After we stop shaming, how will we talk about sex?

shame pointing-fingerI’ve spent a lot of time in the last month thinking about virginity. It all started with a post I read at Rachel Held Evan’s blog entitled Do Christians Idolize Virginity. Rachel’s post was the first I read on the subject, but within a couple of weeks virginity (or its absence) had swept through the Christian blogosphere. It may have originated with women’s blogs like Rachel’s, Elizabeth Esther’s and Sarah Bessey’s, but before the topic died down it had been tackled by Christianity Today and the progressive Christian site Patrol.

So what is there to say about virginity? Christians save themselves for marriage because the Bible tells us to, right?  Statistics say otherwise. Whatever our religious convictions, a study published in Relevant magazine in 2011 showed that 80% of Christians between the ages of 18-29 admit to having sex before marriage. 80%. Let that sink in for a moment before we go back to discussing the “virginity cult” in the evangelical church. The statistic makes it all the more striking that the first shot across the bow in this protest came from Elizabeth Esther who was, she writes, a virgin when she married at age 20. She’d been raised in a fundamentalist church and bought wholesale into the culture surrounding sexual purity:

Like other Christians, I talked about the “sacrifice” of abstinence. There were princess-themed books on saving our fist kiss. Some of us wore purity rings and made pledges to our Daddies not to have sex until we’re married.

But it seemed to work for her:  she remained a virgin until her wedding day. What’s the problem? Esther writes that she’s concluded that “ultimately, we implied that a woman’s inherent worth and dignity could be measured by whether or not a man has touched her.”

Christians say that the world objectifies women through immodest dress and a permissive sexual ethic. However, by idolizing sexual purity and preoccupying ourselves with female modesty and an emphasis on hyper-purity, Christians actually engage in reverse objectivization.

If this is true, it naturally follows that the women who is not a virgin on her wedding day is “damaged goods”, and that’s where Sarah Bessey’s blog post comes in.

I was nineteen years old and crazy in love with Jesus when that preacher told an auditorium I was “damaged goods” because of my sexual past. He was making every effort to encourage this crowd of young adults to “stay pure for marriage.” He was passionate, yes, well-intentioned, and he was a good speaker, very convincing indeed.

And he stood up there and shamed me, over and over and over again….He passed around a cup of water and asked us all to spit into it. Some boys horked and honked their worst into that cup while everyone laughed. Then he held up that cup of cloudy saliva from the crowd and asked, “Who wants to drink this?!”

And every one in the crowd made barfing noises, no way, gross!

“This is what you are like if you have sex before marriage,” he said seriously, “you are asking your future husband or wife to drink this cup.”

That story is heartbreaking, horrifying, and familiar. I’ve heard the “cup” illustration used before, and in my days as a high school and college student I heard less offensive versions of the same message over and over. I remember sitting in a chapel service in college listening to a speaker adamantly declaring that he wouldn’t want his sons marrying any young woman who hadn’t saved herself for her husband. I looked around at all of young women in the room, quietly listening. And I knew that many of us were unfit for his sons, by the standards the speaker had just set.  Where was the hope for those who had already “failed”?

No TrespassingA few thoughts came to the surface as I read Sarah’s post, and Elizabeth’s and Rachel’s. The emphasis on virginity – and the shaming of those who fall short – has always been directed more at young women than young men. It’s girls who are encouraged to pledge their virginity before their fathers at purity balls, girls who are considered the source of temptation for boys. Last year I listened to an explanation of the “modesty guidelines” for a homeschool event, with my teeth increasingly on edge: “You have beautiful daughters,” the leader said. “And for some of our teenagers boys it is a struggle just to be around your beautiful daughters. Please don’t make it any harder on our boys by allowing your girls to dress immodestly.” Does that strike you the way it strikes me, as if by her very existence an attractive girl is a problem, a snare, an impediment to the otherwise righteous young man?

Another thought: in our zeal to keep our young people pure, we’ve told them a lie.  We’ve persuaded them that the key to a happy union is to be “undefiled” when you marry.  But is this true? If “true love waits“, is true love really measured only by what we didn’t do before marriage?  I’d be happy to have my children marry virgins, but there is far more to a person’s character than their sexual history.

Most striking to me, though, is that 80% figure.  The church has hurled a lot of energy into purity culture.  We’ve campaigned and sold merchandise and shamed – and none of it worked.  If success can be measured in raw data, the virginity cult certainly seems to be failing to make converts.

ACR_Purity_Mens_Ring_MAIN_300_291114So what do we do?  If shaming is both unhealthy and ineffective, how do parents and the church talk to young adults about sex?

The overreaction from the right has come in trying to desexualize our children entirely.  Courtship culture forbids dating, frowns on crushes, and exalts couples who don’t even share a kiss until their wedding ceremonies.  The success of such an approach often depends on infantalizing young women, turning them into girls who only have eyes for Daddy until Daddy is ready to hand them off to the young man of his choosing.  Free agency and acknowledgment of sexual desire must be denied as long as possible.

On the other hand, there is a backlash against honoring premarital chastity at all.  I wondered, as I read the first posts on the virginity cult, if this would inevitably result.  The other shoe dropped in an essay by David Sessions at Patrol.  Sessions writes:

The only way this stuff is going to change is when people who call themselves evangelical believers and write for an evangelical audience, stop playing this game of pretend edginess, and say it plainly: I’m not married, I’ve had sex, I’m not sorry, and I’m still just as much of a Christian as you are.

I’m not sure that we should turn this into a “who’s more Christian” contest.  Here’s the thing:  I believe sex is powerful, wonderful, important, and I want to be able to give my children some guidance.  Without shaming them, or attaching weird trappings and pinky swears to stay pure, without pretending that they aren’t sexual beings, but also without pretending that their sexual behavior is disconnected from their spiritual wholeness – we need to be able to talk about Christian sexual ethics.  I agree with Rachel, Sarah & Elizabeth that we need to stop making virginity into an idol, but that’s only the beginning of what needs to change, not the end.

If it seems in this post that I’m saying a lot without concluding much, you’re right.  There is an increasing gap between what the church says about sex and the reality in the pews – not only in stats on premarital sex, but on cohabitation, homosexuality, divorce and remarriage.  All of us in church leadership have a responsibility to acknowledge the gap, and then to listen again to the scriptures and the Spirit, seeking a way forward.  That’s a task that won’t be accomplished in a blog post.

Having said that, I don’t think this will be my last post on this subject.  I was conditioned in my youth not to talk about sex, not to ask questions beyond, “How far is too far?” (Answer:  “If you have to ask, it’s too far.”).  To even discuss sex was embarrassing and I admit that I’ve carried that discomfort into my adulthood.  I’d like to get past that, because when the shame games and the slogans are left behind, the real conversations about sex can finally start.

The conversation continues with Talking About Sex, Part 2:  A Post for the Sexually Celibate

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About Sharon Autenrieth

Wife, mom to 5, homeschooler, Christian Education Director, idealist, malcontent, follower of Jesus.
This entry was posted in church, gender, parenting, religion, spirituality and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to After we stop shaming, how will we talk about sex?

  1. Holly Parker says:

    I like this part…
    “I’m not married, I’ve had sex, I’m not sorry…”
    Putting that much emphasis on purity leads to one thing, lying to the adults in your life about your purity.
    I HATE all of the emphasis on girls’ purity. What about the boys????!!!! It’s 2013, for crying out loud! How about you quit worrying about how my girls are dressed and start teaching your sons to respect them! Ok. I feel better now.
    Also this….
    “until Daddy is ready to hand them off to the young man of his choosing”
    That bugs the hell out of me too. I really do not like this old tradition of “giving away the bride.” Like she’s property? When she’s born she gets her father’s last name and then he “gives her away” to her husband and she takes his last name. This sounds more like slave trade than marriage.
    (that might sound a bit extreme, but I’m annoyed and trying to make a point)
    I have 3 daughters and my wish for them is that THEY own their sexuality. Not their fathers or their future husbands.

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  2. Sean Asbeck says:

    Check out “Let’s Talk About Sex” on Netflix… interesting to hear what you think

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  3. Sean Asbeck says:

    Kristi and I just had this discussion – we want to raise our girls with an understanding of what holistic purity is, and that being pure and being empowered sexually are not opposite things. We want them to understand that sex is not a taboo that we don’t talk about – but a natural thing that we should talk about more.
    We want our girls to understand WHY we value purity – but to also be educating them about how to handle themselves if they do not make those same decisions.

    We were both good “Christian” kids in a serious dating relationship who felt ashamed of what we were feeling and doing – too ashamed to talk to ANYONE about it. I don’t want that for my girls. I want them to know what we believe, but even more, for them to feel comfortable enough to talk to us about their experiences and concerns. So we talk about abstinence, but we also will be talking about what to do if they decide NOT to go that route – and we will do it all in the context of grace and love. We want them to know that sex before marriage does not make you a failure – and that no matter what, we will ALWAYS love and respect them.

    Holly, as for “giving” daughters away – I think it all depends on the motivation. For me, I don’t view myself as “owning” my girls – but I am responsible for them. I think most dad’s view themselves as a defender. I defend them not in a show of chauvinistic force, but out of instinct and love. When my girls marry and I place their hand into the hand of her husband, it is not me saying, “Here – what was mine is now yours.” Instead, it is me saying – “I love this person and I am trusting you to love her at least as much as I do.” It is a movement of focus from our family to her own – joining together two individuals into a new family. I place her hand in his to say goodbye to the old and to celebrate something new.

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    • Holly Parker says:

      I can respect your feelings/point of view on the giving away topic. For my girls, I want them to spend a little time on their own before they start their own families. I was “given away” at my first wedding. I walked alone at my second and walking down that aisle and placing my own hand in his was a much more memorable and powerful thing, for me.

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  4. abvblogger says:

    A balanced and moderate post. I’d like to ask a question: would it be possible for a society to live in moderation and reach a balance free of extremes the way you hope / prescribe? I’d like to hear your views on dialogue within a faith. Who has the authority to decide? Is it a democratic process by which each Christian gets to decide what sexual ethics is?

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    • abvblogger,
      Thank you for your comment & feedback. You’re raising such a good question: how do we talk about divisive issues within the family, in a way that is faithful to Christ and respectful toward each other? I don’t know that we’ll ever learn to hash hard things out with love and mutual regard – but I keep hoping.

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  5. mandarox says:

    Wow, great post. It was very thought-provoking. It really is a very gender-bias issue, why is so much of the focus on pre-marital sex based on women? Why don’t men face this same pressure, and should they?

    I myself believe in marriage as a virgin for both Christian reasons but also emotional reasons. I don’t believe in abrotion either (unless the baby is a risk to the mother’s health) and I feel that women shouldn’t have sex until they’re ready to have a child. Maybe that’s why I focus is on women?

    But where I’m from there are few teens who are Christian and I feel like I’m in the minority.

    It seems like having sex before marriage is seen as a bigger sin than many others, such as lying. I was always taught that in God’s eyes, every sin was equal, therefore we shouldn’t judge a non-virgin any more than we should judge a liar.

    Interesting issue.

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    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Am I right in thinking that you’re a teen yourself? Whatever your age, I admire your convictions and hope you’ll stick to them. It’s always tough to be in the minority, but living with integrity is far more important than how many people agree with you. At least, that’s what I tell myself after many years of having minority opinions on one thing or another. 🙂 You’re right that we seem to make sexual sin into an extra-terrible sin. Maybe (as one of the other bloggers suggested) as the world treats sex more and more casually, the church tries harder and harder to make it sacred and errs in making sexual sin a special category.

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      • mandarox says:

        Yeah, just one year of teen-hood left. I see what you mean about the church making sexual sin a different category because society is making it so casual. They may just be making things worse because of it, though. People leaving the church because they think their beliefs are unnecessarily strict.

        (I just read over my previous comment and saw how many spelling ,mistakes I made *facepalm*)

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      • This is a typos-welcome zone. It needs to be, with me writing.

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  6. Hollie says:

    Interesting…and applicable.

    WARNING: This will be rambling and may not make much sense.
    As a Mother with a pre-teen son, this has been on my mind. I feel like we live in a society that denies itself nothing. In fact, I very rarely deny myself something that I really want. If we want it, we get it. But then, when it comes to sex, we tell them to deny themselves. Is that possible when we have not learned to deny ourselves in other areas?

    Biblically, sexual sin is a big deal. It has consequences: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. But then, doesn’t all sin have consequences? (Do you hear me arguing with myself?) Lying, stealing, killing, umm…overeating (see gluttony): They all kill us physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Why do we hold sexual sin to a higher degree of shame, and sexual purity to a higher degree of godliness? Even our GOOD works are filthy rags.

    See the rambling.

    I feel like the Lord has taught me a lot about fences in the last couple of years. You know if you have a fence, you know exactly where the boundary is. I can tell my very young children, “Stay inside the fence and you will be safe.” The thing is… We sin. We are predisposed to. So…at some point we have to climb that fence, and when we do. We are in danger. It is this way with sin. When I know my boundaries, I have freedom. When I track what I am eating and am conscious of what I am putting in my mouth, I am much less likely to use food to meet emotional needs it was never meant to meet. I can eat A piece of cake, enjoy it, and then move on. That is my fence. I am free within that fence. The Biblical guidelines for sex are like that. There is a ton of freedom, when I follow those guidelines, and there are consequences when I do not.

    So….all that to say….How do we emphasize the guidelines without the shame, especially with a subject already terribly embarrassing to a young person…and maybe to the parents.

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  7. June Moore says:

    Sharon,
    I have just read your post and haven’t really had time to fully formulate what I want to say as I’d like to put in my two cents before everyone has moved on to a new topic. My initial thought is that as stated in the above responses and your post their are no easy answers and very strong opinions.

    However, I think the last paragraph of your post speaks to something that is essential as it is important to begin to be able to talk of sexual matters. When topics cannot be discussed and when sex is seen in a shameful way, then this distorts our experience of this very human part of us and lead to compulsions, isolation and ignorance that can be harmful. The more families are able to discuss sex and it’s role as a part of healthy, wonderful and commited relationships the more it helps both men and women make thoughtful choices about having a sexual relationship.

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    • Wise words. I really have so many thoughts connected to this subject, and I suspect at least one more post is coming. But one of the most troubling things about the “purity culture” is the emphasis on not becoming emotionally involved until you marry. Infatuation is a failing, sexual desire (premarriage) is CERTAINLY a failing, and decisions to marry to should be made as dispassionately as possible. Elizabeth Esther got lots of comments on her post, lots of personal stories, and this snippet does a good job of exploring one of the problems that may result from what I was writing about:

      While I was supposed to stand proud because I had mastered my desires and maintained my white knuckle grip on my virginity, I was ashamed, confused, and insecure about the sudden shift in our relationship. One moment it was forbidden and defiling and impure, but a few hours in a white dress and I was supposed to suddenly feel free and open and wildly passionate?

      I totally, totally get that.

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  8. jubilare says:

    I was pretty horrified by this. I know this level of shaming goes on, but I haven’t experienced it much personally. In reverse, I’ve faced more attempts from people to shame and mock me for being celibate.
    The people I know who are empowered to choose celibacy always seem to be those whose parents or mentors took time to educate them about sex and to express the idea that sex has great power to be wonderful or horrible and therefore shouldn’t be taken lightly. Sex can either be used to build up or tear down, strengthen or weaken people and relationships. As a Christian, my duty not to tear down or weaken or harm my fellows is clear, and that dictates how I use or don’t use my sexuality. That’s a doctrine aimed equally at both sexes and it has the ability to empower people who have made any number of choices at any time in their life. It was taught to me by someone who did have sex before marriage, not the future spouse, and went on into a happy, strong and fruitful marriage. That person learned from her experiences, regrets some choices made, but isn’t trapped by some irrevocable “mark of impurity.”
    The doctrine of Grace has to outweigh all sins and all mistakes if it is to be believed at all. The idea of permanent shame flies in the face of Christ’s message.

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    • Yes! I wholeheartedly agree. You also bring a needed reminder that those who choose celibacy may also deal with shaming. I got some comments on FB to that effect, from a young man in his 20s. In his case, the ridicule he faces from male friends outside the church is very painful.

      Excellent last couple of lines. 🙂

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      • jubilare says:

        Mocking celibacy still seems to be an even bigger problem for males. My feelings on that topic would take a long time to express, but it makes me both sad and angry for a number of reasons. Being female, the mocking I face usually comes in the form of incredulity, as if I am something to be put in a zoo and gaped at rather than a normal person who has made choices. Sometimes people just assume that my choices must have been made in ignorance because no “informed” person would choose celibacy (I’ve always wondered how they work that one out to make any sense whatsoever…).

        My male friends, though, face challenges to their masculinity and virility. Brutal levels of shaming. People have questioned my sexual orientation, but never my femininity.

        Thank you. 🙂

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  9. Pingback: Talking About Sex, Part 2: A Post for the Sexually Celibate | Strange Figures

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