I wasn't prepared for the purity smackdown, though.
From showing us photos of mutilated fetuses to holding up dirty toothbrushes & saying, "THIS is what you are once you have sex," the onslaught was constant. The church flew a guy out to us who went by the speaking name of Sex Ed (because his name was Ed - and he preached to kids about abstinence - I know, genius branding) to do the whole song-and-dance, multiple times, in case it wasn't hammered into our heads enough that sex was bad and if we did it we would be like disgusting, dirty toothbrushes that no one would want to use.
There are so many things to be said about the crazy, sometimes laughable nature of the purity education that evangelical churches try and foist upon their unsuspecting youth. But what I want to talk about is something else that's been bothering me, a different facet of the purity speech that I heard so very many times and can really be boiled down to this:
BOYS: Guard your penises. LADIEEEEEES: Guard your heart!
The myth that women aren't supposed to be sexual and want sex is perpetuated in this sentiment. That's what boys are for. If women want sex, it's to be emotionally fulfilled. So all the purity talks wanted the boys to learn how to keep it in their pants, and the girls to learn how to not put out but ALSO, how to guard their hearts.
How does one guard one's heart, you might ask? Like, I thought that's what ribcages were for? Oh no no, my friends. If you're a young lady, your heart is an ivory tower, and you better be freaking Rapunzel.
Let me tell you this little story. One Wednesday night, we were discussing (once again) purity. The youth pastor had ordered this giant heart-shaped chocolate cookie from Mrs. Fields. "Can I get a volunteer, please? A girl?" Everyone raised their hands. Holding a giant chocolate chip cookie that is the size of a pizza in front of a room of teens is akin to throwing a bucket of chum into shark-infested waters. He selected a girl out of the many hands that were raised, and asked her to come to the front and hold the giant heart-shaped cookie in front of her chest.
"This will be Jessica's heart," he said. "Now, say she's dating a few boys, or she has a steady boyfriend." He beckoned for a male student to come up and take a chunk of the cookie. The student broke a piece off the corner and ate it, standing in front of the girl who's heart it was supposed to be. "See, Jessica dated someone and got emotionally involved with him. When he broke up with her, he took this piece of her heart and now, she can never get it back."
The pastor called up boy after boy after boy, encouraging each one to take larger bites out of Jessica's heart and chew them up in front of her. He stopped the parade when there was only one small, jagged piece left in the center of the box. "See," he announced sadly, "That's all that will be left of Jessica's heart to give her future husband."
She stood, bashful at the center of the room, holding a shred of the giant-heart shaped cookie. We watched from our chairs, silent and somber. In that moment, I didn't want to be Jessica. I didn't want to let my heart be ripped to shreds and destroyed by predator after predator.
Because that's what this illustration does. It sets girls up to see boys as not only after only one thing, but also as destroyers of emotional stability. If you don't do your job to guard it, boys will consume your heart, piece by piece, until there is nothing left. You'll become a shell of a person, not whole, not fit, not healthy. You'll have been eaten alive.
Boys will destroy you. That's what this told me. That's what I learned, from age eleven onward. Boys will eat your heart out if you let them.
Not only does this set us up for failure on relational levels (how are you supposed to treat boys like human beings, how are you supposed to let them be your friends, if they've been demonized in sermons as being out to destroy your cookie-composed heart?), but it also puts this incredible strain on girls to be the ones to prevent their own heartbreak. This idea that women must preserve themselves emotionally, that if you get your heart broken it's because you were not guarding it carefully enough, only hurts us. It hurts us from the onset, because of the pressure we feel to keep ourselves within safe emotional bounds, to keep men out of them, to maintain the fine wire line of how close is too close - can he be my friend, can we like each other, how close can I let us be before he has the power to damage my heart? - that questioning hurts us. It negates trust, intimacy, relationships, all of it. It prevents us from being humans. (For some really excellent reasoning on this, read Dianna E Anderson's thoughts on it.)
It hurts us on the other end, too, after we've had our hearts broken. This narrative of the heart as a consumable item breaks us twice. Because if you've had your heart broken, the only conclusion is that it must have been your fault.
At the beginning of this year, a boy hurt my heart. He was careless with my trust, and it was just one of those things. It happens. It happened to me. My first thought after this event?
"I have to be better at guarding my own heart, because if I don't, no one else will do it for me. I have to be better at choosing who I let into my life, into my heart, because this world has already hurt me badly, and I cannot afford to let it do so again." - from "On Shame"
This is a direct result of the years I spent being told that my heart was a giant Mrs. Fields cookie and boys were out to tear it to pieces. I thought that because a boy had made a decision not to be with me, it meant a failing on my part. I had failed to keep guard over my own heart. I had let someone rip a chunk out of it and eat it right in front of me and I only had myself to blame for it. My heart was now deformed, lacking, less than it was before, and it would always be made dirtier and more ragged by this event.
Imagine my surprise when now, seven months later, I feel just fine. No, really, I do. I laugh about the story of how the bed broke as he was breaking up with me, and while I sometimes still feel a twinge of pain at the memory, I am fine. In fact, I think I'm even better than I was before. I learned so much about myself, what I want, who I am, what I need and what I think I deserve, and I wouldn't unlearn that for anything. The things I learned through this experience have informed me about myself and will, I believe, only serve to help me as I continue on whatever other romantic travels that I embark on in the future. I cried about it on four separate occasions was distraught for three months straight, but then - I emerged on the other side of heartbreak, not feeling as though I was missing pieces of myself that I could never get back, but instead feeling stronger and more whole than I had before.
I let my guard down, and while I got burned, I did not become less whole. There is no fragment of my heart that any boy can take away from me. My heart wasn't made that way. It's who I am. Abuse can hammer at it (and it has), heartbreak can hurt it deeply (and it has), but I will always have myself, my heart, fully formed, marvelously resilient. Emotional entanglement cannot and will not ever take away from who I am and what I have to offer any future partners or friends or family.
I let my heart out to run, freed it from its ivory tower, and while it withstood many blows, it is stronger now than it was before.
The pain of thinking I caused my own heartbreak hurt me. The freedom of knowing that I am allowed to love whomever I choose, however deeply, rescued me from that hurt.