My First Steps to Redeeming Sex
In my last post, I talked about learning to trust myself for the first time in my life. Between my relationship with my mom and the religion I grew up in, self-trust didn’t really seem like a priority. In fact, I feel like I learned to believe that it was a sin to trust myself because that must mean I’m not trusting God. Lean not on your own understanding, die to yourself, become born again, be different, holy, better.
It’s pretty easy to see how even the best humans have their ugly sides. There are very few people that we extol highly enough that we can’t also acknowledge their shortcomings as well, especially these days when information travels far and fast and sticks around. But even with the knowledge that humans are equally beautiful and flawed, we still somehow have a hard time accepting that about ourselves. It feels like we are too tempted to err heavily on one side or the other. Either we fall prey to narcissism and find ways to ignore the negativities hiding beneath the surface or we spend all of our time wallowing in our own depravity, convinced that we are not quite worthy of being loved.
That second category is definitely where I fall more often. For a large chunk of the last 10 years, my biggest fear has been that I would find out that I am a bad person, that people hate me, that my presence in people’s lives causes damage and pain. And in small ways, all of those things are probably true. I do make bad decisions, I’m sure there are at least a few people out there who just don’t like me, and every action has its consequence. But the pendulum swings both ways, and learning to be ok with admitting that I bring joy to at least a few people, that I am capable of selfless and good actions, and that I make people’s lives better has been some of the greatest work I’ve done as an adult.
Because living in a depravity mindset means living afraid of myself and what I’m made of. It means that my goal in life is to shut down my natural desires and find a way to be more holy, less like myself. It means that my urges, needs, wants, and reactions are always meant to be questioned and fought. No good can come of me.
I’m so relieved to say that I don’t believe that anymore. I don’t believe that my life goal should be to fear what has been within me from my birth, and I don’t believe that I am inherently flawed and fallen. The only unfortunate thing is that I feel like I mostly came into this new sense of freedom by first going through a divorce. I’m sure there are other ways I could have woken up to all of this, but if I’m honest, I’m glad I got there the way I did. As I mentioned in my last post, my marriage started at a point in my life where I truly had no idea what I wanted from life. I just could not see any value in who I was or what I was doing and had no sense that I was contributing anything to the world. So it’s no surprise that when a man came along who seemed to like me despite my perceived lack of value, I latched onto that as hard as I could.
He and I met at church, both of us serving in the youth ministry. He was energetic and outgoing, charismatic and funny, and I started following him around like a puppy almost as soon as we met. He’s 6 years older than me, which just added to his allure. He had his shit together, a full time job, a house, and a plan. He was stability, security, and fun, which was the perfect mix for my little, lost 20-year-old heart.
We became friends, ended up dating, and within a few years, we were engaged.
We got off to what I would call a rocky start because I had essentially promised God that I wasn’t going to date anyone for a year and then met Rob about a month later. Meeting him and wrestling with our mutual attraction and our growing friendship left me in a situation I couldn’t quite figure out. I felt that I had promised something to God and needed to keep that promise, but I also just could not resist starting a relationship with this person who seemed to be all good things. I think I’ll unpack the whole “I made a promise to God” situation in another post, but that’s the background you need for now.
Combined with that unusual circumstance, we also found ourselves in that age-old Christian struggle for purity. We were emotionally and physically attracted to each other, but we knew that we weren’t “supposed to” have sex before we got married. Between that and the fact that we were always in church together, surrounded by watchful eyes, we got stuck in an unhealthy cycle pretty quickly.
I don’t remember how far into our relationship we were when we had sex for the first time, but I do remember it happening after months of pushing the boundaries and fooling around in other ways. We were so committed to some imaginary, indefinable purity boundary that we hadn’t even allowed ourselves to say that we loved each other, even though we obviously did. I’m not sure why saying “I love you” was a bigger deal to us than sex, but it was, to the point that we finally crossed that line and had sex, during it, I looked him dead in the eye and said “I love you,” daring him not to say it back. We laugh about it now because I was flat out challenging whatever dumb rule we had in place since we had obviously crossed any and all lines we had drawn.
I remember how much it wrecked me that we had crossed that line. We just lived in the world where sex was always and inherently wrong until you got married and it was supposed to be the pinnacle of that relationship. I feel like sex was meant to terrify us in a lot of ways, and I definitely had a very limited and small view of it. These days, it is absolutely crazy to me how unwilling we are to just think and talk about things. The fear that people feel over mere ideas is astounding to me. The thought of having open conversations about sexuality, bodily functions, desires, and habits is so terrifying to some religious circles that it really doesn’t surprise me that people end up with all kinds of messed up mindsets about it all.
In some ways, I still don’t know exactly what I believe specifically about what God thinks about sex outside of marriage. I’m not going to claim anything drastic like God is totally ok with sex however we feel is best, but I will say that I think there are plenty of things that God just doesn’t care about in the ways we’ve always been told They do. Not that They don’t care, but that our choices in the matter do not leave Them on the edge of Their seat, waiting to determine if our actions say that we love Them enough.
Maybe I’d feel differently if Rob and I had had sex before marriage and then once we were married everything just suddenly fell into place and became what it was meant to be. But purity culture didn’t just affect me as a single person, it forced its way into my marriage and continued to heap guilt and shame on me for choices that were not made out of malice or even rebellion. A young, reckless, uninformed and in love heart can be a dangerous thing, but the best response to it is not to sweep everything under the rug and shut the door on necessary conversations.
One of the luxuries of being divorced (not a phrase I ever thought I’d use) is that I pretty much know I’m going to have sex outside of marriage in the future and not feel guilty about it for a second. I just don’t think it’s an issue that tears me away from God. I think it’s a God-given desire to have sex and to find a healthy way to view it, and for me, that will be done outside of the context of marriage. And if that’s not right for you, then that’s ok too. It’s a matter of personal conviction and health. It’s not my business to monitor your sex life, and it’s not yours to monitor mine.
I’ve had plenty of friends (and have been this person myself) who are stuck in a cycle of love and shame. They are in a committed, loving relationship that naturally includes physical desires as well as emotional, and the more time they spend investing in that relationship, the closer they want to get. But when they eventually get to the point of having sex, everything gets blurry. It’s done either with a pretty immediate sense of shame or it’s acknowledged as wrong with that shame actively buried and ignored. Neither of these responses are helpful or healthy, so one or both members of the couple swear that they won’t do it again, that they’ll do better, be better, that they’ll live up to better standards next time. And most of the time, the cycle just comes and goes with no clear way to combat it.
I brought up this cycle to a friend once, and as was expected, her immediate response was that the bible says it’s wrong to have sex outside of marriage. I don’t want to get into a discussion about the bible yet because that’s another ten posts worth of thoughts, but at the very least I’ll say I no longer believe that “the bible says” is a good enough reason to do or not do anything. The bible can be a beautiful thing, but without personal interpretation, without the Holy Spirit, without examining and discovering the many living layers of it, it’s a pretty dead thing. And it’s a thing that keeps people in chains, often without them even realizing it.
I’m not advocating for casual sex with no boundaries, but I do believe there has to be a middle ground between reckless freedom and everything being off-limits. I myself know that I will never be a person who can go and hook up with whoever. My emotions are connected to my body in a way that keeps physical desires mercifully at bay. It’s likely that for some people, I’m speaking in a way that’s not helpful because I don’t have a high sex drive, I’m not stuck in a struggle of wanting what I can’t have. My main goal is to highlight that there probably isn’t a textbook set of a rules of right and wrong the way we often think, in matters of sex and in a lot of things. And to go back to the topic of trusting ourselves, the defaulting to rules set by someone else is the ultimate example of not being able or willing to trust yourself. It’s one thing to agree to a standard or authority, but it’s another to blindly follow it without discovering what’s important and healthy for you personally.
All I want these days is for people to not accept what’s been given to them just because it was. There is more for you. There is beauty and truth, even in sex outside of marriage. There is beauty and truth in the homosexual couple. There is beauty and truth in sharing a drink with a friend. There is beauty and truth in questioning religion and wrestling with god. There is beauty and truth in cursing, debating, serving, going to church, staying home from church, protesting, reading, running, bathing, and all of our various human experiences. And the farther I go with god, the more I’m convinced that it’s not about following all of the right rules to get close to Them, it’s about inviting Her in to every experience, knowing He is still loving and present in it all.