As a fourth grader I was repeatedly sexually violated by a classmate.
Because of abstinence only education and purity culture, I didn’t understand that I was a victim and hadn’t done anything wrong until I was in college, and I wasn’t able to tell my mom about it until I was 24. Abstinence only education prevented me from having the tools to protect myself. When I finally told my mom, she asked me why I didn’t tell her sooner.
I had spent years of my life wondering the same thing.
Why didn’t I stop this person? Why didn’t I say no? Why didn’t I go running to my mom?
After many years I realized there were two reasons. One, I didn’t have the words. Two, I thought I would get in trouble.
As a fourth grader, I didn’t have the language to explain where I was being touched. I didn’t know what sex was, what sexual assault was, what consent was, or even what a vagina was. All I knew was that anything involving my genitals was bad. When I explained this to my mom, she didn’t understand. She thought sheltering me was the best way to protect me, and my story wasn’t changing her mind. “Fourth grade is way too young to be learning about these things,” she said. But, it is impossible to shelter children from any knowledge of sex, especially in a Catholic environment where sex is at the center of so many rules. Abstinence only education starts way before we understand what exactly we are supposed to abstain from.
I first learned about the concept of sex through modesty. I was taught to cover my arms and legs and chest before I even understood why. In middle school, I was called up to the teacher’s desk to have my shorts measured in front of the whole class. Shorts could not be more than two inches above the knee. And no, this was not in 1965, this was in 2010. If having two and a half inches of my thigh showing was enough to deserve public shaming, imagine what would happen if people found out that I had been touched between the legs.
As I grew older and learned about the concept of virginity, I wondered what it meant for me. Had this incident taken away some of my purity? As a high schooler, my mom told me I looked like a slut because I wanted to wear a tank top to go to the park with my female friends. If that was enough to be a slut, what would she think of me if she knew the truth? I found more and more reasons why I should take this secret to the grave.
After I went to college (and stopped going to church), abstinence only education still had its grip on me. I started having sex with no contraceptive method other than condoms because I was so afraid of having a birth control prescription show up on my parents’ insurance. Some of the worst damage that abstinence only teaching has done to me is not the physical damage to my body (the assaults, the dangerous sex, etc) but the mental damage. I truly believed that my goodness as a person was tied to my abstinence. That shrunk me into a shame-filled person who believed people would love me less, or even hate me, for engaging in sex (or anything remotely sex-adjacent)I am now 24, I have healthy views on sex and body image, and I’ve come a long way, but I’ve never pulled on a pair of shorts in my life without estimating how many inches above the knee they are.