Feminism

my church says I’m dirty, my mother says I’m awesome: lessons on sex

Today’s post is a guest post from Mara.

I grew up in a very average, white, suburban Evangelical church. My church was not extreme or controversial in any way. But what I learned from church about gender, sex, and relationships has ultimately hurt me. Some of these lessons were explicitly taught; some were insidious undertones, assumptions, or cultural norms that I absorbed over the years.

These are the lessons I learned from church about sex and relationships:

  1. Your purity is valuable. If you have sex, you’ll disappoint God and harm your relationship with him, and harm your relationship with your future husband.
  2. What you want is irrelevant. All that matters is what God wants. What you want is probably sinful.
  3. You can’t trust yourself. You aren’t capable of good judgment when it comes to sex.
  4. You are not in control. If you ever find yourself alone with a guy, the mere proximity will cause the two of you to spontaneously combust. All people want sex all of the time, and men are ruled by this desire.
  5. Listen to your guilt. Guilt is the Holy Spirit convicting you of sin.
  6. Women shouldn’t be in charge. My church paid lip service to gender equality while excluding women from leadership and exclusively using male language for God. Subtly, the way gender roles were played out in the church conditioned me to believe that it was weird (and maybe wrong) for a woman to be in charge – and by extension, weird for me to be calling the shots or in control.
  7. Sex is wrong outside of heterosexual marriages. The only thing worth discussing about sexual boundaries is, “How far can I go without damaging my purity?”

Fortunately, my parents acted as a buffer to many of the destructive messages I was absorbing from “purity culture” at church. As I was growing up, they told me constantly that I was loved, smart, beautiful, good, and competent. My mother also gave me the best relationship advice I have ever gotten. She looked me in the eye and said insistently,

Listen. This is important. Never let a guy talk down to you, because you are awesome. If any guy ever says differently or puts you down, punch him in the face. I mean it. You are awesome. Don’t believe any guy that says differently. And if you try to tell a guy something and he doesn’t understand, he’s the crazy one, not you. You are awesome.

But all of their affirmation wasn’t enough to undo what I had learned from church. I sincerely wanted to be faithful; I wanted to do the right thing. My naïve sincerity worked against me.

The first time these lessons failed me was the first time I was kissed, in high school. I turned to say something to the guy sitting next to me and found his mouth suddenly on mine. I froze. I knew I didn’t want his tongue in my mouth, but it never occurred to me to push him away. I didn’t know I had that option. In matter of seconds, a debate went on in my mind about what I should do.  The conclusion I came to in those seconds was that if it was a sin, I should pull back and do what God wants. But most people I knew didn’t consider a kiss to be “too far”, so it probably wasn’t sinful. And I felt guilty about “leading him on”: since I had flirted with him, I felt he had a right to expect I would kiss him. Therefore, I decided I should let him kiss me because my guilt told me it was the right thing to do. I was very uncomfortable, rather confused, and wished he would stop. True to the lessons I had learned from church, I didn’t trust myself, I wasn’t in control, and what I actually wanted was never part of my decision-making process.

Nothing in my religious education taught me that it was wrong for him to touch me in a way I didn’t want.

I didn’t really start dating until my junior year of college. The first time I met him, I awkwardly blurted out that I didn’t want to have sex until marriage. I was deathly afraid “leading him on,” and I feared that talking to him at all without an upfront caveat would be deceptive. I fully believed he would walk away, since church had taught me that all guys always want sex. But he didn’t care. I was shocked that he actually just liked being around me. We kept seeing each other, and I liked hanging out with him, and I liked kissing him – some of the time.  Once when we were kissing his hand reached behind me for my bra clasp, but he paused, looking at me to see what I wanted. My mind froze, torn between what I thought the church expected of me, and what I thought he expected of me. I didn’t know I was allowed to make decisions based on what I wanted. I didn’t know what to do, so I kissed him to end the panic. And the bra came off, even though I was definitely not ready for that. The next time I saw him, I wore a tricky front-clasping bra, hoping it would deter him without my actually having to communicate with him. It was ineffective.

Throughout the relationship, he would ask me if I was comfortable and what I wanted, but I didn’t know how to answer those questions, and my voice would stick in my throat. True to his word, he never asked for sex. But still, after some encounters where paralysis from my underlying beliefs left me unable to communicate my discomfort, I would start shaking and shivering uncontrollably, exactly as I had after that unwanted kiss in high school. Trying to make decisions based on guilt was disastrous. I felt guilty for telling him no (because by flirting with him or kissing him, I must have been “teasing” or “leading him on”), and I felt guilty for doing anything physical and damaging my “purity.” I ended the relationship after a couple of months because I couldn’t handle the anxiety from the conflicting guilt messages, or the resulting paralysis. I had no concept of what a healthy dating relationship looked like or what consent meant.

Eventually, as my beliefs and understanding around sex evolved and I dated other guys, I learned (slowly and painfully) how to communicate, how to ignore guilt, and how to make decisions based on what I actually wanted and what was right for me. I finally learned that no man ever has a right to touch me. I remember distinctly the first time I was able to actualize this newfound insight. After a date, a guy walked me home, and kissed me at the gate. Then he tried to put his hand down my pants. I pushed him away and told him no, clearly and firmly, and I didn’t feel guilty. I walked away and laughed. I celebrated that night. I celebrated belonging to me, and to no one else. I was 21 years old.

***

Experience has taught me that just about everything I learned about sex and relationships from Evangelicalism was wrong, unhelpful, or dangerous. I’ve discovered that it’s a complete myth that men unilaterally have stronger sex drives than women or that they are controlled by such an imperative for sex. The only guy I’ve gone out with who actually believed that was one who tried to rape me. It was how he justified the assault.

In that situation and many others, I may have been able to protect myself better if I had been taught to trust myself, to trust my instincts when they sense something is going wrong. But the church’s message that I can’t trust myself has been the most insidious, the hardest to root out. It’s an issue beyond just sexual situations. I was recently in a serious relationship with a man that I loved and adored. He was a good guy in every measurable way. But something felt off, and it bothered me. He always felt distant; I felt like I couldn’t get close to him, even though he said he loved me and he called me every day. I explained it away as being the result of a long-distance relationship. But the feeling grew over time, to the point where I felt like I wasn’t a priority to him, like he took me for granted. I told him how I felt, and his response was that I was overly sensitive and I was imagining it or that he already does enough and it was unreasonable to expect anything else. Eventually, when I was miserable enough, I remembered my mother’s advice: he must be the crazy one, not me. My emotions were legitimate, and deserved to be taken seriously.

A few months after we broke up, I found out he had been in love with another girl since high school. He told me that if at any time she had become available, he would have left me for her. He literally said I was his “second choice.” My instincts had been dead on: he was distant and emotionally unavailable, and I was not his priority. I’m not about to be anybody’s second choice. I’m too awesome for that.

As I have come to believe more firmly that I’m awesome and valuable, I have also come to see the value in having sex within a committed relationship. I didn’t always see this value. I felt secure having sex with a guy I felt safe with and who treated me well, as long as we always used condoms and I was on the pill. Then came the unfortunate week in which a condom malfunction coincided with a missed birth control pill – which was followed by a missed period.

During the ensuing panic, three things became very clear to me: I wanted to keep the baby, but having a baby would make graduate school (which I wanted more than anything) very complicated, maybe impossible; and I was horrified at the thought of having this guy be the father of my child, and being tied to him for the rest of my life.

Even after finding out I wasn’t pregnant, the impression of the riskiness of sex stuck with me.  Around this time, the logic of my father’s theory on sex began to sink in. He always said that it was best to keep sex inside marriage (even common law marriage) because it was protective against some of the consequences of sex. I now saw his point: I decided I wasn’t going to risk that kind of sex again until I’d finished graduate school and I was with someone I at least wouldn’t be horrified about being connected to for the rest of my life.

While a serious relationship with someone I know and trust can be protective against the risks and dangers of sex, I’ve realized this is a guideline, not a rule. It makes it less likely I’ll get a sexually transmitted infection, less likely a pregnancy would be unbearable, less likely the sex is exploitative or harmful. There’s value in that.

But it’s also true that some sex outside of committed long-term relationships could be beneficial, and some married sex is extremely harmful.

This is the reason I would not marry someone without having some kind of sex with him first.  You can’t tell for sure how a guy is going to behave or how he communicates or what he prioritizes about sex until something physical starts happening. There are certainly signs to pay attention to before that; if he treats you poorly outside the bedroom, you can be pretty sure he won’t be any better inside. But I’ve been with guys who are respectful, considerate, good guys, but don’t communicate or behave in a way that I’m comfortable with when things start to get physical. Before I agree to spend the rest of my life with someone, I need to know for certain that I’m as safe with and respected by him with the bedroom door closed as I am when we’re at dinner with my parents.

Looking back, these are the lessons I wish I had learned from my church as a teenager, lessons my church would have been well equipped to teach:

  1. You are valuable. Not your purity, not your vagina, you – the person made in the image of God – are valuable. No matter what happens to you or what decisions you make, you are valuable.
  2. What you want is extremely important. If someone touches you in a way you don’t want, that’s called sexual assault. That’s a crime that person perpetrated against you. It is not your fault.
  3. You have good instincts. Trust your instincts. You can sharpen your instincts even more by learning about red flags of abuse to watch out for so you can keep yourself safe.
  4. If you don’t feel in control in a situation, something is wrong. Take a step back. Are you in danger? Do the two of you need to communicate better? Are you not sure yet what you want, and need to pause until you are?
  5. Guilt is a terrible measure for decision-making. You will feel guilty for telling a man yes. You will also feel guilty for telling a man no. Don’t listen to the guilt. Listen to your own, God-given wise mind. Check in with your emotions and your reason. Are you feeling any outside pressure to make a decision one way or the other? Do you actually want the sex itself, or do you want to have sex because you want to make him happy or to be closer to him or because you think it is expected of you? Make sure you know why you are making whatever choice you are making. Double check if this is really a good idea, if this is really what you want. Is this right for you? Is it safe? Are you sure you can trust him? What will you think about this decision three months from now?
  6. Women are equal partners in sex and relationships. Both parties should be benefiting. Both parties have a say in what happens. If you’re not enjoying it as much as he is, do something different. Communication is always necessary, always good.
  7. Sex is wrong when it is exploitative. This is true no matter what type of relationship you have, from strangers to spouses. This means that sex is wrong if:
    1. There is not clear, enthusiastic consent, every time for every act (and continuing through each act).
    2. There is a power differential (employer/employee; adult/minor; sex trafficking; etc.).
    3. There is coercion, force, or manipulation of any kind.
    4. It’s used as a weapon to control, harm, or humiliate.
  8. Make informed choices. Make sure you understand human anatomy, the way birth control works, how to have safe sex, and how to get tested for STDs. Make sure you understand the risks and possible consequences of sex, including pregnancy, HIV, other STDs, and potential changes in the dynamics of your relationship.
  9. You are awesome. Remember you are awesome when you’re making decisions, especially about sex and relationships. Remember how awesome you are before you take unnecessary risks. You are awesome.
Photo by Tall And Ginger
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  • Chris Kight

    Thanks for this. This is awesome!

  • Beroli

    Your post is wise and I’m sorry your church wasn’t better.

    (Is Mara going to read this, or is this the equivalent of writing that, putting it in a weighted bottle, and dropping it over the deepest part of the ocean, I wonder.)

    • Mara

      Thanks 🙂

  • John Doe

    Are Prostitutes Better Than Normal Women?

    A Short Essay by John Doe

    Is it cheaper to have sex with normal women than with prostitutes? No, and here is why.

    When you have sex with a normal girl, it’s by no means “free”. You have to take her out to dinner, buy her drinks, and you might have to go on two or even three dates before you will have sex with her. If you add up the total costs of these three dates, it would be approxiately around 400 dollars.

    Now let’s look at the cost of the average high quality prostitute. You can bang a prostitute for 2 hours for 250 dollars.

    What are the benefits of using prostitutes instead of dating normal women?

    1. The average prostitute is far hotter than the average normal woman you can date.

    2. YOU get to do the choosing, and the power of choice is in YOUR hands, instead of in the woman’s hands

    3. With a prostitute, you have sex with her and that’s it. No emotional drama, no mind games, no bullshit, like there is with normal women.

    4. You don’t have to waste hours of your valuable time that you could otherwise spend on making money, taking women out on dates or trying to pick up women in bars and clubs. No, instead you pay a prostitute for one or two hours of her time, have sex with her, and leave.

    5. You choose WHEN you want to have sex. So let’s say you’re a busy businessman, instead of wasting 5 hours at a bar or on a date, instead you’d spend only one or two hours with a prostitute, and that at your convience too. YOU are the one who chooses WHEN, and so you save a LOT of time.

    6. Prostites are DEFINITELY cheaper than getting married. Overall, through a 10 year marriage and divorce, you’d end up spending at least 250,000 dollars. Now let’s take that number and divide it by 250 dollars, which is the average price of a high quality prostitute in a Western country. That is sex with 1000 different high quality prostitutes. Now if you talk to any married man, who is HONEST, he will admit that sex with the wife after the first 6 months or year starts to get boring. And this is why people in long term relationships barely have sex, because it’s BORING having sex with the same person time after time. Variety is the spice of life! You could have sex with 1000 different women for the same price it would cost to marry one woman and have sex with her. And considering how unstable most western women are nowadays, the chance of divorce is around 60%, with the woman initiating the divorce 90% of the time. You are likely to lose at least 50% of your assets and savings in a divorce, and so marriage to a western woman may end up costing you up to 500,000 dollars or even a million dollars, once you add in the divorce costs and long term child payment and alimony costs.

    So let’s take that number, one million dollars, and divide it by 250. That’s 4000 DIFFERENT women you could pay to have sex with, instead of marrying one woman who will just end up turning into a bitch and divorcing you anyway. So it’s your choice guys. Would you rather marry one woman, who will get bored of sex after 6 months, and end up stealing all your assets and savings in divorce, or would you rather have sex with 4000 different beautiful women for the same price?

    Another very relevant point is that the world of modern dating has become quite risky. Most women see nothing wrong with making a false rape accusation against a man. Most rape cases are fake and are done out of a motive of REVENGE by the woman. Did you break up with your girlfriend? Watch out, she might make a false rape accusation against you just to get revenge. Did you cheat on your girl with another girl? Watch out, she might make a false rape accusation just to get revenge on you. Forgot to tell your girlfriend “happy birthday”? Watch out, she might make a false rape accusation against you in order to get revenge on you. At least 90% of rape cases are FALSE, the sex was CONSENSUAL and the woman later changed her mind AFTER the act and decided “oh it was rape”. LOL. And this is why the police no longer take rape cases seriously, because literally 90% of women who claim to have been raped are LYING!

    So that is another HUGE benefit of prostitues. A prostitute won’t make a false rape accusation against you.

    What’s another GREAT reason that men choose to use prostitutes? Because by paying for sex, they can have sex with a MUCH hotter quality of woman than they would normally. For example, if we rate women on a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of beauty. The average guy will be able to pick up and have sex with a 4 or a 5 from a bar, a club, or Tinder. Meanwhile, if the same man paid for sex with a high quality prostitute for $250 dollars (about the same amount of money he would spend picking up a 4 or 5 from a bar, club, or Tinder), the prostitute he would have sex with would be an 8 or 9 on the beauty scale. So for the same amount of money, he can have sex with a much hotter woman, and with much less effort too. Think about all the effort you have to put in to go to a bar or club. You have to buy good clothes, you have to spend lots of money on drinks and food, and also have to spend a lot of money on making sure your apartment is cool and stylish so the girl will feel comfortable there. So unless you’re a man who was blessed with the looks of Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise and have women chasing after you, the easiest and cheapest option for most men to have sex with the hottest quality of women is to simply PAY for sex with a hot prostitute. One guy was asked why he paid to have sex with prostitutes and his reply was “If I’m being brutally honest, the hottest women I’ve ever had sex with have been prostitutes … I would never be able to have sex with women who are ridiculously hot unless they were prostitutes.” I can also personally testify to this point. The types of chicks I was getting from Tinder were mostly fat or at best mildly hot, I would have rated them between a 3 and a 6 on the attraction scale. Then the first time I went to a prostitute, I was blown away with the options and the QUALITY too. Here were super hot girls who I could bang for such a cheap price. Needless to say, I gave up on dating and ONLY bang prostitutes now. I’m a much happier and peaceful person as a result.

    Another couple of reasons that men gave as to why they choose to have sex with prostitutes are:

    “Getting a prostitute is so easy: no strings attached, you can choose the woman you want before you purchase, then they arrive at your door. Couldn’t be easier.”

    I can also testify to this. Getting a normal girl to have sex is a real pain in the ass and involves so much struggle, drama, and mind games. Then of course after you have sex with her, you have to deal with her stalking you, calling you so many times, and with her unrealistic expectation that you are going to have a committed and exclusively relationship with her. All that compared with the EASE of banging a hot prostitute, and the choice is simple. I chose to not waste time trying to date women anymore and only bang hot prostitutes now.

    “We want to have sex without all the bullshit of pretending to be really interested in a girl. When you pay for sex, you don’t have to swap numbers at the end when you know you won’t call. You pay, have sex, she leaves. Everyone’s happy.”

    This goes along with the above point. With normal women and dating, you have to PRETEND to care about her and PRETEND to be interested in her, when in reality all you want is to have sex with her. With a prostitute, there is no pretensions and that really is a beautiful thing because ultimately then sex becomes about the raw physical act as well as the pure attractiveness of the woman, and thus you are able to enjoy sex a lot more.

    Lastly, let’s touch on the issue of legalization. On average surveys, 70 percent of men said they would vote to legalize prostitution, meanwhile 60 percent of women said they would vote to keep prostitution illegal. Now it’s pretty obvious why women want to keep prostitution illegal. Women use sex as a weapon to control men. So it would disrupt the economics of women’s control over sex if prostitution was legalized, because then MEN would have control over WHO they want to have sex with and WHEN. Forget all those arguments about morality, the REAL reason women want to keep prostitution illegal is so that they can CONTINUE to control men with sex. In effect, women are like a mafia that is desperate to keep control of the sexual marketplace. If prostitution was legal, men would be a lot less inclined to put up with women’s bullshit just to get sex from them, when they can go pay for sex from a much more attractive woman and without all the hassles and drama that dating and normal women bring.

    What about STDs some of you might say? Well the whole STD scare is mostly a MYTH that has been blown way out of proportion by feminists and conservative religious leaders in order to scare men away from having sex. In reality, the rate of transmission of AIDS is 1 out of 700 during heterosexual sex. That is, if a man had penis to vagina intercourse with an AIDS-infected woman, it would take 700 times on average before he would contract it. The only way people get AIDS is through using needles to inject drugs, or having anal sex, especially with homosexuals. So the whole AIDS thing is a huge scare, a MYTH, that has been blown way out of proportion.

    What about Herpes? Well studies show that 80% of the US population already has Herpes in one of it’s forms, so that is not really an issue.

    The only other STD that you would have to worry about is Chlamydia, and it can be easily cured within 3 days with antibiotics.

    Now, that is UNPROTECTED sex. If you are using condoms to have sex with, then the chances of getting any of these STDs becomes less than zero. And that includes oral sex as well. Most prostitutes will insist that you always use a condom, even during oral sex. So as long as you are using condoms, then STDs are nothing you should even remotely worry about.

    So what are some of the main reasons why prostitution should be legalized?

    1. If prostitution was legal, it would reduce the STD transmission rate by about 50% amongst prostitutes.

    2. If prostitution was legal, it would reduce rape by at least 150%.

    Many studies have shown that legal prostitution reduces rape, sexual assault, and other sex crimes by a lot. The same studies have shown that legal prostitution reduces the STD rate amongst the general population by about 50%.

    3. The real number of human trafficking victims in the prostitution industry is actually less than 5%. But if prostitution was fully legal, the tiny number of women who are forced into prostitution involuntarily would be able to go to the poliec to get help and escape from their pimps. Keeping prostitution illegal hurts prostitutes the most, so it’s funny how feminists want to keep prostitution illegal and yet at the same time claim they care about women’s health and women’s rights. Feminism is nothing but the biggest pile of bullshit hypocrisy the world has ever seen.

    4. Feminists say “my body, my choice”. So if 95% of prostitutes are VOLUNTARILY engaging in prostitution, then why should those women have the RIGHT to choose what to do with their own bodies, even if that includes trading sex for money? What right does the government or anyone else have to tell two consenting adults that they cannot exchange money for sex?

    5. It would save a lot of money and resources from our police and government. Tens of millions of dollars a year are wasted by our police and government arresting and putting prostitutes in jail. If prostitution was LEGAL, on the other hand, and taxed and regulated, it would bring in tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars a year in tax revenue for our government, as well as freeing up valuable police time for REAL crimes like rape, theft, murder, assault, etc.

    6. If prostitution was legal, prostitutes would have legal rights and would not longer get taken advantage of by pimps and other shady figures, including corrupt police officers. Yes, the police also contribute to the oppression of prostitutes because there are many corrupt police officers out there who blackmail and extort prostitutes for money and/or sexual favors. If prostitution was legal, all of this would end and prostitutes would finally have legal rights.

    7. Prostitution is the world’s oldest profession. It is NEVER going to stop no matter how much the police or government tries to stop it. There are ALWAYS going to be men who are willing to pay money for sex, and there are ALWAYS going to be women who are willing to give sex to men for money. Prostitution has also been an integral part of many cultures and thus trying to stop it is literally impossible. And why should it be stopped? No one has the right to tell two consenting adults that they cannot exchange money for sex. So rather than waste time trying to stop it, just legalize it and tax it, the same way we do with cigarettes, alcohol, and now marijuana.

    All in all, I believe in personal freedom. I believe that no one has the right to force their own sense of morality onto others. In some very ancient cultures, prostitutes were actually given very high status in society and considered as spiritual people who could heal men of their problems through sex. That was thousands of years ago though, before self-righteous modern western religions were invented and started violently forcing their concepts of morality onto people. Funny how societies that were thousands of years old were actually far more advanced than we are in the modern age in terms of sex and prostitutes.

    It took almost a century for people to wake up and legalize marijuana, which is a completely harmless natural plant that hurts no one. In the same way, society and people in general have to EVOLVE and realize that they have no right to force their own sense of morality or control onto others. The modern society is actually a very sexually restrictive society, compared to cultures and civilizations of the past. And it’s this sexual restrictiveness which contributes to so much psychological neurosis, sex crimes, and frustration in general. Is it a coincidence how people in America are so quick to anger and lose their temper, whereas in a place like Thailand where prostitution is legal and accepted, people are very laid back and cool headed? People need to stop seeing sex as such a big thing, and just realize that sex is a normal and acceptable part of life.

    With that said, I believe that I have covered all the points as to why prostitution should be legal and an accepted part of society, and so this essay comes to a close. Please feel free to copy, paste, and distribute this essay as my goal is to influence and educate as many people as possible, the only thing I ask is that you do not change it or edit it in any way whatsoever. Thank you very much

    Sincerely,

    John Doe

  • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

    In the churches I was a young adult in, “You can’t trust your feelings” was a common refrain about everything. This created a real problem for me because I am Feeling oriented on the Myers Briggs. I make sense out of the world with feelings.

  • David Andersen

    Thanks for sharing this.

  • Jiggy_with_it

    HALLELUJAH! This is so relevant… except in my case my parents did reinforce what the church said. It is taking an era just to work that out of my head, so I can function like a normal human with normal desires and behaviours.. :/

    • Mara

      Yeah, it took about 300 hours of therapy to get me to a place where I can “function like a normal human with normal desires and behaviors.” For me, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy’s emphases on being non-judgmental, accepting the positive role of emotions, and learning mindfulness were life saving.

  • Kk

    Wow wow wow. This really hits home with me. I also grew up with loving, encouraging parents but my mind was poisoned by evangelical teachings on purity. I was constantly trying to walk the impossible line between pleasing my boyfriend and trying to honor God with my purity. What I wanted never, ever entered my mind. I was constantly wracked by guilt. When I got married I was so, so relieved that my struggle with “purity” was finally over.
    It’s taken me a decade to try and identify and sort out all the conflicting messages I absorbed as a teenager.

  • Jes

    I really appreciated this. My own experience is similar. And now I have three daughters, that I more than anything want to help them grow up comfortable in their own skin. It took until I was over 30 to even start to feel that.

  • Plain English

    Thank-you for this, Mara. You are indeed an awesome and a valuable person to listen to… Having voices like yours out in the world makes me sigh a breath of relief to know that there is strong, consistent opposition to the harm done in churches, done in the name of Love.

  • Thank you for having the courage to share this!

  • Charles Stanford

    Even in churches that consider extramarital sex a sin there is recognition growing of the harmful effects of shaming and teaching young people not to trust their own feelings or judgment. But that little detail of considering sex outside of marriage a sin or not seems to be the hinge that swings a wide door.

    I feel converted and dedicated to the principle of consent, and try to conduct myself accordingly. At the same time, I think conversations about it should take into consideration how disruptive sexual desire really is. I have an intuition that for either conservative or progressive religious people to try to claim that they’re sex positive leads them eventually into confrontations with the impossibilities and messy absurdities that are inherent in human sexuality, and that therefore sex positivity is a chimera distracting from sex wisdom. I like the way Alain de Botton puts it: “Our best hope should be for a respectful accommodation with an anarchic and reckless power.”

    Asexuals who are willing to include sexual relations in their relationships discuss this principle of consent and what it means. I found this post thoughtful:

    http://adventures-in-asexuality.tumblr.com/post/68620781408/the-model-of-enthusiastic-consent-in-relation-to

    And here’s another who blogs about consent often:

    https://theacetheist.wordpress.com/tag/consent/

    There are growing voices in conservative Christian circles that try to be sex-positive: they say that sex is a wonderful, God-given thing that is meant to give joy and bring couples together in love, etc. It’s just that it has to be kept within marriage because . . . well, God designed it that way. The problem I see with their “sex positive” attitude – which could be applied outside of that religious culture too – is that if sex is a good thing given by God (whether that’s a strict heavenly patriarch, an easy-going great mother or anything else) for our enjoyment, then it’s really easy for me to say: why then, I have a right to claim my due, and the incentive is there to preach the duty of each party in a committed relationship to provide that comfort and joy for the other: make time, do it even if you don’t feel like it . . . I’m not sure right now where the line is between this and saying that sex is a need. After all, what kind of parent would insist on enthusiastic consent before feeding a child or changing that child’s diaper? Or what about all the times when I’ve put aside something I’ve been doing to spend time with my older child even if I didn’t really want to . . .

    What makes consent more applicable to sex than to these basic needs of babies or even these arguably dispensable desires of children is the same thing that makes it so hard to hold onto: its intensity and power, and its weird little unconscious instinctual connections with all those early childhood experiences.

    I have a hypothesis that this may be one reason you see Christian marriage advice columns telling wives to “just do it”: it’s fine to be on a high horse about enthusiastic consent when you’re single or at least childless, even if you’re young and your hormones are gushing. But when you get into the yanking and tearing of family life, and a window of opportunity opens and one of the parents is feeling a strong desire and the other one decides to go along with it, what’s the appropriate measure of self-examination that should go into this? “Oh, is this *enthusiastic* consent? No, I’m taking care of my partner out of compassion. Is that ok? Am I harming myself? Oh, sorry honey, stop! I have to figure this out.” I cannot overstate how much easier it is for both partners to find the time to negotiate all this when there aren’t children in the house. So where does that leave parents? Reproducing plays merry hell with our ideals.

  • Timothy Swanson

    This is where my journey has taken me as well. I too cannot imagine making a marital commitment with zero experience with how the other person communicates in the bedroom. On the other hand, I don’t find the idea of casual sex to be appealing, because sex means an expression of love and caring for one’s partner. So, I guess I am just cut out for marriage to a compatible partner. 🙂

  • AlyGirl92

    Mara, Thank you so much for writing this! Growing up (particularly as a teenager) I was exposed to both the Cosmopolitan view of sex (sex is a must and it’s about what he wants) and the purity view of sex (humans were likened to peanut butter sandwiches and apples in two of my youth group talks). Neither of my parents voluntarily sat down and talked with me about it, apart from when I started questioning my Christian faith at seventeen years old and had a break down because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to wait until marriage. And since then, to wait or not to wait has not been a black and white issue for me, especially now that I’m seeing someone where there’s a lot of both physical and emotional chemistry. Regardless of when I choose to share myself with someone, I want it to be an expression of love as opposed to it being a “next step” in the relationship or as a way to test sexual compatibility (I think as long as there’s physical attraction there you’ve got something to work with). It feels superficial to base the course of a relationship on something that takes time to figure out, and changes over time.

    I wish the church would discuss sex in a way that presents both the positives and negatives of both sides, rather than using scare tactics or guilt tripping. Sex is just as much about emotional comfort and bonding as it is about hormones and gratification, and I think if that was incorporated there would be more realistic/healthy expectations, and people can make better decisions.

  • Alice

    “Guilt is a terrible measure for decision-making.” THANK YOU. So many times, I see Christian leaders run out of arguments on why _____ is a sin, so they resort to, “If it makes you feel guilty, that must be the Holy Spirit. If you don’t feel guilty, pray to God with a open heart and he will convince you I’m right.” Guilt was the golden standard for a lot of gray areas like deciding what TV shows are okay for a Christian to watch.

  • My husband works for a nonprofit that does some work in educating teenagers about safe relationships and the importance of communication, and I can’t help but think over and over that what is really needed is someone to come in and spend a day just talking to these kids about -consent-. It seems like even well-meaning, communicative families/churches/schools/etc don’t do a good enough job of making sure both boys AND girls are aware of what consent really is, how important it is, and how you cannot accept ‘yes’ as a default, the default is always ‘no’ until you explicitly hear otherwise.

    It seems like there’s this vast gaping chasm of knowledge that we all have to pick up by experience for the most part, and I wonder sometimes how different some of our high schol relationships would be in the retelling if we’d been given the consent toolkit early on.

  • Thanks for writing this- the connection between guilt taught by purity culture and not being able to say no is something I hadn’t put together before. I also have often felt like I didn’t know what to do or couldn’t say know, and I couldn’t figure out how that was related to purity culture, which taught “your boyfriend will totally try to badger you into having sex, that’s how guys are, and you need to be strong and say no, you need to be the one enforcing the boundaries.” But reading this got me thinking about the “guys can’t control themselves” and “you shouldn’t hold hands/ kiss/ etc because that leads to sex”, which purity culture teaches. So yeah, of course being raised in that environment, I would think “well I let him do X and of course it leads to Y and he can’t stop himself.”

  • Lady Lyanna Mormont

    This was really lovely and honest. I’m reminded of the sex talks I had in church (akin to mean girls “you will have sex and die”), I never listened to that, but I also didn’t have anyone telling me this. It would have been really valuable and saved a lot of life lessons. Keep singing.