Growing up in a Christian home, I was raised to view my virginity as almost as important as my salvation.
It was my most precious possession, to be guarded at all costs—and the loss of it before marital bliss was possibly the most shameful thing that could possibly have happened to me.
I took those warnings to heart. It's difficult to understand if you didn't grow up in the church, but the focus on purity before marriage is so pervasive in many Christian circles that I didn't even question it. Of course I would wait until marriage. How could I think of doing anything else? It would be hard, but if I didn't, I'd regret it for the rest of my life (or so I was told).
When I was 15, I signed the pledge to wait to have sex until marriage. Yes, there was a physical piece of paper that I (along with several of my peers) signed at church youth group after a discussion about premarital abstinence.
My parents gave me a purity ring the following year. Even though I knew that they had lived together for several years before getting married, I never thought of them as being hypocritical, but rather I believed they did their best to keep me from making the same mistakes that they had made in their youth. They were, after all, very different people now.
In response to the many warnings about premarital sex from my church, parents, and elsewhere, I embraced an extreme:
I restricted my dating life to a handful of guys in college and beyond, and I even decided to refrain from kissing the man who'd become my husband until our wedding day.
We were dating for almost exactly a year before we got engaged, and we were engaged for five months before we got married. The fact that my husband and I shared our first kiss at the altar usually gets plenty of incredulous gasps. "How on earth can you know if you're sexually compatible with this man if you've never even kissed him?!" people would ask me. "Isn't that something you should know before you say 'I do'?"
To be honest, I never really worried about marrying someone I was sexually incompatible with, since everyone flat-out assured me that the sex would be glorious once it was done within the confines of marriage. I did sometimes think about my decision not to kiss, wondering if there would be a "spark" there or not, but my fiancé was on board with waiting, so I figured it wouldn't be a problem.
I laugh now at my naivety.
The nearly constant judgment and expectations from my parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, and acquaintances wore on me. I was tired of feeling like a black sheep or even a leper, always on the defensive and having to explain myself, so eventually I just stopped telling people about our decision altogether.
The sexual tension between my fiancé and I certainly didn't make keeping our lips apart or our hands off each other easy. But we had both decided that we wanted to honor each other and honor our God, and so for us the sacrifice was worth it. We were looking forward to sharing that intimacy once we were married.
I innocently assumed that all of that work on both our parts to remain chaste would pay off with a hot, passionate sex life after we had finally said "I do." I assumed this because no one had ever told me differently.
Neither of us had had any personal experience, we hadn't had candid talks with other married friends, and I hadn't really even had an adequate sex education class in school. Despite my repeated and direct questions about what to expect on the wedding night, the best advice I got from my trusted friends, family, and even doctors was always along the lines of "It'll all work out," or "Don't worry, you'll figure it out," or my personal favorite, "Sex within marriage is great!"
Let's just say...things didn't work out as planned. There was a problem.
I was diagnosed with Vaginismus shortly after returning from the honeymoon (and after a week of tears and pain and frustration). This meant I had involuntary contractions of the pelvic muscles that made sex extremely painful or even impossible.
What followed were the darkest few months of my life.
After talking with doctors and therapists, I began to realize that decades of "saving myself" had subconsciously convinced me that sex was actually bad, something to be avoided and not thought about. And now that it was "good," my body didn't know what to do, because it had spent so many years not letting itself get too excited around members of the opposite sex. In fact, Vaginismus can be caused by, "Overly rigid parenting, unbalanced religious teaching (i.e."Sex is BAD"), and inadequate sex education."
As I came to a more realistic understanding of the difficult road ahead if I wanted to overcome my diagnosis, I fell deeper and deeper into depression, ever more convinced of my utter failure as a woman and as a wife.
My friends were not any more helpful after the wedding than they were before the wedding. I can't really blame them, though. What do you say to someone who's been waiting their whole life to experience such a basic human need, and now isn't physically able to do so? It's hard to find words to address such a challenging situation.
As I fought to find time on the calendar and money in the budget for daily physical therapy and weekly counseling, I found myself becoming enraged with everyone around me—my husband, my family, my friends, and most of all, God.
The injustice of it was more than I could bear.
I had worked so hard to remain a virgin for my husband, and now that I was married I was rewarded with nothing but stress and anxiety.
Sadly, I'm not alone. In reaching out and sharing my story more, I am realizing that this problem (and others like it) are vastly common in the Christian church. We spend so much time teaching teenagers to avoid intimate interactions, that by the time they're married they've been conditioned to react against intimacy. Of course this doesn't happen 100% of the time, but it is far more prevalent than it should be.
The "S-word" (sex) is completely taboo in many, many Christian circles. Kids are told to avoid it until they're married, and that's very often the end of the conversation.
What if we started speaking as frankly about sex as our secular counterparts do? What if we talked frankly about the mechanics and the pleasure of sex? What if we shared amusing tales of awkward first times? What if we candidly discussed the psychological effects that sex has on your brain?
I'm not saying that pastors should start preaching this stuff from the pulpit. There is a time and a place for everything, and I don't think all of these nitty gritty details are appropriate there. But they are appropriate to discuss in Christian circles—with mentors, in discipleship groups, or with trusted friends. If Christians truly believe that sex is a gift from God to married couples, it's time they started talking about this gift in more than hushed tones and cryptic euphemisms.
If I had to do it again, I still would have waited. For all of my struggles, I do not regret being raised in a Christian home, and I still have a strong faith. But I would have encouraged—and even demanded—open conversations about the many good aspects of sex and intimacy, rather than being told over and over again to simply avoid it until marriage.
When you're a teenager, the "until marriage" part is easy to get lost, leaving you with a warped and unhealthy view of intimacy.
If I had to do it again, I would have asked for a more balanced perspective. I would have made sure that I was fully informed so that I could truly make my choice on my own, rather than just doing what I was told.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.