Today’s guest post is from my friend Larissa. Larissa and I met during my freshmen (and her sophomore) year at East High in Lincoln. She had just moved to the area from Missouri (I believe) and came in mid-semester. We hung out a little and went to the same after-school Bible study. But at the end of the year, Larissa transferred to Lincoln High. The next time I saw her, she was dating our mutual friend, Chad. (Chad and I knew each other from a hockey league we played in, I was a goalie and he played wing. He had one of the nastiest shots in the league. He was one of my favorite people to play against.) I continued to get to know her through our shared group of friends, although we both ended up leaving that church and going our separate ways sometime in 2005. But we’ve managed to stay in touch over Facebook and swap stories of how we came to our current religious and philosophical views. We both ran away screaming from fundamentalism, but landed in radically different places. Thankfully, though, I think we’ve both been able to learn from the other’s journey. (At the very least, I’ve learned a great deal from hers.) Last year she wrote a long series of blog posts called Losing My Religion in which she recounted the story of how she became an atheist. It’s an engaging, well-written story that you can find through her Facebook. (Or I imagine she’d be willing to send a word doc to anyone interested if they were to leave a comment.) What I most appreciate about Larissa is her honesty, her care for people, and her willingness to fight aggressively for the things in which she believes. Today she’ll be writing about the True Love Waits movement and the overarching culture that came with it – the Josh Harris books, Rebelution, etc.. So, here’s Larissa:
I remember that day clearly….
….carefully and deliberately signing my name on that piece of paper.
….my dad and I walking down the central isle of my church, arm in arm.
….the look of pride on my pastor’s beaming face.
….the way I assured myself that I was in this for the long haul, that the love between me and my beloved would carry us through anything, and that publicly demonstrating my love for my future husband in this way was the most loving and romantic thing I could do for us and our relationship.
I was 11 years old. And I had just married myself to Jesus Christ, by taking a vow to remain a virgin until the day I married the man He brought into my life to be my husband. Let’s ignore the odd and polygamous implications of such an arrangement for the moment, and instead focus on the commitment itself.
I didn’t know much about sex when I was 11. Not the mechanics of it, anyway. I had been attracted to boys, but my feelings–strong as they were–were very chaste and I thought a kiss on the lips was scandalous. I knew that I wanted to get married someday, and I knew that I wanted to be a perfect wife married to the perfect husband. That meant that I needed to be able to give my husband what I had been told was the most precious wedding gift of all–my virginity.
What gave me the idea that the most precious gift I could give to my husband wasn’t something like respect, support, encouragement, companionship and love–but rather an untouched vagina? Well, it was something called the True Love Waits movement. The purpose of this movement is to “challenge teenagers and college students to make a commitment to sexual abstinence until marriage.” But wait, that’s not all! They also say “Until you are married, sexual purity means saying no to sexual intercourse, oral sex, and even sexual touching. It means saying no to a physical relationship that causes you to be “turned on” sexually. It means not looking at pornography or pictures that feed sexual thoughts.”
I sat in on a lot of True Love Waits seminars. My parents even bought me a chastity ring, which was to be worn on my left ring finger as a reminder of my marriage to Jesus. But I was also a big fan of a book called “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” by Joshua Harris. Basically the book was about how Christians should pursue romantic relationships by “courting” and not by dating. The difference is supposed to be that courting is serious dating with the intent to eventually marry, while regular dating is just for kicks. Courting was supposed to involve the male in the relationship asking permission from the female’s father to be able to “court” her. God would be at the center of the relationship, there would be a minimum amount of physical affection (the book actually took this as far as saying that kissing and “frontal hugging” is a no-no), and that going on a date where you’d be completely alone was forbidden, lest temptation take over.
So, in evangelical churches in 1997-98, this book was touted as though it was second only to the Bible itself as a source for spiritual guidance, and teenagers everywhere were encouraged to “kiss dating goodbye” and embrace courtship. My 11 year old self thought that courtship sounded much too rigid and business-like for my taste, but I loved the idea of waiting until marriage to kiss or have sex. I had this idealized vision in my head of two soulmates who are incapable of loving anyone other than each other and they would experience all of their firsts together: first love, first kiss, first hanky-panky….everything. So I privately decided that I was not even going to kiss anyone until my wedding day, and I would trust that God would bring me a man who had made the same decision and we would be each others first love and first kiss and live happily ever after.
Why was I so obsessed with this “me, me and only me” nonsense? Well, it had everything to do with the TLW movement and that Joshua Harris book. You see, this book was not shy about describing the perils of premarital sex. I remember one illustration in particular, where Harris said something like “Imagine that sex is a piece of scotch tape. And every time you have sex with someone, you stick that tape to them. Well, eventually the tape won’t be sticky anymore and you won’t have anything left to stick to the person you marry”. Or there was another video clip he made where every time a girl had sex, someone cut away a piece of her heart until all she had left to give her husband was a mangled heap of bloody flesh. The point was that the more people you have sex with, the less love and devotion you have to give to your soulmate God will bring into your life. Do you want your spouse to just be sloppy seconds? Do ya? Huh, punk?!
Well, I thought….if that applies to sex, then it must apply to love too. After all, emotional bonds are way stronger than physical ones. So I think this is why I got so fixated with being my future husbands first and only love, and first and only kiss etc. I just wanted to make sure that there was no baggage or emotional wounds or de-stickified tape that I would have to deal with. I knew that my goal was probably unrealistic, but the book outlined several stories of other couples who had done it, so I was just going to trust God to reward my faithfulness.
And that is how I found myself in a marriage ceremony to Jesus at the tender age of 11 years old.
This obsession with virginity is not exclusive to the world of evangelical Christians. Virginity has been fetishized in cultures all over the world for centuries. Women have shelled out the money for surgeries which claim to repair their torn hymens and obtain what they call a second virginity. There are many cultures where a women could be killed if she is not found to be a virgin on her wedding night. The iconic image of a young virgin being sacrificed to appease some god or another has been burned into our cultural psyche. The implications in all of these scenarios is the same: women are a commodity and those who are “pure” have more worth than those who are “impure”. In so many words, it says women who are virgins are pure, unsullied, whole and intact, while those who are not virgins are unclean, damaged, broken and worthless.
That’s some pretty serious stuff, right? But how do you define virginity? Well many people use the Hymen Test. The hymen is tissue that partially or fully covers a woman’s vaginal opening. (If you don’t mind graphic images, check out this site where you can learn alllllll about it!) The hymen test says that you lose your virginity when your hymen breaks. But this creates two problems: 1) this defines virginity as a solely female characteristic (as males obviously have no hymens), and 2) not all hymens are alike and some of them can break easily through physical activity (like gymnastics or masturbation) and some of them don’t break at all (a friend of mine had to go to the doctor to have hers cut open: true story.). So that is a pretty bad way to define virginity.
You could say that you lose your virginity the first time you have penetrative sex, but then you have to define what constitutes penetration. Does oral or anal sex count? What about fingers? Sex toys? If the only penetration that counts is “penis in vagina”, then does that mean all homosexuals are virgins?
The thing is that even though virginity seems to be something of utmost importance in much of the world, we still don’t have a hard and fast definition of what it is. How is one even supposed to “guard” their virginity, if they don’t even know what they’re guarding? I wouldn’t say that the concept of virginity is useless, but I would say that it’s definition is so arbitrary and vague that the concept is rendered almost meaningless and is certainly not worthy of being some sort of measure of an individuals self-control, self-respect, morality, purity etc.
Another problem I have with the obsession with virginity–and the True Love Waits movement specifically–is that it seems to focus disproportionately on women and reinforces the “he’s a stud, she’s a slut” stereotype. Sure, the True Love Waits movement markets itself to young men as well, but a cursory glance at any True Love Waits literature will show that it subtlety expects women to be the gatekeepers of sexuality.
Take this rather revealing survey (no pun intended) about women’s modesty at the Rebelution (which, by the way, was founded by Joshua Harris’ younger brothers. Coincidence?). Several statements are made about what sort of clothing/actions a women can wear/do which present a “stumbling block” to Christian men, and the men in the survey are asked how much they agree or disagree with the statement. For example, you can find statements like “It is a stumbling block for a girl wearing pants to sit cross-legged (i.e. Indian style). Agree or Disagree?” and answers like “It can be. To be safe put something in your lap if you can and/or don’t lean back and brace your hands behind you, also the more loose fitting around the pelvic area your pants are when sitting, the better.” (You can see all the questions and answers here.)
The site makes pains to say that it is not intending to put the responsibility of modesty and purity on women’s shoulders…it’s just asking us to “help” our Christian brothers not to stumble. But then why even create this survey? If men are truly the only ones responsible for their actions, then why not demand that the men take some action themselves and walk around with blinders and blindfolds?
(But you know, I can’t help but feel sorry for the boys in this situation too. While women are having it pounded into their brains that we must dress modestly and have a “quiet and gentle spirit”, the men are being told that even THINKING of a women in a remotely lustful way is as bad as actually sleeping with her, which is a serious sin that they will have to answer to God for. Add to this, the fact that masturbation is ALSO demonized as a sin, it’s not really a wonder that Christian young men find themselves pleading with women “Please, don’t make us want you.” )
Some people–including myself–believe that putting the expectation for preventing lustful thoughts on the shoulders of women leads to victim blaming, particularly in the case of rape. Most of the time when a woman is raped, every aspect of her character on the day of the incident is examined, from what she was wearing to if she’d been drinking to why she chose to take a certain route home that night. (For one example, take this judge who poo-poo’d away a woman’s sexual assault by saying that since she was dancing, she was obviously ok with having her top pulled down and her breasts photographed.)
Every single man I know–without exception–who committed himself to be a virgin until marriage and ended up not keeping that commitment, has blamed it on the woman in the situation by saying that she seduced him or should have stopped him or got him intoxicated then took advantage of him etc. My concern–and the concern of others–is that if men are brought up to believe that women are ultimately the ones to blame if one has lustful thoughts–and that these lustful thoughts will make God angry with them–one could argue that this could lead them to resenting women, which could lead to hating women, which could–and does–lead to raping and/or abusing women. Despite what the TLW movement may say about gender roles and a woman’s godly role vs. a man’s, sexism and an imbalance between genders harms more than it helps.
This whole modesty trope also seems to deny the fact that women have active sex drives as well. The Rebelution website links to an essay by John Piper for his strategies on fighting lust. The first sentences of this essay say: I have in mind men and women. For men it’s obvious. The need for warfare against the bombardment of visual temptation to fixate on sexual images is urgent. For women it is less obvious, but just as great if we broaden the scope of temptation to food or figure or relational fantasies. I’m still a little baffled as to what this is supposed to mean…..that men are incited to lust through purely visual means while women are incited to lust through mysterious things like food and rainbows and daydreams of marriage? To call this an oversimplification and a gross over-generalization would be far too generous.
In addition to being told to dress so as not to tempt our boyfriends into lustful thoughts, we are asked to not initiate any affection or romantic advances. The men do the initiating and we are the ones ultimately left to decide whether he gets the red light or green light. Why should women be the ones left with that responsibility, and ultimately be the one left holding the bag, if temptation overcomes the couple and they “stumble”? The ultimate goal of the TLW movement seems to be to restore traditional gender roles and put women back in a role of passiveness and submission, like they were in the “good ol’ days.” Men make the sexual advances and we either permit or deny them. Men are active, women are passive.
To my teenage mind, this meant that being pretty was more of a detriment than a benefit. There was nothing I could do, other than be mean to all the guys, that would keep my perceived intentions pure. If I wasn’t actively turning them off, it meant I was actively turning them on. This led to a lot of confusion and hurt as a teenager, because while I wanted guys to like me, I felt as though I was supposed to actively repel them, lest I be seen as a temptress or slut. My own desire to be seen as attractive and desirable filled me with guilt because such feelings were not godly or pure.
But worst of all, I believe that the True Love Waits movement reinforces the most damaging female stereotype of all: that women are sexual objects, plain and simple. Our worth is still being measured in units of sexuality and we are still being defined by our sexual activity or lack thereof. This is completely and utterly unacceptable. Until society at large stops thinking of women as commodities whose only defining characteristic is our sexuality, nothing is going to change. And change definitely needs to happen.
So how did my commitment to remain pure until marriage go? Well, between age 11 and age 17, I had exactly two relationships that I would consider romantic and both of them stopped physically at holding hands and cuddling. Not that I didn’t get any offers. As a freshman in high school, I was propositioned at least one a week. But I stood my ground. (well…and I wasn’t remotely attracted to any of the guys doing the propositioning…that helped too.) And then later on in high school, I stopped getting interest from the opposite sex at all–due to the aforementioned godly aloofness–which made it even easier.
But by the time I was 17 years old, I’d been growing more and more independent and ambitious, and came to the realization that I didn’t even want to THINK about getting married until I was in my mid-20’s. And I decided that there was no friggin’ way that I was going to wait until my mid-20’s to have my first kiss, since by that point I would probably just be regarded as some sort of asexual freak. Also, it was completely unrealistic to expect to be someone else’s first love this late in my life. I already had emotional baggage from a couple of guys, so why should I hold anyone else to a higher standard? So I decided that the next time I wanted to date and/or kiss somebody, I was just going to go for it. True Love Waits commitment be damned.
And no less than a month later, I met Chad.
Chad and I fell hard and fast for each other in way that I still don’t completely understand. From the day we met, we were more or less inseparable. When we started dating, I opened myself up to a lot of feelings that I had shut off long ago and this led to a lot of confusion and excitement. Chad was my first kiss and my first real love. He eventually became my husband.
But we did not wait until we were married to have sex.
My only sexual experiences of any kind have been with my husband–from my first kiss to my first intercourse and everything in between. And I remember that after months and months of spending nearly every day with each other, we progressed so very gradually in our physical displays of affection that it’s hard to even really peg down when I would consider having officially lost my virginity. Was it the first time we did oral? Was it while we were playing the “I’ll just put the tip in” game? But for the sake of simplicity, let’s just say I lost it the first time we had PIV intercourse.
I remember that night very clearly. And while I found the event to be enjoyable, my initial thought was “……That’s it? That’s what all the fuss is about? …….Really???” I expected to feel different somehow….more grown-up, more mature, sexier, tainted, condemned, worthless <i>anything. </i> But I felt the exact same. Absolutely nothing about me had changed (aside from the fact that I was no longer sexually frustrated, I suppose). We had progressed so gradually in intimacy, that intercourse didn’t feel like some huge spiritually laden, symbolic act…..it just felt like the next natural step in our relationship. There was no pain or anxiety and I felt that it was a wholly positive experience. It did not ruin our relationship–as some True Love Waits advocates told me it would. Rather, it only made us feel closer.
A few days later, however, guilt started to kick in. I felt like I had majorly screwed up, that I was a hypocrite, that I’d damaged myself, that if things didn’t end up working out in our relationship no other man would want me etc. And what would Joshua Harris think?! On one night, I was in my room feeling very distressed about the situation when my mom came in and asked what was wrong. After basically interrogating me, I finally spilled and told her that I’d had sex. At first she got really mad at Chad, assuming that he’d forced me into it or something, but I assured her that no, I wanted to do it, which made me feel even more like a screw up or a slut or something. She calmed down then and said “oh Larissa…you’re still the same person to me. You’re still you…..you are beautiful and kind and compassionate and forgiving and you love Jesus. None of that has changed just because you had sex. I still love you just as much and I don’t see any differently than I did before.”
The words my mom said that night made me feel so much better, especially since I knew she was right. My sexuality is just one piece in the jigsaw puzzle that makes up Larissa. It was not the end all and be all of who I was as a person, and was not the barometer with which my character or morality should be measured by.
I’m actually very thankful that I didn’t wait. So many young people growing up in the True Love Waits culture feel pressure to get married, because otherwise they’ll be virgins their whole lives. So many of them marry the first willing person they meet. When you have that sort of lust and repression clouding your better judgment, it’s a disaster waiting to happen. Some of my True Love Waits influenced friends are already married and divorced. Some of them are single mothers. (Incidentally, statistics show that kids who take abstinence pledges are just as likely to have sex as kids who haven’t taken the pledge, but less likely to use protection.)
I feel that having sex before marriage takes the pressure off and allows you to think long and clear about how much you really want to spend your life with that person. And while sexual compatibility isn’t the end all and be all of a marriage, it really is a lot more important than people realize and can kill an otherwise healthy relationship if nothing is done to help it.
Again, I am very glad that I ended up breaking my commitment to save myself for marriage. I cannot even imagine going from having my first kiss to my first roll in the hay all in one day, as I originally planned. It’s hard for me to imagine that being anything less than a day riddled with anxiety. Or even to do “everything but”, and just save intercourse for your wedding night….what is even the point of that? If you are still intimate with one another’s bodies, aren’t you just getting off on a technicality? Of course there is a lot of middle ground there, but even if one was to progress from just going to first base, to suddenly having sex…..just putting a deadline on it, like “ok, we’re getting married on this day, so this is the night it’s going to happen!” seems like it would ruin the spontaneity and romance of the moment. That might just be me though. I’m sure other people feel differently. And that’s why I think having such a “one size fits all” attitude about sex and sexuality doesn’t work.
Sex is a very nasty thing to try to use to control people because it’s biological. It’s not like lying or stealing or some other “sinful” behavior that you can just stop. Our sex drive is hard-wired into us, and I think it’s terrible that this virginity fetish tries to make people feel guilty or sinful for simply being normal and healthy. Your sex drive isn’t some monster that needs to be controlled. It just means you’re a healthy human being and there is nothing wrong with that. Can it get out of control? Yes of course. Anything can get out of control to a point that it’s damaging yourself or the people around you. But that doesn’t make it inherently evil. Everything in moderation, right?
I’m not saying that no one should wait until they are married to have sex. I’m just saying that I don’t think it’s a decision that should be laden with moral or spiritual implications. It’s a decision that should be based purely on you and what you feel comfortable with, and not someone telling you that you’re dirty or damaged if you have sex with several people and/or if you do it before marriage. WHEN you have sex and with WHOM you have sex–whether it’s with one person or one hundred–is completely up to you and you alone, and don’t let some virginity fetishizing movement tell you any different.
These are just a few reasons why I think the True Love Waits movement is damaging to Christian youth, and Christian women in particular. I could probably write a book about it (and I feel like I nearly did, considering the length of this post, heh.) But if you want to read more about it, you should pick up Jessica Valenti’s book The Purity Myth.