[trigger warning: sexual assault] “No,” I said as I pushed the boy off of me in the backseat of a car. I held up my ring finger on my right hand, “You won’t get to do that until I have a different ring from this.” The boy stared back at me, dejected and shamed. “Well, then, I guess that settles it. Let me drive you home.”
You may have guessed – based on the fact that I was single well into my 20s – that this never actually happened. But that doesn’t mean this scene didn’t play in most of my ideas of future relationships from the time I first donned a purity ring and made that pledge to stay a virgin until I was married.
Whenever I thought about what it would take to keep myself pure, I never imagined fighting for my own self-control – after all, I was a girl, and all I had to do was wait. I would not be the one who wanted to have sex. No, instead, I imagined that the “fight” for my purity would be a literal one – a boy would be pressuring me, would be trying to convince me to help him satisfy his urges, and I would have to be the one to say no. I would have to push him off me because chances are, he wouldn’t want to take no for an answer. My purity ring would be my weapon, a tangible thing I could point to, in order to remind him of my commitment and what being with me meant.
I only recently realized how completely – excuse my French - fucked up that entire narrative is.
It’s extremely telling that the type of romantic relationship I pictured, in relation to my pledge to purity, was an abusive one. And it’s also extremely telling that I did not have the tools at my disposal in order to identify that relationship as abusive.
In my faux-narrative, I would be wresting my purity back from his prying hands, I would have to be on guard to protect myself from his wandering penis, and if I gave in – there was no question that I would be the one wanting it; I was only ever giving in to his desires – then I would be considered impure, a broken shell of a person who could no longer wear white on her wedding day.
Today, while reading this, it was like gears clicking into place in my head. The situation Copeland depicts is exactly the type of situation I imagined – because that’s how it is almost always depicted. The pure, angelic, righteous girl gets into a relationship with the wrong dude, and after months of pressure, she gives in, she gives it up, she gives “everything” away. And thereafter, she’s sullied, she’s no longer “pure.” She will have to beg forgiveness from God and from her future husband in order to be an acceptable bride.
The equation was simple. Guys wants sex, needs girl to have sex. Guy pressures girl to have sex. Girl has one of two choices: “give in,” or “stand up for Jesus.” Girls who “gave in” were bad people. Girls who kept pure were good people.
There was, of course, better language and better phrasing in each of the stories and narratives, but that’s how it was always sold to me. The testimonies told by crying women in church were ones in which they felt pressured by the world and by their boyfriends and so they gave in and gave up.
Even the language surrounding virginity reflected this abusive and coercive narrative – a girl was always “giving up” her virginity, or “losing it.” She was never actively choosing to have sex, and if she was, there was something deeply, inherently wrong with her.
And if you “gave in” to one boy, then other boys had no reason to respect you. You’d become that girl in the school, the one all the boys came to because they knew you were “easy.” And since you were already sullied, you’d figure why not, and let them, one after the other, have you. Before you knew it, you had no sense of your personal identity and were just a vessel passed around among the boys for pleasure.
That was the narrative. That was the story. No nuance. No deviation. Because if you allowed for nuance and deviation – if you allowed for a story in which both people in the relationship wanted to have sex, in which one wasn’t coercing the other but both were active participants, then the narrative of the brave hero standing up for purity was totally lost. You can’t be a brave hero standing up against pressure if you desperately desire the thing that you’re being pressured to do.
Because, let’s face it, the “she gave in, she was coerced” narrative is so much easier to paint – it’s so easy to point to where the girl went wrong. Well, if she hadn’t gotten involved with a boy like that…. If she had just had more strength to cling to Jesus… If she’d just been more righteous…
Consent doesn’t enter into the picture, because if enthusiastic, positive consent is discussed, it might end up teaching people that healthy sexual relationships can and do happen outside of a marriage relationship. And then all hell breaks loose!
It truly amazes me that this is the narrative I bought into for years. It stuns me to realize that I pictured an abusive, coercive relationship as “the norm” because that was how “standing up for my purity” was presented. And that is hugely problematic – in this way, in this kind of narrative that is supposed to be encouraging, we are normalizing victim blaming. We are normalizing abuse and assault. We are not only failing to give women tools to recognize abuse and coercion, but we are actively instructing them that it is their fault if they get themselves into that situation.
And that is wrong, wrong, wrong. We need to take a better, positive approach, one in which both parties in a relationship are active, emotionally healthy people who approach it as equals, not as one passive and one active who is engaging in coercion. We need to teach men and women what a “yes” looks like, and when to give that “yes.” We need to teach men and women that no one – no one! – is allowed to touch them without their enthusiastic consent, and not because they need to hold to some standard of purity, but because they are human beings who deserve to have their “no” heard and respected.
And we need to teach that a person who survives an abusive, coercive relationship is not to blame for the relationship, no matter what “bad decisions” he or she made. Rather than forcing them to ask for our forgiveness, we need to offer love and grace freely and unconditionally. Then, only then, will we give people the tools to create healthy, stable relationships free of abuse and coercion.
Men are not slobbering libidos in human form. Women are not passive angels who need to say no. Let’s do the human race the respect it deserves and allow grace and love to rule the day, instead of shame and coercion.
If you or someone you know is experiencing pressure to do things in a relationship (especially sexually) that you are not comfortable with, it is not normal and it is not healthy. I would strongly urge contacting RAINN.org. They have phone and instant messaging options available.