Our theme for the month of June is “Sex and the Church.”

In my church growing up, we had the sex talk at least once a year, from sixth grade to twelfth. After one of my later experiences of this, during youth group in high school, my friend Tamara said to everyone, “I don’t like it when we talk about sex in church like this. Garrett and I have had sex, and I don’t want people to go around thinking that we’re sinning, that we’re not good Christians. We love each other, and we’ve talked about it, and we’re going to get married once we’re old enough, so it’s really not as bad as everyone thinks.  I don’t like it when people judge us for that.” We were sixteenish at the time, and all I could think was, “Oh, honey, don’t marry Garrett. Yikes.”

The church taught me a lot about the conversations I shouldn’t be having with my boyfriends.  My youth group leaders made sure I knew all the ways in which sex could go wrong. The dirty shoe and the tape that’s not sticky showed just how terrible it would feel to not be a virgin.  We broke a cardinal rule of logic: we defined something by what it was not. Someone who is ready to have sex is not a horny teenager, is not hiding it from their accountability partner, is not ashamed.

On one level, it makes sense, since virgins lack something: specifically, sex experience.  But on a practical level, it’s rather shortsighted. I think, for a bunch of hormonal adolescents, “Wait for marriage” quickly becomes “Get married quick, so you can have sex” which can turn into “If we promise to get married, we can have sex whenever.”  

When do I know that I am ready to have sex? We made it sound like it was a perk of membership in the highly exclusive club of marriage rather than a natural outcome of everything else that led up to that marriage.  And is a wedding ring the only prerequisite, or is there more?

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, the rest of the world told me that it’s important to know when I am “ready,” but they never really told me what that meant.  Movies, TV shows, and Cosmo all made it sound like one of those “When you know, you know.  You know?” sort of things. But that is a frustratingly mobile benchmark, especially since I don’t think Cosmo and I will ever see eye-to-eye on anything.

I can’t speak for more than myself, but there are a few things I thought about (as well as a few things I wish I had thought about) by the time I first had sex.  Maybe a conversation about the real definition can start there.

Have you had a frank conversation about your own sexual history?  About your partner’s?

Is there a risk that either of you have STDs or STIs that you could pass to each other?  Can you talk openly and honestly about that before it’s too late?

Do you agree on the importance and preferred methods of protection and/or contraception?  If not, are you willing to respect the most cautious common denominator between the two of you?

Have you talked about what sex means to you and to your partner?  Are you on the same page?

Are you comfortable looking at yourself naked?  If not, are you sure you’re ready to have someone else looking at you naked?

Can you calmly deal with all the weird sounds, smells, and fluids involved in sex?  

If something embarrassing happens—see aforementioned weird sounds, smells, and fluids—will you and this person be able to take it in stride together?

Can you handle the fact that your partner has probably at least masturbated and probably has preferences that you don’t know?  Can you ask them what they want?

Do you know what you want enough to tell them?  If not, are you comfortable enough with them to ask them to help you learn?

I don’t want to be the gatekeeper for sex any more than I’m sure my high school youth group leaders did.  Even if your answers to all of these questions was no, if you want to have sex, I’m in no position, physical or moral, to try to stop you.  But, married or not, you have to know what you’re saying “Yes” to. Because whether or not all of these questions feel relevant to you, they could be relevant to your partner, and there is simply no way of knowing without talking about it.  Regardless of where you think sex belongs, it always adds another level of complexity to any relationship, and if you’re not willing to address that complexity, are you sure you want to welcome it into your bed?

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