by Rosie Franklin cross posted from her blog Disrupting Dinner Parties
Trigger warning– Christian virginity/purity culture throughout (which is absolutely not sarcasm as a trigger warning).
__________________Also, I told you not to read this, Mom._______________
I talked a bit Tuesday about how I lost my virginity, in my post on rape culture. I sort of mentioned but didn’t go into detail about the fact that the loss of my virginity was somewhat emotionally unmooring for me, in addition to the manner in which I “lost” it being awful. So today I’m going to talk about what I was taught about sex and virginity.
What I learned growing up: sex is power, but it’s all potential energy; once you’ve fallen, you have no more leverage.
The virginity cult(ure) sets women up for rape and abuse.
I had no sex talk at home.
I learned what the word “fuck” meant, when I was 12, from reading Forrest Gump, which I got at the library because my parents wouldn’t let me watch the movie.
I had no sex ed at school, outside of a couple days in 8th grade “health” class where we talked about diseases you can get.
In contrast to the yawning void of information about sex at home and at school, at church we did talk about sex. And how you should not have it! Except when you’re married, ’cause then it’s AWESOME, guys, Song of Songs is totally erotic, etc, etc. Married sex, so great. Don’t y’all do it though. Nobody wants to drink out of a cup that’s been spit in or food that’s been chewed on [if you have sex you are a gross and spoiled thing], and if you glue two boards together and then rip them apart, one board (the girl board) leaves a chunk of herself behind. [if you have sex with someone, you can never break up with them. and sex leaves wounds.]
They told the boys not to masturbate. They told them this kind of all the time. Pretty sure I never heard any speaker for our youth group, or any youth event I attended, or any Christian speaker I ever heard on the radio or in person or anywhere, ever, mention that girls might be tempted to masturbate. [Because boys get horny. Girls don’t get horny.]
A lot of it could be summed up as: Boys, don’t masturbate. Girls, don’t let boys touch you. [A woman’s place is to be pursued, not to act. Also, girls don’t want sex.]
A proper Christian woman should be a virgin on her wedding night, because if you gave it away to a guy you were dating he’d be right to dump you, because if you gave it up to him you might just give it up to anybody [gross].
Being pregnant was an expulsion offense at the (not even religious) private school I went to. Not getting someone pregnant. Just being pregnant. [Because sluts are embarrassing. And girls need to know that sex has consequences.]
We were also taught to “guard our hearts.” Boys only want one thing from girls, they said, and you need to not go having feelings for guys that might lead you to give in to their sinful sexual desires. All of those feelings and all of those desires belong to [aka are owned by] your future husband.
My youth group in high school, and the christian culture I was around even into college, was big on those Joshua Harris books about guys asking girls’ dads’ permission to “court” them and not kissing till your wedding day. [Because sex is supposed to be really good, but also a total surprise! And quasi-arranged marriages are preferable to letting women make choices!] Not being able to know whether or not your husband was “good” in bed and having nothing to compare him to was always listed as a plus of abstinence till marriage. I ended up knowing a few couples who didn’t kiss until they were engaged. This was considered really praise-worthy. I also knew a few women who had anal sex with their boyfriends because then they’d still be able to gift their husbands with their ‘virginity.’ Yes, really.
I had to watch what I wore, lest… boys. My parents would not allow me to go camping with only female friends, because “there would be no one to protect you.” [aka we might get raped.] I couldn’t go camping with a mixed group because that’s just improper. [aka we might have sex.] My brother went camping, with guys and in mixed groups. Me and my vagina could not, though.
My brother once literally brought out guns to clean when my boyfriend came to pick me up, because Dad wasn’t home to meet the boyfriend at the door. I’m sure my brother mostly just thought it’d be hilarious because “cleaning guns when the daughter’s boyfriend comes over” is an American trope. But what do you think that shit tells girls if you actually think about it? [Couldn’t have the boyfriend thinking I might not be under someone’s protection. What happens to women who aren’t under someone’s protection?]
There’s a southern colloquial saying that goes:
Why is it better to have sons than daughters? Because when you have a dog, you only gotta worry about it. When you have a bitch, you gotta worry about every dog on the block
^^ This was also considered hilarious. And it’s not very subtle about owning women.
The culture laid out this explicitly adversarial view of relationships: Men want sex and women want commitment. Women should be the gatekeepers to sex, and derive their power in relationships from this carrot and their self-respect from being good at that task.
As a woman, you barter for affection with potential sex, but should never deliver without commitment. Men are willing to fake commitment to get sex, but once that happens, the woman is disposable to him. I was taught that no one worth having would want me if I was too easy.
We were taught all our lives to be pleasing and agreeable, compliant
and obedient to boys and men. But not tooo pleasing. It’s the woman’s [impossible] job to both obey and to hold the line. Keep him happy and
push him away. Live so far up on a pedestal that you get different weather.
‘Cause it’s not safe on the ground.
Outside of speaking explicitly about sex and relationships, the culture also helpfully explained that I only had self-worth and the right to self-respect if I also wasn’t perceived as being sexual, and definitely wasn’t actively pursuing sex. Because girls were told we should dress modestly out of respect for ourselves. We were told that we should value ourselves too much to wear super short shorts.
Every time someone nattered about “what signals does she think she’s sending?” when a girl had on a midriff-baring top, I learned that it’s bad (or maybe even dangerous?) to look like you want it. Every time you tell a teenage girl that you value her for her brain and not her body so please cover up her body because you want her to respect herself, you’re telling her that she can either have self-respect or a sexual body but not both. (rebuttal.) When you tell her that the reason she can’t wear revealing clothing to school is that it distracts the boys, you’re teaching her that what she wears is responsible for men’s behavior.
All of that is horse shit. There are just no more words than that. But that’s really hard to see when you’re inside the bubble. And it’s a REALLY BIG bubble. That is really hard to crawl out of.
I hope this paints a picture for some of you who grew up in the northeast, maybe, or California, or in a city, or with liberal parents, or in more liberal circles, who think this shit is a caricature when you read about it: It isn’t. Every single one of these stories is my lived life. It’s the lived life of a lot of women.
And this culture of “modesty” and “waiting” and “virginity” and “purity” is fucking harmful.
All of the boys I dated in high school and college, always “respected me too much” to have sex with me. They believe they’d have ruined me if we fucked. Because they were raised in the same culture I was. Because a woman can either be the kind who has sex, or is worth respect.
Because you can’t do both.
This is also where the virginity/purity culture dovetails into rape culture. When you divvy women into “respectable” vs “sexual” categories, you have a huge congregation of women who you’ve labeled ’not respectable’ and ‘for sex.’
And when *any* sexual behavior can get you put in the “not respectable” and “for sex” category then you propagate the idea that consent to any certain thing is consent to anything. [because you put yourself in the sex category.] And you teach boys that girls who are acting sexy are not worth respect and are “asking for it.”
And then you really just should not be that surprised when girls get raped by boys they know.
Personally, I have always wanted sex and kissing and touch and affection from men. So I always knew what category I was in. Think about girls growing up who do have sex drives (aka most girls). Now think about the constant looming implication of letting it be known that you want to be sexual. And always being on guard against it.
The bargain was that I could either get the physical, sexual stuff I wanted, or retain my self-esteem and my power. My right to draw my own boundaries. My right to have emotional needs within a relationship. I’ve never really been able to withhold sex as a bargaining chip. I fail at being on guard against being known to want sex. I’ve always wanted it as much or, (mostly) more than the men I’ve been with. I would always go as far as they wanted, because I wanted it. So I grew up believing that that meant that I de facto had no power ever, in relationships with men. I was always willingly giving it away.
I chose to have sex a bunch of times in college. I never forgot that a huge proportion of my peers and the people who raised me, considered me to be choosing sex over the right to be respected, by myself or anyone else.
The corollary of ‘guys that respect you won’t fuck you’ is: if a guy fucks you, it’s a pretty sure shot that he doesn’t respect you.
I tolerated a lot of really shitty relational situations because I was raised to believe that if I was gonna go ahead and be sexual with a guy, I didn’t have any right, it wasn’t really reasonable, to expect any consideration in return. And on the other side of that same coin: I believed it was considered totally normal, maybe even admirable, when a guy I was dating would repeatedly rebuff me for physical affection, even just kissing and cuddling. I tolerated this, despite the fact that it shredded me. I was not aware bad situations were actually bad. Me having sadfeels was not a valid reason to object to being ignored, it just meant I was having feelings I shouldn’t have. I knew the bargain going in. I hated myself for being such a girl about shit.
And then I grew up.
jk no but really.
It gets better. Not just for queer kids. For everyone who doesn’t fit in to a narrow-minded culture. For everyone who counts the days until they can leave their shitty hometown (or their entire backwards state). If you take control of your own life, once you get a chance to take control of your own life, it gets better.
I graduated from college and moved out of the south. I went into science.
And I still carry scars and wounds from the culture wars. I am still learning to be kind to myself. Still learning that my physical and emotional needs are both valid, and are not an imposition just by existing. Still learning a lot of things about having a healthy, adult relationship.
But I married a boy who I fucked the night I met him. And one of the reasons I fell in love with him is that he respected me completely, and my ‘easyness’ had no bearing on that. Why did we have sex the night I met him? Because I wanted to and he wanted to and we were both grown-ups and so we did that. I was done pretending to be a delicate flower in order to attract the kind of guy who is attracted to the kind of girl who doesn’t have sex.
’cause here’s the thing: True love doesn’t wait. True love doesn’t wait around for you to earn worthiness. True love doesn’t make you wait because it thinks it knows better than you, what you yourself want. True love doesn’t demand that you dice your feelings into acceptable little portions. Affection over here, attraction over there.
True love respects your right to make your own decisions about what you want to do with your body. Whether or NOT you want to be sexually active. And true love knows you’re a messy, worthy human being person already and loves you right now, without waiting.
Comments open below
NLQ Recommended Reading …
‘Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich
‘Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland
‘Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce