I'm from the Bible Belt region of the U.S. and was raised in the Southern Baptist church. I had two very loving and well-meaning parents who they themselves were raised in this same environment. I'm sure that some of the memories I have of things they said to me were just random, passing thoughts they stated out loud without much thought, never thinking those words would affect me the way they did.
But I can remember these brief flashes in time when an adult told me something regarding sexuality and it defined and altered who I was in that very moment, and forever afterwards.
They are the hurtful whispers in my head when I'm standing in front of the mirror naked before a shower. The thoughts and insecurities when I'm in bed with my husband. The stutters and stammers when I'm confronted with sexuality while raising my children. These are some of my most painful and embarrassing memories.
I've been thinking recently, what if this or that memory had never happened? What if the opposite had happened? What if my sexuality had been celebrated instead of shamed? Or conversely, what if it had just not been given so much focus and attention at all?
What if my grandmother had never told me at age 3 that the reason my vagina burned and became red when she washed me with a rough washcloth and scented soap was because my vagina was dirty?
Would I have not felt different my whole life from all the other girls, that I was inherently dirty? Would I have not felt like I had this secret between my legs that was sure to disgust anyone who had to venture down there? What if my grandmother had told me every inch of me was perfectly normal just the way it was?
What if my mother had never told me, in front of my father, that she was glad she wasn't a man since she wouldn't want to have to touch a woman down there because "they bleed and are just nasty"?
Would I have been proud to have a period? Would I have been proud that my body could create life, and thus bleed monthly in sync with the ocean tides and the moon? Would I have not felt deep shame and embarrassment in front of my father, and thus all other males thereafter, for what I was? What if my mother had told me that having my period was a rite of passage into womanhood, that it was something to be proud of and celebrate? That women were strong and that's why men loved them?
What if my mother, whose body I admired as a young girl and hoped to have one day myself, hadn't told me that [her] large breasts were ugly and veiny, that large breasts are only attractive when clothed?
Would I have stood in the mirror every night after I developed my own breasts and thought about how disgusting they were? Would I have felt the need to always cover myself, even in front of my own husband? What if my mother had told me that no matter what my breasts looked like, they would be beautiful? What if she had told me she loved her body? Would I have loved mine too?
What if my father would've never told me that he saw girls being groped when he was in high school and that they giggled... and that I should never giggle if a boy ever did that to me?
Nevermind the issues of sexual harassment or blaming the behavior of the victim, what I heard was: Don't act like you like it when a boy touches you. That is what the voice in the back of my head has told me my whole life, "pretend you don't like it or you'll look like a whore and men don't like whores." Why did my knees get weak when the boy I liked touched me? What kind of girl did that make me? What if my father had told me it's a normal and exciting thing to experience sexual relations with a person of my choosing when I was older? What if he had known that his example and love for me alone was all I needed to grow into a healthy woman with respect for herself? What if I had had my father's blessing to be a sexual human being without fear of losing his respect or love?
What if my sex education instructors hadn't told me that I was like a rose, and every time I have sex before marriage, I would lose a petal?
Would I have still felt like damaged goods? Would I have still felt like all I had to offer my future husband was my untarnished body? What if they had told me I was like a book, and every experience adds a valuable chapter of lessons and knowledge to my life? Or what if they had just told me how to have sex safely and left the condemning analogies and personal beliefs at the door?
What if I had never been told that premarital sex is damaging, especially to girls because they crave relationships, not sex?
Would I still have felt so confused over my desire to have sex? Why did I not always crave a relationship? Why did I not feel any guilt when I had premarital sex besides the guilt of knowing what my parents/Jesus/youth counselors would think? Why did sex always feel so normal and intimate and fun and not anyone's business? Why did it always have to be someone's business other than mine? What if I had been told that women enjoy sex just like men do, and that sex, premarital or not, is a normal thing that people do?
Our culture sends very conflicting messages to girls. They are pure until they aren't. They are so much more than what their bodies offer, but they aren't. Their bodies aren't good enough, but they cause men to fall. It's OK to look sexy, but not to actually have sex. What we tell our daughters about sexuality, and more importantly how we make them feel about it, will stay with them their entire lives.
For that reason, I believe it's so important to be mindful of the way we talk to our daughters, nieces, granddaughters and any young girl. I think it's possible to convey our personal and religious beliefs without the shame and embarrassment. And if you can't convey your beliefs without shaming a young girl, maybe you should reconsider some of your beliefs.