“Get married before you have sex.” That’s the only message my parents ever passed along to me about physical relationships, and it came straight from the church. I was raised in a very religious household in Rome, New York. We were the only African-American family in this small town, but the nearby Pentecostal church we attended was all Black and very old-school: Kids weren’t supposed to see movies or dance, women were discouraged from wearing pants, and my older siblings and I were in church four days a week.

Granted, all the kids at church sneaked kisses. But I was a late bloomer. I had my first kiss at 16. My girlfriend and I would hold clammy hands, talk on the phone all night, and cuddle at my house after school. But that was it. Because I was into religion and she wasn’t we split up after two months.

The breakup happened right before I went off to college and caused me to start challenging what I learned in church. I was excited about going to school with a lot of Black people and meeting so many sisters. I felt this was my time to experiment-to talk to them and see, well, what else could happen. I wanted to have sex, but I felt guilty about going against my religion. So I negotiated around what I was taught: I gave and received oral sex, fondled and petted. As long as it wasn’t intercourse, I told myself it was cool.

And my male friends never pressured me about having sex. Mostly because they just assumed I was doing it anyway. I was relatively popular, had plenty of female friends and actively pursued the company of sisters. Girls trusted me and believed I wasn’t trying to use them. Most people respected my decision to remain a virgin, even if they didn’t agree with it.

I remember an incident with this one sister. We were lying in bed, fooling around with our shirts off when she stopped and asked, “What are we going to do after this?” I responded, “Hey, I’m not looking for a relationship. If you don’t want to have sex, that’s fine.” It ended right there.

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By my midtwenties, after more than a handful of near misses, I had to ask myself if I was committed to staying a virgin. I arrived at a point where I was able to have an honest conversation about what I wanted-not because I was feeling guilty, or because of what my parents said, or even because of what the Bible said. I realized that I want a long-term, committed relationship with someone who’s going to be my wife. And I want her to be my first.

At 26 I started wearing a promise ring-a gold band on my left ring finger-to symbolize my virginity. When people assume I’m married, I tell them I’m not and explain that the ring also represents my relationship to the Creator. When I’m ready to move into family mode, I’ll replace it with a wedding band and give the promise ring to my wife. And that sister doesn’t have to be a virgin in the technical sense, because once people commit themselves to God, the past doesn’t matter.

But I’ll admit that I do have desires-I’m not immune to lust. I just channel that energy into other things. I haven’t even had to masturbate in years because to me it’s like hitting a crack pipe: There’s this intense feeling of desire followed by emptiness. Now I’m more into intimacy. I can wait for the sexuality. I actually think it makes me more creative. I love poetry, music, walks, just finding different ways to show I care without having to go into that realm-which is appreciated by the very beautiful woman I’ve been dating for more than eight months. She’s a virgin, too. We met on a Web site for Black Christians. Things really seem to be going well, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed. After all, I’ve gotten this far by faith.

Derek Westbrook is an adjunct Black studies professor and administrator at The Sage Colleges in Troy, New York. Have comments on this essay? E-mail Derek at onhismind@essence.com.

Photo Credit: Peter Chin