It’s a sunny Sunday morning, and I’m running late to service. As I reach the door of our youth trailer, I look over toward the parking lot, where one of my Sunday school classmates is standing underneath the basketball hoop with our teacher. My classmate is holding her cardigan closely around her body, and the conversation seems serious. I wonder what it’s about, but I’m late so I hurry into the trailer and find my seat, right on time as the worship team begins to sing.
They come in shortly after, and my classmate continues to hold her cardigan close to her, not singing or clapping with the rest of us. I keep stealing glances at her, wondering what happened, because she looks like she’s been chastised. Later, I find out that she came to church with a hickey on her neck and that she was given a scolding in the parking lot. I’m in high school, but I don’t know what a hickey is, don’t understand how someone gets one, don’t get why it’s such a big deal.
Twenty years later, I know what a hickey is, but I’ve never gotten one myself. I’m in my mid-thirties, and I haven’t had sex yet. I haven’t even been kissed. I wonder if I should feel shame publicly admitting this, but the truth is I don’t.
There’s a subset of Christians who would find my virginity praiseworthy; I grew up with them. Born to immigrant Korean parents who leaned on the church for community, I was raised Presbyterian — and Korean Presbyterian at that, which meant stricter rules and a more intense shame culture. My family spent all day at church every Sunday, and then there was more church during the week — Wednesday night service and Saturday morning prayer meeting for my parents, Friday night youth group for me. To add to that, up until high school, I attended private Christian schools. Our lives revolved around church, and faith informed our daily worldview.
I wonder if I should feel shame publicly admitting this, but the truth is I don’t.
I knew plenty of people growing up who remained chaste, not having sex or even kissing until their wedding day. Casual dating wasn’t an option, and courtships were generally brief, begun with the intention of marriage. People coupled off shortly after they graduated from college. Wives would stop working (if they had started at all) and get pregnant as quickly as possible, having a series of children in rapid progression, while husbands financially supported their growing brood. Their lives revolved around their church community. Life, in many ways, was simple, formulaic, and heteronormative.
I was supposed to go down that route. I should have met some nice boy in college and gotten married after graduating. I should have three or four kids by now, should be homeschooling, should be living in a spacious new construction in suburban Los Angeles, but instead I live alone in a studio in Brooklyn, no marriage prospects to speak of — I’ve never even gotten close.
My former church leaders might be proud to hear of my continued virginity. I might not have coupled off and fulfilled my God-given purpose of reproduction, but I’m practicing the only acceptable alternative by being celibate — though does it count when it hasn’t been a personal moral choice so much as the only choice? Because the thing is my chastity is the result of years of intentional body-shaming that completely broke me down as a person and disassociated me from my body, so sex wasn’t something I even thought I wanted until I was well into my twenties.
In middle school, I was obsessed with H.O.T., a Korean boy band with weird hairstyles and killer choreography. My youth group was all into K-pop then, and we’d often end fellowship nights gathering in front of the TV, playing performances recorded on VHS tapes, and trying to replicate their choreography. Very few of us were any good at it, but the point was to have fun, to laugh and sweat together.
One Sunday night, though, an adult from the Korean congregation pulled me aside and told me harshly that I should stop. I looked like an idiot, and everyone thought I was embarrassing. They were all laughing at me.
I don’t know how true that was, if people really were mocking me, but he was someone I trusted and respected, and his words had their desired effect. I stopped dancing. I started to feel self-conscious, like there was something wrong with me, but I didn’t know what exactly — just that something was wrong with my body, and that made me an embarrassment.
The body-shaming started in earnest a year later. It took place on all fronts — from family, from my Korean community, from the media. There is one singular Korean beauty standard, and it starts with thinness. It doesn’t matter if you have the right face, the right double-lidded eyes or straight nose or V-line — if you’re not thin, you cannot be beautiful.
Even as a second-generation Korean American, I was held to these beauty standards; I held myself to them because I’d grown up admiring Korean actresses and pop stars. Maybe, on some level, I knew I didn’t look like them, so, when the shaming started, I kind of just accepted it as true — I was fat. My fat body was not acceptable, it was grotesque and monstrous, and it needed to be shrunk down.
The body-shaming started in earnest a year later. It took place on all fronts — from family, from my Korean community, from the media.
I internalized everything I was told about my appearance and went on diets and diligently went to the gym. Family members would watch me during meals, nudging and pinching me under the table if I ate too much, and, quietly, I would put my chopsticks down and try not to cry. I accepted the name-calling and sarcastic comments and unsolicited dieting tips from the people around me, from ajummas who were strangers, because my fat body meant I was open for commentary. You would be so pretty if only you lost the weight, they told me over and over again because that was the prize, to be pretty. I had to be pretty so people would like me, ultimately so a boy would like me and want to marry me and spend the rest of my life with me — and, I presume, to want to have sex with me.
When I did think about sex, it was in an abstract way, as something I was aware my friends wanted but knew not to say out loud, because they were good Christian girls. Sex wasn’t something I wanted for myself; I simply assumed I was incapable of desire, that sex wasn’t an option for me, anyway, because sex required someone else to be interested in you, to desire you, and I was undesirable. I hid my self-hatred by playing the role of a Serious Student who was prioritizing college and a career instead of dating, though I also knew enough to fake crushes on boys. I picked a boy in our youth group who was already popular and did the minimum required to convince everyone around me that I was just like them and had crushes, too, so I could pass, undisturbed.
At the same time, I would shrink into myself as much as I could, trying to take up as little space as possible, and it started to work — I started to be invisible. As the years went by and I went from the enforced socialization of church to the wilds of university and dorm life and optional church, I would go days without talking to people, other than basic small talk with baristas. On the weekends, I would curl up in bed as my housemates socialized and partied, the noises of their fully lived lives echoing around me, and I would tell myself I was fine. I didn’t like people. I didn’t need them anyway.
Discovering masturbation only reinforced this thinking — I didn’t need another human to get off. Sex seemed so clumsy, uncomfortable, and awkward, and required so much vulnerability, so why should I pursue that when I could give myself what I wanted, how I wanted? This could be enough, I told myself. I could get my pleasure without having to expose my monstrous body to another human being. Was this why Christians considered masturbation sinful, because it was self-indulgent and did away with the need for God’s gift of heteronormative intimacy?
No one had ever had the masturbation talk — or any kind of sex talk — with me, so I never actually learned why masturbation was taboo. All through high school, on Sundays, I’d watch as my friends were pulled aside by our leaders and scolded for wearing too much makeup or dressing too suggestively or spending time alone with boys. I’d listen as they were constantly reminded that they must remain pure, that their purity was a most precious gift they needed to preserve for their future husbands. Even though I played the part of an adolescent girl and faked crushes on boys, I only ever got the purity talk via proxy, that premarital sex was a sin, that intimacy was something God blessed husbands and wives with. I didn’t have a body to show off, which I guess meant that I didn’t have a body to promise to God. As my entire community made clear, my body was a body no one would want.
I didn’t have a body to show off, which I guess meant that I didn’t have a body to promise to God.
In retrospect, maybe I got lucky, growing up in purity culture without being programmed by it. It wasn’t Christian shame that kept me from masturbating until I was 21, which was the first time I considered my body a physical entity capable of feeling pleasure or desire. I don’t even remember how I got started, just that, one day, after years of reading the smuttiest fanfic I could find, I finally decided to slip my hand down my pants and see what happened. It felt weird but good. It didn’t occur to me to feel guilty or sinful, and, besides, nothing happened except that I felt sparks inside me I didn’t know my body was capable of setting off.
Over the years, I explored more and figured out what brought me the most pleasure. I ordered toys online to try them out, too scared to walk into a store because would a body like mine be accepted even in sex-positive spaces? As I became more comfortable with myself as a sexual being, I kept wondering, would this self-pleasure be all I would ever experience?
There are limits to masturbation — it’s only you, after all — and there are still times my conscious brain kicks in and reminds me of the ugliness of my body, that mine is a body that will never know real intimacy because of its size. Masturbating helped me start reclaiming my body after 10-plus years of body-shaming, but it also wasn’t a magic cure because, even now, over a decade later, I still avoid my body. I rely on toys and don’t actually touch myself, my free hand hovering somewhere near my side, maybe resting on a thigh, until I’m done. I keep my eyes focused on the ceiling. Even as I feel alive, adrenaline coursing through me, pleasure is still disassociated from my body because my body remains something I try not to think about.
Masturbation’s given me hope, though. As I’ve learned what I enjoy and how I get off, I’ve also learned that I want more. It makes me feel queasy, thinking of putting my body out there, but I want to try intimacy. I have a crush that’s been going on for a few months, and now that New York is in lockdown, I’m isolating alone in Brooklyn while my crush is in Manhattan. We take to Instagram, but it’s not enough. I want more that’s physical. I wish I’d pursued more before we had to shelter in place, that we’d spoken more, touched more. I wish I had the courage to type the words, Hey, I like you. I’m attracted to you.
Instead, I pass the days we’re in lockdown scrolling through Instagram for updates and dreaming up what might happen when the shelter-in-place order is lifted and we can see each other again. I fantasize about how we might kiss for the first time, how thrilling it will be to have someone else’s hands slipping under my shirt, down my pants, how orgasm must be so different when it’s not just me alone in my bed. I think about how clumsy sex will be in the beginning, how awkward and terrifying it will be to be naked in front of someone I think is cute and attractive, and how, finally, the fear of such total vulnerability no longer overrides my want and curiosity.
That is hope. That is healing. ●
Giaae Kwon's writing has appeared in Catapult and The Rumpus and is forthcoming elsewhere. She lives and writes in Brooklyn.