Over the past week, I have seen a lot of posts by sex educators on Instagram about the trauma of purity culture, fatphobia, and sorely lacking sex education. I also read Jamie Lee Finch’s “You Are Your Own” as my first book of 2020, which I am still unpacking emotionally as I related so much to her story.
I feel like I have written a post about my own personal trauma around purity culture and the fatphobia of my family members that I have embodied in my life, but as I scan through the posts on this blog, I can’t really find anything. I also feel like I have worked through and discovered more about my sexuality in the past year or so, so maybe an update is needed if I have written about this previously.
I thought I would mention a bit of my own trauma and how purity and fatphobic culture have affected me and my views on my own sexuality and body throughout my life because I have become increasingly angered by the lack of sex education I got growing up and the way purity culture derailed my natural curiosity about sex and pleasure and made me feel so deeply broken, ashamed, and split in two.
Let’s take it to the bullet points here:
- Sex education: In Alabama, in the 1990s (and probably still today), boys and girls were separated and each were taught the very, very basics of their own reproductive organs, very little about the opposite sex’s reproductive organs, told to abstain until marriage, and taught nothing about the beauty and pleasure of sex. It was all about procreation (but only after marriage).
- True Love Waits: Also in the 1990s, this was a purity culture movement in church that involved comparing sexually active women (but surprisingly not men) to chewed up bubble gum or wadded up paper and signing vows not to have sex until marriage. (I went one step further and bought a ring with the movement’s name on the band.) Joshua Harris took this one step further in the fucked up direction by writing a book while also a teenager himself about how couples shouldn’t be left alone and shouldn’t even kiss until marriage. (He has since apologized for writing this book and perpetuating these shaming beliefs and has come out as no longer a Christian.)
- Masturbation: Something I sort of accidentally discovered when I was 9 years old while rocking my hips back and forth then squeezing my thighs together, often in class at school. Around the same time, I read in my mom’s Christian parenting books that masturbation was wrong, sinful, and should be stopped if discovered. I wound up writing a mom a letter when I was about 12, “confessing” my “sin” of masturbation, and the only response I remember from her as I sobbed in bed was that I needed to “save those feelings for marriage.” So many of my long-destroyed journal entries from my teens included beliefs that the reason I was a later bloomer and why my periods were never regular was God’s punishment for me masturbating instead of fucking PCOS. Even as I became an adult and decided God would probably rather I masturbate than have sex every time I wanted it, which was 24/7, I still felt a lot of shame for giving in to my body’s desire/need for sexual pleasure.
- Being a Fat Teenage/Twenty-Something: I’ve mentioned before how my mom told me that the guy I liked in college never wanted to date me because I was fat, how I’d never attract a “normal” man while fat (even though she’d never attracted any winners while thin), how I’d never be happy while fat, how being fat made me smell bad, walk “like a man,” isolated me from others, and more. Purity culture and my biological, hormonal, sexual desires and curiosity as a teenager split me in two, and being fat seemed to be my protection from acting on those sexual desires by making me undesirable sexually, at least according to my family and the culture around me. I tried to lose weight many times, but every time I started getting more attention and compliments, I quickly sabotaged my efforts and regained the weight lost because the thought of suddenly having “sexual temptation” readily available to me in my increasingly acceptable body size fucking terrified me.
- Being a 28-year-old Virgin: Despite all of the crushes I had in high school and college, none of them felt likewise as far as I know. I know I pushed down my natural desires to flirt and desire to do all the things high school kids did with each other, which I sometimes regret now as an adult. In my 20s, I was treated with kid gloves once people learned I was still a virgin and had never been kissed. I often heard things that made me roll my eyes like, “Aww, that’s so sweet, I wish I’d waited,” and “I don’t know how to act around you now,” like suddenly I was a little kid or something. Some “friends” were afraid to drink, cuss, or talk about their hook-ups around me. Others thought I wanted to live vicariously through them so they constantly reminded me how hot everyone thought they were and about their sexual conquests.
- Mistrust in Men/Boundaries: I was taught that men could not be trusted and all they wanted was sex. I was also taught that I had to be careful how I acted, dressed, and talked so as not lead men astray. When men were inappropriate with me, I was asked about my behavior and told what I “should’ve” done differently. The men in my family and at my jobs seemed to feel like they had the right to talk about my body and sex in a vulgar way, which left me almost always feeling unsafe around them and unsafe as a woman in my own body. Being fat seemed like an easy way to protect myself from men, but it hasn’t always worked. I’ve also learned when you shut down your sexuality to protect yourself from creepy assholes, you also shut it down from enjoying and embracing your sexuality with the men you want to have sex with who feel likewise. It requires being able to establish and enforce boundaries, which I did not learn how to do growing up. Any attempts to keep the self-entitled creeps in my family out of my personal space often led to gaslighting and name-calling. Any boundaries I may have attempted to have growing up were completely disregarded and disrespected as well. I was a girl/woman, who did I think I was to have any say so over my body or personal space around men?
- “That’s What She Said”: Talking about sex in an intimate way is still incredibly vulnerable for me, so I wind up talking about it in jokes or in a way that sounds like I am making fun of it or, in this case, John. I was not taught to call my genitalia by its anatomical names even with a mom who was a labor & delivery nurse and looked at vaginas 40+ hours a week as she helped deliver babies from them, and saying “penis” still makes me giggle. I don’t like the terms “dick,” “cock,” “pussy,” or “cunt” because they feel too much like porn to me (nothing against porn, but what I’ve seen of it feels too fake and cheesy for my personal taste), so I wind up not saying much during sex. I feel so uncomfortable being direct sexually even with the man who is now my husband, and I know it is because that voice is still lost inside of me, in that part cut off by the shame of both purity and fatphobic culture.
- Premarital sex: The first few times John and I made out, we often went pretty far. I would always stop at the last second and tell him no. He was frustrated but respected my wishes. It was so fucking infuriating for me because I’d waited what seemed like forever for all of that and yet growing up in purity culture and still being a Christian and being taught sex outside of marriage was wrong and damaging and the “worst kind of sin” continued to essentially cock-block me. When we finally had penetrative sex two months into our relationship, about two weeks before our 29th birthdays, it was a sweet experience, but I felt so much shame that I wasn’t sure I could do it again, and it didn’t help that the person I considered my best friend, who’d regaled me with stories for years about how fuckable she was, shamed me for not waiting for marriage by saying I was the one who was “supposed to wait” because I’d already waited as long as I had. At church, we couldn’t be in the singles group because we were together but were told we couldn’t be in the married group because we weren’t legally wed. A Christian counselor and friend/coworker told me flat-out that the reason for any normal relational conflicts John and I had were because we didn’t wait for marriage. On the night of our 24-hour honeymoon, I was so exhausted, emotionally spent, and ashamed that we didn’t wait that I could not physically have sex with my now-husband and instead cried myself to sleep in his arms.
- Orgasms: While I know many cis-women cannot physically have orgasms during PIV (penis in vagina) sex with their cis-male partners, I felt so broken throughout the first half or 75% of our relationship because I could not orgasm even with oral or manual stimulation. John tried so much at first, but I couldn’t get out of my head and could not communicate what I needed from him. Instead, we just rely on my very reliable Hitachi Magic Wand vibrator to get me off, which it has done for the past 12 years I’ve owned it. I know there is nothing wrong with this, but my expectations have definitely needed an adjustment through the years around this.
- Marriage Outside of the Bedroom: Because I bought into the whole bullshit “your body is not your own” tale of religion and purity culture, I felt myself trying to be who I thought John wanted me to be for probably 6 or 7 years of our 8-year relationship. I lost so much sense of self, so much personal ownership. I was taught that my body belonged to my husband once we married, so I guess I thought that included any opinions or desires I may have as well. I tried to submit to him in this way even though every part of my strong-willed, independent mind screamed, What the fuck are you doing, Amy?! Even John wondered what the fuck I was doing because after me asking for his opinion one too many times when I already knew what I wanted to do, he said, “Amy, you are a smart, independent woman. Stop asking me to think for you.”
- Trusting My Body and My Intuition: Growing up in church and the purity culture pounded into my brain constantly that my heart is deceitful and cannot be trusted, I’m worthless without God, to “lean not on [my] own understanding,” and that my body is supposed to be a temple for God to inhabit and not a place for me to inhabit just as I am, whoever that is. It was not mine before birth, not mine throughout my life, and will not be mine in death. Despite the name I was given at birth being my own and all of my organs and blood and cells being in this body, I was taught that all of this is temporary, and just basically a placeholder for my soul. There was no point in getting to know this body, as that’s all it is. If I “sinned,” it was because the devil tempted me and I, a weak human, fell for it. If I accomplished anything worthwhile or treated others with love or compassion, this was from God, and in no way could I do any of this good on my own. I developed shame and guilt for my sexuality and also for thinking I could have any worth on my own, and believed that I could never be loved just as I was, and really, did I even really exist on my own in this body? I sure didn’t feel like it.
I have felt so much anger, resentment, shame, and loss in the trauma I’ve incurred through purity and fatphobic culture. I have felt so detached from my body. Often, I’ve felt huddled in a tiny, dark corner of my body while the rest is like your shoulder and arm when you’ve slept all night on them: totally there, but also totally numb. I’ve felt powerless, voiceless, hopeless, and lifeless. I’ve felt robbed because all of those years of trying so hard to be small, pure, quiet, submissive, and society and religion’s version of pretty did not gift me with the life and love they promised.
My expectations about my body and sex, promoted by both society’s and purity culture’s versions of sex, relationships, and beauty/desirability in media and church, were so greatly skewed and only led me to feeling so broken, ashamed, and like something is deeply wrong with me. They’ve caused unnecessary conflicts in my marriage as well as unnecessary and very damaging beliefs about my self-worth and worthiness of being loved by others. They’ve led me on a lifelong chase of seeking validation from everyone but myself and feeling like shit when I don’t get it. I often feel so immature among my peers and like I really missed out on some huge milestone by not getting the relationship and sexual experiences they did as a teenager and in their twenties. (At the same time though, I do still feel like I missed out on a lot of heartache, and a huge benefit of being single for so long was the self-awareness I gained and the enjoyment of being alone that I might not have otherwise gotten.)
A few weeks ago, in bed with John, I told him about my struggles to find my voice when it comes to sex. I had just recently told him how I was officially done with Christianity, so all of this that I’d kept pushed down with my back and forth about my faith had started bubbling to the surface. Also during this time, all that I’d been trying to figure out and do as far as trusting my body and learning to eat intuitively seemed to be clicking into place. That probably also had a lot to do with giving up my faith along with all of the rules I’d lived under my whole life, whether I still felt like I had to or not.
I told him how it feels like there is a wall inside of me, and on one side, there is so much of my sexuality I want to explore and communicate with him, and fear and shame have kept me from accessing all of that. I told him how I lose my voice when we have sex and find myself often going through the motions with him because I’m afraid if I tell him I’m not in the mood, we’ll never have sex again (this fear is not a reality and stems from a lot of conflict we’ve had over me being the higher libido partner). I am still so afraid of rejection that I can’t bring myself to touch him how I want to (how he’s told me he wants me to) or initiate sex with him even though he told me in marriage counseling that saying “no” to sex at the time I initiate is not him rejecting me but saying he’s just not in the mood.
He didn’t respond, but getting all of that out of me caused a shift inside of me. Like maybe I had finally given that other side of me a voice. A small one, but one nonetheless.
In December, after this talk, I decided to stop taking my birth control that I had been taking for eight years, basically all but the first 4 months of our relationship. Not so I could get pregnant, though we’ve discussed that we’ll go through with it if I do get pregnant, but because I did not like being on fake hormones for nearly a decade and wanted a break.
What’s funny is that since I’ve come off the pill, my libido has shifted. I knew it wasn’t the same anymore once I went on the pill, but I didn’t realize how much it had actually lowered. I am 37 now so I also realize that my body may also be going through a last call on the baby train sexual peak. Who knows? Either way, I seem to find John 1000x more attractive, and I was already very attracted to him before, and I want sex pretty much all the time and told him so. This admission has definitely benefited me – well, both of us, really – and brought us closer together.
As I come out of Christianity and see firsthand how damaging and traumatic it was/is for me, I am beginning to realize the freedom I now have, that I have had all along. In church, I often listened to these sermons about how grace sets us free, breaks our shackles, and opens the prison doors but yet we still sit there in the prison like we’re still imprisoned, and I thought, Why can’t I walk out? Why can’t I leave? I’ve been saved, I’m free because of Christ dying for me, why do I still feel like this?
And I realized it was because Christianity did not make me free. Instead, it made me small. It made me hide who I really am. It made me unable to trust my own body, voice, thoughts, and intuition. It kept me child-like and submissive. It left me on this seemingly eternal quest for validation of my worthiness from everyone else but myself. It told me that I was wrong from birth, would never be good enough on my own, and that no love or good could come from me alone, but that I had to constantly seek it from someone whom I could not actually access in any form. It told me that nothing about my body or my life belonged to me. That I could not receive credit for the good I did because that belonged to God. That my mistakes were permanently etched into me as marks of how broken I was, not just lessons learned and things that make me into a stronger, smarter, better, more empathetic person.
Christianity, purity culture, and fatphobia have all sought to keep me forever chasing the wrong things: the opinions of and love/acceptance from others about me. And it is all to keep me coming back to them for more. To spend my money, energy, body, and life in my dependence on them. They keep the charades going so I don’t see how fucking powerful I am on my own and how powerful I have been all along.
I’ve spent a lot of time lately envisioning and silently talking to younger versions of myself. Telling 9-year-old Amy it is okay to feel pleasure and be curious about sex. Adult me sitting in the place of my then 35-year-old mother – funny we are close in age now – and telling 12-year-old me that there is absolutely nothing to be ashamed about, exploring your body is normal, healthy, and loving, and that I love her so much for being so brave to tell me something she felt so ashamed of. Thinking back to 10-year-old me in her green tights and green leotard playing a sunflower in a school play and telling her how freaking adorable her little round belly is that she feels so shy about. Talking to college-aged Amy about her big crush back then, smiling at all those times it felt like he liked her back, and telling her I know it sucks he doesn’t actually feel the same but girl, you dodged a huge fucking bullet. Sitting with the late 20s version of me and telling her I understand why it is so hard to relocate her repressed sexuality and feel good about it, but we will get there, I am getting there for her.
I’m still in the very early stages of my healing and I don’t expect huge changes overnight. It has taken me two years to begin to be present in my body when I eat and exercise and actually understand what both hunger and satisfaction and love of movement feel like in my body. Learning to remain associated with my body during sex will take time just as it did with food.
There are so many rules when it comes to food, exercise, how I feel in my body, how I look, the space in my body I’m allowed to take up, sex, and just living my life and trusting myself that I no longer have to abide by, but old habits die hard. My first step in this is simply observing when I feel myself abiding by those rules and gently asking myself, Who told you that you have to live this way? What do you want to do?
My body, spirit, personality, mannerisms, thoughts, actions, voice, intuition, emotions, choices (and their consequences), growth, mistakes, sexuality, and spirituality never, ever, not even once, belonged to anyone else. I am accountable to me. My relationship with myself is first and foremost about me. The beliefs, thoughts, words, opinions, and behavior by others towards me has nothing to do with me.
I have always, always, always been my own. Purity culture, religion, and this fatphobic, patriarchal, misogynistic culture constantly try to rob me of this because they gain nothing when I do not need them, but…I do not need them. I will not allow them to dictate or direct my life anymore. I don’t quite know what this means yet, but I say to myself:
Get it, girl. Get it all. Take back your body and your life. They are yours to trust, love, accept, and do whatever the fuck you want in them.