I am writing this with great trepidation and after putting it off for several months, but now that I can actually say the word “sex” without diving under the couch, I think it’s time. You see, I grew up in what I would venture to say was an, essentially, “anti-sex” environment until I moved for graduate school in 2012. I was given the dreaded sex talk when I was in third grade, was raised in a very conservative Baptist family, and went to a very conservative Baptist university for my undergrad education. It was not until I began to live by myself and talk to people outside of that conservative circle that it slowly dawned on me how taboo the topic of sex had been in my life, and thus an important part of myself had been devoutly ignored.
Frankly, sex was terrifying to me. I mean who thought to put that there? Exchanging bodily fluids seemed gross and fraught with STD and HIV perils. People willingly have sex, which requires an enormous amount of vulnerability, and they don’t run background checks on people? What about men I’ve heard about who get in, get out, and leave you vulnerable and crushed? Cue the mini-panic attack…
No, I was not sexually abused, although I have a pervasive fear of being raped. But I did grow up in a church that once showed an anti-abortion video at the Sunday service. It was normal for me to attend “true love waits” retreats in middle school, and normal for girls to wear purity rings. Sex was basically not mentioned in my family, and masturbation was never ever discussed. I was taught, implicitly and explicitly, by my father that men only wanted one thing and I needed to be ready to defend myself in case any of them wanted to grab me. I was taught abstinence only in the sex ed classes while the teacher drew a picture of a condom with giant holes that STDs and sperm floated through to infect and impregnate our fertile teenage bodies. I had one friend in undergrad that I knew was living with her boyfriend (cohabitation—*gasp*) and it came out later that he had been sexually abusing her, so not much help there. When I went to the doctor and they asked me if I was sexually active, I was always baffled because why would I be sexually active if I’m not married? My mother was appalled when I decided to get the HPV vaccine during undergrad, and didn’t understand why I needed that if I wasn’t going to be sexually active. I was never given the direct, heartfelt message that a relationship with a man could be a beautiful, affirming, and loving aspect of my healthy life. Being the precocious super-anxious child that I was, I became terrified—of sex, conceptualizing myself as a sexual being, and everything involved with the topic. Throw in eight years of struggling with anorexia nervosa, and you have a 23-year-old virgin who is terrified of sex and her body. The purpose of this piece is not to argue that the beliefs I was instilled with are wrong, per se, but what I am saying is that everything pointed at avoiding sexuality instead of having a healthy respect and appreciation for it—within and outside a relationship.
Fast-forward to the past several months when I connected with a couple of friends that openly and respectfully discussed sex, and simultaneously rocked my little world. It was once casually dropped into a conversation and I promptly freaked the hell out. Which of course led to further discussions as to why exactly the topic of sex freaked me out to such an insane degree? Yes, a large part of it is with how I was raised, but there was also the separate, but equally enormous, hurdle of my abysmal body image. Then I came to, what was for me, a profound realization about the interplay of anorexia and sexuality. For me, anorexia is essentially the antithesis to sexuality in every way. Sexuality calls for nudity, closeness, intimacy, relationships, body awareness and love, and a deeper “knowing” of one’s self and others than can be gathered from conversations. Anorexia is cold, isolated, rife with self-hatred, unfeeling, and when it’s so severe it’s like the living dead—which you don’t realize until you’re in a better place. So the process of reintegrating the sexual self back into my overall identity requires a colossal level of self-acceptance that I was not willing to entertain until recently.
Part of the way that I become familiar, and thus not as alarmed, is that I read. I read blogs, websites, books in the self-help section (ordered prudently off of Amazon), scientific books, and I even cracked open one of the “Fifty Shades” books, but quickly discovered that BDSM is just not my cup o’ tea. I try to not overthink the whole process, since snapping back into uber-scientific mode was a coping mechanism that let me not truly feel anything. I talk to friends that I know will respect where I’m at in this whole process, but who also freely tell their own stories of sexuality. I own the fact that this is my body, and my body is equipped to feel an enormous range of senses and pleasure, and I deserve to know the full functionality of my body. Heck, apparently everyone is out there having passionate sex and I’ve been missing out! So yes, I’m still a 23-year-old virgin and that is okay. When I decide to have sex it will be on my time and not because of some ridiculous societal expectation. But I am not going to let my past’s ignorance and fear hold me back either, because I have a right to know and a right to act as I choose. Perspective is always good, and mine is remodeling and expanding. Stay sexy, darlings.
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Photo credit to Nico Nordstrom
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Such a beautiful and brave post, much like the writer! ;) Thanks so much for sharing your story and my link. The more we talk openly about sexuality, the less scary and taboo it’ll seem.
Thanks August! :*
Thanks for bravely sharing your very personal story!
I just wanted to touch on your perspective about growing in a Christian environment. More specifically, I wanted to offer another perspective on attitudes about sex in Christian culture. I grew up Christian, and attended a Christian university for undergrad (the same one you did, in fact). In my experience, healthy, open discussions about sex and human sexuality definitely took place in classrooms, in social settings, and informal conversations.
Yes, in certain circles, sex and human sexuality are villified. But that’s not the case across the board. This isn’t an argument for or against Christian teaching on sex or sexual morality. I’m simply offering up my experience, as someone who grew up in a Christian environment and attended a Christian university, that discussions and attitudes concerning sex and human sexuality can and are positive, affirming, and healthy.
I do appreciate your willingness to engage in open dialogue about this issue. Talking openly about sexuality is such an important part of developing healthy attitudes towards sex and human sexuality.
Thank you so much for your perspective! I am so glad that you had a better experience with the interplay of sex and christianity, and i definitely think it is possible. Unfortunately that wasn’t the one I had, but I completely agree that it’s possible. I think a lot of it had to with my family system too. If your family was more open with it all then I think that makes a huge difference.
Anywho, thanks for commenting and wishing you all the best! :)
Thank you so, so much for this. As someone who has both struggled with an eating disorder and grown up in a community fairly conservative when it comes to sex, I understand your struggle. Regardless of religious or political views, we need to be teaching women how to be more in touch with their own bodies.
I’m always glad when I write something that people connect to, so thank you for reminding me why I keep pegging away at this whole writing thing! Being in touch with your own body is highly underrated in this body-focused society we’re in – how ironic.
Thank you so much for sharing this. It was honest and heartfelt. Also, don’t let Fifty Shades be you’re only reading about about BDSM – there’s a lot of safety, love, and trust in that kind of kink that isn’t apparent or acknowledged in that book.
Yeaaaa that book is essentially abuse under the guise of BDSM. It makes for hilarious reading if you’re reading out loud to a group of friends. But that’s about all it’s good for.
It’s also interesting that this article is circulating again because I feel like I’ve come a long ways since I wrote this in January! In a good way :)