It’s 2019. I’m 24 years old, sitting at my desk at my full-time job, and I’m 2,000th in the online queue for Jonas Brothers concert tickets. And I’m freaking the fuck out. Believe it or not, this spot in line was the result of days of preparation. Phone conferences with my little sister studying abroad in Rome, strategy sessions via text. We’ve been waiting for this day since we were teenagers.
Back then, we bought Jonas Brothers CDs on release days, plastered the walls of our bedrooms with their faces, memorized their birthdays and middle names and favorite colors. We wouldn’t beg for tickets that we knew our parents couldn’t afford, but we’d pore over their first-ever concert DVD — the bonus feature of the deluxe edition self-titled album — until we could tell you with our eyes closed the precise moment Joe would leave the mic to plunk out three useless notes on the keyboard while Nick sang lead, or when Kevin was going to do that spin move he used to do all the time because I’m pretty sure he was never actually singing. My love for them knew no bounds.
It’s been six years since the boys — the men, now — announced their breakup. In that time, our worlds have changed; degrees have been attained, partners lost, cities moved, novels written. I’ve long since shed the purity ring that I once wore, the one that mirrored those on the hands of the Jonas Brothers. In this world, I’m waiting on a text from a girl that I can’t stop thinking about, whom I want something from that I’m still scared to put into words. And the brothers are all married, unabashedly releasing singles about sex and longing.
As a timid, obedient preacher’s kid in the Midwest, I never considered that I’d see a future in which any of these things were possible — such openness about sex, about wanting. It seems that in the decade since their last album, Kevin, Nick, and Joe have all grown up. And somehow, mostly, maybe, so have I.
Even in my adulthood, though, I still can’t reconcile what I want with what I’ve always thought I must do to hold onto the love of Christ — not in the way it seems the brothers have. Now they can smile about the naivete of making a vow to “save it.” They can joke on national TV about taking those rings off, about the Men-With-a-Capital-M they’ve become.
But I’m not laughing yet. I can’t. And god, how I wish I could.
2009 was the year that the Jonas Brothers released their last studio album, though I had no idea that would be the case back then. They were massive, famous even outside of the confines of their Disney roots by that point, and, in my mind, primed to stay that way forever.
This was the year that Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States, the year that Avatar became the highest-grossing movie of all time. This was the year that Michael Jackson died and Sully managed the “Miracle on the Hudson.” It was the year I was 14, and had my first sex dream, ever — about Nicholas Jerry Jonas.
It also happened to be the year I pledged my virginity to God.
The purity ring ceremony — at least as it was performed in my family’s Pentecostal church — isn’t something that sounds reasonable to most people, I realize. Five black girls, standing before God and church and family in our white dresses, presenting ourselves at the altar as Romans 12:1 had demanded — as reasonable sacrifices, holy and acceptable before Him.
The agreement was that we’d stay pure, unsullied, and thoroughly unsexed until marriage. And this was to be our reasonable service as daughters of the most high. It was understood: Good girls waited. Good girls eventually married good men (who never had to wait) and started good, God-fearing families. I knew, like all of the girls around my age knew, that to be sexually active was to be “fast,” to be “loose.” I knew what the pledge meant to my parents, and not just to them, but to God. So who was I to go against His will?
This was an agreement that relied on shame. The five of us who stood at that altar had all seen older girls who had gotten pregnant in the years before be silenced in the church as their bodies became softer and more round. They’d been kicked out of the choir, kept from speaking in front of the congregation. They were made ghosts in their own house of worship.
There was no room for ambiguity when the stakes were as high as life or death, a choice between community or alienation, so we acted accordingly.
In front of my parents, the congregation, and God, I slipped a cheap, thick silver band with “Purity” engraved on it in script onto my ring finger. I recited the scriptures that said the wages of sin would be death, and, as such, traded my body for eternal life.
It didn’t seem so absurd to me then. Because I was young and entrenched in the ways of the Pentecostal church, sure, but also because in 2009, the purity ring was a pretty unremarkable thing.
In the years prior, the Jonas Brothers had spoken often about “saving it” for marriage. They, like me and my sister, were small-town kids, children of a preacher. They wore their rings with pride, were often asked to talk about their choice in interviews.
“It is … a private decision that we made a while back, and I think we like to keep it private, but, you know, we’re not afraid of the decision we made,” Joe said to Larry King in 2009.
Kevin’s smile was gentle but firm as he added, “We’re just trying to make our mom proud.”
There was a culture attached to it, the idea of being an attractive, talented young person who was proud to hold sex at a distance. Disney was creating a generation of celebrities whose names were inextricably linked to the repression of their sexuality. Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus, and Demi Lovato all confidently espoused those values in their early Disney years.
Alongside Disney’s purity push, the US government had poured millions of dollars into abstinence-only sex ed, which ostensibly made teaching girls to keep their legs closed — and teaching queer kids to be ashamed — an integral part of a public education. And by the early aughts, America was not only funneling money into schools teaching abstinence, but into faith-based organizations touting those same principles. Disney capitalized on this moment, and became the conduit for a movement.
There was suddenly a family-friendly alternative to mainstream pop music, one that made space for a new cycle of stars, whom both the church and the state could support. Chastity was more than a simple promise between a person and God — it was a brand.
So when I made my commitment to God that year, I told myself I was bold, firm in my decision. I eschewed my lingering doubts, swallowed down whatever burgeoning desire I’d come to know. I stood at the altar, white-dressed, holy, and bowed to the preacher as my head was anointed with oil. I could do it because Kevin, Nick, and Joe had done it, and had gone on television and told me not to be afraid.
But the night that I had my first sex dream about Nick, I woke up sweating and in tears. I laid on my back in my tiny bedroom with my purity ring in a small tin on my end table, surrounded by posters of the celebrities that made up my universe, and wept. The shame was the thing I felt most acutely, though it danced together with pleasure in the same space inside of my gut. I had violated my promise to God, to myself, to my parents in just thinking such impure thoughts. But no matter how disgusted with myself I felt, I couldn’t stop replaying the images from the dream.
I had made a promise that I would keep myself pure. But suddenly, in my bedroom, the only promises I had to make were with my own body. That night, in my mind’s eye, there were only two people — no God standing between me and Nick and my desire. We were no longer innocence personified or images carefully reflecting God’s own.
We were just two bodies, free, and fumbling toward glory.
The Jonas Brothers returned this year with a single titled “Sucker.” After they called off a comeback tour and announced their breakup in 2013, “Sucker” was exactly what the guys needed. A song that wasn’t too self-serious, that dripped with decadence and play. In the music video, the brothers star opposite their wives, who are dressed in elaborate gowns and traipse through a castle, each of them with a thoroughly lovestruck Jonas trailing behind.
This was a different band than the one I loved when I was 15. As one of their first public appearances since reuniting, the Jonas Brothers made a Carpool Karaoke segment with James Corden. I settled in behind my computer to watch it and turned up the volume like I was in front of our family’s old potbelly TV, popping in that concert DVD again.
And I stopped short when Corden uttered those five inevitable words: “Let’s talk about purity rings.” — the age-old discourse, the one that I thought we’d finally escaped. The uptick in my heart rate was obvious. What would they have to say about the rings, our collective promises so many years later?
Joe was the one to answer, just like he did on Larry King’s show all those years before:
“We just kind of decided at one point that, look, this is not who we are. We don’t need to be, like, wearing these anymore. This is annoying. People are making fun of it anyway. We can make fun of it ourselves.”
As I watched the brothers explain the rings to Corden in between songs, it came — the refrain that I’d heard so many times throughout my life as it spilled from the mouth of my childhood pastor: You’re either in or you’re out. You’re either clean or you’re dirty.
I was taught that there is no gray area in sanctification, no middle ground for faith. That I had to choose which master to serve: myself or my God. There is no way for me to undo the desire I’ve come to know in the years since I made my promise, no more than I can undo the hands that I’ve allowed to touch me. I can’t pray back the pleasure. But most nights, I still want to. I can feel it. That tightness in my stomach, the familiar churn of anxiety each time I so much as get close to being physically intimate with a partner.
And now the mirror that had offered my own reflection back to me when I looked at the Jonas Brothers is gone, along with the world we’d moved through together in 2009. We’d always been different, obviously, at our cores. They were straight white men from New Jersey who became rich rock stars seemingly overnight; who sold out stadium tours and dated other celebrities and saw their faces on Rolling Stone covers. I was a young black girl, teetering on the edge of poverty, and would face questions about my own sexuality in the years to come that I wouldn’t have the language to name.
But this, our promise to God, was the same.
When I was a teenager, I hoped, somewhere bone-deep, that their experience could give credence to my own. That their commitment made mine less something to fear and more something to claim full ownership of. I wasn’t sure of anything then, let alone the implications of a vow like the one I’d made. I needed them to believe what I was told to believe, to tell me that it was okay. And for a time, they did.
We should have moved together, should have emerged on the other side of our youth with stories to tell and hearts that we’d broken, the days of our purity rings and what they stood for tucked in a memory box, never to be returned to again.
Now the brothers are on James Corden and they’re smiling and laughing and it’s clear, for them, the moment has passed. But I can’t stop thinking about it. About the laughter, about the commitment, about the thick silver band that still hangs from my key ring — about all of the things I no longer want but can’t seem to shed.
When they finish talking about the rings, they seamlessly transition back into one of their old songs. I hum along as they sing. The sound of the song is so familiar to me. It’s still sickly sweet but earnest, almost cloying in its transparency. The change of pace feels so quick, this switch from new to old. But I know that it really isn’t quick at all. ●
Leah Johnson is an eternal Midwesterner currently moonlighting as a New Yorker. She is a graduate of the fiction writing MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College and currently works in web editorial at Catapult. Her essays, interviews, and short fiction have been published by Electric Lit, the Adroit Journal, Bustle, the Establishment, HuffPost, and elsewhere. Her debut YA novel, You Should See Me in a Crown (Scholastic, 2020), is forthcoming.