True Love Waits, Maybe: What I Learned From Surveying My Friends About Sex and Purity Culture

Last spring, I conducted an informal survey for a research paper for one of my classes via the internet. I put out a status asking my Facebook friends who had been raised in the evangelical, wait-’til-the-wedding-night culture if they would be willing to fill out the survey for me about sex and their views on it. I was shocked at how many people commented saying they wanted to do it – it seemed to strike a nerve. This became a catalyst for a lot of thoughtful conversations in the next few months; people want to talk about this subject, especially with someone who will not judge or shame them for either choice.

I had some survey questions, but I won’t go over those results, because, honestly, my questions weren’t well-written. It definitely wouldn’t have passed any IRB review. What was the most arresting part of the responses for me was the box at the end that simply asked “Is there anything you would like to say about your experiences with the purity culture, sex, and marriage?” I was blown away by the responses; people wrote NOVELS. While it was an option to take the survey anonymously, many people attached their name and still wrote deeply personal stories about their experiences regarding sex and abstinence.

There were a few themes I pulled out from the collection of 27 people who choose to write an answer to that question.

1. No matter which choice they made, very few regretted it. 

Almost across the board, whether the person chose abstinence or premarital sex, very few people expressed a desire to go back in time and change their choices. Married couples who waited said it was “worth it” because they felt no guilt in their sex lives, they felt it was the best way to show respect for each other, and that it minimized the pain and heartbreak in their lives.

People who did not wait to have sex until marriage often considered their relationships to be healthy and loving, and that their sexual experiences shaped them into the person that they are today. As those who waited predicted, there were many stories of heartbreak included; however, I would like to point out that heartbreak is not an inherently negative thing. It is a part of loving another person and is a tremendous opportunity for growth. And on the topic of heartbreak…

2. Parent or community judgement of sex is both a tool used to inspire abstinence and a significant source of emotional pain. 

Purity culture is community-based, specifically in religion. A few people who took the survey were Catholic (and seemed to have the most well thought out, non-extreme views on the subject, for what it’s worth) but most grew up in Christian evangelical homes. Most people who have attended youth group have experienced the awkward group sex talk at some point – I know I did. We were always split into male/female groups, and usually there was someone who confessed that they made out with their boyfriend for too long and they felt bad about it, or an adult leader who talked vaguely about past mistakes, but emphasized that their husband has now forgiven them, and they loooove sex now. Side note: how weird is it to hear your youth leaders/conference speakers titter about their sex lives and how hot their spouses are? If your experience was anything like mine, that happened way too often. I think it was to make married sex sound the super exciting and “worth the wait.” Not all of them did this, of course, but enough to make it a pattern.

At least for us girls, these sex talks were rooted in the idea that women have sex to feel loved, and that we only went “too far” (Which is how far? No one ever had a definitive answer) if we didn’t fully accept God’s love for us. These talks were too often oversimplified. People have sex for lots of different reasons, but in the mind of the curriculum used for youth group, there were only two: Girls for love and boys for pleasure.

A hallmark of these talks, and almost all literature in this area, is the shame-based techniques used to keep teens abstinent. One of my favorite writers, Sarah Bessey, wrote an article titled “I am damaged goods.” on the subject. The metaphors used in purity culture refer to people, especially women, who have had sex as dirty, damaged, and “used up.” No matter what your beliefs on the proper context for sex, this is deeply upsetting and dehumanizing. Premarital sex does not ruin all future relationships, just as not having sex does not guarantee a good one. Ask any couple who has been happily married for a long time the secret to their success, and I highly doubt the response will be, “We owe it all to waiting until the wedding night.” For some couples that I received responses from, waiting was a way of demonstrating respect and honor for one another, but it is not the whole picture, and it should not be treated as such. I would say that most people don’t treat it as everything, but there is an undue importance placed on abstinence and its effect on the quality of relationships.

Churches are not the only ones to spread these messages, of course. Families play a huge role in people views of and experiences with sex, whether positive or negative. One of the most arresting stories that was shared was from a friend who slept with her boyfriend, and it caused a deep rift in her family. She says, “When I did have sex my dad stopped talking to me for nearly six weeks and my mother screamed at me. After my boyfriend and I broke up for unrelated reasons, my parents, especially my dad constantly berated me about how I was now a used woman and how our relationship never meant anything because we had sex and then broke up. The tension, pain and strife in my family because of virginity ideals has left more scars in me than a broken hymen ever could.” Here, it was not the sex that caused the problem. It was the association of being “damaged goods” and her family’s reaction that left her feeling hurt and saddened.

3. LGBT people are excluded in purity culture. 

Fun fact: there is no actual medical definition of virginity. For something that is so deeply imbedded in our culture and our ideas of sex, this is surprising to me. From my experiences, when people talk about losing their virginity, they are almost always are referring to heterosexual vaginal sex. However, this is not a useful definition because it completely excludes LGBT people and delegitimizes their sexual experiences. In practice, we realize that it would be silly to refer to someone who has only had same-sex sex as a virgin, but we still fall back on P-in-V when it comes to defining virginity. Honestly, I would like to do away with the term “virgin” altogether, but that’s another blog post for another day.

LGBT people are barely mentioned in purity culture books, which is ridiculous considering that it was estimated in 2011 that there are 9 million LGBT people in the US. That’s about 3.5% of our population, and the church is no different. When LGBT issues are discussed, it’s generally to say that they should a) be celibate and b) go to counseling. Counseling is great, but it is straight up unrealistic to expect all LGBT people to be celibate. I could throw in a few more words there that would show my pro-marriage equality bias, but for now, we’ll leave it at that.

LGBT people who took the survey expressed their feelings of being alienated by this culture, because marriage is seen as the only context for sex. Without being able to be legally married in the majority of states today, this tells LGBT people that there is never going to be a proper context for sex or romantic love in their lives. Take a minute to imagine yourself in that situation if you are not. Then, go hug your nearest gay friend, because must be damn hard. Or maybe don’t, because that might be weird? But you know, try some compassion and empathy on for size.

Really, if I had to sum up what the purity culture needs more of, it would be just that: compassion and empathy. There is a lot of emotional pain surrounding the issues of sex, and to shut people down by shaming them for their choices is counterproductive, damaging, and alienating. No one should feel “ruined” for the choices they make. I think the purity culture would benefit from more honest conversations about sex, ones where there is not necessarily a lesson to be learned but a person to care about. It’s time we shift the dialogue about sex from harsh but unclear lines (seriously, how far is too far?), to one where people do not feel ashamed to speak honestly and to acknowledge the gray areas. I know that the older I’ve gotten, the more my friends and I who grew up in the purity culture have these conversations. I hope that that can trickle into churches, especially youth groups. There is a whole lot more to unpack about the movement – I wrote a whole paper about it that barely skimmed over what is in this post because of its focus on other issues in the purity culture. But these are the ones that affected me the most because the stories come from people I care about, and parts of it are my story as well. I hope that this post gave you some insight that you didn’t have before into people’s stories surrounding the effects of the purity culture on their lives and attitudes towards themselves, and that your responses are thoughtful and candid. Remember: empathy and compassion, because we’re all in this together. (Or something like that.)

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What It’s Like To Be A Foster Care Sibling

My family is coming up on our fourth anniversary of becoming a foster family. Over those four years, we’ve had a total of five children live in our house; we currently have two siblings living with us. As a bleeding-heart type, I always wanted to do foster care – it’s a thought that my parents tossed around for years and never acted on for various reasons, but I was always gung-ho about the idea. It broke my heart and made me angry that kids had parents who were abusive or neglectful, and I wanted our family to do something about it. When I thought of becoming a foster care family, I imagined sweet, grateful kids who I immediately bonded to and who I wouldn’t ever want to leave. I knew it would be difficult at times because of their backgrounds, but overall I idealized foster care as a rosy, “Blindside”-like experience.

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See? The pictures are so ideal!

Now, when people ask me what it’s like, I always say “It’s good, but it’s hard.” To be honest, it has leaned much more on the hard side than I expected, and for different reasons than I expected.

I expected it to be hard to see them leave. Thus far, we’ve had three children leave our home. One, I was a little sad about, but knew it was time for him to live with his mom again.

Two, I was heartbroken. Long story short, my family asked for another placement for him because it was not a good fit. As someone who had been in the system for quite a long time, he had many, many emotional issues. I had a hard time envisioning a good future for him because of his rough start in life, and because of that, watching him leave was one of the most wrenching experiences of my life. I knew it’s what needed to happen but it was terrifying to send him off not knowing what his next placement will be like or how his life will turn out.

Three, I was…relieved. He was too close in age to my sisters and could be a hostile and hurtful person. I don’t blame him by any means; it was a defense mechanism because of how he had been hurt and abandoned by the adults in his life that he trusted. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to live with.

And I expected it to be easy (to some extent). It’s not. Foster care is not a cute volunteer experience where you spend a couple hours or a week at camp with kids who have hard lives. Those situations make it easy to idealize people; everyone’s on their best behavior, and at the end, you can go home and curl up in bed with Netflix and wake up the next morning to your normal life. Not so with foster care. It does become your normal life, eventually. But a new person, especially one with complex emotions about their situation, is a whole human being with good and bad moments, just like you. The adjustment for both sides took time, and sometimes it never really happened.

I expected the kids to fit easily into our family. Others may have different experiences, but for us, each foster kid changed our family dynamic significantly, in different ways. My family is something I treasure, and I’m very close to them. It’s selfish, but it was upsetting at times to have another person who threw things off, who ruined Mother’s Day or played violent video games in the living room and got mad when we walked through. Having young siblings is different too, as my youngest biological sister is 16. We’re not used to a family member going to bed at 8pm, or run around constantly or bang on the piano. It’s not bad, it’s just a change, and when lots of changes stack up at once, it can be exhausting.

Finally, I expected the the legal system to be more fair. I shouldn’t have, knowing the injustices that occur in criminal cases. But there is so, so much red tape in foster care. Because we never tried to adopt one of our foster children, this wasn’t as big of a struggle for us as it is for some. My family’s frustrations laid in getting the children re-integrated into their families, and how hard that was to never ever know for sure what was going to happen next. Things change at the drop of the hat in foster care, as it is a broken system in so many ways.

This post is a bit discouraging, and I don’t mean it to be. But if you are considering foster care, I don’t want you to go into it with an idealistic view of what it will be like and become frustrated when it doesn’t turn out that way. It’s going to be a challenge, and every single member of your family needs to be on board and ready to pitch in, or it won’t work. It is worth it though, because you get really affect someone’s life at a critical point, and hopefully be a part of making the broken system better. It’s hard, but it’s good.

Blurred Lines: The Mindy Project’s View of Consent

I love Mindy Kaling. I think she’s smart, funny, and incredibly talented. I’ve been a fan of her show The Mindy Project since the beginning – the cast of characters is unique and hilarious, and it’s actual, laugh out loud funny. It’s also awesome to see a lead woman who doesn’t fit into thin leading-lady or fatty sidekick trope; at what I would guess to be a size 8 or a 10, Mindy is solidly in the middle, and represents a body type that’s not seen much on TV or in movies. Mindy Lahiri, Mindy Kaling’s character, is unapologetic about her girly-ness but is clearly capable and smart, and I love seeing a character with that depth.

The one problematic thing about The Mindy Project is two episodes that don’t quite get consent right. It bothers me because these are very real-life situations, ones that are treated as normal, so I want to unpack them in hopes of starting a discussion about healthy consent for sex in relationships.

In the episode, “The Other Dr. L,” Mindy challenges Dr. Paul Leotard, portrayed by guest star James Franco, to a shots contest. He doesn’t hold his alcohol very well, and becomes exceedingly, blackout drunk. Mindy walks him home, him leaning on her, unable to walk on his own. He can’t find his keys, and sinks down on the floor, passed out. She tries to kiss him briefly, and he wakes up enough to drunkenly protest. She stops, and leaves him passed out outside the apartment door. That moment alone made my alarm bells sound faintly already – it wasn’t assault by any means, but she still didn’t respect his boundaries while he clearly was not in a state to make decisions. But the real problem comes next.

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Christina, who is the ex-wife of another character, Danny, walks by on the way to her apartment. She sees Paul passed out, and helps him, still unable to walk, into his apartment. We don’t see what happens next, but at work the next morning, Paul pulls Mindy aside and confesses what happened.

“I had sex with Christina last night,” he says.

“Danny’s Christina? What is wrong with you?” Mindy says, clearly disgusted.

“I was blackout drunk, thanks to you,” he protests.

Hold up, rewind – Paul and Christina had sex while Paul was “blackout drunk” and Christina was sober. See the problem yet? What if I reverse the roles – let’s say a sober Paul happens upon a blackout drunk Christina and has sex with her. Most people would read those words and say, yes, that is rape, or at least admit he was taking advantage of her in a drunken state.

But the issues of rape and assault are not even taken into consideration; in the show, the problem is simply that Paul had sex with Christina, Danny is mad, and punches Paul. End of story.

This skims over a very real, underreported reality: Men are victims of rape too, and women can be rapists.

This is extremely important to identify because this is not something that is often talked about. Gender should not be part of the equation when judging whether or not a situation is rape, because not getting consent is not limited to males. And the emotional pain and trauma that men who have been raped experience is not trivial.

From what I understand, men who are raped by women have a hard time talking about it because there is this idea that they could have overpowered her, or they wanted it. (Because men always want sex, right?) It is seen as not manly, like being beaten by a girl in a fight. But it happens nonetheless.

Drunk men are just as unable to consent as drunk women. Recognizing this opens the dialogue for what consent looks like for men AND women, and I wish that the show had addressed it in some manner instead of brushing “blackout drunk sex” under the rug.

The second instance is in the most recent episode, “Indian BBW.” While no one is raped, this episode illustrates how NOT to approach consent in dating.

Danny and Mindy have just started dating, and he wants to move on to sleeping together. Mindy says no, she wants to take it slow. He pouts, and insists that there are “thousands” of women in NYC who would “kill to have sex with him right now.” (Asshole move, sir.) She says sure, call them up, and it culminates in him calling over 25 women without a single yes. Shocking, considering his kindness and maturity displayed in the previous scene.

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A phrase that is very important when talking about these issues is “enthusiastic consent,” which means each party actively says yes, without coercion. This is a critical distinction in light of campaigns like “No means no.” I mean, yes, no does mean no, but not saying no does not mean yes.  This scene bothered me because after Mindy says no, he does not respect that, but tries to manipulate her into sex. He doesn’t force her into anything, and she says no again and he doesn’t try (with her) again that night, but that’s still skeevy behavior. Manipulation, especially for sex, is unethical and makes the lines of consent blurred if someone does eventually say yes.

Overall, I’m disappointed in the ways The Mindy Project handles consent. In fairness to Mindy Kaling, she did not write either of these episodes. (In fact, two of her male writers wrote them, for what that’s worth.) But to my understanding, she has quite a bit of creative control – for heaven’s sake, it’s called The MINDY Project – and as an educated woman, I expect more. Consent should always be clear and enthusiastic, and it’s troubling that The Mindy Project does not treat it as such.

Images are courtesy of Fox, I guess. I just screengrabbed Hulu, they’re not mine, please don’t sue me.