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Let's Talk About Sex & Shame. Part XIII.

As much as I'm willing to talk about almost any topic or idea or concept, sharing my personal stories always feels terrifying. All evidence to the contrary, I am a fairly private person. In telling my story as it relates to sexuality and shame, I feel like I am inviting you into a closer friendship than we've previously had. So, welcome, friend.

Here's my story:*
If I were to summarize the reasons I am critical of the purity movement, it is not because it teaches a conservative/Christian perspective on sexual abstinence. It is because, as a young person, it painted unrealistic dreams for my future and made promises it couldn't keep. It gave me rules to follow that would get me to marriage as a virgin, but it didn't teach me how to have healthy and mature relationships with men apart from (or before) marriage. And rather than dismantling and bringing healing to my sexual brokenness, it reinforced fear-based thinking that taught me lies about both myself and the men I encounter.  
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From what I understand, I started reading when I was three years old, and I have been a voracious reader since. I cannot encounter a sign or a cereal box or a label without reading it, let alone a book.  
So it doesn't surprise me (in hindsight) that I read ALL THE BOOKS on purity and dating (and not dating) that the Christian book industry produced in the 90s, many of them while I was still in junior high. They were the source of knowledge on how to date right, how to get to a good marriage, and how to be dateable. I wanted all of those things. Books were my main source of information when it came to sex and relationships. Books and observations. In the customary school and youth group conversations, I listened intently, but rarely (if ever) would have admitted any questions of my own.

On my 12th birthday (or maybe my 13th?), my mother and I went away overnight. I had long anticipated this little getaway – it was a rite of passage in our family to go away with a parent to mark the shift into adolescence, and, of course, to talk about the birds and the bees. I was less eager for this part, and when my mom brought it up, I remember quickly telling her that I understood how it worked and had no questions for her. Which was entirely true; I knew the mechanics and I had no questions, though I am sure I had many false beliefs and gaping holes about navigating the next decade. It simply hadn't occurred to me yet that it would be anything less than straightforward. I am glad my parents had this family ritual, and I wish I had taken better advantage of it. But I was twelve, and didn't know what a unique family I have.

Something else that hindsight has made clear to me is that my parents' displays of affection for one another were a blessing. They never let their children's disgust or embarrassment keep them from kissing hello (and goodbye), holding hands while walking, and not-infrequently whispering in one another's ears and giggling/chuckling together. They are in their 60s now, and these habits have not changed. At 29, I still roll my eyes at them, but I am grateful to know my parents love each other, that they are attracted to one another, and that they are comfortable with us knowing it.

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While in junior high, before I had much awareness of my own sexuality, I was on the receiving end of unwanted sexual advances. I knew instinctively that something was not right, and spoke up. My interpretation of what had happened was explained away as a misunderstanding, and the situation did not reoccur. I tried to put the entire thing from my mind.

This experience reinforced (or perhaps purity culture later reinforced) two false beliefs about sexuality: first, that the male libido is inherently aggressive and disrespectful of female autonomy, and secondly, that I must protect myself from sexual attention.

I always want to know the rules, whether we are playing a game or going on a trip or working on a project together. I want to know the rules, because then I know how to be successful, how to do right and be good. Follow the rules, do your best, the results will follow. This has by-and-large been the formula of my life. Occasionally there are rules that don't make sense to me, and I will ask “Why?” before deciding to break them. In my entire high school career, I skipped precisely one period of class, and I told my teacher beforehand that I would be baking gingerbread cookies with an exchange student instead of coming to class to watch Comment le grinch a vole Noel. She said that was totally fine with her, and off I went.

The point is: I was immersed in purity culture, and knew its rules: no sex outside marriage, dress modestly, "guard your heart." 97% of the time, as a teen and young adult, I did those things well. I followed the rules, because I loved the God who had (apparently) asked this of me, and because I was protecting myself.

But inside, I was deeply antagonistic towards this body of mine. I hated it. On one hand, because it was unavoidably sexual (I have breasts, after all) and therefore out of my control, and on the other hand, because in my teenage mind, I was not sexy (or pretty or attractive – it was nearly impossible to differentiate between those words) and thirdly, because I wanted to be attractive. I didn't know how to process or resolve these feelings, and I didn't know of anyone else wrestling with similar thoughts, so I largely suffered on own.

It may go without saying that my high school love life was essentially non-existent. This isn't entirely because of purity culture; my voracious reading habits were part of a larger geekdom that generally doesn't translate into high-school popularity, and the unkind feelings I had towards my body resulted in all kinds of social anxiety when interacting with boys.

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In university, I had my first official boyfriend. He was a good Christian boy, and I was a good Christian girl, and for the first few weeks, it seemed all my dreams were coming true. I had followed the rules, and this was the payoff. While I intellectually understood that there are no guaranteed relationships, I had long assumed that God would reward my faithful purity with a strong leader of a man and a happy marriage, likely straight out of college.

When our relationship began to unravel, I had no framework to interpret this surprising turn of events. If the rules I had learned were not the tools I needed to get to the goal of marriage, and flip the switch that allowed me to be a sexual being, what were they for?

This question scared me, and as I often do with things that scare me, I attempted to ignore it and carry on.

Around the same time, I had a seemingly innocuous conversation with a man. It was quickly clear to me that he was quite interested in getting to know me. In a few weeks more, it was evident that he was not emotionally/mentally stable. He became convinced that we were meant to be together, despite my best attempts to graciously tell him otherwise. For the next two years, I lived under the fear of aggressive male sexuality. Fear of encountering him simmered in the back of my mind whenever I was alone, until our lives diverged enough that I no longer scanned the streets for his presence.

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A few years out of university, within a handful of months of each other, four marriages of people close to me began to unravel. In each situation, infidelity or other sexual struggles were a factor. Some of these marriages recovered. Others did not. As I watched the pain and heartbreak and anger and sadness, and wondered what would happen for each couple, I saw quite clearly that my ideas of cause and effect when it came to sexual choices and “purity” were wrong. Waiting to have sex until marriage in no way guaranteed a happy love life, a healthy marriage, or less heartbreak.
 
In light of this, and other life-crises, I began to face and address my own personal baggage. I went to counseling for the first time and began to identify and dismantle false beliefs (including but also beyond the area of sexuality) that were running my life. I slowly stopped believing that the way I dress or the way I stand dictates a man's ability to see me as more than a pair of breasts. I stopped telling myself that the junior-high encounter had been a misunderstanding, and felt deep sadness for young Beth and the way a brief interaction disrupted my innocence, my self-perception, and my default attitude toward men. I took risks in dating (or at least what felt like risks to me). I started asking questions about the relationship between my faith and my sexuality, where the points of disparity are between Christian beliefs about sex and Church (cultural) beliefs about sex.

I'm still somewhere in the middle of this. I don't have a fully-formed theology of sexuality (although I do have opinions and convictions and things I want and don't want for my own life). I don't have an amazing relationship story to hold up in triumph – I have dating stories, some funny, and some sad, stories about grace and stories about learning to be more of myself, stories of how boyfriends have  brought healing and hurt to me, and stories of how I have likely hurt them. It has been a mixed bag. Life is a mixed bag.

Thank you, friends, for letting me share these things with you.


Some of the questions I'm asking these days include:
  • What is involved in a holistic, Jesus-centred theology of sexuality?
  • What does Jesus have to say about the way I have been wounded and the lies I have believed about my sexuality?
  • How do I want to dialogue/learn/process thoughts and experiences around sex? Who are the safe people in my life?
  • What are the sources that have fed my current beliefs? Do I want to stick with these sources? Do I need to add other voices?
  • What does it look like, in my life, to neither run from nor be ruled by my sexuality?
  • What does it look like to cultivate trust and healthy risk-taking in relationships?
  • How can I be a voice of healing and freedom for others who live with feelings of shame and guilt?


Tomorrow – some thoughts on what this series has taught me, some thoughts on where we go from here, and one last request for all y'all to weigh in!



*I debated sharing my story anonymously, but there aren't enough other stories from not-married ladies that it could hide among. Once I decided to put my name on it, I realized that out of respect for others' privacy, and since the web is a public space where anyone could conceivably find this, I couldn't be as no-holds-barred as some of you who've shared. I've asked myself if I'm chickening out, but I don't think I am. I hope I'm not. And I hope that if any of you are to ask me to tell more of my story in a less public forum, I'd share. I'm pretty sure I would. 

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