The scarlet A on my chest is for the girl I was at 25—and for every other person who has felt ashamed of their desires.
A few weeks ago, I tattooed a scarlet A onto my chest, a reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. The novel’s protagonist, Hester Prynne is forced to wear a red A embroidered onto the bodice of her clothing. It was to be a “mark of shame” for conceiving a child outside of marriage and refusing to name the father. Prynne is forced to stand on a podium in the town’s market, her baby clutched to her breast, to show the entire community her A.
More than 150 years after Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter, American society is still shaming people for their sexuality. Women who sleep with multiple people or women who expose too much of their bodies in public are slut-shamed and called ‘immodest.’In conservative Christian communities, like the one where I was raised, any sex outside of marriage is considered a dirty, shameful thing.
I was raised in a small town in Indiana, deep in the Bible Belt. I came of age during the True Love Waits campaign, which meant that I, and many of my friends, pledged to stay virgins until marriage. Our Evangelical communities preached the value of purity, but no one taught us what to do with our desires. We were left believing it was a matter of willpower. Either we were strong enough to remain pure, to control our lust, or we weren’t.
Eventually I left my hometown and headed to a small Evangelical college where I learned the bikini zone guideline — your boyfriends could touch you only in places that would be exposed when you were wearing a two-piece. This was as close as I came to a rule of thumb to know when I was sinning and when I was safe — still pure.
In my twenties, when I first let a man explore my bikini zone, it wasn’t the community I believed was looking at me with disdain — it was God. I felt as though I had a big red A on my chest, visible only to Divine eyes.
Just shy of my twenty-fifth birthday, I broke up with my first real boyfriend. He was the first guy I thought seriously of marrying, and the first guy I granted access to my bikini-zone. When we broke up, my body was awake and I wanted to be touched again. But I was also ashamed because I’d been taught it was wrong for anyone besides my spouse to touch me.
Soon after, I read the Old Testament story where Abraham sent his servant to bring back a wife for his son, Isaac. The servant asked God to lead him to the right woman and, as the story goes, God did. I asked God to lead me to the person who would be my husband, because I believed if I got married I wouldn’t have to worry about these desires. Within marriage I could be my full sexual self without shame. And I wouldn’t be so lonely.
It was November, and I told God I’d stop dating and devote myself to studying the Bible until the summer. I asked to meet the right guy on the summer solstice. I prayed that we would know each other by the cross necklaces we’d both wear. But I had needs nobody had prepared me for when I was growing up, and that spring I reconnected with a guy friend.
While B and I weren’t romantically attracted to each other, we were physically. And we were both lonely. I loved B, and B loved me, so it felt natural to start messing around. We didn’t have what, at the time, I considered “sex.” This thin line defining what part of his body could enter mine meant I was still reserving something for my future husband. I still had a gift I was saving just for him.
My physical affection with B felt like a caring way to cope with being single. Even though I didn’t want to marry him, I felt comfortable in his arms. Being with him felt playful and loving. He never forced me to do something I didn’t want to do, and with him I learned to feel more confident in my body. But when I was with him I worried I was being undisciplined — just giving in to desire. And I knew I wanted more that he could provide. I wanted to be in love. I wanted to feel passion. I wanted to get married and experience the fullness of union between two people.
The morning of the solstice, the day I asked God to show me my future husband, I chose an outfit that made me feel like Marilyn Monroe — an extra-long button-down and white capris. The day was sunny and warm, and I went to work feeling a mixture of hope and nerves. Just two days before B had slept over, and I wondered if I’d broken my end of the bargain I made with God.
Still, a part of me believed that my prayer would be answered, because it must be God’s desire, as well as my own, for me to get married. Wouldn’t it be better that way?
A coworker invited me to a jazz concert with his wife, and that night I scanned the crowd looking for him, for an attractive face I knew I’d recognize — for the cross necklace.
I didn’t find him.
I went home alone, feeling ashamed and afraid. I worried God didn’t think I was ready. I worried that I’d failed, that I’d never be ready.
Last November, I turned thirty-five. It’s been exactly a decade since I asked God to send me my husband. In those ten years, I’ve found lots of love, though never marriage. I’ve come out as pansexual. I’ve explored non-monogamy and have expanded my heart larger than I could have ever imagined by allowing myself to love multiple people at the same time.
These ten years are too much to sum up here, but I’ve come to believe this was God’s plan for me. I believe God sent B into my life to show me that it can feel right to love and serve each other physically in many kinds of relationships. I believe that God called me to be what I think of as a “Scarlet Christian.”
The scarlet A on my chest is for the girl I was at twenty-five—and for every other person who has felt ashamed of their desires. I branded myself because I want to be a witness to the fact that there is no shame in being a sexual person. Off to one side of my chest, a dove flies away from the A; the bottom of its body is red and becomes whiter as it flies. The dove signifies the redemption of my scarlet letter
I used to believe that acting on my sexuality before I was married made me impure and unworthy of the right person. Now I know that by embracing my sexuality I’m able to fully love myself — and finally be worthy of accepting love as I find it.