For the month of September, Bustle’s Sex TBH package is talking about sex, honestly. We’re delving into how women approach the things they’re taught to be shy or embarrassed about in the bedroom — and, in doing so, we're liberating people to live their best (sex) lives. Let’s do it.
On my 16th birthday, my dad took me out to dinner, just the two of us, and put a white gold promise ring on my finger.
It was simple and delicate, just a plain, thin band with a bible verse citation (Philippians. 1: 9-11) inscribed on the inside. The verse reads, "And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God." I chose the bible verse myself. I’d grown up attending a very immersive Evangelical Christian church where we had meetings up to six days a week. All the girls received promise rings for their 16th birthdays, and I’d been dreaming of this moment since I was 12 years old. I saw it as a rite of passage and a mark of maturity. I was ecstatic to have finally arrived into full teenage-dom, and also relieved to have something to protect me from what I thought were my own worst impulses.
I had been taught at church and at my Christian school that sex was exclusively reserved for straight married people, that lust was a sin, and that lustful thoughts were just as sinful as lustful actions. My parents aggressively patrolled my media consumption to censor out anything related to sex or sexuality, which made me feel both more curious and more guilty for being curious about something so taboo. I knew I didn’t want to actually have sex because the shame I felt about having sexual desire to begin with was bad enough — I was terrified of the prospect of further exacerbating those unpleasant feelings by adding in the risks of STDs, unexpected pregnancy, and heartbreak. My sexuality was as aflame as any 16-year-old’s — I thought about sex more or less constantly and gave myself orgasms easily and often when I masturbated — but these activities brought on a wave of shame, and I typically spent more time attempting to fend off sexual thoughts and uttering prayers for forgiveness after I gave into them than I did enjoying myself.
On top of that, my sexuality was also confusing — I was attracted to both girls and boys, but I’d never even heard the term “bisexual.” I had only ever made out with female friends under the guise of “practicing” for the boys we’d ostensibly one day make out with. It was a secret I was deeply ashamed of, since my church and school had also both made it clear that homosexuality was sinful. I felt certain that none of my sexual desires were normal, and that having them meant something was wrong with me. As a result, I was terrified of the whole complicated mess of my own sexuality. The promise ring offered sanctuary. I was truly grateful for a boundary that could keep it all at bay, and I thanked my Dad for it in earnest while we chowed down on a huge order of nachos.
After we’d ordered more food and done some catching up about how things were going at school, he gave me the ring and told me that he wanted me to take it seriously — that he thought I should treat it as a vow between me and God that I’d wait until I was married to start having sex.
“It won’t be easy” he said, “but I think it will really worth the effort. Of course it’s better in God’s book, but it’s also going to be better for you, and for your relationships. It’s hard to know what you really want when you’re young. Waiting will protect you from a whole lot of potential heartache.”
I admired the ring on my finger. “That totally makes sense to me,” I said.
Three years later, as a freshman in college, I no longer identified as a Christian. This didn’t happen overnight, but through my college classes, conversations with friends, and literature and media that I picked up along the way, I had come to realize that Christianity was just one of many creation myths told around the world. It struck me as arrogant to assume that the one I’d happened to be born into and raised with had more merit than any of the others, or that I had to follow its antiquated rules in order to be a good person. I wasn’t particularly bitter — I had just realized that my parents’ faith wasn’t right for me, and slowly let it go. Along with it, I started to work on disabusing myself of the idea that sexuality was sinful, or that I had any kind of moral imperative to wait until marriage to do it. Everyone else was doing it, after all.
But for some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to take off that damn promise ring. I still wore it 24 hours a day, as I had since my 16th birthday — it was with me in the shower, at the gym, if I went swimming, and when I slept. I had a stark white tan line from it, and a slight indentation in my finger shape from wearing it for so long while my hands were apparently still growing.
The truth is, I found the familiarity of the ring on my finger comforting. I hadn't yet taken the women's studies class that would inform me that virginity is actually just a social construct, and even though it made me feel decidedly uncool at times, still having my V-card had also come to feel like an important part of my identity. Also, the option to have sex hadn’t really yet presented itself yet — I hadn’t actually met anyone I wanted to have sex with. Then, I met Jake (not his real name).
Jake looked like a teen pop star, blond-haired and dimpled. The iron-on letters falling off his favorite powder blue T-shirt read, “Kiss me, I’m Jake” (yes, for real). I felt like my skin might catch fire every time he touched me. When he confessed, one drunken night in New York City, that he had feelings for me, but was afraid to act on them because he knew I was a virgin and he was “kind of a slut,” I told him I didn’t care. We started dating, and I was so into him that I could hardly sit still during my classes. A month into our relationship, I knew I wanted to have sex with him.
We’d been having daily, hours-long make out sessions that usually culminated with him respectfully asking whether he could go down on me or use his hands to get me off, and me enthusiastically consenting and then apprehensively exploring his body with my own hands and mouth. Afterwards, even though I technically still had my V-card, I’d feel ashamed. I didn’t want to — I no longer actually believed I was doing anything wrong in my head, but shame came to me like muscle memory. It emanated from within my body without the help of conscious thought. I’d be lying in his arms in bed, sweaty and content, basking in the glow of multiple orgasms and new love, and suddenly it would emerge as an icy cold feeling of guilt in my chest that trickled through my veins into my arms, legs, fingers, and toes, reminding me that I was now betraying the identity I’d clung to for so long.
Sometimes I cried and talked it out with Jake and then felt better. Other times I just felt sad and couldn’t shake it. During the day, when we were apart, I was a tightly-wound ball of anxious energy, vacillating between feeling euphoric with love and nauseous with guilt.
It sounds weird, but I thought maybe talking to my dad would help.
As a budding feminist, I knew I shouldn’t give a flying fuck about what my dad thought about my sex life, but I did. My dad and I were still close. We always had been. We exchanged long emails and phone calls regularly, and there was little about my life that I didn’t tell him. He knew I was no longer a Christian and respected it. He too had changed over the years. He was still a believer, but he didn’t go to our old church anymore, and his ideas about morality had softened at the edges. I suspected that part of my lingering guilt was based in fear of disappointing him. And like the sense of shame that so often accompanied my sexual exploits, I didn’t know how to turn the caring off just because I knew intellectually that it was unreasonable. The same day I went to the student health center to request birth control, I managed to muster up enough courage to give him a call.
“So, I think I want to have sex with Jake,” I said, after 45 minutes of catching up. “We’re in love, and I don’t really believe it’s important to wait until marriage anymore. I already started birth control. We’ll also use condoms. We’ll be super safe.” There was a long pause.
“Are you calling to get my blessing?” my dad asked.
“Ew, Dad,” I said, “No. I’m just...telling you. I guess. Because of the promise ring.”
He sighed on the other line. “Right,” he said. “Well, that choice is yours to make now. I did my best to give you all the skills you’d need to make responsible adult decisions, and now you’re an adult. I trust you to make smart choices. But—”
There was another long pause before he continued, “But just making sure — you know birth control takes a little while to start being effective, right?”
“Ugh, yes, Dad,” I said. “I know. They obviously don’t give 18-year-olds birth control and not tell them that.”
“Thanks, though,” I added. “I appreciate that.”
As much as it shouldn’t have mattered, the conversation helped. From then on, whenever shame crept into my body after Jake and I fooled around, I made a conscious effort to unlearn it. You haven’t done anything wrong, I’d tell myself. Your body is yours and yours alone. Experiencing pleasure is one of the best parts of being alive. Stay present. Enjoy it.
At the end of the semester, Jake got a summer internship in San Francisco and invited me to go with him. As I packed my bags, I decided to leave my promise ring behind. I tucked it into a small ring box, which I stashed inside a larger box and hid in the back of the closet in my bedroom at my parents’ house. As I boarded my plane, I felt emboldened knowing that I’d lose my virginity on the other side of the country, thousands of miles away from the ring and any shame it represented for me.
After I’d been in California for a few weeks, Jake and I bought condoms and lube at a drugstore, and on a hot weekday evening while the sun streamed through the open windows and illuminated our rented room in a warm glow, we stripped down with the intention of “freeing me from the burden of purity.” We talked and laughed between making out and taking off our clothes, as we usually did, trying not to treat the moment too seriously.
“I love you so much” he said, coming up to kiss me after going down on me.
“I love you so much too,” I said.
“Are you still sure you want to do this?” he asked, holding my face.
“Oh my God yes,” I said. “I am so fucking sure.”
When the actual moment of penis-in-vagina sex arrived, I stayed quiet and focused. I wanted to feel everything. I wanted to remember everything. We kept our mouths on each others’ throats and chests and faces and moved together slowly. We hadn’t done this specific thing yet, but we’d spent the last three months memorizing each others’ bodies and desires. It all felt strangely normal and familiar, except the part where I was almost silent and kept accidentally holding my breath. It didn’t hurt, as I’d feared it might — his penis certainly wasn’t the first thing I’d ever had inside me — it actually felt amazing. I came almost immediately, then two more times, so quietly I had to tell him it had happened when he asked if I was alright.
Afterwards, we held each other and talked and laughed again. During a quiet moment, I felt some of the old familiar shame bubbling up deep in my chest, but I closed my eyes, breathed deeply, and repeated my mantra. You haven’t done anything wrong. Your body is yours and yours alone. Experiencing pleasure is one of the best parts of being alive. Stay present. Enjoy it.
Alone in the bathroom, I smiled at my reflection in the mirror while slowly, tenderly lathering lavender-scented soap between each of my fingers, lingering over the little indentation on my left ring finger where my promise ring once rested. Instead of the old icy cold shame, I realized that the feeling emanating from my chest was one of warmth. For the first time, my sexuality felt like something I could take pride in, not something I needed to be ashamed of. I was proud of myself for letting go of a part of my past that was no longer serving me. I felt free.
Unfortunately, though, one afternoon of hot, consensual sex didn’t erase the mark left by my promise ring, physically or metaphorically. The old feelings still sometimes manifested themselves. Jake and I didn’t last, and the first time I slept with someone other than him, shame showed up, Biblical style, whispering that I was a promiscuous woman, even though I truly believed I had nothing to atone for. The first time I ever slept with a woman, shame arrived afterwards too, the familiar chill wending its way through my limbs, telling me I’d sinned and that my homosexual desires were wicked, even though I knew deep down that that was a bunch of nonsense, too. I did lots of hard emotional work (with the help of therapy and journaling) to really banish and unlearn it. I educated myself about feminism, religion’s relationship to shame, gender politics, and sexual empowerment. I found friends who loved me and shared my worldview, and worked on having an honest relationship with my family. They’ve met the people of various genders who I’ve dated over the years, and have always pleasantly surprised me with their unconditional supportiveness.
There was no quick fix. It took all of these things to get to where I'm at now. It’s been a long healing process that’s demanded courage and a whole lot of personal growth. But for me, unlearning shame has been well worth the effort. I don't miss my promise ring, and I certainly don't miss feeling guilty for something that's totally natural, healthy, and joyful.