Girl Talk: What Losing My Virginity Taught Me About Faith

I was 25 when I kissed someone for the first time.

I’d met him at a local book club, and we hit it off almost instantly. Our first date started at eight p.m. and ended shortly after one a.m. Though we’d planned a second official date for the following Tuesday, we ended up hanging out every evening for the next few days. I was smitten, he was smitten, and it wasn’t long before we were A Thing.

Two months later, I moved to Chicago and we broke up. But before all that happened, before this relationship went down in the flaming ball of pain that plagues so many long distance relationships, we had several wonderful evenings together. We watched movies, went out to eat, walked through parks, and, yes, fooled around on his small loveseat in his apartment.

In the technical sense, I never actually “lost” my virginity (at least not with him). But I no longer felt like a virgin because I was now sexually experienced. And this was a problem for the culture I came from, because I had committed the greatest of all sins: I had engaged in premarital fooling around with someone.

I grew up in Christian purity culture, which is characterized by an emphasis on sexual purity until marriage. Christians in the purity movement make pledges at a young age — I made such a pledge at age 14 — to maintain their purity, frequently wearing rings and necklaces and other outward symbols of their commitment. There’s an industry of Christian dating guides about how to avoid temptation, and commitment ceremonies where young girls pledge their purity alongside their fathers. The purity movement is also behind continued pushes for abstinence only sex education in schools and new anti-birth control movements throughout the United States.

Growing up in the purity movement as I did, you’re taught some very specific things about sex:

Having sex outside of marriage will take away pleasure from sex within marriage.

Having sex outside of marriage with make connection with your future spouse harder.

Having sex outside of marriage means disappointing God, disappointing family, and causing unnecessary pain and heartache for yourself.

Having sex outside of marriage will essentially destroy you, ruining your witness, your faith, your relationships.

Having sex outside of marriage is the slippery slope to hedonistic atheism.

These were the dire warnings that were impressed upon us as young Christians in youth groups, in books about Christian relationships, and in Bible studies about purity. When I graduated high school, I was prepared to wait for marriage. I felt God was guiding me to this, and being a virgin meant I would be having some great sex with my future husband.

Thus, I graduated college with only one blind date under my belt. And then graduate school. And then I moved to Japan and started questioning my faith. Lots of little things that I thought were God’s blessing – my job in Japan, my success in academics – were leading me nowhere fast. It wasn’t so much that I was unhappy – it was that I felt totally abandoned and misled by this God I’d been told to believe. I’d done everything right. I’d been told my virginity and modesty and purity would be attractive to Christian men. And yet, nothing was happening, nothing was moving, nothing was clear.

I was clinging to some modicum of faith when I returned to the United States in the winter of 2011. My doubt had taken a toll on me; I didn’t know how to process this new perspective of God that I was developing. I was beginning to see the cracks in the armor of the evangelical church, especially as my views on politics became more progressive and I began to be more concerned about loving LGBT people than condemning them to hell.

When I started dating my then-boyfriend, a lapsed Catholic, I hadn’t been to church in over a year, though I still made an effort to pray and study the Bible. My new job was at a church ministrym where I disagreed with the leadership’s theology. Proponents of the purity movement would say that I was falling away from the faith and that’s why I started fooling around with men. I no longer had a deep connection with Christ that I was supposed to have, which made me vulnerable to the manipulations of The World.

But this wasn’t my case at all, and the flattening of such a narrative does a disservice to the complexity of faith. Losing my virginity wasn’t the end result of falling away from my faith – it was the beginning of a renewal, of learning to love God and my neighbors more deeply and fully than ever before.

This also isn’t a conversion story of how losing my virginity made me realize how far away I’d fallen and now I’m chastened, back on the straight-and-narrow and celibate. I’m not celibate and I’m dating around. And I’m a Christian whose faith, at this point, is probably stronger than at any point in my younger years. And I know that this faith, this commitment, wouldn’t have been possible had I not actively made the decision to give up on purity.

Purity, for me and for many women, became a distraction from the Gospel. In evangelicalism, purity is so closely tied to a salvation message that loss of purity is necessarily painted as a loss of faith – and this leaves many women wondering what happens if they do make the decision to have sex, even if it’s in the “right” circumstances. Learning to have sex without shame often creates a crisis of faith because we’re told for years and years that sex is shameful, scary and not something women should want.

For me, making the decision to have sex without shame, to own that part of myself and to make those decisions, has only improved my faith and my understanding of God’s love. Sex liberated me from my puritanical judgment and strict ideas about what’s right and wrong. It taught me to meet people where they are – just as Jesus did – and in that way, it became a different kind of sacrament. I judge people less now. I don’t wrap my faith up in whether or not I’m performing the rules in the right way. And I understand God’s love for God’s people on a deeper, more personal level than ever before.

Losing my virginity outside of a marriage relationship taught me how to be a better person and a better Christian. It challenged my presuppositions about what sexual health looks like, and brought into stark relief the gaps in my education about ethics and holiness. Sex, in this way, can be a sacrament, a movement toward understanding God, a form of holiness experienced in a deep, mystical way. Sex can be holy, whether or not you have a ring on your finger.

Dianna E. Anderson is a writer from Sioux Falls, SD. She grew up in the Baptist church, has two degree from Christian liberal arts colleges, and pledged to save herself for marriage when she was 14. She is the author of the forthcoming book about purity and Christianity, Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity.