Worst. Sex. Ever.

What happens when a young man who doesn't yet know he's gay tries to get into bed with a woman? An excerpt from Denial: My 25 Years Without a Soul, a new memoir of self-torment and sexual discovery.

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The author at age 18 (Jonathan Rauch)

I felt nothing for women, sexually. I would have been grateful for even the slightest arousal, which I still half-expected any day, but there was nothing, not anything. Sometimes women would take an interest in me, but my unresponsiveness quickly sent them away.

On only two occasions did I try anything with a woman. The first was when I was 20. I was sitting with two of my friends in a college courtyard one day when somehow we met a girl named, I think, Judy. She was only 17 or 18 but already a sophomore, and she had, she let us know, been around with older men. Not only that: German men.

The conversation became a little more explicit, and pretty soon we began to gather that she might be interested in one or more of us. And that evening she called me.

So one night soon after, I ushered her into my dorm room and closed the shutters. She smoked; we talked; I waited for something to happen, supposing that something would happen and hoping I would make a go of it. For a change, I felt grown up. An assignation! (With a smoker!)

Finally, when she got tired of waiting, she said, "So. Aren't you going to take your clothes off?" Gulping, I did, as matter-of-factly as if in the fitting room at Macy's, though I kept my undershorts on. She drew back and took me in, head to toe, and said, "God. Your legs look like you just escaped from Auschwitz."

I am happy to report that even then, at that memorable moment, I understood that this was funny. Not because she was kidding (she wasn't), but because the whole situation was absurd. An asexual man-boy tries sex for the first time at a moment of existential vulnerability and she says—what? I could hear the cosmos chortling, though I was not myself in a laughing mood.

After that, you can imagine, a whole different sort of halfheartedness was added to my list of problems that night. I was not aroused, not even close. There was some pointless rubbing. She left.

I, to my own surprise, had little trouble putting the whole incident aside. Mercifully, her comment had given me just cause to fail. Whatever my assignation had been, it was neither sex nor romance nor even affectionate exploration, I understood. It was irrelevant. And so I shrugged and took it in stride.

The second time was different. By my last year in college, I had become close friends with Elissa, a tall, sharp-minded, good-natured woman in the junior class. We became intimates, saw some movies together, took some meals together. A night came in March when we were talking together in her room and it was late and there was no one around. One of us (me?) wondered if maybe I should be with her that night.

She was willing. I was eager. Not, I mean, sexually eager: hardly that! I knew, however, that if my mature sexuality was ever going to arrive, this was the moment. It had to be now. I was alone with a girl I liked, and she wanted me. All the ingredients were there to flip the switch.

The only thing I needed to do was tell her my awful sexual secret, since it seemed imprudent not to give her fair warning that the flight might be a choppy one. This was something that I had never said to anybody, although I knew full well that plenty of people suspected it. So, mustering my nerve, I swallowed hard and told her the truth. "I'm a virgin," I confessed.

She knew. She knew, she didn't mind, she was not much more experienced, she expected no virtuosity. It was perfect. I rushed downstairs, found a condom, roared back upstairs, took off some clothes, turned off some lights, dived into bed. It occurred to me, about then, that I had no idea what to do.

I mean not that I had no idea. I had seen a few magazines and the odd movie or two, so I had a clear mental image of where I was supposed to wind up and what I was meant to be doing there. What I lacked, however, was any clear plan for getting into that position. For nothing was happening. I might as well have been in bed with a walrus.

I no longer remember what I tried or what she tried. We both gave up after less than an hour and just lay there. I remember being naked and feeling humiliated, sunk; I remember eventually putting my underpants back on; I remember her professing not to mind. I crept back to my room the next morning, after a night of little sleep in a narrow dormitory bed, the unopened condom still in my pocket and no joyful smirk on my face.

After that I never tried again with her or any other woman. For a week, I sank into a depression such as I have never known since, for my failure, not only to get aroused but to feel any guiding spark of eros, could mean only one thing. I now was forced to confront a truth about myself I had hoped never to have to face.

I was impotent.