Finding a 27-year-old virgin these days may seem about as realistic as coming upon a unicorn in the forest, being struck by lightning, or seeing a unicorn get struck by lightning. I know of just one -- though I managed to find her without looking, since she's also my best friend.
Caitlin and I met when we were 3, were both raised religious, and remained close growing up even as she grew in her Catholic faith and I traded Baptist roots for... nihilism? She went to mass to feel connected to something greater. I practiced stream-of-consciousness writing. The depth of our friendship and various shared interests kept us close even as our worldviews became increasingly at odds.
Did I mention Caitlin's a virgin? And that she let me interview her in order to find out exactly why (and how) someone pursues this path in today's world? She is. She did. What follows is probably the most direct conversation we've had in years.
What people look for in sex differs between individuals. How does the framework that you understand for sex make room for individual identities and preferences?
The first thing that comes to mind when I think, What do I want to feel? is, free. That's what I've always wanted from sex: I have nothing to hide from you, and you love me, seeing everything. And that that would be reciprocal.
That is basically what the church is teaching, and why it teaches that you can't have sex except within marriage. Because making a vow to somebody, that's indissoluble, that's for life. You give all of yourself. So when sex becomes the expression of that vow, to me, that's what allows it to be free. It's not like, I give myself to you tonight but I'm not sure what tomorrow's going to look like. Or, you know what I do for a living, but we haven't talked that much, you don't know about my parents and what happened in my past. Waiting for the relationship to unfold, the patience that it takes to get to marriage, when you then can say, "I love you no matter what until I die": that's the prerequisite for sex for me, and that's what the church teaches, because that allows you to be free in sex. And then I think within that freedom, you know, when you give the whole of yourself, your personal particularity is going to come out like it's never going to come out in any situation...
You have a sex drive; you're not asexual. So how have you done it?
I've been with [my fiance] John, who's amazing. And that's a big part of it. I think another thing is just -- and this is something a priest counseled me to do -- like, don't be a big shot. You don't have that much moral capacity. Don't credit yourself with the ability to resist temptation, thinking that you can. Assume that you are weak and then plan accordingly.
And I mean, we have not been perfect. A lot of times, John is way better than me. Like when I went to visit him, I got a hotel room. I didn't stay at his place, that's another thing. I mean, we went through times when we slept in the same bed, like in college and stuff -- not every night, but on occasion -- but I would never do that now, ever... so he came up to my hotel room... and we started kissing and... He was just like, "I'm actually just going to go home right now because I can't be here any longer."
I mean, I was still kissing him. He's been the one so, so many times who's sticking to his resolve. Not thinking, oh, we can keep going a little bit, this is so great. You can't think that you're just going to stop in the middle when things get dicey. You're on a trajectory that's going one direction so it's better to not get on the train.
Do you worry about incompatibility? Something irreconcilable about your sexual styles, once you actually go there when you're married?
No. First of all, I very much enjoy kissing him. So it's like, I know that we have chemistry, at least in that sense. And you know when you don't. Even on that level. So at least there's that experiential assurance. But then, besides that, it's just like, there's nobody else that I would want to be with. And so it's kind of secondary. It's like, well, maybe it'll be awkward the first few times. I'm actually expecting that.
We've both been telling ourselves for years, don't have sex with this person -- and then all of a sudden, it's like, OK, go! That's going to be awkward. But it's also going to be great, you know? It's like, you're comfortable with that person in a way that kind of can contain the sexual, and so I think even if it's just like, I don't know what the hell we're doing! It hurts! Um, should I turn this way?, it's just going to be funny. I think we'll be enjoying ourselves even if it's not enjoying ourselves.
So you will not be using birth control pills or condoms. You'll be using the... family planning method?
Natural family planning (NFP).
Which tracks your cycle so that you guys will only have sex when you are not fertile.
Are you worried about getting pregnant early and being like, oh shit?
Yes and no. I think when you get married there's the understanding that you're prepared to have a child, in some sense. Part of your marriage vow is that you'll be open to life... But of course, there are also a lot of practical considerations, like it's hard to have a child when you have no money. Or, you know, when you're in the middle of your PhD. So, yeah, I mean, these are things I'm grappling with... On the other hand, John and I have this long story, and the time is just ripe. I think it would just be artificial and kind of controlling to try to be like, well, I'm not going to marry you until I have my degree in hand.
I'm willing to let my life be radically changed.
The only reason I know of behind not using birth control pills and contraception like condoms is sort of acknowledging that God is the one who's in control, and not trying to artificially change the outcome. Since you're still trying to control the outcome with NFP, how is that acceptable instead of contraception?
I think I'd want to step back to your understanding of why not contraception. Because that's not the primary reason. The main reason is that you can't separate the unitive and the procreative meanings of the conjugal act: sex. That was Humanae Vitae, a major document that came out in the 1960s in the church... sex is a union, you know, the one-flesh union of man and wife. We really believe that you do, in a real way, become one flesh, of course without becoming one person. But you're bound that deeply.
So the unitive, which is tied to the meaning of love, it goes back to the vow. If I'm giving you all of myself, I'm also giving you my capacity to be a mother, and you're giving me your capacity to be a father... The capacity to participate in the creation of another person -- an independent spirit who will live eternally -- that's huge. When you give all of yourself, when there can be a complete union, you give your fertility. And so to withhold that, it's kind of like, I love you, but I don't want you to be the father of my child, I'm not quite sure about that...
So, what makes the Natural Family Planning method acceptable is it's inherently more open to technical failure?
No. Because it does integrate the whole person. So contraception goes in technologically to change the hormonal makeup of your body --
What about condoms? Condoms don't do that.
Well, condoms just do the same thing mechanically. So you don't really have the union, because you're not actually touching. You know, it's like, I'm going to hug you, but let me put on a body suit first. I love you, but I don't actually want you to touch me.
In different ways, contraceptives operate to truncate the giving and receiving of love, through the giving and receiving of all of yourself. And the way that natural family planning is different is because, even though you do have some control over your fertility, that's appropriate because we are spiritual beings. We have freedom... human considerations of, can you give yourself to a child right now to love and educate them for their lives, and your life [matter]... when you're using natural family planning, you don't have sex when you're fertile. And so it respects the natural order of things. You have to accept that sacrifice, and you have to talk about it, so communication is kept open. Your husband will know everything about, like, where your body is... with NFP you're always paying attention to human ecology. The whole system is in play… when you actually follow it like you're supposed to, [NFP] has like upper 90s effectiveness -- like 97% or something. It's very competitive with other forms of birth control.
How at odds do you feel with our society and how does that affect you?
I mean, clearly what I think is different. There's no denying that the church is countercultural right now. But I think that -- I do believe that this is true, broadly speaking, and that if that is the case, people that live it in love and fidelity should be attractive in some way. So I think the number one thing is just to try to live this well. To have the best marriage that we can. But not in a way that is insular. It's thinking, I want to love this person as well as I possibly can so that the love will overflow, because that's what a marriage is meant to do. It's meant to serve the world and kind of be a home that's open beyond just what the couple might share in some closed-off way. So the marriage, as such, is open to the world, and that means taking this difference into account. But in a way that it's not like ideological warfare, but just having friends and family that you know intimately and talk to and are a part of your life...
I have another friend, who's very, you know, she sleeps with a lot of guys... We talk sometimes and I see that she's in pain. And I see that she also has, just like, family wounds from the past that affect her sexual life now. And I think there's always the risk of coming across like, "Oh, you're hurting, I have an answer -- I have the answer." But I also just can't deny that I feel like there's something true in what I've learned and am being drawn into, that does apply to her life. And it hurts me, you know?... the biggest thing is to hear from her, when she says, like, "I tried not to sleep with this person so soon, but I just wanted it." But it's in a way that, you can tell, the way she's saying it, she felt like it was a capitulation to a weakness… I feel like the church does present certain answers to that. Not just in an intellectual sense, but a way of life that you can enter into and actually offers real healing for people. Not just a five-step method to happiness or better sex or whatever.
When we signed off Skype, I probably went back to reading some article about Southern guilt or themes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Maybe she went back to reading something about the eternal nature of love or absolute truth. But next time we're both home with our families, their houses still just a few minutes away from each other, I'll sit in her kitchen, like I've done so many times. We'll drink her parents' whiskey, she'll warm me up a plate of their best leftovers, and we'll feel in some way like the same people we've always been.
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Anna Cherry is a former Southern Baptist, but first and foremost a human. She tweets about a lot of unrelated things: @unacereza.