Women Who Were Taught Abstinence Until Marriage Reveal How Sex Shame Affects Them Today07/17/2019
If you were watching The Bachelorette on Monday night, you may have a few questions about Hannah’s confrontation with Luke P., after he pressed her to say she had not had sex with anyone else on the show. Though it may have been clear that Luke was being judgmental and shaming Hannah about her sexuality — which finally got the series villain booted from the show — the language he was using might have seemed unusual. Why did he refer to any sex Hannah might have had as a "slip-up"? What did he mean when he said he said he "trusted" that she hadn’t slept with anyone? Why did Luke hang his head when Hannah declared, "I have had sex, and Jesus still loves me?"
But if you’re familiar with communities that preach abstinence until marriage, you understood exactly what he was talking about.
Luke’s comments were based in the concept of "sexual purity," a set of (typically religiously based) ideas focused on abstinence until marriage. But "purity" encompasses more than simply abstaining from sexual contact. In many religious communities, "sexual purity" refers to a set of ideas about sexuality and gender, which often place taboos on masturbation and solo sexual fantasy, encourage women to not wear revealing clothes, and present all relationships between all men and women who are not family members as potentially sexually charged (this is the basis for Vice President Pence’s famous refusal to meet one-on-one with women).
While abstinence until marriage and the ideas of "sexual purity" culture work well for many people, for many others, these teachings can lead to pain, confusion, and shame into adulthood — even if they have left the religion they were raised in, and the religious community that valued "purity," behind.
Kelly*, 29, was raised in an evangelical Christian community, by parents who self-described as "born again." She first became aware of her community’s expectations about sexuality when she was five. While playing a game with another kindergartener that involved them briefly kissing on the mouth, her mother saw, and, Kelly tells Bustle, became upset: "She said, ‘You have a couple of gifts that you can give a man someday, and you’ve given your first kiss away. You’ll never be able to give your first kiss to anyone else. You wasted it.’"
The idea that future relationships are made less meaningful, and women less valuable, by past sexual activity is a common teaching in abstinence-focused sexual education. As CBS News reported in 2019, a number of abstinence-only sex ed programs dramatize this idea through gross-out games:
"I internalized that [message] as if I had made this horrible mistake," Kelly says. She felt shame over the kiss, "like I scarred myself. It was this narrative of my ‘gift’ — the things I can give are limited and I’ve wasted one. It was horrible.”
Dina*, 40, “went to a Southern Baptist conservative Chinese Christian church when I was little," she tells Bustle. Within that community, she was taught that “being a virgin is everything. That’s your symbol of love.”
Dina wasn’t just taught that it was morally important to abstain; she was told that remaining a virgin would help ensure the success of her future marriage and serve to bond her to her future husband. “I just believed the fairy tale that [if] you are so ‘good’…that you would earn a good relationship. And you would get married and it would be happily ever after, because you did all of the steps it took to have a successful marriage."
While the "purity" messages emphasized by her church community didn’t keep Dina from exploring her sexuality, it did impact her understanding of her own sex life, early on: "It caused this really weird dissonance where I didn’t go on birth control until much later in life, because I was in denial about sex."
Leah*, 29, grew up in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, with parents who had recently emigrated to the U.S. from Azerbaijan. She attended all-girls religious schools, where "rabbis and Judaic Studies school teachers drilled into our brains: Sex is holy within marriage," she tells Bustle. "Outside of that, it’s vile."
"I was really good girl growing up," Leah says. "I was kind, hardworking, a good student, a sweet friend…But all my community and family seemed to really prize was my virginity and purity. I hated being judged for that one thing."
As Kelly got older, her community expected her to feel "called to Christ” and get baptized. But the call never came: “I spent my teen years feeling like a loser, because this voice think was supposed to be talking to me had not shown up.” Kelly’s first experience with depressive symptoms followed; she felt "hopeless."
Though Kelly describes herself as someone who has always had a high sex drive, her parents did not expect her to have any sexual interests or desires: “Mostly, it was the idea that men…have more trouble dealing with their sinful desires or something. There was no discussion of the idea that I may feel lust.”
In her late teens, Kelly had sex with a long-term boyfriend. One day, in the car, her mother asked her if she was having sex — a question she frequently brought up, and one Kelly often lied about. "This day, I just decided to stop lying and I said, ‘Yes, actually I am.’ And she pulled the car over on the highway and screamed at me to get out, and she left me on the highway. I walked home, three or four miles."
In "purity culture," judgment isn’t only tied to sexual actions or desires. It is also often tied to things like the shapes of our bodies, or the clothes we wear. Women who are viewed to be expressing their sexuality in any way might be called a "stumbling block" in some communities — as Linda Kay Klein writes in her book, Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed A Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free, she frequently heard the term used to refer to "girls and women who somehow ‘elicit’ men’s lust."
In Dina’s community, she was taught that part of "purity" involved constant vigilance of her body and how she covered it. “One of my earliest recollections about my body was at a Christian summer camp,” she recalls. A member of her community, an older woman, “decided to write me a letter, shaming me for having worn a tank top that apparently, according to her, showed a little bit of cleavage.” Dina was 12 at the time. “And that was considered good [in their community]. That was considered a moral thing to do, for her to shame me for having breasts.”
As they got older, Dina, Kelly, and Leah eventually moved away from the religions they were raised in. Dina relocated from the U.S. to Sweden in her 20s, which completely changed her ideas about and relationship with her body. Sweden was "the first time I was in a society, a whole country of people who regarded nudity as innocent," says Dina. "They regard sex as part of human nature. It’s not sordid, it’s not taboo.” It helped Dina learn to not self-police her body or sexuality, and shed ideas that there was anything inherently harmful about open sexuality.
Today, Kelly identifies as sexually fluid, and does not describe herself as religious. Yet for years after leaving her church community, she grappled with issues related to the sexual messages she had received, like the idea that men could simply want to be platonic friends with her, or that a man might simply want to mentor her because she was talented, not because he had sexual interest in her.
Those messages also impacted her sexuality more generally. “I kept the idea that sex was shameful in general,” Kelly says, noting that she’s never been able to truly talk freely with friends about sex. "Deep down, I do think I am afraid of someone deciding that I am irresponsible or at worst, slutty."
Though today Kelly lives with a long-time partner, she says that her romantic history includes only long-term monogamous relationships and one-night stands —“because if I allowed things to escalate to sex within a day of meeting someone, the next day the shame was so intense that I would just like, ‘Nope, can’t see you again and I don’t even want to talk about it.’”
Leah lost her virginity at 25 — after a lifetime of feeling very sexual but being forbidden to express it, "I was about to explode." Her parents reacted poorly to the news — her mother cried, knocked her head against the wall, and "questioned where she went wrong in her parenting," while her dad suggested that she could get her hymen surgically restored ("You can’t make this shit up," Leah jokes).
It took a minute to discover her own sexual boundaries: "I had unprotected sex a lot with different men. I was uneducated. And naive. And I mostly slept around in a state of sheer rebellion. I was angry for being suppressed for so long." But once she engaged with her own sexuality, Leah "never looked back. I knew that my self-exploration and happiness had to be prioritized for once in my life."
Just because someone has left a religious community, doesn’t mean they are able to instantly drop any ideas they learned there that they no longer believe in. This seems to be especially true when it comes to sexuality and "sexual purity." While many people who leave abstinence-focused communities are able to have sex outside of marriage, it’s often extremely psychologically complicated.
Hannah Brashers, a writer who left an evangelical community and came out as queer, wrote in the Huffington Post that she developed an intense anxiety disorder around dating, which led to panic attacks: “I had trained myself to shut down all bodily desires and now that my desire had awakened, a fight or flight response had been activated. I couldn’t seem to convince my body that dating was safe.”
Marlene Winell, Ph.D., a human development consultant and author of Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Other Leaving Their Religion, tells Bustle that many of her patients have struggled to connect with their sexuality. "When you are trained to think badly about your body and badly about sex, and you’re supposed to definitely put it all on hold until marriage, that it doesn’t mean that…you can just switch it back on," Winell says. For people who were raised in religious communities that emphasized purity, it can be difficult "to appreciate yourself as a sexual being. Because you’ve been deeply, deeply trained to not do that."
"The good news," Winell says, "is that there is healing possible. So whether it’s in therapy or whether it’s by reading books or coming to a retreat, people can get better."
If you’re struggling with your sexuality after growing up a community that stigmatized it, Winell recommends beginning by being clear about what the sex-negative messages you received were, and where you specifically learned them. When there’s confusion about where the messaging came from, says Winell, people often feel "inadequate, blame themselves and put a lot of ‘shoulds’ on themselves." But "when you can be clear on some of that, you can be less blaming of yourself."
If you’re the partner of someone struggling with this issue, Winell suggests getting informed, "so that you’re not blaming." You can also remove the pressure to perform sexually, and if possible, to get couples counseling from a knowledgable practitioner, like a sex therapist. "Educate yourself about what the issues are and figure out what it would mean to be supportive."
And if you’re trying to support a friend who has recently left a "purity"-focused community, Winell suggests making sure that your statements about dating are supportive, not judgmental — so if your friend is feeling guilty about the desire to kiss someone, don’t blurt out, "Just kiss them, it’s not a big deal!" "Ask your friend what would be most supportive," Winell says, [and] what kinds of things can you say or do that would be helpful and not shaming." You can also help by "[talking] openly about your own sexuality and your own experiences in a very non-judgemental way."
Given all of this, Hannah’s comments to Luke seem even more remarkable. She’s not only fighting back against having her sexuality shamed; she’s refusing to view her spiritual identity as weakened, or herself as damaged, due to her sexuality. That’s not just empowering; it’s almost a miracle.
*Names have been changed for privacy.
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