What If You Followed All the Rules?

It’s a great feeling to have all of your lifelong fears and discomforts finally validated;

when a whole community of writers and bloggers starts speaking up and tearing down the cultural constructs that have so oppressed and depressed you throughout the entirety of your childhood and early adulthood;

when all of the opinions that used to make you a rebel – a pariah, of sorts – are finally not only your own and the burden of the truth, the whole truth, no longer seems to rest on your shoulders alone.

One Sarah Bessey I’d never heard of or read before out of nowhere writes an article about her experience with something called “purity culture” and all of a sudden I’m in a heap in front of the gate to my preschool,

ugly crying as I pull a torn notebook page out of my back pocket and just as suddenly start writing again. I had really sworn off writing, you see, after two arrogant sorts in my college poetry club wore me down until I couldn’t hear my voice over their imagined critiques every time I set pen to paper. But there it was, that nagging voice that I just can never quite squelch, the one that starts whispering in my ears whenever my soul rubs up against any kind of injustice or injury towards the outsiders of society. I have always liked the borderliners,
the people of the outskirts,
the ones who liked to dance to their own beat right on the fringes of society and orthodoxy.

I considered myself quite one of their own.

Little did I know that I was dancing right behind that Pied Purity Piper all along.

See, here’s the thing:

I’m a virgin.

Emily says that I should define my terms which, whatever, but what I mean is my hymen is firmly intact. Not only that, there’s never been any danger of that changing.

So there’s all my cards out on the table. Yikes.

Oh yeah, see, I followed the purity culture rules to a tee. I am its angry, sulking poster child. I snarled and seethed and bathed in red lipstick but I never did quite get off my high horse. In fact, I did purity culture one better and I kept my kiss-ginity too. (yeah, that’s a thing.) I avoided boys like the plague and kept romantic moments quite out of the question and I ran as far away from that hypothetical ledge as I could and dear lord if you could get medals for self-control I WOULD HAVE THEM. Oh, I compromised alright, but I made sure that any rules I broke were the ones not quite black and white enough to find their way into the verbose, exacting purity culture handbook.

After all…

I was not about to be sullied!

I was not about to become pee water!

I was not about to give any Christian boy any further reason to discredit my viability as a spouse, seeing as how they already found plenty.

I was like those people who don’t believe in God but say a few rosaries & light a few candles every now & then, just in case of Apocalypse.

Now I’m 22 years old and I feel like I may still actually be a prepubescent teenager, unsure of myself or how to appropriately interact with the opposite sex and you know, how to hold a boy’s hand and stuff.( Are the fingers supposed to lock? Is that a thing? That is not pleasant. Am I just supposed to get used to that?) Sigh.

While my friends were getting labeled and shamed for engaging in sexual behavior, I was busy trying to convince everyone around me that I had no interest in and desire for sex at all.

While others were abused physically, I was abused emotionally by men who were so indoctrinated into purity culture that as long as they never kissed me on the mouth or slept with me, they earnestly believed they’d done right by me.

It’s strange to me that we seem to have the same triggers now – those of us who experienced physical abuse and those of us who suffered emotional heartache and physical neglect by men who thought they could divorce our hearts from our bodies. I do not claim that these two kinds of wounds are equal in destructive repercussions, but it seems that they are more similar in kind than they are often given credit for.

And I’m afraid I find myself at a crossroads.

Emily and I are two months into our Purity Culture Rehab Project and all of a sudden I realize that tearing down purity culture will have to involve constructing something inside the void that it left. But what? What goes there now? Do I start mercilessly sleeping with every boy I come into contact with? Do I throw caution to the wind?

I discovered this week that quite a few of the writers I admire most seem to vary rather widely when it comes to the whole “Is Extramarital Sex Still a Sin” thing, which I naively didn’t know was a question anyone was asking. Anyone who ascribes to any semblance of a Christian philosophy, that is. For me that’s not a question, based on what I believe about the Bible and stuff, but I’m learning how not to shame people for having choices that differ from mine.

I’m learning how not to shame myself for making choices that I can’t carefully, methodically defend.

I’m still a little ashamed though.

I’m a little ashamed of my inexperience.

I’m a little ashamed of my stupidity.

What is an ignorant virgin trying to combat purity culture for, anyway?

Isn’t it a little superfluous to try and rehabilitate myself from purity culture fully intending to stay a virgin at the end of it?

I’m still not sure it isn’t an exercise in futility.

My conclusion is this:

my virginity – or lack thereof – is the property of my personhood.

I am not less a person for losing it.

I am not less a person for keeping it.

I am not required to catch up.

Taking back my personhood means taking back my sexuality. It does not belong to my church or my friends or other people’s opinions or even to my own stubborn stereotypes of what should be; of what’s normal.

I have time to figure this all out, you see. Tearing down purity culture doesn’t necessarily mean that, at the end, I will have built a healthy understanding of my sexuality at the same time. While rehabilitation does require breaking a collection of destructive habits, it also necessitates the beginning of new healthy ones to take their place. So here’s my Rehab Project shifting focus a bit – from dismantling the evils of purity culture to creating something new to replace it.

//-//

I wanna talk about how I’m afraid that all of us fighting against purity culture will, by heading towards the other extreme, lose any audience we may have had with the conservative Christian culture that so desperately needs change.

I wanna talk about how sin & shame are two different things.

I wanna talk about how purity culture is as harmful to those who comply with its demands as it is to those who do not.

But right now, I just wanna sit

in the bliss that is knowing

that I am mine.

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14 comments

  1. Dani

    I was abused emotionally by men who were so indoctrinated into purity culture that as long as they never kissed me on the mouth or slept with me, they earnestly believed they’d done right by me.

    Yes. Yes. Yes. This. Absolutely this. All of the “non-relationships” that I had that caused the same kind of heartache without the validation of a title (“I mean, it’s not like you dated!”). Sigh.

    • Emily Elizabeth

      I don’t tolerate “non-relationships” anymore. Either we are platonic or dating (even if it means we are seeing other people – which is a-ok) – no in betweens! While I have many friends who are men and I occasionally become attracted to some of them, I think that it is tempting to take the path of least resistance and to just “hope” that your man friend might realize what a good partner you would make. I tried that because I thought that it was truly more honoring to God if I simply folded my hands, did nothing and waited for the guy to come around and I was absolutely miserable. It wreaked havoc on my relationship with God and my worship experience because I was so distracted.

      Nowadays, if I really like someone as more than a friend, I put it out there on the table if I am attracted to a friend of mine and if I feel like it, I will ask him out. But if I sense that he is not interested – I just try to kick the dust off my feet and move on to greener pastures.

  2. Jaime

    I’ve been checking in more often than I care to admit, anxiously awaiting your next post. Thank you for this.

  3. Becca

    Fascinating, although I’d make it clearer that what you are fighting is the culture of legalism and rule-keeping which is damaging, rather than purity in itself. If that’s what you’re saying!
    Very interesting, inspiring and beautifully written post, thank you.

  4. perfectnumber628

    I totally relate to this. I’ve always been a good Christian girl, doing everything right, horribly ashamed of the fact that I kissed my first boyfriend… but considering that relationship to be just a huge mistake I regret from before I *really* knew God. (Which, it kind of was, but I thought that every failed relationship was evidence of not following God… so then I was terrified of ever starting a relationship…)

    ANYWAY and then last year I really liked this dude (my current boyfriend!) and I prayed about him a lot (because, obviously, God has destined me for one specific guy, etc etc, and every crush is either a huge regret that leaves my heart permanently scarred and unworthy of love OR that magical perfect relationship intended by God. No pressure!) and I realized that EVERYTHING I BELIEVED ABOUT DATING WAS BASED IN FEAR.

    And I just went ahead and asked this dude out, because I decided, based on the information I had, that it was a good idea. Not because I got a “yes” from God. I am so done with that, so done with thinking anything that goes wrong with a relationship is evidence that I wasn’t listening to God enough when he was trying to tell me not to EVER START dating the guy. (Victim-blaming much?)

    Wow now I want to go blog about purity culture. Haha. Great post, by the way. 🙂

  5. Megan (@smallwanderer)

    I totally relate to the following-all-the-rules and then getting out of adolescence and feeling awkwardly unprepared for grown-up relationships. I had been taught that dating is for finding a husband so you shouldn’t date until you’re ready to get married. So then I’m in college and I’ve never held a boy’s hand (loved your comment about locking fingers) and I can’t stop giggling whenever anyone talks about sex. But, I got extremely lucky and found a guy who is patient with me and loves me in my awkwardness. And I really don’t regret not dating in high school, even if I didn’t necessarily have good reasons for it at the time. Like you said, I’m not more or less of a person for those decisions, and I don’t have to “catch up.” Thanks for these insights.

  6. rachelquednau

    I hear you. Could you share some links to the other posts you referenced on the topic of “Is Extramarital Sex Still a Thing?” Fascinating topic from a theological and modern Christian perspective

  7. mislimbeks

    Oh man, I may just curl up into a ball and cry for a long time– this is seriously beautiful– and I’m pretty sure I relate to this in every freaking way. I’m sitting in the exact same boat and have no idea what to do. THANK YOU– for writing this, for being honest… Even when it’s not the most comfortable. So much respect!

  8. mislimbeks

    I may just curl up into a ball and cry for awhile. I’m pretty sure I relate to this article, your situation, and the questions you’re asking– in every single way. And I can’t at thank you enough for saying all this. It’s nice to hear I’m not the only one here. THANK YOU– from the bottom of my heart!

  9. kate schell

    “I realize that tearing down purity culture will have to involve constructing something inside the void that it left. But what?” Thank you for articulating this. It is what I am figuring out, too. Purity culture is such a sprawling, elaborate system of rules and consequences, fear and shame, that freedom and common sense just don’t seem to fill the void. But maybe we don’t need an elaborate alternative to purity culture. Maybe we don’t need another system. Maybe that’s the point.

  10. Mary

    Thank you for this! It’s a mess – regularly discuss it with my single friends in our thirties, my view of myself as a woman/sexual being has been so messed up and buttoned down, never been kissed, so easy to compare with the teenagers I teach or the happily married couples. Grateful for freedom but takes some work finding our way out of the legalistic maze of church culture.

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