“How do you feel?” my new husband asks into the darkness, stroking my hair to the rhythm of the waves outside the bedroom window.
His voice is low and sleepy, but I can still hear a hint of angst. The reflection of my sequined white dress hanging on the wardrobe door creates a glistening disco ball above the bed we share for the first time. I wonder how to answer his question. Our bodies ache for sleep, but we don’t want this day to end.
I was fourteen years old when I had sex for the first time.
I say this as a fact, however, I hesitate to say I had anything–as though I owned it. My body was there, but that’s as far as willing participation goes. At least in my memory.
I was only five years older than my eldest son is right now. The same son who watches cartoons and sleeps with cuddly toys. I wonder how a child–yes, child–goes from doing these things to doing the other, seemingly overnight. Whereas I swapped cuddly toys for an unfortunate cocktail of makeup, alcohol, boys, and an older group of friends.
I didn’t say no. But I also didn’t say yes. I said nothing at all, actually. And it didn’t matter that I continued to say nothing because I never saw him again.
It happens, I told myself. Other people my age do this.
But I still didn’t tell other people. I denied the rumors, lowering my head in silence. Because no matter what we tell ourselves, or don’t tell others, shame always gets the final word.
I almost want to laugh when I say I couldn’t walk properly for days. Other girls were shortening the hems of their skirts or covering flawless skin with hoards of foundation–I was covering up my limp. Sex hurts, I kept thinking in shock. It’s supposed to hurt, though, right? I wanted it to be the last, but I needed to prove it could be better. It remained the first.
From my early teens until my early twenties, I only remember feeling like a nomad. I was permanently off-track, like a stray, disoriented toddler in a supermarket, chasing every aisle. No friendship group, no hobby, no career path–nothing helped me find the way back.
The physical hurt healed, but the emotional wound gaped open. I sure lost something that night–I lost me.
If you’d asked me about sex as a teenager, I would have told you it was for two people who are in love and in a relationship. Maybe even married, depending on how churchy the asker was. But slowly, without realizing it, I learned a different story.
If you stopped at ‘kissing’; they never kissed you again. If you pushed a roaming hand away from your skirt; you didn’t get to hold hands again. If you weren’t the right type of fun; you didn’t get to have any type of fun.
Good! I now tell the teenage girls who confide in me.
You shouldn’t want to hear from boys like that! I rebuke.
Math wasn’t my strength, but I learned the equation for attention: add sex and subtract part of myself.
I didn’t have any long-term relationships. I felt used, but also useless. No one stuck around, not even the one who helped me get pregnant at 18. Although I did a lot of things well after I had my beautiful son, and despite the hard landing in adulthood, I wasn’t done with being a teenager. When my own mum offered to babysit, I went out after bedtime, went home to someone else’s bed, and arrived back in my own house just in time to make breakfast and begin mothering for the day.
It was in this place, eighteen months into motherhood, when love, not sex, brought me to my knees. The love of Jesus Christ, displayed through a couple of patient girls. A love that adopted my son and me into a family of believers, who believed in both the Gospel and me. A love that saw us as valuable and embraced us with open arms, no strings attached. And when Jesus became real to me, he didn’t give me second-hand, thrifted virginity, but a purity, when he nailed my sexual past to the cross and tore the veil of shame between us.
He knew everything, and He still didn’t look away.
In the final year of my university degree, I met a ginger-haired boy called Paddy. He had kind eyes and a walk I learned to recognize from a distance. He brought me coffee and chocolate in the library every single day. And every single day, I had to rise from the seat opposite him, always leaving mid-conversation, to do the school pick-up.
I couldn’t hide my past from him, even if I wanted to; my four-year-old gave me away. But over the course of a long friendship, Paddy became the last person I wanted to hide from. It turned out, he wanted to know my son too. We looked at each other across that library desk a little too long to be ‘just friends’, anyway.
Paddy often recalls the night he asked me to be his girlfriend. He quotes me with amusement, saying, “You realise I’m a dirty sinner, don’t you?” I was terrified that this good, godly man didn’t know what he was getting himself into. That’s not who you are, he told me, when I feared what others must think.
He took his responsibility to lead and protect me seriously. We weren’t perfect. My body is as ready as my heart is to be married to you, I often joked. He stewarded my heart and soul with care. Boundaries provided an opportunity to build trust, and although we battled temptation like any other Christian couple in the dating period, Paddy refused to give Satan any opportunity to twist, manipulate, or use my past for his purposes.
There is power in being touched, hugged, and held–without an ulterior motive. I knew he wasn’t in this for sex. I knew he was in this for me.
We worked hard at learning to trust, while unlearning what the world taught us about sex. We worked hard at building strong foundations while tearing down poisonous walls of sexual lies. In our forage for truth, it came as a surprise that God doesn’t view sex as dirty and demeaning. Quite the opposite, actually.
In the safety of a marriage covenant, we no longer have to keep up appearances and we can be completely naked, in every way. Something spiritual takes place as we express the oneness we began feeling as friends and has grown deeper over time. We are joined by our very souls.
It is a mirror of the love first shown to me by Jesus. Despite my sexual sin, Jesus stayed on the cross. And despite my sexual sin, Paddy stayed in my life.
Waiting until marriage is psychologically damaging, the world tells me. (Waiting for) sex hurts, they say. I searched for freedom with multiple partners with no strings or consequences. But true freedom was found in the awe, the wonder, the security, and the delight at being one with someone who will never leave.
I often have to confront memories when the enemy uses flashbacks to attack our intimacy. He just wants a release, the voice says. He doesn’t want you.
He doesn’t love you, it says. He loves the act. You should detach.
I have to fight insecurity. Stretch marks, stitches, pelvic floor issues. The body my husband gets has always been a postpartum body. It has always borne the scars of a story he didn’t feature in.
But even for this, there is grace.
Grace for feeling awkward. Grace for crying on the wedding night. Grace for the frustrated and discouraged. Grace for the trauma of purity culture. Grace for postpartum changes. Grace for aging. Grace for the porn addiction. Grace for past and present regrets.
How do I feel? I close my eyes and clear my throat, preparing to answer my new husband’s tentative question. We’ve talked and wrestled and worried about this wedding night more than I care to admit. I know this question, with its eventual answer, is another step in the dance of vulnerability for both of us.
“I don’t feel sad about my past anymore,” I whisper. “I’m just thankful God let me experience it this way.”
Sometimes sex hurts, but sometimes sex heals.
Rebecca lives in Northern Ireland with her husband and two sons. After becoming a mother at eighteen, and at a time of feeling totally lost, she found her words. She says writing is her way of seeing God in her life and she hopes that maybe, through her stories, you might see him in yours too. Previously, she worked in a women’s ministry role at her church but presently, she loves being ‘just’ a mum. Connect with her on Instagram @rebsmyth, her website, rebeccasmyth.co.uk or on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/rebsmyth.