When Ben Ackley lifted his bride Sarah’s veil and kissed her at Benton First Assembly of God Church, they weren’t just starting a new life together. They were completing a journey – one that had begun about six years earlier, when Sarah had vowed as a young teenager to kiss no man on the lips until this moment.
Following the example of her youth pastor’s wife, Sarah had decided not to be physically romantic with any man in any way until he had committed his life to her and they were married. Her friends had told her she would never make it and would never find someone who would wait for her. She told them the right guy would come along.
She and Ben met at church and started dating when she was 16 and he was 15. He was from Bryant; she was from nearby Harmony Grove. When she told him the rule, he respected it. He’d only kissed one girl himself, and at 15 he was just glad to be in the relationship. His friends thought he was nuts to date a girl who wouldn’t even kiss, and there were times early on, he admits, when he tried to change her mind. That wasn’t going to happen.
"I thought, you know, if he could wait for that then he’s got to at least love me to try," she said.
"I thought I proved it after a year," he joked.
They made no secret of their decision and enjoyed the support of the people around them. At about the time they became engaged, Sarah received a couple of invitations to speak to girls about the importance of waiting and setting boundaries. After her talks, some girls told her they were making the same commitment she had made, or maybe one where only kissing would be OK. Asked during an interview what she would say to those who have already gone farther than they wanted, she said, "You can always start over, start on a clean slate. You can always just stop what you’re doing and then just start over because there’s no reason you can’t."
Think these two kids, now college seniors, are too old-fashioned? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says Arkansas has the highest teenage birthrate in the nation. Sarah wasn’t going to become pregnant. The CDC’s website says that the human papillomavirus, which can lead to cervical and other cancers, "is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives." That won’t be a concern for Ben and Sarah. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Arkansas’ 2009 divorce rate was the highest in the country for men and the fifth highest for women. While there’s no guarantee Ben and Sarah will make it as a couple, they do enter marriage without the emotional baggage that would have come had they been intensely intimate with each other and with other partners.
But Ben and Sarah didn’t just avoid bad things. They began their life together focused on what matters most. Before they made a commitment at the altar to stay together till death do them part, they made and kept a commitment to each other that lasted five years. According to Sarah, they were best friends, and she knew she could live with her best friend for the rest of her life. The rest they would learn together as they go.
"I just kept on thinking," she said, "‘Just ‘till my wedding day, just ‘till my wedding day. Then I can kiss for the rest of my life.’"
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.