Decent Women, Sex, and Shame

The grass is not as soft as it looks, but cuddling in it seems to make my boyfriend happy. He is my first boyfriend, we are freshmen, and his affection for me is thrilling and overwhelming. I am certain he would do anything for me, so I am cuddling in this grass for him—though if I were to choose a scratchy patch of grass for this activity, it also wouldn’t be the university quad. In fact, when we sat down here, I hadn’t anticipated nearly this level of PDA. But my highest priority as a girlfriend is to be low-maintenance, and we’re certainly not making out like couples in movies about college, or couples I’ve seen in public parks in Atlanta and San Francisco; besides, Christian college is supposed to be a place where you have adventures, just safer and more moral ones than at other colleges. Having a boyfriend is an adventure. Spooning in public is an adventure. I put my discomfort aside. Sideways, I watch the frisbee game across the lawn; people trickle out of the dining hall; from my perspective, ants join up to follow in their wake, everyone busy. Maybe no one I know will even notice us.

Then a pair of boots blocks my view.

We scramble to a seated position and squint up at the Campus Safety officer who’s been dispatched to protect the campus from our obscenity. It is my nightmare. All the voices nagging that I was embarrassing myself are suddenly, solidly before me in this irritated young man and in the finger-wagging of the anonymous professor he says sent him. I cannot look at the officer or at my boyfriend; all I want is to scurry away like an ant and hide, maybe under a bush, the scratchier the better. I should have known better. I should have found some way to say no. Decent women do not even lay down in public, let alone with a boy. Decent women know how to make their boyfriends happy without scandalizing their professors. My face is flaring. People will gossip later, and I know I deserve it.

I don’t let on that I am this upset; pretending is something I’m good at. I make some jokes about the threat we pose to campus safety, and we take some aimless walk, as freshmen do. In the future, though, we won’t cuddle on campus. We’ve learned our relationship doesn’t belong there. We will make out in his car in dark parking lots because it seems to make my boyfriend happy. We still won’t be alone, though; a choir of voices will pull me farther and farther from my body, and I will learn every word to the single CD in his car, until the kissing involves him and a policeman and a professor and a pastor and Chris Carrabba, but not me. I will be hiding in shame.


When I was 18 I was not under the impression that making out in cars with boys you aren’t sure about is part of normal human development. My friends and I were raised in various strains of what has come to be called evangelical purity culture. We were generally under the impression that it would be, if not easy, at least fairly straightforward to arrive at our wedding days not only with our virginity, but with a record of very little physical interaction between ourselves and anyone other than our husbands. It had been impressed upon us that all physical contact beyond hand-holding had consequences for all of our future relationships, that “going too far” with the wrong boy could curse our marriages for years—and if we didn’t have good marriages, what would we have?

Now I’ve learned that making out in cars is, in fact, part of normal human development; but for me and my purity-seeking friends, what’s even more normal is feeling extreme shame about it. Whether we shut down our sexuality like we were told to, basically refusing to kiss before marriage, or we drew our lines elsewhere, we have all carried the weight of deep shock at ourselves, believing we’ve done far more than the respectable people around us. We have all sat in a church service feeling that if anyone knew, they would stage an intervention to rescue our integrity, our relationships, and potentially our salvation from the terrible things we hadn’t had the courage to refuse. But no one must find out. We might confess the sins of gossip, envy, cheating in school or spending too much, but sexual sin was another realm entirely. To do it was forbidden. To talk about it was impossible.

Now I’ve learned that the guilt we felt was not a healthy sense of regret at a genuinely bad choice. It was the inevitable consequence of a system that told women to be demure and compliant in every arena—including marriage—then made us the sole responsible guardians of that nebulous object, the “purity” of our bodies and souls. Shame was the inevitable consequence of encouraging dissociation from and fear of our bodies. It inevitably swelled like a cancer, replicating itself on all sides, feeding on itself, on the silence and fear and self-hatred it created.

Now I’ve learned that every single one of us has sat somewhere being torn apart by shame—and believing we were utterly alone.


This series has inspired me to invite you to share your stories about sex and shame, anonymously if you choose. It’s not because it’s sensationalist or cathartic to sit around and complain about our childhoods. It’s because I am coming to believe that in every place we can name our shame and fear, and then say something anyway, we are doing something to cauterize the cancer. We are learning that speaking the unspeakable is not nearly as catastrophic as we thought. We are inviting others out into the light. We might even find ways to grieve, or rebuild, or at least to laugh.

Beginning next week, I’ll publish stories about sex and shame, completely anonymously (or with your name and links if you specify). I’m hoping to hear from women and men, Christian and not-Christian, straight and not-straight. Tell us the thing you wish your 15-year-old self could hear. Tell us the thing you’re afraid of. Tell us where you’ve found healing or discovered a new sexual ethic. Tell us we are not alone.

Send your story to me at lyndseymedford[at]gmail.com, using the contact page of the website, or through a Facebook direct message. If you’re not sure where to start, grab one of the prompts below. Be prepared: I’ll probably have to edit for length or clarity. I’ll do everything I can to honor both your story and our readers.

  1. Share a story like the one above of a specific time when a cultural norm about sex “happened” to you. What aspect of that culture does it illustrate?
  2. How did you relate to your body as a child, teenager, or now? Tell about an event that changed this relationship for better or for worse.
  3. Talk about a message about sexuality that has been particularly powerful in your life.
  4. What embarrassing questions do you have about sex and sexuality? Or if you’re not Christian or evangelical, do you have questions you’re afraid to ask about purity culture?
  5. If you met your 15-year-old self, what’s one specific thing you would tell him/her about sex? Or more generally, tell us about one thing you’ve learned as an adult about the ethics/responsibility of sex.

Thanks for being big and bright and brave with anything you want to share. I hope this conversation can be a sigh of relief, a lightened load, and a space for respectful disagreement; I can’t wait to share it with you!


Update: this series is ongoing. Catch up here.

2 comments

Hi,

Thanks so much for sharing, friend. I’m sorry something so joyful—the announcement of a baby!—was tinged with that embarrassment. It seems you have a little distance from that initial shame, so I’ll admit I giggled a bit, but I’ll also admit I felt the same way to some extent on my wedding night. I’ll be happy to share your thoughts sometime in the next few weeks so that someone else will know they’re not alone 🙂

Thanks, Lyndsey. And thanks to the women who shared for Part 2, too. All three pieces resonated with me, and that’s so comforting. Here’s what I’d like to add (it’s taken all week and reading Part 2 to get up the courage). You can share or not.

With our first child, I was ashamed to tell friends and family about the pregnancy. Proud and excited, yes, but also very embarrassed: here it was, actual proof that we’d “done it.”

Never mind that we’d been together for more than a decade. Never mind that our bedroom has only ever had one bed, and that sex in married life is sort of a given. Never mind that I actually loved doing it. I still felt so traumatized by sex jokes I heard in elementary school, and sexism in the media, and sex scenes in movies I wasn’t ready for – all the awful, too-graphic-for-me stuff coming from my school and culture and society – I still felt so disturbed, that evidence that I’d “done it” myself was somehow deeply mortifying. Just as being childless allowed room for the *possibility* of virginity, this baby left no room for doubt. Our physical intimacy was public knowledge.

To be clear, I never judged myself as indecent – I just didn’t want anyone else to know that we…did that sort of thing. I think my sister really did feel a bit scandalized when she heard our news.

Why should I be so bashful about others knowing I have sex with my husband? (Or *had*, once — Baby’s really only proof of that one time after all, right?!) Why wasn’t the truth of my own years of (totally positive) experience enough to over-write, even partially, the idea that sex is generally “disgusting and naughty”?

I don’t know.

When I was pregnant with our second child, there was less shame in the announcement. Everyone already knew. But even now, I still hate any references to sex in songs, books, movies. I still feel embarrassed at the idea or suggestion of anyone else having sex. I can only imagine these feelings were formed when I was a small child, and that’s why they are unshakably strong.

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