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Let's Talk About Sex & Shame: Part VIII.

(Here is where the series started.)

Today: three Christians who had sex before marriage. Since there's a lot of content, we'll just dive in:
I had a classic evangelical upbringing and in my childhood and into my teen years most things were presented as pretty black and white. My parents educated me pretty well on what sex as an act was, but things like sexuality, pleasure, and lust were not talked about – it was understood that that was incredibly personal, and very wrong outside of marriage.

I remember as a teenager being frustrated by the dialogue around sex. I was reading in magazines, hearing in church, Christian music, small groups, everywhere – that I was to be modest. Guys had difficulty with lust and so we had to be careful. If I wore shorts that were too short, I would be causing someone to stumble. Never, ever did I hear about how to process my own feelings. I thought I was the only girl that dealt with lust – I must be super sexual or somehow more masculine because of this. Was this not an issue for other girls?

I just became... tired of it. Tired of feeling guilty, tired of policing myself. Tired of wanting to look good but feeling that I couldn't - because I would never want to be responsible for someone lusting over me. Besides, a guy should want me for my heart, why do I even care about being desirable? But I wanted to be desirable. I wanted to be attractive. The modesty dialogue alienated me from acknowledging my own desires as well as making me feel bad for wanting that from someone else. By trying to instill that I was “more than my body” this rhetoric seemed to trivialize a very important part of me – that I had no idea how to deal with.

After years of being careful, of guilt, of praying over whether these jeans were too tight, of feeling bad that I would be a bad witness if I looked too good, of desiring a relationship but I couldn't be in one unless it was serious and heading toward marriage, of confusion at the idea that no other girl around me seemed to lust I decided I was done. I deliberately chose to be in a sexual relationship because it made me feel good and that's all I wanted to think about. I am female, and it was with another girl.

Since I was operating in a framework in which there was not much room to make mistakes (sexual sin meant a kind of irreversible brokenness; even though ultimately you were forgiven... how would you explain that to your future husband?) it seemed like I might as well throw in all my cards. Not caring whatsoever seemed to be the only way to alleviate this moralistic burden I felt.

Of course, that turned out to be a much greater burden. There is much I can say on this chapter, and following chapters in my life. And to be clear, this is not necessarily a statement on my beliefs on homosexuality, but should rather be a place in my journey of not listening to God in my own context.

Sexual sin has continued to be an area that I am vulnerable in, in dating relationships (with men only, following that year and a half with her). Having these experiences puts me in an interesting place with my Christian friends. In some ways, I'm where I started. Christian friends who have not taken that step outside their bounds can't really relate to my struggles. But for those who have... I am glad I can relate when they are struggling.

I see the value of sexual purity even though I sometimes don't understand it. I've been broken, and I've experienced grace. I've also experienced times where I have felt no guilt and experienced incredible intimacy with someone. I am not blaming the purity movement for my strong swing of the pendulum – but these conversations need to take place with empathy, understanding, and nuance – or just happen in the first place.

I am thankful for God's grace in all areas of my life, not just with sexual sin.

Story #2:
I grew up in a non-Christian household. Talking about sex was encouraged. My mother was always open to answer question about what sex was, how it was done, and even subjects as specific as blow-job and vibrators. Mainly, she wanted me to know that sex was good and, when practiced safely, meant to be enjoyed. However, in her effort to help be become a "modern" woman, in charge of my sex life and free to explore, sex became sort of an idol. In some way, good sex = love and a good relationship. If the sex was in any way disappointing, one should exit the relationship asap. I was given a long leash to explore, too long in my opinion. I lost my virginity to an older man at the old age of 15. 15!!!! This is cray. At 15 you are still a child. I think because she grew up with so much shame around sex in a conservative, Catholic household, she wanted me to value my body and enjoy sexual expression. However, it swung too far in the other direction. While I practiced "safe" sex, I did not practice smart sex. Sex became a tool, to procure what I wanted from men. It became a method of control and empowerment.

When I became a Christian at 17, I was fully inducted into the purity movement. However, for me this was freeing as sex was put into a different context. It was not a tool for manipulation; it was something God given that could be used to honor God. Suddenly I felt that I had new power in the ownership of this wonderful thing I had, my body, which I could now choose to save for one special person. Even better, someone out there was saving their body for me and me alone. I felt so special. This new idea of sex only for marriage simplified my world. No more guessing and uncertainty: when do we have sex? Is it too soon? How far should we go? Has my part enter been tested? Do I trust my partner? Now I could look forward to sex within a certain time with a certain person who would commit their life to me.

This is not to say I fully support what the purity movement has evolved into. Many feel guilt and shame.

The onus placed on the female to protect everyone's sexuality is ridiculous and demeaning. However, for me it provided a place to heal. When I met my now-husband, we decided to wait until marriage. Again, the experience was not perfect, especially closer to the weeding when we certainly had some times of feeling guilty for our actions. But waiting for marriage was the right decision for us and it has strengthened and pushed our relationships to depths I did not even know existed. I am wholly happy with our decision. That said, I do think my husband has a bit more struggle than I do in allowing himself to enjoy sex and let his impulses guide. For so long he treated me like some precious flower, afraid to tarnish my reclaimed purity. Meanwhile, I'm all "let's get this tarnishing on!!!"

As I look forward to having children, I often wonder what I will teach them…I want them to value purity but also value the full range of sexual expression of which their body is capable. I still believe sex is beautiful and necessary. I believe I feel so comfortable in my own sexual skin because of my mother and her belief in the joy of sex.

And also:
It's horrifying to think about how much I used judged other Christians who had "worldly" sexual ideas or habits before marriage. I thought they were weak, selfish risk-takers who probably deserved whatever diseases or pregnancies they ended up with. Waiting to have sex until marriage was a very black and white issue to me, after years of growing up listening to very black and white church messages. It wasn't the church's fault that I was judgmental and insensitive, but the church certainly did not prepare me to deal with "shades of grey" or my own capacity for sin. I think I valued it to an almost unhealthy degree for the first 25 years of life, mainly because I was pumped so full of church-y fairy tale stories about how AMAZING sex and marriage would be if I waited.

For that reason, I held chastity to a higher regard than just about every other relational priority out there. I didn't think twice about pulling the plug on one fantastic, godly boyfriend when I noticed that our commitment to purity was becoming a struggle for him. I guess you could say that I was a Purity Warrior: no compromise, no compassion, no second chances. The moment I saw a guy start to waiver on his commitment to sexual purity, I began to mentally call his other (perfectly good) character traits into question, and it wasn't long before I was outta there.

I met my future husband when I was 25. For the first time in my life, I encountered a man who (unknowingly) shattered every desire I'd ever had to stay pure. It was like a switch being flipped in my Puritanical-up-to-that-point mind. And it's not like he was trying to seduce me. We talked about purity almost immediately and wanted it to be the focus of our relationship. Suddenly, however, that wanting wasn't enough for me. During the first month of our dating relationship, my hormones kicked my Bible-quoting brain to the curb and I became a certifiable temptress. I did everything in my power to make myself attractive, desirable, sexy, and irresistible, just like all those years of subliminal Hollywood training had taught me. I realized that I could actually use my femininity to manipulate a man (with shocking success!) I think I secretly savored how powerful it made me feel. It was new and striking and very, very wrong...but it worked. I didn't even stop to wonder HOW or WHY the 180-degree turnaround had taken place. I liked it too much to question it.

In the 6 or 7 months after that, I managed to erase every "godly" sexual habit I'd spent the last 25 years cultivating.

Occasionally, I would be roused out of my love-and-lust-drunk stupor long enough to see that what we were doing was sinful. My anger would flair up. Anger at myself, yes, but also a lot of anger at this supposed "Christian" man for not "being the leader" and helping keep us on the right path. We'd pray and talk and try to spend some time "seriously" trying to be "good." True to form, I broke up with him twice during that first year and gave him various spiritual-sounding reasons for why I didn't think we were a good fit, but it often stemmed back to my unspoken guilt and anger that I hadn't been able to make it to MY wedding night unscathed by sexual sin. It was always about me and MY ability to remain pure, since that's what I'd learned to value. "Above all else, guard your heart..." And your virginity too, in my interpretation of the verse.

BUT my guy was persistently wonderful, pursuing me even after I'd called it quits. God healed my heart in amazing ways (most not having anything to do with sexuality...) and we eventually got back together. Before we got married, we were told during individual and pre-marital counseling sessions that our sexual "baggage" and the fact that we hadn't remained pure would have serious emotional consequences after we got married (which is exactly what I'd been told for so many years at church...) I was suddenly terrified. How much had we ruined by stepping outside biblical bounds for sex? Our wedding day came. I waited for the hammer to drop...

It never did. We have been married for almost 2 years now, and there hasn't been a HINT of "emotional consequences" due to the fact that we had sex before we got married. Our wedding night was spiritually charged and unbelievably special, even if it wasn't the first time we'd been together. No hint of guilt or shame anywhere. In fact, of all the married Christian friends I've talked to candidly about sex, I'd say (without pride) that our sexual relationship is the healthiest, most mature, most exciting, and most reflective of what God intended it to be for married couples. I'm not saying this to refute the (very biblical!) principle that staying pure is ideal. And in no way, shape, or form am I suggesting that we're intrinsically "better off" than the folks who remained virgins until their wedding night. What I'm saying is that my husband and I have been blessed.

God chooses to bless His followers however He sees fit, and our sinful actions--sexual or otherwise--will not bar us from receiving those blessings. Everyone's story is so vastly different. I think the one thing I hate most about Purity Culture is that it often throws out blanket statements and makes many Christians believe that once they "mess up," they're going to "pay for it" with a less-than-perfect wedding night (or marriage, in extreme messages). By contrast, we often hear that anyone who's able to "stay pure" is automatically going to experience a better sort of marriage or sexuality than the folks who aren't.

Yes, there are risks consequences to sexual sin and there ARE benefits to remaining pure. But no sin is more powerful than the Savior, and no amount of sexual purity is enough to "earn" grace. That's what we quickly found out. We are free from whatever guilt and shame might have been associated with our dating relationship. Most days we feel like we're going to be honeymooners until we're old and wrinkly and WAAAAAY passed our prime. That is a gift. We didn't earn it, and neither will the folks who avoid pre-marital sex altogether.

That's what I wish the Purity Culture would tell people. First, that chastity doesn't guarantee great sex or a stellar emotional connection after marriage. THOSE things take a lot of additional work and a commitment to cultivating traits that go beyond your ability to keep your hands off each other until the wedding. Likewise, I don't believe that sex before marriage makes all marriages "lose something" that can only be experienced by two virgins on a wedding night.

I've been asking myself this over the last few days: If I could go back in time and somehow avoid all the sexual sin of my dating relationship with my husband, would I?

I'll always wish that I could be a better Christ-follower. Still, the only reason I would go back and do it all over the "right way" is so that I could experience a few of those dating years with a little less of the side-item stress that came with being sexually active before tying the knot (with the biggest stress being fear of pregnancy). I wouldn't necessarily want to re-do any of it just so I could have been a virgin on my wedding night. At this point, I'm not convinced that it would have made much of an emotional or spiritual difference to us as a couple. We've been thriving, sexually and spiritually, despite our past mistakes. And that, again, is an unforeseen and undeserved gift that I will always be thankful for.

Thank you, ladies.

What are y'all thinking?

We're many stories in, many different experiences and voices... Which have surprised you the most? Are you feeling encouraged? Discouraged? Wondering what to do with it all?

I am feeling all these things. 


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