Folks, I’m telling you,
birthing is hard
and dying is mean —
so get yourself a little loving
— Langston Hughes
I’m trying to stop being such a goddamn prude.
I have an OMGYES subscription. I’ve had Come As You Are waiting unread on my Kindle for, like, the last two years. Sometimes I watch twerking tutorials on TikTok. Yesterday, I wore a swimsuit that showed serious cleavage — in public.
I don’t talk to my kids about the importance of modesty when it comes to their clothes. I do ask them, How do you feel in this? Will this outfit serve your purposes today? Will it impede or distract you from what you want to do? I do tell them, I love that you know what you like.
I check the conditioned fear that bubbles up when the sun glances off my eight-year-old daughter’s summer skin and reminds me that soon other people are also going to notice she is beautiful. I check the impulse to warn her that her beauty is a threat — the calm that comes before a sin. I check myself and say instead, “You run so fast, kiddo. You look so happy.”
If you grew up evangelical in the thick of purity culture, you know: There is a mole on your chest that God put there to alert you that that neckline is too low. There are near-righteous men all around you, installed in power over you, who would never sin if you didn’t exist where they could see you. There is a right way to be beautiful, and it falls well below the knee. It’s tasteful; it’s controlled. It doesn’t revel.
I did my growing up in the late nineties, in Texas –– the bright, searing buckle of the Bible Belt. Abstinence was the air we breathed.
It was there, at a summer church camp, that a gaggle of middle school girls and I dove into the woods as we returned from the pool, because some boys were approaching on the path and we couldn’t let them see us freshly wet. I was hardly 12: chubby, bespectacled, and overwhelmed with fear that the oversized T-shirt clinging to my Walmart one-piece was going to drag my brothers into lust and hellfire.
It was there, in an old Jeep in an abandoned parking lot, that my adorable high-school boyfriend and I wept together in agonized repentance after making it to second base.
It was there, at my private Baptist University, that college students were ushered into the campus chapel to hear about the spiritual harms of masturbation.
So, I probably won’t ever be the mom who can talk about sex and desire and pleasure without feeling like I’m doing something very, very wrong. I can’t just be cool about it.
A key element of the purity culture I grew up with was withholding information: about sexual experiences, about reproductive health and menstrual cycles, about consent, about contraception, about pleasure. What use could you possibly have for that information if you were staying well within the confines of holy virginal terror?
My plan is to arm my kids with all the information I can. When they ask questions about sex, I give them honest, age-appropriate answers — even when I want to dissolve into horrified giggles instead. (“What’s that? Oh, that’s your clitoris. What does it do? It just feels good. Cool, huh?”)
The hardest thing for me, as a byproduct of purity culture, is making sure I don’t overlay those answers with some kind of divine import.
Yes, I want you to know yourself well and make wise choices. No, I don’t want you to live with the sword of God’s righteous disappointment hanging over your head, eternal damnation looming over every makeout session.
Yes, your very existence is sacred. No, sex is not such a holy and serious thing that having it the “wrong way” will permanently mar your soul and doom all your future relationships. No, having sex before marriage won’t make you like a chewed piece of gum, a dirty strip of tape, or a car that’s been driven off the lot. No, sex does not have the power to diminish your value or fundamentally change who you are as a person.
Another thing I can do is teach my children to revel.
I can draw their attention to soft sheets at bedtime: doesn’t that feel nice on your skin?
I can celebrate the explosion of a strawberry in their mouths: isn’t that sweet on your tongue?
I can delight in the beauty of human bodies: how is the slope of a neck so tender?
I can shout what I was taught to suppress: doesn’t it feel so good to be loved and to be lovely?
Because pleasure is immodest: it pursues itself, delights in itself, swallows everything whole. And in the name of pleasure, I will wring delight out of existence while my children watch and learn. I will open my mouth and laugh. I will kiss their father, and lie on the trampoline to admire the stars, and wear dresses well above the knee. I won’t be suspicious of things that feel wonderful, anymore.
Instead, I will say to these small people: Taste this, smell that, feel everything, do you see? Listen to me: the world is good, and so are you. Isn’t that delicious? Everything will be okay. I love you, without condition.
And then when they grow up and discover sex, maybe they won’t be so embarrassed by the brazen immodesty of it all. Maybe they won’t shrink from pleasure with quiet shame. Maybe guilt won’t even occur to them.
Maybe, they will revel.
Meg Embry is a writer who got her start working as a journalist and editor in the The Netherlands. These days, she lives in Colorado, where she mostly covers higher education and career topics and uses her personal blog to muddle through her thirties.
Also, you may remember Meg’s featured comment, which everyone loved; and I’m thrilled to say that she will be a regular contributor to Cup of Jo.
(Photo by Maria Manco/Stocksy.)