This is the kind of post that I get nervous about putting out there. But here goes.
I’ve been thinking about sex. And thinking, more specifically, about what I was taught and what I internalized, for decades, about sex. And what I think about it today.
Here were some of the formative teachings and moments in my upbringing re sex: my mom handing me audio tapes to listen to on my own, as her way of teaching me about the birds & bees; Elisabeth Elliot’s book Passion & Purity, in which she talks about it feeling sinful to let her fiancé run his fingers through her hair or hold her hand; the whole I Kissed Dating Goodbye movement; my youth groups and college fellowships talking about “leaving room for the Holy Spirit” and the “36-inch rule” (referring to how much space there should be between you and your date at all times), deciding on your physical “limits” long before you ever get into a relationship; the sanctity and spirituality of the act of sex, reflecting the union between Christ and the Church and therefore reserved for marriage; masturbation as a very definitely wrong and sinful thing to do, etc. I could go on.
Basically I grew up with a fear of physicality, and no matter what anybody said about all sins being equal in the eyes of God, having premarital sex was obviously the worst sin anybody could commit.
For a long time, though, that was okay. I wasn’t a very active dater in high school or college, and I had a pretty calm and quiet libido. I pretty much assumed that anybody who had premarital sex just couldn’t control themselves – it was a character flaw or failure.
When I had my first real boyfriend, at 26, I still wasn’t terribly tempted to have sex with him, though my libido was starting to wake up. In that case, two things really kept our sexual appetites at bay: we were dating long-distance so rarely saw each other; and, well, he was gay. At the time I just thought he was being a good Catholic.
Fast forward a few years. I’m 30 and suddenly I am thinking about sex a lot. My next serious boyfriend and I have a much harder time keeping our clothes on, but both wanting to be good Christians, we draw at least a few lines that we don’t cross.
But now I’m in my thirties and all the purity/abstinence messages I’ve heard since junior high aren’t very satisfying anymore. Good Lord, in biblical times was anybody expected to live as a chaste person for a decade or more after they’ve physically matured? People were married off at 14 or something back then… does that stuff still apply today, when people are putting off marriage longer and longer, and when church demographics are skewing toward women so much that it’s noticeably harder than ever to find a husband?
I started to think that the church really doesn’t know how to handle singles who haven’t married off by age 25. So how do they handle it? They call singleness a “gift”. And by “they” I mean married people. If a single person says it, they are probably trying to convince themselves as much as anyone else. ("Singleness is a gift" is complete horse shit to nearly every single Christian I have ever known.) They have talks reminding us of the great gift our virginity will be to our spouse. (Really? I am not sure I care that much… the gift I would want is for my spouse to be disease-free, not necessarily sex-free.) They call on the Apostle Paul, who eschewed marriage as a distraction from serving the Lord, as a model for us singles. (Nice…the same Apostle Paul who says women should obey their husbands and not speak in church.) They talk of Jesus being our spouse. (Yuck!) They claim Song of Solomon is a spiritual ode to God’s love for us. (Really? It reads like down and dirty medieval porn.) They say that God is getting us ready to meet our spouse – cleaning our internal house, so to speak. (Whatever. I have a lot of friends whose lives were messes when they met their spouses.)
Then I look around the room at the other adult leaders and friends I have at church, and count off the number of them that I know have had, or are having, sex with their boyfriends and girlfriends. And none of them is being rained upon with fire and brimstone. They haven’t become degenerates. Their lives haven’t gone to hell.
And I start thinking that this whole adult abstinence bit is really a crock of shit. The last straw comes when a close friend gives me Lauren Winner’s book Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity as encouragement for me to continue being abstinent, and then four months later has sex with her new boyfriend. Given all the mounting theological doubts I am entertaining by this time, I decide right then and there that holding out on sex to please a God I’m no longer sure exists is an act of legalistic futility.
This is a big moment for me.
But to be clear, chucking out my lifelong ban on sex doesn’t mean that I started cruising the streets for someone to have sex with. It was more that I decided I would let the pace of my next relationship proceed unhindered by my previous boundaries and limits: I would let sex become part of the fabric of our relationship if it made sense.
For awhile I was terrified that I would be wracked with guilt over committing a sin that I can’t undo: I feared that the stain and stigma of having sex outside of marriage would trail behind me forever, like toilet paper stuck on my shoe.
But as I’ve loosened my hold on the legalistic, judgmental, guilt-ridden faith of my upbringing, I have actually found that I experience none of the guilt, terror, or self-recrimination that I thought I would. Though I don’t discuss it with my Christian friends, sex is a really easy and natural part of my current relationship (hi sweetie, if you're reading this).
I look back on all the fear-based teachings about sex that I learned growing up with mixed feelings. I think for me, it was good to put off sex for so long: I was definitely ready for it emotionally as well as physically when it happened. But to instill in people such a deep fear of physically connecting with another person seems off, wrongheaded, unhealthy.