“Oh, God, it feels wet!”
I knew it had gone too far when a rubber fetus flew across the room and into my lap.
It was abstinence-only night at my local Christian youth group, and I was inconsolable. I prayed that being terrorized with pictures of aborted fetuses and horror stories of teen pregnancies would end as quickly as possible, but to no avail.
It was all topped off with a souvenir rubber fetus to remind us that abortion is murder, and a red slip of paper titled something like “I promise, in the name of the Lord, to practice abstinence until marriage” above the dotted line for our signatures.
I sat there holding that red slip of paper, staring at the oath tastefully printed in Comic Sans. I was scared out of my little 14-year-old mind.
I didn’t fully understand why premarital sex was bad, but the mere idea of it terrified me. I never received proper sex education at school and didn’t have any adults in my life who were exactly sex-positive.
Most of my knowledge about sex came from discovering porn for the first time, and it didn’t help that watching porn was portrayed by my youth group as one of the gravest sins.
I remember attending my youth group’s retreat, where one of my favorite activities was worship. We would all gather to watch the band playing worship songs onstage, the religious lyrics not so important to me as the hot girl playing electric guitar. After worship, there would always be confession.
I made my way to the stage on one such occasion and confessed to one of my pastors that I had watched porn. I then promptly broke down in tears while the pastor began praying fervently for God’s forgiveness. The next morning, I saw the same pastor at breakfast. It was possibly the most awkward exchange of eye contact I have ever experienced — and maybe the most shameful.
Just like with premarital sex, I didn’t exactly know why porn was forbidden. But even if I didn’t understand it, sexuality remained a huge source of guilt for much of my preteen life.
It was mind-boggling to hear guy friends openly talk about porn or to learn that people I knew were having premarital sex. But rather than expanding, my worldview contracted — growing unforgiving toward anyone who didn’t conform to traditional gender roles. It grew even harsher when I began questioning my own sexuality. Secretly, though, I couldn’t help but wonder why it had to be this way.
But finally, on a summer trip to San Francisco, I left my religious bubble.
There, I met Ruby, who is nonbinary; Jackie, who is gay; and Paul, who is bisexual. By some stroke of serendipity, they instantly became some of my closest friends. While in San Francisco, I also marched at Pride for the very first time. As I held my friends’ hands in a crowd dressed with rainbows, I forgot about my pastors, my religious family and my youth group.
This crowd of strangers made me feel more validated than my religious community back home ever had.
When I eventually had to go home, I held on to what it felt like at that moment at Pride. It was a moment without fear.
I was able to see a day-to-day that didn’t involve Christianity — and for it, I suddenly wasn’t so afraid to talk about sex or even question my sexuality.
Without fear, I could finally see sex as what it is: not a big deal. You don’t “lose” anything when you lose your virginity. You can have safe premarital sex, and you can also choose to wait. Your value isn’t dictated by how many people you’ve slept with.
Despite how sexually empowering my departure from religion was, though, I do recall instances during which I’ve tried to reconcile with it. I wonder if I judge Christianity based on the imperfect community and experiences that I personally encountered.
Maybe it’s worth it to give religion another shot because life without belief is scary — and lonely. It can feel like you against the world, with no plan set in place for you and no one who loves you unconditionally.
There are churches that support gay marriage and pro-choice abortion laws. And I’m sure there are decent youth groups that don’t use fear tactics to scare kids into abstinence. But then again, do I really miss religion, or do I just long for community?
I’m not sure.
But I’m glad that the experiences I had being a Christian actually drove me to grow a bit more of a spine and question what seems to be unquestionable. I began to look for my own answers and approach sex and sexuality with openness rather than with fear and judgment.
So who knows? In a few years, I could become a Christian again. Or maybe I’ll bring my Co-Star app obsession to a whole new level and get into witchcraft.
But I do know for sure that I’m done with being afraid of sex.
Jessie Wu writes the Thursday column on exploring the intersection between risk and self-discovery. Contact her at [email protected]