I was sixteen. I found the whole thing so embarrassing that I hoped I would just die. And then about seventeen years later I got cancer. GOD WAS LISTENING.
The thing is, I did say that I wanted to go to the purity seminar. I remember the day I saw a one-sheet about it in the church bulletin and shot my mouth off to my mother. And then about a month later, there I was, slouching and scowling my way into what counts as a mega-church in Visalia, wishing I hadn’t chosen a semi-goth look for the day because I could tell immediately that I was going to be regarded as a wayward youth. I didn’t think about this before. But I thought about it all during The Purity Seminar.
I know exactly why I said I wanted to go to the Purity Seminar. It was the same reason that I borrowed a friend’s copy of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” later that year. There were no takers and I wanted to feel better about it.
I’m disappointed in my teenage self for not at least making a grand and dramatic statement and claiming that I’d become a nun, but we weren’t Catholic and in fact I had a book by Josh McDowell in one of my classes that talked about why Catholicism was a cult (spoiler: everything that isn’t Evangelical Christianity is definitely a cult) and this is sort of unfortunate because I think in some ways, Catholicism might have really worked for me as a moody adolescent. My parents were really hesitant about having me go see a therapist, reasoning that I could talk to our pastor or maybe even just to God, and if I’d had Mary as an option it might have turned out differently.
I always really liked the idea of being able to talk to Mary. Mary had periods. Mary seemed like she might Get It. Also Catholics were cool with drinking and I heard rumors that they learned science very differently than I did. The grass is always greener.
The Purity Seminar was very pink. Lots of pastel decorations. Run by well-meaning people. The only moment that sticks out clearly, all these years later, is the moment during the anonymous Q&A toward the end where one of the questions was “What if you feel like God has a Princess for you to meet instead of a Prince?”
The answer wasn’t so much about the sinfulness of being gay, but how that was probably not the case because if you just look at the human body, God obviously designed us to fit together in that particular heterosexual missionary way. Several people looked my way, even though I hadn’t even asked a question and it was supposed to be anonymous. The Semi-Goth look made a real splash.
I don’t look back and hate the people who ran the purity seminary. I grew up in that culture and I understand where they’re coming from even if I no longer agree with it at all, even a little bit. I was pretty mad at them for co-opting Shakespeare’s Ophelia as an example of why you shouldn’t Do It outside of marriage, because the theatre kid was ready to stand up and scream “She went crazy and drowned because Hamlet broke her heart and she had to SHOW HIM, not because he broke her hymen!” I didn’t stand up and scream that. The Semi-Goth look was saying enough.
I remember surveying the girls there and being sad that some of them were so young. They had enough time ahead of them to be told what to do and what not do with their bodies, and it was one of the first nice days we’d had all winter. They should have been out playing with their friends, not in some room where a lot of grown women were talking about flowers and petals because of course we couldn’t just come right out and say “vagina.”
I can’t pick a specific moment in time when I started to become a feminist – maybe when I read “The Awakening” in college, because I’m all about owning my Basic properties these days– but I think that day at the seminar day might have contributed a lot. I’d heard a lot of my friends talk about wanting their husbands to have had some experience on their wedding night so that “someone would know what was going on.” And I didn’t think that was exactly fair, for a few reasons – one, I thought the people saying things like that would hate whichever girl or girls their future husbands “practiced” with, even if they didn’t know them. The idea that other women could exist simply for “practice” with our theoretical future husbands was disturbing, all alone.
But there was also this idea that I began to have, which was that I didn’t think I would really care if the guy I ended up marrying had sex before he met me. Even then, I was more concerned about, was he the kind of person who would pressure a girl into having sex? Would he be the kind of person who would make a girl seem like a slut when he talked about it afterward? And if I didn’t care if the guy I ended up with had had sex before, it didn’t seem like it was fair for him to care about if I had. As long as everybody was safe. As long as everything was consensual.
I told my mom I’d go to the seminar, and I borrowed “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” because at the decrepit age of sixteen, I’d come to believe that I would never find a guy who—it wasn’t that he couldn’t be into sports, he just couldn’t care that I wasn’t into them. And he didn’t have to be into theatre, he just had to think it was cool for me to be into it. I would want for him to read books. I would want for him to be nice to me. I would want for him to not act like he was in charge just because of being a dude. I knew for a fact I wouldn’t say “obey” in my wedding vows because that just never made sense to me as a thing that adults do for one another. Dogs obey.
And then I grew up and moved to New York and became a liberal and lost every single one of my morals that I’d never held particularly close to begin with. That’s not actually true. But I did start to figure out what I actually valued and what I did not.
I was afraid of sex, because of an incident that had happened when I was a child. But I’d only ever thought that it was wrong outside of marriage in the way that I thought anything I wasn’t allowed to do was wrong – I knew it was supposed to be wrong, but didn’t quite understand the reasoning. It was like not being able to do “Halloween” or watch “The Simpsons.” Because I’m Christian. My reasoning went no deeper than that.
And even I don’t wish to go in-depth into my personal sexual history on a blog, but it didn’t take me very long to learn that “sleeping around” was applied to a whole lot of situations that were nowhere near as exciting as they were made out to be. A friend of mine mentioned that his sister would stay at her boyfriend’s house more often than not. Another friend made a comment about him being fine with his sister “sleeping around.”
Staying overnight at her boyfriend’s house when they were in a committed, monogamous relationship was “sleeping around?” K.
Earlier this evening I finished listening to the latest episode of the Savage Lovecast, which routinely features many examples of callers who are “sleeping around.” And a lot of that wouldn’t be a great way for me to be, because it wouldn’t make me happy, but it’s not important for other people’s sex and dating lives to make me happy. It’s actually not important at all. I wonder how the Savage Lovecast might have sounded to me when I was sixteen and in the Purity Seminar. Probably quite interesting.
I had a long way to go, in terms of overcoming prejudice and judgmental nature and understanding concepts like cis privilege and white privilege – I am sure I still do – but even then, I think I just had the sense what whatever anyone chose to do with that person’s own body should be entirely up to them, so long as they were not using it to hurt someone.
I am sure Purity Seminars still happen. I am sure those creepy Purity Balls do. I am sure the focus continues to be on “Don’t do it!” as opposed to “Basics in how to respect other people.” And I chose to leave the church so it’s not like I have any right to influence how they do things.
I wish I could time travel to the day of the Purity Seminar. I would tell myself “Don’t do a goth look today. Don’t wish for cancer. And when you have your realization about what you think would actually make you happy in a guy? You’re actually right. And you’ll meet him in about twelve years. You won’t get married right away. You might not get married at all. But you’ll be really happy with him. You’ll love him a lot and he’ll love you a lot. You’ll enjoy watching soccer together and you’ll also got to plays together. He’ll be so proud of you when you finish the play it takes you years to write. He’ll be next to you at your first chemo and he’ll be next to you at your six month scan and he’ll be just as overjoyed that it’s clean as you are. He’ll love you and try to make you feel beautiful even when you are bald.”
The TL;DR of that is “You will meet a guy who stays with you even when you have no hair.”
I mean, what else would a sixteen-year-old possibly want to hear?!