By the time I was 40, I’d dated over 100 men. My romances, which lasted from one night to one year, were with men from 15 years younger to 15 years older. I dated a physicist, army captain, stripclub bouncer, philosopher, professional country singer, peace-treaty negotiator, yacht captain, waste management baron, professional athlete, farming landscape painter, firefighter, ER doctor, retired CIA spy, minister, a handful of lawyers and enough engineers to start a firm.
While I was intimate with over 50 of these men, I never had sexual intercourse with any of them. I wasn’t waiting for marriage or holding out for religious reasons. I was attracted to the men I dated and fantasized about sex with some of them. Looking back, the seeds that would grow into my decision may have been planted by watching Disney and Hallmark movies and listening to music that romanticized waiting for a hero. Whatever the reason, I knew in my gut that I wanted to experience sexual intercourse within a mutually loving and committed relationship. That relationship just never came along.
In 2013, I wrote an essay entitled “Does My Virginity Have a Shelf Life?” for The New York Times that changed my life. In addition to the 600 comments posted in 24 hours, the article was on the top 10 most emailed for a week. Both feminists and misogynists attacked my decision to remain abstinent in a culture that quite clearly says, if you aren’t having sexual intercourse, you aren’t complete.
Then I was invited to speak on the Katie Couric show on “Late in Life Virginity.” During a commercial break Couric turned to me with a knowing look and told me I had a case of “fairytale princess syndrome.”
“You should just have sex,” she told me.
My heart felt like it had just been spanked.
I left NBC studios on a mission — not to take Couric’s advice to lose my virginity ASAP, but to find out if I were delusional, as America’s sweetheart anchor had suggested.
I started with books like “The Evolution of Desire,” “Necessary Losses,” “Appetites,” “The Power of Habit,” and “Attached.” Oh and of course, I skimmed the classic, “Sex and the Single Girl,” whose author, Cosmopolitan’s long-time editor-in-chief Helen Gurley Brown, claimed, “If you’re not having sex, you’re finished.”
I sought out a therapist. I visited a local psychic. I talked to my primary care physician. I wanted to know if I was actually “sick” for following my desire to have sexual intercourse in a mutually loving and committed relationship.
I found that the majority of people thought that waiting to have sex before an established committed relationship is old-fashioned. “What’s commitment anyways?” a friend asked me. “We all get left eventually,” she said.
I emailed renowned Rutgers University psychologist Dr. Barry Komisaruk who studies orgasms in paralyzed female patients. I asked him if research shows women’s brains light up differently depending on the type of orgasm: plenty of people had said if I’d had oral sex or masturbated, I’d had sex. I told him I was seeking scientific proof for what I felt in my gut to be true — that I should reserve sexual intercourse for love and commitment. He suggested I email his colleague in the U.K. whose research found that a female’s brain lit up differently depending on the type of sexual activity. Then, what he wrote next, I’ll never forget, “In my experience, if it comes down to a choice making a decision based on science or based on my gut, I go with my gut!”
I reached out to interview a consecrated virgin, someone I thought would understand my compulsion to follow a strong feeling. When I met her at the coffee shop, she looked like any 30-year-old. There was no long flowing black habit, but she did wear a ring on her wedding finger. “Mary” had taken a vow of chastity through the Catholic Church, but, unlike nuns, she lived and worked in the secular world as a nurse.
I am Christian, but not Catholic, and I wasn’t saving myself for God, but as a 40-year-old virgin I was curious if she’d met the same resistance from her peers — if they thought something was wrong with her.
“My vagina isn’t going to blow up if I don’t have sex,” she’d told a couple concerned friends. She sipped her skinny latte and spoke frankly about her path that led her to choose a life of chastity. “I long for the day I meet Jesus,” she told me.
I understood how she felt. I also longed for someone who would love me unconditionally, and I believed he existed.
So I continued to be open to sages I randomly met along my journey.
During a road trip along Highway One I stopped at the cliffside Café Kevah to soak in the Big Sur coastline. Taking in the view alongside me sat a large older man perched on his motorcycle, a former Chicago mob member turned addictions counselor. As you do with a complete stranger you meet on a highway you’ll likely never see again, we swapped life stories.
“You’re a sexual anorexic,” he told me. He directed me to a website Sex & Love Addicts Anonymous that described my “disorder.” I desired sex, but by choosing not to have sex, I felt like I remained in control when my life felt out of control. This was not too different from how many of my friends spiraled into an eating disorder.
Instead of being addicted to resisting food, I was addicted to resisting sex. And just like any addiction, mine too had corollary addictions. I became addicted to men who would never commit. The first three men I loved in my 20s left me for other women. One denied the only offer I ever made to have sex. My self-preservation instinct told me that if I were to fall in love and be abandoned again, at least I’d still have my virginity.
Call it self-sabotage or living a self-fulfilling prophecy, I fell in love with unavailable men— men with whom I knew I’d never have sex because they’d never love or commit to me. The steadfast atheist who’d never pray with me, the man with the vasectomy who didn’t want the child I wanted, the man I flew hours to visit who was too busy before I arrived to discard the used condom on the top of his overflowing bathroom trash can, and the depressed man who could never love me because he couldn’t love himself. I knew I’d hit rock bottom when I met the frustrated married man. I’d never find Mr. Right chasing Mr. Unavailable.
I was starving myself of the emotional intimacy I truly craved. It took an interview with an Orthodox rabbi to teach me this.
Rabbi Manis Friedman, author of ”The Joy of Intimacy,” told me, “People are addicted to the physical, the junk food—and it won’t solve the problem (the emptiness) especially if you are lacking nutrients. Ten minutes later you are still hungry. You can go your whole life without sex but not without intimacy.”
My therapist helped me see that I was in an abusive relationship with myself and I kept returning, living in a heightened but empty state of anticipation. Longing disguised as hope was stealing my precious time. Every night for six months, I wrote in my journal, “I am ready for and worthy of a deeply intimate and loving relationship.” And then it happened.
In the summer of 2018 I met a mountain-running geologist while drinking margaritas on a rooftop with friends. I had just come off another dead-end affair with an unavailable man, and Dave was only six months out of a divorce after an 18-year relationship.
This long-haired former drummer from Long Island was not my type; he actually returned my calls and texts. He was such a good communicator that even his blue-gray eyes changed colors depending on his mood. On our third date, he drove me to the airport and walked me to security. There was a different sort of spark, but it didn’t set off a swarm of butterflies.
My friend predicted it would be a slow burn that grew. But I didn’t feel like I was in love. It felt too easy. Where was the anxiety I equated to love? Where was the fear he’d leave me?
My attraction to his transparency and availability grew. Unlike my relationships with other men, I completely trusted him before I fell in love with him.
After two months of dating, Dave told me I was worth waiting for. I’d heard that before, and then men soon lost interest. But then a few months later at dinner he took my hand and said what no man had told me: “You are worthy of love.” I slurped down a chokeberry cider and looked away as every muscle in my body recoiled. I wanted to run.
Instead, I found myself sitting still in a very unfamiliar place: learning to receive and return love with a man who stood facing me with his arms wide open. I decided I would exchange my virginity for a commitment to positive change: to replace an addiction to longing with a healthy desire to be loved.
But I didn’t want to just have sex on a random Tuesday night and then get up Wednesday and go to work. I wanted to be deliberate as I had been with my choice all along. Dave and I began exploring destinations.
Ten months after our first date we flew to French Polynesia. Huahine, the second of five islands we visited, is known as the rebel island because it was the last of 118 to fall under French control. Upon arrival our taxi driver told us the island meant “the sex of the woman.” This is the place, I thought.
PHOTO COURTESY OF AMANDA MCCRACKEN
Our bungalow at Lapita Village in Huahine: Moonlight shone through the deltas etched into the wall to cast on our ceiling a pattern of triangles—the symbol of change.
It had been three years since Dave had had sex. So, in some ways, he felt like he was starting anew with me. He surprised me with a fun deck of cards, each with a different sex position. We made stacks: “Slam dunk,” “Awkward, but let’s try it anyways,” “Impossible, even for Gumby.” I wore new pink lattice lace panties and lit a candle.
Everywhere you turn in Huahine, you face something sacred: the red hibiscus flowers, the profile of the pregnant woman in its mountains, the marae stones that mark ancient ritual sites, even the blue-eyed eels that carry the souls of deceased ancestors. Just as these are sacred to some Polynesians, experiencing sex in this loving relationship was sacred to me ”• despite what others had tried to convince me for so many years.
PHOTO COURTESY OF AMANDA MCCRACKEN
A hibiscus flower (symbol of feminine energy) we found on our hike in Huahine: In French Polynesia, a woman wears a hibiscus behind her left ear if she is married or has a boyfriend and behind the right ear if she is single and available.
We made love in our bungalow overlooking a turquoise lagoon. Sex became the metaphor for discovery. My first time felt playful and awkward, but passion grew as we continued practicing throughout that day.
Hiking through Huahine’s dense jungle the next morning with our barefoot guide, I felt an indescribable fullness. My entire body tingled with a peaceful awareness. Having sex in the loving committed relationship I’d desired felt freeing. I wasn’t worried if he would want to see me the next day, if he would return my phone call, and if he was secretly seeing someone else or multiple people on the side.
That giant leap of faith last summer triggered a cascade of monumental changes. A few days after losing my virginity in Huahine, Dave surprised me by proposing. Two months later we held a small wedding ceremony next to my grandma’s hospital bedside three days before she passed away. And now, at 42 years old, I am four months pregnant.
PHOTO COURTESY OF AMANDA MCCRACKEN
Jumping off our dock in Huahine for a swim.
Was it worth waiting?
My extended journey as a virgin made me discover things about myself I might have never realized had I had sex with the first guy who insisted. Ultimately, it took a lot of time, as well as awareness and work to stop my self-destructive patterns and allow myself to be loved.
ZACK WEINSTEIN PHOTOGRAPHY
Dancing with Dave.
It was never about sex. It was never about waiting for the perfect guy to show up. It was about waiting on a healthy me to show up. The one who realized she deserved more than breadcrumbs. The one who finally felt the emptiness in longing. The one who turned toward love rather than chasing rejection. The one who was capable of accepting that love.
And that was worth the wait.