I’m not exactly a Success Story for abstinence education. My hymen didn’t make it to my wedding day. As an unapologetically loud-mouthed, sex-positive, liberal, feminist comedian/playwright, I’m the kind of person you’d expect to have melted down her defunct purity ring and molded it into a clit piercing. But honestly, I’m grateful for my era of teenage chastity.
This isn’t to say I’m 100% for the purity movement as a whole. I want to high-five every kid who participated in the #lookadouche hashtag victory that skewered the misogyny of a popular pro-abstinence dating book. I incessantly share this sharp satirical article as the best articulation of why it’s silly for Christianity to expect women to prevent sexual attention by dressing any particular way.
In its worst forms, abstinence and purity ideology teach girls that only men enjoy sex and that women are responsible for policing their desires, both to prevent their partners from “sinning” and to keep them interested. For boys, the takeaway can be that they can’t control their own penises, so a worthwhile girlfriend (who doesn’t care about sex because she’s too busy having emotions, obvs) should always have her foot on the brake. Purity and abstinence teaching also typically leave out anything relevant to gay, lesbian, and transgender teens.
These are arguments I’ve made against purity culture since having sex. But they’re not based in my experience within the movement, mostly thanks to my parents’ sex positivity.
When I wrote gel pen confessions to my mom that I’d been having dreams that felt good in a weird way, or that I kept finding myself drawn to animal mating documentaries, she made sure I knew I was normal (while discreetly laughing at me for being turned on by lizard sex). During one memorable road trip, my dad asked me why I thought people have sex. I likely said something about babies. Or Jesus. “No, we do it because it feels good!” he cheerily asserted, while I concentrated really hard on my Sailor Moon Chapstick. He and my mom told me over and over that sex was supposed to be awesome, and from their perspective, waiting to have sex with a spouse would just make it as awesome as possible.
I’m particularly grateful for my mom’s insistence that engaging in sex should be a conscious decision. “We’re not animals,” she asserted, especially when confronted with the old boys-will-be-boys bullshit. Her focus on personal responsibility in spite of biological urges laid the groundwork for my opposition to rape culture while encouraging me to be think through the potential consequences of trusting particular people with my physical vulnerability and my feelings.
The purity programs that lured me to church with Christian rock, free soda, and (of course) cute boys didn’t prove all that bad either. One speaker emphasized that although condoms can prevent pregnancy and HIV, they don’t totally protect you from herpes or HPV--a true fact that I never heard anywhere else. (Don’t get me wrong: condoms are AWESOME and EVERYONE should use them, but it’s important to learn their limitations.)
Another speaker distributed a list of escalating sexual acts on which she encouraged us to “draw the line,” marking the things we’d be comfortable doing. A broad application of this idea isn’t super effective, since boundaries shift as relationships grow and also because the terms “light petting” and “heavy petting” aren’t nearly specific enough (shirt on or off? over or under the bra? eyes closed or open?!), but the exercise encouraged me to consider my moment-to-moment comfort level when mackin’ on dudes. When guys try to guilt me for not engaging in certain acts, I remember this concept. It’s MY line, man. I mark it, I move it if I want to, but it’s MINE, and I don’t have to justify it to you.
Far from being overly-involved chastity ball attendees, my parents didn’t even give me the purity ring I ended up wearing. I asked for that silver no-sex symbol right before I left for college. I chose a basic band inscribed with a verse from Song of Solomon as a reminder to myself and, eventually, as visual evidence for the douchebags who would slyly try to talk me out of my commitment.
My long-term virgin status warded off garbage people who I tried to date out of naive hormonal attachment. After assuring me that they really respected my convictions, these guys would relentlessly probe my boundaries until, finally accepting my resolve, they’d flee. One such gentleman eventually became patient zero of a Chlamydia outbreak. The first boy I ever kissed may or may not have been finger-blasting a Pizza Hut coworker when he wasn’t dry-humping my unyielding body.
The worst offender, a heinous paper doll of a hipster, failed to disclose that he had genital warts, a fact I learned months after he attempted to assault me and then ditched my maiden ass. A recent boyfriend invited me to his parents’ house for a week, told me he loved me, then dumped me on the phone and made out with someone new before my very eyes in the smallest living room imaginable. Not having rounded the bases with him made it easier to observe him mack on his new interest in the months to come. Hence, sexual limitations often rescued me from diseases and from my own romantic delusions.
I’m not about slut-shaming: it’s just that my personality can’t handle the hit-and-quit. I’m a sleep-and-keep kind of girl. As much as the saying makes me want to execute a Liz Lemon-level eye roll, you really can’t put a condom on your heart—and my fragile heart requires a condom, a diaphragm, a Nuva Ring, and a dose of Plan B. Taking things slow from day one gave me time to figure that out about myself.
I did eventually choose to have sex with a boyfriend. In the two years I dated him before we did the deed, he never questioned any of my boundaries, preferring my mere presence to any hope of penetration. But over time my religious ideals gradually waned, until I slipped off a ring that didn’t seem to fit me anymore.
Since we broke up, I haven’t had sex with anyone else. I’m not trying to revirginate, but, based on my dubious dating history, I’m happy to postpone coitus with someone until I decide that I love and trust him. I no longer believe in the altar as an endzone, but I still think waiting a while can make sex safer and smarter.