Interview With a Virgin: Bette

Bette is a 32-year-old woman who lives in London and works in finance.

Jia: Hi Bette! How are you?

Bette: Hi! I’m good. I’ve been thinking about this interview all week like, “Hmm, should I put in loads of fake narrative to keep my friends from finding out that it’s me?” And then I came to the conclusion that it wouldn’t be a big deal even if they did find out. So I’m feeling a bit more freed up!

So your friends don’t know you’re a virgin?

No, they don’t. And objectively, at my great age — I mean, I’m ancient — I know that it really means so little. It has absolutely no repercussions for anyone else, and my dear friends wouldn’t care, they’d just go, “Oh, right on,” and then that would be it. But there’s just such an enormous sense of shame, this ego and vanity thing, and I’ve not yet worked it out, how to tell them and when.

Does sex come up in general when you’re hanging out with them? Do they ask you if you’re seeing people and ask questions about that?

We do compare notes about the dating life sometimes, but I gloss over anecdotes sometimes to make things seem saucier. Generally I go with an attitude of vagueness. Add a bit of mystery. And honestly, until a certain point in my twenties, I just didn’t have close friends at all — so it’s nice to get to do that sort of talk now.

So even though these are close friends, you’d still be embarrassed if they knew?

Embarrassed doesn’t even cover it. It’s this chest-crushing shame, like grief or something — although of course that’s a bad analogy, because grief is noble, and this is not. It’s walking around with this knowledge of something that has the power to crush you at random moments. On public transit, or at work, it’ll hit me sometimes and I just feel so vulnerable, suddenly, like someone’s about to smash me into little pieces.

Do you think that there’s any good reason you should be feeling ashamed?

Of course not! It’s so stupid! But not having erotic capital, not being a part of the sexual marketplace — and not being able to identify one satisfying reason why — that’s a serious thing in our world! I mean, practically everyone has sex, so what’s wrong with me?

Well, let’s rewind a little, because I’ve jumped ahead. Can you tell me about your childhood and how you grew up thinking about sex?

My parents weren’t quite Puritanical, but they had something of a strict Anglican, Church of England sense of propriety about them. At the same time my mum is the most pragmatic person in the world, and this applied to sex. She made a real attempt at talking about it in a non-confrontational way, giving me pamphlets, showing me what condoms were.

And in terms of pop culture, I was a voracious reader and I loved Madonna like only an eight-year-old girl could. When we all watched Grease I liked Rizzo, not Sandy. When Sex and the City came around I was all about Samantha, not Charlotte, who everyone else seemed to prefer. I didn’t get it. I thought, how could you not want to grow up and have a ton of beaus and cocktails every night — what’s with this other bullshit?

So growing up you sort of imagined that adulthood was all about sex.

Yes, in a way, but there’s some other stuff that plays in. I was not an attractive kid, and I was not great at social stuff — I was quite a slow developer as well — so this was said explicitly to me a few times and intimated many more times over: “It’s okay that you’re not pretty, because you’ll grow up to be smart!” My aunt would always tell me, “Don’t worry, men don’t marry the pretty girls.” And she said this honestly, without any spite!

But then I didn’t exactly turn out to be the sharpest knife in the drawer — I didn’t get good grades. So what was I left with? I was a bit lost.

And then, I was sexually abused when I was a kid. I’ve managed to compartmentalize this pretty well — the good old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon Protestant method of repression, which is quite underrated these days. I dealt with it well enough. But then it came out when I was around 17 that he’d got at some other kids, and of course I felt this big resurgence of shame that I hadn’t prevented this from happening by telling other people and by stopping him.

Oh no. I’m so, so sorry. So you didn’t tell anyone when it happened?

Nobody knows. My parents are awesome and my mom tried so hard to keep an eye out for stuff like this. But that’s how they get you, they find those blind spots. And I don’t want to tell them because I don’t want to open it up. It’s so toxic to have an abuser in the family. And on my end, like I said, I’ve already dealt with it. I’ve done my time on the couch.

But a few of my friends know about this, and it’s so sad, once you start talking about this sort of stuff — it’s everywhere.

Yeah. Most of the people who email me have dealt with some sort of abuse. I wasn’t expecting that.

It’s terrible to say it like, “It happens to everyone,” but it really does happen to so many people. And like I was saying, there’s not just one reason I’m a virgin. Even if there was one reason, this one wouldn’t be it.

Okay. So tell me about your teenage years?

Oh, I was such a miserable, grumpy, super-awkward teenager. We fetishize youth so much in our culture that you forget that teenage years are often quite unattractive! I was watching a movie last night and I was reminded of this old terror I’d once had — that, because my sexual awakening was interrupted, I would spend the rest of my life horribly attracted to teenage boys. But in the movie, the teenage boys just looked like malformed puppies, which was quite a relief.

Still I’ve never totally gotten out of being a bit in awe of guys, which is a holdover from these years, I’m sure. I went to one of the few coed high schools in my area, and it had this reputation for being chock-full of bacchanalia, but I hung out with exchange students and nice Christian kids who would be friends with anybody, and at home I stayed in my room and listened to music and nurtured my ongoing eating disorder.

Could you talk about that a little bit?

Yeah, of course. I mean, I certainly spent enough time on it, like 17 years or something? Sometimes I feel like I should get a certificate.

Basically, it started in that period that I think Americans call middle school, those years that are just sheer hideousness all around. I went from bulimia to binge-eating, back and forth, and the behavior sort of came and went. I had a big flare-up when I was about 15 and I’d just failed my qualifying exams. There was just so much hand-wringing around me and I just wanted to brood and frantically masturbate and not think about anything — which is probably why I failed my exams in the first place.

And of course, teenage girls and bodies, it’s all a mess — all that tribalism that arises around your appearance. I was fat by any metric, and I’ve never been one to bother with makeup. Even today, I try to wear colors now and then, but when you wear black, you can just pretend you’re Batman. I try to do jewelry but really I just can’t deal with that stuff. So especially in my teenage years, I spent a very long time having trouble feeling female. I was so bummed about my body, which is such an important part of what it “means” to be a woman.

Right. That either-or situation that you kept hearing (“Don’t worry that you’re not pretty, because you can be smart instead”) would never be on the table for a boy.

Absolutely. And there’s so much that gets left out of this model, isn’t it? My well-meaning aunt would tell me, “You’re lucky that you won’t have your head turned,” and I’d think — no, I want my head turned!

Yeah. That’s also part of what it means to be a woman, isn’t it? Being beautiful and finding love. Female life as presented by the movies.

Right! And it’s terrible on either end of the spectrum. Two of my friends are stunning to the point where they’re constantly getting stopped on the street. Men just never ever leave them alone, and I see that it’s just a different sort of static.

So you said you spent 17 years with this disorder. How were you able to work through it?

The 17 years covers a lot of time in my adulthood that I spent feeling very lonely. And when you’re lonely in a city, your brain starts to feel like it’s under attack. I moved around from place to place, I hadn’t built social networks, I was in offices where everyone was much older, I had a lot of money and a car and good apartment — but my personal life was just so lonely and in my head.

But things changed when I moved to London. I started making friends, networking, feeling more at ease than I’d felt in the past. Then one day I went to a library and grabbed an armload of books on dieting, as one does — and for some reason I grabbed a book on eating disorders, which had an audit list at the start of it, like a clinical assessment. There were 30 questions, true or false. I got something like 27 true, and they said in the book that anything above 12 was considered an eating disorder.

I was like, “Oh … oh … I see.”

That’s what got you into recovery? A checklist?

That was it! I had acknowledged my disorder in other ways — making tasteless, terrible jokes, and reading eating disorder autobiographies like how-to books — but I really think eating disorders are just so, so normalized. In group therapy, most of the women I met had had their disorder for a decade. But yeah, seeing that list, I immediately got myself into an eating disorder program — a truly great one that our conservative government is about to cut — and I got better.

And now, my recovery is what I see as one of my great life achievements, although I can’t ever say that out loud and sound sane. But to eat like a normal person! It’s like learning to fly a plane one-handed and blindfolded. I’ve got no fellatio skills, but I’ve got that!

It’s no small thing to have. So, in your period of relative isolation, how did you feel about all of the things you weren’t doing? Did you want to be developing fellatio skills? Or did you consider all of that to be off the table?

In that time, really being in the world just felt like an impossibility. I remember when the first Starbucks opened in the town where I got my training certificate in office admin. It was sort of a big deal — all the hipsters made fun of it, but they still went, and it was this big social hub — and I was totally terrified. I didn’t understand how to order. I thought everyone would point and laugh.

But gradually, I learned that I didn’t have to live like that. I bought self-help books and worked out what the hell to do in order to establish elementary social contact. I learned to watch out for touch deprivation — I have a massage budget now, I make sure I hug people — and I basically started from scratch. I got Facebook, I started doing competitive karaoke and activism stuff. And now I’m in London, with a social life, and sometimes I give my phone number to dudes on the tube!

Do you go on online dates?

I’ve stumbled through that, yes. I got my first kiss at 27 after an Internet date. I was quite drunk, which is unlike me, because I usually try to restrain myself in order not to get too emo — so I was a bit knocked off my senses by it. I remember in the moment thinking, “Oh, he hasn’t worked out who I am, I think I’m really getting away with it.” I quite enjoyed the experience! And then it was over, I stumbled on home, and I was just strutting, I felt like Marlene Dietrich. Like Rihanna. I was Sasha Fierce.

That sounds awesome!

Yeah! I’ve even taken my top off for a guy, who rewarded me by being a real asshole, but I just keep reminding myself I have to put myself out there.

But then other stuff gets in the way. I recently had a big knock to my confidence over a medical issue. One of my ovaries has gone demented, my uterus is a war-zone. I had to have all these vaginal checks and that was just sheer ghastliness over and over, and there was only one doctor who took her time to talk to me, and tell me honestly, “Yes, this is going to hurt, and sex will probably hurt you a lot the first few times.” She reminded me that sex is not always easy, physically, for everyone — no matter what our culture says.

They stuck me on birth control, and it’s just such a delicious irony, because — -

Take your time.

Because — I blew my window. Not that I even think I want kids, really, but I blew it.

And, no matter what you tell yourself, no matter how much of a feminist you are, your identity as a woman often hangs on the function of your vagina. It should be normal! It should do normal things, accommodate nice-sized penises, have a good time, have babies. And if it doesn’t?

This must be so hard to deal with.

I can’t help but wonder if I brought it on myself. For me, my eating disorder was a way to defend myself against being sexualized — and there are links between infertility and eating disorders — and maybe I’m reaping what I sowed.

How are you dealing with this news? Does it make you look at the future differently?

Oh, ask me in a few weeks. Lately I’ve just been focusing on cleaning. I’m on this birth control, which has taken my libido down to nothing, which is sort of appropriate but it also sucks and I hate it. How to get through the workweek without erotic daydreams?

I’ve got no answers for you there. Can I ask you, how would you like to lose your virginity?

I’m not romantic in any real sense. I don’t have any vision of a limitlessly understanding lover who worships me like a goddess or anything like that. I’m still wrapping my mind around the fact that there are guys who find me attractive. So what I suspect will happen is there will be an Internet date, or some other poor bloke who will take me home, and we’ll have sex and hopefully I can save the panic attack for the bathroom afterwards.

And that’s not so bad! And then after that, I’ll go back to being sort of a lone person.

Is that what you imagine your life to be like?

I just can’t see it — sharing my life, sharing my house, my bed. It does get me down sometimes. I’d like someone to go to brunch with, or to take care of me when I’m sick. But I have my friends, and they’re a real community.

And I’ve talked to them about this. A few of them are singles like me, long-term singles. We’ve come to terms with the fact that this might very well be it. And I’m okay with that.

Well, it has been tremendous talking to you. I hope you have no more medical complications and that you win all your karaoke competitions. What’s your go-to song?

Anything by Pat Benatar. “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.”

Previously: Eliot

Jia Tolentino is a writer in Michigan.