I recently published an article about my experiences with abstinence-only sex shaming, er…”education,” and the discussions that followed showed me something really important. Even among progressives, the talk about this topic is almost exclusively focused on young people. But sexual ignorance is a huge problem in our culture that reaches far beyond those early years.
The more I learn, the more amazed I am by questions I get asked:
- “Can I get pregnant if I’m breastfeeding?” …(Yes)
- “How do I know if I’ve had an orgasm?” …(If you have to ask, you didn’t)
- “If you don’t douche after you have intercourse, how do you get all that stuff out of there?! That’s gross!” …(Yes, someone really said that; an educated, professional woman with both children and grandchildren.)
Experienced does not mean educated. Just because people have been sexually active and have children doesn’t mean they have a healthy understanding of sexuality, and in some cases, it doesn’t even guarantee they know all the basics.
As previously detailed, my first pregnancy (and the wedding that followed) was the result of ignorance and naiveté on my part. I discovered I was pregnant almost as soon as I became sexually active. I believed abortion was murder and the only way to ensure my child grew up functional and made it to the pearly gates was to rush into marriage even though I hardly knew the guy.
I quickly realized that was a huge mistake, but I felt trapped worrying how I would take care of a child on my own having never really worked outside the church circle. Where would I go, and how would people treat me if I committed the unpardonable sin of divorce? The “degree” I acquired from Hyles-Anderson College (seminary) would become void under such circumstances, but performing wifely duties and teaching kids about the B.I.B.L.E. (while convincing them that Kent Hovind was a real scientist) were the only marketable skills I had.
I was in the middle of planning my escape when I found out I was pregnant again (Earning me the affectionate nick-name of “Fertile Myrtle”).
As much as I hate to admit it, I’m still a bit in the dark about contraceptives. Though birth control is a controversial topic among fundamentalists, I had been made to feel it was akin to playing God. I just couldn’t bring myself to feel comfortable with that. Who was I to take the power of life into my own hands?
Aside from the “playing God” factor, I was conditioned to frown on medication and unnatural interventions. If we did go to a doctor, it was generally someone from the church.
Regardless, I didn’t need birth control anyway because I was still breastfeeding and hadn’t began ovulating yet (or so I thought). This is where lack of education came back to bite me in the a** again. It turns out that many women like me—wives and mothers—still don’t know when in the menstrual cycle ovulation occurs. A recent study of women aged 18-40 years old showed that up to “60 percent of [respondents] had complete misconceptions about basic concepts relating to their own biology.” My midwife had a difficult time predicting my due date because I had nothing whatsoever to base it on.
What can you do when you find out you’re pregnant again, barely able to take care of the child you already have?
Women raised with faith-based sex education don’t know they have options. Rather than making an educated decision about their own bodies, they get trapped into raising a child (or children, plural) without the proper means to do so. Abstinence-only teachings result in a perpetual cycle of scared, unprepared girls who think they have no choice but to bear the “consequences of their sin.” It’s not fair to the women and it’s not fair the children born into those situations.
Waiting until marriage to start learning and talking about sex creates relationship problems as well. My children are five and seven now, and I still have a really difficult time saying the word “penis” out loud. Or even the word “sex” for that matter. I grew up thinking of those words as dirty and private. Here are just a few sample excerpts from the books I was given to read:
So how do you communicate with your partner about sex if you’ve never been able to talk about it before, or if you’re sexually illiterate without the vocabulary to even describe things?
You don’t… But hey, girls aren’t supposed to like that stuff anyways, right?
Stereotyping women as less sexual than men is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Purity culture teaches us to shrink away from a man’s touch right up until the day we get married… and then, miraculously, be comfortable with it.
That, coupled with teachings on submission, causes us do things we aren’t comfortable with because we don’t know how to say “no.” Whether the other partner takes advantage of that, or is just as clueless as we are, it becomes the norm for that relationship. Unfortunately, hearing “happily” married women confide how much they hate sex is a common thing among fundamentalists.
Though I’m fortunate enough to have begun recognizing this, many of the women I grew up with will go through life without ever knowing how to enjoy sex—or even that they can enjoy sex. When sex is labeled a “wifely duty” and we hear devotionals on how important it is to meet our husband’s needs even when we don’t want to (emphasis on the “don’t want to”), then that’s exactly what it becomes.
Abstinence-only teachings romanticize this idea of entering into marriage innocent and pure. But let me assure you, jumping into a long term commitment as an adult with little to no knowledge of what the hell you’re doing is not very romantic at all.
It’s impossible to fix something without knowing it’s broken in the first place.
Apparently, I still had some basic things to learn as a new mother. Aside from the embarrassing, anatomically incorrect penis cake I made for a friend’s birthday, I also found out the hard way that erections are involuntary. I was married and had read every parenting book I could get my hands on, but still thought erections only happened to post-pubescent males…and only when they were sexually aroused…on purpose. Imagine how startled I was to find one of those things in my newborn’s diaper!
My next baby was a girl so no surprise erections! She did, however, put an abrupt stop to a family dinner conversation one evening when we all simultaneously noticed what she was doing on the edge of the coffee table. I had no idea how to react so I just started laughing. One of my family members didn’t think it was funny though. She shamed my daughter, then me for not having shamed her first.
As you can imagine, because I’m in the Bible Belt, where virtually everything outside the social norm is suspect, I’m having a difficult time finding the proper resources and tools to ensure my children have a healthy view of this subject.
I’ve since learned that we are sexual beings from the moment we’re born, but I still have emotional baggage that makes it difficult for me to navigate this subject with my children. More importantly, it’s not enough for just me to know better; I have to deal with friends, family members, and people in positions of power whose ignorance about sexuality can have some very grave consequences on my children.
It was Weber who pointed out how sexually repressive our culture is even though we have such a facade of sexual openness. What the majority of us are taught about sex, whether we’re raised religious or not, is nothing more than moralistic drivel. Even in states which teach comprehensive sex education, it’s often presented with a bias that over-emphasizes contraception failure rates and other risks while still promoting the idea that abstinence is the only thing that really works.
Thanks to some reader comments, I’ve discovered the OWL (Our Whole Lives) curriculum published by the Unitarian Universalist Association which contains unbiased, age-appropriate information for five year olds and up. I am also immensely grateful to Lilandra Ra and the Texas Freethought Coalition for helping to organize activists who can challenge the use of state funds in Texas for abstinence only sex ed and fight the white washing of text books toward those same ends. Considering how much influence Texas has over other states’ curriculum as well, what happens there makes a big impact.
Understanding how our bodies work is essential to leading a healthy life. If we don’t receive the information we need as young people, then it’s important to educate ourselves about it as adults.
Also in case you missed it, here is a link to a recent podcast I did on the subject with Dr. Darrel Ray. Give it a listen, and be sure to bookmark Darrel’s podcast!
[Featured image: Shutterstock]
Amber Barnhill is a fundamentalist cult survivor, a seminary graduate, and an ex-Bible-thumper who has started her life over as a single mom of two heathens. She is currently pursuing a degree (a real one this time) in Mathematics and Sociology. Amber inadvertently went from Christian to award-winning atheist activist in a very short period and is continuing her fight for religious tolerance while still adjusting to life outside the Matrix. She can be contacted at email@example.com.