Until I lost my faith, my whole life has been one story of ignominies, stacked upon each other, birthing repentance and anguish and fear. Today, freed of it as much as I can be, I am amazed at the thousands of pages on which I wrote of my disgust with myself. Still, the stories are written on my mind like ink tattooed on skin.
The shame, Part One: Age six, first grade.
I am chasing Gordon Camper on the playground, tackling him, for a kiss. I remember the taste of it, and the heart-thudding fear: What if we’re caught? We get kid-married and I chase him a lot—strangely aggressive, given the way girls are usually schooled. Not my proudest moment, even disturbing to me now. But the kisses and faux-wedlock end quickly as a redheaded schoolmate sells me out.
Humiliation descends as I stand before my first-grade teacher and she tells us that kissing on the playground—at least, the kind we were doing—is not allowed. I nod, face to the ground. I want to die, to melt away, to ease into the fire that fills my face.
Part Two: Age 13, seventh grade.
I’m at a Christian bookstore, and after years of not understanding dirty jokes, natural curiosity supersedes the fear. I look around casually, then lift a book—James Dobson’s Preparing for Adolescence, if I remember correctly—off the shelf. My sister has it at home, but I’ve been told I’m not allowed to read it because it’s technically for parents. Still, I feel relief and strangely warm at the description of actual intercourse. So this is what it is, in simple words.
A sharp tap on my shoulder makes me jolt. A bolt of fear—an electric shock—shoots down my back. I shouldn’t be here. I look up, and the stern face of the older woman manning the sales counter glowers back at me. She points at the book. “That,” she says, “is only for you if you have your parents’ permission.”
She removes it from me and puts it back on the shelf. Her disapproval is a scent that fills the air, and I am falling, mortified, into a hole, again. The heat fills my head, but the warmth in my body is gone. My skin is ice.
Part Three: A year later.
I have learned something inappropriate from kids I was babysitting, something their classmates knew in fifth grade—and I had missed—in eighth. I am such a good little girl that I feel the need to ask my dad so that he knows I am aware of this dirty fact. To have obtained the information illegally feels like a weight within my chest, like I have done this thing whose existence is supposed to be unknown.
“Dad, what’s masturbation?” I ask.
His whole body tenses. It’s like he’s gone into shock. I’ve broken the code, the one that says, well, say nothing about sex. Not in our house.
Still stiff, he moves his lips enough to say, “It’s having sex with yourself.” The disdain in his voice could have sunken a ship.
“Oh,” I squeak. Talk over.
Part Four: Another year later.
I have made it to high school, and I am babysitting at the house of a family with beer in the fridge. This is bad enough, but down in their basement after putting the kids to bed, I find a myriad of R-rated films. They draw me in like a drug.
I pick a funny one: Election, with Reese Witherspoon. It can’t be that bad, I tell myself, but I am wrong. There’s a girl in the film who likes girls, and after she kisses a friend in the film—a friend who doesn’t even reciprocate—I am disturbed by the feelings it stirs in me, the way it lingers in the brain.
In my small Southern town, the public sex ed course I will have later that year encourages abstinence but takes the time to discuss safe sex and STDs—progressive compared to other areas. Yet there is no mention of things like what I saw on film. As time goes on, I put the thought away, and continue liking men, and only men. But the shame of even seeing that, in that dark basement in the house of people who drink, stays with me for years.
I am dirty, impure, disgusting. How could I watch that? And why is it so hard to forget?
The student who sleeps with her teacher in the movie doesn’t even register.
Part Five: I’m at youth camp the year before graduation, and I like the speaker.We get along well, and he’s not that much older. We talk a lot, and there’s chemistry, and I am confused as hell, until on the bus one day our hands brush against each other during a game of UNO. At this accidental touch, he withdraws, leans back, and looks at me with venom.
“Amy, no.” The disgust in his words confuses and kills me. Was I so wrong, to be attracted? Wasn’t he, to me? And was that accidental physical interaction so immoral?
Confused by my feelings and his reaction, I am undone. I am the temptress from Proverbs; his disgust tells me everything I need to know. This time, the shame comes from the hate within his eyes, and I am slaughtered again.
A Whole New Kind of Shame
On and on it goes, until in college at a private Christian school, Tommy Nelson of Denton Bible Church fame comes out with a new spin on ol’ married sex: It’s a GOOD thing! Being into it, even as a girl, is excellent! And, goshdarnit, Song of Solomon is actually about sex of (almost) all (heterosexual) kinds!
I take it in and feel relieved: Finally, I can be happy to feel sensual, to feel aroused, to feel drawn to intimacy. Years later, when I marry in my early twenties, I let ‘im have it. I am so happy to be freed of the restraints, to jump into bed with my new husband and to have it be okay for me to throw myself into the experience… and discover, for the first time, a whole new shame.
My enthusiasm is threatening, even distasteful, to my spouse. On our honeymoon, stilettos and the lingerie he told me to wear are a turn-off. My trim-as-it’ll-ever-be body does not draw him in the way I was told it would. Later, when we are snuggling and unclothed, he pours out anger on me when I am turned on and initiate sex.
I am cowed, disgraced, made small. My excitement is grotesque. Yet then, when I am shamed, he is suddenly aroused, and initiates intimacy. I am mindf***ed. I was sold a lie. My enjoyment is anathema.
And so we continue, in this painful dance, until he is done with me, and I have no desire left. And then, only after I have granted the divorce he so desires, he suddenly wants to dominate, to have me all the time. And I have been taught that this is what Christians do, that sex is never to be denied the spouse, so I acquiesce—at first.
But even our Christian counselor, who has walked with us through the mayhem, is alarmed. “Amy,” he says, his voice lower than usual, “You do not have to have sex with him now.” His eyes themselves seem baffled, his mind confused to have to say this, for it to be a thing. But he adds for emphasis, “He is not your husband now, biblically, even though the paperwork hasn’t gone through.” I am given an “out” from the sex I once embraced, but which has now become a weapon of control.
I am a husk, bent over by the shame.
These are the moments that stick out, the stories of my humiliation, though there are more. Over and over, my faith and the way it was wrought by my family and community broke me against the rocks of their edicts, misinformation, and pain. They themselves were wading through a system that hadn’t worked for them, but when it’s been handed down for generations, what do you do?
As evangelicals, they can’t throw out the bathwater without the baby. Not the way they were raised, and so they continue, undulating in stories of solemnly circulated pain, and I became another cautionary tale in their narrative arsenal—until I grew the guts to walk away, and write my own definitions of sexual pleasure.
But it took years to take that step. And even now, weeding out the “bitter roots” is hard. It requires work, and it requires pain, and reflection. In fear, I often lapse into the strictures I was taught. But after years of it while Christian, I couldn’t take it anymore.
I walked away from faith and its flawed paths of “have-tos” and “can’ts.” I’m paving my own road now. And while it’s a gravelly path to take, it’s a hell of a lot more solid than the sands their routes laid out for me before I knew any better.
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Amy Jane is a writer, teacher and former Bible Belt evangelical who now lives in the Middle East. In addition to enjoying good bourbon and travel, she is currently on the hunt for stories of people’s deconversions from Christianity, especially for those in the southeastern United States. Follow her on Twitter @storiesofdoubt, and feel free to email your stories to firstname.lastname@example.org.