Nobody really forgets their first time, although, if you’re anything like me, you’ve probably tried to.
It’s what the four years of high school are supposedly for—a formative block of pubescent discovery and character-shaping. A time for realizing exactly how different you are from everybody else, and simultaneously, how much you’re all just the same primal creatures. But there’s another kind of molding, too. One that’s much more stagnant and destructive. This is a story about both.
I’d skirted through grades nine to twelve relatively unscathed. Two years younger than the rest of my graduating class, I didn’t get my period until junior year, which meant pregnancy scares were entirely nonexistent. It also helped that I was hellbent on remaining a virgin until marriage, a vow I made to myself before my age hit double-digits. I remember it being a very matter-of-fact decision, something that came to me in the middle of piano lessons, and nothing religious like in Jane the Virgin. After all, I was the little girl that opted out of Catholic confirmation, asking Mother if I could explore my other spiritual options first.
My first kiss happened in freshman year, the same night I got hammered for the first time. It was Christmas break, and a classmate broke open some ridiculously expensive bottle of whiskey his father had locked away. Looking back, it was a hell of a waste to give quality liquor to a bunch of gangly teens that didn’t know the difference between a Yamazaki and a Jäger. But there we were, drunk and making out, Paul and Ana under the Christmas tree, myself and he-who-shall-not-be-named on the couch. I talked a lot of shit, but we didn’t get past first base, which I credit him and his upbringing for. We pretty much ignored each other until summer (which is about how long it took me to stop feeling mortified and rejected) and have been totally platonic homies ever since.
Later that year my best guyfriend became my first boyfriend, and we managed to explore each other in new ways, without ever being tempted to cross our chastity boundaries. It was a safe space to be in for the two years that it lasted, and I remember looking back wishing that I had just lost it to him then.
But the Universe had other plans.
Everything changed in senior year. Prom was a looming but inevitable shit-storm that I had no desire to participate in, yet for the sake of solidarity, promised my girls I would attend. But anyone who I would have remotely enjoyed going with was, of course, spoken for, and the only seat left at our table was reserved for my nonexistent date. What happened next was the first serious sign that I was entirely too impulsive of a teenager. Hanging out at the Quad (now better known as Makati’s Glorietta mall), no more fucks to give and pressed for something to shut my friends up, I agreed to a game they proposed.
“First decent guy we see, you have to ask to prom.”
“Fine. Whatever. But he can’t be some scrub. And he has to be taller than me,” I reasoned, knowing full well that at 5’10”, the chances of finding someone to fit that description were slim to none.
As the words left my mouth, a towering light-skinned kid with unruly hair and an American accent emerged from a staircase, laughing with his group of friends. I turned beet red and made a move for the exit. My girls yelled after me, but I was long gone.
The next night, we hit our usual weekend spot, the San Mig Pub in Greenbelt—a below-ground jaunt whose regulars sang the Steve Miller Band’s “Space Cowboy” and Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity” with impressive gusto. It was where I won my first beer drinking competition, which for a sixteen year old girl weighing no more than 95 pounds, felt superhuman. My friend Shana, a beautiful girl with a golden heart, a Sanrio Keroppi frog obsession, and enough enthusiasm to make up for my unadulterated lack of it, excitedly told me her brother Ryan wanted to introduce me to someone. “Prom prospect!” she squealed. Ryan went to Colegio San Agustin, a co-ed private school in a gated community not too far from our campus. I laughed and sipped on my drink, cooly taking in liquid when my nerves were really trying to push liquid up and out. Ryan eventually showed up, a handsome kid with a contagious smile that I mirrored when I saw him coming to say hello. The smile quickly faded, for behind Ryan, waiting to be introduced to me, stood the boy from the mall.
I could hear Shana’s suppressed squeal somewhere in the distance, and I knew she recognized him too. After we awkwardly shook hands and made inconsequential small talk, for whatever Godforsaken reason, I said fuck it, held up my end of the bet, and asked the guy to next week's school dance.
Prom went relatively well. Mallboy’s friends were all U.S. transplants, and in the weeks after graduation, I spent most of my afternoons driving around the city rapping to Queen Pen with them, or hanging at Nicolette’s house with the entire squad. Sometimes I’d end up at Mallboy’s place, one he shared with his art, drug, and woman-loving father. We’d listen to Morcheeba and talk about music, which was the only thing we really had in common. And then one afternoon, with the sunlight streaming in through his bedroom windows, we ended up on the bed, kissing.
Maybe I shouldn’t have gone to his place that day. Or ever. Maybe I shouldn’t have worn a skirt that day. Or ever.
Maybe I should have screamed for help instead of repeatedly gasping “no” through my tears, but I didn’t. I eventually got him off and out of me, but by then, my childhood vow, my plans, my confidence, my self-respect, and my innocence swirled down into a black-holed drain that I wished I could disappear into as well.
But for all the maybes and should-haves that went through my mind that day, none of them compared to the regret that my next decision would bring. Because I, at the age of sixteen, had so convinced myself that the person I lost my virginity to would be my happily ever after, that I fell into utter submission, and became Mallboy’s girlfriend.
High school had been about molding me into a person that could face the grown-up world. What happened in those first few weeks after high school launched me into a year-long relationship where the only molding that happened was a slow decomposition of anything that resembled life and color in me.
When we were out with friends, I drank excessively and made a show of being ultra-fun and down for whatever, but the truth was I had learned to detach from my both my body and reality entirely, and the liquor helped. Behind closed doors, I allowed Mallboy to dictate our sexual exchanges, emptying my mind as a coping mechanism, and obeying robotically every time. Spiraling into a deep depression, I tried to overdose on my epilepsy prescription pills and half a bottle of Absolut Vodka. By this time, I had dropped out of college, and for fear that my parents would sense something greater than teenage-indecisiveness was amiss, moved into Mallboy’s apartment, where for months on end we flitted between drunkenness and hangovers.
At some point, I suspected that Mallboy had graduated from alcohol to his father’s poison, and a light switch flipped inside me. I made some excuse to go back to stay with my family for awhile, leaving the toxicity of that small hell-hole, finding refuge in my beautiful house down South, and promising to never go back. I broke up with him over the phone amidst his threats on my baby brother’s safety, calling his mother immediately after to tell her her son needed help.
The first time I saw him again, almost ten years later, I ran outside, threw up and cried—entirely inconsolable for days. The second time, I managed to keep my dinner down and walk as far away from him as quickly possible, but could not stop shaking the rest of the night. The third and last time I saw Mallboy, some unknowing PR person sat us next to each other at an event. I heard myself offering polite niceties as he introduced me to his current beau, but felt my body fill with rage, somehow holding it together long enough to find another place to sit.
Next year marks twenty years since I lost my virginity in a rape. I’ve spoken to some members of the guy’s family about what happened, and more recently, members of my family as well. For a very long time, I was unable to call it rape out loud, because I consented to a relationship afterwards. I’m sharing this story in the hopes that someone reading it might find strength to call things by their true name, and in turn, be able to make better decisions than I did.
It took me eighteen years to come back to my body and be present during sex. My heartfelt gratitude to my beautiful husband for creating the safe space that made it possible.
And to my beautiful daughter, may you forever remember that while you cannot always control what happens to you, you absolutely can control how you react. I pray Mommy has given you enough tools to handle any situation with self-respect and courage, no matter how much fear rises up inside you. You are loved. You are supported. You are enough.
Sarah is an empowerment media advocate, author, and entrepreneur. Born in Hong Kong and raised in the Philippines, she now resides in New York with her husband and daughter.