I was 14 years old when I married Jesus. Not Jesus, the Panamanian who worked at Six Flags. I mean Jesus Christ, the Lord. My parents sent me off to Baptist youth camp in Panama City Beach for the week, and I came home with a tan and a purity ring. I sat with my legs crossed, cramped in a theater with 200 sweaty, sobbing teens as our pastor described the unwavering bonds of sex and why it should only be experienced within the confines of marriage.
The lyrics echoed in the background as he shouted about STDs and unplanned pregnancy from the pulpit. Cause I am waiting for you, praying for you darling, wait for me too, wait for me as I wait for you. One by one we each placed a ring on our fourth finger and made vows to an apparently bi-curious Jesus who took teenage husbands and wives by the dozen that night.
I didn’t buy into a word of it. Jesus as my husband: Were they kidding? But that ring! Silver and engraved with entwined hearts – everyone I knew was wearing one and I’d finally been given the opportunity to get my hands on it. And it wasn’t just the ring. This was a movement with T-shirts and hats and the added bonus of superiority over kids in school who couldn’t keep their clothes on, those sinners. After an intense and very detailed sex talk with my mother , where she stuttered and I blushed and we both used the word "flower," I was terrified of sex. That and the slide show in sex ed didn't help one bit. So I scribbled Jesus + Jess on my Bible cover, and I casually mentioned my virginity in daily conversations. I committed to the idea hoping it would ensure a successful marriage. Instead, it led to my divorce.
I don't know many people these days who married still a virgin. But going to high school in the furniture capital of North Carolina, it didn’t seem so strange that I wore an engagement ring at the age of 19. People admired my decision to marry my college sweetheart and were enthusiastic about my goal of waiting until marriage to have sex. (He actually wasn’t a virgin, but he was willing to wait for me.) Over time, I’d watched my brothers and sisters in Christ lose sight of their celibacy around the time they felt the pull of raging hormones combined with slots of unsupervised co-ed time. But I pressed on in stubbornness until finally, the time had come to replace Jesus as my other half. Twenty may sound early to get married, but tell that to the girl who had her knees locked since puberty and the boy who spent years trying to convince her that just the tip didn't count.
The morning of my wedding day, I threw up. Everyone assumed that I was nervous about having sex. I wasn’t. But it dawned on me how much we hadn't learned yet about one another. We had known each other for three years by this point, but there was so much unexplored territory. So what was I supposed to do when my "aha moment" came as a dress was heaved over my head by seven bridesmaids? Plus, my mother had mentioned no less than 400 times, this wedding was costing them a fortune; I was getting married, there was no way out.
“I’ll give you a five-minute head start if you want to run,” my dad said with a half-smile as we walked up the aisle. I held onto his arm tighter, afraid my legs might just take him up on that offer.
When I look back on my wedding day, I remember a passionate kiss at the altar. But after rewatching video footage, I see it was little more than a peck on the corner of my mouth and a long hug. Two years of halting wandering hands as they grazed under blue jeans, and the second we have the permission from God, we hug. These are what red flags look like; my rearview mirror is lined with them.
Our wedding reception was filled with underage drinking and boys wearing their father’s suits. I danced to Top 40 with my friends; he got drunk in a corner with his. We met at the entrance of the country club just before midnight to be sent off through a sea of bubbles, to consummate our marriage. There is nothing that can kill a mood faster than my Colombian grandfather knowingly winking at the man I was about to sleep with. Except for maybe the dashboard covered in condoms, a send-off gift from my new husband’s grooms boys.
He carried me through the door of the hotel room and immediately placed me down in a chair. If my 120-pound body wasn’t too heavy, the 30-pound dress covering it was. Rose petals were scattered on the bed surrounded by a dozen lit candles. I had never been more romanced and less interested in having sex. Was I tired? Was I hungry? Shouldn’t we have been pouncing on each other? I slowly changed into an ivory silk nightgown. When I came back into the bedroom, he was lying down, half undressed, completely hopeful.
“Are you not exhausted?” I yawned into a pillow. “Is having sex tomorrow an option?” I asked, only half-kidding.
“Really? You only get one wedding night, Jess.” Even then, I doubted that would be true.
As he began to kiss me, my mind shut off. I felt his movements and I heard heavy breathing but I thought nothing, it was as if it was something that was happening next to me, or to someone else entirely. It didn’t hurt, I remember that much. Three minutes later when he finished he appeared pleased with himself and I was glad that it was out of the way. I smiled and asked if we could get something to eat. My wedding day began with my face leaning over a toilet and ended in a Waffle House.
Then, as if Jesus were punishing me for moving on, I got a urinary tract infection on the second day of our honeymoon. I sighed in relief when the doctor told me that I should not engage in any sexual activity until I had finished the antibiotics. Seven days later, my wifely duties resumed and almost every time our clothes came off, my mind seemed to check out. I soon noticed that during those few-minute intervals of sex, my mind was focusing on something else, anything else.
“Do you like that?” he would ask after light repetitive movements.
“Yep,” I answered. Lettuce, milk, paper towels …
“Are you close?” he was anxious to know.
“Uh-huh,” I lied. Buy stamps, get my oil changed, send thank-you cards …
This was not lovemaking. There was no bond, no sanctity – this was not the amazing sex I was promised from the pulpit. This was disappointment three to four times a week.
Not long into our marriage, my mother coyly asked how it was going. I joked that there were some women who needed it and some who prioritized it underneath quilting. But I accepted sex as part of the gig and though it was regular, it was regularly awful for me. It wasn't all his fault. I admit that I was not a willing student but he was no teacher, either. Our bodies wanted different things from one another, so what we ended up with was a horizontal battle. I would hear married girlfriends talk about the joys of make-up sex and continue to sip my coffee in silence. We would fight, and then have bad sex and then fight some more. Every flaw in our marriage and in him seemed much more miserable when combined with the possibility of faking orgasms until death did we part. There was no relief.
Before we got married, I used to love kissing him. We would spend hours attached at the mouth because aside from occasional drunken foreplay, it was all we had. In our marriage, we stopped kissing because who needs kissing when sex is on the table? Me, I did. I needed assurance that some physical aspect of our relationship was working. And when I didn’t get that assurance I pinned it on myself. Maybe I was just that woman you hear about, who doesn’t particularly care for sex. She just slowly dries up until she dies alone. For months I believed that might be me and rather than try something different, he began to believe it too.
Six months into our marriage, the idea of separating seemed more appealing than feigning headaches for the rest of my life.
Had we had sex before our relationship transitioned into a contract, I would have known that there was no passion, no spark, nothing happening between our bodies. I would never have agreed to marry him because sex is a significant part of a relationship and therefore a significant part of our relationship was failing. With the failure of our sex life, I felt like less of a woman, no longer a sexual creature but more of a plant. Sitting there, day in, day out, wilting while I waited for someone to take care of me.
Without having sex before marriage, I blindly walked up an aisle and committed myself to a man who didn’t know me and gave my long-held virginity to someone with whom I had no more chemistry than a second cousin.
Soon after our divorce, he got remarried to someone who suits him better than I ever could have. And years later, I can confirm that I am not that woman who has no interest in sex. I don’t quilt. I haven’t compiled a grocery list in bed in years, and I now know that sex can be amazing … with a bartender who only knows your first name, a pilot you meet on vacation in Costa Rica and yes, with the right guy – sex in a marriage can be beautiful. The key is to figure that out before you find yourself walking down an aisle in a dress that costs more than the family car (my mother has since reminded me). It isn’t the most important thing when it comes to love. But for me, I learned that sex is important enough not to wait.