I Grew Up During The True Love Waits Movement, And It Messed Up My View Of Sex

by Ansley Johnson
Originally Published: 
A girl sitting in the last row in a church with her head down and a round window behind her

In our high school sex-ed class, the teachers (who were also male sports coaches and usually taught PE) showed us slides of genitalia covered with various red sores. This was one tool that was supposed to scare us out of having sex. Another tool was the responses the teachers would give us to our anonymous sex questions. We had the opportunity to write our questions on slips of paper and throw into a hat — a literal hat — and the coach would pull out questions, read them aloud, and answer them. Only, he rarely answered them. This only prompted the smart-ass kids to write questions like, “You know what STD you can get at Red Lobster? Crabs!” The whole experience was a joke, except the outcome wasn’t funny. Instead, our lack of true sexual education was damaging.

The teacher emphasized the two big dangers of sex: pregnancy and STDs. I can’t recall any conversations about consent, boundaries, sexual assualt, or sex other than vaginal. I think one teacher, one time, showed us how to put a condom on a banana, which of course pissed a lot of the parents off. This led us to believe that everything but vaginal sex was safe and fair game. These “don’t have sex” rules also applied to what was taught in church. The wrath of God would only come down upon us (how, exactly, I’m not sure) if we dared to make our way around the bases, a home run being the ultimate no-no. The abstinence messages we received messed up a lot of us, creating an unhealthy view of sex and no understanding of our bodies or boundaries.

Purity culture was known for the True Love Waits movement which taught us that our virginity was a gift that should only be bestowed upon our opposite-sex partner (the one who also waited to have sex) on our wedding night. After that, we could have as much sex as we wanted and hopefully procreate as fast as possible. This was the gateway to a happy, fulfilling, sin-free life. Plus, this way we didn’t bring any shame upon our parents or ourselves. Win-win-win, right?

If you’ve watched “Bridgerton,” you know when Daphne tries to discuss sex with her mom (ahem, the honeymoon with the Duke), and her mom gives her zero real info. Helpful, right? The message then, and the message that still pervades some communities today, is simply “don’t do it.” Your virginity is a gift, and you shouldn’t just hand it over to anyone. True love waits. I guess this means that your love isn’t true if you don’t wait?

Many of us in our youth group wore our virginity like a badge of honor. Some of us even wore bands stating “true love waits” on our wedding ring finger, which would one day be replace with a diamond band. We were indoctrinated with Joshua Harris’ book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” — the book that the author himself later condemned. The premise of the book is that courtship — ahem, prep for marriage — was what God wanted from us. Of course, this also meant sticking to safe and non-sexual side-hugs and the occasional cheek kiss until our wedding nights.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with waiting until one’s honeymoon to have sex, no matter how traditional or archaic others think it is. The problem isn’t making the decision to wait. The problem is the lack of informed consent — consent to make a boundary that one lives by. None of us who were taught abstinence-only were informed.

For me, the TLW movement really messed up my view of sex and my ability to have a healthy sexual relationship with myself and my partner. TLW is extreme, going from zero to sixty. Well, sort of. The assumption is that you keep your hormonal urges under control until your wedding night, yet there was no definition of what was and wasn’t okay. Therefore, many of my fellow youth group members were working their way around the bases, including oral sex, without giving in to the ultimate sin. Safe sex practices were never discussed, but as long as no one was pregnant — all was blissfully and ignorantly well.

We didn’t know much about our bodies. There was never any talk of masturbation, the importance of well-woman exams and STD screenings, or birth control. Like in “Bridgerton,” the expectation is at you’d you’d have sex — lots of it and really, really good sex — for all of eternity with your one true love after you walked down the aisle. But this is rarely how it goes. Girls raised in purity culture didn’t know anything about what was where on their bodies, what an orgasm even was, or how to have one. (Or that if you did have one, it was perfectly healthy and not sinful.)

The church was very quick to condemn homosexuality, divorce, and, of course, premarital sex. They spent so much time telling us what not to do that there was very little talk of what we could do. We needed to put away all lustful thoughts and girls were to dress modestly. What did this teach? That girls were responsible for boys being tempted by our bodies and that normal sexual feelings were sinful. I can’t even begin to tell you the hours I poured over my Bible, looking at the cherry-picked verses our youth group leaders had us memorize, in response to getting naked with my boyfriend inside his car.

How are we supposed to just turn off the guilt the moment we get married, switch gears, and go at it all without an ounce of doubt or shame? The answer is, it’s nearly impossible. After you’ve been indoctrinated to believe that sex is a mystery, a gift, a responsibility, and a sin outside of marriage, when you do enter into a forever union (supposedly) with someone and are given the go-ahead to make whoopie, you’ve got issues.

It’s taken years and years for me to unlearn what I was taught (and not told) about sex. Trying to move away from embarrassment, difficulty, and confusion isn’t quick work. We can’t just flip a switch and go on to have a magically healthy and enjoyable sex life — not with ourselves or with someone else.

I’m resentful that purity culture and a lack of sex education has caused me (and my peers who were raised similarly) so many lost years and experiences. What did we miss out on because we just couldn’t shake the beliefs that there was something wrong with us because we desired sex? The only thing we can do about it now is keep working through our past and toward the future we want, and make sure we don’t teach our children the same damaging lessons. One thing I now for certain is that there was hardly any truth and no loving in the True Love Waits movement.

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