Dani Brunet was in college the first time she had sex. She was 20, a sophomore at Southern Nazarene University, and one of the few female religion majors in her class.
She grew up in a Nazarene family, and, like many Nazarene kids, she was taught that Christians save sex until marriage.
"I remember a 'True Love Waits' presentation when I was 13 or 14," Brunet said, "but I never went to an event that was specifically about chastity. Still, I really thought I was not going to have sex until I was married."
According to a study reported on in the January issue of Pediatrics magazine, her story is similar to about 12 percent of American youth who take some sort of chastity pledge, vowing to remain a virgin until marriage. Like many of those kids, Brunet did not keep that pledge.
"When I took the pledge, I had never had a serious boyfriend," the Bethany resident said. "There had been no serious physical contact. I simply had no idea what I was committing to."
That didn't stop her father from buying her a purity ring for her 16th birthday. He had started buying her white roses when she turned 13; she received one on that day and then one additional rose per year after that.
"The idea was that he would send me the roses to celebrate my chastity until I got married," she said. "The roses maxed out last year. He offered me a spa day instead, but said if the roses were important, he'd still send them."
Brunet's father is not aware that his daughter did not keep her pledge, and she isn't going to tell him.
"It's not really his business at this point," she said, "and the flowers allow him to keep up the façade of not knowing. It's easier to send flowers than believe I'm not what he wants me to be: his little girl."
Deceiving parents " even well into adulthood " is a common practice. Several people interviewed for this story admitted to wearing purity rings up until marriage so their parents would not know they had succumbed to temptation.
Aaron Jones (not his real name) had sex for the first time at 32. He asked to use a pseudonym because his father, who does not know about the broken vow, lives in Oklahoma City. Jones grew up Assembly of God and, like Brunet, made a private pledge to remain chaste until marriage.
"I don't remember a specific altar call or commitment service," Jones said. "My parents had been open about sex, and I remember my mother discussing it with me when I was 9 or 10. She used an analogy that virginity is like $1 million: You get to keep it until you're married, at which time you and your spouse each get to give each other a million-dollar gift. If you give yours away, you have nothing to give to your spouse."
That language is important in the chastity movement, as girls and boys are both told that virginity is a "gift" to be given to their partner at marriage.
Katie Mickle, a teacher in Putnam City Schools, grew up Baptist and heard the language of gift giving when she was a preteen.
"I was at an 'Acquire the Fire' conference," she said, "and there was all this talk about premarital sex leaving you feeling empty inside. It was very emotional for the 12- and 13-year-olds in the auditorium. We were told that it was a gift we could only give away once. At the time, I remember thinking these girls had no idea what they were committing to."
Now 23, Mickle said she has remained chaste, technically.
"It's not that I think God will be angry or upset, although I do think he cares," she said. "But it's not like there is no grace, like I've fallen and I can't get up, but at this point, I've waited so long I don't just want the next person who comes along to have it."
Jones spent some time in ministry and dated off and on throughout his 20s. He said there were a few times he got close to having sex, especially in college. He attended Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Waxahachie, Texas. His classmates were very experimental, he said, even at a conservative, Pentecostal college.
"We were sexually active as freshmen in college," Jones said. "It was the first time I felt safe enough to experiment without the fear of my parents opening the door. We did pretty much everything except intercourse, including oral sex, and other stuff."
The "other stuff" includes a favorite phrase of youth pastors. Mickle used it right away.
"Heavy petting. They always talk about heavy petting," she said of the euphemism. "But there is also plenty of talk about broken hearts, STDs and pregnancy."
It's reasonable to ask how long fear of STDs, fear of God and childhood promises are supposed to keep people chaste. Brunet graduated from SNU and then went to graduate school at Atlanta's Emory University. She never came close to marriage in those years. Jones graduated and went right to work in ministry. He also never came close to marriage.
Should men and women in their late 20s and 30s be expected to keep childhood pledges?
Kendra Thomson is 37, single and an employee of SNU. She is still a virgin. Her pledge was private, as well.
"I think those kinds of things, like 'True Love Waits,' became popular after I was already off to college," she said. "And I don't remember having a moment of decision, but rather it sort of developed over time."
Thomson said she recently had a Christian friend question her honesty about being a virgin. "It was kind of funny to me that it was so unbelievable to him."
Thomson also said she was not thrilled about being the "poster child" for 37-year-old virgins, but she's comfortable with her decision.
"When I find the man I want to share my life with, I will have an incredible gift to give him, something that I have shared with no other man," she said. "I think that is pretty cool."
Neither Brunet nor Jones regrets their decision to have sex. Brunet was date-raped when she lost her virginity, an example of heavy petting gone too far, but she was having consensual sex the following month.
"I still wasn't comfortable with having sex until I went to grad school," Brunet said. "I was still having sex at SNU, and sitting through chapel made me feel like shit. When I got to grad school, I'd parsed enough of my theology to believe that sex in a committed relationship is OK."
Jones doesn't regret his decision, but he regrets the circumstances. "I lied to the girl I had sex with," he said. "She wasn't a virgin, and I told her I wasn't either, because she wouldn't have had sex with me if she'd known. Part of me regrets it; part of me doesn't. I've had sex since.
"When you have a naked woman there, what are you supposed to do?"
Critics of the chastity movement include Christian feminists, of whom Dani Brunet is one. Christian feminists read the text of the Bible through the lens of freedom and equality for women, and are concerned with what they see in the presentation of chastity issues.
"I only heard one woman teach about chastity," Brunet said. "Right after my father gave me a purity ring, our Sunday school teacher started a 'True Love Waits' series. In the middle of the series, her 16-year-old daughter got pregnant, so she resigned. It was the last time I heard a woman teach."
Many Christian youth sit in mixed meetings and hear male youth pastors discuss sexuality, but the teaching is coming from someone who is an outsider to feminine sexuality.
Aaron Jones (not his real name) remembers a particularly troubling lesson from a male youth pastor when he was a teen.
"He told us, boys and girls, to avoid compromising situations," Jones said. "But then he told us that male hormones are stronger than female hormones, so if it came down to it, the girl was responsible for telling us 'no' because the boys would be incapable of thinking rationally."
Progressive Christian feminists talk about the sexual ethics of the Bible as written for a culture in which girls married at 14 or 15, not for a contemporary context in which a woman might not consider marriage until after college or graduate school. That does not, however, mean they are libertine about sex.
"I don't think teens ought to be having sex," Brunet said, "but it's not because I believe the act is a 'creation of sin' moment. I believe that they simply aren't ready to be responsible for the thoughts and feelings of another person. When they are ready depends not on marriage, but on an individual's psychological makeup and emotional maturity." "Greg Horton