I am from a religious family. Until very recently, I considered myself religious. My upbringing was very safe, and warm, and loving. But it was also imbued with set expectations for human behaviour based on “truth” that were not open to real challenge.
I was brought up in what I would describe now as a “purity culture” with specific ideas on how love and sex and marriage should be conducted.
When I was younger I thought the guidelines to relationships were foolproof and inevitable, and that was how my life was going to be. Premarital abstention and lifelong monogamy was just something that everyone around me did. It seemed like a perfect formula, and I saw how it worked in my family.
Of course, I discovered that life just isn’t like that, but first I should give you a better picture of where I come from: my mother’s sisters are all married to ministers. My uncle became a minister and got married. My grandparents have been together for over fifty years. My cousin got married at nineteen and her sister was twenty when she tied the knot.
So I come from a family of early marriages and strong ideas about marriage. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with that, but you can see how I existed very much inside a bubble.
As a teenager, I remember having many discussions about the term “dating”. According to some Christians I knew, “courting” was the more appropriate way to go about things. Dating was too sensuous and not serious enough. Courting had specific rules not attached to dating, always with the intent of marriage. In retrospect, I find some of these rules were quite extreme. No physical contact beyond what was considered chaste was allowed. In year ten, our sex ed consisted of a catholic guy who told us that his wife to be didn’t let him hold her hand until the year before they got married. I heard again and again how having sex outside of marriage was damaging.
What was also strange was that everybody around me in the church wanted to talk about the rules surrounding sexuality, but nothing about sexuality itself. Different sexualities were never mentioned because it was simply assumed that they did not exist, or that they were not morally ok. I also remember how much time was spent talking defensively about how good sex was, and how to keep it safe and good. It was so good, that it was too important to talk about, except in religious metaphors.
An image that stands out in my memory is duct tape. We get stuck on people; if you’re not careful you’re going to rip it off and that’s going to hurt. And if you attach it to someone else and then rip it off, your piece of tape is going to be terribly mangled and not as sticky as before. And that makes you a broken person.
I’ve since thought that that image is a flawed analogy for intimacy. We need intimacy in all of our relationships, sexual or otherwise. There’s always going to be a risk that our connections with each other are going to rip apart and hurt, and even get screwed up. But that’s the risk we take in living; the way we conduct our relationships says nothing about our self-worth.
But also, now that I’m older and more reflective, nothing about so called sexual purity makes any sense to me. Although “purity” means abstention from a part of human experience that is scary and often messy, I can no longer view intimacy as wrong. Intimacy is simply how we live.
What is more wrong is a breach of trust which comes from not discussing consent. It’s creating a culture in which women need permission from men. It’s creating a culture in which other sexualities aren’t acknowledged, and sexual abuse is ignored.
I don’t mean to personally attack Christians who believe that abstinence before marriage is the right thing to do. What I’m trying to say is that I’ve realised that the church’s way is not perfect or fool-safe. There is no “safe” way of having any kind of relationship, and that’s ok. I’ve moved beyond the discourses I used to exist in. I’m still unlearning a lot of internalised stuff about sex and gender. I’ve moved from a culture of purity, to a culture of consent.