Unraveling My Purity, Pt. 1
I can’t remember a lot of those “fleeting moments” that are supposed to be unforgettable but in the span of my almost 28 years on this earth, there are some memories I just can’t shake. It doesn’t matter how badly I want them to be forgotten, they’re seared into my memory, triggering visceral reactions so many years later. The sweet cherished moments I tried to hold to forever have faded in favor of stronger, less halcyon ones.
One such moment was the first time that I was catcalled. I remember that I was ten years old, and that I was with my friend Natalie. I remember the intersection in my sleepy suburban town where we were rounding the corner when it happened. I remember the occasional coastal breeze that punctuated the otherwise sweltering humidity of South Jersey in the summer. I remember the scent of lilac and fresh-cut grass. I remember feeling as if I did something wrong, that I’d had something taken from me. I knew it wasn’t okay but I felt powerless to it.
Something tells me that I’m not alone in this: the sense of dread, the helplessness that accompanies the feeling of a stranger calling out and turning you into an object. I can imagine that it’s a pivotal moment for many people, that first time you’re faced with the harsh reality that there are so many who see your body as not merely a vessel for wondrous thoughts and feelings from across the spectrum of fundamental humanness, but rather, an object. For me, and others who came of age in the evangelical church, this is when “it all” came crumbling down. In that moment, I not only felt violated, but I felt a bit devalued. I assumed that I immediately started depreciating like a brand new car the moment it’s driven off a lot: the proverbial edge of my symbolic white gown was stained—how long would it be until I was fully tarnished, and how could I possibly stop it from happening?
I began to war with myself; surely this man wasn’t some sick pervert preying on a young child, but it was my fault and I should be to blame for causing him to stumble. It may be a difficult notion for you to fathom but it’s a familiar one for me, and it’s a thought process I spend a lot of time and energy trying to break free from. You see, these sentiments were validated and methodically compounded throughout the next several years. Let’s blame it on something called Purity Culture.
Not to get deep into the weeds with some conspiratorial banter, but I have to pause here to say that the advertising professional in me can’t help but be in awe of the marketability of purity. Some would say that it, as a movement, began with Joshua Harris’s magnum opus “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” (Which has become relevant again for a reason that, not to triumph in someone’s personal undoing, feels somewhat vindicating) which is one of those books I would cop to reading in a heartbeat despite barely making it past the preface. (Read: this was around long before Harris decided that virginity was an untapped commodity, the evangelical version of oil.) I, however, want to think that purity culture was something that someone somewhere along the line coined with misguided but still genuinely good intentions. Because of my personal experiences though, I can’t help but see it as a brilliantly devised motion to keep people from disavowing the evangelical church. What parent doesn’t desire to see their child remain chaste for as long as possible? In an environment that repeatedly downplays autonomy and individualism in favor of religiosity, packaging purity and selling it as part of the shared Christian experience is a natural move. And my goodness, is it effective.
If you’re reading this and haven’t experienced this purity movement for yourself, here’s a quick overview:
Church kids, at the age when other teens start to become sexually active, instead begin to learn about the merits of sexual purity—the overarching ideal behind significant edicts such as appropriate dress (hint: if you’re curvy like me, you’re doomed to be labeled a harlot no matter what you wear), allowable sexual preferences (hint: anything other that cis, heterosexual attraction is from the devil), and, of course, waiting for marriage to have sex.
Courtship was encouraged over dating. Don’t ask me the difference, I still don’t understand.
A lot of churches bought into an actual curriculum to teach in youth group once a year. (Usually beginning around Valentine’s Day and ending right before the start of Summer—you know, extinguish those burning loins before a fiery summer romance leads you straight to the scorching gates of hell.) There were notebooks with trendy branding and corny catchphrases.
The curriculum culminates with these church kids taking a public stance (yeah) in front of the entire church (ouch) while standing beside their parents (yikes) where a gift—such as a purity ring, conveniently embossed with the phrase, “True Love Waits”—is handed over to seal the deal.
For those who subscribe to a particular brand of “extraness” like I did, this process would also include a ceremoniously-penned letter to one’s future spouse, promising purity in the form of complete and total abstinence. I was a hardcore adherent of these practices and my letter even included a clause promising to not even abuse the storied “poophole loophole.”
Don’t forget the “Modest Is Hottest” tees, which were slim-fit and ironically hugged my curves better than most other articles of clothing that I used to cover myself with.
If you’re reading this and thinking that it seems ridiculous and kinda fucked up, you’re right. If you think that you’d be unfazed by it and continue on with your adulterous ways after hearing Pam Stenzel wax eloquently about how everyone should wait until marriage to have sex or else they’ll get AIDS and probably die, you might be wrong. (Oh, and her qualifying criteria for making such claims? She was a rape baby). This sort of rhetoric proved to have serious staying power because of how it included the community (built-in accountability) and relied so heavily on scare tactics (you will get gonorrhea) and guilt (your future husband won’t love your big ole loose puss if you fool around before he puts a ring on it.) I consider myself a fairly strong person, and I was even a touch skeptical of this dialogue while I was going through it. Even then, it’s messed me up in ways that I’m still discovering.
I didn’t wait for marriage to start having sex but once I did start having sex, the guilt was so bad that I felt the only penance was a quickie marriage.
Repeated trips to the principal’s office because the subtle curve of my breasts under a not-loose-enough-uniform-shirt taught me that my body was built intrinsically flawed and should be hidden, triggering a decade-long struggle with disordered eating. (Not to mention a belief that my education was not as valuable as the boys’, since they got to stay in class while I had to sit it out, lest I cause them to stumble.)
An instance in which a middle-aged male teacher pulled me into his classroom and scolded me for exposing skin—because I had been bending over to pick something up so there was a gap between my shirt/pants because it was 2007 and high-waisted pants weren’t a thing—still makes me self-conscious and full of shame and embarrassment whenever I bend over to pick things up.
Having a boyfriend in my early 20’s who would guilt and coerce me into giving him blowjobs, demanding I “do better” yet never returning the favor because “God wouldn’t like that” crystallized these compounding years of degradation.
I know for a fact that I’m not alone, and I also know that getting out is going to be a lifelong struggle.
Having essentially just spent over a thousand words in a preamble of sorts, I think now would be a good time to disclose that I haven’t a single clue regarding what it takes to heal from this veritable shit show. I’m still learning, and I’m better at some times than others. Is it a shame that for so many, sexuality has been reduced to nothing but a pious act of ritual, devoid of intimacy? Oh hell yeah. It is a farce that I was taught that sex outside of marriage would be physically painful, whereas good virgin girls are rewarded with frequent, kinky (yes, kinky is the specific term that a speaker at this conference I attended as a teen decided to use to describe intercourse between married Christian couples) sex immediately after entering a marriage covenant? A-fucking-men.
Of all of the messed up teachings included in “True Love Waits,” the one that did the worst damage was the idea that “women give sex to get love and men give love to get sex.” If I could distill the teachings down to a sound bite, that would be it. It was never about honoring God, it was about following an arbitrary set of rules, and what’s the best say to make people follow rules? Make ‘em feel real bad. Sex is dope. Love is the greatest feeling on the planet earth. The only adequate description I can give to the phenomenon of sex and love occurring in tandem is simply, “big Italian chef kiss.” Who says women don’t enjoy sex? Who says men don’t love unabashedly? To me, sex became something that’s not supposed to be a shared experience between two people who care about each other very much, but something to be bartered in exchange for protection and the safety of never being abandoned. A reason to make him stay. I saw it as something I shouldn’t like.
To me, it was something that was simply the duty of every good Christian wife, whether she likes it or not. If it happens to feel good, that’s a pleasant secondary outcome. See the precariousness of that assumption though? Personally speaking, and even ignoring the fact that it de-emphasized my desires to be fulfilled (read: to come every once in a while), it made it okay for me to be an object, so long as I was object that’s earning her keep. So then, what happens if a spouse doesn’t want to constantly be making love? Where does that dynamic go? Where does the love go? Sex and love shouldn’t be seen as a volatile, balletic struggle between two opposing forces. They go together and make each other so much better, but that cooperation can’t work if guilt and shame are abounding in that intimate space.
As you can tell, we have a ways to go. (Thus the “Pt. 1” label.) A good place to start though is to realize that the first step to deconstruction is figuring out where these unhealthy views are most prevalent so that you can reconsider and rebuild. Doing what comes naturally to those current and former adherents of purity culture—trying to assign a hierarchy to sexual acts and assemble an unflinching code to determine what’s acceptable and what’s not—leads to the same slippery slope of guilt and shame that we’re all trying to avoid here. If nothing else, we should take a step back and think about how our sexual actions—much like anything else we do—interact with those around us. What do we hope to accomplish? What is our intention? Is it self-serving and harmful, or is it well-meaning and mentally, physically, and spiritually consensual? If you’re trying to “get something” out of it, perhaps that’s not the best place to start.
Honor the person with whom you’re intimate. You’re inviting them into a special space. Treat them accordingly, they’re also inviting you into a special space. It doesn’t matter if they’re your spouse, your FWB, your one-night-stand, your partner, a new romance, an old fling—just be kind. My deconstruction rapidly accelerated (and the sex got better) when I realized how amazing it could feel when the guilt and shame are replaced with mutual respect. Despite what the True Love Waits ceremony would want you to believe, your sexuality is yours and yours alone. It belongs to no community. I’ll eventually discuss the difference between Koiné Green and Hebrew words what translate to “fornication,” but for now, I’ll leave it there.
To end on a lighter note, before I go, I will posit this: if waiting is what feels right to you, then by all means, wait. If you feel the need to satiate your horniness by performing the mental gymnastics required to convince yourself that taking a dick up the ass somehow does not count as an intimate act and is more honorable in the eyes of the Lord, ask yourself: why. (Not that butt stuff can’t be completely enjoyable.)