"No" is easy to say -- because of a headache, when worried about money, from exhaustion. These no's are temporary, though, and easily conquered by a caress, a glass of Merlot, a kiss. For most, once you've had sex you will always be ready to do it again, to paraphrase Mel Brooks. How then can an experienced person, of sound mind and body, willingly give in to abstinence rather than her boyfriend? And, most alluringly, what is the eventual payoff?
Two years ago, Dorothy informed me that she and Paul, her boyfriend of two years, were not having sex. I assumed she meant yet. This spring she told me that she and Paul were planning to get married, and that they were still abstaining.
Abstaining? I immediately asked the obvious question: "Where are you registered?"
I knew I would need a hint when it came time to buy them the most appropriate present.
Dorothy grinned and named the department store. The grin was about something other than flatware. It had been five years since she last had sex, and her wedding night was two months away.
Dorothy and I met 11 years ago at the University of South Carolina, on our first day of school. I was not a virgin, but she was. I continued on my planned course of action: carousing, men and a bachelor's degree ASAP.
Dorothy, on the other hand, when I would crash into our dorm room late at night, kindly brought me glasses of water and ... studied. Eventually she ended up with a master's in international business, three extra languages, a romantic ski weekend in her junior year that did away with her hymen and an affair with an Italian man while she studied abroad. Then, as now, Dorothy took her time.
"Why?" I asked her, over bowls of gumbo. Dorothy looked like she'd expected my question -- I suppose the abstainers of the world know how everyone else thinks. "And doesn't that mean Paul's still a virgin?" I added to make sure I was remembering correctly.
"Paul's still a virgin," she confirmed. "He grew up with an idea of the white picket fence marriage, and virginity is a part of that. I don't think he ever seriously questioned it. Even now if I were to pressure him to do it, he would not. We don't even get close."
"You don't even get close?"
"The physical intimacy question was hard to deal with for the first year, and it's only somewhat less difficult now," she said, avoiding the real meat of my question. "But absolutely I am glad that we waited and I can't really imagine us being together any other way. Well, on April 10th I can imagine us being together."
"But, what have you been doing?"
"I just got a promotion at work!" she said coyly.
"No! What have you been doing instead of ..." I suddenly felt shallow, making sex sound a hobby, like tying fishing flies. All that grinding and necking doesn't really take up that much time when I think about it. "I mean, how can you marry someone you haven't had sex with, much less a virgin?"
"Oh, I'm confident that our sex life after marriage will be normal. We both have normal sex drives, and we plan to fully engage in whatever activities we want to. Pre-marital sex, like infidelity, goes against the idea of devotion to one person for a lifetime. Divorce isn't an option either. So, it's not just 'no sex before marriage' but the many things that we want to be important in our marriage. And," Dorothy continued with a smart, pointed squint, "Paul has waited for 27 years, so a few more weeks won't hurt him a bit."
"But, he knows you're not a virgin, right?" I couldn't imagine Dorothy faking innocence.
"He knows, but so far it's don't ask, don't tell."
"Is this something he talked you into?" Then I was busy imagining Paul's perverted, three-year-long foreplay plan to brainwash Dorothy into being his sex slave.
"No. I made this decision before I met Paul. I came to the re-virgin decision after a rather emotionally draining experience with a psycho and an STD." Dorothy paused for a sip of tea. "Then I dated a couple of people who did not have that same decision in place, and broke up with them for that reason. I decided that I just didn't want to continue in the same way."
"You two met at church, didn't you?" I knew there had to be some of that death-to-idolaters-and-fornicators in there.
"Yep. And everything else from before just does not matter now." Dorothy said this with satisfaction; she found relief in absolution, a turn-on in sanctity. "That whole part of my life seems familiar, but not really me. Me is now, with Paul. I don't feel that having had those experiences is valuable to me. I did have those experiences, and I can't change them, but if I could do it over again, I probably would not."
"So this abstaining simplifies your relationship?" I asked, as Dorothy's psychology became clearer to me. I wondered how many more books I could have read, how much money in birth control I could have saved.
"Oh yes, limited intimacy definitely simplifies our relationship," Dorothy said, looking like she'd put a lot of thought into this notion. "It builds trust. What's more, I anticipate that sex will strengthen the spiritual and friendship bonds that we feel. I look forward to the actual first time -- and second and third -- as well as the idea that we share this bond and fulfilled this commitment to each other to not have sex. We set a goal and we've reached that goal."
I was silent for a moment, wondering if my own relationship could be that conscientious. "But you have to tell me, what do you do?"
"You're going to think this is dumb." At this she looked me over, as if to make sure I wasn't going to stick my tongue out at her. "No touching in front below the waist, inside or outside pants." She held out an index finger to count off item No. 1.
"You have rules?"
"Touching above the waist mostly, but sometimes inside the pants, in the back. But high, not low."
"This is too complicated!"
"Sometimes I'll let him touch my boobs but not often and not for long because then I get really turned on, and then we end up yippin'," she said quickly.
"That's the word we use. We'll kiss laying on top of each other, rubbing around body-to-body -- but I, we, don't like to go there because it's dumb and physically, emotionally frustrating."
"I can believe that."
"I am really looking forward to our first night. I just want to feel his tense body, back and legs all over mine. In addition, of course, to the penis part."
When the time finally came for Dorothy and Paul to consummate their vows, I worried. This kind of pre-ordained sex to me is daunting, prom-nightish. In addition to considering her possible disappointment, I also calculated (my copy of the Kama Sutra came with an abacus) the number of positions and climaxes possible in one week after the long-burning fuse of their legs-crossed relationship. Their fortitude was commendable, but would their sweat act as an adhesive or a repellent? I hoped for Dorothy that she would see little of Savannah on their honeymoon, and that her virgin groom would not disappoint.
About two weeks after I witnessed Dorothy pledge her purified love and delivered my present to the newlyweds, I received a clue of how things went, penis-wise. Dorothy mailed the requisite thank-you note, in which she remarked, "The honeymoon in Savannah was relaxing and fun. We mostly ate out and took naps -- we were bad tourists." Possibly their honeymoon had gone as heartily desired. Maybe Dorothy and Paul had successfully bypassed the perils of premarital sex and headed straight into upright, trustworthy marital sex. Hopefully their newly wedded exuberance would last proportionately longer.
But a thank-you note was insufficient. When I, pushy as a miracle bra, finally called her, Dorothy acknowledged my "Sooo, how are you?" with a quick "hold on" so she could move to a more private phone.
"Great," she said immediately when she picked up again.
"It was awkward at first. I didn't expect it to be, but it was," she explained.
"What kind of awkward?" I asked, almost afraid of getting to know Paul this way.
"Paul was wonderful, and we took our time. But I had difficulty achieving orgasm."
The phrase sounded rehearsed, or well-discussed.
"I've never had that problem before," Dorothy continued. "But it's better now. Paul's getting the logistics."
"So he's a good student?" We were having a good time speaking cryptically, that pleasure of communicating as those-who-get-some.
"We're still practicing," she replied, justifiably smug.
I imagined Paul's stamina building exponentially: 10 seconds, two minutes, half an hour.
"This is a totally new aspect of everything. The wait was worth it, though Paul now thinks we should have just gotten married sooner," she said, delighted and sated. Her delicate arrangement had worked; she has a partner who appreciates the sincerity of her sexuality. On her terms.
Dorothy then thanked me again for my gift, a soft and wide Pawleys Island hammock. The kind that are thoughtfully woven without any knots to dig into your backside, knees or head. I wanted to talk more, but our chitchat had grown lame in the light of Dorothy's reinvented sensual life. As we said good-bye I found myself wanting to hear more of the thrill and languor in her voice, a tone that conveys the cocoonish world of newly found carnal knowledge. When I hung up I realized that Dorothy was most likely the closest I was going to get to that sound ever again.