I was in college, engaged and planning my wedding, and back home in Virginia on the last break I would have before I finished finals and returned for my wedding. The twelve-year-old I was babysitting was distraught.
“I’m going to get pregnant,” she said.
“Why do you think that?” I asked her, amused that this small child who certainly wasn’t menstruating yet could consider herself at risk of getting pregnant. She was a homeschooler, from my church community, but was more naive than I had been, despite our similar circumstances, at her age.
“I slept with my brother in the same bed once,” she explained, her voice low and ominous. “On a family vacation last year!”
“So wouldn’t you already be pregnant?” I asked her.
“I don’t know,” she said. “All I know is that Mom told me this week how babies are made, and she said that they are made when a boy and a girl sleep together, and that’s when I knew.”
She flopped to the floor in a fit of exasperation. “I’m not ready to be a mom!”
I laughed. It was refreshing that this girl didn’t know more, that this irrational fear was all she had to be worried about. I was stressed about much bigger issues, like: Would my mom disown me if she knew that I, her virgin firstborn, had started on the pill in advance of my wedding?
Among the homeschoolers I knew, I grew up with a singularly lucky amount of access to sex-ed materials. My mom is a nurse, and she either looked the other way or wasn’t aware that I was reading her old nursing textbooks. I gobbled up an early edition of What to Expect When You’re Expecting when I was thirteen or fourteen and learned that some couples have sex for fun all the way into the third trimester.
I was properly shocked but not appalled—the idea simply hadn’t occurred to me. I knew and understood how a period worked. I knew what a condom was (and that it was unbiblical for Christians to use, so don’t have sex until marriage), and how it worked, in theory. I knew about masturbation and I knew that penises got larger when aroused, even though I had never seen this occur in person. I knew that using a tampon didn’t make you lose your hymen or your virginity.
These things that I knew, many of my peers did not know.
I remember hearing whispers at my Christian college in Pennsylvania (where some of the students were homeschoolers like me, and most were conservative Christians) as my peers began coupling off, about the things that caused surprise, awe. His penis was so big; I couldn’t believe it could get that big. Do you think I could get pregnant if he jizzed outside my underwear, on my leg? He didn’t know that I could orgasm.
My boyfriend at the time (who had also been homeschooled, and who had grown up with less information about sex than many I knew) heard me talk about being horny while on my period and then suddenly understood a joke he had heard once in high school. The joke had been about a man who went to the store for tampons for his wife and came back after being upsold into buying a boat, saying, “Well, my plans for the week are shot, so I might as well go fishing.” My boyfriend hadn’t understood the punchline before because he didn’t know that a period was something that was 1) messy and 2) could last for days and days.
Therefore, when I commented that “the cramps on day three of my period are always the worst; it sucks,” he was immediately consumed with consternation and revulsion.
“Wait, they last that long?”
“Oh my gosh, that’s awful and oh my gosh, I can’t believe it. I just got a horrible joke. Oh my gosh.” He then relayed to me the joke, and concluded, “So the man couldn’t have sex with his wife all week. So he decided to go fishing instead.”
“What if she wanted to have sex on her period?” I countered.
“Oh, NO, that would be just disgusting!” he said.
I held my tongue. We were newly dating, and sex wasn’t an option outside of marriage for us, so there was no point in telling him that when I masturbated while on my period, I always had the best orgasms. I didn’t want him to turn that revulsion on me.
Later, after college, a twenty-four-year-old woman I worked with at a conservative nonprofit (who had also been homeschooled) had a special appointment made with her gynecologist so that she could learn how to properly insert a tampon. She had never learned how—she had been taught that if she did, she wouldn’t be a virgin anymore. I was shocked.
But I shouldn’t have been—this kind of rampant ignorance about sex and reproductive health is incredibly common within the Christian homeschooling community.
If I look more closely at the homeschooling community in which I grew up during my high school years, I see more of this: a high school friend who had never really touched herself until after she gave birth and was given a vibrator by her husband for an anniversary gift, who used it and then texted me: “I get it now.” A sister who was sexually assaulted by an older female neighbor, who didn’t know it was wrong because it was a girl who did it to her. A friend who was raped, who reported to her parents and to the police, but who was gaslit into signing an affidavit at the police station that she was making it up and seeking attention. A friend who was forced to drink Everclear by the pastor’s son and his friends, and who woke up the next day disheveled and in a house alone, and never questioned what happened until years later because she had blacked out, end of story. A friend whose brother assaulted her for years and used cruel torture techniques on her from books he read, who didn’t know what it was that had been happening to her until she learned more about sex when she started going to a public school rather than being homeschooled. Another friend who didn’t know she had been raped because she didn’t know what rape was, but knew enough to go to a doctor for an STI check, distraught that she had lost her virginity, and then was told she had been raped.
These stories are just a few. These stories are not surprising, because these stories are common. If I tried to make a list of all the stories like these that I have heard from former fundamentalist Christians, former homeschoolers, former true believers in the pro-life movement or in purity culture, it would run longer than the “begat” passages in the Pentateuch.
Abstinence-only sex education perpetuates the narratives of rape culture; being open to birth control, or even to be pro-choice is indicative of being a slut, which means you are asking for assault. I was taught by watching my parents and listening to conversations in our church community that trying to seek autonomy through family planning is, in essence, abdicating your ability to consent.
Claiming choices means you are available, that you are offering yourself up for sexual consumption. Knowledge about sex suggests you aren’t really pure or virginal. Sex is for the purposes of reproduction, or for pleasure only in marriage. Rape is probably the fault of the victim. Marital rape doesn’t exist; marriage itself is perpetual consent.
I myself didn’t really understand the idea of consent until after I was divorced, when I began dating again. I had followed my husband (who had been my first hand-holding, first kiss, first lover, first everything) to DC after college, but he left me out of the blue right before our second anniversary.
I had a friend (who had also been homeschooled) who was questioning their sexuality and had recommended The Ethical Slut to me as a useful resource for learning more about “all the things that we missed” about sex ed at home. As I paged through The Ethical Slut on the metro ride home after our dinner at Busboys and Poets, I wolfed down all the new information about a foreign universe where people didn’t feel like they owned their partners. But the distance between taking in the information and understanding it caused a comprehension lag, and when it hit, I started to feel dizzy, and then sick.
I put the book down and closed my eyes.
Flashing before my mind’s eye was a series of scenes. The first of which was the first time my (then) boyfriend touched my breast, months before we had begun to kiss (which we eventually did after weeks of prayer and discussion, after dating for almost eight months). We had been snuggling on a couch, nuzzling each other a little and I could feel him getting turned on, but we had an unspoken agreement assuming that we wouldn’t get actually sexual because we both wanted to save ourselves for marriage.
Purity was a serious cultural standard in our church; to have sex outside of marriage or even kiss someone without being engaged to them was a firm taboo. But then, he was rubbing my stomach under my shirt. Cupping my breast through the padding of my bra. I felt my nipple get hard and I started to get worried.
The excitement and the fear were one in my mind—this was wrong and it felt so good and I knew I didn’t want this to happen because I wasn’t sure yet that I was going to marry this boy. I knew that if anything happened, anything that felt sexual to me, I would have to confess it to to my future husband as a betrayal, as if I had stolen something precious from whoever it was I would end up marrying. I knew that if I let him keep touching me, I would regret it if I never married him.
I searched for words—how do you tell someone no when you have no idea how they’ll react? I had seen this boy get blindly angry when he couldn’t find something he wanted, when he forgot an assignment, when he was late for class. What if he turned that anger on me? I knew my brothers and father’s anger well, and I knew it was possible. I tried to find some gentle, affirming way to make him stop, a request disguised as a compliment.
But then my mind went blank and I froze: his hand was on my breast, his fingers were on my nipple. My body went hot and cold and I stiffened and he felt me cringe and he sat up.
I can’t remember what exactly he said. I don’t think he checked in on how I was doing; I think he said something more along the lines of liking how my breast felt under his hand, saying it was sexy. I cringed again at the word “sexy.” Sexy was reserved for married couples. I was not supposed to be sexy. Sexy implied knowledge, intent. I was just scared.
That was the first time (and not nearly the last) I would choose make a hasty and evasive exit from a sexual partner after my desires had been crossed. “I have to go do homework. It’s later than I thought,” I told him, grabbing my backpack in a hurry and putting my shoes on to leave.
“Are you okay?” he finally asked.
“Maybe,” I said. “I have to think about it.”
I wasn’t okay. I cried on the walk back to my dorm, feeling shattered, worthless. Maybe I was a sex-addicted sinner after all. Maybe I was the temptress I had been raised in fear of becoming. Maybe I was going to destroy myself with my lusts.
All the blame, in my mind, was on me, but I was also angry at him for not talking about it with me first. I had assumed that he had known I wanted to save that kind of intimacy for marriage—I had long envisioned a wedding night where a husband gasped in pleasure at seeing my bare breasts for the first time—but apparently he had not assumed that, and now we had crossed a line. There was no going back.
I sat on the train and recalled all this, leaning against the greasy Red Line window as we passed the stops heading to the end of the line at Shady Grove. I wondered if my ex-husband ever thought about those moments early on in our relationship. Did he know that technically those experiences were sexual assault, at least according to the terms of consent laid out in this book as vocal and clear agreement without coercion or pressuring?
Did he know that I felt coerced every time after that when we crossed tiny boundary after tiny boundary in his dorm room on that orange and red couch, the helplessness and frustration I felt after each of these invasions over the accumulating pile of sins I would have to confess to my future spouse if we ever broke up, because then those sins would be occasions where I would have cheated on my actual spouse with him? How I felt helpless to stop and excited all at once, afraid of the new territory but eventually resigned to the reality that I was so far gone down this road that I might as well enjoy my sin?
I texted him later that night after I arrived home, asking him if he realized that almost all my firsts with him—except for our first kiss and our wedding night when we actually had penetrative intercourse for the first time—were not really consensual?
You pressured me to have sex with you when we were married, later on, he countered in his response.
I collapsed into tears. Wait, you always said no if you didn’t want to have sex! I responded, my fingers moving rapidly, blindly. I had to understand how much of a gap between our experiences of each other there was, had to know what I didn’t know before.
I felt like I was obligated to go down on you, he said.
You knew I couldn’t get off if you didn’t!
Yeah, well, I didn’t argue but I didn’t want to do it.
A pause. I didn’t have a response to this.
Then: No one would believe you if you told them about all this, anyway. We didn’t know what consent even was, back then. We didn’t know anything.
He was right, in a way. I was just learning about consent at age twenty-three, after our divorce, as I was learning how to date in the world outside of purity culture. He had learned about it that year, too, probably, when he was twenty-five. How could we have known what we were experiencing of each other in our marriage when we didn’t have basic language for things like consent?
A few years later, the marriage is erased from me as I move through the world. My friends tell me that they always forget it is part of my story, and sometimes I forget, too. I fall in love with someone else, and then someone else after that. I take my new autonomy in hand, and I throttle all the fear that still tries to strangle me when I want to ask a lover for something. This is different; this will not be like that, I tell myself.
I learn to love my body and how she responds to touch, how everything about me is like a desert after a storm: vibrant and sudden growth springs up in response to any generosity of affection, as if I had been waiting for permission to thrive. I laugh less easily but more steadily, and I make noises in bed now.
I apply to the Peace Corps and get sent to Kyrgyzstan to teach English, and my girls in my classes have me start a health club at the local library. The counterpart I teach with, a local English tutor, wants the class—mostly girls in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades—to learn about feminine hygiene, about reproduction, and about what their rights are if they’re bride-kidnapped later (a real risk in the region).
We make our lesson plans together, and I let her take the lead based on what she knows already—but she knows less than I did when I first started dating my boyfriend in college.
We’re the same age, both single, but she’s from a world similar to mine in its fundamentalist Christianity. For her, as it had for me, sexual knowledge equals experience, not safety, and fear is the safest form of protection. So I pull out diagrams. I draw reproductive systems in bright marker on flip chart paper. We discuss common local myths about HIV. I pull out my condom stash and show her one, unwrapping it in the library’s back room under the amused eyes of the library director.
“She’s a progressive woman,” my counterpart says of her boss. “She thinks it’s important to know this information.”
But she’s still afraid, a little squeamish. I ask her if she feels comfortable teaching this to the students still. She says she isn’t, but she will be.
We make a question box for the class to ask anonymous questions of us in advance of this lesson. One such question reads: If I go into the banya after boys use the room, and sit on the same benches, am I at risk of getting pregnant without sex? At the banya (the public bath house) my host family runs, you rent an hour’s time and bathe with your family or a random group of your same gender. The same room sees dozens of groups of people throughout the day, and the rooms aren’t what’s gender-segregated, the time slots that you rent the rooms for are.
In our lesson, I answer this question and the others with my counterpart. No, we tell the girls, you can’t get pregnant in the banya. The sperm can’t survive in that environment. They all nod and laugh in evident relief. Fear is gone from their faces by the end of the lesson—at the start they were serious, tense, quiet. Now they are laughing and teasing each other. My counterpart led the condom demonstration on her own, with a breezy confidence that betrayed none of her fears from the week prior.
I go home and message my friend in the States, telling her about the lesson, about the girls. How happy they were to have learned these things, how curious. How unafraid. “I wish we had had a lesson like this,” I tell her. She was also homeschooled, and she was molested as a child.
“I know,” she says. “I wonder if we had gotten that lesson with our friends in a class, maybe we would have been able to look out for each other better, not been so afraid to talk about what was happening to us.”
“We’re talking about it now,” I say. “That’s better than before.”
“We knew things were wrong then,” she says, “but we didn’t know how, or why.”
“Like the gaslighting,” I say, remembering our conversation a few days prior about how hard it was to trust my own senses after decades of Christian leaders telling me that my instincts were sinful. “We knew that was wrong, too. Our bodies knew, they just didn’t know how to tell us. We just didn’t have the language to talk about it.”
Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick