This is Part 2, and it deals with some of the cultural teachings I absorbed or was actively taught that harmed me. Part 1 is here but it carries a content note for descriptions of sexual assault.
The first teaching regarded the fate of your “heart” if you had sex before marriage. I was specifically told that if/when you had sex, you gave a part of your heart away which you could never get back. You were broken if you had sex (outside of marriage) and you were a sinner if you “fornicated”. That word that confused the hell out of me for years. Listed alongside adultery, theft and murder in the New Testament as things you should never ever do, none of the adults I asked would ever give me a straight answer as to what it even was, like the “no heavy petting” sign at the swimming pool. Eventually I figured it must be all the sexy things that weren’t Capital-S Sex. Unfortunately, I did rather a lot of that as a teenager. This all added to my sense of guilt and I thought I was broken and damaged for enjoying sexy times. And it was devastating when I “lost my virginity” age 15 to a guy 2 years and 11 months my senior. I was up for it at the time and decided it was something I wanted to do because I loved him and loved making out with him. But, I felt such remorse afterwards that I told him we couldn’t have sex again. A few weeks after that, he broke up with me. I was depressed for 6 months or so after this, although I didn’t really know it at the time. A combination of being abandoned after I gave him the most precious thing I had, and remorse and shame for having sex before marriage.
I thought I was broken forever, and if not damned to hell (we weren’t those sorts of Christians), I certainly had a lot of making up to do. We don’t go in for physical self-flagellation in the Church of England but I’d probably have won medals in the mental self-flagellation Olympics. Everyone promised God would forgive you if you begged for forgiveness, repented of your sins and never did it again. But I never felt forgiven. I thought God had turned His back on me. His Love, Grace and Forgiveness were clearly for other people, but not for me. Everything felt too bleak and flat and emotionally empty, and I figured it was just my punishment for sinning.
Looking back later the lack of feeling anything much, that all-encompassing hopelessness and thinking it was all my fault were actually depression made manifest. I thought it was just par for the course.
The guilt and shame surrounding sexual activity also ensued I didn’t use protection, apart from condoms that one time I had Sex.This meant I felt anxious a lot of the time I was doing things. I had a vague recollection that pre-cum contained some sperm and so could get you pregnant. So if a guy went from touching his cock to putting his hands down my knickers, I’d feel worried. I also worried that if he came, even if he did it away from me in a tissue, if he then touched me I could get pregnant. Couple those fears with an irregular period and poor record keeping and I had more than a few days of “fuck, where’s my period? What if I’m pregnant?!” My period always showed up a few days later but instead of resolving to use condoms properly, I’d resolve that I would, obviously, go get an abortion by myself and tell no one, especially not my close friends. It never occurred to me to get the morning-after pill. It also did nothing for STI prevention.
Fortunately, I never did catch an STI. I’m even more lucky as most of this “fooling around” happened between the ages of 14 and 17 and I didn’t get an STI test until I was 19. Being symptom free was no comfort because most STIs don’t have symptoms in at least half of cases, and that was one thing my sex education was good enough to teach me. It wasn’t good enough to overcome the shame and guilt to persaude me to actually get tested and use condoms though. I was so afraid I’d have caught something as divine retribution for my sins that I didn’t want to find out.
And lets talk about non-heterosexual orientations briefly, shall we? I was of the school of thought of hate the sin, love the sinner i.e. it was okay to be gay if you didn’t have gay sex, ever, until you die. Which is awful, and so half-arsed intellectually. Why would God curse someone with gay feelings and then demand that they never act on them ever? That they live their life devoid of love and romance and hope that a love of God makes up for it? And what if even feeling attracted to the same sex was enough to condemn you? After all, Jesus condemned the man who loooked upon a woman with lust in his heart, even if he never acted on it. Is it not the same for homosexuals?
That homophobia was so culturally embedded it took several years of being outside those Christian environments and becoming friends with a couple of lesbians, for me to begin to realise, hey, I might be bi. That discovery was filled with guilt, once I got over the denial stage, although I’ve made my peace with it since.
I am so very angry that this was the state of affairs during my teenage years. I don’t want my future kids to experience the deep fear and self-loathing that I did. I felt so damn guilty and broken all the fucking time, and my Christian teachers reinforced that on the regular. They set impossible standards for womanhood, à la Beth Redman’s book “I Wanna be a Woman of God”; I was judged and found wanting. I was unable to turn to the adults in my life for help when I most needed it because I was scared of their judgement for things I knew I wasn’t supposed to be doing, and put myself at risk as a consequence. And all the while, I put on my perfect good-girl face and hid my shame inside. I still carry the mental scars from those experiences and they affect my life in the here and now, even though I’m working on it.
Christianity has a hell of a lot to answer for, is what I’m saying.
Eventually I realised that Christians don’t have the monopoly on love and grace. I spent a lot of time with a lot of shitty, cliquey, judgemental people who called themselves Christians and did all the “right” external things but were so unable to cope with difference, sexuality and bereavement, that I couldn’t cope with them. Eventually I realised that my openly, loudly atheist friends were generally better people than the self-professed Christians I knew. I decided I was fed up of feeling judged by my fellow Christians and the God who is supposedly Love, that I would go do my own thing wholeheartedly instead.
I joined the goth scene. I stopped going to Church. I stopped beating myself up for liking sex and having one-night stands. I embraced my bisexuality. I found my kinky side. I learned to orgasm with a partner and I am getting better at doing it on my own. I realised that I am a survivor of sexual assault but that I am and will be okay, even though there are things that hurt and trip me up and freak me out from time to time. I have come a long, long way from where I was as a teenager and I am so thankful for that.