Everyone took their teenage daughter to the same store to buy her abstinence ring. The store was in a newly built outdoor shopping mall, and the air conditioning was on so high that I remember my hair blowing back when stepping inside from the triple-digit heat. Inside their glass terrariums, the rings were cradled in little pillows, each propped upright, begging to be purchased. It was the first time I had been into a jewelry store, and I tugged at my shorts, worried they were too short. In the cases shone silver rings with crosses cut out, crosses forged roughly, crossed horizontal on the tiny bands. Too obvious, my parents and I decided. We laughed together at the one with the words TRUE LOVE WAITS engraved on it. Tacky. We chose something subtle: a stacked silver ring. But there’s nothing really that subtle about a 15-year-old wearing any jewelry on her left-hand ring finger. It was Texas, after all. Everyone knew exactly what it meant.
The ring was a finale to a multi-week program in which I had listen to my parents speak vaguely and uncomfortably about sex more than I had ever wanted to. The idea was that by putting everyone at our evangelical church through the same True Love Waits abstinence pledge program, we would break down the barriers in communication around sex. This, of course, was a complete and utter failure because the whole premise of the program was that I was agreeing to not have sex until I was married. More than agreeing, I was promising.
In all honesty, it wasn’t that hard of a promise for me to make. I was 15 years old. I didn’t think I’d ever want to have sex very badly, so I promised not to do it. This made me good, moral, admirable. Worthy of praise by the adults in my community. But it also tied up my faith with sexual purity, so that without one, I could no longer have the other. In retrospect, I can barely even remember which I lost first: my faith or my virginity.
The preservation of girls’ virginities is nothing new. Human history and the church in particular have long been obsessed with women’s purity. The Bible is clear that one should flee from “sexual immorality,” and American culture latched onto that suggestion as a beacon of truth. The Reagan Administration had The Chastity Act in the 1980s. The Southern Baptist Convention introduced True Love Waits in 1993. A spin off, Silver Ring Thing, was founded in 1995. An estimated 2.5 million teenagers pledged to stay abstinent. When I was a teenager, half the hot young celebrities had purity rings: the Jonas brothers, Selena Gomez, Jordin Sparks, Demi Lovato, and Miley Cyrus.
The pledges, generally, ask you to sign a card, vowing that you will abstain from sexual encounters until marriage. It’s not just a pledge to stay a virgin, but a pledge to stay “pure.” Most people take these pledges in late middle school or early high school, when they are more children than adults—young enough to not really know what they are agreeing to. As a child, I learned in church that lust was a sin boys struggled with, not girls. Sex, I was taught, was something men wanted and women reluctantly agreed to. In the journal I kept around that time I wrote, married women “are always talking about how great sex is and how precious it is inside marriage, but it sounds like they’re trying to convince themselves, not me.”
Maybe I didn’t think I would ever want sex because I was too young when I took the pledge, or maybe its because I was so closeted I didn’t recognize the feelings I had for girls as more than friendly. I was surprised when I learned a bit later in life that the pulsing tension and lingering looks I had experienced were in fact about sex. I had matured enough to realize I wanted more than someone to date; I wanted someone to touch me. It was a feeling I had been told was wrong, but in that moment, it certainly didn’t feel like it. More than feeling guilty, though, I felt confused.
I knew men wanted sex. I knew married women had sex. But wanting sex myself surprised me. “Making women the sexual gatekeepers and telling men they just can’t help themselves not only drives home the point that women’s sexuality is unnatural, but also sets up a disturbing dynamic in which women are expected to be responsible for men’s sexual behavior,” Jessica Valenti wrote in her book The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Harming Young Women. It did feel unnatural; I felt strange for wanting more than just my hand held. And I also felt broken somehow, as if a screw had popped loose inside the machine of my body and pieces of myself were rapidly collapsing.
When I first started working on my debut novel God Spare the Girls, I knew that I wanted to write about purity culture and how it’s adapting to fit the modern era. How churches now are more willing to admit that young girls want sex, but they still condemn it—insisting that to even want sex, much less to pursue or acquire it, is something to be ashamed of. It’s a form of policing young women’s bodies and desires that seeks to control them, but more importantly, it puts young people in an easy space to be manipulated. Maybe you’re 16 years old, as I was, and always had a hard time relating to the gospel preached that you are broken and sinful and in desperate need of a savior. I had straight As. I was a model child. I did everything in my power to be perceived as good. Until I started desiring sex, there wasn’t much in my life that a pastor could allude to that was meant to make me feel guilty.
There has been a lot written about how purity culture and abstinence pledges can ruin people’s relationships with sex for life, how it can build up a heavy guilt in a person’s gut that threatens to drown them in their own shame, and how it makes most young women feel unempowered and trapped. I had dozens of calls with friends of mine who grew up with the same program, grew out of it, and called me in the middle of the night crying when they failed. I have seen firsthand the difficulty they had balancing the thing they believed with the decisions they wanted to make.
For me, though, it was more complicated than that. Sex, and sex adjacent activities, never felt wrong to me. I never felt the guilt I was promised, or the shame I was supposed to feel, or the dread that was supposed to consume me. In fact, it was the discussions about God that more often began to feel that way to me.
In her book The Years, Annie Ernaux writes that, “the Church no longer terrorized the teenage imagination or ruled over sexual exchange. Women’s bodies were freed from its clutches. By losing sex, its main field of endeavor, the Church had lost everything.” When I read this a few months ago, my book was already finished, but it was a perfect encapsulation of why I began writing it in the first place. Because I had been taught so firmly and so adamantly that sex outside of marriage was a sin and an affront against God, when my body failed to feel those things, it wasn’t myself I questioned, but the God I had been promised.
The power dynamic of my relationship to myself shifted when I started having sexual experiences. Because I was the one in control and because I was the one making the decision, I felt stronger. Like the protagonist of my novel, it was in the eyes of people who were attracted to me that I saw reflected back how strong I could be, and how much power I actually had. It wasn’t the sex itself that made me feel empowered as much as the realization that I was an individual who could choose which rules to follow and which to ignore.
Teenagers today are better at that. Many of them realize that sex is a choice for them to make, and because they also realize that having sex can be a painful and hurtful thing, they’re more cautious. According to a 2020 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American teenagers are having less sex than ever. Only 42 percent of teen girls and 38 percent of teen boys reported having sex. That number is down significantly from 2002 when it was 46 percent for both. In 2019, teens interviewed didn’t say this was because of religion or a desire for abstinence, though, they said it was because of awareness of disease and access to more information on the internet. So that decline isn’t because of purity rings and abstinence pledges; it’s not fear-mongering making young people today choose to wait longer to have sex—it’s their own empowerment.
Purity culture fails at everything it tries to accomplish. Studies have found teens who take purity pledges are almost twice as likely to become pregnant while not married. Teens who take purity pledges also often have guilt and shame that affects their sex lives and the future. And the whole intent of the pledges in the first place—to convert people to Christianity—is a massive failure on every front. While teens attend church regularly, young adults do not. The Pew Research Center found in 2019 that the share of Americans who consider themselves white evangelical Protestant has declined from 19 percent to 16 percent of the U.S. adult population in the last decade.
The bet purity culture didn’t realize it was making is that young adults would choose God over sex. They didn’t and they won’t. But in setting up that dichotomy, the church has failed young evangelical women on every front. The hardest part for me about losing my virginity wasn’t guilt or shame; it was the recognition that what I was really losing was the faith I had held close to my heart my entire life.
I wore my abstinence ring every day, long after I stopped believing or abiding by the message it projected, because I didn’t want to answer questions and because I didn’t want to allow myself to ask the biggest question hiding in the back of my min.:If I didn’t believe it mattered at all what I did with my body, why did I believe any of it? I don’t know where my abstinence ring is now. Like my virginity, I lost the ring slowly, over time, in incremental steps, and in the end, both it and my virginity were so much less important than I’d at one time they thought might be.
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