I have spoken to a lot of people about sex, particularly about how difficult it has been to enjoy the ecstasy of sex post-religion.
I believe the way the Christian church talks about sex is damaging, and this damage is experienced, in full force, by those who leave it. Churches have room to shift the way they talk about sex, while maintaining the Biblical conviction that sex should be reserved for marriage.
This blog post seeks to give voice to those who cannot experience the pleasure of sex due to a religion they no longer believe in. This blog post is for those who have confided in me a pain they struggle to articulate to religious leaders because they have been misunderstood, abandoned, forgotten, or because they feel they are alone in their plight. This blog post is for the women who cannot orgasm and for the relationships that have disintegrated because of the pervasiveness of guilt, fear and confusion. This blog is for church leaders and members of the congregation who have no idea how difficult post-church life can be.
Let’s start at the beginning.
The Messages We Grow Up with in Church
Youth Group is a time when girls and boys are growing into adults who are capable of forming their own opinions and beliefs about the world. It’s a time where they’re old enough to go shopping without their parents, old enough to stay home alone, old enough to attend sleepovers. It’s also a time where boys and girls start thinking about kissing and sitting close to one another and holding hands. Puberty hits like a truck on a highway, and some youngsters merge onto that highway long before others. Hormones race, hair grows and breasts inflate. Thank God for the A-frame hug.
Naturally, due to this transition, churches weave segregated boys and girls nights into their term calendars. This is where girls can talk about ‘girls stuff’ (modesty) and boys can talk about boys stuff (masturbation). Somehow, nobody thinks these are relevant to both genders.
Here’s what we hear in the girls talk:
- “When we go to church camp next week, make sure you all pack a rash vest so you don’t tempt your brothers in Christ with your body. Love your brother and help them from being tempted to think about your body in a sexual way.”
- “Girls, make sure your shorts sit below your fingertips when you put your arms against your body. It’s not appropriate. You have to love your brother and prevent him from being tempted by your body.”
- “Girls, no spaghetti straps! Do not tempt your bothers in Christ…”
Followed by conversations about (heterosexual) relationships, flirting and the age old “how far can we go with our boyfriend” chat.
Here’s a couple of things I have to say about the way sex is discussed in adolescence:
- The church says: girls, what you wear determines how men think and act, what you wear will change the way they see you and your godliness. Not only is this incredibly damaging for young women and their body image, but this is the very message that seeps through rape culture. “It’s because of what you were wearing”.
Instead of teaching girls that they need to dress for men, be modest for men and hide their curves for men, teach them to love their bodies and teach men to control their thoughts and actions. Loving your body doesn’t mean running through Central Station naked (however I do know people who have done this and report a most liberating experience), but it does mean teaching self-confidence and empowerment.
I remember playing a ‘good Christian girl’ in a church skit. I went to the op shop so I could find the right kind of skirt (below the knee) and top (cover the shoulders). Surely anything in my wardrobe was ‘Christian’ enough, but my 13-year-old brain was clearly programmed to think Good Christians wore a certain type of outfit. Does anyone else see red flags here, or is it just me?
- Hey, church, did you know that girls masturbate too? In fact, every single (secular) female friend I know masturbates. I didn’t know girls masturbated until I was 19. That was a fucking embarrassing realisation, I gotta tell ya.
- Girls also watch porn, so if you’re going to do the ‘porn talk’, bring girls into the room too.
- Men don’t always have stronger sex drives than girls. This assumption damages men with low libidos who think they might be broken, and damages women with high libidos who think they might be some kind of ‘fanatic’ or ‘slut’. By telling women they need to hide their swimwear paints a picture of every man ravenous for the female body. This is simply not true. And guess what! Girls can be tempted by men’s bodies as well! Where were the t-shirts over their bodies?
- In church, please don’t point your finger and say ‘don’t do this’, ‘don’t do that’. You are not giving the young person agency, and when they come to 22 and are madly in love with someone who isn’t a Christian, all they’ll see is your finger pointing, not necessarily the heart behind it. They’ll grow bitter and they might even write a blog post about it and publish it on the internet (lol, hi). Educate, don’t alienate. Encourage discussion, don’t lecture. This is spirituality, not the law (at least in contemporary Australian society).
- Stop assuming everyone in your youth group and in your church congregation, both men and women, are attracted to the opposite sex. Full stop.
The Messages We Hear in Church
Then we grow up and move into Sunday’s ‘contemporary’ church service. Suddenly we start to hear the following in our social circles:
“Matthew and Rachel have been dating for three years now. I wonder whether he’s going to pop the question? Surely they’re having sex…”
“Has Mary ever had a boyfriend? There are plenty of good Christian men here, she must be so lonely.”
“I saw Joseph drunk and sitting on the lap of a guy at a party last week! He probably shouldn’t lead worship. Maybe we should tell the music leader?”
“My housemate’s boyfriend stayed over last night and they definitely slept in the same bed. It’s so disrespectful. Clearly they haven’t been convicted by God’s Word.”
This is coupled with sermons about sexual temptation and the best way to avoid it. Of course, these sermons are littered with “Sex is the most intimate thing you can do with another person! Virginity is beautiful! Your wedding night is pure! Sex is evil before marriage! If you’re doing it now, stop and wait!”.
And then someone comes on stage to talk about their testimony and says with their hands clasped that they used to live a meaningless life in sin, having sex and doing drugs but now they are pure without those things! Praise Jesus! Cue belief that sex before marriage is meaningless.
Obviously, these simplified beliefs are far from the intention of the people sharing them. However, after cupping years and years of sermons and small talks about sex in our hands and watching the water leak through the gaps in our fingertips, all we’re left with are these simplified messages. I think those messages could use a little bit of remoulding because here are a couple of conclusions collated from a number of conversations I have had:
- Stop assuming Christian couples who have been dating a while want to get married soon. Not only are you putting pressure on them, but you’re pushing pressure on the single members of your congregation. Marriage is not the point of life. Marriage isn’t the point of love. You haven’t ‘made it’ if you’re married. You can live a fulfilling life without a ring on your finger. Sex shouldn’t be the motive for the ring. Many good Christian couples are already having sex outside marriage, you just don’t know about it. The fact they hide it, increases the taboo and guilt associated with sex.
- The most intimate thing I can do with another human being is not have sex with them. Plenty of people can have sex without intimacy. I was raped, that was not intimate. My body has been used as stock exchange for dinner. Not intimate. But everyone I have opened my heart to, everyone I have shared an emotional intimacy with, I WAS IN CONTROL OF. The combination of sex and emotional tenderness is the most intimate thing you can share with another person. Put sex and emotional intimacy on the same pedestal.
- An unmarried person’s faith and devotion to God is not measured by their sex life.
- The likelihood of someone in your friendship group or congregation who has been sexually abused is very, very high. Tread carefully. Think about the ways you project the Good Christian Life. Here is a comment by a victim of sexual assault who refers to herself as ‘K’ in a survey I conducted a couple of months ago:
Feeling like I didn’t belong after what happened. Feeling judged. Remembering all the past conversations about how bad sex before marriage was and the judgemental things said about others who were having sex before marriage.
And another comment by young woman:
The continued emphasis on sex before marriage or partaking in sexual activities with others/before marriage being a sin made me feel exceptionally guilty when I was younger, primarily because I was molested at a young age. Whenever I heard the Priest talk about how it is a sin to not be ‘pure’ before marriage etc I would feel so incredibly guilty and dirty, and this has distorted my views on myself and sex even to this day. I felt trapped, I felt as if I was going to hell or something even though it wasn’t my fault, and I find that I am still overcoming these feelings.
The best thing I did after I was raped was to have sex with other men. I healed by taking control of something that was stolen from me. I know many, many women who have done the same thing. Sex is complicated. Sin is complicated. Sexual assault is not.
- A non-Christian’s experience of sex can be just as beautiful outside of marriage as sex can be inside a marriage between Christians.
How Guilt Plays Out in our Sex Lives
Many people who leave the church struggle with getting comfortable with sex because of these simplified messages. So many are absolutely terrified of going to hell for pre-marital sex, thus impacting their ability to enjoy sex while they’re doing it. Many women I’ve spoken to struggle to orgasm. One friend told me recently “I can’t orgasm because I can’t relax because I’m literally thinking about hell and it’s been 3 years since I left”. She continued, saying, “I also can’t shake the thought that a guy who isn’t a Christian just wants me for my body… and I project that insecurity onto them”.
Here’s another from my survey:
Growing up in a Catholic religion I felt very different from those around me, especially when it came to the topic of sexuality. I found that my church placed such a negative emphasis on sexuality, often connecting it with sin and even to this day, even though I have left the church, I still find myself feeling guilty or dirty when I do sexual things and it’s frustrating, as I see those around me who didn’t grow up in this faith and don’t have the same connotations around sex and sexuality, they can act so freely and have no guilt.
The tremendous weight of this guilt is difficult to convey to a non-religious partner. They don’t understand why it matters so much. “Sex is great baby, let me please you, relax a bit”.
But relax?! RELAX?! As soon as I start doing this I can’t go back. “As soon as my virginity is gone,” one girl told me, “if I decide to go back to church one day I’ll have to tell my future Christian partner who may not be the guy I’m in love with now that I’ve had sex before and he will have to exercise love and forgiveness like Jesus loves and forgives us. It will be this Great Act for him- choosing to love someone who was once so worldly. I will feel so humiliated, like I’ve been reduced to this poor, sinful child.”
I do not object to the belief in sex after marriage. In fact, when you fall in love with a partner who has been sexually active with another, there is a part (large or small) in everyone that wishes they had only shared this kind of intimacy with you. But, you also wish you didn’t eat that burger last night because you’re trying to lose weight and you had a salad in the fridge. You also wish you wore a black shirt instead of a white shirt last Tuesday because the likelihood of you spilling red wine on it is always highly probable. I have no right to object to the beliefs of others, but I feel as though I have a duty to report on behalf of myself and others how damaging the projection of those beliefs can be.
The more I write about sex and the more conversations I have with people about sex, the more horrified I am at the sheer number of people living in fear and guilt for something that was designed by God to be a beautiful thing. These people don’t have to feel fear and guilt anymore because they no longer subscribe to religious teachings. So why aren’t they FREE?
Sex is a beautiful part of life. Some people reserve it for marriage, some people have it with strangers, others have it with lovers. But to lie in bed and look into the warm eyes of someone who thinks your heart and mind and body is beautiful is so breathtaking. To have hot, passionate sex in the morning before breakfast or before the kids are up or before you tip-toe out the back can also be equally as exhilarating and breathtaking.
You don’t have to feel guilt or shame if you don’t believe in the messages that were preached to you long ago. For those who want to experience sex freely and without guilt and pain, open up to your lovers. Open up to your friends. Create dialogue. Question what makes you so uncomfortable. Get to know your body. Frame your fears and your guilt in the context of someone who no longer believes. I don’t think God wants you to live your life feeling guilty about something you’re not even sure of. I’d like to think that God, if there is a God, understands that wrestling with these things looks different to everyone.
For the women reading this, do not feel ashamed of your body. You are not dirty. You are not less attractive because you are sexually active. Your love and your partner’s love is no less sacred if it is not wrapped up in a cross-printed ribbon.
I am here for you and I love you.
Also published on Medium.