I’m normal, but …

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUL 7, 2004

I’m a healthy 26-year-old man and I’ve never had sex. Should I tell my girlfriend?


Dear Cary,

I’m a healthy 26-year-old male, normal in most ways physiologically and mentally. As far as I can tell, I’m a funny, bright guy people tend to gravitate toward, and I’m as sociable and interactive as anyone. I’ve never been especially big on the so-called dating scene, but I’ve kept in contact with it enough to not qualify as a complete leper.

I’ve recently begun seeing a beautiful girl (it’s been a couple of years since I dated anyone) who has been very interested in me for some time (which I of course didn’t notice for the longest time), and we’ve had a good time together, equal parts romance and intellect and all those late-night chats where you slowly fill in the gaps. I’m not a very “experienced” romantic, but I gather that she is, yet things have been incredibly fluid and comfortable. We have a good ability to be open and honest around each other, but I have run into a bit of a problem when it comes to telling her something that I assume is pretty unusual for a man of 26: I’ve never had sex. Not even anything remotely close to it. I’ve often joked about my adherence to celibacy, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say the time for joking is done.

This springs from various aspects of my life involving a healthy (read: “non-rigid, non-fanatic”) dose of Protestantism (if you believe that can be healthy) and a not-so-good amount of insecurity. For whatever reason, I’ve avoided this like the plague, so I won’t merely blame any dogmatic hindrances. My singularity was brought into stark contrast in my eyes (not really for the first time) when I read a film review by the always interesting and divisive Charles Taylor who mentioned some phrase about “creepy abstinence teens.” Think of how creepy it would be for a girl who finds that she’s really into a “creepy abstinence late-twenty-something,” I find myself thinking.

I naively believe that if she cares for me she would be able to handle such an idea, but I’m guessing it would be unfair of me not to tell her at the outset (and she’d obviously figure it out soon enough anyway, or read it as a complete lack of interest), and since this is a huge part of relationships (I do realize this, believe it or not), I guess it would be even more unfair to expect her to stick with me if I felt I couldn’t bend my rules (which I’m still not sure about). And to be honest, the whole abstinence thing is driving me a bit mad.

OK, I’ve left you a mess. Please offer any thoughts you have.

The Creepy Celibate

Dear Celibate,

I think you should tell her. I don’t see any other honest, reasonable, loving thing to do. That is what you want to be, right — honest, reasonable, loving?

Why is it naive to believe that if she cares for you she can handle it? On the contrary, it seems quite reasonable to believe that if she cares for you she could handle it. In fact, telling her such a thing has much to recommend it. It is far less troubling a revelation than many other things one might feel compelled to reveal to a woman one is interested in. For instance, what if you had slept with her sister, or had beat up her brother in elementary school? What if you had a criminal record, or a bad case of herpes? What if you had told her some lie that you now had to retract? Those would reflect poorly on your character and give her genuine pause. Having chosen not to have sex before marriage, it seems to me, indicates that you are a thoughtful person who will not take the act lightly.

Perhaps there are things you did not mention, however, that are truly troubling you — perhaps you are frightened and feel clumsy; you fear that you will not be a good lover, that you won’t know what to do and feel paralyzed by that fear. If you feel paralyzed, try looking at it this way: If she cares for you, she may take sheer delight in showing you the ropes.

After all, it might be a treat for a woman to make love with a man who is willing to start from scratch and learn what she alone is all about, as if she were the only woman on earth. It might be a pleasure to be with a man who does not insist that he knows everything. It’s a heady prospect when you think about it: She has the opportunity to become your entire sexual world. She need not compete in your mind with past conquests. She need not suffer your insistent moves learned on other bodies, old habits played out on her as though she were simply a stand-in for some other true love. No, if she gets you she’s going to get you completely, and she will be able to mold you into just the lover she wants. Think of that.

There’s a huge upside to this is what I’m getting at. A huge upside. Now, the downside may be that if you don’t manage the way you tell it to her, she may wonder if there isn’t some other more sinister reason for your lack of experience. So your task is to make sure she understands that this was a rational life choice that you are ready to relinquish now. Oh, that’s the other thing: You have to get ready to go for it. So get ready. Buy some condoms. Make your decision. Then find a good moment when you can take some time to talk it through, and lay it out for her.

The only thing you have to lose is your virginity.