From Jesus Freak to Polyamorous Pansexual: A Purity Culture Diary
Originally posted 4/4/2018 on my former blog, Max Goes Godless.
*** This article is reposted from Removing the Fig Leaf, a Patheos contribution blog on reclaiming and redefining sexuality after faith, where it debuted in January 2018. Many thanks to Neil Carter (@GodlessInDixie) for making it possible! ***
This is the story of how a prudey Jesus freak turned polyamorous and pansexual, as best I know how to tell it.
Water balloons. Needles. Toothpaste. Construction paper. Food dye. Quick, what do all these things have in common?
If you know, chances are you’re a card-carrying purity culture survivor like me. 'Sup? If you don’t, it’s ok, I’ll let you in on the secret: They’re common props Evangelicals use in purity talks, a.k.a. heavy-handed demos where adults pair weird metaphors of destruction and the brute force of sheer awkwardness in a desperate attempt to keep kids prudes. (Side note: They really should make an And all I got was this lame T-shirt for this.)
Lemme paint you a picture: New Jersey, 2007. Yes, this is still my “I wore my Jesus is the Way the Truth and the Life tee to Picture Day. Unironically.” phase. Just roll with it for a sec. I’m sitting in a hotel room with my mom on a weekend road trip that turned out to be a perfect opportunity to trap me in the car with a CD where a middle-aged woman with a thick Southern accent lectures me about sexual purity. But hey, at least we got pineapple pizza!
My mom and I are doing the Passport2Purity program by Barbara and Dennis Rainey, a 3-day audio, workbook, and activity curriculum to facilitate The Talk between tweens and their parents. It’s meant to be couched in a surprise mini-vacation to keep things casual and exciting, but at the end of the day, it’s just a dressed up sex talk with a side of mega-Jesus.
On the way to the hotel, we heard a skit where a boy disregards his father’s warnings about the world and falls into a bear trap with a blood-curdling scream. And let’s not forget that long explanation of how dating is like being a princess carried around the cliff of sexual impurity, so you should choose a prince who will keep you as far away as possible by having the chivalry to, like, not kiss you or whatever. Oh, and the Bible verse songs. But now me and Ma are here. For the real fun.
We’ve already done the breakup activity, where we glue construction paper together to represent the hearts of me and my theoretical boyfriend, then try to separate them. I was supposed to learn that “giving too much of myself” will mean my soul gets ripped to shreds when we inevitably part ways (cheery!) And Mom didn’t even need to do the demo where you squeeze toothpaste out of a tube (that’s your purity, folks), or the one where you drop food dye (impure sexy times) into water. Thanks to youth group, I’m already a veteran of those activities.
No, it’s time now for a finale. Mom and I are standing at the sink, water balloon in hand. She hands me the needle, a little silver thing that flashes in the light. She reads her script aloud as I pierce the balloon. At first, it holds.
The needle, Mom informs me, represents sexual activities with boys, stuff you think is no big deal. Holding hands. Kissing. I poke more holes. Water darts out in crystalline spurts. The water is your purity. Your honor before God. See, the little things drain your purity too, Mom says. I keep poking.
It takes a few minutes for the balloon to die, a shriveled blue skin, in my hand. After that… there’s nothing left for me to do with this representation of my purity, my honor, my self. But one thing. Toss it in the trash. I let the lid slam shut.
I come from a heritage of heavy-handed ideas about sexual purity just like these — a world where all this is normal. It did a number on me, as it has so many others. I grew up not just ashamed of my body, but in many ways refusing to even acknowledge it. Honor it. Know it. Looking away when the videos played in middle school Family Life, I prided myself on being as clueless as possible about my own anatomy. The first time I tried to use a tampon, I had to look up video tutorials, had a panic attack, then suffered through my entire EMT exam because I hadn’t known how to do it right.
When I had to memorize “female” anatomy in bio junior year, the shame of seeing a boy recite the names for parts of my own body that were alien to me drove me to do my own research in Chrome Incognito Mode… but my parents’ internet monitoring software snitched. In cycles, I countered the yawning emptiness I felt at home by gorging on food, then, engulfed in acidic shame, I tried to deny myself out of existence by seeing how low I could whittle my weight. I lived in a strange world where I could only take pleasure in the space my female body took up through stolen glimpses.
It was like being married to a person whose name I was afraid to learn. Our relationship: Ashamed. Forbidden. Estranged. After all, my body didn’t even belong to me. I never forgot what Paul wrote —
18 Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body.
19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;
20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.
(1 Corinthians 6:18-20, NIV, emphasis mine)
Here’s my worst confession about growing up with a body in purity culture. For a long time, I didn’t even look in the mirror. And not just because I didn’t want to be vain like The Worldly Girls; that was a sin. It was because I didn’t recognize myself in this body and in this world. This girl ogling back with the long hair, the scared face, the name that fit like a jacket two sizes small.
I was living in a subculture whose beliefs were the complete opposite to everything that felt natural to me about love, sex, sexuality, and gender. But I didn’t know it then. I told myself that how I looked had nothing to do with my life purpose: how well I could witness for God. Besides, God forbid I be a stumbling block to any of my brothers in Christ. No, my body didn’t matter. There was no reason it should be wanted.
How does a one-time holy roller like me turn into a polyamorous, pansexual, sex-positive slut? One word: unexpectedly.
Much Ado About Nothing
The actual story of how I loved, lost, and left the wild world of American Evangelical Christianity is for another time. Suffice to say that I, a twice-baptized, aspiring missionary, self-proclaimed Jesus freak, started questioning my church, sexuality, and gender in high school, until one day the answers evaporated with my faith. And with it went the threats and responsibilities about sexuality that kept me estranged from my body for so long — but if you grow up under its spell, fear is a hard master to uncrown.
In the spring of 2017, however, after coming out to my parents as queer and a nonbeliever, I became financially independent from my family. Releasing those old secrets freed me to change my entire world. Suddenly, I was doing a lot of things I would never have been brave enough to try, shattering old fears, growing limits, having firsts. And yeah. Fine. I’ll confess: 2017 is the year I finally got laid.
He was tall, so easy to banter with and had green hazel eyes… and it was his birthday. We were friends before college, actually. Fell out of touch once we started college, but now, because he found out what went down with my parents, we reconnected as sophomores. We’d both gotten to grow so much, but he was still as fun to talk/argue/joke with as ever. Catching up turned into watching Moana (on his bed). And I… avoided all of the hints he was dropping right up until it was impossible to deny for another minute that he was interested in me. I confessed to him that I had some, uh, issues about sex. And he pulled me into a hug…
So I rested my head on his chest. I listened to his heart thump-thump. Wondered if it was good. Wondered what the hell am I getting myself into, this 20 year-old who’d never even held hands with anyone, who flinched away from the mirror, daydreamed during Family Life and watched the water balloon deflate in the hotel sink. I thought of how much shame — and danger — there was in being so clueless.
I was terrified to kiss him. Not because it was the first time I would kiss anyone at 20 years old. Not because I didn’t wanna lose my toothpaste or rip my construction paper or dirty my water or stab my water balloon. Not because I was afraid my indoctrination brain would start blaring SIN! SIN! SIN! until I had a panic attack.
At the end of the day, I just didn’t want to turn out to be a bad kisser. I know. Dorky. And maybe that was my saving grace. Because there was only one way to find out. And if I was bad? Only one way to get better…
I left that night flush with glorious shock. I had never seen this coming. I had never thought anyone would want to be with me, much less know I had issues about sex and still choose to give me a chance. Or that I’d be able to handle a first time without freaking the hell out.
But it turned out that we kind of had a connection. I felt so safe with him. And it was so fun. So we kept seeing each other. With him, I’ve had a lot of firsts. And aside from him, that summer, suddenly people were getting interested in me left and right. It’s almost like people knew. Or like life was bent on teaching me beyond a doubt that I was desirable. That I was worthy. Giving me chance after chance to change my life.
Don’t get me wrong. Purity culture made its mark. There have been panic attacks. And flashbacks. And nightmares. But I was able to jump into this wild new world because I had someone who is kind and perceptive and patient and sincere on my side. And he helped me, the girl who once literally made fun of people for liking sex (the fools), realize: sex is great! And I don’t care what anyone thinks about it.
Adding to Who You Are
Being with him didn’t just shift my perspective on sex. It transformed my ideas about partners. Polyamory was never on my radar. Not until the third time we met up. We were lying on my bed talking about “our thing,” and the question of seeing other people came up. I’d never thought about it before, but now that I did, I didn’t see why people couldn’t have sex with other people and have sex with or care about one person at the same time.
Having sex with someone doesn’t take away from your feelings for someone else. Instead it adds to your life. It gives you more experiences, more connections. We ended up describing polyamory and both liking the idea of it without even knowing the word.
Since then I’ve tried to take full advantage of being poly, sex-positive, and pansexual, and let me say it’s made for a very interesting 2017. I love being poly. I love it because it grants you permission to have more experiences with more people and open yourself up to more love, more fun, more intimacy… more life.
I think back now to what the world I came from had to say about sex outside of marriage. The metaphors of damage and destruction, the messages of fear and caution they sowed. I remember our AWANA Commander squeezing toothpaste out of that crumpled tube, that infamous I Kissed Dating Goodbye craze, and every sermon, magazine, and ladies’ talk, all reminding me again and again: Don’t give yourself away. Don’t tarnish yourself. Once you’ve lost that part of yourself, you can’t get it back.
But I don’t think I lose a part of me every time I have a sexual experience. I hate that idea, in fact. It’s not just wrong, it’s immature. I think my soul grows. I think it adds to my life, to the experiences I’ve had in this world, to my understanding of other humans and the compassion and respect I hope I show them when they give me the privilege of trust with something as intimate as their bodies.
And in the same vein, I don’t think that having feelings for or being sexually involved with more than one person at once takes away from your love for others. Would you say that loving your sister means you love your best friend less? No one in our society would dream of saying that platonically loving many people somehow means everyone gets a smaller piece of the pie. Love isn’t while supplies last. There’s no cap on it. And it’s not that way for romantic or sexual care either. Instead, experiences with more than one person (that you click with and are safe with) add dimension, possibility, comfort, joy, relationship, so much to who you are and can be.
That’s sex to me. That’s love to me. Not stabbing a water balloon with a needle until it runs dry. Not falling off a cliff. Sex doesn’t taint me. It’s fun, it’s relaxing, and it’s an opportunity to show another person respect and pleasure, to be simultaneously selfish and selfless, to say here is my body…the home I live in…and I won’t apologize for it to you or to me, and by the way thank you for showing me yours. And love is not about making someone the center of your everything, an obsession, a reliance, like it had to be with God. It’s a connection, a two-way witnessing, an invitation for someone to hold a sacred spot in your life instead of becoming it.
So… this is how I went from Passport2Purity grad to poly harlot. From terrified of "giving myself away" to delighted to take others in. From purity cliff worksheets and dirty band-aid metaphors to glorious slutty, slutty nights. Without ever expecting it. And forever grateful for it.
Tell Joshua Harris this: I kissed repression goodbye.
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