the tremors in my hands as I kissed him. I knew that I wanted him, that I wanted him so badly, and I kept waiting to be swept up in desire. The air in my dorm room was dry because the central heating had just been turned on, and his nose started to bleed, little red droplets landing on my neck. He thought he had bitten me until we realized what was wrong. We stopped kissing to locate a box of Kleenex, and in retrospect the lack of awkwardness as we hung out in my bed and waited for the bleeding to stop, half-dressed and only a few weeks into knowing each other, was a very good sign.
The sex was good, at least objectively. I remember watching his face light up with awe and knowing I wanted to memorize it. But I couldn’t turn off the ticker tape of anxiety in my brain that told me I wasn’t allowed to have nice things anymore. I wasn’t supposed to be having sex this good with a man this kind. How could he want me? How could anyone want me anymore? All those weeks of anticipating this moment had built it up so much in my brain that I couldn’t relax and lose myself the way I so easily had in the past. I needed to get the ease of sex back. I needed to get out of my own head.
After he left that night, I had déjà vu. It was a new first time, the beginning of re-discovering my sexuality after having become disconnected from it. If I didn’t hear from him again, fine, I would get over it and pick someone new—all I had to do was look. And if I did hear from him again, we could have sex again. It would be better the next time.
And it was better the next time. The pressure was gone, and I wasn’t as afraid that he would vanish, and he kissed me until I stopped thinking. It was better the time after that, and the time after that.
You don’t know if you have ever held hands with him before. Sure you have clasped hands during sex from time to time, or while cuddling like limp, drunk ducklings in each other’s beds after dark. But he reaches out to tickle your knee when you have both fallen quiet, and then he takes your hand and weaves it through his own, rests them together on his thigh. He squeezes it. You run your thumb over the back of his hand and he does the same. You haven’t slept together in two weeks, more than that, and some part of you thought it might be over. But he is holding your hand and this is not platonic or meant to be reassuring. You are holding hands with him as you drive home to campus through the dark.
I think of him as my first, now. He matters to me in a way that no one else ever will because he was the guy who took a chance on me when my neck still tasted like sweat and shame. He would be the first to caution me not to give him too much credit, and it would have been someone else if it hadn’t been him. But it was him, and I’m glad I could go through that weird, scary experience with someone patient and smart and, well, super attracted to me. Our chemistry helped me become a sexual person again. It created a bond between us that still hasn’t gone away.
Sex is different now, post-herpes. I’d be a liar if I said my sex life hasn’t changed: now when I have sex, it’s woven through with trust and respect and honesty. It can be casual, a Tuesday afternoon hookup before my 7pm lecture with a hot fuck-buddy, and it can be impulsive, in the field behind the bar with a friend from high school I haven’t seen in years. Sex can also be quiet and tender: all of the things we don’t say to each other because no words fit quite as right as this. I haven’t had bad sex once since getting diagnosed. That might be because the quality of men in my life went up. Or it’s because I understand what I want so much more than I used to.