At a True Love Waits service at your central Pennsylvania Southern Baptist church, you sign your name in purple pen on a piece of paper meant to be a promise, a covenant. I will keep myself pure until marriage. You are fourteen with no sexual prospects, so it doesn’t seem so much a denial of self as it does a way to show how holy you are. A strange kind of peer pressure: Who’s not going to sign and thereby arouse suspicion? A basket is passed. You put your slips of paper in like an offering, while the band plays some sort of somber, ambiguously romantic contemporary Christian song.
Now, when you hear the phrase true love waits, your mind first flits to the Radiohead song, Thom Yorke singing about tiny hands and crazy kitten smiles. And that first desperate line: I’ll drown my beliefs. It makes more sense to you now than the promise on that slip of paper did. It carries a different kind of guilt.
When you are told not to cross a line, your life becomes defined by the line. The rule becomes a cage. You can see between the bars. You can reach out a toe, a finger, a whole arm. You know, even if you can’t articulate it, perhaps because it defies articulation, that you are meant to fly. But you have been told that flight is only safe when you tether yourself to someone stronger.
Human nature: We want what is forbidden. When you aren’t allowed to have sex, the thought of it consumes you. Or so you think. You don’t know what it means to be consumed yet.
Two years later, when you are with your first serious boyfriend, the line becomes more concrete. The first stirrings of real desire for another person are overwhelming, and you want so badly to be overwhelmed. But you remember that Bible study, leading up to the night when you promised to save yourself for marriage. A list on a page. Holding hands: risky. Hugging: only from the side. Kissing: only with dry, pursed lips and even then, frowned upon. Light or heavy petting: eardrum-piercing alarms would go off alerting Jesus (and your parents) that your purity was hanging by a thread.
Your goods are damaged—a bruise on a pear—but not yet ruined.
You could still call yourself a virgin; could still wear that plastic pearl on a strand of fishing line, given to you as a reminder of your worth—to men and to God, who is also a man incredibly interested in your sexuality, you are told; although the Bible, where He supposedly shares these things, is mysteriously quiet or vague about the issue.
The human body is made to want. To fuck. If God created you, then this deep down ache must be a cruel design flaw. Except God, you are told, is perfect, and this means the flaw is you.
You are so unaware of sex and bodies. Even before your parents become born-again, there is shame. You learn about sexuality from health class, and from conversations with misinformed friends. In eighth grade, you dialed 1-800-BLOW-JOB on the school payphone because your friends dared you, and you heard a breathy recording of a sex phone operator, but still had no idea what a blow job was.
You are fifteen when you see your first erect penis on a blurry TV screen at a friend’s house, almost as long as a garden snake, as thick as the kielbasa your dad would grill for dinner. Later, you’ll be surprised that every other erection is half the size. You’ll never forget the scene from her dad’s hidden porn stash: grainy ’70s sex on a floral daybed; faces red with the sheen of exertion and bad makeup and lighting.
You pretend to laugh with your friend, even though you’re turned on. Suddenly it all makes sense, like a rabbit ear antenna wiggled around until the station came in clear. Your brain becomes a television you can not turn off. Before, you had pictured kissing: kissing with tongues, kissing breasts. But now that you know what sex is, you think about it beyond kissing and roaming hands. Beyond two naked bodies rubbing together indiscriminately beneath sheets, the way it was in the movies.
You and your friend got into your sleeping bags and as soon as she was asleep, you touched yourself to relieve the feeling. You had occasionally masturbated before, after discovering orgasms accidentally in a bathtub. You could rationalize the first accident. You could not rationalize each subsequent orgasm, not accidental at all.
How could the body be an accident?
Heat. You started to seek it. The urge is a missile. Everything was suddenly phallic. Every joke an innuendo. Sometimes you think about rinsing your underwear in the sink and letting them dry before putting them in the laundry, destroying the evidence. The language of desire as the language of crime: witness, trial, confession, testimony, judgment. To your church and to the world, there is nothing more dangerous than a woman wanting.
Danger: a woman wanting to wear clothes that exposed her bare skin to the air.
You go to a retreat for girls where there is a fashion show of modest clothing. You learn about the peak-and-valley-test: If you press on a shirt between the breasts, and it bounces back, that means the shirt is too tight. You’re told how the male brain works—how a man finishes the picture in his head if he gets even a piece of the outline. He can’t help it. You’re responsible for making sure he stays pure.
Danger: a woman wanting to end an unplanned pregnancy.
You never think about the body or the feelings of the woman—only the embryo, which is somehow more a person than a real person.
Danger: a woman wanting a divorce from someone who she no longer wanted.
You marry the first boy who touches you. You promise yourselves to each other: This sounds romantic. You date through high school. You get engaged in college at Christmastime. You remember driving to Walmart not long after, staring at the diamond on your hand on the steering wheel. You remember feeling a little better about fooling around, the shame significantly less, since sex was just around the corner, a year and a half away. Even before the wedding happened, you remember wanting to kiss someone else once, maybe twice—the guy friend who once held your hand down an alley and made his computer play Boston’s “Amanda” when you would sign on to AOL Instant Messenger, the drummer of the praise band who tells you that you have a really good voice. You know you want more. Those seeds of doubt you swallow down. You’ve already given so much of yourself away to this person you love. But you do not want him with the fervor you know, deep down—for you—is necessary to make love last.
Danger: synonymous with sin .
You will divorce after four years of marriage. It will feel more like dissolve . You will be the leaver, the wayward child.
You will come back to God, to a more progressive Jesus. You will work at a church. But you will soon find out that it’s just a more dressed-up modern version of the same ignorance. When you find yourself pregnant and alone, these people will abandon you, the way your old “friends” abandoned you after your divorce. As though your problems are contagious. But don’t worry: They will pray for you. You will try several more times to attend church and find the same versions of different people. The same impenetrable God, the same white Jesus.
It will take more than twenty years to feel free. But you still imagine the cage. Guilt and shame seep into the desire. Prayer, even innocuous dinner table grace, triggers you. You still think, in the deepest recesses of your mind or heart, that maybe you’re just a sinner who has run so far from God she can’t see him anymore. “You can never outrun God’s love,” is a sermon hook you recall, more threatening than comforting.
Your faith is lost and uncertain now. The God-shaped void now shapeless; beliefs drowned. But one thing you have kept and hold to be true: The only way to defeat darkness is to expose it to the light.