a headstone reading "I had sex" with a rose laid on top

I was raised in the Jehovah’s Witness faith, which not only subscribes to a strict expectation of abstinence before marriage, but also requires young, romantically-involved congregants to only interact in chaperoned environments until such a time as they are officially married. Even as a very, very young child, I always found that requirement odd, since it seems impossible to get to know a person well enough to decide if you actually want to marry them if someone else is always around, looking over your shoulder. And even though I was very young, I still had a pretty decent idea of what sex was and why it was important in a relationship. It was extremely bizarre to me that any rational person would take a car for a test drive before buying it, but that you weren’t allowed to do the same with a person you were supposed to be committing to FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE. I remember being five years old and thinking this was an insane way to live one’s life.

There is a ten year age difference between myself and my older sister, so while I was still relatively young and insulated from the faith’s expectations of its young people, she was very much in the thick of it as a teenager. When she was 19 she started dating someone she knew through her work, someone who was not a Jehovah’s Witness and someone who did not subscribe to the concepts of chaperoning or abstinence. But he was someone who gave her the validation that she so desperately wanted and needed after spending her whole life surrounded by people who did not validate her inherent value.

Like so many people that age, she fell into a sexual relationship with that guy even though she probably shouldn’t have. I remember meeting him once and thinking that he didn’t seem that great and that she should be with someone nicer, someone smarter, someone better. Her view of her own self-worth was very low. Thankfully, she also eventually realized that he wasn’t that great and she broke it off with him. But as a baptized member of the Jehovah’s Witness congregation, she had to go through a confessional process in front of a committee of three male elders as a result of get involvement with that man.

She told me years later that she had to describe all of their interactions throughout the entirety of that relationship to these men in extreme detail. They sat in judgement of her and deemed her an unfit influence that needed to be removed from the church. She was Disfellowshipped, which is tantamount to an excommunication, and the entire community was instructed to shun her. Including our family. My mother sat the younger siblings down one day and explained that while we were always supposed to be polite to her, we were not supposed to spend time with her anymore. She still lived in our house, and we had to do our best to ignore her.

It is not surprising that she left home shortly thereafter. She didn’t come back for 7 years. From the ages of 9 to 16, I did not see her at all. We were not allowed to go to her wedding (to a very nice man that she met in her new town) and we were not allowed to contact her or have any kind of meaningful relationship with her. It’s only when she had her first child that she and my mother began to repair their rift, and therefore allow me to have a relationship with her again as well.

She discovered years later that one of the three elders who heard her confession and decided to Disfellowship her was having a long-term affair with another elder’s wife. Another one of her judges was routinely molesting his daughter.

If not for the abstinence messaging that we were exposed to when we were young, we would not have been immersed in a cultural expectation of purity before marriage and my sister would not have been excluded from our church and from our family right at a time in life when she was most in need of love and support. And I would not have been deprived of a sister at a formative age when I had no control over my own life or who I was allowed to talk to.

-Tiffani N.