Before I went to ministry school, I was offered an opportunity to travel the country with a group called Silver Ring Thing. They were a group, much to my excitement, dedicated to protecting virginity and teaching teens to wait until marriage for most kinds of affection. It was common in this purity culture to feel that relationships in general were dangerous for your heart, your sexuality and your faith.
I was once passionate about protecting the virginity of, not only myself, but all the teenagers in my path, my own brother, and, believe it or not, my own unmarried mother. It was a bit bombarding, in retrospect, thinking about all the very clear, obvious reasons why sex should be saved for marriage. Much as youth ministry was about God and getting to know him and seeing the importance and wonder of all that Jesus did for us on the cross, it was pretty clear that it was also very much about micr
omanaging the choices of everyone around you. All the time.
Whether people claimed Christianity or not, it was my uncalled mission to change the world’s perverted perspectives on sex by way of what turned out to be unspoken guilt trips. People could feel me judging their lifestyle even if I was entirely silent. Oddly enough, though I’m sure it’s fairly common in purity culture, I, the great youth leader, Erin, who organized a Purity Bible Study, constantly verbally guilted my brother, and often voiced my disgust towards my mother, had never even held hands with a boy. Ever. In fact, it wasn’t until I moved away to Spokane at the age of twenty-one that I held hands for the first time. Really, looking back, I was pretty much the epitome of a hypocrite or you know, a naive jerk.
I was given a pulpit for something for which I had no experience. I had a passion for something I could compare to nothing. I had never been touched, no one had really even tried. But I was telling these kids, my brother, my mother to avoid the dangers of touching, heralding a perspective that had been handed down to me by mentors that hurt me. My heart, albeit unlearned, was in the right place. I’d seen plenty of relationships crash and burn. Oftentimes physicality seemed to be a reason for their demise, I actually lost a lot of friendships by predicting the end of a newly budding relationship. It’s amazing how much of a know-it-all I have been in my life for so little experience.
If there’s something I can point to as the straw that broke the camel’s back with ministry school and changing my mind about perspectives I once held so dear it’s my realization that at twenty years old, I had never experienced a relationship. I’d had little boyfriend things that lasted a month at most, but always, out of fear and frustration, I’d almost instantaneously break up with the poor guys. In ministry school, I was told that as an intern, I was not allowed to get to know any men personally, I could not date, I could not even call a guy or text him, whether he was an intern also, or not. I had always held myself aloof from dating, protecting myself for that elusive dream of some wonderful husband that I would just happen upon one of these days. But even in that perspective of relationships, I never aspired to marry early. The concept of committing suddenly to some man I only recently met or a guy that didn’t quite fit the bill, but was Christian and nice enough, always intimidated me. When I realized that a decision I had been making for myself for my entire life was actually being forced upon me, I stopped listening to the things they were saying as if they were the absolute truth. I started to question. I started to rebel. I started to retaliate. And then, I started to change.
Coming to Spokane, the home I now know, I told myself that things could happen. I no longer knew the person I was, she was a completely new entity. I didn’t know if I would be a drinker, a friend, a jerk and I didn’t know if I would have sex or who I would have sex with. But I told myself that whatever happened, I wouldn’t lose my identity. One day I wouldn’t be “Pure Erin”, have sex and the next day be ” Dirty Erin “. I would retain the things that made me the person I wanted to be. Being pure didn’t matter to me anymore. I was going to live my life no matter what. My experiences with dating were still a little stunted upon my arrival to Spokane, Washington but interest was clear, I was no longer an untouchable youth leader or a scared little virgin girl (at least not outwardly.) I was out in the world and experiencing life for myself for the first time in forever. It had never happened before and I was enjoying every moment of my new world.
It had been driven into my brain for years by ministry leaders that the moment I chose to have sex or to do anything sexual would be the moment I lost my footing and fell into a pit of sin and darkness. Having sex would guarantee me that I had a rough life. So when people entered my life who were aware of sexuality and not disturbed by it, I was nervous. Looking back, it’s kind of crazy to realize how much of my life of avoiding sexuality made it the biggest issue in my life. Choosing not to have sex or do anything leading up to it defined me, despite my best efforts to be unaffected by my decisions.
For a year I lived by my own rules, still strongly affected by the perspectives of my upbringing, still feeling that I was required to be open about my perspective and avoid having sex at all costs. Unfortunately, I told some of the wrong people about my perspectives on sex, some people that chose to let those convictions define the way they saw me. Not as a girl who hadn’t and refused to have sex, but as a girl who wanted to talk about sex often, who was open and comfortable with the subject. Unfortunately, these people were very much not the friends I was expecting. Even due to my openness, the whole thing blew up in my face and I learned to be so much more careful who I told about my personal life.
I think it is that careful way of approaching the world that enabled me to truly make this decision on my own. After experiencing different viewpoints and learning more about myself and what I truly wanted in a relationship, I made that decision. It took time. It took over a year since I moved to Washington before I decided that Purity Culture was just another element of the cult and I actually really did not want to wait. At all. So I didn’t. I don’t know why that apparently says something about me as a person and as a Christian, but it says something to family members, friends, and the youth who I once preached to about the high importance of waiting. I start to feel like a bit of a hypocrite. Still, sex or no sex, I’m God’s. That’s how it works. That is what I wanted to communicate to my girls in youth ministry. No matter what we do, He is there. We can do nothing to separate him from us. And sex, when with a safe person, someone who will treat you with kindness and respect, someone to whom you may not be married, is pretty great.
I have a boyfriend. And not that it’s any of anybody’s business, but I really like him, maybe I love him, maybe not quite. (I definitely am not saying it, at least out loud. Not for a while.) The fact that I sleep with him when we are neither married nor in love should not be an obstacle in my relationship with God. The only reason I feel the need to say this here on my blog is that it is Christians who try to force me into the thought that God is upset about my life choices. Without Christians, I don’t feel that way. And, whether people believe me or not, I love God, I am a Christian. But again, Christian has less to do with what you do than how you treat others.
So I beseech you, Christians, Purity Bible Study Leaders, Self-Proclaimed Sex Police, please recognize that whether you agree with the personal choices of another person, whether you believe God to be against them or not, whatever Scripture says on the topic, it is neither your business nor your responsibility to keep them from “sin.” As Christians we ought to be about protecting people. We should help people to feel safe, and in throwing our opinions around about the behavior of others, we make it seem like God is hateful and disgusted by everything.
Whether sex outside of marriage is wrong or not is not the question. The more important question is “Where is your own heart?” I accept that many people feel validated in their quest for the absolute purity of everything. But please ask yourself first where it is coming from. Where are you coming from in your soul?
What’s your attitude about this blogpost? Are you angry? Sad? Hopeful? Ask yourself why, ask God why you have the feelings you do about sex before marriage. Then think what you want. Again, this is my story. I will tell it how it happened. And another chapter closes on my life. Gone forever is the world of Purity Culture.
What are some of your experiences with Purity Culture? How do you feel about sex before marriage? I’d love your feedback and comments. Thank you!