In Amy Poehler’s memoir, Yes Please, she wrote, “Keep your virginity for as long as you can, until it starts to feel weird to you. Then just get it over with. Try not to have your first time in a car.” The average age women have sex for the first time is 17. At 25, I’d gone through high school, college, graduate school, and was a professor but had never done the deed – in a car or otherwise. It felt very very weird to me to be my age without ever having done it. I wanted to do it. I wanted to do it so badly. I obsessed over sex by constantly reading about it in memoirs, magazine articles, and novels. I watched TV shows and movies to gobble it all up and learn as much as I could. I fantasized about sex. I talked about it and wrote about it.
But I never had it. And I couldn’t “get it over with” even if I wanted to.
Let me be clear – I do not subscribe to the idea of “losing one’s virginity” because it defines sex as man-woman, penis-vagina penetration, which is narrow and exclusive, and who’s losing what and who’s winning what exactly? It just feels like yet another way to shame women. But I appreciated Poehler’s advice nonetheless. It made me feel a bit better about not having done it yet.
As a chronically-single woman in her mid-twenties, weddings have never been my thing, but I looked forward to going to my friends’ wedding in South Korea. The couple, Matt and Ga Young, were more like family than friends and I loved them more than my own self-pity.
There are 6,927 miles between Austin, Texas, and Seoul, South Korea. When we landed in Incheon, we had traveled for over 30 hours, gone through airport security in three countries, and crossed the International Date Line. I was sweaty and tired and desperately wanted to change my underwear.
Once we got our luggage, Matt found his friend, Jack, who was joining us for the wedding and had also just landed from Vietnam.
When the four of us arrived at our Airbnb, we took turns taking showers and getting ready to go out. I’m not sure if it was because he was greasy from his travels or if I was so focused on getting a shower I didn’t notice, but it wasn’t until after we all got cleaned up when I realized how attractive Jack was. He was tall, had a great smile, and a swagger in his step. He wore tight jeans tucked into boots and a tee-shirt that read, “Never Give Up.”
Matt and Ga Young lead us through the streets of Seoul while we took photos of the mismatched neon lights and remnants of ancient architecture nestled between urban skyscrapers. Jack asked me to help him with a few of his camera settings, claiming his photography skills were rusty. He teased me by calling the settings by his own layman’s terms – for example, referring to “shutter speed” as “exposure time.” As a filmmaker and an academic, that kind of nerdy humor tickled me.
We ate dinner at a barbeque restaurant where Matt and Ga Young taught Jack and me Korean dining customs. The youngest person at the table has to serve everyone else’s drinks and turn away whenever she takes a sip. The youngest person happened to be me. Jack enjoyed making me serve everyone. He also playfully reminded me to look away from them every time I drank. I couldn’t help but enjoy the attention.
After dinner, we returned to the convenience store outside our Airbnb. Matt bought us a bottle of Soju – Korea’s most popular liquor, which also happens to taste like watered down rubbing alcohol. He invited a group of older Korean men sitting at a table close by to join us. Only one of them came over. His name was Yante and called himself the “King of the Neighborhood.” He didn’t speak a word of English, so he made Ga Young translate back and forth.
While everyone else was chatting, Jack and I took the opportunity to get to know each other better. He had moved to Vietnam about a year before to chase his roots. He was smart, funny, and had a massive appetite for adventure.
The group caught on to our connection. Yante turned to Jack and pinched his thumb and pointer finger together to make a heart shape with his fingertips. With his other hand, he pointed to Jack and me and said something in Korean. Ga Young laughed, “He’s asking if you’re in love.” Jack shook his head, brushing it off, “No, we’re just friends.”
Ga Young translated Yante’s reply:
“That’s how it always starts.”
The next morning, Matt and Ga Young had a long list of things they needed to do to prepare for the wedding, so Jack joined me on my self-guided tour through Seoul. We were in our own little world, talking and walking for miles between sites. I was blown away by the beauty that surrounded us but couldn’t appreciate it fully because I was distracted by how desperately I wanted him to kiss me.
And finally, when we were in Insadong – Seoul’s “Bohemian quarter” – Jack pulled me down an alleyway and planted one on me. The rest of the day we visited temples, parks, and shopping centers, talking, flirting, and making out in tucked away corners. I was Eat-Pray-Loving my way through South Korea!
That night, we met Matt and Ga Young to go bar hopping. Jack and I were leaning against the bar waiting for our drinks, and he started asking me about my relationship history.
Jack asked, “How many boyfriends have you had?”
I shook my head, “None.”
I shrugged, “Yeah, it’s just never worked out for me.”
“Well when’s the last time you had sex?”
It could have been the alcohol in my system or because I had vacation-brain, but I felt like being very – very – honest. “Sex? I’ve never had any.”
He choked on his beer, “What?!”
At this point, my speech felt pretty rehearsed. I explained it to a lot of guys who didn’t and will never understand. One guy laughed in my face. Another promised to call me and never spoke to me again. Another texted me the next day to say he couldn’t date me anymore because sex was “too important” to him. All I knew was rejection, and I was pretty sure I was going to die alone after a long, loveless and sexless life. But if Jack was mean or hurtful or just not interested in me anymore, I wouldn’t have to see him ever again – he literally lived on the opposite side of the world. Plus, I would have a little buffer room for the next couple of days. I had planned to break off from the group and go to Busan – Korea’s second largest city – by myself before the wedding.
I didn’t have anything to lose.
I told him, “I have a pelvic floor condition called vaginismus. The muscles in and around my vagina involuntarily contract, so sex is really difficult – actually, it’s been impossible so far.”
“So, is there treatment for that?” He asked.
“Yes, I’ve been going to pelvic floor physical therapy for a few years. I’m in a really good place, I think I could do it.” Without having a partner, it was sometimes difficult to measure my progress in physical therapy, but I had recently been able to use what my physical therapist described as a “penis-sized” dilator.
Without skipping a beat, he offered, “I’ll take your virginity.”
Then we both burst out laughing. I was totally thrown off-guard. I was staring into the big brown eyes of this gorgeous, smart guy who was smiling back at me after I just admitted to being a 25-year-old virgin. He wasn’t turned off or put off or intimidated. He was still into me, he could see past this. I didn’t think anyone ever would.
I excused myself to go to the restroom so I could take a second to absorb what just happened. His response was so supportive and compassionate and sexy. I couldn’t believe it. I was going to have sex!
As I washed my hands, Jack burst into the women’s room, pushed me against the wall and kissed me hard. “I want to go to Busan with you tomorrow.”
The next morning, Jack met me at Seoul Station. As soon as we took our seats on the train, I wondered, WHAT THE HELL am I thinking?! I only met this guy 36-hours ago, and now we’re traveling in a foreign country together. Neither of us speaks the language. I’ve agreed to share my Airbnb with him and we’re planning on having sex.
I am definitely going to be murdered.
I didn’t even know if I could have sex, but, based on his reaction the night before, I felt like he would be understanding if I couldn’t. He was the first potential partner that I really felt like was taking a chance with me, rather than just seeing how far he could get.
Our Airbnb was a small, adorable studio apartment in a high-rise with floor to ceiling windows overlooking an incredible view of Busan’s most popular beach.
We started making out and he lead me to the bed. He lifted my dress up to my chest and removed my Spanx. We found that too much fingering and oral hurt after a bit. He asked if we should “just do it,” and I nodded. LET’S DO IT. So he rummaged in his bag for a condom. I told him to insert himself with my inhale as I was taught in physical therapy. I took a deep breath and he slipped inside.
It wasn’t like how I expected. I didn’t feel even an ounce of self-consciousness about my body. I didn’t worry about any of the sounds I was making – or not making. I didn’t feel like I was doing it wrong or that I needed to perform.
It was beautiful and amazing and perfect. I did have some pain, but he took his time and made sure I was ok along the way.
I held him tight as he finished and then I began to cry. I couldn’t help it. It was so overwhelming and I was so happy.
I thought of all the times guys rejected me for not being able to have sex and broke my heart. Or the times I left doctors’ offices in tears with no answers. How completely hopeless I felt after weeks and months and years of physical therapy.
Jack told me that it was “intense and really special.” He said he’d never forget it. He kissed me, gently ran his fingers through my hair and whispered, “You’re worth a little patience.”
That’s all I’d ever wanted: for someone to like me enough, to believe that I was worth the wait.
I had written off ever falling in love, getting married, or having kids, because having a functioning vagina seems to be a prerequisite for all those things. But now it felt possible.
The rest of our trip was incredible. Jack and I spent another magical day in Busan, which I now consider my favorite city in the world. We later met the rest of the wedding party in Ga Young’s hometown of Daegu. I loved every moment getting to know Matt and Ga Young’s families. Their wedding was the most beautiful event I’ve ever witnessed and I cried the entire time, even though the ceremony was done completely in Korean and I didn’t understand a single word of it.
For a few months after I got back home, Jack and I talked on the phone for hours every day. Even with the 12-hour time difference between Austin and Ho Chi Mihn City, we managed to always be in touch. I cried over him a lot. I shamelessly belt out Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” in my car more than I’d care to admit.
When I told people that it finally happened, they’d say, “Congratulations!” and then immediately take it back, worried that it was an inappropriate response. I’d assure them that it was the only response when someone achieves a goal she has been working very hard at for a very long time.
I knew that the act of having sex wasn’t going to change me; it wasn’t going to make me a better, more complete person. For me, it was really all about connecting with someone in a way I never have before – in a way all my peers were able to and I couldn’t.
I’ve heard a lot of my friends’ stories about their first times – and most of them were pretty terrible. I wish we didn’t put so much emphasis on the idea of “losing one’s virginity” and shaming those who “keep it” longer than average. I wish we taught girls to start having sex when they’re physically, emotionally, and mentally ready, rather than feeding them all kinds of contradictory messages that create timelines and deadlines – like “wait for marriage” or “hooking up is an important part of the college experience.” I think my experience was so great because I was listening to my body, being brave, taking a chance, and being exactly, precisely, 100% true to myself.
If I ever meet Amy Poehler, and I really hope I do, I’m going to tell her that I listened to her advice and did not have sex for the first time in a car. But, I’m really glad that I didn’t just “get it over with,” because my first time was absolutely worth the wait.