Purity Rings: Sarah’s Story

A guest post by Sarah of Sarah over the Moon

Losing my purity . . . ring.

My cousin gave me a purity ring for Christmas in 2005. She also gave them to several other young women in our Independent Fundamental Baptist youth group. I don’t think any of us fully realized what we were saying to the world by wearing them—“I have never had a penis in my vagina!”—but we wore them with pride. When another girl would get too involved with a boyfriend but still wear her purity ring, we would whisper, and when one of us misplaced ours, we would come to church and shock our youth leaders by announcing, jokingly, “I lost my purity….ring!”

Oh, it was fun. Fun being able to flaunt something that not everyone had. Fun to be a member of something special. Fun to be able to combat the feelings of inadequacy I had from being a victim of childhood sexual abuse. It was fun, until I became the subject of whispers. Until I lost my purity…ring, or rather, had it stolen from me.

A little over a year after the Christmas where I got my first purity ring, I was in a car with my boyfriend at the time. He wanted to go further and I thought I did too, but at the last minute I realized I was too afraid and said “stop, stop, stop.” He didn’t stop. Not at first, at least. It was so quick that I would sometimes wonder later if it even really counted, but those few seconds were enough to destroy my sense of “purity.”

Afterward, as I sat crying, overwhelmed by confusion and guilt, my boyfriend—now my rapist—took the purity ring off my finger and put it in his pocket. “You don’t deserve to wear this anymore,” he told me. And I believed him for years. The whispers at church started soon after and I took my place among the other “damaged goods” of the world. I was finally able to break up with my rapist a few months later. He never gave me my purity ring back. I never saw it again.

I went away to an evangelical Christian college the year after my rape. I still placed the blame for my rape on myself and did not yet recognize it as rape (my abstinence-only education didn’t do a very good job of teaching me about consent). I still did not consider myself pure. I remember feigning ignorance and naivety when my college friends would discuss anything sexual because I did not want anyone to know how “impure” I was. Eventually, I bought a new purity ring at the college bookstore as a finishing touch to the act I’d been constructing.

Although I’d bought it in order to hide, that ring (along with some true friends who showed me that they’d love me no matter what I’d done or what had been done to me) actually helped set me free. Though I now cringe at the idea that I once thought I had to ask forgiveness for being raped, I saw that second purity ring as a second chance from a God who is willing to forgive anything. I was not bound to my past. I could have value regardless of the status of my hymen. I could be pure.

A couple of years later—still healing, still growing, still learning—I had sex with a boyfriend. It was awkward and a little uncomfortable, but it was sweet and, most importantly, it was consensual. And the world didn’t end. In fact, I didn’t feel guilty at all afterward. I continued to wear my purity ring for a while afterward, out of habit, but then I lost that one too.

This one wasn’t stolen from me. I took it off in order to wash my hands in a public restroom and I forgot to put it back on when I was done. When I got home and realized it wasn’t on my finger I contemplated going back for it, but then I realized that it wasn’t worth my time. I didn’t need it anymore. I had found worth in myself and that worth had nothing to do with the fact that I’d had sex. So, I lost my purity ring and I let it stay lost.

Those two purity rings represent the difficult journey—something stolen, something found, and something willingly let go—that has brought me to wear I am today. Though I now loathe the idea of purity rings, after I’d had my first ring stolen from me I needed the second. I needed to reclaim what had been stolen from me so I could let it go. Now that the second is gone, I finally feel free. I don’t need “purity.” I am valuable and I don’t need a piece of jewelry to tell me that.

———

This post is part of the Purity Rings project, in which young adults who had purity rings as teens and have since come to question the rationale behind them share their stories. For more purity ring stories, click here

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

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  • http://www.alise-write.com Alise

    Ever since years ago I saw a young woman say, “I will be so sad to lose my purity on my wedding night!” on a Christian message board, I have eschewed the idea of virginity = purity. It depressed me to no end to see having sex equated with being impure.

    I’m glad that you put these notions of purity behind you and are encouraging others to do the same. There’s so much more of us to give to our partners than simply our virginity.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      Better yet, scrap the wh0le idea of virginity. Because “virginity” MEANS purity and it’s spoken of in the same terms–making a persons’s first experience of consensual sex an occasion where something is “lost” rather than something gained and making no distinction between consensual sex and rape. Terms like purity and virginity are inherently sex-negative, in my opinion.

      As repugnant as I find purity rings to be, I’m so glad you had the opportunity to reclaim something that was important to you at the time, Sarah, and the chance to then let it go on your OWN terms, instead of those of scumbags like your rapist. You’re a brave woman.

    • http://cfiottawa.com Eamon Knight

      Another data point for “Wow, these people are even nuttier than the fundies I knew, back in the day”. The Christian marriage-prep material I recall reading was at some pains to communicate: No, sex is *not* dirty; within marriage it’s a beautiful, holy thing.

  • Gordon

    Ugh, I’m going to assume the rape was never reported!

    • http://sarahoverthemoon.com Sarah Moon

      nope. didn’t work out the fact that was rape until 6 years later in counseling.

      • Gordon

        Sorry Sarah. I wonder if the guy ever worked out that he was a rapist. That’s something a person should know about themselves.

      • Judy L.

        Clearly you were violated. Both by the boyfriend not respecting your ‘stop’ and his appalling behaviour afterward. I think purity rings are dangerous and offensive, but telling you that you didn’t deserve to wear it anymore after what he did to you is just disgusting. Is it safe to assume that your boyfriend/rapist was from the same religious culture as you? It seems to me that both boys and girls who are raised in purity culture, and even some who aren’t, have this warped idea of the nature of sexual activity and their own agency. Girls are taught that their purity is their most important quality and that their virginity is a rare commodity that can only be surrendered once. They’re told that their own involvement and enjoyment isn’t important and that discussion and negotiation of sexual intimacy is wrong (it’s the abstinence-only trick of “If we don’t talk about it then we’re not planning it, so if it happens then it’s just a case of “getting carried away” rather than it being something that we wanted and did on purpose.” This is also the mentality that leads abstinence-only educated young people to not buy and use condoms or other contraception.). Boys are taught the same thing, and that “No means No,” but if sex is regarded as something that you just get carried away with, “NO” or “STOP” can get so easily ignored in the moment. Neither boys nor girls are taught that not only is it okay to say “YES,” but that active consent, saying YES, is what should be said and heard before and during sexual encounters. Girls are taught to be agreeable, to defer to men, so even saying NO to the males in their lives can be a challenge, but probably even more so in a sexual relationship or sexual encounter when they think they’re not allowed to withdraw consent when they’ve tacitly given it before or even just a moment ago. From some of the other comments from people who were raised Christian, this seems to be the case (see #14, Sandra Heretic saying I wouldn’t kiss a date good night because “I don’t want to start what I’m not going to finish”).

  • http://www.lorafreemanwilliams.com Lora

    I lived with my schizophrenic, single parent Mom until I was 13, then went into Christian foster care. My mom had done what so many mentally ill women do to earn money: she’d prostituted. When I got into the evangelical world, I became a believer, and I not only turned my back on my mother’s ways but ran straight for the gold: I was going to be a virgin until I got married!

    You are so right that the black and white thinking of evangelical “purity” standards doesn’t teach a girl what consent means. It also doesn’t teach her her own value if she has had sex. I had some very distorted ideas that if I ever had sex outside of marriage, then I wouldn’t be able to stop, would no longer have any choices (i.e., I’d go from Super Purity Girl to being a prostitute like my mom). Decades later, I see the damage that brittle thinking did to me. I also wish there had been some teaching about how incredibly valuable and precious we all are, period.

    • Stephanie

      I have to admit that I kinda thought the same way. Before I had sex outside of marriage I thought that I would have to keep going, but once I actually did I realized that I choose with whom and when to have sex. I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do. Now I feel that I can make a informed choice and feel that it is better for me to wait for a committed, long term relationship to have sex again. This may mean waiting a while but I know myself better. One of my friends said something to me that I will never forget when I told her I didn’t want to have sex again for a while: “It’s your body. Make the decision that’s right for you.” Many might view this as obvious but for me that was a moment where I took ownership of my body and developed more self respect.

  • Deanna

    I was raped while a virgin and while wearing my purity ring. I was so angry at God because I had wanted to be a virgin on my wedding night, and I felt that He should have protected me. It seemed to me like I had kept up my end of the bargain, but now I was filthy and unclean. The year after that, I slept with whomever I wanted to, until I felt in control again.

    • shuying

      Deanna, that is my story as well, exactly. It’s so good for me to know that I’m not the only one. This blog is so healing for me.

  • Stephanie

    This was such an emotional story. I am so glad that you were able to work through what happened to you and find your worth outside of your sexuality.

  • Leonora F

    Why do these people think that the first time yo have sex it’s a ‘gift’ but the next however many times it’s a duty?

  • Rilian

    He kept going after you said stop, and then blamed you for it????

    • Rosie

      It’s unfortunately not that unusual in those particular circles. I had a boyfriend do much the same with the excuse that I had “led him on” and he’d “lost control”. I know now that’s all bullshit, but at the time, given the purity-heavy teachings I’d received, I believed that men were animals when it came to sex…and maybe he did too. Or maybe he just found it a convenient cover for his bad behavior. I’m not sure.

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

        It’s really not surprising! The idea is that men have these urges they have to work their utmost to be able to control, and that women don’t have this same burden. Instead, women are the responsible ones who have to “help” their “brothers in Christ” by dressing modestly and saying no to the sexual overtures it’s only natural that men will make. It’s very Victorian.

  • http://chroniclesofachristianheretic.blogspot.com sandra heretic

    I grew up fundamentalist Evangelical in the days before this whole Purity Movement and rings and balls and the whole cultural kitsch phenomenon but I still equated any physical display of affection as a slippery slope to Evil Sexual Sin (which, really, was the only unforgivable sin). I wouldn’t kiss a date good night because “I don’t want to start what I’m not going to finish”. Even hand-holding in public was frowned on by some–including me–because it “made single people feel bad about not having found their god-given mates yet” (making them think too much about the sex they weren’t going to get so… basically the proto defrauding argument, though we used it for both genders).

    • http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/ perfectnumber628

      Wow, the part about not holding hands because it would make single people think about all the sex they’re not having- wow… when did holding hands become so sexualized?

      But I thought that way for a long time too- fear that any physical contact would somehow mysteriously lead to sex… people would talk about how they “stumbled” and “fell” and had sex with their boyfriend/girlfriend, as if it’s just something that spontaneously happens when you let yourselves be alone together.

  • Pingback: “I was not bound to my past. I could have value regardless of the status of my hymen” | Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse Trust

  • Abby Normal

    Why do some Christians have to take something that’s potentially sort of a good idea and screw it up?

    See, my husband and I were both virgins before we got married, and to this day I’m really glad we waited. Oddly enough, I think our sex life is better now because of it.

    Thing is, we never really made a big deal out of waiting–I never did any of that purity ring crap, we didn’t announce it at our wedding (I’ve heard of people doing that–ick.) It wasn’t even entirely for religious reasons (my husband wasn’t a Christian when we got married)–we just both thought it was kind of romantic to have your “first time” be with someone you’re going to be with for the rest of your life anyway. We were also pretty well aware that it was going to be weird and awkward for a bit before it got better (it did–it’s actually pretty fantastic right now.)

    The way I see it, uber-conservative Christians and secular culture both manage to have pretty screwed up notions about sex. Christians screw it up by putting all the onus for “remaining pure” on girls (as if girls aren’t supposed to ever enjoy sex) while just assuming that boys are maniacs that will do it with anything that moves if given the chance. They screw it up by idolizing “purity”–thus making sex something that’s so abhorrent that no one can ever enjoy it. (Good grief, how screwed up is to be sad about “losing your purity” on you wedding night like in that first comment? How is a girl who thinks that ever supposed to enjoy sex with her husband? Oh, yeah, she doesn’t. She winds up just seeing it as something she has to tolerate to make him happy. Ick again.) I mean, I haven’t considered myself “damaged goods” since my wedding night–I’m just now an adult doing things that adults do.

    Thing is, I also think some secular folks get it wrong, too. A common thing comment I’ve seen on secular message boards has been “But how do you know if you’re sexually compatible with someone if you don’t have sex before you get married?”—it’s just as screwed up, I think. Does this mean that you shouldn’t marry someone if they aren’t perfect in the sack right off the bat? I mean, good sex isn’t something that just happens, it requires practice. And then you’ve got the whole notion that you have to have done it by a certain age to be considered “normal”—I went to my doc for a physical when I was 21 and she about fell off her stool when I told I was still a virgin. Sure, maybe it’s not as common, but there doesn’t necessarily have to be anything that weird about it. (I’m reminded of this episode of “How I Met Your Mother” where one of the characters was dating a woman who hadn’t had sex in 5 years, and everyone else was creeped out and trying to figure out “what was wrong with her”–I admit that I yelled “it’s not like shaking hands, people!” at the TV.)

    See, I’m still of the opinion that it’s better for young people to wait to have sex until they’re mentally and emotionally mature enough for it. But you don’t accomplish that by never teaching them about sex (especially condoms, for heaven’s sake) and you don’t do that by wrapping their value all up in their virginity (or lack thereof). It’d kind of be helpful, though, if there weren’t also big parts of pop culture telling kids that they’re abnormal if they aren’t having massive amounts of sex after they turn 16.

    • Nathaniel

      When people say that they want to ensure sexual compatibility, that doesn’t mean that their partner has to be amazing on the first try. But if one person wants to be tied up and whipped until their bloody, and their partner is nauseous at the thought of mixing pain and sex, that’s something better to sooner vs. later.

      • Abby Normal

        That seems more logical than some of the stuff I’ve come across, however it still seems like that’s something one could find out (theoretically) beforehand without having to actually have sex. It would have to involve getting to know the person *really* well and being comfortable enough with each other to discuss such things (something that can’t be done in one of those “courtship” deals with your parents around all the time.)

      • Christine

        I have to agree with Abby – isn’t that going to come out when you discuss sex before you get married? And I know you deliberately gave a somewhat exaggerated example, but it really takes something almost that extreme before it causes a significant problem.

        The idea of “sexual compatibility” has always made me a little nervous, because it sounds like something along the lines of “oh, we’re perfect for each other”, and other ideas along the “marriage isn’t work, you just need to marry the right person” paradigm.

        And FTR, I’m on the side of thinking that caring about virginity is messed up.

      • Paula G V aka Yukimi

        But it’s pretty hard to know what you enjoy in bed before you actually do it because many times what you thought you would enjoy and what you actually enjoy are two very different things.

        Also, I don’t get the waiting part at all, if you want to maximise the chances of a marriage to work out, you need to know the other person very well and there’s no better way than actually living with them (granted that doesn’t necessarily requires sex although it’s another important aspect of a relationship so testing compatibility isn’t a ludicrous idea precisely) for at least six months to know if you actually can put up with all the annoying habits the other person has and seeing if the couple really mesh well in everyday life.

      • Paula G V aka Yukimi

        PS: It’s not advocating for perfection but if you have problems like it’ can be pretty normal, specially if it’s the first time for both, you can see if they are workable or not and if your partner is willing to work on it. Really, like any other part of a relationship. For example, if you have problems of communication, you should try to solve them before you get married or at least have the understanding that you are both going to work on it and that both understand that it’s necessary to work to fix it. If you have different standards of cleanliness than your partner, you need to learn to accommodate each other or at least have an understanding that it’s something to work on. Ideals for the future, children, … All are thing in which it’s better to go into marriage with your eyes open and even better with compatible ideals than enter marriage without having a clue. Many many marriages fail for things that cohabitation for a year could have told you.

      • Paula G V aka Yukimi

        I was doubting if sharing this story but one of my mum’s best friends (who is actually a psychologist specialised in sexuality nowadays) when he was in college he had a girlfriend that he was head over heels in love with. She was a masochist and they would have slightly rougher than most sex but he wouldn’t do all she wanted until one day they had been on a party and he was too drunk so he did everything she wanted. When he woke up and saw the state she was in (bruised, …) he felt sick to his stomach (this is a good example of why consent is important, she knew he didn’t want it but used the fact he was drunk to get what she wanted). He broke up with her and spent years traumatised by the experience. It’s probably the reason he ended up specialising in sexuality. Imagine now that they had waited to have sex until marriage, it would definitely add more screwed-up-ness to the whole situation.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      I’ve actually written about sexual compatibility before – check out this post. Not saying it’ll necessarily change your mind, just that if you’re curious about my thoughts on it, that’s where you’ll find them. :-)

      • Christine

        Full disclosure – I’m about as far away from what I’m arguing against as it’s possible to get. Not only did we not live together before we got married, we didn’t have sex (I’m not going into detail about what we did do, but that covers more than just PIV, but there’s a reason I’m not going into detail). Even more so, we never shared bank accounts or made a joint purchase over a couple of hundred dollars before we got married. We mostly skipped premarital couples counselling (not entirely deliberately), instead we did a workshop through my church which was about 15 hours + homework (plus a bit for the disparity of cult aspect).

        Paula – My worry about living with someone before marriage as a way of preventing problems are twofold. 1) a lot of people seem to think that once they’ve lived together that they can skip the usual conversations that everyone needs to have before they get married. “Oh, I know how he feels about household chores”. This is a problem for several reasons – if you’re only living together for a year or less, you’re on your best behaviour (I know that the “honeymoon” periods in a relationship can last for up to 18 months, but I’m assuming that they tend to be on the short end when you see someone that often, and it’s that much work). There’s also the issue with some people seeing cohabitating as different than marriage, and others seeing marriage as just a piece of paper. If one spouse is expecting changes after they get married, and the other isn’t, there’s going to be problems. This leads me into my second major issue: what I said about perfection? Living together as a test isn’t necessarily going to lead to this, I agree, but I very often see the arguments in favour of it linked with the “marry the exact right person” ones, or presented in the same way. If you need to be 100% certain that the person won’t be any bother to live with, beyond what you find out in your day-to-day life, what happens when they change? For example: we knew before we got married that we find how the other person deals with laundry to be a real bother (he can’t stand folding his laundry, so the laundry basket would hold the clean clothes, he had a second one for dirty clothes. I once did a load of mostly clean clothes for him.) We knew that our different wake times were going to be an issue (the little person has entirely erased this now). By the logic of “living together helps you learn about the other person to see if you’re compatible”, either smaller issues are enough to break up the marriage (or enough to not get married over), or we shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place.

        I’m also skeptical about the claim that there are things which you don’t learn until you live together in the first place. We’ve only been married three years, and I know that the magic number for cohabitation is closer to seven (or is it nine?), but about the only thing I’ve discovered about him since getting married that I didn’t know is that he sleeps with one knee in the air sometimes, and I have no clue how he does it. (I knew about the sheet-stealing in advance).

        Libby – I’ve read that one before, I’m trying not to spam down comments on too many of your old entries. Your case is a bit of a different one – I was under the impression that you didn’t discuss sex before you got married. More importantly, even had you had sex before you go married, I’m not sure that it would have helped, given your conditioning to believe that you didn’t enjoy sex, and in general that your opinion didn’t matter. I’m not trying to say that you have no right to have decided that you think sex before marriage is a good thing, but I’m not sure that using your experience as a template is really the most practical, as most people are fortunately not raised in a twisted environment like you were.

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

        @Christine – I know you’ve already read the piece, I was posting it for Abby Normal, who I don’t think has. And I’m sorry you got the impression that I believed that I wasn’t supposed to enjoy sex. Let me see if I can explain.

        While Debi Pearl does indicate in some of the quotes I printed that women should have sex with their husbands to minister to their husbands rather than because they want it for their own pleasure, what I was taught was slightly different. I believed that sex was supposed to be pleasurable for me, and I was basically taught that as soon as I got marriage there would be fireworks and sparkles, and I didn’t even know that there were different sexual appetites or preferences, so I didn’t have any clue what the whole fuss about “sexual compatibility” was. I just thought sex was, well, sex, this spiritual and magical and mystical and extremely pleasurable thing you do with your spouse. This was the problem, and it’s why I think that even if a couple *does* decide to wait to have sex, this is something they need to discuss beforehand (and actually, if a couple waits, how do they *know* what they prefer? because I sure as heck didn’t know what I would be into sexually before I started having sex).

        Anyway, as I was taught the whole “sex as a duty” thing, I thought that men were more sexual than women, that men *needed* sex in a way women didn’t (though of course women would enjoy it too), that if men didn’t get enough sex they would be unfairly tempted to cheat, and that therefore even if I wasn’t in the mood for sex, I should put out when my husband wanted it. That’s all. Now as the Debi Pearl quotes point out, this is taken to an even further extreme by some – and really, it’s all on a continuum.

      • Abby Normal

        @Libby–I read your piece, and while I can see where you’re coming from, I never really had problems with that. With my husband and I, neither of us “knew what we wanted’ beforehand, but I don’t think that made a much of a difference–we both knew we were pretty clueless and that there would be a lot of awkwardness before things would click. Maybe that was naive on our part, and I know that waiting may not work for everybody, but I think it worked for me (it worked for my parents and his parents before us as well.) I just disagree with the assumption that waiting until marriage is unrealistic.

        Anyway, I didn’t really mean to get a big debate going about all that. What I was trying to get at with my (rather long-winded) post was that while I agree that “purity culture” is pretty f–ed up, I don’t think the secular/pop-culture end of the spectrum is much better–treating virginity like something pathological, making it sound like you’re abnormal if you don’t put out after x number of dates, etc. I have a young son at home, and while I’m not going to chain him up in his room when he hits puberty, I’d kind of like him to wait until he’s married, if possible. It’d be nice if there wasn’t a big slice of the culture telling him that he’s going to turn into Norman Bates if he does so.

  • Jules

    But what’s the problem with having sex outside of marriage, Abby? You claim it isn’t necessary to do in order to have a great sex life after marriage, but you don’t offer any reason for not having a great sex life before marriage or without marriage.

    What has worked for you may not work for everyone. I know several people it doesn’t work for. I have a friend who has never enjoyed sex and in fact suffers pain during it. Should she stay in pain for her whole sex life? Should her husband go without sex? Could she have found a better sex partner had she tried? How was she supposed to know a larger than average penis would cause excruciating pain? (They canceled the last half of their honeymoon to take her to a doctor. That’s beyond awkward. That’s miserable.)

    You have these sweet, romantic notions. I like them and that they work for you. People having fulfilling sex lives is important. But your ideas miss out on reality for many people.

    But in addition to that, you shame others by implying that having an active sex life outside of marriage is somehow just wasted time. And you offer no evidence of why.

    I was raised in the purify ring culture. I lost my virginity outside of marriage, and I was happy to do it. I was older, and I know that was right for me. I’m very sex-positive, but I encourage teenagers to wait until they can handle all the mixed messages society sends regarding sex. I now have an active, unmarried sex life. It is very fulfilling, and it is an aspect of my life I’m pleased with.

    Not only am I not married, I’m not even in a committed relationship. I have sex with people I value and trust, but I make no promises about myself to them, and they none to me. We agree to respect one another’s consent and wishes, and we know that we owe each other nothing beyond that. My body is mine; theirs is theirs. And we trust each other to maintain that. It really works for me at this stage in my life. It might be how I have sexual relationships my whole life.

    So if I’m happy, if my partners are happy, if no one is getting hurt, why is that something to look down on? Why is marriage the ultimate goal?


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