The Premarital Elephant in the Room (Some Thoughts About Sex)
Life in Lubbock, Texas, taught me two things: One is that God loves you and you're going to burn in hell. The other is that sex is the most awful, filthy thing on earth and you should save it for someone you love.
One of the best things about being me is that I somehow almost always end up getting to hear people’s God stories. Our spiritual selves are a giant part of who we are, but something that we rarely get to talk about without fear or judgement. So when it comes up that I write and study about religious culture, people usually get excited to talk about their experience.
I don’t think it will come as a surprise to anyone that a lot of these stories are sad or tragic or infuriating. I don’t believe anyone will deny that the church has, at times, been harmful to people. And in the experience of having countless conversations with people about God, I have found that one of the biggest places where damage has been done centers around sexuality.
And this makes sense. Our sexuality is even more primal than our spiritual selves. Along with hunger and survival, sex is one of the biggest biological drives we have. It subconsciously shapes our personalities and career choices and other major life decisions. It makes up a big part of our identity. A psychological wound to that part of ourselves is bound to affect every other part of us. It is because those scars last longer than the others that sex almost always comes up when non-believers and former believers talk about Christianity. It is why “loving the sinner and hating the sin” almost always feels just like all hate.
The way Christianity broadly and American Evangelicals specifically view sexuality is, well, peculiar to the way that other religions and the secular world view it. As such, there is an awful lot to explore on this topic. The Church's views on sex and how they have changed over time is a fascinating topic. Especially now that one can see some cracks in some of the more traditional views. It will also be worthwhile to look at the arguments made by some Christians that sexual permissiveness and hedonistic excess are symptoms of an empire in decline. It will be fun to look into what the Bible actually says about human sexuality and engage in some healthy debate about interpretation and context. But these things all deserve several essays of their own and we will get to them in their own time.
Today we are going to talk about something way too many of us are currently experiencing : sexual shame.
Both my loving and very patient therapists as well as my loving and rightfully not always as patient girlfriends can tell you that this has been a very big issue for me for a very long time. I will not indulge in telling you my entire experience around this issue (you’ll have to wait for the book!), but I think it is probably sufficient to tell you this:
Sometimes I confess to people that when in high school and bible school, I would write love letters to my future wife. They usually think it is sweet, until I tell them that at least 70% of the letters are my apologizing for my lust (which I will admit is equal parts tragic and hilarious).
If that is not enough, let me now mention that anytime I masturbated between the ages of 13-23, I would instantly feel so convicted and guilty and shameful that I would immediately cry out to God in repentance for at least several minutes. I would frequently weep as I did this. Most times my pleas for forgiveness would last longer than the act of sin itself.
And I know that I am not alone in this. I know because I have been a member of several “accountability groups” and “men’s bible studies” that have been little more than just a roundtable confession of how we all have failed once again in our attempt to fight Every Man’s Battle. We would pray and cry together and swear to do better, but we would also later teach each other how to delete our browser history.
And I also know that it was just as bad (if not far worse) for women. One of the most consistent things I heard about sex in church was that women did not have the same sex drive as men. Women had sex for love and intimacy and commitment, they didn’t really have a sex drive on their own. You could really only reach it through their heart. And, as I remember a pastor saying, while women needed a reason to have sex, men only needed a place. Men were these out of control animals that only wanted one thing and would lie to you to get it. So you better make sure to guard your heart, otherwise you might get emotionally conned into sex. So many women have told me over the years that they felt like sexual deviants and nymphomaniacs, simply because they got turned on sometimes or just wanted to have sex for the sake of it.
And those feelings of sexual shame persist. When I decided to start this blog, one of my (many) moments of panic was that I was going to have to eventually be honest and public about my sexuality. And I am a person that sometimes engages in practices that I consider “bohemian” or “fun,” but which others might consider “unconventional,” and my Evangelical brothers and sisters would more than likely label as “degraded” (at least in public). And I worried that I would not be taken seriously by Christians on issues of ethics, biblical history, or anything else because of this aspect of who I am. Even now as I type, I am feeling my shoulders tense out of the fear that because I presently enjoy enthusiastically consensual, positive and mutually pleasurable sexual experiences with people outside of the context of both marriage and monogamy, Christians will dismiss what I have to say about the Bible outright. But then I remembered that C.S. Lewis also enjoyed getting whipped sometimes, and Christians still really love him a lot, so maybe I will be okay. Thanksgiving might be more awkward now though.
Far more importantly than my own embarrassment is that the persistence of sexual shame can truly damage one’s sense of well-being and ability to function in healthy adult sexual relationships. Just this last weekend, I had a conversation with a Christian friend who told me it had taken years before he was able to express his sexual desires and needs with his wife, because he couldn’t shake the feeling that his desires were dirty and sinful. I heard a woman once tell me how hard it was to flip the switch from sex being this bad and shameful thing to a beautiful and pleasurable experience just because she now had a ring on her finger.
Again, my experience is also one of persistence. I still feel deeply uncomfortable communicating my sexual wants and needs. Even letting a woman know I am interested in her almost always makes me feel like a "creep" or predator.
In my view and experience, this teaches us to detach from ourselves, to believe that our feelings and instincts are not always trustworthy. If some of our impulses are “fleshly” and “evil” then how can we really be sure that what our bodies are telling us is right? Such a lack of trust of yourself could lead to danger or bad health or just plain confusion and mental anguish.
Now I am all up for debating the Christian worldview of sexuality and examining whether what is taught in youth groups is moral and biblical. It’s a worthwhile discussion to have. But again, what we are discussing today is not that. I want to be very clear on this. That’s why we are going to close with a thought experiment:
Let’s imagine that we live in a world where the Evangelical Worldview of Sexuality is absolutely without a doubt confirmed to be the Universal Moral Truth (this might take a lot more imagination for some than others). In this world, it is True that marriage is between one man and one woman, that any kind of premarital or extra-marital sexual relationships are improper, and that homosexuality is unnatural. This is a world where we would all also know it is True that our sexuality was designed and intended by God at least in part for the purposes of pleasure and developing intimacy with a partner (we are ignoring all those "reproduction only" people for now).
Even in this world where the above is True, wouldn’t it be better if we could more openly acknowledge that yes, dear son and daughter, you will someday feel impulses and desires that will seem uncontrollable and will sometimes be all you can think about. And yes, giving into those temptations will be some of the most amazing feelings you will ever feel. And yes, people used to get married a lot earlier than we do now, but we are still expecting you to just go to math class as if you are not experiencing a hormonal chemical reaction more powerful than Chernobyl. And what you are feeling is normal and beautiful and you are lucky to be a part of it. Even in this hypothetical world we would see that as well intentioned as Abstinence Only education is, it does far more harm than good. That prohibition without explanation produces experimentation. We would then choose to explain everything about sex. Not just the physiological logistics, but the emotion and intimacy and connection and heartbreak and negotiation and play and weird smells and just the whole magic of it all. And because we live in a world where this is True, we would explain how God designed this special and powerful thing as best used in a healthy and honest marriage. That yeah, the diamond is pretty but with the right light it can become a laser. And that is what sex is supposed to be. And sure, the impulses might be too strong to wait sometimes, but that doesn’t make you dirty or perverted or wrong. But as theologian (and guy who liked to get whipped sometimes) C.S. Lewis says: “We may, indeed, be sure that perfect chastity—like perfect charity—will not be attained by any merely human efforts. You must ask for God’s help. Even when you have done so, it may seem to for a long time no help, or less help than you need, is being given. Never mind. After each failure, ask forgiveness, pick yourself up, and try again.”
Because this hypothetical dream world would also be certain about the concept of grace. Instead of being so much more severe when one does not meet the ideal, we would have considerable more patience and mercy and grace. We would understand how strong of a pull our sexuality is and how inundated we are with sexual imagery. We are bound to fail. Isn't that part of the whole Christian message anyway? Not meeting up to the perfect standard? Is sex really so different than all the ways we can fail?
What a magical world that would be. Perhaps we would grow up a little more comfortable with ourselves and just a little less tense and wound up. We would only be messed up because of all the other ways that we are raised wrong!
So let’s begin here. Before we talk about anything else to do with sexuality. Let’s start by acknowledging that it is a part of us. It is natural. It is beautiful. It is big. And I believe it is fully possible for Christians to hold onto their ideals of purity while letting go of the horror of sexual shame.