I’ve been thinking a lot about relationships lately: about how my views have changed over the past few years, and how they will inevitably continue to do so. On the surface, it seems as if things have changed dramatically: I’ve gone from seeking out a singular life partner to meet the lion’s share of my emotional needs to feeling secure, happy, and satisfied in an open, polyamorous situation. Deep down, though, this feels consistent with values that I’ve held for a long time, even though the external configuration of things has changed. I’ve realized that I’ve been wanting the same things all along—love, acceptance, intimacy, trust–I’m just finding them in ways I didn’t expect to previously. It’s a little bit like realizing I can get calcium and vitamin D from leafy greens and sunlight rather than cow’s milk. The vehicle is unexpected, but the nourishment is real. (I’m sure some people would tell me it’s not enough, but for the time being, I feel pretty healthy.)
As I’ve been making sense of these changes, I came across a book called “The Purity Myth” by Jessica Valenti, which has shed a brilliant light on an inner struggle I’ve been resolving over the past several years. The core message of the book is that when we place obsessive emphasis on purity and virginity in young women, we reduce them to their sexuality in the same way that other degrading, sexist media does. Valenti illustrates how chastity can become a substitute for fully developed ethics: rather than asking whether a young woman is a good person, we place more importance on what her sexual status is. As I read, I remembered the ways in which I’ve done the same thing to myself: how I’ve judged, doubted, and hurt myself, and allowed feelings of failure to cloud my awareness of my own integrity. And it prompted me to write this post to explore that process.
The book is a lucid discussion of the virgin/whore dichotomy at work in contemporary culture: how shockingly alive it is, and how the two extremes depend on each other. The current paradigm sees women as property: either as pure, private property, for the ownership of one man, or filthy, public property, for the use of all. (If that language sounds extreme or cruel, you may be surprised to hear it echoed in so much modern-day media.) Valenti advocates for a shift away from the model of ownership and judgment. As it stands, you have women whose ethics are defined by their sexuality: they are good or bad people depending on whether and how they are sexual. What we need is to have women whose sexuality is defined by their ethics: their actions will vary according to their needs, tastes, desires, life situations, and those of their partners. Whether they are good or bad people has nothing to do with whether or how they are sexual: it has to do with whether they act with integrity.
Reading Valenti’s book has helped me accept that when my relationships are the results of acting with honesty and integrity, I don’t have to worry about whether the details match up to a popular ideal, or condemn myself for deviating from it.
Still, it took a while for me to stop condemning myself and it also took a while for me to develop the views I have now. As a teenager I was committed to the idea of waiting until marriage, and I had a rigid view of how my relationships needed to look, even though it made perfect sense to me at the time. While it’s possible that my high-school self would be mortified at what my personal life looks like now, I certainly don’t criticize my past self for thinking the way she did. Some of my views have broken down over time, but a lot of them have become more solid.
I used to be much more religious than I am now, and while I still want to live an ethical life, the terms have changed. I had a lot of practical and positive reasons for flying the abstinence-only flag as a teenager, and I also had negative ones rooted in social and spiritual insecurity. I was profoundly irritated by my classmates who drank too much, experimented with drugs, wasted their parents’ money, slept around, and who were just generally mean and ugly to each other—especially those who I knew to be openly and vocally Christian. Having always been a “good kid,” I struggled with feeling simultaneously that I was everyone’s mother—who knew better than to do those things—and everyone’s kid sister—naive in regards to all the teenage vices. I needed to justify my choices and affirm that I was right. My decision to be chaste and dry gave me a convenient moral high ground to stand on. I had the sense that what I was doing was unpopular—a 21st century hair shirt. But it gave me a secret source of pride and superiority. Clearly, I was doing it right as a Christian. I wasn’t half-assing it. I had something to secretly suffer for.
It didn’t occur to me until later, as high-school was drawing to a close, that I was like Brer Rabbit in the briar patch. What looked like an unpleasant situation to others actually came quite easily to me. I came across a quote that shattered my worldview at the time, by a Christian author named Brennan Manning, in which he stated that he could proudly say that he had never smoked, drank, cheated, stolen, or slept with anyone but his wife—but then, he had also never been tempted to do any of those things. As for everything he’d ever been seriously tempted to do, well, he had done all of those things. In my case, I was never actually tempted to drink or sleep with anyone as a teenager. None of my friends drank, and I don’t think I actually became sexually attracted to other people until rather late in the game. There just weren’t any contenders. As for the things I was actually tempted to do, I struggled immensely to figure out, first of all, what they were, and secondly, whether they were actually sinful.
At the peak of my seriousness about my Christian faith, I had a very difficult time determining when I actually needed forgiveness. I did not have any of the “big time” sins to deal with, so instead I grappled with things that were gray and difficult to delineate, things like judging others, or not doing certain things enough: perhaps not being nice enough, or charitable enough. It was hard to tell whether I was in the clear, so to speak. I was convinced that I believed in an unconditionally loving and merciful god, but ultimately, that was something that I wanted to believe, and not the perception of reality that actually motivated my actions. It was difficult, as someone who genuinely wanted to live in a godly way, to actually believe that since I knew better, there would be less mercy for me if I ever fell off the bandwagon. God had infinite patience for the ignorant, but not for me—not for someone who had had eighteen years of Presbyterian Sunday school, textbooks from the Emory seminary, and four years worth of back issues of Relevant magazine on her bedroom shelf. I realized that over time, I started to fall back on my chastity—the result of my subscription to the enlightened Christian model of relationships—as proof that I was still getting it right, still a devoted, progressive culture warrior. It didn’t matter so much that I continued to judge and resent people. As long as I wasn’t sleeping with them, I was winning the fight.
And then I went to college.
And then I met my first real boyfriend.
And then, after a few months into a relationship I felt happy in, my mind started to change about things.
And then, I was faced with a dilemma, but it was not the dilemma I expected. The ground did not open up and swallow me. I was not rejected by my friends and family. My relationship did not spiral into abusive oblivion. My moral core did not shatter; I did not turn into a hedonistic barbarian. I did not lose a piece of my soul, or become incapable of relating to others. What I did lose, however, was my moral yardstick. Now that I no longer had my black-and-white distinction to fall back on, I found myself back in that gray area. Now, looking objectively at my decisions, nothing had actually been harmed. The God of the universe had not been harmed (irked, possibly, but how to tell for sure?). My boyfriend and I had not been harmed. Had my future spouse, my Christian Knight in shining armor, been harmed? Possibly, but I realized it was likely that he would not have been a perfect Christian Knight all his life, and we might just have to forgive each other. So beyond the breakdown in my own moral rigidity, what damage had been done? I had been imperfect, for sure, but for all of my spiritual ardor, it took me quite a while to realize that the God I wanted to believe in did not demand perfection: s/he simply asked for integrity.
Moral superiority played a huge role in my decision-making as a teenager, but integrity was what my heart was really striving for. I had a lot of genuinely good reasons for making the choices I did, and virtually all of the positive things I was trying to accomplish back then, I’m still trying to accomplish now.
For one, I wanted to make an authentic statement of faith. Like the more conservative Muslim and Jewish women I knew of who dressed modestly as a personal, spiritual gesture (and not at the behest of some patriarch), I wanted to do what felt ingenuous to my spiritual path, even if it was not the stylish thing to do. I wanted to make the statement that adhering to my religious faith was more important than how society perceived me.
This was an extension of a greater desire, and that was to act on my own accord: to make my own decisions and not feel controlled or coerced. My parents never talked about sex, and the topic rarely, if ever, came up in my youth group (instead, we talked about other issues, like social justice, and stewardship). Despite growing up in the South, I had never heard of a Purity Ball or a promise ring until several years into college. I was surrounded by adults who were either indifferent or silent about my sexual choices. So my decision to wait felt very much my own. I do not think ownership of one’s decisions is a bad thing.
This kind of thinking was what made me skeptical of abstinence-only sex education as a teenager. I knew what I wanted to do, but I also knew it wasn’t up to me to make that decision for anyone else. I felt more empowered by the fact that I had been given neutral, clinical information about sex and that I was simply saving that information for the appropriate time, rather than taking it as an invitation to promiscuity. STIs and unintended pregnancies seemed to me like awfully harsh punishments for not conforming to someone else’s preferences, even if I personally shared them. The message that I got from abstinence-only sex education was this: “we can’t trust you to make your own choices, so we’re going to withhold information.” It was like someone saying, “we can’t teach gun safety. If we do, people will go crazy with guns, thinking they’re safe, and shoot each other all the time. Better to let people continue shooting themselves accidentally at the same rate than get people going to the shooting range for fun, even if they’re not hurting anybody.” I needed to know that I was making an informed choice rather than simply parroting an authority figure.
My need to speak and act for myself had also deep roots in my rebellion against a culture that I felt was sexist, degrading, and emotionally starving. I was aware of the incomprehensible misery of human trafficking and sexual assault, I had heard stories of the crippling isolation of porn addiction. I was aware of much of the very real, very bad sex going on in the world. The good, healthy stuff, however, was elusive to me, and existed only in a faraway land of eternal Christian matrimony. But if that was what it took for things to be healthy and good, then I was sure as hell not going to ruin my chances.
I wanted to honor and respect myself and my partner, and I did not want to sabotage what I perceived to my one big chance at emotional intimacy. Of course, at the time I was also largely convinced that there were only two types of dating going on: monogamous-as-if-married, and a grotesque free-for-all in the form of an emotionally decrepit hook-up culture. I was less aware of the other possible arrangements. I was also convinced of the commodity model of sexuality, which states that women, as inherently asexual beings, must use sex to manipulate men, who are inherently rapaciously sexual, into doing things for them. While I still think it’s true that a lot of people try to use sex to get love (and vice versa) and end up feeling used, bitter, and hurt, it did not occur to me at the time that women would be motivated to do things simply because they felt good.
I have no idea what my seventeen year old self would think about my situation now. How would she react to being told that rather than being happily engaged to her One True Love by the end of college, she will be happily polyamorous–and feel more profoundly loved and accepted than she could have imagined? Would the sting of failure be too much? Or would she be glad that she continued seeking relationships based on integrity, authenticity, and trust—and that she is finding them, even if the arrangements are unconventional? I have no idea what my relationships will look like in a few years, but I hope I continue to seek the same things and that I’ll look back on this time with confidence that I held myself to the highest standard I could. Like everyone else, my views are always changing, but I feel relieved that now my goal is to be an ethical and loving person—and I realize that there is more than one way to do so.