Dear Searcher part 3: “purity and secondary virginity”

person, couple, love

This is my third post responding to search terms that have led people to my blog. You can read the first post here, and you can read the second post here.

The premise of these Dear Searcher posts is that I write an open letter to a person who found my blog using search terms that I find thought provoking or unsettling.

On March 14th 2016, someone found my blog using the search term “purity and secondary virginity.”

Dear searcher,

Virginity is one of the most ill-defined concepts we have in this world. Ever notice that? There’s a myriad of sexual things we can do and still be technically “virgins.” Then again, it depends on who you ask. One of my earliest memories of learning this was at a pool party in high school. I was fourteen, maybe fifteen, and one of my friends said, “If I let a guy do it in my butt, am I still a virgin?”

One friend said “Heck no!”

Another one said, “Maybe. Did he go all the way in?”

Sure, there are clinical definitions of sex, and a doctor once told me the definition of “sexually active” was “physical contact with any body parts covered by a bikini.” By that definition, I was sexually active by the end of high school, even though I didn’t have sex until I was almost done with college. But “sexually active” is different from “virginity.” Virginity is much harder to define.

Some people define losing one’s virginity as a person’s first time having penis-in-vagina sex, but by that definition, gay and lesbian people who never experiment with straight people will remain virgins their entire lives. That doesn’t make any sense. I’m sorry to anyone who was using this as a sneaky way to cheat the “rules” and remain a virgin, but  oral and anal sex are included in the umbrella of acts that can remove one’s virginity, no matter what your friend Tara says. As clear as this is to me now, I considered myself a virgin for a while after I’d had oral sex. Our culture is very heteronormative, and still views sex largely from a straight male perspective. Even though penis-in-vagina sex doesn’t really do a whole lot for many women as far as pleasure is concerned, it’s still considered the gold standard.

With all that being said, at the end of the day you’re the one who needs to decide how you personally feel about sex. The question to ask yourself is, does any of this really matter? Does whether or not you are a virgin affect your value as an individual? Does it affect your identity positively or negatively? Does it affect your self esteem?.

Virginity is not always given up willingly, but it is still considered gone if it is lost in rape. If you do believe a person’s value is tarnished by sex, do you consider it just as bad for a victim as for a person who’s doing it of their own volition?

What about gender differences? If you find out that a female friend has had sex, how do you judge her? Now imagine that instead of a female friend, it is a male friend. How do you judge him? If there is a difference? Why is that?

You may have noticed that there is one, or any other number of unsettling things about the way you view virginity by asking yourself these questions, and there’s a reason why they’re unsettling: virginity is a concept that society made up: a social construct. It’s not actually important at all. I really mean that. Virginity is as much a social construct as the way we assume video games are for boys, the way someone invented dresses and said “these will be women’s clothing, not men’s.” It could have gone the other way. There’s no biological reason for women to wear dresses, or for video games to be marketed heavily to boys. It’s not the way things have to be, just the way our culture is. “Virgin” is a label applied to people who have not had sex, but sex is, at the end of the day, an experience, not necessarily a terrible or life-altering event.

Imagine if we had a label for people who had never eaten sushi, and although we judged people for never having eaten it, we also judged people who have. Imagine if people also claimed that there was a biological difference between people who ate it and those who didn’t–a sushi barrier that broke as soon as the delicious fish slid down your throat. Ridiculous right? That’s exactly what sex is though.

It’s an experience, just like eating sushi, or going sky diving, or going to work for the first time. It’s something many people do, and while the first time may be a milestone for you, it doesn’t make you a better or worse person than you were the day before. Yes, even in women, there is NO PHYSICAL DIFFERENCE between those who are virgins and those who are not. (FYI, hymens DO NOT POP, please click the link and educate yourself. And this one while you’re at it. Trust me on this, I’m a cisgender female with a hymen who’s having sex. And yes, those are both YouTube videos. Sadly, YouTube has frequently been a more reliable sex ed resource than traditional resources.)

But your search term included “secondary” virginity, which tells me that you’ve been sky diving. You’ve had figurative sushi before, and you’re interested in becoming a virgin again. I was raised Catholic, and taught that this could be done spiritually, through an appeal to God and a promise to follow Catholic teaching on sex (abstaining till marriage) in the future. I’m not going to lie to you. This is a complete waste of your time and energy. If you’ve eaten sushi, you’ve eaten sushi. If you’ve gone on an international vacation, you’ve gone on an international vacation. If you’ve been sky diving, you’ve been sky diving. Sex is part of your life experience now, just like every job you’ve had, every friendship, every lesson, every skill. Maybe you aren’t happy with how it happened. Maybe it was the wrong person. Maybe you were a victim. Whatever the circumstances, you can’t change the past. You can only move forward. Pretending the past didn’t happen is not a healthy way to do that.

You have to come to terms with the fact that you are no longer what society labels a “virgin,” just like I am no longer a college student. The transition from one label to another is difficult because it can become a huge part of your identity if it matters to you. I loved being a college student. But I was ready to move on to the next part of my life. Try to think of sex like that. You don’t have to do it again if you don’t want to. But you’ve done it now. You know what it’s like, at least in one circumstance, and now you can learn from it just like you can with any other experience. What you take away from it is up to you.
Has anyone else encountered this idea of secondary virginity? Feel free to leave a comment. All opinions are welcome. Just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!

Nancy

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The Six People You’ll Meet at a Religious Retreat for Teens

I’m working on a post about religious retreats and emotional manipulation, but it’s not quite ready yet. I’d like to get a post out while it’s still today, so this one’s mainly just for fun. Here’s a list of the six people you’re likely to encounter at a religious retreat or other large youth-oriented religious event.

1) The Addict

This is the guy (or girl) who says he’s done drugs. Specifically, he’s addicted to alcohol and he smokes weed. Maybe he’s done something else too that he refuses to name for dramatic effect. He’ll get up there at the retreat and testify that even though he’s done all these things, being at this retreat makes him want to change. From now on, he’s going to be clean, because Jesus. Next week, you’ll still catch him cutting class to do pot.

2) The one who Needs Therapy

This is a person who tells everyone there that he or she has been abused in some way. Maybe he remembers being beaten by his father, or she wants to tell you that her boyfriend raped her. Whatever the story, you believe it, but you’re not sure how you feel about hearing it. This person just proclaimed their very damaging past publicly to a group of strangers, and sounds like they need psychological help. Like The Addict, they’ll end their story with “It’s all good because Jesus,” but for this person, it seems even more tacked on. It seems like they’re desperate to tell someone their story, regardless of whether or not this is the appropriate setting. You hope they get the help they need so they can stop confessing to retreat groups.

3) The Pop Culture Preacher

This is the priest/minister/monk/nun, etc. who is totally with it. He (or she) will make references to whatever the latest teen sensation is, and every few sentences there’s a joke. You’re more interested in the humor than his message, so when he eventually gets serious and tries to lead you in prayer, you zone out. You wish more priests/ministers/monks/nuns, etc. were like this guy. He makes religion entertaining.

4) The Purity Pledger

This is someone, typically a girl, who says she’s had sex, but won’t anymore. When she gets home, she’s going to have a serious talk with her boyfriend about sex. Whether that “talk” even happens has yet to be determined, but you can bet your own future sex life that by the time she’s in college, she won’t even remember having made this promise because let’s be honest, sex is awesome.

5) The Purity Spokesperson

Generally female, but sometimes male (or a couple that preaches together). This person’s job is to guilt you into not having sex. “Picture your future husband watching what you and your current boyfriend are doing on that couch,” she may say. “You know you’re not going to marry him. Would you still do it if your future husband were watching?”

Some of her arguments may seem reasonable. It’s certainly good to avoid pregnancy and STIs. But then, right when she has the audience agreeing with her, she takes it too far. “I saved my first kiss for marriage,” she says, “and I recommend that for all of you.”

“Well…that ship has sailed.” a solid three quarters or more of her audience thinks, and her influence over them is lost at that point.

6) The CHRISTIAN Musician

This is the person or group that was hired to provide Christian entertainment. Their songs will be even more repetitive than the majority of popular music. If there were any alcohol on the premises (ask person number 1?) you could make a pretty successful drinking game if you drank every time the lyrics said “Jesus,” “Halelujah,” “Grace,” “Cross,” or “lift up.” If you’re ever forced to listen to the sorry excuse for music that is Christian Rock, I recommend this.

A big thanks to my little brother for corroborating on some of these.

What do you think about this list? Do you have anything to add? Have you experienced a religious retreat? Feel free to comment. As always, all opinions are welcome. Just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!

-Nancy

Monitored Visitation: The Shackles of Courtship

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Imagine being restricted to monitored phone calls, and visitation during specified hours, with guests who must go through a detailed security screening. Sounds like prison, right? What if dating worked that way?

While this does not reflect how many people experience dating, it is the reality for some, who participate in a form of dating commonly used and promoted by the deeply religious:  courting. Courting is often defined as dating with marriage as the ultimate goal. Despite it being a fairly accepted definition in my experience, I find it to not be a very clear one. There are plenty of people who consider what they do “dating,” not “courting,” for whom marriage is still the ultimate goal. I consider myself to be one of those people. True, dating can be casual, but many people enter long-term relationships prior to marriage with the intention of finding a spouse or life partner, and those relationships should not be discounted as less serious just because those involved do not label themselves as “courting.”

Another problem I have with that definition is that it says nothing about how it differs from dating in practice, only how the two differ in intent. In my experience, the main difference in the way the two are practiced is who is in control. In dating, the people making the decisions are typically the people who are dating each other. While a dating couple may choose to involve their families by introducing each other to them and asking for their advice, that isn’t typically the be-all, end-all. Dating partners are free to make their own decisions, with or without their parents’ approval. Courtship, in my experience, is the complete opposite. In courtship, the parents of the couple (especially the girl’s parents) tend to have at at least a fifty percent say in every decision–sometimes more. It is usually the father who has the most power, as the man and head of the household. He often maintains complete veto power over any and all decisions. As one girl explains, “my parents were firmly entrenched in the values of courtship, and any potential relationship would be controlled completely by my father.” (Check out her story about rebelling against her patriarchal family here.) In courtship, the parents are with the couple every step of the way, sometimes in ways that are downright invasive, and excessive. This control is the main issue I take with the practice.

At one of my homeschooling co-ops back in high school, there was a young couple (seniors) I suspected would be getting together soon. They were always side by side at co-op, and had chemistry so thick that the air practically dripped with their excitement to be with each other. I soon discovered that they were together in a sense, however, they were expected to court. I don’t know much about their courting experience because we weren’t close, but I did hear one startling thing:  when it came to communication over distances, they were required to limit themselves to infrequent phone calls–every other week. Furthermore, each and every one of those phone calls had to be monitored by their parents. I realize this sounds bizarre. What parent tells his or her daughter “Oh, you two want to talk? You can call him next Thursday. But I have to be on the other line.” It’s ridiculous. I used to make excuses for it. They’re teenagers, I said. Their parents want what’s best for them. Maybe their parents don’t trust them to date, so they’re taking extra precautions. This kind of parental monitoring doesn’t end when children turn 18, though. In families that practice courting, this level of parental control is expected, no matter what age the children are when they begin to look for a future spouse. You may have laughed when you saw 30-year-old Toula Portokalos in the beginning of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, living with no freedom at the mercy of her father’s control, but there are real people in the United States living this antiquated life.

Fast forward four years. I’m now a senior in college, and during the fall semester, one of the student organizations I’m part of planned a mandatory, 2-day retreat for its leaders. As annoyed as I was for having to attend something at a time when I had a great deal of assignments due, I had a good time and really got to know the other members of the group. In a brief dull moment though, I did a head count, and realized someone was missing. Someone who had attended every meeting. On the way back, one of the attendees told me why. The missing student is Indian. (Meaning, she’s from India. I wish I didn’t have to explain this, but there was this idiot called Columbus.)  Her family is very strict, and as a rule, they do not permit her to spend the night anywhere other than home without her parents. No slumber parties. No retreats. Nothing. If she were under 18, I wouldn’t make a big deal about this, but she’s an adult college student with a job. Legally, she’s autonomous, but in her family, she isn’t. While this particular example isn’t overtly part of the culture of courting, I suspect that it stems from a similar source. This type of precaution, like the excessive monitoring of potential suitors, is often presented by conservative families as a way of protecting the girl’s purity–her virginity. The father ensures it by keeping his eye on her. I do not know if this is the case for her family, but a fair number of Indian families practice arranged marriage. It is still common in their culture, and I have known a young man who was nearly forced into one. Excessive parental control works well with a culture that promotes parents’ choice over the couple’s. The more I learn about courting, the more I see how it can become dangerously close to arranged marriage.

Why is courting even popular when it is so controlling? Like many things in the conservative world, the popularity of courting is largely due to a negative attitude toward pre-marital sex. It is the perfect way for parents to do their darnedest to prevent that awful deed. During my strict religious upbringing, the idea that pre-marital sex can ruin relationships was presented to me frequently. Supposedly, couples who have sex before marriage do not get to know each other as individuals, just as objects to fuck. This makes their relationships doomed to fail. Also, God doesn’t like it, therefore courting is the Godly thing to do. The important thing, as usual, is keeping people “pure.”

Maybe there’s a way to do it right, but based on what I’ve seen of it, it sucks. If anything, courting actually prevents couples from getting to know each other thoroughly enough to commit to marriage, thanks to the constant chaperoning and excessive parental involvement. The more I think about it, the more I worry about people like that aforementioned couple I knew, and the Duggar daughters of 19 Kids and Counting, who also believe in courtship rather than dating.

Because they are in the public eye, the Duggars are an excellent example of courtship that can be examined in detail. An article I found, called “The Duggars’ 7 Rules of Courtship” sums up some of their courtship rules. Much like that young couple I knew, the Duggar children are somewhat restricted to monitored correspondence. Their parents expect their text messages to each other to all come in the form of group texts that go out to the Duggar parents too. The article describes how that works, and quotes the father of the family, Jim Bob, on the subject:

“It’s neat to see their conversations,” says Jim Bob, adding that the couple texts about everything from scripture to their future as a family and ideas on parenting. For the most part, Jim Bob and Michelle don’t chime in. But occasionally they do.

I’ve seen conservative parents comment on their children’s Facebook pages, actively getting in the way of their children expressing opinions that differ from theirs. Because of that, I find it hard to believe that Jim Bob and Michelle don’t chime in much, and don’t influence the conversation much with their presence. Even if they exercise restraint and really do only comment “occasionally,” the fact that they are included in the conversation means that every text is carefully constructed; it is a performance. The daughter must uphold the image of absolute purity that the parents expect, and the man must tread carefully, choosing subjects of conversation that are fit for the dinner table. If they really do have conversations about their future and ideas on parenting, I doubt they do so using their real opinions and observations because of the possibility of offending the ever-watching Duggar parents.

What kind of relationship are they building? I was relieved that shortly after that quote, it says that the couple is permitted private phone conversations for one hour per night. That’s a step in the right direction–but only a step. How private is a phone conversation in a family with 19 kids who share bedrooms (which is the case for them)? Where does the couple go to find privacy? What if they want to have a conversation about sex? If you’re serious about marriage, you need to (at some point) have open dialogue about sex, about your expectations, hopes, fears, and to clear up any confusion you have about how it works before you–you know–start. I realize they believe in waiting until marriage, but imagine going into your wedding night having never had the chance to talk to your spouse about what’s going to happen that night? That conversation is important, and with mommy, daddy, and 18 siblings wandering around, it’s not likely to occur.

I’d complain about their “no kissing, no hand holding” rules, which I’ve always considered to be extraordinarily excessive, (I know people who set similar boundaries), but really, it’s up to the couple to decide what physical boundaries are right for them. For some people, the boundary is “no butt stuff.” For others, it’s “clothes stay on.” I’m fine with that. I’m a little concerned, though, that the parents had too much say in this decision. While I understand that the parents want their children to practice the kind of pure relationship building that their religious beliefs mandate, as I’ve stated in my post about purity pledging, it works a heck of a lot better when the couple chooses it for themselves, setting boundaries that they think are important. If a couple says “We’re not kissing before marriage” because their parents want them to, but that doesn’t fit what they want as a couple (or as individuals), they’re probably going to end up kissing before marriage. I say this as someone who practiced “purity” because my parents believed kissing should be the furthest one goes before marriage, and watched my line get redrawn further and further and further until finally I literally said “fuck it,” and did just that. I wasn’t making a purity pledge for myself. I was making it for them, for my religion, and for the people around me who said it was the right thing to do. As those reasons melted away, so did my sexual boundaries. I’m not the only one who’s experienced this phenomenon either. It’s an 8-part story, but this girl promised she wouldn’t kiss before marriage as part of her courting experience, and in short, that’s not what happened.

Ultimately, in any form of romantic relationship building, the actual members of the relationship are the important ones. They need to form a bond with each other. They need to find common ground. They need to understand and appreciate their differences. They need to learn how to talk about subjects they wouldn’t discuss in front of their parents, because those subjects will all become part of their lives if they get married. I’m completely fine with “dating with marriage as the ultimate goal.” What I’m not fine with, is two adults dating under the constant watch of daddy and mommy, with daddy getting the final say in any and all decisions. An adult should be able to have a private conversation with his or her significant other without their parents’ knowledge or permission. An adult should be able to make his or her own decisions.

Happy thinking!

-Nancy

 

Age of Consent and Age of Purity Pledging

Not old enough to give consent? No worries. Make a purity pledge!

I’m lucky enough to have been raised by a family that didn’t really push purity pledges until I was in high school, which, if you’re going to make one, isn’t horribly early for most people. The thing is, they also failed to give me adequate sex ed while I was homeschooled, so I didn’t learn about sex until I was 15, which, coincidentally, was after I’d already made a purity pledge a year earlier.

While consent is hard to define, and is often defined by the situations in which a person cannot give consent rather than the ones in which someone can, I suspect most people can agree that consent should be informed. That means that the people involved have to know what they’re agreeing to in order to say yes to it. I think that’s a fair requirement, since there can be lots of negative consequences to saying yes to things one doesn’t understand. Don’t understand how loans work? Don’t get one. Don’t understand sex? Don’t have it. Don’t understand the rules of the road? Don’t drive. (Please, please don’t. That one has the added problem of endangering others as well as yourself.)  

But then you have my situation. Can a student who doesn’t know how sex works truly make a binding promise to not do it for an extended period of time? Now, granted, it was a promise to myself and God, not a legal document or an agreement to have my genitalia mutilated. But I was 14. There are girls who make that pledge at age 9, or younger, at ages when they’re not able to fully understand what they’re agreeing to. They may be told they’re agreeing to be “pure,” which certainly sounds positive. And don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with deciding to abstain from sex if that’s something that you think is a good idea for you. It’s certainly the safest option, but if you don’t understand it, is it fair to expect you to make that promise?

Then there’s the issue of the way many of these purity programs are run. If you’re put into a room with 100 girls, and told, “Here’s a piece of paper. Write down a promise to yourself to be pure” (which is basically what happened to me), you’d be very weird if you stood up and said, “No thanks.” So not only are you being encouraged to make this promise, you’re being pressured to do so by the crowd around you. To me, that seems less personal and less binding than a promise made to oneself based on an informed decision, and also made without outside influence. I’ve made multiple purity “pledges” in my life, and in the end, none of them was binding to me. When I became informed, and eventually met someone who was attractive and kind and with whom I was seriously considering having sex, I made a decision not to because I wasn’t ready. But when I eventually became emotionally capable of it, I decided to study my earlier pledges. Were they binding? The first one, the one I made at 14 without any information, was not. But the later ones? They were all made in a similar situation to the first:  on retreats where girls were taken into a room to write letters to themselves. That was nice, but there was considerable peer pressure involved. Sure, I could have written nonsense and signed Micky Mouse, but what if someone had noticed? I wasn’t a rebel back then. Even if I had objected to the pledge, I would have written it down, and signed it, just like everybody else. That peer pressure, to me, makes it no longer binding. You can argue that I’m rationalizing it, but it’s not a legal document, and the only person I promised besides myself is a divine being whom I no longer believe in, so at least in my case, the only person I’m disagreeing with is my younger self–and she and I would disagree on a lot of things, not just sex.

The whole peer pressure issue doesn’t just apply to sex in my opinion, and I may get some disagreement on this, but I’m not fond of marriage proposals made in crowded places, especially with any kind of camera or spotlight involved. Football games, Hockey games, Baseball, Basketball–I don’t care, I would be thoroughly pissed off if someone proposed to me at one. Just think about the pressure! All eyes in the packed stadium are on you, and if you say no,  what started as a sweet moment has ended with labeling yourself a cold bitch. The audience wants you to say yes! If you say no, you’ve disappointed them. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people say yes, and then say no when they’re in a private place. I’d say that sucks for the person who proposed, but he or she should have considered the large public pressure before deciding to propose in that place. Granted, there are some cases where the couple has already agreed to get married, and the public proposal is just their way of publicly declaring their engagement–that’s fine by me. But to do it in such a public way without any warning is extremely inconsiderate, and frankly, manipulative. It’s a big decision to make, and when you consider how easily people are influenced by what they think the people around them expect, it makes peer pressure all the more problematic.

I’ve come to the conclusion that if teens or young adults realize that they want to have sex, and decide to, they’re going to rationalize that decision. Don’t want to let them do that? Then encourage them to make a promise in a way that they feel is binding, not in a way that involves peer pressure, or pressure from adult authorities. In the end, the decision to remain pure is up to them, and while choosing to have sex is a big decision, choosing to avoid it is too.