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

(Here is where the series started. It's looking like I'll have stories to share tomorrow and Thursday, and on Friday we'll start wrapping things up!)

More stories from married Christian ladies today. I love how even the stories that are the "same" are not at all the same.

The first:
I didn't grow up feeling indoctrinated by the purity movement... I was naturally shy, and didn't date anyone seriously until I met my husband. But after I became a Christian at 15, I formalized my abstinence. I am absolutely grateful that I abstained from sex.
I really want to join in on this conversation, but I have to say that I DO NOT like talking about sex with others. I feel squeamish just writing this out in an e-mail now. However, I don't think the source of my reluctance is shame. I think the source is my desire for privacy.
I remember reading an anecdote once of a married couple who kept a small room with beautiful carpets and curtains that was set aside for love making. It was a sacred space--even their kids knew they weren't allowed to go inside.
That's how I feel about talking about it.
But that's why I have no regrets about being a virgin when I was married. That's why I have few personal qualms about "protecting my thought life" and other versions of the purity movement. That's why I'm so glad I never really saw porn, except by accident. That's why I'm glad I never had a partner before marriage.
What I have learned since marriage is that sex is vulnerable. It opens you. We can pretend it isn't so, but every now and then in the act we must be hit by how emotionally and physically vulnerable we are (perhaps particularly as women)... So I feel so grateful that I utterly trust the person I am with. I also feel grateful that I have limited my knowledge of it and that I am learning it with someone I can rely on.
I want to emphasise that calling sex a 'sacred space' does not mean it has always been easy. It has definitely been a source of pain/tension, error, confusion, etc. But every year, it gets a little clearer with it is and what it can be. For instance, I learn practical advice from knowledgeable people in safe contexts (e.g. from the ob-gyn). And we learn to communicate better.
A few months before we got engaged, we attended a session on purity & sex that our church hosted (specifically through the young adults group, though all were welcome). Three married couples in our church (all leaders in some respect) sat on the stage. They were at various points in their marriage (5 years, 10 years, 15 years). The moderator set up some guidelines for us (just to love and respect these couples, to not record anything, and to honor these couples for their bravery). The session was panel format: we asked questions via pen and paper dropped into a bucket. The moderator sifted through them and asked the questions. I really attribute a lot of my mental preparation for the challenges of sex and marriage to this event.
Immediately after the panel, the two of us had a long, honest talk. It was drawn out and at times painful, but it was necessary. And even though it's been years since that event (and I haven't been to anything similar since), I am still friends with those couples and I occasionally think about what they shared. I remember some specifics, but the thing I remember most is the tone of the event. Their willingness to be honest about pain, miscommunication, and their near "breaking-points" (which ALL of them had) were so important for helping me anticipate the terrain of marriage. And even though now I mainly see the happy every-day parts of their marriage on social media, I understand that they have all been through deep struggles and maybe continue to do so. They helped me normalize some of the things that are/were challenging in my own marriage.
As I read others' experiences in your blog, I see the feelings of deep isolation of issues in sex that I have at times felt. It sounds like some may have never had a safe way to contextualize their intimate experiences in marriage. So thanks for hosting a range of experiences on your blog. I think it is helping us understand this 'terrain.'
I think we can critique the way purity has been legalised in Christian schools, youth groups, colleges, churches. Some practices are so ludicrous (like women not eating bananas in public in bible school). But despite the way evangelicals have deadened "purity" by turning it into law, I see real benefit in the spirit of abstinence. It's a practice of protecting your body and your mind. If sex is a holy union, we need to give it sacred space to have a fighting change.

Story #2:
I agree that there's a double standard and it bothers me, but I think what we teach boys/men is what needs to change. If I'm going to teach my daughter to save herself for marriage and keep her body as a gift for her future husband, I need to teach my son to do the same thing. Whatever he expects of his future wife, he needs to hold himself to the same standard. He needs to treat his girlfriends the way he wants his sister to be treated by her boyfriends. Also, a thought that comes from the first comment on your blog post is that the most important question is what does God say in the Bible?Sex is only permitted within the marriage relationship, for both men and women. It shouldn't be a question of "What can I get away with?" or "How far is ok?" but "Am I honouring God and respecting my partner (and myself)?"
I was also bothered by her suggestion that showing skin is necessary in order to be pretty. I don't think beauty and modesty have to be mutually exclusive. Related to this, women are not responsible for the behaviour (or thoughts) of men, but it's not fair to knowingly tempt them either. Say I have a friend who's an alcoholic trying to stay dry - if I really care about them, I'm not going to invite them to a bar with me or order alcohol when we're out for dinner together. Each individual is responsible for their own actions, but we can choose to dress in ways that make it easier for the men around us to keep their thoughts pure. (Note: modest doesn't have to be frumpy!) (Just had another thought on this one - didn't everyone wear jeans & a t-shirt in high school, even non-Christians?)
I was confused by some of the "purity movement" literature she criticized as I'm pretty sure I've read and heard similar things in other places since being married, i.e. men use love to get sex, women use sex to get love. Something like this may not be true for every single person, but science and social sciences usually accept the idea of "general truths", knowing that there are exceptions to every rule. She seems to think that everyone was damaged by the purity movement, but I don't feel like I was. Maybe I'm the exception to the rule? Maybe I just don't realize it?
You wanted to hear from someone who grew up then and is now married and not ashamed to have sex,that's me. It was a little awkward at the beginning, but we figured it out together. On our wedding night, I was timid, but my husband was kind, and I trusted him. Any shame or self consciousness that I have felt is because of comparing my body to others that my husband may have seen, not because of sex itself.
Another issue that has likely contributed to the negative outcomes of the purity movement is that of judgment. The Bible is pretty clear that we're not to judge others, but we all sin, and judging others is pretty common within the church. Would fear of what other people think, or what if someone else found out, contribute to guilt and shame surrounding sex within marriage? What about worrying about what their partner thinks, what if I'm not "pure" enough for him/her, or what would they think of me if I enjoyed this? This might also lead to lack of communication about/during sex, which also causes problems. I don't want to suggest that everyone who has trouble with these feelings is judgmental, maybe they've been hurt in the past by others who are judgmental, or they've seen others hurt. (Again, not doing a great job of explaining myself, but I think judgmental Christians are a big part of this problem.
I've been trying to figure out why I came through the "purity movement" without the issues that so many others seem to have. I find it pretty easy to judge others (I'm working on this, and probably will be for my whole life), and do worry about what others think of me, but not so much when it comes to my sex life. Maybe it has to do with my husband, his personality and background. Maybe my parents' open displays of affection have something to do with it. I do know that I would not have been comfortable with so much talk about sex before I was married! Maybe I have enough other issues that God decided I didn't need to be burdened with this one ;) Whatever the reason, I'm thankful.
One of your contributors mentioned the question of when in the process from thought to action does something become a sin. I believe they were referring to homosexuality but the same can be asked of adultery. I believe Jesus addressed this issue briefly, and what He said seems pretty harsh, but I think the point is that no matter how hard we try we're still going to sin at some point. However, that doesn't mean we give up and stop trying to do what's right. There may be times that we're not even aware we've sinned, or we may feel shame or guilt because of it. If I think I'm perfect or should be perfect and can't accept that I'm a sinner, then the pressure, shame, and guilt will be horrible. I need to recognize that I'm going to make mistakes, and when I sin, ask God to forgive me. Accepting His forgiveness means that I move on and leave the past behind me. I'm not saying that anyone who feels shame/guilt because of sex has sinned, but maybe those feelings come from putting unrealistic expectations on themselves for too long.

We all sin. We all have different sins that we struggle with, different areas of weakness. For some reason we seem to make a bigger deal out of sexual sin. I think there might be a verse about it somewhere, "...he who sins against his own body..." or something like that, but that doesn't mean other sins are any less offensive in God's eyes. Basically, this world is messed up, and it's never going to get better until Jesus comes back. 

The third:
To be honest, my criticism of purity culture is strictly in hindsight. It's easy to roll my eyes at it now, but AT THE TIME, I think I needed it; sixteen-year-old me wasn't mature enough for much more.

I wasn't in a place to make grey-area decisions, or to evaluate the heart behind the law. I needed rules and guidelines. I actually thrived under them.

I was awkward, insecure and horny. Thanks to "True Love Waits," I didn't have to admit that no one wanted to date me, I could be "intentionally single" instead, while dreaming of a better, sexier future.

I made a lot of "good" decisions for unhealthy reasons – I dressed modestly because I didn't like my body, not because I was protecting my brothers in Christ from "stumbling" -- but I managed to escape my adolescence with very few regrets. ("Secular culture" did far more significant damage to my heart/brain than youth group and Acquire the Fire ever did.)

I should probably credit my youth leaders and parents here: While cliché, the phrases they used to talk about sex never seemed negative or guilt-motivated. "Sex is a gift from God." "Sex is worth waiting for." It was very clear to me that sex within marriage was a good, healthy (and even necessary) thing.

So I waited.

My husband was raised with the same messages. He wanted to wait, too. And then he didn't. And God forgave him.

He was so open and honest about his past, so transparent about what mattered then and what matters now, that I actually found his confession attractive. His story was one of learning the hard way. Mine was of drawing lines in the sand and then running away from them.

But somehow, his mistakes didn't haunt him. He wasn't bringing the burden of guilt into our relationship. I was the one with the baggage: the insecurities I didn't deal with in adolescence crept in.

Purity culture helped me hide my insecurities, love forced me to deal with them.

My husband taught me to be kind to myself, to not beat myself up for craving a sexual connection with the man I wanted to spend my life with, and to trust that he would respect me, body included. I didn't need to be the rule-enforcer anymore. I slowly gave up the ref's uniform.

I had sex for the first time on our wedding night. And again the next night. And the next. Maybe I hit some sort of "sexual jackpot" – I know many couples have much bumpier starts and I certainly don't want to take my situation for granted -- but our sex life, and our ability to communicate freely about it, has been great from the beginning.

Maybe I didn't pay enough attention to youth group devotionals to internalize the skewed messages on sexuality. (Don't they all end with "Let's play dodgeball!"?) Maybe I just embraced the parts of books and lectures that I liked. Maybe my BS radar was better than I thought. Or maybe God just partnered me with someone who met me where I was at and eased me into embracing my sexuality, no shame allowed.

Knowing what I know now, would I have done anything differently? I'm not so sure. But I wouldn't want to be 17 again, either.

And finally:

When it came to clothing, modesty, and growing up in the purity movement, albeit one not as intense as in the Bible Belt of the USA, dressing modestly was always presented as a service from sisters in Christ to our brothers. But then came the rules. No bra straps visible, no tank tops, no shorts or skirts above your fingertips, no purse straps worn across the middle of your body, etc... These being the things that would cause a guy to lust. Being the legalistic person that I was (and unfortunately still am), I soaked it all up.

Thinking about it now, I don't think I ever switched to a more modest piece of clothing out of love, it was always out of legalism, out of the shame that would come from "breaking the rules," and out of shame of what other people might say or think. Even now I think it's shame that would motivate me to dress more modestly not so much love. The voice in my head would always be "what would others at church say or think?" Not "do this out of love."

Interesting enough it would be us women, "shaming" other women in the name of accountability and holiness when it came to modesty whether intentional or unintentional. There would always be this tiny dread in the back of my mind that some woman at a Christian gathering would come up and kindly tell me that my choice of clothing was inappropriate or God forbid a bra strap was accidentally showing.

Yet as all this was going on, nothing was said to us girls or between us girls about being a single, Christian, female and sex other than to keep a lid on it until marriage.

I felt like an oddball for wanting sex as a single. I'm not even talking about the romance and the emotional connection. I'm talking about just the physical aspect. My body's desire was so strong it was painful. Once I had to literally stop driving because it was so distracting. I had experimented with masturbation and masturbated on and off, but the shame was so intense and crippling. I felt like I couldn't face God for days and weeks. It was a stain on my soul.

I remember expressing my physical desire to have sex to a married Christian friend once, hoping to find empathy, but she shut me down, and tried to comfort me by telling me it wasn't all that it was cracked up to be and tried to downplay it.

My saving grace from God were Christian girl friends who were not afraid to talk about sex, nor afraid of their desire for sex. Every time I broached the subject I felt like I was about to confess to something bad and weird. It was such a relief that it was always followed by something along the lines of "me too!"

Surprisingly, or rather providentially, my husband and I have a very healthy awesome sex life that is the complete opposite of the first two stories Beth shared. It helped that while he did come from a very conservative Christian background there wasn't a purity movement in that particular Christian subculture. When I showed the article to him, it was all a bit foreign to him, and needed a bit of explanation of the context.

We were both virgins when we got married. There was much anticipation and no trepidation leading up to the wedding night even though we both expected it to be awkward and not at all like the sex scenes out of Hollywood or some glorified transcendent experience the church has made it out to be. I think we both had very realistic expectations of each other and of sex and we still do.

We fumbled, we learned, and we enjoyed each other. It's an ongoing process. It's still definitely gross/weird/awkward sometimes. But I don't think good sex and gross/weird/awkward has to be mutually exclusive. Or even is mutually exclusive. That's just the plain mechanics of sex.

It's not just the purity movement in evangelical Christianity that puts the onus on women for men's sexual response. Fundamental Islam does this to the extreme that the woman who is raped is responsible for causing adultery or fornication because the men can't help themselves. Our secular, Western culture does this when victims of sexual assaults are asked what they wore at the time of the assault, when "slut-shaming" happens. I am willing to say that all cultures have ideas and standards for modesty and probably a lot of them put the onus on women. Perhaps this is just a consequence of the fall that women are seen as lesser, therefore as objects of men's sexual desires, so it is natural to put the onus on women, and use women as commodities.

A hundred, two hundred years ago, in China, tiny feet 2 inches in length was what was considered to be sensual and titillating. Women could not be married off if they didn't have small feet so girls had their feet broken and bound as kids to achieve these "golden lilies." Their version of cleavage and breasts. In Japan, it was the backs of necks. Geishas wrapped in layers of cloth, and a thick kimono with no figure to speak of, wore their necklines low in the back to "inspire" clients. In some sub-saharan African countries breasts are just used to feed children. It's the inner thighs that are sexual.
There is a place for modesty. Paul talks about it in the Bible. Peter talks about it in the Bible. Even society itself demands it. Otherwise why would there be indecency laws. Throwing out the baby with the bathwater like the author of the article does isn't the solution, but legislating dos and dont's isn't the solution either because culture changes across time and place.

Thank you, friends.

Some thoughts and questions:
  • What is the relationship between shame and privacy? Can/how do we practice privacy without incurring shame? What about modesty and shame?
  • Why is it that we teach boys and girls different things about sex?
  • What do you make of the statement in the third story that "purity culture helped me hide my insecurities; love forced me to deal with them"? 
  • Is the damage done by "purity culture" less/more/as severe as other cultural voices around female sexuality? 

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