by Jera Brown
Long before I was sexually active, I was drawn to the Biblical stories of outcasted women—the woman at the well, the woman who anointed Jesus’s feet with perfume, the woman for whom Jesus drew a line in the sand. I think I’ve always felt isolated. I identified with those women because it took me a long time to accept myself as I am, and it took even longer to show others who I am so that they could accept me.
A few weeks ago, I tattooed a scarlet A onto my chest after Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. The novel’s protagonist, Hester Prynne is forced to wear a red A embroidered onto the bodice of her clothing. It was to be a “mark of shame” for conceiving a child outside of marriage and refusing to name the father. Prynne is forced to stand on a podium in the town’s market, her baby clutched to her breast, and show the entire community her A.
Over 150 years after Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter, versions of shaming people for their sexual behaviors still consume our society. Women who sleep with multiple people or women who expose too much of their bodies in public are slut-shamed and deemed immodest. And in the conservative Christian communities in which I was raised, any sex outside of marriage was a dirty, shameful thing.
I was raised in a small town in Indiana, deep in the Bible Belt. This was in the middle of the True Love Waits campaign, through which I, and many of my friends, signed pledges to stay virgins until marriage. Our Evangelical communities preached the value of purity, but no-one taught us what to do with our desires. We were left believing it was a matter of willpower. We were strong enough to remain pure, to control our lust, or we weren’t.
I’d leave my hometown and head to a small Evangelical college where I’d learn the bikini zone guideline — your boyfriends could touch you only in places that would be exposed when you were wearing a two-piece. This was as close as I came to a rule of thumb to know when I was sinning and when I was safe — still pure.
In my twenties, when I first let a man explore my bikini zone, it wasn’t the community I believed was looking at me with disdain — it was God. I felt as though I had a big red A on my chest, visible only by Divine eyes.
Just shy of my twenty-fifth birthday, I broke up with my first real boyfriend. He was the first guy I thought seriously of marrying, and the first guy I granted access to my bikini-zone. When we broke up, my body was awake, and I wanted to be touched again. But, I was also ashamed, because I’d been taught it was wrong for anyone besides my spouse to touch me.
Soon after, I read the Old Testament story where Abraham sent his servant to bring back a wife for his son, Isaac. The servant asked God to lead him to the right woman and, as the story goes, God did. I asked God to lead me to the person who would be my husband, because I believed if I got married, I wouldn’t have to worry about these desires. Within marriage, I could be my full sexual self without shame. And I wouldn’t be so lonely.
I read the story of Isaac and Rebekah and thought if I could just believe deeply enough and ask boldly enough, that could happen to me.
I planned it out, just like the servant planned how to know the right bride. It was November, and I told God I’d stop dating and devote myself to studying the Bible until the summer. I asked to meet the right guy on the summer solstice. I asked that we know each other through cross necklaces we’d both wear. But I had needs nobody had prepared me for growing up, and that spring, I reconnected with a guy friend. While B and I weren’t romantically attracted to each other, but we were physically, and we were both lonely.
As good Christians, we were told to resist temptation. We were told our sexual desires were reserved for the marriage bed. But we weren’t taught how to handle our hunger until we were at the right dinner table. I loved B, and B loved me. It felt natural to start messing around. We didn’t have what at the time I considered “sex.” This thin line of what part of his body could enter mine meant I was still reserving something for my future husband. I still had a gift I was reserving for him.
My physical affection with B felt like a caring way to cope with being single. Even though I didn’t want to marry him, I felt comfortable in his arms. Being with him felt playful and loving. He never forced me to do something I didn’t want to do, and with him I learned to feel more confident in my body. When I was with him, I didn’t feel ashamed exactly, but there was always that fear in the back of my mind that I was in the wrong. I worried I was being undisciplined — just giving in to desire. And I knew I wanted more that he could provide. I wanted to be in love. I wanted to feel passion. I wanted to get married and experience the fullness of union between two people.
The morning of the Solstice, the day I asked God to show me my future husband, I chose an outfit that made me feel like Marilyn Monroe — an extra-long fitted button-down and white capris. The day was sunny and warm, and I went to work feeling a mix of hope and nerves. Just two days before, B had slept over, and I wondered if I’d broken my end of the bargain I made with God.
Still, a part of me believed that my prayer would be answered, because I reasoned it must be God’s desire, as well as my own, for me to get married. Wouldn’t it be better that way?
A coworker invited me to a jazz concert with his wife, and that night I scanned the crowd looking for him, looking for an attractive face I knew I’d recognize, looking for the cross necklace.
I didn’t find him. I went home alone, feeling lonely, ashamed, afraid. I worried God didn’t think I was ready. I worried that I’d failed and that I’d never be ready.
Last November, I turned thirty-five. It’s been exactly a decade since I asked God to send me my husband. In those ten years, I’ve found lots of love, though never marriage. I’ve come out as pansexual. I’ve explored non-monogamy and have had my heart expanded larger than I could have ever imagined by allowing myself to love multiple people at the same time. These ten years are too much to sum up in this post, but I’ve come to believe that this was God’s plan for me. I believe God sent B into my life to show me that it can feel right to love and serve each other physically in many kinds of relationships. I believe that God called me to be what I think of as a “Scarlet Christian.”
The scarlet A on my chest is for the girl I was at twenty-five and for every other person who has felt ashamed of what they desired. Off to one side of my chest, a dove flies away from the A; the bottom of its body is red and becomes whiter as it flies. The dove signifies my scarlet letter is redeemed. I branded myself because I want to be a witness to the fact that there is no shame in being a sexual person.
I used to believe that acting on my sexuality before I was married made me impure/unworthy of the right person. Now I know that through embracing my sexuality, I’m able to fully love myself, and finally truly be worthy of accepting love as I find it.
This essay was written as part of the Survive Your Story Guest Exchange.