Making Promises I Can’t Keep: On Sexual “Purity”

My friend Karla and I bought a book called And the Bride Wore White, a guide to remaining sexually pure. Three chapters of And the Bride Wore White are titled as follows: “Satan’s Big Fat Sex Lies,” “Satan’s Second Big Fat Sex Lie,” and “Satan’s Biggest, Fattest Sex Lie.” The book explained to me why condoms don’t work, why everyone isn’t “doing it,” and that oral sex is just as bad as intercourse. The author painstakingly outlined her own sexual foibles and missteps, honesty that I appreciated. I was ready to learn. I read the book steadily — during study breaks, walking through the hallways, before I went to sleep. Karla and I met at her house and talked about the different chapters while her mother brought us garden-grown beefsteak tomatoes that looked like hearts. We swore to strive for purity in every way possible. No more touching. No more being touched.

* * *

When I was 16, a new associate pastor was rotated into our parish.

His name was Sam Jones.

When he introduced himself to the church youth, I felt a kick deep in my pelvis. He was handsome — with straight sandy hair that jutted out over his forehead and a goatee. He was a little pudgy but only just. He had a wedding ring. And when he shook my hand, he looked directly into my eyes.

Turns out, I’d been waiting for that.

Sam was around a lot. He participated in youth group events, alongside his normal church duties. He gave smart, politically progressive sermons that caused grumblings amongst the older congregants, which delighted me to no end. Within days of arriving he knew my name and used it whenever we ran into one another. Sometimes, I would linger after service to speak to him about his sermon. He talked to me as if I was an adult.

I guess I’d been waiting for that, too.

— In “A Girl’s Guide to Sexual Purity,” a striking essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Carmen Maria Machado explores an adolescence steeped in “purity culture”: sexual assault, conservative youth groups, purity rings, curbed fantasies and an unusually close relationship with her youth pastor. Machado’s essay is a quiet triumph; she seeks to reconcile her current, flourishing adult life with the hurt, pain and confusion of her youth.