When Purity Was a Pearl Tiara: My Abstinence-only Sex Education

Photo Credit: Ecce Ancilla Domini by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1850, sourced from the Google Art Project

When I was 13 living in rural Southwest Missouri, I attended an event called “Purity, Passion, and Pearls,” put on for mostly the popular girls by the popular girls’ moms. The event was a weekend long retreat in which the host moms taught us about staying pure until marriage, being passionate for God, and how to be proper ladies (hence the pearls). Apparently these three things were summed up best in what can only be described as the child (in wedlock, of course) of a pubescent slumber party, a church lock-in, and Jennifer Garner’s transformation scene in 13 Going on 30 when she thinks naked men are gross but makeup is awesome. We got our hair done, our nails done, our makeup done; we ate popcorn and told secrets; and most importantly, at the end of the retreat we were each given a (fake) pearl bracelet and tiara and learned about how everything we had done was to the end of glorifying God. We were to use our newfound beauty as a tool for Christ, and to this end, we all wrote letters to our future God-loving husbands. Unfortunately, I think mine got thrown out during my Dawkinsesque militant atheist phase a few years later, but to the best of my memory it started something like this:

“Dear Future Husband,

I am so so so excited to meet you and I am so so so happy God brought you into my life and I am so so so happy I decided to wait for you and I hope you did the same for me. If I didn’t I am so sorry that I failed both you and God and I hope you can forgive me.”

Even at the age of 13, when I had so far only kissed a few boys, I actively believed that any premarital sex was a moral failure on my part, one that could turn me into damaged goods. Before I even began to talk to my “husband” about our life together, our kids, or my hopes and dreams for us, I apologized for doing both him and God wrong. In remembering this, I have to ask: so much of the language of religious abstinence focuses on remaining pure for God, but there is so much more subtext to it. If my friends and I were apologizing to our hypothetical future husbands for our sexual “transgressions,” were we fulfilling the Miltonic idea of men living for God directly, but women “for God in him”? Real sex education that extended any further than diagrams of the reproductive systems and pink gift bags filled with oversized pads didn’t start at my school until high school. Though a lot of conversation on a national level does happen about sex education at schools, few people talk about the kind of sex education that occurs before that outside the school. At an even younger age, before adults in my church community began to directly talk about premarital sex, the other girls and I in Sunday school were taught that we were to one day find and marry a godly man who emulated God’s ways. At the same time, however, we were taught to think of ourselves as brides of Christ and that God was a jealous husband who would get angry if we spent too much of our time away from him and outside of his “house.” The jealousy, according to our youth pastors, was evidence of how much God loved us and of why we had to reciprocate that love as much as we could. Though I do truly believe they thought these lessons were empowering and progressive—the logic being that they put the worshipper into a more “equal” relationship with God and reassured that our actions and prayers were not in vain—the effects are the opposite. As a young girl, I was taught that my ideal marriage would be with a jealous man who wanted all of my time and would be angry without it. Even without older (though still present) ideas of serving a husband as one serves God, this still tells young girls that control, envy, manipulation are not only okay, they are desirable. This was something I truly believed until I learned at an older age these were actually signs of an emotionally abusive relationship. Sadly, many women have not been fortunate enough to hear the truth about this behavior.

The promotion of jealousy and control in relationships, though incredibly harmful already, is still only one part of a larger harmful view of sex being taught to young people. Abstinence-only sex education, particularly that outside of schools, often states that premarital sex will never feel right, and will always be followed by feelings of shame and regret. As we were taught again and again, purity was beautiful, it was feminine. We were taught to associate it with makeup and being in the “in” crowd. Purity was a pearl tiara—it was what made us a princess in God’s eyes. Growing up, I experienced no discussions of how to differentiate between emotionally healthy and emotionally unhealthy sex or even between consensual sex and nonconsensual sexual assault either within or outside of relationships. There is far from adequate discussion of women’s pleasure and rights within sexual encounters and abstinence-only education, by implying there is something inherently wrong with premarital sex, adds to that problem. Women who grow up with this kind of sex education may be less likely to recognize instances of sexual assault, because they are taught that discomfort and shame are inevitable and natural reactions to premarital sex, and more importantly, that they are to blame for these feelings. Of course, sadly, this is only one aspect of a vastly larger and more complicated rape culture, and I do not mean to imply any direct correlation between Christianity and domestic violence and sexual assault, but instead to tell my experiences within a culture that used Christian teachings to achieve its own ends. Rape culture is violently present everywhere, for a myriad of complex reasons, and it is important that we continue to fight rape culture and domestic violence normalization in each of their incarnations.

About the photo: The photo is a 1850 painting, Ecce Ancilla Domini by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (sourced from the Google Art Project) depicting the Virgin Mary during the Annunciation. Rossetti’s take on it centers on Mary rather than the event.


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