by Guest Contributor Brandann R. Hill-Mann
I think there are many things that have ruined some perceptions of what The First Time should be like for people delving into the more amorous acts of relationships. Especially for young people, I would say. There is the TV magic of wandering off at a party somewhere into a beautifully made up and wondrously never drunkenly stumbled into by giggling party-goers room. There is the blog article written by the well-intentioned author who means to prepare the multitudes of people out there ready to get into the saddle by telling them that a few condoms and some water-based lube will be all they need to pop that cherry. People in movies almost never seem to have to worry about the dynamics of bad sex education and having been told their whole lives that women don’t need orgasms or are worth less if they have been “spoiled” before marriage. How often do we get to hear the nagging in their heads of how years of conservative religious indoctrination has told them that enjoying sex will make them less worthy of love and respect, or see how that will affect their self-esteem and mental health? I think the effects of Christian teachings is an important lens through which to view the topic of first sexual experiences, and how to best prepare young followers (or any people, really) for them.
I remember my sex education in high school, and have written about it. I remember being split into the generic “boys” and “girls” groups with no mind whatsoever to orientation or the gamut of gender possibility, and being taken into separate rooms to be given the big secrets that the other team wasn’t supposed to know. Somewhere in the girls’ playbook was the ever-important “’blue balls’ don’t exist and are just a ploy to get you into bed” chat. We learned about the basics of STIs and not being a slut because you would get pregnant and never amount to anything because, then, who would love you? I was out the day we played with condoms, and no one had the memo back then that spermicide was bad for you. Summed up, there wasn’t a lot that was going to help, but a lot that would put fear into you. If anyone had been willing to admit that 95% of adults confess to having premarital sex perhaps comprehensive sexual education might have been on the rise, but alas, it was not to be for me or many of my classmates.
Added to that was the supplemental education I received from the Christian church of which I was a member at the time, and surprisingly, there was a bit of cross-over. Be careful not to give yourself away, lest you be soiled like duct tape, and who would ever want a dirty roll of duct tape for a spouse (ahh…the ultimate goal, amirite)? Sex, was supposed to be awful because even wives had to be commanded to submit to their husbands, and for all of the time we were supposed to spend not talking about, thinking about, or doing It, we heard about It all the time. It was bad, dirty, and shameful.
But sex was all I could think about, because it seemed like it was all that was coming down from the pulpit some days.
Without going into a ton of detail, I didn’t have a lot of stable things going on my 18 year-old life, but the non-platonic love of a young man who was the first example of what unconditional love in a romantic relationship was like? That I had. And it was stable and good and my whole world crashed to a halt when I saw him. All I knew from morning ‘til night was that he made me happy and he loved me and that I trusted him more than I trusted myself. If that didn’t deserve an incredible act of displaying outwardly the love I felt inside, then I wasn’t sure I understood love at all – and part of me still holds to that. I can safely say that it wasn’t for a lack of effort that I didn’t succeed in my thought process, but aside from the fact that my health education failed to issue me a hand mirror so I’d know where all the parts went, the horrible guilt that welled up inside me made me chicken out every time and pull back in shame. My v-card bought me passage through graduation, but the guilt collected enough interest and the bill read that I didn’t deserve that boy anymore and I no longer trusted myself around him. I ended the relationship, rather harshly and fairly unceremoniously, before leaving for college.
The self-destructive course of physical zest I set myself upon began when I decided that the simple act of wanting to enjoy carnal pleasures were enough to make me impure – after all, what is done in thought is as good as deed as far as Biblical teaching goes. I, as a woman, had to be used to carrying the sins of man anyhow (I Timothy 2:11-15), so what did it matter if I indulged in what I wanted now if I was already soiled, right? I was damaged goods. So, with the guilt of my self-worth being destroyed in me, I engaged in risky behavior. Lacking the proper sexual education to know where to access things like birth control, and being too ashamed to talk to any adults I knew to find out, I could have really wound up in a jam much earlier than I did. If sex was dirty, then certainly asking for birth control advice would be akin to joining a brothel in the eyes of most of the people I knew. I had a detached relationship with my parents, and the people I usually turned to for advice was my church family. I didn’t see how I was going to get any help there. I was fearful of the repercussions and of losing the only support system I had. All the information in the world was not worth the isolation of losing more family.
With no respite from the guilt, and despite the fact that my First Time was actually in the arms of an incredibly gentle, and caring man who meant me nothing but goodness, the pounding thoughts of Shame!, Doom!, and Sin!, sent a haunting message that I didn’t deserve a person who was so kind. I was allowed no moment’s comfort nor enjoyment. We only had sex that one time, because I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy the thought of sex again with all of the shame in my head. Once again, at the first sign of intimacy with someone who was considerate and understanding I bolted. The more depressed I became the more my Christian values bore down on me, fortifying the wall of self-deprecation. I couldn’t convince myself that I deserved anything better than the quasi-to-actually abusive and messy relationships that I sought out after that. I found momentary solace in a relationship that never came to fruition with someone who seemed equally as broken as I was, and a friendship grew from the wake of two depressed people searching for God-knows-what in a tumult of unhealthy commiserating – and lots of beer and absinthe. That friendship wound up being the most positive thing that came from that period of my life right up until I became a mother at 22.
That guilt and shame had spiraled me into so much self-hatred that I had stopped eating, was drinking at least one meal a day, and was on the verge of dropping out of college due to sleeping through all of my classes. I hated myself so much for being so weak and unable to clean myself of the sins; sins that I seemed to morbidly enjoy committing because they felt good and that I didn’t really want to stop enjoying. All of that wasn’t removed by my merge with pregnancy and motherhood, but it did give me cause to leave the Church for good – something which had seemed a long time coming when I thought about it. While leaving the burden of God’s judgment behind did free up some of the looming feelings of foreboding, it was a long time of living with depression before I was able to heal and to move on to forming healthy sexual relationships. Well, one, and it actually stuck.
If instead of guilt and shame, which are great manipulating tools, mainstream Christian groups used their sway over the minds of the young people flocked into their churches to educate them on all of the choices out there that could keep them safe and informed they would do more of a service for the mental health of many young people exploring sexuality. Enforcing this minority morality as if it is the only dominating culture gives the idea that all of religion views sex through this viewfinder, when in fact many world religions are on a different reel altogether. We have seen that sex doesn’t affect the mental health of young people like we have been told in the past. Sex doesn’t destroy you, even the “casual” kind, and yet, spiritually speaking, authority figures are sending young people out with the idea that the value of their whole self depends on abstaining because it is harmful.
Sex is a perfectly healthy part of being human, and instead of denying it, and pretending that young people are just going to follow the fear and not do it, perhaps it would be better to join forces with those advocates of comprehensive sexual education. I wonder how many young people are too afraid to talk with trusted adult (and how trusted can they be if you can’t talk to them?) because of the conflagration of sin and sexual impurity. It seems, at least to me, that telling people that their self-worth is based on their sexual purity is something that will impact their happiness. Keeping young people healthy by teaching them that they have resources and support systems for answers to important questions can also impact their happiness.