When I signed my abstinence pledge before going to university in 2008, I knew three things to be absolute truths.
1) Anything more than a light makeout session was a grave sin in God's eyes.
2) Keeping the pledge would be easy.
3) Christians who had premarital sex didn't really love God.
I probably wasn't your typical abstinence pledger. I didn't take my pledge in front of my church congregation or at a purity ball. No one gave me a ring. I wasn't pressured into it by my family.
Rather, one night, all on my own, I found a purity covenant online, printed it off, signed it, and made what I thought at the time was a lifetime promise to God, myself and my future husband.
I wasn't born into purity culture – I sought it out. My liberal Christian mother and agnostic father always gave me the impression that sex was best saved for marriage, but they were far from fundamentalists. Sex was never mentioned one way or another at my mainline protestant church.
But for as long as I remember, I've always had a deep longing for God, a desire to know Him better and be a better Christian. So as a teenager, I made pilgrimages to my city's Christian bookstore, where I'd devour every book in its young adult section. It was through these books that I was introduced to purity culture.
I learned that sex was an awesome gift from God intended for married couples alone. I learned that if you have sex with someone before you meet your husband or wife, you'll constantly be comparing your spouse to that person. I learned that masturbation was a terrible sin. As a woefully inexperienced young teen who'd yet to be properly kissed, I took these “facts” as gospel truth.
Once I started going to an evangelical summer camp, I met a peer group even more zealous about being perfect Christians than I was. Friends would tearfully confess to making out too passionately with their boyfriends or girlfriends. (Many of those same friends would be married by 22 – waiting isn't easy). We supported each other in our quest for total purity.
After we graduated high school, a friend from camp lost his virginity to his girlfriend. He felt so ashamed and sickened by what they'd done that it ended up tearing their relationship apart. I felt sorry for them, but also smug in the fact that I'd never do that.
My virginity was a marker of my faith, I thought. As long as my purity was intact, I was a good Christian, a good person. Never mind the fact that I was a huge gossip, or that I kept my closet constantly stocked with new clothes while rarely giving to charity. An intact hymen equaled a free trip to heaven. It was that simple.
For the first few years, remaining abstinent was a breeze. I was super shy and socially awkward around boys, especially cute ones, so I never let myself get close to any. It's pretty easy to remain a virgin when you're not even giving anyone the chance to kiss you.
Sure, there were road bumps – early in university, I went out to a club with friends and found myself dancing closely with a guy. I was so distraught that I called my mom the next day in tears to confess what I'd done. But overall, I got about as much action as a nun.
Then I fell in love. I met the most wonderful agnostic boy, who I was wildly attracted to, and on one of our first dates I found myself making out with him in his bed. No clothes were removed, he didn't even touch my boobs, but we lay on top of each other and kissed each other's necks, and that was enough to make me feel guilty.
For the first time, I began seriously entertaining the thought that I'd lose my virginity before saying my wedding vows, and a big part of me was dismayed by that. I promised myself that I'd slow things down from then on, that I wouldn't take things any further. But I wasn't quite guilty enough to keep my hands off of him.
At an achingly slow rate, over the course of three years, we built up our sexual repertoire. First I let him touch my chest. Months later, I removed my shirt. At each step along the way, I'd find myself eagerly crossing a line I'd sworn I wouldn't, then feeling overwhelmingly guilty about it and begging God for forgiveness, promising it would never happen again, then doing it again anyway.
It wasn't just pure lust; I loved my boyfriend and I wanted to feel connected to him. There were many nights when he would hold me as my tears fell and I wailed that I wasn't a good person, that I wasn't going to heaven.
As I became more sexually experienced, I began to see that at least some of what purity culture sold me had been a lie. A non-marital sexual relationship can be every bit as loving as one between husband and wife. You can feel lust for someone and still respect them. Though my boyfriend's had sex before, he's content with me, not forever comparing me to his past girlfriends.
It's been seven years since I took my abstinence pledge, and today I'm a blow-job-giving, orgasm-having hypocrite. I now know that purity culture can be toxic, that you can be in a quasi-sexual relationship while still being a Sunday-school-teaching child of God, and that life as a grownup is infinitely more complex and full of gray areas than I could ever have imagined at 17.
But as much as I've changed, I've still kept an ironclad grip on my technical virginity. It's silly, I know – if P in V is a sin, the stuff I'm doing is just as immoral. But it's been like a security blanket. Now I feel that I'm on the verge of breaking that years-old pact once and for all. The only thing that gives me pause is that I still genuinely love God and want to do right by Him.
I'm a voracious reader of both feminist blogs and Christian publications, and I see truth in both worldviews. No one should be shamed for who they choose to have sex with, but at the same time there's something special about reserving sex for someone you love. Sex is an important part of a healthy relationship, and yet it's also a precious gift from God.
In some ways, I'm so ready to have sex. I'm knowledgeable about birth control, we've discussed how we'd deal with an unplanned pregnancy, and I crave sex so badly that it almost hurts.
At the same time, I have a lot of fears around sexuality. I fear being sent to hell (I don't even know if I believe in hell anymore, but I'd rather not take chances). I fear that I won't be able to face God in prayer, knowing that I may have let Him down. I fear the embarrassment that would come if my pastors and church friends discovered I was doing it. I fear feeling disappointed in myself for not being able to keep my promise.
I feel like I don't have anyone I can talk to about this decision, other than God and my boyfriend. My agnostic and atheist friends don't understand the gravity of the situation, don't understand how high the stakes are for me. My Christian friends would assure me that it's absolutely a sin and that I need to repent.
I read somewhere that 80 percent of evangelicals have had sex before marriage. I don't believe for a second that every one of them took that decision lightly, and most of all I wish that we could all talk about it. Maybe if Christians were more open about our sexual choices and the reasoning behind them we'd be able to treat each other (and ourselves) with more love and less instant condemnation.
I'm praying for guidance, but I don't yet know when my days as a virgin will be coming to an end. I do know that I'm done judging other people for their sexual decisions. Waiting doesn't make you a holier-than-thou zealot, and not waiting doesn't make you a lustful failure. And never let a teenager who thinks she has all the answers tell you otherwise.