March 30, 2014

from Bonhoeffer

Last week I wrote a paper about Dietrich Bonhoeffer's views on church mission and leadership. I didn't have (take) as much time to read as I would've liked, and kept my focus on related content, rather than the whole of his life and writings. But I came across these two quotes that didn't fit anywhere in my paper, and need to record them for posterity:

on being separated from loved ones:
"It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; he doesn't fill it, but on the contrary, he keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain."

and on suffering:

"The idea that we could have avoided many of life's difficulties if we had taken things more cautiously is too foolish to be entertained for a moment...To renounce a full life and its real joys in order to avoid pain is neither Christian nor human."

March 28, 2014

Let's Talk About Sex and Shame: The End(ish)

Okay, friends. I think we're just about through with this series. Are we all ready for a break? :)

Once again, I want to say that I have been so encouraged by the stories, the number of you who've said thank you for hosting, and the conversations that I know are happening offline as a result. I didn't have any measures for success in my mind when I started, but we've definitely surpassed any I could have imagined.

Here are a handful of last thoughts from some readers:

It was sad for me to see how many people feel shame over their sexuality.... In every aspect of your relationship here are three things that I feel are very important. CRC Commitment, Respect, Communication. (it use to be only two but I added commitment a few years ago) Not just about sex, but any other subject you talks about. As our bloggers attest to when a couple communicate about sex it can be a beautiful, fulfilling, and binding time together. 


Identifying myself as a Christian means that I try to obey what the Bible says about how to live life.  For someone who doesn't identify themself as a Christian and makes no claims to want to live their life to please God, I have no reason to expect them to make choices based on Biblical standards.  To the person who is worried about being judged by their extended family, I sincerely hope that it's only a misunderstanding or your imagination and that your partner is able to feel welcome and part of the family when he's around them.


Jesus cleansed people's shame-- Jesus doesn't avoid shame. Nor does he allow us to wallow in it. Nor does he think it's the norm. The woman who had a menstrual problem for 12 years touched Jesus' garment and was healed (Matt 9:20-22). Especially since her menstrual problem caused her a lot of shame. The 10 lepers were healed by Jesus when he touched them (luke 17:11-19). We read these stories and interpret them as outcasts invited into the Kingdom. It is so. But beyond that, Levitical law insisted that these people should be outcasts because of the shame inherent with blood and skin, the body. So, when Jesus healed them, he was also giving them back their human dignity that they were created with but that was stolen. We might not be lepers or have ongoing discharge. But I myself (and many of us) do experience shame. It’s an existential issue. And it requires an existential solution. A shower isn’t going to help me feel clean on the inside. Nor is it going to help me feel empowered. It isn’t going to purify me or dignify me. So, I am glad that Jesus will embrace me and heal me existentially. I guess what I am trying to say is Jesus does more than just not condemn. I think he heals and cleanses. I think this is a fuller story that speaks to our existential issues of not just feeling embraced, but also feeling cleansed.

I have a more positive view of Christianity after reading the range of experiences and views of people who identify as Christian. I was at a stage where I was seriously considering and wanted to join the church. I liked learning the stories of the Bible, hearing inspirational sermons and listening to reminders about how to live a good life, and I really admired and could see the value of the sense of community, welcome, and support.The problem was that I couldn’t accept all of the teachings I was hearing, some of which involved sexuality and the role of women. Reading the stories you’ve posted makes me think that maybe there could be a church out there that I could join.

This has made me think a LOT about how I want to talk about sex and dating and relationships with my children. I’d like it to be a comfortable topic so that there isn’t so much embarrassment around the subject.  I want my children to witness love and affection between their parents (as you did – you’re very lucky!), and I want them to see sex as something special.  However, I don’t want there to be overwhelming guilt or shame if they happen to slip up and give in to their natural, biological urges.  I want them to learn from their actions and experiences and be able to move on and have healthy relationships.  I want them to be able to have positive relationships with people of all ages and genders, without the undercurrent, worry, or goal of dating.  This is a topic that I’ll continue to think about for a long time, I think.

The questions you asked in your last post made me think, especially about what my face says.  As I mentioned before, my first reaction tends to be judgmental, but I know this is wrong.  Most of the time I wouldn't respond to someone with words of judgement, but sometimes while I'm processing what I've heard and figuring out what the appropriate reply is, I think my face may betray me.  I wish my first response could always be one of love, but I think that's something only Jesus can change and have a feeling it's something I'm going to have to work on for a long time.

I would never have guessed your story.  That must have taken a lot of courage to share with your name attached.  I really respect that you did.  I know the topic of the series was about the purity culture within the Christian church, but I think that your series has shown that many of the experiences and challenges people are facing go beyond church culture and include more of society.  Sexuality isn’t a topic many people discuss in such honest detail, even in secular society.  The media and pop culture also portray unrealistic views and ideals of sex – certainly quite different than the purity culture, but unrealistic nonetheless.  The response to your series has shown that people DO want to talk about it, but that many of us feel restricted by shame or embarrassment or fear of judgement.  It’s an extremely personal topic.  Society in general is getting better at discussing personal things like mental health, but we’ve got a long way to go in terms of sexuality, sexual abuse, and emotional health related to sex.  Thank you for starting the conversation and thank you to all of your friends who contributed their stories and shared that there is no “normal” – everyone has different and similar experiences.

Final note: I'm more than happy to keep this conversation going with those who are interested - or talk more about related things. Several of you already know this! It's honestly an honour and a delight to see my little blog have offline ripples, and to know that my relationships are deepening as a result. Thank you, all! I'm going to resume "regular programming" here on the blog now, which means random posts when I feel like it about thoughts and life and music and my sports injuries. Maybe some other series like this will come along. Maybe it won't. But you're welcome to join in for whatever comes!

March 23, 2014

Let's Talk About Sex and Shame. What Now?

Well. Here we are. Two weeks and more than two dozen stories later.

I don't know about you, but I've found this series a bit overwhelming – I have too many thoughts and feelings to have processed them all fully, but I want to share a few of the big ones, and ask you to do the same.

Behind the scenes, beyond the stories you've read, many of you have emailed or said in person that you're reading along, that it's been encouraging/interesting/thought-provoking. I can honestly say that I didn't expect the traction this has gotten (I thought I would be begging two or three of my friends to share their stories), but it has confirmed to me that this was (is) an important dialogue to have. Many of us, churched or not, have stories and thoughts and feelings around our sexuality that we haven't had a safe place to reflect on. I am grateful that for a few weeks, this could be that space.

Now what? Where do we go from here? How do we take this out into our lives at large?

For all of you, the stories that I shared were fully anonymous. But the vast majority of them came to me with names and faces attached. They came in vulnerability, honesty, and risk. No one knew how I would respond to their stories, what I would say or not say. Each of them chose to believe that I would honour their privacy. The people who've shared are my friends (and can I say that I feel extremely privileged/lucky/blessed to have such a diverse and fantastic community? Y'all are wonderful). But I could not have predicted their stories. If you had given me these stories, and the list of people who sent them in, and told me to match them up, I would have done poorly. We cannot assume that we know someone's struggles, their hurts, or their secret shame.

If we are going to see change in how our world talks about sexuality, how we help remove shame and show people that they are loved and valuable, we need to think about and be prepared for and willing to have these conversations. You know the old adage – failing to plan is planning to fail.

So I want to propose a brief practice exercise, a little case study for us. It will take 5 minutes, or maybe 5 hours.
  1. Which story did you find the most difficult/foreign/uncomfortable/maybe even offensive?
  2. Now imagine that story belongs to one of your closest friends. For those of you who know me personally, imagine that I told you it is my story. For real imagine it. You and I are sitting down for coffee, maybe in your kitchen, maybe in a cafe. We're talking about life and what's been happening, and I say, “I know this is kind of a big story, but can I process some thoughts I've been having?” And then I tell you.
  3. What do you say to me, when I finish? How do you feel, both about me and for me? How do you communicate those things to me? What does the expression on your face say? What do you say to me the next day? The next time we see each other in person?
I truly believe we can shape a healthier culture and dialogue that stands against dominant/unhealthy narratives by being intentional, as each of us choose that my one life is going to tell a different story. That's all I have control over. But when I take ownership of my life, my story, there are ripples. Our lives intersect, and our lives interact, and we change each other, for better or for worse.

Of course, the question then becomes, “What story do I want my life to tell?” In this case, when it comes to sexuality and shame, what do I want my words, my actions, my choices to tell other people?

We will probably all come to slightly different conclusions, and many will have different underlying beliefs that motivate us. Here's where I'm at:

  1. I believe that the individual value and worth of a human being is not determined by their sexuality: their choices, their experiences, or their identity. Many cultural narratives try to tell us otherwise in subtle ways (This is what an “empowered” woman looks like! This is what it means to be a “good” Christian!); I do not want to listen to them.
  2. Our sexuality is perhaps one of the deepest parts of how we define ourselves, and it always deserves to be discussed and treated with care and dignity. Always.
  3. Living my life out of fear or shame – in any area – is no longer an option for me. I will actively seek relationships and professional support that help me move towards hope and healing.
  4. I will not participate in reinforcing a culture that shies away from the gray spaces, the uncertainties, the realities, and the difficulties of being sexual beings. We cannot paint with broad strokes or assume that life is black and white, cut and dried, or uncomplicated.
  5. As someone who loves Jesus, I believe that my understanding of who I believe God to be, and what I have experienced in my relationship with God should reshape and influence every aspect of my life, including my view of sexuality. I am still figuring this out, as I've said before. But one thing I will say with confidence is this: if church people are talking about sex in a way that begins with or is dominated by the message “keep it in your pants until you're married,” we are preaching a false gospel to our community, and to those outside. The good news of Jesus has never been, “Here are the rules; follow them.” The good news of Jesus is that he is not a taskmaster, cracking the whip and shouting, “Try harder! Do more! Be better!”
One friend commented in her story that she doesn't know what Jesus says about sex, and is only familiar with the “don't do it” narrative that has dominated the church. Since then, I've been thinking about how Jesus spoke about issues related to sexuality, particularly a story in which Jesus was in the temple teaching when some religious leaders came in with a woman who had been caught “in the act” of adultery.

They put her in front of the crowd and said to Jesus, “This woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?
They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “Let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.
When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?
“No, Lord,” she said.
And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”   (John 8:1-11)
Jesus spoke against her accusers. He spoke against her shame. He spoke for her. That's what I want to do with my life. I recognize that my sexual ethics and choices will be different than many, and I'm more than willing to explain why (I think most Christians don't do this well, because we have failed to do the hard work of wrestling through what a Christian framework is when it comes to understanding sexuality and making sexual choices). But before that kind of conversation happens, like Jesus, I want to say, whatever the scenario, “I do not condemn you,” and mean it, with my whole heart. I do not want to be like the religious leaders in this story, parading peoples' lives around, adding shame and pointing fingers that I have no right to point.

Sigh. (for serious, just exhaled loudly and deeply)

Those are all my thoughts. And now I'd like to hear some of yours. Because I'm not the fount of all (or even most) wisdom or experience and I think it would be good for all y'all to hear from each other. Especially to thank and encourage all those who shared so honestly with the knowledge that their transparency is making a difference!

Some questions to start with, if you need a starter:
  • What are your thoughts at the end of this series? 
  • What are you taking away from all this? 
  • Is there something that has challenged you? Surprised you?
  • Have you had a conversation with a partner or friend or spouse because of this series? 
  • What do you think will change in your life now?

Please, leave a comment on this post, or email/message me your thoughts – and I will take a sentence or two from each one, and have one last post of our shared learnings. Then this series will be officially done. :)


Also, if you're in the Toronto area and are interested in meeting up with a few people face-to-face to talk about this (and/or other real-life topics)...let me know. It may or may not happen.

March 21, 2014

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

As much as I'm willing to talk about almost any topic or idea or concept, sharing my personal stories always feels terrifying. All evidence to the contrary, I am a fairly private person. In telling my story as it relates to sexuality and shame, I feel like I am inviting you into a closer friendship than we've previously had. So, welcome, friend.

Here's my story:*
If I were to summarize the reasons I am critical of the purity movement, it is not because it teaches a conservative/Christian perspective on sexual abstinence. It is because, as a young person, it painted unrealistic dreams for my future and made promises it couldn't keep. It gave me rules to follow that would get me to marriage as a virgin, but it didn't teach me how to have healthy and mature relationships with men apart from (or before) marriage. And rather than dismantling and bringing healing to my sexual brokenness, it reinforced fear-based thinking that taught me lies about both myself and the men I encounter.  
- 
From what I understand, I started reading when I was three years old, and I have been a voracious reader since. I cannot encounter a sign or a cereal box or a label without reading it, let alone a book.  
So it doesn't surprise me (in hindsight) that I read ALL THE BOOKS on purity and dating (and not dating) that the Christian book industry produced in the 90s, many of them while I was still in junior high. They were the source of knowledge on how to date right, how to get to a good marriage, and how to be dateable. I wanted all of those things. Books were my main source of information when it came to sex and relationships. Books and observations. In the customary school and youth group conversations, I listened intently, but rarely (if ever) would have admitted any questions of my own.

On my 12th birthday (or maybe my 13th?), my mother and I went away overnight. I had long anticipated this little getaway – it was a rite of passage in our family to go away with a parent to mark the shift into adolescence, and, of course, to talk about the birds and the bees. I was less eager for this part, and when my mom brought it up, I remember quickly telling her that I understood how it worked and had no questions for her. Which was entirely true; I knew the mechanics and I had no questions, though I am sure I had many false beliefs and gaping holes about navigating the next decade. It simply hadn't occurred to me yet that it would be anything less than straightforward. I am glad my parents had this family ritual, and I wish I had taken better advantage of it. But I was twelve, and didn't know what a unique family I have.

Something else that hindsight has made clear to me is that my parents' displays of affection for one another were a blessing. They never let their children's disgust or embarrassment keep them from kissing hello (and goodbye), holding hands while walking, and not-infrequently whispering in one another's ears and giggling/chuckling together. They are in their 60s now, and these habits have not changed. At 29, I still roll my eyes at them, but I am grateful to know my parents love each other, that they are attracted to one another, and that they are comfortable with us knowing it.

-

While in junior high, before I had much awareness of my own sexuality, I was on the receiving end of unwanted sexual advances. I knew instinctively that something was not right, and spoke up. My interpretation of what had happened was explained away as a misunderstanding, and the situation did not reoccur. I tried to put the entire thing from my mind.

This experience reinforced (or perhaps purity culture later reinforced) two false beliefs about sexuality: first, that the male libido is inherently aggressive and disrespectful of female autonomy, and secondly, that I must protect myself from sexual attention.

I always want to know the rules, whether we are playing a game or going on a trip or working on a project together. I want to know the rules, because then I know how to be successful, how to do right and be good. Follow the rules, do your best, the results will follow. This has by-and-large been the formula of my life. Occasionally there are rules that don't make sense to me, and I will ask “Why?” before deciding to break them. In my entire high school career, I skipped precisely one period of class, and I told my teacher beforehand that I would be baking gingerbread cookies with an exchange student instead of coming to class to watch Comment le grinch a vole Noel. She said that was totally fine with her, and off I went.

The point is: I was immersed in purity culture, and knew its rules: no sex outside marriage, dress modestly, "guard your heart." 97% of the time, as a teen and young adult, I did those things well. I followed the rules, because I loved the God who had (apparently) asked this of me, and because I was protecting myself.

But inside, I was deeply antagonistic towards this body of mine. I hated it. On one hand, because it was unavoidably sexual (I have breasts, after all) and therefore out of my control, and on the other hand, because in my teenage mind, I was not sexy (or pretty or attractive – it was nearly impossible to differentiate between those words) and thirdly, because I wanted to be attractive. I didn't know how to process or resolve these feelings, and I didn't know of anyone else wrestling with similar thoughts, so I largely suffered on own.

It may go without saying that my high school love life was essentially non-existent. This isn't entirely because of purity culture; my voracious reading habits were part of a larger geekdom that generally doesn't translate into high-school popularity, and the unkind feelings I had towards my body resulted in all kinds of social anxiety when interacting with boys.

-

In university, I had my first official boyfriend. He was a good Christian boy, and I was a good Christian girl, and for the first few weeks, it seemed all my dreams were coming true. I had followed the rules, and this was the payoff. While I intellectually understood that there are no guaranteed relationships, I had long assumed that God would reward my faithful purity with a strong leader of a man and a happy marriage, likely straight out of college.

When our relationship began to unravel, I had no framework to interpret this surprising turn of events. If the rules I had learned were not the tools I needed to get to the goal of marriage, and flip the switch that allowed me to be a sexual being, what were they for?

This question scared me, and as I often do with things that scare me, I attempted to ignore it and carry on.

Around the same time, I had a seemingly innocuous conversation with a man. It was quickly clear to me that he was quite interested in getting to know me. In a few weeks more, it was evident that he was not emotionally/mentally stable. He became convinced that we were meant to be together, despite my best attempts to graciously tell him otherwise. For the next two years, I lived under the fear of aggressive male sexuality. Fear of encountering him simmered in the back of my mind whenever I was alone, until our lives diverged enough that I no longer scanned the streets for his presence.

-

A few years out of university, within a handful of months of each other, four marriages of people close to me began to unravel. In each situation, infidelity or other sexual struggles were a factor. Some of these marriages recovered. Others did not. As I watched the pain and heartbreak and anger and sadness, and wondered what would happen for each couple, I saw quite clearly that my ideas of cause and effect when it came to sexual choices and “purity” were wrong. Waiting to have sex until marriage in no way guaranteed a happy love life, a healthy marriage, or less heartbreak.
 
In light of this, and other life-crises, I began to face and address my own personal baggage. I went to counseling for the first time and began to identify and dismantle false beliefs (including but also beyond the area of sexuality) that were running my life. I slowly stopped believing that the way I dress or the way I stand dictates a man's ability to see me as more than a pair of breasts. I stopped telling myself that the junior-high encounter had been a misunderstanding, and felt deep sadness for young Beth and the way a brief interaction disrupted my innocence, my self-perception, and my default attitude toward men. I took risks in dating (or at least what felt like risks to me). I started asking questions about the relationship between my faith and my sexuality, where the points of disparity are between Christian beliefs about sex and Church (cultural) beliefs about sex.

I'm still somewhere in the middle of this. I don't have a fully-formed theology of sexuality (although I do have opinions and convictions and things I want and don't want for my own life). I don't have an amazing relationship story to hold up in triumph – I have dating stories, some funny, and some sad, stories about grace and stories about learning to be more of myself, stories of how boyfriends have  brought healing and hurt to me, and stories of how I have likely hurt them. It has been a mixed bag. Life is a mixed bag.

Thank you, friends, for letting me share these things with you.


Some of the questions I'm asking these days include:
  • What is involved in a holistic, Jesus-centred theology of sexuality?
  • What does Jesus have to say about the way I have been wounded and the lies I have believed about my sexuality?
  • How do I want to dialogue/learn/process thoughts and experiences around sex? Who are the safe people in my life?
  • What are the sources that have fed my current beliefs? Do I want to stick with these sources? Do I need to add other voices?
  • What does it look like, in my life, to neither run from nor be ruled by my sexuality?
  • What does it look like to cultivate trust and healthy risk-taking in relationships?
  • How can I be a voice of healing and freedom for others who live with feelings of shame and guilt?


Tomorrow – some thoughts on what this series has taught me, some thoughts on where we go from here, and one last request for all y'all to weigh in!



*I debated sharing my story anonymously, but there aren't enough other stories from not-married ladies that it could hide among. Once I decided to put my name on it, I realized that out of respect for others' privacy, and since the web is a public space where anyone could conceivably find this, I couldn't be as no-holds-barred as some of you who've shared. I've asked myself if I'm chickening out, but I don't think I am. I hope I'm not. And I hope that if any of you are to ask me to tell more of my story in a less public forum, I'd share. I'm pretty sure I would. 

March 20, 2014

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

Two stories today from some non-church friends. Tomorrow is my story, and on the weekend I'll post some final thoughts/questions for all of us as we wrap up:

The topic of sex didn’t come up much in conversation in my family. We don’t really discuss feelings or show physical affection very often. I think I remember actually discussing sex with my mother (never my father) maybe three times. The main message I got was “Sex is fun, and it’s worth saving for someone you love.” My family isn't religious, but I guess our household was still pretty conservative. The other message was “if you’re ready to have sex, you also need to be ready to raise a baby.”
With that practical advice, the suggestion that it was a good idea to wait until I found the person I would marry, and a very shy personality, I was well into my twenties before I even had my first kiss. That was when I finally decided to just deal with the anxiety and stress of figuring out a relationship (something I’d avoided since grade seven when a boy sent me into a panic and many-year avoidance of all interactions with males my age by asking me to dance and then asking me out). It wasn’t purity culture or lectures on modesty that caused that panicked reaction and made me avoid boys – I think it was just shyness and uncertainty and naivety, probably because our family didn’t really talk about these things, I didn't have older siblings, and we didn’t have a television growing up...I just had no idea about anything related to dating or sex.

Of course, I was also waiting for Mr. Perfect, whom I was going to marry. When I finally realized that Mr. Perfect was an unrealistic ideal and decided it would be worse to never have any experience in the world of dating, I was well into my twenties and it was stressful and sometimes embarrassing to be so naïve. However, I am SO HAPPY that I took the leap and went through the stress and embarrassment and figured out the basics of relationships and intimacy before finding my longterm partner. Besides discovering what was really important to me in a relationship (like common values, shared interests, humour, etc.), the intimate experiences I had when I was dating gave me confidence and made it possible for me to be comfortable discussing sex with my partner. Frank communication has been key in keeping our sex life happy, healthy, and fun. Work stress gets in the way of sex at times, but that just proves that our relationship isn’t only about sex – it’s about support and friendship and love. Sex is just added fun for times when life isn’t as stressful (and hopefully will someday also be for making those kids we keep talking about!).

I’m glad that I saved some experiences for the man I fell in love with and am planning to marry. However, I’m also very happy that I had some intimate experiences while I was dating others. This was especially important in the beginning of our relationship because I could spend more time thinking about the friendship and shared interests and common goals part of our relationship – and not be so incredibly nervous about the hand holding and kissing and the rest of the sexual side of things. I’m happy that my partner had other experiences too, because he has always been comfortable talking about sex as a natural part of life. Sex is still something very special, but it’s easy to talk about in a matter-of-fact way. In fact, having been with other people makes us much more appreciative of the relationship we have now. Without the expectation that we would wait until marriage, we also didn’t have to deal with the stress or worry or guilt about whether we managed to suppress our desires. Instead, we could focus our energy on building a healthy relationship that focused on more than sex.

Growing up, there was never the message from my parents that sex should be saved for after marriage. In fact, living together before marriage was almost encouraged as a way to get to know each other. From a practical perspective, living together has allowed me and my partner to save a lot of time and money. We’ve become much closer since we started living together and we’ve already taken care of the logistics of getting a joint bank account and have been able to start creating our financial future together. The idea of EVERYTHING happening at once (wedding, sex, moving houses, adjusting to living together, organizing finances, etc.) seems overwhelming to me. I’m glad it’s been spread out over a few years for us.
I grew up outside church culture, but I’ve been influenced by it nonetheless. I’ve even experienced a bit of the shame and guilt associated with the Purity Culture. I attended a wedding while “living in sin” and sat through a lengthy sermon that congratulated the couple for “resisting the temptations” of the outside world and strongly implied that those who don’t resist are terrible, terrible people (at least that was my interpretation). I think it’s sad that such strong and destructive feelings of shame and guilt are tied to the act of sex and that so much importance is placed on a piece of paper saying you are legally wed. Because really, it is just sex. Does it matter that much? I have never really take into consideration the religious aspects and teachings of Jesus regarding sex (mostly because I don't know them...I only know "don't have sex before marriage!").

It’s likely a certain amount of self-importance that has me thinking I’m being judged - my extended family members likely don’t have the time or desire to scrutinize my personal life, and no one has ever said anything judgmental to me. However, it really seems a waste of time and energy that I still worry about the question from my partner, “Do you think your extended family is judging us because we’re ‘living in sin’?” Shame on purity culture, I say. Is it really anyone else’s business?
   
I acknowledge that sex can be risky – babies and sexually transmitted infections can be the consequences of unsafe or un-smart sex. I also know that the religious aspects of marriage are very important to some people. But if someone chooses to have sex within a committed relationship, or even casually just because it’s fun, does it matter to other people? Culture and society will always have norms, but I think it would be really nice if we could get rid of some of the judgment. Let sex be a personal choice – respect the people who wait, but also respect the people who choose to have fun. If the person is happy, emotionally healthy, and contributing to society in a positive manner, why does her or his sex life matter so much? Is safe and smart consensual sex outside of wedlock or with someone of the same sex really going to affect other people? Let’s focus on behaviours that DO affect our interactions with other people – like lying and cheating, and unsafe driving, and rudeness, and not teaching children financial literacy. If you want to include sex in the important messages, then maybe just mention things that affect other people (like adultery), and talk about safe and smart sex so we avoid unwanted pregnancies and infections and emotional hurt. 

And from another friend: 

I don't think, growing up, we're ever clued into the extent of just how much sex is out there in the world. There are prostitutes, and porn stars, and sex clubs, and strip clubs, and bath houses, and pick-up artists, and swingers parties, and marital affairs, and one-night hookups, and it's all happening with or without us.

I've always been comfortably curious about sex. When I was 13, there was a boy in school who started asking everyone at recess whether any of them had masturbated. I had already read somewhere that it was a normal thing to do, so I unabashedly said, "Yes", not knowing that I would turn out to be the only one to admit it. (Good grief!)

Even with that attitude towards sex, I had to wait until I was 20 for my first sexual relationship. My soon-to-be-girlfriend and I never planned on starting a relationship. We were just tired of waiting for "the one", and instead decided to be each other's "first." Seven months later, we were invested. She had moved in with me, and we were engaged... seven more months later, we broke up, and in horrid fashion. I've no doubt that our agreement to have sex - our acceptance of each other, and willingness to explore this new experience together; compounded by our hubris, and our emotional immaturity - was what accelerated the situation. But I wouldn't suggest that getting sexually involved in the first place was the mistake.

I've never wanted my own insecurities to be a limiting factor for anyone else's ability to love another person. It's hard enough to find someone to love, as it is! Several years back, I was introduced to a family of three adults with six kids. Seeing that as an achievable existence just clicked with me, and soon enough, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to become a proponent of polyamory.
In my mind, sex should be seen as just another activity. Like talking or playing sports, we'd like to be good at it, or at least look good at it... we're just naked, and overwhelmed by emotion, so we're a lot more vulnerable doing it. :P

Thank you, friends, for weighing in and sharing your experiences with us!

My questions:
  • What does the first story reveal about how church culture communicates with those outside our communities?
  • Do we, as Christians, expect those who are not to adhere to the same morals or ethics that we practice? Should we? 
  • Would others outside the church agree with this second perspective, that sex is just another activity, albeit one done naked?

March 19, 2014

Let's Talk About Sex and Shame. Part XI.

Man, it's getting tricky to group these stories together! But here's what I see in today's: both consider questions connected to what is "allowed" in the bedroom and both are quite straight-forward in expressing their perspectives (first post in the series is here):
I grew up evangelical. In my 20's, I experienced the epiphany that masturbation is a sin. Not the worst sin, but still a sin. This did not bring more shame, no, the clarity of this realization was liberating. Sin has been atoned for by Jesus, so you can confess and move on, but if you don't know what is sin, its difficult. But as I said, this was a liberating idea.

It was liberating for a couple reasons. First, even on a secular level, an introspective daydreamer will have to admit that there comes a time to stop daydreaming and start living. That is a liberating realization. Secondly, its not just the awareness of sin that is liberating, but that Jesus, who died and rose again, loves to forgive sinners, and he leads sinners to a better way. Even after I named it a sin, but still gave into temptation, the confession to God and reconciliation was almost immediate, and he flooded my soul with all kinds of reassuring Bible promises. I was sorry for the sin, but I was grateful to my Creator for my relatively good health, for my youth, and I felt happy to ask God for help in taking concrete steps to becoming more marriageable, and I prayed for the well being of every one I was ever attracted to. Before I named masturbation a sin, I was never so optimistic, I was gloomy. I began to mature by leaps and bounds! (I still have a lot to learn, but ya know I'm just sayin', it helped) I began to see Matt.5:27-30 and Col.3:5 with more clarity. 


My parents, my teenage Christian friends and youth pastors never discussed it. Words in the New Testament like "lust," "sensuality," "lasciviousness," etc. do not, by themselves, give precise details, but they say enough to make a pious guy uneasy. Combine that with hormones and glaring silence, and you get confusion. It may not always lead to subjective shame, as in my case, but I think in all cases such a situation hinders maturity and holy living.

I want to emphasize: Jesus has helped me so much. I love him. He gives me hope and peace. Now that I have written this I realize that this particular problem was relatively simple. Other habits and relationships can be much more complicated, and I don't want to trivialize them. I'm sorry if I have. I hope everyone can find a way to trust in Jesus, what ever their problems are. He was shamefully crucified, but he rose again. He can help.

Me: From the sentence about being an "introspective daydreamer" that needed to "stop daydreaming and start living", it sounds as if masturbation was a habit that was also tied to sexual fantasizing for you, possibly in lieu of other ways of actively participating in life; is this your experience?
Wow, I started answering this question but I don't think I want to tell my story, because the words wont stop and will go on and on and on, wearyingly. Instead I will just give you some isolated facts: Yes, masturbation was a deeply ingrained habit that started in my elementary school years, and that, combined with other factors, made me shy, passive, lonely, bored, and ashamed. In my teens I was addicted to really hard-core porn ( I must still be vigilant against that sin). And I didn't dare discuss it, even with people I trusted, till I was about twenty. I have been married for a few years now to an evangelical woman who grew up non-evangelical, who was not a virgin, and we're doing great!

Me: Are you able to articulate why you believe masturbation is a sin? As something not explicitly stated in Scripture, what has brought you to believe it falls in the bounds of sexually forbidden activity for those who follow Christ?
When studying the Bible it is important to ask two questions: "What does this say?" and "What does this NOT say?" This second question is legitimate because we must "not go beyond what is written," as explained in numerous verses in the Bible. But in my pride and stubbornness I can ask this second question to evade responsibility, to justify myself, and to imagine loopholes. Jesus condemned this kind of hair-splitting self-justification in Matt.23:16-22. I came to realize that when the Bible names a general concept it is wrong to automatically conclude that a specific act is excluded because it is not named explicitly. I can't merely ask, "What does in NOT say?" I must ask, "What DOES it say?" So it is with "lust" and its synonyms in the Bible. I think it is impossible or nearly impossible for a single person to masturbate without lust. Maybe there are cases I am unaware of. And I think it's ok for a husband and wife to manually stimulate each other, and it's ok, when personal contact is impossible, for someone to fantasize about their spouse. A singleton who fantasizes about sex within marriage is doing better than a singleton who has other fantasies.

After reading your blog and your emails I admit that there may be some situations I have not considered. And I cannot emphasize enough: Jesus saves, Jesus loves to forgive the repentant and the humble, and to improve our lot in life by loving us and teaching us to love one another. He made abundant atonement for sin!

This second submission made me laugh because it is casual, frank, and not unlike some of the conversations I have had with my closest friends:
This is some of what I want to say about the sex and purity stuff and marriage things:

Orgasms are good. In fact, they make sex nice. Not having orgasms make sex just sometimes okay. Lady orgasms are hard to achieve, so not having one despite both parties trying really hard is disappointing. And don't even get me started about sex after a baby. The point of all this is to say is to those recently marrieds who feel sex is awful, FIND A WAY TO ORGASM. (I've never typed that in all caps before...feels weird). I couldn't feel more strongly about this.

This leads me to my second anecdote. When I was single in my late 20's, a time which happened to coincide with an increased uptick in my desire to have the sex, I was having a conversation with one of my slightly younger single Christian male friends. He was showing me an angry blog he wrote about a Christian couple who were running a sex toy store online, a website selling toys but purposely avoiding porn imagery. He was upset and affronted by the attempt of this couple to improve Christian marriages by introducing sex toys into the bedroom. "How sad", he remarked. I thought, "What does he know about sex? He's not having it. And what the hell does he know about vaginas?!?"
I appreciate and fully believe that celibate people know a lot about sex. What irked me then and really irks me now, is his judgment about what could or could not constitute Christian practice in the bedroom. I don't know if he and wife have revisited his previous sex toy ban, but that is between them and the walls of their home. The whole incident spoke to my frustration about his male voice getting a say in what sort of "Marital Aids" could and could not be used to bring sexual pleasure to married females. Don't shame the vag, dude. Don't shame the vag.

There you have it.We're getting into the nitty-gritty today: masturbation and pornography, and female fulfillment via sex toys/"marital aids."

Rather than asking whether people are for or against each of these, I'm curious about how you responded to these stories.
  • Were you angry about any of the content? Sad? Shocked? 
  • Why do you think you responded with the emotions that first surfaced? 
  • Are these topics you've ever discussed with either a partner or a group of trusted friends? 
Tomorrow: two stories from people outside church/purity culture.

March 18, 2014

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? 

March 17, 2014

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

For those just tuning in, this series started a week ago, with this post.

As this series progresses, it is getting more difficult to group the stories together by theme or content. In some ways, today's stories are total opposites. But there is a commonality in them that I'm struggling to label, and it is this unnamed quality that has them paired together:
I have struggled with the perception of female sexuality in the church since I was old enough to know what sex was. The words of one of your readers [shared in Part II] resonated deeply with me: "If a leader doesn't have a healthy perspective on sexuality, they are not going to transmit that to the youth they lead." As a young woman, the "True Love Waits" campaign wasn't about purity, it was entirely about female shame. There were cutouts of human figures on the wall of our youth room, colour coded to indicate where it was safe and not safe to touch another. The male body had one red spot (I'm sure you can guess where that was), while the woman's was almost all red and yellow, because she was considered to be unable to make good decisions to protect herself.

The young ladies were lectured at length before swimming outings about the modesty of their suits, while the young men flaunted developing muscles and low slung shorts, not a word about their behaviour or their choice of dress. Boys will be boys, right? This disparity was one of the things that drove me away from the church as a teen. The women must hide, and can't be trusted to make good decisions, while the boys are given free reign. I didn't, and still don't, believe in this dichotomy. As an adult I returned to a deeper, more considered faith, and returned to church, but I am still deeply conflicted about my own presence there.

I am a believer in Jesus. I am also an unmarried woman who lives with her partner without the benefit of marriage. Why? Because we can't get married. Not now, maybe not ever. My partner's ex left him and their kids, and he has been pursuing a divorce for a long time, but there is no end in sight. I want to be his wife, he wants to be my husband. Legally, impossible.

When I fell in love with him, I fell deeply in love with the kids as well, and they with me. We have been to several churches, but it has been difficult to connect with people. As soon as they realize that the kids are not actually mine, they do not want to talk to us anymore. The eyes glaze over, glance away. There is never a moment to discuss the fact that sometimes one sin prevents another; life is not black and white.
The church would have us wait forever. The church would have him struggle to raise his kids on his own. The church would have the kids home alone for hours after school each day, all for a rule about sex, and worse, to 'avoid the appearance of evil.'

I love Jesus, and I love my man, and I love the kids. It is my priority to love them. The church would say "Trust God, don't live together until marriage." But it has been YEARS, and the kids need help now. He needs a partner, now. Jesus has room for us, and grace. It is the church that does not.

And another story:
The church I went to growing up was great. There was a lot of emphasis on God's love, our pastor had everyone chant "Sex is Good" on occasion (to my teenage horror) and the youth group was thriving. I knew that sex before marriage was bad/absolutely not okay. But I also knew that sex after marriage was great, one of God's gifts to us.

I think my church did great, but I didn't come out of it great. I was incredibly legalistic as a child/teen, to the point of not allowing myself to watch certain movies, have certain job aspirations, etc. To the point that my youth group leader and my mom were, I think concerned, and my dad (an atheist at the time) was exasperated. I read the Bible extremely literally and interpreted it and carried it out through my own teenage filter and ended up generally confused and guilt-ridden. Again, I want to emphasize that this was not modeled at my church or in my family. And it wasn't that I thought I had to earn God's love or anything like that, I just wanted him to be pleased with me and proud of me and I didn't want to get in trouble, because if I'm anything, I'm a rule follower.

I am (or at least used to be) a very good rule follower. I was probably one of the easiest teenagers any parent has ever had to deal with. I loved and respected my parents, was valedictorian of my high school, was active in sports and music and church, never went to a party with alcohol, didn't date, never listened to "bad" music... I didn't have a curfew and there were no official rules in the house because I knew my parents' expectations and I wanted to make them happy and make them proud of me.

As a rule follower, I saw the "no sex before marriage" rule and I said, "Okay, got it, no sex before marriage, no sexual thoughts, check." And it wasn't hard, it was a rule, and I followed. And it's still not hard. In fact, it's more hard TO have "sexual thoughts," which at 28 is more of a problem.

I like guys. I like hanging out with guys. I have had a few relationships, but they have all either ended or had significant problems because I am not physically attracted to the guys. Because things like laying close or kissing, etc. either make me feel like running far away very fast or totally divorce me from where I am, like all of a sudden my body is a robot that the little me in the control room of my mind is telling what to do, without actually participating in the action.

I'm not blaming the church for this, as I have a suspicion that these feelings of shame/fear may stem more from an encounter I had with a much older neighbour boy when I was three or four.

He exposed himself to me and asked me to do the same and I knew, even at that age, that it was wrong. And I felt terrible and when I told my mom, she obviously reacted very strongly and the whole thing just left me feeling very scared and guilty. But, while I don't blame the purity culture of church, I do think that it stopped me from ever working through those issues. The fact that not deviating from the "no-sex/no groping/no etc." standard was easy for me was great as far as the church was concerned; there's no reason to mess with what's "working".

I have no answers. And my experience is not very complete. I have not married. I have not had sex. I am single and not dating at the moment. I would love to date someone, but at the same time am terrified of the physical side of a relationship. I think it's good and right to "save" sex for marriage, but I don't think the conversation about sexuality should stop right there with a rule, especially in the formative teenage years. Because life and faith and people are more complicated than rules.
Maybe that last line is the common thread - "life and faith and people are more complicated than rules."

Thank you, friends, for sharing honest and vulnerable details of your lives with us.

Thoughts? Feelings? Questions?

Some of mine include:
  • This second story reminds me that we often think the good kids are safe/fine/well, but that isn't always the case. What do we do about this?
  • What do you think of the statement "sometimes one sin prevents another?"

March 16, 2014

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.