I’ve been watching Jane the Virgin since season one, enjoying the improbable telenovela story of a virgin who is artificially inseminated, having a baby long before she gets married or has sex. As a Catholic, saving sex for marriage is a part of Jane’s story, as it was for many of my peers in evangelical church youth groups of the ’90s. In other words, Jane is a product of purity culture.
I’ve been watching with interest, not only for the fantastical plot points, but also because it’s so unusual to see a character abstaining from sex for religious reasons. We like Jane—or we are meant to. We aren’t supposed to feel that she’s terribly different from us, in spite of her circumstances.
This season, Jane gets married, and after her husband’s gunshot wound heals, she is free to have sex. She reaches her finish line, and she crosses it.
I watched that episode with mixed feelings. Unlike many TV and movie “first times,” it didn’t go perfectly. Jane fakes an orgasm, leaving her new husband believing they had simultaneous orgasms the first time they had sex. Later she confesses her lie, upsetting her husband. In the course of a week, she buys a special lube to mix things up (which ends up causing irritation), tells her new husband that they should just focus on their love (not on orgasm), which leads him to sexually reject her, and experiences a host of emotions about losing her virginity before trying one more time and having it all work perfectly, sex life sorted.
While I suppose it’s possible that many manage to have initial sexual experiences like Jane’s fictional one, I’m skeptical. I reached out to a friend of mine who has been candid about her experiences with sex. Let’s call her Rachel.
Rachel grew up in a fairly conservative evangelical church. Waiting for sex was something all good Christian girls did. Rachel remembers a Bible study where the youth pastor’s wife told the girls the first time she had sex with her husband was the most painful thing she’d ever experienced, and also, that the only times they’d had sex were when they had conceived their two sons. Rachel was skeptical of the second claim. “I was smart enough to know that wasn’t true,” she said. “But this is what I remember: sex is a very painful thing and it’s not for pleasure.”
Rachel listened to sermons and lessons and read books urging caution when dating so as not to fall into sexual temptation. Meanwhile, although she and her boyfriend would kiss or make out, sexual temptation wasn’t much of an issue for her. “I never once felt that desire to rip off his clothes,” she said. “I thought maybe I just had really good self-control. I was proud of being able to control myself.” Now she feels that she successfully repressed her sexuality before it began to blossom. “I was taught to fear [sex] and so I didn’t let myself want it.”
When her best friend in high school got pregnant, Rachel watched her friends and family mourn it like a death. Her parents took her and her sisters out of school, not wanting to deal with the shame. “I saw that,” said Rachel. “I never wanted to make that mistake. I didn’t want to be treated like that.”
After five years of dating, Rachel married her boyfriend, also a virgin, at twenty-three. Although her new husband was prepared for some difficulty, neither he nor Rachel could have expected the great sexual challenges that lay before them. Although there was no physical explanation, even getting close to having sex was upsetting to Rachel. “When it didn’t come easy, I would start crying and sometimes have a panic attack,” she said. “Then I would feel guilty for crying. I kept thinking, This is not what it’s supposed to be. I was worried he was going to leave me.”
While Rachel looked at their sex life as a failure, her husband noted the little successes, no matter how small. Rachel and her husband didn’t successfully have sex for two years. “It affected my confidence in every area of my life,” Rachel said. “I felt like such a failure.”
After a few months of marriage, Rachel became aware that her sex life was affecting her spiritual life. She didn’t want to go to church. “It took me a while to unpack,” she said. “They spent so much time teaching me how to be a good Christian girl, but no one ever told me how to be a woman. I only got how to be a pure flower, judging everyone else. I felt brainwashed and manipulated. I didn’t want anything to do with it.”
After a two-year battle to do something that seemed to come so naturally to many other people, it was easy to be discouraged. “You just kind of lose hope,” Rachel said. “I was wrestling with my identity. I’d always been the good Christian girl who did everything right and checked all the boxes. When I made mistakes — at least I wasn’t a pregnant teenager.”
Slowly, Rachel relinquished her prideful, good-girl identity. Recently, she was helping out with the youth group when a young girl came to her because she’d had sex with her boyfriend. She felt ruined; worried she would have so much baggage to bring into a marriage. “I did everything right and I still had baggage,” Rachel told her. “No matter what, you’re going to make a lot of decisions, some good and some bad, before you get married—if you get married.”
Rachel and her husband grew stronger through this experience. She credits him with being very patient and kind, even though their sex life wasn’t what he had waited for either. “I know another couple who couldn’t have sex and got divorced over it,” she told me. It’s clear she knows what a gift it is that she and her husband continued to persevere as a couple, even though the progress was very slow.
Now Rachel’s sex life is smoother, but the journey has shaped her forever. “I’ve become so much more empathetic toward people who struggle with church because of their sexuality,” she said. “I feel a kindredness. I’ve become really tender toward those who have ‘failed’ sexually, according to the church, because I’m one of them.”
Rachel is quick to point out that there’s no easy solution to what needs to change in the conversations churches have about sexuality, but she does have a few suggestions. “We need to be more honest, not reserving what we think of as too mature conversations,” she said. “Some of these normal parts of life shouldn’t be taboo until you’re married.”
Even now, it’s easy for her to remember her youth pastor’s wife’s words in that long ago Bible study. “We have to be more responsible about how we have these conversations,” she said. “We have to remember that these middle school girls might be getting married in ten years. Scare and shame tactics are careless. My youth pastor’s wife probably has zero memory of that conversation, but it’s the only thing I remember from that Bible study.”
You’ll forgive me, then, with this story ringing in my ears, if I have difficulty believing that Jane the (no longer) Virgin’s sexual problems are solved in a week. All her life, she’s had a flower hanging on her wall, symbolizing her virginity. Her grandmother asks her to squeeze it, and it can never be returned to pristine perfection, symbolizing Jane’s virginity. Purity culture can pack a heavy, awkward bag, no matter what your sexual past. Perhaps we can begin to help each other unpack.