On Our Biology: Starshine’s Thoughts

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Macroscopic Solutions. Image links to source.
CC image courtesy of Flickr, Macroscopic Solutions. Image links to source.

Pseudonym note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Starshine” is a pseudonym.

The war that our parents waged was not just on our selfhood or security or sexuality—it was on our biology. Things we couldn’t change; physical survival and reproduction patterns that couldn’t be completely or permanently killed unless we died too.

We fought—some internally, some externally. Some broke. We’re still trying to find pieces of ourselves, pieces that our parents beat or rejected or threw away. Some we will find. Others seem gone forever.

But ultimately our parents failed. We are not what they planned for us to be. Our biology reacted and protected ourselves once we could and once we knew we could. They didn’t win, even if we carry evidence of their war for the rest of our lives.

We won. And we are free forever.

The Styrofoam Cup: Sam Neely’s Story

Screen Shot 2014-02-12 at 7.48.57 PM

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.

Author note: Sam Neely blogs at Yes We Sam!

*****

It was just a Styrofoam cup. But the man said to examine it, so I did.

I was fifteen years old, and was sitting in a classroom at the church building where my homeschool umbrella met. I passed the cup to the next guy in the line. I don’t remember who it was, but we had been segregated, boys and girls, so I know it was a guy.

I don’t remember who this teacher was either. He was an older gentleman, bearded, husky. He wasn’t the parent of one of my friends, like most of my teachers were… he was a guest.

The Styrofoam cup had made its way down the line, and the instructor held it up to us again.

“It looks normal, right?” he asked. We agreed, yes it did. Then he poured water from a pitcher into the cup. The water leaked out the bottoms and sides of the cup.

“Just because something appears sturdy,” he said, “doesn’t mean that it is.”

The message was clear: condoms have holes in them. Never mind that the difference in material between Styrofoam and latex makes the analogy useless. Never mind that the only reason the cup he used in his example only had holes because he put them there and intentionally made them undetectable. No, the point of the illustration was that protection doesn’t exist.

Another illustration used by this lecturer involved a gun. He brought a printout of a handgun as an illustration of “A good thing that can sometimes be used for bad”. Like sex, he said.

But why did his illustration have to be a gun? This was less than a month after the shootings at Columbine High School. (I remember this, because he said that was why he only brought a picture of a gun, instead of the real thing).

After his presentation, we traded places with the girls, and they presumably sat through the same collection of demonstrations. We had another lecturer, I believe she was a former nurse, show us a slide show of graphic STD photographs.

The message was clear: Don’t have sex.

tumblr_lu5t6eUtRR1qzjp5co1_400

So why does this bother me? I got this message all the time — at home, at church, even in a series of public service announcements on television. Why did it bother me here?

Because this was science class.

The biology class at my homeschool co-op divided the A Beka textbook into the systems of the human body, focusing on one at a time, but the course did not cover the chapter on the reproductive system. Instead, we had an optional (parental permission required) course called “Crossroads” where we were supposed to learn about sex. I signed up for it, assuming it would be the science that was left out of the curriculum.

But it wasn’t…

It was just the “don’t do it” lectures, with scare tactics and manipulation.

*****

I’ve spent the last five days trying to expand this story into a deeper post. I’ve tried to tell stories of my sexual history, and how it was painted by certain experiences, how many of them come from purity culture, and how many simply come from my own bad luck, but the thoughts are too jumbled, and everything is too complicated. Instead, I’m left only with this anecdote.

It says nothing, and it says everything.

It is one of the funniest stories I tell.

It is also one of the saddest.

Sex Miseducation

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on July 18, 2011.

Children who go to public school receive sex education. Some sex education programs are better than others, some are more comprehensive, others less so, but at least children attending public schools get sex education. I didn’t. My parents never told me about sex, never had “the talk” with me, nothing. My parents taught me that sex within marriage was the most wonderful thing ever but that sex before marriage was the most sinful thing ever, but they never actually explained what sex was. They just told us that it was a “special way of loving.” Weird? Yes. In an ideal world children will learn both about sex and to hold a healthy view of sexuality from their parents. Unfortunately, this is not an ideal world.

Now of course, I was curious: just what was this “special way of loving?” What was this thing at once so dangerous and so wonderful? And why was it so taboo, kept hidden from me like a secret? I pieced this secret together here and there from various sources over the course of six or eight years using a variety of sources:

A Biology Textbook: When I was in middle school I found a description of sex in a biology textbook. The two or so sentences of clinical explanation horrified me, and I quickly closed the book and put it away, more confused, terrified, and ashamed than enlightened.

An Art Book: Around the same time, I found a book full of pictures of statues in a stack of art books my mother had gotten from the library. The statues were nude. I stared, fascinated, looking at the pictures in an effort to learn more about human anatomy. I then felt incredibly dirty and put the book away quickly before my mother could notice that I had seen it.

A Book Store: When I was around fifteen, I was at Barnes and Nobles and ran across a book on how to tell your child about sex. I hid behind the shelves of books and listened anxiously for footsteps. I skimmed the pages furtively, hungry for whatever information I could find, information that would help explain this confusing thing to me. Given that I was terrified of being found and that the time I had was limited, the only thing I remember learning was about masturbation, which I had never heard of before. I felt extremely guilty and dirty afterward.

A Christian Sex Guide: At some point during high school, I found a Christian guide to improving your sex life in my parents’ bedroom. Closing the door and extremely nervous I might be discovered, I leafed through the book, slightly concerned that my parents might be having marriage problems and very frightened of being caught looking at the book but more curious than anything else. After a few minutes, I returned the book to where I had found it, feeling guilty and dirty, but slightly wiser.

The Internet: When I left for college I could use the Internet without being afraid that my parents would check the computer’s history. Finally I could solve questions that had been puzzling me, like just what “oral sex” was – I had heard the term somewhere several years back and had been curious ever since, but had been unable to find the term in a dictionary. Finally my questions could have answers. I clicked through pages of Christian sex advice websites, always afraid that my search terms might bring up porn sites. I justified what I was doing by reminding myself that I was now an adult and besides I was only looking things up on Christian websites.

A Mirror: I realized during my first year of college that I had no idea what parts I had down there. My parents’ emphasis on purity had made me feel that my private area was somehow dirty and unclean, and I had therefore never paid any attention to it. I didn’t even know where my vagina was, just that it was down there somewhere. Curious, I looked up anatomy images on the Internet and then then stood naked in the bathroom using a hand-held mirror to explore body parts I had not even known I had. I was both fascinated and horrified by what I learned.

Romance Novels: After I had been in college for some time, I held the hand of the man who is now my husband for the first time. This made me feel warm and wet in certain places that I had not known could be warm and wet. I was completely baffled. I had no idea what was happening to my body. I might now know the basic mechanics of sex, but I knew nothing about how it actually worked in practice, or what it meant for the body to be “aroused.” What was this? And so, I turned to the lurid romance novels one of my friends kept in her dorm room, reading the sex scenes in depth to try to find out what sex was actually like.

And that, reader, is how I learned about sex. Is it any wonder that I wish I had had a sex education class? Some years later, after I left my parents’ home and was married, a fifteen-year-old girl in a youth group I helped out with started asking me questions about sex. I answered her questions, every one of them, with the openness and honesty I wish my parents had had with me. I didn’t want her to have to learn about sex by sneaking her mother’s Christian sex book or reading romance novels. I didn’t want her to be nineteen or twenty and completely ignorant of her own anatomy. I didn’t want her to be like me.

I’ll never understand how my parents could on the one hand teach me that sex was something beautiful and sacred and at the same time leave me in ignorance about it and make me feel like it was something dirty and unclean. It was the most wonderful thing ever…but it was completely taboo as a topic. It was a sacred bond between husband and wife…but please don’t mention it or think about it. The contradictory messages I received gave me a very warped view of sex. I both looked forward to the sacred bond of sex with my future husband and felt dirty any time I thought about it. Learning about sex piecemeal here and there didn’t give me a very accurate view of sex either, even discounting the sense of guilt I felt about doing so.

When I finally got to the point of actually having sex, I was disappointed to find that it neither felt sacred nor lived up to the descriptions in the romance novels I had read. Picking up knowledge of sex in bits and pieces here and there while awash in guilt does not lead to a comprehensive understanding of sex or a healthy sexuality. I had no idea that sex took practice or effort, or that sometimes one partner wouldn’t feel like it and the other would, or that it could be sweaty and gross. It has taken me years to iron all this out and to come to a healthy view of sex. I wish that instead of focusing on keeping me ignorant of it, my parents had informed me about sex and focused on giving me a healthy view of sexuality. But then, their beliefs about sex would not allow them to do that.

What I would have given a sex education class, a safe place where I could have found the basic information and asked questions! Sure, it wouldn’t have been perfect, but it would have been something.

I Have to Live My Life: Eve’s Story

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Eve” is a pseudonym

My homeschooling experience in and of itself was not particularly awful. It started out harmlessly enough. My older brother was very ahead of his public school class in first grade and was bored so he asked my mom to homeschool him. (Or so the story goes, I’ve never actually bothered to ask if that was actually the case). I do know that there was a very strong homeschooling movement in our church and we immediately joined that group. For the most part I enjoyed school growing up. My older brother and I were very inquisitive and my mom did her best of fulfill our desire for knowledge. Unfortunately for me, much of my interest centered on biology. I was provided with plenty of Creationist curriculum, but very little that explained any actual science.

Church was a different matter for me. I was rarely happy at church. I did not understand many things and I had a lot of questions throughout high school. My questions were always met with the same types of answers, “We know best. Just trust us we’ll get to your answers eventually but for now just focus on the stuff we’re teaching you. You’re still young and the Bible says that when we are babies we need milk.” It was an empty reply and it always left me even more unhappy. When I tried to start a study group with some of the other girls my age so that we could find some answers for ourselves, we were immediately shut down. Even though we were meeting off church property we were told that in order to have a bible study we had to have one of the women from the church oversee us. Again I was left in the dark. All I ever wanted was for someone to sit with me and be honest. I needed someone to either tell me that they didn’t have the answers I wanted or to help me find them. No one would because asking questions was against the rules in my church.

I tried very very hard to have faith. Everyone around me believed so fervently in God and Creation. I went to Bible Camps, Summit, raised money and went on mission trips, joined Bible studies and read so many study books I’ve lost count, but I never had faith. I don’t know that I’ve ever truly experienced faith. This was a terrifying realization to come to. The thought that everything I was taught growing up, everything that my parents so fervently believed was not what I believed shook me to my core. I am terrified of disappointing my parents. I always have been and I think I might always be. All of my life up until college revolved around making my parents happy. I was the good kid.

Then, of course, my family became heavily involved with the NCFCA. I hated it. I  have never liked speaking in front of people. I willingly participated for one tournament and that was it. After that I supported my older brother. I had much more fun when all I had to do was help him research and then during tournaments I could run around doing whatever and helping my mom do Judge’s Hospitality. I never really made friends in the NCFCA. Most everyone loved my older brother so most everyone knew me (if only as his little sister), but I never found my own group of people. To be honest I was fine with that. I didn’t really like most of the NCFCA so I was fine just doing my own thing and living in my brother’s shadow.

Debate did, however, open me up to the world of the internet. I was suddenly immersed in research for debate, but also in everything else. All of the ideas on the internet fascinated me. I made friends with a very outspoken atheist who constantly questioned my beliefs. He never did it in a rude or antagonistic way. He could tell I wasn’t entirely convinced about my faith, but it was so deeply ingrained in me that I would never have admitted that to him. So instead he just persistently asked me why I believed what I believed. I never did have an answer for him.

In college I moved rapidly away from my parents’ beliefs. I majored in biology and was fascinated with everything I learned. When I took a class on evolution I had so many questions that I spent a large amount of time in my professor’s office. He was very understanding and very, very helpful. I stopped going to church when I moved to college and focused instead on answering all of those questions I’d had growing up. Unlike the elders in my church, my professors wanted to do nothing more than give me answers. I thrived in college. I made friends for the first time and was social. All the while, my relationship with my parents started showing signs of wear. Practically every time I went home we had a conversation that ended with my crying and feeling like I was nothing but a disappointment. All I wanted to do was figure out for myself what I believed, but because it was looking like I wasn’t going to believe what they did, they were very unhappy.

After graduating I got the hell out of my state and moved to the East Coast. I had some friends in the area but it was still a terrifying transition. I went from living near/with my family to living 18 hours away in the middle of a big city. Thankfully with the support of my friends I adjusted quickly. My parents were sure I’d be back to my home state after 3 months. I’ve now lived up here for almost 3 years and I’ve never been happier. Soon after I moved I met a guy and we started dating. He was the first guy I ever actually dated. Even when our relationship became serious, my parents never really made any effort to get to know him. He is not a conservative Christian so they don’t care to. I brought him home with me once for Thanksgiving and within 30 minutes of him being in my house my dad was trying to convert him. They  have still never actually invited him to come to their house for the holidays with me.

These days my relationship with my parents is superficial at best. I no longer feel comfortable sharing things about my life with them and they never ask anyway. Occasionally we talk on the phone to catch up a little but it’s always small talk. I do hope that one day they will begin to come around and accept that I just don’t believe what they do. I hope that they’ll realize that I still very much want to have a good relationship with them but that I can’t keep living my life just to make them happy. I will always be afraid of disappointing them and it will always profoundly hurt when they tell me that I have done so, but I have to live my life with the goal of achieving my dreams and desires, not theirs.

Currently, I no longer consider myself religious at all. I do not have any sort of faith. I would not go so far as to call myself an atheist. Agnostic would probably be the best if you have to term it.