One of the things the #metoo and #churchtoo movements have highlighted is the burden of sexual shame.
Sometimes that burden comes through no fault of our own–we were targeted, and we were victims.
Other times shame comes because we made mistakes. But even those mistakes are often hard to tease out. Let’s face it: many of the bad decisions that we make in our lives have their root in real pain, even if that pain was not intentionally inflicted. Combine that with some intentional pain, and it leaves real brokenness.
Not all of our mistakes stem from simple sin and selfishness, you see. Many stem from brokenness–from pain that isn’t processed and isn’t brought before Christ.
One of my favourite posts on this blog is a longer one from the 2014 archives, where I shared a personal story from by Joy McMillan, who asked me to review her new book XES: Why Church Girls Tend to Get it Backwards…And How to Get it Right. I read it and wrote an endorsement. But I was so touched by her personal story of sexual shame and redemption, and I knew my readers would be, too, that I asked Joy if I could run an excerpt from her book on the blog. I did that a few years ago, but her story seems even more relevant now. So I’m going to run the first part again today (and the second part is linked below, so you can keep reading!).
My older sister and I were born in Cape Town, South Africa, and grew up in Windhoek, Namibia, where our parents moved to a few years later to avoid the discrimination of the apartheid government. That may sound unusual coming from a white South African, but my parents were passionate about us growing up in multi-racial schools, and felt led to transplant our family in what was then called South West Africa. A few years later, my younger sister arrived, and 3 years after that, our baby sister.
If you’re doing the math, yes, that’s 4 girls. And a mum. And yes, my dad is a rockstar.
Random fun fact: with my dad also hailing from South Africa and my mom from Zimbabwe, our family of six were born in 3 different countries across Southern Africa.
I have many fond memories of my young childhood, and a startling amount of negative ones. Not because there were more negative than positive, not by a long shot, but because I think that this tends to be the way our brains process life. And the way the enemy of our souls wages war on the battlefield of the mind.
It floors me how, looking back, I can recall things my parents did in complete innocence that were misinterpreted and twisted in my vulnerable little heart. My older sister, with her skinny little body, did ballet. I, however, was “muscular,” so I did gymnastics, even though I ached to dance. Sarah, with her beautiful brown eyes, looked lovely in pink, so she got a pink ballerina dress. A blue dress was a natural fit for me with my piercing blue eyes. Sarah’s hair was straight and long. Mine, on the other hand, was curly. Only nobody knew this. We lived in a semi-arid desert climate, much like Arizona, which is very unsupportive of follicularly swirly girls. And let me just tell you, if you’re going to brush a gal’s hair like it’s straight — when it’s not — and not give her any anti-frizz serum to make it look good, it is not going to cooperate. And it didn’t. My super fine, frizzy hair went every which way, except when we made trips to the coast. Then it curled and looked lovely. Who knew!? So, my mum kept it cut short because it was the only way to manage my mop.
Blue dress. Short hair. No ballet. Large Unabomber glasses. They all spelled out the same thing: “You are not feminine, Joy, in fact you’re sort of like a boy.” It didn’t help that I naturally gravitated to the boys, because they were uncomplicated and fun, which further alienated me from the girls. When my body started to do weird things and the boys wondered what was going on, I simply lifted my shirt and said, “Yeah…check it out…isn’t that crazy? I’m sprouting boobs! Wanna touch em?” I was just one of the boys, and while I loved feeling like I belonged, I ached to feel accepted within my own tribe…
I started snipping diet tips from beauty magazines and compiling health folders before I hit my double-digits. I became obsessed with my appearance, desperate to battle the bulge before it battled me. Watching my mom struggle with her weight for as long as I could recall, and seeing the resemblance in how we were built, struck a fear in me that fueled my obsession.
Despite the lies I believed about my lack of worth and value, I became that girl. The one making out with the boys at every middle school dance, not because I really loved to suck face, but because it made me feel pursued and valued, and was, admittedly, rather fun to shock the other girls. I had a new ‘boyfriend’ every week and lapped up the false sense of confidence it provided me.
While I started to appear happy and confident on the outside, I was empty and broken inside.
My family moved to America near the end of 1994, where I attended my second high school. Talk about culture shock. By the time I had found my feet and nestled into a good group of friends, our visas had expired and we were moving back home to Namibia. With the difference in school year (our school year mirrors the calendar year, while a school year in the States runs from September through June), I begged my parents to allow me to try correspondence schooling, rather than repeat 6 months of school, and struggle once again to fit in with the other kids who’d maintained their friendships in my absence.
The few friends who had stayed in touch with me during my 18 months overseas, via snail mail, were eager to hear how life had treated me. And I was not one to disappoint. I conjured up all sorts of stories about beach volleyball and cheerleading, of which I knew nothing, because the pitiful time I’d spend shuffling through the halls, trying not to be noticed, was too painful to relive. Lying became second nature to me, and with no one to contradict my stories, I simply painted the picture of the life I’d wanted to live. I created the image of the girl I wanted to be, and they bought it, hook, line and sinker.
It seemed, for a time, that life was looking up for me, but the veneer was only paper thin.
After years of childishly dabbling in promiscuity, and yet never crossing the virginity line firmly established in our conservative Christian home, I started dating older boys on the sly. In September of 1996, shortly after I turned 15, I met the sons of one of my dad’s colleagues who were visiting from England. I quickly connected with the older one and started spending more time with him. Little did I know of the competition raging behind the scenes in this testosterone-charged household, and the night before their family flew back home, they spiked my drink and the younger one took me downstairs to his room. I don’t recall much of the rest of the night, except spending the wee hours of the morning rocking in the fetal position in my older sister’s bedroom repeating, “I’m not a virgin, I’m not a virgin, I’m not a virgin.” And then there was the phone call I received from a very angry older brother who wanted to know what the hell I’d done with his brother (that I’d refused to do with him) the night before.
I knew little, but I knew enough.
This was a pivotal point in my journey. Life as I knew it had officially changed. The little value I felt I had left had been taken from me, and I suddenly had no reason to say, “no.” I threw myself into the arms of any interested male in a hopeless attempt to find significance. I used people and pleasure to temporarily numb the pain, desperately trying to quench my thirst for meaning and value.
Following in the steps of Adam and Eve, I allowed my shame to drive me into hiding, away from exposure and away from God.
The deeper I slipped into promiscuity, the harder it was to get out. Not only was I worthless, now I was dirty.
I jumped from relationship to relationship, going home from the bar with boys I barely knew, often much older than myself. I was only 15, but looked much older, and in a country where underage drinking was the norm and no one was carded, I continued to slip beneath the radar. I had a love-hate relationship with this thing I had going on. I loved the temporary thrill of being pursued, but I hated that it only briefly drowned out the loneliness and isolation. Once over the high, I slipped further into the dark.
“One who is full loathes honey from the comb, but to the hungry even what is bitter tastes sweet.” Proverbs 27:7
I remember lying dazed in some guy’s bed late one night when his housemate returned home. There had been no tenderness, no affection. Only business, without any form of protection. And now, with a third person in the room, there was no introduction. No closing of doors. No respect. Only a sick awareness that I was his prey for the night and the joke was on me. He threw me my clothes and quietly drove me back to the bar where he left me. The next time I saw him was on the rugby field, where I discovered he played for our national team.
You might have thought, by the way I strutted my stuff around town, that I was making a bold proclamation to clear up any doubts about my questionable femininity, “See people, I have a vagina…and I’m not afraid to use it.” But it was nothing that blatant. Or glamorous.
It was a well assembled front that afforded me the attention I craved, while quietly destroying any remaining shreds of my identity.
I’d nab the boys with my charm and enjoy the temporary thrill of feeling valued. But then it would be time to cough up the goods, and I’d feel stuck. I couldn’t escape the hell hole I’d dug for myself, so I learned quickly to run away mentally, while remaining present — albeit half-dead — physically. A habit it took me years to break once married.
I was drowning, and no one knew it.
Looking back I’ve wondered where my parents were while I traipsed around town, wasted and used. But as I get older and wiser, and after several hard conversations with them, I’ve realized that they were battling their own devils. Knee-deep in good works, they were busy proving their own worth and value, while raising 4 girls.
While my older sister had openly rebelled and fast earned herself the label of ‘black sheep’, I was still trying desperately to keep my iniquities hidden. I had seen the devastation my sister’s exit from our faith had caused my parents, and had determined to not put them through that again. So I was a respectful, hard-working student by day and a faithful pew-warming kid on Sunday mornings…and a bar-hopping floozy by night.
During this same year, I started shop-lifting. It started small, with a lipbalm here or a pack of gum there, and grew to include near daily fixes of clothes, CDs and make-up. Getting things for free became such a thrill, despite the gnawing awareness that what I was doing was wrong, that when I finally committed to stop (years later), it was incredibly hard. Unless you’ve experience the pull of an addiction, and the cycle of adrenaline and pleasure you experience, it’s hard to understand the way in which it sucks you in and then quickly spirals out of control.
I lost two little side-jobs that year as a result of stealing. I even stole several home pregnancy tests that I hurriedly took in grocery story bathrooms, vowing to God that if he would not make me pregnant, I would stop what I was doing. I knew that if that little line were to imply ‘with child’, that I would be thrust into a new world of scary choices and heart-breaking consequences.
When my parents discovered I had stolen their bank card and had made several withdrawals, and after they’d driven around town early one morning trying to locate me after I’d lied about where I’d spent the night, they knew correspondence schooling had afforded me freedom I had no place managing. Into my third high school I went, where I earned the nickname “the body” and started dating the older brother of a school friend. I kept the fact that he had a son a secret, as I was sure my parents couldn’t handle the truth.
More secrets, more separation.
As the crowd I spent time with morphed into a different breed of people, pornography became something I was regularly exposed to. Once again fueling the dump of adrenaline that coursed through my young veins, I got sucked further out to sea.
When we got the news that our visas had been renewed, and that we would be returning to the States, I was all too happy to leave a country that had grown to represent a season of so much guilt and shame.
Two weeks before we flew out, while visiting family in South Africa, I met a young man. I had just turned 16, and he’d just turned 21. We got hammered, along with 2 others, then went for a joyride out on the town. Trucking down a main street in Cape Town at a ridiculous speed, we hit the broadside of a taxi that had pulled out in front of us. The next thing I knew I was getting a morphine shot in my butt and surgery scheduled for my jaw, broken in two places. You would think that the events of the evening would act as perfectly clear warning signals, but I was too blind to recognize them.
Our relationship continued, long-distance, over the next two and a half years.
I viewed moving across the world as a much-needed fresh start, and I could, once again, present the image of the person I hoped to be. Only this time…one unblemished by sexual baggage. I started my senior year at a small town school (my 4th high school, if you’re keeping track), and slunk into the background. Sadly, having an accent makes you stand out by default, but with ‘insecure’ written all over my face, I became prime real estate for those meanies looking for a target.
I had transitioned from a young girl who loved people and thrived in school to a shattered young woman who was afraid of letting people in and who hated the emotional torture of school. I was terrified of my mask slipping, convinced that if anyone knew who I really was, I would be hung out to dry.
While I wasn’t physically bullied or tormented, the battle that raged in my head made any encounter with unfriendly people miserable. If someone laughed in the hallway while I was walking through it, they were laughing at me. If more than one person smiled at me when I walked in to the room, it was because I was the butt of their joke. When people didn’t greet me in passing, I thought it was because they didn’t like me. I longed to be invisible, and yet, watching others blossom in things I was too scared to try out for — like sports or theater — made my heart ache for more. I was desperately jealous of their confidence and courage, but the thought of risking failure was too much to bear.
So I stayed in my shell, dragging my dirty-girl secrets everywhere I went. When my boyfriend would come up to visit, for months at a time, I’d quietly slip back into the lifestyle I’d lived back home, and then seamlessly revert back once he left.
After I had graduated, and while working on my massage therapy certification at the local community college, this boyfriend of mine popped the question. It wasn’t really a lovely surprise seeing I’d sort of pushed him into it. I was convinced he was the only one who would ever want me, so I informed him that this was the natural progression of our relationship. I bugged him to hurry up and buy me a ring… while simultaneously insisting that we stop having sex. Not really a good combination for the average male.
God had started to woo my heart and there were certain things I knew I had to weed out of my life in order to get my life back in order.
Little did I know, a new girlfriend had popped up on the other side of the globe — one who wasn’t insisting on a ring or pushing for purity — and when the email arrived that 18th day of February 2000, informing me that it was no longer working out and that we should go our separate ways, the world as I knew it crumbled. I slept and wept, unable to get out of my bed, spinning that meaningless new ring on my finger.
But this, my friend, is where it starts to get good….
And find out even more–with a ton more of her story–by buying Joy’s book XES today!
If you’ve enjoyed these excerpts from Joy’s book, XES: Why Church Girls Tend to Get it Backwards…And How to Get It Right, pick it up now! She shares not just her own story but also what she’s learned along the way about how to nurture a fulfilling sexual relationship with her husband, too–despite sexual baggage, exhaustion from kids, or shame.
Joy McMillan is a freelance graphic designer, writer, conference speaker, and tea drinker extraordinaire. She is the founder of Simply Bloom Productions LLC, a creative little company with a big heart and an even bigger dream.
Joy & Joe have been involved in leadership & marriage ministry for as long as they’ve been married (2003), and with one foot planted firmly in the law enforcement world, they feel a tremendous burden to champion and celebrate God’s passion & purpose for marriage.
Originally hailing from Southern Africa, Joy lives with her scrumptious husband and two beautiful loin-fruit in Michigan.