Monday, March 5, 2018

They said it was about "valuing our bodies." That was a lie.

Diagrams of two different human reproductive systems. On the left, there's one that has a penis, on the right, there's one with a vagina. Image source.
[content note: NSFW. And also I talk about my genitals in this post.]

Christians who preach about the importance of "purity" often claim that it's about valuing and protecting your body. You are so valuable and precious, your body is so valuable and precious, so you need to follow these rules to take care of it properly. You need to value and respect your body by not having sex. By not kissing. By dressing "modestly" if you're a girl.

It's because your body is so valuable, they say.

It's a lie.

Because of the teachings of purity culture, I thought it was good and godly for me to not really know anything about my own genitals. Yeah, I took sex ed class in high school, so I understood in a theoretical sense that, apparently, I have a uterus and vagina, somewhere- but it was just words to memorize so I could label the diagrams on the quiz. I never thought, hey if I get a mirror and look "down there", I will actually see my own vulva- it's an actual real thing that exists.

No, never thought that. Because you see, genitals are related to sex. And if I think about sex, it might cause me to desire sex. And that's temptation. That's dangerous and impure. So a godly cis girl should just stay on the safe side and know as little information as possible about her own vagina.

When I was maybe 21 or 22, I decided I'm a feminist, and I'm not afraid of knowledge about my body anymore. One day in the shower, I felt around "down there" with my hand. There were a bunch of weird-textured things. It was so strange. I also tried using tampons- but at that point I didn't really *get* that the vagina is a hole that's able to stretch and fit a tampon inside. I thought the vagina was where pee comes from.

Sometimes I was able to successfully put a tampon in- just keep poking around "down there" until it inexplicably found a place to go in- but I didn't understand how it worked. Where had the tampon gone? Was there really some kind of hole down there big enough for a tampon?

And people said that during sex, a penis goes into the vagina. How? Where?

Then when I was about 24, I decided to buy a small mirror and actually look at it. I felt a little bit dirty and rebellious, buying that mirror. And OH MY GOODNESS. There was a whole ton of stuff down there between my legs that I never knew about! I thought cis female anatomy was more or less like a Barbie. I thought if you don't have a penis, then there's basically nothing to see. But no, there's all kinds of lips and soft pink things, and wow who knew?

That was around the time that Hendrix and I first showed our genitals to each other. (Wow is there a less awkward way to put that?) And he told me that I needed to wash mine because it smelled really bad.

And I told him I'd never washed it before.

And he was shocked. I didn't even know how to wash it. I'd never thought about it. Better to just pretend that my vulva doesn't exist- that's what a good, pure girl does, right? Purity-culture Christians gave so many warnings about becoming "addicted to masturbation"- what if I touched my genitals in the shower, all alone, and then suddenly became "addicted to masturbation" and it ruined my life?

I'd never washed it before. And Hendrix said it stunk.

This was several years ago- I've since learned how to wash it so it doesn't smell- but he STILL talks about how terrible it stunk back then. That's how bad it was. He STILL brings it up sometimes. It made that much of an impression on him.

You know, because I was so pure. That's why my vulva stunk. Purity.

(Purity culture told me "your virginity is the most precious gift you can give your spouse," and that if you've ever had sex with anyone else in the past, your spouse will totally be sad about it forever. They'll never get over it. They'll keep holding it over your head, blaming you. Looks like in my case, my husband doesn't care about my exes, but he's never going to let me forget that my vulva stunk. [Edit: To clarify, because some readers expressed concern about this- he is not doing it in a "shaming" way and I find the whole thing HILARIOUS.])

And purity culture is full of examples like this, where following the purity rules leads to ignorance about one's own body that causes very real health problems. They said it was about "valuing your body." That was a lie.

There were purity-culture followers saying girls shouldn't get the HPV vaccine, because if they're pure they won't need that. Think about that- a vaccine which protects you from HPV and cervical cancer, and purity culture says you shouldn't get it. And then they claim they're "protecting your body because it's so valuable."

The same thing is true about other STDs too. There are purity-culture followers who don't want AIDS treatments developed. Their belief in "purity" motivates them to wish illness (even death) on people who have an STD. Tell me again how "your body is so precious and needs to be protected." Furthermore, there's so much shame attached to sex, a person who has an easily-treatable STD or urinary tract infection or whatever problem "down there" might not even be willing to see a doctor about it. They suffer needlessly because of "purity." (Also: I used to think all STDs were incurable. Because I heard there's no cure for HIV, and purity culture said the consequences of premarital sex will last for your entire life, so doesn't it seem reasonable that all STDs would have no cure?)

Research has shown that taking a purity pledge doesn't stop kids from having sex, but it does make them less likely to use protection. They end up more at risk for STDs and unwanted pregnancies. In other words, purity pledges do the OPPOSITE of "protecting your body."

And can we talk about modesty? They teach that girls need to hide their bodies because they are dangerous for boys. Maybe you shouldn't exercise where boys can see you- what if your boobs bounce up and down and some guy lusts? Yes, better not to exercise- that's what "protect your body" means, apparently. I even heard of one girl who used to hunch her back so that her boobs would be less noticeable (because modesty) and it caused back problems. (And we won't even get into the psychological problems caused by modesty culture- the way it teaches you to believe that your body is bad.)

What happens when purity-culture girls follow all the rules and get married? Many of them believe that sex is by definition painful for people with vaginas, the first time at least. This is a myth, but purity culture is an environment where real sex ed is seen as dangerous temptation, and these myths thrive. In reality, sex doesn't have to hurt if you have a vagina. Go slow. Use more lube. See a doctor. You don't have to do penetration if you don't want. But women raised in purity culture wouldn't even know that pain is a sign that something is wrong. They think that's just the way sex is for women.

Also I've had urinary tract infections at least twice, because I didn't know people with vulvas are supposed to pee after sex. Yes, as it turns out, if you don't pee after sex, you're likely to get a UTI. I never knew about that until it had happened to me twice. Maybe it was mentioned in sex ed class in high school, but of course I was a good pure girl and didn't pay attention in sex ed because it wasn't anything I would ever need to know, right? It's just for people who are planning to sin, right? (News flash: Marriage doesn't prevent UTIs.)

(Actually, now that I think about it, I remember a sexual health survey I took back in college, how I felt so proud of myself for checking the box for "never had sex" on every single question. I felt I was morally superior to people who actually understood what the words in the survey meant- words for different types of contraception and health-related things. Anyway, there was one question about how often you pee after sex, and I wondered what on earth it was talking about- was that a thing you should do? I couldn't tell from the wording of the question if it was supposed to be a good thing or a bad thing. I assumed it was something related to having a penis and so it didn't apply to me, and I didn't think about it any more. Curiosity about why a sexual health survey would ask about peeing after sex could lead to temptation. Dangerous stuff.)

[content note for rape in the next paragraph]

I knew so little about my own anatomy that, if someone had tried to rape me, the hypothetical rapist would definitely know more about my body than I did- all they'd have to do is watch porn one time, so they're familiar with the concept of a penis going into a vagina, and then correctly assume I'm a cis girl. I mean, thank god that didn't happen to me. (But I have heard stories from victims who didn't even know the names of their own body parts until they were raped.) This ideology leaves girls (and anyone with a vulva) so incredibly vulnerable. (And I won't even get into the myths about "men just can't control themselves" which are perpetuated in purity culture and blame the victim for their rape. Yeah that doesn't help "protect your body.")

They said it was about "valuing your body." They said our bodies are so precious and it's so important to protect them. That was a lie.

Here's what it was really about: It's not your body that purity culture sees as valuable. It's not you they value either. Here's what they value: your ignorance.

Replace "your body" with "your ignorance," and suddenly it all makes sense. "Your ignorance is so valuable, that's why you must not have sex. That's why you must stay away from anything that could be interpreted as 'temptation.' God loves your ignorance so much and just wants to protect it. Your lack of experience is SO VALUABLE."

Purity culture values ignorance so much that they believe you should sacrifice your body for it. Sacrifice your body, your health, your sense of self-worth. "Your lack of experience is so valuable."

If they really valued bodies, they would teach sex ed. If they really valued bodies, they would have said that genitals are really cool and for practical health reasons you should be familiar with yours. If they really valued bodies, they wouldn't have piled on layers and layers of shame which causes mental health problems, keeps people too scared to buy a condom, and too ashamed to seek medical attention for any issues related to genitals.

In purity culture, "purity" is defined as a lack of experience. The entire system is built on the assumption that less experience is intrinsically a good thing. It's NOT. When you have so little experience that you're not even clear on what a vulva is, EVEN THOUGH YOU HAVE ONE, something is terribly wrong. When "purity" keeps you from getting accurate information about your own body, and it leads to serious medical problems, that doesn't "value" or "protect" your body.

All that talk about "your body is so valuable" was a lie. Purity culture doesn't value your body. Purity culture values ignorance above anything else, and if that ignorance can only be maintained by putting your body at risk, so be it.

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