Art by Nathan Campos / Daily Nexus

When I was young, sex was always a hush-hush subject matter. As I grew older, things didn’t change. My parents, my religion — my family is among the least Muslim of all Muslims, but they still believe that sex is to be had after marriage — and my community treated sex and sexual pleasure as an ugly facet of a person, something that was evil and wrong.

Every time I thought about sex or felt sexual pleasure, I told myself I was wrong and impure and would go to hell because my body was feeling something it shouldn’t be. It was enjoying something dirty. I was dirty. For the longest time I felt that my body and I did not deserve respect or care because people who gave in to disgusting temptations didn’t deserve good things. Over time and through a series of experiences, however, I came to believe that sexuality was not a bad thing to have.

As a young, impressionable thirteen-year-old, I learned about sex. My parents gave me the sex talk. It went something like, “Sex is used by adults when they’re married to make children.” That was it. That was my sex talk. It was understood that this was not advice or optional. This was the rule. “Sex is used by adults when they’re married to make children.” My mother did not say anything about sexual pleasure. Sex is for procreation, not pleasure. Around that same time, my family got an iPad. I was often allowed to use/borrow it, so I used the internet occasionally to satisfy my sexual curiosity because I knew my parents wouldn’t approve of or answer some of the thoughts and feelings I was having about sex.

I found websites that I really shouldn’t have been looking at as a young middle-schooler. When my parents found out, they screamed at me. I remember they told me I was disgusting. What I wanted to know and what I felt about sex was wrong. They were disappointed in me. That night changed the way I felt about sex for years. To have people tell you, from the moment you become curious about sex, that interest, that desire is immoral and wicked leaves a lasting impression.

I spent years believing my body was betraying me by feeling things I wasn’t supposed to. I imagined my sexuality as an evil force in my body, placed there by God to test whether or not I could resist temptation. Whenever I couldn’t, I reiterated what my parents had told me to myself: I was disgusting. I was dirty. I should be ashamed of myself and my body.

I now believe my parents’ lecture should have been about internet safety, not sexual curiosity, they grew up in a different time. They grew up in Pakistan, in a religion and in an environment in which they were taught that sex was to reproduce and nothing more. Their parents instilled in them a set of very traditional, very rigid beliefs about their bodies that they very much came to live and breathe.

My environment, however, was in America. In America, sex-ed is about safety, not about waiting until marriage. The people around me and the culture naturally influenced the way I felt about sex and eventually the way I would come to feel. My parents, not understanding that, attempted to regain control of me by talking about my body the way their parents had spoken about theirs. I cannot blame them for reacting in such a way, because that must have been how their own parents reacted when it came to sex. Sex is not wrong. It’s normal. And as a young teenager, it was something I should have been allowed to think about it, but my culture shamed me for wondering about sexual pleasure.

To have people tell you, from the moment you become curious about sex, that interest, that desire is immoral and wicked leaves a lasting impression.

Then, I began touring colleges my sophomore year, and I remember being in a hotel room with another Shia Imami Ismaili Nizari Muslim. We talked about the most taboo of subjects: sex. She was older than me and wondered on the most superficial of levels if she got married without sleeping with him, how would she know if he was good in bed? It was a small thing, but it started my “rebellious” thinking about sex. The summer before junior year, I went to a Muslim summer camp that taught confidence and self-acceptance. I became much more confident that year, and in the process I thought much more about whether or not my parents were right about sex. The summer before my senior year, I did some research, and I told myself that sex was not a bad thing.

When school started, I talked to one of my counselors about it, and she reconfirmed what I very tentatively felt: Sex was normal. Thinking about sex was normal. I told myself this again and again, and I experienced sexual pleasure and orgasms without feeling guilty like I had in the past. As a result, I became a much more honest and open person and most definitely a much happier person because I knew I wasn’t disgusting or a freak or any other derogatory term my community assigned to people who thought sex could involve pleasure.

I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to have sex before marriage, but one person told me something that tipped me over to the other side. She told me about a friend who had sexual experiences before she met the man she would marry. After marriage, she felt regret because she hadn’t waited to have sex with “the one.” Her advice to me was that if I was going to regret my experiences after marriage, then I should wait. As a person staunchly against regret, however, I believe a person’s experiences lead them to wherever — or whomever — they end up in life.

Regretting who came before marriage might mean I never met my match. I also want to live life and experience all the experiences it has to offer me. I’m no longer against sex, before marriage, after marriage, whatever. As long as you take care of yourself and your body and treat yourself and your partner with respect, it shouldn’t matter when you have sex. If your partner doesn’t feel that way, then they might not be the one for you. The right person will respect you no matter what.

My experience with sex and myself hasn’t always been easy. People, especially my family, have made it difficult. But that doesn’t mean that how I feel isn’t worth going forward with. I might have to fight every step of the way to say, “Yes, I am going on a date,” “Yes, I will be kissed,” “Yes, one day I will have sex,” “Yes, I will get birth control.”

I have fought for all of these things, but that just makes them so much more important to me. These are my experiences — not my mother’s — that we’re talking about here. If you believe something in your life or a feel a certain way about something other people in your life don’t, that’s okay, as long as you don’t let their feelings get in the way of yours. I tell my mom all the time, “I respect your beliefs, you respect mine.”

Komal Surani wants you to live your sexual life based on your own beliefs.