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.