I didn’t receive a purity ring when I took part in an abstinence ceremony, back when I was a pubescent boy in middle school. The ceremony was called “True Love Waits,” because true love meant waiting to have sex until you were married. A bunch of pre-teen Korean boys, including myself, sat awkwardly with our parents at candlelit round tables covered in red tablecloths. We were 13 when we made our pledges. Before each reluctant boy avoiding eye contact with his parents was a red card printed with the pledge:
“Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate, and my future children to a lifetime of purity including sexual abstinence from this day until the day I enter a Biblical marriage relationship.”
After signing the pledge, many received a promise ring or a gift of the parents’ choice. Silver fob chains were all the rage back then, due to the rise of hip-hop culture and streetwear, so I decided to kill two birds with one stone. If I was going to pledge my virginity, I would at least mask it under a popular trend, even if many of the purveyors of that trend glorified sex to no end.
The controversial theologian and writer Nadia Bolz-Weber, described by the Washington Post as “a tatted-up, foul-mouthed champion to people sick of being belittled as not Christian enough for the right or too Jesus-y for the left,” publicized her recent book, Shameless, in an unorthodox way. She invited all those who had taken part in abstinence ceremonies like mine to send her their purity rings. The rings would be melted down and recast into a golden vagina. The purity ceremonies would be reforged into an ironic art project challenging the idea of putting sex on a religious pedestal, unfairly placing the burden of purity on the patrolling of women’s bodies.
“True Love Waits” took place in our church cafeteria, the reception area for weddings and therefore, a place where you could steal a soda or even an entire meal if you found yourself there on a Saturday afternoon. Volunteers doled out free radish soup and rice for all of the congregants, including young families, for lunch on Sundays. On weekdays, the space served as a basketball court, with a hoop hanging from the rafters at the far side of the room. It perpetually smelled of boiled radishes and sweat, with floors sticky from spilled food and beverages. The space seemed to accommodate the progression of one’s sexual and family journey, from the purity ceremonies to weddings to family lunches to basketball games.
For the “True Love Waits” ceremony, the cafeteria was decorated as a Valentine’s Day gathering for singles. There was a giant red paper heart cutout to pose behind for photos, which my parents and I did.
I don’t have the photo anymore, but I remember feeling sullen, a bittersweetness like seeing your Christmas gift under the tree and being unable to open it until the day. Except in this case, Christmas was both a long way off and wholly unguaranteed. I can recall only how my expression darkened my dorky complexion, circle framed glasses pinned on a sad face, with split bangs that draped my furrowed brow. But despite my glum demeanor, I had signed the pledge willingly.
It was comforting to share the misery with others, and to think we all wanted the same reward, in this case guilt-free sex. Although it wasn’t explicitly stated, every testimony I’d heard involving premarital sex invariably ended with the perpetrators having done irreparable damage to themselves, leaving them full of lifelong regret. What the actual damage was was never made clear. But it didn’t need to be, at least not for me.
The messages I constantly heard sold sex as a guilt landmine, and the purity vow was the only way to avoid it. I was an emotionally sensitive and fragile boy, my conscience guilty by default. Only marriage would guarantee the kind of sex that wouldn’t wrack me with guilt or send me to hell. Pure, Christian sex would be the way to salvation and, in short, a perfect life.
On winter break from graduate school, I saw the illustration of my own future on my parents’ fridge. My sister’s “True Love Waits” picture was hanging there. She had taken the vow just two years after I took mine. In the photo, my parents were dressed in regular church garb, my mother in a dark conservative dress and my father in a neutrally toned Sunday suit. My sister was wearing a jean jacket, the middle-school intersection of formal and fashionable. She wore a big smile laden with braces, and even my parents managed to look content.
Around the corner in the dining room I found my sister’s wedding photo. She got married the summer before I went to graduate school. It was an outdoor wedding and it began to pour rain just as the vows were exchanged. We all rushed down the aisle to get back inside, the ceremony short, but complete. There’s no sign of rain in the photo. She’s in all white, beaming with her husband; the ideal fulfillment of the photo that hung on the fridge.
One day in a musky high school gym, a friend was showing off his new stainless steel wrist watch. I was a sophomore, while my friend was a freshman; he had just taken the vow at our church. The watch had a slick glimmer, the second hand ticking away. (This gift may have been a bit on the nose.) Someone asked what the occasion for the gift had been.
“It was for True Love Waits,” I answered for my friend. That didn’t ring a bell. “It’s when you pledge to be a virgin until marriage.” He burst out laughing and my friend shushed me, so others wouldn’t hear.
“I’ll wait until after high school,” he said gazing at his watch, measuring its worth to the length of his celibacy, and coming to a compromise.
I was still planning to wait until marriage myself, hoping that restraint would come effortlessly to those who remained faithful. However, at that point I wasn’t wearing my own pledge gift. I was at the tail end of my foray into hip-hop culture and my chain had not reflected the gaudiness I’d initially wanted.
My aunt from Korea had sent the chain I’d demanded from my mother, but instead of the flashy accessory I wanted to go along with my baggy t-shirts, she sent a chain of authentic silver rather than the thick linked fob chain I saw slinking on my friends in the hallways at school. My gift had thin links with a genuine gleam, and a matching silver cross pendant attached. I was disappointed. It was too clean. And yet my mother constantly reminded me of its value.
“It’s real silver,” she repeated to me in Korean. “It’s worth a lot of money.”
Even so, I treated it like the chains my friends wore, more as jewelry than the symbolic gift it was supposed to be. I put the necklace on and off at will, tightening and loosening the hook that latched the chain. It had only been a few months after the vow when I realized that it wasn’t on my neck.
“Where did you wear it last?” my mother asked. I couldn’t remember. It wasn’t on my nightstand, or in its box. My mother was visibly upset at me, furrowing her brow and sharpening her expression. She scoured my room, scanning the carpeted floor for silver.
Besides feeling remorse for losing an expensive gift, my guilt was compounded by my mother’s reaction. I can still see her searching frantically in vain. I imagined the same dismay from my future wife if I were not a virgin, and vice versa. I thought how the hook of the necklace might not have been tightened enough, and how the latch could’ve slipped through a sliver of space to undo itself. Lost, never to come back.
The National Association of Evangelicals claimed in 2009 that 80% of Christians in the 18-29 age group had had premarital sex, a figure the group later revised downward. But I could easily believe my sister had been among that 20%, that her purity ring had merely been swapped out for an engagement ring once she’d found the one worth waiting for at the age of 26. However, after her engagement, she and her then-fiance signed the lease to an apartment a few months before their wedding. My sister told our parents, and there was talk of cohabitation before actually walking down the aisle, along with what my parents (and many conservative Christians) associated with that: premarital sex.
“My friend slept with a girl before he got married, and it was bad,” my dad said sternly without further elaboration to my sister at the dinner table. My mom wore a similarly grave expression, and stared with concern. Sexual repressiveness seems to be inherent in Korean culture, mostly because of external appearances. Like many other Korean households, my parents defaulted to what the church taught, and like many other Asian-Americans, my sister and I defaulted to our parents’ desires.
Korean culture and Christianity mixed in such a way that chastity was expected, not only for the sake of our eternal souls, but in order to avoid whispers in the congregation. It wasn’t enough to be pure, one must also seem so. Which explains why my mother hid beer in a pantry when my parents hosted small group meetings at their house. There couldn’t be a hint, not even the slightest appearance, of any kind of immorality.
I don’t know whether my sister and her then-fiance were preoccupied with sex. Perhaps they could see the light at the end of the tunnel—but to our parents and the church, they had to be completely out of the tunnel. Asian parents are notorious for never discussing anything remotely related to sex unless they are demanding grandchildren. This conversation at the dinner table had been an exception, the only instance of anything close to a sex talk our parents had given to my sister, and, indirectly, to me.
“True Love Waits” was presumably God’s sex talk, and that was that. However, throughout my adolescence and early adulthood, the vow did little to prevent me from thinking about sex. It was a carrot I dangled in front of myself, but instead of reaching for it, I merely imagined what it would taste like. I dreamed of what it would be like to enjoy marital sex, but mostly of what it would feel like to not be alone. I dated and had a couple of girlfriends in high school and college, but besides emotional intimacy, the closest I ever got physically were copious makeout sessions. I kept my virginity, but Christ’s words that “anyone who lusts in his heart has committed adultery” were burned into my mind. A rift opened up between my internal fantasies and my external reality, one that left me both pure and impure at the same time. I found myself in an endless cycle of lusting and asking for forgiveness, stuck between pleasure and penance. But since virginity held most of the equity in purity, I believed I was fine.
After I lost my necklace, my aunt sent me another one from Korea, using a different special occasion to justify a replacement. This new gift had thicker links; it had enough weight that I felt it pressing on my collarbone, where a similar silver cross pendant hung low on my chest. If it fell off, I would feel it, but I couldn’t risk the chance of losing another silver chain. So I put it in an old velvet jewelry box of my mother’s and left it there. In time the box became a safe for treasured possessions, and it sat on the small two-tiered bookshelf in my room. I would open up the box whenever I needed to transfer the overflowing movie stubs out of my wallet. The necklace would always be there, safe in the pile of stubs.
Over the years it’s grown tarnished, taking on a yellow hue. But if I ever wanted to wear it again, I knew an easy fix. Once when I was a child, my mother had taken out old pieces of silver jewelry that looked rusted and expired. She grabbed a tube of toothpaste from our bathroom and told me to squeeze some out onto a cloth, and wipe it on the jewelry. I was skeptical, but did as she said. To my surprise, the toothpaste did the trick. The yellow seemed to come off with every rub and soon the silver shone through like it was brand new; the silica from the toothpaste acted like sandpaper to scrub off the oxidized surface. A redemptive process: Something dirty becoming clean again.
The image of a golden vagina sculpture with a silver shine is slightly amusing. But mainly, the thought of my aunt’s gift providing a sparkle in an ironic statement is, if anything, liberating. At least my necklace would be contributing towards a statement meant to undo the harm that purity culture has wrought. The harm I can’t seem to rub off, because of the way sex became the fulcrum my salvation teetered on.
When I went back to school after winter break, I had a lingering question for my sister, now married and moved in with her husband. She was going through a bout of depression and texted me for advice, which gave me an opportunity to follow up, over our long discussion. I wanted to clear up this constant cloud of guilt, and find out what she thought about the vow in hindsight.
“Man… we were so brainwashed back then,” she texted back. “I can’t believe how twisted people’s conception of good and bad were.” I wanted to ask her if she was glad she waited, if it was worth it, and if her life is as perfect as it seems to be in her photos. Perhaps it was an impulsive denial that my belief was anything but true. Instead, I asked her if she still had her purity ring. She said she did, and laughed.
Since most of the purity rings sent in were sterling silver, the vagina that Nadia Bolz-Weber made was of silver. She made a gift of it to feminist and political activist Gloria Steinem, as a thank you for the impact Steinem’s writing had on her. The symbolic gesture was meant to encourage freedom for women whose sexuality was stigmatized by purity culture.
I started my collection of ticket stubs because my father had collected coins from different countries. He valued this collection far beyond just its monetary worth; there was something essential and human about them. We collected things that had personal meaning and invoked memories. What one collected was what one valued, especially when others didn’t.
My necklace still lies in that red jewelry box somewhere in my room along with my old stubs.
My parents still hold onto the belief that premarital sex is a danger, most likely because the church does. In the current political and social climate, consent is rightly a topic in the center of much-needed discussion and change, especially in the treatment of women. Bolz-Weber is one of many women leaders voicing that. Consent is and should be an inherent part of sex, so I find myself desiring God’s consent on sex because it still feels tarnished to me.
Back in my apartment, I lie on my mattress and it hits me that I’ve only ever slept on a bed. I remember lonely nights when I’d put out my hand on the empty spot next to me as if someone should’ve been there. It’s only now at 31 years old that I realize that the same fear that drove me to hide my necklace in that box is the very same reason I hold onto my virginity, by force of habit. Being alone is better than being lost.