I grew up in a small town. It was in the “heartland”– the middle of the country, yet everyone had twangy Southern accents. The town didn’t have much money or restaurants or people. But we did have churches. Churches in pole-barns, churches whose congregations were made up of only one family, churches in the hills with members who spoke in tongues and fancy churches with stained glass that told you to vote for George Bush.
All through my youth, I probably would have said I was a Christian. It was just the default. My parents did take me to church when I was little, I grabbed from the tin of sugar-cookies and drank dixie cups of watery Kool-Aid, but I had somehow remained a bit feral.
I think my sister and I were the only kids who didn’t put on white robes to get dunked in front of the congregation.
In high school, the bulk of the popular kids were religious. They rallied to get the Ten Commandments posted in our school, they went on Southern Baptist retreats and wore bedazzled W(hat) W(ould) J(esus) D(o) T-shirts. I knew I didn’t want to be one of them. In any highly religious town, there has to be a flipside. During lunch I smoked cigarettes in the bathroom, wearing eyeliner and flared Mudd jeans—good girls wore Gap. When I lost my virginity at 15, I felt relieved. I still would have probably said I was Christian, but now I was definitely not going to be caught getting baptized.
In exploring my teenage angst, I fell into the local punk rock scene. It was small and fiercely Southern Baptist. These kids played shows in church basements, covering MXPX and Slick Shoes. Afterward, they listened to The Dead Milkmen and NOFX and smashed mailboxes. These were kids who loved working in “hell houses” on Halloween–Christian haunted houses that depict people “sinning” in various ways (pre-marital sex, abortion, doing drugs) then going to hell. The last room is usually heaven. Then they ask you at the end if you want to be saved, and funnel you into a room to sign up for baptism.
But as a 16-year-old, seduced by checkered Vans and studded belts, I found my match in this scene. Tim was older, 21, and a True Love Waits virgin. True Love Waits is a contract that you have with, like, “God” and the community or something. It is a vow that you will not have sex until you’re married. The church-going kids would bring the contracts to school and teachers would pass them out during class, encouraging us to sign. Afterward, the names of kids who signed would run in the town’s newspaper. Which also printed the names of everyone who’d been arrested that day and for what.
As I liked to say in those days: “True Love Waits … until nighttime.” In mine and Tim’s case, it waited a whole two months. Soon we were having sex four times a night. Role-playing in costumes, snapping naked Polaroids. We’d jump each other’s bones before church, and in the car after church on the way to his Grandma’s for Sunday dinner.
And even though he was in college, he was terrified of his parents finding out. My parents let me go on the Pill, but watching him double bag and hide condoms, I understood how a lot of the kids couldn’t just ask their parents about sex. It made sense how each year, a girl or two in my class of fifty got knocked up.
Amongst the other Christian punk kids, it wasn’t a huge deal that we were having sex. A lot of them were too. One was having sex with his girlfriend, but only anal, to preserve her virginity. The thing that most stands out to me about these kids is that they were super sex-obsessed but super sex-negative. Like, one time we all went to a Goldfinger show and afterward a car of girls slap-happily flashed us. They booed and yelled at other cars to not look at these ugly sluts.
As a teenager, I had never heard of sex positivity. This was abstinence-only education. We were only taught that sex was dirty and wrong. At school, the worst insult a girl could hurl at you was that you were a “slut” or a “whore.” So in this abstinence-only view of sexuality, no morals existed. Anything that was sexual was bad. So anything went.
In mine and Tim’s relationship, sometimes after sex he would say he didn’t want to do it anymore, that he was going to be “born again.” I remember crying, feeling frustrated but unable to put into words why. Other times while watching a movie, waiting for the pelvic poke in my tailbone, I was the one who didn’t want to. But I’d let him jam inside of me anyway while I waited and silently baring any pain to get it over with.
Eventually, I would move to a liberal arts college in the biggest city I could get to. Tim settled on moving to Kentucky to go to a Baptist school, to be a missionary. We broke up. At college, I had begun to explore my sexuality and what sex was—what good sex was. And I knew being open, being able to say yes as well as no, is what made good sex.
The last time I saw Tim was at a Christmas party. He casually dropped that I was the last person he had slept with. My mouth dropped. “That was … years ago!” He said he wouldn’t sleep with anyone except his future wife and maybe me again. Somehow, this was okay in his black and white view?
Now, Tim is married, presumably with kids, as most of the Christian people from that small town are. Raising their kids in the same small town, in the same school with the same abstinence-only education and the “they are making us teach evolution” caution.
As you grow to be an adult, you change, your experience with sex changes. But when I heard that some of those Christian punks had the naked Polaroids that Tim took of me taped under their glass coffee table, I remembered sometimes you don’t change. The sexual shame is hard to shake. But at least as they marry and have kids, this new crop of offspring will have more resources, the Internet, some window outside that view with purity rings I can only hope start tarnishing a little faster.