What I Wish I Had Known About Abstinence

Link to “Shame-Based Sex Education: We Can Do Better”

There is one very important piece of wisdom I wish I could pass back through time to my 15 year old self.

Your sexuality – specifically your virginity – does not define who you are.

I grew up under the teaching that sex outside of marriage is wrong. At 25, I do still hope to wait until marriage to experience it; that’s a personal desire, though. I’m not saying that you need to agree with me. And I understand this conviction makes me part of the 4% of people my age who could say that their knowledge of sex is not first-hand. Stay with me anyway.

Think of it as a trip to the circus.

Unfortunately, my 15 year old self eagerly embraced abstinence for all the wrong reasons. I worshiped my virginity. And it caused a terrific amount of guilt, shame and pain later in life.

It started at age 14 with the purity ring.

Some of you know exactly where I’m going with this.

The ring. The ultimate sign that I was a good Christian girl. The ultimate testimony to my worth. The ultimate evidence that I would only know love and happiness in my relationships. The promise from God that the man of my dreams would ride in on his white stallion and take me away to happily-ever-after. The evidence that I was better than all those other girls who didn’t wait. The excuse I needed to look down on those girls because obviously I was better than them.

Here’s what I thought my $10 silver ring meant: I am pure and my virginity is the most important thing about me. My purity makes me a good person. My purity will guarantee that I only ever date one person and that he’ll be my husband. My purity guarantees a wonderful marriage.

Here’s what my ring really meant: I bought a cheap ring to symbolize my desire to abstain from sex until my wedding night. 

My view and understanding of sex and relationships back then came from several places. My parents were definitely my best role models, for which I am deeply grateful. We learned the correct anatomical terms for our bodies. My mum always knew what to say when I asked awkward sex-related questions.

My parents have demonstrated a marriage of co-leadership, mutual respect, mutual submission, and equality for over 30 years. They taught me that God’s intention for sex was that it be shared within marriage. Yet I’ve never seen them demean or mistreat a person for believing or acting differently; they do quite the opposite. They live like their job is to love people, not to judge whether someone should be disqualified from that love.

Unfortunately, I got a whole different type of sex-ed from the other people in my life.

The strongest negative influence on my idea of sexuality – specifically what “purity” meant – came from a myriad of books written by well-meaning Christians on the topics of sexual purity and dating. Written for teens who were assumed to be naive virgins [me], these books unlocked the secrets to all things purity (literally, I owned one that was divided into various “secrets”, ironically a classic term used by pedophiles with the children they’re grooming).

Web search “purity books for teen girls”, “true love waits” or “purity culture” and, if it was published in the late 90s-early 2000s, I probably read it. [Same goes for *cheesy* Christian romance novels. I realized fairly quickly that they were fluff and switched to Harry Potter but I had my fair share of Love Comes Soft and Swift Down the Prairie of My Heart type novels on my bookshelf.] The idea that I would receive anything other than abstinence-only sex education was foreign. In fact, I never had any sex-ed in school. I entered college painfully naive about anything related to “safe sex” (or human anatomy, for the matter).

My Christian sub-culture just assumed that all of its youth were still virgins. There was no reason to talk about condoms or birth control, chlamydia or herpes because “there is no such thing as ‘safe sex’ unless it’s sex with your spouse.”

These authors, youth group leaders, retreat speakers, etc. probably had some good things to say. I do not doubt that many of them had good intentions. However, my philosophy of sexuality became incredibly skewed by their message and it took only a few months, a couple of books, a youth retreat or two, for the damage to be done to my impressionable heart.

Link to
Link to Relevant Magazine: “Virginity is Not the Point”

Allow me to share the 10 most damaging lies I believed to be true based on what I read and heard about sexual purity by age 15. In hindsight, they sound totally ludicrous but back then I was sure they were mandates handed down by God.

(I’ll be writing these from the female perspective but please do not think my male peers were getting better information.)

10 Rules of Purity:

1. Purity [virginal abstinence] is as easy as a to-do list.

Turn to the index and on page 203 you will see a neat outline of what it takes to be pure. Follow the steps carefully and you cannot go wrong. You never need to doubt that it’s totally worth it. Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder!

2. [Everyone’s] purity is your responsibility.

Your actions and thoughts determine how pure you are so do not mess up. Girls, if you wear anything that could ever possibly be considered immodest you will cause every man who sees you to begin craving sex with you. And that terrible desire will be all your fault. Your body is innately sexual so COVER IT UP! No one wants to see that bare skin. Turn to page 204 and you will find a neat list of modesty “do’s and dont’s”. Follow that list carefully and you cannot go wrong.

Also, rape just happens to the bad girls who were asking for it so we’re going to steer clear of any talk related to sexual abuse. We might as well fail to mention anything related to same-sex attraction, too. When we say “sex” we’re talking about missionary style vaginal heterosexual sex. Because that’s your only option. Because ew.

Link to
Link to “The Sexy Wife I Can’t Be”

3. Purity is the only way you can please your future spouse; it guarantees a white hot sex life.

Since there is a 99.9% chance that your spouse will also be a virgin on your wedding night, remember that every time you fail to maintain the utmost sexual purity, you have failed your husband (wife). Your body will one day be his body (hers) so every time you think a bad thought or let a boy (girl) hold your hand or kiss you or hug you, that’s a part of you that you have stolen from your husband (wife). You can never get it back.

You can never fully love them because you are no longer a whole person.

If you have sex before marriage it will ruin your marital sex life and you will never, ever be able to make your husband (wife) happy. Whoever you sleep with before your husband (wife) will be with you in spirit on your wedding night. That’s not fair to your future spouse.

To be extra safe, don’t watch movies that talk about sex too much, show sexual things, or have nudity (this includes women in skimpy clothes). Those images can compromise your purity. Don’t listen to music that has sexual themes, either. Think Rated G.

No pressure. Page 203.

There is this mystical word: “consent“. We won’t worry about that. Ultimately, it’s the wife’s duty to always please her sex-obsessed husband no matter how she feels or what she wants. So ladies, grin and bear it. Your body is his right. You may not enjoy the sex but maybe you’ll get a baby out of it and won’t that be nice?

4. Purity waits for true love.

True love waits. And waits and waits and waits. Until you’re in college. Then, you’ll meet that perfect someone and enter a magical, romantic marriage. If for some strange reason you’re not married at 21, you still have to wait to have sex or that perfect someone won’t come (and getting married and having kids is a woman’s purpose in life). Just be patient, guard your heart, and you’ll be surprised how single life just flies by! If for some reason you’re still single at the age of 25, we’re very sorry.

You must not love Jesus as much as your married friends do [yes, someone actually said this to me].

You might want to put this book on relationships down and find a book about how to grit your teeth and embrace the gift of singleness. Forever alone.

Invest in a cat or two.

Link to
Link to Jonalyn Fincher’s “Why 30 year old Virgins are not Sexless”

5. Purity guarantees you will not get hurt.

If you’re not making any sexual mistakes, you will never be hurt. Sure, sometimes “breaking up is hard to do” but aren’t you glad you’re still a virgin?! That’s the most important thing. Time heals all wounds, anyway.

At least you aren’t pregnant or diseased. Because, again, ew.

6. Purity keeps you from becoming “damaged goods”.

It’s simple: if you have sex with anyone other than your spouse, you have failed at life. Literally. The sex will be awful and icky. You’ll be destroyed by the guilt. No one will want to marry you because you’re not pure. God will have a really hard time forgiving you because your virginity was what gave you your worth as a human being.

Plus it only takes one time having sex to get pregnant. And a pregnant teenager is about as sad and pathetic and shameful as it gets.

Do you want to be a single mother? No? Then don’t have sex.

Do you want to get an STD? No? Then don’t have sex.

Keep that hymen intact. It’s like a freshness seal. You’re like a container of sour cream.

Bear in mind that some virgins can get reputations that are almost as bad as if they had had sex. Don’t be the girl who kisses a boy when you’ve only been dating for a few months. Stay vertical at all times. Don’t spend time with someone of the opposite gender ALONE, ever. Chaperons 24/7.

Without supervision, your raging hormones will take over and the two of you will become deranged sex animals. Remember, holding hands always leads to sex [again yes, someone actually said this to me].

7. Purity can guarantee you will never lust after anyone.

We aren’t going to directly address the L word [unless it’s a book written only to boys] but if you’re abstaining from sex (and any other physical contact that we have labeled “too far” on page 203), you won’t be bothered by the temptation to party naked before your wedding night. You’ll be able to tuck that libido away and forget about it until then. In fact, if you do find yourself wanting to do something of a sexual nature before your wedding night, you should probably seek serious counseling immediately because there could be something wrong with you.

Or just go on a singles retreat so you can meet a nice boy (girl) and get married.

By the way, don’t Google the word libido. It’s dirty.

P.S. Only men want sex. Women don’t want sex; they just want love. Therefore, women never crave a man’s body. They never objectify men or lust after a beautiful male body (and same-sex attraction doesn’t exist). But it is a woman’s job to keep men from lusting because all men are animals. Men are in charge of everything but they can’t control themselves. Modest is hottest, ladies. Be a Ruth, not a Jezebel.

Link to
Link to Tamara Rice’s “Because Your Body is Beautiful”

8. Purity means that you will only ever date one person and that person will be your life-long loving spouse.

Again, go back to page 203. If you’re doing all the right things you won’t need to date more than one person before true love hits you like a ton of bricks. Then you get to start shopping for a wedding cake!

By the way, if you do date more than one person then it probably means that you’re going to get divorced because clearly you don’t know how to commit.

No pressure.

9. Purity does not ask questions.

Sex is AMAZING! Like, seriously…A-MAZING!!! But only when you’re married so…we’re sorry. Stinks to be you. As we’ve said over and over, any sex that isn’t between a husband and wife is yucky; therefore, you shouldn’t talk about it. In fact, just save your sexual questions for your virgin spouse. You’ll probably need a conversation starter on your wedding night anyway, right?

And for the sake of all that is pure DO NOT touch yourself. The only people who do that are creeps watching porn in dark basements so we won’t be focusing on “the m word” unless this is an all-guys retreat and we want to make things awkward.

For now, just follow that outline on page 203 and you won’t need anything else explained to you.

10. Only when you are pure can you be accepted by God.

Of course God is loving and forgiving and all that jazz but sexual immorality is just…a really big sin. If you aren’t wearing virgin white on your wedding day, God won’t give you all the blessings He gives virgin brides. He loves you…just don’t screw up sexually. Remember that being a virgin makes you better than all those other people who didn’t wait for marriage.

Link to
Link to “Confessions of a Lustful Christian Woman”

Now, reverse those 10 man-made rules.

This is what my 15 year old self needed to hear:

1. Purity [virginal abstinence] is NOT easy.

There is no list of rules! This isn’t a game of Scrabble. You can’t triple your score in real life.

The idea of waiting to have sex doesn’t seem that hard when you’re 15 and everyone in your youth group just took purity vows together…but what about when you’re unmarried at 26? 30? 32? If you really want to only ever have sex with your spouse it is going to get hard as time goes on. It will not ruin your life but it will be frustrating sometimes. Sometimes (friends’ engagements, bridal showers, weddings, baby showers, rainy days, certain episodes of Friends, a great date night, etc.) it will absolutely suck because you really, really want to have sex.

Ask yourself if it’s worth it to wait. Yes? You can do it.

No? Remember that it’s your body; no one can make the decision to abstain or not for you and no one should shame you for your sexual decisions.

Women, your hymen does not break, pop, implode or alter you physically in any way. Virginity is a concept, not a body part. Your hymen is literally just a piece of floppy tissue at the entrance of the vagina and is actually a permanent part of your anatomy.

If you decide to “break your vow” of abstinence, your value as a human being has not changed. Plenty of people who grew up in purity culture handed in their “V card” early and they don’t regret it – whether it was a rash decision in the heat of the moment or a planned hook up. And that’s okay!

Others do regret it. If that’s you, please know that sex of any kind does not lessen your value or cheapen your worth as a human being. And it is certainly not something that is unforgivable.

Your virginity does not deserve your worship. Your virginity is not/was not this mystical thing that gave you some sort of super power.

Side note: since those books never mentioned anal or oral…kids, those are forms of sex. I know of plenty of Christian college students who argue that “those don’t count” or “they’re safe because you can’t get STDs”. First of all, you can still totally get an STD. Second, there’s nothing magically exclusive or extra forbidden about vaginal sex. If someone told you that vaginal sex is evil but oral is okay, they were wrong. I’m not saying that oral is evil because it’s not. I’m saying vaginal is not the sexual finish line. I’m saying do not try to convince your abstaining girlfriend/boyfriend that anal and/or oral aren’t really sex just so you get to enjoy yourself. Coercion is, in fact, sexual assault.

At the end of the day, if you are a consenting adult and want to have sex of any kind with another fully consenting adult then that is your decision. Bottom line: it’s your body.

I have my reasons for waiting. You might have your reasons for not waiting. That doesn’t make one of us better than the other. It certainly doesn’t give either of us any room to judge each other because sexuality does not define our worth. Frankly, I don’t care what you do in your bedroom (or on your kitchen floor or in your car) or who you do it with because that’s your business.

Link to Emily Maynard's
Link to Emily Maynard’s “Modesty, Lust and My Responsibility”

2. You’re responsible for your actions – not theirs.

Yes, you are responsible for your actions. You have to face the consequences of those actions. That’s just life. Cause and effect.

You live with your life choices. If you make a commitment to remain sexually pure, fantastic! Find people who will encourage you rather than hinder you as you pursue that commitment.

If you do something you regret, join the club. We all fail. We all have to face our own mistakes and sins. There is forgiveness in Jesus Christ and you don’t have to carry the weight of your mistakes.

You are not responsible for anyone else’s actions. Nothing you do or wear can force someone to do something that is wrong.

If someone sexually assaults you, rapes you, harasses you, touches you in any non-consensual way, that is NOT YOUR FAULT. Their actions are NOT your responsibility. Your worth, your character, your values are NOT damaged because someone else abused you. No one asks to be raped or assaulted. No one deserves to be raped or assaulted.

Link to
Link to Prodigal Magazine: “Why I Couldn’t Get Undressed on my Wedding Night”

On the subject of modesty, wearing a bikini does not make you a tremendously immoral person. Allow your conscience to be ruled by what Scripture teaches you and not by the rules for proper skirt length and tank-top strap width.

As Emily Maynard put it, “[based on the rules for modesty] there is no simple way to be modest enough if you have a female body because your very presence in a female body in the world is considered a threat”.

Dale Fincher comments:

Based on the criteria of [Purity Culture/Modesty Rules], our very presence is a problem. That you are a sexual being is a problem…This discomfort with our very bodies translates into deep shame over being human. For not only does a person become paranoid by sexual thoughts, they learn to disdain the person in the mirror.

God was very purposeful in making male AND female bodies. Male and female are equally important, equally valuable. Regardless of your gender, your body was created by God and He calls it very good. That means your body is not something to be ashamed of. Your body is to be celebrated!

I was about 15 when my teacher kept me after class and told me that I would now be required to wear a coat or a baggy sweater all day, every day to school because my breasts were distracting the boys from learning. I was devastated and embarrassed (and also completely within my school’s dress code). It wasn’t the first time something like that had happened and it only reinforced the idea that my body was something I should be ashamed of. My body made boys do bad things. It was something I needed to hide.

Her new rule told me that I did not have the right to take up space in public with a female anatomy.

Because my parents are rock stars, I did not have to obey that teacher. My mum got on the phone real fast when I got home from school that day and advocated for my right to exist, breasts and all, in the classroom. But the damage was done. It’s over a decade later and I still remember what it felt like to be body shamed by that woman.

That being said, it took me a long time to realize that pulling a tape measure out of my desk drawer to be sure my shorts are long enough is NOT what Paul meant when he wrote about women dressing modestly (1 Timothy 2:9). The word modest does not mean “covered up” or “hidden”. Rather, it gives the idea of being unassuming or moderate in how you present yourself, as a whole person. Dressing appropriate to the cultural environment or occasion is just part of that.

As Jonalyn Fincher notes in her piece When Virgins Marry, “You cannot save sex for marriage and then ignore other laws like love and kindness, meekness and justice and expect God to give you a wonderful satisfying relationship.”

Modesty goes far beyond our outward adornment.

What’s more, no amount of modesty or immodesty can protect against or provoke sexual violence. Rapists – not short skirts – cause rape.

Link to
Link to “I Wore White”

3. Purity will possibly make your marital sex life pretty awesome but it’s not guaranteed.

Studies have shown that committed, monogamous relationships tend to be the healthiest and the happiest. Sex is not just a physical act. It connects two people through deeply emotional and spiritual intimacy. Sharing that with your spouse is a wonderful gift! [Consensual] sex strengthens a marriage.

However, wearing virgin white on your wedding night does not mean that you will have hot, movie love scene-worthy sex the first time you try. The way most of those books and youth event speakers talked, honeymoon sex is for newlywed virgins what chocolate is for Augustus Gloop.

Cue a chorus of angels singing amidst a ticker-tape parade as my marriage is consummated…it would be that good because I’d waited. We’d both automatically know where everything was and where it should go and what we liked and what we didn’t like. Simultaneous climax. No fluids. No awkwardness. And I’d wake up the next morning with my hair and makeup still looking fresh. All because I had waited.

Yet many of my virgin newlywed friends have shared that they were ill prepared for the reality of sex thanks to the Christian honeymoon hype: “It wasn’t as fun as I expected…it was really painful…no one told me how awkward it can be the first time…I couldn’t use anything from my bachelorette party…I bled all over the place…we couldn’t even do it the first night…”

Neither does purity mean you will both be sexually healthy all the time. It does not mean you will be able to get pregnant. It does not mean your spouse won’t cheat on you. It does not mean that you won’t cheat on your spouse.

Abstinence is not a free pass to a perfect marriage. In fact, some people who have spent their teens and twenties suppressing their sexuality or turning their libido off just before “going all the way” can have an incredibly difficult time enjoying (or even experiencing) sex with their spouse. The physical, sexual part of us is not evil and acting like we are not sexual beings for the first 5-10 years of adulthood is not going to help a marriage. Sexual stewardship is just as important before marriage as it is after. Get to know your body. It’s okay. It’s capable of doing incredible things. And it belongs to YOU.

And consent does matter in marriage. You are still the boss of your body, even if you have a spouse. If your spouse does not respect your “no”, that is sexual assault.

4. Life can’t wait.

I picture the princess sitting in her tower, happily waiting for years until her prince would come and they would live happily ever after. That sounded so romantic at 15. A dashing young man you’ve never met overcomes a great obstacle all because of his deep love for you? Sign me up!

I’ve been single much longer than my 15 year old self had anticipated. At first, it was incredibly frustrating especially when ALL my friends were getting married during or straight out of college. If I was single and not having sex, clearly I was missing out and my life was hopelessly incomplete! Go back to those books: “follow these purity rules and God will give you a husband”.  What did I do wrong?! Marriage means you’ve run the purity race and won. You’ve achieved personal significance and validation. As a woman, a husband completes you and gives you a purpose in life.

I had no man. But was I really incomplete?

Link to
Link to Relevant Magazine: “What ‘Guarding Your Heart’ Actually Means”

I knew I didn’t want to just sit around and waste my God-given opportunities to live a full life because I might meet a guy and get married and live happily ever after. I didn’t want to put my goals on hold in the off chance I got married. I wanted to be “the girl worth having…who waits for nobody”, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said. I learned, over time, that my purpose in life as a woman was NOT “get married and have kids”. My purpose is to give glory to my Creator, in whatever stage of life I am in, and to love people.

So I moved, got another degree, got my own place, and became an advocate for sexual assault survivors. And I’m happy. I’ve learned that my body is actually pretty freakin’ amazing. I don’t need a man or sex to complete my life so I am going to live it to the fullest whether I’m in a relationship or not.

That doesn’t mean I’ve sworn off men and plan to stay single forever. I very much want to get married and I want kids but I want the timing to be right.

There is a big difference between being obsessed with marriage and being hopeful for the future. Purity culture encouraged the obsession.

Being married is a beautiful thing when the person you are married to loves you unconditionally, respects and cherishes you.

But matrimony is not the reason for living.

Had I gotten married when I was expecting to I would have missed out on so many incredible things I’ve enjoyed single (plus, that marriage would have been absolutely hellish). There are definite blessings to sleeping alone.

15 year old self, your purpose and value are not wrapped up in being a wife and mother so do not idolize those roles. You’re a pretty amazing person all on your own.

Link to
Link to A Deeper Story: “News Flash: You Probably Won’t Marry a Virgin”

5. Purity cannot guarantee you will not get hurt.

Sexual abuse and assault happen to 1 in 4 women and 1 in 33 men (1 in 6 boys), at least. Virginity is actually attractive to a lot of sexually violent people. A large majority of women who became sexually active as teens first experienced sexuality within an abusive context. In fact, 24% of sexually active girls younger than 13 years old reported that their first intercourse was by assault.

There is no way to foresee another person’s actions. Guess when I stopped wearing my purity ring? In the middle of an abusive relationship. With someone who said he wanted to wait for sex, too. While attending a Christian college. Where we weren’t even allowed to hold hands on campus.

Purity education as I experienced it promoted this idea that girls can build walls of barbed wire around their hearts, resulting in a man’s inability to cause psychological, physical, or sexual harm. It’s just not possible. Girls and guys would be better off learning how to deal with the pain of broken relationships rather than receiving a list of ways to prevent another person’s actions.

Think about it this way. A teenage boy is told that holding hands after six months of dating is acceptable. This boy waits for 5 3/4 months and never holds his girlfriend’s hand. Then she dumps him and he’s traumatized. He followed the rules and now he’s suffering. Why follow the rules next time? They did nothing to protect him.

Think about it another way. A girl dresses according to the code of modesty laid out by whatever social or religious group she associates with. She’s wearing an ankle length skirt and a turtle neck, long sleeved sweater. A friend from youth group sexually assaults her. She’s been told that immodesty leads to rape and so she blames herself for the attack. Somehow her modesty just didn’t cut it. Something she did caused this boy to act out in sexual violence.

No one prepared her to battle those lies. Instead they trained her to believe that prevention was solely her responsibility.

Even if you’ve never been abused, nothing guarantees that you will never feel rejected, betrayed, heartbroken. When the person you love stops loving you it’s going to rip your heart apart whether you’ve had sex or not.

Link to
Link to Jonalyn Fincher’s “Lust, Alive and Well Among Women”

6. Nothing can make you “damaged goods”.

Remember I was that 15 year old reading goofy relationship books, wearing a purity ring, and dreaming of her 6′ 3″ Prince Charming…who was also wearing a promise ring.

When my 20 year old self got out of an abusive relationship and my 21 year old self was groped in a dark parking lot, I took the blame and the guilt was overwhelming. I believed I was damaged and broken beyond repair, that my worth had been altered in such a way that abuse was the best I would experience from a relationship. I was one of those girls who would be a lesser wife. Those were lies.

Interestingly, when I was sexually assaulted at 25, the healing came easier in large part due to the fact that 1) I knew not to blame myself and 2) I knew that his actions did not dictate my worth. I didn’t get those truths from the books I read as a teen.

Sadly, “damaged goods” is a common phrase among Christians when trying to keep teen girls tucked carefully between their Rainbow Bright twin bed sheets and far away from the forbidden act of sex.

Purity culture told me, “if you have sex before marriage (or if you kiss someone not your husband), you are useless. A good man will see you and you will disgust him. He will toss you out like the rest of his McDonald’s trash.”

You’ll be a chewed stick of gum no the sidewalk. You’ll be a crushed and dying flower. You’ll be a tissue filled with snot.

Link to Emily Maynard's
Link to Emily Maynard’s “The Day I Turned in my V-Card”

“Damaged goods” gives the idea that you are a commodity. You are less than a whole person.

It’s a degrading term and it should never be applied to another person regardless of something they did, said, or thought.

Sarah Bessey, author of Jesus Feminist, writes in her piece entitled “I Am Damaged Goods”:

I was nineteen years old and crazy in love with Jesus when that preacher told an auditorium I was “damaged goods” because of my sexual past. He was making every effort to encourage this crowd of young adults to “stay pure for marriage.” He was passionate, yes, well-intentioned, and he was a good speaker, very convincing indeed.

And he stood up there and shamed me, over and over and over again.

Oh, he didn’t call me up to the front and name me. But he stood up there and talked about me with such disgust, like I couldn’t be in that real-life crowd of young people worshipping in that church. I felt spotlighted and singled out amongst the holy, surely my red face announced my guilt to every one.

He passed around a cup of water and asked us all to spit into it. Some boys horked and honked their worst into that cup while everyone laughed. Then he held up that cup of cloudy saliva from the crowd and asked, “Who wants to drink this?!”

And every one in the crowd made barfing noises, no way, gross!

“This is what you are like if you have sex before marriage,” he said seriously, “you are asking your future husband or wife to drink this cup.”

Over the years the messages melded together into the common refrain: “Sarah, your virginity was a gift and you gave it away. You threw away your virtue for a moment of pleasure. You have twisted God’s ideal of sex and love and marriage. You will never be free of your former partners, the boys of your past will haunt your marriage like soul-ties. Your virginity belonged to your future husband. You stole from him. If – if! – you ever get married, you’ll have tremendous baggage to overcome in your marriage, you’ve ruined everything. No one honourable or godly wants to marry you. You are damaged goods, Sarah.”

If true love waits, I heard, then I have been disqualified from true love.

Our actions matter. We are responsible for them. But they cannot alter our worth as human beings created in the image of God. As Paul so eloquently wrote to the church in Rome, when we are in Christ, nothing can separate us from that unconditional, overwhelming love. God looks at you as a follower of Christ. He does not see the label “Virgin” with the footnote “But he’s made out with 7 girls” nor does he see “Not Virgin” with footnote “Well duh, look at that skirt she’s wearing”.

He sees the perfection of His Son.

7. Purity cannot guarantee you will never lust after anyone.

I spent my teen years believing what those books said: men want sex, women want love.

Therefore, lust is just a man’s problem and women only have sex (with their husbands) to feel loved (by their husbands).

In a way, yes, women can be more fueled by emotional intimacy and men by physical intimacy but it’s unfair to both sexes to assume that’s true across the board. We all have eyes and egos and sex drives and self-serving attitudes so lust isn’t off the table for anyone.

Even though I am female and females are only supposed to want love and not sex, I found myself getting pretty damn horny during my late teens, early twenties. And I was so confused. Those books failed to mention what you should do when you’ve committed to abstain from sex…but really want to have sex!

There were no chapters entitled “Feeling Horny? Let’s Talk” or “Seven Secrets for Purging the Urge”.

And there certainly was nothing about how to keep yourself safe if you did have sex. I guess it was just assumed that page 203 had taken care of that when it said, “Don’t have sex and you won’t need condoms.”

Link to
Link to Relevant Magazine’s “Is Modest Really Hottest?”

I was almost to my mid-twenties before I realized that really wanting to have sex is not a bad thing. God gave both Adam and Eve two jobs to partner in: take care of the earth and reproduce. Because sex existed before sin, it was beautiful and good and just all around awesome for Adam to want Eve and Eve to want Adam. There was nothing wrong with that desire because it was an integral part of their humanity.

Aside from not validating – in fact denying – my virgin longings for sexual intimacy, the authors of these books also failed to talk about what happens when a natural, good desire for sex grows into lust. What happens when your virginity or abstinence starts to heighten your feelings of loneliness or self-loathing? What happens when you react to your sex-less living with anger or try to mask it with pride? How do you navigate the world of pornography? Masturbation? What if you feel an attraction for someone of the same gender?

Sexual lust is degrading to the other person; it is objectifying. It is treating another person like a soulless sex object for my own gratification. It has nothing to do with the other person – what they wear, how they carry themselves, etc. – and everything to do with my attitude toward their worth as a human being.

The idea that “only men lust” had an incredibly damaging affect on my life. Not only did it reinforce the idea that my body was shameful but I was perfectly primed to turn the innocent romantic Cinderella fantasies of childhood into very real, very damaging sexual fantasies.

Purity culture failed to tell me that I could – and would – be drawn to sexual things before marriage in both healthy and unhealthy ways.

I remember commenting as a teen, “I’m a very visual person. I guess I’m like a guy in that respect.”

The response to my confession was, “Oh no. You’re not as bad as a guy!”

What a relief. I thought I had just confessed a taboo sexual sensitivity but apparently, as long as I was a female, I was off the hook. Much like the boys were “off the hook” when it came to modesty. “Lust” became a word I thought I could just ignore. After all, Christian relationship experts said it didn’t have anything to do with me (with the exception of strict modesty). Girls talk modesty, guys talk lust. That’s just how it works.

I spent most of my early teen years believing I was indifferent to attractive men (the five Orlando Bloom posters on my bedroom walls should have been a clue). Yet I struggled with lust for years and genuinely never realized that what I was doing was wrong.

I cried – all day – the first time I had a dream about sex. I woke up terrified. What had I done wrong?!

That’s how convinced I was that perfect purity meant absolute abstinence from all things remotely sexual. Thankfully I can laugh about it now. But back then I was ill-equipped to understand that my sexuality is a gift from God and not a sign of a perverted soul. Those books never taught me how to steward my sexuality. They taught me to suppress it. They taught me to fear it.

Link to
Link to “How Purity Can Become a Problem”

Hannah Hettinger writes about her own experience in Immodesty Rail:

Women were never mentioned as having lust problems. We might have emotional fantasies and imaginary romances, but lust was a male issue. This drove me to loneliness and horrific shame, as I was a teenager with a normal, healthy sex drive. I was horny and I was mortified; this wasn’t supposed to be my problem. The church would announce a men’s meeting to talk about fighting lust and accountability for not using porn, and I would shrivel up, wishing that my secret wasn’t a secret, and that maybe there would be a women’s meeting, too. Or that I could “serve” at the men’s event and eavesdrop, and there learn the secrets for freeing myself from myself.

Later I would learn that I was 1) pretty normal, 2) not “addicted” or damned, 3) loved unconditionally by my husband and by Jesus. The bondage I had been in wasn’t as real as I thought—the mindset I had about lust and modesty fed my obsession and my shame, and once freed from the whole set of lies, I would discover that this was just a minor difficulty, not a paralyzing sin issue.

For the guys growing up in this environment of modesty culture, there was (as I have since learned from my husband, who grew up in a church affiliated with mine) a similar sense of being paralyzed by lust and shame. It was so assumed that he would lust after women that he never questioned it when accountability groups would meet and the guys would almost exclusively talk about their struggles with lust. It was as if they were powerless, animalistic and perpetually obsessed with sex. This is a caricature in Hollywood and the über conservative church—but this is not your average man.

Dale Fincher offers the male perspective in part 3 of his series on modesty:

What is lust? I know no working definition for this among the Modesty Lifeguards. So everyone who has a sexual desire is required to qualify it as wrong, sin, lusty-lusty-lusssst. Many men and women suffer false-guilt over holy and natural sexual attraction. Boys and men in these groups learn that all attraction and admiration they have toward women is wrong. When surveyed, they follow the rules and declare women are “immodest” because men find them attractive. It’s a self-fulfiling prophecy.

In that shame-based culture, I used to disdain my own body parts as a necessary evil. A man who longed for sexual satisfaction was a perpetrator and predator. Women don’t want that thing near them, and certainly not in them. Women were the innocent victims who tolerated the sausage and the sweat  to get the baby they wanted. I heard no evidence that a woman would consider a male member “beautiful”  unless she was getting paid. I heard no evidence that sex was playful and enjoyable for women. Maleness was ugly, dirty, and untrustworthy.  If your eye offend you, cut it off.  I often wondered why God gave men such a dreadful piece of hardware so difficult to castrate.

Reading Jonalyn Fincher’s “Confessions of a Lustful Christian Woman” was the first time I was able to see that the lust of the eyes and the lust of the flesh are not gender-specific. The conviction was overwhelming. I had to seriously rethink years of bad teaching and bad habits. It was like finding out that my jar of Nutella has poison in it. Will one more spoonful really hurt?

God knew I needed to hear the honesty of people like Dale and Jonalyn Fincher in order to debunk the modesty vs. lust myths. And through that, I finally learned to appreciate, express, and embrace my sexuality.

Side note: if a man, not women, is responsible for his lust then a woman, not men, is responsible for her lust. Two sided coin. Two way street. Don’t tell me my skirt made you stumble unless you want an equally bad blame-game. Did your shirtless-ness at the gym cause me to lust?

No. In case you were wondering, no.

By the way, lust is not restricted to sex. We can wrongly desire anything in life.

To borrow Dale Fincher’s definition (linked above):

Lust is a desire to take something that is not yours. It can apply to coveting property as well as people.  Lust is not sexual attraction, sexual desire, happiness at beauty, admiration of beauty, longing to find someone who is beautiful to love. Lust is not that jump in your heart that says, “Wow!”

There is a difference between being attracted to someone physically and lusting after someone. There is nothing wrong with appreciating a person’s beauty! Yes, that took me a long time to accept. Sexual attraction is not synonymous with lust. Physical attraction is a very GOOD, healthy thing.

Those books made it sound like you should only be attracted to someone for their inner beauty, their personality and character. Outer beauty was just a bonus, if you were lucky.

Turns out outer beauty attraction is often what leads to inner beauty attraction.

Link to
Link to Jonalyn Fincher’s “Taking Sexual Hunger Seriously”

Ultimately, I want my thought life to be honoring to God. It’s not that God is a kill-joy who wants us all to live celibate lives. He created sex and everything God created is good. Sex is meant to be beautiful and sacred and intimate and God is pro-all those things.

As I’ve waged war on my lustful thoughts, I’ve also learned that my sexuality is not limited to sex. I can express my sexuality in very appropriate, soul-enriching ways. God created my body so it is not something I should ever be ashamed of! Sadly, these purity rules taught me the opposite; I was led to believe that my body was a shameful thing.

Rather than teaching girls to celebrate their bodies and their minds and their souls as the beautiful components of their unique being, we teach them to dissect their members. We assign worth to their parts. That’s not just specific to purity culture: it’s an aspect of misogyny and patriarchy. It’s not how God designed us.

For girls who are already ashamed of their bodies, telling them that they have to dress a certain way or men will only see them as bodies is damaging to a girl’s psyche. It’s also incredibly unfair to men. We’ve managed to cheapen their humanity and assign worth to their parts in the process.

In her piece on modesty and lust, Hannah shares:

I learned that being pretty and enjoying making myself look good weren’t sinful things, and I began to relax a bit. After being married, I have discovered that the idea that modesty is a woman’s responsibility is a very demeaning concept, and really doesn’t share anything in common with the teachings of Jesus, who held individuals responsible for their own sins, and gave grace to the naive and broken and penitent. He never said that women caused lust. Instead, he argued that lust reflects preexisting heart desires. And instead of demeaning women like the culture of his day, he respected them and made them his disciples and close friends, and the first witnesses to his resurrection…

…I can dress without fear, because I am not responsible for the worst possible outcome. I am responsible for doing well and living in a manner that reflects the grace I know in Jesus’ unconditional love.

Overcoming lust doesn’t happen by working harder. I tried. Overcoming lust happens by loving Jesus more than loving self-service. Shame over past lust and past sins is inappropriate–grace is active in the lives of the saints, and we are conformed to holiness by Jesus’ love. Not by working hard because we think that’s a what good Christians are supposed to do. We are transformed by taking each day on its own and not being anxious over transgressions that have already been cast away. Perfect love casts out fear.

8. Purity means nothing when it comes to how many people you’ll date.

Be gone, page 203! Guess what: virgins and non-virgins can be in equally terrible relationships.

Just because you’ve kept your legs closed doesn’t mean the first guy to take you to coffee is “the one”. It doesn’t mean the fifth guy to take you to coffee is “the one”. “The One” might not even drink coffee. It’d be nice if we all could just meet someone, fall in love, get married, and never have any relationship issues. But relationships are hard and people are crazy. Dating more than one person can actually be a very good thing. It doesn’t mean you become a lesser person with each person you date as if you’ve robbed your spouse of some part of you (you’re not a commodity, remember?) You become more aware of what you want and what you definitely do not want in a partner.

Link to Emily Maynard's
Link to Emily Maynard’s “I Will Listen”

9. It’s healthy to talk about your sexuality, especially if you’re abstaining from sex or healing from abuse.

Now that I’ve ripped page 203 out of the book and set it on fire, how will I ever know how to find someone to marry (or let him find me) so I can then start thinking about this strange thing they call sex?

We live in a culture that is exploding with sexual stimulation – it’s on TV, in the movies, on magazines and billboards. Sex is used to sell water bottles, cars, and shampoo. Girls’ bodies are being sexualized long before puberty. Sexual abuse stories are regular news items. Pornography is a multi-billion dollar industry and it’s growing daily. Sex trafficking is a growing multi-billion dollar criminal circuit.

In a world where sex is treated so cheaply, we ought to be having good, helpful conversations about it. The more we cheapen and commercialize sex, the more we degrade and cheapen human beings.

There are so many topics the Christian sub-culture treat as taboo. There is an unwritten list of things we just don’t talk about (except to condemn): masturbation, lust, sex dreams, sexual fantasies, sexual abuse, BDSM, etc. The silence is hurting the church. A lot of teens are left to figure this out on their own and then they’re condemned by the adults who should have been helping them figure stuff out long before that 10th grade purity retreat.

P.S. To the people who wasted their time telling me that sex outside of marriage doesn’t feel good and will lead to immediate regret…please stop lying. If that were true, no one would have extra-marital sex. This was not your best attempt at tightening the chastity belt. It ranks up there with “Do you really want STDs?” Stop intimidating, threatening, and guilt-tripping teenagers into not doing things. You’re way too late with the abstinence talk if they’re already 15 anyway. Instead, teach them to appreciate their bodies, respect one another, and use discernment. To help others live in light of God’s Gospel, we must stop preaching shame.

10. God does not accept you based upon who you are or what you’ve done.

God is loving and forgiving. No sin, no mistake is too big or terrible for His mercy and grace. God is more concerned about your soul than He is about your sexuality. His love is abundant and never-ending. It is unconditional. It is offered to you through the blood of Christ. Jesus Christ willingly took the punishment for sin so that we could be forgiven by God.

Being a virgin doesn’t make you a better person any more than being sexually active, married, divorced, heterosexual, bisexual, asexual, or homosexual makes you a better person. People care about our outward appearance but God looks at the heart. Do you know who Jesus spent his time with most in the last years of his life? The lowest, most despised people in society at that time: tax collectors, women, the sexually immoral, the poor, the unimportant. Jesus loved them, not because they did anything to deserve it, but because He chose to. He recognized their innate worth as human beings. Jesus could look at a woman caught in adultery and tell her, “I forgive you.” Jesus “ate with sinners” while the religious leaders condemned Him for associating with unrighteous people. For centuries, God has chosen weak and broken people to follow Him and change the world.

If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, there is no partiality with God. He looks are you and you are totally pure – white as snow – because Jesus gave you His righteousness. He looks at you and there is nothing to condemn – it’s been paid for. Nothing you do can make Him love you less or love you more. He already loves you as He loves His perfect Son, Jesus.

As long as I wanted to keep my sexual “purity” as a way of getting good things from God, my abstinence was meaningless. I might have had a “pure” body but my motives were selfish and misguided. God was the vending machine and I had a pocketful of quarters.

So, 15 year old self, you cannot attain purity on your own. But you have been given the infinitely perfect purity of Jesus Christ and that can never be tainted or taken from you. Your virginity, your sexuality, your gender, your past, your future do not define you. Your worth is inestimable.

Link to
Link to Jonalyn Fincher’s “Modesty: Covering up is not the Answer”

“‘Sexual purity isn’t just about waiting until marriage to have sex.’ It’s a life that embraces the truth that Jesus is enough, that centers on Him and His death on the cross…it’s a life lived in Him and by His power” (Emily McFarlan Miller, quoting Ben Trueblood).

Purity culture survivors, if you want some good reading, allow me to recommend Jonalyn Fincher’s book Ruby Slippers.

If you’re up for some grown up sex-ed that’s helpful but also hilarious, check out Laci Green on YouTube. She tells it like it is and there isn’t a topic she won’t tackle.

Also Related: What I Would Tell My 12 Year Old Self About Gender RolesOn Modesty and Male PrivilegeDon’t Blame Evangelicals for the Cult of the Virgin , How Christians Should Talk About Sex , How I Became a Jesus Feminist , What I Wish Women Knew About Men {SATIRE} , Immodesty Rail: Modesty and Lust , On Objectification , Co-Leadership in Marriage: What About Headship? / What About Submission? , Why I Submit to My Wife (It Honors God) , 4 Lies the Church Taught Me About Sex , Unlearning Christian Marriage, Purity Culture and Gender Dysphoria, Wives and Husbands in 1 Peter: Who is the Weaker Vessel?


15 thoughts on “What I Wish I Had Known About Abstinence

  1. This is incredibly beautiful and I am so glad you took the time to write it. So many young Christian women need to hear this message. I was in the same boat as a 15 year old and it has taken much trial and failure, struggle and hurt over the past 6-7 years to understand those same points you shared. I especially appreciated point #7. In my opinion this is HIGHLY under addressed in our Christian culture. Or at least, under addressed for girls. I had so many wonderful models of marriage and healthy relationships in my life but when it came to the topic of lust and what to do with sexual feelings as they arise in your life… that discussion was always aimed at the boys. Anyway, thank you so much for sharing!

  2. I agree with most of what you say here, but I will just add that I do think it is incredibly important to dress modestly. Immodestly dressed girls are huge temptations to guys, especially to godly men who are trying to keep their thoughts pure. We as young women can help them out tremendously by dressing modestly. Here are the results of a survey given to Christian men regarding their thoughts on modesty. Some of the answers are pretty shocking. http://www.therebelution.com/modestysurvey/browse

    1. I apologize; I do not want to imply that modesty is not important. It is, very much so and I’ve touched on that in other posts. However, the pursuit of modesty is too often taught either improperly or incompletely. For example, many girls are told to dress modestly out of shame or guilt-based teaching. Rules replace the foundation by which Scripture teaches modesty; that is, dressing as an outflow of a heart purified by Christ has become a list of do’s/dont’s and what-not-to-wear. My conscience should be controlled by Scripture rather than man-made rules, and I’m sure you would agree! It’s important to help people differentiate between the purpose behind what they do – to please Christ, not others – and the results of their action or inaction – respecting those around them in how they act and dress. Hopefully that makes sense.

      Thanks for your thoughts and for sharing the survey!

    2. Lisa, I think the Modesty Survey has been demonstrated to be a self-fulfilling prophesy. Men are often taught what lust looks like and so when asked what it looks like, they give the “right” answer. Many have no idea what lust is and cannot make a distinction between that an legitimate sexual attraction (as I was quoted saying above).

      That aside, “modesty” may the wrong criteria entirely. It’s a negative definition rather than a positive. It’s like defining marriage as “not adultery.” And that definition has never given birth to a flourishing marriage. By focussing on “modesty” as a relativistic criteria, it does not empower anyone to think through a theology of dressing an embodied human: to show the world what God is like. If we can set aside our “standards of the day” for a moment and consider the larger point of why God even gave us bodies and why dress was invented (hint: it was not to keep men from sinning), we will find a better way to evaluate what we wear that isn’t shame based, nor based on “what other people think about us,” nor shifting toward a new list of rules the Modesty Police want to pass along to the next generation.

      There is a deeper anti-sex / anti-body motivation at work here of which “modesty talk” is just the fruit. I think Purposefully Scarred did a good job articulating it.

  3. Really well written. Really good thoughts. I wish my 21 year old self could have read this. There was so much identity and worth that I had wrapped up in the wrong places. And I agree, these conversations need to be happening much sooner than 16 years old, especially in the sexually amped up society we live in. Thanks for sharing your heart, Rachel.

  4. I appreciate the majority of what you have written here. My question is about the statement in point 5: “Virginity is actually attractive to a lot of sexually violent people and a large majority of teen girls who are sexually active lost their virginity during non-consensual sex (rape).”
    Can a woman really lose her virginity when she is raped? Maybe it’s just my opinion but it seems like losing one’s virginity is tied to consent. I would still consider a woman who was a rape victim a virgin.

    1. Good question! I’ve actually been thinking about that lately. I think yes and no. Yes, in a physical sense, she’s no longer a virgin. At the same time no because, as you noted, it was non-consensual. Her personal sexuality, character, etc. is not defined by a violent act; however, the trauma of a rape and the various psychological ramifications usually lead girls to view themselves as sexually inferior. Typically, when talking to women who were sexually abused as children or teens, they will say that was when their virginity was stolen from them. Sadly, many of the people around them will only reinforce the idea that the actions of the attacker define the survivor’s sexual “status”, if you will. In other words, what happened to her body is automatically applied to the rest of her being as though it had been her choice. I should go back and clarify that. Thanks!

  5. This is beautiful. My daughter will be reading this one day very soon, I will make sure of that. I’ve been married for decades now, and I wish that I had read this in my unmarried years. It would have helped me a lot. Thank you for writing it and I’m so, so honored that you linked to my post. Thank you.

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