Unlearning Purity Culture: Stephanie's Story
Through the month of July, we'll be deconstructing purity culture, and featuring stories from women who grew up in the culture. Today, Stephanie has volunteered to contribute. She writes: My name is Stephanie. I am a twenty something that grew up in a small town in the northeast and attended a small Baptist church. In 2012 I graduated with a BA in sociology and hope someday to get a MA in mental health counseling. I like reading about a lot of different subjects such as crime, culture, feminism and the religious right. As of now I consider myself a skeptic, feminist, and agnostic. I hope that you will enjoy my story and hopefully can gain something useful from it.
"I need to talk to you about something. That shirt is not appropriate for a church events. Shoulders can be a temptation. Here's a t-shirt." That is just one memory I have from my church days at a small Baptist church. Being chastised for wearing a tank top in the middle of summer. May seem strange to outsiders to many in so called "purity culture" that is an ordinary, everyday event. Sexual thoughts and feelings were to be avoided at all costs. Everyone got their purity rings and went to "True Love Waits." We were sincere as any group of twelve year olds could be for not fully understanding what we were waiting for.
I promoted the abstinence message all through high school and most of college. I judged others that did not do the same as lacking self control and being focused on fun at the expense of good morals. I thought: "If only people would wait then we could eliminate STD's, abortion and broken hearts!" How wrong I was.
In my senior year of college I was paired up to work with a guy on a research project. Nothing about him caught my eye. We had a friendly relationship and eventually we started to spend time together outside of class. He was friendly toward me, a little too friendly. I began to get scared. What if he *gasp* likes me. I had never had a boyfriend. I didn't know how to handle this. I vacillated between avoiding him and soaking in all the attention. We spent more and more time together until eventually that day came when it happened. He kissed me. That long awaited kiss that was saved for the "right" person was gone. But somehow I didn't regret this. As time went on I felt all these feelings welling up inside of me.
I wanted to go further. I wanted to run. I felt disgusted with myself. How could I be on my way to quickly breaking my pledge? We weren't even in a relationship! I cried. I promised I would not do that…I couldn't. Until the day I did. I was drawing arbitrary lines about what was ok and what wasn't. As long as I had virginity I was ok, right? But then one day I didn't have that. I was the woman that people could now talk about as being a chewed up piece of gum or a cup that had been spit in. I was the one lacking self control and good morals. I cried for my lack of purity. I cried for not being able to wear white that day. I cried for him leaving me because I knew it was my fault for being that "type" of woman. I could never tell anyone. What would they think? I just had sex with someone I wasn't even in a relationship with, let alone married to.
Then I broke the silence and told my friend and learned a surprising fact. She too, had broken the promise. But still, I felt bad because she had a steady boyfriend, I did not. But that was the beginning of my realizing how silly it all was.
We were all trying so hard to live up to an ideal driven by guilt, shame and conservative politics which ignored human emotions. After a long, long time I realized I wasn't a bad person. Of course, I still would have promoted abstinence as I was heartbroken from the whole experience, just like they had warned me. Then I realized something else: that was the reason I felt bad.
Once I gradually started letting go of the idea of virginity being so special and important I didn't feel as bad. I saw the positive aspects of sex. I wasn't less of a person. He didn't lose anything so why should I have?
In short, they were wrong. I was heartbroken but that was contributed to by their teachings. You won't be bonded for the rest of your life. I can say that today I am over him. I relish the good memories and don't regret what I did even with the heartbrokenness. I now view it as a learning experience that was both difficult and wonderful as well as necessary.
Today, I consider myself closer to being a sex positive feminist and am a big supporter of comprehensive sex education, contraception and yes, even recognize the need for women to have abortions. I am thankful that reality sunk in and didn't do what so many abstinence pledgers do, forgo any form of contraception. I know for so many that is not the case and needs to change. It was a long process and had to make it through so much debilitating guilt, shame and denial of being human. I still struggle. I am ok with other people doing this but I need to be ok with myself. I am a whole person and that included being a sexual person for most people. Responsibility, consent and ethics are important. Something the church does not address. The reality is something else all together. So make the choices that are good for you and don't let anyone control you through false information or fear.
I am human; you are human and there is nothing wrong with that.