The virginity pledge that ‘nearly destroyed’ Samantha Pugsley.

In an essay called “My Christian virginity pledge nearly destroyed me”, which published on XOJane and Salon earlier this month, Samantha Pugsley vilified the pledge she signed in childhood at church. With it, she had vowed at 10 years old — while she still thought boys were icky — to maintain her virginity until marriage. And she did.

But “there was no chorus of angels, no shining light from Heaven” when on her wedding night, she finally had sex. Instead, she cried in the bathroom afterward. She dreaded sex for the first couple years of her marriage, she wrote, but obliged when her husband — who had no idea she dreaded it — initiated. When she worked up the courage to express her struggle to him, he was horrified to learn that she had “let him touch (her) when (she) didn’t want him to.” He suggested she see a therapist, and she did. That “was the first step on a long journey to healing.”

Pugsley’s widely circulated story has raised concern in some readers, who wonder now whether saving sex for marriage is a bad idea. It has “confirmed” for other readers their belief that what Christianity says about sex harms the people who hear it. But what Pugsley wrote — and what others who grew up in churches like hers have written — has not acknowledged a paramount truth:

What her church taught her about sex is not what churches are supposed to teach about sex, because what her church taught her doesn’t align with Christianity.

Somebody at Pugsley’s church taught her “it was entirely possible that (her) future husband wouldn’t remain pure for (her), because he didn’t have that same responsibility, according to the bible.”

First: Fairly certain that by “pure,” Pugsley’s church meant “a virgin until marriage.” But the definition of “pure” is not “a virgin until marriage.” Our behavior doesn’t make us pure. Jesus makes us pure. “Baptism confers on its recipient the grace of purification from all sins (CCC 2520).” The CCC continues: “But the baptized must continue to struggle against concupiscence of the flesh and disordered desires.” The deal was never “you are pure until you behave a certain way” but “you can be pure despite how you’ve behaved, because Jesus.” That’s what makes grace amazing. It is not our behavior that results in purity, but acknowledgment of purity that compels us to behave in certain ways, and to reconcile with Christ, others, and ourselves if and when — inevitably, in one way or another — we don’t.

Second: A church that says women are supposed to save sex for marriage but men aren’t is a church that makes me so grateful to be Catholic. In Catholicism, what compels us to abstain from sex outside marriage is the virtue of chastity, which is for men and women, regardless of whether they’re single, married, or religious. “Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person”  — male people and female ones (CCC 2337).

People at Pugsley’s church told her “over and over again, so many times (she) lost count, that if (she) remained pure, (her) marriage would be blessed by God and if (she) didn’t that it would fall apart and end in tragic divorce.”

In other words, Pugsley was taught that if she saved sex, her marriage would last and if she didn’t save sex, it wouldn’t, which is an inadequate if not tragic way to prepare a person for marriage. To teach children that abstinence before marriage causes a marriage to last is to risk setting kids up to become adults who are wildly unprepared to be spouses, who’ll be blindsided by what arises in everyday life after their weddings.

Even if implicitly, to teach that encourages tunnel vision — a focus so solely on not having sex that young men and women don’t see whether red flags pop up in other parts of a relationship. But having saved sex for marriage doesn’t negate the problems you didn’t notice while you dated. Churches (and parents) have painstakingly identified sex as good or bad based on when it happens but have neglected to teach kids what sex is, or what marriage is, or what love is, or how to date in ways that aren’t completely dysfunctional. They grow up not knowing that love, not premarital abstinence, is what causes a marriage to last. Churches like Pugsley’s seem to teach abstinence and hope it inspires people to love when teaching love — real love — is going to inspire people to practice the virtue of chastity, which requires us to abstain from nonmarital sex.

What Pugsley’s church taught her meant that when she got home from her honeymoon, she “couldn’t look anyone in the eye.” She wrote: “Everybody knew my virginity was gone. My parents, my church, my friends, my co-workers. They all knew I was soiled and tarnished.”

To all who encourage nonmarital abstinence by telling children that sexual activity soils us: Can you not? “The union of man and woman in marriage is a way of imitating in the flesh the Creator’s generosity and fecundity (CCC 2335).” Nobody told Pugsley that. Instead, in an effort to discourage sexual activity outside marriage, people told Pugsley that sex is dirty, which is why she cried in the bathroom on her wedding night. She had done a bad thing, as far as she was concerned, because of what she always had been taught. But sex is not bad. True Christianity never said it was. Telling kids that it is in order to prevent premarital sex is irresponsible.

While Pugsley began to undo the damage done by what her church taught her, she decided she couldn’t be both religious and sexual, she wrote. So she picked sex. Hers is one of several stories I’ve read about people whose experiences in this realm have resulted in their rejection of Christianity. The saddest part is that people who reject Christianity because people in their churches taught them what people in Pugsley’s church taught her have likely never been told that what people in Pugsley’s church taught her does not align with Christianity — and, to borrow a quote from Christopher West, “it’s important that we not confuse the mind of the Church with the mind of the people in the Church.”

Click here to read Pugsley’s post in full.