“I was one of those kids you wrote about,” she commented, after reading about the pregnant virgin I counseled at Planned Parenthood, “and you probably want to interview me for your blog.” I leapt at the opportunity she was offering to capture a first-person narrative about the experience of being opted out of school sex ed and how it affects adult sexuality.
She described being herded out of the classroom with a couple of other kids to a separate room while the rest of the class stayed to learn about sex. Her parents, devout Christians, believed their daughter would learn what she needed to know about sex and sexuality from them, and within the teachings of their church. They did not feel school-sponsored education was appropriate, thus she was held apart from the clinical, medically accurate information. I asked what information her parents provided in lieu of the classroom. “They told me they were there if I had any questions, but our conversation never went beyond that.” I wondered if they had offered literature, books about the basics of reproduction, the human body, puberty. They had not. Essentially, their offer of information wasn’t. She sensed they were uncomfortable talking about the subject, and didn’t pursue it. The bulk of the teachings she received about sex came from church.
“Church was guilt-heavy,” she recalled, “I learned that there should be no touching, that sexual thoughts, or anything that might spark a sexual thought are sins.” I asked if any clinical information was provided in a Sunday school or church youth group setting. “No. Religion makes sex into a guilt-riddled, fear factor thing.” Even now as a young twenty-something, she wanted me to understand she still harbors a fear of immaculate conception. I could hardly believe it. I asked if she clearly understands what sex is and how women become pregnant. She does, her larger point being the power of religion to create lasting paranoia no medically-accurate information can dispel. The expectation of her religion is that she wait for marriage to have sex, and prior to that rite, no thought or action in regards to the act should be entertained. Hence the lack of need for education.
“Virginity is loving God first, while lust is sex before marriage,” she explained. “That way, it can’t be love. Sex before marriage would ruin love, cheapen it.” I had asked what virginity represents in the belief system in which she was raised. I sought to understand how people are able to put off until marriage the fulfillment of biological, sensual and physical impulses that I experienced as extreme craving before I had sex for the first time. “What if I had sex and being a Christian virgin is no longer part of my identity?” she countered. “I set many rules and bars for being a good Christian,” she explained. I began to comprehend that her religious beliefs were not just a playbook, but a foundation of her identity. In her church community, an unmarried young person could take pride in knowing their place, and feel secure in their goodness. She had internalized the messages, structured her sense of self around them, and the whole thing was being severely challenged and threatened by a sexy and fascinating new man she had started dating.
“It was so much easier to preach abstinence until I got into this relationship,” she sighed. “The idea of sex before marriage feels less shameful now that I’m in love.” I ventured a question about how the years of strongly-held beliefs could begin to dissolve within weeks of a new relationship. Were there forces behind her convictions other than religiosity? The lines and boundaries drawn by the church were also serving to protect her “too trusting nature and physical insecurities”. Taking sex off the menu meant she wouldn’t have to expose her body, an extremely vulnerable act. Nor would she have to worry about “male predators“. She would have a built-in system for establishing trust before having sex–a whole courtship, engagement and marriage process. No room for being taken advantage of, a realistic fear based on her experience of being a self-described people-pleaser. “I would do anything to make others happy. It’s hard for me to put my foot down.” She described a sense of all of this becoming confused and slipping out of her grasp the more time she spent with this intoxicating man.
“I’m somewhat offended that he wants me. There’s a relationship timeline in my head, a series of steps. It used to be that a man would threaten my goals, specific to education and career.” It seemed that in her current state, degree earned, career begun, the steps were evolving. She had a specific idea for where men would fit into her life, and it looked nothing like her current new relationship with a significantly older man who has kids of his own. I wondered to myself what the relationship was like for him–an experienced adult falling in love with an innocent.
“I need rules. And I’ve already broken so many with him, dating a man like him. I told him I loved him within two weeks of meeting. Sex might follow the same trajectory!” I asked about his response to her plan to wait until marriage for sex. He has been supportive, allowing her to take the lead when it comes to physical activity, never pushing or violating her boundaries, encouraging open and honest communication. I liked him already.
“There’s a contradiction I’m dealing with. Fear, represented by religion, says don’t trust him. He says don’t limit yourself. I perceive that as him telling me not to have boundaries. But then I wonder if I’m hiding behind religion because I’m scared.” I asked if there was unspoken pressure from him to physically engage in ways she wasn’t comfortable. No. The issue appeared to be that her attraction to him was so profound, the emotions he evoked so heady and intense that she was wanting to explore sexual activities she had told herself would only occur in a marriage. I wanted to tell her to go for it, but I held back, not wanting to influence our conversation with my own beliefs.
From our conversation it was clear that she was dealing with a major life shake-up, a crossroads where she was being confronted with choices that before had been avoided or unavailable. She was challenging her own belief systems and confronting her biases. I admired her honesty and ability to see and actively attempt to untangle the many contradictions she was facing. She felt she was behind the curve on dating and sex, hindered by her lack of access to clinical information in her younger years. A mountain of accountability to her religion, church, god and family stood between her and her feelings and impulses. She was attempting to scale it, motivated by a person she longed to be closer to and build a future with. A good Christian girl, a self-proclaimed people-pleaser was beginning to decide for herself. I felt honored to bear witness to the struggle.
Weeks later she informed me that “things” were advancing rapidly, and she was amazed to find herself initiating. I took that to mean she was exploring sexual activity with her man, because it felt right to her, the old defense mechanisms falling away, the protections no longer needed. In the spirit of Planned Parenthood I handed her a three pack of condoms, encouraging her to play safe, should sex occur before marriage. Because in my experience, sex happens, whether you plan for it or not.