Who’s Afraid of Their Big Bad O?

Growing up in strict purity culture screwed up my sex life

Shannon Ashley
Jan 23 · 9 min read
Photo: Meng Yiren/Getty Images
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Back in the mid-1990s, purity culture infiltrated practically every Christian circle. It was an entire movement. Evangelical teens signed pledges that we wouldn’t have sex until marriage. There were songs, conferences, and devotionals all about how “true love waits.” Some churches even held daddy-daughter dances where the fathers vowed to be the keepers of their daughters’ virtue. A lot of us wore “purity rings.”

Nah, that’s not creepy at all.

Christianity has always had a thing for demanding purity from its members, particularly from its women. But the ’90s and early 2000s saw something of a more frenzied and mainstream purity push—much of which could be traced back to a young and single white guy named Joshua Harris.

Harris was the epitome of the boy your Christian mother wanted you to bring home for dinner. Clean-shaven and on fire for Jesus, he wrote the handbook on modern-day purity culture: I Kissed Dating Goodbye. In his book, Harris asserted that Christians shouldn’t be dating at all. Instead, he urged them to pursue a “courtship.” The point, he insisted, was to find a marriage partner and avoid giving away any part of yourself before marriage.

Nobody seemed to consider that a single white guy who was barely 21 might not be the greatest source of wisdom for a healthy marriage. Instead, millions of churchgoers read the book, and a heightened emphasis on purity spread like wildfire.

The hallmark of purity culture was shame; there’s just no way around it. Harris described being given a dream from God where all the women he’d ever given his heart or body to were standing at the altar on his wedding day. Harris told readers that if they gave away pieces of themselves by being intimate (emotionally or physically) with other partners, they’d have little left but scraps for their future spouse.

It was hardly new for Christian youth to be told they were somehow dirty or damaged by even the hint of sexuality, but I think this push to commit yourself to purity was much wider and guilt-laden than ever before.

Some of my evangelical peers were lucky. Purity culture never seemed to leave much of an impression on a few of them. But for other kids like me, the constant shame-steeped messages about sex and dating left long-term fears.

It didn’t help that I grew up in a dysfunctional home where my mother insisted that her views on God and “right living” were the absolute truth. My mom had mental health issues—and still does—but when I was a teenager, I wasn’t equipped to recognize that nor the dangers it posed for me.

The purity culture lessons that I received from the church and Christian media fit hand in hand with my mother’s rigid beliefs. Multiple adults in authority taught me that masturbation was a sin and thoroughly impure. Abstinence was never about merely refraining from sexual activity with other people; we were also supposed to abstain from sex with ourselves—and from even thinking about sex too much. Lust was never to be entertained unless it was between a husband and wife.

Sexual sin was so serious that we were told masturbation invited actual demons into our lives.

So when people talked about abstinence, what they really meant was total chastity before marriage. It was a nightmare. Kids married too young because they wanted to have sex. Young women found themselves in abusive marriages. Teens and young adults never learned about healthy sex or even how to survive a basic heartbreak.

Bible verses were frequently quoted as “proof” that sexual immorality was a gateway sin to all sorts of other debaucheries. In many circles, including my own home, sexual sin was so serious that we were told masturbation invited actual demons into our lives. Both my mom and one of my room advisers spoke endlessly about demons sitting on the foot of our beds. It’s the kind of teaching you can only understand if you’ve lived through it. I grew up believing from as early as I can remember that invisible demons were very real and very active in our world.

For whatever reason, I took all those lessons to heart. I wanted to do the right thing. If premarital sex was wrong, then I wanted to avoid it at all costs. But, of course, things grew much murkier when it came to actual dating as I got older.

My mother always said I couldn’t date until I was 16, when I was a junior in high school. But “dating” among my peers began as early as fifth grade, and by junior high, we started having dances. Most of my Christian friends were going on partially chaperoned dates by the time I was in eighth grade. When I broached the topic with my mom, she insisted that 16 was young enough, and anyone who allowed their kids to date before that wasn’t really Christian. They were asking for trouble, she claimed.

It’s no wonder I was so awkward about my sexuality. I was as young as eight years old when my mom began warning me against sexual immorality, even though I had no understanding of sex at the time. She was so scared that I might have sex that she would talk to me about the evils of masturbation and checked my hands in the middle of the night to see if they smelled.

The way I understood it, my mother would have a bad dream or some notion in her head that she thought was “God’s voice,” and it would convince her that I was somehow up to something. “Be good,” she warned sternly whenever we said good night. For a long time, I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about. And by the time I did get it, any idea surrounding sexual desire felt dirty and wrong.

To further compound the problem, my sexual education was severely stunted. My mother wouldn’t let me attend a great deal of sex ed classes in school and coached me to say that I was sick so I could go to the nurse’s office instead. As I got older, she wouldn’t let me see the school nutritionist when I was concerned about my weight, claiming it was only a front to get birth control pills. When my dermatologist wanted to prescribe Accutane, she refused because he would also require me to go on birth control. Eventually, my endocrinologist put me on the pill for polycystic ovary syndrome, and then my mother became more strict than ever to ensure I didn’t have sex.

Forget dating at 16. I never experienced that freedom at all under my mother’s roof. Any dating I have done has generally been in secret, behind my mother’s back. Even two years ago, when she came to visit me and my daughter in Tennessee, I found myself pretending that I didn’t have a boyfriend at the time. I was nearly 35.

What all of this has to do with being frightened about orgasming is pretty simple. Amid all the fear that young people might have sex before marriage, all anyone ever taught me about my own sexuality was to push it away. Within the purity culture mindset, sex meant fear, shame, and guilt.

At least, until marriage. But good luck sorting all that out.

I grew up extraordinarily disconnected from my own body and sexuality. For decades, I bought everything I’d been taught, mostly because I didn’t understand that any of it was abusive. Masturbation was bad, homosexuality was bad, premarital sex was bad, and of course, sexual urges were bad.

When I got into high school and began to experience sexual urges, I naturally believed I was bad too. Sure, I was curious about masturbation and read a few secular books that said it was perfectly natural. But whenever I tried it out for myself, I was hit with an incredible wave of guilt and fear. I not only believed I was in danger of demon possession and eternal damnation, but I was also scared to death that my mother would somehow know what I’d been up to. I was genuinely worried that my mom could somehow read my mind—or that God really would speak to her to tell her I was “up to no good.”

The way all that fear manifested in me was that I habitually stopped short before I could reach orgasm. It’s hard to explain how or why I gave so much credence to my fears, but it was very real for me. For many years and even as a young adult, I had an aversion to climaxing because I felt so guilty about any sexual activity. It was a fear I was unable to overcome even when I got married at age 20.

Relaxation is everything in sex. That’s partly why a positive sex education is so damn important. I developed vaginismus, which is an involuntary muscle contraction that inhibits vaginal penetration by making it very painful.

For all the attention media gives erectile dysfunction, it’s unfortunate that more people don’t talk about vaginismus. Women with vaginismus often suffer in silence, piling on more shame, guilt, and anxiety about sex. The anxiety-linked condition can manifest in many ways, but the overall message to women who suffer from it is that they need to relax.

It’s true that relaxation is key for a healthy sex life, but have you ever tried telling an already anxious person to relax? It doesn’t work. You can’t let go of your sexual anxiety if you’re captive to a negative narrative about sex. You need the freedom to relax, and sexual freedom is not quickly or easily learned.

You’ve got to unlearn your captivity first.

It took years, but I did get to the point where I resolved my vaginismus and was able to enjoy sex and achieve orgasm. I was 31. But it’s not a “one and done” thing to unpack deep shame. These days, my orgasm can still get lost. Despite wanting to get there, I sometimes still struggle to climax. Some people might consider that a sort of failure, but I’d say they have an unrealistic view of freedom and sexuality. The mind matters.

There’s a faction of people who read stories like mine and don’t think it’s something we should talk about. Even otherwise liberal-minded people complain that it’s sad these stories even need to be written. To be honest, I think it’s even sadder that so many people believe our culture is long past the need for open, positive, and vulnerable conversations surrounding sex. We will always need these conversations because healthy sex requires freedom.

Purity culture allowed the fears of religious adults to wound and impair their kids.

As a young evangelical, I learned to be afraid of my own body. Parts of my body were alien to me, and as a result, I lacked the ability to let go. I basically trained my body to stop just before climaxing. For a long time, even nearing an orgasm felt like too much—like sensory overload.

Had I known growing up that my immersion in purity culture was detrimental to my health, things might have gone much differently. I’ve had to take a lot of time, effort, and counseling to unlearn those negative lessons and absorb a more realistic and healthy mindset.

I still can’t explain why an evangelical upbringing and purity culture affected some of us more deeply than others. I’d venture a guess that guilt and shame work more deeply on tender hearts, creatives, and aspies like myself. But I do know that writing openly about sex has gone far for my healing and continues to help other ex-vangelicals as well.

Despite bits of sexual empowerment you can catch on TV with shows like Sex and the City and The L Word, negative messages about sex abound. You don’t need to be living under a rock to grow up believing that sexual desire is a one-way ticket to a literal hell. Not everyone is lucky enough to enjoy a healthy childhood. We don’t all get proper sex education—and that’s not our fault. The good news is that we can talk about it now, and we can ensure our kids enjoy the healthy sexual education we should have received.

If you get to the end of this story about a woman who was once too scared to achieve orgasm and all you feel is pity or that she should quit writing and take those issues up with a sex therapist, you’re missing the whole point. Purity culture allowed the fears of religious adults to wound and impair their kids. Even Joshua Harris now recognizes that his book was damaging and has asked his publisher to discontinue the book. However, his documentary makes it clear that he still doesn’t comprehend the extent of that damage.

It should never be assumed that everyone has the same access to good information about sex because they don’t. And it’s not their fault. That’s why we need to keep having conversations about sexual freedom both in and out of the bedroom.

Awkwardly Honest

A home for some of my most cringe-worthy tales that have been well-received on Medium.

Shannon Ashley

Written by

Single mama, fulltime writer, exvangelical. It's not about being flawless, it's about being honest. Top Writer. http://www.patreon.com/shannonashley

Awkwardly Honest

A home for some of my most cringe-worthy tales that have been well-received on Medium.

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