Let’s Talk About Evangelical Sex, Baby (by Alexis J Waggoner)

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I got married when I was 20. Usually I round up to 21, since it was only two months away from my birthday, and somehow that sounds slightly less insane.

I never would have admitted it at the time, but wanting to have sex definitely played into the decision to say “I do” so young. I was raised in an abstinence-only, wait-till-marriage, conservative, Evangelical environment (churches and schools). I certainly don’t think these are the wrong conclusions to come to about sex; but, in my church experience, they were arrived at in a problematic and even damaging way.

I really only heard one thing when it came to sex: WAIT. There was no nuance; no advice for what this might look like; no support; no suggestions for how to live a single, celibate life if you didn’t get married – or at the very least, waited until a reasonable age to do so.

To be fair, there was probably more nuance than I’m remembering, but if there was, it didn’t stick with me in a meaningful way. And so (as I remember it), whenever sex was addressed it was boiled down to: Wait till you’re married – and then everything will be perfect.

Well, I was a good kid – so I did wait, even though my “solution” was to get married at 20! But then, guess what? It was very much NOT perfect. It would be unfair to say that only issues around sexuality were to blame, but the first two years of marriage were some of the worst of my life.

I had unknowingly been carrying so much expectation around sex and married life. I had assumed because I’d done the only thing I’d been told to do when it came to sex (wait), I’d reap the only reward I’d been told to expect (perfection).

My husband and I have been married for 12 years and I am still digging myself out of these expectations, still paying the price for the way the church of my youth both vilified and exalted sex. My first therapist helped us get our marriage back on track in the early years, and I have been in therapy off and on ever since for these and other related issues.

An acquaintance of mine recently reached out to me with grievances about how the church addresses sex. She noted that it’s tied so closely to issues of gender equality, yet something we’re even more afraid to speak out on. She told me a piece of her own story and allowed me to share it here:

I grew up in a heavily Evangelical Christian environment. I myself subscribed to the tenant of abstinence, agreed to the unwritten rule that questions of sexuality were off-limits. I towed the party line…until…well, until I couldn’t. That’s the simplest way I can think of to relay the emotional and psychological strain that these beliefs placed me under.

But the fact is, I did not simply wake up one day and decide I disagreed with the Christianity of my youth. Nor did I pull away from it out of some desire to rebel. I pulled away slowly, painfully, with extreme care and difficulty, in an effort to preserve— no — to discover and claim my mental health.

The funny thing is, I’m what I guess you could call ‘abstinent.’ I’m 27 years old and I’ve never had sex. The weightiness of expectation, shame, fear, etc. now associated with the act has become immense; I want to somehow take these negative emotions away, but I fear that after waiting 27 years, there is no way to do so. Even if I do what I was taught was the right thing, and wait till marriage, I’m not sure how to undo decades of the messages I received around sex.

I have thought, and continue to think, long and hard about sexuality. I have made, and continue to make, choices based on the thinking I have done and continue to do. I am proud of the choices I’ve made and who they have led me to be. Any shame I suffer comes not from the choices I make but from my inability to be open about those choices with some of the people who are closest to me.

These sentiments are in many ways reflective of my own journey. So what can we do? What makes it even more complicated for me is that I think the dysfunction I’ve experienced in the Church, around issues of sex, actually come from a place of love. But I continue to ask myself: do the ends justify the means? Is there really any hope for fulfilling, well-rounded sexual relationships after marriage if our messaging beforehand is so monotone?

What I want to underscore has less to do with the specifics of right sexual behavior – although this is obviously important – and more to do with how we get there. I think we need to take a step back and figure out how to simply talk about these issues in the church.

To be honest, I don’t 100 percent know what the answer is. I preach – I know that nuance is hard to convey in a sermon. Issues of sex and sexuality, I think, belong in the context of trusting community and healthy discussion. But I also know that even if you made such resources available, the members of the community might decide they’d rather not have that discussion anyway.

If the leadership has to carry the mantle of education it can seem like a one-sided, one-way flow of opinions and information; if the laity is expected to participate and rise to the occasion, it may never happen.

The best solution I’ve been able to think through is to hit all these possibilities and more. Yes, we need sermons on sex. But we need grace. We need community. We we need options for classes, opportunities to hear from well-educated thought-leaders, and there needs to be an expectation for discussion.

There does not need to be a black-and-white, no-questions-asked, message from the pulpit once a year that invites no further dialogue.

We need to create opportunities wherever we can to better understand our responsibilities as Christians – not only responsibilities around sexual behavior, but also our responsibilities to support one another and create a safe space for whatever part of the journey we’re experiencing.

And – perhaps the most crucial of all – there needs to be healthy, empowering, age-appropriate education and discussion happening in our churches from the time our kids are old enough to understand issues of sexuality (which is pretty young!).

I think if we can make issues of sexuality, sex, and gender part of a holistic discussion from early in life, we might stand a chance for turning the tide of negativity that has been flowing for decades.

I’d love to hear other thoughts, suggestions, or examples of how we can begin to undo some of the damaging messaging around sexuality in the church!

alexis

Alexis James Waggoner is a theologian, writer, teacher, and founder of The Acropolis Project (FIND HERE), an organization dedicated to raising the bar of theological education in communities of faith. She also serves as a chaplain in the Air Force Reserves and is passionate about ministering to women in places where they are often marginalized. She has an M.Div from Union Theological Seminary in New York, a husband of 12 years, and a baby named Junia.

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18 Comments

  • I have thought about this topic, and how I might handle it with my potential future children, a LOT. I agree that this is a huge problem. I, too, really struggled with my own sexuality, and the church’s teaching style on the subject in no way benefited or prepared me for sex in marriage.

    I think, like you said, the first step is open discussion. Welcoming the subject and being willing to talk about it is huge. Some of my earliest memories of feeling ashamed and guilty about sex, came from simply asking my parents about it. They hoped to disgust me in their responses. They wanted me to think — even as a small child — that sex was gross and terrible, just so I would not be tempted to have it before marriage. From then on, when I began to wonder about it, or experience even innocent attraction to boys, I was immediately filled with self-loathing. I know I’m not the only person who experienced this.

    I think if my parents had handled this differently — whether or not the church did — it would have had a huge impact. I might still have been confused by the evangelical message, but having my own parents at home welcoming the subject, and making me feel safe about asking questions and discussing it, would have made a big difference. I want to make sure my kids know that I am *happy* to talk with them about sex. I want them to know that I like it, and that’s healthy. I want them to know it’s ok to want it, and wonder about it, and it can be celebrated. I also hope that they will see my husband and I have a healthy sex life that isn’t a secret (something my parents either didn’t have, or completely hid from us on purpose), so that they can also develop healthy expectations.

    I’ll go ahead and end this comment before it becomes a volume, haha! But to me, that is the first step. How parents interact with their children discussing the subject is essential. If the church could help parents become better sex educators, I think that would be huge.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Anna. I could have written them myself. That is exactly how sex was handled in my context – so glad you have realized this and are hopefully able to repair some of the damage. Some of my earliest memories are feeling so ashamed about attraction I felt to boys when I was a kid. And when I did try to bring it up i was so scared and uncertain and it was always met with disapproval and judgement. I am still angry about this!

      I think the lack of education in the evangelical church is a cycle. I went to christian schools which also avoided the topic. Everyone thinks someone else is doing it or should be responsible and thus no one addresses it. I am doing all I can to make sure my child gets proper messaging about sexuality from me AND our faith community. It is so uncomfortable for me as clearly this was not my own experience but I am committed to stopping the cycle!

  • I pray that the church will begin to have open and honest questions about sex and sexuality. The messages that I received were that I should wait and if I waited sex inside the context of marriage would be amazing. We are told we will be blessed in ways others won’t. I was bitterly disappointed after marriage because I thought that “good” sex would just automatically happen. I have learned that is not the case.
    As a recently divorced woman in her late 40’s I’d welcome conversations about what it means to have healthy sexuality especially in the context of being celibate.

    • So very sorry Karen R…I think you are not alone. Surely it is time the church grew up in the way it teaches women and men how to deal with sex. I really liked “Bailey’s” comments about the right ways to express affection at the different stages of relationship.

      Nevertheless, anyone can find themselves going too far when they are led to believe there is more to the relationship than really exists…if only the churches extended Grace to those who are badly hurt by this…and especially to those who find themselves divorced through no fault of their own. Too many have been destroyed by churches mishandling these situations.

    • That messaging was exactly my experience and it was SO emotionally painful and damaging when things weren’t automatically perfect. I think this experience is really what started a process of religious questioning and cynicism that is just a part of my life now. I agree with you too on the support and conversation around singleness and celibacy.

    • Karen, if you’re still around, I wonder if we could get in touch. Your story is my story, only I’m still married–it’s only the piece of paper at this point.

  • Three things I want to teach my children:

    (1) Sex and genitals are not shameful. We won’t use euphemisms. We’ll say “sex,” “penis,” and “vagina” without shame and without blushing.

    (2) The reason the Bible warns against sexual promiscuity is because it can be damaging to *oneself* and to *others* — not because sex is wrong or because we need to arbitrarily maintain an abstract purity. Rape, assault, adultery, and otherwise cheating your partner with fake sexual intimacy is what’s wrong. Having sex isn’t the sin; wounding yourselves and others is.

    (3) Physical affection is a necessary part of intimacy, and it’s appropriate to show the physical affection corresponding to the intimacy of your relationship. If you’re not dating, express physical affection like you would any friend. If you’re dating, some flirtatious physical contact is normal. If you’re seriously dating/engaged, kissing and cuddling is normal. And if you’re married, sex is the physical expression, reserved for marriage lest you defraud your partner and/or get pregnant and are unable to provide a stable family for the baby.

    Perhaps this seems too loose, but the purity culture didn’t keep me and my now-husband from breaking the myriad of boundaries it suggested, either. We were serious about not having sex before marriage; we were serious about showing physical affection corresponding to our level of relationship, even if they broke evangelical purity rules; we achieved both goals; and we don’t regret any of it. 🙂

    • I think this is awesome! I had never thought about promiscuity in that way, that it can be damaging to yourself and others, rather than the sex itself being the problem. I will definitely remember that.

    • I agree! Thanks for your thoughts. My baby is only 14 months so we are really just in phase one of your three points but even that has been difficult for me. However I am trying to approach her upbringing with eyes wide open, doing all I can to make sure she has a much healthier experience than I did. It is encouraging to read of others doing the same. Maybe we can turn the tide!!

  • Talk about sex in church! We can’t even talk about gender! ☺ The first comment by Anna M. is really scary…I can’t imagine parents acting this way and expecting their children to be normal…glad you survived!

    Our culture is even more destructive to females than our churches. There does need to be a great deal of teaching about HOW to LEARN self respect as young women and how to develop a full-orbed character and girls need to LEARN HOW TO set very high standards for the way they are treated and become convinced of the need for this. Perhaps learning how they line up with the MANY strong Bible women is a start. If girls can support one another in this they will find they end up in happier lifetime relationships. This requires hard work by pastors and teachers because they are swimming against the tide of Western Culture. Churches need to work hard at teaching individual women and men to have an inordinately high standard and understanding of the high value of their worth as intellectual and sexual beings and young men need to be instilled from a very young age with the idea that women are specially designed 3 dimensional creatures of strong character, and lifelong gifts of intellectual companionship from God whose company is to be greatly desired for happiness. Proper Bible teaching about women would be a good start! It would be really good if churches actually put more emphasis on the gifts of women so they are presented as full-orbed valuable beings with gifts and skill sets that men also value, etc. so the men will not take for granted that they are just Complementarianism baby machines. But if pastors have the wrong attitude it will continue as before in the next generation. What do pastors and fathers say to the young men behind the scenes? Some definitely need to be arrested in their faulty disregard of the value of women. A pox on those who call Deborah God’s second best! After all if pastors and parents are convinced that women are never called by God and gifted in the same manner as men, why would young men respect them as equal companions at all? In fact many churches should be ashamed at having been instrumental in teaching inequality and giving women a shallow, inconsequential reputation, and making them fit this vacuous mold of Biblical womanhood.

    Alexis…you are spot on and so glad there is a woman like you out there to help the next generation become strong successful women of God!

    • Great insights. There is so much work to be done on issues of gender and sexuality in the church. We are definitely swimming against the tide of culture but that is exactly where the church is called to be. What’s scary is to also feel so much like we (as egalitarians advocating for women and healthy sexuality) are also swimming against the tide of CHURCH culture. It can be very disheartening but j have been encouraged that there are others of us out there working toward the same thing!

  • Probably the most damaging things about purity culture are:

    (1) The intentions of adults teaching this are usually good (or you’re told the intentions are good, and what do you know?), so as a child or young person, you tend to assume the ideas being taught are also good and correct and good for you. This mixing of good and bad is poisonous to healthy sexuality and especially to your spiritual trust as you mature and learn for yourself how toxic some of these ideas are.

    (2) The packaging of young girls’ virginity as a commodity *for her husband.* Even as a young one I remember wondering, “If my virginity is SO valuable, and I’m saving it for my husband — what is he giving ME that is of equal value?” Not in those words, of course, but I didn’t see that the boys were supposed to do or bring anything to the marriage that was emphasized as strongly and that turned them into worthless beings if they failed to preserve it.

    (3) Bringing young women to marriage without a freaking sexual clue. Of course we knew how sex worked in the mechanical sense. But telling girls, “You’re bad and worthless if you don’t wait, and don’t you masturbate in the meantime, don’t enjoy yourself physically in any way, wait wait wait wait wait — NOW!” is destructive to marital life. There is just no way to repress the heck out of your sexuality until it’s all you know how to do, and then suddenly respond warmly and beautifully to a husband who (if he was also a virgin, which was somewhat valued) probably had no more idea how to truly make love than you do. We *create* frigid women out of healthy young girls. It can take years to recover from the unbiblical rigidity we’ve always been required to place around our healthy sexuality.

    I’m so happy the writer of this article wrote it. And thanks for some wonderful discussion in the comments too. Let’s keep talking about it.

    • THANK YOU for your comments. Point 3 is EXACTLY right – totally my experience. It’s been a very painful one to undo and something I’m still working on 12 years into my marriage. The exact reason I was inspired to write this post!

  • Love this article. Something I struggled with (I got married at 21, too), is that it was implied, or sometimes explicitly stated (looking at you, Dana Gresh), that if you’re abstinent, your married sex life will be perfect. Well, my now-husband and I abstained, but it turns out that I have a physical anomaly that prevents that “perfection”. I didn’t discover that I had it, or even that it was a thing that existed, until after I was married. In my struggle with this issue, sex-positive feminism has been more helpful than my childhood church, marriage counseling, and Christian school ever were.

    • Yep! my experience was that the on the rare occasions sex was talked about, it was in the context of abstinence before marriage, and perfection after. No support of explanation of how to get from point A to point B! I am glad you have found feminism to be helpful in your journey out of purity culture. Sounds like we have a lot in common 🙂

  • Your post is valuable to young boys and girls and for the church today. However, any church leader who chooses to address the sacredness of sex within marriage in a more healthy way needs to meet a couple of criteria as I see it.

    1. That person needs to be aware that 1 out 4 girls have been sexually molested by a person who should have been a protector. Statistics for boys are slightly, only slightly lower. And these statistics include those cases not reported. That awareness would require sensitivity.

    2. If the church leader has experienced sexual abuse growing up, that person needs to experience a healing of those wounds to the best measure possible, otherwise that wounding will carry over into the teaching/preaching.

    Just my thoughts since I come from a background ongoing sexual abuse at the hands of a father from age 12 until I left home at 18. Talk about entering marriage with screwed up ideas about sex.

    • Gloria – thank you for sharing your painful experience and wisdom gleaned. This is an aspect I hadn’t thought about, but will definitely keep in mind in this discussion going forward. You are so right that abuse is tragically present in our midst, though so many believe the lie that the church is immune, and turn a blind eye. Thank you for advocating in this area!

  • A group of us, egalitarian Christian males and females, decided it was time to start having conversations about sex in the church, and more importantly, time to start deconstructing the patriarchal mindset attached to it, that’s especially damaging to women. So we started a Facebook group, called “The Christian Sex Chronicles” and tag publications/articles #TheChristianSexChronicles.

    I’d like to invite those who are interested in continuing these conversations on how sex is handled, taught, represented, etc., in the church, to join the group, so that we all make a concerted effort to shine God’s light on this very important topic that’s been so mangled in the church.
    God bless you all!

    Here’s the link to the Facebook group (privacy levels are secret)…
    https://www.facebook.com/groups/TheChristianSexChronicles/?fref=ts

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