Rethinking sex ed, pt. 2

Part 1

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.

4 Comments

  1. I felt outside of things a lot of times when abstinence was brought up. Not only for the obvious reasons, but because there was so much gender role expectation encoded (or blatantly expressed) in these talks that I couldn’t relate simply because I wasn’t the girl these talks said I was supposed to be. It’s strange, because to the outside world, I probably blend pretty easily, but inside Christianity, I felt like I was more mentally male than female when they laid out the “this is how men think and this is how women think” arguments.

    I crossed some lines when I started hanging out with my best friend – who is a guy. He and I hang out at his house a lot, and it’s my Christian friends who want to pin us down as dating at all the time – or at least one of us is ignoring our romantic or sexual feelings. When people get glimpses into the intensity of our friendship (we consider each other platonic soulmates and use vocabulary that the rest of the world considers imbued with romantic and sexual meaning) I get told often how when I date someone or get married, my friendship with him has to change. I get lectured sometimes, as though I don’t understand the gravity of how this friendship is only acceptable while I’m single because once I’m in a dating or married relationship, this friendship becomes an “emotional affair.”

    I don’t know if this concept of”emotional affair” exists outside the Christianity I was a part of, but I’ve slowly stopped being able to understand it. If my friendship was the exact same, but my friend was a girl, there would be no certain (granted, calling her a platonic soulmate would raise some concern) but I would be allowed to “give my heart away” to any girl I was friends with and it wouldn’t be construed as the same thing. Also, are guys ever accused of “emotional affairs” or is it just assumed that if they’re talking to a woman they aren’t married to, they’re having a sexual affair? If my friendship with him would be an “emotional affair” am I having “premartial…er, emotions”?

    Actually, I think if I went to the pastors and leaders who taught abstinence in my church, they would think I was engaging in a premartial sin. But I’m repulsed by the idea that marriage means I’m tied solely to one person physically, emotionally, etc., and to share anything of myself to anyone else is wrong and a sin – it seems like a sure-fire way to get yourself into very abusive relationship dynamics with no ability to get help.

    Sometimes it seems like those that use the giving your heart away metaphor forget that it actually is just a metaphor. It’s impossible to actually give away your heart and have it be gone to that person – to imply that says that the heart is only capable of loving one person in the world and everyone else – family, friends, etc. – you have to be apathetic toward.

    I’m “meh” about sex itself, but I do regret that the push for abstinence made it impossible to have simple, friendly friendships that were healthy. I would have loved the opportunity to explore friendships with guys, but the hyper-fear of “if you open up to a guy in any way you put your ~heart~ at risk, careful, careful, CAREFUL” made it impossible.

    • I couldn’t relate simply because I wasn’t the girl these talks said I was supposed to be. It’s strange, because to the outside world, I probably blend pretty easily, but inside Christianity, I felt like I was more mentally male than female when they laid out the “this is how men think and this is how women think” arguments.

      I know exactly what you mean. All the stuff I grew up hearing about “what women are like” made me identify a lot more with men and has really fucked with my sense of my gender identity. I don’t really know what being a woman means to me, and I don’t really feel like a woman, in part because for so long I’ve had to define myself against what I was told “femininity” is.

      The concept of emotional affairs definitely exists outside of fundamentalism, but it doesn’t mean just having a good friend of the opposite sex. I’ve heard it used to mean having a relationship that’s basically one step from becoming an actual sexual affair – like if there’s lying, secret-keeping, becoming distant from one’s partner, etc. already happening, but not sex. I think that really can be as bad as a sexual affair.

      Like you said the way emotional entanglements are defined in fundamentalism/evangelicalism makes normal, friendly interactions between men and women basically impossible. One of the effects of I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Boy Meets Girl in SGM has been that men and women have become very afraid to spend any time alone together or to get to know each other at all. Joshua Harris has even preached on this, but of course he’s never admitted that the problem is inherent to what he teaches about male-female relationships, not just a misapplication of his teachings.

      You wouldn’t have to clarify that a female friend was a “platonic” soulmate because of heteronormative assumptions that a close relationship between people of the same gender can’t possibly/shouldn’t be sexual, and assumptions that relationships between people of different genders must be sexual or rife with sexual tension. Pretty silly stuff.

      I’m repulsed by the idea that marriage means I’m tied solely to one person physically, emotionally, etc., and to share anything of myself to anyone else is wrong and a sin – it seems like a sure-fire way to get yourself into very abusive relationship dynamics with no ability to get help.

      Yep.

      The whole system is based on fear. Fear of ever making a mistake and and of having your life even slightly deviate from some arbitrary divine script (did you ever hear “let god write your love story?”). The problem is that if you just do what you’re told to (whether it’s by people or “from God) – you never actually learn how to do things for yourself. A lot of how people learn and grow is by making mistakes. There’s something really stunting and infantilizing about an approach to life that’s entirely based on trying to avoid making a single mistake ever.

      • My gender got called into question a few times, once even blatantly so. And I was so confused and caught up in it all that I spent a few months praying and reading my Bible to see if I really was in the wrong for being the person that I was (it’s helpful that I’m named after a woman in the Bible who was in a position of power). Between trying to rebel against what I was told I was supposed to be, and yet still having a viotroil reaction to the things I *wasn’t* supposed to be (because my mind still says “No, Bad, Wrong!) , I have no idea how to be happy and comfortable with myself.

        I have heard the “let God write your love story” and it seems scary to me because I’ve met people who get into relationships and the sheer fact that they chanced upon this person means to them that it was God-ordained. The Christian community where I live prizes marriage as the ultimate goal for women, and you can still how so much fear and pressure takes it’s toll to get married at the right time, to the right guy, so that everyone will think you did things the right way so you can be a good example for Christ.

  2. On the issue of smugness about sexual purity: I was every day of thirty before I realized that my ability to stay abstinent until I was married had more to do with minimal attraction to men, paired with a belief that homosexuality was a sin, than it had to do with self-control. To be blunt, I wasn’t seriously tempted and took the lack of temptation as a sign that I was Pure of Spirit.

    I believe now that if I’d grown up in a household, church, and school where LGBTQ people were welcome, I would probably never have married my husband. I don’t regret marrying him, and we’re happy in our poly triad, but I DO regret the years of wondering what I was doing wrong when I was trying so hard to do everything I’d been told would make for a good marriage.