I was baptized in a lake when I was eight years old. Pastor Dan dunked my sunburned body beneath the water’s surface one Sunday morning during our church’s annual camping trip in Pollock Pines, California. Members of the congregation looked on, applauding my decision to follow Jesus “at such a young age.” Submerged beneath the green waters and towering evergreens, I imagined my eight years of lived sins being washed away with the smell of leftover smoke from the morning campfire.
Growing up, my family’s Christian faith was that of pressed khakis and comfort food potluck dishes, dinner table prayers and memorized Bible verses. On my 13th birthday, my parents gave me a purity ring as a reminder to save sex for marriage.
We feared failure more than we hated our pain.
Receiving the ring was a different kind of baptism. There wasn’t a lot to think about; I had been taught that abstinence before marriage was the most important decision I could make outside of becoming a Christian. According to the Evangelical church, my body didn’t belong to me, it was for my future husband alone. I desperately wanted to follow the rules and be seen as good, and the purity ring was an opportunity to prove myself. It would signify my unyielding commitment to God and my parents. So when I opened the small ring box that warm September afternoon, I dutifully recited a prayer and slid the band on my left ring finger.
After that day, I thought about my future spouse constantly — all the teenagers at church did. At 13, 15, 18 — I wondered about the person I was meant to marry. He was another reason I waited, why I saved my body and kept it pure. “Pray that God will keep your hearts and bodies pure for each other,” our youth pastors reminded us.
I met Anthony on a church mission trip to Rwanda the summer before college. It was 2009; we were both living in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and attending the same Evangelical megachurch. He was at a local college in Colorado, and I would be starting at Azusa Pacific University in Southern California in just a few weeks. Anthony wore a purity ring like me and had also promised to save sex for marriage.
When we started dating, the first thing we did was create a list of physical boundaries. The fact that our relationship was long-distance made it easier, so the rules were only necessary for long weekend visits and holiday breaks. “No kissing” was at the top of the list because the pastors at our college group often talked about kissing like it was a gateway drug; they said it always led to other things.
Our first in-person date was at a fancy restaurant on the Santa Monica Pier. Anthony was visiting me in California over a three-day weekend. After dinner, we ended up making out by accident. I don't remember who kissed who, but there we were, wrapped around each other in an empty apartment. We cried and prayed for the rest of the trip, feeling ashamed and guilty about breaking our boundary. It scared us both. If we could break this rule, what else were we capable of?
For two years we dated long-distance, seeing each only on long weekends and holiday breaks. Each trip was the same. We’d fast leading up to our time together, hoping that by giving up food, God would give us extra strength to resist sexual temptation. “This time will be different,” we always said. But as soon as we were back together, the physical attraction was too much. We teetered between temptation and shame, justifying our actions — simply kissing — and then praying for repentance.
We teetered between temptation and shame, justifying our actions — simply kissing — and then praying.
Through it all, fear informed our bodies, and this was enough to keep us from breaking other rules, and from taking our clothes off. We had to save ourselves — both from and for each other, which meant never kissing too long or exploring the dips and curves when our bodies begged us to. We felt shame because we felt sexual desire, not because we acted on it. Instead, we kissed for hours, panting, breathing heavy, longing for more than we could have. But we even felt shame for that.
I was 20 the day I married Anthony. My brown curls flowed from beneath my mother’s veil that I was wearing, as Colorado rain fell in heavy sheets on the roof of the megachurch where we’d met just three years earlier. When the thunder interrupted our vows, the pastor chuckled, claiming God was seeing our marriage and calling it good. To me, this meant I was good. I had been faithful and pure, winning the fight against my longings. I could look at my father, my husband, and my pastor and say that I was a virgin. And now that I was a married woman, my sexuality could finally blossom and I didn’t have to feel ashamed.
We went to a cabin in the mountains after the reception. Anthony undressed me slowly, peeling away my dress and revealing a nakedness I had never known. I expected to feel liberated, but instead felt exposed. With every touch and kiss, it was like he was erasing my body, staining me with sex and sin.
There wasn’t a shift that happened once we were allowed to have sex. We couldn’t simply switch on our sexual desires now that we were married. Our bodies didn’t know better, that now it was okay to have sex, expected even. We’d prayed all the sexual longings away. Like the candle consuming its wick on the dresser, our desires for each other took their last breath and disappeared in the darkness.
Sex wasn’t better the next morning or on the honeymoon or during the first weeks and months of marriage. Every time we crawled into bed naked, our bodies seemed to freeze. We performed a dance and forced ourselves through the motions, moving our bodies like we thought we we’re supposed to. Sometimes we prayed, asking God to come down and help us. Most times, my mind hovered over the bed waiting for it to be over.
We wanted the reward we thought we’d earned. Our purity vows had hinged on the promise that sex was amazing in marriage — our college and youth pastors had boasted about their “hot wives” and “married sex being the best sex” many times throughout the years. Anthony and I had clung to these words while dating. Yet the promise felt empty now that we were on the other side of the altar.
Not knowing what to do, Anthony and I fabricated our new life together. We moved to a small town in Colorado where I finished college. We bought a house that needed a renovation and we joined the local Evangelical church. There, we approached the pastors and leaders hoping someone could give us direction. But no one knew what to tell us. They gave us Bible scriptures and said some prayers. A few suggested we see a Christian therapist, but even the counselors didn’t have answers for why our bodies felt numb or why sex led to shame.
For the first three years of marriage, Anthony and I experienced a slow unraveling of our faith. I began to have questions about purity teachings and Evangelical doctrine as a whole. If the people I trusted most had been wrong about sex, what else was I naively believing? Sometimes we were angry at the church or with God, other times we felt anger towards one another. Our relationship was built on a foundation that was crumbling, and it scared us to think we’d only gotten married for sex.
In 2014, four years into our marriage, we left the Evangelical church, along with its doctrine and interpretation of scriptures. Though we still believed in God, we no longer had a rigid idea of who or what it was. We decided to move away from our small town in Colorado, hoping that a change of scenery would offer a fresh start. We traded trees for skyscrapers, moving to Denver, then London for graduate school. A few times over the years we considered separating, though neither of us admitted this to the other. Divorce was a sin and it meant failure. Even as we shed our past selves and deconstructed our faith, the church’s rhetoric clung tightly. We feared failure more than we hated our pain.
But there was a strange silver lining to all our years in the church. Evangelicalism had taught us to hold on, to believe in the things we couldn’t yet see and to hope for redemption. While leaving each other would have been easy, liberating even, we could start over together. We could experience healing and eventual pleasure in sex by learning to love our bodies. It was a long and trying road, one that included years of therapy and hard conversations. We had to set intentions daily, choosing to free ourselves from shame-based thinking. It was far from easy, but it was a journey worth taking. And it was one worth taking together.
In 2019, twenty years after my childhood baptism, I stood on the shore of a lake during a visit to Colorado. Anthony and I were on our way from London to Los Angeles, where we’d finally put down roots after years of exploring other places. The water was cold and green, same as the lake in Pollock Pines, with the towering trees. Except this time there wasn’t a church audience to propel me into the water. I was alone as I swam out into the deep, meditating on how it felt to swim freely without trying to be good or obey someone else’s rules. Time and space away had gifted me that, and perhaps for the first time, I felt at one with my body. When I submerged myself, I realized I was performing my own baptism. Except I wasn’t washing myself from sin, I was soaking in the waters of freedom.
Kayti Christian is a nonfiction writer living in Los Angeles. She is writing a memoir about growing up in 90s Evangelical purity culture. Find her on Twitter @kaytichristian.