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Innocence, Purity, Sexual Experience

Loss of innocence ?? is equated with first sexual experience by a multitude of cultures and generations. This is wrong.

Innocence is lost when a person learns in a gut way that it’s possible for something important to go permanently irrevocably wrong. That can happen at any age. Certainly such a realization can come about through a sexual relationship. Or a platonic one. It can also, and probably far more often, come about through illness, injury, abuse, a death, a divorce. Or any of a million other things.

I know that I lost innocence through divorce at 25. What ended was the automatic wondrous sense of this-will-work-out-if-not-now-then-eventually. And while I’m still ridiculously optimistic, that childish certainty that lasted a quarter of a century didn’t come back.

I’m more aware of that now as I get older. At 66, I’ve reached the age where people around me are liable to get sick and die. Not me, of course. I may not be innocent, but I’m happily still blessed with teenage immortality.

But what about that other word that implies virtue, purity: what does purity mean when it’s applied to a human? Does sex make people impure? If so, we have a lot of impure moms and dads around and I don’t see that as a popular idea.

Having a supposedly-mild case of obsessive-compulsive order, I do know something about the concept of “contaminated.” For example, an art teacher adding a few dabs of paint to a watercolor of mine made it contaminated and no longer mine. At times as a kid, I feared that my homework papers might spread germs. Even with my heightened awareness of touched and untouched, I don’t see how having had (safe) sex spoils anyone’s pristine perfection.

Equating innocence and purity — words that strongly imply goodness — with sexual abstinence seems to me little more than a way of controlling women, even when the intent is to protect. I don’t often hear the concept applied to a man. Yet the purity = chastity equation works in harmful ways on the views of each gender on the other. In my view, we’ve made a lot of progress dismantling the double standard. I think we also need to watch our language.

Gray Welsh pony

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  • May 7, 2015 at 1:57 pm Reply

    What you said!

    I can’t believe your art teacher did that!

    • Peggy Payne
      May 7, 2015 at 2:03 pm Reply

      Thanks, Kelley! And I do understand the art teacher’s impulse; I’ve overstepped my bounds a time or two in making writerly suggestions.

  • Jane Albright
    May 7, 2015 at 4:18 pm Reply

    The double standard is all but dead in the younger generation. When my son and daughter saw “The Graduate” sometime after their college graduation, they were confused by the ending. Why did he have to save her from marriage and why did he want to marry her? “So they could have sex,” I told them. They were dumbfounded. And I don’t think either put much value to virginity.

    • Peggy Payne
      May 7, 2015 at 10:13 pm Reply

      I knew the double standard was all but dead, Jane. But I didn’t realize that that generation hadn’t even heard about it. Wow!

  • Bob Braxton
    May 7, 2015 at 4:26 pm Reply

    abuse – I probably lost my “innocence” before I got my consciousness (memory) which is very early, well before age 3. As far as “purity” – the (Greek?) root is similar to that for “pyre” (which leads me to thoughts and memories of “Sister India”) and includes the concept of “burning” (separating the chaff from the gold or silver), an experience which I at least can identify with, having found that burning at the end of my first biology class lab as a freshman (barely 18) in college. That is a different story.

    • Peggy Payne
      May 7, 2015 at 10:14 pm Reply

      Strong way to describe it, Bob: lost innocence before consciousness. I’m sorry.

  • May 7, 2015 at 6:04 pm Reply

    Peggy, I visited your Facebook page today because I hadn’t heard anything of you in a long time, and I saw your “ad” for this article on your blog. (I used Facebook almost exclusively to advertise my own blog [ahem].) Ha, as an editor of contributions to Moristotle & Co., I can relate to “overstepping bounds” (and be thankful how accepting my writers almost always are, not to mention grateful)….
    By visiting your Facebook page, I was not only led to connect with YOU by offering this comment, but I was also delighted to see a comment by a former colleague at UNC General Administration, dear Kelley Harrell. [Hello, Kelley! Our GEARUP colleague Kelly Peak just accepted my Facebook “friend” request today also; good day!]

    • Peggy Payne
      May 7, 2015 at 10:18 pm Reply

      And I just visited to read about Thor’s Day and forgiving enemies. Glad you found Kelley here, Morris. I’m wondering if she’s the same one.

  • May 8, 2015 at 3:17 am Reply

    Neither purity or innocence are personally familiar concepts to me. Loss of the illusion /delusion of invulnerability is my closest association, and may be the same thing, but without the moral connotation. bd

    • Peggy Payne
      May 8, 2015 at 3:09 pm Reply

      The one difference I think of, Bob, is the shaming element involved in the purity/innocence question. People who simply lose the illusion of invulnerability haven’t been viewed across any culture as damaged goods.

  • Temple
    May 8, 2015 at 12:59 pm Reply

    While we’re watching our language, let’s remind ourselves that the word “gender” applies to nouns, not anatomy, shall we? It’s a grammatical term, not a sexual one. Conflating the two words is yet another puritan-American euphemism, one with which Lenny Bruce (“Cleans and Dirties”) would have had great fun.

    • Peggy Payne
      May 8, 2015 at 3:02 pm Reply

      I had no idea, Temple. Thanks for this!

  • May 12, 2015 at 7:32 pm Reply

    Peggy, good point about the possibility that Kelley above is NOT the Kelley Harrell I know. I had hoped that the Kelley above would see my comment and confirm or deny. However, I think I see that your blog does not automatically let commenters know when subsequent comments are made, so unless Kelley above comes back of her own volition….
    Reading the comments of the two Bobs (and your responses) makes me realize that a discussion like this very much hinges on how we understand the terms “purity” and “innocence.” It helps to narrow the discussion to a particular context, such as sexuality, as your post initially seems to want to do, but immediately turns the table over. One thought I have is that a healthy “loss of innocence” as regards sex is to realize that sexual “purity” isn’t a virtue.
    By the way, I didn’t realized that Bob Dick ever thought he was invulnerable!

    • Peggy Payne
      May 12, 2015 at 7:51 pm Reply

      I think that probably changed pretty early, Morris, if it was ever true for any of us.

  • May 12, 2015 at 7:40 pm Reply

    Peggy, I now think that “my” Kelley is actually Kelly (no second e). I just found what might be her address (and phone number) on the Internet. I may get in touch with her after all. Thank you for your inadvertent facilitation!

    • Peggy Payne
      May 12, 2015 at 7:48 pm Reply

      Happy to help, Morris!

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