Monday, October 01, 2007

The Sex Entry

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.

Discuss.

20 comments:

D said...

Ah, I can certainly sympathize with you as I have had similar doubts about the whole "no intercourse before marriage" policy. The funny thing in my case is that both my parents find my views totally outdated! Yeah, staying chaste during the seemingly eternal period from puberty till marriage is hard and by far exceeds what was expected of people 2.000 years ago. On the other hand think how easier and more interesting life has become in countless different ways.
Maybe it's just a counterbalancing effect.In the end it all boils down to viewing christian life as a never ending sacrifice...

jennypo said...

As a single 32-year-old I think I know a little bit of what you are talking about, Slapdash. You don't have to believe me, but I am happy to be single. It's not a bed of roses. I think I have a normal libido, and giving up what is seen in our culture as a hugely important part of life has, frankly, not always been easy. But what is?

To me, this is not about "saving myself for marriage" - I have no plans to be married. It's not impossible that I will change my mind, but neither is it a likelihood right now. What it comes down to, for me, is putting my money where my mouth is. I've experienced the reality of a God who says that this is wrong. It's not wrong in my culture. But I know God. Am I sure enough of his character to go against my nature and my culture? Yes. Is he enough to make that kind of a sacrifice worthwhile? Yes, yes, yes.

I don't judge you or the decisions you have made. I do understand your thinking. Certainly living by a bunch of rules with nothing but guilt and more guilt behind them is unhealthy.

But I want you to know that the God I have experienced is better than sex. I don't know about singleness being a "gift", (I never did understand what that means) but I am complete and fulfilled as a single woman. It's not always easy, but it IS worth it.

Maria said...

Hi Slapdash -

Thank you so much for this post! I had similar experience growing up - no Elizabeth Elliot tapes, but the rest of it fits right in there with what my experience has been. I too thought I would be totally haunted after sleeping with my boyfriend. I kept waiting for it to happen, kept waiting for the inner, or possibly outer fire and brimstone, and it has yet to come. The closest I came was when I broke up with that boyfriend - I had this moment of "Oh shit - what if, on this crazy journey, I start heading back to the church and fall in love with someone who can't handle the fact that I'm not a virgin." Yup - it wasn't even about me technically, it was about this what if in the future that I honestly don't actually see happening. Now I'm with someone new and still - no guilt whatsoever.

Acutally it's been wonderful to connect with someone on so many levels instead of being consumed with avoiding the one thing that both of us wanted to do and connecting only on the level of okay - how are we together going to avoid having sex tonight.

Best wishes to you and this new sweetie :)

Marlies said...

I think I had the opposite happen to me: casual sex in college because "everyone else was doing it" caused a cheapening feeling of sex and myself (which confused me b/c people on tv who had casual sex seemed ok. . . ) It took me 3 years to realize the effect it had on me and in turn was part of me becoming a Christian (b/c whatever I was searching for was not found in that life of excess drinking and sex. . . duh). It's been 4 years since clarity appeared and I'm still trying to understand what healthy relationships are supposed to look like and the sex that comes with it. Thank you for your honesty.

Slapdash said...

Hi D--I don't think I disagree with you when you say it boils down to xian life being a neverending sacrifice. For me, the motivation to sacrifice fizzled away as my doubts grew and I realized what I had wasn't faith, but legalism and fear. If I truly, deep in my heart, believed and trusted in God and Jesus, I would probably still be trying to fight the chastity fight. But I still contend that the church does a horrible job of dealing with adult singles.

Slapdash said...

jennypo, you may be one of the few xian singles I have met who seems truly content in your relationship w/ God (that's why I was careful to write that NEARLY every single Christian I know thinks the "gift" thing is horse shit). I know you said you don't get the 'gift' part of it, but quite honestly the God I have experienced maybe at one time was better than sex. But in the last 6 years he's been damn distant, to the point of being absent. I don't challenge your experience at all; I do think that your experience of God is unusual, which I find striking, and frankly, unfair of a God who supposedly wants us all to experience him in the way you seem to. But that's a different argument. :)

Slapdash said...

Hi Maria -
Seems we have had quite similar experiences there. I often wonder just how many people at church are quietly doing the same things, yet being shamed or embarrassed into silence. This is, I think, one of the biggest issues & problems that doesn't get addressed from the pulpit: it's not at all okay to talk about sex. It's all hush-hush, euphemism-laden, and harshly judged; yet I bet it's one of the most universally struggled-with issues out there.

Slapdash said...

hi marlies, thanks for sharing your experience - looks like we have traveled in opposite directions! I am actually learning how to view sex as something less spiritual, in other words knocking it off of this enormous pedastal it had been on my whole life; and now viewing it as partly biological urge; partly emotional connection; part of a healthy monogamous relationship. Best wishes to you!

jennypo said...

Slapdash,

Well said. I do feel the unfairness of what I have experienced in comparison to what many people have experienced - and that is indeed a whole 'nother argument. What we have to remember is that I haven't always been here. I haven't always known the God I now know. My journey has taken me not to the same place you are, but very near it.

I really hope I don't give the impression that I am sitting back in my cozy mental armchair, tossing out advice to those of you who are struggling with realities. I haven't floated here on a fuzzy Christian cloud, and I am aware that the future holds many more things that are likely to shake up all that I believe and try my knowledge of God to its very limit. I am not always going to feel the warmth of his love or sense with comfort his presence in my life or even hear his voice. I well remember what it is like to wander and wonder and despair. I hope to encourage you, not mock you.

SocietyVs said...

Hi, SlapDash's honey (if you're reading this) - lol.

This is the culture of church - all those teachings you mention - I think we all heard something similar - and found out plain and simply - they set that bar way to friggin high. Although, like you, I am thankful I was abstinent until a later time in my life - like 26.

I think the teachings set me up for a good value system though - even if it was a little bizarre. I never became that person that went to bars and slept with whoever - I never cared about that - and even to this day - I want to keep faithfulness to my wife (cheating to me is like death to the relationship). I have to say, for as harsh as it was - it did give me a more narrow lense than most of my friends and that payed off somewhat.

But now back to reality, I discuss this issue with a few friends the odd time and I think similar to you on it. I think people should live together before marriage - especially in a culture where divorce is higher than 50% (you know - test this whole living together thing before marriage). I am fairly lenient on the idea - and sex before marriage isn't all that bad - as long as someone can find the balance there (ex: like 30+ sex partners is a little off balanced - that person may need to re-evaluate their sexual appetite). I think being reasonable is part of the whole thing.

But you have come a long way and I think finding the healthy balance in this issue is more important than keeping a 'set of rules'.

PS: I saw the '36 inch rule' - I had to laugh - now here comes a crude sense of humor - what if the guy has a 37 inch member? LOL.

Slapdash said...

Hi Societyvs- thanks for chiming in. So I hope I am moving in a healthy direction on the whole sex/relationship front... but one thing that still scares the bejeezus out of me is cohabitation. It's irrational, but I think for me living together before marriage still has a huge stigma in my mind; and if I were to move in with someone before we were married would be this very huge public statement of what I no longer hold to be true. At this point in my life, I'm not ready for the blowback I would probably get, from a lot of people whose views (approval?) I still care about. Though perhaps it's just a matter of time; after all, less than two years ago I would have been extremely shocked to look forward to now and see how comfortable I am with my boyfriend and our choices on the physical front.

Steve said...

SlapDash...

Thanks for being so honest. You are an inspiration.

Sex is awesome. Having sex is even better. Not feeling guilty about it is the ultimate.

Sadly my conservative Christian upbringing hasn't allowed me to truly feel guilt-free about it even after I was married.

Now single again after 15 years of marriage... here I am again. I am working things out. At the moment I see sex as a need that I should meet in healthy ways (just like eating or drinking). Nothing more or less really. No guilt.

Zeke said...

Steve, the key to your problem is in the palm of your hand.

Slapdash said...

Hi Steve, thanks for the kind note. I'm glad you find my honesty inspiring, though of course being honest in an online anonymous forum is pretty easy. Ask me how many real world friends I've talked to about this stuff and your opinion may well change. :-P

Steve said...

Yes... I am a little less anonymous on my blog and therefore I do tend to not be as forthcoming about some things. But I am wanting to be more honest about my life...I find that it is inspiring to people and cathartic as well for me.

And Zeke... don't you know that if I go that route I will grow hair on my palms. Then I'd never get any dates.

oli said...

I think that religion makes sex out to be this mystical experience, a sacred bond between two people that love each other and thats entirely wrong and a very harmful attitude to have.

Sex is how we reproduce, it feels great which is a good way to get us to do it more often, thats an evolutionary trait, those that enjoy sex do it more often, have more kids, dominate the genepool.

I lost my virginity at 18, slept around a bit at university (not as much as i wanted to) and have to say i don't regret it at all. I've had several long term relationships and never cheated on anyone. The key is to realise that sex is fun, as long as you know what you are doing (such as using birth control/STD protection at all times and making sure that your partner is not thinking it means something it doesn't).

Jennypo, forgive me for being skeptical (as is my nature) but saying that the god you know is better than sex, when you haven't had sex is like me saying i prefer pasta to steak when i've never had steak. And if god wants you to remain a virgin why on earth did he build you with a sex drive? Another failure of the intelligent design idea i guess.

Marlies, it seems a shame your experience of sex was negative. I think the key to a healthy singletons sex life is being in control. Doing it because other people are doing it is never a good reason for anything (religion included). Have sex because you wnt to have sex, not because you feel you should.

SocietyVs, people living together before marriage, thats such a good idea. It amazes me that so many people get married young, after a short courtship, having never lived together. Then they act surprised when it isn't all roses.

Try before you buy should be the phrase of the day. If you move in with a guy/girl and they are lousy in bed and expect you to do all the housework, then marriage might not be such a hot idea. But how much worse to find out AFTER the wedding vows.

Sarah said...

Have you read Redheaded Skeptic's views on abstinence? Quite the story!

http://redheadedskeptic.com/2009/09/24/the-virginity-fallacy/

I am pretty sure she wrote one on "I Kissed Dating Goodbye", too.

Laura said...

Slapdash, I just re-read your post. I read it when you posted the link on my blog, and I thought I had commented, but I guess I didn't. Thanks for your honesty--the more people who speak up, the more objective information they can receive. ITA: if you want to be abstinent, that's fine, but that decision should not be based on fear. Do you care if I reference this in a post? I'll link it back here.

(And Sarah, yes, Slapdash has actually commented on my blog. Thanks for the shoutout, though!)

Slapdash said...

Hi Laura, sure, link away. I haven't been active on my blog for some months now, but am always glad to hear that the stuff I've put out there is of some interest or relevance to others. :)

spiritualatheist said...

I 26yo male, atheist.
To me virginity means only inexperience, and I hope I will not end up sharing my life with a woman that has only me as sexual experience.
Why?
Because women that had more partners, know better what they want, and are able to make a better decision when selecting to commit to a men for the rest of their lives.
Through sex, a woman gets to know a lot about herself and her partner.
And the very same holds for men.

I think you are following the right path: take it easy and just let it happen.

You will probably be disappointed the first times, because enjoying it takes time and knowledge of oneself.

Sex is just no big deal.

All my best.