Silence, Shame, Guilt, and Fear: The Lasting Effects of Christian Education

Molly Wilcox
Oct 31, 2018 · 30 min read

By: Molly Wilcox

Introduction

As a child, I grew up going to church on the weekends and going to a Christian private school during the week. My nuclear family and extended family were openly religious and we talked about God, Jesus, and church all throughout our daily lives. It shaped who I am today and it most definitely shaped my views around sexuality. I spent a lot of time spent at youth group, chapels, and church services and I felt compelled get a purity ring to symbolize my commitment to be a virgin until marriage. I believed I needed to stay “pure” and a “virgin” in order to be a “good Christian,” and a good daughter, to make my parents happy and proud of me. “Purity culture” is “a movement that uses biblical principles to encourage men and women to stay virgins before marriage” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/07/27/as-a-young-evangelical-i-believed-a-bestselling-book-that-warned-me-to-stay-pure-until-marriage-i-still-have-a-stain-on-my-heart/?utm_term=.5e7b1a77d592). Its ideology permeated much of my upbringing. I stuck to this ideal all the way into my 20’s until I finally decided to make my own decisions based on what I wanted, not what my pastors, parents, or friends wanted. This shaped the way I viewed sex and relationships, associating sex and sexuality with shame, sin, harm, and mistake.

Over the course of a eight months, I decided to interview other students who went to my high school. To my surprise, eighty-five alumni were willing to let me interview them. Of those eight-five responses, seventy-one of them were female and fourteen were male. I was shocked and honored to learn about the intimate details my high school acquaintances shared with me. Individuals described their experiences of coming out, suicidal thoughts, sexual assault, homophobia, judgment, abortion, sexism, mental health issues, pregnancy, silence, shame, guilt, and fear.

Virginity, Sexuality, and Purity Culture

One of the topics that always seemed to be ignored at my high school was sexuality and individuals having sexual desires, needs, and wants. This type of thinking stems from purity culture, as Liz Lenz writes which, “uses fear to mask our bodies and needs” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/07/27/as-a-young-evangelical-i-believed-a-bestselling-book-that-warned-me-to-stay-pure-until-marriage-i-still-have-a-stain-on-my-heart/?utm_term=.5e7b1a77d592). There was a lot of shame and fear instilled into the girls who attended the high school.

One woman bravely shared her story:

All throughout high school, I was in a committed relationship. We never once had sexual relations and I know that was mostly because of the fear of repercussions (judgment from God and other people). My sexual experience is unique because the first time I was introduced to sex, I was raped…I don’t talk about it because it doesn’t define me; I’m just stronger from it. It sounds terrible but sometimes, it seems like it happened for a reason. I feel that it was almost like the Band-Aid was ripped off. I had so much built up anxiety from the thought of having sex before marriage, but always dealt with the temptations…so I felt this relief almost. I felt that I didn’t have to run from it anymore because the worst thing had already happened to me and I could make my own decisions based on what I wanted and not what my high school teachers or my parents wanted. ‘My body, my rules’ sort of a thing.

Due to the shame and fear she experienced around virginity, she felt almost relief that she had gone through sexual assault and “gotten it over with”.

There was such an intense pressure to “remain a virgin until marriage.” Many felt tremendous guilt around having sex for the first time. One woman told her story of the shame and guilt she felt around “losing” her virginity:

When I lost my virginity to the boy I was dating during the summer after my sophomore year of high school, I felt so incredibly guilty. The night after I lost my virginity I was at my friend’s 16th birthday party. I remember sitting on her toilet looking at the bits of blood on my underwear, and I just bawled in her bathroom for a good while. I was now completely committed to the boy I was dating, and I planned on marrying him because I thought it was what I had to do since I had sex with him. Suffice it to say, after he broke up with me I went into a deep depression. I began cutting myself, and this depression turned into suicidal thoughts. Thankfully I never acted on them, but I do believe that if it hadn’t been pounded into my head that sex before marriage was a terrible sin, then I may not have self-harmed and been that incredibly depressed.

This theme is common amongst those who were immersed in the purity culture. Due the pressure that sex has to be in the confines of marriage, many who did not follow this rule felt “trapped” in that relationship (https://aleteia.org/2014/05/23/10-good-reasons-to-save-sex-until-marriage/). They often feel as though they could not escape an unhealthy or unhappy relationship because they have been taught that sex creates an “unbreakable and emotional bond” (https://aleteia.org/2014/05/23/10-good-reasons-to-save-sex-until-marriage/). Another woman expressed the way she felt after having sex for the first time:

I grew up going to church and spent eighteen years of my life being told sex was for marriage and should only be between a husband and wife, any other form of sex was a sin. So when I first had sex at sixteen, I was so ashamed of myself and felt that I had committed a huge sin, and I have struggled with that for a long time. I was so ashamed of myself and too afraid to ask for help or to even tell anyone what I had done. I am no longer with that guy and I so wish I could take that moment back, but not because of the ‘sin’ I committed, because he was an awful person. I had no idea what I was getting myself into; no idea how to use contraception or how to ask for it, no idea about the idea of self love and body positivity when it comes to a relationship, no idea the emotional toll it would take on me, and really no idea that I was allowed to say no.

The trend of an overwhelming sense of “guilt”, “shame”, and “embarrassment” continued:

Even years out of high school, a very close friend of mine had sex, and I will never forget the amount of guilt she suffered when she told her best friend (who was religious but failed to do what Christ calls us to do which is LOVE WITHOUT JUDGEMENT). My friend who had sex was absolutely devastated, and I watched her wither under the belief that her ex-boyfriend had somehow taken away her worthiness to ever be loved again.

This type of toxic thinking comes from the ideology of “purity culture” that suggests that “receiving love breaks you instead of builds you” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/07/27/as-a-youngevangelical-i-believed-a-bestselling-book-that-warned-me-to-stay-pure-until-marriage-i- still-have-a-stain-on-my-heart/?utm_term=.5e7b1a77d592). Purity culture says that people should feel shame for having sex outside of marriage. This is considered a sin of “adultery”. Shame and guilt were considered “normal” and “appropriate” reactions to committing such a sin as having sex outside of marriage.

One woman disclosed how being a “virgin” was a large part of her identity:

The teachings definitely became my identity. Along with being an athlete, a musician, and everything else, I was a virgin. This identity was something that became a part of me, and I felt I couldn’t part with it because I would lose a part of myself and disappoint other people. Because of the fear, feelings of inadequacy that would come, and refusal of wanting to be seen as the ever famous ‘girls who aren’t virgins are like a half eaten apple or already chewed piece of bubblegum’ analogy. I waited until I met my husband. Knowing myself, I know I was never the type of person who would have slept around anyways, but there was definitely fear holding me back.

Within the confines of purity culture a lot was expected of young women. They were supposed to be “modest” and do everything in their power not to “lead their Christian brothers astray”. One girl recounted:

My freshman year, I was pulled out of class to talk with a counselor with my boyfriend at the time because he had been masturbating. I found it ridiculous that this very normal ‘issue’ caused me to miss out on my educational opportunities. Later, I was told it was my fault for his masturbation. Since we kissed and nothing more, I made him so curious about everything that he would have to take care of it. I was told I was a ‘temptress’ and that I need to stop forcing him to do things. Which was not the case at all. After that situation, I wanted nothing to do with him sexually and felt so ashamed.

Another respondent shared a similar story:

Any type of touching, even hugging or hand holding was looked down upon and created a very strict and rigid environment. One of my friends once got in trouble for her boyfriend kissing her on the forehead between classes. Even though he was the one to kiss her, SHE was ridiculed and told she should be setting a better example for the younger girls.

Woman after woman had the same kind of story, “I was a sophomore and my boyfriend of the time was having a bad day so I gave him a quick hug as I would for any of my other friends. Instead of being acknowledged for trying to make someone feel better, I was scolded by a teacher because ‘my hug could lead to unacceptable actions’. However, the unacceptable actions weren’t defined nor explained as choices but as black or white right or wrong”.

Another female student shared, “I remember a teacher telling my mother they saw me hugging my boyfriend in the hallway, as if hugging a boy was extremely inappropriate and my mother needed to be aware of that”.

Purity culture continues to have an impact on students later on in their adult lives. One woman explained her shame and guilt around sex, even though she waited until marriage, “I learned that sex was to be abstained from and that I would be less of a person if I gave that to anyone but my husband. It was burned in my head that no good man would want me if I were anything less than a virgin. I identified with my purity, and once I lost it, even though it was to my husband, I felt guilt and shame surrounded by the decision to give it away. Something that has not gone away and something I’m still trying to work through today as a happily married individual”.

Sex Education: Fear Tactics

The educational institution’s fear tactics were shown through their sexual education, or lack thereof. They practiced what Gayle Rubin has called “sex negativity” and preached that sex is harmful, particularly to the teenagers, and therefore children must be kept in the dark about sexual experience and knowledge (Rubin, pg. 4). In the United States and most Western cultures, sex is seen as a “dangerous, destructive, and negative force” and must be treated with “suspicion” (Rubin, pg. 11). In Christian teaching and tradition, this idea is amplified even further by preaching that sex is “inherently sinful” (Rubin, pg. 11). A student recalled what they were taught:

I remember it was very much so about scaring us by talking about STD’s. They also split us into a group of girls and a group of boys to separately watch a video that covered puberty and how our bodies were developing. In 9th grade they continued the talk of STD’s and how celibacy was the way to avoid contracting STD’s. They focused their time on pushing celibacy as the only path and didn’t spend time teaching us how to practice safe sex.

A student described the extreme lack of sexual education that occurred, “I wouldn’t even call it sex education. The only thing they teach is abstinence. I am fine if they want to promote abstinence, but it won’t prevent kids from having sex. There was no information on how to have safe sex. Instead we were told if you have premarital sex your future life partner would never love you fully”.

One woman explained how she felt she was being punished for having sex outside of marriage:

I let the guy I lost my virginity to not get tested before we had sex even though I brought it up to him and he promised me that he was clean. I went to my yearly and a few days later I was told one of the most devastating things I could hear: that I had chlamydia. My world shattered. I became a statistic. Then I was told it was my fault by him. The virgin who had sex with one guy. Yet people go around and have sex with multiple people unprotected and it never happens to them. I felt as I was being punished. Punished for having sex before marriage.

This kind of teaching links sinfulness with disease. This suggests that STD’s are a punishment from God for sinning by having sex out of marriage. The high school never taught how to avoid STD’s or STI’s other than to preach “abstinence only” kind of tactics to avoid them.

A female student critiqued their sexual education, saying: “In all the moments sex was presented to me, I was never taught how far was too far or what was considered sex. I feel like that grey area led to more heartbreak in the end when it came to dating and left me more confused”.

A woman attributed some of her reproductive health problems to the lack of sexual education she received:

Regardless of what the school viewed on abstinence, I never learned about things that like endometriosis, ovarian cysts, PCOS, fibroids, and a laundry list of other conditions that could go wrong with my reproductive system outside of my sexuality. I never learned about breast exams, what’s normal and irregular in the female menstrual cycle, warning signs, or even about when we should start seeing a Gynecologist. I was so terrified about going to the OBGYN because of lack of education that I dealt with periods that were extremely alarming and irregular for 13 years and didn’t get my first PAP smear or pelvic exam until the age of 24. At 24, I have underlying gynecological problems that I never knew existed, have had to have surgeries because it went unaddressed for so long, and a list of things relating to my female health that could have been helped years ago. A lot of this I blame on being taught, ‘periods just suck’ and nothing else. Now I’m married, considering children, I’ve had a doctor advise me to freeze my eggs, and I have so many issues that I don’t know if kids will ever be a reality. I don’t fully blame the education for this, but I do blame it for not arming me with the knowledge to know when something was abnormal. There were plenty of people in high school who either didn’t wait until marriage, or got married at a young age, and it’s a huge disservice that we were not taught anything about birth control options, how to use condoms, or even ovulation.

Another told a story about an example the school used during their sexual education teachings, “We did a simulation and there were three ‘couples’: one waited to have sex until they were married and two who didn’t wait. The couple that waited to have sex ended up creating a beautiful family and living happily ever after (yeah right). The next couple, who didn’t wait, had a child as well, but the father left them leaving the mother unable to support her and the child. The child was taken away from her. The next couple got pregnant and had an abortion. This abortion caused the man to go off and cheat on his partner and eventually they separated. It was crazy to be taught that your only option to have a family is if you wait to have sex”.

One female student explained, “… the teachers instilled fear in us rather than actual education about sex. I was clueless…I felt like teachers were afraid to talk about life things with us and because of this they put us at risk for many situations that we had to deal with on our own with zero knowledge”.

James Dobson, an author of the Preparing for Adolescence book that was used at the high school, claims that, “sex outside of marriage was an early indication that this partnership was unsound” (Moslener, pg. 94). There was never any outlet for the young women to discuss boundaries and expectations in their romantic relationships (Moslener, pg. 94). It really hurt individuals in the long run; not to be able to talk about their newfound sexuality and sexual desires. It lead to more heartbreaks, problems, and issues in their future relationships later on in life.

Another participant described the sexual education she received:

Sex Ed took place in sixth grade… if you could even call it Sex Ed. It was more or less like this: the boys and the girls got separated into different classrooms. The girls were taught about our periods and what to expect. While the boys were taught about their penises, wet dreams, erections and what to expect. Their education was more centered on sex. The girls were kept in the dark about sex. I just remember being left wondering what the heck this menstruation thing was and then hearing the boys talk about their ‘sex talk’. We were never taught about safe sex, it was simply just ‘don’t have sex’. We were never taught about birth control, STD protection, condom use, none of that, because the Christian ideology was simple- the Bible says no sex before marriage, so we’re not even going to talk about sex.

James Dobson stated, “sexual sophistication without sexual responsibility is a sexual disaster” (Moslener, pg.101). In saying this, Dobson means young people can learn about sex but it must be a values-based approach: it must enforce remaining “pure” until marriage (Moslener, pg. 101). Sex was said to be pleasurable and enjoyable but if and only if one was married first (Burke, pg. 6). Another female student spoke of this 6th grade “Sex Ed” experience:

When we were having our so-called ‘sex education’ situation in 6th grade, during our Q&A we were allowed to anonymously ask questions. My parents got pregnant before they were married and according to the Bible and what they were shoving down our throats, that was a sin. I decided to ask, ‘If my parents got pregnant before they were married, but were married when they had me, is this still a sin?’ And answer was a resounding ‘yes’. This shut me down. As a 6th grader, around 11 or 12 years old, I took that as, ‘you’re a sin’. I’ll never forget the look on the lady’s face when she read off that question and answered it.

When I asked a male student about the sexual education he received he said it focused on:

How the reproductive system worked. It didn’t appear to me that a thorough education concerning sex was a priority to the higher ups at my high school. We watched a school-vetted movie; they separated the guys from the girls and showed us different videos. Nothing about the video was incredibly helpful. We also weren’t told how to have safe sex. No information about contraceptives was extended. I personally consider this absolutely egregious. When the subject of sex is broached in a conversation with budding adolescents, contraception should be mentioned in the same breath. This seems obvious in retrospect.

One of the female students alluded to the lack of “sex ed” that took place:

I really feel like the education that I received was wonderful except for the health and sex portion. For a school that teaches abstinence, I think it’s still important to talk about birth control, how to use protection, and reproductive functions and abnormalities. Even if they want to teach kids to wait, it’s still important to show them these things, because someday they’ll get married and need to have the knowledge to protect themselves without surprises. I got married a while ago, and my husband had to show me things like how to use a condom and he had to point out things about MY reproductive system that I didn’t know were abnormal. If my husband also hadn’t been well educated on any of this, we would have been in a very different spot than we are now. There is a very thin line within the purity culture, and pushing too far towards abstinence can have detrimental effects that last well into a marriage.

One woman felt her sexual assault could have been avoided if students received a better sexual education. She stated:

I was sexually assaulted during my time there by another student. I never reported the incident due to something similar that had happened a couple years prior. I think some contributing factors that caused this to me is NOT what I was wearing, what I had to drink, or if we had previous relations. No, I think the main attributing factor was that this student did not have the proper sex education. He was not taught the rights or wrongs of sexual relations and thus pursued the wrong. I am not blaming myself, the school, or even him, about what happened to me. But I do I think if there was a proper sexual education put in place that covered things like; it is okay to have sex out of marriage, birth control, and consent were taught, that situations like mine would decrease.

This student felt like her sexual assault could have been avoided if the students at the high school had received a proper Sex Education. It is vitally important to teach young people who are just coming into their own sense of sexuality about consent, contraceptives, safe sex, and how to communication with your partner about your wants and needs. If students had an open and honest space to discuss sexuality and ask questions, maybe then incidents like the previous student’s wouldn’t occur as often.

Furthermore, the school would have guest speakers or chapel speakers give assemblies or chapels on sex, virginity, and purity. For example, one student recalled:

I remember the presentation being about a woman who had sex outside of marriage became pregnant, had an abortion, and the talk that day was her talking about how it was the worst decision she had ever made and how she still thinks about her child that she killed. A lot of fear was instilled in us…and I know people had abortions in our grade so I know that must of really hurt their hearts too…Limiting people’s views…we never really spoke about the other side of things.

Another student said, “We had our handful of chapel days with speakers talking about abstinence. You do grow to believe that no one has sex before marriage. This one speaker told us about saving her first kiss for marriage and I was an 8th grader and I felt like a slut knowing I’ve done more than a kiss. I walked out of those chapel events feeling horrible about myself”.

In Christianity, women are taught that sex is a way to gain power and respect in relationships and from men (Moslener, pg. 104). Therefore, when women do not have their sexual purity, they lose their upper-hand in marriages and relationships (Moslener, pg. 104).

Gender Roles & Sexism

Another problem I came across in my research was the apparent adherence to strict gender roles that were outright sexist. Gender is a social construct but in Christianity it is also relationally and spiritually constructed and structured (Burke, pg. 3). One female student explained, “I never knew why I was not able to run with the guys at practice, or why guys always asked girls to dances, why some of the teachers at the school made me feel bad for being a girl, all the uniform violations (short skirts)… ‘You throw like a girl’, ‘you can’t do that’, ‘Oh, can I have some guys come and lift those heavy boxes for you?’…The list goes on and on…I was aware of these things but never knew how to fully discuss them with others because I was scared to bring these things up”.

One woman shared her internal struggle, “In terms of gender roles, my education did thwart what I thought about them for a long time. I used to have very traditional values — where the man was to provide, and the woman was to submit — until late high school and college, when I met my husband. I learned through him that our role was a team and that there needed to be balance. I learned that it was okay for me to want to spend my time at work and not at home with kids, cooking and cleaning the house. He helped me to realize that I didn’t have to feel guilty about wanting to stray from those traditional values and that it takes two to have a successful family”.

Several instances of sexism in many different forms were exhibited at the school. One woman said, “We were belittled and were seen as objects for a lot of men…but we were the problems, a short skirt, a low cut shirt…these were our own fault and could lead to bad behaviors from men”. Another female student stated, “…it was abstinence only and girls were the ones who had to be careful not to entice boys to sin”. A female student remembered one incident of outright sexism that occurred with one her male teachers:

There was an instance where I was standing in line behind a science teacher at school waiting for lunch. The teacher turned and asked me my plans for college. I told him I had plans to attend a private Christian university and major in science and biology. I remember that teacher telling me, ‘Science is very hard for girls and even harder to get accepted into the program’. This interaction is something that has stuck with me since and is something that I will NEVER forget.

Furthermore, the institution seemed to suggest the sexist idea that sex was only pleasurable and enjoyable for men. A student said, “I thought sex was more about pleasing your husband and doing it for him. The wife is usually tired and not interested…the man is always the one who pushes for sex”. The school assumed that men were sexual beings by nature while the mere suggestion that a woman might enjoy sex was shunned. This theme that sex is for the pleasure of men and men alone is echoed in Liz Lenz’s article, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/07/27/as-a-young-evangelical-i-believed-a-bestselling-book-that-warned-me-to-stay-pure-until-marriage-i-still-have-a-stain-on-my-heart/?utm_term=.5e7b1a77d592). Lenz states, “Purity culture also taught me that more than my mind and my talents, my body was my greatest gift…recently, while telling a friend from church about a disagreement with my husband, she suggested having more sex. She showed me a handout from her pastor on making a happy home. The number one suggestion: ‘being available to your husband’s needs’. As if what was between my legs was the problem and not the very center of my heart” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/07/27/as-a-young-evangelical-i-believed-a-bestselling-book-that-warned-me-to-stay-pure-until-marriage-i-still-have-a-stain-on-my-heart/?utm_term=.5e7b1a77d592). This kind of thinking can be harmful and damaging to a woman’s sense of self-worth. Young women that are immersed in this purity culture might begin to think that all that matters is their body, how skinny they are, how beautiful they are, and how physically appealing they are to men. This puts an inordinate amount of pressure and stress on women to have their bodies and features look a certain way instead of focusing on their passions, aspirations, learning, and career goals.

Gender role adherence and sexism was shown through the dress code. Many of the men I interviewed discussed how they were not allowed to have long hair. One said, “…I grew my hair too long according to the school dress code”. Another stated, “When it came to hair length, girls did not have anything to worry about. But the males did, I was one of the male students who was called out for having a hair length that went past my shoulders”. In Christian tradition there is the idea that, “God put greater toughness and aggressiveness in the man and more softness and nurturance in the woman” (Moslener, pg. 96). This notion suggests the idea that men should not have long hair because if they did they would be “too feminine” and “too womanly”. Having this strict rule of hair length for men, the idea is conveyed is that women are devalued and seen as “less than” men.

Another recollected, “Many of the lessons taught to us were concerned with young girls keeping pure and if you didn’t stay pure it was the girl’s fault”. Another male student said, “While girls were permitted to wear pants at our school, hardly any of them did and there seemed to be an implicit expectation placed upon them to be both demure and as pretty-looking as possible”. The dress code set in place for the young girls to wear skirts enforces the idea that woman should be feminine, beautiful, and attractive at all times. While men should be rugged, strong, and masculine. One woman felt singled out due to the dress code:

On the rare day that we were able to wear non-uniform clothing, I usually dressed comfy, in sweats or in leggings and a hoodie. One day I came to school wearing leggings and a crewneck with some boots. I was in first period when my Vice Principal called me down to the office. When I arrived, he condescendingly told me my outfit was inappropriate. I began protesting but he cut me off, insisting that I turn around so he could see if my butt was covered. He told me it wasn’t and that I needed to either go home and change or put on a nasty, unwashed skirt from the office’s used stockpile. Because I lived about twenty-five minutes from my high school, it would have taken an hour out of my school day to go change, suggesting to me that my clothing was more important than my education. I begrudgingly took the skirt and returned to class. I took it off around 4th period and spent the rest of the day in the outfit I had planned, and not a single teacher said anything. Now, one problem here is the lack of equality in enforcing dress code rules. In my opinion, girls with more filled out bodies were picked on purposely. Other girls and I were targeted because of our womanly frames that our administrators sexualized far too early. This instance enraged me and I angrily tweeted about it as an angsty teen does. I was immediately met with backlash from some ‘popular’ kids in my grade, complaining that I was ‘making everything about feminism’. I attempted to defend myself through the social media platform, talking about how I felt discriminated against because I was a woman and because of my body’s unnecessary sexualization. They took me as a joke and began to resort to their old methods of humiliation: body shaming and mansplaining. They made sure that I looked a fool and continued to harass me at school about the issue. One or two weeks later it was spiritual emphasis week, in which every grade was assigned a clothing color for the week. Our class was black and a boy in my grade showed up wearing black booty shorts and a cropped camisole that barely covered his nipples. This particular guy had a history of tormenting me and this outfit was clearly trying to make me angry. The only thing a teacher said to this boy was to put on a sweater to conceal his nipples. His butt surely was not covered, but did he get asked to go home to change? No. Because he was a man, his clothing didn’t matter in the school setting, but because I was a woman, the administration could not risk my body being a distraction to the juvenile imbeciles that inhabited my high school.

James Dobson believes, “The increased sexual and professional freedom advocated by the women’s movement threatened to confuse these roles, leaving men uncertain about their gender identity. As a movement intent on usurping male privilege and freeing women from the cultural mandates of marriage and motherhood, feminism threatened the gendered order that Dobson believed was biblically mandated” (Moslener, pg. 97). This type of ideology was reflected in the behavior of those men who criticized the woman in the aforementioned quote for being open about being a feminist and wanting to be treated equally. They were threatened that she was changing the “biblically mandated” order of things.

Homophobia & Non-Acceptance

Unsurprisingly, although unfortunate, there appeared to be many occurrences of homophobia and non-acceptance of those who identified as LGBTQ+. Most Christian-based religions and churches share the belief that, “God created sex to be enjoyed (only) within heterosexual marriages” (Burke, pg. 10). Sex is not to be had and much less enjoyed in homosexual relationships (Burke, pg. 10). One girl recalled, “I remember the school’s superintendent giving a chapel talk about homosexuality based around the new TV show airing at the time, ‘The New Normal’. He ranted on and on about how homosexuality shouldn’t be ‘the new normal’ and how this TV show was an example of how our society is going to hell and how much we would be tempted once we graduated”. Many students struggled with their own sexuality saying things like, “I thought I would be instantly damned to hell”, “I was still repressing my sexuality and tried to over compensate by getting boys to like me”, and “It was just ingrained in me that homosexuality was a sin”.

A student explained the attitude around homosexuality, “Homosexual relations were completely ignored, unless they were brought up to use as example for unacceptable sexual relations. I personally don’t remember there ever being a single student who was out and open about their true sexual preference other than those proclaiming to be heterosexual. I feel like there could have been a lot of people who may have needed to be educated about homosexuality who never received it because it was outside the moral bounds of the school to educate us about it”.

In regards to transgender individuals, a woman discussed how poorly they were treated, “The last thing I’ve noticed at my school is the disrespect for transgender people. There is a trans guy at our school and he is forced to use the women’s restroom. I have personally spoken to him and he says he avoids going to the bathroom at school at all costs because of this. Teachers still call him by his deadname. Even though they can call a student a nickname, (example: Andrew but called Andy, etc.) they won’t properly address a trans person with their correct name and pronouns”.

A woman shared the tremendous shame and guilt she felt around her sexuality:

It has taken almost 10 years of intense therapy for me to not feel guilty for loving someone of the same sex…it was ingrained in my brain at a young age that being gay was not only, wrong and sinful, but that gay people or anyone in the LGBTQ+ community had something wrong with them. I remember the deep depression I fell into after kissing a girl for the first time because I was afraid I was going to hell and that my family wouldn’t love me anymore and that God didn’t love me. I remember feeling disgusting and terrified, I had a feeling that I had somehow missed some class in school that could have prevented me from liking the same sex. It was one of the darkest points in my life, and because of my educational experience and indoctrination literally starting before my earliest formative memories were made, I had to go through a very hard and rough path to learn to love myself. I was so afraid of being gay that I literally threw myself the opposite direction because, and my diary literally quotes, ‘at this point I’d rather be a slut and be straight if that’s what it takes to not feel this way about her anymore’

A male student felt the school was judgmental:

Being gay or a lesbian was not tolerated. I remember a student that came out as gay was asked to leave the school for multiple weeks and came back and said he wasn’t gay. To me it was a very hypocritical scenario. One minute we were being taught to love everyone, but then if they did something that was a sin, they would be an outcast/ removed from the school. So for me personally, I struggled with that mentality of the school board, which then did make me want to get out of the school faster, especially my senior year. To me the quote, ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’, played a big role.

The “love the sinner, hate the sin” concept is a homonegative view (Moon, pg. 1218). Although this ideology does not “condemn gay and lesbians as individuals” it does still believe that same-sex acts are inherently sinful (Moon, pg. 1220). This thinking is harmful because by believing homosexuality is a sin, that is saying homosexuality is a choice one makes (Moon, pg. 1220). Although this view doesn’t see homosexuality as any more sinful than any other sin, this thinking is can be damaging and harmful to members of the LGBTQ+ community who participate in church (Moon, pg. 1223). One female student who was a closeted lesbian said:

Attending a Christian school made me feel ashamed of my sexual orientation. The administration itself did not treat people that came out of the closet with the respect they deserved. They refused to let same-sex couples attend dances together. They also fired a softball assistant coach because she was gay. This made it apparent that I would not receive support from them if I were to come out. Naturally, I wanted to be out of the closet because it hurts to hide such a crucial part of who you are, but I didn’t know how much support I would receive from the student body, especially with people being bullied for being gay in our class. After graduating I realized that there were many more people in the closet that went to my school than I had thought. It was a toxic environment for non-straight kids and many weren’t willing to come out in that environment, including me.

A male student who kept the fact that he was gay hidden said, “I had struggled with my relationship with God for a majority of my life because I was so used to hearing so many negative connotations towards being gay when it had come to Christianity…attending a Christian school made me really confused with my sexual orientation…there would be times when I would feel amazing about myself and love myself because God created me the exact way he wanted me to be, but then when the contradictions would come in and people would say that homosexuality is a sin, it really affected me negatively at the time”.

One female student spoke of the shame she felt around her own orientation, “It made me not want to tell anyone about my sexual orientation. At some points it even made me feel that I was wrong to have the sexual orientation that I have. It even made me not want to tell my own family who have supported me through everything no matter what. It took me until after I graduated to tell anyone besides my closest friend”.

A male student remembered his experience, “Growing up and especially in high school, I struggled with my sexuality for many years, due to being taught that being gay was a sin, wasn’t accepted, and was wrong, I felt like I was alone in the world and would get beyond mad at God and myself for being the way I was. I would lie in bed at night wondering why God would put me through this if he truly loved me like I was being taught in school”.

Conclusion

Overall, I believe there are several things that could be put in place to at the high school to truly improve the environment. First, if my high school had a licensed school psychiatrist or counselor on staff this would help a multitude of young teens. In my interview process, I had a lot of people tell me how they wished they had a trusting, non-judgmental adult to turn to in times of trouble. Many individuals struggled with issues like rape, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and the usual problems that come along with going through puberty. They disclosed to me that if they had someone to talk to, it would have truly helped them. Next, I suggest not separating the boys and girls during “Sex Ed”. If the young men and women were not separated by gender, this would not only foster equality but also communication about sex and boundaries within romantic relationships. Finally, if the high school offered an elective “Sex Ed” course for students who had questions and wanted to learn about safe sex then the students would feel much more comfortable and prepared in sexual situations. I plan to bring all of these ideas to the administration of my previous institution and try to really bring about some change around the way they handle sexual education, sexuality, and other difficult subject matter.

Final Thoughts…

This project and research has been such an incredible experience for not only academic reasons but personal reasons as well. I was lucky enough to have received an undergraduate research fellowship from my current university to continue my work on this piece you just finished reading. As I read through questionnaire after questionnaire of my fellow classmates, I was shocked, and saddened by some of the words I read. But also encouraged by the amount of response and support in bringing these topics to the forefront of discussion in our society today. It has been a real honor of my mine to have the number of peers I went to high school with share their personal thoughts, stories, and experiences with me. The only way to create real change around these issues is by talking about them and being open and honest with one another. I thank you all who participated and all who read through this lengthy piece. I hope this project has had a lasting impact on you, because it sure as hell had one on me. Thanks again to all of you.

-Molly Wilcox

References

Burke, K. (2014). What makes a man: Gender and sexual boundaries on evangelical Christian sexuality websites. Sexualities, 17(3), 3–22. doi:10.1177/1363460713511101

Fe, D. L. (2017, June 08). 10 Good Reasons to Save Sex Until Marriage. Retrieved from https://aleteia.org/2014/05/23/10-good-reasons-to-save-sex-until-marriage/

Lenz, L. (2016, July 27). Opinion | ‘I Kissed Dating Goodbye’ told me to stay pure until marriage. I still have a stain on my heart. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/07/27/as-a-young-evangelical-i-believed-a-bestselling-book-that-warned-me-to-stay-pure-until-marriage-i-still-have-a-stain-on-my-heart/?utm_term=.5e7b1a77d592

Moon, D. (2014, September). Beyond the Dichotomy: Six Religious Views of Homosexuality. Journal of Homosexuality, 61(9), 1215–1241. doi:10.1080/00918369.2014.926762

Moslener, S. (2015). Virgin nation: Sexual purity and American adolescence. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Rubin, G. (1984). Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality. In H. Abelove, M. A. Barale, & D. M. Halperin (Authors), The lesbian and gay studies reader(pp. 3–41). New York: Routledge.

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