I'm A Parent Now, And Still Recovering From The Damage Of 'True Love Waits'

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 

I was 13 years old when I was introduced to True Love Waits. I had just started my period a few months before, had only been to “first base” a few times, and barely needed a bra. But there I was, in my church youth group “lounge,” expected to make a 1990s religious commitment to swear off sex until marriage.

Never mind that I still sometimes played Barbies with my younger sister, wasn’t allowed to date, and was too scared to use a tampon. I was taught that God required me to keep my “downstairs gift” sacred and preserved by keeping it concealed by my flare-leg jeans and non-revealing t-shirt. I dare not wear shorts with ruffles around the thighs or a scoop-neck American Eagle tee. It was my responsibility to make sure I didn’t tempt any boys into lustful thoughts by showing too much skin.

We didn’t dare discuss the reality. Some of my male peers were (according to my social media connections today…) not interested in girls and some of my female peers were attracted to other girls. Will & Grace was a show that entertained the unsaved, and Ellen was a hilarious comedian until we had to shun her for coming out.

I didn’t know all the anatomically correct names of my lady parts. I had no idea why some of my older peers snickered at the mention of the number 69. I had never seen a condom.

I was taught that being LGBTQ was an abomination (yet I didn’t know what the word abomination really meant), abortion was a sin, and masturbation was taboo. My body was God’s temple, and it was my job to honor it.

The best way to honor my body was to keep it covered up and wear a silver circle stamped “true love waits” around my left ring finger. This ring would be removed only when it was replaced by a wedding band. Then, and only then, was it acceptable for me to engage in any sexual activity.

I was scared out of having sex for religious reasons, but also because how tragic would it be if I got pregnant or found out I had an STD? Of course, I couldn’t name more than two STDs, nor had I visited a gynecologist yet.

The True Love Waits movement among Christian youth was steeped in shame, embarrassment, and fear. And since I was someone who lived with anxiety, I was the captive, target audience for such indoctrination.

So why did any tween or teen commit? Wasn’t it glaringly obvious that this was a terrible idea to push upon kids who were just entering puberty or who were required to go on group dates?

I think many of us agreed to True Love Waits because we were praised and adored for swearing to keep ourselves pure for our future spouse, one who would, of course, also be a virgin. Then, on our wedding night, we would have virtuous, fulfilling sex, hopefully quickly resulting in pregnancy. It would be a fairy tale. Or so we were told.

In essence, we were guaranteed that sex after marriage was worth waiting for. But let’s not discuss the fact that we had no education on creating and maintaining a healthy relationship outside of makin’ whoopee.

When one of our youth leaders (at the ripe old age of 19) found out she was pregnant, our True Love Waits world was shaken to the core. We were gravely concerned for her spiritual wellbeing. Notice I said hers? The guys always got a pass in situations like these. They didn’t have to bear the rounded midsection, a glaringly apparent tell of broken rules.

Yet among us, we all knew that many teens were doing everything but having vaginal intercourse. Bases one, two, three, and even three-and-a-half were all dabbled in, frequently.

The problems with True Love Waits were numerous, and looking back, quite obvious. And I noticed them the most when it came time for me to start educating my own kids about their bodies, relationships, and consent.

Then came the day my oldest asked me the question that seemingly changed everything. “Mom, how do babies get into a mommy?” We’d always been open and honest with our kids about many topics, but like most parents, I wasn’t ready for “the talk.” And I realized my difficultly was stemming from my “holy” indoctrination.

Our first “the birds and the bees” conversation meant we weren’t only coming up on discussions about the science of sex and pregnancy, but eventually about sex as a physical and emotional act, the Me Too movement, sexuality, and many more related topics.

I had already taught my kids the anatomically correct names of their body parts, about privacy, and about consent. Since my children were adopted, and our babies come to us from other moms and dads, we had ongoing and honest conversations about what adoption is. These conversations, plus the pending birth of their sister, brought about the sex conversation.

I told my kids the truth about sex, giving them enough information that was appropriate for their ages and understanding. Was I nervous? You bet. Was I fearful I’d say the wrong thing and in the wrong way? Of course!

With four kids and many more parenting years to go, we are nowhere near the end of our talks. If I’m honest, I don’t know everything I’m going to say to them and everything I plan to teach them. Like many of us who grew up under the True Love Waits umbrella, I’m sometimes confused, conflicted, and jaded.

Robert Alexander/Getty

Truthfully, I don’t believe that waiting to have sex until marriage, in and of itself, is bad, and I’m not throwing people of faith under the proverbial bus. We are a family of faith, though we consider ourselves to be progressive. And I’m certainly no self-righteous pearl-clutcher.

I believe in educating kids and empowering them to make responsible life decisions. And I will not pass on judgments, misinformation, and hang-ups stemming from a reprehensible sex “education” program.

I’m 37 years old, and I’m still recovering from True Love Waits. I’m determined to be the mom my children need me to be. And when it comes to educating them about sex, I’m not yet certain of everything I will teach them, but I do know what I will not teach them.

Sharing all of this gives me anxiety. Releasing the truth about living through my teenage years with intense, cyclical emotions of shame, guilt, and fear is difficult.

I hope that by writing what I have learned and what I’m still working to un-learn, those who experienced True Love Waits teachings will feel less alone and have the courage to take an honest look at what was. And then turn that into what could be. Not only for ourselves, but for our children.

We all deserve better.

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