I was 16 going on 17. My egocentric, Armenian boyfriend had taken me on a trip to his family’s vacation home in Big Bear. After watching TV, he led me upstairs, pulled out a condom from his wallet and said, “I wanna be connected on a closer level, do you wanna?” I nodded submissively.
He stared down at me and said, “Swear to me that you’re a virgin. If you bleed, you’re a virgin.” And so with another nod from me, he put the condom on and positioned himself over me. As he thrusted his penis inside of me, he maintained dominant eye contact. One thrust later and he came. He immediately stood up and inspected the sheets for a bloodstain. As he put his pants on, he glared at me in disgust and said, “You weren’t a virgin — you didn’t bleed. You’re a liar.” I raised my eyebrows in confusion and insisted that he was the first person I had ever slept with. But as he turned his back and left the room, I knew he didn’t believe me.
I felt helpless and ashamed. My sexuality was the only part of myself that I felt like I had control over. I thought that having sex would allow me to regain control of my body.
Growing up as a young Armenian woman in a predominantly Armenian American community, I learned at a young age that men had all the authority in the household. My Armenian father ensured early on that my Armenian half would always dominate the Ukrainian half of me. He completely disregarded my mother’s Ukrainian mother tongue and demanded that she teach me Armenian as my first language. I had to attend Armenian Saturday school at a church where I learned about the history of Armenia, Armenian traditions and Orthodox Christian religious values. The more my father controlled me, the more I lost my personhood.
So, with my dad’s departure in 2013, I committed the irrevocable sin of my culture — I had sex before marriage. But in my attempt to regain autonomy of my body and challenge the male dominated culture by having sex, I ended up being dehumanized by my community. As I walked through school the following Monday morning, I heard the other Armenian kids whispering about me. The men huddled around a tree, discussing my alleged sexual past and trying to figure out which man had claimed territory of my body before my boyfriend. The women gathered in circles with their cliques and discussed what a Բոզ (slut) I was for having sex before marriage.
I felt betrayed by these women because they were the only people that I thought could empathize with me and understand the ridicule I was facing as an Armenian woman. But they could not support me for my choice to have sex because they too had internalized the patriarchal culture. Being shamed at school made it nearly impossible to find solace in my decision to lose my virginity. I could not find empowerment in my attempt to destroy the bubble of male dominance in which I lived because everyone around me — not just men — made me feel like there was no honor in owning my sexuality.
By the end of the day, I was exhausted from crying. My mom asked me why I was so distressed, but before I could find the words to explain what had happened, I broke down in tears.
“I’m a whore,” I said with a cracked voice. “I had sex and now everyone thinks I wasn’t a virgin because there was no bloodstain on the sheet.”
My mom shed a tear before continuing to speak. She must have known why I was feeling such shame.
“When I lost my virginity to your dad the day after my wedding, the first thing that he did was stand up and inspect the sheets,” she said, gently grabbing my hand. Though my mom’s case was not quite as extreme, she explained that it was an Armenian tradition for a woman to prove her innocence to her husband with a blood stain on her white bed sheets. If her sheets were not stained with blood, the bride faced shame, beatings, divorce and public disgrace to herself and her family.
I sat back on the couch and gave my mom a hug. I was horrified that my mom had gone through the same humiliating experience. Even she — a Ukrainian woman who came from different values and beliefs — couldn’t escape the patriarchal culture that controlled women’s sex lives. I realized I couldn’t keep living my life in fear of being shamed for taking control of my body.
I have long strayed from the norms of my Armenian culture. I’ve had sex many times and with many different men. By having sex, I’ve tried to sever ties with the culture that equated my worth to my unpierced hymen and has so blatantly taught me, along with other Armenian women, that our virginity is the sole source of our value. Although in the eyes of many people in my community, I am impure for having premarital sex, I am at peace knowing that I had sex on my own terms. I am not the property of an Armenian man, and I will explore my sexuality as much as I want.
Elizabeth Arutyunyan writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact her at [email protected].