I’m 15, sitting in a circle alongside 10 other teenagers in a sterile room in the office of a religious non-profit. We’re a racially and gender diverse group, united by a shared belief based on our Christian values: waiting until marriage to have sex is the only option for teens.
Our allegiance to this tenet has brought us to Heartbeat*, an organization dedicated to training teens to educate other youth about abstinence.
Standing in the middle of the circle is Heartbeat’s director, Mr E*, a short, white, dark-haired, middle-aged man with pronounced facial features, aside from his unusually thin upper lip. In addition to Heartbeat, he runs a crisis pregnancy centre next door where he and his staff dissuade pregnant people from having abortions, mainly through counseling that focuses on God’s plan for them and their unborn babies.
Mr E is giving his usual spiel about why remaining pure is of the utmost importance, but today is different for me. It’s my first time back in the office since I lost the thing I was supposed to protect at all costs — the precious calla lily that was meant to be plucked only in my marital bed — my virginity.
As he talks, Mr E’s eyes meet mine and heat creeps up my neck and face. His knowing gaze makes my stomach drop.
Somehow, some way, he must be able to sense that my purity has been soiled, that I’m living a lie by being among my good, abstinent peers. What would happen if he knew that not only am I now having sex, but I’m also watching internet porn — and mostly girl-on-girl movies?
When my mother arrives to drive me home, I walk out the door with my head hung low. I never return to the office.
In my heart, I know this experience is leading me down a much different, much truer path that will ultimately be for the best . . . but in this moment, I feel like the biggest letdown who ever lived.
Growing up in the South at the turn of the 21st century, I never heard sex being spoken about positively. I grew up in a Black Baptist church where congregants engaged in premarital sex despite the Bible’s edicts against it, yet nobody broached the subject except to gossip about unmarried women who became pregnant.
In my small town, girls who slept with multiple partners were demeaned and girls who became pregnant were ostracized, while sexually active boys weren’t reprimanded at all.
Our few openly LGBTQ2 neighbours were treated like pariahs and sexual deviants. In the hallways, classmates laughed out loud at my gay male friends for behaving flamboyantly. Folks shook their heads in disapproval when mentioning our town’s well-known gender nonconforming hairdresser.
At school, we received abstinence-only sex ed and learned absolutely nothing about safer sex. That’s how I first met Mr E; he was invited to speak to my Grade 7 health class about abstinence. I listened intently as he warned us of the dangers of “crotch rot,” his cutesy name for sexually transmitted infections.
When his presentation ended, Mr E handed out “purity pledges,” contracts that, once we signed and submitted, served as our vow to stay abstinent until marriage. I didn’t think twice before signing the small scrap of paper, which included spaces for my name and home phone number.
Soon after, I began receiving calls from Heartbeat staff members who asked how I was maintaining my purity. Curious about who I was talking to on the phone, my mother researched Heartbeat and discovered their mission closely aligned with her Baptist beliefs.
The summer before I entered Grade 10, my mother gladly carted me and my two friends to and from Heartbeat’s office, where we worked for tiny stipends. I felt right at home on the frontlines of their outreach, calling young adults about their purity pledges and performing skits at churches about why abstinence was key.
During the day, I was busy at work preaching purity, but at night I was flirting on instant messenger with my flashy new boyfriend, Steven*. He was a grade above me, and we’d admired each other from afar during school. I don’t recall who added who on instant messenger, but I do remember feeling as if it was love at first chat.
Everything about Steven intrigued me, from his jet black hair, save for blonde tips styled in spikes, to his silver Toyota 4Runner with neon blue lights underneath and loudspeakers in the back. Sometimes he even taught me words in Cantonese, his native language.
Steven had no religion and no qualms about having sex before marriage. He wasn’t shy about his desire to have sex (he was a virgin, too), and the more we spoke about this possibility, the more natural and normal it seemed. My faith and my oath to remain abstinent started to feel restrictive; Steven was setting my hormones ablaze and rapidly shifting my views on premarital sex.
A few months after becoming an official item, we had sex. In the aftermath of my first time, I felt like the ultimate oxymoron — an accomplished failure. I was proud of myself for making a conscious decision about my body, but I also felt like I had betrayed my family, church, Mr E and abstinence activists who were actually staying true to their pledges.
Returning to Heartbeat after losing my “V-card,” I felt ashamed. I was paranoid that everyone would find out. I didn’t know how to pretend like I was still committed to preserving my purity when I wasn’t, so I decided that my time at Heartbeat was done.
Shortly after leaving, my mother accompanied me to my first ever gynecologist appointment. When the gyno asked if I was sexually active, I considered lying for a split second, but decided to tell the truth in front of my mother in the hopes that it would set me free.
After the appointment, my mother spoke to me in a disappointed tone during our car ride home: I was too young to be having sex, I was lucky I hadn’t “caught anything” and I wouldn’t be having a Sweet 16. Until that moment, I didn’t know celebrating my Sweet 16 was even an option, or that it was only intended for virgins — her unspoken wish that would now go unfulfilled. I cried silently as I listened to mother, my head leaning on the passenger window.
Meanwhile, Steven couldn’t stop bragging about our hot and heavy sex life to the entire school. His antics even inspired one of his enemies on the football team to spread rumors that I’d given him a blow job in the locker room. At the same time, Steven was becoming emotionally and verbally abusive, ridiculing me for making the smallest of mistakes.
Our relationship lasted only a year. Despite my tumultuous first sexual relatonship, my perspectives on premarital sex continued to evolve. While I still felt sinful for going against the Bible, I continued having sex throughout high school simply because it felt good.
As I explored my sexuality, I started acknowledging that I was romantically and sexually attracted to all genders. I could no longer deny the stirrings I felt when I watched gay porn, but I knew that my narrow-minded classmates would reject me if I ever voiced my truth.
Thankfully, upon moving five hours north of my hometown for college, I received a much-needed re-education regarding sex and sexuality in my women’s studies courses that gently but firmly nudged me to come out about my queerness.
Absorbing sacred texts by Audre Lorde, the Combahee River Collective and other Black feminist oracles, I began to understand why our society privileges “purity,” compulsory heterosexuality and whiteness, and other concepts that oppress women, LGBTQ2 people and people of colour.
One of these moments of enlightenment came while reading Rebecca Walker’s “Lusting For Freedom,” a piece in which she considers how the world denies young women safe spaces to explore their sexuality:
“It is important to consider what happens when this kind of self-exploration is blocked by cultural taboo, government control or religious mandate. What happens when we are not allowed to know our own bodies, when we cannot safely respond to and explore our own desire?” Walker wrote.
Black feminist writers revealed to me how Black women in the US have been white men’s mules and mammies since antebellum times. Enslaved Black women’s bodies were only deemed valuable when they bore children, who were seen as dollar signs by owners of enslaved Africans, or when they were forced to become sites of sexual gratification for their white male “masters.” This reality is where the trope of the “hypersexual Black woman” originated.
To this day, there are white men — and women — who feel entitled to make decisions about Black women’s bodies.
Recently, a white male judge in White County, Tennessee, offered reduced sentences to inmates if they underwent forced sterilizations, which has long been used by the US government on Black women as population control. Earlier this year, in my own state of Georgia — which has one of the largest Black populations in the US — mostly white Republican state legislators supported an abortion ban. Once it takes effect on Jan 1, it will prohibit nearly all abortions after a pregnancy reaches six weeks. This ban harms the most vulnerable and marginalized — Black and Latinx women are more likely to have unintended pregnancies than white women, and are more likely to get abortions.
The white woman governor of Alabama has signed an even more extreme bill that bans all abortions, period, with exceptions only for instances of rape and incest. In the same state, a Black woman named Marshae Jones was jailed after she miscarried after being shot. She was later released.
In a similar way to governments, Christian, cisgender, heterosexual white folks like Mr E have been telling marginalized people what to do with our bodies for centuries. Their views are deeply embedded in our society, including in the Black Church, where I was first taught to believe that sex was inherently dirty.
During college, I connected these histories to my lived experiences by reading and writing about them, as well as by discussing them with peers. I realized that my devotion to Black, queer and feminist politics was much greater than my Christian beliefs. I wanted to be Black and queer and trans and non-binary and feminist and womanist as fuck — to attack all the systems that oppress people like me at their root, including the systems endorsed by Christianity.
My foray into Black, queer and feminist activism started slowly. At first, I stood timidly on the sidelines of Pride parades in my rainbow suspenders, but upon moving cross-country to Seattle five years ago, I bloomed fully. (I’ve since moved back to my home state because the South needs my fire.) Being thousands of miles away from everything and everyone that I knew emboldened and empowered me for some reason.
In Seattle, I found myself alongside other activists, toilet papering the office door of a senator who had introduced legislation targeting LGBTQ2 people using restrooms in public spaces. I came to view donating items to homeless shelters as an insufficient Band-Aid, which is how I ended up orchestrating a protest at City Hall alongside tenants of colour to fight rent increases in public housing.
Just like when I was a part of Heartbeat, my inclination is to fight for humanity — but instead of proselytizing about abstinence, I now spread the gospel of social justice through community and cultural organizing, as well as my writing.
My activism used to be grounded in puritanical values; now it’s grounded in ancestral Black feminist wisdom — principles such as reproductive justice, which envisions a world where we all have autonomy over our own bodies.
Ironically, I regularly draw on the skills that I developed as an abstinence activist. Because of my time at Heartbeat, I am confident in my ability to clearly communicate my beliefs to anyone and everyone. Fortunately, Black feminism taught me that I didn’t have to believe in things that oppress me, that didn’t feel good or right for me.
I wish my adult self could’ve been there to affirm young me after losing her virginity. I would have hugged her tightly and assured her that seeking pleasure is human nature and that virginity is an invention of colonial imagination.
I would tell 15-year-old me that it’s more than okay to be sexually active and queer, and that she’s not alone because Black feminists from both the past and present were on her side. I would share these words from Walker’s piece:
“Young women are more than inexperienced minors, more than property of the state or legal guardians. We are growing, thinking, inquisitive, self-possessed beings who need information about sex and access to birth control and abortion. We deserve to have our self-esteem nurtured and our personal agency encouraged. We need ‘protection’ only from poverty and violence.”
I want so much more for future generations than the barebones, one-sided sex ed that I received. I envision a future where sex before marriage is treated like a valid human need instead of a terrible sin.
For the Black girls, femmes and LGBTQ2 people coming up behind me, I will do whatever I can to build a world where sex, sin and shame are no longer intertwined.
*Names have been changed