HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on June 6, 2013.
Question: What do presents, chocolate bars, roses, chewing gum, and packing tape have in common?
Answer: Nobody wants them when they’re used.
Presents, chocolate bars, roses, chewing gum, and packing tape have all been used by abstinence educators and various Christian leaders and teachers to illustrate to young people how having sex before marriage will ruin them and leave them disgusting and unwanted. Those who grew up in the purity culture probably knew the answer to the question asked in the title before even opening this post.
I was reminded of this when reader Laura left this comment on my blog:
I had to go through the True Love Waits program. The “activity” I remember the most was a wrapped present. I held the package and stood at the front of the room. Then, the youth leaders lined up the guys and each of them tore off some of the paper. Then I had to read some paragraph about how virginity is like a gift – no one wants a present that was “meant for them” to have already been opened by someone else.
Because of that one activity, I never told anyone I was raped at 15 until years later. I can’t even imagine the rest of the damage that was done to the other girls in the group.
Laura’s comment reminded me of Samantha’s post from several months back. In her case, the teachings she received about purity led her to stay in an abusive relationship long after she should have left—because she believed that, having given up her virginity, she was ruined for anyone else. Here is why Laura’s comment reminded me of Samantha’s post:
When I was fourteen, I went to a month-long summer camp at the college I would later attend. Like most Christian summer camps, this one involved going to a chapel service twice a day. Most of the time they were fun, lighthearted– until one evening they split up the girls and the boys. Great, I remember thinking, because I knew exactly what was coming. Segregation can only mean one thing– they were going to talk about sex. I sighed when they made the announcement. Again? I thought wearily.
That evening, when the camp counselors had shooed all the men and boys out of the building, the speaker got up to the podium. She didn’t even beat around the bush, but launched right into her object lesson. Holding up a king-size Snickers bar, she asked if anyone in the audience wanted it. It’s a room full of girls– who doesn’t want chocolate? A hundred hands shot up. She picked a girl close to the front that wouldn’t have to climb over too many people and brought her up to the stage. Very slowly, she unwrapped the Snickers bar, splitting the package like a banana peel. She handed it to the young woman, and asked her, very clearly, to lick the chocolate bar all over. Just lick it.
Giggling, the young lady started licking the chocolate bar, making a little bit of a show of it. At fourteen, I had no idea what a blow job was, so I missed the connection that had a lot of girls in the room snorting and hooting. The young lady finished and handed it back to the speaker. As she was sitting down, the speaker very carefully wrapped the package around the candy bar, making it look like the unopened package as possible.
Then she asked if anyone else in the room wanted a go.
No one raised her hand.
And Samantha gives a second example, too:
My sophomore year in college, another speaker shared a similar object lesson– ironically, in the exact same room, also filled exclusively with women. She got up to the podium carrying a single rose bud. At this point I was more familiar with sexual imagery, and I knew that the rose had frequently been treated as a symbol for the vagina in literature and poetry– so, again, I knew what was coming.
This speaker asked us to pass the rose around the room, and encouraged us to enjoy touching it. “Caress the petals,” she told us. “Feel the velvet.” By the time the rose came to me, it was destroyed. Most of the petals were gone, the ones that were still feebly clinging to the stem were bruised and torn. The leaves were missing, and someone had ripped away the thorns, leaving gash marks down the side.
This reminds me too of something teen kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart said, explaining one reason she stayed with her captor and didn’t try to run sooner.
Rescued kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart said Wednesday she understands why some human trafficking victims don’t run.
Smart said she “felt so dirty and so filthy” after she was raped by her captor, and she understands why someone wouldn’t run “because of that alone.”
Smart spoke at a Johns Hopkins human trafficking forum, saying she was raised in a religious household and recalled a school teacher who spoke once about abstinence and compared sex to chewing gum.
“I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.’ And that’s how easy it is to feel like you know longer have worth, you know longer have value,” Smart said. “Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.”
And finally, Ariel Levy has reminisced similarly:
To illustrate his not terribly complex point, Worley called a stocky young man from the audience onto the stage and then pulled out a length of clear packing tape.
“This is Miss Tape. She looks pretty good, right? She’s tall, right? She’s … what else is she?” Worley raised his eyebrows at us encouragingly.
“Thin!” someone shouted out.
“Right! She’s thin,” he said, and wiggled the piece of tape so it undulated in the air. “And she has nice curves!” Worley winked. “So they have sex.”
To illustrate the act of coitus, Worley wrapped the piece of tape around the volunteer’s arm. After a few more minutes of make believe, we came to the inevitable bump in the road when Worley said the volunteer had decided to move on to other chicks. Worley ripped the piece of tape off his arm.
“Ouch,” said the volunteer.
“How does she look now?” Worley asked, holding the crumpled Miss Tape up for inspection.
I fought back the urge to yell, “like a dirty whore?”
Presents, chocolate bars, roses, chewing gum, packing tape—these sorts of metaphors abound in circles where what I call “purity culture” is strongest, and each one is used to illustrate how having sex before marriage will ruin you, rendering you dirty and potentially even unable to bond or form real relationships for the rest of your life. In the effort to keep young people from having sex before saying marriage vows, Christian leaders, pastors, and parents resort to threatening their youth, doing their utmost to scare them out of having sex and slut-shaming like crazy in the process.
In case you were wondering, no, this isn’t healthy, and the result of these teachings has been a generation of Christian youth with warped and toxic ideas about sex, dating, and even their own bodies. And in the process, these very teachings have led young women like Laura, Samantha, and Elizabeth to leave their rapes unreported, remain in abusive relationships, and stay with their abductors. This is not okay.
How about you? What similar metaphors have you encountered, and how have they affected your life?
I unfortunately can relate to Laura, Samantha, and Elizabeth.
I never thought about the reason I would keep such a thing to myself and not report it, but reading this post definitely makes me understand a lot. Thanks. I needed this!
Back in the 1950’s when I was a teenager, girls were compared to cows and shoes, as in, “Why get married? Why buy the cow when I can have the milk for free?” And “Boys want to have sex with their girlfriends before marriage because you don’t buy a pair of shoes without trying them on.”
At that time, of course, we had no birth control pills or abortion rights, and guys didn’t even think about condoms. The risk of pregnancy out of “wedlock” was always on our minds because it meant shame for the whole family, not just the “fallen” girl. If a girl did enjoy sex with her boyfriend and got pregnant, the guy, of course, got off scot free, moving on to college or work while the girl’s life was pretty much ruined. The pill and the women’s movement were two of the best things to happen to American girls.
Whether you’re a male or female, you should never be ashamed of your sexuality…be openly grateful for it, loudly and proudly. I believe that anyone who doesn’t claim complete ownership of his/her own sexuality hasn’t quite hit adulthood yet.
I attended a women’s enrichment conference and they had workshops specifically for teenage girls. One demonstration was a lady showing a beautiful precious perfume bottle that she described as being her favorite in a collection of perfume bottles. She then took a hammer and smashed it. It shocked all of the girls. Then she explained that when you lose your virginity before marriage it is like smashing that perfume bottle and no one would ever want a broken perfume bottle. It was all very dramatic and effective at putting fear into me. In fact when I lost my virginity at the age of 23 to my then boyfriend I told myself that I absolutely had to marry him and no one else would ever want me. Problem was, it was a terrible unhealthy relationship that made me miserable and depressed. And yet I stayed with him for almost 3 years. I believe that is one of the very damaging reasons that I stayed for so long. Thankfully I finally decided I was done and I now have an incredibly loving, respectful, kind boyfriend who I have wonderful sex with and I don’t regret a second of it. I no longer feel that I am ruined.