My friends and I grew up in a weird age of courtship and purity culture, and I know I’m not alone when I talk about how messed up this stuff can be.

In my life there were three standards: The Virginity Queen (she who had no impure thoughts, didn’t laugh at anything sexual and was happy to be friends with all the guys, and when she found The One she would marry quickly), The Restored Virgin (she who had lost the big V, or had nearly lost it, or kissed a few guys but tried to repent of her sins) and The Ones Who Got to Hook Up With Whoever They Wanted.

I strayed into all three camps.

First of all, The Virginity Queen. Before I had real boyfriends I could never imagine doing the deed with anyone I didn’t love — of course. But I had a few exceptions — you know, celebrity crushes, the one guy I really liked, if a guy who was like Devon Whitelaw from Sweet Valley High came along…

I was also the Reformed Virgin. I repented of kissing boys, of wearing revealing clothing (when you are blessed with bosoms it’s almost impossible not to reveal something — even the outline of ‘breastage’ can apparently make a guy stumble), of even thinking about boys a little too often.

I tried to be the One Who Hooked Up With Whoever I Wanted, but after having my fingers burned and then publicly scorned I decided that this wasn’t a good game either.

None of these games were good.

As a teenager consumed a lot of American literature on purity culture, and for a few months my youth group was fixated on trying to get us to stay away from anything too frisky. At youth conferences — essentially day camps entailing three sermons, three worship sessions, three altar calls a day — I also declared I would be made pure again in God’s eyes. Some of my friends were really into Joshua Harris who wrote a book called ‘I Kissed Dating Goodbye’. This book said: infatuation was bad, go on group dates, do not actually date anyone unless you intend on marrying them. It’s about intentional relationships. His second book was all about working the parents to ensure that your courtship was approved of in their eyes, as well as God’s. Courtship was not what my grandparents were into — courtship seemed to almost be an arranged marriage. When my grandparents were courting they saw each other on the weekend, and then they were going together for four years before getting married. Harris’s books seem to suggest that a very short courtship is ideal.

I was blessed to have a mum who thought a lot of this stuff — and other things my youth group were into at the time — was crazy. Even though sometimes she would make it into a joke, she also talked to me seriously about things that were said that she didn’t agree with.

But the thing was that despite Mum’s insistence that no, marrying your best friend is not a good idea if you haven’t even dated before, it worked for some people. I know Joshua Harris and courtship fans who are married to their spouses. It worked.

Then there was another book which made its way into my life during my year at Bible college. It was called ‘Every Man’s Battle’. There were spin offs for young men, women and young women. They seemed reasonably compatible with Harris’s stuff. Don’t get frisky. Don’t get infatuated. In fact, ‘Every Young Woman’s Battle’ suggests that girls should make their special guy friend cookies to celebrate winning a football match instead of offering to give them a shoulder massage. (Too risky.)

During one of our spiritual growth sessions at college our small group leaders led a panel on sex. I knew too much about these people by the end of it. No one had the answers I was searching for. They were a mix of people who hadn’t been in a relationship, people who were, people who waited and people who didn’t. They all seemed to say the same thing — waiting is better than not, but it won’t be wild in the bedroom straight away.

The thing was, maybe they just weren’t supplying the answers I wanted to hear. My question, though hard to internalise, and never spoken out loud, was ‘is it okay to sleep with someone if you really love them, and you want to marry them some day?’

I didn’t mean I wanted to sleep with anyone. I just wanted a moral compass from someone who was real and didn’t write purity books but also lived within my culture. So I started asking my friends. I didn’t get the answers I wanted. And anyway, rumour had it that in our class there was a core group of guys who had sworn off masturbation. It made sense that no one wanted to venture into the unknown for a hypothetical conversation with the only non-married girl who had already lost the big V.

What I worked out was this: there were plenty of people lying about their sexual pastimes. I was being honest, but there were plenty of people who weren’t. The thing was they were saying it in ways that were still foreign to me. They were using Christianese to hide how the felt or what had happened. After my college group graduated, things became clear — the standards we were holding for ourselves weren’t necessarily for ourselves at all. If they were for God, and some were, I’m sure, that would be fine, but plenty of it was peer pressure to not do anything risky. To not wear anything that may cause a brother to be tempted by sexy thoughts. To not even think about someone in terms of their attractiveness and the chemistry you had together — none of these things truly mattered if you were both focused on God.

The sermons I had heard all had the same messages:

  • Girls only sleep with guys because they have no self esteem (and their parents, especially their dads, didn’t love them).
  • Guys only want sex and don’t care about love.
  • Women can tempt men if they don’t cover themselves up appropriately.
  • Sin holds equal weight, so if you think about sex, it’s as bad as actually doing it.
  • If you lose your virginity, you give part of your soul to that person. The more people you sleep with, the less sticky your soul is, and therefore, you are an unsticky piece of cello tape to give to your future spouse.
  • Your future spouse will be heartbroken to learn you’re not a virgin, especially if they waited FOR YOU.
  • But if you commit to someone emotionally, not just physically, this is basically the same thing as sleeping with them outside of marriage.
  • You can’t be a technical virgin.
  • Your wedding night will be amazing if you wait. And if you don’t wait, well, it’ll just be another dance around the maypole (or whatever).

There’s a great scene in an Adrian Plass book, in which a speaker addresses the congregation and says, ‘imagine if Jesus was sitting right here in this chair. Wouldn’t you feel ashamed for Him to know of all of the wicked things you have done?’ Adrian instead gets excited at the prospect of meeting Jesus, the idea of feeling guilty for a sin he hasn’t even committed is the furthest thing from his mind.

In the stage of clarity I met different people. A friend openly spoke out against the True Love Waits type of campaign and decided not to pursue any of this within her youth ministry. My friends started talking, for real this time, about the constant struggle with church, Christian identity and sexuality. I started university and discovered a lot about bias — many of the studies cited in different works promoting abstinence were funded by groups which were biased in favour of an evangelical Christian view, so some of the things being touted in churches were incorrect. And, most importantly, everyone around me became older and started having relationships which could actually go somewhere. Plenty of my friends now are married, some with less sticky cello tape than others.

Despite coming to terms with the purity culture, it really impacted on my self esteem as a teenager — just when I needed to be building it most. A lot of it wasn’t even personally directed at me (though these did hurt the most). The culture of slut shaming and victim blaming was rife during this time. To not even be ‘allowed’ to have the autonomy to choose your own thoughts. To look at a piece of clothing and worry endlessly about whether it was revealing too much cleavage, whether it was too tight or too suggestive. To try and see myself as a person who wasn’t allowed to have any sexual thoughts or interests at all. To repent during altar calls of perfectly chaste kisses and crushes. To have a guy apologise for touching you too much during a physical contact ice breaker.

For all of these things, former teenage and young adult self, I am sorry.

Of course, I’m sure some good came out of this. I still had all of the bad relationships I think most young people had. I also had all of the good ones too. I avoided the party scene. I didn’t ever kiss someone I didn’t know. I had many self imposed rules which I followed through with.

And, at the end of the day, a 45 minute kickboxing class is twenty times better than bad sex. You can only say that if you’re had bad sex. And if you like kick boxing.

Some interesting links:

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