I wore a purity ring until my wedding day. On my wedding night, I was so nervous and scared I broke out in hives, much to the confusion of my husband.
I grew up in a Christian household and attended a Christian school. I was taught that if I had sex before marriage, I would have less to give my husband. I was warned about having to have a terrible conversation with my husband on my wedding night about my sexual past. I was told it would upset him.
It was “virginity or bust” for me. Any other option wasn’t acceptable.
In September, I interviewed Joshua Harris, author of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” for Reckon’s series of stories about Purity Culture and sex education in the South. Countless others have criticized Harris’ books and his 2017 documentary about his evolving beliefs about sex and dating.
I read his book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” as part of my preparation for the interview and for research on this series. I also read another popular book about sexuality handed out to Christian teenage girls called “Every Young Woman’s Battle” by Shannon Ethridge.
Reading these books catapulted me back into those days in youth group. I so badly wanted to do what was right and to honor God with my relationships, but some of the teachings in these books made me feel afraid of my body and my desires. I felt stuck and out of control of my own feelings.
The last night of youth retreats often included an exercise of writing your sin on a piece of paper and throwing it in a fire or nailing it on a cross. I would always write down “sexual thoughts.” I was so scared of my own desires. I was constantly afraid I was sinning. I felt out of control.
I knew these feelings were part of growing up, but none of the teaching from spiritual leaders at church enforced this. Becoming a sexual being was something that was dirty and scary. It was never beautiful or positive.
Reading these books reminded me of those difficult teenage years. I was nervous about how I would respond to Harris and how I would feel during the interview. I had a set list of questions, some written by me and some by Reckon readers.
Regardless of my response, I didn’t feel the purpose of the interview was to criticize him or his work.
What I experienced in that interview was this feeling that I was looking into a mirror. I realized the only difference in me and him at 20 years old was that he had a book deal and I didn’t.
Even when I truly believed in all the tenants of purity culture, I still saw how shame and guilt-ridden the ideas were. I still complied, even though I felt shame and guilt. Purity was non-negotiable to me.
I remember the demonstrations provided in my sex ed class at my private Christian school. The demonstrations didn’t show me how to use a condom, they showed me what would happen to my heart (and my body) if I had sex before marriage.
The teacher held a red paper heart in her hands.
“You have sex with one person,” then she tore the heart in half.
“Then someone else,” then she folded and tore the heart again.
“Then someone else,” then she piled the tiny pieces of paper and tore them again and again.
“Now this is what you have,” then she dropped the tiny heart pieces to the dirty classroom floor.
Tiny pieces of paper on a dirty classroom floor. That’s all I would ever be to my husband if I wasn’t totally pure.
As an adult, I’ve had girlfriends sit in my living room floor and cry because their “incredible sex life” promised by the church doesn’t exist. I’ve heard friends’ stories about how they married an abusive man because they had sex with him. (Because if you have sex with him, you have to marry him.)
I didn’t hear the term “consent” until I was in college. It also wasn’t until college that I learned “She was asking for it,” is incredibly sexist and pushes the blame for sexual assault to women.
Instead of lessons about consent, protection and healthy relationships, I was shown graphic photos of advanced genital herpes and sexually transmitted infections. The lesson: If I had sex before marriage, not only would my heart be shredded to bits, I would also cause life-altering damage to my body.
As I started changing from a girl to a woman, my confusion about my body and my desires continued.
Dress codes and comments about my body at church and at school only worsened this dread about becoming a scrap of paper on the dirty floor.
A guy at church told me the boys in my youth group were addicted to pornography because of the way I dressed. (I guess he thought my jeans and long sleeve, crew neck shirt was too much). Tempting a man was considered a serious sin for women. I had to be responsible for a man’s thoughts.
A run-in with a teacher about my perceived breaking of dress code made me feel like my body was a weapon of mass destruction. (“How dare you tempt the young men in this room?” were the words she chose to scold me in front of the entire class.)
I carried that shame about my body, those worries that it was a weapon of mass destruction, into my marriage.
The hives would continue beyond my wedding night. They’re gone now, but I’m still insecure. His sexual past has never beena problem in our relationship, but my continuing shame about my body is.
I do not regret waiting until I was married to have sex. And it’s not the unhindered relationships that I believe I missed out on. It’s the honesty and the accurate information about sex and how to remain healthy sexually (both mentally and physically) that I feel my classmates and I missed out on.
Instead of being empowered to safely be sexual people, we were given shame and scare tactics to carry into our adult lives. I wish I learned about my sexuality and about my body in a shame-free way.
I’m still unlearning all the shame I was taught about my body. I even went for a run without a shirt on last year. You can read about it here. (I’ve not done that again since. Hey, baby steps, right?)
If you’re just starting to take your own baby steps, remember you’re not alone, your body is good, and your sexual desires are normal.
If you are one of the people responsible for teaching young people about sex, drop the shame and up the honesty. I wished I would have been told that condoms could prevent the spread of HIV and STIs instead of being shown grotesque images of diseased genitals.
Fear tactics rarely work. When they do, they cause damage.
If you’re a parent, please be honest with your children about sex. Don’t try to scare them into abstinence, either. Give them accurate information.
If you’re a teacher or a pastor concerned about what your children are learning about sex, it’s time to step up and talk about it without shame. Adding shame to the equation will only further bind children into unhealthy views of sexuality enforced by movies and pornography. Don’t add to the harm.
Here at Reckon, we believe there is power in sharing your story. We invite you to share your experience with purity culture for more reporting on how we can have better conversations about sex in the South. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through the form below: