I was raised in the purity culture. You know, purity rings, purity balls, courtship, saving your first kiss for the wedding, and all that jazz. One thing I find very interesting in retrospect is that all of that gave me absolutely no idea how to actually carry on a relationship. The message I got was simple:
The key to a perfect marriage is to be a virgin on the wedding night.
If you both waited till your wedding night, I was taught, your marriage would start off on great footing because you would both know you could trust each other explicitly. That foundation of trust, built on mutual virginity until the wedding night, would start you off perfectly in marriage.
Furthermore, the way you could tell if a guy was worthwhile or not was whether or not he respected you while you were courting – i.e., whether or not he wanted to be physically involved with you before the wedding. Any guy who wanted sex before the wedding should be tossed out immediately, but if a guy respected your desire to wait for the wedding, he was a keeper.
Now some of these issues, such as respect and trust, are important. But basing everything about respect and trust on premarital sex and wedding night virginity is just silly, and boiling “respecting women” down to whether or not you want to have sex with them before the wedding – i.e., boiling it down to their bodies – is misogynistic and objectifying. There is so much more to a relationship than that, and so much more to women than that. Heck, while I’m at it, there’s more to men than wanting to have sex. But when it comes to relationship advice, that’s about all I got.
I never learned about the importance of communication and cooperation. I never learned about the importance of discussing expectations. I never learned that relationships are based on give and take, that some times they suck and sometimes they rock, that they’re about hard work with the awesome payoff of emotional support. I never learned how to deal with disagreement or disappointment. None of this. Instead, what I got was “don’t have sex until your wedding night.”
I look around at abstinence only sex ed programs, purity balls, and purity pledges, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why conservatives are so surprised at the high divorce rate. How backwards is that, focusing everything on not having sex until the wedding rather than teaching actual relationship skills? Conservatives talk about all the girls who are “taken advantage of” by boyfriends who just want sex, but their solution is not to teach those girls good relationship skills but to tell them to only go out with guys who agree not to have sex with them.
What should we actually be worried about here? A guy who wants to have sex with his girlfriend, or a guy who emotionally abuses and intimidates his girlfriend? For conservatives, you have to remember, the two are one and the same. Guy who wants sex with girlfriend = abuser. Guy who will wait until marriage for sex = awesome. Except of course that that’s not actually how it works. Regardless, conservatives seem way more concerned about whether or not two teens or young adults are having sex than about whether they are practicing good relationship skills.Now all this said, I’m not really sure I want conservatives to turn their attention to teaching relationship skills, for the simple point that I’m not sure I’d be too pleased with what they taught. The number one manual for married women in the conservative community where I grew up was Debi Pearl’s Created To Be His Helpmeet, which teaches the following:
- The key to a happy marriage is the husband leading and the wife submitting, on, well, everything.
- If a guy is unhappy in his marriage, it’s probably because his wife is nagging or trying to “wear the pants.
- If a woman doesn’t have sex with her husband regularly, and at least pretend to like it, he will understandably look elsewhere.
- Women need to cover up so as not to lead the men around them astray into lust and temptation.
In Debi Pearl’s world, the key to a good relationship is the wifely submission and male leadership. Wives must never question their husbands’ judgement, or discuss their husbands’ flaws, but rather focus on encouraging and uplifting their husbands, helping them to be the best men they can possibly be. This actually seems to be the theme of every advice book on marriage that ever went through my parents’ house. “Wives, submit, let your men lead, and your relationship will be perfect. And if it’s not, then pray some more.”
While I don’t really want conservatives to start spreading this kind of relationship advice, I do think it’s interesting to note that they seem to care more about whether two people in a relationship are having sex than about whether those two people are practicing healthy communication and relationship skills. So next time you hear about a new emphasis on abstinence only sex education or some purity event or book, this is something to remember. For conservatives, whether or not a relationship is healthy is all about the sex. Communication, cooperation, compromise? Nope. That stuff is so secondary.
And they think we’re the ones obsessed with sex?