Elena Scotti/FUSION

In our new series The Pledge, we'll be sharing first-person stories of young people who vowed to stayed virgins until marriage—exploring the motivations, benefits, and pitfalls of swearing off sex in our hypersexual culture. The woman who shared her story for our first post is a 23-year-old living in Austin, Texas, who requested we not use her name for privacy.

I took a formal virginity pledge when I was 15, at my quinceañera. The ceremony was on a Saturday morning, at church. My dad walked me down the aisle, and we met my mom and the priest at the front—like a wedding. The priest went through this whole sermon about what a quinceanera means—like what the ring meant, what the shoes meant, what the crown meant, everything has a meaning. I was like, “Next year y’all are gonna tell me what my underwear means.”

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When the ring came, that’s when he said, in Spanish, “This ring symbolizes your purity and unto God right now, you vow to keep yourself pure until marriage.” And I said, “I do.” Just like a wedding.

When my mom was 15, she ran away from home and got pregnant with me. She was unmarried and living with my birth dad at the time, and then I popped out. She was pretty much disowned from her family after that.

My mom is Mexican, but she grew up in Texas. Well, back and forth, kind of. Respectability politics is a BIG DEAL in any Latin American country—after she had me, her parents told her they didn’t want anything to do with her. They told her she was a slut, and that her reputation in the family was ruined, and she had to marry my birth dad.

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But my dad also had two other girls pregnant at the same time my mom was pregnant, and she didn’t want to be with him. She did the right thing by not marrying him, but it was a big deal to my grandpa that she wasn’t with the man that was my father. She dated other men who she didn’t really like because she wanted to get married, so her family could accept her and see her as a woman of valor.

A lot of who I am as a person comes from what I saw in my mom. I wouldn’t say that I’m anything like her, because we’re actually two very different people. But she wanted to be accepted into her family and into society, so she did everything in her power to make up for the mistake of her having me out of wedlock. After that, she was the most prude woman you could ever imagine, because I guess it was all very traumatizing to her. She didn’t want to go through that again, and she didn’t want me to go through it either.

As a result, I was raised in a traditional, religious, and conservative Latin household by my mom, grandma, and stepdad on the southwest side of Houston. We became Southern Baptists when I was about 12—some people spoke to my parents, like those Jehovah’s Witnesses who go door to door, and suddenly everything just turned, 180 degrees. But even before that, I was always told I was supposed to be a virgin until marriage.

Partly because of what happened to my mom when she got pregnant, and partly because our neighborhood wasn’t all that good, I was very protected as a kid. I was never allowed to be by myself with any man that wasn’t my stepdad or my step brothers—I remember that very vividly. Even if I was in a group project with a guy, I had to switch. I remember one group project in middle school—the teacher put our names in a bowl and we had to pick our partners, and I ended up picking a boy. My stepdad and my mom said, “Nope, you have to change.”

But at the same time, I knew that I was very sensual and wasn’t scared of my sexuality from an early age. Between the ages of 5 and 8, I remember my mom would drop me off at her neighbor’s house to be babysat. She had a kid my age, a boy. We used to go into the closet and play with each other—like we would go in the closet and do stuff. Of course I didn’t tell anybody, but I was always excited to go over to his apartment so we could play.

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I wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend or text boys, but I remember having crushes on boys in high school. My first “sweetheart” was a guy named Darren, we used to hide in the school stairwell and make out there. But nothing else really ever happened.

I didn’t have my first real boyfriend until I got to college, but I kept the relationship hidden from my parents for an entire year. We dated all of freshman year, and I didn’t tell them until sophomore year. I didn’t even tell them verbally—I wrote a letter to my mom and I put it in her makeup case—she read it and didn’t say anything, so I went up to her and asked, “Did you read my letter?” And she said, “Yeah, I don’t know what to tell you, though, because you’re already doing it, you already have a boyfriend.” She and my dad were upset I didn’t ask them if it was okay for me to have a boyfriend. I was trying to fight for my independence, so I didn’t think I had to talk to my parents about who I wanted to date.

I lost my virginity to that first boyfriend. I wasn’t planning on it at first, I was trying to actually do the whole “virgin until marriage” thing, just to say I tried. That relationship was not so healthy, though. About four months into it, I caught him having sex with another girl in his dorm room. I was devastated and thought it was probably my fault because I didn’t have sex with him, so when he begged me to get back with him, I did.

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I was just going crazy out of my mind and I guess I wanted him to stay with me. I told him if we made it to six months, I’d give up my virginity to him. And we did, so I gave it up to him.

It happened on the first Saturday in March 2011. I remember it was a week after my birthday. I felt kind of liberated just because I was like, “Finally, I know what it feels like, I know what this fuss is about.” I felt a little bad for religious reasons—I was still pretty religious at the time. I would think, “I’m going to go to hell,” or, “I disappointed God, he doesn’t care for me anymore, he shunned me away.” I was nervous about all these bad things happening to me, being punished spiritually.

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That boyfriend wanted me to dress more conservatively, he wanted me to not talk to other guys. He was very protective. It wasn’t until I broke up with him that I just exploded, and went on this full rampage of like, “I don’t care, I’m not gonna get into another relationship again,” and pretty much went full blown on my feminism, where it’s like “I’m gonna do whatever the hell I want, like, whatever I want.”

It was a little nerve-wracking at first, but not to the point that I let it stop me. Summer after sophomore year, after I broke up with my first boyfriend, I started making out with this other guy in a church parking lot—the irony—and we would mess around. That semester, fall of junior year, I had sex again with someone different. We weren’t boyfriend and girlfriend so I remember thinking I hoped he didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want my reputation ruined. He didn’t tell anyone, so that gave me a bit more bravery to keep going.

Gradually, I became this new person. I’ve always liked sex—well, not sex, but pleasure. And when I discovered sex, and having sex with different people, I started seeing what I like and what I don’t like. I started becoming this goddess—I took control of my sexuality, and if I wanted to have sex with someone, I was gonna have sex with someone.

We women, we have a goldmine in between our legs. It can be used as a source of power, and so I completely understand women who use it to keep a man, or get a man, or pay the bills, or whatever—it definitely is something we hold as power. But now I don’t use sex as something to get a man, because I currently don’t see myself wanting to settle down in a relationship. If I do have sex with someone, it’s because I want to and I do have that prerogative to have sex with whoever I desire.

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That’s where feminism comes in. Women who don’t have sex because they’re worried about their reputation, or that he’ll say stuff about you afterward—that’s what I had to unlearn. That is what I unlearned.

— as told to Hannah Smothers, lightly edited for length and clarity

Hannah Smothers is a reporter for Fusion's Sex & Life section, a Texpat, and a former homecoming princess.