True Love Waits?: Lilith’s Story

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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. “Lilith” is a pseudonym.

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I had the bare minimum sex education growing up—my mom gave me one brief, frank talk about sex, I read some Christian children and teen books on the subject, and I went to a  teen dating class at my church that emphasized, of course, abstinence. In high school, I dated the pastor’s kid for a year, and he waited patiently until my 16th birthday to give me my first kiss (my mom’s mandate). My boyfriend and I only alluded to sex once the whole time we dated.

It wasn’t until college that I began to truly understand the mechanics of sex and sexual anatomy.

At age 18, a psychology textbook introduced me to the word clitoris, and I immediately proceeded to look for mine. At 21, I discovered I had been using tampons incorrectly for nine years (no wonder they were so uncomfortable and didn’t always work!). Shortly after, one of my male friends asked me if I had ever had an orgasm, to which I replied “I don’t know.” I was even more embarrassed when one of my male classmates commented abruptly over lunch, “You’re a virgin, aren’t you?” I finally started looking for answers to my sex questions through Google so I wouldn’t feel so ignorant.

Through these searches I realized that my notions of sex positions and the “motions” of sex – for lack of a better word – were utterly wrong.

At age 22, I started dating my future husband, Matt (HA note: name changed). Even though we were both Christians who valued abstinence, we talked about sex openly. Other guys had humiliated me by pointing out my ignorance, but Matt never made me feel stupid – perhaps because he was a virgin, too. As Christians, we were always told that having sex before marriage would ruin our sex lives once we got married. So, when Matt and I finally gave in to our sexual urges three years later, we felt immense guilt. Before this incident, we had already talked about getting married, but now we wanted to bump up the date so we wouldn’t be “sinning.” We confessed our sexual sins to our pastor and told him our idea of getting married soon, and he told us that was a viable option.

My parents, however, were resistant to the idea, because they wanted me to finish my master’s degree first.

I was confused and angry, because they seemed to be contradicting what they had always taught me: by telling me to postpone marriage, it was as if they were telling me that my education was more important than my morality. (To be fair to my parents, this is how I was feeling, and not necessarily what they believed.)

What I just described is an unfortunate dilemma that I imagine many young Christian adults and their parents face. Because of the demands of college, parents and their children rationalize that marriage should occur after college. At the same time, delaying marriage means delaying sex. Although many young Christian adults earnestly want to wait, their biological urges make it very difficult for them to do so. Our bodies are not designed to postpone sex until we are in our mid- to late-twenties.

Because of my parent’s wishes, Matt and I delayed our wedding until after graduation. In the meantime, we continued to have sex, though we no longer confessed this to our pastor nor our parents. Eventually, we lost feelings of guilt and began to question how ‘sinful’ our actions really were. Matt and I truly loved each other, and we were figuring out sex together. Months later, when we finally got married, our wedding night wasn’t any less special because we had already had sex. In fact, it was satisfying because we knew what we were doing. That same year, for many reasons, we left the church and are no longer Christians.

In closing, I was poorly informed about sex while growing up. This didn’t hurt me much when I was a teenager, because I was homeschooled and not around many other teens or “temptations” anyway. Once I started college, though, I was ridiculed for my ignorance and unknowingly put myself in risky situations. Early on, I should have been taught not only about sexual organs, STDs and contraceptives, but also about the risks of sexual predators and date rape – which, fortunately, I never experienced but could easily have.

I have conflicting feelings about the “True Love Waits” doctrine that homeschooled Christian teens are taught.

On one hand, I’m glad that it encouraged Matt and I to postpone sex for as long as we did –  we were both mature enough to experience it safely and thoughtfully, and we couldn’t judge each other because neither of us had “done it” before. However, in some ways the abstinence doctrine did do some emotional damage: when Matt and I were expressing love to each other before we were married, our Christian consciences were telling us that we were doing something bad and harmful. Because of these convictions, we were really hard on ourselves and experienced a lot of unnecessary guilt – so much so that we broke up for a few months in order not to “sin.”

Ironically, the guilt and the breakup were actually more harmful to our relationship than the premarital sex was.

Let’s Talk About Christian Culture and Consent

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Note from R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator: The following post does not mention “homeschooling” in any way. It is more about the Christian culture in which many of our homeschooling experiences occurred. But since many of our particular homeschooling experiences occurred within this culture, this post is very relevant. After reading Kathryn’s thoughts, I, too, tried to remember when any of the modesty or purity teachings I received about relationships — in both my church and homeschooling environments — included any discussion about consent. Like Kathryn, I was at a loss. In retrospect, I find this omission rather disturbing.

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Kathryn Brightbill’s blog The Life and Opinions of Kathryn Elizabeth, Person. It was originally published on August 1, 2013.

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Let’s Talk About Christian Culture and Consent

A friend made a comment on one of my Facebook posts today that got me thinking.

The comment was about how a lot of people in the Church don’t have any kind of sexual ethic, just a bunch rules that they follow. I think that’s a good description of how it is that people buy into slippery slope arguments—the old, “if we allow people to gay marry, then what’s to stop them from toaster marrying?” logic.

If you’ve got a sexual ethic based on consent, then the answer is obvious: because toasters are incapable of consent.

If you are just operating by rules, then it makes sense that you’d think that if one of your rules gets tossed then what’s to stop all your rules from going out the window.

The comment on my Facebook post made me realize that in all of the years of growing up in the Church, of getting lectures about abstinence in Sunday school and youth group and True Love Waits, I cannot remember a single mention of consent. I remember Dawson McAllister coming to town to a True Love Waits event and telling us that anal sex was still sex and not a way to remain a virgin (which is not a bad piece of information, incidentally, though really rather stupid if the only reason you’re telling them is to make sure they remain more than just technical virgins), but for all of the talk about what you couldn’t do, the only talk about saying “no” was about not sinning.

I’ve racked my brain trying to remember even a single time that I’ve ever heard consent mentioned in a church-related setting growing up and I can’t remember a single one. 

By not teaching about consent, you produce girls who don’t know that they can refuse consent for any other reason than “it’s a sin,” and you produce boys who have never been taught that no means no. That’s a recipe for disaster. Is conservative abstinence education turning boys into accidental rapists and girls into easy victims because neither one has been educated about consent being an inviolable element in a sexual encounter?

I put this question out there on Facebook and Twitter and I’ll ask it here as well. For those of you who grew up in the church and were lectured about abstinence in youth group/Sunday school/True Love Waits/etc.:

Do any of you remember being taught about consent?

What Do Presents, Chocolate Bars, Roses, Chewing Gum, and Packing Tape Have in Common?

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.

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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?

Be Perfect as Your Heavenly Father is Perfect: Charity’s Story

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

I’ve been following HA from the beginning. I knew from the first moment I saw the Facebook page that I would write my story, even though I do not think there is anything surprising about my life. I was raised in a conservative Christian home, was homeschooled through graduation, and in graduate school dropped Christianity for feminism. That transition, while difficult, felt natural for me. Feminism gave me a language for the discrepancies I could see and feel, but could not name. To this day my parents are dismayed and my brother is bemused about my ideological transformation.

I don’t know what parts of my life are important to tell, which parts are most salient. I just know that along the way I learned to hate myself. Because even though I know that I am smart and beautiful, I also know that I should be better. The only yardstick I have is absolute perfection for whatever it is that is on my plate in the moment. And if I can’t be perfect, then I need to just complete whatever the project is and move on to something else. There is so little joy in that way of living. There is no self-acceptance. Nothing can just be what it is in the moment; the striving is both constant and tortuous. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me explain.

I was raised to be a good Christian girl who did the best she could. It just so happens that, aside from math, I’m good at most things I have tried. All of my life I’ve been told that everything I touch turns to gold. There is a shit-ton of pressure in that statement and that pressure is the center of my story.

Until college, my social circle consisted mostly of other homeschoolers and families from church. Basically my life was “all Jesus all the time.” I learned from a very early age that both God and Jesus were perfect and that perfection was the goal. Of course, my parents would deny that they ever taught me that explicitly, because of course perfection is impossible. But try telling that to a child who grows up hearing about how the perfect love of God covers all her sins! I am a typical first-born, Type-A overachiever. Combine that with the teaching that God made it possible for me to be perfect through the perfection of Christ and his sacrifice on the cross, and BOOM. I am a walking shitfest of a mess.

As a teenager I tried to do everything right. I signed the True Love Waits pledge card, and took it one step further: no kissing until marriage. I taught abstinence-only sex education to 7th graders at a local Catholic school. And as if that wasn’t enough, I happily boarded the Joshua Harris I Kissed Dating Goodbye train. I am still baffled as to how I believed that I could do so much talking about sexsexsex, whether it was blatant or veiled, and not want to even think about doing it! I was encouraged and applauded by every adult I met for my amazing character, commitment, and chastity. But what I remember most was feeling shame about every inch of my body and what it wanted, how good it felt when I touched myself, and the simple desire of wanting a boy to like me. How could I be perfect if I wanted to have sex?

Growing up I lacked imperfect role models…people who were successful, but weren’t afraid to genuinely admit their imperfection.

For the next decade, that was my frame of mind. Any little imperfection ate away at my self-worth. I really bought into Matthew whatever-whatever, ‘be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.’ Instead of seeing my life as an opportunity to nourish my soul through learning what my mind and body could accomplish, every endeavor became yet another way to measure my failure. How can I be the perfect student if I don’t have a 4.0 (finally got it on my third degree!)? How can I be the perfect yoga instructor if I can’t touch my toes? How can I be the perfect partner if what I want is to leave the man I married? How can I be perfect if one of the few places I find both joy and solace is in a bottle of rum? Growing up in the Christian homeschooling subculture taught to view life from the negative. I want to believe this was unintentional. My flair for the dramatic aside, my biggest regret is that I wasn’t taught to enjoy and love my body or my life. I was taught that both my body and my life were things to be disciplined, controlled, and held in check.

I bought into the belief that not being perfect meant I was a failure.

A different truth is that if I ever achieved perfection, there would be nothing left for which to live.

I took a three-day break after writing that last sentence. I needed time to process. Yesterday morning I was having breakfast with a friend of mine and I told him about this essay. He asked me what my story had to do with being homeschooled, since it sounded to him like a story about being raised super-Christian. Good question. My answer? Being homeschooled meant that I only ever came in contact with other people of the same persuasion, religious/belief system, hell!, life system, as the one in which I was living. Being homeschooled for me was being surrounded by people who were also supposed to be perfect because we were all ‘covered by the blood of Jesus.’ I didn’t know that imperfection was an option. I didn’t know that I could make choices outside of the Bible and still be a good person, that I would still like myself, that people would still like me, that God would still like me. Not that I really believe in God anymore, but that’s for a different essay. It wasn’t until graduate school that I finally came out of my shell—out of my parents house—and realized that there was an entire world in which my identity didn’t hinge on if I was a virgin or read my Bible or went to church or dressed modestly or all the other things my childhood and adolescence was hyper-focused on—because of course, for a woman, those things equal perfection.

Hang on. I’ll be back in another couple of days.

After rereading and thinking and editing, I’ve decided that this is not something I want to come back to. This isn’t really the story I want to tell. So let me start again.

I was homeschooled. I was sheltered. I was raised in a very conservative, Christian home. But I got out. I don’t have any major regrets from high school; I am lucky. I have worked exceptionally hard to get to know myself, to be honest with the people in my life, and to make choices that are good for me. Being homeschooled taught me to hold myself accountable and that at the end of the day, the only person who was responsible for what was or was not accomplished was me. My parents taught me an amazing work ethic that I couldn’t shake even if I tried. Sure, that has led to me being a perfectionist workaholic who sucks at relaxing, but the yoga and rum are helping with that.

My parents and I no longer talk politics or religion, but I know that they love me and have my back. Being homeschooled meant that I had a lot to overcome in terms of finding a footing in the world outside of my parents house; I think it took me a lot longer than average to figure out who I wanted to be because the people I came in contact with were so homogenous—I didn’t have options to pick from until I was in my 20s. But, being homeschooled also taught me to be content with myself because quite often I was left alone to my own devices.

So, all that to say being homeschooled was definitely a curse; in that sheltered, Christian environment I learned some pretty shitty ways of thinking about myself. But being homeschooled also taught me how to look out for myself. Perhaps that part of the equation paved the way for me to become the feminist I am today? My mother would die if she read that. But even so, without both those pieces of the puzzle, I doubt I’d be writing this today.

Feminist philosopher Margaret Urban Walker writes that,

In any case, I think that feminist thinkers are entitled to the excitement and intellectual challenge of forging and intensively testing visionary paradigms, of inaugurating their own discursive communities as sites of solidarity and creative communication in their own terms, and of self-consciously exploring confrontational rhetorics as some instruments, among others, for initiating wholesale intellectual change in their favor. (“Further Notes” 154)

Writing this piece has been a process of “feminist thinking” for me; becoming a part of the HA community has forced me to (re)consider so much about myself. I am grateful for the opportunity to add my voice in solidarity.