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 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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