Three months before my seventeenth birthday, I sat in my room with anxious sweat on my palms. After dating for two years, my boyfriend and I decided we were ready to have sex. My mother, a self-proclaimed “liberal in Republican’s clothes,” had always told me I could come talk to her when I felt ready for birth control. As the moment crept up, I felt less and less sure of my ability to talk with her. My mother grew up in the church like the vast majority of Mississippians, but I knew of her own youthful escapades with boys and long drives in the country. I wrung my hands, and finally approached her room.
My anxiety proved reasonable. She scolded, saying, “I can’t believe you’d let him convince you to do that,” and “It doesn’t even feel good. There’s no reason to have sex unless you’re procreating.” I cried, felt dirty. I had done what teen magazines had recommended, what my own mother bragged about, and it backfired. Regardless, she made an appointment with a nurse practitioner. The NP presented a kinder face, but made sure to say: “Just because you’re on birth control, doesn’t mean you have to have sex.”
When I was little, both sex and all things related were treated like a secret. Babies came from storks, and later mamas’ tummies (not that I ever learned how they got there). At six I asked what being a virgin meant; my mother stuttered and told me that I was a virgin and that she was not. I accepted that answer and, for a while, I assumed Mary had Jesus during elementary school. I didn’t know that my vagina had a proper name until I overheard an older child say it on the playground. I fruitlessly looked up the word “pajina” in the Webster’s child dictionary in my fourth grade classroom trying to figure out what the girl meant. My only parental discussion about periods came after my favorite character on Roseanne got hers. The explanation: “A period is when you bleed from your tee-tee.”
With breasts and periods came sex education. I excitedly brought home a permission slip; I thought I would finally get to learn about the scientific aspects of the sex. A heavy-set black woman with gorgeous braids and bright red lipstick spoke about why we should avoid drugs and alcohol, how they would ruin our lives, et cetera. I grew bored quickly—I was a straight A student with no interest in a wild streak—right as my group stood up to leave the room, she shouted, “And never ever have sex with anyone who isn’t your husband!” I gave up and eventually learned about condoms, birth control, and fertilization through the internet, often Planned Parenthood websites.
Around this time I got my first boyfriend. We were fourteen, reeking of hormones and unchecked emotions. I had been a romantic my entire childhood and the thought of having a significant other captivated me, and, as teenagers are wont to do, we stole kisses whenever we could. A few times we were caught making out and were heavily scolded. It confused me. I had been told not to have sex because it was bad, I thought the acceptable teenage version of sex was making out, but that was prohibited too. Our parents seemed more comfortable with us being non-sexual best friends who held hands on busses and while walking through the mall.
Despite both my mother’s and the nurse practitioner’s warnings, I had safe sex at sixteen and enjoyed it. If anything, it was the romantic scene I had dreamt of for years. We discussed our feelings and made a choice together to engage in a new physical act. Our evening ended with barbeque chicken pizza and giggling. Unknowingly, I had broken Mississippi’s cardinal rule about extramarital sex: it’s fine, as long as you’re ashamed of yourself.
Sex in Mississippi is a consequences game. Unless you’re married and stable, any sex is unchecked evil waiting to happen. As a state with some of the strictest abstinence-only education laws, it makes sense despite its logical flaws. Mississippi’s families and legislators came to believe that teaching teenagers about sex makes them have sex and all education on the subject should be left to the parents. This fails to consider that the vast majority of parents in the state are religious and often refuse to mention a single word about safe sex and responsible procreation. God hates pre-marital sex, so educating your children about how to have safe sex—regardless of marital status—is condoning evil. Faith and God played a bigger part in sex than I cared for. Unconsciously, I had bought into many of the preconceived notions about sex like my friends and family.
In middle school, I went to a weekend retreat with a local Methodist church. During our two day adventure, purity and abstinence came up several times. Our college-aged leaders told us about how they remained abstinent in college, that they retained their purity for God. I attended three different talks about the goodness of purity and modesty and how my body is sexually provocative. I felt nauseous at the thought of my body tempting men into sin.
I never got a purity ring when the other girls in my youth group were given theirs by their parents. My mother and I seemed to have a silent contract. “Waiting until marriage isn’t for me.” I knew her own history, and could connect the dots from my birthday to my parent’s anniversary, so our quiet rebellion against purity made me feel safe, until it didn’t. It seemed it was better to think you want to have sex before marriage than to actually do it.
My parents, churches, and friends told me to not want sex until marriage; television and movies often joked about people who stopped having sex after marriage. I sat on the floor of my high school friend’s bedroom when she shouted, “I hate this! I can’t want sex now and I won’t like sex then? Can’t we just want sex without being crucified?” I nodded, but had no answers for her.
Seven years after that church retreat and four years after the fateful conversation with my mother, I’m still dealing with the repercussions of a God-centered sex culture. It’s easy to forget that I’m a sexual person with desires and needs. I sometimes buy into the narrative that sex is for men and women should just have sex because he wants it. Despite having a healthy sex life and the same partner for years, I sometimes feel the pang of guilt when sex crosses my mind. I’ve avoided accusations of whoredom because of my small number of partners, but I still see active discouragement of sexuality in unmarried people, especially women.
Only the girls at my retreats were given lectures on purity. In college, I had people mention the necessity for women to hold onto their virtue because men just want “one thing.” I stared hopelessly at confused faces when I spoke up: “You know most women my age like sex just as much as men, right? It feels good to us, too.” In a class at the University of Mississippi, a man put forth the idea that women are discouraged from being sexual creatures because it was unnatural, as men love sex much more than women. Unable to control myself, I scoffed, “Bullshit, I love sex!” The class laughed, and the man withdrew from the course before the next meeting. In one of my favorite online forums, a user said, “Oh, he’ll [my boyfriend] never propose to you. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”
This attitude certainly isn’t unique to Mississippi or the South in general, but the social consequences of Christianity hurts the entire state. Mississippi has some of the highest teen birth rates and STD rates. Rather than address these issues, abstinence is preached like it’ll finally stick after one more lecture. If a woman has a child out of wedlock, she has to hope some man will love her and want her despite her obviously used-up nature. Any attempt to educate the masses is thwarted because it defies God’s laws and intent for society. And all of this guilt and shame is just for straight sex. I haven’t even begun to broach the shame and social repercussions of any non-straight or non-monogamous sexual relationships.
I don’t expect Mississippi to change, and I’m not entirely sure what I can do to foster that change. Until I figure that out, I’ll be a pissed off vocal minority.
Holly Baer grew up in Flowood, Mississippi. An alum of the Mississippi School for Math and Science, she studies religion and gender studies at the University of Mississippi and writes her own blog at HollyBaer.com. Feel free to contact her by emailing Questions@HollyBaer.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @hawlibear.