At the college I attended for undergrad, room assignments were unpredictable. You had no idea who your roommates were going to be until you arrived on campus in the fall semester, and you were only permitted to request one roommate when you frequently had three. In the tight quarters of my dormitory, who your roommates were could make or break your entire year.
I was fortunate enough in my roommates– I only ever had one fight all four years, and I managed to end up with a junior nursing major every year– by the time I graduated, I knew more about what a junior nursing major went through then they did, I think. One of my roommates was Julie*, and she was dedicated to her work, always optimistic, tidy without being neurotically clean, kind and gentle, encouraging, and in general one of the more awesome roommates I had.
She was also beautiful. Stunningly gorgeous, in fact.
And it was the first time I’d ever noticed how beautiful a woman was.
In the environment I’d grown up in, the only thing I was really taught about physical beauty is that it was deceiving– the implied idea was that beautiful women could not be trusted, and I believed that, although not consciously. But, looking back, all of my friends through high school and early college . . . didn’t fit inside either my idea of a beautiful woman or my culture’s ideal. I tended to avoid women I felt were attractive, and for reasons I didn’t understand, I felt more comfortable around those who didn’t fit inside what I thought was beautiful. When I talked about this idea, which is weird that I did, come to think of it, I emphasized how important it was for me that their personality shine through. I wanted to be friends with people, and not with people’s looks. And, over time, as I got to know these women, anything about them that didn’t fit inside my culturally constructed idea of beauty… faded. It ceased to matter, not that it ever really did.
However, when you combine this principle, this innate distrust of anything beautiful or attractive, with the idea that any kind of attraction that isn’t for the person you’re married to . . . things become more difficult. There’s no difference between appreciating beauty and lust. The way I’d been taught, they were one and the same, although they only ever phrased it in heterosexual terms.
The year I lived with Julie was a terrifying year for me, because I thought I might be bi-sexual, and growing up believing that identifying as LGBTQ was an “abomination before God” made me tremble and panic. I struggled so hard that year, because I couldn’t not notice Julie, and I was convinced that even just noticing how attractive she was made my sexuality questionable.
I figured out a long, long time later that I could have been spared some gut-wrenching agony if I’d had a real, honest understanding of sexual identity and sexual attraction. I would have realized that there was a difference between noticing that Julie was gorgeous, a wonderful human being, and a woman I admired, and being aroused by her, which I was not.
But I didn’t know the difference.
I didn’t even realize there was a difference.
I think this is one of the central problems with the abstinence-only form of education. Many people seem to be afraid that if you give teenagers information about sex it’s automatically granting approval for them to have sex. It’s why conservatives fight programs that make condoms available to teenagers; it’s perceived as “giving up,” as just shrugging our shoulders and saying “oh, well, they’re going to do it anyway, might as well make sure they’re smart about it.” Because of this, being “smart” about sex, or being taught about our sexuality is conflated with permissiveness.
The supposed solutions of the abstinence movement are entirely too easy. It promises that abstention guarantees mind-blowing sex once you’re married, which is ridiculously not true. Any kind of sexual act, intercourse or otherwise, requires people to listen and respond, and it takes time to learn. That’s just common sense, and anyone can learn to have amazing sex with the right person, married or not.
It also teaches that the only way for teenagers to not have sex is to know as little about it as possible– which means they don’t just lack an understanding of the mechanics, but that any kind of discussion surrounding sexuality, attraction, desire, and arousal are all silenced, and teenagers are left without enough information to process their daily experiences in a healthy way. Many of us end up completely guilt-ridden because we noticed a man or a woman was attractive, and we think that’s lust. Or, we may even go to the extreme of purposefully looking for and marrying people we aren’t sexually attracted to because we’ve been so assiduously taught to avoid that in all its forms.
In most environments, abstinence-only education seems to be based on a huge shame of our bodies, or splintering off our sexual selves from the rest our physical experience, and I don’t think that’s healthy. Finding a balance is important, and sexual over-indulgence (from porn addictions to what have you) can be damaging like any other form of indulgence, but being educated about the nature of our bodies isn’t indulgence, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. We were designed to experience intense physical pleasure in a variety of ways, and we weren’t given that ability strictly to deny it, but to enjoy it.