"So did you—uh—develop early or what?" my male friend asked me as he grabbed his books from his locker. I was crouching down to pull my Spanish book out of my own locker, which was, unfortunately, on the bottom row. I bet he's getting a perfect view of my breasts right now, I thought, quickly standing up and crossing my arms across my chest.
I didn't look my friend in the eyes. "I—um, yeah, I guess so," I answered, turning my back on him and heading down the hallway toward my class, willing myself not to cry. I was sixteen, and I hated my body.
Though my body had supposedly been beautifully and wonderfully made, it seemed to cause me a lot of trouble.
As a teenager, there were times when I had sexual feelings, which I believed were sinful. I berated myself and prayed for God's forgiveness—even though I never acted on those feelings. I listened to youth workers who cautioned women against wearing revealing clothes, so they wouldn't tempt men and boys.
I've always had breasts that many women would kill for, but at times, they have been more burden than blessing. When I was younger, men would sometimes openly stare at them.
In other words, I was made to feel like my body could not be trusted—like it was something to be ashamed of.
I carry plenty of baggage from my purity culture days. The church told me to be chaste, and that my body could be either a weapon or a stumbling block. The secular world told me to be sexy and that my body could get me love.
When I got married at the age of twenty-two, I had a jumble of conflicting emotions toward my body. Up to that point, sex had been wrong, and my body had been something to fear. Yet after the marriage vows, I was supposed to instantaneously turn into a fiery sex goddess for my husband. That's not how it worked, though. It took me a long time to be comfortable with my body and with sexual intimacy. For me, purity culture did more harm to my marriage than good.
Purity culture taught me shame. It taught me to be ashamed of my body and ashamed of my desires. I carried that shame into my marriage, and it crippled my ability to accept myself as a whole, normal, sexual person.
Purity culture taught me to think negatively about sex. The taboo aspect of sex did not suddenly dissipate once I was married. I had to learn to see sex as a beautiful, positive act rather than a sinful, raunchy one.
Purity culture taught me that my identity was tied to my virginity. It was highly important that I remain pure until marriage so I could offer myself as an untarnished gift to my husband. This fractured picture of humanity left me grappling with my identity once I was not a virgin anymore. I had claimed that virginal personhood for so long that I struggled to identify as a sexual person after I married.
Purity culture taught me that beliefs about sexual intercourse were some of the most important dogmas of the Christian life. It seemed like biblical commands to help the poor and provide for widows and orphans were never taken as seriously as the command to remain sexually pure. If I didn't act on the former expectations, that was okay, but I had better wait until marriage to have sex!
It has taken time, therapy, and unconditional love from my husband to begin to let go of these crushing ideas. I have finally, in my late 30s, stopped hating my body. I am learning to be comfortable in my own skin and to see my sexuality as a natural part of who I am—and a natural part of my marriage relationship. The negative messages about my sexuality, about purity and modesty at the expense of dignity, that I received from the church have slowly disintegrated, piece by piece.
However, I worry about the current young people of the church. There is much the church can do to prevent others from experiencing the damaging effects of purity messages.
First, stop using modesty messages to shame women and to let men off the hook.
Women are not responsible for men's actions. Men are not mindless bags of hormones and they are able to control themselves.
Second, approach identity in a holistic way.
Teenagers are figuring out who they are in the midst of a confusing world. Don't focus too much on whether or not they are virgins. Instead, encourage young people to look for ways to be whole in Christ—to be spiritually, mentally, socially, emotionally, and physically healthy. Teach them about the ways Jesus loved the outcasts and Gentiles and how he got angry when the temple was warped into a place of economic gain. Teach them how Jesus forgave people, experienced rejection, and held women andmen accountable for their actions. Encourage them to live the kind of life Christ did—without overemphasizing virginity.
Third, don't make the topic of sex taboo or sinful.
Assure our youth that sexuality is a normal aspect of the human experience and it is a beautiful thing that best occurs in the context of a loving, committed marriage. Talk about the vulnerability and intimacy of sex as a reason to wait for marriage, not about damaged goods or the gift of virginity. The gift is not virginity. The gift is sex. The trusting and loving act of sex is a gift we give to someone we have committed our lives to. We want to be discerning about who we share that act with.
Lastly, show mercy to those who have had sexual experiences before marriage.
In my memory, the greatest evil any youth group member could commit was to have sex. A spirit of understanding and grace is much more effective than a spirit of judgment and hatred. Let sexually active young people know that they are beloved and accepted.
It is my hope that Christians can create a positive paradigm of sexuality for the next generation. It's time to move away from oversimplified purity messages and to embrace a more complex and holistic approach to sexual identity.