I Was Taught To Protect My Virginity At All Costs. Instead, I Decided To Seduce My Town's Star Athlete.

One of the author's senior year photos.
One of the author's senior year photos. Courtesy of Melissa Duge Spiers

“Girls, when a man goes to the store to buy a shirt, does he pick up the old one on the floor that’s been tried on and wrinkled? Or does he want a shirt straight out of the package, all nice and clean?”

Mr. Walsh, our main academy religion teacher, literally foamed at the mouth when he got excited. He dabbed ineffectually at it now with the tail of a button-down oxford before gleefully tossing it to the stage floor.

“Of course, a man always wants a brand new shirt!” he squealed, trampling the unfortunate item. “He doesn’t want the dirty one that other men have worn out!”

In my Seventh-Day Adventist church school, we didn’t have sex ed. We had obligatory “marriage and family” classes in which the devil-influenced slide from handholding to fornication was carefully charted to hammer home a singular message: Any frisky business before and outside of heterosexual marriage was a deadly sin.

In case anyone missed the message, we also had periodic five-day revival-style “weeks of prayer” with guest speakers and ultra-dramatic presentations like Mr. Walsh’s shirt stomping. During that week we had witnessed the lock that opens for any key (disgusting! useless!) versus the key that opens any lock (valuable! admirable!). We had seen the chewed gum, the licked cupcake, the denuded rose, the dirty dollar. And now, finally, the discarded, soiled shirt that had been “stained and stretched out by other men.”

Girls — and our appearance — effectively carried the entire weight of our faith’s fanatical fear of sex: It was our fault if we strayed and it was our fault if men strayed. It was impossible to monitor us too severely. We were reviewed, critiqued, admonished, shamed and often forcefully corrected. Our hemlines were measured and adjusted, our makeup wiped off and our necklines yanked up.

The author during her senior year of high school.
The author during her senior year of high school. Courtesy of Melissa Duge Spiers

I was not in the mood that particular day for yet another lesson in the treacherous condition of being female and what we wore, how we looked, what we said and where we went. Just that morning I had been shamed and sent to the school office, where they kept a bottle of fingernail polish remover for girls with harlot tips.

Still seething and smelling of acetone, I scanned the teachers and administrators on the stage behind Mr. Walsh. They were all so rabidly wary, on alert, with the faint hysteria — a strange, subterranean panic — that always permeated these demonstrations and lectures: a weird, desperate earnestness mixed with fear. I could never pinpoint exactly what inspired it.

As I watched Mr. Walsh’s triumphant trampling, it dawned on me: They were utterly terrified we were going to discover something very exciting and powerful about the supposedly naughty bodies under our tightly regulated, modest fashions. It had something to do with our untrustworthy female forms, which were apparently so dangerous to ourselves and others that we were not capable of or allowed to police them ourselves, so everyone else had to do it for us.

If it terrified them so much, I had to find out what it was all about.

So I went on a sex hunt.

The evangelism-soaked walls of my 300-student SDA academy were clearly not a safe quarry for my search, so I started reading the newspaper sports page, scrutinizing athletes at the nearby public high school like a college scout. It didn’t take much studying to make my pick: Our dinky town had been improbably graced by an exchange student, Nicholas Bonetti, a dark-eyed jock with a body and bone structure worthy of any classical sculptor. He played football and basketball. I had barely been kissed, but just like that, I had made my decision: Nick would be the recipient of my virginity.

Decision and execution were two bewilderingly different things, however.

"This is me in high school, overdressed for church," the author writes. <span class="copyright">Courtesy of Melissa Duge Spiers</span>
"This is me in high school, overdressed for church," the author writes. Courtesy of Melissa Duge Spiers

Competitive sports were a sin, according to our prophetess, Ellen G. White, so I had no firsthand experience with organized athletic events. I quickly learned — much to my disgust — that fall was for football. The whole confusing scene was too spread out, too chaotic and way too dark for long-distance seduction, and I fumed for many chilly nights under dim stadium lights, swaddled in shapeless cold-weather gear.

It was clearly impossible to clinch a conquest from afar in a parka.

In January, however, basketball season brought perfect star-athlete hunting conditions — infinitely more flattering indoor apparel for all, under bright lighting, in confined quarters. I wore the most immodest, brightest shirts I had and positioned myself in the stands wherever Nick’s team bench had a direct view of me. I did not have time for subtlety. I lingered in the stands after games. I loitered outside the team bus as they loaded and unloaded at away games.

Alas, it all seemed for naught — nothing happened. Then, just as the season wound down, there was a stroke of luck: I learned that Nick had a job at the local pizza restaurant, a tiny cement structure on the corner of our one-stoplight intersection.

The next day, I waltzed into the restaurant sporting a 1940s velvet cocktail ensemble, which featured a jewel-encrusted skirt that flared open to reveal hot-pink accordion pleats and a thigh-high slit, a plunging off-shoulder velvet top and long satin opera gloves. I had full Vogue-worthy maquillage and classic ’80s hair, sprayed high and wide. And a hat. And a veil. And a feather.

Even I knew I was comically overdressed for a high-noon pizzeria visit at the stoplight. But I was betting that I was not too overdressed to start a conversation and end up without my virginity.

I was not wrong.

The author on her graduation day from Seventh-Day Adventist academy.
The author on her graduation day from Seventh-Day Adventist academy. "I left the religion after I graduated," she writes. Courtesy of Melissa Duge Spiers

Nick and I went on a handful of dates over a couple of weeks, but I made it clear to him I was on the accelerated track ― in the AP class ― with sex, as with everything else. He was a bit thrown off by my determination and asked several times if I was sure I was ready. I was acutely aware that it wasn’t so much concern for me as it was his fear that I would freak out on him, like that girl with the really long hair that everybody knows who insists on getting a pixie cut and then, once she gets it, screams and cries on the floor for hours and won’t go to school for weeks.

I assured him I was not that girl.

So, we awkwardly embarked on my defrocking. He was kind but hesitant as we went through the motions. I was stumped when he asked if it hurt. I had no idea, and I couldn’t have cared less. I was so excited I couldn’t feel a thing. It was not sexual excitement — I didn’t know what that was — it was the frenzied escape, the release of all that pent-up and forbidden “no” that had been instilled in me. I was not giving my virginity away — it was not a gift, and it was not being taken. I was giddily destroying it, tossing it aside, stomping on it. Like Mr. Walsh’s shirt.

It was over very quickly, and I felt so accomplished. I had done it, this thing that was so huge, so fraught, so shamed and feared and forbidden — and so managed and administered and patrolled and protected. And I waited for the terrible guilt, the ripping away of that supposedly sacred piece of me, the loss of self and soul that would transform me into a foul and useless waste of humanity.

I felt nothing. There was nothing.

And there would continue to be nothing through several subsequent decades of impersonal, detached sex. Sex with a statement. Sex with an agenda. Sex with a vengeance. Wild sex. Deviant sex. Stupid sex. Good sex. Bad sex. But none of it belonged to me. It never had.

Sex had been utterly depersonalized with so much baggage and so much moral weight before I could ever understand it, much less claim it. It was never about the meaning or feeling. It was about the act and, as always, the only value was in the performance. The appearance. Just like that shirt.

The church had been totally wrong about sex and everything that came with it, but, despite everything I tried, I had never been able to figure out how to make it right.

The author in 2024.
The author in 2024. Courtesy of Melissa Duge Spiers

Two marriages, two children and several serious boyfriends later, I was still trying on sex to fit men, striving to be that possession that covered them beautifully and made them look good. Folding myself neatly and putting myself on display: the unsightly parts tucked away, suffocating in the cellophane wrapper until I stabbed the unsuspecting wearer with the excruciating pins of my pose. 

Then one day I was back watching a football game — this time on a screen, in a bar. A woman sat next to me and complimented me on my Robert Graham button-down shirt with a colorful print and contrasting cuffs that collectors covet. I complimented her on her Robert Graham button-down shirt with a colorful print and contrasting cuffs that collectors covet.

We talked through the entire game. And through dinner the next night. And through all the breakfasts, lunches and workout dates since we met. In a radical departure for me, I have not slept with her yet. I am no longer on the sexual fast-track. I never imagined that I might be interested in a woman. It certainly wasn’t on my church’s “marriage and family” chart. So now, as with every other delicious new thing I’m discovering — with whomever and whatever that brings into my life — I am taking it as it goes.

I have found it goes in interesting ways if you let it.

And I have finally figured out what Mr. Walsh and company were all so scared of. It wasn’t just sex. It was of us claiming our bodies and owning the sex and the pleasure and power that we could achieve if we did. They didn’t want us to know we could chew all the gum, eat all the cupcakes, unlock all the doors and throw out all the keys. They didn’t want us wearing the shirts ourselves. There are so many of them in our collective human closet, and you never know which one is going to fit until you try it on for size.

Note: Names and details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals mentioned in this essay.

Melissa Duge Spiers is an award-winning screenwriter and memoirist. This essay is excerpted from her memoir “The Glory Whole,” which won the Book Pipeline 2021 Unpublished Manuscript Non-Fiction award and is currently in the publishing process (for more info, check out her Instagram @the.glory.whole).

She is represented by Dani Segelbaum/ARC Literary Management. For more from her, visit her Instagram at @melissadugespiers_writer.

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