Washington - I am not ashamed of my sexual experiences.
That is a revolutionary statement for an unmarried woman raised in evangelical churches at the height of "purity culture," when the definitive book for teens to read was Josh Harris's I Kissed Dating Goodbye. I've had sex, and I'm not married, and I am not ashamed.
And yet, for now, I've re-chosen abstinence.
Back when I was a teen and then a young adult, I took my evangelical church's teachings on romance seriously. I spent my formative years believing I was "saving" something valuable: both my virginity and my heart, which were maybe the same thing. The Song of Solomon admonishes the young women of Jerusalem to "never arouse or awaken love before it is ready," and in church this Bible passage was often offered as a warning about sexual desire before marriage. I used to think the "awakening" could be triggered by even holding hands or kissing before marriage. I pictured desire, once awakened, as a steamroller tilted downhill.
Raised in an environment of extreme boundaries, I never admitted to having any romantic or sexual desires. I didn't date. I didn't kiss anyone until I was 26, and then it was an isolated incident.
Then I turned 30 and jumped right into a sexual relationship.
To me, it seemed like I had crossed the Rubicon. I could no longer enter into the ideal relationship described by my church and imagined in my youth. With that vision gone, I had no hesitation about continuing to have sex. It is easy to switch from the extreme view I learned in youth group – that sex is the root of all relationship evil – to the other extreme idea, that once across that sexual line, all sex is permissible, even if it's not beneficial.
So that is what I did. I figured it was probably about time I started dating. It turned out I was really bad at it.
I had the dating savvy of a 13-year-old. I ended up dating someone I didn't particularly like because I couldn't figure out how to let him down easy. I slept with a friend's ex, violating a cardinal rule I never thought would be relevant to me. I thought I was in love with men whose actions clearly showed their lack of respect for me.
I was a teenager in the adult dating world, a world where there is far less compassion for stupid mistakes, less support when you cause yourself pain and no protective parents to interfere.
My story is only unusual in the details. My generation of millennials are marrying later and dating longer, even while those of us raised in church are inundated with the proscription to wait – indefinitely – to have sex until after marriage.
The older I got without an invitation into the rarefied marital relationship, the more that idealized church marriage started to seem like a carrot held forever out of reach. For example, the last church singles group I attended as a young adult – I swore off them after this – began with a monologue by the married co-leaders exhorting us to make the most of our time in "the waiting room of life."
The sex I eventually had wasn't what I wanted, but it seemed better than an endless wait for my real life to begin.
Today, I don't believe that my life hasn't really started because I'm not married. I don't believe that I should feel condemned for having had sex. But still, I want to find my way back to Bible-based decisions when it comes to relationships. I see harmony between the biblical guidelines for relationships and the values I want in my life.
In other words, I am once again choosing abstinence.
In the face of a culture that tells us to compartmentalize, the Bible insists on a vision of human beings that unites spirit, soul and body. That frees me to expect a relationship in which I'm treated with both respect and desire, a relationship in which sex is allowed to mean something more than brief and isolated pleasure but also a relationship in which sex is enjoyable. I think that's what many of us want, but are afraid to hold out hope for.
Christianity offers a path to hope for satisfying sexual and marital relationships that are grounded in the real, physical world. But the path requires a form of embodiment. You have to live out your hope through your actions, and the Bible says that abstinence is the way to do that.
"The body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine," Pope John Paul II wrote in his "Theology of the Body". "It has been created to transfer into the visible reality of the world, the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be a sign of it."
I am trying to embody this hope by aligning my physicality with my ideals. The decision to re-embrace abstinence is an empowering one.
I am not "saving" anything except my own desire. I am not "giving away" anything except my worry that I won't ever have sex again. Abstinence for me is now a choice of belief rather than fear, and that's what makes it so difficult – especially, perhaps, for someone like me, who has felt let down by the church yet still wants to walk in the way of my faith.
My church taught me to fear my own desires. By re-choosing abstinence, I am, at long last, learning instead to balance them.