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Let's Talk About Sex & Shame. Part VII.

In this afternoon's installment of the sexuality & shame series, I have two stories from gay friends, both of whom grew up in what we're calling "purity culture." One of them left Christianity before identifying as gay, and one of them is on their way to becoming a pastor:
Ah, the many layers of shame and sexuality. This response is coming from a recently-gay-identified, not-so-recently atheist woman who spent the formative sexuality years (ages 15-24ish) in the clasp of fundamental Christianity and the purity movement. I’ve recently started dating girls. A girl. A wonderful girl. I was blown away by how easy it was, once I was honest with myself about my sexual orientation, to date a woman. It feels like the missing piece for me. But still, at nearly 30 and 4ish years out of Christianity my experiences in the shame/purity movement still impact this new relationship.

Why? Until now almost all of my sexual experiences have been negative or non-existent. When other people were learning to have healthy sexual relationships I was busy pretending that I did not have any sexuality. My very first sexual experience was with my ex-boyfriend. A man I dated for years with the intent to marry and had unfulfilling foreplay with almost the entire time. Yes, it was probably unfulfilling because, hey, turns out I prefer women. But I did love him and I was attracted to him. But how do you experience good sex with someone else if 1) you have never felt safe to explore your own body and find out what you like (or even what “good” feels like!) 2) you have never learned how to express your own needs and desires (because you are not supposed to have any).

To compound the negative sexual experience we broke up. And then, because we had waited YEARS to have sex within marriage and were devastated that we wouldn’t be each other’s firsts we decided to be the first anyway. For a few months. And then he found someone else. Someone who had waited and saved themselves just for him. And I was so ashamed and hurt at having given him that ultimate gift I had tucked away and saved and had been taught to prize above all else it broke me. I just stopped caring and fell into some very destructive experiences without the tools to deal with it on my own.

Then I spent years completely paralyzed by the idea that I might be gay. Completely paralyzed. I had done what the church had told me to do. I had been good, I had been pure (for a long time), I had dated the perfect christian boy, I had abstained from lustful thoughts and didn’t even masturbate and yet God wouldn’t take the gay away. Not that I knew exactly that that was what I was looking for because the idea was so shameful I couldn’t even bring myself to *think* it never mind say it out loud. It took me 4 more years as an atheist (aka away from the church) to be able to even contemplate the idea. To say the words out loud to myself. To imagine a life where I could be gay and choose to be happy and fulfilled instead of killing myself or living under self-imposed celibacy and loneliness.

I was in my mid-20s before I got up the courage to explore my own body.

So now, in my late 20s and starting a relationship with an amazing woman I find myself having panic attacks because I still 1) don’t know how to have a fulfilling sexual relationship and 2) have no idea how to talk openly and honestly about that (or about what I need and want).

So do I think the purity movement and the church’s message about sexuality in general is harmful? Yes, I do. I feel like I lost years of time to explore a very important side of who I am. But it isn't irreparable and it is up to me to identify ways it has affected me and to choose to address them.  Sex does not need to be within marriage to be healthy but it can be a much better experience if talked about openly and honestly with a consenting partner. 

I would like to note that both of these friends have offered themselves as resources/sounding-boards/safe people for any of my readers who may be walking a similar journey. If you feel safe allowing me in, I am more than happy to connect you with either one. 

For Christians who experience a certain level of same-sex attraction, shame and sexuality are essentially one and the same. The vast majority of Christians today— not to mention most of society up until the past few years—still either believe it is a sin to even experience same-sex attraction or at the very least to “act” on same-sex attraction (whatever the heck that means). It is incredible the contradicting views people have in terms of divvying up the body and spirit when it comes to same-sex attracted individuals and their “actions”. The whole “just don’t act on it” idea flies in the face of more theologically robust understandings of the human person and the relationship between body and spirit.

I’m a visual thinker, so let’s imagine drawing a line between the—granted indefinable—point where the attraction towards intimacy and bonding with someone of the same sex simply exists, all the way to the point at which one is fully engaged in all vocational aspects of marriage. At what point does one sin? At the point of existence? At the point of engaging one’s mind in reality? At the existence of another person of the same sex in one’s life? At the sight of them? Smiling? Speaking to them? Hugging them? When did one “act upon one’s homosexuality”? Now? How about now? How about now? Okay, how about now? I can just see Jesus rolling his eyes or at least shaking his head. “You guys...are idiots. Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

I am gay. I am a Christian. I am a seminary graduate. I am becoming a pastor. And, no, I am not one of the “airy fairy” so-called-Christians who believe there are infinite ways to god and that Christianity is just one of them. No, I do not parade concepts like “love” and “justice” and “equality” around as if their cultural meanings somehow trump the deeply complex and demanding words of Scripture. I believe firmly and even conservatively so in the Nicene Creed and in Trinitarian theology. But I also did my homework. I wrestled with Scripture, mentors, pastors, friends, various theological voices throughout Church history, the Lord, myself. For years. And I have arrived at peace before the one true God in my understanding that a same-sex marriage is fully within the realm of one of God’s potential vocations for my future life. This doesn’t mean it will happen. This doesn’t mean I necessarily abandon celibacy as an equally viable vocation asked of me. But it’s not because I’m gay. It’s because I’m beloved and called. So I hold both equally valid vocations—marriage and celibacy—open-handed before me as I walk the near path in the shallow light of God’s Spirit guiding my every step.

The reality is, my sexuality belongs to God in its entirety, and so does yours. Because we are his. And in his hands, my sexuality is well-held, purified, sanctified, and given a vocation beyond itself. It’s not about how much pleasure I gain out of sex, though it can surely be there. (And what a blessing!) Since when is a good, “healthy” sex life or set of ideas somehow a gauge for how well we are exercising our sexuality before the Lord? In that there is shame in our experience of sexuality, it is in that we have either been force-fed and/or we have bought into the lie that our sexuality belongs to us. And thus—much like our lives—we must take hold of it and strive strive strive until we’ve earned purity. It is in this vein that others believe they have a right to heap shame upon us, or that we heap shame upon ourselves with regard to our sexuality. In that our sexuality belongs to God and not us, we are empowered to exercise it in such a way that glorifies him—that is vocational. And we begin to ask different questions. Rather than, “How far is too far?”, we perhaps ask, “Why would I exercise my sexuality in whatever manner? Is it to ‘Love God and Love neighbor’? Or is it simply to ‘Sate my desires in an isolated moment’, perhaps even at the expense of God, neighbor, and self?”

My experience of sexuality and shame is that I grew up ashamed to be alive. And I will do what I can to prevent anyone—whatever sexual battle they face—from experiencing themselves in this way. But regardless of where one stands on the matter of same-sex relationships, we as Christians cannot ignore the fact that the emergence of the battle for “marriage equality” has offered Christians an honest opportunity to humble ourselves and confront the glaring issue of our weak if not non-existent theologically- and biblically-informed understanding of marriage, celibacy, and sexuality—particularly among Protestant and Evangelical Christians. We got lazy and insecure, and used bandaids to patch up our kids and swords to fight against the wounded and disenfranchised. It’s time to stop shamelessly defending our false narratives and raising our protective walls higher. It’s time to hand our sexuality over the Lord and actually let him be Lord over it all.

Well. A massive thank you to these two friends for sharing their stories with us; any minority voice is a much needed one, and feels riskier to boot.

If it is possible to keep this from becoming a debate on whether or not one can be gay/act on same-sex attractions and still be a Christian, I would very much like that.  I recognize that it is an important question for many people, and there are times and places for that conversation. Today, I believe, is the time and place for these questions:
  • In both these stories, their shame around sexuality was a matter of life and death. What do we do with this? How do we respond to young people despairing of their very lives because of their sexual desires?
  • For the church folk, what do you make of my second friend's question: "Since when is a good, "healthy" sex life or set of ideas somehow a gauge for how well we are exercising our sexuality before the Lord?"
  • The questions posed at the end of that second-last paragraph make me wonder what it looks like to recognize our sexuality/appetites but to live them in a selfless manner, that is, not to assume or demand that it is always in our best interests to have them met when/as we desire. Is this a question that has any traction or makes sense for people outside of a theistic framework? 
  • Outside of a Christian framework, how do people (you, my readers) establish what is healthy, what is selfish, what is a "good" sexuality? 
What other questions came to mind as you read?

(I don't yet have many submissions from people totally outside of church culture, but it would be great to hear from some of you!) 

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