Our theme for the month of June is “sex and the church.” To read posts from our first pass at this theme, check out our June 2018 archives.
“Ashley?” I whisper in the darkness. “What is…sex?”
I trust my friend has wisdom on this topic since she is seven and I’m only six. I’ve been waiting for this sleepover to ask my scandalous question.
She pauses before answering from the other side of the bed. “Sex is when a man and a woman get naked in a bed and kiss,” she tells me, smug for knowing what I don’t.
“Ew,” I say. Grownups do the grossest things.
By age nine I still don’t really know what sex is. But I know I will be Saving It For Marriage and that sex is Bad and I am a Good Christian so I Do Not Do It.
I get impatient with my mom and insist she explain everything to me because I keep hearing stuff at school I don’t understand. Mom begins the Talk unironically with, “When a man and a woman love each other very much…”
At the end I ask her, “Have you ever had sex?” She says yes. I am horrified.
I have my first sex dream when I’m eleven. When I wake up, I feel filthy. I have betrayed my convictions and conspired unconsciously to do the Bad Thing. At this rate I’m going to get pregnant at sixteen and no one will ever marry me. I pray at a church altar call for God to forgive me for this shame.
Despite my legalism, I’m curious about sex and, like any kid, drawn to taboos. Most of my sex education comes from kids at school and the internet. I accidentally learn about masturbation from a Harry Potter fan fiction I read online. In eighth grade science I ask why the number sixty-nine is funny, and Brittany draws a helpful diagram to explain. I feign disgust as I rake in the forbidden knowledge.
At fourteen I proudly take the True Love Waits pledge in front of my church and wear a ring to proclaim what a good Christian I am. I have never had a boyfriend before, never felt an ounce of sexual desire beyond the abstract longing for love. I can’t imagine struggling to keep the pledge because I can’t imagine myself as a sexual being. Later I’ll read a book on teen dating that has me write out a pledge to never even make out before marriage. My faith in God is not very strong, but at least I have my pledges.
In high school I fall in with an eccentric group of friends who are open about their sex lives. They swap stories at the lunch table and I listen with fascination and only a twinge of judgment. They know I go to church but accept me better than the Christian kids do. They’re having sex, but they don’t seem like bad people.
After a few years, I put my purity ring in a drawer. I still believe in what it stands for, but I no longer feel like broadcasting something that’s between me and God.
I continue reading blogs and articles to learn about sex and the Christian ethic from an academic perspective. What is rape culture? Modesty? Vaginismus? The percentage of women who can orgasm from regular intercourse? Once I get to college, I share these findings with my friends who went to private schools.
A frequent question to dormmates during girls’ interview nights is, “what are your top three places to someday make love?” The question elicits many giggles and few knowledgeable responses. A frequent answer is, “Those Sandals commercials with the bed on the beach look pretty romantic.” I daydream about that sexy beach, but it feels like another version of me who will ever be loved like that. I yearn for male acceptance and get myself in trouble misinterpreting guy friends’ platonic affection as something more.
On study abroad, bold Europeans pay attention to me in new ways. I catch a nice boy looking me up and down, and I like how I feel under his gaze. Suddenly my thoughts about sex go from I guess that’ll be nice to I could do that, like, tomorrow. For all my academic interest in sex, I’d thought I was above such base urges. I pray in confusion about my feelings. Is all sexual desire the equivalent of lust? My abstinence-only worldview leaves little room for middle grounds.
I meet my first boyfriend the summer before senior year. At this point I probably would have thrown my heart at anyone, but lucky for me he is respectful and kind. We go camping. We only bring one tent. Lost on the drive to the campground, we swerve and hit a deer. I suspect this is God punishing us for premaritally falling asleep together, no matter how chaste we remain.
Post-graduation I get a new, Serious Christian Relationship. We cuddle on top of his bedspread one evening and confess all our previous wrongs in relationships. He describes his past as “wrapped up in grace,” which I think is beautiful. But when I admit that I slept next to a past boyfriend before, he looks sad and closes his eyes. “I’d hoped to marry someone who was excited to save that,” he mumbles. I wait for him to say more, but he stays quiet. Soon, I hear snoring. I lay in the silence, suffocating under his disappointment. After a while, I wake him up and leave.
In future relationships I try to focus on holiness over rules and Christ over shame. But I forget about God much more than I forget my commitment to abstinence. I wonder if that makes me a whitewashed tomb.
I start dating Josh at twenty-five. Past regrets fade when I’m with someone who meets me where I’m at. The tumult of old insecurity quiets. We get married. We have sex. The world doesn’t feel different once it happens.
I wonder what my old self would say if she learned her Sandals fantasies never materialized, or knew what “firsts” occurred on a honeymoon air mattress during government-mandated quarantine. Would she be surprised at the normalcy of it all—the teasing touches while cooking dinner, the sweet routine of a tandem shower? How we gave up on locking the dog out during intimate times and now just step over her when climbing into bed?
I used to be angry at the church when it came to my hodgepodge sex education and fixation on purity. People are right to be angry. But my frustrations with how my own story played out have mellowed as I’ve settled down. Wrapped in grace, those old shames and ill-got lessons are part of what got me to today.
I will try to do better when I teach my own kids. I’ll tell them that sex is good. It’s not nothing, but it’s not everything. You’re not ruined if you have it. You’re not saved just because you don’t. I’ll talk to them about sex more than once in their lives, keeping an ongoing conversation as they become ready to learn more.
Most importantly, I’ll talk about who Jesus is—much more than I’ll talk about not having sex. I’ll tell them that purity is a result of their relationship with God, not a requirement for it. And no matter what their journey looks like, his grace is enough.
Laura graduated from Calvin in 2015 with a degree in art and writing. She lives in Toronto, Ontario, with her husband Josh and dog Rainy. She works as an IT support analyst and enjoys painting, rock climbing, and exploring the city.
This is beautiful, Laura! And it reminds me what divergent meanings phrases like “wrapped in grace” can have—they can be cringey and pious and avoidant, but they can also be true.
“It’s not nothing, but it’s not everything.” This! I was just talking to a married friend about that idea recently.
Thank you for this beautiful exploration.
As always a wonderful, insightful, vulnerable blog. I will keep it and pass it along to parents (such as my adult sons), who need this education–one I never got.