Friday, September 23, 2016

Unraveling Our Shame Stories: What We Teach Young Girls About Sex

I know that I am not alone in the fact that shame about sex is interwoven into my childhood memories. Many of us, particularly women, were taught to feel great shame around our sexuality.

I grew up in a Catholic household. Sex was a taboo subject and was not something that we spoke about. It seemed to be a great secret and, as a curious child, anything that was kept a secret was even more interesting to me than something that we would talk about freely.

I remember as a 5th grader finding a book in the public library that had a sex scene within it. It made me more curious than ever. There was just enough detail to make me more curious but left me with more questions than answers. As sex wasn't talked about in my home, my only prospect for answers seemed to be my friends. So, I brought the book to school and, while outside at recess, opened the book(a V.C. Andrews book, if memory serves me) to the carefully marked section with the sex scene and we huddled together carefully at the edge of the playground and read it together. One of my friends tried to gently explain to me what she knew of sex(which was very little) and we all sat around rather quizzically, feeling frustrated that we didn't know the answers to this topic even though we all felt, with our budding breasts and sudden interest in boys, that we were quiet grown-up, indeed.

Unfortunately, our huddle got the attention of the teacher, who broke us up and confiscated the book. I was pulled into the principal's office by my arm while being berated the entire way and called a pervert by the sour-faced teacher. I was horrified. I was a straight A student and had been reading adult books for years. My fervent reading had always been praised by teachers-- I had taught myself to read at age 3 and by the middle of grade school, testing showed that I was reading at a college level. The librarian would order in adult books especially for me. It was a source of joy and pride for me. These adult books would occasionally mention sex in a casual way. I had always been rewarded for my curiosity and reading and now, that same curiosity made me a pervert. I didn't want to be a pervert. When my father picked me up and told me that I was an embarrassment to the family, I was so ashamed that I couldn't eat for days. I was full of shame and confusion. I was further confused when I saw the confiscated book on my mother's nightstand with a bookmark in it. Was my Mom a pervert, too or was it just me?

The next year at church, while I was volunteering, I overheard the priest talking to a young high school couple. I recognized them--they were quite popular and well-liked at church and at school. I gleaned from the bits that I overheard that they had admitted to having sex. I was shocked. My only "sex talk" had been the firm advice to "never have sex before marriage". I worried that they would go to Hell and felt my heart racing in my chest. The priest was berating only the girl as the boy sat by quietly, with his head down. I could hear him pounding on his bible as he said words such as "whore" and "beg for forgiveness" while the sounds of her weeping leaked out into the hallway. When they left, the girl walked out of the church with her parents who all were walking as though covered in shame, heads down as they walked the silent hallway. The boy, still in the office with the priest, was now getting peppered with questions about the football team. When he left, the priest clapped him on the back and wished him a good game. The boy left with his shoulders held high, quite the opposite of what I had just seen with his girlfriend. I was left with a sick realization in my stomach that if one had sex, it was the woman's fault and was shameful to the woman alone. I wondered if girls were inherently evil.

I remember a lesson that the priest once gave my Sunday school class. It was about the prostitute that was being stoned when Jesus intervened. Someone raised their hand to ask what a prostitute was. The priest replied simply that it was a woman that had sex with men. I remember us all looking around in confusion. We had recently watched the film at school that was played for all students when  puberty reared it's ugly head(a 1960's reel with video of swimming sperm that so terrified me that I couldn't eat the popcorn that the teacher had so kindly given us as though we were watching something delightful at the theater) and we had realized that our parents must have had sex(after marriage only, of course) to conceive us. I wondered then if sex was always a sin and if women were the only gender that it was a sin for. I was grateful that in the story, that the woman had not been stoned. I wondered what the punishment would be for me in modern day times. I was too frightened to ask.

In high school, I spent a year at a Catholic school. I sat through a dress code orientation led by a nun whose entire body was covered head-to-toe. As she explained that we should wear skirts that "swept the floor" and that "no part of your bosom should ever show", I felt scared. I felt as though she was looking straight at me for much of the presentation and I wanted to hide under a rock. As a naturally very busty and curvy person, I showed some cleavage in nearly every shirt that I wore short of a turtleneck. I imagined my curves disappearing and turning into a tall, lithe woman that could easily cover her curves and her sexuality. The nun completed the presentation by reminding us that "boys will be boys" and it was our job as good Catholic girls to "not encourage them". I had no idea what she meant. When we went to the pep rallies(which were mandatory) and to the football games(football was this school's second God) and cheered for the boys, weren't we encouraging them? Which encouragement was right and which was wrong? Again, I was far too terrified to ask these questions, so I instead gazed at the altar of Mary, the virgin mother.

When I was seventeen, I was raped. Everything that I had learned about sexuality had taught me that I had asked for this and I, not the man who raped me, should repent. I was dripping in shame so heavy that I could no longer put one foot in front of the other. I was certain that I was evil and was deserving of this Hell on Earth and the Hell that surely awaited me in the afterlife. When the symptoms of PTSD began to emerge, I believed that I was going crazy(this was far before PTSD was known to the public). I believed that the vivid flashbacks that I was having of the rape were a punishment from God. I could not bear it. I decided that it was best to take my own life and tried desperately to kill myself. I did not succeed. I lived on and so did the shame.

When I became engaged in my early twenties, I couldn't wait to plan all of the details of the wedding.  When I went dress shopping, the saleswoman at one store asked me if I was a virgin. I was horrified and froze there, standing next to my mother and sister. In response to my silence, the elderly woman pursed her lips and gestured to the rack of gowns that were not bright white, but instead were more buttery, yellow shades of white. She referred to that rack as the "dirty white" gowns and nodded her head with fervency as she told me that only virgins could wear "pure white" on their wedding day. I allowed her to help me as I tried on the "dirty white" gowns, feeling quite dirty myself. At a different shop I later found the perfect gown, which happened to be bright white. As I pulled it on the morning of my wedding, I wondered if just the wearing of it was a sin and if I would be standing in front of my family and friends as an impostor of purity, when underneath I was so dirty.

When I became a mother, I remember watching other mothers with a fervency to fit in. I noticed that most of the stay at home moms were very conservative and wore twin sets and khaki pants many days. I rushed out and bought two piece sweater sets in bland colors and khaki pants that hid every one of my curves. It seemed that hiding my sexuality was the key to being a good mother. The key seemed to be to look like people that would never, ever have sex(which belied the fact that, as mothers, of course we had experienced sex).

It was when the first of my two daughters were born that truly began to unravel my shame around sex. I knew as soon as I held my beautiful daughter in my arms that I would teach her of her beauty and how deserving she is of love and acceptance, not shame for who she inherently is, not shame for the gender of which she was born. I will not embed within my daughters shame of who they are. It is intensely toxic. I will teach them about what a beautiful thing sexuality can be. I will teach them that no action, no outfit could ever entice someone to rape them- that rape is never the fault of the victim. I will teach my son the same lessons and teach him to honor women. I am pushing the pause button on the shame tape that's played itself out since the beginning of time.

I am nearing the end of my thirties. My shame around sex and my sexuality continue to unravel. Old memories sometimes pop up in my mind and, with the clarity of age, I am putting together more pieces of how this shame was built and how it has colored my life. In hundreds of tiny ways, I was taught that my body is shameful, that sex is shameful and that women are dirty. It is one of the most toxic beliefs that one can hold.

I am pushing back the shame in the most powerful way that I can imagine-- by raising daughters that are proud of their bodies, that will learn about sex in a kind and gentle way(with NO shame) and will, hopefully, not carry the weight of this burden. I am releasing the burden of this shame and I feel so much Goddamned lighter without it. It was never my true story, it was simply the fictional story that others felt to smother me with.

Someday, I will be free of this shame. I hope that my girls will fly high without every having to carry it. For, shame is not their birthright-- freedom is.

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