In conservative evangelical communities, purity culture is perhaps the most unforgiving doctrine. In the sect I grew up in, the rules were exceptionally stringent.
Women especially were expected to be demure, chaste, and completely covered. We did not adorn ourselves with makeup or jewelry. It was generally agreed that necklines should not dip below the collarbone, skirts should be loose and hit well below the knee, and sleeves must be longer than the elbow. Additionally, women were not allowed to cut their hair. I grew up in several churches. Some were more strict when it came to purity culture. I was once removed from the choir in one church because the choir leader could see my bra strap through my sweater.
In this same church, boys and girls had to sit at separate tables when they went out to eat. Once, at a church picnic, I risked it all and attempted to play basketball with some boys. The pastor pulled me aside at the next service to admonish me. “There are a lot of nerve endings in our hands, he explained, and when playing basketball, we may accidentally touch each other improperly.” “It’s better not to risk having an immoral thought or action. Leave the basketball for the boys.” (I can’t make this shit up.)
On my 16th birthday, my parents gave me a silver box with a beautiful long-stemmed glass rose inside. The box was inscribed with my favorite scripture: “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.” Song of Solomon 8:7
If you’re familiar with the Bible, you’ll know that the Song of Solomon is quite risque and the subject matter of many tittering Sunday school students. Where else could we read about ‘breasts like pomegranates’?
I ‘lost’ my virginity when I was twenty-one. It was the day before I was to leave the country for the first time.
I called my friend.
Well, I did it.
How was it?
It was fine. I don’t see what the big deal is.
She and I had left the church at the same time. We held each other as we walked into the Outside, quivering like newborn foals. My friend’s experience was entirely different. When she had sex for the first time, she came to my house, crawled into bed with me, and she wept. “That’s it,” she cried, “I can never go back. I’m ruined.” [Her story isn’t mine to tell. But I remain in awe of the bravery with which she left the church and entered the World. You’re a goddamn legend, sweet girl.]
That is the result of purity culture—deep and woeful guilt. Virginity is either ‘lost’ out of wedlock or ‘given’ within marriage. And with evangelical cult-classic books like “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” purity was ‘cool.’
In retrospect, I don’t think I suffered the same guilt because I felt ambivalent about sex. It was exciting in theory but ultimately disappointing in practice. And I didn’t feel guilty because I derived very little pleasure.
*This is essay is an excerpt from Marlana’s upcoming memoir, “All the Little Demons.”
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Marlana (Mar) is a student, writer, and professional. She left the evangelical community ten years ago, after her mother’s death, and is committed to the lifelong process of deconstruction. Marlana is currently writing a memoir, All the Little Demons, a series of essays about deconstruction and moving away from Evangelical culture. The essays cover a range of topics from purity culture and queerness to mental health and suicidal ideation. The goal of the memoir is to make everyone feel a little less alone, and to let folks know that there is a life after leaving. To contact or get on her book interest list, you can reach out at: firstname.lastname@example.org