A few years ago a young man who was abstaining from sex asked me how one navigates abstinence when they are looking to get married. He wondered what most Christians who are abstinent or celibate wonder, “How will I know if the sex will be good with my spouse if I don’t get to have it before marriage?” He asked me because I was outspoken about abstinence and saving myself until marriage and, in my mind, I also hoped he asked because he was thinking about saving himself for me. Given this I told him what was becoming a routine response for me to this question, “The God who created us knows all of our wants and needs, including our sexual desires. God knows we want good sex and so, if we are obedient to God in waiting for the one God has for us, God will ensure that our partner will be the perfect sexual fit”–no pun intended and pun intended all at the same damn time. I honestly believed what I told him, though I had no evidence it being true. It was something passed down to me from various sermons, Bible studies, and books I read about being a young, single Christian. I think the young man bought my spiel for a little while, after all it is kind of convincing when you package it up and leave sexual satisfaction to God. How can you argue with that? God will supply all my sexual needs according to his riches in glory, right? Lately I’ve been thinking, wrong.
My conversation with that young man happened about four years ago and since then, many young Christian men and women–or men and women from Christian backgrounds–have spoken up about their experience of living under such teachings. A Salon article entitled “My Virginity Mistake” was such an account. JESSICA CIENCIN HENRIQUEZ shared her story of “marrying Jesus” as a teenager under the banner of a purity campaign held by her Baptist Church. Henriquez would go from marrying Jesus to marrying her college sweetheart only to discover that she wasn’t sexually attracted to him and possibly not interested in sex at all. The marriage ended in divorce and Henriquez ended up discovering, well after the fact, that she was into sex after all. She discovered that she could have good sex with a variety of different people and especially within marriage, but this discovery was due to the realization that she just couldn’t wait to have sex until marriage. In her conclusion she said, “I learned that sex is important enough not to wait.” Now I’m not here to argue for or against premarital sex, though I do have some particular views about it that I will share at another time. I want to argue for something else that I believe is missing from the abstinence education/discussions.
Of Henriquez’s sexual experience with her first husband she says, “I admit that I was no willing student but he was no teacher either.” She commented on zoning out and making lists during sex and on having a very active kissing life before marriage because that is all they had. Henriquez’s situation seems like that of someone who is waiting for things to happen, of having an expectation of how things should be without the proper education of how they actually are and the role that we play in making things better. No one or no institution is more at fault for this than the church which tends to reduce sex to that which you don’t do before marriage yet once you get married you are supposed to go from 0-60 and discover your inner sex god or goddess. The church which teaches its members, particularly the young and single, that the flesh should be beat into subjection, masturbation is sin, and all sexual feeling must be dampened. The church which ignores full-bodied discussions on sexuality because its view of sexuality is so tied up in sin that they can’t recover it. Given this insistence on displacing sex and sexuality within the church, it is no wonder that people get married and get into trouble. Granted this is not everyone’s story but this is enough people’s story.
Relevant magazine tried to touch on this issue through an article entitled “Christians Are Not Called to Have Great Sex.” The writer, Rachel Pietka, went through some of the more recent stories of Christians who vowed abstinence until marriage only to get married and have disappointing sexual experiences. Pietka’s argument is, as the titles states, Christians aren’t called to have great sex because we are supposed to have a different view of sex. She says, “Although sex is indeed God’s gift to us, Christians are not directly commanded by God to have great sex.” She says this because sexual compatibility doesn’t–or shouldn’t–matter to Christians it means that sex is not–or shouldn’t be–our God. And as she concludes the article she claims that “bad sex is an opportunity to rejoice in suffering (1 Peter 4:13) and to be further conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29).” Now I am not even going to touch her strange proof texting work–even though I have touched it by calling it strange. I will say that I disagree with her about God not directly calling Christians to have good sex. There may not be a commandment in the Bible that says, “Thou shalt have good, great or mind-blowing sex,” but along the lines of what I told that young man years ago, I do believe God wants people to have great sex. I believe it is a part of the sacred covenant of marriage, that the two who come together under God as one do so in pleasure and acknowledge that the capacity for pleasure produced between them is great. If two people are joined together under God in love, great sex is a part of the equation, but it also necessary to understand what makes sex great between two people. More Christians than not are consumed by the dominant culture’s definition of what great sex is, a definition that is sometimes unrealistic for the culture that created it. Great sex may be closer than most people think, but because they have some unrealistic expectation about what sex is supposed to be like, they totally miss the point. So how do abstinent and the celibate get to great sex in marriage? I believe that part of that greatness happens well before the wedding night.
You see, what a lot of these discussions of abstinence before marriage are missing a reflection on knowledge of the sexual self. So much time is spent ensuring that young men and women remain chaste by any means necessary that little to no time is spent discussing whom they are as sexual beings. Rarely does anyone trust adolescents, teenagers, or even adults with their sexuality and instead they rely on fear-mongering that says “No” to anything related to sex. This creates men and women who know nothing about themselves as sexual beings aside from knowing they must deny anything related to sex. When a person is not trusted with handling their own sexual desires, how can they then trust those desires with another? If they are repeatedly told not to touch themselves how will they know their capacity for experiencing pleasure? If they experience sexual attraction to someone but they immediately categorize it as bad and wrong, how will they de-program those years of learning and associate sexual attraction with that which is positive? What is at the root of all of this, for me, is a move toward educating people on how to function with knowledge of sexual self in way that acknowledges sexuality. Complicated, sometimes inconvenient, but always beautiful sexuality. Acknowledges sex and sexuality as healthy and integral parts of the human experience that should be understood on an individual basis before it understood as part of a relationship. (This is where I think so much failure lies, in making people’s only understanding of sex and sexuality in relation to another person in marriage. And I won’t even get into what I think is the patriarchal undertone of it all–that’s another post for another day. And I digress…) And, of course, to do all of this under God whom, I believe, is less restrictive than the Christian tradition makes God out to be. I believe–or at the very least hope–that God is concerned about the holistic health of people and that God’s primary tool of educating is not “No” but “Yes,” “no,” “maybe,” and “let’s talk about it.” It is an open discussion on sex and sexuality that doesn’t depend on fear-mongering, negligence, and ignorance but thrives on trust and transparency.
Given this, there has to be a way for the church to teach young people about themselves as sexual beings in ways that promote sexual health and, that almost cliché term, “sexual positivity.” I’d love to see the church move beyond “no” and begin to break ground in “knowing.” That knowing requires open, honest, and candid discussions about sexuality. The type of conversations that might make people uncomfortable but because they are held within a church context, they provide a safe space which breaks down discomfort. I know what I envision may seem too ideal, but it is time for this to move into the realm of the real, particularly because the church wants to have so much control over sexuality in the first place, why not actually participate in the discussion, in a real way? There can be no more silence on the topic of sexuality and there can be no more reliance on sexual negativity as a teaching tool. No one learns from “no” alone. And even though “no” has its place in this discourse it can’t be the primary answer when you are aiming to raise sexually healthy people. Sexually healthy individuals who might go on to be sexually healthy and satisfied in marriage or a committed relationship because they were taught to embrace, not negate, their sexuality.
Long story short, I believe an abstinent or celibate man or woman’s possibility of having great sex in marriage will only be increased when they understand who they are both under God and as sexual beings. Knowledge of God is integral and believing that God desires those whom God brings together to have a great sexual relationship is a part of that knowledge. Knowledge of self–sexual and otherwise–is pivotal in making great sex a reality. And I believe that in abstinence, one can move toward great sex if they begin to know and own who they are sexually now. Think of it as a sexual spin on “Be the wife or husband you want now.”
At this point I know you’ve read a lot but I just couldn’t resist posting this interesting little illustration that is sadly a pretty realistic depiction of abstinence education in the Christian context.
So what do you think? Let’s talk about it.