I wasn’t like most girls my age growing up. My best friend in high school was a guy, but I never had a boyfriend. I never even got attention from the opposite sex – positive or negative.
I had a job from the time I was 14 years old, and I spent my weekends and summers earning money and developing responsibility at a local amusement park.
Paul* was hired when I was 15. He was 21.
He was unassuming, a bit slow, but generally a nice enough guy. He worked hard, even though he still lived with his parents and relied on them for transportation to and from work. We didn’t see each other outside of work, but we were cordial with each other on the job.
Paul was the butt of many jokes around work.
He loved snapping pictures unexpectedly, to the annoyance of most of us girls, and giving random hugs. While most of the other girls – and some guys, too – made off-hand comments about him and his habits, I overlooked them. I gave him the benefit of the doubt. He was just a simple, country boy with no social awareness.
When I entered college, I continued along the path of the clueless virgin. However, my lack of relationships with the opposite sex left me longing for attention and physical connection and I ended up in a variety of awkward situations.
The summer after my second year, when I was 19, my employer opened a water park and, a few friends and I were given the opportunity to transfer to the new place.
It wasn’t until one afternoon in the middle of the summer, while looking for a familiar face in the sea of strangers at the park, that I spotted Paul. We ate lunch together that afternoon. And the next. And every day, until it became a relationship.
I was overjoyed to have a boyfriend. At last, I felt like a true female. The relationship got pretty hot and heavy immediately – everything but the deed. I wasn’t ready, and he didn’t push it.
I was so desperate for male attention that I didn’t notice the warning signs as they came along. But I should have.
One day, Paul was standing behind me, and I felt his hand sliding up my back. In a lascivious way. I shrugged him off. He waited a few minutes and then tried again. This time, I pushed him away.
One day, we were driving past a giant gas station, and he asked me to pull in. He ran in quickly and reappeared a few minutes later. When I asked him what he got, he pulled out a box of condoms. My stomach knotted. I knew what he was expecting.
We went to his house, and we waited until his family went to bed. They had built an addition on to their mountain home, so Paul had the entire part of the house to himself. The time came, and I deliberated. We’d done everything up to that point. I knew he wasn’t a virgin. I’d asked. He’d apologized for not waiting for me.
Finally, I gave in. I was a legal adult. I had a committed boyfriend. It was expected. It’s what happens. I felt disappointed after. Not in the sex. In myself.
A few weeks later, Paul went on his yearly vacation with his family. I stayed the night with him before he left. That morning, as I backed my car down his driveway, he tapped on my window. I knew what was coming.
Leaning in to kiss me goodbye, he whispered, “I love you.”
“I know,” I said. And left.
Paul and I didn’t last long. Four months, in two-month-bursts. I broke up with him both times.
The first time, I felt guilty for hurting him. “Everybody says you’re losing out,” he said, over the phone, my first weekend back at university.
I took him back. Maybe they were right.
It lasted until I went home for Thanksgiving break. We sat in my car, and I told him how it was never going to work out. We were two different people with different goals. I was adamant.
Years passed. I graduated from university. I moved. Started graduate school. Got married. Paul never stopped sending me messages. My birthday. Christmas. President’s Day. Every single chain-letter-email forward that began with, “I’m sending this because I love you. . .”
At first, I responded kindly. Then, I stopped responding at all. Eventually, he either lost interest or got the message.
Then, one day I got a text from my friend. Paul had been fired. He’d been caught taking pictures of a little girl while she was bent over – by her father. The park police confiscated his camera, and they found all kinds of pictures of women and girls on it – all taken without their knowledge.
My stomach went sick.
Looking back, I can see the warning signs of Paul’s pedophilia. His photo-snapping addiction was a red flag that others had noticed, but I had ignored.
He’d shown me pictures he’d taken. He also showed me pictures he’d printed. Some were of me. He was overly affectionate at inappropriate times. Overt physicality played a central role in our relationship. While I sometimes felt it was risqué and adventurous, I usually felt dirty and queasy.
When we had sex, I was a legal, consenting adult, but I was naïve and inexperienced. He knew that.
Most of his friends were his family members – cousins, aunts, uncles. He didn’t socialize with other people. Except me. He had a child’s level of intelligence. We could have conversations, but they were mostly about benign, general topics.
He was completely non-violent in my presence.
Once, I tried to push him to the point of aggression, but he simply backed away and ended up crying. But once, I noticed his knuckles were all scratched up. When I asked what happened, he told me that he’d punched the wall when we got in a fight over the phone. His emotions were contradictory – in my presence, he was meek and bland; alone he was uncontrolled and brash.
While I was away at college, he would call incessantly. He always wanted to know what I was doing or who I was with. He had a tantrum when he came to visit me for my birthday at college. Other friends and family members were there, and he was upset we couldn’t be alone. He pouted for hours.
Once, he called when I was downstairs in my friend’s room (in our dorm building). I told him I would go back upstairs so we could talk. Before I could exit her room, climb one flight of stairs, and get to my room, he’d called no less than five times.
While I haven’t had contact with Paul in many years, and never plan to again, I still have dreams that he shows up where I am and claims I’m his girlfriend. He tries to take me away, and I’m always overcome with intense fear.
How did this unsophisticated, seemingly-ordinary man have such an effect on my psyche? I may never know. But, I do know this. If I could go back, I wouldn’t have slept with Paul. It’s not that I regret having sex. I mean, maybe I do, a little bit. But that decision set off a rolling stone that began gathering moss I could never have dreamed of.
After Paul, I just thought, “Well, I’m not a virgin anymore.” I didn’t respect myself, my body, or my right to choose.
Though I’m not proud of my choices, I am glad that I have concrete wisdom I can share with my daughter:
It’s your body. It’s always your body. Just because you say ‘yes’ once, doesn’t mean you say ‘yes’ always. Sex isn’t just “what happens” when you get into a relationship. Sex is a privilege, and it’s a rite.
Nobody has the right to have sex with you. Trust your body. If it feels wrong, it probably is wrong.
The world places a lot of importance on a woman’s virginity. But the only person that a woman’s virginity should be important to is herself.
And, no matter what, remember tomorrow is a new day; a new chance to make new and better decisions. Don’t make the same mistakes tomorrow that you made yesterday. Live your life in a way you’ll have no regrets.
*Name changed to protect author’s identity.