Update #1: Clarifications added.
Update #2: Comments are now closed.
We need to talk about sex. That much is clear from the response to recent posts on the damage done to individuals and couples by the purity culture. People have shared story after story of heartache, guilt, shame, and unmet expectations (or in many cases, flat-out unrealistic ones). Setting the merits of abstinence aside for a moment, this outpouring tells me that our inability to speak clearly and honestly about sex is hurting us and our relationships.
As with most challenges we face, it all boils down to unmet expectations about sex and intimacy. Many of our sexual problems stem from the purity culture’s flat, one-dimensional portrayal of human sexuality. This culture teaches an idealized and one-dimensional view of sexuality with three major flaws:
- Their obsession with modesty and boundaries borders on a call for asexuality.
- Their idealism glosses over the reality that most people (statistics say that only 4% are still virgins at age 25) have sex before marriage.
- They promise couples that if they follow the rules, sex within marriage will be phenomenal without any effort.
Let’s take these one at a time.
1. The Purity Culture denies that God created human sexuality, and that it is good.
Whatever strategies a person uses to control their God-given drive for physical intimacy, these strategies ought not aim to shut down one’s sexuality altogether. This suffocates healthy expressions of sexuality with shame and guilt, which in some cases can cause real and permanent damage. Both men and women have shared heartbreaking stories with me of being shamed for even experiencing sexual desire, whether directed toward a specific person or not. In a climate in which we are also forbidden to masturbate, the underlying message is “Your sex drive is evil; therefore, you must shut it down.” This denies our nature as physical and sexual beings. We experience pleasure and we desire to express our love for another in sexual ways. These are not sinful or bad things, but the purity culture has conveyed that very idea: that sex and pleasure are evil. This is an ancient heresy known as Gnosticism, which teaches that matter is evil.
2. The Purity Culture denies that most people engage in sexual activity before they marry.
This means that even if you avoid having sexual intercourse (if only on a technicality), you have no guarantee that the person you fall in love with will also have avoided it. But the purity culture implies (or states outright) that if you wait, your spouse will wait too. And only if both of you wait, will things turn out well for you, in marriage and in intimacy. These are all lies.
If you are still a virgin, you need to know that based on the numbers, you probably won’t marry a virgin. Don’t get me wrong – if you are able to wait, that is a beautiful admirable thing. But numbers don’t lie. You are a rare breed indeed and you need to start thinking realistically about this. Think about how you will respond when someone you love tells you that someone else was their first. This does not have to be a Big Thing or a deal-breaker or cast a pall over your relationship, if you prepare for it. Decide now to love them for who they are today and for who they are becoming, not for a decision they made in their past.
If you are not a virgin, and especially if you struggle with guilt or with fear of the moment when you must reveal this to a special someone, hear this: God is a God of second chances. Whether you made a mistake or made a conscious choice, you do not have to wallow in guilt. No mistake is too great for God to redeem, and no choice is unforgivable.
Let me say this clearly: you can have a healthy marriage and a fabulous sexual relationship even if one or both of you have prior sexual experience. I can say this because I have lived it. It takes time, it takes effort, but it can happen no matter what your history is.
Now, I’m not saying go out and be promiscuous. It’s best to save sex for committed relationships for many reasons, spiritual and otherwise. But I am saying that you need to be prepared to love someone who did not save their first time for you.
3. The Purity Culture promises that hot sex is easy, even (especially?) for the inexperienced.
To be fair, this is a myth perpetuated by Hollywood as well – the idea that two total strangers can fall into each other’s arms and know exactly what to do to have simultaneous orgasms just 20 seconds later. I’m going to say it again, in case you missed it the first time: this is a myth.
Intimacy in marriage requires courage, vulnerability, and a healthy sense of humor, none of which are mentioned in the current Christian culture. No one talks about what happens after the wedding. No one teaches how to learn to love a spouse, in the biblical sense. No one says out loud that those first sexual encounters (whether on the honeymoon or before) are often awkward, sometimes painful, and occasionally embarrassing. Fireworks? Not unless you count the stars you see when you bump heads trying to kiss.
Here’s the inside scoop: love-making is a skill you have to learn. Even if a person and their spouse remain “pure” (however they define that) before marriage, that purity does not guarantee that they will have any idea how to make love to one another after they exchange vows.
Love-making is not one-size-fits-all. It’s always custom-fit to the couple. Learning to make love to your partner takes practice; mastery requires intense study. That’s why sex can keep getting better the longer you are married.
Sex is risky (and sometimes messy). Baring it all for a lover is about as real as you get – you can’t hide or camouflage Making love into fireworks requires patience and talking and listening. A couple must talk to each other, ask each other “Do you like this? Does this feel good? Where do you like to be touched? How do you like to be touched?” They must be willing to try something that goes poorly. They must be able to hear their partner say “That hurts” or “That didn’t do it for me” and not take it personally. Dare to try something new. Read a book on how to be a great lover. Download an app of different positions. Listen to a Christian sex podcast. By all means, learn!
Making love to the person who knows and loves you best can be beautiful and amazing and better than the most thrilling roller coaster. I highly recommend it. But this isn’t going to happen without frank conversations about how things don’t always work out perfectly, and how to work through those imperfections anyway. We celebrate our fifteenth anniversary this fall, and we are still learning how to love each other well, both in bed and out of it. (You can take that however you like.)