I came across this video by Jamilah Lemieux, aka Sister Toldja, on how cultural assumptions about race and gender shape the way we respond on a societal level to teen pregnancy. My comments are directly below; click to jump to the transcript.
There’sa lot to be unpacked in this clip, but it particularly brought to mind a similar and consistent racial double standard in how white conservative Christian culture generally frames the relationship between gender and sexuality. “Real” femininity is often defined in a way that almost inherently excludes women of color – and indeed, all women fall outside an extremely narrow and privileged ideal of what “true womanhood” is.
One example of this is the ideas the abstinence movement puts forward about what women “naturally” want when it comes to sex and relationships. Abstinence advocates argue for a binary, complementarian understanding of gender, sexuality, and intimacy. Men, they argue, want sex (with women) and women want relationships (with men). Women don’t really want sex – certainly not compared to how much men want sex – and are thus more capable of resisting sexual temptation than men. See, for instance, one church’s guide to a popular complementarian book on sex and relationships which claims that “sexual purity [is] easier for women than for men.” [source: Study guide to Doing Things Right in Matters of the Heart by John Ensor]
Women have sex outside of marriage, the story goes, not because we want to, but because we are either pressured into it, or tricked into believing that sex will bring what all women really want – emotional intimacy, commitment, and security, all provided by a man. None of these things, of course, can really exist outside the commitment (read: contract) of heterosexual marriage, because a man who’s already getting sex has no reason to provide a woman with any of that stuff. Or, to cite a charming quote from the aforementioned complementarian relationship manual: “If it’s harder to drag men to the altar today than it used to be one reason is that they don’t have to stop there on the way to the bedroom.”
Marriage, under this model, is basically an institution divinely designed as an exchange of commodities between husband and wife, to allow them to both get what they really want out of each other. The husband gives relational love and commitment to the wife in exchange for her giving him sex. It’s all very romantic.
The story continues that true women need to be protected from men’s voracious sexual appetites until marriage, so we’re not roped into sex we don’t really want without getting anything for it in return. True, godly men therefore have to exert herculean levels of self-control to shelter women from male sexual desire – to keep us from being “defrauded” and having our purity sullied: “If a chaste man is protecting women, what is an unchaste man doing?” Incidentally – if the idea that men have to work really hard not to have sex with women sounds like it borders on rape apologism to you, you’re not wrong. The very next sentence in the guide: “Does it make any difference if the woman is willing?” Implied answer: no.
Yet somehow women are still far more to blame if premarital sex does occur, because, after all, men can barely control their sexual passions to begin with. The burden is more on women to exercise sexual self-control because they are “naturally” more capable of such self-control: “How is a woman’s sexual self-control a powerful force in society? What happens to a society when its women do not exercise sexual self-control?” [Study guide]
This is the dynamic that produces the gendered double standard that Lemieux describes. Teen girls and unmarried women are overwhelmingly the focus of moral panic and concern trolling about out of wedlock pregnancy in the abstinence movement (as in mainstream culture) – not boys or men – because the idea is that as the ones more capable of sexual self-control, women shoulder more of the responsibility for (it’s assumed) agreeing to the sexual contact that led to pregnancy. Because it is believed that boys and men almost can’t help but act on their sexual desires (for women), male heterosexuality is unquestioned and unchallenged; we erase men from the picture of teen pregnancy even though they are equal participants in sex.
The focus is instead placed on women as the ones who could have prevented sex from taking place – who should have acted as gatekeepers. Because real women don’t want sex, any evidence of female sexual desire or activity must be challenged and punished. So it produces a situation where the same action on heterosexual desire is completely understandable and gets a pass for the male partner, but is condemned, interrogated, worried over, and punished for the female partner.
Accordingly, much of the policy the abstinence movement advocates disproportionately seeks to punish girls and women for being sexually active – opposing HPV vaccines for girls, opposing access to condoms, birth control, abortion, and other family planning information and services, opposing social programs that help young and/or single mothers to provide for their families, that provide their children with vital educational and after school services, that allow them to manage their fertility and plan their family size as they see fit. Underlying all of this is the mindset that women need to face consequences for choosing to be sexually active – and a mindset that refuses the acknowledge the reality that many women, including many teen girls, are coerced, assaulted, or raped and that these all factor into teen pregnancy and other issues conservatives claim to be so concerned about.
In sum, the abstinence movement claims that women are naturally chaste in comparison to men, who really have to work long and hard at chastity. But as I’ll discuss in the next post, the same conservative Christian culture that pushes abstinence also frequently stereotypes of women of color – especially black women – as habitually promiscuous, hypersexual, and generally unable or unwilling to exert any sort of self-control in how we express our sexuality. When you juxtapose this idea that women of color are naturally unchaste with the notion that “true women” are naturally chaste, the clear message this sends is that women of color are not really women.
My name is Jamilah Lemieux, and I’m a freelance writer.
Tell us about your article.
My article is called “Becky’s [got a] baby.”
I’ve found that the…increase in media attention around teen pregnancy has, there’s been a change in narrative, and it’s gone from…the poor minority girl who has somehow failed society and failed her family to… the unlucky, unfortunate young white woman who’s worthy of our sympathy. And I don’t think it’s fair. I think that any young woman who’s in that position deserves the same level of sympathy and support. And you know, it’s really interesting that when the face of teen pregnancy was a Black or Hispanic young mother [clip of a black infant and a young black woman] …it was this thing for shame, and darkness, and now that it’s, you know, we’re seeing more white women in the media who are doing it, it’s something to be not celebrated, but examined more carefully.
What roles do race & gender play when discussing teen pregnancy in the media?
The media is a lot easier on young white women who find themselves pregnant as teens compared to black girls, or hispanic girls, or women from any other ethnic group. As far as gender goes, young men are largely left out of the conversation, which doesn’t make sense, because you can’t have a teen pregnancy without a boy or a young man who’s also participated. So we’re blaming the girls, or now we’re being a little bit more sympathetic, but we’re not examining the reasons that both genders have chosen to either be sexually irresponsible, or are simply misinformed, and don’t understand what they could have done to protect themselves or to prevent a pregnancy. We’re not talking about the possibility that, you know, a lot of young women are coerced by boyfriends, you know, some of whom are older than they are, not to wear condoms or to engage in sex before they’re ready. So there’s a lot of factors at hand that lead to young women getting pregnant, and unfortunately we’re only talking about a certain segment of the population now. We’re leaving out the brown girls and the boys.
How is the growing popularity via the media affecting society at large?
I think that now that the face…of the teenage mother has become white, thanks to MTV’s 16 and pregnant and Teen Mom, it has become more acceptable [clips of white infants, white teens and teen parents]. I’m not necessarily convinced that it’s…encouraging young women to get pregnant, but there have been stories of young girls who allegedly have timed their pregnancies to try to get a spot on one of those shows. I think it’s good to alleviate the stigma of shame surrounding teen motherhood, and if we have to through a white face to have that done, then there is some beenfit to it, but I just think that the conversation that we need to have about why young women across socioeconomic lines, across racial lines, and young men, are engaging in high risk sexual behavior. That conversation needs to be had.
What do you want people to take from your piece?
I hope people will understand or… be reminded that we’re not post-racial at all. Some of the things that may seem like progress, such as…ending the stigma or lessing the stigma surrounding teen mothers is also a reminder that we still have leaps and bounds when it comes to managing race in this country. Because again, if the…young women and girls on the teen mothers show were black or hispanic or asian, they wouldn’t be on the cover of people magazine [images of white teen parents in People magazine; images of Bristol Palin]. We wouldn’t be looking at them to be reality celebrities and we wouldn’t have the same level of sympathy towards them. Maybe I would or you would, but you know, people that follow those shows religiously either wouldn’t, or they’d be watching to say, “Well, look at what these black girls are doing,” and “They’re tearing down the moral fiber of this country,” and it probably somehow would become reason to discuss why Barack Obama shouldn’t be president. So I just hope that people understand that this new wave of discussion about teen pregnancy is revealing a lot more than we think, and that it’s not just about teen sexuality.
Thoughts on XhibitP?
I think the biggest thing when using art as social activism is to inspire conversation…and that conversation leads to action. So someone may watch this and totally disagree with me, or with someone else that they’ve seen interviewed, and someone may have some sort of paradigm shift, or someone may just be convinced that everything is ok and we’re just wasting our time here. But ultimately, movements like this can be…the catalyst to inspire people to action. So I hope that anyone that’s checking out XhibitP for the first time becomes a longtime supporter.
[outro of Lemieux talking and laughing]
Jump back to the top of the post.
Trigger warning: rape/sexual assault.
You know, sometimes I feel like I’m exaggerating the awfulness of what I was taught about sex, like it couldn’t possibly be as bad as I feel it was. After all, in addition to all the warnings about premarital sex, I did also hear a lot about how sex is a beautiful gift from God to married couples, and how married people have the best sex (in retrospect, this is kind of a weird thing for married adults to be discussing with teenagers y/y?).
Maybe the fact that I had trouble with sex when I got married has more to do with personal and family hangups than it did with anything I learned at church. Maybe I’m assigning blame unfairly. Then again . . .
h/t Jesus Needs New PR (warning for some potentially fatphobic language).
Then I watch clips like this, and remember that this bullshit is EXACTLY what I was taught. That I’d be dirty and used up and unwanted if I had sex. I remember, and I start to think it’s a fucking miracle that I ever managed to have sex with my husband at all.
Small bloody wonder so many evangelical couples find the transition into marital sexuality awkward and even traumatic. How are you supposed to literally change your perspective on sex overnight? Sex one night before your wedding makes you like a germy piece of candy or a cup of spit, but one night after your wedding is a beautiful and glorious gift from God? What about the couples who buy into Joshua Harris’s ridiculous standard of saving their first kiss for their wedding day (seriously!)? How can a couple entering marriage with virtually no experience with being physically affectionate possibly be expected to navigate such a transition without major issues?
These kinds of teachings set couples up for lousy sex lives, which make for not so great marriages. Cis women in particular bear the brunt of teachings that they are being used and besmirched if they have sex, and many can’t magically shut off the effects of years of indoctrination. They aren’t going to feel any less used just because they’re married to the person they’re having sex with. They aren’t suddenly going to feel like their sexual desire or their husband’s sexual desire is any more legitimate than it was before they got married.
Abstinence advocates will say that they aren’t talking about married sex, of course. Just premarital sex – oh, and all non-hetero sex, and masturbation, and any sex involving trans or genderqueer people. Kids just need to remember that only hetero cis married sex is clean and safe, and everything else is dirty and perverted. Well. The problem there – apart from the big, hopefully obvious one of treating something almost all humans do as shameful and wrong in all of its forms but one – is that it’s very difficult to make such a statement not come across as a blanket condemnation of sexual activity (perhaps because, um, it basically is). The message people hear is that any sexual contact or activity is polluting and degrading, and the intense emphasis on maintaining virginity reinforces this powerfully. A few words here and there about how beautiful marital sex is doesn’t dilute the impact of that message. If virginity is a state of purity and self-control, then sexual activity – whether in marriage or not – is implicitly coded as impure and indulgent.
And as many survivors have attested, these teachings are incredibly damaging to people who have been raped or sexually assaulted. The abstinence movement’s concept of virginity is framed entirely around the notion of “purity” or “impurity” of the body and the mind. A virgin body is one that is untouched and unsullied: an unwrapped piece of candy, a rose with all its petals. A virgin mind is “innocent” – which often is a euphemism for “ignorant” – of sexuality. Whether sexual contact or knowledge is freely chosen or imposed on someone is immaterial in such a framework. Coerced sexual contact doesn’t make one any less of a chewed up piece of gum. Survivors of sexual abuse from evangelical or fundamentalist families often feel used, guilty, and worthless because they are no longer “virgins” or “pure” – and they are often treated that way by Christian loved ones and fellow church members. For example:
I had a good friend in college who had to gather a lot of courage to tell her serious boyfriend that she was not a virgin because she had been raped as a teenager. Her boyfriend then went on a tirade about how he thought he was getting something new but it turns out she was “used merchandise” and thus she cheated him. She went on to marry this guy. I still hate him.
I hope it’s been clear that my point isn’t to belittle people who choose not to have sex before marriage. That’s a legitimate choice to make. The point is that the way the professional abstinence movement frames virginity, premarital sex, and sexuality in general is deceitful and dangerous. It relies on shaming tactics and misinformation, and promotes an unhealthy, negative attitude about sexualities and bodies. And it’s not just wrong in the abstract; it’s not just a movement with terrible ideas. It has far-reaching, negative consequences for basically everyone who’s exposed to it unarmed with accurate information.
In case anyone thought I was exaggerating, this is a representative and very classy (sarcasm alert) example of what I heard about premarital sex growing up.
h/t Jesus Needs New PR.
Most of the things I was taught about sex were lies, many of them deliberate. Withholding information about sex and sexuality was seen as a virtue. It was unquestioned orthodoxy that good Christians stay as far away from sexual expression as possible before marriage (after all, “purity is a direction, not a line”). I had no framework for even beginning to process the idea that someone could be a “real” Christian but not see premarital sex as necessarily and completely evil. I had no accurate information with which to make a reasoned choice, and lots of deliberate misinformation that made it impossible for me to examine my options impartially. Sorting through all the falsehoods, half-truths, and omissions has been long and difficult process.
I had it drilled into my head that “staying pure” before marriage was a sign of self-control, and respect for the institution of marriage, and I believed this completely. Of course, this was an incredibly judgmental view of the sex lives and marriages of people who didn’t believe as I did, and a pretty smug and self-righteous view of myself. I at least had the good sense to mostly keep this aspect of my beliefs on sexuality to myself. And as I got to know more people who had different views on sexuality, the more unsure I became about the supposed superiority of my beliefs. I became friends with quite a lot of people who challenged my associations of premarital abstinence with self-restraint and being able to commit.
With time I realized that my sexual status when I got married isn’t, as I was taught, anything to be proud of, or anything to be ashamed of. It just is. And I no longer consider it to be a sign of my self-control so much as a sign of how completely brainwashed I was by my upbringing. It’s not that I think there’s anything wrong with reserving sex for marriage (that would be pretty hypocritical of me). I believe in choice, and if someone makes a free choice to abstain from sex until marriage, I respect that. It’s just that I don’t see that choice as inherently more respectable than choosing to be sexually active before marriage.
I also don’t feel that being abstinent was really my choice. Had I been better informed, I may still have made the decision to wait until I was engaged or married – I doubt it, but it’s not impossible. As it is, there wasn’t much of a decision to make. Premarital sex was equated with being dirty and evil, “defiling the marriage bed,” “defrauding” my future husband (because it was a given that I’d get married, and marry a dude, naturally), and choosing STDs, unwed pregnancy, lifelong unhappiness, loneliness, and poverty (seriously). Abstinence was presented as staying pure, respecting God’s plan for marriage, and giving my future husband a beautiful gift by “saving” myself for him. And I had plenty of examples of the intense judgment and ostracism people often faced if they were “caught” being sexually active before marriage – with some literally losing their entire family and church support network overnight.
No real choice is possible in such an environment. The decks are completely and arbitrarily stacked in favor of abstinence. Having premarital sex was literally not an option for me.
Joshua Harris was a homegrown celebrity in SGM, and his books on relationships and marriage were literally treated like scripture. He taught that obeying God meant restricting not just sex, but also emotional intimacy to marriage alone; any serious emotional entanglement with someone we didn’t ultimately end up marrying was “giving away a piece of your heart,” something that rightfully belonged to your future spouse. By “guarding our hearts,” we could avoid all the pain that a “worldly” approach to relationships brings. We wouldn’t have to go through difficult breakups or divorces; we wouldn’t struggle to get over exes, or feel jealousy over a partner’s sexual past.
I understand why people would want to believe all this is true, but frankly, it’s a crock of shit. There’s no approach that can guarantee a marriage won’t end in divorce. It’s dangerous and deceptive to teach people that marriage is some sort of magical protection from deep pain, betrayal, or psychological trauma (especially in a context where spousal abuse isn’t taken seriously). While it can be the case that minimizing romantic or sexual entanglements before marriage lowers the chances of getting hurt, it also also preemptively shuts the door on opportunities to love more, enjoy more, to learn more about ourselves and others. Sometimes it’s worth taking the risk of getting hurt to experience more joy and intimacy. Sometimes the pleasure and fulfillment you get out of something in the here and now is worth the risk that it might not last forever.
Evangelical teachings about sex, love, and marriage are based on the myth that only guaranteed lifelong commitment is worth investing in. They insist that sexual activity before marriage is purely self-indulgent and meaningless (a loaded word if ever there was one), and that having a sexual history with someone other than a spouse necessarily undermines the strength and value of marital commitment. None of this is true. Most of our married friends lived together beforehand and had other romantic and sexual relationships before they met each other. Contrary to everything I was taught to expect from a “worldly” relationship, marriage is deeply meaningful to them. They’re committed to each other. They don’t take their vows lightly. And while marriage is generally a black box experience – you can’t really know what it will be like until you’re in it – I think most of our friends understood better than my husband and I did what they were signing up for when they got married, in part because they had more relationship and more sexual experience than we did.
My friends who have had more than one partner often understand things about themselves as sexual and emotional beings that I’m just starting to figure out about myself. They didn’t rush serious decisions because they believed it’s wrong to stay in a relationship not clearly headed for marriage, or that you give someone a piece of your heart when you kiss them (which means that if you break up with them, you’ve given a piece of your heart to someone who isn’t going to be your spouse). Unlike a lot of young evangelical couples, they didn’t get married because they were desperate to have sex; they got married because they knew they were compatible and wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. From where I stand now, there’s a lot of respect for marriage as an institution in this approach. It’s just not built on the assumption that the value of marriage is based on confining all legitimate sexual expression to marriage (or on the ability or desire of a couple to procreate, I might add).
A constant mantra of abstinence-only sex ed is that nobody ever regrets waiting to have sex; no one ever regrets saving themselves for just one person. That’s completely false. I regret it. I regret that it was something imposed on me. I regret that I’ll never know what I would have chosen for myself, what I might have learned about myself, or what I could have experienced, if I had approached things differently. I regret that my transition into becoming sexually active after getting married was full of awkwardness and shame, and that we had no one to talk to about it. It put a lot of unnecessary strain on our new and vulnerable marriage.
I regret that I was taught that an arbitrary compilation of ancient literature, shot through with errors and contradictions and open to all sorts of different interpretations, was the word of God and had to be interpreted in a particular, narrow fashion if I didn’t want to go to hell. My “decision” to be abstinent before marriage was based entirely on ridiculous and faulty assumptions, apart from which I’m pretty sure I would have had sex well before getting married (and also probably married at a later age, if at all).
So yes, I regret that I’ve only had sex with one person. I regret that I went through all of college without ever having sex. Sex is great. I don’t feel any shame in admitting that I regret all the years I spent not having it for no good reason. Ok, that’s not strictly true. I feel some shame in admitting it. I’m working on that. Writing about this is awkward, and difficult. But I think it’s important for people raised like I was to understand that life is a lot messier and complicated than we were led to believe. And let me tell you, it sucks royally to realize all this after you’re married and have kids, to try and make the best of the decisions you’ve made and not get caught up in wishing you had a chance to do things differently.
We recently watched Russell Brand in New York City – which is absolutely hilarious and 100% recommended to anyone who doesn’t mind salacious (but intelligent!) humor, and having a bit of fun poked at the U.S. and/or religion. Actually I recommend you watch it even if you do mind it, as you might come to appreciate such humor ;)
Anyhow, when Brand hosted the 2008 MTV VMA awards, he sparked controversy with certain viewers by, among other things, making fun of the Jonas Brothers’ promise rings (for the uninitated – a promise to remain “pure” by not having sex until marriage). Brand does a wonderful riff off some of the hate mail and death threats he got after his hosting gig – video below, which is definitely NSFW!
I particularly liked the bit where he talks about the implications of the Jonas Brothers’ public declarations of their virginity (about 6:15-7:15 in the video clip).
I think what I meant to say when during the MTV VMA Awards, I implied that the Jonas Brothers’ chastity rings and virginity might in fact be a cynical marketing ploy, utilizing the theories of Michel Foucault, who said that in Victorian society, the repression of sexuality was just another way of bringing sexuality to the forefront of our consciousnesses. It’s a marketing technique. By saying that the Jonas brothers are virgins, you can’t help but think about them having sex. The Jonas Brothers are not having sex (*thrusts pelvis*). The Jonas Brothers are not having sex. The Jonas Brothers are not having sex. As long as you’re looking at the rings on their fingers you’re not wondering about where them fingers ain’t straying. When I said that, I think what I meant was, “A jihad on all the world’s Christian people!”
How awesome is it that he name drops Foucault? Love it. And he’s completely right. Even as a firm believer in premarital abstinence, I never understood the tendency of some in the movement to loudly and publicly proclaim their status as virgins, and make that a central part of their public identity. So much of what I was taught was that sexuality was something private, between spouses, and not something to be “flaunted,” especially when members of the ‘opposite sex’ were present – in part because indiscreet talk about sex could stir up temptation (so much more could be said about this, another time perhaps). Drawing lots of attention to one’s virginity seemed to me to be pretty overtly sexual. As Brand so humorously points out, it’s inherently impossible to publicly announce that one is not having sex without also conjuring up the thought of one having sex – it’s like trying not to think about pink elephants. It would be more consistent to simply not discuss one’s sexual status in mixed company at all.
Of course, not every public advocate for abstinence specifically discusses their own virginity. But at times, the way the purity movement talks about virginity can be quite bizarre, and even hypocritical. I’m particularly reminded of an article I once read, which sadly I can’t find now, about a very attractive abstinence speaker whose talks on chastity involved lengthy commentary on how wonderful having sex with her husband on her wedding night was going to be, and how much fun they would have and how good it would feel, etc. etc. At the time, it struck me as strangely exhibitionist . . . advertising herself as a virgin and implicitly inviting the straight men in the audience to imagine having sex with her.
Looking back on this story from what I hope is a more nuanced and empathetic perspective, it occurs to me that the abstinence movement in general encourages this kind of exhibitionism when it comes to female virginity in particular, and frames female virginity in a way that’s every bit as sexually objectifying as the “secular” media they’re constantly complaining about. There’s a way in which the announcement of a woman’s virginity, and the framing of it as alluring, and as a ‘gift’ ‘saved’ for a man – is itself a presentation of women as sexually available to men, and objects of male sexual desire, just as much as any objectifying photo shoot of scantily clad women.
So I now understand that this speaker may not have had much say in how she presented herself – she was using the language and promoting the ethics and philosophy of a movement that inherently objectifies and sexualizes women. And in fact the implicit premise in much of the abstinence movement is not at all opposed to “secular” assumptions that women’s bodies are male property; rather, the abstinence-based assumption is that a woman’s body can only belong to one man – coded as a gift she gives to her husband (virginity is much, much more often spoken of as something a woman saves for her husband than as something a husband saves for his wife). Whereas there is in theory more acceptance of experience with more than one partner in the “secular” world – as long as you’re not “slutty,” of course, which is just a hypocritical standard used to vilify self-possesed female sexuality while justifying and celebrating any and all expressions of (cisgender, straight) male sexuality, no matter how toxic.
I think Brand is also right that there’s an element of marketing in all of this. I don’t think it’s necessarily cynical; in all likelihood the Jonas Brothers believe quite sincerely that it’s very important to remain a virgin before marriage. But sincerity of sentiment isn’t incompatible with publicly advertising that sentiment in a way that is (intentional or not) personally beneficial. You take an attractive celebrity being held up as a heartthrob or sex symbol, and repeatedly emphasize their sexual naivete – as Brand says, this brings their sexuality to the forefront of the public consciousness (more obviously with celebs whose careers are explicitly bound up with their packaged sex appeal – e.g. Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, etc.). And as we all know, sex sells.
As a parent, I believe it’s my primary responsibility to teach my kid about sex and sexuality, and I often wonder about how we’ll approach the topic. What I believe now about sex and sexuality is completely different from what I was raised to believe, and my personal experience of becoming sexually active is not one I would want for anyone. I would like to pass on a feminist, sex-positive ethic of sexuality that prioritizes making informed choices, being comfortable with one’s body and sexuality, and seeing them as one’s own, not belonging to anyone else. The problem is, I have no personal experience with such an approach to sex and am still working through the effects of a sex-negative religious upbringing that made me feel ashamed of my body and my sexuality. I have no model for how to raise a child like this. I think in a lot of ways I still have hangups about sex as something shameful and dirty, and I don’t know how I’m going to teach my child that sex, if one wants to have it, can be a healthy, normal part of adult life (and yes, teen life too, though preferably later in adolescence than sooner!) when I myself don’t quite believe it.
My husband and I were both raised to believe sex before marriage is a sin, and a really serious one. Same with masturbation (always, always a sin). Anything you did with someone you might not end up married to was considered robbing your future spouse and the future spouse of the person you were doing it with. No pressure! And there was no sex ed whatsoever for most people; I had some sex ed because, unlike most kids at our church, I was in public school. In most families, any information about anything related to sex was considered an invitation for kids to “fall into temptation.” Dating wasn’t allowed – you had to have a parent-approved courtship. The philosophy was: don’t even think about sex until marriage, get married young, have kids young, and then everything will be fine with your marriage and sex lives. Wonderful advice.
We did kiss before marriage, and you know, made out some, but that was it – and that made us rebels in our circles! And we’ve only ever kissed each other, which I only recently realized is just very weird.
Funny enough, a lot of couples raised like we were have trouble transitioning into being sexually active once they’re married. It took us several months to be able to have PIV sex. It sucked (not the sex, that was good – the wait) – and it still took years after that to really get to a comfortable place with sex. And of course we never told anyone about the trouble we were having; thanks to being raised to think of sex as a completely taboo topic, the idea of talking about our sex lives with anyone was beyond mortifying.
I strongly suspect our difficulties were far from atypical. It’s an unspoken problem in a lot of churches that women in particular have a very tough time switching, overnight, from “sex is dirty and must be avoided at all costs” to “sex is good and normal and awesome and we should do it all the time.” For example, in the book Real Sex, Lauren Winner gives the example of a friend of hers who was still a virgin after a year of marriage, because his wife couldn’t adjust psychologically to suddenly being sexually active. It can take years for some women to become comfortable with being sexual and to have satisfying sex lives, and some never really do. Men in these communities are also negatively affected by teachings that treat sex as shameful and dirty, and have trouble accepting and expressing their sexuality before and after marriage, though the effects often take different forms than they do for women – for example, intense shame over being unable to refrain indefinitely from masturbating or viewing porn, and hangups that encourage the sexual objectification, coercion, assault, and even rape of female sexual partners.
Of course, this isn’t just an issue between men and women in straight marriages. When you try to control people’s sexuality by purposefully denying them information about sex and suppressing any honest discussion of sex, it can cause problems for people of any gender, and any sexual orientation. Even for those of us who have abandoned the sex-negative ideas and churches we were raised in, the damaging effects of this kind of upbringing can last a lifetime.