Last Week Tonight with John Oliver just made a great case against abstinence-only sexual education. If you haven’t seen it please go check it out. I wrote my own thoughts on the topic a while back in a post called Pure Sex Talk. I encourage you to read it, but there is so much more I didn’t say about how it affected me while I was young and still a believer.
Purity culture is an example of how raising children with religion is a big deal. Teaching our children to have faith in god is very dangerous if we aren’t careful. And I’m not talking about pregnancy. Or even eternal damnation. I’m talking about the Christian viewpoint on self-worth in relation to sexuality.
In an environment where every teenager has accepted Christ fully and all teens equally intend on waiting until marriage for sex, we are still setting them up for failure. Never mind that this world doesn’t exist. Even for boys and girls who have bought into the purity culture 100%, there is far too much focus on sexual sin. Everyone falls short. Their very self-worth is tied up in their ability to remain pure; not just in act alone, but in their thoughts. Do you know how difficult it is to remain sexually pure in your thoughts? And you can’t get by with pretending, because god will know.
Now let’s return to the real world where sexual thoughts and actions are actually happening. Whether you like it or not, the truth is that many of these teens don’t care what god thinks. Maybe they never will, or maybe it’s just that they don’t care….yet. In an attempt to scare kids away from sex, abstinence-only presentations turn sexually active teens into villains. Or at the very least tragedy cases on the road to misery. Sex outside of marriage is a sin and sin leads to nothing good. End of story.
Elizabeth Smart came out on this issue to shed some light on how an abstinence-only education made her feel after she was kidnapped and raped repeatedly at the age of fourteen. She had been taught that having sex made her like a chewed up piece of gum. She described wondering how anyone could want her now, and how it made her feel worthless. The Christian response is appropriate enough; of course in the case of rape this isn’t true. When it isn’t your fault god will still see your purity. Even a willing participant in sexual acts who repents and is born again is blameless and made pure by the blood of Jesus.
Recommit your hymens to god, ladies! It’s that simple. I should know. I repented and became a born again virgin myself. I had a year of sexual activity under my belt before I decided god knew better. I did not have sex again until my wedding night. Christians everywhere are rejoicing! But was that really all it took to feel pure in the eyes of god?
Until I invited god into my world I was on the path to figuring it all out just fine; unless you consider how the inconvenience of finding contraception meant I had unprotected sex (thanks again, abstinence-only supporters). Not getting a disease may have had more to do with the inexperience of the boys involved, but I was certainly lucky to not get pregnant. Later I would discover it wasn’t so much luck as it was probably infertility…..but I think we can all agree it was best that my Christian mind didn’t know about that. Who knows what godly wisdom I might have pulled from such knowledge.
I got sidetracked with the belief that maybe god could help me climb a wall I had come up against at the time, and for a while I believed he really had helped me. My whole salvation story somehow got wrapped up in my sexuality which made my relationship with god all the more damaging.
I was eighteen when I made the decision to become a missionary who went into public schools. At the evening concerts we took turns giving our testimony. On a regular basis I went in front of a crowd of strangers and told them about the time I was raped by a friend. I haven’t mentioned that detail since 1995, so if you know me please don’t be offended that we never talked about this. I write frequently and I am pretty open about my life. So take my decision to bring it up for the first time in twenty years to mean that I must believe this conversation is important.
Needless to say, my non-virgin status was on the table from day one of my relationship with my husband. He was okay with the rape. But the sex I had willingly? He struggled. He had to overcome the feeling that I had let him down. I had to overcome it, too. I am not sure I ever told him the whole truth because I was afraid of what he would think. And still, here I am writing these words. Because that shame is bullshit.
As for the godly advice I gave to all those teens? Horrible. Sometimes I still hate myself for it. I wish I could go back and tell them the whole story. The first time I gave my testimony a girl came up to me after the show to tell me she was being molested by her uncle. I was eighteen. I could barely deal with my own baggage. I’m sure we prayed together and then I had to make an official report. I told her it wasn’t her fault and that she was innocent in the eyes of god, but I bet she didn’t believe it. Did I believe it? God knew our thoughts, after all.
Fuck god and his mind reading trick. Fuck god and his mind reading trick. Fuck god and his mind reading trick.
God was the wrong answer. What did god do for me? He was the “amplify guilt” button. I didn’t feel like a victim, and god knew it. But none of this was in my testimony. In my testimony and to the friends around me I was the ideal innocent victim who felt guilty for cliché reasons I must have read about in a teen magazine or something. And then god saved me and made me whole again! It was a lie I had been telling myself for two years.
The truth? I had been a sexually promiscuous girl who didn’t know her friend had something wrong in his brain. He was sixteen at the time. He is now a married man with children who once tearfully apologized to me for what he did. And I know he meant it. But he is capable of something that most men are not capable of, and I couldn’t piece it together quickly enough.
For me, the physical act itself wasn’t the hard part to get over. It wasn’t long before I felt practically nothing about it. But that didn’t seem like the correct response. I never did get that part right, which in my head meant all sorts of things. It was my pride that was hurt, and I despised myself for mourning my lost friend more than I hated him. I almost let him back in a thousand times. Life is complicated. Our thoughts are complicated. And inviting god into that mental situation was a mistake.
I suppose I imagined that being open about it would help reconcile my thoughts with who god wanted me to be. Instead it forced me to face my shortcomings daily. As a missionary I was surrounded by Christians who were authentically pure (or at least I believed they were). They made me feel like a fraud. It wasn’t their fault, but in the Christian culture a teenager like me was damaged. A case to both rejoice over and to pity. Confusing rape thoughts were one thing, but I also had sex with partners willingly. I had repented, sure, but I didn’t look back and feel shame every time I thought about it. God knew that, too.
I was what abstinence-only educators warn against. I was the tragic ending. A cautionary tale. Of course a girl like me would have put herself in a position to be violated.
It is ridiculous to believe that anything a person does can somehow change the character of another person or what they are capable of. He was different, not me. It was hard enough figuring that out when god wasn’t in my head. And I’m not even sure where that ranked on the list of things I shouldn’t have had to figure out as a teenager.
Like most of us, I survived. I didn’t spend all my time dwelling on god and overall my teenage years were filled with great memories. Often these were subtle, fleeting thoughts that defined my self-worth over time. I don’t struggle with any of these issues now, but not everyone is like me. Not everyone finds it as easy to analyze a situation and move forward. And wouldn’t it have been best to simply avoid all the extra anxiety? Sex isn’t everything, not even to god. And yet, if someone were to ask me what the most difficult thing I overcame in my youth was, that would be easy to answer:
Purity culture. No contest.