In 1993, at the tender age of 14, I took a pledge.
I promised not to have sex until my wedding night and to find a man who would honor that promise too.
I was taught that my body belonged to God, first and foremost, and then one day it would also belong to my husband. Then it would belong to my babies (and there would be babies, without a doubt).
At no point did I ever receive the message that my body belonged to me.
I was merely a gatekeeper, guarding my sexual purity in service of my god and future spouse. I wore a silver ring on my left ring finger as an outward symbol of my promise.
I was deeply steeped in the purity culture, as were my older brothers and all of our friends. My parents were devout Evangelical Christians, and all of our sexual education revolved around abstinence-only teachings and preparation for becoming a wife and mother. My parents talked openly about sex at home, explained the details of intercourse, and made it clear that it was nothing to be ashamed of, just so long as it was within the confines of marriage.
I was told in no uncertain terms that having sex outside of marriage was the worst thing I could do as a young woman.
And while I appreciated my parents' candid (by their standards) conversation, I also was hyper-aware that I had to completely shut down any sexual prowess to maintain that shiny, prized virginity.
And I did. I never allowed myself even to consider sex before marriage. I recruited my friends to join me on this purity pledge. I bought them rings if they could not afford to buy their own with money that I saved from working part-time at the mall. I was a pusher of purity, even taking my message to AIDS-ravaged Zambia and school girls in Kenya in my early 20's.
I was a 28-year-old virgin on my wedding day. This was not a technicality.
When we checked into our fancy hotel, I felt as though I was giving this beautiful man, my knight in shining armor, the most precious and special gift of me. I was proud. I made it. I wore my diamond ring as a badge of honor. Afterward, I felt empty.
My virginity was a cornerstone of my identity, and in a matter of minutes, it was gone for good.
My husband and I had, and continue to have, great sex. Of course, with nothing to compare it to, I can't know for sure. But there's primal attraction, intense passion, open communication, and great orgasms. Whenever the rest of our marriage has experienced devastating hardship and apocalyptic disaster, sex has remained a constant source of connection and pleasure and is the thing that consistently binds us together when everything else breaks down.
But this isn't the norm for people who were indoctrinated with purity culture. As girls, women are brainwashed to believe that anything related to sex is sinful. Then they're somehow expected to flip an imaginary switch and become sex goddesses on their wedding night.
You can imagine how well the wedding night and subsequent sexual interactions go for those women. But because our bodies don't belong to us, it doesn't matter. Only our husbands' needs and desires matter. Their success, their egos, their confidence, their masculinity, their ease, their pleasure, their orgasms.
It has taken a decade to undo our shared belief that I belong to my husband.
And, just as with any deconstruction process, it has been brutally painful and often disastrous. We had overlooked fundamental and essential truths about each other, all because we had our eyes on the prize: a Pure Life.
Teachings we both received discouraged women from declining sex without a holy reason. So when my husband wanted sex, since both of us held a shared belief that we were one spiritually, my refusal without good cause was not acceptable. But only my refusal — he could refuse any time he pleased. He was the husband, the leader, the provider, my spiritual covering, and protector.
Thoughts of refusal would trigger a hardwired, ancient edict playing on repeat in my head:
Wives, submit to your husbands.
The overwhelming shame and fear that grew in the fertile soil of purity culture isolated me from my peers, subjugated me to my husband, stole my autonomy, and cut me off from a divine connection.
I have hashed out my sexuality, my autonomy, and my marriage in therapy for the last 10 years. I hold my baby girl and look her in the eyes and speak to her the words I wish had been spoken to me.
You are full of light.
I respect you.
Your body and your desires are your own.
You are worthy of love and freedom.
You belong to yourself.
The world is yours to explore.
You are entirely lovable, just as you are.
And in so doing, I feel myself heal a little more, come back into my own body, emerge from the shame, and call myself home.
This story originally appeared on Ravishly and is reprinted here with permission. More from Ravishly:
- Experiencing Sexual Pleasure When You Have Pelvic Pain
- I'm At The End Of The Line With My Sex Addiction
- Yo, Being a 30 Year Old Virgin Isn't Weird. Get Over It.