As a high-schooler, awkward and friendless and wanting love more than anything, I soaked up the lies of the fundamentalist homeschoolers’ purity culture. I read the books and the magazine articles. I wrote passionately in my diary at age fifteen: “How would I feel if I were to [have sex outside of marriage]? …I would probably want to kill myself, even if that would mean I went to hell because I would feel like I deserved it…Like, I would be mentally, emotionally, and spiritually dead, even if I wasn’t physically.” And I, suffering under the delusion from a mash-up of the guilt trips directed from purity culture toward sluts “out there” (as far as I knew, I didn’t know anyone who was sexually active outside of marriage) and my own raging hormones and desperate desire for affection of any sort, truly believed that the sexual act unsanctioned by god’s law would be the most devastating experience in the world.
But the purity culture is not content to police what the unmarried do with their bodies. It’s after emotions as well, and that, in the end, was what caused me much more distress.
One day, at a homeschool convention, I attended a workshop on the topic of dating. The earnest young people directing this workshop gave each participant a heart cut from construction paper. We were instructed to hand it to a member of the opposite sex, who then tore off a piece and returned it to us. By the end of the activity, each of us was left with a ragged shred of construction paper. The workshop leader dramatically held up her own little piece of construction paper and said, “And this is what you have left to give to your future husband or wife!” I, as virginal emotionally as I was physically, nodded in wide-eyed agreement, determining to never, ever give my heart away until I was certain that I had found the person I would marry.
But the heart is a fickle thing, and I found myself becoming emotionally attached to people. None of them were ever emotionally attached to me in return, so my attitude toward any romantic attachment became much the same as my attitude toward sex outside of marriage: something that would be absolutely devastating to my future marital relationship. When I fostered a huge crush on a friend during my sophomore year of college, I fretted that if we ever did date, all the time I “wasted” having a huge crush on a boy during high school would somehow hurt our relationship. We never ended up having an actual relationship, of course, so all the fretting and psychological torment was in vain.
So in the end, purity culture’s stance on emotional purity, on the fragmented heart, cost me much more doubt and self-loathing than the culture’s stance on physical purity. I never had even the slightest chance to have even a first kiss until the end of my junior year of college, but you don’t need someone else’s interest or consent to have feelings for them, and so I transgressed my standards of emotional purity all the time, without trying, forming endless resolutions to NEVER AGAIN have feelings for ANYONE until I was SURE they were THE ONE. The superlatives dropped off a bit in college and I finally modified it to NEVER AGAIN having feelings for ANYONE unless they too had feelings for me.
But you know what? The construction-paper heart is bullshit. I’ve had (unreturned) feelings for a lot of guys. I’d even go so far as to guess I may have actually loved one or two of them. And I am sad for the people who think that love is a zero-sum game. That you only have so much of yourself to give before you run out. If anyone were going to run out of love to give, it would be me, the queen of unrequited affection. But by practicing love and affection instead of the coldness of “emotional purity,” I can only become better myself and make the world around me a better place. When I was constantly policing my emotions, I was just focused on myself. When I let go and allowed myself to have feelings, I could see other people as well, not just myself and not just the object of my romantic interest, but everyone around me. When you love, you work on empathy, on putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, and that talent is a generally applicable one. Love isn’t a zero-sum game, it’s an ever-expanding range of possibility.
I want to go find the people who were running that workshop and show them a picture of a riotous garden, started from a few little seeds. “This is love,” I want to tell them, “It grows, it expands, it’s surprising and beautiful and useful and uncontainable once you let it loose. Throw away your construction paper hearts and begin to learn what real love is about.”