An insecure young man takes a drinking game as a challenge in personal development.
By my senior year of high school I managed to be just insecure enough to be outright delusional about my appearance and charisma. I exhibited the sense of entitlement that is endemic among 17-year-old, upper-middle-class white boys. And despite being able to offer people I was attracted to little in terms of a unique personality or even an interesting conversation that did not address subjects beyond my interests, I was convinced I held no responsibility for my continual failure to find a girlfriend (or even a first kiss).
Looking back at that angry kid, it’s sad to realize that my all-consuming struggle of that period was about as cliched of an experience as one can imagine. At the same time, it is surprising to recognize the effect that one night and one common adolescent ice breaker had on the subsequent five years of my burgeoning romantic and sexual life. Like most issues regarding one’s own teenage sex life, looking back on my sole experience with the “10 Fingers” or “Never Have I Ever” game is one of nostalgia or even hilarity. But there is a degree of tragedy in my passing encounter with the game that to this day leaves my head shaking in disbelief not just that I was so immature, but that so many of the various problems that I have had to work on as a young adult were entirely self-inflicted.
For the uninitiated, “10 Fingers” or “Never Have I Ever” is basically a more regulated version of the “truth” portion of the more common “Truth or Dare” game. The participants are arranged in a circle while they hold up their hands with the fingers outstretched. They then take turns consecutively putting forth a rhetorical statement to the other members of the group. The statement always begins with the same first clause : “Never have I ever,” and then a second clause that refers to something that the speaker has yet to experience. All those who have engaged in the named experience then lower one of their fingers publicly, and then is usually asked to explain the details behind why they lowered their finger. The “winner” is the last person still holding a finger, although the actual point of the game is obviously to extract a few new and interesting stories from your friends.
As this game is common among high schoolers and undergrads, it is inevitably centered around sex. The game reflects the duality of adolescent sex: fascination and fear. The way the game works also enables a relatively safe degree of snooping on the people to whom you are attracted. And if you were anything like me, you also gained some vicarious sexual experiences to enhance your own lonely imagination.
I played the game as a 17-year-old during the first semester of my senior year. For some reason, I had convinced myself that “chubby Abbie Hoffman” was an irresistible look, especially when coupled with my derivative mid-aught’s reactionary liberalism. I was not ignorant about what a “normal” sex life was “supposed to be” for someone my age, so the fact that I had yet to go out on anything resembling a date was of a great concern to me. Even worse, however, was the fact that I had yet to even kiss someone. It seems that having moved across the country three times by the time I was 15 had stunted my social development and also deprived me of the chance to build the relationships that would result in that profound experience.
So when my friends decided to play the game on a school trip, I was faced with a decision. I could either refuse to play and exclude myself socially by pleading the fifth, or I could bravely admit my inexperience in front of the classmates whose acceptance I so desperately desired. I chose the latter path, and my fate was more or less sealed.
Each person put forth giggle-inducing statements that were increasingly provocative, and as more fingers descended I sat with both hands still at full mast growing more and more uncomfortable and ashamed. The statements were predictably centered around which sex acts everyone had or had not performed, but they also addressed the more tender moments that I had yet to experience with another person. Through the game I heard people speak about the first time they swam naked with people they were attracted to, the first time they sneaked into their parents’ house after midnight, and the first time they went to sleep while in the embrace of the person they loved.
Hearing all of this as someone with no experience in this realm and with no reason at that time to believe that any change was on the horizon was simply devastating. Despite the fact that I was in a room surrounded by people who were all my friends, and who were in no way judging my past, I never felt as isolated and alone in my life. The concern that I was grossly abnormal in my development was coupled with the entirely imagined belief that this secret shame of mine had been effectively exposed, thus permanently tainting my assumed sterling reputation among my classmates and friends.
In retrospect, the entire purpose of the game reflects a uniquely millennial conceptualization of sex. The asinine idealization with “scoring” that we were aping from the then-popular genre of teen sex movies had more or less removed the stigma and unnecessary moralization of experimental and alternative sexual practices for people my age. But in blanching the self-righteousness of sexual purity we had also perhaps dulled much of the necessary emotional component within the acts. We as a generation might be “pro-sex,” but we were still remarkably unkind to one another. This game could now be seen as a public progress report for its participants, and the acts that we were polling each other about represented expected benchmarks rather than intimate or at least emotionally important moments of our young lives.
Soon after that rather traumatic experience I began a concentrated, if not all-consuming, quest for self-improvement. I was now, finally, accepting responsibility for my lack and decided to take dramatic steps to rectify my situation. As a reasonably intelligent and academically-minded person I believed that I could effectively make up for lost time by simply working harder and studying the success of others who had finished the game relatively quickly. From what I could tell, the process of evolving from being a hopeless dweeb to irresistible playboy was both linear and logical. It was simply up to me to play by those rules if I hoped to start checking off those boxes on the great spreadsheet of sexual fulfillment.
I took the task of changing my appearance and personality extremely seriously from that point foward. I started dieting and working out for the first time in my life. I revamped my style of clothing through a careful study of the fashions from popular men’s magazines and with the help of my much more socially-acclimated sister. By the time I began college, the Superbad-era Jonah Hill clone that I was as a high schooler was more or less gone, replaced by my own conceptualization of how a suave adult man looks and acts.
Needless to say, I had taken the entirely wrong lesson from the game.
I had more or less grasped the understanding of the transactional nature of modern sex for people my age, which is not all together surprising. Viewing sex as merely a list of tasks to accomplish over one’s life time is incredibly simplistic and perfectly suited for the self-centered asshole embodied in many 18-to-23-year-olds (especially straight males like myself). To make matters even worse, I was attending college at Brandeis University, which meant that my status as a clueless late bloomer was hardly a unique experience for most of the people there. By my freshman and sophomore years, I had managed to fumble my way through my first sexual experiences, and was able to start lowering those fingers for the perpetual game of “Never Have I Ever” that I was determined to finish in order to avenge the self-inflicted slight against my pride from high school.
In callously proceeding to establish myself as a “normal” participant of this ephemeral game, I was consciously ignoring the obvious consequences of my campaign. The collateral damage from carelessly throwing myself into any potential situation where I might be able to lower one of those metaphorical fingers not only meant that I had established a well-deserved reputation as a gigantic poser and sexist asshole, but I was also putting my own health at risk. This drive to be considered sexually normal, and to cast off the label of “late bloomer” by any means possible had devolved into what was undoubtedly a full-blown eating disorder. The great logical path forward into adulthood that I envisioned was really just creating another twisted mess of self-hate and shame. My insecurity remained from my teen years—it just had facial hair.
Now, to be clear, I do not blame this silly ice breaker in the least for what was entirely a series of bad decisions that I made and painful learning experiences that are pretty common. In fact, the game itself could have been a fantastic chance to learn from my more socially developed friends if I had paid attention to the right lessons instead of viewing the experience entirely as competition for teenagers to brag about their sexual exploits.
Like I said before, the confessions from my friends that induced the most acute feelings of sadness and jealousy were their vivid descriptions of real-proto intimacy. Sharing intimate feelings, seeking physical comfort when I needed support, or even just trusting a friend with my worst fears were all as foreign as a blow job or sex in the back seat of my car. If I had realized as a 17-year-old that my first experience being the “little spoon” when sleeping with a woman would be more special to me than anything in a Penthouse Forum letter, then perhaps I would have been less eager to recklessly speed through the natural evolution of my social skills.
As a man married to the most emotionally and sexually compatible person I ever could have imagined, I have from time to time thought about the game and the people who participated in it almost ten years ago. Since that time, I have finally become comfortable in my body and persona. This was a process that required accepting and celebrating my faults with a sense of humor and a greater perspective on what is actually important to me as a human being. Despite this, I’m still by no means beyond the admittedly juvenile desire to brag about the various “things” that I have done in bed. It is sad to admit that the fascination inherit in ranking one’s self as more “accomplished” sexually remains with me to this day, even as my wife and I explore aspects of sexuality and our relationship that I could not have begun to comprehend as a teenager.
Despite all the harm that arguably derived from my sole experience playing the game, I also know that if I were to have the chance to do it again, I would enter into it enthusiastically regardless of who was participating. This is not because I can now present a much more robustly filled-out card reflecting my sexual experiences since fall of 2003, but because I can finally approach this wonderfully crude and socially revealing game without the entirely unnecessary shame and insecurity of my teenage years. The confidence that I now have is in no way dependent on the fact that I can brag about the number of sex partners that I have had, but rather in my knowledge that I have been loved throughout my life and (luckily) continue to be cared for by someone as wonderful as my wife. And as sappy as that sounds, hypothetically being able to drop one’s finger when someone says “never have I ever been in love” is the accomplishment I am most happy about since that fabled moment in high school.
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Image credit: Travis Hornung/Flickr