purity culture and the wedding night

I’ve written a lot about purity culture. I plan to write even more on it in the future, considering that I want to write a book on the subject (I have three books planned at the moment, which is the biggest reason why I’m going to seminary. Research is hard and expensive outside of academia, y’all). But, for now, I’m limited to giving snap-shots of what it’s like to grow up in purity culture (and, of course, reviewing I Kissed Dating Goodbye).

I’ve spent most of my time railing against it because I believe that purity culture was the #1 reason why I remained in an abusive relationship and was raped repeatedly. If I hadn’t believed to the very core of myself that my “impurity” made me ineligible to be married to anyone else, then I probably wouldn’t have been so viscerally terrified at the idea of losing him, as awful as the relationship was and as miserable and broken as I was.

But, there were other effects of purity culture. It built up a lot of funny notions over the years, and I’d like to talk about one in particular, mostly because I’m curious to see how wide-spread of a concept it was. I encountered it in lots of Christian romance novels, primarily, and it was a concept fairly widely embraced by my peer groups in high school and college. I’m especially curious to know if there were any men in purity culture who had similar conversations.

For a long time I planned not  to have sex on my wedding night.

In retrospect it seems funny (as in both humorous and odd), but I was dead serious back then. I knew that if I had a “godly courtship” we wouldn’t have the time or space for any canoodling, so we would enter our marriage with no sexual experience whatsoever. None. No kissing, no hand holding, no cuddling, no hugs. If the first time we ever kissed was at the altar, leaping from that to full-on coitus was terrifying.

Now that I’m outside of my own particular fundamentalist sub-culture (and there are many flavors. The differences between IFB and Plymouth Brethren are deep), I’ve seen conversations happening about the correctly-criticized ridiculous expectation for women to go from innocent virgin to sex pot in one day with the flick of a switch. I received that message loud and clear from a variety of sources– once I was married, that was it. My husband would have spent all those years fighting off his beastly urges and that, on the wedding night, I was primarily there so that he could unleash himself for the first time. All that pent-up frustration from all those years of never being able to even masturbate was to going to create a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am situation.

Hence why I was horrified, and had every intention of talking to whoever my intended was and convincing him to wait just a little big longer so I could get used to the idea of having a man touch me. Complicated with all of that was a deep-seated fear that I was actually a lesbian and that was why the thought of sex was repulsive. Turns out, no, I’m bisexual and it was just that all the men I’d ever known were repulsive.

Heterosexual vaginal intercourse and everything that went with it just sounded messy and gross and a little scary. Men were scary. So, I fervently hoped that I’d end up courting a sweet and equally innocent boy that thought waiting until we’d gotten used to each other was a good idea. As did every woman I talked with. With no clear idea of what goes into sex besides “Tab A and Slot B”-level knowledge, and the fact that it supposedly hurts, all I knew was that it wasn’t something I was willing to leap into.

But … ultimately I believed it wasn’t my choice. Which was why I hoped that I’d be lucky enough to marry a man “willing to wait.” Who, after he heard me say “I don’t really want to have sex tonight, I just want to cuddle and kiss and maybe see where it goes over our honeymoon,” wouldn’t ignore me, but respect me. In retrospect, that’s the most stomach-churning thing I’ve ever heard.

I thought I’d be lucky  not to marry a rapist.

I wasn’t alone. My best friend was just as scared of the wedding night as I was. As was the first roommate that I talked with about it in college. As was a girl I bunked with at camp. It was a fairly consistent pattern with my girlfriends: we were, essentially, convinced that “wedding night” equaled “possible rape.” In the end, purity culture amounts to really nothing more than rape culture taken to an extreme.

The Christian romance novels I read portrayed it as helpfully and optimistically as possible– scared, innocent virgins would marry sweet men who cherished just how precious and adorable their fear was (patronizing much?) and over the course of many nights would gently and lovingly and compassionately draw her out of her shell. It was, in fact, my favorite plot. If the couple got married at the start of the book instead of at the end, I ate it up.

In retrospect, it’s obvious why. Those books helped me believe that not all men were rapists, basically. If all these women authors thought up this situation, they must have experienced something like a compassionate man who respects your boundaries, right? They exist, right?

So … how about you? Was this something you thought about? Again, I’d especially like to get the raised-as-male take on this, because obviously you’d be going into this with different expectations placed on you. If I was afraid of possibly being raped, were you afraid of not being able to be “manly” enough or something similar?

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  • Jordan Bates

    I remember being afraid that my first -kiss- in front of all my family and friends would be super embarrassing, let alone being able to perform in bed with my wife. But whoops, now I’ve done both and am far from being married so… 🙂

    • Beroli

      You’ve been in bed with your wife without being married? Is this a riddle?

      (Kidding. Couldn’t resist.)

  • For what it’s worth, evangelical sex instruction books often leave open the option of postponing first-time-sex past the wedding night (i don’t have specifics/page#s for this particular topic, but some of the sources I’ve drawn on for related topics are LaHayes’ Act of Marriage, Leman’s Sheet Music, McBurneys’ Real Questions, Real Answers about Sex, and Wheats’ Intended for Pleasure).

  • spellman

    In a humorous vein, something like this?

    But on a more serious note, I’m male and didn’t grow up in quite as heavy of a purity culture. But the concept of Lust converting into Love was definitely a weird disconnect for me. Fortunately the senior pastor assured us that it was a topic discussed during pre-marital counseling.

    I have since taken it upon myself to actually educate myself about things like this, and am in a social circle where the married couples are quite free in their talks about sex and sexuality with my fiance. So, even though we are both virgins, I think we’ll be good?

    • I am personally of the opinion that it’s possible for two virgins to be married and for that not necessarily to be a bad idea– although some people disagree with me, arguing that sexual compatibility is a large part of marriage and should be something you both know you’re in sync about beforehand.

      To an extent I agree– sexual compatibility is important, but I’ve known several very happy marriages where the couple involved weren’t very compatible, but there were enough other things for them to want to be together and they were compatible enough. On the other hand, two of my friends have gotten divorced because of sexual incompatibility.

      I think it’s incredibly important for virgin people about to be married to have extremely frank and honest conversations about their sexual expectations. You should know the answers to questions like “I would like sex to happen _____ often– what about you?” or “would it be alright for one person to masturbate alone if the other person isn’t feeling it?”

      Hopefully you have a general idea of the kind of sex you want. Is one of you a little (or a lot) kinky, but the other is really vanilla? Would role play be important to one person, but squick the other person out?

      As you can see, these sorts of questions can be difficult to answer if you’ve never had sex– or even if sex hasn’t been something you’ve had often enough to know. Difficult, but maybe not impossible. At the very least you should have very frank and open conversations about it.

      ETA: I also want to make sure it’s very clear that I’m not encouraging you to have sex before you’re married if you (and/or she) don’t want to. You should have sex when you want to, under the circumstances you want to. If that’s after marriage, then yay. 🙂

      • Beroli

        To an extent I agree– sexual compatibility is important, but I’ve known
        several very happy marriages where the couple involved weren’t very
        compatible, but there were enough other things for them to want to be
        together and they were compatible enough.

        That implies at least a limited form of sexual compatibility, though, doesn’t it? Each of them agreed that sex wasn’t important enough for lack of sexual compatibility to be a deal-breaker?

        • I don’t think it implies a level of sexual compatibility at all, but rather implies high levels of emotional and intellectual compatibility. Two people can be sexually incompatible and yet still work together so well on every other level that they stay together regardless.

          I don’t think it’s that either party “agrees sex isn’t important enough to be a dealbreaker”, exactly, but I would say the higher-libido party is probably deciding that every other factor about the relationship outweighs that single one.

        • Veiled_In_Dance

          In my experience (husband and I were both virgins on our wedding night), it wasn’t that we didn’t think sex was that important. We agreed that we would communicate very frankly with each other and work on making sure that both of us had our needs met and were satisfied. Now, even that’s not a failproof plan; what if the only thing that got him off was being diapered and breastfed? That’d be a dealbreaker for me. So it was a bit of a risk. But it was one we were willing to take because everything else was so awesome that we felt it was worth it. And it was. And while we have not been perfectly compatible – who is, anyway? everyone’s so full of quirks that this seems like a somewhat lofty standard to set – it’s definitely been “close enough” and we’ve done really well together.

      • spellman

        I’ve also had a bunch of discussion about sexual compatibility. Especially in today’s dating culture, it’s one of THE BIG deals. Dr. Nerdlove and other dating coaches / secular LMFTs harp on it all the time.

        However, as you’ve also noted, it’s not the end-all be-all, and definitely requires some extra leg work. I also recall a survey ( http://www.lehmiller.com/blog/2013/5/13/how-important-is-it-to-have-sex-before-marriage.html ) that showed couples who did and did not have sex before marriage were about equal in sexual satisfaction (with a statistically significant but slightly less for no sex). Which goes to show that the vast majority of predicting satisfaction isn’t whether or not you do the deed ahead of time. And obviously lots of communication afterwards.

        It’s definitely a lot more work. You have to trust both partners know themselves enough about something they have never done before, and be comfortable enough to talk frankly about it. And in a hyper sex-negative culture like typical Evangelical Christianity, not the easiest to suss out beforehand.

        Still, you ideally can read some of the tea leaves ahead of time. Asking key questions like the ones you describe, looking at their attitudes towards sex, discussions about their feelings towards things like masturbation (ABOMINABLE SIN vs eh), plus other compatibility checks can hopefully help inform you.

        As for my own relationship, we fortunately have been able to talk about it and hopefully it will work out for the best. But that’s just me personally. I’ve gone on record with other friends saying that I am OK with pre-marital sex (e.g. not a sin) just not my personal cup of tea.

      • “I think it’s incredibly important for virgin people about to be married to have extremely frank and honest conversations about their sexual expectations.” Yes, this, this, this. Somehow I have come to this conclusion even though none of the leaders I’ve ever had in any church setting have acknowledged this. And my church experiences have been great. But sex remains something that isn’t talked about much. I always kind of got the impression that I could talk about sex after I was married, which seems a little late.

        I have friends who saved their first kiss for the altar and my thinking was always the same as yours and many churched girls – from 0 to 60 all in one night?! To me that always sounded ludicrous, and so I had always planned to kind of work up to intercourse in my romantic relationship leading up to the wedding. Of course I’ve always been single so we’ll see. I am grateful for people, you included, who are having these kinds of conversations and are open and real about real life things so that I will not end up on my wedding night thinking, “What is happening?!” but can be confident and secure in starting and having conversations that lead to both myself and my partner being confident and secure in our sexual escapades.

      • We did a pre-marital counselling with our church, led by a marriage counsellor. There was a section to talk about sex. He directly said he wasn’t going to pretend to know what each couple had previously done, but the focus was on having the awkward conversations. Obviously I couldn’t hear the other couples as we broke off to discuss with our partners, but looking around, there were definitely some that were freaking out at the idea of even having to say they like kinky sex or would like sex 3 times a week. I definitely think that’s an important part of getting prepped for marriage: whether you actually have sex before or not, you need to be able to talk about it openly.

      • Lindsaydoodles

        Yes and amen! My husband and I had very frank conversations pre-wedding, much more frank than many of my friends thought wise, but we both knew it was important to us and it’s worked out well. It was a good decision, as much as we got the side eye for kissing and talking about “such things” (gasp) before we got married. I wanted my honeymoon to actually involve sex, thankyouverymuch, and not be trying to figure things out that we should have discussed weeks or months ago!

  • Grasshopper

    I had always expected that both of us would have a really hard time not having sex until the wedding night and therefore it would be great because we’d finally have the chance to go at it. (I didn’t believe that women had less of a sex drive than men.) I don’t remember the wedding night really being discussed though – waiting until marriage was a more important concept. I remember asking my mom how people know how to have sex if they wait until they’re married and she said “you parents will tell you how before you get married”. And when I asked what people who don’t have parents do her answer was “I think they’d figure it out”. So I was scared that I wouldn’t know what to do. I also remember reading advice somewhere that it might be better to wait until the morning after the wedding to try having sex if you’re both virgins, since it could be stressful to have sex for the first time if you’ve both had a long day and are tired.

    • paulB_1024

      My experiences were quite similar. I expected that me and my wife would be both quite ready on our wedding night. And waiting was always what was talked about, never sex. This is a stark contrast compared to what @@samanthafield:disqus says, because while purity culture women are scared of being raped, purity culture men are not told anything about their emotions or sexual desires, and so assume that the woman will be as ready as they are, which is obviously a HUGE train wreck.

      I figured, both parties being Christian, that God would somehow convince a woman to talk to me, fall in love and we would marry, then miraculously (literally) go from possibly holding hands to sex in one night.

      In reality I had no idea where the vagina was actually located, and until after high school thought that children were delivered through the anus at birth, because I had no exposure to female anatomy. I readily admit that I was a jerk to some women, because I had no other idea how to be from the examples of men presented to me. I remember once hearing Dr. James Dobson say that pornography was only really useful to show female anatomy. In that regard it actually was quite useful for me, because it showed the correct layout of women’s bodies.

      At Bible camp one year we had a speaker who claimed to have been very promiscuous as a teenager and told of how that had ruined his relations with future women and left him emotionally scarred after he converted to Christianity. I had never kissed a woman until my late 30’s. I was at a bar with some friends and we decided to play spin the bottle. My long-time friend, who was well aware that I was a virgin in many ways, was the first to kiss me. Driving home that night I was thinking about purity culture’s teachings and realised that the real emotional scarring had come about from being lied to for decades.

      I’ve still only had 1 semi-serious relationship, with a Christian woman who would not go any farther than holding hands. I actually had my first kiss a few years after we broke up.

      • “Driving home that night I was thinking about purity culture’s teachings and realised that the real emotional scarring had come about from being lied to for decades.”

        Yes. Me too.

      • Jewelfox

        I was raised male in a purity culture, and what I was taught is that my emotions and sexual desires were BAD EVIL ICKY, full stop. Until I get married (to a woman), at which point they would magically become okay!

        Becoming aroused terrified me, and I imagined panicking and apologizing and not having sex on the wedding night (“can we just play board games instead???”).

        In hindsight, a lot of that was coloured by a) being creeped out and scared by my “male” body, and b) actually believing the crap that my mormon church leaders said about women being “god’s crowning creation” and stuff. I was ashamed that I felt sexually attracted to these mythical, angelic creatures, and knew that just because our relationship had god’s blessing it didn’t mean having to have sex with me would be any less icky or traumatizing.

      • Grasshopper

        I do still think it’s true that all women don’t have lower sex drives than all men. Samantha’s experience of fearing rape on her wedding night is not the only way that purity culture can affect women. Some women also have the experience of wanting sex, spending years burying those desires and telling themselves that they’re wrong, and being afraid that they’re a slut for even wanting to have sex. In addition to what Samantha has said, purity culture is harmful because it denies women the ability to say yes to sex for themselves.

        I have a big problem with teachings that flat-out assume women won’t be ready to have sex on the wedding night or that they care more about the emotional connection than the physical aspects of sex anyway. Is it important to be aware of your new spouse’s views on sex and how ready they are? Yes. Absolutely. But the way to do that is not to assume that a woman raised in purity culture won’t be ready for sex. You have to ASK. So yes, any time you make assumptions about someone else’s sex expectations will be a huge train wreck. Any relationship is about two individual people, not about men and women. And those two people are going to have their own desires, interests, and expectations regardless of whether they are a man, a woman, or any other gender.

        • Lindsaydoodles

          Yup, trying being a high-drive “nice Christian girl” surrounded by other nice Christian girls who were horrified–horrified I say!-at the thought of sex. It’s taking me a long, long time not to feel like a freak after years of that. I’m finally starting to own it, but man, that’s one of the reasons I want to have some kind of ministry to young women about sex–I don’t ever want a girl to go through all those years of mental questioning and shame if I can help it!

          • <3 this. At my most conservative I still wrote about (married) sex in my journal.

  • I had a similar weakness for hokey Christian romance novels where the protagonists married first then fell in love. I’m not about to start waving a flag or joining a support group but I think I’m probably demisexual, or whatever the word is. My husband is the only person I’ve ever been sexually attracted to, and even then the idea of having sex with him was something that gradually became appealing as our relationship grew and deepened. My predilections were actually a pretty perfect fit with the purity culture narrative, tbh.

    My husband and I did wait until marriage to have sex, and seriously discussed the possibility of it not happening all at once on our wedding night. It did in the end, but I know the only reason I was comfortable and enjoyed myself was that my husband made it perfectly clear that he was fine with going at a pace we were both comfortable with and that we had all the time we needed to figure this out. He would have had this attitude anyway, but for what it’s worth our pastor also encouraged this in premarital counseling. Re: compatibility, we did have a few discussions before marriage about our expectations, and what sorts of things sounded appealing to us or not. I don’t think compatibility is totally unimportant-but there is a broad spectrum of compatibility that couples can make work, and absolutely fundamental incompatibilities can usually be revealed through frank discussion rather than actually trying things out if, like me, you prefer to commit to each other before having sex. Sex between !ong-term couples is always negotiated anyway. You don’t always want the exact same things, but if you put in the work of communicating honestly and are committed to working to ensure the happiness and well being of both partners you can usually find an arrangement that works for you.

  • Karen Burch

    When I first learned about sex and the wedding night, it definitely terrified me. I was convinced that it was too filthy, painful-sounding, and even possibly dangerous that I couldn’t believe couples would willingly do such a thing.

    Once I really hit puberty, however, I discovered that I had a really powerful sex drive – and this terrified me even more. I was full of guilt for being so interested in sex and I’d bottle it up until finally I’d have to personally administer some self-relief…after which I would sob and beg God to forgive me.

    Thankfully, as I went through college, I began to accept my own sexuality and let go of the guilt. It was then that I realized how sex-negative my mother is. I’d always thought she was neutral on the subject while growing up, but now that I’m more freely exploring and talking about my sexuality, she gets deeply upset – and not in the normal ‘oh no my baby girl is growing up’ way, either. I think she means well, but looking back I can definitely see how her negativity towards pretty much anything but lawfully wedded male/female missionary-position vanilla sex affected me growing up.

  • lupiter

    I was pretty strict in my definition of “sex” and pretty broad in my definition of “biblical marriage” (and still am) so personally I feel like I didn’t have problems.

    But I think it was generally agreed that if you had put your pre-marital boundary at “X and no more” you should probably only go a bit beyond on the wedding night, and work up to sex over time. This was agreed by men and women so that’s good I guess?

  • There was definitely a time when I was determined to not have sex on my wedding night, but mostly because I didn’t want to be doing what everyone at the wedding knew I would be doing. I thought it was too shameful a thing for everyone to *know* exactly when it would be happening. I guess I always assumed I would be able to get my husband on board with it.

    Of course, all these thoughts changed when I actually started dating someone.

  • I have a very low libido, and the amount of people who informed me that my husband and I wouldn’t last more than five years before he found someone else with a higher one is the main reason I was terrified of marriage. I was raised in a very strict Christian household, with the competing social message that sex was THE most important thing to know before marriage, and I didn’t particularly want to HAVE sex before marriage.

    There was a social pressure to have it even though I didn’t want to (not from my husband – he understood 100% and always has) but rather from the world at large, as well as my peer group… but with an older social message and this sense that having sex would be bad in its own way. It’s an impossible position. (Obligatory “that’s what she said” moment, I suppose)

    My husband and I are not sexually compatible when it comes to libido, although we are in every other sense incredibly compatible. But I had so many people (granted, we were married at 22 and 24 respectively so these were mostly people in their very early 20’s) who told us that marriage would never work if the people didn’t have sex beforehand, and often, and for at least a few years, so you’d “know.”

    Ugh. I found both messages – the “sex is dirty and gross” and the “sex is imperative and without having sex every day or at least four times a week your marriage will die in a year” – incredibly harmful and the effects have been surprisingly long-term.

  • Kevin

    I’m a cisgendered heterosexual male who grew up in purity culture, remains a virgin at 31, and has chosen abstinence until marriage. Until I got a smartphone and joined Twitter last year I didn’t even know the issues people have with purity culture(like sexual incompatibility[something my mom doesn’t believe happens but scares me a little]). I never heard anything that a woman would be afraid of sex or would have thought of it.(Frightening, huh!?) Since at 18 I decided I didn’t want to remain in Plato’s cave forever, and in fact want to live overseas, I decided I don’t want to marry anyone at my church and began to expect I won’t marry a virgin. Also, even though we were told that women want sex less than men, I was watching TBN one day and Wendy Treat was preaching on marriage/sex(I was about 15) and she said that there’s nothing wrong with women who desire sex more than their husbands.(Aside: in the Charismatic movement, in which I grew up, even comps often allow women to teach mixed gender audiences, and refer male headship to marriage; our youth leader was a woman.) Thus I hoped I’d marry a woman like that. Also, as I mentioned in a previous post, I had a talk with my mom over this; she told me that women want sex more if their husbands are considerate of their needs. (She told me that the wives often have affairs when the husbands are inconsiderate — based on what I’ve seen on social media over the past year, Of doubt comps will acknowledge this!) We guys were often told that we were being protected from marrying women who would always say “no” to sex, be doomed to sexless marriages, cheat(thus starting on the slippery slope to hell), and get divorced. (I got this when I expressed my desire to move abroad.) I wasn’t afraid of not being “manly” enough; but I’m of the school of thought being an adult male is what makes you a man, and all the hoops you need to jump through are a bunch of nonsense. However I’ve picked up from social media an assumption that “Manhood”(TM) is proven by how many women you sleep with. I only found this out in the past year; the message I got is you need to reach a level of manhood to get married(thus, it’s manhood then sex.) Concerning the concern on wedding night sex, I was thinking of just letting the first time I have sex BE the wedding.(I read that centuries back one way the Jews did weddings was a couple of witnesses would testify they saw the couple go into a room to have sex.) Part of what motivates this is I see it as unlikely to find someone people in this environment approve of; thus meaning I will probably have to elope.
    I am not very knowledgeable about sex(as a result of flipping through books on foreign slang in Barnes and Noble I learned the French and Spanish names for positions before I learned what they actually are).
    Once I decided on abstinence(that I really do want it) I saw myself as taking a stand, and telling it to any potential date.(I figure if she loves me she’ll respect that decision.) And once married I’ve committed to being available for her. Another game changer is the fact that Doug Wilson’s meme about male=colonizer is that is a turn-off for me; I don’t like the idea of being dominant in that situation.
    That’s my story, pardon the random, chaotic nature of it. Thank you for sharing yours; I will use it to make informed decisions.

    • alfgifu

      Kevin, I wasn’t planning to comment but reading your story I thought you might like to know that I’m a woman who chose abstinence until marriage rather as you have done – as a personal choice – and married a man who didn’t share that position and wasn’t a virgin. It worked out really well. 🙂

      We talked about our preferences on our second date, and I was half-convinced that he’d lose interest in me when he found out that I wasn’t up for sex before marriage, which is very much the cultural norm in our area. If he had put any pressure on me I would have ended things there and then – but he was incredibly respectful of my boundaries. We dated for a year before getting engaged, and the subject came up every so often but always in a completely relaxed ‘is this ok’ and ‘how do you feel’ kind of way.

      We also did a marriage counselling course and had some good, frank conversations about preferences and kinks – terrifying at the time but powerful in helping us feel like a team where each supports the other. We also did some research together on different things we could try. I reckon everyone wants sex more when their partner is considerate of their needs and makes sure the experience is equally fun for everyone involved. 🙂

      I have to say, in spite of all this, I was pretty nervous on my wedding night – but I reckon I’d have been nervous whenever I had sex for the first time!

      One thing we did which worked really well was to have a late morning wedding and an afternoon party, so we could leave at about 6pm. It was great for us to have more energy for each other that evening, and several of our guests thanked us afterwards as it made travel easier for them too.

  • My first girlfriend was when I was 19 years, first year of university. She had dated before, before becoming a Christian not too long before, but never gave any kind of sexual history – and I didn’t ask because I didn’t really care. She established early that she wanted our first kiss to be on at the altar. For me that would mean my first kiss ever. I agreed, because that made sense to me back then.

    But I do remember having this same kind of conundrum on my hands: that’s going to be a really awkward first kiss as I have no idea what I’m doing in front of 100+ people, and then that night would probably be the most embarrassing of my life as I fumbled around (but at least it would be someone I knew I could be vulnerable with). I don’t think I ever talked to anybody about it and the relationship didn’t last long, so it was a short term idea, but yeah, for a bit I was in the same boat.

  • I sometimes wish I’d waited until my wedding night (though my husband was my first, so yay?) but if I had…well, let’s just say that the honeymoon would have been TERRIBLE.

  • Veiled_In_Dance

    I wasn’t raised in “purity culture” from childhood like others have been. My family and I all got saved when I was 13 and we joined an independent fundamental baptist church right after. IFB is a bit different here in Ontario than it is in the US, but many of these churches have preachers who were born and raised in America and attended places like Hyles-Anderson, so there’s definitely a good amount of crossover. I think our inherent Canadian reserve keeps us from falling into quite the same levels of extremism. But yeah, all of my teen years were spent learning this “purity culture”. I read “I Kissed Dating Goodbye”, I read a lot of Ladies Against Feminism articles, I was given a purity ring by my parents after we all discussed the importance of saving sex for marriage. It was something that I wanted, and even now as a woman in my 30s I don’t regret it one bit, but it was definitely also something that was expected by my parents and reinforced by my siblings and the church group.

    Our first kiss on the lips happened on our wedding day. I don’t regret saving sex but I really do regret not kissing first. We didn’t, because we were told that we wouldn’t be able to control ourselves if we got to close to that fire. Imagine our shock to discover that, actually, sex is a choice – it doesn’t just happen out of the blue and you don’t just “lose control”. We could have kissed and hugged and cuddled, and still managed to save ourselves for marriage. I regret all that time we wasted and all the guilt and stress we felt because we couldn’t manage to be wildly in love and keep our hands entirely to ourselves. We would’ve been fine.

    A lot of what we were taught was crazy and just plain wrong. I was told that it was my job to keep both myself and my boyfriend in line because he’s a man and he can’t control himself and women have to be the gatekeepers of sexual purity and blah blah blah. Even as a naive teenager I still thought that sounded nuts and I could see the inherent unfairness, but now as an adult I’m frankly appalled that my mom would teach me that kind of crap. I’m surprised I didn’t end up with more sexual hangups than I did – aside from being nervous and a bit shy on our wedding night, because I worried that my husband wouldn’t find me attractive (I was underweight and I’ve always had a very small bust), I was quite keen to get him naked and get to know him. There had been such a strong undercurrent of passion and desire between us through our long courtship and we were both chomping at the bit by the time our wedding night rolled around. I also wasn’t worried that he might not listen if I ever told him no, because he had always respected my boundaries and listened if I told him to cool his jets. I feel so bad for you and your friends…no girl should have to worry that maybe her husband will outright rape her on their wedding night. I do wish I’d been told more than just “wait until you’re married, and then have at it!” It left me unprepared for the realities of a sexual relationship with all its ebbs and flows, or the way my sex drive would be so strongly affected by my menstrual cycle or my hormones, or the fact that maybe my sex drive and my husband’s might differ.

    What surprises me the most, though, is that it’s my husband who was more damaged by it than I was. I guess a lifetime of being told that thoughts are equivalent to actions, and that therefore he is only ever going to be a filthy adulterer at heart because of “lust” (which is always defined as simply finding someone sexually desirable, so basically you’re screwed because who doesn’t do that on a regular basis??), is enough to make anyone feel a good amount of self-loathing. Also the expectation that there would be a constant supply of sex after marriage didn’t do him any favours. His parents were more strict than mine and that probably had something to do with it.

    Purity culture is a two-edged sword. It fucks up everyone, male and female alike. It saddles everyone with guilt and unreasonable standards and unrealistic expectations and naivete, and it teaches us all to mistrust our ability to control our bodies. For every girl scared that her husband is not going to listen if she says “no”, and who blames herself for the “lustful” thoughts of men, there is a young man who is convinced that he will not be able to control himself and that no matter what he does he’s a filthy adulterer who will mentally cheat on his wife and be in a constant state of wickedness. They’ve taken the idea of sex belonging to a husband and wife, and twisted it into a cudgel that is used to beat our young people into a shape that they deem appropriately pure…and they can’t see the horrible damage it does. As long as they’re not fornicatin’ nobody cares.

  • Jackalope

    I had similar thoughts about waiting for all physical contact until the wedding night because no matter how strong your hormones are and how attracted you are to each other, you’ve built up a lot of taboos based on not touching each other for so long and that’s not going to go away in a single day. On the other hand, I always considered it ridiculous and unworkable that you would have no physical contact at ALL before the wedding, not even cuddling or kissing. I mean, really??? I guess because I’m a) a cuddly person by nature, and b) a ballroom dancer, this is not an option for me. I touch everyone else, but I won’t touch the person I’m dating? Not happening!

    (On the other hand, I’ve heard from various corners that many couples — from those who didn’t kiss before the wedding to those who had sex beforehand, to those that did “everything but” and then were chomping at the bit for marriage — that many couples wait until at least the day after so they can be rested, since weddings are EXHAUSTING. So I always figured that whatever choice I made, the wedding would be a big party with all of our friends, not a day for playing around with each other.)

  • Wow, yes I have had similar thoughts. Imagining a hypothetical situation where it’s the wedding night and I only have a vague idea of where my vulva is, and sex just won’t work, and how my hypothetical husband would feel like I owe it to him, and I also believe I owe it to him, and I would be telling him I’m so sorry but please please please can we just try to do a handjob or something, and it would be so unfair to him.

    Ugh. Yeah.

  • gexpl

    Yep, yep, I was terrified. It doesn’t help that I was not attracted to men at all (although I hadn’t yet figured out my attraction to women) so the idea of having sex with my boyfriend at the time was both repulsive and terrifying. He also wasn’t really into purity culture (although he liked dating much younger, inexperienced, naive women that hadn’t figured out he was a creep and a loser) so he’d pressure me to have sex with him. I was only barely clinging to my “no sex before marriage” ideals by then, but I knew I DEFINITELY did not want to have sex with him and this led to a lot of arguments and long, uncomfortable nights where I’d try to walk a fine line of not pissing him off and starting an argument, but also not letting him go too far. In the end, I was never raped, but I was definitely coerced into sexual contact I didn’t want.

    Honestly, the most scary thing though was not just the idea of sex on the wedding night, but the idea of having to bear children for him. He stated to me up front that he wanted biological children and he clearly expected me to comply. I have always been absolutely 100% against getting pregnant. That makes sense in retrospect (I’m a trans man and the idea of pregnancy feels like the ultimate betrayal of my body). Realizing that I was going to be required to get pregnant for this man felt like staring down the barrel of a gun. I remember cautiously telling him “I had always imagined maybe adopting instead” and his response was “we could do that too, perhaps, but I definitely intend to have biological children to pass on my family line.” No asking me if I was okay with that. No suggestion that I might have a say in it. From my own culture, I didn’t. I was just hoping desperately that my feelings about this would magically change once I was married, because at the moment, I felt like I’d rather die. Honestly, had I remained in that situation, I might have.

  • Texas Humanist

    I’m not really sure of where I received the idea, but I did not want to have sex until my wedding night. I was okay with hand holding, kissing, and even cuddling, but I think my mother didn’t want me to end up like her and my father, who had my oldest sibling when they were teens, who only got married because my mother was pregnant.

    My parents ultimately divorced, but I still felt that way, even after I left Christianity (I was never a fundamentalist of any variety). I don’t know why I still held onto the idea, but I’m glad that I don’t, because I don’t want to put too much emphasis on one night.

    I’m still relatively sexually inexperienced, but should I ever enter a romantic relationship with someone, I would like to have sex when we’re both ready and have each other’s mutual and affirmative consent. I don’t really know if I even want to have sex, but I should at least try it to see if I do, and that should be long before my wedding, not on my wedding night.

    • Kevin

      It’s similar for me. I’m still a Christian and still want to wait until marriage. For me it’s that I want my first time to be with someone who cares about me and there are many things I want to do with my life(like spend time abroad) and I want to wait until I meet someone I can share all this with. I don’t like the idea of loveless sex.

  • EV

    Of my father-in-law’s comments to my husband at our wedding reception, the best two were: 1. Thank God. I was worried you were gay and 2. It’s ok if you don’t have sex on your wedding night.

  • Hi, loved this piece!! I just put out an article myself called Untitled: Over Fear. Its about Brené Brown’s Ted Talk about the Power of Vulnerability and the role her talk played in my life. I discovered that sometimes you just needed to say, ‘I’m worth it!’ loud and clear into the world. I’d love some feedback! Thanks.


  • Heina Dadabhoy

    I worried a lot about my wedding night because I was worried my future husband wouldn’t believe that I was a virgin because I knew my way around my body and wanted to have sex as soon as I got married.

  • I do look forward to reading your book when you get round to writing it. I found Anderson’s “Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity” interesting, but I feel I haven’t yet read a book that really explores *why* purity culture exists in the first place. I suspect that it is deeply tied up with authoritarianism, with a ‘property’ model of sexuality, and with fear, but I haven’t figured out all the connections yet.

    • The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti goes into the background a bit more. It’s a difficult area to try to contend with in a single book since the purity culture of the 90s is a somewhat historically unique phenomenon, but it has its roots in the patriarchal control of women’s sexuality, which goes back to the Bronze Age.

      Other books that dig into the topic are Virgin: An Untouched HIstory by Hanne Blank, and I haven’t had the chance to read Sex in Crisis: The New Sexual Revolution and the Future of American Politics, but it’s a book I see referenced a lot.

      • Thanks. Have you ever reviewed anything by Elisabeth Elliot? I recall being assigned one of her books at Bible school; and I get the feeling that Joshua Harris is largely repackaging her work. But I haven’t actually read ‘I Kissed Dating Goodbye’, so I may be wrong.

        • Not yet– but I think you’re right about him repackaging Passion and Purity. He’s referenced it a few times so far, and she wrote one of the blurbs on the back of the book.

          • Lindsaydoodles

            Oh, I’d love it if you did something by her. I’ve never been a fan, but haven’t been able to figure out why. All my friends go nuts over her books, and they squick me out just a bit, but again, I can’t articulate why.

          • Maybe I’ll cover one of her not-purity-culture related books next!

          • Lindsaydoodles

            Yes please!!