It was 1996, and I was a fourteen year old living in South America.
The sordid story of Monica Lewinsky and President Bill Clinton took a few extra weeks to reach my ears, but its scandalous nature did not fail to impress me.
My mom has since shared with me that when she had conversations about this topic with her Venezuelan friends, they couldn’t understand why Americans were so shocked their president would have an affair.
You see, In Venezuelan culture, politicians engaging in extra-marital affairs is nothing scandalous; in fact, it is to be expected.
We are all influenced by our cultures, aren’t we?
We are scandalized by what our culture says is taboo.
We accept that which our culture says is acceptable.
And as a whole, our American society frowns upon promiscuous behavior, especially that of leaders. They are expected to live by the highest of standards.
At the same time, our society also seems pretty obsessed with sex (just look at the magazine headlines in the checkout line).
Christianity, which forms a fairly large subculture in our country, also elevates sex, with the stipulation that sex should only be engaged in within the confines of marriage.
I went to a small Christian college. I remember discussing sex with my girlfriends at length, and I remember dreaming about one day being married and having sex.
I remember how my wedding felt like the ticket I needed to finally have sex.
I remember feeling like life was ironic… how could one little ceremony make something which was SO NOT OKAY suddenly be good?
Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers summarizes our cultural issues with sexuality well:
“On one side, we have the religious right that espouses abstinence only ‘education’ (which in essence means no human sexuality education-- only a message of ‘no sex before marriage’).
On the other side, we have the world’s largest grossing porn industry and perhaps one of the most promiscuous recreational sex cultures in the western world.
Ours is a confused sexual culture. One minute we say sex is a sacred act and the next minute we say for the right price, sex and people are for sale – no strings attached.
No wonder I hear so many people speak of feeling isolated when they are caught in between these extremes! They long to be deeply touched-- known.”
Last week, I looked at the evangelical purity movement, both its causes and its effects.
I finished my post with a few questions:
As I pondered these questions, it struck me how much we are what we believe.
And what we believe about sex and sexuality affects both the way we experience sex and our attitudes about sex.
The first question I ended my last post with was, “Could feminism’s emphasis on sexual equality and Christianity’s focus on loving others as you love yourself be good bedfellows?”
Love Others as You Love Yourself: How Feminism’s Emphasis on Sex Positivity Fits with Faith
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.”
And what do feminists say?
A term used by some feminists to describe a feminist’s attitude towards sex is “sex positivity”.
The Colorado State University's Women and Gender Advocacy Center describes sex positivity this way: “As a broad ideology and world view, sex positivity is simply the idea that all sex, as long as it is healthy and explicitly consensual, is a positive thing.”
Some folks claim sex positivity frees people to go out and have sex all the time, with whomever they wish, even children or, or, animals.
However, a closer look at the definition of sex positivity reveals a sexual boundary: “[...] as long as it is healthy and explicitly consensual [...].”
The Cambridge Dictionary defines consensual as meaning, “with the willing agreement of all the people involved”.
Synonyms and words related to consensual include “accord”, “allow”, “go along with”, and “informed consent”.
You really can’t go wrong with advocating for sex positivity while including the caveat that sex should be both consensual and about “loving your neighbor as you love yourself”.
What a great “check” for us to use when exploring our own sexuality.
Rachel Held Evans wrote a thought-provoking article called "Sex and the Path of Holiness". In it, she challenged us to think more about doing justice for people than about judging ourselves or others for "losing our purity".
She included an important exhortation in her post:
“But I want folks to know that abandoning the painful and destructive narrative that a single sexual encounter can ‘ruin’ a person or make her unworthy of love doesn’t mean swinging to the opposite extreme to endorse an anything-goes sexual ethic.”
Again, what a wonderful moral compass we have in the mandate to love others as we love ourselves.
Later in the same article, Held Evans shares quotes from a blog post on the topic of purity by blogger Jamie Wright.
In the post, Wright shares how both the shame-inducing purity movement and the “anything goes” attitude are destructive.
She tells how, in her younger years, she believed sex was a tool she could wield to get what she wanted:
“I believed that sex was the best thing I had to offer the world. It was the only thing about me worth loving. And I learned, too young, that I could leverage sex to get what I wanted. My female parts had become my greatest asset.”
Going back to those proverbial magazines-by-the-checkout...aren’t so many of them selling men and women that very message?
Wright goes on to share an equally harmful message she received from her church: because she had engaged in sex before marriage, she was irrevocably damaged.
She summarizes the two messages she believed with these words:
“The first comes from our culture, and it tells us that sex outside of marriage isn’t a big deal.
The second is from the Church, and it tells us that sex outside of marriage is the biggest deal of all the deals ever.
One allowed me to give it away freely, convinced I would carry no burden. The other forced me to carry a spirit crushing load.”
Wright finished her article, which was ultimately about what she wanted her teenage sons to know about sex, thus:
“Do I want my boys to wait? Absolutely. And they know it! But I refuse to tie their value as a human being to their junk like a shiny red balloon.
I want them to know that sex is sacred. And I want them to believe that it matters. I hope they will esteem the bodies of the girls in their lives, as they hold their own bodies to the same high standard.
But I also want them to understand that the kind of sexual purity the Bible calls us to doesn’t begin or end with Virginity – It’s way bigger than that. It’s way more significant. And it’s way harder to hold on to.”
In conclusion, let’s combine sex positivity with one of our highest mandates as people of faith, “Love others as you love yourself”.
Then, let’s take it one step further, remembering our highest mandate:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”
What if we embraced the feminist notion that both our bodies and sex are good?
What if we refused to worship “having sex” as the god which would solve all our loneliness/emptiness/shame problems?
What if we approached sex with thankfulness to God?
What if loving others was just as important as loving ourselves?
We may not end up with any stringent sexual rules; instead, we’d have something better. We’d have wisdom guiding our decision making .
In the end, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing, would it?
Since Sex is Good, How Do We, As Feminists Of Faith, Develop A Healthy Sexual Ethic?
When Christians who promote the purity movement harp on purity (no sex until marriage) as “God’s way”, I chuckle.
The Bible seems to be at odds with its own self on this topic.
Pastor and scholar Jennifer Wright Knust wrote an article entitled, “Five Things the Church Gets Wrong About Sex” for the blog “news and pews”.
In the article, she stated, “It is simply not the case that the Bible speaks with one voice about anything, let alone sex, and to say that it does is disingenuous at best.”
You have probably heard many of the Bible verses which are used to support sex within marriage only.
Here are a few: Hebrews 13: 4, 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5, Proverbs 5:8-9,1 Cor. 6:18-20.
As you read them, you may be surprised to see that while these verses address adultery and lust, they do not directly say, “no sex until marriage”.
Here are a few examples of why the topic of sex and the Bible is complicated:
Where do these very different Bible mandates and stories leave us, then?
As Knust points out, “[...] I have discovered, the Bible is a treasure trove of fascinating stories and teachings about sexuality and desire. It is not, however, a moral guidebook.”
The Bible leaves us with very few explicit commands. Instead, it gives us both freedom and wisdom.
So throw out the purity movement’s fear-inducing shame-message, and embrace the ethic of loving God and loving others as you love yourself.
And if you are wondering where to go from there, Dr. Schermer Sellers offers an excellent list of 12 beliefs essential to a healthy sexual ethic at the end of this post: https://www.tinaschermersellers.com/post/testing-the-title.
To sum it all up, in Dr. Schermer Seller’s words:
“Well, this might sound too simplistic, but the way I like to think about it is that the way that we are in relationship with our sexuality with our desire, it needs to honor us. It needs to first it needs to honor us. It needs to honor God if we have a relationship with God and that’s important to us. Then, if we are in relationship with another, it needs to honor the other. If it’s not doing that, then it’s not serving love. That’s really the purpose. It to serve love. That’s where it becomes generative. That’s where it grows. If it’s self serving, it’s going to fall flat at the least and be hurtful at the most, right?”
(Read the full podcast/interview transcript here: http://shamelessthebook.com/tina-schermer-sellers/)
When I first began to breathe the fresh air of freedom from shame and fear, I felt happy, but I also wondered how I could truly become free?
You can’t just tell yourself, “Ok, you’re free. Enjoy sex. No more shame.”
Our bodies aren’t wired that way.
Even when our mind changes about something, our bodies and emotions can still be triggered by shaming messages.
Which leads to the question:
How Do Those Of Us Who Have Been Hurt By The Purity Movement Recover Our Sexuality?
As I’ve shared, I have slowly been gaining sexual freedom.
I no longer feel ashamed of “fun sex”.
I have begun to embrace myself as a sexual being. I now see that BOTH my husband and I should be enjoying pleasure.
I see sex as a gift and not as a chore.
And hugely instrumental in my sexual freedom-fest was the book, Come As You Are.
This interview transcript provides an excellent overview of the key concepts in the book, which will, I hope, whet your appetite: https://www.wbur.org/radioboston/2015/03/12/emily-nagoski.
If you read the book in its entirety, I genuinely believe it will revolutionize your sex life.
Here are a few key ways it has helped me:
So what are you waiting for, friend? Go out and buy the book!
In so many ways, writing is the best therapy.
I have been learning and learning through my study of faith and feminism and all that good shit in between. Thanks, friends, for coming on this journey with me.
So far, we have examined women’s freedom in every sector except one: a woman’s role in the church!
Tune in next week for an exploration of this incredibly important facet of faith and feminism as I wrap up the series.
My body is mine, and mine alone.
I can say no, or I can say yes.
I deserve to experience pleasure.
I am beautiful.
For a girl (me) who thought it was her duty to give her body to her spouse, no matter how she felt, this new mantra is huge.
I used to think men’s sexual appetites were so massive that if wives didn’t satisfy them, husbands would have to find something or someone else to satiate their hunger.
This meant that if a husband was addicted to pornography, it was his wife’s fault.
If a man had an affair, it was his wife’s fault.
And if a husband was feeling unloved or sad, it was his wife’s duty to “comfort” him.
I am sure you can see how patriarchal and stereotypical this way of thinking is.
Not only does this leave women feeling trapped and used, it also shortchanges men: they could have wives who actually enjoy sex instead of wives who are having sex out of duty.
I grew up when the Evangelical Purity Movement was in full swing.
Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers, a sex therapist, has spent many years exploring the harmful effects of the purity movement.
She explains that, because the purity movement included elements of shame, silence and fear, people who have been exposed to the movement display the same symptoms as victims of sexual trauma:
“This combination of Fear, Shame, and Silence wrapped in a religious context of 'This is of God' is what produces religious sexual shame that can manifest as symptoms of childhood sexual abuse in adults.
The Purity Movement delivered this in spades … and we have a generation of young adults now trying to heal from levels of shame, depression, anxiety and sexual dysfunction unlike we have seen in recent history.”
The purity movement appears to have begun as a reaction to the sexual revolution of the 60’s, which was a result of the feminist movement.
As feminists were asserting women's equality in the work place and in politics, they also began advocating for women's sexual equality.
According to a PBS article entitled "The Pill and the Sexual Revolution", “At the core of the sexual revolution was the concept -- radical at the time -- that women, just like men, enjoyed sex and had sexual needs.”
Feminists in the 60’s advocated especially for the sexual empowerment of unmarried women. They advised women to use birth control and be free.
Whereas, prior to this time, society emphasized the importance of “virginity and marriage”, now society celebrated the “single life and sexual exploration”. (https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/pill-and-sexual-revolution/)
You can imagine how terrifying this was for Christians, who were concerned about sexual promiscuity.
Even before the sexual revolution of the 60’s, Christians placed a great deal of emphasis on women’s sexual purity (aka-be a virgin until marriage, be modest, etc).
How then, should they respond to this increased sexual freedom for women?
Christians apparently felt they needed to affirm sex as pleasurable while also admonishing young people not to engage in sex outside of marriage.
As a teenager, I remember giggling while listening to the song, “I Don’t Want It” by DC Talk.
It was so scandalous; were they really spelling “S-E-X” in a catchy Christian song?!?
Give the song a listen: https://youtu.be/KEpZd6jqmuQ.
Though I enjoyed the song as a teen, now it makes me feel angry:
A message I received from this song was that girls can really lead guys astray with sexual tempation.
I also understood that good guys ought to stand strong because “God has set his standard higher Purity is his desire”.
My question now is, "What is God's purity standard?" I'm not convinced it is what DC Talk hinted at in that song...
I distinctly remember, after listening to the song, feeling hyper conscious about what I was wearing around guys. Was I unintentionally begging them to have sex with me?
Couched in the words of this song is the promise that if you wait until you are married to have sex, then sex will be really really good: “And trust that God will give us something better if we wait.”
In other words, delay your passion until you are married; it will be worth it.
As a young teenager secretly fantasizing about sex and boys, I took this message to heart.
After all, who wouldn't want fabulous sex?
While Christian singers in the 1990’s and 2000’s were putting out songs emphasizing the glories of sex after marriage and the pitfalls of sex before marriage, numerous Christian organizations were promoting the same messages in a variety of ways: through promise rings, True Love Waits conventions, father-daughter dances and an increasing emphasis on courtship over dating and delaying kissing until marriage (I Kissed Dating Goodbye).
Once again, I feel lucky my parents never encouraged me to become involved in any of these movements.
In spite of that fact, I absorbed its basic tenets: sex outside of marriage was bad; if I waited for marriage, sex would be wonderful; girls ought to be modest lest they lead guys astray.
I remember hearing that if you were sexually promiscuous before marriage, you would bring all of your former partners into the marriage bed with you.
Joshua Harris is the author of the book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. He now regrets having written the book, and recently participated in a documentary about its impact as well as that of the purity movement.
The opening scene of the documentary (which was also the opening scene of his book) involves a wedding ceremony in which the groom brings all his former girlfriends with him to the ceremony.
If you want to understand both Harris's book and the purity movement in more depth, I highly recommend watching the documentary here.
I have heard of some youth groups asking girls to chew a piece of gum and then spit it out. After that, the girls were asked, “Would you give this to someone else to chew?”
The message behind this exercise? Don’t have sex with other people before marriage. If you do, you are damaged goods.
And you don’t want to offer “damaged goods” to the man you marry on your wedding day, do you?
What an incredibly shaming message!
Earlier, I shared a quote by Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers in which she shares how the purity movement used “Fear, Shame and Silence wrapped in a religious context” to encourage young people not to engage in sex before marriage.
Writer Linda Kay Klein tells her story and the stories of other women affected by the purity movement in her book PURE.
In this article by VICE, the author shares some of the stories in Klein's book. The stories are maddening. No woman should ever feel this way!
From these examples, can you see the fear, shame and silence invoked by the purity movement?
It is hard for “good Christian girls” who have been told first to dress modestly and then not to be lustful to suddenly become sexual beings once they are married.
For years, I myself felt “naughty” (shameful) after having especially enjoyable sex.
This leads to a few honest questions:
I can't wait to explore these questions next week!
Do you have personal experience with the purity movement? If so, be sure to leave a comment and tell me about it.
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I'm a busy mom of three asking hard questions about my faith.