On evangelical sex anxiety.
I didn’t write about purity culture in Orphaned Believers. An interviewer asked why during a podcast conversation promoting the book, and I didn’t have a great answer. I am critical of the oppressive, controlling and sexist factors that fueled purity culture. Don’t get me started on the way the market capitalized on it. Many people, including many friends, were harmed and purity culture’s undertones resonate into today’s cultural and political conversations.
Scan these recent headlines: “Purity Culture Still Haunts Me.” (The Beacon) “Tim Scott’s Purity Culture: Why the 2024 candidate made his virginity key to his political persona.” (Slate) and “Happily never after: Clinging to faith after purity culture” (The Christian Post).
I can talk with ease about how body image, Seventeen Magazine and 80s diet culture impacted my understanding of the body. But personally, as an evangelical college student, all-but-sex was pretty hot. It felt like the kind of restraint that keeps things interesting.
I began to wonder, how did purity culture affect those of us who tacitly participated, but were raised on the mall as much as church? I’m specifically thinking about those of us with different experiences with sex, as more passive participants in purity culture.
This is part two to this purity culture post. It was fun writing, and I hope it is fun reading — if nothing else, an invitation for you to write down your own list of the beds you’ve slept in and what season of your life each one represents.
I used to shake in nighttime adrenaline rushes. Wild shivers would come in ten-minute stretches throughout my 20s. Usually at night. The last time I shook was in a large old house in a dying Indiana town. With teeth chattering, frozen in some old unnamed fear, one night I prayed alone in the twin bed and felt the fear roll out of me. Literally unwind from my head through my breastbone, stomach, and legs until the shaking left my feet.
I was living in Muncie, Indiana, in a large green house with a wild yard that no one tended. It had a feeling: like Savannah, Georgia, had blown wind from down South on a little plot of ground in Indiana. At night, I looked down from the window and saw a stone statue of a girl in the middle of the garden that looked like it was from the movie cover for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. There is still a little bit of the South in Central Indiana, from the Great Migration.
The small bed I slept in above the garden was pushed against the wall, and I would burrow into the crack. The house was alive with mice and raccoons, and I’d lay in the dark, listening to scratches in the wall until sleep took me.
Sometimes, in the years before we were married, Drew would sleep over. Especially when the winter cold was so stark and clear it personified into a walking partner when he would cross downtown to the house where he lived. We would sleep next to each other, but not together. The cake was set on the table, but we did not cut a slice. A withheld decadence. We were prudent, but it was still hot.
I kept a list of slept-in-beds beginning in my twenties. This list was not long or illicit, but the idea of bed held some allure. The exponential potential of bed. My mind scrolled through the small twin in the Victorian on Haight Street the summer of 1998, when I held the hand of a fellow intern weaving through the Mission before it totally gentrified. A decade before Tartine Bakery became famous.
I returned to San Francisco recently for work, tracing the same streets I explored during my first summer away from home. I watched a teen in a Cure shirt behind the counter of a froyo shop gingerly arrange gummy bears on a cone. Then, I took an Uber to the Victorian where I lived that summer. The driver picked me up and asked two things: Sara? Party? What? I asked him. He repeated, more emphatically, is it party time?
We moved past the infamous shuddered Whole Foods on Market St., a visual representation of the city still re-emerging post-pandemic. Like Portland and Seattle, remote work turned San Francisco’s downtown into a neighborhood occupied less with techies and more with unhoused folks, and a lot of retail spaces shuttered.
The driver dropped me off near Zuni Cafe at Haight and Market, two blocks from the house. I walked by and saw diners eating the same local-famous shoestring fries and roasted chicken.
Walking up Haight toward the house, I was very present. The sensation of being embodied and knowing it. I listened to the Psychedelic Furs, the same album I played in headphones while flying to San Francisco my first summer away from home. “Inside you, the time moves, and she don’t fade. The ghost in you, she don’t fade.”
I was in one small earthquake in San Francisco that summer that first summer. Asleep in the attic of the Victorian, I woke to the bed rolling in large, wide waves. Plates moved far beneath the ground, pushing the top of the bed up, my head rising, then falling as my feet rose. Twice the sensation fell through me, bigger than my own adrenaline rushes.
I knew I was young that summer. I knew it showed. I wrote everywhere I could in a green journal. The people at the ministry where I was interning said to not go out at night alone. So naturally, I went out at night alone. I sat in a cafe near the New Mission Theater and read On the Road. I went to City Lights, sat in a chair in the loft and made myself cry. I had no idea about the improprieties or character or actual lives of the Beats or consider how there were few female voices in their boy’s club. I just knew there was history, and it was important and remembered, and secretly, I wanted to be, too. I wanted to be near the work of these writers, the ones in black and white pictures on the walls in City Lights. Writing. Publishing. But more than that desire to belong was a fear that those spaces were not for Christians, so I circled their perimeters. An outsider in an outsider space.
Once on another trip to San Francisco in my 20s, I went to Tartine in the Mission. I was eating bread pudding when a woman my age practically fell through the doors, laughing.
She was wearing shorts that looked like black bloomers from a vintage cheer uniform. Her thighs were strong, she was buzzing with life, like radiant. Everybody turned her way, our heads on a string. I understood at that moment that my own view of my body had been swaddled and pinned in a blanket for the past three decades. A mix of 80s diet culture residue and purity culture. I still am not sure if I was repressed or wise.
The slept-in-beds list moved from San Francisco to the next year in New York City. I shared an NYU dorm room with a friend from Indiana, and her boyfriend was in town for the week. I woke up early to find them sandwiched together in a dead sleep on the twin across the cinder block room from mine. I lay awake scanning over the day before.
In New York that summer, I had a hard crush on a barista. There is a rite of passage when you are young and in the city: walking all night. Stopping at the Waverly for toast and coffee. Then, the East Village diner playing “London Calling” for borscht. The song, it seems, is following you around. Walking for an hour, stopping at Angelika Kitchen for hummus. At that point, neither of you are hungry.
Walking until it is dead night. All the lights are on. Do you want to have coffee he asks you. It’s late, we just had coffee at the Waverly. Then wine. What about red wine? You sit across from Tompkins Square at a cafe near closing, a single glass of wine. Somehow, you are then hovering in a doorway in Chinatown. Then, you are circling the locked gates of Gramercy Park after three. You are pressed against the gate, his hands are on either side of you for a moment, leaning in. It is July and still hot. A cockroach looks militant in its city armor outside the gated park. They march everywhere in the city, even in the fancy neighborhoods. It slowly moves across the pavement. You should not have worn flip flops.
We met up all the time. Sitting on steps next to Magnolia Bakery in the West Village before it got famous on Sex and the City and became a chain. It was the summer of 2000. “You have nice teeth,” an old woman shuffled towards us and told me.
Taking the train to Rockaway, laying on the beach. I looked over, the barista’s eyes were closed. I could have kissed him, but I took a picture instead. It was with my Lomo camera, overexposed. The sky was gray but looks white in the photo. The blue on his ringer t-shirt, bluer. I found the barista online years later.