How Abstinence Only Sex Education Led Me Down An Unexpected Path

How Abstinence Only Sex Education Led Me Down An Unexpected Path July 6, 2015

by Amber Barnhill cross posted with permission from her blog Atheist By Accident.

This was posted earlier in the week at Hemant Mehta’s Patheos blog The Friendly Atheist

When talking about my religious past, I often find myself referencing movies. How else are mainstream humans going to relate? Neo waking up in The Matrix. The barely-audible Asian chick in Pitch Perfect. And, in this case, Drew Barrymore‘s role in Never Been Kissed. If you’ve never seen the movie, the title really says it all.

Imagine being an almost-24-year-old, intelligent, moderately-attractive-yet-socially-awkward female venturing into the real world for the first time, having never even held hands with a guy and not having much in the way of worldly knowledge, but knowing that degree of innocence is not the norm.

Imagine being so wracked with guilt over masturbation that you spend months trying to figure out how to pay for a hymenoplasty without anyone knowing, because you’ve been taught that your value as a unmarried woman is directly proportional to the state of that precious little sliver of skin and that a man can totally tell if you’ve ever in the history of your life (*ahem*) put anything in there.

Thanks to the Duggar family, mainstream humans can now finally get a glimpse of the largely hidden fundamentalist cults that pervade our society and the damage they do to women.

Being raised in one of those cults taught me just one thing about sex: There is this hole in my body, but if anything goes near it before I’m married, I will lose all value in this life and basically become a “filthy rag,” according to Isaiah 64:6.

In that culture, everything we’re exposed to and everyone we talk to is controlled by men. At Hyles-Anderson College, one of the motherships of this movement, the books we read and music we listened to had to be approved in advance, our curriculum was written by church leaders, and we needed a chaperone in order to leave campus (even after designating where we were going and for how long). Students caught using the Internet on their phones would have them confiscated. Even dating required a green light from above. Full-length hosiery was to be worn at all times to prevent men from lusting after your “toe-cleavage” (yes, that was a thing), and you’d better not get caught sitting on a bed with another female or you’d receive demerits (or possibly expulsion).

Image from Atheist By Accident
Image from Atheist By Accident
These plaid skirts and jean jumpers have been scientifically proven to prevent sexual promiscuity. Image from Atheist By Accident

I don’t remember ever receiving any actual sex education, I just remember the constant rantings from home and the pulpit about purity. The one that stood out the most in my mind was a story about a girl who was being picked on for her virginity. She silenced her peers with this one profound line:

“Anytime I want to I can become like you. But you can never again become like me.”

(Also on True Love Wait’s list of Top Ten Ways to Say No To Sex.)

We heard plenty of sermons from celebrity-like pastors who told us they had counseled hundreds of couples and the ones who got divorced all had one thing in common: They were un-pure before marriage. And of course it’s the woman’s job not to lead the man into temptation because men are created by God to have the need of “physical companionship,” and cannot be held responsible for acting on it.

How do you avoid that sort of temptation? According to God, “it is better for a man not to touch a woman” (1 Corinthians 7:1). Us fundies take that shit literally! “Bible space apart” is the closest we can get to a member of the opposite sex before falling into sin.

We had designated dating areas, complete with these fantastic divided benches that prevented couples from accidentally brushing up against each other.

Image from Atheist By Accident
Image from Atheist By Accident
Image by Atheist By Accident
Image by Atheist By Accident

Even thinking about sex is a sin. Matthew 5:28 says “But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”

I was also told to steer clear of tampons because they “break something that is intended for your husband to break.”

I graduated from Hyles-Anderson College at 24, virginity intact, with the “wisdom” that good men won’t want you unless you’re a virgin and worldly men won’t want you if you are.

So what’s a girl to do? I was growing weary of all those rules I had devoted so much energy following, so I began what I call my “wild phase.”

In retrospect, it really wasn’t wild at all. I went on vacation with my family, bought a pair of pants, listened to some country music, tasted alcohol, said the word “bullshit” out loud, and got my first kiss (in that order). There was no going back to living like the Baptist equivalent of a nun after that.

I eventually decided to just get the whole virginity thing over with. Since I believed virginity was a huge turn-off and even a deal-breaker for most “normal people,” I chose to keep that little fact to myself and pretended like I knew what I was doing. (I was just supposed to lie there, anyway, right? The guy gets on top, the penis accidentally falls into the vagina, and BAM! Fireworks! How hard could it be?)

Yeah… There were no fireworks.

And I found myself in some incredibly awkward situations. I didn’t even know that I didn’t have a basic understanding of the male anatomy — or my own for that matter. All the time I spent Googling “how to kiss” and sneaking around the public library skimming through dime-store romance novels for the good bits proved no real benefit whatsoever. I didn’t know what a “clitoris” was. The only nudity I had been exposed to was through art. I remember looking at those carved statues of nude men wondering how on earth everything was supposed to work. (I will never forget the exact moment I found out that the penis actually gets bigger! Holy shit!!)

It took me three times of getting (partially) naked with a man before I worked up the courage to look down there. I was afraid that, if I did, I would either faint or start laughing hysterically from nervousness (I do that).

I cried the first few times and thought there was something wrong with me based on the fact that his… er… member… didn’t magically deflate immediately after like I thought it would. It wasn’t until I was pregnant that I found out he had indeed ejaculated.

One of my partners once handed me a condom which I embarrassingly couldn’t figure out what to do with. After fumbling with it for a few minutes, I handed it back to him feeling like a complete fool. That scene never appeared in any of the romance novels I’d read.

With all the hype about the evil power of sex, I honestly wondered what I was missing. People risked their immortal souls for those few moments of pleasure, but I, frankly, was not impressed.

I essentially went from first kiss to pregnant in a matter of months. I can count on both hands the number of sexual encounters I had before my “wild phase” abruptly ended with the mortifying feeling that my life was over. I didn’t tell most of my friends and family for fear of their judgement. I didn’t even tell my own mother.

Abortion was out of the question. That was murder and children raised in single-parent homes were doomed to Hell with no escape! (Or so I was always told.) So I did the only thing I was taught I could do in that situation: I got married.

I stayed in an abusive relationship for several years because I didn’t know I had any other choice. I truly believed I was doing what was best for my kids (yep, plural). He later admitted to taking advantage of my sexual naiveté — for example, he convinced me that when he got an erection, if I didn’t “take care of it,” it would never go away and become a health hazard. I didn’t know any better.

Was it stupid for me to believe those things? Absolutely! But I was told my entire life that a woman’s purpose was to be a help-meet for her husband which included never saying no to sex. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of institutions in our country today that teach women this, setting the stage for so many patterns of abuse.

I take responsibility for my decisions, and I wouldn’t be the person I am today were it not for my children, but I’m not going to pretend that my choices at the time were all my own, because they weren’t. They were the product of a lifetime of religious indoctrination and lack of education. I spent several years in that abusive relationship because I didn’t have the knowledge to recognize it for what it was. I also never told anyone because that just wasn’t something you were supposed to talk about.

When I finally admitted to my mother that I was getting divorced, she reminded me that even if a man is abusing his wife, she should submit and pray about it, not leave the marriage.

I’m in my thirties now and until this past year, I have lived out the whole of my sexual life thinking I was broken. I didn’t know how to really enjoy sex and I didn’t think I was physically capable of reaching orgasm with another person. (I convinced myself at one point that all these women talking about orgasms had to be lying because it just wasn’t happening for me.)

Finally learning to let go of that guilt and recognizing the slut-shaming stereotypes has helped me embrace my own sexuality. I was so excited the first time I climaxed during partner sex that I immediately called my best friend to brag about it! That may sound silly, but it was a big moment for me, in more ways than one!

My experiences may be a bit extreme, but the overall story is remarkably similar across the spectrum to other women in these cultures. Abstinence-only sex education — a paradox to say the least — is built on a foundation of ignorance. Not only does it not work, but it causes more unwanted pregnancies than it prevents. It churns out adults who don’t understand their own bodies, and it leads people into abusive relationships because they don’t know what a healthy one looks like. The shame and guilt we’re made to feel from abstinence education is internalized — and it doesn’t just magically go away with a marriage license.

That’s why I’m raising my children in a sex-positive environment. Or at least I hope I can, given that I’m not necessarily sure what that is. I still struggle with discerning between what I really think and feel and what are just the lingering remnants of my past ideology. It’s definitely a work in progress, but I’m getting there.

I believe situations like mine are much more common than most people realize, but we don’t hear about them because our society still isn’t comfortable talking about this subject. The only way to really bring attention to this issue is for people to become vocal about their experiences and to recognize the harm that is caused by promoting ignorance as a form of education.

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  • SAO

    Interesting that the weird dichotomy of ‘we Godly don’t hold hands, everyone else hops into bed 5 minutes after meeting’ led you away from the everything-but that people from less cultic religions that emphasize waiting until marriage did. I’ve always thought the everything-but-penetration helped women understand their bodies before they got to sex, which isn’t always fireworks from day one.

  • Mel

    This article is making me think back over my sexual education and comparing it with some more conservative friends of mine.

    I’d always thought of mine as abstinence-only because we were strongly discouraged from participating in oral or vaginal sex prior to marriage. But there were no major, pretend consequences attached. We heard about the possibilities of STD’s and unplanned pregnancies, but no one pretended it waiting would make sex better or cause an uncomplicated marital relationship. I never heard anything about physical virginity and guys were expected to be as responsible about preventing sex as women were.

    We also had sections on knowing your own body and the body of the opposite sex with full-body diagrams! Plus, we learned about BC options in 10 grade “so that we wouldn’t use them accidently.” (Even at 16, I could tell that was back-door runaround the Catholic Church prohibition on artificial BC.)

    So, my take-away was: You probably shouldn’t have sex before marriage because relationship with God. If you do decide to, there can be consequences so take steps to minimize the possible negative consequences.

  • Tiffany

    Growing up, my church prohibited “mixed bathing” which is what they called males and females swimming in the same pool, lake. or ocean. Until I was a 14 years old, I honestly believed that was because girls could get pregnant if they swam in the same pool with boys.

  • Jenna

    I wasn’t raised in as strict an environment, but I was Southern Baptist, and we did have True Love Waits, and purity was still beaten into our heads. Thankfully, my mother was a nurse, and I went to a public school, so I at least got the biological portion of sex education. I knew how the plumbing worked, so I wasn’t too terribly naive. When I wavered, I didn’t use birth control, either, because I couldn’t figure out how to use any form of birth control without someone finding out. I had a few scares, but thankfully I never got pregnant. I was INCREDIBLY lucky.

    That said, I look back on the way I was raised to believe in abstinence and only abstinence, and I really wish I’d had a more realistic approach to sex given to me instead of a fear of sex. My daughter is 9 right now, and I know we’ll be breaching the topic in more detail soon enough. I want her to have a more “sex-positive” environment at home, as well. I’m hoping that’ll prompt her to come to me with any questions, and while I’m hoping she’ll wait as long as possible, I’d want her to be prepared and protected when it happens. In my mind, that’s the best way to protect her from unwanted pregnancy or worse.

  • BlueVibe

    My mind still kind of boggles over the logic disconnect behind “not
    using birth control because someone might find out” or “I don’t know how and it’s awkward” but . . . still
    having sex, despite the fact that if there is a pregnancy *everyone will
    know*, anyway. Basically changing one “fail” for a bigger,
    lifelong-commitment, “fail”? What?

  • Kym Hall

    The words,from my parents as a,teen were can you afford a child ?no can you take care of a child? No then should you be having sex ? No good because,I am not taking care of any child you have even if my grandchild. You want to have sex protected or un protected which can still form a pregrancy more than you think bc dosent always work and condoms break and of course stds.. I was not taking my chances as a teen. Now did my parents after I was an adult expect me to be a virgin that was up to me they said. I did wait till marriage and was,fine with it.

  • Maria Ashley

    My background wasn’t quite as conservative as this but I can tell you that the abstinence only, having sex makes you dirty, men are in control indoctrination has me still really mixed up. I will absolutely not be bringing up my children the same way. Love to you on your journey.

  • Jenny Islander

    Logic is not a big feature of fundamentalist pedagogy.

  • Jenny Islander

    My completely secular sex ed began with awkward diagrams in (IIRC) 6th grade and culminated in an uproarious class run by the local public health nurse (ILU, Millie Sugita!) in high school. It was Mrs. Sugita’s lessons that stuck. She said that people who were embarrassed to roll a condom onto a banana in public were not ready for sex, because real sex was sometimes “goofy,” unlike those movies we weren’t supposed to be old enough to watch. She passed around the inserts for various types of BC, highlighting the difference between perfect use and what the average person did, and she warned us never to get drunk around people we wanted to have sex with because drunk BC use was way below average. She also showed us pictures of horrifying things like genital warts and explained in detail the treatments for common STDs. The gist was, pretty much, “If you’re going to do this, don’t wink and shuffle your way into it. Get educated, stay clean, and make plans.”

    ETA: I should correct part of this. The move we watched in 6th grade also stuck. It starts with a young couple deciding to Do It, at which point they are suddenly contestants in a game show in which the $64,000 question is, “What does it take to raise a baby?” The girl answers, “A dad, and a mom, and love.” Then the two of them get a dream sequence in which she got pregnant as soon as they Did It and he now works in a shoe store while she takes care of the baby all day (this was still barely possible back then). The stresses of responsibility, boredom, tight budgeting, and isolation from their peers are laid out in what I remember as a well-acted little drama, ending in the young mother desperately trying to get the baby to stop crying after she and her husband have an argument that ends in him slamming out of the apartment. She loses it and starts shaking the baby–and wakes up. They decide that they don’t want to hang their futures on the failure rate of a condom.

  • Jenny Islander

    As a Sunday school teacher I came to a screeching halt at the first cited Bible verse. Did they seriously use a tiny snippet of a long psalm of lamentation in exile as a clobber verse for sexual abstinence?! The psalm starts* with “I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord” and proceeds through a retelling of the founding events of Israel, which appears more than once in the Hebrew Bible. Then Isaiah laments that the present generation has fallen (“Abraham does not know us and Israel does not acknowledge us”) and prays for God to speak (“O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down”) with a confession of sin on behalf of all of Israel, including the admission that “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” (Note that this refers to Mosaic law regarding ceremonial uncleanness: it’s a metaphor for “We are cut off from God.” Also, Isaiah is a guy.)

    This teaching–agh! There’s very little interpretation to be done here; Isaiah follows his agonized prayer with God’s reply, which includes lots of specific details. Why have all of the people (not just the vagina-havers!) become “like a polluted garment?” God lays it out. First God says that the people were the ones keeping silent, not God, who kept on calling “to a rebellious people…who provoke me continually.” How? Well, by performing non-Jewish religious rituals. Sex rituals? Nope, just “sacrificing in gardens,” burning incense the pagan way, and accepting non-Jewish ritual holiness restrictions instead of sticking to the Jewish ones. Also they practice forbidden magic and they haven’t been keeping kosher.

    It’s about syncretism and idolatry, you toe-cleavage-perving jerks!

    I could rant on about the other clobber verses, but this is already long enough. Context! Context! What do they teach them in these schools?!

    *Is. 63:7; I’ll leave out the verse citations for the rest of the passage; all quotations are given in the order in which they appear. The translation is the RSV.

  • Poster Girl

    I stumbled upon the ultra-fundie world when Bob Jones U hit the news in 2000 for prohibiting interracial dating. How, I wondered, could a COLLEGE monitor dating– my own university as an entity had no idea who I was; my professors cared about my academic work; the registrar’s office cared whether I paid my bills; and my dorm management cared about my not trashing the place or screwing around with the fire equipment. Googling led me to a world of demerits, chaperones, and prayer captains, and I realized that BJU was considered centrist-to-liberal among fundamentlists for even allowing dating rather than courtship.

    Needless to say, I found Hyles-Anderson, which still offers a major in “marriage and motherhood” for women, including classes such as “Understanding Your Husband” and “How to Rear Infants,” the latter of which focuses on getting the baby on a schedule, which sounds an awful lot like Babywise. (Meanwhile, the most advanced math class consists of material I teach in high school.) Initially I snickered at it, but then it hit me that real young women like Amber are attending this place and subject to its indoctrination and gross misinformation.

    I’m so glad you got out, Amber, and thank you for your blog and for speaking up.

  • upvote just for “you toe-cleavage-perving jerks!” 😛

  • Yep – yours is the education that I needed and wish I had had!

    Thankfully I won’t be making the same mistakes with my own children.

  • cat

    Same. I hope she doesn’t mind but that will be one of my new catch phrases.