Yesterday I was talking about how our Christian modesty message can make women ashamed of their bodies, and pleaded for reframing our message: let’s point to God, not make rules.
Today I want to talk about how the purity culture message can leave women ashamed of sex.
To reiterate, I absolutely believe that sex is meant for marriage. I do believe that we should wait for marriage for sex–not only because God tells us to, but also because when we have sex before we’re married, we make sex into something only physical, and we miss out on the spiritual and emotional intimacy we’re supposed to have.
Yet I fear that by stressing to young women, “you must never ever think about sex or you’ll be lusting,” and “if you so much as touch a boy or kiss a boy before you’re married you’ll end up in bed together, so you shouldn’t have any physical contact”, then we inadvertently make women scared of sex. This isn’t universal; some women can grow up with that message and be just fine. But not all.
And so today, rather than arguing the point myself, I’d like to share with you two different emails I’ve had from readers, and then follow up with my own thoughts. This first email came from a woman after she read my post about how the purity culture can go overboard.
I’m 21 and I’ve been married two years. Two nights ago my husband and I FINALLY had REAL sex. Our wedding night was a disaster, and a trip to the doctor’s office revealed that I had vaginismus, a condition that makes sex impossible because my brain tells my PC muscles to clinch together. I’ve struggled with this for two years, as I’ve felt like a bad wife. I wanted to have sex by our second anniversary, and, by completing a program my doctor gave me, I can now buy and enjoy your 31 Days of Great Sex book!!
Anyway, the biggest struggle I’ve had through the last two years is trying to figure out WHY I have this issue. I’ve had a GREAT life with a wonderful upbringing, but apparently I was harboring sexual shame. I was not properly educated, and, growing up in the church, I remember how guilty my youth pastor made me feel just for having a boyfriend. Though I never had sex, I struggled with setting boundaries sexual, and now I’ve paid the price for the Christian’s obsession with how “evil” sex is.
Here’s another story from a woman who wrote to me after I asked for stories about sexual shame. She was active in a very conservative homeschool community. She’s now engaged. She writes:
I grew up saving my first kiss, planning to only have a quick hug at engagement and then only hold hands until my wedding day. I never planned to be alone with a guy. I learned to shutdown if I ever felt any bit of sexual attraction or sexual feel good emotions/hormones. I didn’t know how my body would work when I felt attraction and my sex knowledge was very limited. I didn’t even know all of my own body parts.
Because of my lack of education on sex, sexuality and the way my body would response I was sure that if I was alone with a guy it would lead to kissing and that kissing would easily lead to all of my clothes laying on the floor within about 15 seconds. It would be like standing on the edge of a cliff. Once you stepped off, even if it was a small step, there would be no going back. You would lose control, be unable to make rational decisions and fall into deep sin.
The first time I had a “real hug” from a guy I liked (he squeezed me, then put his arm round my shoulder and massaged my hand) put my body into shock for about three days. I felt overstimulated and my brain didn’t know how to respond. I was amazed that I was still in control and could still make choices not to have sex but I also realized that because I had learned to shut off any sexual attraction that I could barley enjoy the good feeling let alone reciprocate.
I began to realize that if I went from training my brain to be essentially asexual, rejecting my sexuality until my wedding night, it wouldn’t just turn on and work like it was supposed to. If a hug sent me into a three day shock what would it be like on my honeymoon?!
My amazing fiance never pressured me to do anything I didn’t want to do. We have abstained from sex and will continue to until we’re married. He always asks before we try something “new” and always respects my choice. That being said we talked and felt that it was wise for us to get to know each other a little bit physically so I would deal with my fear of sex. We would still be considered “conservative” in our physical interaction but he began initiating little things like hugging me close, touching my hair, rubbing my back etc. Each of these things were introduced slowly and he always gave with the intent of bringing me happiness and not expecting anything in return.
For each new thing I initially could not reciprocate because I had to focus so much on letting it feel good and not shutting down pleasure. I had quite a learning curve, I felt and sometimes still feel shocked by simple new things. I felt like I should be naturally responding but that I was held back because I had repressed these feelings for so long (by the way I am 22). I was very surprised at the way my body did respond to feeling good… physical and hormonal changes that are natural when there is a combination of touch and attraction. I was also amazed at the fact that I was still in control and that neither of us HAD to have sex right then like I had always been led to believe.
I am so thankful to my wonderful fiance. He always gives without expecting a return. He was/is so patient with me, letting me talk through my issues and insecurities. Truly my sexual health is a priority to him over his own enjoyment.
I think each couple needs to talk about their own physical standards and these may change some as your relationship does but I would encourage a serious couple to get to know each other at least a little bit physically. Are there wise boundaries? Yes! But sexual attraction is NOT bad. Feeling good is NOT bad. Enjoying each other is NOT bad. Not all physical interaction is sexual and not all sexual interaction (like kissing) is sex. We are sexual beings… and that’s ok.
I appreciate her sharing her story, and I want to leave a few thoughts:
1. Physical contact does not necessarily lead to sex.
I have had so many emails from women saying, “I thought that if we kissed the clothes would immediately fall off and we’d be unable to control ourselves. So I was scared to kiss him. But actually, that didn’t happen at all. We could totally control ourselves.”
When we tell young people that any physical contact leads to sex, we tell them that their bodies can’t be controlled by their minds or their wills. Their bodies become the enemy. And that makes women especially disconnect from their bodies–seeing them as evil, and not wanting to let their bodies feel anything. That does not go away just because you put a ring on your finger.
2. Some physical contact can be a good thing.
Affection is natural. To deny any kind of physical contact makes your body seem somehow evil, and makes us concentrate so much on avoiding any stimulation that it’s hard to reverse that.
I am not saying that physical contact is necessary in a relationship. Not at all. If a couple decides they want to save their first kiss until marriage, that is totally their prerogative, and that can work very well for some people. The Duggars live by that philosophy and are very vocal about it.
The problem is that not everyone emerges from that kind of purity culture whole. Some may, but others end up deeply shamed. We need to be very careful that we are not legalistic about this, telling people that kissing or hugging or holding hands is somehow evil. It isn’t. The Bible says sex outside of marriage is wrong, but kissing is not sex, and kissing does not necessarily lead to sex. It didn’t for me, it didn’t for my friends who dated and married the same time we did, and it didn’t for our parents and grandparents (most of whom kissed before marriage, too). Even Laura Ingalls kissed before she was married!
3. When we teach women to avoid sex at all costs, then marriage can seem like rape.
I think this gets to the heart of vaginismus. If you’ve been taught to avoid sex always–that it is bad, and that it is wrong to feel turned on, then what happens when you’re married and suddenly you don’t have a choice? Now, obviously all women still have choice, and for a man to demand sex when she doesn’t want it is wrong, and to take it when she says no is rape, even if they are married.
But even if he doesn’t force her–even if he’s as gentle as a kitten and is kissing her and trying to warm her up–she can still feel these conflicting, scary emotions: “sex is bad, and yet now I have to do it. It’s expected of me.” That tension can cause her body to refuse. She’s not consciously refusing; but it is affecting her nonetheless. Even if it’s not vaginismus, she can find it virtually impossible to be excited, because she feels so out of control in an area of her life where she has always been told she has to have complete control.
How We Can Reframe Our Purity Message
If I could reframe our message, I would talk less about why sexual feelings need to be avoided, and more about why they’re natural, and how to channel them elsewhere. I would talk about intimacy, and how it’s best in marriage, rather than saying “no sex until marriage”. I would talk less about setting up specific, rules-based boundaries, and more about how sexual feelings will be inevitable and good when you love someone–and here’s how to pursue God together to make sure those feelings don’t take over. I’d try to say something like this:
God made sex to be an awesome way to bind you and your husband together. It’s amazing physically, but it’s also incredibly intimate emotionally and spiritually, too. And it’s that intimacy we were made for–we feel it intensely physically, but we were also created with hormones that actually “bond” to the other person when we make love. It’s supposed to make you feel super close to one person.
Billions of people have had sex, but not all of them have made love, because the two are not necessarily the same thing. And if you want to truly make love, you need to save it for marriage, because that’s what God intended, and that’s what He promises you. You’re going to feel a real physical drive for sex, and that’s perfectly fine, because it’s a reminder to you about the real intimacy you yearn for. Don’t worry if you have that drive; ultimately it’s a good thing. Just ask God to help you channel that drive elsewhere until you’re married because then you’ll be able to experience sex the way it was intended.
That drive is really intense, though, so be careful to create some boundaries so you can stay pure. But it’s okay to be attracted to someone. It’s natural. It’s part of being a woman/man. And one day you’ll find someone that you can share with completely. And believe me, it is worth the wait.
I hope I’d say it a little better, and maybe some of you have something you’d like to add. But I think telling young people: don’t have sex, don’t even think about sex, sex is bad, isn’t a good message, because how are they automatically supposed to flip that switch once they’re married?
There’s one other aspect of the purity message I’d like to look at tomorrow, and that’s the way we talk about virginity. But for today, I’d like to know: did the purity culture make you ashamed of sex? What are you planning on telling your kids so that they can have a positive view of sex, while maintaining their desire for purity? Let me know in the comments!