When I was born, my parents chose a feminine name for me that meant “pure one.” It’s not my name anymore. But I suppose that name was my first clue that Purity Culture was going to attempt a defining role in my life.
My family belonged to a church that described itself as a “Catholic Charismatic Covenant Community” – which basically means Catholic, but with a whole lot of extra. Church on Sunday mornings consisted of a Catholic mass AND a multi-hour “community gathering” that included singing, clapping, swaying, praying, listening to Biblical teachings, and the occasional speaking in tongues. Community leaders were all men, and traditional gender roles in marriage and family life were emphasized as rules that were both natural & pleasing to God.
It was against this backdrop, that I learned about sex, or more specifically “God’s design for sexuality.” Sex was good and beautiful, but only when it took place in the context of a marriage between a man and a woman. God gave people sexual desires so they’d have lots of babies. Being open to God’s plan for your life meant not using birth control, even after you’re married. Most families in our church community had at least 5 kids. Some had more than 10. My family had 6, with me as the oldest.
For a while, we rented out the lower level of our house to a woman from our church who was a professional abstinence-only speaker. I remember being super impressed that she had such an important job. I’m pretty sure I actually had a major crush on her. She was beautiful. But I was a girl (or so I thought). And girls don’t have crushes on girls (or so I thought). So yeah, it must have been her fancy job that impressed me.
When I was 10, word got out that the priest had been sexually abusing teenage girls and young adult women, while community leaders covered it up. My family left the community along with dozens of other families. My parents felt betrayed and sad, but remained dedicated to their Christian faith and kept me in Catholic school, which I attended K-12.
My memories of Catholic school include:
-Having to sit through a lecture on modesty with the girls, while the boys went outside for an extended recess (4th grade)
-Splitting up by gender again to learn about periods and pregnancy, while the boys got some separate “boy version” of a puberty talk (5th grade)
And last but not least, “Flour Babies,” – a project worth 200 points in our 9th grade Catholic Sexuality Class. Each student was assigned a 5 lb bag of flour that we had to name, wrap in a blanket, & carry around with us for a week. If we had an after-school activity, like a softball practice, we had to find someone to take care of our “baby.” This assignment was meant to deter us from having sex before marriage, which would surely be punished with an out-of-wedlock pregnancy.
As I grew up, my parents supplemented what I was learning at school with resources from Christian authors and media personalities like Dr. James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family. They bought me a subscription to Brio, Focus on the Family’s magazine for teen girls. One former subscriber noted that “the highlights of 1990s-era Brio were a relationship advice column about not having pre-marital sex, a culture column about not listening to music about pre-marital sex, and interviews with young Christian celebrities who were not having pre-marital sex.” The accuracy of that description by Slate.com writer Ruth Graham made me laugh out loud when I read it.
I don’t laugh when I think back on other, more formative aspects of my abstinence-only sex education. When I was 11, my mom took me on an overnight “retreat” just the two of us, where we listened to Dr. Dobson’s 6-part series “Preparing for Adolescence” on cassette tapes. These tapes were the basis of my education on gender roles, puberty, peer pressure, & dating. The tapes reinforced the message that sex was “God’s idea,” but that ANY sex outside of a heterosexual marriage was dirty, wrong, sinful, dangerous.
I recently bought a copy of Dr. Dobson’s book Preparing for Adolescence, which the tapes were based on, to see if the messaging was AS fixated on the evils of premarital sex as I remember it being. And yeah it definitely was. Here are some quotes:
From page 68: “Sin always has a destructive effect on a young person. But the sin of premarital sex is especially damaging to the person who engages in it. He or she loses the innocence of youth, and sometimes becomes cold and hard as a person…”
THE MESSAGE I RECEIVED: Premarital sex is the worst kind of sin, & it could ruin my personality.
Further down on page 68: “It’s also likely to affect his or her later marriage, because that special experience, which should have been shared with just one person, is not so special any more. More than one person has had a sample of it.”
MESSAGE I RECEIVED: Virginity makes a person special. I’m less valuable without it. Sex before marriage could ruin sex after marriage.
End of page 68: “God has commanded us not to have sex before marriage in order to spare us the effects of this sin. In fact, the worst consequence relates to the judgment of God in the life to come. Our eternal destinies actually depend on our faith in God & our obedience to Him.”
MESSAGE RECEIVED: Sex before marriage, literally sends people to Hell. Especially if you’re not sorry for it, & you do it again.
Speaking of Hell, you’d think that growing up this way, I would have been hearing anti-gay commentary all the time right? But actually no. We didn’t talk about gay people in Catholic school. And homosexuality is only mentioned once in Preparing for Adolescence. But here’s the quote:
From a section called “Questions of Fear” (page 70):
“What if someone pressures me to experiment with homosexuality? A homosexual is someone who is not attracted to the opposite sex, but who is attracted to the same sex. Homosexuality is an abnormal desire that reflects deep problems, but it doesn’t happen very often, and it’s not likely to happen to you.”
WHAT I REMEMBER THINKING AT THE TIME: Wow! I definitely dodged a bullet here! Because I AM attracted to the opposite sex. So I can’t be gay. End of story! This is good. Because being gay is bad. And weird. And a problem. A weird, bad problem to have. As long as I’m ready to say no in the unlikely event that a gay person pressures me to experiment, I’ll be fine. Gay feelings won’t exist within me.
Deep sigh. Hard eye roll. I don’t think I ever believed these ideas to be 100% factual, but the indoctrination of my childhood was enough to make me join an evangelical Christian group my freshman year of college, where I spent two and a half years around people who preached that even lustful thoughts were sinful and advised men to form “accountability groups” for mutual support in staying away from porn.
I’m relieved to say that I left that group and that belief system altogether by the age of 21. But it’s taken conscious effort & years of therapy to recover from the shame I’ve felt over normal human experiences – like having sexual fantasies and having sex for the first time at age 20 – with a boyfriend, not a husband.
But above all, the most profound harm that abstinence-only sex education had on my life was that it kept me from recognizing my authentic self for so long. I was never a girl or a woman at all. I’m a transgender man. But I didn’t know it, & didn’t even know that people like me existed until I was well into adulthood. I finally came out to myself in my mid 30s, but not before struggling with shame, dishonesty, depression, and addiction for years.
I’m happy to say that I’m nearly 4 years sober, & I’m 2 years into a medical transition at the age of 41. But I had to unlearn SO MANY THINGS before I could finally recognize, accept, & begin to love myself as the queer, trans, bisexual, polyamorous person that I am today…who happens to be a sex educator at an LGBTQ-inclusive, sex-positive sexual & reproductive health clinic. Take that, James Dobson! Lol
I’m so glad this project exists. People deserve a space to share their stories & to heal from the traumas of abstinence only-sex education. Sexuality is at the very core of what makes us human. It’s about who we are, how we see ourselves, how we relate to each other, & how we experience desire, pleasure, intimacy, and love. Sexuality can bring us some of the most positive and meaningful experiences of our lives. Young people deserve to learn about it in a way that’s accurate, affirming, & free of shame – the first time around. That’s why I’m a sex educator today, & why I’m so passionate about access to comprehensive sexuality education for everyone.