I’m not entirely sure what kind of story this is. It isn’t a story of rape. It isn’t quite a story of sexual assault. But what it is is my story.
It starts with what can be called “purity culture.” It’s hard to describe it exactly if you’re not in it, but it’s a fixation on virginity (especially for women) and how important it is to keep yourself “pure” until marriage. There’s even some stress on “emotional purity” and “guarding your heart,” which means not even getting emotionally tied to someone until… I don’t know. The threat is on giving away pieces of your heart because, like your virginity, you’ll never get those pieces back. To really understand, read Josh Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye. For a longer take on “purity culture” and the emotional aspects, try this blog post.
Purity culture has a demand and a promise. It demands you keep yourself “pure” and it promises that this will make everything once you get married be wonderful. It will strengthen your relationship with your spouse. It will make your sex life amazing. It will protect you from STDs and unplanned pregnancies.
I have to forgive my parents for three reasons. 1) They wanted what was best for me. 2) While there was a definite expectation I’d maintain my virginity, I wasn’t forced to read lots of books, go to purity balls, wear purity rings, make purity pledges or anything like that. That didn’t even come up. The purity culture was much stronger in the church and the homeschooled kids around me. 3) When I started dating my husband, they supervised us for a year (because of our 5-year age gap) and then decided we could handle it. They never once asked me about sex.
My husband grew up in the same culture (although he loathed Josh Harris’s idea of “courtship”) and we both decided that it would be more meaningful to wait for the actual “coupling” until marriage. Since we were together 5 years, there were other things, particularly while we were engaged, that we did which I’m sure my parents wouldn’t have approved of. But my virginity remained intact and my vagina unbreached. Entirely.
Between 18 and 21, when we married, I had 3 gynecological exams. One was an emergency and for unrelated reasons, so I’m not going to talk about him. The other two were my family practice doctor, a Catholic lady who knew I was a “good Christian girl.” After telling me she was downgrading to child-size equipment, she noted that I was “a bank vault.” I assumed this meant “definitely a virgin.” Ok, cool. The second exam was performed by the conservative Christian nurse practitioner at my college. She also used child’s equipment and noted that I was “definitely a virgin.”
Hooray, right? I made it through my dating years with my virginity intact, but my new-husband and I knew a thing or two about pleasing each other (ok, not purity-perfect but we’d only been with each other and were getting married so it was ok) so the wedding night was going to be awesome! Or maybe a little rough at first, but awesome pretty soon…right?
Except. His penis wouldn’t go in. At all.
I hadn’t ever been able to get a tampon in, but…I figured it was just a tampon issue so I never asked. We tried. We tried fingers. …pinkie fit. But I couldn’t tear it with my finger. And it hurt so much. I was crying. At some point he started crying because I was crying.
The next day…we tried again. Nothing. I managed to squeak in an index finger.
We went to Condom Kingdom because we’d stopped in Philly for a couple days on our honeymoon and bought a very small and thin vibrator. We figured maybe it’d help if I were stimulated. We bought the tiniest tampons available to see if I could get them in.
That’s essentially how the first six months of my marriage were. The pain was so intense that I couldn’t bring myself to just rip it. I wasn’t even sure if I could. It felt like another layer of skin that happened to have a small hole in it. I would have seen a doctor, but my parents’ insurance dropped me when I married and neither of our jobs provided insurance benefits. We were young and living month-to-month. Some days I thought about just grabbing a knife and shoving it in there.
Gradually we worked on it. There were tears on both parts. We would try to have sex and I’d cry because it hurt when he tried to push in and he’d cry because he wanted to stop but I told him to keep going because I wanted it gone. We could only bring ourselves to do this a couple times a month because the thought of doing it made us both curl up and cry inside. Or outside.
I felt defective. I felt betrayed. I was terrified. My husband felt like…I can’t even say what he felt like because I can’t use that word for him. We were co-victims of our own upbringing, of our economic circumstances, and of our emotional paralysis that kept us from asking for help.
Finally, almost six months later, it gave way. Suddenly, sex was possible and it was good. But those 6 months hung over our sex life for another couple of years, both physically and emotionally. Some months we still wouldn’t have intercourse and just have manual and oral sex because we couldn’t emotionally handle it.
Once the barrier was broken and I was beginning to recover, I talked to my little sister, who was still on my parents’ insurance and had her seen by a gynecologist. She had a thick and only semi-perforate hymen. The GYN was shocked that I had broken anything like that myself, but less surprised it took so long. My parents agreed immediately with the recommendation for her to have surgery.
Helping her do that made me feel better, not just because I saved her from that experience but because her diagnosis and the GYN’s shock validated everything I had gone through.
I cannot say that I was raped. I cannot call it an assault. But I was betrayed and it caused me sexual dysfunction and emotional scarring. I was betrayed by being taught by a whole culture that my hymen was important. I was betrayed by two medical professionals who I think must’ve assumed from their and my religious backgrounds that I wouldn’t want this surgery. I was betrayed into being so ashamed that I couldn’t bring myself to ask my parents for financial help. I know they would have paid for the surgery outright.
Nearly 6 years later, I can still feel the overwhelming pain and the shame and the emotional agony which I suffered for those 6 months. But now it’s not brought on by sex with my husband. Instead, it’s triggered whenever I brush up against the purity culture–encountering blog posts on waiting for marriage or seeing pictures of a purity ball. There is still pain and there is blinding rage rage and there is helplessness. I cope by telling my story.
One thing that saddens me about the whole situation is that we could have waited and things could have gone so differently. If there hadn’t been a huge fetishization, if I’d gotten medical attention before marriage…if I hadn’t felt such weight and shame around everything, we could have begun our marriage without this trauma. This post is not meant to denigrate those who chose to lose their virginity after marriage. But I need to share the damage that can be done by the purity culture narrative.