"Ready for dinner"
I was a virgin when I married my husband last May. I was also 26, older than my friends when they married, but the average age for women of my generation. My husband and I met online when he read an essay I’d written for Microsoft. We fell in love within days without any idea what the other person looked like or who they really were. We were 500 miles and 25 years apart, eager to build a life together. We got engaged eight months later.
At our wedding ceremony, the pastor talked about physical love, the joy between husband and wife. I prayed that he would finish before my grandmother realized what he was talking about; if I’d been less embarrassed I’d have had the presence of mind to blush or giggle. There I was, standing in a gown I’d chosen, unconsciously, for its resemblance to my mother’s, with a veil bobby-pinned into my hair, holding a bouquet of flowers equal to the weight of a very large newborn, and I couldn’t let go of my husband’s arm for the sheer transcendent joy of it. This was my initiation into married life. A sex talk from a minister, a handsome groom with tears in his eyes, and 50 of our dearest friends. The past, the future, and the heady present.
While many little girls spend years planning the details of their weddings — their gown, their cake, their flowers — I spent my childhood planning my marriage: where we’d live, what jobs we’d have, how we’d treat each other. Becoming a wife meant a lot of things to me, but it didn’t surprise me. My husband was my parents’ age and twice married, but he was happier, healthier, and stronger than most men his age. By the time we married, we were both Christian Scientists, believing man to be spiritual and unable to age and die. Despite others’ worries of what our union might hold, I settled into my marriage immediately. It was natural, and I was ready. Things weren’t different between us after the wedding, except that we now lived together. And we shared a bed.
We waited more than a month to make love. Regardless of his previous experience, John had never made love to a virgin, and he was genuinely concerned with the logistics of it all. We were both a little shy, not to mention apprehensive about putting our natural birth-control method into effect and risking pregnancy. Walking down the hallway to the bedroom on our first night was the longest three seconds of my life. We made love three times that weekend.
And then we didn’t make love for a year.
In this year I learned two things. First, I had some issues. Second, my husband is a very patient man.
I seemed to have lost all desire to have sex with John. A thousand explanations came to me throughout the year. Maybe my subconscious was testing him to make sure he wouldn’t cheat or leave. Maybe the age difference we’d spent so long working out and defending to others really wasn’t resolved and it was, as a friend posited, “mythological incest” that stood in my way. Maybe I was so fearful of getting pregnant, I had shut down. Maybe I just wasn’t attracted to John.
I began to realize that much the same way many people come to worship sex and its role in their relationships, in my unmarried years I’d come to worship my own purity. It had become so much a part of my identity that even after the wedding, experiencing anything contrary felt foreign — even wrong.
During our engagement, I’d seldom had sexual feelings toward John, but I shrugged it off as guilt. After all, what use were these feelings if I knew I wasn’t going to act on them anyway? Long ago I’d made the decision to save sex for marriage, and since John had made the same decision, there was no struggle. But after the wedding, I began to wonder if I’d been a virgin so long I didn’t know how to give it up. More to the point, maybe sexual feelings weren’t as natural as people made them out to be — maybe they were a learned behavior.
People joke that the start of a couple’s marriage means the end of their sex life. To a virgin wife, this means a sex life that never starts. It never occurred to me that I would get married and not want to have sex with my spouse. I kept imagining Mr. Rogers coming in from outdoors and taking off his jacket and putting on his cardigan. Sex should be like that, I thought. I’m safely inside a marriage — time to hang up the virginity and put on the married sex. I never thought it would be a problem. I figured we’d make dinner, clean the bathroom, balance the checkbook, make love. It would just be part of our lives.
I floundered for months trying to explain my absent sex drive. And we floundered together trying new things to encourage it. John bookmarked an Internet site with erotic stories. He also suggested porn, but the idea of being turned on by someone else’s engorged penis made me sick to my stomach.
We were given a book before the wedding called “The Guide to Getting It On!” and we started reading it together at night. Although witty, much of it seemed based on the “men want sex all the time and have to coax it from women” principle. Our marriage fit this category, and I resented it. I finally persuaded my husband to let it go. And the book made its way under the bed.
Our religion teaches that there is no material identity; men and women are the spiritual ideas of God, his reflections. We have no bodies, and we are wholly good because God is wholly good. Therefore, there are no problems with health, relationships, sex; we only think there are. We heal our minds of these situations with prayer rather than medicine. We were both convinced that nothing was physically wrong with me — no hormonal imbalance, vitamin deficiency, or psychological scar keeping me from desiring sex. I simply had some things to deal with.
John once told me that if he was discussing our sex life with his best friend, he’d say he only wanted to be able to turn me on. It didn’t matter if we had sex or not, he just wanted to be responded to. My husband needed to feel worthy, wanted, attractive. He wanted his sexy whispers to excite me. When he slipped a hand up my dress he wanted to ignite a fire. And I wanted that, too.
I was stunned by the tension I was feeling. Although John said it was all in my head, that he was fine, I couldn’t believe him. What kind of wife doesn’t want to sleep with her husband? I’d once written an article about learning how to masturbate, and here I was, not able or willing to be turned on by the man I’d just committed my life to. I was beginning to think I’d made a big mistake.
My husband’s first wife sought sex from any male who’d give it to her. She cheated on him repeatedly, leaving him scarred and vulnerable. But where this wife had betrayed him physically, his second wife betrayed him emotionally, withholding love and affection. The experience was so painful, he once confided, that if he had to relive one of those marriages, he’d choose the first.
And was I any different from his second wife? Wasn’t withholding sex withholding love? There was an awful, though blessedly brief, period when John resisted being touched. I was getting a taste of my own bitter medicine. I started to feel physically sick, and my menstrual cycles grew more and more irregular. I knew I had to do something. I felt I was destroying our marriage before it had a chance. I sought the help of a Christian Science practitioner who would support and guide my thoughts to align the ills my body and psyche were exhibiting. I chose a woman from Virginia, feeling divinely led to the word “virgin,” which I still felt I was. God, I figured, had a great sense of humor. I explained to her that I’d just married and I was not interested in having sex with my husband. The rest of the conversation went something like this:
How long have you been married?
And you were a virgin when you married?
Good. Waiting is certainly in line with the teachings of Christian Science. Do you love your husband?
Yes, of course.
Are you attracted to your husband?
But you don’t feel impelled to have sex with him, is that right?
What do you think is holding you back from enjoying sex with him?
I really don’t know.
But you want to have sex with him, is that right?
Yes. (I began to cry.)
Of course you do. He married you expecting to be administered to sexually, and as his wife you need to fulfill your end of the bargain. Do you agree?
Think of it this way, if you had gone out to eat with friends, and he came home from work and asked you for his usual meat and potatoes supper, you’d feel obligated to make it for him, correct? Because that is the loving thing to do. Sex is no different, dear.
We continued treatment a few more months, but her antiquated ideas about marriage and a wife’s role made it hard for me to communicate with her. I didn’t feel sex was best viewed as an obligation. And further, I didn’t feel obligated to make a roast for my husband when he demanded it. Partly because he never would, but mostly because I felt it would be equally unloving of him to ask.
The odd thing was, John had used this same analogy earlier. Only with him, it was a sandwich. You’d make me a sandwich if I asked, though? What could sex, love, and a sandwich have in common? I wondered. It sounded like the beginning of a bad joke. Maybe that was what all those married couples said about give and take and not keeping score. Sometimes you have to compromise. Sometimes you just have to walk to the kitchen and make a sandwich to maintain harmony.
While I was feeling asexual and even shied away from affection, my husband’s sex drive was in its normal gear: overdrive. I knew he had every right to express himself sexually, and my indifference seemed heartless. With our wedding money we’d bought a digital camera. We found this convenient for doing what we affectionately called “wife porn.” John took sexy pictures of me to display on the screen and use when he wanted. I had a feeling this wasn’t exactly what our wedding pastor had in mind when he talked about creative problem-solving at our ceremony.
Sometimes I resented posing for these photos, like they were another way to shame myself. It stands to reason that a woman who doesn’t care to make love to her husband probably won’t find much enjoyment in “making love” to the camera. But I’d pose naked in front of the patio door, waving to imaginary boys on our lake. Sometimes it occurred to me that the practitioner was closer to the truth than my feminist pride would allow. Seeing my husband get turned on taking the pictures was enough to keep me posing. I was, after all, an attractive woman, a taut size 6 with nice curves and responsive nipples — maybe showing off was exactly what I needed. Still, there were times when the thought of my new husband masturbating in front of our computer was more than I could bear.
I felt like I was buying time. I was still unable to shake the feeling that a husband and wife who didn’t make love were not truly married. Maybe that was why I didn’t really feel like a wife. I just felt involved in a perpetual game of playing house. I felt like a fraud in public, with our married friends, and especially with my girlfriends, as though I weren’t a real woman. There is nothing written about this sort of thing; married sex is supposed to taper off, not taper on as years go by.
John continued to be patient and sweet to me even with my aloof response to his advances. He admonished me about my guilt, knowing it wasn’t anyone’s fault. He never quit with his advances, which I started to warm to mentally if not physically. And somewhere in the winter following our wedding, the tension eased.
As the months progressed, I was occasionally able to enjoy oral sex with John. And afterward it always occurred to me that sex wasn’t the big deal that folks — myself included — made it out to be. It was another way to express love with my spouse, but it wasn’t the be-all and end-all of marital affection. I wasn’t sure that I accepted sex being emotional. It was based on mental feelings, psychological yearnings, cerebral lusts, but sex itself was physical. I didn’t necessarily feel closer to John when I came; most of the time I felt as though I were on a cliff somewhere begging to be pushed off because I loved the fall. John was my pusher. When my eyes were rolled back in my head, I wasn’t looking at my husband.
Married a year, I dreamed that John was married to me and to another woman. We all lived together, and I was secretly jealous of the other woman. I was the homemaker: cooking meals and cleaning house. She was the sexy, attractive one, the one who wooed our husband, the one who slept with him. I awoke knowing I was both women. Caught in two bodies, I was unreconciled. It was the old virgin-vs.-whore dichotomy, a picture of my unconscious mind wrestling with the duality of wifehood.
I persisted with prayerful treatment, tackling fear, shame, and guilt in turn, and almost a year later, I reached a point where I didn’t fear having or not having sex. And I knew my husband wasn’t going to leave me if I took another 10 years to work it out. I suddenly felt free to take as much time as I needed, to not see my prolonged abstinence as an obstacle to my otherwise fulfilling marriage.
No one can make you ready to have sex. You can be coerced into it, you can think you’re supposed to have it or want it, and you can hold all the preconceived notions you want, but sexual passion doesn’t always happen the way women’s magazines say it will. It’s not about red lingerie, unexpected roses, or doing it on the kitchen table. Sometimes nothing but patience and love will make you feel comfortable between the sheets. I realized that there’s nothing wrong with a woman who takes longer to make the transition from virgin to wife.
And then it happened. One afternoon after a day of sexual teasing from my husband — a hand up my shirt, a naughty whisper in my ear — I felt it. That twinge of excitement that coyly said, “Hey, pretty lady, that’s your man over there. Go on and give it to him.” At that point it occurred to me that I didn’t have far to go.
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Beth Heaton is an essayist, poet, and editor in Wisconsin.More Beth Heaton.