Integrity has no need of rules.
Knowing that teenagers are hormone-crazed and likely thinking about sex anyway, my church had initiated a year-long program for our youth nights dedicated to reading and discussing Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, a book about human sexuality and how sacred it is.
The idea of sacred sexuality was deeply appealing to me.
Some of the other ideas discussed during those evenings — such as this particular metaphor — were not.
It went something like this:
“You are a rose, and every person you have sex with takes one of your petals away. Sleep with enough people, and you’ll have nothing left to give.”
– A well-meaning youth group leader who was sincerely trying to protect us from the consequences of sexual sin
There are other variations of the same basic analogy. For example, “You are a piece of tape, and every time you have sex with someone, you pick up a piece of them, and lose some of your own stickiness.”
The message is not subtle, nor is it meant to be. Petals are what make roses beautiful and appealing; no one wants a thorny stem. Without its stickiness, tape loses all its value and becomes a piece of garbage. We understood the message loud and clear: the more people you have sex with, the less valuable or desirable you will be to potential future husbands or wives.
(It seems that men are often able to avoid internalizing this particular belief since it gets countered with ongoing secular messaging about how getting laid makes you more masculine and MORE attractive to future partners, but that is a topic for another time.)
As soon as I heard this rose petal nonsense, the feminist in me rolled her eyes and said, “Give me a break.”
However, my impressionable, approval-hungry, true-love-craving 15-year-old self tucked the idea away, deep into my psyche, just in case there was some truth in it. I remembered it every time I found myself nearing a sexual encounter with a new partner.
This f*cked up my sex life in two important ways.
#1 — It planted the idea that my “purity” is the best way to show my partner how special he is
An ex-boyfriend of mine once explained that, for him, a woman who hasn’t slept with many people is more attractive because he feels more special. He feels like she has allowed him to be intimate with her in a way that she reserves for people with whom she shares a special connection or thinks is exceptionally sexy.
I get that.
We all want to feel special — chosen by someone who is known for having options and being choosey, someone with discerning taste and excellent judgment.
The problem with this attitude is that it is rooted in grossly oversimplified gender stereotypes: (1) that men are less discerning about who they have sex with, so it’s not “special” to have sex with a man — but it’s special if he lets you become emotionally intimate with him; (2) women are less discerning about who they become emotionally attached to, so it’s not special if a woman falls for you — but it’s special if she lets you become sexually intimate with her.
Traditional evolutionary psychology reinforces these narratives by claiming these gender-based tendencies serve an evolutionary purpose. I‘m sure you’re familiar with their views: men care about sexual fidelity in a partner, because they don’t want to end up using their resources to support someone else’s child. At the same time, men are personally motivated to impregnate as many women as possible to pass their seed on to the next generation. Women, on the other hand, care about emotional fidelity because love, not sex, motivates a man to keep providing his resources to her and any babies they have. Since every child requires a tremendous investment of time, effort, and demands on her body, she’s more concerned with protecting the survival of a few children than having as many children as possible as the best strategy to pass on her own genes.
I don’t know about you, but this picture of what men and women want from their relationships does not resonate with me, nor with most of the men and women I know. Fortunately, several books — such as Sex at Dawn and Untrue — have been written about the historical, scientific, and anthropological problems and inconsistencies of this boring and unhelpful narrative, and offer alternatives that I find more compelling and encouraging.
I won’t deny that there are some general neurological and hormonal differences between men and women that impact their desire for sexual vs. emotional intimacy, but there is a lot more variance within those groups that between them. Most people I know crave both, and tendencies to pursue one more than the other are probably just based on which has been a more socially reinforced strategy for feeling connected and valued.
Imagine if we praised women for getting what they want sexually (as we do for men), and if we encouraged men to explore the full range of their emotions (as we do for women). We might actually stop reducing our metric of “specialness” to whether someone let us into their pants or into their heart and how many other people had been there before.
Surely there are more meaningful ways of knowing how special you are to someone?
#2 — It led to more promiscuity
The rose petal metaphor framed my sexuality as something that I was to protect and keep pristine — like a valuable collector’s item, still in the box — until I handed it over to my husband to enjoy. I was expected to make all of my sexual choices with this hypothetical future husband’s desires and needs in mind.
My body, my sexuality, was never talked about as something for ME, something that was mine to own and explore so I could discover my own desires, boundaries, and capacity for pleasure.
Ironically, this mindset — intended to shame me out of having multiple premarital sex partners — probably led to more frequent sexual encounters (and definitely more mediocre and regrettable sexual experiences) than I would have had otherwise.
Here’s what would happen:
When an opportunity for a hook up of some kind would arise, I’d remember the rose metaphor, and my inner rebel would kick in: “Screw that! You should have sex with this person just to prove that you’re sexually liberated and you won’t be controlled by religion and the patriarchy!” My desire to hook up with that particular person could have been fairly low in the moment, but my desire to be free from oppressive religious and social expectations was STRONG.
If I hadn’t felt there was an oppression to resist, worthiness to prove, or freedoms to be gained, I’d have probably just said “thanks, but no thanks” and left that type of situation.
Or maybe I’d have hooked up with him anyway, but enjoyed myself WAY more.
Either way, the alternate reality is in this scenario includes sex of much higher quality and potentially less quantity of partners.
If I could do it over…
I wonder about how my sex life would have been different if I’d never been introduced to the idea that my sex partner “number” mattered to anyone.
I wish I had been given a different script to run through my mind when making sexual decisions — something that had nothing to do with how I might be judged, but instead, helped me assess how likely I was to actually enjoy being sexually intimate with that person.
If I could do it over, I would tell my younger self to answer these three simple questions before sleeping with someone:
- Do I feel respected and physically safe? Does he resist or hesitate about using a condom? If things start to feel weird halfway through, will this person be understanding if I need to stop, slow down, talk something through, or leave? Can I count on him to be honest and respectful toward me if one of us doesn’t want to do this again?
- Am I attracted to this person? I know this seems like a no-brainer, but I have let myself get coerced into sex with people I was not interested in. (Unpacking how and why that happens can be the topic of another post someday.)
- Is there any part of me that feels resistant or hesitant toward this?Sex is way less satisfying when your mind or body is telling you, “I don’t want to do this.” I wish someone had told me, “You don’t have to be able to explain why you’re a ‘no’ to sex to someone in that moment. You don’t even have to spend time unpacking it later until you DO understand. It is always enough to say this just doesn’t feel right.” That inner conflict is going to mess with your head the entire time you’re having sex and lead to shame, regret, and a sense of self-betrayal afterward. Just don’t do it. Whatever permission you need for this, I am giving it to you now.
A New Metaphor
In her New York Times Bestseller, Come as You Are, Dr. Emily Nagoski offers a much more empowered, nuanced, and realistic botanical metaphor for sexuality:
On the day you’re born, you’re given a little plot of rich and fertile soil, slightly different from everyone else’s. And right away, your family and your culture start to plant things and tend the garden for you, until you’re old enough to take over its care yourself. They plant language and attitudes and knowledge about love and safety and bodies and sex. And they teach you how to tend your garden, because as you transition through adolescence into adulthood, you’ll take on full responsibility for its care.
And you didn’t choose any of that. You didn’t choose your plot of land, the seeds that were planted, or the way your garden was tended in the early years of your life.
As you reach adolescence, you begin to take care of the garden on your own. And you may find that your family and culture have planted some beautiful, healthy things that are thriving in a well-tended garden. And you may notice some things you want to change. maybe the strategies you were taught for cultivating the garden are inefficient, so you need to find different ways of taking care of it so that it will thrive. Maybe the seeds that were planted were not the kind of thing that will thrive in your particular garden, so you need to find something that’s a better fit for you.
Some of us get lucky with our land and what gets planted. We have healthy and thriving gardens from the earliest moments of our awareness. And some of us get stuck with some pretty toxic crap in our gardens, and we’re left with the task of uprooting all the junk and replacing it with something healthier, something we choose for ourselves.
– from Come as You Are, by Emily Nagoski, PhD
Your sexuality is not a single plucked rose that threatens a curse of everlasting romantic and sexual rejection with each fallen petal like some twisted version of Beauty and the Beast. It is an entire living, breathing garden, capable of supporting whatever combinations of sexual self-expression, beliefs, and experiences make you feel thrilled to live this life in a human body.
And it’s your responsibility to weed out the things that don’t belong in that garden anymore.
…like a misguided metaphor.