Accomplished writer, Amanda McCracken, had dated more than 100 men before acknowledging her addiction to longing for unavailable men. With the help of therapy, she was able to break-up with longing and end the virgin identity that had defined much of her adulthood.
Today, Amanda has a lot to say about “saving sex” – or different parts of it – including potential benefits of her own path, one thing she wishes she could change and why voluntarily celibate folks are worthy of respect. Learn much more in this week’s Girl Boner Radio episode!
Stream it on Apple Podcasts/iTunes, iHeartRadio, Amazon Music, Spotify or below. Or read on for a lightly edited transcript.
“Saving Sex Until 41: Amanda McCracken’s Story”
a lightly edited Girl Boner Radio transcript
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Amanda: I know that people cringe at the word saving around sex and virginity. But in these terms, I felt like I could save something for myself, if I was getting hurt. It was like going into battle and being like, okay, I know I’m probably not going to get into a relationship so at least I wanna have something to walk away with.
[encouraging, acoustic music]
Amanda McCracken is an accomplished writer, whose articles — featured in publications such as Washington Post, Elle, The New Yorker and more — show her passion for athletics, communication, travel and connection.
Her most intimate essays involve her personal experiences with sex, love and longing. Her recent Vogue article, “Is the Next Phase of Sex Positivity Choosing Not to Have Sex,” explores her decision to save intercourse until she was in a committed and loving relationship — which happened at the age of 41.
By many people’s definition, Amanda was a late-in-life virgin, and she dated more than 100 people before realizing she was stuck in a cycle of longing for unavailable men. She’s in a healthy emotional place now and she joined me recently to discuss her journey there.
[encouraging, emotional music]
August: I’d love to hear a little bit about your early journey. What do you recall learning about sex and sexuality when you were growing up?
Amanda: Well, I remember the talk, you know, that people talk about. My mom gave me the talk when I was probably in like sixth grade and sat down and explained. She’d given me a couple books and then she had to like, spell it out for me. You know, “penis goes into the vagina” and just really explain it. And I remember saying “you and dad do that?” She’s like, “yeah, a couple times a week!” So she was very open about it.
Penis goes in the vagina. That’s a phrase or concept many of us heard when we learned was sex was, often in the context of “and that’s how you make a baby.” So on one hand, Amanda had the gift of a parent who didn’t really exhibit shame around sexuality.
On the other, she learned that sex was intercourse (versus including things like making out or oral sex). That was reflected int the media, too, she said – “sex” never meant a blow job. And intercourse was something best saved for marriage. That wasn’t presented to her as an absolute, though, and she told me she didn’t mind it.
Amanda: I grew up know, with a lot of friends who were, as far as I knew at the time, not really exploring sexually. Some of ’em had some long term boyfriends, but most of us were just kind of hanging out with each other. So having a boyfriend wasn’t essential in my friend group.
It wasn’t something we frowned upon. But I did go to church and that is a piece of my history. And I did go through what was called a True Love Waits ceremony.
True Love Waits is a Christian philosophy – it’s also an official organization – that promotes abstinence until marriage between a man and woman. It was especially popular in the 1990s, but still exists today.
Amanda’s True Love Waits ceremony wasn’t nearly as formal or — I’ll be honest, cringe-y — as others folks have shared with me. I’ve heard about ceremonies where a father gives his daughter a “promise ring” and essentially says she is his until her husband comes a long to take over. Amanda’s was not that.
Amanda:Got the ring and the whole shebang. I still have the ring. My mom jokes we’d never thought you’d hold onto that ring that long, you know, which obviously has many meanings to it.
I went through that ceremony feeling really empowered, actually. It wasn’t something where I felt bad about my sexual desires or that I was being pushed in a direction I didn’t wanna go into. Perhaps that’s just the identity I had going into it, too. I didn’t have a boyfriend I was hot and heavy with at the time. So it was like, yeah, I can wait till I get married.
Amanda was 16 or 17 at the time, she said, and she’d recently had her first kiss.
Amanda: We definitely stood up, took a pledge of some sort at the church, and I was standing up there with a girlfriend at the time who I didn’t even know was having sex with her boyfriend til just told me like five or six years later.
August:So when did you kind of start thinking about sex? It sounds like you had awareness, but it wasn’t at the forefront.
Amanda: I would definitely say, I mean, there was attraction and I was I had major crushes in high school. I think that’s where this obsession with longing started even at a young age.
Her “obsession with longing.” That’s a theme in Amanda’s story, and she continues to explore the whole idea of longing today.
In an article for the Guardian in 2020, she wrote that she was a 35-year-old virgin when she realized she was addicted to it. She said she, quote, “got off on the high of anticipating sex I knew I wasn’t going to have, and then masochistically wallowed when letdown inevitably followed.” But for some time, she didn’t see that.
During high school, she attended homecoming and proms…Then, after graduating, she started college – which is when she started to really explore her sexual side. Still without penetration.
Amanda: In college I still thought, okay, I’m gonna wait to have sex until I’m married. Even in my early twenties, I was like, I’ll wait. I just wanna be in a committed and loving relationship.
I didn’t really have my boyfriend until my senior year in college. And it happened to be one of my best guy friends. And he happened to break my heart about, six months after we graduated from college. So that put a kind of a sour taste in my mouth of like, okay, I think I might have found it. And then yeah, he broke my heart.
In her gut, Amanda said, she just felt that intercourse would be more connective—and thus, worth saving.
In her mid-20s she entered into another longterm relationship, and for a time it seemed like her wait would be over.
Amanda: But the man was in the military and there were several deployments involved. I did tell him I would have sex with him . And he was leaving for Kuwait or Iraq probably within a month after that. And he said no. I don’t remember the details of what he said. I remember it kind of being like I’m leaving. I don’t know what is gonna come of our relationship, but I, I know how much this matters to you and I’m not just gonna like screw you and leave.
And at the time it hurt, cuz I felt like, oh man, I put myself out there, I worked myself up to actually say, okay, yes, I’m ready for this. And then he withdrew. But in some ways, in a lot of ways, I have a lot of respect for his response.
August: So what happened moving forward after that, as far as your decisions?
Amanda: Just like any person changes, your decision is constantly like being reassessed and slightly tweaked, being reassessed and slightly tweaked. If you’re kind of like reeling it in or letting it loose, you know, depending on who you’re with your experiences, what you’re reading and so on.
After that relationship actually did die with that man in the military, I kind of just put myself out there on like a crazy dating spree. And I felt like, okay, I still wanna save sex for a loving and committed relationship because if I’m gonna be doing all these other things sexually, I at least wanted to feel like I was saving.
I know the people cringe at the word saving around sex and virginity. But in these terms, I felt like I could save something for myself, if I was getting hurt. It was like going into battle and being like, okay, I know I’m probably not going to get into a relationship so at least I wanna have something to walk away from, if that makes sense.
One thing that really struck me about what Amanda shared there was that it seems like she was saving intercourse for herself. Yes, it would be with a partner, but the wait in many ways was a way of honoring her own desires. I also love that she was able to embrace sexual pleasure in other ways.
August: I’m guessing you had a sense of your sexuality so what did that look like for you? Did you self-pleasure, was it you liked erotica?
Amanda: Yeah, I self pleasured or masturbated as early as in high school. And I didn’t ever feel ashamed of it, I don’t think. So I was pretty exploratory and interested in figuring out what made me tick. And I remember that first boyfriend in high school or in college, that senior year was just kind of like, I don’t get you, like, you’re so sexual, but you just won’t go there.
I would be really intimate or have oral sex depending on how long, I guess I’d been in a relationship. Sometimes it didn’t depend. Sometimes it just depended on how much I’d been drinking, if I’m honest, you know? And it depended on different seasons in my life. I mean, I was dating for freaking 25 years, so that’s a lot of seasons to have.
Sometimes Amanda would talk openly to friends about her decision to save parts of sex. Other times, she wanted to avoid a barrage of questions – things like, “But you have had oral? Are you asexual? Do you have a libido?”
Amanda: I would kind of assess the situation and who I was talking to and if it was worth bringing up. Sometimes I’d bring it up just because I knew it would like get people talking. And then I’m like, that’s an interesting conversation. I feel comforted about my decision. So let’s talk about it. And often when I would share some of my background and what I was waiting for, but what I had done and what I wouldn’t do and so forth, people would often divulge a lot of their own details. So it was like the more vulnerable I was, the more vulnerable other people felt like they had to be around me.
My mom and dad knew, they were supportive. Friends knew, sometimes they would be like, I’d tell them about some hot date and they’d be like, “oh no, you didn’t lose it with him, did you?”
They almost felt like I was holding on for this ideal that they maybe hadn’t? Along with that statement, I feel like a lot of people felt like I was judging them just because I was waiting and that was not the case.
It’s kind of like you know, when you come to a party and you tell them what your diet is and people are like, “oh, do you feel like I’m a bad person because I’m eating gluten? Am I bad because I’m drinking?” And I’m like, “no, this is just my personal choice. This is based on my experiences. And this is just what I feel comfortable waiting for.”
August:And what about potential partners and people you were dating? Did you always bring this topic up?
Amanda: It depended on the guy how soon I might tell them. It wasn’t something I usually shared, like around the first date. Sometimes I didn’t share until we were in a more intimate situation. And I’d kind of throw up the stop sign. Some of them just didn’t believe me. Some of them, I think, found it intriguing and figured after three more dates or so I’d just snap. And then they’d figure out I didn’t and they’d move on.
August: Could you take us to where you were in your life leading up to your first time having sex?
Amanda: So the first time that I had sex, sexual intercourse, I was 41. And I was in the committed and loving relationship that I had been seeking.
I had been seeking that relationship, but most of the guys I was dating, I knew I would never be in a relationship with them. So it was like self sabotaging, cuz then I would never have to get to the point where I’d offer to have sex again and then get my heart broken. It took a long time to get actually into the actual relationship that I said all along I was seeking.
And that involved a lot of mistakes and therapy. I wrote in my journal for probably over a year, “I am ready for and worthy of a deeply intimate and loving relationship.” And he came along and he wasn’t scared off by the idea that I hadn’t had sex.He was divorced and he’d been with the same woman for about 18 years.
I figured I was gonna be a rebound. I told him, “If I were you, I’d wanna date the crap out of this town cause I have.” But he just settled in and was like, “No, I’m here. I love you. And, I wanna move forward… You’re worth waiting for.” I mean, what guy does that these days and like waits for, I think it was like nine months or so before we had sex?
August: Or even feels comfortable sharing that they’re comfortable waiting because I think there’s pressure on men in particular to have sex very quickly because they learn that that’s part of who they are as a man. Right?
August: If they wait something’s quote unquote, wrong with them so that he could be sensitive and vulnerable openly seems like a really good sign.
Amanda: That’s exactly right. Yeah. Nobody’s ever put it that way to me, but that is very true. I think there is a certain confidence about him that’s not cocky at all pun attended, but yeah. It’s just genuine and caring and that’s vulnerable too, just to be caring.
Amanda first really connected with that man, named Dave, at a rooftop bar.
Amanda: And we had actually known of each other through a running group that we had both been coaching for. We had met each other through that group Probably at least 10 years before we actually met at the rooftop. And we were like, “oh, I think I know who you are.” “Yeah. Kind of interesting.” Oh, “let’s hang out for us the night” and you know, with our mutual friends. And then we both left the country. I went to Senegal and he went to the Arctic.
For about three weeks, Amanda was a volunteer teacher in a village, teaching journalism classes for high school students. And Dave was working as a geologist in the Arctic.
During those weeks, the pair exchanged flirty messages, but a relationship with Dave wasn’t quite on her radar yet. She told me she was busy spending time with an unavailable man she’d had a crush on for years. But something was starting to brew with Dave.
In one text exchange, they joked that if they ever got married, they couldn’t combine their last names (Butler and McCracken) — otherwise it would end up being something like ButCracken or McCrackBut.
Once they were back in the US, they went on their first date. [Italian music] They had dinner at an Italian restaurant and ended up talking for three hours.
For their second date, they hiked to Heart Lake [birds chirping] — yes, heart. They brought a bottle of red wine and snacks and we stopped to have a picnic. That’s when Dave asked to kiss her. She said it was a simple kiss, but good enough to wet her appetite for more. That date lasted for 6 hours.
Amanda: And then, he actually went back to see my family, but that was September was our first date. And he went back to see my family in December.
She thought this guy wants to see my family? Things were getting serious…which wasn’t totally comfortable for Amanda.
Amanda: I told him if you get too close, I will fly.
So I have that anxious avoidant attachment style, I think. You run away from me. I want you, you get too close. I’m like shut the door in your face. But he just hung in there. He was just present and he was patient and curious.
August: Mm, that’s really lovely. Do you remember when you started to feel like this could be that relationship?
Amanda: Oh, it was pretty gradual. I do remember telling him I loved him by writing it down actually in Easter by the spring.
And, I remember my grandma saying to me, “I think this one’s the one, like something’s different here.”
She was almost 101 and she’d lived with my parents since I was like eight. She’d see me around the block a couple times.
Amanda and Dave were dating and enjoying each other’s company, and sexual play sans intercourse, without any specific timeline in mind as far as if or when more would happen. And they kept the communication about sex open.
Amanda: I think we just talked about it like a lot. And quite a bit, it came up. He actually took me to Paris in early December for a long weekend.
That was three months into the relationship. Dave had saved up credit card points to use as a divorce present to himself—so they spent the points on a weekend in Paris to see one of their favorite singers perform.
Amanda: I remember saying to him, “you’re not expecting anything, right? This is like the total ideal moment and everything, but please don’t expect anything from me.”And he was like, “no strings attached, let’s go. It’ll be an adventure.”
August: That’s beautiful. And also bittersweet, just that that’s where our mind would go, because it does, right?
August: We learn this currency thing.
August: He buys you dinner, you owe him this, which is so harmful for everyone so that you were having these open conversations and building this beautiful intimacy, emotionally and physically, without full on sex for you, that’s beautiful.
Amanda: Yeah. I guess it was probably in the spring, I had said, “okay, I think I’m ready to have sex,” something like that.
I wanted to go somewhere away. I feel like it’s kind of like you know how sometimes it feels okay to curse in another language. Not that having sex was bad, but it was something that I had built up for so long.
I just wanted to go, do it somewhere else, like far away, where I didn’t have to like, you know, go to work the next day or somebody wasn’t gonna check in on me and see how things went.
So they planned another adventure. They landed a super rare bargain deal to go to French Polyenesia and saved money by staying with a friend for most of the trip.
Amanda: So we went to french Polynesia and had sex for the first time in this island called Huahine, which actually means female genitalia.
She looked it up, and so did I, and it’s true: the rough English translation is “vagina.”
Amanda: Didn’t plan it that way. That’s just what the taxi driver told us as we were going to wear a bungalow.
August: How ironic.
Another side note is that he told me before we left, he’s like, “if you get down there and you’re not ready, it’s okay.”
And I recently, I asked him that again, I’m like, “you really thought that you were really okay with that?” And he’s like, “Yeah, I was.”
As it turned out, Amanda did feel ready.
[ambient guitar, “Now and Then”]
Amanda: We just kind of experimented. Like we had sex like four times in 24 hours and he brought these sex cards that have all these different positions. And so it just made it more playful. It just felt like a safe place where I could just be curious and free. That was a beautiful part of it.
August: Did you have expectations and if so, did it measure up, was it what you expected? Was it different?
Amanda: I would say it met my expectations. It got better and better, you know, the more we kind of learned about each other as I suspect most sexual experiences do.
My tendency to wanna perfect situations popped up even afterwards where I kind of like second guessed everything.
Oh, should we done that way? Should we have arranged it that way? Almost like I wanna have written the perfect story in my head and I had to catch myself being like, don’t do this again.
I had so many people say, “oh, it’s not gonna meet your expectations.” And I’m like this is not about me meeting any kind of pleasurable expectations.
This is about me having kind of reached a goal. It was not about a certain kind of orgasm. It was just about really connecting with somebody in a totally new way that I never connected with them before, with anybody on. And it did, it did feel that way.
August: And afterward, did you feel affirmed in your decision? Did you have any regrets like, I wish we’d done this sooner or I’m so glad we waited?
Amanda: I didn’t wish that he and I had done it earlier. It wasn’t like, ‘oh, that’s all it was? I wish I’d done it with those guys,’ you know? Cuz there were definitely guys that I had bookmarked in my head that like, dang it, I should have done it with him. But I waited until I got into the committed and loving relationship where I didn’t have to roll over and check my phone the next morning and wonder if he had texted me or called me.
August: Yeah. So it sounds like you felt very right about it still.
Amanda: Right. I only regret not having gone to see a therapist earlier to figure out my patterns related to longing and self sabotaging that I was doing in relationships, getting involved with men who were unavailable emotionally or physically, or in another relationship and stop wasting my time dreaming about these guys where something wasn’t ever going to happen.
August:I’ve heard mixed things about people talking with a therapist about sex, unless they see someone who specializes in sexuality. Did you talk to any of your therapists about your decision around sex? And if so, were they receptive or helpful?
Amanda: With the one therapist that I spent the most time with and actually there was another one I remember sitting down with and she was just like, “there’s nothing wrong with you.” And I remember telling my dad about that and he’s like, “go find another therapist.”
He didn’t think there was anything wrong with me for, my decision to save sex, sexual intercourse, for a loving, committed relationship. He just saw the patterns of me chasing these assholes and dissing the nice guys.
And he was like, “You’ve been doing this for like 20 years. Get out of this pattern.” And I wish – I haven’t written about this and I’ve never told him this – but I wish he had said “you are worth more than that. Why are you doing this? “
And he never said those words. I think he believed that, but he never said those words.
So the therapist that I did end up spending a lot of time with, I was very comfortable talking to her about that and all of my sexual adventures, you know, with random guys in The Bahamas that I was making more mistakes with, or flying to Detroit, to see some guy I met on an airplane flying to San Diego with so and they were not dismissive.
Now I have found that sometimes the medical community has been dismissive, um, like gynecologists or primary care physicians and they’re like, “Have you seen a therapist? Like, is something wrong with you? Are you sure you really haven’t had sexual intercourse?
And they’d say “when’s the last time you had sex?” And I’d say, “I haven’t.” And they’re like, “have you had a penis in your vagina?” I’d say, no. “Have you had a penis in your anus?” I’d say “no.” So they were dismissive, but my therapists were always supportive.
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Another thing Amanda got me thinking about was what maturity can bring to a sexual experience, especially something new to us.
August: I feel like in our twenties, we are so, at least for me, and a lot of folks are very insecure about a lot of things about our bodies and all these things. Were there benefits to being in your early forties, or maybe challenges around that?
Amanda: I don’t really feel like there were any challenges or benefits frankly, to being in my forties. Maybe from a beneficial standpoint, I can think of the fact that I felt more comfortable in my body. I wasn’t afraid of asking questions and telling him what my needs were and saying what felt comfortable and what felt great and what didn’t feel comfortable. But I definitely don’t think in my early twenties, I would’ve felt comfortable asking those questions or sharing that information.
When it comes to voluntarily celibacy and decisions to save certain types of sex, Amanda told me she wants people to respect and listen to those who make those choices — and not automatically assume that they’ve been “brainwashed by the church.”
And of course, even when folks have been, more compassion and less judgment seems key.
Just because you feel like sex is sacred to you or sexual intercourse or whatever it might be, maybe it’s like having sex with a wine bottle and to you, that’s really important.
Kink is all in right now. It’s all fine and dandy. The kinkier the better. And like, let’s raise those people up. But people who are like no penis in the vagina, I’m kind of waiting for, X, Y, Z. For me being a committed, loving relationship. That’s okay, too.
And yes, I do think that in some situations, purity culture did lead to people feeling bad about their sexual desires and potentially pressure them into situations like marriage or dismissing their sexual orientation. But I also think a lot of people these days blame purity culture for their dating patterns, and they need to look at a wider range of experiences that they’ve had leading to their current dating woes. It’s not just because you took a vow at church that you’re dating a bunch of fuck boys.
When that’s the case, digging deeper and prioritizing healing and self-awareness can go far.
If you’re thinking of going the voluntary celebrate route or want to make the most of a “saving sex” type scenario, Amanda suggests knowing that there is no timeline.
Amanda: I think that if people can take themselves off the hook feeling like there’s a timeline, I know it gets a little more complicated when it comes to wanting babies and I definitely feel like I got very, very lucky in that area, but to take the pressure off from a timeline standpoint makes a world of difference, I think.
Also I think being sex positive, doesn’t have to mean having lots of sex with lots of different people of varying genders. It means really about choosing when and with whom to have safe mutually consensual, pleasurable, and dare I say, caring sex.
I think putting yourself in situations where it’s easy to follow through on your goals is important. Just like you’re not gonna go sit at a bar. If you’re trying to be sober, you’re not gonna like answer that booty call from your favorite hookup if you’re trying to go the voluntarily celibate route. and then really know where you draw the line. You know, , that might change, but if you don’t establish that with yourself, then it’s easy to I guess break your own quote unquote rules.
So the rule that felt right forAmanda, was penetration.
Amanda: After like a multitude of all but penetration kind of hookups, and they, you know, left me feeling pretty empty and used, I would have to kind of step, step aside and realize I needed to slow it down. So I think being comfortable with reassessing those lines, depending on the season you’re in is important.
Getting emotional support from people who accept you without judgment seems important as well.
Amanda: If people are thinking of going the voluntarily celibate route, be prepared for some discrimination.
She pointed to a Kinsey Institute study published in 2016- which found that choosing to avoid sex — especially for so-called virgins — may limit dating opportunities.
Amanda:As it was explained to me by their director, it was kind of like, if you’re not having sex with other people, is it because you’re choosing not to, or because they don’t wanna have sex with you and if they don’t wanna have sex with you, then what does that say about me wanting to have sex with you?
That makes me sad. If you’re in those communities, please know I think you’re awesome as you are. And, if you relate to the addiction to longing Amanda mentioned-
[ambient guitar chords]
Amanda: I’d ask them to consider if they want to be in a relationship, if they actually believe that they are worthy of that relationship, that they’re desiring and if not then to dive into that piece there.
It was 2019 when Amanda says she “broke up with longing” and gave that healthy relationship a chance with an awesome man who loves her.
Amanda’s grandmother, the one who prophetically saw Dave as “different,” was gravely ill just months into their engagement.So Amanda and Dave stood beside her bed to say their “I dos.” There’s a beautiful photo of the three of them in a New York Times article Amanda wrote about the experience, called “Finally, a Wedding. It was About Time.”
[encouraging, acoustic music]
You can follow Amanda on Instagram @amandajmccracken. Find links to her articles mentioned in this episode on my blog. Amanda also hosts a new podcast called The Longing Lab, which “takes a deeper look at the science of longing and the culture that drives us to long for what we don’t have.”
If you’re enjoying Girl Boner Radio, I would so appreciate a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or the iTunes Store — and if you’d share links with your friends. You can also support the show, and get fun extras, by joining my community at Patreon.com/girlboner. Lastly, I won’t be releasing an episode next week. I’ll be back with more fun stories and practical tips after that.
Thanks so much for listening (or reading!).
[outro music that makes you wanna dance…]