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.
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.