Lesson 1: How to be a Virgin
“Are you a virgin?”
A group of nine-year-old boys gathered around Perri, the freckled fourth-grade whore, under the school terrace. It was recess and I found myself, the friend-of-a-friend of one of the boys, tagging along.
“Uh, yeah,” Perri told them, running away. The rest of us imagined otherwise when we looked at Perri’s newly cropped hair. We heard her mother chopped it off after Perri did something bad. What kind of bad did she do?
One of the boys to me: “Are you a virgin?”
“I don’t know.”
“How do you not know?”
“I haven’t decided yet.”
I thought my mom had taught me that to be a virgin meant that you decided not to have sex before marriage. She told me what was important was to wait for someone special, to not do it till after high school, to wear protection. By fourth grade, I had not made up my mind about sex, whether or not I would wait till marriage, but sex found its way into my life.
In preschool, my best friend and I stripped naked whenever we could. We poked at our privates with plastic silverware.
In first grade, I watched a porn video, thanks to my next-door-neighbor’s negligent father, who thought we were sound asleep.
In fifth grade, when we learned about sex from the local health center, I giggled at the penis diagram.
In seventh grade, I daydreamed about my boyfriend, tying him to a bedpost like something I had seen on TV. There were roses on the floor. He was fully-dressed.
Lesson 2: Sex is for Marriage
In middle school, I became a Christian when I started reading my Bible alongside the Left Behind books. I didn’t attend youth group until mid-eighth grade, so until then my Bible lessons, my lessons in Christian living, were self-taught. I did exactly as the Bible said, having no understanding of the Greek or Hebrew, cultural context, or literary interpretation. I was a fundie.
I carried a pocket Bible around with me everywhere, quoting verses to my friends. Kristin is angry with Anna? Well, Romans 12:19 says, “Do not take revenge, my dear friends.” Kristin took my advice well, but not everyone did. James 3:9 popped in my head the time my sister Sam called our step-brother an ass one afternoon. I wailed, “You can never say that word in my room again!” She left with an eye roll.
But the sex thing was a little less clear to me. I knew the verses on sexual promiscuity. Eventually I learned the word Paul used regarding it, porneia, which sounded so much like a word I did know, porn. I also knew Proverbs said something about only tasting water from your own cistern. Cistern equals husband, tasting equals sex. Then there were those verses in Ephesians 5 about not being immoral or impure, right before Paul’s picture of a holy marriage.
But none of those verses said, “Thou shall not have sex before marriage.” I figured back then that extra-marital sex was bad. Pornography was icky, if not bad. Prostitution was bad. Homosexuality was bad. Once my eighth-grade boyfriend taught me what masturbation was, I figured that was bad too. But was sex before marriage bad? You know, if you only have it with one person (one cistern)? Or if you really love him?
My questions were answered for me at youth group and church camp. We watched videos by Christian comedians about why sex before marriage is a sin. We learned about STDs and how condoms break all the time. I signed at least two abstinence pledges in high school. But those pastors and camp counselors quoted the verses I already knew. I had yet to find that passage of Scripture where Jesus says to his disciples, “You’ve heard that it was said, ‘Do not have sex with anyone but your wife.’ Truly I tell you, if anyone has sex before marriage, he has sinned. And will go to hell. And have a crappy marital life. So don’t do it.”
Meanwhile, I read books like Joshua Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye. My favorite band was Barlow Girl, a threesome of sisters who took Harris’s book to heart. I chanted their lyrics: “No more dating / I’m just waiting / Like Sleeping Beauty / My prince will come for me.” By sophomore year of high school I was convinced that God had a man in mind for me, and after just two months of courting, we would get married, kiss, and then have sex.
I bought a purity ring around then and named her Susetta Lynn. I thought a sexy name for an abstinence ring was appropriate. What’s funny is how many times I dropped her, lost her, left her at home. When I bought Susetta Lynn at the local Christian bookstore, I vowed to be a virgin forever, to not have sex before marriage, straddle a boy, make out in the dark, rest his head in my crotch, or let him touch my thighs.
Lesson 3: Feel Shameful
My first boyfriend, Austin, introduced me to porneia. Until I met him, I figured sex was something I’d deal with in my 20’s. He was the one who taught me about masturbation—it was when he asked me if I ever did it. I couldn’t answer him until I looked it up in my dad’s old Funk and Wagnall’s dictionary. No, I don’t touch myself! I wondered if it counted scratching; sometimes I was itchy down there.
I met Austin at the end of eighth grade, when he was in an on-again-off-again relationship with my best friend Ashley. They held hands at baseball games; I assumed that was all. Till Ashley told me she and Austin had cybersex. Like that *NSYNC song? “Digital-digital get down / Just you and me, baby.” That’s when I realized Austin was probably more of a bad ass than his sandy blond hair and dimples led me to believe.
The next summer I started dating Austin. We never had cybersex, but between those times we made out in the youth group van—I felt guilty, shameful. I found a Bible verse that seemed to fit him: “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.” For some reason I figured Austin was lying to me to get into my pants. It could have been because he told me he loved me after one week of dating, then dumped me the next week to be on-again with Ashley.
Lesson 4: Have Higher Standards
I got over Austin as fast as I did because of Jason, Ashley’s older brother. Jason was quite the artist; he graffitied, “Will you go out with me, Lauren?” in Microsoft Paint. I said yes, and assigned him his own Bible verse, one that wasn’t from the “Instructions for Holy Living” section of Ephesians. Instead, it came from Philippians: “I thank my God every time I remember you.” I think I made God tell me that was Jason’s verse.
Jason and I made out a lot, but never in the back of the youth group van. His breath always tasted like broccoli, though, and he was kind of dumb. So I broke up with him on Christmas day, and he punched the wall of his shower he was so mad at me.
It was around then that I bought Susetta Lynn and sketched a picture in my journal of who I thought the man of my dreams should be. He’d be bulky, have light brown hair, blue eyes (like, Austin’s, only sexier), and good smelling breath (not like broccoli), and love God. The man-of-my-dreams, who I named “Codename:David” for the Biblical David, would find me all on his own. And when we first kissed, the day of our wedding or just days before, God would tell me, audibly, that he was “the one.”
Lesson 5: Wait for Him
My older sister Sam liked him when she was a freshman in high school—his name was Adam Parker, and he was the sexiest fifteen-year-old she had ever met. I heard about Parker from Sam for the full year she liked him, until he became a fundamentalist, and she liked Jake from show choir instead. Well, I never forgot about Parker.
After Jason, I suffered with two unattainable Christian crushes. Parker was the first. I MySpaced him with a “problem” I was having with this girl I was “trying to witness to.” I wasn’t really. I mean, she was rude to me because she thought I was acting too holier-than-thou, but I wasn’t trying to witness to her. I just wanted her to like me. From that one conversation with Parker came many others. We would talk about politics (we were both super conservative) and prayer (he called me a Prayer Warrior Princess, and I swooned).
I soon became obsessed with Parker. I devoted the rest of that summer to daydreaming about him. But when I went to church camp that August, it somehow finally hit me that now wasn’t the best time to date this guy. Forgetting the whole I-still-have-braces-and-you-can-grow-a-real-non-peach-fuzz-beard, I realized that his moving to Arkansas for college presented me with a challenge. So I decided to wait for him. I devoted the next season to my life to maturing, for Parker. I meant this only spiritually. I wanted to become a better Christian not for me, not for God, but for some boy with dark blue eyes.
I sat on a log on the shore of Lake James, with my notebook open to a blank page, and my Bible open to Genesis 2. I wrote at the top of my page: “What God Taught Me In Four Years (WGTMIFY), part 1,” for when Parker would graduate college and, presumably, move back home where I’d be waiting. Underneath the heading, I sketched a picture of Adam—the Biblical Adam who, of course, looked a bit like the pencil sketch of Adam Parker all over the rest of my notebook—and a picture of Eve. I read through my blue NIV, listing characteristics of each Biblical spouse, deciding which were admirable, which weren’t. I did this with nearly all the Old Testament relationships, including Shechem and Dinah, which was purely exploitative. I didn’t have a lot to admire about that one.
Lesson 6: Never Give Up
I was getting a little impatient for Parker, so I started daydreaming about Codename:David instead. This is how I “met” him:
I was on the verge of falling asleep, past the point of really having to work at my daydream. I just let it happen. It was the night before a youth group retreat, the first one at the new location, a lodge. I had never been there; I could only imagine how romantic it might be, especially in the fall with the trees in the oranges and the reds.
I pictured myself there. I was upset in this dream, and finally ready to get over Parker. I sat outside on the wrap-around porch I had imagined, crossing my arms, looking out into the dark night, sighing heavily and praying to God. Oh! If only I had the strength to carry on! And then a boy came up to me. David. He and I talked, and we almost kissed, but prayed together instead. That’s all a good Christian girl could ask for: spiritual intimacy.
Fast forward to the next day, the actual retreat. Ashley and I were in the big, open section of the lodge, and I told her how familiar everything looked. “It’s just like I daydreamed it, except—”
And in walked the cutest boy alive. Ben. He was senior in high school. Brown curly hair, green eyes, no sense of style. He was, I figured, my David.
My youth pastor had asked Ben to lead a few sessions of the retreat. I found every moment I could to scootch closer to him, to brag about myself, to let him know I was single and looking. Ben paid no attention to me.
I only saw Ben a few more times, ever. But I was in love with him for three years.
Lesson 7: Remain Confused
That question I was asked as a fourth-grader still haunts me: Are you a virgin? My answer, fourteen years later, is the same: I don’t know. I don’t know if sex belongs only within the boundaries of marriage.
What years of youth group taught me, what my infatuations with hunky Christian guys taught me, and what my mentors and books and favorite songs taught me, was not how to have a beautiful, healthy understanding of my own sexuality. Instead, they taught me how to create unrealistic expectations and how to feel dirty.
Making rules for myself back in high school was not enough to keep me from wanting sex in college. Declaring, “I won’t let him kiss my neck” wasn’t good enough, because I had no idea how good it would feel. I had no idea how much I would want him to go lower, lower. And what is more, I forget why that even mattered. I never did find that Bible verse I was looking for, the one in Luke or Matthew in which Jesus condemns the woman having premarital sex. (The closest we get is in John: “Go now and leave your life of sin.”)
I read in Lauren Winner’s book Real Sex this quote by Thomas E. Breidenthal: “Even if God’s will is obvious, it cannot provide a rationale for any moral code until we are able to say, clearly and simply, how God’s command speaks to us, how and why it addresses us not only as a demand but as good news.”
I don’t know how abstinence is good news.
I get how monogamy is. I get how not letting sex be the center of a relationship might. But if sex is respected and used the way it should be—by drawing two bodies and souls together—how can that be a sin? And if I choose to ignore it as a sin, how will that affect my relationship with God?
I’m humbled by another quote, one fifty pages into Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow. Jayber is meeting with a teacher about all the questions he has about Christianity—he finds himself loving Christ, but hating Paul, and not understanding why Christians are so adamantly pro-war when Christ was pro-peace. His teacher tells him, “You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out—perhaps a little at a time.” To which Jayber responds, “And how long is that going to take?”
His teacher says it might take Jayber as long as he lives—maybe longer.