Sex for attention: The lasting effects of “Never Have I Ever”

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When I was 15, I decided on a whim to go to an all-girls sleepaway camp in the Adirondacks. Though open to young ladies from all over the country, the vast majority of campers came from New York and Connecticut, with a smattering of Jersey girls to boot.

Now I’ve never studied abroad in any European hostel — but trust me — I know a culture shock when I see one.

Within hours of my arrival, my posh Maryland upbringing was thoroughly de-poshed. The girls in my bunk sat me down for the first of many makeovers, overwhelming me with tips on hair-straightening, lip-glossing, and mascara-applying — techniques I didn’t master until years later (and even now, I’m not so hot with the mascara). My vocabulary quickly expanded to include important phrases like Juicy Couture and Jimmy Choo, banishing buzz words like Old Navy to the depths of my temporal lobe.

At night, activities were sparse: reading, writing letters to boys, standing in line for the phone, sending secret text messages (“No cell phones, ladies!”), prepping for the SATs, and — of course — “Never Have I Ever.”

For those unaware, “Never Have I Ever” is a sleepover-type game meant to elucidate (and perhaps celebrate) the loss of innocence. Players begin by holding out their hands so that 10 fingers are showing. Each player takes turns saying something they’ve never done (kissed a boy, smoked a cigarette, cheated on a geometry exam) and anyone who has done it has to put down a finger.

At the end of the game, the player with the most fingers down is the “most experienced,” coolest, sluttiest, whatever. And the player with the least? That was me.

I hadn’t tasted alcohol, snuck out of the house, smoked... anything, or had sex. I was still stranded on what the athletically inclined might call “second base” — and even that was kind of a fluke, a “pop fly,” a “fumble,” if you will.

Now, it’s been five years since I bid farewell that fateful camp, but — strangely — I’ve never quite been able to leave that bunk behind.

As I progressed through high school, I did what most late bloomers do: I bloomed. Late. My head slowly wrapped its way around the concept of sexuality, of breasts, hips, etc., and I learned to talk to boys without vomiting or running away screaming.

But every time I hit another milestone — the three-times-23, the sacred handing over of the v-card — there was something off about the way I felt. Somewhere within my brain’s sequestered catacombs, a 15-year-old Sarah was running back to the bunk, ready to hop in on the game and put down another finger.

And if the things I felt were strange, the things I said were downright ridiculous. I wanted to talk about sex. I wanted people to know I’d had sex. Mostly, I wanted people to know that my perky, virginal exterior was at least somewhat misleading. As if, maybe from some interstate version of Broken Telephone, word would get through to those girls from my bunk.

Luckily though, high school’s over, and I’ve gotten slightly better at controlling my actions and words. Maybe all of my strange inclinations can be traced back to a few bad rounds of Never Ever Have I Ever, but I doubt it.

The problem is, I see plenty of people — girls and boys — showing the same illogical eagerness to have and talk about sex, and these people weren’t even at my summer camp.

My suspicion is, for most people, there’s always a bunk, there’s always a “Never Have I Ever” — even if it’s a dance troupe, a boys’ locker room, or a student organization. There’s always a group of people, past or present, that you’re trying to impress.

For this, I have one suggestion: Get over it. I know it’s easier said than done — and it’s something I still struggle with myself — but I figure it’s worth a shot.

Anytime you consider having sex for any reason other than love or (in certain circumstances) lust, reconsider your motivations. And anytime you consider talking about sex, make sure your intended audience is actually in the room — and not, you know, a memory.

I’ve played “Never Have I Ever” plenty of times since that summer, and I have (perhaps shamefully) wound up putting the most fingers down at times. Having the least fingers down is no picnic, but — let me tell you — neither is having the most.

From what I can tell, innocence and experience both have their pros and cons. There’s no point in rushing through significant stages of your life, but I’m pretty sure chastity isn’t much better. The real winner of Never Have I Ever is the player in the middle — the one who’s found a balance.