Love & Sex

True Stories: Divinity-School Boys

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I learned my lesson: never come between them and God.

Every Harvard Divinity School boy is the same: after the first time we have sex, he talks wistfully about becoming a monk. He says he long aspired to a life of solitude, discipline, and celibacy. With pointed eye contact, he adds, "…but I'm not doing a very good job of that," in a tone that — depending on the boy — ranges from gentle remorse to flat-out accusation.

For Jared, my first div-school boy, dreams of monastic life are only the beginning. In his postcoital stream of confession, Jared says his parents were missionaries, their congregations considered him a child prophet, and he never had much talent for speaking in tongues. At a Pentecostal university in Oklahoma he discovered he was "hypersexual."

"What, you slept with lots of people?" I ask.

"Of course not." He's taken aback. "Everyone who wasn't married was a virgin. I mean I had sexual feelings whenever I prayed with someone, and I had more phone sex than anyone I knew."

I'm intrigued by this world where nobody has in-person sex and everyone has phone sex. Jared says the boys and girls of the Pentecostal university were strictly forbidden to visit each other's dorms. After curfew they got on their intracampus phones to talk dirty, interspersing the phone sex with prayer. The physical distance made this a good way to get off while saving yourself for marriage, he says. I imagine high-rise dorms at opposite ends of a dark cornfield, a girl in a cross necklace at the window with a phone in one hand and the other down her pants, a boy across the field doing likewise.

I grew up in a secular family, have no religious beliefs, and do not consider myself to be on a spiritual journey. So what am I doing at divinity school? In college, I took a religion class on a whim, found it fascinating, took more, and decided to become an anthropologist of religion. My profs suggested I start with a master's degree in religious studies and pointed me to Harvard Divinity. Like many of the more secular folks here, I've underestimated the difficulty of sharing classrooms with the devout. Also sharing beds with them, it turns out: a break-up from my college boyfriend has just left me single.

I imagine slutting my way though the varieties of religious experience and taking assiduous notes.

As Jared talks into the night about faith healing, I wonder if I've found an anthropological fieldwork site in my own sex life. I imagine slutting my way though the varieties of religious experience and taking assiduous notes, my years at Harvard culminating in a book called Ethnography in my Pants.

Then Jared says I have to leave out the back door — before dawn. Otherwise his ex-fiancé, who lives across the street and watches him through her window, might see me. Sensing I'm offended, he says the ex is still strong in her faith and he himself lost Christ barely a year ago. His faith might return; he'd like to marry her if it does. When we part at the back door, he squeezes my hand and says, "I wish you a good life." I feel profoundly insulted.

At lunch in the div-school refectory I tell my friend Lydia about Jared. Lydia's a second-year student, a self-described Jubu who spent years raking the rocks at a Zen center in northern California. She's been through a div-school-boy phase herself, and shakes her head: "If you look close enough, these boys all have Jesus in their eyes. Whether consciously or not, they think they're sinning, and sin is all-or-nothing: if they're already having premarital sex, they feel no obligation to treat other people with decency." This strikes me as a bit overdramatic. Figuring Lydia doesn't understand that I'm just out for adventure, I shrug off her warning.

It's easier to spot Jesus in the eyes of Caitlin, an assigned roommate in the Harvard-subsidized apartment I can't afford to move out of. Caitlin receives messages from God and taps them with a hammer and nails onto sheets of copper hanging above her bed. The messages remind me of Post-It notes; God signs off with a dash:

Caitlin —
— God

After I stumble home wasted on Halloween with a guy in tow, Caitlin declares my lifestyle violent. The ensuing Caitlin-led roommate meetings bring about new house rules: no alcohol in the apartment. No returning to the apartment drunk, no bringing guys home. I find in Caitlin the repressive Christian parents I never had, feel myself at age twenty-four turning into a sullen teen, smoking out the window with a towel under the door, answering prying questions with monosyllabic lies.

I sleep away from home as often as possible. After our one-night stand, Jason, a Southern Baptist, says, "You know, that was my first time," then bursts out as I stare dumbfounded, "Ha! Just kidding!" I leave unsure what to believe. Doug, a Minnesota Lutheran, waits until after a blowjob to mention he'd never go down on any woman: "Sure, I've strayed from my faith, but that's just straying too far!" He offers in consolation that I'm welcome to check my email on his computer anytime. These boys avoid eye contact in the halls of div-school forever after, and I'm always left with the bewildering sense of having lost an argument I never knew I'd begun.

After my third conquest-gone-awry, my misadventures start to frustrate Lydia. "If you really think it's about avoiding Caitlin," she says, "wouldn't a steady boyfriend get you out of that apartment more than random hookups will?"

She's right: I need a boyfriend, one open to me spending all my time at his apartment. Enter Patrick the Buddhist. Patrick grew up Catholic, found Buddhism during a semester abroad in Thailand, and now studies Tibetan tantric texts. My hopes of tantric sex are dashed when he sniffs over coffee that tantra isn't what dirty-minded people think; it's "best understood as the principle that spiritually advanced Buddhists aren't bound to the same moral rules as other people."

Nonetheless, Patrick becomes my boyfriend. We spend the winter holed up in his apartment, wrapped in separate blankets on the couch, writing papers on our laptops. Usually he goes to bed before me and is closing the drawer of a bedside stand when I come into the bedroom. Then we try to have sex but he can't get an erection. Each time he ventures an explanation — my blond hair? He's never found blond women attractive. My crooked bottom teeth? Or maybe my green winter jacket, which reminds him of one his mother used to wear.

When Patrick says these things, I despise him and counter that I believe my relationship with him to be a karmic punishment for the pain I caused my college boyfriend during our breakup.

"You see me as a source of suffering and karmic punishment?" he asks.

"Yes," I say.

"That's a really faulty understanding of the concept of karma," he says.

I speculate obsessively about the contents of Patrick's bedside drawer: pictures of the ex-girlfriend he says he's still in love with? Some sort of Buddhist porn? Eventually, I find an excuse to stay behind when he has an early-morning class, and, shaking with the panicked certainty that people who violate others' privacy always get what they deserve, open the drawer. It holds a rolled-up, dented white tube. "Male-genital desensitizer," the label reads.

The next time I see Patrick sliding the drawer shut, I ask what's in it.

"Just my male-genital desensitizer," he shrugs.

"What do you do with your male-genital desensitizer?" I say.

"I cover my penis in it before I go to bed," he says, "so I won't have sex with you."

"Then why," I ask, "do you tell me you can't get it up because I'm ugly? Is this your moral exemption for being spiritually advanced?"

He presses his fingertips together as if in prayer. "It's not about my spiritual progress," he says. "It's about yours.

He presses his fingertips together as if in prayer.

I thought this would be instructive for you."

So it ends with Patrick. I'm furious and blame the Catholic childhood beneath his Buddhism, become adamantly convinced of Lydia's Jesus-in-the-eyes theory. Every div-school boy, I now believe, conceals within himself a personal relationship with Jesus, a well of guilt and shame so deep that fish living at its bottom would have to produce their own light, and a visceral horror at the pollution that is the female body. His body may be heaving on top of you, but his mind is on the sad-eyed Christ he imagines to be watching from the corner.

Cast back into my apartment, I tag along with my roommates to girls' night, a social event for female residents of div-school housing. Most of the women come from the South and attended Christian colleges. They bring slice-and-bake cookies; we watch a Sandra Bullock movie. I have no idea how to talk to them.

Sitting awkwardly amidst diet cola and fat-free potato chips, I remember a fantasy I used to have about grad school. That I'd spend disciplined hours reading theory, preferably in French or German, which I'd then mull over with fellow students beneath autumn-leaved trees, before returning to my desk to write passionately into the night. This is pretty much the opposite of what has happened. Empty notebooks gather dust on my desk. In class discussion I register little more than irritation at classmates who talk about their feelings rather than their thoughts. I chain-smoke, drink far too much, and never finish my papers. Div-school boys are the only thing I've done here. How did the drive and focus that led me here just up and vanish?

But I don't want to think about this, any more than I want to think about the break-up that cast me into the arms of div-school boys. Instead I swear off religious guys — loudly, drunkenly — and take up with Kevin, a doctoral student in religion who claims to be an atheist Jew. Kevin has a glass eye as a result of a childhood gun accident. Knowing the glass eye is noticeable only at close range, he stands far away in conversation and closes his eyes very early before kissing me.

A few weeks after we meet, we're lying in his bed when he says that after the gun accident he had visions of Christ.

"What?" I say.

He says that in the years after he lost his eye, he would often gaze out the window of his mother's car to see Christ hanging on the cross beside barns and silos, in cow pastures and condominium developments.

"But aren't you Jewish?" I ask.

"This was before I converted," he says. Apparently he grew up Presbyterian and his conversion to Judaism involved no initiation rites — just a feeling of becoming Jewish. My heart sinks: Jesus in his eyes. He asks what's wrong and I tell him about Lydia's theory. I turn voraciously confessional, talk on and on.

Kevin looks sad. "People on the rebound from break-ups with God," he says, "make for perilous lovers."

"I don't know if the problem is more the size of their loss or their lack of self-awareness," I say, and then wonder who exactly I'm talking about.

Kevin and I break up a few weeks later, over tea in his kitchen on a rainy day. He loans me an umbrella I'll never give back and walks me to the front porch. Half a block down the street, I turn back to see him smoking on the porch. He looks morose, deflated. At least this time I can tell that what's wrong with his eyes isn't Jesus. It's loss.  

After graduating from divinity school in 2005, Jane Yager moved to Berlin, Germany, where she now lives with her boyfriend and their one-year-old son. She works as a writer and translator, and has recently contributed to the Times Literary Supplement and the Global Post.