Looking back, I suppose there is some humor in realizing that I signed a virginity pledge on a holiday revolving around a virgin birth.
On Christmas morning of 2008, I was 15 years old and received a little silver ring with the words “True Love Waits” etched into it in black letters. The ring was a gift from my mother, and the words on it represented a promise to myself and – most importantly – to God. It promised that I would stay pure until marriage. At my wedding, the ring would be replaced with a wedding band.
“You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.” For an idealist like me, at the time, those words represented safety. Now, nearly 14 years later, they make me unbelievably sad.
When I found the ring and card with that pledge in a memento box about a decade after I signed, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t find the nostalgia I felt when I looked at my old Twilight posters and silly bands. But this ring was different, and now, what it represented in my life as a teenager is coming into focus.
Purity rings and the purity movement that spawned them became popular in the ’80s and ’90s. Evangelical Christian parents were in a panic over the AIDS epidemic and the way popular culture was sexualizing young people. Over the years, the movement would spread from church basements to the mainstream. In 1998, Pastor Randy Wilson – horrified over a series of sex scandals that year – would make headlines after founding the purity ball movement, where young girls in attendance would promise their fathers they’d stay chaste until marriage.
The True Love Waits campaign was born in 1993 and had an all-encompassing mission for its participants to abstain from “sexual thoughts, sexual touching, pornography, and actions that are known to lead to sexual arousal.”
If the campaign’s numbers are accurate, between 1993 and 2004, an estimated 2.5 million youths joined, signing the pledge and wearing purity rings similar to mine.
I suppose it’s not that surprising. Despite their simplicity, the rings and the pledges that went with them claimed to come with so many guarantees. Sign your name to the pledge, and you were walking a path of righteousness. Slip on that little silver ring, and you’d never get your heart broken. Wear it and accept that you are not your own, and your future children will have the kind of happy home that Hallmark cards are made of.
You are not your own. You are not your own. You are not your own.
That ring under my Christmas tree wasn’t the beginning of the sex negativity that I now realize ruled my childhood. The summer prior, I’d gone to my cousin’s youth group and the deacon unceremoniously informed us that if you liked someone and you stayed up late at night talking to them – he stressed that even if you were only talking – you were still “whoring around.” A year later, a woman in my own youth group would say that girls needed to stop “tempting” young boys.
I was in elementary school when the warnings about not being “fast” began. For the life of me, I can’t actually remember anyone ever explaining to me how a woman becomes pregnant, but my family made it clear that girls who were “fast” would only end up pregnant and never be wife material. I didn’t understand how all these pieces of the puzzle fit together, but I knew I never wanted my name spoken with the same kind of disdain used when describing “fast girls” or women who had the “spirit of a Jezebel.”
Technically speaking, purity rings are gender neutral – teens of the mid-2000s will recognize that the Jonas brothers were among some of the most well-known male purity ring wearers. In practice, though, purity movements disproportionately target women and girls. There are no fancy balls during which boys promise their mothers to abstain from sex until their wedding nights. And it goes without saying that because staying pure for heterosexual marriages is the end goal, LGBTQ+ people cannot be included in purity culture.
After years of “you are not your own,” it wasn’t a love affair that disillusioned me with True Love Waits and my purity pledge. It was my long-time-coming break-up with religion in general. Soon after turning 17 and reading “The Purity Myth” by Jessica Valenti, I began to identify as agnostic and admitted to myself that the only reason I believed in God at all was because I’d been told my entire life I’d go to hell if I didn’t. Once I got past the idea that goodness and religion were synonymous, my “True Love Waits” ring went into a memento box.
But it still left a mark.
I was left with shame that had been ingrained into my very being. It’s not that it’s inherently wrong to abstain from sex, either for personal or religious reasons. The problem is that making virginity a personality trait leaves adolescents at war with their own bodies. When I think of the years it took to shake the shame I was taught, I can’t help but feel sad for my younger self who dealt with guilt spirals over crushes and the unfairness in knowing that no boy in my family ever had to agonize in a similar way.
Real love – not the deeply conditional variety that the True Love Waits campaign pedals – makes me want to believe that some of these people meant well. When I’m in an extremely charitable mood, I like to think most of the parents involved thought they were protecting their children from unplanned pregnancies and broken hearts. When I think about the legacy of the Jezebel trope that describes Black women and girls as eternally sexually insatiable to excuse sexual violence, I wonder if my own relatives misguidedly believed fixating on not being “fast” would keep us safe from predators.
The problem is there’s no protection to be found in comparing people to chewed-up gum. Nor in claiming that developmentally normal feelings for non-asexuals are the devil’s work. And unsurprisingly, a lot of the kids who grow up being taught that virginity is the most precious gift God has given them are not all right.
Studies show that kids who sign virginity pledges are just as likely as their non-pledging peers to have sex before marriage. But because their parents and pastors accessorized them with religious-based sex shaming as opposed to comprehensive sex education, they tend to be more likely to have unsafe sex due to ignorance, leading to higher rates of sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies.
You always hope for better for the people who come after you. After more than a decade of damning studies on purity culture and abstinence-only education, countless anecdotes from former participants saying the movement damaged them, and even some of the movement’s biggest supporters renouncing their stances, I hoped we’d all learned. If we truly want to protect young people, comprehensive education is the way to go. I hoped that young women like me would be spared the intense shaming of the natural feelings and urges that come with growing up.
But, instead of listening and learning, the True Love Waits campaign continues and another generation of teens are being deprived of the sex education that can prevent disease, youth pregancies and yearslong – if not lifelong – cycles of guilt and shame. I hoped by now there’d be an end to the madness and more room for people to just be human. But, unfortunately, that kind of thinking is alive and well.
Atiya Irvin-Mitchell is a Pittsburgh-based journalist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow her on Twitter @AtiyaWrites.
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