Updated: Nov 12, 2022
I was a late bloomer. I went to a small Christian high school. There were three boys and twelve girls in my graduating class. Because the only guy who wanted to date me was obviously gay, I assumed I was unattractive.
I was a chubby kid that turned into an overweight teen. I didn’t fit into any of the “junior” sizes that girls my age were wearing. I thought I must be hideous to the opposite sex. Pretty face, nice personality, not interested. It was the 90s. Lizzo was still in elementary school and body positivity hadn’t been discovered.
My mom said that boys found me intimidating because I was so smart and beautiful. I don’t think that’s a thing, but I love my mom and it made me feel good. I remember she told me once, “Boys may not like you now, but just wait. Men will really like you one day.” I have found this to be true. Odd how when you turn 30, things like a steady job, low drama and self-confidence are suddenly very sexy. At the time, when I was crushing on the guy who held my hand for prayer at “See You At the Pole Day,” it didn’t seem so helpful.
We could also go with the “I was too busy with church” excuse. When most of my teenage friends were getting busy at “Bible study” I was actually studying the Bible. Yeah, I was that kid: uber-responsible, the one that your parents would let you stay out late with. I got really mad one time when a friend decided to leave my supervision. I had to call and tell his grandma. Seriously, I still can’t figure out why no one wanted to date me.
At church youth group, abstinence was a frequent lesson topic. Beside what the Bible says, which I’ll explore in later posts, we were taught there were many reasons one should remain sexually pure before marriage. Sexually Transmitted Diseases, now we call them STIs, for example. We were warned of the harm pre-marital sex would do to your future relationships. Every sexual partner took something from you or left something behind, depending on the illustration. In one class at my Christian school, the teacher gave a particularly vivid example. She had us all spit in a cup and explained drinking that would be what it’s like to have multiple sexual partners.
Around that time, books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Boundaries In Dating were especially popular. I didn’t need to read them since I was confident no one would ever ask me out. But, the messaging was all around: You shouldn’t date casually and should only seriously court for marriage, kind of thing. There was plenty of coaching around boundaries: If things get to a certain point physically, it’s really hard to stop, so make sure they don’t get to that point. Plan ahead. Know your boundaries and stick with them.
Those church youth group talks really helped me imagine a million scenarios, if you know what I mean… where you don’t have sex, obviously.
For my 16th birthday my dad gave me a purity ring. He told me that I might be in a serious relationship someday and be pressured to have sex. Since being engaged isn’t the same as being married, it was important to wait.
These days I hear people calling it the Purity Culture Movement. Many of us who grew up in the evangelical church in the 80s and 90s are still working through some of the weighty baggage that came along with an overemphasis on sexual purity and the closely related homophobia.
I would like to tell you my story of coming to age during this time. The thought feels equally terrifying and compelling for me. It’s one perspective—one journey. I hope by sharing to open dialogue and encourage healing.
Since this is a blog/podcast and not a book, it will take a few installments.
Before I jump into my own narrative, I’d like to make some observations on history and culture.
World War II ran from 1938-1945. Women had entered the public workforce en masse as part of their civic duty to support the massive war effort. They had traditionally been school teachers, nurses and housekeepers, but now they were called on to work in industries that had traditionally been male only, like aviation, where I currently work.
The change was meant to be temporary, and after the war many women were happy to return home. But, many women liked earning their own living, even if they were paid half of what men earned for the same productivity.
The Cold War broke out soon after and there was a move to draw a strong differentiation between the god-fearing democratic United States and the atheist communist Soviet state. In 1954 the phrase “under God” was added to the pledge of allegiance. In 1955, President Eisenhower added “In God We Trust” to all US Currency.
Central to the American culture at that time was the role of the family and a woman’s place in the home. Women were pressured like never before to marry young and have lots of children. Along with that, unwed mothers were particularly stigmatized. Women needed to stay home and take care of their kids. Working outside of the home was considered selfish. American propaganda would idealize the delicate beautiful housewife, tending to home and children in contrast to the harsh lives of Soviet women who dressed in burlap sacks and were forced to send their children to day care.
Except the land of the free didn’t feel so free to some people. Religion, family and patriotism got bundled together in one big anti-communist effort. To some, this model of traditional family felt safe and wonderful. To others, it was oppressive and unbearable. I think the reinforced and rigid gender roles of the 1950s served as a catalyst for what came next.
The 1960s and 70s were the age of sexual revolution. I wasn’t around yet, but I read on Wikipedia that things were being normalized like the pill/contraception, pornography, nudity, premarital sex, masturbation and homosexuality. In 1973 Roe v. Wade allowed for legal abortion for the first time.
In 1980, Dr. Ruth would start a radio talk show called Sexually Speaking. When The Dr. Ruth Show launched in 1985, it pulled in 2 million television viewers a week. As you can imagine, this made a lot of people very uncomfortable. The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s only added fuel to the fire of anxiety.
At some point, preachers must have decided that if everyone else is going to talk about sex, so will we! That’s my take on how sexual immorality made it into most sermons and every list of sins. It became characterized as the most dangerous and tempting sin.
Women needed to dress modestly, with long skirts and high collars, leaving everything only to the imagination. The slightest bit of skin was considered too tempting, men couldn’t be expected to control themselves. Men and women couldn’t even be in the same room alone together for fear we might just fall into bed together. Every moment became sexualized. We were told to constantly be on guard against the temptation to sin sexually.
Ok, I’m being dramatic to illustrate a point. Somehow the church became just as sex-obsessed as the revolutionaries they were reacting to. Except, instead of something to be enjoyed, as I believe God intended, sex became a forbidden evil temptation that magically morphs into blissful ecstasy the moment you say “I do.”
For many, the wounds are deep. Especially for those in the LGBTQ community who are still scared by the hate that was so regularly aimed at them in God’s name. I believe today, many churches are working to move toward love and welcome, but it is far too slow.
I want to take a brief moment to acknowledge the serious damage that has been done here. We can’t just move on, pretending like nothing happened and everything’s cool now. I am deeply sorry for the harm that continues to be done to this community.
I don’t fully understand the extreme homophobia that has dominated parts of the church for 3 decades or so. But I do understand the overreaction in response to the sexual revolution, especially as it pertains to premarital sex. Already conservative, Christians looked around and thought, “Oh dear God, these kids are having sex in the street. What are we going to do?”
I get it. Parents want to protect their children, especially their daughters. I have some compassion for this fear that still drives many of us.
While the majority of American culture shifted expectations and loosened the stigma around sex outside of marriage, the church and evangelicals in particular, pushed back in the opposite direction. The distance between the culturally acceptable practices around sex and the traditional teaching of the church have continued to grow wider and wider.
Meanwhile, the average marrying age has continued to climb. I think some of this is related to women having the option to support themselves. One might also speculate that if you are waiting to have sex until marriage, hormonal teenagers are more motivated to tie that knot at an early age. I’m sure there are many other social and economic factors. I’ve known more than a few friends who delayed marriage simply because they couldn’t afford a wedding.
Anyway, the average marrying age was lowest according to the US Census in the 1950s, around 20 for women and 23 for men, and is now the highest, 28 for women and 30 for men. All that to say, if your plan is celibacy until marriage, that’s a long time to wait.
I never expected to be single into my 20s, much less my 30s. All three of my older brothers married at 18. They were definitely motivated. My little brother would also marry long before me, even though he is 9 years younger. Yeah, did not see that coming.
The university I attended required students sign a community covenant. Part of that document stated that sex is meant for marriage between a man and a woman. I signed, no problem. I had a plan after all. Plus, no one wanted to date me, or so I assumed.
College was great. I liked several boys who never ask me out, but I also learned to love my body. I had gained a lot of weight thanks to cafeteria food and nightly stress eating Milky Way and Hanson soda. I looked at my senior prom photos and realized how I had never really appreciated myself. I had been 40lbs lighter, but still kept thinking I was fat. Hello, I was smoking hot. I mean, really. Looking at those photos, I just decided I’d look in the mirror and love my body no matter what size I was. That was extremely freeing.
Something began to change in my self-perception around age 24. I was working in a call center, taking replacement orders for a cell phone insurance company. My desk was across from Carlos. Sorry, Carlos, if you ever read this… He wasn’t particularly fit or good looking but he made up for it in sweetness. Obviously we needed to be friends.
I would sit across from him and he’d ask, “How you doing?”
“Good,” I’d say.
“I said how you doin’, not how you lookin’,” he would say back.
That’s how we would pass the time between calls. I started to see myself differently. I learned how to accept a compliment and how to flirt. He had this serious girlfriend who lived an hour away, so I was solidly friend-zoned, but I still felt very special.
And just like that, my little flower began to bloom.
My new-found self-confidence in dating was, well, let’s just say it didn’t go so well. Did I mention that I grew up with four brothers? I certainly don’t get intimidated easily and tend to take action as a default.
I had a huge crush on this guy in our young adult group at church. I tell you what, there is nothing hotter than a guy who loves Jesus. And he really loved Jesus. Sometimes after our group would hang out he would call me on the phone. We fell asleep talking on the phone on more than one occasion. We spent plenty of time together, with friends of course. I wasn’t sure why he didn’t ask me out, but seriously, who calls a girl to talk on the phone late at night if he doesn’t like her? I mean, really!?!
So I decided to do something about it. We all hung out for game night after church one Sunday. I’m sure the casual arm grazes and my hand resting across his back were not subtle. We walked back to our cars together in the dark. Since he hadn’t made his move yet, I decided it was time for me to make mine. “Just for clarification,” I said, “am I interested in you or are we interested in each other?”
Judging from the stunned look on his face, he was clearly unaccustomed to my style of communication.
“I am so sorry…” he said. Trying the best he could to let me down easy.
I was disappointed, but I also felt a sense of relief. I still liked him, but I wasn’t wondering, looking for signs, trying to figure out, did he feel the same way? I also wasn’t afraid of rejection anymore. It’s not my favorite thing, but most men are kind.
It was also during this time that I met my future husband, Adam, for the first time. We often wonder what might have happened if I had taken him up on his invitation to ride roller coasters at Worlds of Fun. Sigh… we will never know.
I eventually figured out that the direct approach wasn’t my best move. Neither was manipulating my friend, you know who you are, with Dodgers tickets that sat on the dugout box. He was a good sport. Still love the guy, but happy he was somehow able to resist my charms.
I kept working on my flirting skills. I started getting asked out occasionally, learning what most girls pick up around 7th grade—except I was a grown woman.
By my mid-twenties it seemed like everyone was dating, engaged, married or already divorced. I was certainly feeling left behind. Always the wedding singer… never the bride.
I’ve never been sorry for this time in my life or the sometimes painful learning experiences that were soon to come. I learned, I questioned and I am still growing out of it. All along the way I sensed that God was right there with me. I can testify with a whole heart that God’s grace goes with you no matter the circumstances.
Next time I’ll pick up in 2009 and you’ll get to relive my first relationship with me. If you want to receive email notifications when I post the next installment, please click the subscribe button at the top of the page.
 Information gathered from a PBS Article Mrs. America: Women's Roles in the 1950s https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/pill-mrs-america-womens-roles-1950s/