If you really want to shock people, I recommend attending a girls’ night out with your coworkers and announcing that you were still a virgin when you got married. The look on their faces will be more primal than even the best orgasm could yield.

It was early December, early evening, and already dark outside when I met up with my female colleagues at a local beach joint that served crushes, a popular blend of vodka, crushed ice, and freshly squeezed juice. The bar, usually flooded with wall-to-wall tourists pounding cocktails in the bright heat of summer, had the eerie abandoned feel of a coastal town during the off-season. Typical of a last-minute social gathering of coworkers, half the girls who said they’d come never showed up. It was me, a fellow nurse named Paula, and a scrub tech named Jess, whose birthday we were celebrating. The three of us worked at a same-day surgery center together, doing everything from rotator cuff repairs to tonsillectomies and breast reductions. That night, Jess also brought along her best friend Kayla, whom I’d recently met at a “Pure Romance” party that Jess had hosted.

I was intrigued by Jess—she had this alluring magnetism and sexual confidence, and not just because of the sex-toy party she’d hosted a month earlier. There was also the boudoir photo album she’d shared at work. She had the pictures taken professionally to send to her husband during his current military deployment, hoping the visual candy would help him avoid infidelity. Jess’s album displayed a creative variety of poses, all of which managed to show a remarkable amount of skin without actually showing anything. She changed costumes several times during the shoot, modeling multiple slinky frocks and stilettos amid the soft and dewy light of a soap opera episode.

Excitement and envy spread across my skin as Jess showed us her photos in the main OR corridor in between surgery patients. By the scrub sinks and wire suture racks, we flipped through the plush pages of her album, giggling like girls, exclaiming how incredible she looked. It didn’t seem strange to show her closest female coworkers such intimate portraits—working in surgery, we were used to seeing exposed human bodies. The routine handling of blood, bones, and body fluids bonded us together like soldiers in war, and no topic of conversation was off limits. We bore within us a strange dichotomy between holy reverence for the body and a twisted sense of humor about its flaws and foibles. The humor kept us sane.

Not long after sharing her sexy portraits with us girls, however, Jess showed them to our male coworkers. While I doubted the professionalism of her decision, what sparked my intrigue most was that she felt so comfortable sharing the pictures. The way she carried herself stood in stark contrast to how I felt in my own body. I admired her audacity, but I also wondered whether it sprang from confidence or from just another manifestation of the same sexual confusion that silently plagued me.

Leafing through Jess’s photo album in the OR that day made me recall many years before, when I’d taken my own boudoir photos for my husband as an anniversary present. My friend Amy had given me the idea when she said she’d performed a private photo shoot for her husband, Eric, who happened to be the pastor of our church and who told her the photo album was the best thing she’d ever given him. After I confessed I was too timid to pose nude in front of a photographer or bear the shame of a Walgreens One-Hour-Photo employee seeing the final product, Amy suggested I take matters into my own hands with her fancy Canon camera and tripod and my own printer.

Amy and Eric had both grown up in conservative Christian homes and met at a Bible college where, in true evangelical fashion, they married before they graduated. Within that small bubble, the sooner you got married, the sooner you could have sex, which was the only way to appease the horny monster of repressed Christian sexuality. The entire culture seemed to have arranged itself around doing the deed within the moral confines of marriage yet failed to acknowledge the impact of making a potentially premature lifelong commitment.

One night during our small group Bible study, Eric joked that in college he wanted a “hot wife who loved Jesus”—aka “a spiritual fox.” Amy rolled her eyes, and we all laughed. An unspoken code existed within evangelical culture—we were allowed a miniscule measure of sexual desire as long as it was overshadowed by a more fervent desire for Christ. Amy said she aimed to have sex with Eric at least twice a week to keep him satisfied, which seemed just about as sexy as vacuuming, another chore to check off the list.

I couldn’t deny that I often had the same dull attitude about sex, especially in the midst of birthing babies, raising toddlers, and feeling generally unsexy. During my early childbearing years, I felt reduced to a mass of organic flesh with one hole and two nipples, like a port where ships docked to either unload or reload. I saw myself as a mother dog, splayed out on the ground in exhaustion and resignation, as the babies crowded and sucked from nipples as big as udders until they got what they needed. On top of that, as a Christian wife, I’d internalized a deep sense of pressure to pleasure my husband on a frequent basis, lest he take his sexual needs elsewhere.

At that point, I was still unconscious of the ways I’d abandoned my body in order to survive unwanted sexual attention from my pedophilic grandfather, my persistent high school boyfriend, or the young-adult pastor at my church. I came to feel as though my face and figure were a defect, a liability. If I wasn’t careful, my body could seduce or threaten men, and any impropriety would be my fault. On youth group beach trips with my Presbyterian church, girls couldn’t wear two-piece bathing suits because showing too much skin would cause the boys to stumble. Left unchecked, women were temptresses, young Eves seducing the Adams with the fruit of their flesh, always at risk of causing a fresh backslide into sin. None of these ingrained beliefs suddenly switched off on my wedding night, though for a long time, I pretended they did. In light of my body’s sequestered history and my normally reserved demeanor, doing the boudoir photo shoot felt outrageous, but I also hoped it could open a gateway into more gregarious sexual terrain. Plus, if our pastor’s wife could hack it, then surely, I could do it too.

During my shoot, I planned a few costume changes of my own. Although they weren’t the same caliber as Jess’s frocks, being the photographer and the model provided far more freedom—even the freedom to wear nothing at all. I worked in the reverse order from what usually happens: instead of removing one article of clothing at a time, I started out nude and slowly added frocks and props. I started my session in the bathtub, with the midday winter sun coming through the windows onto my bare skin, illuminating the opalescent sheen of the bath bubbles that enveloped me like a magic cloud. The steam from the water fogged up the mirror and heated the entire bedroom. As I posed for the camera, I saw my reflection in the mirror and felt as though the body of another woman was copying mine. Who on earth is this woman? She enchanted me and scared me at the same time.

After the bath, I applied black eyeliner and mascara and pink lipstick. I blow-dried my curls into sleek waves. I became bolder in my outfit choices, moving from a flowy satin slip to a black lace bra and thong set with hot-pink ruffles. Then I transitioned into my husband’s Air Force dress uniform—jacket only—the multicolored military ribbons draped against my bare breasts. I struck my final poses on our king-sized bed, crawling on all fours as though I were a feral animal, my entire body loosening up in a way I’d rarely, if ever, allowed.

As I assembled the album, sliding each photo into a tight sleeve of the book, I couldn’t shake the sense of imposter syndrome—the pictures seemed to depict a pornographic sexuality that was disconnected from my actual self. Nevertheless, even though the photoshoot seemed fresh and out of character, it was, in many ways, very familiar. I knew how to dress up. I knew how to make my body a thing for others’ viewing pleasure. I knew how to play a part that was devoid of actual intimacy. I knew how to do all of this while keeping my cool and staying quiet. And despite my genuine desire to please my husband and the new ways I was connecting with myself, what if this photo shoot was yet another way of doing the same old thing—presenting my body as an object while my deeper, more vulnerable sensuality remained tucked away, far beyond the reach of any camera or person.

When Chris, my husband, unwrapped the album on our seventh anniversary, he got disturbingly quiet, and his face went blank. The shock value had apparently worked. I didn’t know exactly what I was hoping for, but as he flipped through the pages, he laughed awkwardly. It was a sign, he later said, of his own arousal, but I interpreted it in the moment as discomfort. My insides gasped, as though all the air were being sucked out of the room. What if looking at sexy, X-rated photos of me was like kissing his sister? Or, even worse, what if these photos caused him to associate me with porn and begin bad habits on his computer? What if my body was some sort of infectious disease that would contaminate his morality just by looking at it?

I’d unconsciously hoped that looking at the photos would inspire him to grab me and take me, unable to wait another minute to have me. But I also knew that in the past, when he had pursued me with such vigor, my body would freeze up like a mannequin. He’d felt rejected, and I’d felt guilty. So we sat there like tamed animals. He sincerely said that he loved the photos, that he appreciated the amount of risk I took in capturing them, but the space between us felt limp and awkward, full of reluctant desire.

My husband and I didn’t experience life-altering sex as we celebrated our anniversary that weekend. It was good sex, and perhaps I did feel a bit more playful in my body, but rather than catalyze some radical transformation in the bedroom, the photo album further exposed the big bag of hidden shame, desires, and fear that we’d each unwittingly dragged into the marriage. That was the reality for which there was no quick fix and no escape, just the committed daily slog through our own ardent yearning for love—the ways we heroically fought for it, the ways we sabotaged it, the ways our bodies still seemed incapable of receiving it—and in the context of this larger journey, sex merely seemed to be the tip of the iceberg.

I was thinking about all of this during the girls’ night out with my coworkers. After sipping on our first cocktails, we made our way from the abandoned bar to a big round booth in the main restaurant. The dining area normally opened up to a bright view of the Atlantic Ocean, but all I could see that winter night were faint street lights brightening small stretches of the boardwalk beyond the dark wall of glass windows.

We inched into the leather booth, which framed a nautical-themed wooden table that resembled the deck of a ship. A dim pendant light hung just above us. Paula and I sat on one half of the circle, with Jess and Kayla on the other side.

For as sexually liberated as Jess seemed, her friend Kayla was next-level. When I first met Kayla a month earlier at the Pure Romance party—a marketing-scheme soiree that sold lingerie and sex toys—she’d given me a personal show-and-tell of her massive purple dildo. I first spotted the thing on the kitchen counter, near the copious spread of finger foods, and she must have caught me staring because she immediately picked it up and started telling me about it. I hadn’t seen it displayed on the sales associate’s merchandise desk, and I didn’t know whether it was for sale or Kayla had brought it for fun. The dildo was no ordinary dildo—not that I was remotely an expert—but this one was sculpted to perfectly resemble a colossal, erect, circumcised penis, complete with testicles at the base. The bottom of the dildo was flat, so it could be placed squarely on a tabletop with its phallic tip projecting straight toward the ceiling. I imagined a dildo-sculpting factory, where a machine molded this rubber structure with the same detail as Michelangelo chiseling male genitalia from marble.

“Do you know what the trick is to this thing?” Kayla asked with a seductive smirk.

I shook my head with a flat expression on my face, as if I didn’t care, even though I did.

“The trick to this,” she said, “is you place it on top of the dryer while it’s running and then sit right on top of it, and the warmth and vibration of the dryer makes it move inside of you, and it’s the best feeling ever.” She looked so pleased with herself as she said it, as if her very words would cause me to climax, and I had to admit, although the idea seemed preposterous, there was a split second when I thought I might like to try it.

An abrupt laugh slipped out of my slightly dropped jaw, which I recognized as the same kind of laugh that escaped from my husband when he looked at my boudoir photo album. “Oh, wow,” I said, for lack of anything better to say. I imagined there were a lot of things Kayla could tell me that would blow my mind, or blow some other part of me, but her presence started to feel like a tourniquet tightening around my insides. I gave her a polite smile and moved to the other side of the kitchen island, away from the sliced meats and the big cheese ball with the little chopped nuts coating the outside.

Once we settled into our restaurant booth, the server came by to bring us ice waters and offer a second round of drinks. Jess and Kayla ordered shots for the whole table, and even though my brain was buzzing from the first cocktail, I swallowed back the liquid right on cue. All of our lips started to loosen a bit, and I asked Kayla and Jess how they got to know each other. After mentioning initial playdates with their kids, the discussion veered into their attraction for each other’s husbands.

“Chad is so hot. I’d totally fuck him.” Kayla laughed, referring to Jess’s husband.

Jess giggled, as though she were proud that Kayla approved of her spouse. I wondered whether they’d had orgies together, or whether they were actively entertaining opening up their marriages to each other.

Jess chimed in. “Yeah, Kayla is coaching me on getting Chad ready for a strap-on.”

“A what?” I asked.

“You know, a strap.” Jess replied.

“What kind of a strap?” I felt reluctant yet curious, my naivete glaring like a massive zit in the middle of my forehead.

A sly smirk spread across her face as she proceeded to tell me and Paula about her strap-on, a holster-like apparatus that a woman wore around her hips, except the holster wasn’t holding a gun, per se—it was holding a fake penis. My eyes burned as I imagined the visual, and it was clear they were enjoying the shocking impact of their words. Jess said she prepared her husband for the strap by using her fingers to dilate the entry point. Once he could tolerate multiple fingers, he was ready. The only context I had for this procedure involved situations I’d experienced as a nurse, like the time I had to manually disimpact the bowels of a large man with copious back hair or administer an enema to an elderly gentleman with extreme constipation. These endeavors were embarrassing for the patient and nurse alike, and as Jess and Kayla became more graphic in their descriptions, I felt a wave of nausea sweep over me.

At that point, my friend Paula started kicking me under the table and whipped me back to the present moment. She was being uncharacteristically quiet. Paula was a devout Irish Catholic from Pittsburg with a deep affection for tequila. Her nickname was Red, for her thick, curly red hair, which she wore up in funky scarves and turbans, and for her fiery personality. She rarely shied away from any topic of conversation, but I guess that even this was a little too much for her Catholic roots. I thought about ordering another drink to make the current situation more palatable, but my head was already pounding and I knew I’d eventually have to sober up to drive home. My alcohol tolerance was apparently as limited as my sexual prowess.

I looked down at the table that resembled the deck of a ship and felt as if the vessel had just been ambushed by pirates. Jess and Kayla continued to play off each other as Paula and I dissociated from the conversation. It wasn’t the subject matter that bothered me, I realized, but the flippancy with which it was being handled. It felt more like exhibitionism than intimacy, the same feeling I’d get when my grandfather would expose himself to me when I was a child. It was all about the effect, the high, the cheap rush, and Paula and I were the surprised and nonconsenting bystanders. I started to burn with annoyance, and that’s when I said it:

“Well, I was a virgin when I got married.”

The words came ripping out of my mouth, and even though I knew I’d feel shame for saying them, I believed the satisfaction in seeing their shocked faces would trump any embarrassment I felt. Yes, I’m a freak of nature, I wanted to say. Even Paula, who’d been abnormally mute that night, gasped in disbelief.

“Really, Lib? You were a virgin?” Her auburn eyebrows arched in extreme angles on her forehead. “Ah, honey, that’s so sweet!” My shipmate had abandoned me.

“Wait a minute. So, you didn’t have sex with anyone before you got married? You and your husband didn’t even have sex together before you got married?” Jess couldn’t fathom it.

I nodded. That is what virgin means, I thought to myself.

And there it was, my virginity on the table like a big, fat, inverted scarlet letter, except that the letter was a V, and it reflected the same shade of pure white I was groomed to paint myself as a good Christian girl. Just like the scarlet A, my white V brought its own kind of shame, a thing I’d learned to hide well outside of the sheltered Christian circle where it was celebrated. That was the first time, though, that I’d deployed my virginity as a tactical weapon to shut down a conversation, a kind of counterattack to their exhibitionism. To my delight, the virginity bomb achieved the intended effect, and Jess and Kayla’s curiosity about my own stifled sexuality steered the remaining conversation onto calmer seas.

As we waited for the check and the girls continued to chitchat, I performed a silent tally of the experiences when my virginity was close to being ambushed. Rolling around naked in bed with my boyfriend on prom night was one such occasion, and even though intercourse didn’t actually happen, I felt like a criminal getting off on a minor technicality, literally by a few inches. The fact that I was ever in that situation to begin with gave me a tarnished sexual record, a dirty stain on a document that I should have been able to keep crisp, clean, and uncrumpled by the time my wedding night came along. By those standards, I was a total slut, yet according to the girls around the dinner table, I clearly fell under the label of prude.

Forget actual fucking. The massive split between sexual standards within the real world and the evangelical world felt like a mindfuck in and of itself, screwing me over psychologically and emotionally, time and time again. Christian sexual purity was an unattainable myth. No human being survived childhood or adolescence without notable wounds inflicted on their sexuality, whether those wounds came from a person, an institution, or an entire culture. No matter how puritan or pagan our sex lives looked on the outside, there was always a backstory with far more depth and texture than most people felt comfortable acknowledging, myself included. This backstory drove our sex lives in unconscious, repetitive, and powerful ways, and until we allowed ourselves to be shocked by that story, I wondered whether our sexuality would always be enslaved by our familial and cultural conditioning.

As I got in my car to drive home, the red heat of embarrassment tingled throughout my limbs. Maybe my own unresolved sexual issues were somehow summoning me to these kinds of situations in the first place. I felt like I’d just bloodied myself, flinging out my virginity like a flash grenade, my own body caught in the blowback. The sense of exposure mixed with shame and echoed through my flesh like phantom pain. It was a familiar feeling—just like the photo album I gave to Chris—offering myself up for a sense of shock value, even though I was the one who felt ashamed in the end.

I thought about all the sexual possibilities I’d just heard about at the table, yet never fathomed, never even knew existed. All those hours that I could have been learning about these various options for sexual intercourse, I was sitting in church pews, listening to pastors unpack the sixth chapter of 1 Corinthians: Run from sexual sin! No other sin so clearly affects the body as this one does. For sexual immorality is a sin against your own body. I recalled the detailed PowerPoint presentation once displayed during a church sermon, illustrating how “sexual immorality” broke down into the defined labels of homosexuality, fornication, masturbation, and adultery. All of those categories were written in bubbles, floating in the vast sinful stratosphere of the page, far away from the morally correct way to do sexuality, which was typed out in big, bold-faced font: MONOGAMOUS, HETEROSEXUAL, COVENANTAL MARRIAGE.

After my time with Jess and Kayla, I was pretty sure that purple dildos and strap-ons were floating around in that sinful stratosphere too, but no one was ever willing to get that specific about it. Nor were they willing to get specific about the truly beautiful stuff, like the way a woman’s hair gets thicker after intercourse or that little dip one feels in their gut during a first kiss. We were left to figure this stuff out on our own, often in guilt and silence, and in the game of labels and shame, everyone always lost.

As I neared my house, I picked up my phone and called my friend Molly, who had also slogged through the same purity culture path during our high school youth group days. I outlined the sexual education I’d just received during my girls’ night out, and in her concise and articulate way, she asked,

“So, does this mean we are sexually enlightened or just totally repressed?”