Reprogramming: Susan Young’s Story

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Also by Susan Young on HA: Former Employee of David and Teresa Moon at Communicators for Christ Alleges Workplace Abuse, Harassment

As a teenager and into my mid 20s, I was surrounded by courtship doctrine.

Swimming in it. Drowning in it. I not only owned a copy of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye”, but was also on Joshua Harris’ mailing list to be notified when it was published. I purchased his following book “Boy Meets Girl”. My shelves were also full of titles such as “Passion and Purity” by Elisabeth Elliot, and pretty much everything written by Eric and Leslie Ludy – even the early books that are now out of print. At the age of 22, I would go to a weekend retreat for young women hosted by the Ludys.

Until the age of 13, I had it in my head that I would wait on dating until I had reached 16. Anything younger than that was too young. I had heard things like “don’t kiss on the first date” and waiting until marriage for sex was pretty well solidified in my mind. The big mystery to me why people acted like waiting was so hard. Then again, my reaction to “The Talk” was pretty much nausea and contemplating a life of celibacy. I had never heard of anything so gross.

At 13 years old and just months after I was clued in to the workings of a marriage bedroom encounter, I attended one of Josh Harris’ early conferences with my mom and a group of homeschool friends. This is where I first heard the concept of courtship in modern times even before the publication of Harris’ first book.

My heart was presented to me as a fragile piece of china that could be damaged and would never be worth as much once given away.

While I don’t remember this specifically coming up at the conference, it’s not uncommon for girls who have had sex get the degrading comparison that says “no one wants a piece of chewed gum”. My feelings were apparently in just as much, if not more danger of losing their value.

I bought into the whole thing. No kissing until marriage. Guard my heart so I don’t “give away pieces of it I’ll never get back” to men other than my mysterious future husband. I have to admit, my ready adoption of this way of thinking was not so much because I really thought it through, but because I had defined myself from an early age by being the “good girl” that never caused any trouble and made my parents proud. This could put me at a level above most of the other good kids. In short, I was just as arrogant and self absorbed as many other 13 year olds. It just manifested itself differently.

Unfortunately, I had hormones and feelings because I wasn’t a robot. Of course I fell for a couple of guys before I met my husband. I felt like I’d failed because of it. I got older and tried to get away with more form fitting tops, which resulted in bad conflicts with my mom because boys are visually stimulated, unlike me, apparently. Yet, there were cute, physically attractive people around me and I noticed. That made me feel like there was a deviant freak just under the surface of my good girl veneer. I had older female relatives outside of this restricted culture who were definitely checking out Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman’s boyfriend, which did give me a clue that there was maybe something normal about noticing someone physically attractive. They were the worldly ones, though, so it didn’t really count so much.

There was a huge romantic void in my life. My desires and feeling were growing naturally and my circumstances weren’t keeping up. I tried to get into the habit of writing letters to my future husband and telling him how I was praying for him to fill that gap until I met him. I managed a grand total of 3 because it felt so forced. After we got married, I don’t think we decided to keep them. They were a lot more of a disturbing window into what kind of crazy system I’d bought in to than they were remotely sweet or romantic.

I got older and into my 20s my parents were still telling me I wasn’t ready for a relationship. I should work on being ready, which was an odd, vague concept that never got remotely clarified when I asked. My life was in a frustrating loop. My fantasies revolved around a Disney-esque escape thanks to a man who would rescue me from the dead end of my life. That was never going to happen; so then I fantasized about a successful career, leaving home, and adopting a child to raise as a single mother.  That scenario was almost equally likely to come out of my circumstances.

The doctrine fell apart because I was human.

I had wants and needs and feelings. I started dating (yes, real dating) my husband within two weeks of my relationship falling apart with my family. I was out of the house, 24 years old, the expectations were gone, and I had a minor inkling that the relationship methods I’d been taught weren’t quite spot on. What I didn’t know is how long it would take to undo that much programming.

The first time he kissed me, I couldn’t sleep that night and cried the next morning. I was a failure. In truth, I was robbed of the joy of my first kiss by the toxic mentality that placed my value on how shiny and new everything was about me. I wondered if I had ruined our future marriage. The voice of Bill Gothard spoke in my head reminding me that wives who went “too far” with their husbands before marriage ended up resenting them for it. Of course, this is based on the premise that the men were the ones that actually wanted any kind of physical connection.

Fast forward to marriage and a surprising lack of resentment toward him. Yes, we were technically virgins when we said our vows, but we weren’t exactly models of purity culture by that point.

We’d been through the ceremony, but now what happens in the marriage bed after this much fear, indoctrination, and taboo regarding sex? While we had the impression from the culture around us that this was supposed to be fun, for me the concept had only progressed from “gross” to “clinical”. There are pairs of teenagers that have done better on their first attempts. I’ll steer away from the TMI, but we were seriously poised for failure. It takes some time to undo that damage.

What’s worse is what happens when your sexuality has been the property of some mystery man your entire life rather than your own.

When this person does show up, in your mind, it’s all still his. Sex is not something you can say no to when you’re just not into it at the moment when it never belonged to you to begin with. As we re-evaluated our beliefs from the past together, I realized that my body is actually my own: this is something my husband had not realized I wasn’t on the same page about. If anyone doubts that men need feminism, just imagine what it’s like to be a good man who respects his wife to find out she hadn’t been telling him when she didn’t want to be intimate. It’s an incredibly disturbing moment.

For the first few years, I still dressed pretty conservatively. I even checked with my husband when I was worried an outfit might be too revealing because he would possess an insight into a man’s mind that I don’t have. At least, that’s why my dad used to check my outfits. That was incredibly confusing to my husband. If I was happy with it, he didn’t think it really mattered what he thought of it or what any other man might think of it.

Gradually, I learned it wasn’t my job to control what men thought. What that left me with was shame. The reason to cover and hide myself so completely was missing, but the impact it had on what I thought of myself remained. My body was something to be hidden. It was dirty. It was wrong. I’m still working on getting over that.

While there are still some remnants from the past that have to be filtered out of my mind, overall I’m in a much healthier place. This summer will mark my 6 year wedding anniversary to a man that wants me to respect myself and hold my own. My view of my body is getting healthier all the time.

The best part, though, is knowing I’ve taken charge and that I’m not just waiting on the actions or approval of someone else to take the next steps in my life.

6 comments

  • Susan, thank you for sharing your story. I just wanted to add, as an asexual, that not everyone experiences sexual attraction, and we are very much human, not robots. =)

    • Hey, thanks for chiming in. I hadn’t realized how that language might sound to someone asexual. I chose it because in this situation it felt like a big part of *my* humanity was being denied – as in the type of human I am. It just wasn’t ok to be that. A lengthier explanation like this one would have been better in the article than non-inclusive language, though. I’ll watch for that going forward. Thanks.

  • Alecia Faith Pennington

    I almost cried reading your story. Although there are some differences, mine is so similar, it’s freaky because I didn’t think this kind of thing happened to anyone else. Wow. Thank you for sharing. Thank you so much.

  • I have heard this story so many times from so many women. It breaks my heart because when I try to share this very natural progression of the courtship/purity culture with parents who didn’t go through it themselves, but fully intend to raise their children in it they just feel like I am being over dramatic and that this applies to only a few outliers. But in reality, you are far, far from being alone. So many girls are struggling with what you have struggled with.

  • While my family didn’t push the *whole* purity culture experience so much as just “no premarital sex, everything else is your own decision,” I absorbed a lot of it from the other Christians around me. It was only a few years ago, after I’d changed my mind about a lot of it, that I read somewhere online that story from “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” about dreaming all a man’s former loves showing up at his wedding because even though they meant NOTHING to him now, he’d given bits of his heart away to them. I think I might have actually yelled out loud, “THAT’S what messed me up so badly!”

    I was so afraid and ashamed of my desires throughout my teenage years and into early college years, and every crush I had made me feel like, “Well, there goes more of my heart I’ll never get back.” I’m happy to report that now that I’m married, there have been no notable repercussions of having that crush on a kid from my youth group in 2003 and 2004. Or when I was completely in love with Han Solo when I was 11.

  • Thank you so much for writing this! It’s scary how similar my story is to yours. I’m still getting over and thinking through so much garbage I was taught on purity in the ATI movement. Your post really got to me. Thank you!

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