Set the scene: I’m at a Southern Baptist church retreat. 13 years old. 7th grade. Hitting the awkward middle school phase (hard). We break up in small groups to have ‘age-relevant talks.’
My small group leader compares our group of middle school girls to white sheets. She says that we are pure and beautiful in the eyes of the Lord. Continuing with the analogy, she tells us that committing any sexual acts is like putting permanent red stains on the sheets. Earlier that month, I had my first kiss, which at the time, felt natural and exciting. That day, I left church feeling eroded with shame. Was I really an unworthy, stained sheet?
The answer is NO, but my 13-year-old self was unsure. Reinforced in following sermons, a strong sense of shame attached to sexual desires followed me. At school, the abstinence-based sex education and the hottest new purity ring trend definitely didn’t help. Some of my closest friends even pledged to save their first kisses until marriage. Missing that bandwagon, I thought I might be going to hell. Literally.
However, through high school, I began to draw away from this church as the strict ideology attached to it. I surrounded myself with people who reassured me that what I was feeling (and doing) was natural. My circle included new friends, as well as some girls from church who grew with me. In hindsight, we laugh at these wild anti-kissing declarations, and I no longer worry about being condemned for kissing (nor god forbid consensual sex).
The Poet X
It had been years since I had reflected on these experiences, but my emotions flooded back while reading The Poet X, by Elizabeth Acevedo. In beautiful verses, Acevedo writes Xiomara into life. Xiomara is an Afro-Latina teenager growing up in a conservative Catholic home. While Xiomara’s experiences are completely distinct from mine, I was taken by her voice as she grappled with her sexual desires.
Xiomara feels power and innocence in her first physical relationship.
And I know people are probably staring,
probably thinking: “Horny high school kids
can’t keep their hands to themselves.“
But I don’t care because when our lips meet
for those three stops before I get off,
It’s beautiful and real and what I wanted.
We are probably the only thing
worth watching anyway.
Maybe we’re doing our train audience a favor.
Reminding them of first love.
When her authoritarian mother finds out about the kiss, she makes them pray for forgiveness.
Mami prays and prays
while my knees bit into grains of rice.
Mami repeats herself
while her statue of the Virgin watches.
The whole house witnesses
As I pray this steep, steep price.
Xiomara shares her thoughts while kneeling.
The Last Thing You Think While Kneeling on the Rice That Has Nothing to Do with Repentance
How kissing should never hurt this much.
Amidst her own pain, Xiomara’s gut spoke what so many of us need to hear— that the beauty of attraction shouldn’t bear the shame. Girl, if only I had read this before the whole dirty sheet dilemma!
Looking forward, I wish I had a foolproof roadmap to navigate identity development and faith. I have no such thing. I’m still working on my own navigation, and every path will look completely different. However, here’s what I can say, what was reaffirmed in The Poet X, and what I’d tell my middle-school-self:
Wherever you are in your journey, first, you are not alone in your shame or questioning. Second, seek to challenge (or call complete BS on) ideas, sermons, verses, or churches that don’t celebrate you.