It was not a rite of passage.
It was an act of revolution.
It was 1969, and I was 17. The autumn burned brightly in Cambridge, but then it was a time in which everything was burning, and, like the children we were, we thought the light had never been so lovely.
It was my sophomore year at Harvard. There were classes to choose, as well as my concentration, as the university loftily termed an undergraduate's major. I was trying out for the newspaper. And none of it mattered, none of it carried anything near the weight of the crumpled piece of paper I held in a sweaty palm. On the paper was written a name and an address, scratched in pencil in a rounded hand. A doctor, in Boston. One who was known to prescribe birth control pills to unmarried and underage women.
I came to Harvard a virgin. I had arrived the year before in the family station wagon with a full ration of my mother's dreams packed up neatly in a big black trunk. For weeks she had sewn clothes for me: a sleeveless dress of beige corduroy with a coat to match, perfect for an afternoon football date and the dinner to follow. A pantsuit whose tailored perfections she had proudly pointed out to my uncomprehending eyes. A kilt, of course, with an oversize safety pin fastened in the front, and knee socks and penny loafers and soft print blouses whose round collars curved demurely around the throat. And all of it was kindling for the bonfire I made of the things she wanted for me.
Within a few months, my wardrobe had narrowed to a thin pair of cheap bell-bottom bluejeans from a Navy surplus store. The seams would rip and I would close them, after a fashion, with safety pins. I wore a black turtleneck that was rarely washed, and a brown suede jacket that was in fact too well tailored for the truculent look I was trying for.
That first year, the freshmen women talked about sex, about what it meant. It was a political act, we told ourselves, once we had caught up with the vocabulary of feminism and the left. Make Love, Not War. But ideology was just a shiny red car that took us faster in the direction we were already going.
The forces propelling us forward had been gathering strength for some time. In high school, I had heard only the distant thunder: Tucked away in Northern Virginia, I knew only that something tremendous had begun.
I read about the Summer of Love in Time magazine. The line still held at W.T. Woodson High, where the world was divided into good girls and bad girls, between those who did and those who didn't, and feminine perfection still rested on a narrow plateau of bouncy hair and pert breasts, contained and restrained. But even I knew all bets were off when I left home.
Sex was to be a declaration of independence, a rejection of bourgeois safety in all its dull contentment. But it was also admission into a worldly philosophy of unspeakable glamour, the one hinted at in the dormitory-sponsored sessions in the common room downstairs, where, over sherry, doctors matter-of-factly discussed birth control and certain exercises we could do to enhance our pleasure and that of our partners in the sexual act.
The sexual act! At that point it was as foreign as anything on a stage. On the fifth floor, lying on the hard mattresses of the bunk beds, we talked about it soberly, practically--was it best to lose one's virginity to someone you loved, or did it make more sense to go about it with someone you liked, and trusted, but with whom you were in no danger of confusing sex with love?
It wasn't that I wanted to have sex. I had no idea whether I wanted to have sex. But I wanted to change. I wanted a flag that would proclaim my difference. Losing my virginity would make me an outlaw, would sever the bonds with my parents' world, would stake my claim to an adulthood entirely different, a way to enter the new world stirring around me. Losing my virginity would be the way in which I gave birth to myself.
It was like stamping on sand castles. And in the fine inevitable frenzy of destroying the fragile blueprints for a life that my parents had fashioned for me, I never noticed the clumsy beauty of their hopes, never considered the web I was tearing to shreds, the one in which their own lives were meshed. Would it have mattered, would it have been different if I had?
I think it must have frightened me to see how easily my parents' world could be dismantled; perhaps I thought someone would tell me when I had gone too far. But it would be much later before I understood that going too far was a necessary part of going far enough. The world was charged with sex, and for the briefest of moments that charge carried little of the danger it once had and would soon again. There was a grace given, a latitude bestowed, to explore the random anarchic tormenting world of love in the way boys did, to grab in great handfuls the raw stuff of intimacy and lies, to construct a self with the same measure of piracy and license.
Because I was young at a moment when the roles cracked, when the tectonic plates of a culture shifted, when the rationale behind the rules slipped or fell or danced away. When the anarchy of adolescence fused with the anger in the air and everything beneath was exposed, wrinkled and red and raw. There was no story left to cover its ugly lovely tenderness. We made ourselves up, or thought we did. Who did you want to be, Tricia Nixon? Or Janis Joplin?
Not Tricia. Not Janis either, exactly, but please, not Tricia.
I had chosen the boy--a suburban kid like myself, tall redhead possessed of a guitar he played well and an insouciance that came less naturally. He was the passport, slightly older and, he said--and I chose to believe--more experienced. I would make love with this boy and I would be changed forever.
I said none of this to the tired-looking, gray-haired man who sat behind a cluttered desk in a small examining room in a Boston brownstone. I said what I had been told to say, that I needed a prescription for contraceptive pills to control an array of alarming and for that matter completely contradictory menstrual problems.
The doctor did me the courtesy of pretending to take my medical complaint seriously. He wrote out the prescription and looked at me with the vague curiosity I now confer on the young, knowing, as I did not, that there was a price to be paid.
And I would pay it. In that fumbling search for transcendence, there were things dear to me that I threw overboard, and some of them have only recently been returned to me. Perhaps if I'd known then what I'm beginning to know now, that seduction is only a season in a woman's life, I would not have had to forgive myself for all that I squandered. But I am glad that I had the great good fortune to have enjoyed that season at a moment when a woman's heat did not have to be measured out in meager drams, when a belly flop had as much to teach as a swan dive. When the first time could still change the world.
Former Post staff writer Lynn Darling will publish "The Slut Museum" (Little, Brown), an exploration of women's sexual identity, next year.