I took a chastity vow in my first year of secondary school; I was just ten years old. We sat in the dim auditorium; after the priest led the sermon, our principal made the call for girls to pledge to keep their bodies until marriage. I remember walking out towards the isle, convinced that the air of piety that hung in the room was a reflection of the importance of my action, never mind that I didn’t even know what sex was, like the actual process of it. Later that term, my Integrated Science teacher would come to teach us that sex is when a man’s penis penetrates the woman’s vagina, like an injection. I also remember thinking, injection? “Injection? nyama, who would want a thing like that?” That description, interestingly, was the cumulation of the entire sex education I got as a teenager. Outside of Mills and Boons (Which I read a lot of) the adults in my life were bent on speaking about sex in strange riddles and code language. When I started menstruating, my aunties said I must no longer play with boys otherwise I would get pregnant.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that ten-year-old version of myself, and the idea that I was drawn to make a commitment to something I did not fully understand, something the adults did not even make the effort to clarify. Yet, my experience is not particular to just me. As a teenager, you know that sex is something you shouldn’t do, at least not if you wanted to avoid shame and stigma, but then, no one really wanted to talk about the process of avoiding sex, the tools young girls would find useful in coping with their flowering urges or curiosity. No one talked about the stories we read and the movies we watched, and how our choices might exist in parallel in a world that was charged with sexual energy. The implication, of course, was the very quiet sexual rampage that was codedly going on in secondary school and university. It is both funny and sad.
There was also the thread of my faith. As a practicing Christian, I spent my whole life hearing that women should not have sex, that your virginity was some kind of prize that signaled your purity; that it was a potential blessing for when you finally got married. If you practice any religion in Nigeria: Christianity, Islam, Traditional worship, chances that you’ve heard a version of this trope—everybody says no sex till marriage. The problem, though, is not that women should not be free to exercise their sexual agency; including choosing to wait for a meaningful relationship; it is that many of these religions came to place the idea of the female virginity as some kind of hard-won prize, almost something that was idolized and worshipped. It is less about religion though, and more about a historical patriarchal culture that erased women’s sexual agency and insisted that a woman’s body is no more than an object to be appropriated. Many people call this whole movement ‘Toxic Purity Culture.’ Again, I’m not saying this to underscore religious teaching, (that is left to your personal convictions) but to take back the silence that has shrouded these issues.
Sex matters. A lot. God wants you to have sex. Also, there is great benefit to waiting to be connected with the right partner, in a meaningful relationship where both parties are fully committed to each other. However, a woman is not more valuable because she has her hymen intact. Women are much more than their bodies, and the broken hymen is not a signal of her goodness or the value she brings to a union. Look, this is not even about holiness, it is about power and control but that is topic for another article.
If you choose to wait, that’s great. But wait well. Wait with information. Understand the dynamics of your own sexuality. Create forums where people who share your convictions can also talk about sex. Don’t wait blindly and don’t wait in ignorance. I have read and heard stories, ignorant abstinence can end in tears. Let me give you an example: There is a story of a woman who married as a virgin. For ten years of her marriage, she was unable to have penetrative sex. Why? She grew up under the fear-based purity culture and psychologically, her mind created a barrier that caused her vaginal walls to clench shut whenever she tried to have sex. They call it vaginismus and it is not a physical problem most of the time, it is psychological. It took her husband having an affair, and then a dear divorce, before she realized she should begin sex therapy. Thankfully, that helped. So, you see, her intentions were good, scriptural even. Yet, the only information she had about sex was that it was bad, it was sin, it was corruptive of the woman.
Maybe as you read this you think it doesn’t matter because you are sexually active anyway. But how freely do you talk about sex, your experience of it? The sensuality of your body. More, can you even talk about sex in your faith-based group meetings? We need to demystify purity culture. Younger women need to know that they have full autonomy over their bodies and that their value is not tied to the presence of a connective tissue. Young faith-inclined men need to stop all this needless policing of a woman’s sexual past. And most importantly, people need to give up the idea that marrying as a virgin guarantees you some special sexual blessing. It simply does not work like that. Every decision you make, whether to wait or to be active should be done with knowledge.