Salma El-Wardany is the author of “These Impossible Things,” a Read With Jenna pick and a novel about three Muslim women as they navigate love, sex and friendship. In a personal essay for TODAY, El-Wardany shares her own journey with sex as a young woman, and what it was like to navigate related conversations within her culture.
There comes a point in every woman’s life when she sits with her girlfriends and exchanges the “how did you lose your virginity” story. It’s a little bit like a tribal rite of passage. There is typically a lot of laughter and shared groans as most women, inevitably, share the story of how awkward, uncomfortable or unsatisfying it was. I have shuddered at some of the stories my girlfriends have told me, most notably one that involved an unfortunately placed saucepan lid that left an unexplainable bruise.
In the telling of these stories, knowledge, information and tips are passed among women and down to those who have yet to begin their sexual lives. I have received that knowledge as a young woman, and then later in life passed my own words of wisdom on to other young women: Always remember the three Cs: consent, communication and cunnilingus.
It was talking to a girlfriend about my first sexual experience that taught me how lucky I was. She had been sworn to secrecy by the person she lost her virginity to. I had lost my virginity to a boy I was madly in love with, convinced we would be together forever — as you so often are when you’re young, in love and have yet to experience life. The entire experience was transcendental. It was one of the sweetest moments of my life.
However, as a Muslim woman, I lost my virginity in secrecy and silence, when I was 21. Afterward, I desperately hoped that nothing had changed in my outward appearance that would alert my mother to what I had done. Every romance novel I had ever read spoke about women holding their head a little higher, their shoulders a little straighter or a knowing smile playing across their face after having sex for the first time, so I was understandably panicked when I arrived home from my “girls’ week away.”
I slouched into the house, chin down, shoulders slumped and a steely grimace on my face for fear the glow of sex would be shining through my pores.
I slouched into the house, chin down, shoulders slumped and a steely grimace on my face for fear the glow of sex would be shining through my pores. Of course, I had nothing to worry about and my mother wondered if perhaps I was coming down with a cold rather than floating on a cloud of new awareness and womanhood I had transcended to. Good Muslim girls didn’t have sex out of wedlock, and I had broken a cardinal rule.
I hadn’t planned on breaking it. I was raised to believe that sex only happens after marriage, and I bought into that for a long time. I, along with my fellow Muslim girlfriends, clung on to my hymen with a vice-like grip, adamant and determined that this baby was only breaking in the marital bed. However, I was also a horny young woman, passionate, in touch with my body and hungry to feel everything life had to offer. Needless to say, my hymen and I did not go all the way.
While my experience had been glorious in comparison to lots of my girlfriends, lying about it, pretending I knew nothing about sex and keeping it a secret robbed me of something. The world doesn’t offer women education on pleasure and sex. Therefore, it’s the conversations over text messages, the comparing notes in the bathrooms of the club or the whispers about sex at sleepovers that give women the space to discuss these topics. Factor in culture and religion and those conversations often become harder to have.
The world doesn't offer women education on pleasure and sex. It's the conversations (with each other) that give women the space to discuss these topics.
There weren’t that many women I could turn to when I had questions about my body or my sex life. Other women from my Muslim community were either waiting for marriage or not sure whether they could trust you with their sex secrets. When the stakes are so highly pitted against you, you can’t always risk confiding in another woman, just in case.
The result is that so many women have been robbed of some of the greatest conversations of their lives. I talk about sex all the time because I wish I had been able to have more conversations about it when I was younger. I wish I had more people to turn to when I was trying to work out if my body’s reactions were normal. I wish I had more women guiding me through what is such an instrumental period of a young woman’s life.
Losing my virginity was beautiful, but having to keep it a secret was not. It’s also dangerous, because when women can’t talk about sex or ask questions, it can drive them into unsafe scenarios. My experience happened in my boyfriend’s family home, with his parents downstairs watching TV and the subconscious presence of adulthood bringing a reassurance to the proceedings. I knew, had anything gone wrong, we would both be supported by adults who would know what to do.
When talking about an intimate and vulnerable act, safety is no small thing. In fact, it’s the very heart of the entire act, and unless women feel safe, sexual experiences are always going to be something they later groan over and complain about.
Sex is happening, whether parents want their children to be doing it and whether religious leaders want their community members to be engaging in it. Sex will always happen because it is natural and human and necessary. The only unnatural thing about it all is our refusal to talk about it openly.
I am eternally grateful that my first sexual encounter was one that taught me how sex should be conducted. My only regret is that I couldn’t talk about it properly after, and that so much of that beautiful night was sewn into silence and secrecy.