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The Purity Myth

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red eye abstinent

I recently read The Purity Myth by feminist writer Jessica Valenti.

At first, I really identified with this book. I’ve been through many Christian sex education classes and I’m only just beginning to realise some of the deeper effects this has had on my sexuality and the way I view gender roles.

When I got my first boyfriend at 14/15, my mother gave me a sex talk. She sat me down on the bed pulled out a tissue. She began ripping this tissue into shreds: “This tissue is your purity. Every time you give your body to a boy, a piece of yourself is ripped away and you can never get it back. You can never be whole again. One day, when you find a husband, all you will have to give him is a ripped up, incomplete, worthless tissue. Sex is special. Sex is sacred. So save it for marriage.”

This is pretty much the only time she’s ever attempted to “teach” me about sex. Every other time she has mentioned sex to me is basically having a go at me for wanting to have it.

Of course, when I was 14/15, I knew beyond a doubt that I was going to marry this boyfriend of mine. He was my true love, so we got a little bit sexual, the tissue thing didn’t mean a whole lot to me.

However, when this boyfriend dumped me, feelings of shame and regret consumed me. I had sinned against God, I had sinned against my parents, I had sinned against my future husband, I had sinned against my own body. I was dirty, tainted and tarnished. I would never be completely pure again. I asked for forgiveness and eventually got over it, as my doubts grew and faith dwindled.

Now I’m an atheist, and I’ve been thinking about this rather traumatic experience. I don’t understand why sexual activity makes someone dirty, I don’t understand how it takes something away from me. It is just another life experience. The skewed Christian view of sex is what makes people feel dirty, used and empty, not sex itself.

These Christian conservatives describe sex in extremely negative terms. It results in the loss of one’s health, self esteem, freedom, happiness. My thoughts on this echo Valenti’s:

“When did sex become such a downer?…These are fighting words for those of us who see sex as a healthy expression. Would it be so terrible to talk about sex in a way that acknowledges how wonderful it can be?”

When I began actually having sex, it turned out to be great for my health, self esteem, freedom and happiness. Obviously, sex isn’t so great for every teenager. But Christians shouldn’t hide the fact that it can be.

Another thing that Valenti wrote really stood out to me and challenged my thinking. I used to think abstinence was about self-respect because it ensures your partner values your heart and personality more than your sexuality, but as Valenti explains, the purity thing can easily turn people into sexual objects:

“By focusing on girls’ virginity they’re actually positioning them as as sexual objects before they’ve even hit puberty.”

In Pop Culture, the value of a person is often determined by how sexy they can be. In Christianity, the value of a person is often determined by their virginity. The church would never admit it openly, but illustrations like my mother’s tissue make it pretty clear. Either way, an individual’s value is determined by sexuality, not their personality, not their morality. These world views are just as shallow as each other.

There were some things in Valenti’s book that I disagreed with though.

It focused on how females are affected by the Purity Myth, and barely said anything about it’s effects on boys and men. I guess that’s the feminism coming out, but it seemed more like sexism to me. I’m not American, so perhaps the situation there is different to what I have experienced, but in my school and church, boys have been encouraged to be abstinent just as much as the girls have. If anything, they’ve probably had it shoved down their throat even more than the girls have, because they (supposedly) have a sex-drive that is more difficult to control.

Another thing I didn’t really like about the book was how Valenti blamed struggles women go through on patriarchy. She argues that men want to control women’s sexuality, that they do not trust women to make responsible decisions about their own bodies. I think religion is the culprit, not men. The men are just obeying the Word of the Good Lord.

Despite this, The Purity Myth is an important book and it addresses some deeply damaging effects of Christianity.

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There’s More To Me Than My Virginity

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Virginity has been valued since ancient times. Virgins have been said to possess supernatural powers. They have been given a special religious role such as the Vestal Virgins in Ancient Rome. The Aztecs made sacrifices of virgins to the gods. And, of course, the virginity of Mary has always been an important article of the Christian faith.

Even in the 21st Century virginity is valued highly (albeit mostly in the developing word). In the Middle East, a woman who does not have an intact hymen on her wedding night may be killed for it, even if she lost it through rape or riding a camel. In prostitution, sex with a virgin is much more expensive than with a more experienced worker. Furthermore, due to the rise of STIs such as AIDS, virgins are becoming increasingly sought after for their purity. In some cultures it is believed that sex with a virgin will cure such diseases, increasing the value of virginity.

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Given this ancient, superstitious obsession with virginity, I get a bit sceptical when Christians tell me that my virginity is sacred. Beliefs like that seem a bit too tribal for my liking, particularly when the virginity of women is valued over that of men. At school, I was given a warning that one day the love of my life may refuse to marry me if I’m not a virgin.

I have something to say. I AM NOT ANY LESS OF A HUMAN BEING BECAUSE I AM NOT A VIRGIN.

Any guy that refused to marry me because I’m not a virgin is obviously an ignorant dickhead, and I would not like to marry someone like that. In fact, being sexually active has enriched my life and my relationship with my boyfriend. It is not a bad thing at all. I’m not sure why a person’s first time is so often described negatively: losing your virginity, de-flowering, popping the cherry. Sex is just another life experience. Sometimes it turns out bad, sometimes it turns out wonderfully.

Sure, I think it is sad when people lose their virginity on a drunken, meaningless one night stand. The sex wouldn’t even be that good with the awkward, inexperience of a virgin and the lack of coordination that comes with alcohol. It might not even be remembered the next morning. While I don’t think virginity is overly important, sex isn’t something to thrown around like it’s nothing. It is an expression of love, and it has nothing to do with God.

I am thankful I lost my virginity to a boy I was (and still am) deeply in love with. A guy I could call my best friend. Who I wasn’t embarrassed to make a fool of myself in front of and who I didn’t feel the need to impress. It was a safe, fun, respectful experience. We weren’t married, but that does not make it any less special or valuable. I was 16, he was 17.

My boyfriend wasn’t a virgin and I was barely a virgin. This was not a big deal at all. What mattered was that we loved and respected each other, and were committed to each other. (Needless to say, he had been tested and we used contraception. SAFETY FIRST.) His past experiences and my past experiences made us who we are. They brought us together, and so there is no need for regret.

Virginity is totally overrated, thanks to Christianity. Lack of virginity should not get in the way of a relationship. Sex is an experience that can enrich or ruin your life. Be smart about it. Be critical about it. Don’t let the religious lies about the importance of “purity” stop you from having a wonderful, healthy sex life.

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The Cruelty of Abstinence Education

The Cruelty of Abstinence Education

In high school I was subject to one of those frightful abstinence education programs that go something like this: “IF YOU HAVE SEX YOU WILL DIE. THEN YOU WILL BURN IN HELL FOR ETENITY.” Informative. Inspiring. Clever. Scare kids to death and they will keep it in their pants. Or not. The evidence is increasingly suggesting that these campaigns are more harmful than effective.

I remember watching this video of Pam Stenzel in Year 9 and feeling certain that I was infected and would die of some awful STI, despite the fact that I was a virgin. After watching the video, we were all offered little cards to sign a virginity pledge and then keep in our wallet. I took a card, but for some reason, I did not sign it.

Initially, Stenzel impressed me. She came across real tough and no nonsense and I respect women like that. So, many of us believed her when she said: ““If you have sex outside a permanent marriage relationship, you will pay…No one has ever had sex outside of that context and not paid.”

We heard gut wrenching stories about abortions gone horribly wrong. Then we found out her story of being given up for adoption by her raped teenage mother and spared abortion which she describes as the “death penalty”.

We heard Stenzel criticise a mother that put her daughter on the pill when she found out she was sexually active. She stated: “This girl could end up sterile or dead.” She discouraged condom use: “Students, condoms aren’t safe. Never have been, never will be.”

She sarcastically comments on the plight of the teenage girl who got used, but honestly believed the guy loved her. One positive thing my Christian Living teacher spoke to our class about was the heartbreak he experienced as a Year 7 boy “in love” with a girl. They barely even spoke, let alone touched, but the girl made it clear the feeling was not reciprocal. The devastation was overwhelming for his young heart. He told us: “The thing about puppy love, is that it’s real to the puppy.”

This struck a chord with me as being one of the few truths that teacher came out with. Stenzel really lacks empathy for the puppy love crazed teenager. She mocks something that is so real and special to young people. Sure, it can go awfully wrong, but hurting and shaming the emotionally vulnerable young teens is not the way to go about dealing with this problem. Stenzel manipulates her audiences using fear, distortion of facts, shame and lies.

A more thorough critique of Stenzel’s program, complete with quotes, can be found here

Don’t get me wrong, I know teen sex is a problem. A report by the Children by Choice Association stated that 78% of (Australian) Year 12 students have experienced some form of sexual activity. It also reported that students are having sex with more partners. Despite this, teen pregnancy rates are falling but still a significant portion (5%) of sexually active Australian students reported that they had experienced sex that resulted in pregnancy. Condoms are being used by the majority (69%). However, STI rates are rising at an alarming rate, despite increased awareness programs and condom use.

The report emphasises the role of sex ed: “Lack of sexuality education in schools in most states of Australia contributes to this recent rise in STI rates, and should be remedied immediately. A national sexuality education curriculum could also help address the relatively high rate of teenage pregnancy and abortion in Australia.”

Abstinence education alone has proven to be ineffective. Teens will have sex. This is a fact and the educators have to work with that. This video makes clear the failure of abstinence education: When Texas implemented abstinence only education, it had one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the USA.

Thank god Australia doesn’t have such a strong Christian right. The poor sex education I’ve received is only because I was at a private Christian school. I hope we continue to improve our public school programs and implement a national sexuality education curriculum as mentioned above, so that students don’t miss out because their parents forced them to go to a Christian school.

Fornication – What’s the big deal?

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I am an atheist. I go to church every week to stay on my parents’ good side. The above question is one I find myself asking quite often and this week’s sermon on 1 Corinthians 6:9-20 raised the same topic.

Confession: I am a fornicator. I am an 18 year old girl and I’ve been getting it on with my boyfriend since I was 16, despite my Christian upbringing and Christian education.

As a fornicator, I was angered by what the speaker had to say. He (no female speakers at my church) described those who are involved in sexual immorality as slaves to sin, as addicts. If you’re not doing it in the godly covenant of marriage, you’re a slave to the devil. This seemed to be consistent with the Bible. He mentioned Romans 6:20, where it talks about how non-Christians are slaves to sin.

The sermon made me think of Mark Driscoll’s neat little alliteration about sex: it is either god, gross or gift. You can watch his sermon here. I certainly don’t think sex is gross, and I don’t believe it’s a gift from God. Fornicators like me end up in the category of “god.” According to Driscoll, this means I am a slave to my sexual desires – it’s everything, an obsession. It’s my identity. Again, I am offended and angered by the nerve of Christians.

Now, I am not saying that people who are involved in ‘sexual sin’ are never in the wrong. Sometimes these things do become negative, controlling and an obstacle to building relationships. Cheating, hiring prostitutes, obsession with porn, sex addiction, may be examples of this.

But my boyfriend and I have a beautiful sex life. It is not okay for these Christians to tell me I am a “slave” to sexual sin. I’m not addicted. It is not the most important thing in our relationship. If we had to stop for whatever reason, we could. I argue that it is possible to have a healthy, fulfilling sex life through the sin of fornication. To most people this would seem obvious, but in my community, it’s pretty fucking radical.

A few years ago, I used to believe the things my church/school/parents taught me to believe. I thought fornication was disgusting sin. Now when I see couples that have been together for decades, but were never interested in getting a marriage certificate, I no longer think of them as dirty, sick, pagan god-worshippers (of course I only hated the sin, not the sinner). I now know that truly, they are normal, healthy people. Now I see that the people that are really hateful and sick are the ones who made me feel nauseous with guilt for wanting to express the normal, human, sexual desires that every teenager experiences.

Sex should be an expression of love. It shouldn’t be given to just anyone, but a piece of paper and a pretty ring on your finger is nothing in comparison to the importance of love and commitment. Surely a couple who have been together for twenty years and love each other deeply, is a better context for sex than say Britney Spears’ 55 hour long marriage. Marriage is overrated in the Christian message and love and commitment are not given their rightful place as the most important criteria for sex.