As both a a Christian and professional writer, it might surprise you to know that I’ve never actually written about my faith. To be honest, I’ve been afraid: of not being able to adequately express what I know to be true about God, of the backlash I might receive from those who feel that my truth goes against theirs, and perhaps most of all, of being connected to the fear, shame and isolation people I love have felt at the hands of the Christian community. Over the past few years especially, I have felt confusion, sadness, and anger as I’ve watched Christianity be wielded as a weapon, and time and again I’ve somehow convinced myself that my voice was not needed in the conversation. So imagine my surprise when the catalyst for finally speaking up was a reality show about a blonde-haired pageant queen finding her husband on TV. All I can say is God works in mysterious ways.
A little over two weeks ago, Alabama Hannah, aka The Bachelorette, said two things that were true: she had had sex, and that Jesus still loved her. I watched this episode, and then I watched as people came out in droves to shame, condemn and judge her in the name of God’s love. But for someone like me, a Christian woman who grew up in deep in the heart of the Purity Gospel, her words were a welcome revolution.
The first time I can remember having someone talk to me about sex was at my dance studio. Growing up in East Texas, commonly referred to as the buckle of the bible belt, it was not at all uncommon to have religion mix with extracurriculars. Sports teams prayed before games, YoungLife and youth group were social scenes, and christian functions like FCA and See You at the Pole were regular institutions at my public high school. So when I found myself sitting cross-legged on the dance studio floor listening to my teacher read a thinly disguised children’s book about a king and some dirty dishes, no alarm bells went off.
The story, as I remember it*, went like this: two plates sat in a cabinet with other plates. The other plates warned these plates that they were waiting for a wonderful king to come and dine on them, but they had to be patient and wait until he was ready for them, because if they let themselves be used by anyone else, they would be spoiled when the king came and he would have no use for them. Spoiler alert: they couldn’t wait. When the king came they were so ashamed that they were found dirty and messy that they cried. The king did not care. He threw them away. The End.
The plot left more than a few questions unanswered — was the king supposed to be my future husband or God? If he’s a king, surely he can afford a dishwasher, why not just put the plates in there and give them a quick rinse? the trashcan a metaphor for hell or would I be literal garbage should my plate get dirty? We were not asked if we had any questions. Instead we were invited to join the twenty-dollar club - as if one metaphor was not enough for the occasion - where, if we waited until marriage to have sex we could call the studio owner, let her know and she’d retrieve a crisp, never-been-used twenty out of her safe deposit box just for us. Weeks later, at an end of the year banquet for the dance team, each member would be called up and handed their own china plate wrapped in cellophane complete with a bible verse. I can’t remember for certain what verse it was, but I would put my never-used twenty on the guess that it was Proverbs 31.
My introduction to sex, while bizarre to say the least, is not at all uncommon. While the metaphors may have been different, most of my friends who grew up in the purity culture were told in one way or another that their virginity was the single most important virtue they could hold onto, and whether it was their parents’ approval, their self-worth or at worst, their salvation, the stakes of losing it were unbearably high.
As embarrassed as I am to admit my millennial weakness, I pored through comments upon comments on Hannah’s Instagram, transfixed by how many Christians were upset at her confession to being a sexual Christian woman. I even engaged in conversation with one woman who seemed around my age in the comments - something I’ve never done before - and we had a calm and reasonable conversation about the differences in our faith and where we were coming from. Then she said the following:
“I say [all of] this because I want to be with @alabamahannah in heaven.”
There it was again. Different words, same idea: get your plate dirty, and risk being swept into the dumpster fire of hell. I do not know this woman, we do not share any friends nor have we ever lived in the same place, and yet here we were, having been told the same message about sex and purity in the name of Jesus. Which I guess would make sense if Jesus ever spoke about this, but He did not.
Before I go any further, I want to add a caveat — I am not a pastor nor a theologian. I do not claim to understand all of the mysteries and nuances held within a book written thousands of years ago By humans doing their best to make sense of the creator of the universe, and I fully support everyone’s right to find their own educated translation of the wisdom they find within it. But I can state with absolute certainty that you could read the bible cover to cover and find exactly zero places where the bible calls for teenage girls to be thrown in the garbage and/or hell for having sex before they are married. I know there are verses, such as Matthew 5:27-32 (which, I cannot stress enough, is directly speaking to men about their proclivity to view women in purely sexual terms), that people have coopted and applied to premarital sex. But Jesus never specifically speaks on the subject.
Let me be very clear, I support everyone’s right to decide when they do and do not want to have sex, and I completely support anyone’s decision to wait until marriage. But I would argue that when we as a community have tied young girls’ virginity to their parents’ love, their self-worth, and worst of all, their salvation, we have taken away their very right to make the decision for themselves. And after years of watching people I love struggle with fallout from purity culture - to say nothing of it’s greater societal implications -it seems to me that while we’ve obsessed over the state of sexual women’s eternal fate, we’ve turned a blind eye to the damage purity culture is doing here on earth.
I have friends who have been told their marriage was likely to fail by a pastor because they lived together before marriage, friends who haven’t waited until marriage but said they did because it was easier than dealing with the judgement they’d receive from loved ones, and friends who have waited until marriage and still struggle with guilt and shame when it comes to having sex with their husband. I personally remember feeling relief on my wedding day that I would no longer have to worry about other people’s opinions of what I had and had not done with my body.
I never joined the twenty-dollar bill club. Years after my dance teacher read the book about kings and dishes, I would sit in my mom’s brand new car in the Sonic drive-in and tell her that I’d had sex. Even though she’d expressed her wish that I’d wait until marriage, my mom did not shame me, judge me or throw me away. Instead, she asked questions, shared her own experiences and promptly got me on birth control. Why? Because she loved me.
The idea that God’s love for us is contingent on our actions is not only unfounded, it goes directly against the gospel. Holding shame, rejection and eternal damnation over someone’s head in order to get what you want from them is not love, it is extortion. So in the spirit of God and Alabama Hannah, I just want to say:
Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, whoever you’ve done, whenever you’ve done it, God loves you.
Anything you’ve heard that contradicts that, feel free to throw it in the trash.
*I say “as I remember” because after looking for hours, I can conclusively say this book does not exist anywhere on the internet. I did however run this version of it by a friend who was also in the room that day and she remembers it the same way.