The other day, I was searching my jewelry box for a pair of earrings when my fingers stumbled upon a tarnished ring. I retrieved it to find a piece of jewelry I’d long forgotten, though its impact has lasted for decades after wearing it. If you were a child of the eighties who attended a Christian youth group, it’s very possible that you also wore a True Love Waits symbol, one that fit around your left ring finger.
I examined the ring, still solid, but the silver was dull. The black letters, spelling out my commitment to stay sexually pure until marriage, were as bold as ever — withstanding the test of time, I guess. The ring didn’t bring back any joyful memories. Instead, growing up in purity culture only brought on shame, frustration, anger, and confusion.
The goal of the True Love Waits movement was to honor God with our bodies by abstaining from sex until marriage. Marriage would happen between a Christian young man and young woman. Gay marriage wasn’t legal back then, nor was it OK with God. Furthermore, God wanted us to save our gifts — AKA our virginity — until we tied the knot.
After we tied the knot, we could engage in sex non-stop. The purpose of sex was to make babies. Yes, after you got hitched, your new identity wasn’t to be newlyweds; rather, it was to become parents as fast as possible.
How we were supposed to know exactly what to do in the bedroom is beyond me. We weren’t given any sex, body, or consent information. The message prior to marriage was only: “don’t do it.” Of course, the biggest fear was getting caught, either by getting pregnant or getting an STD that required you to tell your parents so you could go to the doctor.
The problem isn’t waiting until marriage for sex. If that’s your cup of tea, that’s cool. The problem is that the True Love Waits rhetoric was toxic, full of nothing but guilt and shame. How did those adults in leadership who encouraged us to wait until marriage to have sex expect us to go from zero (unmarried) to sixty (married) with success? Having sex with your spouse after being conditioned for years that sex is dirty, bad, and sinful, isn’t as easy as one, two, three. Not even close.
We were teenagers who were taught that our sexual urges were going to send us straight to H-E-double hockey sticks. So we’d fool around with our crushes on Saturdays and then repent on Sundays — on repeat. It was confusing, and for someone like me, a perfectionist, True Love Waits became all consuming. Does God love me anymore? Where is the cut-off in which God won’t damn me to hell? And shouldn’t I love God more than I want to let my boyfriend feel me up? As you can tell, True Love Waits not only complicated my relationship with myself and with my boyfriend, but also with God.
I was supposed to date to marry. Though we technically didn’t call it courtship, that’s basically what it was. We shouldn’t even think about going on a date (a group date, mind you) with someone unless they were marriage material. Marriage material meant someone who was also a Christian and a virgin.
Sex complicates relationships, we were told. If you have sex with someone, you engage in an emotional union that is sacred. Then we were told about three out-of-context Bible verses. That was it for Sex Ed 101.
The one youth group member who did get pregnant was pressured into marrying her boyfriend: ASAP. They needed to start their life together. The sooner, the better. You don’t want to live with your shame for too long, I guess. Marriage seals the deal and makes the baby, and the couple, legit. Of course, divorce was also a sin. So hopefully you chose well. Marriage is for life.
Pushing children (yes, teens are children) to find “the one” as fast as possible is ridiculous. We were pushed that it’s “better to marry than burn with passion” (out of context verse). Since we already had the “burning” in us, you know, those typical urges to get our freak on, we might as well do that with our soul mate after we tie the knot.
My biggest issue with True Love Waits is that it brought so much shame on all of us, no matter our future paths. For the ones who had sex before marriage, they were taught some horrible message about God’s love and judgement. For those who waited, they spent years trying to undo toxic messages about their bodies, about sex, about marriage. For those who were gay, they were taught they were an abomination.
There are no winners here. For those of us who were fortunate enough to realize that True Love Waits was not purity culture but rather, pure shame, we’ve worked through that with counseling, with education, with our partners. Some — many, actually — continue to suffer in silence. What’s scary is that some may believe that TLW is still the way to go, and they pass that message on to their own kids.
If you were part of the True Love Waits culture like I was, I want you to know this. God loves you, and nothing you did or didn’t do changes that. You should also know that Joshua Harris, author of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” which sold 1.2 million copies and urged us to stay sexually pure until marriage, renounced his own book. I also want you to understand that we should not pass on toxic sex messages onto our children. We have the opportunity to raise them better, to understand their bodies, to talk about relationships, sexuality, and consent. We don’t have to push damage upon them that they’ll have to spend their entire adult lives undoing — if we have the courage to name our own shame and work through it.
I didn’t toss my True Love Waits ring, only because it’s a powerful reminder of something I endured and am still working to overcome. I am happily married to the man I “waited” for, but I don’t think it’s because of True Love Waits. Rather, I think it’s because I emerged out of the toxic umbrella of shame culture and decided to be authentically me — and he did, too.