What I’m (NOT) Going to Tell My Kids About Sex

My son just turned four months old yesterday, and I’m already wondering how I am going to talk to him about sex. To be perfectly honest, this is something I’ve been thinking about for years, long before becoming a mother.

Yes, I have a problem with “future tripping,” as a friend of mine recently phrased it. One of my many neuroses is the inability to stop planning for and fantasizing about things that are years down the road – like the sex education of my children, for example, of whom only one has been born yet.

I’m still working on the finer details of the “sex talk,” which I imagine will be an ongoing dialogue, rather than a one-time super-awkward chat about “what happens when mommies and daddies love each other.”

I do know one thing, though:

I’m not going to talk about virginity.

I’m done with virginity. Done and dusted. Yeah, no big surprise, you say: I’ve been married for seven years and have a baby – of course virginity and I have long since parted ways. And that’s true. In fact, we parted ways quite awhile ago. Before I got married. Yes, I was one of those 80% of evangelical Christian youth who pledge to save sex for marriage and don’t actually make it. But that’s not what I mean by being done with virginity. I mean that I’m done with the concept itself.

There’s been some buzz on the blogosphere lately about the damaging impact of “purity culture” within Christianity, and I feel compelled to throw my hat into that ring, because I’ve got some serious wounds from growing up in that culture, wounds that keep splitting open just when I think they’ve finally healed. [Check out these other posts on the topic by Emily Maynard – no, not the Bachelorette – Jamie Wright, and Elizabeth Esther.]

I won’t get into the finer, messier details of my story here. (I tried to reassure my mom the other day that I do have SOME boundaries when it comes to blogging – which doesn’t mean I won’t eventually share my full story; after all, it is mine to tell. But I don’t feel ready yet. Probably because of those wounds I mentioned earlier…)

Instead, let’s have some fun with bulleted lists!

This is what the virginity narrative taught me:

    • Sex is dirty and shameful — until you’re married, and then it’s suddenly AWESOME! AND BEAUTIFUL! AND FROM GOD!!!
    • There are two classes of Christians: those who waited, and those who failed. You now belong to the second class.
    • Your sexual history is the most important thing about you.
    • As a woman, your moral worth is rooted in your body and sexuality.
    • “Virtue” is just another code-word for “virginity,” which you lost…
    • …And, since you are no longer a virgin:
      • You have less to bring to a marriage. (If anyone actually decides you’re worth marrying, that is.)
      • You’ve lost a part of yourself that can never be regained.
      • You are damaged goods.
      • You can never be “pure” again.
      • Your marital sex life will be haunted by the ghosts of your former partners.
    • You are a creature of shame.

That last one is the cruelest. The last one is a fishhook to the soul. I’m not talking guilt here. Guilt implies a fault in one’s behavior, and I think guilt can sometimes be helpful for us to experience, when we’ve been naughty and it’s warranted.

Shame, however, is a different animal altogether. Shame isn’t about what you’ve done. Shame implies a flaw in one’s being. “Purity culture” isn’t just about policing behavior; it’s in the business of ontology. And that’s dangerous.

It is this narrative of flawed being that broke me. Even years later, despite much time and healing, I can still abruptly stumble into deep wells of pain when I hear “purity talk.” Suddenly the shame I thought I’d managed to peel away from my skin reappears, burning like ice, and I feel sick. I want to hide.

Some might say that I’m just another anecdote about why sex before marriage is so damaging. But I know that what really damaged me was being told that I was damaged. We desperately need a new Christian narrative about sexuality, one not fueled by shame and fear, but a narrative of wholeness and health and grace.

So that’s why I’m writing this, even though I’m feeling anxious and exposed as I type this out. I’m writing this post for the girl I used to be, for the 17 year-old non-virgin who showed up at a college (ostensibly) full of Christian virgins and learned to devalue herself, learned to see herself as unworthy of love and respect. The girl whose classmates gave her all sorts of new ways to think about herself — as a piece of candy that had already been sucked on, or a bride in a wedding dress covered in red handprints, her shame for all the world to see.

I want to tell that girl that those are lies. I want to tell her that she cannot be reduced to her history, that she is valued for her mind and her fierce heart, that she has a life of fullness and love ahead of her.

I want to tell that girl within me – because she’s still there, still aching – that one day she’ll meet a boy who couldn’t care less about her non-virginity, and after years of great marital romping (which, it turns out, is NOT haunted by the ghosts of past lovers) they’ll have a cute baby, and then maybe a couple more babies, and she’ll somehow figure out how to talk to those babies about all this sex stuff without shame.

More than anything, I want to tell that girl, and others like her, this:

You are whole and holy.

You are immeasurably loved.

And that’s not something you can lose.

20130404-230428.jpg

On my wedding day, wearing white.

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63 comments

  1. Kris

    “Shame implies a flaw in one’s being.” I understood the feelings that promiscuity created in you, but I do not understand how one can reconcile being a Christian, and thus recognize the need for a Savior, yet retain a belief that they are without flaw. The two thoughts are incoherent. There is no flaw that God is unwilling to forgive, but He cannot if we refuse to acknowledge it. I don’t write this with condemnation, because I too, am incredibly flawed, more so than I like to admit to myself. I did like the beautiful honesty you used to express yourself.

    • Abigail

      Thank you for your question, Kris. I appreciate your tone. I think perhaps the confusion might be a semantic one, but we’ll see. My point was that the way we talk about a “loss of virginity” implies some sort of ontological shift that seems to implicitly put that person beyond God’s grace. We don’t speak of other “sins” in the same way. For example, we don’t talk about someone who told a lie as irrevocably “losing his honesty”; we don’t have a special subclass for that person. So, when I say a “flaw in one’s being,” I mean that using this concept implies a flaw that is beyond grace. That, I think, is theologically problematic, which is why I take issue with the whole virginity concept. I don’t think that shame is ever of God; shame is something we heap on each other and ourselves. Also, I think your comment interestingly raises another problem with the way we think/talk about purity. I mentioned losing my virginity in my post, but I gave no details about it — yet you immediately jumped to the language of promiscuity in your comment. This highlights how we tend to lapse into a “virgin/whore” dichotomy when talking about sex. If a woman is no longer a virgin, why, she MUST be promiscuous! I’m not taking offense at what you wrote, simply pointing out another problem with the “purity” way of thinking and talking about sex. Thanks again for your comment.

    • Abigail

      PS: Also I think you missed my most important point — it wasn’t my behavior that created those “feelings” of being worthless and damaged, it was the way I was subsequently debased by the culture around me.

      • Kris

        I was relieved this afternoon to see your reply. My intention was not to stir up a debate but to point out what I saw as an inconsistency. You have several points I’d like to respond to and hope that this is considered acceptable in this forum.

        First, my apologies. The use of the word ‘promiscuity’ was a poor choice. In my mind I did not have multiple partners in my head but the crossing of the chaste line. I fully sympathize with the often unwarranted assumptions that come with no longer being a virgin, specifically in regards to women. I still do not know what the appropriate term is to use. A person who lies is a liar, one who steals is a thief. If one kills another, they are a murderer. We tend to view morality as a matter of degree to justify our failure at some point. God notes these differences as well, between the one time offender and the habitual one, but He does not excuse the first simply because they were not the worst.

        “implies some sort of ontological shift that seems to implicitly put that person beyond God’s grace”…I do not believe there is an arm of Christianity that believes this though I can understand why it might feel that way. There is definitely a stigma, a scarlet letter, in succumbing this way, often a self-inflicted condemnation as much as actual, which is different than say the sin of gluttony, gossip or envy. We may decry how others view the sin but in the end, it doesn’t matter. What matters is how God views it and we must be careful to not project onto Him how we would like Him to view it, but be honest and discern how in fact He considers it.

        The separation of guilt from shame I have never understood. If I am guilty at any point it is a disgrace to me and produces shame (or should). It is uncomfortable, I agree, but my acts produce this none-the-less.

        It is my joy that Christ has forgiven me and removed the weight of shame, not because it ceases to have reason to exist but because He has forgiven me and cleansed me from all that is shameful. The energy of your post and response is against man –striving to be justified and declared ‘okay’ before creation. This is a futile task as not a soul has lived without critique. One will never be declared ‘good’ by the whole of mankind and it is pointless to run after it. It seems wiser to me to focus energy on being justified before God, through faith in the actions of his son Jesus, on our behalf. Those who follow Him in faith and obedience are declared clean, though they often fail, chaste or not.

    • findingfruit

      Why can God not forgive us if we refuse to acknowledge our sin? Aren’t we taught to forgive others regardless of their asking for forgiveness. Isn’t forgiving an act on the giver’s part not the receivers?

      Jesus died and rose again long before I was ever born, long before I ever sinned.

      • Kris

        What a great question! But yikes–my response is going to feel like an entire post! I think it’s worth the effort though because it really is a good question.

        Your question suggests God will forgive a person even if they do not acknowledge their sin. I am not sure what would give one that confidence.

        This may sound wrong at first but if you hear me out, I think it will make sense. God tells us to do something that He himself does not do. That should not startle us. We are told to pray and worship as well, and God does not do those things either. God does not forgive an unrepentant person, though He does tell us that we need to forgive, even if others do not acknowledge their wrongdoing.

        Consider Jesus, the god-man. As a man, he forgave any grievance he may have had towards others. He did this without others saying they were ‘sorry’. He did not hold anything against anyone. As God though, He forgave (sins) only in response to REPENTANT faith. There is much to say about this distinction but I won’t, I will only point it out. Man and God forgive differently. We forgive because we have freely been forgiven of much. God forgives because justice is served, the punishment for evil is satisfied. We receive His forgiveness only when we acknowledge we are guilty and place our faith in Jesus, crucified on our behalf, and resurrected to bring us life apart from sin.

        If one refuses to acknowledge their wrong doing, I may be able to forgive them but God will not be able to. He cannot because He is the ultimate source of justice. Before he pardons sin, he must ensure that justice was also carried out. He refuses to do that in any other way than through the sacrifice He ordained, Jesus, or through an individual paying their own debt. The sacrifice of Christ can only be applied to a person if they have “repented and believed”.

        I am somewhat unsure of how this applies to you. I know you were raised in the church but I have no way of knowing if you have saving faith. I trust and hope you do. Knowing what ones relationship is with Christ is crucial in determining if unconfessed sin will be forgiven.

        Resistance to acknowledging sin in one’s life is something that needs to be examined. There are certainly times in a believer’s life where one struggles to admit something is wrong, wrestles with turning away from evil or resists even calling a thing evil. They are still forgiven, because they are found in Christ, but they will undergo discipline and are not left off the hook. It is a different matter when someone resists God’s authority in the first place to declare what is and is not evil. If a person resists the authority of God over them, refuses to acknowledge their own sin and the need for Christ, then they are not forgiven because they are not identified with the sacrifice for sin, Jesus. It is here that you need to look honestly at your heart, examine it and test yourself to make sure you are in the faith you profess to be. At the core, will you allow God to define sin or will you only acknowledge what you consent to?

        I wish you the very best. Thank you. You have been generous in allowing me to air lengthy thoughts!!!

  2. thehippygeek

    In the scenario you describe, the most damaging meeting was with people who describe themselves as Christians. Surely, as a fundamental part of Christianity is acceptance and tolerance, anyone who specifically goes out of their way to make others feel bad, or unworthy is going against the exact teachings they proclaim to follow. I very rarely discuss religion as so many opinions have made it taboo, but over time the actions of people like the ones you describe have turned me away from the church to my own internal, quieter religion. No more dribbly candles and incense for me, just living in the most humane way I can.

    I wish you all the best in dealing with your wounds & enjoying being a mum.

  3. Natalie Trust

    If we want to see shame based discussions about sexuality end, then we need to hear stories like the one you shared here- over and over and over again.

    Thank you for giving a voice to your wounds.

  4. Nicole

    I think the myth of purity shattered for me on my wedding night.

    I was one of the 20% that DID make it to my wedding day a virgin. And then I wasn’t. And nothing was different. I didn’t feel differently, I didn’t look differently, I didn’t act differently. And I suddenly wanted to tell all my friends who I knew were either ashamed or embarrassed they were having sex that it didn’t really matter.

    I don’t remember condemning anyone prior to my epiphany, but I certainly was present at quite a few dorm room Bible studies where the “purity culture” you mention was promoted. And now that I know that 80% of the girls in those rooms were likely feeling like crap about themselves, I do feel bad.

    One of the things I found irritating about people’s responses to the news that I was pregnant with a boy was the expected relief that now I wouldn’t have to worry about a daughter being taken advantage of. I’m sorry, but I am much more comfortable with the idea of having a teenage daughter who might have been “damaged”, than with the idea of having a teenage (or any age) son who might be coercing or raping other girls. Of course rape would bring completely different emotional issues up, but I think it’s important to impress upon children that as long as you love and respect yourself, and treat your partner with respect, and take precautions to avoid any long-term consequences, the rest doesn’t really matter.

  5. Nicole

    Also, I love that you’re “done” now with virignity and “having it all”. How happy might we all be if we gave up on the ideas of how life should be, and just lived and loved and enjoyed. I imagine the truly happy people in life are those that have succeeded. Maybe someday I’ll get there… 🙂

  6. Sarah Shipman

    Oh, Abi, so eloquent. Thank you for having the courage to speak. Your message reached deep into my soul, where the scars of my own wounds still ache. I still pray for healing, but it seems so impossible. I still long for redemption even in the midst of the “Christian” subculture. And I wonder–how is it that Jesus, a man impeccably “pure”, was able to look at women and love them, and talk with prostitutes without making them feel ashamed? Maybe you could address this question in a future blog, or talk about other people, who live perhaps a bit differently than the majority, have helped you heal from your wounds.

    • Abigail

      Sarah, I wish I could say that I’m completely healed, but my wounds still ache, too. And writing this post has been both healing and soul-wrenching. The shame stuff cuts so deep, which is why we need to being speaking out, to find a shame-free way of living and speaking. Know that you’re not alone in this.

  7. Odd-toed Ungulate

    I really appreciate your openness and honesty on this, and I think your criticisms of the “purity culture” are valid. Heaping shame without accompanying it with grace or redemption is counterproductive at best, and cruel at worst. However, I do wonder if you might be throwing the (metaphorical!) baby out with the bathwater, seeing the concept of “virginity” as firmly and intractably embedded in a shame-based “purity culture”. In the new Christian narrative about sexuality that you want to see, what place would you give to pursuing sex-only-within-marriage as the ideal?

    I do agree that a shame-based sexual ethic has been all too common in the church. I have seen some purposeful changes in this area, however, that focus on pursuing the “best” (sex only with your spouse within marriage), instead of focusing on avoiding the “worst” (the purity culture you describe). I think there is certainly much more room for a Christian narrative about sex that is not primarily about sex-avoidance (until marriage, that is), but about subordinating it to our higher calling as followers of Christ. Such a narrative, or ethical framework, would also avoid leaving those who never marry out in the cold.

    • Abigail

      I don’t think a narrative that encourages saving sex until marriage requires a concept of virginity. In fact, I think it’s much better without it. (Conversely, getting rid of the concept of “virginity” doesn’t necessarily mean ditching abstinence.) But I think we really need to stop defining people by their sexual history. Once you see yourself as damaged and your self-worth as lost, you become much more susceptible to making destructive choices. If your culture tells you you’re no longer valued, why expect others to value you? Why value yourself? I think we’re caught between two damaging narrative about sex. The secular one, which implies that sex doesn’t really mean anything, so do it whenever, wherever, with whomever, and the Christian one, which implies sex is EVERYTHING; it’s the locus of your worth and virtue. We don’t need to lose certain ideals; but I do think we need to stop punishing people so harshly for not meeting the ideal, because humans so rarely do.

      • Odd-toed Ungulate

        Actually, I agree with most of what you said here. “Virginity”, as a term, has kind of gathered all sorts of moral judgments and categories into itself over time, like a ball of double-sided tape rolling down a hill. Many of these accretions have been counter-productive, both in secular and Christian circles. Coming from within a relatively conservative Christian environment, I can certainly see how sexual sins have been placed in a separate, heavier category, with grace being harder to find for those who have stumbled in this area (myself included). My sexual sins/successes cannot be the barometer of my spiritual health, if I truly take God’s grace seriously.

        I think you framed the issue pretty well, with the secular devaluation of sex contrasted with (perhaps exacerbating?) an over-valuation of sex within the Christian community. And I definitely agree that this cannot be an “either/or” proposition, adopting either the secular or Christian narratives you describe. I know I’ve said this to you before, but the tricky part of the Christian faith is holding high ideals (like saving sex for marriage) in tension with complete and utter forgiveness, grace and restoration for those who miss the mark (as we all do, whether in extra-marital sex, lust, pornography, or dumping condemnation on others). Grace, like water, flows to the lowest point. Unfortunately, too many of us simply are not willing to follow it that far down.

        The story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery always pops into my mind here. In just two sentences, he frames this balance, and forms the basis for the kind of new narrative I think you’re looking for. “Neither do I condemn you. Now go, and sin no more.” Jesus found the woman at her lowest point, and gave her the gift of not being judged by her past, but by her future.

  8. Dominique

    This post connects to so many different things for me. First off, do you read Sarah Bessey’s blog? She has had a couple of similar posts recently. See http://sarahbessey.com/in-which-i-am-damaged-goods/ and http://sarahbessey.com/in-which-jezebel-gives-way-to-deborah/ .

    For myself personally, I was raised very strict Catholic and avoided sexual contact in most forms until I was in my 20s. I look back at that avoidance of sex now with very mixed feelings. Yes, it protected me from some sexual relationships with men who were predatory and would have been unhealthy and damaging experiences for me, but it also kept me from having many wonderful experiences with men who truly wanted to be with me. I wish that I had been taught how to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy relationships and sexual experiences earlier on instead of this blanket idea that all sex is bad outside of marriage.

    • Abigail

      Thanks so much for the links. Great stuff. I appreciate you telling a bit of your story — your last remark about distinguishing between unhealthy and healthy relationships particularly resonates!

  9. E

    Agreed, but not only for the 80% who don’t stay virgins before they are married. I have long believed, stemming from personal experience of the 20%, that the Christian narrative of purity and premarital sex is incredibly damaging to marriages. Both my partner and I waited to have sex until we were married, a decision that we’re still dealing with the repercussion of 10 years later. Without going into any personal details – making the (over night) transition from 2 years of denying ourselves the level of physical intimacy that our relationship should have reached was not only hard, but really served to reinforce a gender hierarchy in our sexual relationship that didn’t exist anywhere. Sex was more about “have to” and obligation than it was about “want to” and love. Only after many years of heart-ache, nearly divorcing, and lots of counseling have the wounds begun to heal. I can’t tell you how many Christian women – strong, independent, gender-role-break women – I’ve talked with the same experience. The Christian sexual narrative involves so much shame (particularly of female sexuality) – shame that inevitable makes its way into a marital relationship regardless of when one first chooses to have sex.

    • Abigail

      Thanks so much for sharing part of your story. I agree that is unrealistic, difficult–even impossible for some–to simply flip a switch after marriage, to go from seeing sex as shameful, dirty, scary to beautiful and sacred. It’s particularly difficult for women, I think, because we’re taught from such a young age that our sexuality is shameful, and our bodies are evil man traps. You can’t just suddenly begin to “unthink” that once you’re married, if that idea has been ingrained in you.

  10. Jennifer Brown

    I was taught that sex is a slippery slope and you must try very hard not to do it. I felt the need to prove some kind of romantic attraction during courtship and went a bit further than I felt ultimately comfortable with – but not all the way, and only with the man I ultimately married. On the wedding night we couldn’t actually manage sex. I was reassuring myself that I had saved orgasm for marriage, but I now feel that I just don’t know what an orgasm is and have a sexless marriage now that we are worn out by our 2 kids. Both husband and I are christians and glad we waited really – but what to tell the kids will be an interesting discussion one day. I am not happy about my lack of interest in sex. My upbringing certainly contributed. I was told that I had a “dirty thought life” as a teenager and as a result I have never been comfortable using fantasy to help me in the search for an orgasm. I tthink that minister got the absolute opposite of the problem I was experiencing at the time. So much for divine revelation!

    • Abigail

      Thanks so much for sharing so honestly. I think what you describe is another consequence of not having a more positive narrative about sexuality that is not driven by shame. It is SO HARD to suddenly try to disentangle the two once you are married, if you’ve grow up being told that sexual feelings are bad and dirty, etc… Thanks again for the comment.

  11. Erin Wood

    I grew up in the church, saved myself for my husband and we had an awesome honeymoon discovering each other…just so everyone knows that if you save sex for marriage, doesn’t mean you have a sucky sex life. I think it’s interesting that most people put people into two categories: 1) that if you save yourself for marriage then such n’ such will happen (good or bad) or vice versa 2) if you don’t save sex for marriage then such n’ such will happen (good or bad). Everyone is different in their experience.

    The Bible is clear on the subject but if we fail, it doesn’t end there. God is a God of forgiveness and redemption. I hope that you truly come to believe that, Abby, because that is where you will find complete peace from the pain you are dealing with now.

    I am sure there are churches out there (especially those that are severly based on legalism) that use shame or scare tactics to “help” their followers stay on the right path. And obviously that has damaged lots of people. But read what Scripture says on the subject of forgiveness, guilt, shame. People are, sometimes, bad representations of the Bible and how we should be living and treating others. God does set boundaries for us but when we mess up, and we repent, he forgives and forgets. If I truly believe that God has forgiven me from all my sins, then I need to be truly grateful and turn around and show love and concern for my neighbor. Not enabling them to sin but reach out in humility and friendship. He has forgiven you and He has forgiven me. We don’t need to carry shame around anymore!

    • Abigail

      “Everyone is different in their experience.” So true! Yet that’s not the way we tend to talk about sex in the church, at least in my experience. Thanks for sharing your story, too, Erin. I, too, believe that Christ offers freedom from shame, but it’s so hard to really FEEL that in the midst of a religious subculture that says otherwise. I mean, here I am, a long-married mother now, the events I wrote about happened over 14 years ago, yet I still don’t feel forgiven or free.

    • Odd-toed Ungulate

      Interestingly, I’ve seen a change in how many Christians are speaking about sex, particularly to young people. Granted, my experience is limited, but after working with youth groups in various capacities for eight years, I’ve seen a marked emphasis on celebrating the gift and beauty of sex, and saving the best for your spouse. I think it is different from the fear and shame that kind of crept into sex talks when I was growing up. I’m sure the fear stuff is still around, but I can’t remember the last time I ever heard a speaker or pastor go that route on this subject. Perhaps a reason for future hope?

      • Abigail

        I certainly see and hear Christians talking about sex as beautiful and sacred and from God AFTER marriage, but there is an underside to that narrative that sex before marriage is shameful and risky and dangerous and sinful – sometimes this is explicitly stated, sometimes not. And as other commenters have noted, it’s really hard to suddenly flip a switch from thinking sex = bad to sex = good once you’re married, ESPECIALLY if you’ve been wounded by sexual shame. I also think that the narrative of how AMAZING married sex is can set young people up for disappointment and frustration, because of course the reality is more nuanced. Sometimes marital sex isn’t immediately good; sometimes it takes work; often there are wounds and hang-ups that need to be navigated. Sex is complex, and our narratives about it simply aren’t; we prefer to speak in monolithic ideals, which often don’t mirror where the real people live. I’m still trying to figure out what a holistic, healing, grace-filled, health-centered narrative of sexuality would look like, for sure, but I suspect it involves navigating these extremes.

      • Odd-toed Ungulate

        There’s a difference between “good” sex (as in morally good, within its proper place, etc.) and “good” sex (as in whatever adjective Cosmo has on its cover this week in a bold, sassy font). Emphasizing the moral good does not have to raise expectations surrounding the act itself. Conversely, talking about the reality of marital sex (sometimes it is work, tricky, below expectations, etc.) should not lessen the moral good of sex between married people, over against all other kinds.

        Also, if Christians hold up monogamous sex within marriage as the ideal, or the mark to aim for, then by definition all other forms of sex are (at the very least) sinful, and likely more risky and fraught with the possibility of shame as well. This does not have to be explicitly stated, but it is the logical flipside to holding up any ideal. If A is ideal, then not-A is not ideal. I don’t see anything wrong with this in principle, although Christians must be gracious and loving in holding up the ideal, as well as loving and supporting those who miss the mark (which is the literal meaning of the Greek word for “sin”, by the way).

        I do agree that the whole “flip a switch” approach is problematic. As the old youth pastor joke goes, “Sex is dirty, shameful and nasty–so save it for the one you love!” If we have to condemn sex or attach the act itself to shame and fear, we’re going to have a problem flipping that switch. On the other hand, if we talk about sex as a gift, a blessing, a holy mystery between man and wife, then the emphasis is not on sex-avoidance outside of marriage, but saving sex for marriage. It’s delayed gratification and anticipation, instead of denigration and fear. If I eat a bunch of ice cream before I go out and mow the lawn on a hot day, I’m not going to appreciate the ice cream as much, and I might not feel like mowing the lawn afterward. But if I mow the lawn first, knowing the ice cream is coming after I’m done, I’ll get the lawn mowed and enjoy my ice cream even more. No switch-flipping necessary!

  12. Chelsea Smith

    A while ago, I listened to you tell your story at the Sex Talk at Fox. It’s funny how after detecting a sort of grace and love in your words, I was convinced I had to take a class from you. My friends and I talk about this subject (of purity) a lot in our house of 4 girls coming from various backgrounds. We have found that the line has become so fuzzy for what constitutes losing our “purity.” Although my dad was a pastor, I do not feel that I grew up in a home that was shameful whatsoever. When I meet someone who has been through the same experiences as me, I feel calm, I feel accepted. But going to Fox where there are 18 year olds who literally do NOT know what sex even is… is a little unsettling. Going to a public high school, your brain is flooded with words and images, even if your body is untouched. But I’m so thankful for learning things earlier rather than later, for I was able to truly develop a sense of who I wanted to be as a follower of Christ, understanding the world as it is… not in the “purity culture” that issues a false sense of shame in our hearts. I am supportive of all of your words – they bring relief and happiness to my heart. I know that there are many who are positively affected by this post – but I just wanted to affirm that your thoughts are taken to heart and truly making a difference.
    Thanks so much for your honest thoughts,
    Chelsea

    • Abigail

      Thank you so much for this, Chelsea. I’m so glad that you’ve grown up with a sense of shame surrounding sexuality. That gives me hope that I can do the same for my children!

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  14. Kathy

    I, too, have been thinking much about the cult of virginity and the damage it does in the world. I often ask students to imagine a world where women’s worth is not connected to virginity, where we do not describe sex as “losing” something, where we do not rhetorically align the hymen with value. Where rape is an act of power rather than sex, wouldn’t there be less of it if we didn’t imagine a woman permanently spoiled by the “taking” of her virginity? I think of all the wars where women are raped as a way of asserting dominance over the losing party, because now the men will be burdened by devalued wives and sisters and daughters. (Because let’s not delude ourselves: virginity is about patriarchal power. Otherwise, we would be equally obsessed with masculine virginity, and we most certainly are not.) I think of the girls who agonize over whether they will ever find a man to love them now that they are “impure.” The assumption tends to be, as we have already seen, that in a culture which no longer values virginity, we will all be promiscuous. But could we not find a way to talk about sex as the gift from God it was meant to be, rather than some kind of materialist Thing to wield against each other? Could we not talk about sex as something to be treasured rather than bargained? If we could get away from thinking about virginity as so important, maybe a young woman who has, one way or another, begun her sexual life would not be inclined to think, “Well, it’s gone now, so there’s no point in guarding it anymore.” Maybe she could think of it less as something to protect and harbor against incursion, something to bestow upon the lucky guy she marries, and more as something that enhances a loving relationship? I do not believe such a shift would create sex-crazed people, or that it would be incompatible with God’s plan for us. I do believe it would be a much healthier approach to love. So yeah, let’s bag the whole virginity thing.

    • AmazingSusan

      “…something that enhances a loving relationship? I do not believe such a shift would create sex-crazed people, or that it would be incompatible with God’s plan for us. I do believe it would be a much healthier approach to love. So yeah, let’s bag the whole virginity thing.”

      Well said!! Sex is natural, needed and nice. It doesn’t have to be naughty, though of course that may also be delicious on occasion 🙂

    • Abigail

      “Because let’s not delude ourselves: virginity is about patriarchal power. Otherwise, we would be equally obsessed with masculine virginity, and we most certainly are not.” Preach it.

  15. deja

    A lot of echoes for me here, no surprise. I was a virgin when I married, but just barely, and I find myself wishing I felt more guilty about the just barely part. That’s a strange feeling, to wish to feel worse.

    I really love this essay about how to talk about chastity, that it’s really about empowerment. I come back to it when I wonder how I’ll talk about it down the line. http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Standards-Night-Is-Substandard-Teaching-Sexuality-to-the-Young-Women

  16. Acute Redhead

    This is a very interesting discussion because I grew up with in a very different culture where pre-marital sex was the norm, and parents didn’t preach virginity to their kids. While the virginity/sex-is-dirty approach is clearly misguided, the other extreme laissez faire approach that some parents take is also irresponsible. As one commenter mentioned above, it is critical for parents to teach their kids the difference between healthy and unhealthy sexual relationships. The opposite of the virginity-until-marriage culture is hook-up culture, which also causes problems for young people, as described in this book: http://www.amazon.com/The-End-Sex-Generation-Unfulfilled/dp/0465002153
    As usual, the optimal solution is somewhere in between the extremes…thanks for the great discussion!

      • P

        I believe the line that this needs to encompass is what God’s word says. It would be a shame to throw out God’s word and instruction because of the wrong approach to it from people. Jesus dealt with this in his day as the Pharisees upheld the law to the point of separation and condemnation of others. However, Jesus spoke against them and changed the norm. I think that’s what needs to happen here. Instead of throwing away God’s word because people have messed up the approach to it, redefine the approach. Instead of saying purity is wrong and we should do away with teaching virginity, we should redefine the approach to get there so those being taught this know it in light of all of God’s word – We are saved by grace alone, and there is no condemnation in Christ. That we are loved by God, no matter what people may say or infer. I do see where the hurt comes from, and I have been subject to this hurt that you speak of, but I also know that I shouldn’t let my view of God and his word be tainted by his creation.

        Hopefully this makes sense… The purity culture (human construct) has flaws which can hurt and condemn, but God’s word (divine truth) does not – it teaches grace and healing. Keep his word (purity is good for both men and women) and change the human application of it (if you are impure, you are damaged beyond repair).

  17. Erin Wood

    By the way, your wedding picture is beautiful! I thought it was a picture from a magazine until I saw your caption.

  18. trishasuzanne

    Abigail – I really love and resonate with this post. Permanently etched in my mind is the day my crazy Christian gynecologist shamed me for losing my virginity before I was married (just adding to the guilt I was already experiencing). I have a six-month-old little guy, and like you, I’ve been rehearsing the sex conversation for years as well. However, I’ve always imagined saying it to a daughter. I’m still trying to figure out how/if the conversation looks different for a son. Thankfully I have a few years to figure it out!

    • Abigail

      Holy cow. That is a crazy story. I have a story that’s almost the reverse — about one of my first visits to a gynecologists in my late teens. I was steeling myself for the inevitable shaming, for having to explain that I was “no longer a virgin.” Instead, the doctor was very matter-of-fact and non-plussed. She asked if I’d had sex, and what I said yes, she just responded: “Well, I hope it was with someone who treats you well.” And then she proceeded to have a very helpful and informative conversation with me, with no tone of shame whatsoever. That was during the throes of the worst of it, and just being in that doctor’s welcoming presence was healing. No one else was treating me that way during that time.

      And, like you, my imaginary “sex talk” used to always involve a daughter, too. That’s pretty telling, I think, about how the “purity” stakes are much higher for women. So now I get to think about what a son needs to hear about all this… Thanks for commenting.

      • KP

        I had a similar experience with a (Christian) nurse-practitioner who was one of the first people I came out to. During a gyn. exam in my early 20s, she asked if I was dating anyone and specifically said: “boyfriend? girlfriend?” and the calm, non-judgmental way she asked startled me into saying “girlfriend”. Then she asked if she things were going well between us, if we were sexually exclusive, and if there was anything I wanted to talk about, offered some practical advice for safe sex, and moved on with the exam. It was the first time anyone had reacted to learning that I was gay with such kindness and nonchalance, and I will never ever forget it.

        I realize this will may be welcome advice to some, but when you’re having the sex talk, make sure you’ve at least considered the possibility that your child might be gay or bisexual. I received a LOT of fundamentalist purity talks centered around not having sex with boys (easy, for a girl who wasn’t attracted to them), but once I started to negotiate sexual ethics and boundaries in a relationship with another woman… I had nothing. NOTHING. No one had ever talked to me about good communication, or taking care of myself and my partner, or anything involving the mechanics and emotions of sex that wasn’t wedding-night-sex-with-your-husband-which-will-obviously-be-perfect. It was deeply disorienting and I wish my mother had at any point even said: “here are some things to think about when you’re finally married and having sex”.

        And ideally it would have been: “no matter the gender of your partner, they deserve love and respect, and so do you. It is okay to say no. It is okay to say yes – if you trust the other person and you are willing to commit to a sexual relationship. It is okay to develop a sexual ethic that is not perfectly in line with what a certain church says, but give it some serious thought, so that you know what sex means to you and what role you want it to play in your relationships. You are a sexual being but not solely a sexual being.” Something like that.

        • Abigail

          Thanks so much for this advice (it’s welcome to me!) and your story. I particularly appreciated this bit: “No one had ever talked to me about good communication, or taking care of myself and my partner, or anything involving the mechanics and emotions of sex that wasn’t wedding-night-sex-with-your-husband-which-will-obviously-be-perfect.” Again, I think we’re missing a holistic narrative of sexuality. And thanks for pointing out the implicit heteronormative perspective of this conversation so far. Virginity does seem like such a deeply heteronormative concept to me; it would be interesting to hear more stories from gay women about how the idea of “virginity” has played out in their lives.

      • KP

        Oops. Rather than: “will may be welcome advice” I meant: “may NOT be welcome advice”.

      • KP

        It’s funny, as heteronormative as the concept of virginity is, it still played a role in my first (and current, and only) lesbian relationship. We waited a while to have sex – not until marriage, certainly (it wasn’t legal at that point, so “waiting till marriage” lost all meaning to me), but at least knew that when I decided to have sex with someone, I wanted it to be special and I wanted to know that it was someone I trusted deeply. And it was – I feel like I had the perfect first sexual experience, not only because we waited but because prior to waiting, there was a gradual exploring of physical boundaries. Rather than going from chaste kisses straight to sex, we took the time to get to know each other’s bodies and minds, negotiate what we were and weren’t ready for at various points, and explore what it felt like to be physically intimate with another person (for me, a first; for her, a first with another woman). So as much as I wish I had received so much more sex ed than I did, it all turned out okay in the end. More than okay – beautiful.

        (Some of this may have to do with the fact that I have a number of close college friends who are, and were then, sex educators, and from whom I learned a lot. I do still wish I had been able to have those conversations with my parents, but I know they did their best with the information and religious doctrine they had.)

        Incidentally, my partner (who grew up Catholic and without much sex ed either) and I have had a LOT of conversations about how we want to talk to our future children about sex, and I’m sure we’ll have even more of those when we actually have kids. So even though I know a lot of what I want to say, I’m still a little anxious about it. My hope is that my kids and I have a lot of conversations about sex, not just a few awkward ones, so that even when I screw up, there are opportunities to get it right, too.

        • Abigail

          Ah yes, the “waiting until marriage” narrative doesn’t work too well for those who can’t legally marry, does it? What you describe sounds very healthy to me. You waited, and then, in the context of trust and commitment, you allowed for a more measured development of physical intimacy, you set boundaries together, etc. And getting to know one another’s minds, too! This seems much more holistic to me.

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  21. mommytheiconoclast

    I did not grow up with an explicit message from my religion that I must remain a virgin until marriage (I grew up going to the United church in Canada – pretty laidback as far as churches go), but I felt the same shame that you described because I dared to be sexual. I didn’t equate the shame with the “sex before marriage” scenario, I equated the shame with being a sexual woman. Full stop. It took me years and years and years to heal from the feeling of being defective and impure. What shook me out of the shame was reading a few pages of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, where he described another period time where people (even Christians likely) were openly sexual and it was not shameful. It suddenly hit me that had I simply been born in a different time my entire experience as a sexual being would have been different. I started to think about where I learned (or was indoctrinated) about female sexuality, and discovered, to my horror, that it was everywhere. Families, churches, schools, television. Every single place I could think of reinforced the idea that sexual women (perhaps the qualifier is unmarried women) are shameful. Once I realized that this shame was simply an illusion, created by a culture in which someone was benefiting (but certainly not me), I made the decision to rid myself of this shame. There are still times where “Shame”, with its lies, tries to lure me into its trap, but it is less and less often. I engage in small acts of protest against it. I have a daughter who just turned 3. And I, like you, and wondering how to help her navigate female sexuality without shame. Thank you for the courage to write this. Your acts of protest are very inspiring.

    • Abigail

      You are SO right about the pervasiveness of shame — I encountered a religious version of that, but it is by no means a religious phenomenon. It’s encouraging to hear how you feel healed. Much of the time I do as well, but then the shame will suddenly be “triggered” again, and I feel back to square one. My head knows that this is just another cultural mythology that demeans women, but that doesn’t always make me immune to it. :/

      • mommytheiconoclast

        It took me a VERY long time and a lot of work on my part (makes me realize how old I am) to figure out how to move around my vulnerable bits so that they were less wounded by triggers. I am VERY VERY sensitive, so having the “warrior woman” part of me to do battle with those cultural myths hasn’t hurt either. She is fiercely protective and doesn’t buy those myths for a second. Basically she rocks. 🙂