The more I think about it and share my experience with taking a purity pledge, the more I realize that it’s less about sex than it is about sexuality.
That’s what purity culture robbed me of; the ability to explore my sexuality before ever engaging with a partner. My vow only started with swearing off sex before my wedding night but it was so much more than that. It was a pledge to basically strip myself of any and all sexuality – sexual images, thoughts, arousal, and anything else that could potentially lead to sexual urges. It sounds impossible, but I did my damndest. When I failed, when my thoughts weren’t ‘pure’ enough, it was at great detriment to my mental health.
You see, adolescents who take their purity pledges seriously miss out on a crucial part of growing up: sexual exploration. And no, I’m not talking about having sex though maybe for some, that’s part of the journey. I’m talking about self-exploration. Yup, I’m talking about masturbation.
You can imagine, if sexual thoughts, sexual arousal, and sexual images are sinful in the world of purity culture; masturbation is sin by definition, sitting a step below actually having sex before marriage in severity. In some groups, they’re probably on the same level, sin-wise.
I tried it once during those abstinent years. To say I never felt a sexual urge would be a lie, especially after I started dating. It was a feeble attempt. As soon as I touched myself there was an overwhelming sense of shame and the purity pledge, the part about abstaining from sexual thought, invaded my mind instantly. I didn’t try again. I got really good at suppressing it and eventually it kind of disappeared altogether. I put every sexual part of myself into a box and tied it up with a pretty bow, thinking I could present it to my husband on our wedding night for him to neatly untie. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen that way.
It took me a few years of marriage and therapy to realize that in order to obtain a fulfilling sexual relationship with my husband, I had get comfortable with myself first. I had no idea who I was sexually. I didn’t know any of my desires (for a long time, I thought I didn’t have any). I had no idea what I found arousing. Maybe worst of all, I didn’t know anything about my own body.
So at the age of twenty-four, after being married for over three years, I masturbated, really masturbated, for the first time in my life. And it was bad. So bad. I had no idea what I was doing. It felt awful both physically and mentally. It shouldn’t have surprised me that much like my struggle with sex, I couldn’t suddenly decide that masturbation was okay now. Even though I no longer subscribed to the ridiculous confines of my purity pledge, the damage couldn’t be repaired overnight.
I kept at it and saw small improvements. I figured out what not to do and that morphed into finding things that felt nice. When I was with my husband, I was more vocal about how he should touch me, which was good for both of us.
Eventually I got to a point where things felt good. Really good. But never more than that. I always shut myself down before I could climax, feeling like something was wrong, like what I was doing was shameful and dirty. It all kind of clicked for me then. I discovered the real problem and it was a problem that carried over into the bedroom with my husband. The negative emotions I had about sex, all of that shame, guilt, and fear, made me believe I wasn’t worthy of sexual pleasure. I started to focus on that revelation during therapy. I don’t think I would have ever come to that realization if I hadn’t decided to take my sexuality into my own hands.
My very first orgasm was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had. I was alone. I cried for a long time after. It was a cry that I desperately needed. It didn’t feel good so much as it felt like ripping off a Band-Aid and opening up an old wound. I was twenty-five. My four year wedding anniversary wasn’t far off. I had spent most of my life trying to convince myself I wasn’t sexual so that I wouldn’t sin. I had spent most of my marriage trying to figure out how sex was supposed to be okay now even though it didn’t feel like it should be. To let all of that go was simultaneously liberating and terrifying. And painful, too.
It got easier after that, both physically and mentally. And soon, I could orgasm with my husband too. I had packaged up my sexuality for him to open on our wedding night, but he never did because it hadn’t ever belonged to him. It had always belonged to me. I was the one who hid it away and unwrapping it was a gift to myself first and to my husband, second.
I’m just going to say it plainly: Masturbation is important. I saved every sexual part of myself for marriage, which isn’t healthy or fair. Sexual exploration shouldn’t require the presence of someone else. I’m sad I missed out on it during my adolescence. It’s essential to figuring out who you are when you’re alone. Because when you’re alone, it’s about you and no one else. Have an understanding of your body, your wants, your desires, before adding someone else into the mix. Enter into a relationship feeling comfortable in your own sexuality instead of waiting for someone to figure it out for you.