Sex Before Marriage
We are not born with ideas of how sex works, when to have it, what its about, or how we can glorify God with it. We laugh with embarrassment when answering a young child’s question of where babies come from, even as those we ask that to as children are beginning to form our ideas about sex. We get our beliefs about sex and our bodies from the families we are born into, the church communities we are a part of and the media (music, tv, movies, magazines and books) that we engage with.
Most people brought up in religious, or faith traditions were told that the only way to make sure you don’t miss out on God’s plan for your life is to wait until you’re married to have sex. It is a whole culture unto itself, with hundreds of books written on the subject, like Joshua Harris’ popular I Kissed Dating Goodbye, purity rings, father daughter balls, as well as movements like True Love Waits. The entire culture presents one simple message – if you have sex, it is sin. And if you sin sexually, you will completely mess up your life, missing out on God’s calling, blessing and plan for your life.
On the other side, television shows, movies, magazines and music videos tell stories of young women getting raped at parties or getting an STD and guys making a game out of how many people they can have sex with. These more promiscuous ways of engaging in and living out sexuality are what those in the more conservative camps point to as “the other option” to waiting until you’re married to have sex. It’s all or nothing – a binary of either/or when it doesn’t have to be that way.
There are so many messages coming at us from both sides, with each seeming to use the other as an example of what not to do. A young man questioning what God wants for his sexual life is met with questions from church leaders that sound a lot like, “Do you want an STD, AIDS, or to get someone pregnant?! The only way to make sure you don’t get these consequences is to not have sex. There is no such thing as safe sex!” There’s this foundation of fear upon which they build a promise of blessing — if you wait.
In a binary, a proverbial fork in the road for our sexual life, how are we supposed to know which one right? Is sex bad unless we’re married to someone of the opposite gender? Or is it possible that sex is fun and to be enjoyed with anyone we want?
As Christians, we are taught by well-meaning leaders that Satan is waging a war against us and uses sex to destroy our lives. We are “called” to fight as warriors against the temptation to give into sex until we are married, when everything will magically fit and feel perfect every time.
There are other Christian leaders like Joshua Harris and Mark Driscoll affirming this ideal and reminding everyone – especially women – that they will mostly likely lose out on finding “a Godly spouse” if they aren’t a virgin because a “Godly” person would not want to marry someone “impure.” This kind of idealization sets the prophet Hosea, the book of Ruth, the logical conclusion of Esther, and the mystical qualities of the New Testament to the side because those don’t fit with their teaching. After all, God would never love a sinner – that’s ridiculous. To achieve this belief, they have to either forget or rewrite scripture. Perfect example – the Song of Songs. The entire book is about a woman who wants to have sex with her boyfriend. No pastor can honestly preach that story, so they either ignore it or perform a wild set of exegetical gymnastics to say, “Well… you see… the whole book is about God and the Church after Jesus’ resurrection.” Hunh?! How do you get the – hunh?! What?!
But let’s forget scripture since that clearly doesn’t matter when we’re trying to be biblical. See, Driscoll and Harris have both publicly talked and written about the “shame” of their wives not being virgins, and the “shame” they felt as husbands. Driscoll wrote in his book Real Marriage(and has maintained in accompanying sermons and interviews) that if he had known about his wife’s past before they got married, he would not have married her.** Harris, for his part, wrote in his second book, Boy Meets Girl, about the “shame and disappointment” he felt when he found out his wife was not a virgin. These men, though well-intentioned, are perpetuating a culture of “slut shaming” under the Christian banner. They are giving people license to shame their partners, neighbors, and friends all in pursuit of “godliness.”
There are hundreds of thousands of young people yearning to please God with their lives and desiring with everything in us to have Gods blessing on our lives and to marry a “Godly” spouse. I was one of them. Fear filled my heart and all of my friend’s hearts, knowing that all we had to do to mess up our lives and revoke God’s intended “blessing” was to give into sexual sin once. Fear over giving in, and deep shame if we did, was the name of the game.
As I look back on that time in my young life and hear about others who are currently in places of trying to navigate the polarities of sexuality that is offered, I remember the explanation of how “it all works on the wedding night.” On our wedding day, we will remarkably go from fighting against this desire and hating our sexuality, seeing it as a sin to be avoided, to suddenly seeing it as pure and good and something to be enjoyed with a mate. We are told that to have sex as a married person is an act of worship, it all actually sounds pretty clear cut.
But I have heard from so many that I’ve counseled, along with friends, family church members, coworkers, classmates, colleagues, and everyday people that I happen to talk to, that life doesn’t always match up to what is being taught in the way of abstinence.
There are good hearted, devoted Christians that have found their life experiences don’t quite match up to what they were taught and it leaves them lost. When “The Ideal” isn’t ideal, you wonder if it was all a lie. I’ve heard from men and women who spent their college years studying at a Bible college like I did, who after many years of following the commandment to stay sexually pure, find themselves heartbroken today over how this decision has affected their ability to be intimate with their spouses and partners. People who say things like
“I didn’t have sex with anyone but my husband, I have a profound sense of loneliness: am I the only one who feels this way…Does anyone else feel guilty, ashamed, dirty, or uncomfortable during sex? I found myself bawling the other day while my husband and I were intimate – and he was crushed. I tried to tell him it wasn’t him, I just feel so…..guilty. I’m married and I feel guilty for having sexuality. I don’t know how to explain the self-loathing that is so intimately tied to human sexuality. Has anyone else had this experience? Does anyone have advice on how to heal?”
“I could write a novel on how screwed up mentally I am about sexuality from growing up in a repressed environment. Just this week I almost lost my relationship because of the incredibly difficult mountains we have to cross in regards to my continued feeling of ‘dirtiness’ and just inadequacy and cluelessness.”
“Please don’t touch me like that”
“Because it feels good.”
“It’s slightly ironic to me that as I discover more about sexuality the more I realize that the idolized view the church gave it the insane pressure to wait for marriage is in fact just as damaging as what they consider ‘sin.’”
“My [ex-]bf told me that I made him physically ill – literally sick to his stomach – because he was sexually attracted to me. And I felt bad about it, like I had done something wrong intentionally, and was so conflicted/concerned that I wrote pages and pages about it in my journal. Raise your hand if you think I have lingering body image issues!”
“Coming from a male perspective, I always feel like a creep whenever I check out a beautiful woman. I feel even more dirty and awkward whenever I attempt communicating with women with whom I’m attracted. Then there are those few sexual experiences where I’m held back by timidity and not knowing what I’m doing. Very emasculating.”
“To further complicate matters, my ex boyfriend used to make out with me, but then would threaten to break up with me after because he felt that the fact he was attracted to me was ‘distracting him from God.’ So I’d be kissed, then would be told it was my fault for having boobs, then threaten to be dumped. So I began to associate physical intimacy with abandonment.”
I wonder, have you found yourself in one of these people? These are people who obeyed what they were told God wanted for them, yet when it was time for them to receive the blessing that were promised to them, what they found instead was shame, guilt and a sense of being broken.
My heart is heavy for these men and women and anyone else experiencing this type of pain. We’ve been taught that God blesses purity and I still believe that’s true, but what if we’ve misunderstood what “purity” is? There are many passages that have been misinterpreted and misrepresented. Many pastors and church leaders point to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis as proof that God will destroy those engaging in sexual immorality, especially homosexuals, though that’s not why God destroyed that city. Ezekiel 16:49 makes it clear enough,
“‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” (NIV)
“Sodom’s sins were pride, gluttony, and laziness, while the poor and needy suffered outside her door.” (NLT)
“Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy.” (NASB)
We see concern for the poor way more than sexual morality in the life and teachings of Jesus. And what is sad is that, by pointing this out, there will be many who feel like I am using this as an excuse, as though social justice is more important that sexual morality. I’m not. Matthew 23:23 says
Woe to you, teachers of the law! You hypocrites!… You have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.
Social justice and sexual morality are important, but I’m not saying this is an either/or situation. What I am saying is that Christian leaders seem to forget this when guiding young people in the ways of Christlikeness. Youth group leaders quote 1 Corinthians 6:18,
Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body
as a way of proving that God wants people to wait until they are married to have sex instead of really wondering and unpacking the idea that even married people have sexually immoral sex with their spouses. Perhaps God is more concerned with the intent and heart involved in our sexual experiences then the do’s and don’ts we can mark off in a box. There are plenty of individuals in the Bible engaging in sex, and isn’t it curious that Jezebel and Esther are seen as very different women, even though they are both “foreigners” who use pre-marital sex and their sexuality to seduce and get ahead? Why do we celebrate one in Bible studies and demonize the other? Could it be less about the action and more about intent and meaning in the experience? I am going to suggest that sex is a way we can worship God, experience new parts of ourselves and even experience the love of God during.
I will never forget the beauty, holiness and healing that were involved in my first sexual experience. I was blown away that it wasn’t the dirty thing I had been told it would be since I was not married. But here’s what’s important to note about that experience; I was an adult experiencing this with another adult—we both mutually chose one another, there was no power difference. Mutuality is of utmost importance when it comes to sexual morality. Meaning one of us wasn’t an adult while the other a child. Both of us were physically (our brains were developed enough to process what was happening and really choose it), emotionally and psychologically ready to have sex. If sexual immorality has a basis of doing no harm then both people need to be developed enough so that the experience does not harm either of them. Our sexualities are to be protected and seen as something special, but they are also to be enjoyed, experienced and shared within safe, mutual, healthy relationships.
** As a sidenote, it is heavily implied that Driscoll’s wife was sexually abused. If this is indeed the case, it further contributes to the shame for survivors of sexual violence. Not only do survivors feel the trauma of the rape itself, but now have a prominent Christian couple where one of the spouses says, “If I had known this, I wouldn’t have married them.”