I shared my experience with abstinence-only education on The Huffington Post recently (spoiler alert: I got pregnant the first time I had sex) and saw the following tweet about it:
— PopulationConnection (@popconnect) March 4, 2014
"The abstinence-only trifecta."
I am able to chuckle at it, but it is combined with a profound sadness that so many young women continue to be brought up in this culture.
Nightline Prime recently aired a special on purity balls, which started in 1998, the same year I had my baby. Purity rings and the idea of a virginity pledge were already in existence, and were very popular in the school and church environment that I was raised in. While some will certainly view the special as a fascinating look into a foreign world, and may even find it humorous, I don't plan to watch as I'm sure it will trigger memories and tears.
For those not in the know, a purity ball is a formal event for fathers and daughters where daughters sign a contract to remain chaste until marriage (often meaning that they will not even kiss until their wedding day) and fathers sign a contract to protect their daughters' chastity. Young women are seen to be "wed to Jesus" and their father is their "boyfriend" until he walks them down the aisle and gives them away to their husband, who then replaces dad as authority figure and protector.
I know that those within that culture will view this as an attack or an incomplete understanding of the culture, but as someone who was brought up in it I feel that I have a right to speak out, and to say that purity culture is damaging and dangerous. I'm even going to take it a step further and say that I don't see all that much of a leap between the purity culture of evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity and the "honor violence" happening within Islam. Below is a trailer for a new documentary called Honor Diaries.
The tagline "Culture Is No Excuse for Abuse" applies to Christian culture as well, and I have come to believe that the systematic suppression of female sexuality within religious culture is a form of violence against women. It may not always lead to physical violence, but it leads to women believing that their sexuality and their very existence as women is shameful. Purity culture, abstinence-only education, and the emphasis placed on female modesty are meant to suppress; to keep women in their place within the patriarchy.
If an equal amount of pressure was put upon boys to remain pure then I might see it slightly differently. I know that boys do take the virginity pledge as well, but the consequences for them not being able to keep the pledge are far less severe and seen in a "boys will be boys" light, for male sexuality is seen as unable to be controlled -- hence the pressure on women to be modest and remain pure at risk of "causing men to sin."
The consequence for me was that I lost my virginity and made a baby in one fell swoop. Many peers who had sex before marriage with or without the consequence of pregnancy had to deal with immense levels of shame that they were unable to control their "sinful" urges, as well as warped views of sexuality that can take years to undo.
The handful of women I know who managed to keep the pledge had extreme difficulty coming to terms with and embracing their sexuality and for some it took weeks, months, or years for them to feel comfortable having sex with their own husbands. Having the idea that sex is shameful and sinful pounded into your head for your entire childhood and adolescence does not suddenly and magically disappear on one's wedding night.
Angie Nixon, a dear friend who attended the same Christian school that I did, said, "It sickens me that this mentality strips us of our autonomy. I hate that my right to own my sexuality was stripped and stolen and blocked and shamed." We were discussing our shared experiences and our strategies to change things for our own daughters. We have both, along with many of our peers, ended up rejecting Christianity.
I am so appreciative of men like fellow Good Men Project writer Orin Hahn, who acknowledges that daughters are sexual beings and strives to nurture that in a healthy and responsible way, and does not subscribe to the patriarchal idea of a father being the "authority and protection in the area of purity." It is also heartening to know that there are frameworks for the development of healthy sexual attitudes and practices, and I take comfort in the fact that young people today most likely have access to a variety of viewpoints and information via the web.
I wrote the following a few years ago in a blog post about Spirit Day, as a message to LGBTQ kids who might be experiencing bullying in their lives, but it really applies as something I'd like to say to kids being raised in purity culture as well:
Be yourself. Know yourself. Respect yourself. Love yourself. Know your darkness and your light, your strengths and your weaknesses, and understand that often they are one and the same. Know that you never have to separate out different parts of yourself and try to have them work independently of each other. Your intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, sexual selves are all one and the same, and every experience that you have doesn't affect just one part of you. What's intellectual might also be emotional; what's sexual can also be spiritual. This is the beauty of life; the beauty of YOU. Live fully. Love wholly.
And please, for the love of God, know that sex is normal and natural.
Some of you may find that you do genuinely desire heterosexual monogamy within the framework of marriage, and that is fine, but it's also fine if you do not. Please do not feel shame if you end up giving in to normal biological urges, but before you do please seek out comprehensive information on sex, contraception, and protection.
Advocates for Youth reports that a full 88% of virginity pledge participants fail to maintain the pledge, and are more likely than their non-pledging peers to engage in risky sexual behavior and tend to have more partners once they start having sex.
In other words, the exact opposite of the desired outcome is occurring. That's a big problem that can't be remedied by a fancy dress, a dance with daddy, and a ring.
Follow Beth Leyba on Twitter: www.twitter.com/thebethapproach