A Catholic School Teacher’s Argument Against Abstinence

Who does purity culture protect, really?

Photo: DDP/Unsplash

CCandy Crush is not a great antidote to purity culture, but it was my last line of defense at a mandated middle school chastity talk. I knew I was setting a bad example for my students by blatantly playing with my iPad in the back row of the bleachers, but it was the only way I kept from making comments loudly enough for them to hear.

My first year teaching had been a constant challenge in an area I have always struggled with: holding my tongue. I have learned, sometimes painfully, to redirect what I really want to say to parents and administrators, to keep the curse words from popping out in moments of frustration, and not to allow myself or the students to derail discussions with irrelevant tangents. For all the practice I’ve gained, however, the ambush chastity talk (both the students and the teachers thought we were simply touring the high school our K-8 school fed into) was wearing away the last of my defenses.

Thus the Candy Crush, my insufficient distraction.

At times, my control broke and I had to find small ways to relieve the pressure. I tried to look like I was simply rolling my eyes at the incorporation of lyrics from a Justin Bieber song as I had earlier in the presentation. But when the frequently singing chastity speaker admonished the students to remember that every sexual partner was someone’s daughter, sister, friend (officially, she was speaking to everyone, but she kept making this kind of slip), I leaned over to a fellow teacher and hissed in contempt, “Orphans deserve love too.” Glaring at the candies on the screen, I snapped, “Leaving aside that we’re all people in our own right, not because we have a family.”

More fun was my response to: “No one writes love songs about wanting to be loved for twwwoooo weeks! We want to be loved forever!” Since then, I’d been listing songs under my breath that glorify even briefer love affairs (“Here’s To the Night,” “One Night Only,” “No Day But Today,” “Temporary Love,” “Only The Good Die Young”). It helped very little.

Sitting there, freezing under the air conditioning vent in a crowded gymnasium, I worked the hardest I ever had to bite my tongue. I told myself I should at least gather my thoughts. I should at least refrain from yelling a direct challenge at her. That would not be forgiven so quickly as more moderate words spoken later.

It’s probably the closest I’ve ever come to being fired.

II have my issues with it, but I do believe in Catholic education. I am a product of it, and most days I’m happy to teach within it. But then there are the chastity talks and the Church’s stranglehold on purity culture.

To be fair, I suspect it’s hard to hold sex-positive beliefs as a teacher in any middle school.

I want to entreat them to wait until even the most mature of them are not so reckless and wild and joyful.

I feel as if I received a glimpse, that day, of how hard it must be to be a sex-positive parent when your children are so young — when they look like children to your eyes, even if most of the boys and many of the girls have grown taller than you are. I want to teach them to be safe before they need that information, and I want them to grow to have a healthy relationship with their sexuality, whatever that may be.

But I also want to admonish them not to lose their virginity before they’ve lost their baby fat. I want to tell them that if they have sex now, as statistics say some of them are, they are more likely to hurt each other than not. I want to entreat them to wait until even the most mature of them are not so reckless and wild and joyful. I want to tell them that the last of their childhood is fragile at this point in their lives and that sex is likely to shatter it. And I want them to realize how precious this last moment of childhood is.

I know this is selfish, but I feel it all the same.

Furthermore, I want to say all of this without devaluing any of the principles on which people build a healthy virginity. I do not want to challenge any decision someone may make, especially one upon which our culture has forced so much internal baggage. I want to speak across this imaginary divide between purity culture and sex-positive advocacy, and I want all of my students to know they have my respect and love so long as they’re acting with respect for themselves and their partners. I want to tell them purity culture doesn’t have to be absolute like this, and that it doesn’t have to deal in the negative potential of sex rather than the positive goal of self-control and self-determination. That they have every right to say both yes and no.

Through the sickly sweet haze of Candy Crush, I thought how lucky purity culture parents and teachers are. How much less awkward it is to simply tell students the reasons and strategies to wait. How much easier it would be to see sex as an evil to be prevented. How easy it would be if this speaker were doing the work for me. If I could sit back and listen to her shoulder the tremendous burden of justifying purity culture. If my only concern were figuring out where I might need to reinforce the message or follow up later, and what questions I might expect my students to ask in the aftermath.

And I wondered just who purity culture is meant to protect, really.

The most pivotal moment, in my battle between distraction and rash action, came when the speaker spoke about the Future Spouse as a kind of trump card against reasons to have sex. She presented the Future Spouse as an inquisitor likely to be offended by your sexual history — as if you’ve cheated on them by having previous partners.

I wanted to snap: that’s not even the right way to present this argument. One of my least favorite things in the entire world is having someone tell me “what my options are” like there aren’t dozens of options in every situation. Because anyone who tells you “these are your only options” is lying to you — whether they know it or not. That was the moment I almost spoke.

The speaker had paused in her cheery talk, constantly launching into fragments of love songs, to say seriously that there are three things you can say to your Future Spouse someday:

1. I waited for you. I didn’t spend myself on anyone else. I kept myself pure — for you.

2. I messed up, but there was a point where I realized I would find you and I started waiting from then on. I made myself pure again — for you.

3. I wasn’t really thinking about you at all. I didn’t care about you or that I’d meet you someday.

That moment is the closest I’ve ever been to shouting at a pregnant woman (a very pregnant woman delivering a musical chastity talk — Candy Crush’s world is sane by comparison to our own).

Instead, I shuddered, and I bit down on my tongue hard, holding my peace until I could gather my thoughts. Then, later, I rewrote those options of what to say to a Future Spousal Inquisitor:

1. I have never had this experience before not through lack of opportunity but as a conscious act of will, because I wanted us to be alone in our shared bed. I didn’t want anyone else to know what I look like naked. I have bound up more than just my heart and my body in the decision to make love to you. I have bound up my religion, my self-respect, and a crucial piece of my identity into this one act in order to show you, in one fell swoop, just how much I trust and love you. You are the only person to ever have my consent. As someone who loves me, I expect you to recognize that this is in no small part a religious act to me. I expect you to treat our sex life, present and future, with the respect that deserves. You are the first person I have ever trusted this much or loved enough to make myself so vulnerable.

2. I am not entirely inexperienced in this act, but there came a point in my life when I realized I wanted it to mean more than it had in my past. From that day forward, I have kept myself from sex. It took a lot of work to become the person that I am now. I changed parts of myself that weren’t working and re-prioritized my life, and I am willing to risk it all by sharing this moment with you. I trust you not to derail the work I have done. I am even more vulnerable, in ways, than if I had never done this before because I am trusting you with the image of the perfect person I could be someday. I don’t want to have to put my life back together again. Treat this act with the respect and care it requires, because I literally love you enough to risk who I am becoming.

3. What happened in my life before we met was not about you. I am proud of this fact, not ashamed of it. Here’s why:

3a. I want you to know that you are not simply the person closest to my image of a perfect spouse. I choose you, and I didn’t know before I met you who you would be or what you would be like. So, how could I act as if I knew what you would want of me?

3b. If you love me, then you have to understand that all of the things I did to get here, to become this person, were necessary. All of the pain and all of the joy and all of the practice learning to love in every way — you have to respect that it was what I needed to become the person you love now.

I chose to break from purity culture because I do not want to be part of something that could cause them more pain.

3c. Either we or people we love are queer, transgender, asexual, and this focus on vaginal purity devalues our/their love. Adhering to this standard felt wrong when it does not apply to all human experiences of love and sexuality. I have seen it do harm to those who do not fit the mold.

3d. Statistically, at least one person whom you and I care for deeply was sexually assaulted, and there are enough things to make them feel dirty without purity culture making things worse. I chose to break from purity culture because I do not want to be part of something that could cause them more pain.

3e. I have seen purity culture chew people up and spit them out, and I could not risk my psyche in that project. I did not keep myself “pure” for you. I made myself strong for you instead.

3f. When I thought about what would be best for us, I was thinking beyond this one night. I wanted to know, really know, that it was real when I chose you. I didn’t want to wonder if it was only because I had never loved anyone else in this particularly physical way. I wanted to know, and I wanted you to know, that this relationship was something different and new and functional outside of sex. I wanted to know this was better than other things I had found while I was out there.

3g. I want you to trust me when I declare to you that this is different than the times before. I want you to believe me when I say I love you the most, rather than requiring a gesture that would have imposed demands on my entire previous life.

3h. Permanent relationships are hard enough without binding up so much extra baggage in the act of sex. If I appoint you the caretaker of my self-respect and my faith, then I may not have the strength to leave you someday if we start hurting one another.

3i. I want you to know, every day, that I choose to be with you. That I know this is a decision you do not make just once, in a dramatic gesture a lifetime in the making. I hope my promise to choose you every day matters more than any one-time gesture ever could.

3j. The person I was before I met you is not accountable to you for their actions. I was not breaking any promise to you. We have to build trust based on what has happened since we met, not on what came before — which, if you think about it, couldn’t possibly be about you and me.

3k. I thought you would be the kind of person who wouldn’t judge me for my past. That’s the kind of person I always wanted to fall in love with. When I did think about you, about what you would be like, that is a large part of what I pictured.

OfOf course, the real truth is that there are far more choices than that. Every person who reads this probably has at least something to add. There are 10,000 and more things you can tell your last partner about your life before them. Or, perhaps, they won’t even ask.

As a middle school teacher in a Catholic school saturated even more than the world outside with purity culture, all I really want to offer my students is a wider list of options. A larger list of ways to see themselves and this one choice we’ve made to seem heartbreakingly important and pivotal in every life.

All I want is for my students to have more than three options in everything they do. I cannot make choices for them, and I cannot say this in the assembly to the pregnant, singing woman so charmingly presenting the official position of my religion and my middle school. So I play Candy Crush, and I strategize ways to say this to my students in pieces.

Waiting for a new level to load, I remind myself that turning this into an argument will not change the nature of the discourse on sex and purity in our school. I remind myself that I want my students to be calm, rational, and in control when they decide whether or not to have sex — when they decide anything important in their lives, for that matter. I remember that I don’t want them to be cavalier and risk too much for a momentary rush. And I don’t want them to see purity culture slam down on the head of someone who dared to stand up against it, lest they fear to rise themselves someday.

So I sit there, hoping I will find a better way — and that I don’t run out of lives before the speaker runs out of song parodies to reinforce traditional gender roles.

A pseudonym to protect my job as a catholic schoolteacher from my radical queer advocacy. Or vice versa. I haven’t decided yet.

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