I’m going to be honest here. The story I’m about to relate to you is the deepest part of me and one that while I personally have come to terms with it in my life, had long ago decided never to share because I didn’t want people to latch onto it as “my story.” In the Christian community, we put a lot of emphasis on uncovering our story, our testimony of the faith we have that lives on through unimaginable trials or the lessons God taught us in our darkest moments and they can become a huge part of our identities.
For me, I don’t want someone to look at me and see this experience. Because that’s exactly what I did for such a significant portion of my life and I have worse picture of myself because of it. For a long time, I allowed this one affecting experience to block my recognition of myself and my knowledge that my other experiences that form the power of my heart and perpetuate the wisdom I carry are also important parts of who I am that are worth sharing. I am a complete person with a barrage of powerful experiences and it is foolish of anyone to see me as something otherwise, whether it’s a victim or a survivor. I am neither. I am a girl that writes her own story with faith and love.
I have only decided to share this experience because I believe that it can provide a voice in an essential discussion that we are not having. The church’s narrative on sex is one of its strongest and a staple for trendy pastors with vast young audiences to throw into red-faced Sunday morning sermons with sassy, memorable lines for young conservatives to eat up and splash across their post-church Facebook posts for the rest of their small town community to consume. I have never witnessed a youth ministry program that didn’t include fervent speeches laced with biting analogies that, if one looks deeper, truly devalue those who have had sexual encounters.
– A piece of tape is affixed to a student’s arm, then removed, and repeated with several other students. This lesson is supposed to illustrate that, just like tape loses its ability to form a tight bond after coming into contact with multiple people, it’s hard to have an emotionally fulfilling relationship after having multiple sexual partners.
– “Drink the spit” is an exercise that requires students to pass around a cup and spit in it. Then, students are asked if they would choose to .drink that cup The idea is having multiple sexual partners, and subsequently exchanging bodily fluids with multiple people, is undesirable.
These are two examples of the type of analogies that so often find their way into today’s edgy youth sermons. My issue is not necessarily with the churches stance on premarital sexual experiences. No, the discussion I want to have is about the sexual culture the church creates that does heartbreaking damage to the people who need it most: victims of sexual abuse.
I grew up in a small town where church culture rules all. Teenagers are judged for their sexual encounters. If you were having sex, you kept it a secret and showed up to church on Sunday, smiled for your parents’ friends, and gave your family a better standing in the community for having teenagers who willingly went to church.
I did not grow up in a religious family and my family has always been very open about sex. My mom has always said, “If you want to have sex, just let me know so we can get you protection.” But despite my mom’s support, I was not immune to my classmates’ conservative views. All my friends were adamant about not having sex until marriage and everyone had this villainized view of sex. If you had a sexual encounter, you were less than those who had not. You were a person of questionable morals. You were shameful. And the churches, with all those clever metaphors they so love to pull out at every teen retreat, were the source of these beliefs.
When I was 15, I had my first boyfriend. He was a year older and quick to take advantage of my inexperience. He did some sexual things to me that I did not agree to. In fact, once he started, I couldn’t hold back the tears I was choking on my own sobs. But he didn’t stop. He did what he wanted until he had satisfied himself and then ignored me as I curled up into a ball and cried harder. I felt so damaged and confused. I felt guilty because I hadn’t said a clear, “No, stop.” But I hadn’t been able to because I had been crying so hard. Worst of all, I felt different. That boy had done things to me my friends had yet to do and I feared them for that.
I didn’t tell anyone because I was so ashamed. I didn’t think they would believe me. They would ask if I had told him to stop and I hadn’t so I thought I was to blame. Discussions about consent and what it means weren’t at the forefront of sexual education then. All we knew was that sex means you are damaged.
For the next two years, I couldn’t move on from what had happened. Every night I played it over in my head and cried myself to sleep with violently silent sobs. I kept a knife in my room and in the late hours when my mind was numb from berating myself, I would hold the knife and rub my fingers across the blade and think about cutting my face open. I didn’t know how to own what had happened to me and all I could think about was how to prevent it from ever happening again. I believed that there was something evil about me, something that had made that boy want to do that to me. All I could feel was how different from my friends and my community I was and that difference created a vast crater of loneliness inside my pummeled heart.
I was suppressed by shame and my personality was warped by distrust and a newfound determination to protect myself. I cut all my hair off. I acted tougher than I was. I didn’t get close to anyone. And, as I got older, I carried heavy in my heart the belief that no worthy boy would ever want me. I fortified myself for a life alone.
When I was a junior in college, I met a wonderful guy who, while flawed, treated me in a way that I had never expected to be treated by anyone. For months it was like floating on a cloud to think someone like him could see even a sliver of a desirable person in me. But his goodness was so often hampered by my own insecurity. I was both in awe and fearful of the kind of person he was. I thought if he knew what had happened to me, that I had been used and I was damaged, he wouldn’t want me. Why should he? He could do so much better.
He had his own insecurities to work out, but at the time I couldn’t understand that. All I could see was how unworthy I was and I thought his hesitations were because he realized this. Ultimately I decided to let that relationship fall to pieces in a painful way because I doubted I could ever work up the courage to tell him what I had gone through.
It’s been almost nine years. It’s still a horrible, painful wound on my heart but it doesn’t define me the way it used to. I have benefited a lot from moving abroad and living in a non-Christian society because it’s given me the chance to reconcile that the distrust and suspicion by the church of those with a sexual history is not in line with the love and grace of God.
I realize that no Christian would ever tell someone who suffered sexual abuse that they have committed a sin or that they are morally corrupt, but the church cannot send two messages. It is possible to take a stance on premarital sex without devaluing the people who have had sexual encounters, whether by choice or not.
The church should re-examine the sexual culture it is creating because it is a demeaning, fear-based one that alienates and damages people who should feel open share the most painful parts of them.
So, Christians, youth ministers, take your stance on premarital sex. But I hope you will think twice about using an analogy that devalues people who have had sexual encounters and I hope you will consider approaching an honest discourse in your youth ministries about how young Christians think of and react to sexual experiences, consensual or not. It’s very possible that you have at least one student who has a friend that could really use their love. Why not give them the wisdom to do so?
If you are interested in hearing another view on the subject, on of my favorite comedians, John Oliver, recently addressed the issue on his HBO show. Feel free to watch the whole episode or go to 12:37 for more on this specific topic.
Analogies courtesy of ThinkPress.org