Author's note: As this post is largely autobiographical, it is written from my point of view, which is that of a heterosexual, cis-gendered woman. Though the social issues I discuss are largely centered around male-female relationships in this particular piece, I would like to point out that I recognize these problems, and many others, occur in all pockets of society, to people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
If I could sum up the era of my life in which I was discovering my sexuality in one word, that word would be: shame.
Despite the personal nature of this story, I feel compelled to share it, because I fully believe that no young woman should have to experience such intense shame -- yet the sad truth is, most do.
As a teenager, I belonged to a church, and the vast majority of my social interactions were carried out within the confines of the organization's youth group. I was a relative newcomer to the group -- I'd started attending at the age of 12, while most of the other kids had quite literally grown up within those walls -- and I was happy to ignore the vague sense of not-quite-belonging that I often felt in favor of the close-knit friendships that I formed. I was fairly shy at that age, and cripplingly self-conscious, so even though I never felt entirely comfortable within the group, having that circle of friends seemed like enough.
Looking back, I realize how alienated I felt -- not through the fault of any one person in particular, but mostly due to the whole religious doctrine itself. I personally didn't see what was so wrong with wearing spaghetti-strap tank tops, for example, but I certainly felt judged if I did. I realize now how I was constantly reigning myself in, keeping my true thoughts and feelings in check so as not to offend.
When I was about 14 years old, the youth pastor announced to the group that he would be holding a Purity Ceremony, at which all of us would be invited to take an oath to remain sexually pure until marriage. Of course, by this point in my life, I was very sexually curious. I'd kissed a boy once and liked the way it felt. I'd witnessed my body changing right before my eyes. But aside from the clinical stuff I'd learned in health class, I didn't know the first thing about sex.
I knew it was interesting to me. But I never spoke about it with the girls from the church -- who basically comprised my entire group of friends -- because as righteous young ladies, we simply weren't supposed to talk about that kind of thing.
I already had the distinct and unpleasant suspicion that I was the "wild card" of the group, not having been brought up in the church -- the last thing I wanted was to perpetuate that identity by appearing interested in something as allegedly sinful as fornication.
The youth pastor had given us a choice. "It's a personal decision that each and every one of you needs to make for yourself," he said. "But remember that purity is a virtue in the eyes of the Lord, and it will lead the way to the kingdom of Heaven."
Since I'd never voiced my thoughts or questions about sex to anyone, I was entirely unequipped, at the age of 14, to decide whether or not I'd be having it anytime soon. However, I suspected that, at some point before I got married, I'd probably want to.
That scared me -- clearly it meant I was a slut and a sinner -- but there it was.
I very strongly did not want to take the purity oath.
But as everyone in the youth group began to voice their intentions to participate, I realized I was backed into a corner. How could I not take it, when all the rest of them were? It was a public event -- if the ceremony came and went and I didn't stand up and walk across that stage with everyone else... what would they think?
At that age, with that kind of social pressure and that kind of indoctrinated shame... how could I not take it?
So I put on a nice, modest dress the evening of the ceremony. And there in the church basement, in front of a group of people, I accepted a Certificate of Purity and swore, to myself, to the audience, and to the God I believed in, that I would remain a virgin until my wedding night.
Fast forward a few years. I'd left the church, and eventually, the time came when I lost my virginity.
There was nothing sordid about it. I was dating someone who I cared about, and who cared about me. He was respectful and gentle with me, and he used a condom and asked me if I was sure, and it didn't hurt, and he didn't turn tail and run the moment it was over. Tentatively, I realized I had liked it.
And I felt like garbage. Like human detritus.
I was ashamed to my very core -- because I'd been told I should be.
What did it say about me? What kind of terrible person not only enjoyed sex, but wanted to have more of it? I'd broken my oath. I was a slut and a sinner, not to mention a liar.
The words of my youth pastor taunted me: You have given away a piece of yourself that you will never get back. I felt ruined; tainted; marked, somehow -- as though I now had a sexual record, very much like a criminal one, that would follow me around for the rest of my life.
The shame and self-loathing was crippling. I hated myself -- not, I realize now, because I believed that sex was dirty and wrong, but because so many other people did.
That shame took almost a decade to get over.
I so fervently wish I'd known then what I know now. I wish I'd fully realized my right to refuse to take that purity oath, on no grounds other than the fact that it was no one else's damn business when or how I decided to utilize my sexuality.
I wish I'd understood that anyone who would have judged me for such an action wouldn't have been worth my time, anyway. I wish I'd had enough faith in myself to allow myself full enjoyment of such an exciting era in my life, instead of letting the whole thing be colored by shame and self-hatred.
I wish I'd trusted myself to answer the question, "Do you believe sex is dirty and wrong?"
The answer would have been no, had I bothered to ask myself.
This whole story is a big part of why I believe strongly that religion does more harm than good -- but I won't get into that. Not today. What I want to discuss is more specific: the topic of female purity.
Purity Balls are all the rage in the religious sects these days -- glorified prom nights against a Christian backdrop, to which daughters are escorted by their fathers to publicly proclaim abstinence from pre-marital sex. The girl effectively hands over the reins of her budding sexuality to her father, who vows to protect her purity of mind, body and soul.
I have such a huge problem with this.
First, because the "purity" of a girl and her body is the business of no one other than that girl and her body. The practice of saddling her father with the task of protecting her purity insinuates that she herself is incapable of doing so, an archaic and misogynistic notion of female inadequacy and dependence upon a patriarchal figure.
What kind of message is this giving to these young women? Nothing healthy, that's for sure.
The practice is essentially teaching them that their bodies are not their own -- that they do not have physical autonomy. Imagine how terribly this lesson could manifest later in life, when the young woman finds herself socially interacting with members of the opposite sex -- who may also have been taught, through a combination of religious doctrine and cultural rites, that a woman's body is not her own to control.
The second thing about the practice of Purity Balls that so infuriates me is the notion of "purity" itself. When it comes to purity of the body, women as a whole are always scrutinized more than men.
For countless generations, men have been recognized for their collective accomplishments, while women have been recognized for their physical attributes alone: a beautiful face, a well-proportioned body, and, of course, purity. She could be a famed astrophysicist who discovers life on other planets; she could be a champion athlete; she could develop a cure for cancer or win the Nobel Peace Prize -- but if she possesses the attribute of promiscuity, she is, simply, a slut.
Jokes are made about how many people have "been up in that." Some men state, "I'd still tap that" -- as though they are being gracious. She becomes an object of sexual gratification, despite her achievements.
This is bad enough on its own -- so it gets even worse when one considers the fact that a man who leads a life of promiscuity faces a mere fraction of the fallout, if any at all.
Notches on the bedpost mean entirely different things depending on which gender did the carving.
A man has conquests; a woman has sins. And they pile up against her, undermining everything else she does. This is illustrated perfectly by that pesky, long-perpetuated notion that when girls have sex, they are "giving away a piece of themselves that they can never get back."
This implies, of course, that the boys are taking those pieces -- once again turning their female partners into little more than conquests. By the insinuation that, for them, nothing is "lost" out of the bargain, they've already come out ahead -- before any sexual activity has even taken place.
The notion of purity is outdated and entirely unfair.
If a woman has had 50 sexual partners, literally all that says about her is that she has had sex with 50 people. That's it.
Yet society still attempts to turn it into a character assessment, a measure of intrinsic value. (Ever heard anyone refer to a sexually liberated woman as "cheap?" Yup -- me, too.)
I have a distinct memory of sitting in one of my high school classes, listening to a group of boys next to me stating that any girl who had sex with more than three guys in her lifetime was "definitely a slut." As though her sexual history effectively summed her up as a person. As though that alone said everything about her that anyone could ever possibly need to know.
This has got to stop.
Not only is it archaic and misogynistic, it is potentially emotionally damaging to the young girls who have to deal with society's constant insistence upon female purity. Paired with the messages on the other side of the coin -- the ceaseless portrayal of the feminine form as little more than a sexual object -- this is a confusing dichotomy to deal with, and the psychological wounds can take lifetimes to scar over, if they even heal at all. The average young woman in today's world is simultaneously taught by doctrine and patriarchy that her worth lies in her chastity, and taught by the media that her worth lies in her sexuality.
These messages are two sides of the same coin. The coin that defines female worth as anything having to do with her sex life at all -- whether she's having a lot of it, or having none of it.
I have a better idea: Let's stop carrying on with the silly idea that the amount of people we have been physically close to matters even a little bit.
Let's stop shaming females for having robust and healthy sex lives, or for being in touch with and honoring their physical desires. Let's instead give these young women the tools they need to arm themselves for participation in healthy sexual relationships: namely, confidence, pregnancy and disease prevention, and knowledge of consent and the right to full bodily autonomy.
Let's empower these girls; they are our future. Let's no longer shackle them with impossible double standards and intrinsic shame. They deserve so much better.
Let's empower ourselves, too.
If we are still perhaps struggling with residual pockets of shame and self-judgment that is centered around ourselves as sexual beings, it's time to let all that go.
Because we deserve to love ourselves completely -- regardless of how many other people we've loved along the way.