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I wasn’t your average kid that went to church every Sunday morning. I went to church every Sunday morning, every Sunday evening, every Wednesday evening and in the summers, every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday as well.
Sometimes when I was bored I would walk the mile to my church and ask around for work that I could do. Not for money, but just to be in the place that God was.
I was special. I was mature and evolved. I was the youngest person to be baptized in my church. Baptism was a seemingly magical ceremony that you had to prove you were ready for and if you did, you got to go to a big party just for you where the pastor would dunk your head in a pool and announce to everyone the commitment you had made to your faith.
My mom sat my older brother and I down and asked why we wanted to be baptized. I repeated the words I had painstakingly memorized. I told her that baptism was my outward expression of my inward decision. My older brother said little. It was decided that I was mature enough to be baptized, my brother was not.
I understood what it meant to be a Christian. I understood what my outward signs must be. I knew I was lucky to be loved by God and by Jesus. I had to work as hard as I could to save my friends and be the shining example of Jesus to them that I knew I could be, as well as the shining example to other believers in my church.
I would write songs about my love for Jesus and God and perform them in front of the congregation. At the age of nine I told everyone with certainty that God had called me to ministry. Boys thought I was weird, but their mothers would comment about how much they hoped their sons would fall in love with me someday.
By 10 I didn’t know how people had sex, but I did know the power it held on me and the world around me. I knew that nothing made Jesus prouder of me than my abstinence. I knew that saving myself for my future husband was a responsibility left only to me.
I was promised that one day my parents would give me my very own purity ring to represent my commitment. I would wear it every day until my wedding as a constant reminder of the promise of virginity that I had made to myself, my parents, my future husband and to God.
I remember one of many abstinence conferences where we were shown a girl with a large wooden heart. She would go from man to man, cutting the heart up and giving it away. It was explained to us that once we gave our virginity away, we could never have it back. The more that we gave it away, the less we’d be left with to give our husbands some day.
Other analogies compared virginity to a chewed up piece of gum that becomes less enjoyable with every chewer, a crushed flower that could never be put back together.
I would imagine what it would feel like to wear the ring on my finger, how beautiful and perfect it would be. I would spend evenings falling asleep imagining the perfect night, my wedding night, where I would take off my ring and hand it to my husband. A perfect, unblemished gift. I took these lessons to heart, promising to save my precious gift for my husband and never cause my brother’s in Christ to stumble.
Stumbling was a constant topic in church and at home, not to be taken lightly. As a girl, I had the power to cause my brothers in Christ to fall prey to the evils of temptation.
The only acceptable form of bathing suit was a one piece, preferably with a baggy shirt over it. Cleavage was reserved for the secular world along with thighs, midriffs, spaghetti straps, and bikinis.
Long before I even had a figure to tempt with, I knew I had to always be on guard. And while I knew Jesus loved me, I feared the disappointment that I would come if I ever let a brother stumble and take my purity with him. I held all of these responsibilities and promises. But I still wanted to trick-or-treat.
Halloween had always been off-limits with stories of the horrors of demonic-possession and Satanic influences told to us every year as we begged to participate in it, but for the first time my parents were letting up on the rules just a little bit. We were allowed to dress up in costume and attend a church alternative to Halloween. There would still be candy and costumes and that’s all that mattered to me.
I had selected the perfect costume. I would be a hippie.
My costume was meticulously planned from head to toe:
* The pink waist rope of my mom’s bathrobe tied around my head.
* My peasant blouse with yellow daisies on it. The past spring my best friends mom put this top on layaway for me at Wal-mart and promised that by summer it’d be mine. She followed through and I wore it constantly.
* The bellbottom pants I had gotten for Christmas the year before. I loved these pants. They had the widest pant legs I could imagine with flames made out of glitter and sequins going up to the knee. I didn’t even mind the word “SAMPLE” printed across the side, believing my mom when she told me that it must have been the new style. Really, she was trying desperately to hide that our gifts were made up of donations from local charities.
* My amazing, perfect skater boy shoes. These were my prized possession. Dark blue and oversized for my feet. Not a hand-me-down, not a donation, not even some Wal-Mart knock off, these were the real deal. Thanks to a generous donation, at the beginning of the school year we went to a real shoe store where we could pick out any pair we wanted. After carefully searching the store and every pair of shoes in it, these were the ones I chose. For the first time, boys and girls in my class would stop to tell me how cool my shoes were.
I don’t remember any other detail from the church event that night, just my costume. It was perfect. And I wore that costume for days on end. I wore it until the night on the fort with the boy and then I never wore it again.
It was just days after Halloween. It was dark out and the Florida nights had finally started to cool. I was wearing my perfect hippie costume and we based a game around it. Simple but fun, it was called “Cops and Hippies.”
Playing that night was my oldest sister, Heather, my older but not oldest brother, Sean, myself and the other boy. The other boy was around 12 as well. I don’t remember anything about the way he looked at that point or even the way his voice sounded.
As I got older and the memories grew, I would continually replace his child voice with the surprisingly deep and gruff voice he came into as a teenager. He was Sean’s best friend and they found themselves getting into more and more trouble. For fun, they would fill water guns with hot sauce or their own urine, and shoot it at the neighbors.
Once, he locked my sister in our bathroom, demanding her to let him see her boobs or else he wouldn’t let her out. But my sister was good and she was strong. She screamed at him and forced him to leave her alone.
We started the game in the front yard of my parent’s house.
The game was simple. The boys were cops, the girls were hippies. The girls proclaimed peace and love, dancing around and singing our made up protest songs. The boys tried to arrest us, impenetrable to our message of kindness. The boys tried shooting us with their guns, we stuck daisies in them.
Then I was arrested.
He pretend-cuffed me and led me along the house. We walked past my parents' bedroom and through the fence that led to the backyard. We walked along the side of the house, the wall that held the safety of my bedroom on just the other side.
He took me past the house into the area where our fort sat, in the deepest part of yard, just before it turned into overrun brush and trees.
Our “fort” had been built for us by my dad. Somewhere between a fort, a playhouse, and an abandoned home project, we just called it a fort. It had a base, about 10 by 12 feet, made out of basic wood beams, and a second story the same size. The beams were covered in carvings made by my brothers, sisters, and I over the years. Reminding us of the different games, clubs, and sleepovers it had housed.
No walls, no paint. Next to the fort was our old metal slide, rarely used in the past five years. Instead we used the slide to access the top floor of the fort. It was a danger and fort-related accidents had already sent my youngest sister on two separate trips to the ER. It would continue to sit in our backyard for years after it was useful to anyone, until my dad finally tore it down to replace it with a storage shed.
I don’t know where my brother and sister were at this point, gone somewhere, bored by the simple game, leaving just him and me in the backyard, alone.
He led me up the stairs of the slide to the top floor of the fort. With each step up my stomach began to turn more. I wondered what kind of game it was we were playing and when it would end. He told me to lay down on my stomach. I did so willingly, uncertain about whether this was still a game.
I don’t remember my clothes coming off, I don’t remember the feeling. I remember my face pressed up on the side of the wood as he was on top of me. I felt the immense weight of him on me. I remember looking down below me at the bottom floor. I remember bugs crawling all around me and thinking that this is something I’d never do, press my face up against a dirty floor, let bugs crawl just inches away from my eyes.
I remember my tears running down the sides of my face, burning hot against my skin. All I could do was imagine ways to escape.
I remember from my space on the fort in that moment when I felt so alone and so far away, I could see into the windows of my own house. I could see my family moving about, too far to hear me crying. I imagined them all sitting around the TV in the living room, watching America’s Funniest Home Videos and every so often someone briefly wondering where I was.
More than anything I remember his words.
“Promise not to scream and it won’t hurt so much.”
“Promise not to tell and it will be over sooner.”
“Promise not to tell or I’ll do it again.”
I kept my promise and I didn’t tell. I didn’t tell out of shame that I had somehow asked for this. Out of fear that he would come back for me.
It took a long time before I could remember anything from that night. The days that followed blur together, but almost immediately I knew something very bad had happened to me, and while I tried to dig and claw through the memories from just nights earlier, my brain graciously protected me, revealing only small pieces over the years that followed.
But by my 14th birthday, I could remember everything about the night he raped me.
For my birthday that year I was given my purity ring. Shiny and gold with tiny diamond specks in it. It was everything I had dreamed of when I was just a little girl.
I wore my ring daily. Often, I would look down and feel proud of my commitment, only to be overrun by shame when I remembered the truth. In my brief moments of strength or desperation I’d tell a friend, only to be met with looks of pity.
I understood the truth. I knew that I was a chewed up piece of gum and that it was all my fault. Somehow, that night, I let my guard down. I let myself be a temptation. I knew that people would tell me it didn’t count, that to God I still held my gift. But I knew they would be lying to me and themselves.
I’d twirl the ring around my finger over and over again, imagining that at any moment it might burn a hole through me, or rot against my filthy skin. I felt sick about what had happened, terrified of ever letting anyone know, furious that I let it happen to me, that God had let it happen to me.
I’d obsess over how I could have stopped it. I began to unravel, consumed by the truth about my body and the lie that I was living. Filthy, putrid, weak, worthless ran through my head as I fell into a fitful sleep each night.
For how many years was I told my virginity was something I could never take back? If they said anything else now, it would only be to spare my feelings.
I saw the girls who had been hurt like me and were naive enough to share it. They would be questioned thoroughly to ensure first that it wasn’t their own fault, only believed half the time.
They were pitied, lesser than. The sad looks they were given, the whispering when they left the room. They could only hope to find a husband who could forgive them and look beyond their past failings.
I began to have anxiety attacks, locking myself in bathrooms for hours on end, sobbing and hitting my head over and over. I’d try to get dressed in the morning, changing my outfit over and over, convinced that each item was too revealing, too slutty, asking for it.
I’d be driving down the road and remember suddenly what he had done and want to drive into oncoming traffic. I felt certain that I’d let God down, that Jesus wasn’t so proud of me anymore. I had brief moments of hating him, followed by tearful apologies and begging for mercy and forgiveness.
Years went by and I held on to my secret, my lie. I grew and changed, dyeing my hair wild colors, adorned with piercings and tattoo, asking the “tough” questions and finding my church community didn’t appreciate it.
I’d let everyone down. No one hoped that their son might marry me some day. No one asked me to write songs, or lead classes. I was a shining example to no one.
Still I wore my purity ring, but I felt empty inside and I was tired of pretending to be good and pure.
So I found a guy. He wasn’t anything special, just a boy in the right place. He didn’t love me and I didn’t love him. In fact, he wasn’t even nice to me. He’d pick me up for dates and then beg me to have sex with him. When I told him no, he’d call other girls in front of me, telling me they’d give him what he wanted. Finally I agreed.
My parents had little trust in me these day. After graduation, I was set to go bible college and fulfill my destiny of working in ministry, but at the last minute I changed my mind.
I informed my parents of my decision and they informed me that I would be paying rent from then on. They were looking for a reason to kick me out and I was looking for a reason to get kicked out.
Our whole family was planning to go on the cruise that September, but I had lied and told them I couldn’t get out of work to go with them. Really, I couldn’t stand to be around them and they couldn’t stand to be around me. I thought I’d make it easier on everyone.
He came over to my empty house. I waited, scared and hoping to find an excuse to change my mind. I knew though that I’d go through with it no matter what. He had forgotten a condom, so we decided to make the mile walk to Wal-Mart. We could have driven, but I pushed us to walk, trying to delay the inevitable. The sun was out and the September in Florida weather meant it was still too hot to be out on long walks. We went slowly, silent the whole way there.
I waited outside the Wal-mart. I sat on the ground, trying to stop my stomach from turning over and over. It felt like I had been waiting forever. He finally came out, having stolen a single condom from a box inside the store. I wasn’t even worth the extra five dollars. I was 18.
By the time we got back to the house we were both exhausted and sweaty. We collapsed on the carpet in my parent’s living room and tried to catch our breath. We both laid there, flat on our stomachs facing one another.
I breathed in deep and thought how wonderful it would be to finally let go of the eight year lie that was my purity. I stood up, slid the ring off my finger, set it down on the ground, and walked into my bedroom.
After that night, everything collapsed. My parents finally asked me to leave their home and my church finally asked me to leave their community. They abandoned me and I was alone and scared. Everything I had known was gone.
I was forced to find new family and new friends. I found people who didn’t care about Christianity and didn’t care about my purity. These were the people that saved me, these were the people that loved me.
It is eight years later.
I am 26 now. I live in North Carolina with my husband of five years. I love deeply and am deeply loved.
We live in a sweet little house looking out over the Blue Ridge mountains. Our street is lined with trees that bloom with flowers in the spring and turn to intense and beautiful shades of burnt reds and oranges in the fall.
We sit out on our porch at night and watch the fireflies as they swarm around our house and light up our little hill. We’ve built this life together. We’ve traveled and found this place we call home now.
We have little matching tattoos that remind us of our trip together across the country, and years of stories and adventures and trials and memories that we share together. He holds me on the days that I can’t help but hurt and cry and he laughs with me when I am able to make fun of my past.
Together we run our church’s youth group. Our church is known in the community for our constant activism and fighting for justice and equality. This church is not like the church of my childhood.
This is a group of people who fight intensely for human rights, who refer to tearing down the patriarchy on a regular basis. It is filled with people who have marched on Washington, been arrested while protesting for their right to marry, and have crusaded tirelessly for those who are homeless, abandoned, and marginalized.
I constantly remind them I intend to never teach abstinence and purity heavy education to their children and they smile and nod approvingly.
Three Sundays a month, we spend the evening with a group of wild, hilarious, and insightful teenagers. Very few of them consider themselves Christians and they groan when I mention Jesus. They tell hilarious stories and have a remarkable knowledge of 70s and 80s music. One will often come with tarots cards in tow and offer to read your fortune, another talks on and on about his favorite Flaming Lips song.
We laugh and we talk and we eat shameful amounts of candy. I tell them that I love them often enough that they roll their eyes when they hear it. But I also tell them that they can talk to me about anything, and I know they believe it. I have been given this incredible responsibility of guiding them on faith and spirituality, and more importantly, being their friend and confidante.
I have built for myself a life and a home. I am surrounded by family and community. I am safe, I am respected, and I am loved.
My purity ring still sits in an old wallet, tucked away in my closet somewhere. Sometimes I’ll find it and pull it out and look at it. I’ll twist it around in my hands and think about all the ways that this little ring affected me.
It can hurt me deeply to look at it, to think about how dark and confused so much of my life felt, and to know that there are still little boys and little girls who feel these same feelings I once did.
I imagine what my life might have looked like if that night had been different. If at 10 years old, I knew that Jesus loved me, that he made us all sexual beings, and that I should never feel ashamed of that. That sexuality is good and beautiful and wonderful, and that no one has the right to my body without my permission.
That violation is violation, and that my body and I deserve respect no matter what. If I had known without a doubt that that I could run and tell the first adult I found and immediately find a source of comfort and safety instead of shame and fear.
If I could have been told that what had happened was not my fault, and that it didn’t make me any less deserving of love. That my body was sacred and perfect and beautiful and that I was not damaged at all.
I was not defined by my rape, and I was not defined by my sexuality. I was not chewed up or broken. What happened to me that night when I was little girl was not sex, it was violation.
It was never my shame to hold and I held no responsibility for it. Shame belonged to that boy who took what was never his to have. And shame belonged to the church, who filled a little girl’s mind with ideas that she should feel responsible and broken for this terrible thing.
And so I left my rape, my abstinence, and my old faith in the dirt with the bugs where it belonged. I fell in love and accepted the love I knew I deserved. I continue to grow and recover a little more every day.