What Purity Culture Does

 

Sex was pretty much a mystery to me, growing up as I did in a conservative, evangelical home. Pretty much all I knew about sex was that you shouldn’t do it until you were married. I don’t remember ever getting any sex education at school–I went to a private Christian school from first through sixth grade–or at home–I was homeschooled from 7th through 12th grade. What I do remember is that every year, around Valentine’s Day, they would have a youth group series on sex and dating. Which I always thought was ridiculous. For one thing I wasn’t all that interested in dating and so it seemed overkill, but for another once we heard their schtick once, we kind of got the gist! Don’t have sex. Which seemed fine to me because sex wasn’t something I was interested in.

There must have been a series in Sunday school that was a little more in-depth because I remember a car ride home after church and my mom asking me what I thought about Sunday school. She seemed to understand that I didn’t really know much about sex and that I might be embarrassed by that. I was embarassed not because I didn’t know stuff, but because we were talking about it at all!

I do remember that they had talked about oral sex in class and I thought that it meant talking dirty . My mom explained what it actually was and I was pretty grossed out by the concept. It didn’t make any sense to me why someone would want to do such a thing.

My body was a source of embarrassment to me and so I disconnected from it. I hid it behind baggy clothing and tried to pretend that it didn’t exist. I went deep into the life of my mind where I felt safe. I remember girls having conversations about boys and sex and I just had no interest. I wanted to talk about “serious” things, “important” things. Sex and boys just seemed bizarre to me. They existed in some other dimension, I guess. It wasn’t that I felt actively grossed out, I just never thought about it at all. I was so closed off from my body that sexual pleasure never really crossed my mind.

I got a purity ring for my 16th birthday. It was something I really wanted. The deal was that I would keep that ring until I got married and give it to my husband. If I broke that vow–violated my purity–I had to return the ring to my mother.

I lost the ring while I was on a summer mission trip which became the source of endless jokes about me “losing my purity….ring”.

Flash forward to me in my 20’s. By this point I have come out as gay, but still don’t have language for my gender identity. I am starting to leave my fundamentalism behind, but the attitudes that surround sex are the hardest for me to let go of. I look around at the stuff I see in the gay community (granted I don’t have access to very much) and it feels like everyone is interested in having lots of casual sex. I have never met a LGB couple in a long term relationship (that I know of).

Growing up I absorbed messages that all gay people were promiscuous and drank a lot and were incredibly unhappy. 

I had the unhappy part down. As I looked at my own life I was determined that I was going to be different from all of those other (mythical) gay people. I was going to be moral and wait until marriage to have sex. I felt like there was no reason why I couldn’t be a “good Christian” and still be gay. I wore that like a badge of honor feeling like it would make me more holy and righteous. And I could tell all of my conservative friends that that was my decision and maybe they would see that being gay wasn’t so terrible after all. Maybe they would continue to love me. Maybe my mother would still respect me. And besides, I had made a vow and I did not want to have to return the purity ring to my mother.

When I started dating someone seriously for the very first time (before that I had two “relationships” that lasted all of about five days with guys that I was only in to because they were nice to me and guys generally never paid me any attention), I’d never kissed anyone let alone had sex.

I had a better handle on how sex was supposed to work by this point but my knowledge was entirely theoretical. I told her early on that I didn’t want to have sex until I was married. It became a source of tension in our relationship; she was willing to wait, but it was difficult for her. She didn’t have the same baggage as I did around sex. And it was also complicated because she wasn’t ready to get into a serious relationship (having just broken up with someone) and to me everything seemed very serious.

Not only was I dating someone for the first time, but she was a woman which compounded everything further. I was closeted at home and work and the inauthenticity I felt during this time made me so stressed out that I ended up in the hospital because I couldn’t keep food down.

Everything freaked me out and seemed huge. If we held hands it was all I could think about. It seemed like everything was moving both too fast and too slow. And things were happening all out of order. We kissed before we were “officially” dating which felt wrong to me somehow. But I really liked her and I wanted to be close to her (and I really liked kissing her).

I understood, for the first time, what people were talking about when they talked about wanting to be with someone. But I had all of this stuff in my head that said that what I was doing was wrong. I was going too far. I was going too fast, and once you went too far and too fast there was no going back. You were ruined. That sounds harsh, but that’s the kind of emotional baggage that is put onto any kind of physical interaction and it made it impossible to view the relationship with any kind of perspective.

As things progressed I felt like as long as we didn’t have sex I was somehow preserving my purity. She and I started talking about marriage early. Way earlier than was right to do so. We were in love, but I was still closeted and she was still recovering from a break up. It was my first relationship. But marriage was on the table almost from the very beginning.

As we got more and more serious we started thinking about moving in together, but I was determined that I wouldn’t move in with her until we were married. That was the way it was supposed to be. So if we were going to move in together when her lease was up that meant we needed to get married before then. She was rightfully concerned, but to me it seemed like the best course of action.

After I was outed by her bumper sticker I remember my mom saying something to me that insinuated that she thought my girlfriend and I were having sex. I was furious. How dare she think so little of me that she would think I wasn’t keeping my promise? And then I thought, why am I keeping this promise if my own mother doesn’t even think I’m keeping it? Who am I keeping it for?

When I proposed to my girlfriend and she accepted we had sex. It seemed close enough to marriage at that point; we had plans to get married, we wanted to be closer, it felt right. But right from the beginning sex was complicated.

I was inexperienced and had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. There was tension and impatience on both our parts. It was complicated and I felt like I couldn’t talk about it. I was so ashamed to not be better at sex.

And of course, who was I going to talk to about it?

Most of my friends weren’t speaking to me since I came out. I had no other queer friends to talk to. I did what I always do and read a lot of books, but that only takes you so far.

I felt a deep sense of shame. Why wasn’t I better? I had been promised that if I waited to have sex God would bless me (and my sex life) and it would be awesome. But it wasn’t awesome. Did anyone else have these experiences? None of my friends who had gotten married talked about stuff like this. What was wrong with me?

We got married after we had been together for less than a year. I gave her my purity ring.

Sex stayed complicated. 

It seemed like we could never get on the same page. And then I finally found the language to talk about my gender identity and that complicated things even further. What did my male identity mean to her, a lesbian woman? As I transitioned medically she felt her queerness disappearing. And as I tried to figure out what it meant to me to be a man I overcompensated on masculinity in order to feel whole.

My changing body pushed us farther and farther apart. She didn’t like my facial stubble and I didn’t want to always have to shave. I want to be very careful here: the complications we faced were no one’s fault, but I internalized her disinterest in me sexually as something that was wrong with me. I saw my changing body as shameful just as I was starting to feel connected with it.

Throughout all of this, I had no one to talk to. Sex still seemed like something mythical and private, and yes, still a little shameful, although now my shame was about being terrible at sex and being unattractive. But that isolation made it so that I couldn’t get any perspective on what was happening. I was still convinced that everyone else in the world was having fantastic sex all the time and that I was the only one who couldn’t figure out how to get it together.

Everything seemed like it was my fault.

If she was having a bad night and wasn’t interested, my fault. If one of us couldn’t orgasm, my fault. If it took too long or went too fast, my fault. All of this shame just locked me up and kept me from being able to get untangled.

She and I divorced after being married for three years for a lot of different reasons, but sex was definitely one of the reasons (even if neither of us was willing to say it out loud). Even now it feels scandalous to say these things. It seems like I am being too personal. It seems that by saying that we had trouble with sex that I am somehow disparaging her or our relationship. It still feels strange to be speaking honestly about sex.

It still feels like people will read this and say that all of this is because I’m queer and that I deserve what I get. The weight of that shame still hangs heavy on me, even after all of these years.

That’s what the teaching I received about sex did to me. This is how it plays out in real lives and real relationships. &

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This article was originally published in the SEX (BODIES) issue of Spit & Spirit. If you liked what you read and want more, learn more about the issue and pickup a copy.