After first period, seniors began strutting the halls, spreading the salacious word: Today was sex day in Bible class. Living Christian High School’s version of sexual education was taught in Bible—as opposed to, say, Biology—because school administrators believed the sex act—if done right—could be transcendent. In science class, we memorized the stages of gestation. However, what came before fell under the purview of a man we’ll call Mr. Pastor, the Bible teacher, who also considered Rush Limbaugh videos to be curriculum.
At the 2:45 p.m. bell, Mr. Pastor called my unusually skittish class to order. He slid a transparency onto the overhead machine. A bride and groom stood before a closed gate with the address, "The Secret Garden." I braced myself for the usual litany of dirt-slinging my kind of Bible believers reserved for premarital activity. However, Mr. Pastor surprised me.
“You don’t need me to remind you that the wages of sin is death,” he said, smiling like a wedding day officiator. “The world is full of it...of people, as they say, just doing it.” Mr. Pastor waved toward windows overlooking a street lined with the single-story sprawl of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
“For those willing to follow God’s plan, you will be wondrously rewarded. The gift of sexual relations the Lord Almighty has given unto men and women so that we might marvel in His goodness and share in the Divine wonder of Creation is truly glorious.”
My class shifted in their seats. Girls pulled down knee-length skirts; boys straightened neckties. Everyone prepared to take notes.
“In the Garden of Eden, according to God’s grand design, Adam and Eve came together as man and wife. They were naked and unashamed as they joyfully enacted the plans God had for them: ‘The two will become one flesh,’” Mr. Pastor said, quoting Genesis 2:24. He explained how Adam laid down Eve in a bed of Biblical roses. He inserted his erect penis into her previously “sealed” vagina, as she adored and respected him. Together, they communed with the Holy Spirit in righteousness, until Adam ejaculated a miraculous substance called semen, and Eve conceived.
He probably presumed he was the only person in the classroom having sex.
“Sadly, after the fall,” Mr. Pastor said, "you young people don’t have the joy of receiving a perfect woman crafted from your very rib.” He sighed. “You must wait for God to bring you together. And what should you do while you’re waiting?” Mr. Pastor asked in that leading toned that signaled the question might reappear on a test. “Pray.”
He turned the pages in his Bible.
My classmates nodded, taking notes.
This was 1997. Mr. Pastor and parochial school educators like him of questionable qualifications (beyond being called by God) were endowed to teach the Scriptures before any other book. However, Religious Right notions of virginity had permeated secular sex education ever since the “Just Say No” Reagan years. In 1981, the Adolescent Family Life Act, better known as “The Chastity Act,” passed, empowering the government to allocate taxpayer money to abstinence-only advocacy programs—ostensibly to stop the spike in unintended pregnancies, as well as to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS that Reagan had yet to acknowledge publically.
“Young people,” Mr. Pastor continued, “Let’s read Song of Solomon so that you might prepare yourselves for what God has waiting for you on your wedding nights.”
I worried a callous on my palm. The thickened skin at the base of my finger was the last remnant of my purity ring. When I was 13, my parents gave me a ring that symbolized my commitment to staying a virgin until my wedding night. This was before silver rings were stamped with TRUE LOVE WAITS and widely sold for $9.95 at youth rallies. Throughout the mid-90s, over 2.5 million American teenagers publically pledged to pastors, parents, friends, and future spouses that they would not engage in premarital sex. I had been bucking against the ring and its multifaceted symbolism for years.
If Mr. Pastor had known the state of my garden, he probably would have pitied me but also twisted my experience to support his point that if I had waited, my sexual experiences would have been “good.” Most of them weren’t, but within the sphere of the ring, where all I was empowered to do was say “no,” in my most optimistic moments, I was grateful to have learned anything off their backs.
If Mr. Pastor was hip to the statistics being circulated through splotchy church tracts, reporting half of all American teens professed to having intercourse by age 17, and that evangelical Christian teenagers were little different with 43 percent by age 18, then he definitely believed he was only one in the room having good sex, as in the right sex. Whereas, I was having the first—what I would’ve called, okay—experience with a guy I worked with at Applebee’s. Dan went to a school that taught sex ed starting in junior high. He knew I had a clitoris before I did.
Even though Dan (and I, by extension) benefited from accurate descriptions of anatomy and access to contraception, his classroom lectures came with undertones suggesting we internalize the stigma of our behavior. The year before, the Clinton administration passed the “Workfare Act,” including a rider that for the first time in American history made pre-marital virginity a public health standard. The legislation included eight tenets, such as: “(4) teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity." Over the next five years, $437.5 million from federal and state budgets funded institutions willing to evangelize such notions.
However, despite the missionary-style education I received from Mr. Pastor, the lesson did venture into a truly progressive territory: pleasure. As he flushed around his snow-white sideburns, sputtering about the “positively miraculous,” Mr. Pastor was talking about sexual enjoyment. A topic only porn touched.
Frankly, he might have been setting up some first-timers for an existential disappointment. I could imagine, similar to the open, careful exploring I’d experienced with Dan, that applied knowledge and continued learning might be the way forward for everyone. Granted, I would never know the singular virgin-on-virgin sensation, but my 18-year-old worldview had stretched enough to see that security wasn’t the same thing as desire, nor was ignorance the same as morality; nor was a singular claim over another person’s sexuality the same as mastery.
And yet, I had to admit that his wife seemed pretty pleased to love him and apparently enjoyed the way he loved her. I’d witnessed it with my own eyes. By chance, I was leaving the gym, when I noticed Mr. Pastor and his missus across the parking lot. I watched him open the car door for his bride of decades. They beamed at one another like newlyweds, as he offered his hand, and she accepted it. My heart softened. I admired that he, in Dad’s words, “practiced what he preached.” His authenticity was admirable.
What roiled me was the notion that because this role-play worked for them, their enjoyment proved we were all made to love one way and one way only. According to the only true God, they were absolutely right, deserving of praise, earthly thrills, and eternal reward. Everyone else—in the entire world, for all of time—was wrong, perverted, and deserved torture.
Weren’t we all pursing pleasure? Though delayed, waiting promised rapturous pleasure, first in marriage, then in Heaven. Another could have been as easily turned on by this lifestyle as I was off. Lucky for her, Mr. Pastor and his kind weren’t content to keep their sexual preferences behind closed bedroom doors. They recruited for their lifestyle six ways to Sunday.
My hand shot up in the air with the intention of questioning this—and everything. I lost my nerve under his stare. He regularly accused me of being the feminist, lefty sympathizer in the classroom. Who knew what he’d call me in context of today’s lesson? Plus, I needed to pass Bible to graduate.
Finally, nearly 20 years and $2 billion blown on failed policies later, President Obama has proposed to cut federal funding for abstinence-only education in the 2017 budget. In an impoverished state of knowledge, where only 19 states, currently require sex education to be medically or factually accurate, it has finally been proposed to stop funding efforts to keep truth out of schools.
While little might be done to intervene on the behalf of students attending private parochial schools, like my alma mater, where the Secret Garden lesson will likely still be included in Mr. Pastor’s spring plans, hopefully students nowadays seek information from Scarleteen or Answer—Sex Ed, Honestly, rather than YouTube. However, for those following the National Sexuality Education Standards’ framework for providing actual facts on age-appropriate topics and striving to create accurate, relevant, and comprehensive curriculum, much can be learned from Mr. Pastor’s inclusion and affirmation of pleasure.
All names have been changed.
Images: Mean Girls, Freaks and Geeks, Parks & Rec
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Whoopi Goldberg Wants To Cure Your Cramps With CannabisAmy Deneson is a writer in New York. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Modern Love column, The Toast, Salon, The Observer, and Curve magazine, among others. She has recently completed a memoir about growing out of the purity culture. Follow her on amydeneson.com.