Like A Virgin {guest post}

We’re talking about sex over here today and asking some hard questions about how we represent it to our children. I hope you’ll stayed tuned through the whole post because it’s just incredible. My soul sister, Caroline, agreed to guest post and share her thought-provoking perspective and truly amazing story here. Caroline and her husband AJ currently live in Portland, Oregon and have three cutie-pie daughters. The rest of this is her story and her wisdom.

So, something beautiful happened this week in my homeschooling co-op. A conversation about the evangelical purity culture of the 80’s and 90’s began when one mom who has a near-teen daughter humbled herself enough to ask what other moms thought of and experienced with purity jewelry aka promise rings, as she was debating journeying that with her daughter.

I was so blessed by how gracious the conversation was, and I am certain it was valuable to this mom. My husband AJ and I have talked about this at length since we’ve been married – the attitude of the church that impresses upon girls that their identity as a young Christian woman is so intricately tied up in their virginity. I envision God snorting a big teenage huffy “AS IF” as I write those words.

My daughter Elaina’s first spoken sentence, at 18 months, was “Sex is … fun!” when she overheard her Daddy and I discussing at length how in the world we were going to raise our daughter to embrace her body and passion and enthusiasm for sex, yet also enjoy within in its most soul-connected God-designed relationship. “How do we teach her that sex is fun … but also to revere it?” we wondered aloud. And that’s when we heard her little singsongy voice pipe up in the back seat, “Sex is fun!” to which AJ quickly responded, “Yes, five is boring, but six is fun!” Crisis averted. For now.

I don’t want to speak for AJ for the challenges he faced in this arena, but I can tell you that they, too, have influenced how intentional he is with our kids. My childhood was one big illustration in fearing losing my virginity — through youth groups and role models, I learned that sex was dirty, improper, classless, just for prostitutes, disgusting, painful, something to just get through, and endured only for the man. Love and sex could not have been more divorced from each other.

I was blindsided at 10 or 11 years old to learn the facts of life, when I was still at the height of my playing with baby dolls phase of innocence, and still believing babies were made in heaven and direct-deposited into mommy’s tummies. I was horrified and vowed to live in a log cabin with my ten adopted kids next door to Amy Grant in Nashville, period end of story. I still thought I was going to marry my childhood best friend, Jesse.

At 15 when I began dating, I don’t remember there being any conversations about being intentional, guarding my heart, choosing men carefully … I just remember the door being opened, and as long as I was home in time for curfew and an intact virgin, everything was fine.

Everything wasn’t fine. My dad didn’t care to meet more than a handful of the 27 guys I dated. One guy I dated was married and 30 (I did not know this, obviously), two guys I dated drove me home drunk, most guys I dated smoked pot, wrote me songs on their guitars, and studied philosophy. One had court dates. One won “most absent” at high school. They were all ridiculously romantic broken men, and it is a stinking miracle I never had sex with any of them. When I came home heartbroken, my dad was there to mock my choice of boyfriend. When I came home violated, my dad quietly pointed to his watch to note that I was three minutes past curfew. He never asked questions about where I was or who I was with or what happened – never cared to know me, never protected me from men, and never cared to know any of the guys I invested my heart in. But he did take me to the store and buy me a promise ring. It was an unspoken reminder that I was part of his perfect Christian daughter image he took pride in – it was an unspoken expectation that I was to remain a virgin.

My dad was impossible to please, yet I spent my whole first 20 years of life trying. He was also unpredictable in his punishment and anger. You were always walking on eggshells not know what would invoke his passive aggressive wrath. And so I had nightmares – literally night terrors – all through high school – where I would wake up drenched in sweat, my heart pounding, my gut in a knot, and this sick feeling of shame washing over me because I dreamed I had lost my virginity and it was too late … They were so vivid, so convincing, that I would lie there for hours trying to convince my body of reality so I could go back to sleep. Sex was always so divorced from feeling, emotion, satisfaction, spirituality, or connection. Sex – or lack of it – became integral to my identity.

On my 16th birthday, some girlfriends and I went to TGIFriday’s. We all ordered peach daiquiris. The waiter put our order in, and then returned a minute later. “Virgin, right?” he asked, looking at me. I turned beet red, and looked at him wide-eyed and asked slowly … “Yeah … how did you know?” Of course everyone else got it but me … I was so singularly hyper focused on virginity that I had no clue he was returning to confirm that our drinks should be made nonalcoholic as we were all underage.

If you saw my high school Bible, you would find every verse relating to sexual relations triple highlighted and starred. My youth group leaders talked about the concept of “Used Goods” in reference to a wife who had not waited til marriage. I remember frequently being chastised or mocked by my parents for expressing any attraction, desire, or emotion for guys. Sexy was slutty, they insisted, and there was no middle ground. Being attracted to a guy had a sin category all its own – fleshy, lusty sin. And so, I learned to check any passion, attraction, or desire I had, and operate in super-virgin mode.

I fell quickly for serious guys and holed up at the homes of boyfriends to be anywhere but home. I roamed the city until 1am every weekend, and walked dark alleys and parks alone, went to concerts, and dated rich Catholic college boys and starving artists and everyone in between. It is a miracle that nothing ever happened to me. I think sometimes about turning my own daughter loose in the city with no protection or oversight or shepherding or preparation, and I cannot even imagine … God had his hand on me during those four years. Even in my quest for young love and a safe place to fall though, I knew His company was richer than any other’s. Those years forced me to confront so many unmet longings and needs. I never found them in any of those guys, and I knew I wouldn’t. But when you are a teenage girl with a giant Daddy-shaped hole, you will spend every beat of your heart trying to fill it.

By the time college started, I was finally wise enough to decide to step away from the dating scene completely. I threw myself head-on into just enjoying the Lord and enjoying being free from all the tension and fear and exhausting image expectations. Until the first weekend of my freshman year. When I met AJ. At a bonfire. And in the dim, warm lighting, I saw the safest, most honest eyes I have ever seen. And I felt peace. And I felt inexplicably at home.

He asked me over to his place for a movie. And I turned him down. He was not my type. He was not tall, dark, serious, handsome, and drama. He was blonde, a business major, and nice. And I didn’t know if I respected that, though now I realize I couldn’t distinguish between respect and fear. I didn’t know if I respected him because I didn’t fear him. We had nothing in common. Besides, I had just made professions to the Lord and myself about not being distracted by guys. He tried for two more months. I got really good at turning him down. He persisted.

Then one day during English Lit, I felt this unexplainable emotion my body could not contain welling up. I went to the bathroom and started crying. Like a girl. I figured I was PMSing and just being a baby. But I couldn’t stop. Tears and tears and more tears … overwhelming sobs. I put my head in my hands, and tried to conceal the saltwater evidence with wadded up toilet paper. And then this voice audibly said to me in the most comforting reassuring tone imaginable, “Take this one seriously. Keep silent, except to me.” 

What in the freaking freshman world? Since when does God visit the Ladies Room? After class, I went back to my dorm and just sat dumbfounded. The phone rang. It was AJ. He was shaken. His voice was shaking. “Hey, so I just got out of class, and I just was overcome thinking about something, and so I went to the bathroom and sat on the edge of the tub, and I just started to weep like a grown man doesn’t weep. And I just kept having this thought. I just have to ask you something – is it possible that you could be the one? Because I couldn’t stop thinking that.”

Cue the Almighty Matchmaker laughing.

Cue my shock and awe.

And so, I answered that I would prefer to not respond at the moment, but that I could give him a better answer later, and asked him if he would pray about it with me. And so we did. And we started dating. And we held hands. And we kissed and danced and I felt oh-so-much-love … but not in-love. I had deep love, respect, and admiration for him … but had long ago turned off the infatuation, in-love, attraction, desire switch. In order to be a virgin for my Dad. To be a pure and blameless sacrifice to the alter of his image. And I had used Scripture to bolster my determination to stay that way. And I had discarded the notions of happy giddy love and passionate desire as frivolous and sinful, as they had been named long ago.

And then, on a June day 12 years ago, I said “Yes”, and “I Do”, and packed a suitcase full of lingerie and we headed off on our honeymoon. I had visions of pleasing him and enduring whatever it took to do so. And then I didn’t.

We tried. Night after night after night after night after night after night. It was physically impossible. Every time, I would feel this sick wave of panic and shame rush through my body, and I physically closed off. We tried more lubricant, more wine, more time, more romance, more everything. We got back from our honeymoon feeling like we’d been punched in the gut. All this waiting … and nothing.

I scheduled an appointment with an OBGYN right away. She said “You really should have tried at least a few times before you got married. This is what happens when you don’t warm up with at least one guy first.” Ugh.

More trying, more failing, more devastation. Why can’t my body do what it was made to do? Another OBGYN appointment. This time, same advice – take it slower, drink some wine, relax.

But try and tell a girl who was STILL having night terrors about losing her virginity and waking up with chest pains to relax. I relaxed all that I mentally could. But my heart was jacked up with fear and confusion and grief. And so … trying and trying and trying persisted. AJ would stay up late and read through Song of Songs with me … “See … it IS good. God WANTS us to enjoy it …” I knew that intellectually – but my body didn’t. My body reacted to what my soul had been taught. You are your virginity. Something dangerous is happening. Protect it at all costs.

Weeks turned into months turned into years. Three years into marriage, we were so beside ourselves with grief and devastation and longing for the other, yet we didn’t know WHO in the world to talk to – and besides that, WHO in the WORLD would even BELIEVE that two young 20-something newlyweds still hadn’t had sex in THREE years of marriage?! WE couldn’t even believe it. Friends would come from home from their honeymoons and boast about how easy and natural and unbelievable it was, and sometimes I confess I was tempted to rub some KY Jelly on their love-swept little faces. We would just look at each other and go “What is WRONG with us?!

And then there was baby shower after baby shower. Do you know how many baby showers I attended in those four years? A zillion. After the first two years, I kind of got to a point where I grieved that I would probably never get to be a mom or be pregnant. A trip past the maternity section in Target would often find me sobbing in my car in the parking lot afterward. How can yet another friend announcing yet another pregnancy stimulate joy, yet also be such a knife to my soul? How can happiness for them always be accompanied by the echo of my own body’s defectiveness? It was an agonizing, deeply painful, emotionally bewildering three years. It always felt like our marriage wasn’t valid, solid, or legitimate. When outside forces heaped even more stress on us, we were cracking at the seams, and almost undone by it all. The enemy was having a party with our marriage, and fueling the fire with everything he could get his hands on.

And then came Christmas Eve. As a last minute gift, I decided to order my mom a subscription to Today’s Christian Woman magazine. I got online, and the cover of the current issue was pictured on the website. The feature story read, “Married 6 Years, and Never Had Sex.” Wait … What the WHAT?!?! You mean, this is a THING? A real actual thing and maybe I am not the most defective wife on the planet earth?

And so I shouted for AJ and hysterically we are reading and crying and looking at each other in awe and incredulous hope – and we read the testimonies of a half dozen woman who have gone through this clinic in upstate New York that treats over 300,000 women a year – YES, THAT MANY ZEROES – for this condition called Vaginismus. It is when the Pubococcygeus muscles involuntarily spasm and physically force the vagina closed in order to protect it. It happens to women who have been sexually abused, raped, and get this … women who have had “Overly rigid unbalanced teaching, repressed fear, fear of trauma, and been taught emotional detachment.” CHECK, CHECK, and SUPER-CHECK.

So, AJ and I spend Christmas morning in each other’s arms drenched in grateful tears to a God who gave us such hope that Christmas. Right after the holidays, I contacted the author of the article, and she spent hours with me on the phone and through email coaching me on how to begin physical therapy and narrative therapy. She tenderly cared for me, encouraged me, prayed for me, coached me, and cheered for me. By January, AJ and I shared our story with our two dear mentor couples from church and our counselor. For each of the 10 steps of physical therapy that I went through, AJ had some sort of sweet token of success waiting for me – a pedicure, a concert in the park, a painting class.

In March, AJ took out a Home Equity loan (yes, those used to actually be available) and as he was in between jobs, declared we were taking a “sabbatical from life” and we weren’t coming back until this was resolved. Our family thought we were CRAZY. On the outside, it looked like the most financially irresponsible thing to do. Not job hunt. Take out a loan on the only asset you have. And basically be lazy 24/7. We ate breakfast on the sun porch every morning, found every free thing to do in Indianapolis, played tourist in our own town, went for long walks, met all the neighbors, gardened together, watched high school football games, and fell in love. We did all the things that newlyweds should do – only this time, without the weight of the world on our shoulders. We chose to step away from the chaos just for us. Because God said “leave” and then He said “cleave” … and so we did. We removed ourselves from the storm of life, and dated and refocused our eyes on each other and the hope we’d be given, and little by little we fell in love in that city.

In May, a family I nannied for gifted us with a week at their condo in Florida. So we flew to South Beach, and roamed the city and made memories and got to be young and free and continue to fall in love. That whole time was such a precious, needed, cocooning from the world. I can’t imagine our marriage would be where it is today – or exist at all – had we not done something crazy like pull the plug on the world, and throw ourselves all in toward our marriage.

… And then that June, we went away for our 4-year anniversary to a funky loft in South Haven, Michigan, and had the most magical, perfect, connecting of souls and body ever. And would you believe I actually liked it, please don’t tell anyone. And we looked at each other and squealed in disbelief and excitement, and then we called our counselor and shrieked with glee that we had sex and that was probably the weirdest phone call she ever got, but whatever, and she laughed and we watched the sunset and experienced the most settled, content, grateful moments together. AJ picked out the most monstrously gorgeous diamond ring for my right hand and got down on his knees and re-proposed, and we continued to grow in love and understanding.

 

And four more months later, Elaina happened.

I don’t think there is a couple on this earth that could take their marriage and sex life for granted any less than us. What other couples experienced in their first year of newlywedded bliss, we got to experience in our 5th and 6th and 7th and 13th years together. As painful as our story was, I see how God knit our hearts together on such deep levels during that time. Commitment when there is no benefit to you is a whole new brand of love. That my husband was faithful and long suffering and patient during that time is something I will cherish him for for the rest of his life.

 

I share all of this because the whole conversation on the purity culture reignited our hearts for girls that have been taught that their identity lies in their sexuality. The world idolizes sex just as much as the church idolizes no sex. The world talks about sex too much, and the church doesn’t talk about it enough. The passion has left the building, we are destroying marriages just as much as the world is when we don’t pass on the FULL abundance of girls’ identities as His prized creations. We cheapen the gospel when we scare or shame them into virginity – when we reduce their identity from “Beloved Daughter of the King” to “Virgin” who signs a True Love Waits commitment card – when we exalt one trait over all others. It makes room for pride and shame and lies.

I think I would say the same about my personal experience with purity jewelry or promise rings. I think there is a big difference between a ring given with the intent that “Daddy will forever love you and protect you and be all yours til your wedding day in every way I can, and here is a reminder of that” … and “wear this ring so that every time you or others see it, you are reminded that you are living life above this particular sin.” Bravo, Daddies who have done the former. We will continue to think long and hard about this one for our own family,

I loved this response to the conversation from one of the moms in my group:

I would want [parents] to think through what message are they giving their kids? Is the “goal” virginity? Or is the goal a life inclined to God himself? There are probably many unconverted souls, perhaps even self-righteous, walking around with their purity rings safe in the illusion that they are therefore accepted by Jesus. Then, there are probably young people who had to take their rings off, but are broken by their sin–repenting and trusting Jesus Himself for the gift of His purity–that are wearing the pure, white clothes of a “virginal” Christian seated in the Heavenlies. While the jewelry itself is just a symbol and can be useful or not useful depending on the situation, I would want to be certain that it’s not a hindrance to the gospel.

AJ and I even now prepare ourselves for the nature of our wandering feet and humanity … and that of our children’s. Will we describe in full beautiful detail the glory of sex within marriage? A resounding YES … not just with words, but with our interactions with each other … the first and most influential class on love and sex they will ever take. But we also know that God is not shocked by our sin. He is not phased by our brokenness and frailty. He came to conquer on behalf of we who could not ourselves. He came to call us by new names, and give us an identity … IN HIM … not our sin.

This is a really beautiful acknowledgment by Tim Challies on the Virginity Mega-Culture within the Church, and why it needs changing. In the meantime, we are encouraged that our own testimonies give us authority to witness to others in those areas … God will not let our story go unused. He’s cool like that.

We Are All Virgins Now – {WORTH READING TEN TIMES OVER}

And this is us now … a baker’s dozen years later.

I look at this picture from a field dinner last weekend, and I see a joy and contentment and peace and resilience and fortitude and LOVE between us that wasn’t even there on our wedding day. If I were to be truthful to young couples, I would say, it is so worth it – every storm weathered, every clinging to the main thing, every step of obedience to God, every expectation laid to rest, every choice to prioritize. Yes, there will be seasons where you frustrate the living daylights out of each other and threaten/promise to go find a cute condo in the Pearl and retire young and alone (I’m not sure which one of us said that, but probably not me). But there will also be seasons reminiscent of Song of Songs. Sex at 30 is just plain hot, and way better than before. We have found that where you make big, bold decisions to not let the enemy have his way with you, you sometimes just get to taste and experience the promised land right here on earth and in the arms of each other. We have found that there is not one single thing that could happen that God can’t redeem into something wildly beautiful and lasting, and that gives us hope that even current trials are works-in-progress-in-His-capable-hands. Where you will be reminded that your marriage is a blank canvas on which God can illustrate to the rest of the world how furious and grace-filled His love is.

I cannot begin to imagine how each of our own daughters’ stories will unfold, or what storms they will weather, but I do know that they are the handiwork of a God who collects the tears of His kids in a bottle, and shows His face to those who crave His nearness. And for me, that is enough.


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