I remember being 13 and learning that abstinence was the only way. There was no talk of condoms. No talk of birth control. No talk of diaphragms (I didn’t even learn what those were until I was 17 and had public school friends). All we were given was abstinence and a verse from 2,000 years ago: “And he shall take a wife in her virginity. A widow, or a divorced woman, or a woman who has been defiled, or a prostitute, these he shall not marry. But he shall take as his wife a virgin of his own people” (Leviticus 12: 13-14).
So that was it. No sex before marriage. If you had sex before marriage, you were probably going to Hell. Worse, your friends would shun you. You would be a slut.
I remember being 15 and my sister telling me she’d had sex. I remember wondering if she was going to Hell. She didn’t seem to care, though. She loved her boyfriend, and when you loved someone, you had sex with them, she said. It didn’t matter that they weren’t married.
I remember being 18 and in college. I remember people hooking up and my friends sleeping with guys they’d met a few hours earlier. I remember them saying it was no big deal because they used protection. I remember thinking they were right, but I also remember thinking something else.
Virginity, for me, was not a social construct meant to reign in my sexual freedom as a woman. It was a religious binding. It was my key to heaven. All sins were equal, but some were more equal than others. Sex before marriage was one of those, I’d been taught. You can’t pray on knees that had been dirtied by activities the night before. Lips who praised Jesus couldn’t be used for other things more salacious.
Long before virginity was something to be lost in the back of a car or on prom night, it was how the Bible kept women in check. Men who slept with women before marriage would be forgiven, but women who did were shamed and dirtied. Once soiled, no man could ever really love her.
So even though I believed that my sister loved him or that my friends were being safe, their souls were always in the back of my mind. God may love all his children, but does he love whores?
I wasn’t even religious. I didn’t even believe in it all. Because I remember being 17 and seeing my best friend cry because a teacher had put a “Pray the Gay Away” book in her locker again. I remember being 14 and accidentally swearing, which prompted my friends to ignore me for a week. Well, fuck them anyways. I remember smoking cigarettes and ripping shots of what tasted like gasoline and taking the Lord’s name in vain. I was a grade A sinner in every other way, yet I couldn’t bring myself to reconcile sleeping with someone outside of marriage.
We need to stop teaching girls that their only worth is their purity. We need to stop equating sexual freedom with eternal damnation. I wish I could shake the shoulders of my old P.E. teacher and get this through her skull. She’s damning these girls by telling them they must remain pure in order to remain in the running for heaven. Not only is such teaching controlling the lives of women through their sexuality, but it finds its power in controlling the afterlives of women through their sexuality.
Being a virgin should be a girl’s choice because she wants it. Not because she is afraid of hellfire. Not because she is afraid her friends will shun her. Not because she is afraid of her teachers. And having sex should be a choice because she loves someone or because she just met a guy she wants to spend a night with and then never see again.
I can still pray to God. I can still say that I believe in whatever I believe in. Learning to not be afraid of sex isn’t easy. I spent years being afraid of it because of a book that also forbids wearing clothes made of multiple fabrics. I don’t know what I believe in—but it’s not that my virginity will save my soul.