Blog note: Today’s blog discusses many things of a sensitive nature that may make some of my readers uncomfortable. Read with caution.
I noticed, as you readers shared your stories of what you had been told about purity and virginity and what your life experience actually was, there was, quite frequently, a divergence between the two. Either the guilt from engaging in premarital activities was outward focused – i.e., there was a feeling of having let down the parents, the church, God, etc. – or there was surprise that the world was still turning despite not being a virgin any longer, and acceptance of that fact.
This aligns pretty well with my expectations. I first began thinking about this topic of a few years back when a married (female) friend of mine said that one of the hardest things to understand when she got married was that she was now allowed to have a sex drive. That it was okay, after all this time, to be having sex.
And that, right there, is why the purity myth is such a problem: it not only creates an unhealthy ethic of women’s worth being tied to their physicality, but also makes a lot of women internalize negative messages about themselves and their own sexuality. For the purity myth world, in a world where even having sexual thoughts is considered sinful, the goal ends up being to repress all sexual desire in an effort to remain pure – in other words, the perfectly pure woman is asexual until the day of her wedding.
Human sexuality is not a switch to be flipped on and off. There is a natural progression to relationships, and there is nothing wrong with delaying the gratification of sex until after the wedding day. But, we place an untenable burden upon women when we deny them sexual agency altogether, when we fail to teach them to discern between a healthy sex drive and an unhealthy one.
Instead, we teach that all sexual thoughts, all sexual desires, anything that even remotely touches on sex is bad and dirty and full of lust and lust is a sin and you can’t lust if you’re going to be a good Christian and you’re going to hell now you dirty dirty slut for thinking those thoughts about how much you would love to kiss your boyfriend.
Nope, nope, can’t even THINK about expressing your affection physically. Because thoughts lead to words lead to action lead to baby.
…wait, I think I missed a step or two.
Seriously, though, in an effort to “protect” a woman’s purity and keep her heart whole and unbroken for her future husband only, we teach young women to treat their lives as though they are already in a relationship with their future husband (I am not the only one who received this rhetoric). Therefore, anything you do now is cheating on that husband, so you should not engage in premarital nookie of any form – if you go beyond hand holding, then you’re giving a part of your heart away and that’s a no-no.
However, this rhetoric is never fit into the larger narrative of the church, but rather seems to extend out of a desire to keep women away from heartbreak. We discuss “giving pieces of your heart away” without placing it in a larger narrative of why that’s a bad thing for the church community. Sure, heartbreak sucks. Making an emotional attachment and then having it not work out sucks (believe me, I speak from experience). But keeping yourself "pure," as though you’re in a relationship already, denies a couple realities:
- You cannot predict where a relationship will go. Even the best matched and most compatible of people can have some extenuating circumstance that cause the collapse of an otherwise good relationship. Refusing to get into a relationship on the basis of “this might not end in marriage so why even try” denies you the ability to figure out how a relationship even works. It denies a learning experience.
- Each relationship – regardless of whether or not it is romantic – shapes us into who we are. I am a better person for having dated C. I am a better person for having known the men in my life and the friends who each own a small part of my heart. I may not have been the woman my “future husband” would like to marry had it not been for those moments of giving my heart away now.
I’m finding, as I grow and learn, that the heart is not a finite thing. It is not like I only have a set number of pieces to give away and I should make sure that I have as many as possible to give to my future husband, so I better save myself completely and not even kiss another man. No, the human heart and the human spirit have amazing resiliency and capacity for love. The more I love, the more I learn about myself, the more I am capable of loving others.
We are not given a finite amount of love to deal out in each relationship and therefore we women must save it up for our future husbands. Sure, my future husband won’t ever completely know the “piece of my heart” (the more I write it, the more ridiculous the phrase becomes) that I gave away in my first relationship (or second or third or however many boyfriends I end up having), but, that’s life. That part of my heart may not have worked for my future husband, and heck, I understand parts of myself better solely because I gave part of myself away, which makes me more prepared for a marriage relationship.
Now, tying this all back into sexuality, I want to make it clear what I am not saying: I am not saying that women should go have sex with every boyfriend they have to teach themselves to learn and grow from heartbreak. Certainly not. What I am saying is that we cannot deny the capacity for growth that relationships – even sexual ones – provide.
When we instead concentrate on not lusting, on not being sexual, on not understanding what it actually means to be attracted to someone, when we don’t draw a line in the sand and teach people to identify when thoughts cross a line from attraction into lust and instead send the message that ALL things related to sexual attraction are bad bad bad…well, when we do all that, we create a powder keg in women. We create women who, when they finally do enter into a marriage relationship, are actually unable to connect to their spouse in the way they were promised growing up. We end up with perfectly pure and “holy” women who have spent so long repressing natural sexual attraction as “lust” that they no longer have any sort of connection to their own bodies and end up completely unable to enjoy their “sanctioned” relationship.
Don’t believe me? Wondering where all these women are? They’re all around you, and they’re beginning to talk.
Libby Anne, over at Love, Joy, and Feminism, posted today about her own experiences with sexual repression. She writes (adult content warning):
When I first started dating the young man who was to become my husband, I didn't have any sexual feelings toward him. No sexual fantasies. No sexual desires. None. When I told him this, he became concerned, very concerned. He insisted that this wasn't normal, but I had no way to know, nothing to measure it against. … When my husband and I began having sex, we found that the only way I could orgasm was to pretend our sex was non-consensual. It was as though imagining and miming being coerced was the only way I could truly let go, detach from myself, and give myself permission to feel sexual pleasure. Being an active sexual agent, even in my thoughts, had been a no-no for so long that this suppression had become hard-wired into my brain. It literally took us years to figure out a way for me to have orgasms without pretending that our sex was non-consensual. I have nothing against people who simply enjoy this sort of sex play or this sort of fantasies, and I'm not saying it's bad. It's just that I really wanted to be able to experience orgasm without having to pretend sex was non-consensual.
How did this happen to me? It's simple, really. I spent the first twenty years of my life suppressing every sexual urge, thought, or desire. I literally became essentially asexual. Literally. My sexuality was dead, because I had killed it. I had sacrificed it on the alter [sic] of the purity culture in a desire to make myself pure and godly. And yet, I'd always been taught that once I was married I would experience carefree, romping, ecstatic, incredible sex the likes of which I could not imagine. There is a disconnect here. How is one supposed to go from being sexually suppressed and extinguished to being an active and fulfilled sexual being?
I was taught growing up that every sexual thought or desire outside of marriage is sin. Believing this, I spent twenty years working hard to keep from thinking about sex, and I succeeded. I was essentially asexual. And then, with my husband, I was suddenly supposed to think about sex. My mind rebelled. My indoctrination of my own brain had been all too successful. My sexual dysfunction was only natural.
She, unfortunately, is not just one isolated incident. The comments section there, and over at John Shore’s blog, is filled with women who have similar tales, women who, despite being married for years, are still struggling through mental blocks about sex being dirty and unclean and how wanting sex will send them straight to hell. I’d invite you to go read them, but be prepared to go do something happy for yourself afterward, because it’s incredibly depressing.
Here is a small taste:
I wasn't raised in a conservative environment, but even my moderate Catholic upbringing painted sex as bad. Sex wasn't something you enjoyed or looked forward to, it was only really ever discussed as leading to children and being something you did in marriage. I remember, when I was 13, my mother making a very big deal of telling me how she saved herself for marriage. I missed the irony of the fact that she was now divorced and sleeping with her boyfriend.
Even then, a healthy sexual relationship wasn't ever really modeled for me. Mum broke up with her the same boyfriend when I was 18 and hasn't had a relationship since. I am now 32. It has only been in these last few years as I have developed a healthy relationship towards sex that I began to realise how odd that was. She declared that she never wanted another boyfriend after that. I realised that my mother would never have sex again after the age of 50. When I asked her about this, she was fine with it. No wonder I needed the non-consensual fantasies to orgasm. I have been working really hard to just let myself go and enjoy sex and I only realised a couple of weeks ago that I hadn't used those fantasies to orgasm in a very long time. It was a fantastic feeling. Now I can open my eyes and truly be with my husband. It's fan-fucking-tastic. (Pardon the pun)
I struggled for years with both a libido that seemed out of control and way too high for a girl (based on what I'd been taught) and a complete lack of knowledge about sex (I thought the guy put it in and then they just sort of laid there). My parents didn't give me any info about the real mechanics of sex until I was 16, which was far too late. When I was 19 I "fell into sexual sin" (aka a little exploration with my boyfriend) and was reprimanded by my parents' pastor and his wife about how horrible I was for causing my boyfriend to sin sexually. It was my fault because guys are designed to respond physically to sex but girls aren't and that it was only a perversion of the godless culture that made me want to have sex or to view men sexually. Yeah. That nearly killed my sex drive, almost ruined my relationship with a wonderful young man, and made me hate my body for having these urges. Now I'm almost 22 and in a happy sexual relationship with said boyfriend ... Our lives haven't fallen apart, I'm not pregnant or crippled by an std. We have great friends, do well in college, and still enjoy doing other things with each other besides having sex. In short, everything I was told seems to have been a lie.
Something has got to change.
I’ve written your ear off enough for today, so I’ll leave you with the promise that I will spend the latter half of the month proposing changes – talking about how we can reorient the conversation around sexuality to encourage a healthier approach for the church and for women.