This series of posts from the community is in preparation for Paradigm Shift’s next event, “The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women” A Discussion with JESSICA VALENTI, Author & Feministing.com Founder/Editor on TUES, FEB. 23rd, 7pm, NYC. We want to hear your stories. View call for submissions- deadline 2/21- Click here!
by Janice Formichella
Until the age of 19 I was an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Dater Saints, most commonly known as the Mormon Church. Female virginity is a vitally important aspect of the Mormon culture, although the approach is somewhat different than other evangelical groups.
Sex education for Mormon girls can be summed up in one sentence: wait until marriage for any type of sexual activity or you will go to Hell and no Mormon boy will marry you. I was made to believe that my entire future and reputation as a Mormon depended on me saving my virginity for my future husband.
Through high school I attended a small charter school ran by devout members of the Mormon Church. As far as my parents and school leaders were concerned, there was little need for sex education outside the home. The one sex education program I ever attended was a one-night event at the home of a family friend. The parents had organized a night to host the speaker, a well-known abstinence-only educator.
The presentation was meant for teens and everyone attended with his or her parents. The presentation mostly consisted of scary stories of what can happen to you if you have sex. I remember the educator telling us that she had had a boyfriend in high school that she was crazy about. She told us about the first time they held hands and the electricity she felt. Unfortunately, she told us, that electricity soon faded and the couple started French kissing, which also ignited the same electricity, but which was also fleeting. To gain back the excitement, the couple had sex. Not only did the speaker tell us that her boyfriend broke up with her shortly after, her first experience with sex landed her with a STD.
Another thing that I remember about the presentation was the speaker’s lengthy diatribe about the ineffectiveness of condoms. She went on and on with statistics and facts about how condoms do not work and even went as far as to claim that the ineffectiveness of condoms was well known in the industry, as though condom executives are sitting in the board room laughing at all the gullible people out there unknowingly having unprotected sex.
As young Mormon women we were constantly overwhelmed with the concept that our future depended on our chastity. We were given a padded white satin hanger and a white handkerchief to save for our wedding day and were challenged to keep our chastity as pure white as the items. A poem attached to the hanger reads in part:
“So as you dress each morning,
In preparation for a new day,
Let your eyes gaze upon this hanger,
Remember to stand tall,
And with your hanger,
Hang on to “forever.”
The use of the word “forever” is significant because Mormons believe that marriages and families literally last forever, that you will literally be with your husband and children after you die, but only if you are married in the Temple, and you can only be married in the temple if you remain “morally clean.”
The responsibility of guarding virginity is almost exclusively the realm of Mormon women, although men are also required to stay abstinent until marriage. I have three younger brothers and I know for a fact that they never received hangers or hankies to remind them to not loose their way.
As you can see, female sexuality in the Mormon community is not really portrayed as dirty, but rather something that determines your entire destiny.
I had little concept of sexual activity between kissing and intercourse, and when I left the religion I quickly started engaging in risky behavior. I have a very clear understanding of how coming of age sexually would have been much healthier and even happier had I grown up with anyone willing to tell me the truth about sex.
As feminists we need to remember that we don’t exist in a vacuum. We are parents or future parents, aunts, uncles, godmothers, educators, mentors. We need to be cognitive of our own role in shaping how children come to think about sex. Not only do we need to provide the children and teenagers in our lives with accurate information, we need to make sure these young people know they have someone to turn to with questions about their sexuality. The schools play an important role in changing the culture of virginity, but even more important is the role that feminists play in the individual lives of young people as they grow up.