Masturbating As An Evangelical Christian Teen Girl Was Exactly As Complicated As It Sounds

I grew up in a strict evangelical household, where the idea of cavemen riding dinosaurs existed but the idea of masturbation didn’t. I was curious and my parents were pious — although maybe not quite as ignorant as I thought. Everything I knew about sexuality, I had gleaned from locker-room whispers at school and the weird world of sexy fan-fiction available on the Internet of 1999 ... which is to say, I didn't know much, but what I knew, I liked. In any case, my great success and skill at masturbation as a preteen — as well as my ability to get away with it without my parents noticing for an impressively long time — can be attributed in no small part to my love of reading.

I don’t mean to suggest that I acquainted myself with my newly-developing thirst thanks to a handy copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves ; nor did I stumble upon ideas in a racy passage in a library book. Far from it — our house, while liberally stocked with literature, was much more conservative in terms of subject matter. The shelves were packed with copies of the Bible in various translations (including a comic-book version); Left Behind novels; and devotional guides for various audiences — mothers, fathers, couples, families, daughters, golfers. The closest things to a women's health textbook were my mother’s Guideposts magazines, which spoke of miraculous arthritis cures and babies granted to women Through the Power of Prayer. Library books were submitted for parental approval before they came home; a stray curse word or mention of any body part south of the neck generally meant they were swiftly returned to the librarian’s desk. Even the Harry Potter novels were silently pruned from my bedroom bookshelf while I was out of the house one day.

What I mean when I say that reading was my savior in this freshly-ravenous teenage stage in my life is this: when a thirteen-year-old is regularly buried in a book for six hours a day, her naïve (perhaps willfully so) parents are able to believe that when she spends an hour locked in the bathroom with the shower running, it is because she is sitting, still fully clothed, on the toilet, unable to tear herself away from Frodo’s journey or Hamlet’s soliloquy. I’m sure it was much easier to believe that our household ran out of hot water on the daily because I was an insufferable bookworm than because I was an insatiable sex maniac.

My family’s possibly-purposeful ignorance extended well beyond the true duration of my hygiene habits. Whenever I donned shorts or a skirt, my grandmother clucked approvingly at my muscular thighs and tapered calves. “She’s got the legs of a dancer,” she would announce proudly, and I could hardly correct her, because her way of putting it sounded so much better than “She’s got the legs of a chronic mattress-humper!” If it occurred to anyone to wonder how I had developed such athletic legs when I spent approximately the same amount of time exercising each day as does a sea cucumber, no one ever mentioned it.

No one ever told me that what I was doing was wrong, because what I was doing was not a topic of proper conversation in that household. Not a lot was a topic of proper conversation, when it came right down to it: just schoolwork, dinner, church, sports, boys — as long as they were the right sort of boys. Even so, I knew better than to bring it up: some things just seep into your awareness from the edges when you live in a house that has prayers embroidered on the pillows and post-apocalyptic revenge fantasies on the bookshelves. How wrong can it be? I wondered, as I drifted to sleep at night. I’m not hurting anyone, and no one knows a thing. And into my mattress’s loving embrace I went.

But I was probably not as discreet as I thought, nor my mother as naïve as I thought. Teenage life passed with its usual ups and downs and pimples and arguments; I was handed a packet of maxi-pads at the proper point in time, and that was that. Everything else I needed to know about sexuality had been encapsulated in years of Sunday school lessons and Bible readings. Thou shalt not commit adultery: my family’s version of the birds and the bees.

It was only years later, when I was home from college and my mother had a fit about my close-cropped, red-dyed hair and lack of selection of a new church home near campus, that revelations long buried came to light.

My mother presented me with a printed out page of fan-fiction smut. I had discovered this fan-fiction as a newly-internet savvy and not-so-newly horny fourteen-year-old. Based on my memory of its contents, it was probably written by someone around the same age as me, with roughly the same sexual experience level. I had voraciously consumed it, printed off a copy for later use, and folded it up between the pages of the locked diary my mother had once bought me. Upon giving me this gift, she had failed to mention that she also retained a key of her own. This — and a number of other precocious sexual feelings recorded in the pages of that diary — were thrown at me that day like a modern-day scarlet A. I remember staggering under the weight of my newly-discovered slut-hood. I love my mother very much, but she and I didn't then and don't now see eye to eye on either the issues of teenage sexuality or parental-filial trust.

After that experience, I cried for a long time, felt dirty a lot longer, threw away the diary, and all but threw away the idea of sex, too. I'd lost my religion well before that, but somehow, the feeling of being watched and judged didn't go away along with it. How can you enjoy letting go when it always feels like someone is waiting to kick down the door and expose you for the pervert you are?

Envision a montage starring a great college boyfriend, good friends, and a healthy dose of exposure to worldviews outside of the one I grew up in. (Soundtrack for this montage: something by the Barenaked Ladies, probably.) Did you get all that? Good. After the primordial joy of self-discovery — and a long hot shower — was gone, I was afraid for a time that sex had been ruined for me forever. But it hadn't. Now I’m an adult, not a terrified thirteen-year-old, and the house I live in has no Picture Bibles or Left Behind novels on its bookshelves. I’m married, I know that vibrators are a thing, and I am comfortable enough with my own body to go spelunking for my own IUD strings once a month. Oh, and sex is fun again. That’s going to be a lot harder to take away a second time.

Besides the bookshelf-related differences, there is also a particular bedside drawer in the house I live in now. It is not locked. And now, when I want to masturbate, I don’t have to waste gallons of water concealing the fact.

I still have great legs, too.

Images: konka* / Flickr, Giphy (3)