I received a special ring somewhere around my 16th birthday.
The ring was a purity ring.
I know what you’re thinking…
…”why does that whore have a purity ring?"
And I would say unto you, “That’s a fair question.”
I mean, why, exactly, would someone like me who writes a blog that includes vibrator reviews, a running commentary on how the state of my downstairs grooming often correlates closely with how badly or not badly I would like to meet a man, or musings all the dirty things I'll be doing to my next cat-caller have a purity ring?
As the daughter of a Baptist minister, there were certain expectations of young women in the culture I grew up in, one of which was to make sure that we arrived to our wedding days as “pure" as possible.
(Side note: there is nothing pure about two horny Christian youths rabidly dry humping in the front seat of a rusty old Ford pickup in the name of saving themselves for marriage.)
So, my parents, like many parents in conservative Christian circles, gave me a purity ring as a way of leaving a physical reminder of the promise I gave to some Old Bearded White Dude in the Sky about that whole walking down the aisle a virgin thing…
…a promise I gave on the tail end of the only two times my mother ever had a sex talk with me.
The first talk was actually in the form of a book by noted homophobe and “men and women are created equal, except you with the vagina: get back in the kitchen” proponent, James Dobson.
The second talk went something along the lines of, “There are some times that all you’ll want to do is cuddle, and he will definitely want more.”
My father—bless his heart—took the purity of his daughters very seriously. Any gangly, awkward young man who wanted to date us had to first ask my father’s permission. At which point, my father would do something far more frightening than polish his gun collection (yes, he has one. 'MERICA).
No, instead, he’d say, “Son, of course you may take my daughter to Wendy's to offer her two value menu items of her choice. I entrust her to your care. But Son, I’d like to walk my daughter down the aisle a virgin. I’d like to know right now how you’re going to help me with that.”
Needless to say, I didn’t have many dates in high school.
In some ways, you might say that the ring worked exceptionally well. I did walk down the aisle a virgin on my wedding day. And, like, I was a FOR REAL virgin. I think maybe my boob had been grazed once by an over-zealous 15 year old, and that was it. I was pretty experienced in enthusiastic French kissing, but that was about it.
Not to worry, though. The anxiety and awkwardness of that first night with—you got it—another virgin, is now firmly ensconced in my past…as is my divorce.
In the meantime, I’ve done my best to make up for lost time, as it were. I’ve educated myself both in theory and practice. I’ve been to a shit-ton (that’s a Canadian measurement) of therapy. I’ve read books like “Intimacy and Desire,” “Blow Him Away,” and everyone’s favorite sexual tome, “Oops, I Didn’t Know That Would Be Sticky.”
So why—if I’m an open, enlightened woman who sometimes writes about her vagina on the Internet—why, when I found this old ring the other day, did I grow a little misty-eyed?
Because as protected, and yes, happy in some ways, as my upbringing was, there is something fundamentally flawed about viewing your purity as a gift to be saved and guarded, then ultimately given away to someone else.
And because, like any gift or thing that you give away into someone else’s possession, there is not only the danger that you’ll begin to believe that your gift was never yours to begin with, but that this precious thing in the hands of someone else can just as easily be used and abused and broken as it can be cherished and loved and preserved.
As I went through 2012's Summer of Tears (as I am now lovingly calling it), I remember a moment in my therapy when I realized I truly did not believe that my body belonged to me. I mean, sure, I knew I could say yes or no to sex, but at the same time, I only believed that to be true in "extreme" situations--like meeting a dude at the bar, or being accosted on the street--and not necessarily within the confines of a relationship.
Which, as you may guess, is extremely problematic.
The problem with purity is that it suggests that there is a before and after, right and wrong, or even a point in time where "pure" as an individual passes into "pure" or "right" as a couple. Anything outside those confines is dirty, wrong or out of scope with God's plan.
(Yeah, no pressure there. Just some omnipotent being with a history of wiping out entire cities has a plan for you that you better not screw up. You got this!)
Another problem with purity, especially in the circles I grew up in, is that it falls squarely on the shoulders of young women to maintain the standard of purity.
We were taught that we had to guard ourselves from the insatiable, uncontrollable desires of men (what's up, first few steps of victim-blaming! After all, should something happen, it was probably your fault. Actually, it was your sexy, sexy knees or lack of turtle-neck's fault).
Purity also suggests that eventually, one day, a young woman would be owned and mastered by her husband. This principle, in particular, was blatantly taught (not merely suggested) in many sermons, meetings and other social situations within the church culture. And no amount of quoting a little Paul in there about how we're, like, all equal now in the blood of Christ could really change that "submission" really meant "do what I say when I say to do it."
I'm not saying that it's a terrible thing to wait to have sex until you're married. Lots of people do this sort of thing, and in some ways, I get it. There are plenty of reasons to value love, connection and sex, and to want that first time to have meaning and to be special. Cool. Do it up. Rose petals and champagne and whatnot.
(I'm also not saying that Christian marriages are unhappy marriages (though the divorce rate is exactly the same as non-Christian couples). My sister and brother-in-law have been married for twenty years, my parents for forty-one, my grandparents for sixty-six. My grandparents are easily the cutest and most loving people I've ever seen. Each couple takes the time needed to make their relationships work..but they all have very defined roles within their relationships, and then men always, always have the last word.)
What I'm saying is that if there is no value attached to sex outside of this model, no value to your body or person beyond the confines of a piece of legality, you'll likely get some fucked up ideas about your own intrinsic value.
Sometimes I look at that ring and see it as simply a pretty piece of jewelry. And still other times I look at it, put it on, and immediately feel the weight of it.
And then I mourn for that scared little girl who grew up thinking that her one purpose in life was to protect something that never belonged to her in the first place.
I am still trying to articulate parts of my upbringing that fall into the category of "fucked up." Sometimes when I think I've really worked through something (e.g. do I actually believe in God or not) something else will come up (e.g. do I have control over my own body).
I'm not angry anymore. And honestly, I don't really blame anyone for it. The people I grew up with are well-intentioned, loving people. But they are also products of a culture that is by nature controlling and patriarchal, homophobic, and elitist.
Call it what you will...perhaps it's just a misinterpretation of Scripture and the "real" Christians are completely different than the picture I've painted here. (Case in point, a recent survey shows that the new generation of evangelicals are more open-minded).
I can't even blame Christianity as a whole, really. I understand the need to connect with a community that finds meaning in believing in a higher power. And it's not as if there are not other cultures in the US that teach the same kind of harmful things.
This anecdote is simply my experience, and one that I have had both the privilege and misfortune to experience. When I look at that ring, I'm learning to see it as a reminder of who I was, and the person I'm trying to become.
I want to get to the point where I can wear it and it can simply be a piece of jewelry again, and if someone asks about it, I can say, "Oh, this old thing? It was a gift."
Maybe one day.