We all have our hot-button issues, and one of mine is the movement — usually linked to conservative religious groups — advocating feminine “modesty” and “purity.” (They usually stand for male “purity” as well, but the bulk of the talk is directed at women.) It’s hard for me to engage this issue directly, because aside from my philosophical problems with it, I have a very visceral response to its rhetoric: the same kind of response a former alcoholic sometimes has to scenes of people drinking. The modesty/purity movement once owned me, and it damaged me, and I hate it for reasons that have nothing to do with its philosophical or political merit. When I try to write about it, I can’t decide whether to write about my personal experiences, and the anger I feel about them and the fear I feel for people I love who still buy into it, or to try to put that aside and write objectively about the problems it has.
My anger comes mainly from this: there is a huge lie embedded in the conservative Christian culture I grew up in (though by no means exclusive to that culture.) The lie is that there is one context — lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual commitment — where sex is healthy and creative and life-bringing, and that in any other context sex is unhealthy and damaging. The lie is that sexuality outside of marriage is a dangerous, destructive force that needs to be controlled and subverted, but marriage transforms it into a beautiful affirmation of life and love and joy.
This lie was taught to me by people who loved me very much and genuinely wanted the best for my life. They taught it to me because they believed it, and their sincere belief and sincere caring for me made it almost impossible for me to question their teaching. So I spent the first twelve years of my sexual maturity fearing and avoiding sexuality, distrusting my body and my heart, feeling both resentful and guilty toward male sexual desire, and casting my own desires into ludicrous forms of romanticism instead of acknowledging them for what they were. I avoided making myself sexually attractive, because that’s what I was supposed to do, and I waited patiently for God to reward my obedience with a husband with whom I could live happily ever after.
Now, on the other side of my sexual renaissance, I see the world so differently that I can hardly articulate it. I know so much now that I didn’t see then. I know that lifelong heterosexual monogamy is not for everybody. I know that sexuality is not a pollutant of art, but probably its point of origin. I know that the sexual undercurrents that run beneath even “platonic” relationships are better acknowledged and enjoyed than denied. But foundationally, I know this: that the difference between destructive and life-giving sexuality is not made by what kind of relationship it occurs in. It is made by the presence or absence of joy and caring.
Whether there are one, or two, or several participants, a sex act is healthy if it is characterized by joy in the giving and receiving of pleasure, and by caring for the physical and emotional health of each person involved. That’s all. It’s not any more complicated than that. All other rules are created because somebody somewhere found a particular sexual relation damaging, and blamed the social circumstances rather than the individual ones. (Example: a woman who at 16 consented to sex she didn’t want because she craved closeness and affirmation, and concludes that teenage sex is always unhealthy.)
On a broader, systemic level, sex-negativity is based on fear and distrust of the body and human nature. But I’ve always been a staunch humanist, so the rhetoric of dirt and cleanliness never made a lot of sense to me. I never believed my sexuality was dirty or impure, just that it was dangerous.
Now, I don’t know how my life would have developed if I’d grown up without believing those lies. Plenty of people have sexual experiences, or even whole phases of life, that they regret, and I might have been one of those people. We can’t know how an alternative life path would have turned out. But I know for damn sure that I regret the twelve years of sexual repression that I subjected myself to, with the approval and encouragement of adults I trusted. I regret the experiences and relationships I missed out on, I regret relationships that were stunted or aborted because of my fear of sexuality, and I especially regret the disconnection with my own sexuality that my denial created, a disconnection I am still trying to repair.
In case anybody’s in doubt, it’s these experiences that make me passionate about becoming a sex educator. The abstinence-only message is founded on a false understanding of sex, its consequences, and its appropriate role in human life. Young people do need to be taught — indiscriminate sexual activity is often unhealthy too, and making smart, healthy sexual decisions in our culture does not come naturally. But they need to be taught about joy and caring, they need to be taught to discern their own needs and wants, they need to be taught communication and respect, they need to be taught what sex does and what it doesn’t do. They need to be taught about the varieties of sexual experience (apologies to William James) and given tools for creating a fulfilling sexual life, whatever that means for them. I’m grateful that I learned these things eventually; I want to help others learn them sooner.