Series disclaimer: HA’s “Let’s Talk About Sex (Ed)” series contains frank, honest, and uncensored conversations about sexuality and sex education. It is intended for mature audiences.
Pseudonym note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Beth” is a pseudonym.
My first experience with sexual education was that American Girl book, “The Care and Keeping of You.”
My mom stapled together the pages that showed how to put in a tampon, because the illustration shows a girl’s vulva. I was maybe ten years old and very excited to go bra-shopping, so I didn’t really care.
Next, she gave us a cartoonishly-illustrated book that was ostensibly about sexuality but really spent the first three quarters explaining why Darwin was wrong and abortion was murder. Our world was irrevocably broken and we must pray. The last chapter put it into perspective: men and women were crafted to “fit together,” and anything beyond that was sinfully deviant, in league with graffiti and secular science textbooks.
And that was it. I first realized that penises could enter vaginas when I read a Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy X-rated fanfiction at the age of 16. My parents, bless their hearts, were trusting in their daughters and did not bother to block the internet; I think it never occurred to them the depraved depths we were capable of sinking. I had to google how to masturbate. I was 17.
You must understand: my parents were pretty liberal. They let us read Harry Potter.
We watched PG-13 rated movies, even R-rated ones so long as the R was for violence. We went to museums and saw naked Greek statues all the time. They did not block our internet access, and by the time I was 15, I was allowed to buy one-size-too-big jeans from the juniors department. I was allowed to speak to boys- although this point was moot; I knew maybe three families total with teenage boys in them. I still managed to crush on one. The heart is so desperately wicked.
No, I think that to my parents, the idea of conceptualizing their daughters as sexual beings was as outlandish as suggesting we were pod people. It was irrelevant and pointedly ignored, until I turned 18 and my mom mentioned that I could, if I wanted, find a boyfriend. You know that story about the elephant that is tied to a fence post, and so long as the string is there, even without a post, the big creature will just stand there meekly and wait? That was my sexuality. I had to fantasize about rape because I felt too sinful when I imagined initiating the sex act.
I was also mortally afraid of pregnancy. I had a grasp of biology just sufficient to terrify me; I would stare in the mirror, willing myself not to get pregnant from sitting on a toilet seat. I went to Disney World at 14 and worried for weeks about going in the hot tub. What if, I thought, I got pregnant from the swimming pool or from a rape, and I had to go to church all pregnant? I’d have to put a placard around my neck or on my back reminding people that I was a victim and not a whore. So they would not be cruel to me, or whisper behind my back.
Teenage girls are basically walking, exposed nerves, at least in middle-class America. I was more exposed, more raw, because I thought of sex as a Thing men did to you, and unless you were married (I doubted I’d find a husband, I was too plain) a terrible tragedy. I knew three girls in our small group who were raped by their boyfriends even though they were trying to save sex as a present for their husbands. I was afraid and suspicious of men, but I also wished someone would catcall me or assault me so I knew I was worthy of violation.
I was incapable of conceiving a world in which I could make decisions about my body with full knowledge and consent.
My parents did not mean to do this to me. They only wanted me to grow up free of gender and sex politics, free of lust and abusive boyfriends, until I was a Grown Woman and ready to find an eligible husband. But it was not only them. It was the ignorance of my friends. It was the churches I grew up in, with youth groups that spoke endlessly about purity rings and pro-life politics. It was the sermons about marriage, Brio and Boundless magazine, Elsie Dinsmore and Vision Forum catalogs and homeschool conferences. I read the stories of abuse on HA and I am hardly surprised; this culture cultivates it, and you’d think it was intentional.
The next part of my story will probably sound flippant and ridiculous to you, because it sounds, well, kind of silly to me when I remember it. But I was watching a performance of All’s Well that Ends Well at the Delacorte Theater, summer 2011. Your virginity, your old virginity, is like one of our French wither’d pears: it looks ill, it eats drily. In the play, Helena decides she really wants to have a man, so she can do it, and then guess what? She gets herself a man. Get thee a good husband, and use him as he uses thee.
That was all it took.
I asked a boy out- it was a really disgusting first kiss. But I did not let it deter me. I was twenty when I met my current boyfriend, and I will leave it at that. There was a lot of fear on my end when I wanted to stay over at his apartment for a visit. I felt that I was betraying my family. That every person was now privy to my Sex Life because they knew I was going to be sleeping over.
But I wanted to, so I did it anyway.
If I were to have a teen daughter, even if she was in public school, I’d send her to Scarleteen.
I do not think the solution to my teenage terror was a nice sit-down with my mom about the wonders of the yoni! But knowledge was all I needed. I think that very conservative Christians do not necessarily value this perspective, but I feel that my identity as a sexual being does not begin or end with the sex I have. It is my identity, tied up in my womanhood. It is a way of treating my temple the way it should be treated, kindly and with consideration, compassion, and full intent.