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I have a confession to make: I am a twenty-seven (and a half) year-old virgin.
No, I was not homeschooled. I was raised in a fairly normal household. I attended a public high school and a private liberal arts college. I like to drink red wine and tequila. I love Jesus, but sometimes I cuss a little bit. I’m not sure where I stand on gay marriage. I voted for Obama in 2008. I lived with my parents after the economy tanked the year I graduated from college. But fought my way back into the working world with a little bit of luck and some family connections.
I’m pretty much your typical Evangelical Millennial.
Except, according to a December 2009 study by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, I’m in a minority of people: those who have kept their virginity, even among those who claim to be religious.
I’m a product of the True Love Waits movement. And maybe one of its most successful stories.
True Love Waits was founded in 1993 by the by Southern Baptist Convention as a campaign to promote abstinence before marriage by having teenagers sign a pledge: “Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate and my future children to be sexually abstinent from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship.” But in the experience of my Christian friends and I, True Love Waits was more than an abstinence pledge — it was a whole culture against sexuality. It was a movement, an obsession, a cult of sexual purity — and one that didn’t know how to handle sexuality.
I still remember the day my parents gave me my purity ring and we talked about saving sex for marriage. It was the morning of my thirteenth birthday. My mom, dad, and I went to breakfast, and the awkwardness was palpable. I remember feeling a little bit nervous but excited that I was officially a teenager.
My parents gave me a small wrapped box and I excitedly opened it up. Staring up at me was a beautiful oval sapphire ring with diamonds flanking either side. My first reaction was to ask if it was real. My parents both chuckled and confirmed it was. They explained to me that this was a reminder to keep myself pure until my wedding night. After their brief expression of meaningful sentiments, I changed the subject and ate my bagel in peace.
True Love Waits was a really big deal to me and my friends at the time. Evangelical Christian culture was touting the benefits of bringing back courtship and the mass signing of abstinence pledges became the cool thing to do. We had books, songs, movies, and jewelry to promote our cause. We were in this together! We were saving sex for our wedding nights! We were all virgins!
But then we began to grow up.
We became hormonally charged sixteen year olds going to prom for the first time. We had a car and freedom to make out with our boyfriends without the watchful eyes of our parents nearby. We started to push physical boundaries, but for the most part kept our vow of No Sex Before Marriage.
But then we went away to college.
Our Christian culture bubble was popped. No longer was remaining a virgin expected and normal. Some people we met thought we were crazy upon hearing we were virgins. Bets were placed at parties on who would crack first. Many of us either gave it up or went underground.
For those who gave it up, we had nowhere to turn. Our churches didn’t feel like a safe place because “True Love Waits” was the whole conversation about sex. We were afraid to tell our youth leaders or mentors because of the shame and guilt surrounding our failure. We didn’t think they would know how to answer us when we asked questions about our sexuality in our early twenties, which was so different from sexuality in our teenage years. We were afraid of hearing the same refrain: “True Love Waits! You gave away your precious gift, but you can recommit! True Love can start waiting again!”
And then there was the other side of the group.
We made it through high school and college and into our twenties with our virginity intact, though we quickly learned to stop advertising that we were virgins — even among our Christian friends. We felt ashamed and like maybe there was something wrong with us that we weren’t able to seal the deal. My first kiss wasn’t until I was twenty-five years old. When I told him I had never been kissed, he was completely freaked out. In fact, before he kissed me, we had to talk about it for almost thirty minutes. Then we kept waiting even though we weren’t sure why we were waiting.
Perpetual virginity became one of the most infuriating things about being a Millennial in the church. Here I was, well into my twenties, and still the only message available for me was: “True Love Waits!” And the main reason was: “Because God said so!” The message worked when I was sixteen, mostly because the idea of being a teen mother was so terrifying to me that it wasn’t even an option. But in the years since college graduation, I’ve fallen into this category of people the church is not equipped to deal with: young, never married, functional adults who have good careers, great community, and a deep hunger for chasing hard after Jesus.
We struggle with things the church has never had to address before this generation, at least not on a mass scale. We need help navigating singleness in our twenties and thirties. We need help understanding the reasons for saving sex for marriage, reasons beyond “True Love Waits!” Because at twenty-seven (and a half), being a single mother is a lot less terrifying than it was at seventeen. (Don’t worry Dad, it’s still terrifying.)
As I’ve entered a new dating relationship recently, I have started to examine what role purity should play in my life now. My counselor and I have spent a good chunk of time talking about the why’s of purity, and he has fine-tuned my understanding of emotional and physical intimacy. He said: “Rachel, a lasting relationship is built on emotional intimacy. That is the only thing that will carry you through life. That is the most important part of a relationship to cultivate. Physical intimacy should always be an expression of emotional intimacy. If you let the physical get further than the emotional, you put the very relationship in danger. Sex is the ultimate expression of emotional intimacy.”
I know that seems like the most obvious statement in the world, and it may be the driving rationale behind something like True Love Waits. But that wasn’t the message my friends and I got from our sex-averse True Love Waits culture. All we heard was: wait.
In an era of delayed marriage, church leaders need to speak bluntly about all forms of intimacy and how they intersect. In a sex-obsessed culture, church leaders need to invite us into more — and more complex — conversations about sex. Engage with us in the conversation. Ask us questions. Share your stories of failure or success. Allow us a safe place to process. Some of us have been waiting a long time and we continue to wait… and wait… and wait. We need to know what’s worth waiting for, and why.