I survived purity culture and now I’m queer AF
Before we start, this is your weekly reminder that if you want to see the new series of my podcast BAD SEX get made, you need to donate! Seriously. There are only two weeks left and I have to hit my target or all the money goes back to the lovely people who’ve donated so far and the podcast dies. So if you’ve been dithering over it, thinking “Oh, I’ll donate next week,” it’s time to make good, my friend!
I wanted to do something different this week. I’ve been thinking for a while that I’d like to be able to bring you stories from outside my own, limited experience of the world and so what follows is my first attempt to do exactly that.
Back in the autumn I was interviewing bi women for a feature I wrote for Cosmopolitan and Leigh got in touch with me. While her story wasn’t quite right for the angle I was focussing on, I was very interested in how someone who grew up in a strict religion had managed to cast that off and own their sexuality.
My own family background is what I’d call Christianity-led atheism (with a side of hippy) which is to say that Christianity is the faith that we had the most knowledge of and links to (in fact, I went to a C of E primary school), but, while we were not devoid of spirituality, no one believed in God or followed any particular teachings. In that context, my relationship with my sexality was certainly influenced by social and cultural pressures, but there was never a moral question around it.
Leigh’s experience could not be more different and so I asked her to share it. Let me know what you think. And if you have a story or an idea that you’d like to write about, feel free to drop me a line. Fx
I survived purity culture and now I’m queer AF
By Leigh Patching
Inheriting my parent's religion was as natural as inheriting my mother's eye colour. Born and raised an Evangelical Christian in a small Welsh town, I was given a rigid belief system, along with a book of rules I had to follow if I wanted to be a good girl and go to heaven.
In this world - the world I grew up in - virgins can have babies, demons are real (and definitely not just a metaphor) and speaking in tongues is a legit language. Oh, and did I mention the world is ending and only Jesus can save us?!
Sex before marriage is obviously a big no-no, so I knew I would have to remain a pure, holy, virgin until my wedding night. I even had a purity ring to prove it. Like Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers, I really did believe that “true love waits”.
It probably goes without saying that being LGBTQ+ was and is considered wrong in this world, but let’s talk about it anyway. For as long as I can remember, I believed being gay was a sin. I was taught to “love the sinner but hate the sin,” a phrase that’s often used in evangelical circles and one my parents still use to this day. The word ‘homosexual’ didn’t actually appear in the Bible until the 1946 Revised Standard Version (RSV) translation, but there are several verses which refer to what we understood to be gay sex as “detestable” and punishable by “eternal hellfire.”
It won’t surprise you, then, to hear that I got married at the age of 23, after knowing my husband-to-be for just eight months. It might surprise you to hear that last year I came out to my husband, family and everyone I know, as bisexual.
I can’t say that I’ve always known I was attracted to women because I wasn’t allowed to even consider it. The thought of eternal torture was enough to keep my mind from wandering. Thinking back, there were certainly times when I found myself drawn to women but it was hard for me to decipher whether it was admiration or attraction.
Denying yourself is a big part of evangelical lifestyle. It’s all about abandoning personal pleasure and replacing it with godly pursuits. The importance of remaining sexually “clean” was hammered home. We were told that having sex before marriage made us damaged goods. “You’ll disappoint God, you’ll lose value and you’ll be dirty,” we were taught. “So don’t even think about it. Don’t look at anything remotely sexy and don’t touch anyone. And P.S. this includes yourself.”
Even desiring a man felt dangerous so desiring a woman was totally off the cards. This meant I sometimes had trouble being friends with women. I’d sense a vibe between us and get confused. I would now recognise that as chemistry but at the time I had no idea.
There were always women in my life I found attractive – both people I knew, and celebrities – but I put it down to admiration. I’d watch movies with lesbian love stories and feel a sense of longing, but without really understanding why. Any sexual feelings I had had to be locked away.
When I first got my purity ring, I had thought it would be helpful; a reminder of my commitment. But when I looked at it on my finger I felt fearful. I felt as though God was watching me and shaking his head. If I even kissed a boy I’d see the ring and feel guilty. Occasionally I’d put it in my pocket during a make-out session and the whole time, I’d feel like it was screaming at me, You made a promise!
The constant guilt, shame, and denial left me with no ownership of myself, let alone my sexuality. I couldn’t trust my thoughts, my desires, my needs. Everything about me seemed unsafe so I learnt to disassociate. Even years later, after I got married, after I stopped wearing the ring, I realised I’d developed a habit of hiding my face during sex, when I was really in the throes of passion. I didn’t want to be seen enjoying myself because I felt ashamed.
It wasn’t until I was 34, that I started to deconstruct my faith. It was a long grieving process, unlearning what I had been told was true and figuring what was actually true to me. Letting everything unravel was hard but what I discovered underneath all that religious rhetoric was my sexuality!
Once I gave myself permission to explore this, I soon realised that the way I’d felt seeing people like Lana del Rey and Rachel Weisz on television was not about merely admiring them! The fact is, I’m bisexual. I’m attracted to women and have been for some time. For the first time, I wasn’t afraid or ashamed.
I knew I had to tell my husband but actually saying it out loud felt like a huge leap. I decided to trust him. We sat down and he patiently listened while I told him. We talked for an hour, and he told me he supported me but, understandably, he wanted to know if I still wanted to be married to him. I was happy to listen and reassure him.
If I’d been able to look at myself in my teen years, without the weight of purity culture on my shoulders, I may have figured things out sooner and had time to explore but I don’t for a second regret getting married. My husband and I have been together for fifteen years and we’re not the same people we were when we got together. We’ve been through an incredibly honest couple of years and our marriage is fuller because of it. I feel completely seen by him now and I’m able to integrate my fantasies and attraction to women into our love life.
Telling my family was difficult. My mum was supportive straight away. My dad... not so much. I know he loves me but I also know that his religious doctrine insists that I’m a sinner going to hell. I guess if he truly believes that, I can see why he’d be concerned.
I came out publicly as bi in July last year. A lot of people lovingly accepted me, some rejected me, and others applied the old “love the sin, hate the sinner” maxim to my choices, but mostly, I feel free and happy.
Underneath all that dusty dogma, I discovered a whole new side to myself.
What do you think? Hit reply on this email or comment below on the post to share your views.
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Leigh’s story reminds me of this account of BAD SEX that someone sent me a few weeks ago. It’s clear that shame and stigma is a huge part of why we have bad sex and I really want to dig more into that. In this podcast series, I will look into how they manifest - even in people who don't consciously subscribe to those ideas - and how we can let go of internalised beliefs that sex is something to be ashamed of.
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What’s on my mind this week…
I filled in my census this week (the deadline is a week on Sunday and it is a legal requirement so do crack on if you haven’t done it already, fellow Brits!) and I’m not going to lie, being able to stand up and be counted felt really good. This is the first time a UK census has included questions on sexual orientation, sex and gender identity and quite apart from feeling validated and VISIBLE, I am extremely excited about all the data this is going to give us on LGBTQ+ people in the UK. Can’t wait to geek out on those stats!
That being said, the sex and gender questions are still quite flawed. Originally, the census guidance stated that people should “use the sex recorded on one of your legal documents such as a birth certificate, gender recognition certificate, or passport”. There is also a question later on in the census that allows you to explain (if you choose to) the details surrounding your sex and gender identity.
However, earlier this week a case was brought by a group called Fair Play For Women who argued that this would distort the data and so a judge has now ruled that people have to list the sex on their birth certificate or gender recognition certificate can be used. This, of course, has implications for trans people who have not yet obtained these documents.
The new census questions feel like a step in the right direction. It is a start, I think. But I’d love to hear from trans and NB people about the experience of filling in the census and how it felt to answer these questions, and what it means to you. As always, do drop me a line if you feel like sharing your thoughts.
I read this fascinating piece about the impact of the pandemic on our brains, and though it’s not directly related to sex and relationships, it obviously reminded me of what I wrote about a few weeks ago regarding the need for novelty.
This line in particular hit home: “Based on everything we know about the brain, two of the things that are really good for it are physical activity and novelty. A thing that’s very bad for it is chronic and perpetual stress.”
Once again, though, I’m actually not talking about novelty in terms of sexual promiscuity. I almost feel nervous about bringing it up because I got a lot of messages after I wrote about it before and I’m concerned that I implied that I need to bang someone new every night of the week to get my fix of novelty. And that was… not quite what I was getting at!
Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with banging someone new every night of the week, as long as everyone knows what’s going on and is chill with it. It’s just that I think it’s important to say you don’t necessarily need new partners to experience sexual novelty - it depends how creative and engaged you are in your existing relationships, and where else you’re able to draw inspiration and ideas from. And on the flipside, if sex is the main or only way you’re experiencing novelty in your life, that starts to feel a little wonky to me.
So yes, the brain needs novelty (and it felt pertinent and affirming to read that piece this week). No, that novelty does not have to come from sex.
I went to a brilliant event last night, hosted by Newcastle’s Life centre, which discussed the damage of going without human touch. To sum it up extremely briefly (although I may come back to this subject in a future newsletter), it’s definitely damaging, but probably, hopefully, that damage can be undone. In the meantime, I found it incredibly interesting to hear cuddle therapist Keeley Shoup and neuroscientist Prof Francis McGlone talk about “mirrored touch”. Because the brain processes sensory information collectively, they explained, we can watch someone on a screen stroking their face (or... somewhere else) while doing the same motion to ourselves and experience it *almost* as though we were doing it to each other. WHY DID NO ONE TELL ME THIS A YEAR AGO?!
I mean, it sounds like it would be awkward as hell (Keeley Shoup did actually say that if it feels embarrassing that means you’re doing it right!) but also, kind of lovely?
A couple more things to (over)think about…
This VICE piece about how to send dirty voice notes is great. At this point in the pandemic I have all but abandoned texting - hearing someone’s voice is so much nicer!
Alix Fox is presenting and executive producing a new documentary about threesomes and is looking for people to take part! Could it be you?
Bi women with straight male partners are the least likely to be “out,” according to this study
From next week, Almaz Ohene is running a bunch of new sex and relationships workshops which look really interesting. Sign up here
I’ve just started reading Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again by Katherine Angel and it is great. I’m only a few pages in and I’m already filling the margins with notes so stand by for me to start banging on about it soon!
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