sexuality and identity

When A Question Broke My Heart

“I’ve already had sex. That means God can’t love me. Right?”

My heart died a little the day the eighth grader asked me that question. It was in an abstinence support group I was leading in one of the local public high schools. No religion allowed. Just the facts, ma’am.

This brave, broken girl was only 14 years old, on that rocky divide between woman and child. And she was already sexually active. She came from a “good” home: two parents, stay-at-home mom, father who brought in the big bucks after working long hours. They lived on an island of privilege in a sea of borderline poverty. They attended a large church. She spent as much time at church functions as she did at school extracurriculars. I share this because I’m shocked by how many christians believe if they the parents do everything right, their children will remain virgins until marriage. Or at least until they are engaged. Because, oh my God, sex! It’s evil, it’s wrong. Avert your eyes, my children, until you say I do, and then through some sort of magic, sex becomes the right thing to do. It’s your duty, don’t you know.

Our group met once a week in the high school, a school she attended because her parents wanted her to be in the world while learning to be not of it. As a facilitator I had gotten to know each girl’s story, teased out what they knew about sex – biology and psychology. Who were their mentors and teachers of all things sexuality. While the majority of girls learned about the birds and the bees from their health class – with a little additional exposition from a parent or older sibling and continued “education” from peers – this girl had learned only about abstinence within the hallowed halls of church purity culture. Don’t do it. Save yourself for marriage. You are your virginity and once that’s gone, well, you will always be a broken doll. Why? Because Jesus and Pastor So-And-So said so.

She was shamed into remaining pure. And that shame, plus lack of knowledge, kept her at her older boyfriend’s beck and call.

She had been pulled from the units in health class that focused on reproduction and sex education. The wisdom of youth leaders and her parents would be enough to keep her pure until she married. She was kept so busy she shouldn’t have time to think about boys. Or dating. Or, God forbid, sex.

But she joined my group. A voluntary group where the focus was on abstinence and how to make good choices, but my focus was on relationships and education. Perhaps some of my experience, some of my hard won wisdom could help even one of these girls. I wasn’t going to preach purity to them. Instead, I helped them understand they had options. And how to weigh the consequences of those options. Some of this was totally outside of where my girls were developmentally, so I tried so hard to have open dialogue and to be a safe person to come to with questions. I was not there to judge. I was not there to parent. My job was to educate.

Since all the girls in my group were sexually active in one way or another, I asked them the question “How does having sex make you feel? Is it like how you thought it would make you feel?” One by one all the girls admitted feelings of shame, confusion, anger. So we talked about that. One girl loudly blamed the boys she had sex with. It was always about them, never her. Maybe she needed a real man. So we talked about what was normal developmentally at various ages. About statutory rape. About consent. We spoke of birth control. Of saying no and what coercion can look like. About the fact that guys get to say no as well. We talked about abstinence and how that may be appropriate developmentally. And how that at any time one could choose to be abstinent, just as one could choose to be sexually active. We spoke about abuse, self-esteem, and how hard it is to be the only one who feels like she isn’t doing it when the rest of the world is. How once we have sex, we will forever carry around something from that person with us. We discussed consequences.

Then one week we talked about how sex made them feel, deep, deep down inside. Ashamed. Scared. Loved but afraid that love will go away if we say no. Powerful, but only for a little while.  Uncertain. Special. Dirty. Confused.

And that was when she raised her hand and whispered her fear that God could no longer love her.

My heart was breaking and I wanted to cry as I asked her why she thought that God couldn’t love her. Not wouldn’t or shouldn’t. Couldn’t. Like if there was one single act a human could perform that would cause God to turn away from us forever, that act would be sex outside of marriage.

She told us all in those quiet words that she was told by her youth pastor that a girl who has sex before marriage is forever damaged. That God prizes our purity above all. She painfully recounted how her parents would speak of the child of another family in church with condemnation. Why? Because this child had gotten pregnant at the age of sixteen. How horrible it was. How the troubles this family was now seeing were due to the sin of the child. And that the sin of the child was likely due to the sin of a parent. The rotten apple doesn’t fall far from the sinful tree. How another family was reeling from the news that their college aged daughter had been raped. Well, you know how those liberal state schools are – a breeding ground for sin and temptation. They should have sent her to a faith-based school. She was probably asking for it, anyway, with her skimpy shirts and short skirts.

I wanted to take those parents in hand and smack them. I wanted to share some words with that youth pastor. But even more, I wanted to take that girl and wrap my arms around her and tell her God loves her. God believes in her. And that we are not defined solely by our past or present. I shared my story. Molested as a young child by male babysitters. My own acting out and promiscuity. A boyfriend in college who was a predator and decided that broken me was just who he was looking for. Years of shame, anger, pain. Of carrying the guilt that wasn’t mine and acting out in unhealthy ways – not because sex is an unhealthy activity, but because of my motives.  And above all, of learning that God loves me.

He loved me when I was being abused. He loved me when I was the one doing the abusing. He loved me through it all. And that right there – that is humbling, my friends. It didn’t matter what was done to me or what I chose to do, God loved me through it. That didn’t negate the natural consequences of my choices, or the fact that I had to deal with the consequences of the choices and actions of other people. Consequences don’t just go away because God loves us. But that love, that perfect love, that can help us work through and heal from those consequences.

God’s love isn’t something that is relegated only for the pure. And who can judge purity anyway? God’s love is for all of us. God’s forgiveness is for all of us. For all have sinned. All have missed the mark. All have wandered from the law. All. Of. Us. And guess what. God loves us anyway.

This is what I was able to tell this girl. I didn’t tell her she needed to repent – so many in the church have the concept of repentance wrong anyway. I didn’t tell her God would forgive her. I told her what she needed to know. God does love her. God will always love her. That won’t make the physical, emotional and psychological consequences of having sex go away. But it removes the shame. And once the shame is gone, we can have open conversations about those consequences and whether we are willing to continue paying them or whether we want something different. She had been continuing having sex because she felt she was already so broken there were no other choices. It wasn’t the boys she was having sex with telling her this. It was her church. It was her parents. It was a culture that prizes virginity and purity more than it prizes people.

I don’t know where she is now. It’s been fifteen years. I hope she’s found a life she wants to live. I pray she knows God loves her with a fierce and holy love.

Please, dear Christians, think about this girl who was so broken because someone told her that her virginity was valued above all else, that sexual purity was the standard God was holding her to and to step outside of that was to invite the wrath of God. Think about her the next time someone comes to you with questions. Or comes to you broken. What are you going to live out for them? Are you going to condemn? Heap coals upon their already fragile heads? Or are you going to love them as Jesus loved? It’s not our place to judge. It’s not our job to save. It’s ours to love. We got that so mixed up somewhere along the way.

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