Does Avoiding Pre-Marital Sex Devalue Marriage?

Two separate things have led to me writing this post.  A few weeks ago I had a Twitter chat with people after pondering whether an abstinence approach to sex may in fact dishonour marriage.  Then a couple of days ago I listened to THIS discussion between Dianna E Anderson and Sarah Long, facilitated by Justin Brierley on the Unbelievable show at Premier.

The debate was “Should Christians save sex for marriage?”

The debate was interesting, though I’m not sure it fully worked.  Dianna has written a book reflecting on US purity culture in Conservative Christianity.  Sarah is UK based and has worked with Romance Academy.  There’s some massive culture differences between the UK and the US, so to some degree it became much more about acknowledging the different contexts and less about a debate based in the same cultural context.  Though I think many would say the culture isn’t as different as was perhaps suggested on the show.

Sarah’s main view was that sex is a covenant and as such should be saved for marriage.  Her work has generally been in a youth context and therefore the focus has been with young people.  Dianna’s view was that the Bible isn’t clear at all about sex before marriage and as such she would place it within the adiaphora of Biblical stuff; basically it’s a conscience issue, not an absolute.

Mr GLW and I didn’t have sex until we got married; I’ve written a few thoughts about sex and Christianity in THIS blog post, in which I bemoan awful post marital sex that is rooted in the many unhealthy messages attached to abstinence values.

Some thoughts I have about the whole saving sex until marriage thing…

1. It may possibly work when people are in their teens and early twenties.  What about people in their forties, fifties or sixties who have never had sex?  Did God just decide they shouldn’t ever experience the awesome gift of sex?  Not everyone is going to have a partner.  The whole abstinence teaching is connected so strongly to the “everyone will get married and have babies” narrative.  What does sexuality look like for people who don’t ever get married?  Do they simply suppress it FOREVER?  What about masturbation?  Is that off limits too?

2. When abstinence teaching is intertwined so strongly with purity culture is there a baby left in the bath when you chuck out the bath water?  Or is the shaming of women, blaming of women, infantilising of men, lack of understanding of consent and terrible sex so fused with “don’t have sex before marriage” that we can’t keep the latter without holding onto the former?

3. Within the Unbelievable debate, there was no mention of how abstinence teaching disables people from recognising abuse.  For me this is paramount.  I am confident that my young adulthood sexual experiences would have been non-abusive if I’d chosen to embrace pre-marital sex.  Could that have been the case if I’d been educate in healthy ways about consent and had awareness of abuse?  Perhaps.  But could the messages from across Christian culture about abstinence have drowned out the voices providing that awareness?  Also quite possible.

I’ve been wondering about whether Christians put a higher value on sex than on marriage.  If people HAVE to get married to have sex, how many (usually young) Christians rush to the altar so they can GET IT ON?  Conversely, how many Christians suppress their sexuality and their natural desire for one another for years while they wait to be able to get married. leading to a whole load of marital problems?

One of the examples on the Premier debate was a couple who’ve been together for four years, are engaged but can’t afford the wedding.  Dianna suggested that having pre-marital sex in that context was a matter between the couple and God, they could pray about it and come to their own conclusions.  Sarah’s view was that the couple could choose to marry in an inexpensive way in order to “save sex” for marriage.

Is that the best approach?  Should people reject the whole Big Wedding thing in order to have sex?  Or does that suggest less value for the whole process?  Do the couple elope and get married in a registry office somewhere so that SEX?  Or is the marriage ceremony and the value placed on it and the community element significant enough that pre-marital sex isn’t the main consideration that should be attached to it?

What does abstinence mean anyway?  Should there be no kissing pre-marriage?  No tongues?  No nakedness?  No oral sex?  No groping?  Is everything non penetration based okay?  Is there a sense of legalism in the whole thing?  Is this whole thing simply tithing herbs (Luke 11:42)?  Are we neglecting the weightier matters of a deep and considered sexual ethic that takes into account the many ways abstinence is painful?

The Bible wasn’t written for our context.  People got married REALLY young.  Mary was probably 14.  Women had no rights.  Contraception didn’t exist.  Periods were seen as impure. Singleness wasn’t an option for women.  Women’s sole value was attached to their husband and sons.  Rape victims were to marry the man who raped them.  Then there’s Song of Solomon which is full on sexiness, seemingly between unmarried people.  Marriage was a financial contract between the girl’s (it usually was a girl) husband and her father.  How do we extrapolate a sexual ethic for our time, our culture from a book written in such an extremely different context?

I don’t know.

I do know that the current system isn’t working.  Abstinence teaching doesn’t produce chastity.  It leaves people ill equipped to recognise sexual abuse, sexually damaged, repressed and/or with a deeply unhealthy sexuality, it blames women and encourages men to avoid responsibility for their sexuality and wrongly assumes that every twenty-something Christian is going to meet a nice Christian (opposite sex) partner, marry them, have babies and live happily ever after.

I’m not sure what a positive sexual ethic looks like.  I guess I veer close to Dianna’s view.  What’s wrong with trusting couples to discern what is right for them?  What is the risk in encouraging people to seek God’s will for their lives over and above an abstinence rule that isn’t fit for purpose (and actually isn’t in the Bible)?  When the current messages are causing serious damage to individuals and couples can we risk insisting abstinence is the way forward?

Matthew 23:24 comes to mind…  “You blind guides!  You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”  Yes abstinence may get women to their wedding night with their hymen intact, however what about the camel of shame, vaginitis, pornography use, woman blaming and/or sexual repression?

The conversation amongst young people should be a different to that with adults.  One of the difficulties of the Premier debate was that Sarah’s context was young people.  We can’t liken the sexual choices of two people in their mid twenties (and upwards) to how we approach 14 year olds.  However, is the right approach with teenagers and young adults to focus on marriage as the means by which people access sex?  Does that put unnecessary focus on marriage as the end goal for people’s lives?  In a Christian culture which is deeply heteronormative and idolises the nuclear family, how do we articulate the liberating message that marriage is not the logical start of adult Christian life?

With our children, Mr GLW and I have focussed on:

  • Ensuring they own they bodies, lives and choices. This is the foundation of consent.
  • Nakedness and sexuality are not shameful, bodies are BRILLIANT.  Puberty is fabulous and exciting, if somewhat messy and traumatic.  Since they were very small we regular talked about how bodies change; hair, periods, wet dreams and the like.  This stuff shouldn’t be a surprise.  It is INEVITABLE.
  • That sex is awesome yet SO extremely special and precious that it’s a serious matter.  Babies can be made and diseases can be caught, so great thought must go into when, how and who we choose to do it with.
  • Singleness is GREAT!  We regularly chat about the amazing single people we know.  At first the kids assumed that all the single adults we knew were married, they just hadn’t met their spouses.  This stuff must be made explicit or kids won’t notice it.
  • Critically examining the messages around us; women are not objects, sexism is all pervasive and it is wrong, gender stereotyping is bad, racism is everywhere and it is bad, male privilege is real, a lot of masculinity is toxic and needs to be challenged etc etc.
  • There’s creepy naked stuff on the internet (pornography) and when they see it (because they will)  they need to tell us so we can help them make sense of it.

Our kids may have sex before marriage.  It’s not something I’m concerned about.  What I am concerned about is that every sexual experience they have is one they have entered into willing (and legally), in an informed way and with deep respect and love for themselves and the other person they engage in any sexual activity with, and also deep respect and honour for the seriousness of the act they engage in.

Yes, marriage may be a way of ensuring this stuff happens.  But that is not guaranteed.

Genuinely, I don’t want my kids to get married.  I want them to live lives of worth.  And if that includes marriage, great!  But if not, that is JUST as wonderful!

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17 thoughts on “Does Avoiding Pre-Marital Sex Devalue Marriage?

  1. Hey Mrs GLW! I’m writing this as active relaxation, after a long and quite tough day – apologies if it doesn’t flow well, but I have all kinds of thoughts on this!

    As we filter stuff through our experiences, let me give mine. Primarily, the knowledge that to have sex would somehow be wrong did on various occasions stop teenage me and teenage me’s girlfriends from doing stuff I would now regret (as I suspect would they). But on several occasions I tried to rehearse arguments to myself as to why it was OK, why is wasn’t so bad, because we really loved each other, and perhaps we would get married one day… And so on, and so forth. Teenagers (people, actually) will *always* try to find ways to justify what they want, and it amuses me that you think it’s a good idea for anyone to make the decision themselves… I wonder what the answer’s going to be?! “Do we respect and care for each other enough TO HAVE SEX RIGHT NOW?” – er, let me think…!

    Secondly, I came to my marriage unfortunately not having remained abstinent, by a fairly narrow margin, and it was of real sadness to my wife (then girlfriend) to discover this and horrible for me to reveal it. It had not been some fling, but I regret the decision to this day, and will always wish it hadn’t happened. I know full well how and why it did: I chose to believe what society says about sex, because it suited me at the time. I remained a Christian, but this girl (she was a good friend) *seemed* so liberated, comfortable with herself, experienced, so able to detach sex from permanent relationship. I allowed myself to think “Hey, maybe it’s not so bad. Maybe it’s all overblown by puritanical types. We do deeply care for each other! Maybe we can enjoy this, and if we don’t end up together long term, that’s life…”

    I knew very soon it was a mistake. It effectively ended our friendship, and – cruel irony – the liberated, easy come easy go young woman turned out far less able to separate sex from commitment than either of us had thought, making it miserable for both of us. We met once since then and she was gracious enough to communicate her forgiveness towards me. She wasn’t a Christian, but by betraying my values surrounding sex, I still feel I dishonoured her, even if in the world of her relationships it was par for the course.

    My wife wasn’t raised a Christian; she became one at university, so had not been “steeped in purity culture” or anything like that. She was still upset, and I think that’s entirely natural. I don’t think it’s natural to happily embrace the thought of your partner being so physically intimate with someone else. The idea of doing what popular culture tells us is a mature and responsible thing to do – to sit down with each other and give sexual back stories, partially for honesty reasons, partially to check whether you need to go to the GUM clinic together first – we both find utterly miserable and a far cry from any imagining of what enjoying sex blessed by God would look like. That’s even excluding the destructive potential of mental comparisons being drawn between partners.

    Thirdly: I observed this event time and time again at and shortly after university, and it drives me crazy! Lovely, intelligent, independent young women doing what they think is “the sensible thing” and cohabiting with boyfriends, presumably to “see if we can live together”, to “take their relationship a stage further”, perhaps even “test out sexual compatibility”… And after 3-5 years, the guy leaves. Just got bored. Or maybe scared of the idea of marriage. And because they *weren’t* married, it’s supposed to be seen as a less significant break-up – I mean, “it’s not like we were married, right?” But in reality, he has just wasted some wonderful years of her life, and given her nothing in return. Or perhaps, she has wasted those years on him. She finds herself older, wishing she was married, with a load of emotional baggage she could really do without.

    It really makes breaks my heart to see this time and time again, but also it makes me ANGRY. Angry that she was conned by contemporary culture into believing all this cohabiting, compatibility crap, this “sex is fine as long as you’re in a “long term relationship” (which is what, exactly?!) or if you can say you love each other” (WHICH MEANS WHAT, EXACTLY?!). Conned into believing that steady, incremental nudges into a lifetime commitment is a great idea, that a successful marriage is just boyfriend and girlfriend progressing bit by bit into some ill-defined permanence.

    To start to focus in on answering at least one of the questions you raise…! I think that weirdly, modern Western secular culture values marriage too much! And too little as well. I feel the Christian idea of marriage is that it *is* in many ways a business contract – and no worse off for it. What you’re doing is coming together in front of some important people in your life and and stating your decision to stay together at just about any cost, and asking them to hold you to it. This functional, contractual thing forms the basis for your relationship to relax and to flourish, because suddenly there’s no danger of “I’m a bit bored of this, bye”. You’re not on long term trial any more. If you have cross words, it’s not “oh my goodness, is our relationship going to survive this…? Is this it for us…?” which could come one, three or seven years into some vague “longterm relationship”. You’re married – you make it work. You’re both fully incentivised to make this end quickly, peacefully and without resentment, because you’ve got a long future together and you don’t want to spoil it. And because of that, this sombre, contractual thing is also wonderful, and spiritual, and the Creator of the universe is involved.

    But current humanist culture Disneyfies marriage, or rather, Taylor Swift-ifies it. It’s not about the contract, it’s about the feels. Is he or she “the one”? It’s some big romantic thing, when in fact getting married in many ways isn’t about romance at all. It’s not just the next step up on the romance ladder after saying “I love you”. In the same way that the most valuable faith can be seen in those desperate moments when all you can do is cry out to God in frustration and despair, marriage is at it’s most valuable when every human appetite and weakness would have you walk alway, but the vows you made won’t allow it, and you humbly obey them. (I’ll make it clear: I’m not talking about abusive situations here, nor existing infidelity. I’ll also say I have yet to experience this! But I’m sure most do at some point.)

    So marriage is the firm foundation of the most permanent and intimate human relationship you are likely to have, not the cherry on top of it. As such, what better fence to place around such a vulnerable and intimate act? I would agree with Sarah in the case mentioned, because not having money shouldn’t prevent you from making that public commitment to each other. I think “but we can’t afford the wedding” is succumbing to the secular idea of marriage as a party and a piece of paper – a rubber stamp, rather than a partnership contract. To my knowledge if costs £70 to get married in the UK. I’m certain you could find a sympathetic vicar to do the ceremony for free if you really were that hard up, or, ask your friends and family to chip in. Or crowdfund it from your church! Almost always, what people really mean is “we can’t afford (the dress/the food/the flowers/the car)”.

    In terms of those who are older, and unmarried, and your question of whether it’s right to say that sex is something God is withholding from them: I think there are serious flaws with the idea that somehow giving these people moral access to unmarried sex is doing them a favour. The extreme example of this was on a documentary recently; essentially older virgins hiring escorts. I know this is nothing like what you’d advocate, but I can’t help but feel that the same thinking underlies it – that the physical experience of sex is something we should enable everyone to have.

    I am however with you on purity culture. I don’t think this is communicated on an individual level in the Bible, and it isn’t where the Bible’s strong basis for marriage comes from. But this is an issue of how something has been over-exaggerated by men and the way it is communicated. Your question about whether pre-marital abstinence can be salvaged is an odd one; when would we say this about any other moral issue? I don’t think stealing something makes you a vile, dirty criminal for the rest of your life, certain to ruin any prospects of future happiness… But does that mean the idea of stealing being wrong shouldn’t be communicated?!

    It seems to me that, similar to the issue of God’s sovereignty, abolishing the idea of abstinence before marriage leads to all sorts of complex social, theological and not to mention (sometimes) biological problems. Keeping sex is a within marriage only gives you one – big – problem; how on earth do you stick to it?

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    • Gerry says:

      Tom I really enjoyed reading your response, especially your concept of what marriage is. It seems to me a very honest and uncomplicated view which resonates with me. Thanks for taking the time to post.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Tom,

      Thanks for your thoughts! Within the blog I say that the messages we should be giving to young people should be different, I’m not sure that “don’t do it until your married” is necessarily the most helpful one as it automatically puts the focus on marriage, which I’m not convinced is helpful for teenagers.

      The situation you describe from your life is probably quite typical to lots of people. Yet the messages that your received about not having sex didn’t ultimately work. Which I think is also the same for a lot of people.

      I guess my experience is quite different, my husband and I both entered the marriage having had sex before. Personally it has never bothered me that he had previously had sex. Similarly he hasn’t felt any concern about my previous sexual experiences, expect because most of them were abusive. Perhaps that forms part of my views. Is it something of the context as well? If someone married a person whose spouse had died, would we feel similarly about their previous sexual experience? Or would that be different because of where their sexual experiences took place? And does that say more about our views on what is “acceptable” sex?

      Having brought two children to the marriage in my case complicates this whole thing further. Neither Mr GLW or I would ever wish that those children didn’t exist, however I can only have had them if sexually activity has taken place. I guess this also shapes my position within the blog.

      I guess the question about the women you mention from university, is whether if they had married their boyfriend, would that have resulted in the relationship continuing? Would the man have still got bored? Would have the relationship still ended? I’m not sure having married in that situation would have helped.

      Mr GLW became engaged to a woman years before we got together. After having slept together he felt it was the right way forward for the relationship. However, soon after becoming engaged, he realised the relationship wasn’t going to work and called it off. With great levels of hindsight he is deeply relieved that he made that decision. The marriage would have never worked, but actually he may have felt compelled to draw the relationship out for A LOT longer if he had married her, and the baggage that would have brought to our relationship would have been hugely more problematic.

      I understand what you’re saying about wedding costs. Mr GLW and I decided to get married and were married within 6 months, God provided all the money and we had a celebration we could afford, but also managed to have everyone there that we cared about. I would definitely be all for addressing the consumeristic nature of weddings, especially as so much of revolves around the bride conforming to societal beauty standards. However, I’m not convinced that marriage will provide that many safeguards.

      As you say, escorts are not something I would advocate. I don’t think that sex is something that anyone is entitled to. That thinking often underpins the continued abuse of women within the sex industry.

      I guess my concern is that the current system isn’t really working. It would be fabulous if abstinence teaching wasn’t damaging whole swathes of those within Christian culture. If a good balance could be struck in which sexuality was precious and yet not shameful, if people could choose to hold off until marriage without that leaving loads of (usually women) focussed solely on getting a husband (of which there aren’t enough of in the church). If couples had been encouraged (individually and as a couple) to own their sexuality, to be comfortable with it and to enter marriage with a healthy and positive attitude to sex. However, that’s not the general state of Christian culture in the west. My post is perhaps more problem posing than solution bringing.

      I’ve got another post in the pipeline which I think would help with this one. I think there is a bigger issue with Christian culture insisting on rules rather than equipping people to hear from God themselves. If God is for sex within marriage and we are able to trust people to hear from God and discern as an individual/couple what is right, then why would there be an issue?

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      • Hey! Just saw this reply, thank you.
        I think you’re right about “rules” not working; I think one of the difficulties is how this relates to a growing, maturing faith. How can you convince someone that what seems to them like a legalistic dictat is in their best interest, and that they will come to appreciate it later? There are many aspects of Christianity which one is taught about when young which you later learn are true, but in a different way!
        An analogy would be the common lesson that “camels store water in their humps”. They don’t, they store fat – but we accept that there is some value in children learning this, because later on they can learn that lipolysis liberates water on a molecular level and so on, so it still is this hump that enables them to go for amazing lengths of time without water. But if someone becomes militant about insisting camels literally store water in their humps as an adult, they may encounter hardship!

        So we need to be helping people come to a rich understanding of their value, the value of other people, the power and therefore the responsibility involved with sexual relationships – I’m sure you’d agree with that. The question we’re pondering here is whether there is any benefit to setting a cultural precedent that people are expected to conform to even if they haven’t got to the place of appreciating the wisdom it.

        I do sympathise with you on this. I’m quite libertarian – I don’t think you can force people to be morally better. But the gratification and desire involved is so intense, I cannot see any way that people *won’t* distort things to their immediate benefit. There was a very damaging movement years ago in the church in which I was later brought up – one of their dubious aspects was their claim to be “reclaiming sexuality for God” – worship events would have essentially erotic dance elements to them. Unsurprisingly, the fruit was rotten.

        Mormons ask people to pray about their message and see if God confirms it with a “burning in the bosom”. I’m quite sure they believe it to be a valid divine confirmation; knowing what I do about Mormonism, I believe it to be an emotional response that inevitably some people will have when contemplating whether or not something is true. I personally have been spiritually convicted of the truth of universal reconciliation… But first I was scripturally convinced. The line between suggesting people listen to God for themselves or take guidance from scripture is endlessly tough to pin down, but ultimately when it comes to sex I’m going to take a lot of convincing that “God told us it was OK”!

        In the example I gave, you may be right about these couples being best not to have married (although perhaps not, because I do think that people invest in a relationship and treat it differently if they know it is permanent), but that wouldn’t be my advice to them. My hope would be that the young woman feels confident enough to say to her boyfriend, “I love you, but we won’t be living as man and wife until we are!” If this was clear from the outset, one would hope these guys would rapidly move on if they weren’t willing to work towards marriage in that relationship.

        We also have to be careful about justifying things on the basis of their good consequences. I was conceived outside of marriage. Am I wishing my own existence away? Obviously not! But does that mean it was a morally right decision for my parents at the time…? I don’t think so. We can thank God for the blessings that have come from our weaknesses, but IMHO it is arrogance to think that because something worked out for the best, we were justified in those decisions.

        All this being said, showing love and grace is paramount. We have some friends form church who live together and are having a baby, and they’re not married. For all sorts of reasons, it would be absolutely the worst thing to do to try and confront them about it, force some kind of moral conviction or whatever. They may get to that point one day by themselves, but it would be a sin to wait until then to love, welcome and accept them.

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  2. What I really like about this post it that it reflects some of the questions and conversations I’ve been having over the last few years about how the obsession of some circles within the church with ensuring “purity” and “virginity” (whatever that is anyway??) has led to some pretty unhelpful behaviours and unhealthy relationships. Like you I don’t really know what the answer is, and there is a huge part of me that is highly resistant to an “anything goes” attitude – yet like you I’m also not convinced the “waiting until you’ve gone down the aisle and got a piece of paper” is the way to go either.

    I really appreciated Tom’s response above and Tom, your words have made me pause and think.
    I do think you’ve put your finger on one of the issues here in that I’m not convinced we’ve actually established what “marriage” actually is. How important to a one on one relationship is the “party”, how does the ceremony attended by all your friends impact on the covenant between you both? Is it that there’s a level of accountability? For example, I might turn to a friend whose wedding I was at, who i know is contemplating an affair and say “I was there that day when you made your promise to John, don’t forget that”. I might make no difference to whether she is then unfaithful to her husband… but it might.

    I think this post is probably just a small part of the wider debate on the church’s developing sexual ethic – a debate which is needed (I think) to really get down to what we mean by marriage, where we need to ask ourselves the question of what is God’s actual intent in relation to Human Sexuality. I’m not interested in doing (or not doing) something just because someone says so – even God. That’s ludicrous (and rather immature) reasoning, but it seems to be where purity culture comes from (as well as establishing social order – Chris W spot on there). Instead shouldn’t we be thinking about WHY God commands things, why is x or y wrong? I think it’s important to really establish what is meant by “one flesh” as I suspect this is another source of conservative’s view on avoiding pre-marital sex. Because of the use of the word “Flesh” the idea seems to be that it’s the act of sex that makes you one flesh – and therefore ties you to that person on some level for the rest of your life. And yes, there is an aspect that having sex with someone does form a connection on some level, but the source of “one-fleshness” I do not believe is sex alone. It comes from a deep emotional connection, from years of knowing one another and living together and co-operating and compromising. In short, the becoming one flesh isn’t an overnight thing that happens BANG (pun intended) on the wedding night, or in the alley behind the club. It is the result of years of togetherness, faithfulness, teamwork, intimacy and yes, some mind blowing shagging too.

    I’m still cogitating on all this, and in fact in the midst of writing a post that might intersect with this, if only tangentially. I think the important thing is that we at least debate these things with an open mind and without trying to rush young people into unsuitable marriages, or into what could be the right marriage too early, just so they can have “the sex” – I’ve seen it.

    Anyway, thanks for writing and sharing, I hope we as Christians can continue to think about this in a gracious and open way without resorting to legalism or becoming too casual about sex. And loved THIS line so much “That sex is awesome yet SO extremely special and precious that it’s a serious matter.”. Sorry gone on so much… but feel important to engage on stuff like this. Thanks.

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  3. Just some thoughts:

    I’m not sure I’ve witnessed much abstinence teaching in the way you describe, to be honest. I don’t thinking just telling people not to do something ever really works…

    One thing I would certainly emphasis more is intimacy. And not just physical intimacy but all forms of face to face intimacy, it feels like we are losing the ability to separate intimacy and sex, to me growing intimacy is what leads to sexual closeness, and growing intimacy takes time to foster properly. Sex is not a be all and end all, it is a wider part of a relationship, but only a part. Also I wonder if we have a right to good sex or sex at all? Or is it part of our entitlement culture to believe we do have such a right? In terms of marital sex being terrible – how would you know if you don’t have anything to compare it to? Wouldn’t it just be good getting better?

    I’d like to know if there is any evidence for Christians rushing into marriage, if their engagements are significantly shorter than other people’s etc… In general people are getting married later in life, but I haven’t seen an stats for Christians.

    I also agree with Tom about leaving it up to couples. I think you are on a real sticky wicket when we allow feelings to be our main deciding factor in decisions of faith and ethics. Theologically speaking aren’t we called to bash these things out in community life rather than individually or just couples?

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    • Hi Nick,

      Thanks for your thoughts.

      I mention teaching from 2015 given to 12-14 year olds in THIS POST: https://mrsglw.wordpress.com/2016/03/02/christian-sex/. I think even where teaching isn’t explicitly given, it is often implicitly suggested. Also, I think it’s interesting that many of the questioning responses have been from men, which could be down to a lot of things, but I do think there is a great chasm between the messages women and girls receive about sex in church and the messages boys and men receive. It is assumed that men are sexual beings, that boys will struggle to control their urges. For girls the focus is often on emotions and purity. Little is made clear about female sexuality. The focus for girls and women to get married is complicated by there being fewer women in church than men and also in that men and there are tons of books available about women waiting for a man to fulfil their destiny. This is also layered upon societal messages that say women are failures when they are single. Men are bachelors, women are old maids or spinsters.

      I totally agree with you about intimacy. I think digital culture has ramped this up quite a few notches and that we have a whole generation of young people who are ill-equipped to deal with face to face relationships. As I said, I hope my children see sex in a healthy way, which of course includes intimacy, but there are other aspects involved as well. Aspects that are often missing from the current narrative and teaching.

      Within the blog I refer to sex as a gift. I don’t think anyone is entitled to sex. My experience and the experiences of many are that the abstinence and purity culture within christian culture is deeply detrimental; to individuals, to couples and to sexuality. With that in mind, it seems something has to change. If it hasn’t been a problem for you, or for others, then that’s great. I guess the question is, how do we ensure each person can be supported into healthy sexuality? Is the current situation good enough? I would suggest it isn’t.

      At no point in the blog do I mention feelings as a factor in decision making, let alone the main factor. I suggest that couples should pray and discern what God wants. The question I guess is, why can’t we trust that they will hear from God that they should “save” sex until marriage? If we’re confident that a) God thinks that and b) that the Holy Spirit gives each of us access to what God is saying.

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      • I did actually read that post, but I am struggling with the sweeping generalisations, especially when they are not at all my experience, in my delivery and seeing others deliver.

        I’m not really sure where you are going with the questioning responses being from men? I’m sure you aren’t suggesting that men should comment or should only agree with you but it seems like an odd throw away comment if I’m honest. If anything my I have seen more demonising of males in sex education than the things you describe (watch out for men they only have one thing on their mind and even more sinister examples).

        Again I’d be really interested to see some hard evidence (other than the one talk you mentioned) that things are as bleak as they seem, maybe I’m more optimistic than I think, but I just don’t see it in the same dire way.

        You didn’t explicitly use the word feelings, but that’s certainly the way it read. I don’t think it’s a case of trusting a couple or not, although I would say that that is fraught with issues – a couple are nearly always going to choose what they want to do, given enough time. What is missing, is basing this in community. Christians (I would contend people) aren’t made for individualism or just being a couple, and the community is the place to learn from God and from each other, discerning together rather than alone. Ultimately a couple would still decide for themselves, but it wouldn’t be in isolation. I don’t think there is anything wrong with suggesting that God’s intention might be different to ours, as it is with a lot of things.

        Anyway feel like I’m rambling now…

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    • WordPress isn’t letting me reply to your latest comment, so I’m replying on this one, hopefully it won’t disrupt the flow of conversation!

      It’s so great that’s not your experience of teaching as that suggests that at least some places in the church, things might be different. The teaching I mentioned was delivered to a large number of christian young people at a national youth event, so isn’t as much a sweeping generalisation as an example of messages that are being delivered to a large number of young people at an event which has significant credibility in evangelical culture.

      I’m absolutely not saying that men shouldn’t comment or that men should agree with me, however there is a gendered analysis and in this instance it seems to suggest the majority of people who are disagreeing are men and that could point to some differences in the messages given to men/women.

      I totally agree the messages that boys and men get are really damaging too, this piece from Preston Yancey articulates addresses some of that: http://prestonyancey.com/blog/2013/02/when-purity-culture-hurts-men-too.

      I would definitely agree about living in community and working out faith in community. Surely the point of all discipleship is to enable people to get to a point where we know we can trust them to hear from God and be obedient to God’s voice? Of course suggesting ideas and views may be helpful, but that’s not the current dynamic for many (though I appreciate you’re saying your experiences are different). It’s a rigid rule based system that many Christians play mental gymnastics with.

      Since writing the two posts about sex, I’ve had so many people share their stories which involve physical issues with sex after waiting until marriage, emotional trauma, shame, sexual abuse and more. It’s great that hasn’t been your experience, but I guess we need to have conversations and change the current situation for the many people who are being damaged through this stuff.

      My priority is those who are damaged by this teaching. And due to the nature of talking about sexuality, we’re not even going to have a space where people can be honest about their stuff unless we talk and write about it, unless we bring it into the open. Which is what I hope blogs like this one can do.

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      • Maybe sweeping generalisation is wrong, but a lot of what you imply and suggest seems to come from this one event or other assumptions. As I mentioned before it would be nice to see some actual hard statistics.

        There is also a huge amount of assumption in your ‘gendered analysis’ and you make a huge leap without any evidence. Your gender was not even in my thinking when I replied to you! This kind of talk makes it very hard for people to comment or not on blogs! I’m not commenting to have my comment analysed for anything more than it’s actually content. Implying the things you are makes me, as a man, think twice about commenting in case things are read in like that. You can’t possibly know how many people agree or disagree based on numbers of actually comments. I don’t comment on many articles I disagree with as I often see little point in doing so.

        I would still emphasis that we need to be in community to help us be obedient to God and hearing his voice. I’m not sure it is about trusting them to do it on their own at all actually. My worry is that would be a reflection of modern culture rather than an alternative to it. I don’t think I’d disciple someone to be able to do it all on their own, and I don’t think that’s what we see in Acts.

        I am by no means saying these things shouldn’t be talked about or written about. They most definitely should, but we must be careful in our assumptions and statements that we are talking factually, and can back our assertions up, or make it clear when we are stating our own hunches or reading of situations.

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  4. Paul says:

    Thanks for this post, I don’t agree with everything but it’s useful to have the conversation. I liked Tom’s response.

    I’m a late forties sexless single guy. I say “sexless” rather than celibate because the later implies more choice than I feel. Although there’s always a choice I suppose, just not one I’m happy with. Which is rather the point.

    A few years ago when I was feeling hacked off with Church I think I could have written something like this post. I certainly felt that my “baggage” regarding sex was due to me having stuck to the “no sex before marriage” rule earlier in life but then never having met the right person to marry. It seemed that the model presented works reasonably well if you’re straight and get together with someone in your 20s but for the rest of us it doesn’t work so well. At the time I wasn’t at church and I think I felt I’d scuppered my chances of a ‘normal’ sex-life by following this rule.

    However the conclusion I eventually came to though is – what’s the alternative? If I’d’ve had the kind of medium to long-term committed relationship that for others includes sex well then I’d probably have gone down the marriage route. I really don’t think that one-night stands would have made me any happier, and paying for sex would never be on my radar. Moral inhibitions aside I think I’d just be too mortified. In other words whilst I might be missing out on sex, the kind of sex I could potentially get isn’t the kind I’d want, or it fits the marriage model anyway. But then maybe my wants have been shaped by my background. But I don’t feel I can easily break out of that.

    The fact is, the older I get, the more casual sex fills me with dread. At this point I’d much rather meet someone who at least understands the no-sex-before-marriage thing and how I got here and will be understanding of my issues. From the other side of the equation, the older I get the more set in my ways I am. So a relationship would be a challenge anyway at this point. Worth it for the right person probably but until/unless that person comes along I really am not tempted to either get married just to have sex, or risk vulnerability in a more casual relationship.

    So in terms of where I am now, I try to be happy in myself and look at what I’ve got not what I’ve not. Sex is a good thing but there are many good things I don’t have and many others that I do. At least that’s the theory, not saying I always manage it.

    Anyway I’ve gone on longer than I intended.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for your thoughts Paul and for your honesty in sharing your situation.

      I guess my writing this post isn’t coming out of a place of being hacked off. The more people I speak to, the more I speak about this stuff, the more it becomes clear that the current situation is hurting more people than (it is likely) to be helping.

      I think there’s also a gendered analysis of your experiences. As a man it is great that you have come to a place of acceptance about your singleness etc. Due to societal prejudices, single women rarely have the chance to do this in the same way. Single women in the church are often sidelined and passed over because of all sorts of stuff around headship and misunderstandings about what the Bible says. Alongside this, the messages women receive form society is that they are a failure if they are single, perhaps you have also experienced this, I don’t know…

      At no point am I advocating for people to be having one night stands, or suggesting that sex is a right that people are entitled to. I guess I just notice that the current messages in the church are not really working for a lot of people, and so how can we move things to a new place? What does that look like?

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  5. Paul says:

    Thanks for your reply.

    To clarify a couple of things. I didn’t think you were posting this from a position of being hacked off, but I said that I identified with it as similar to something I felt when I was away from faith/church.

    Secondly the thing about one-night stands came from your comment “Not everyone is going to have a partner” in the context of older folks not having had sex (point 1). So I inferred that you thought sex outside a relationship (partner) was an avenue that should be open to them. In fact that whole paragraph read a little like you thought that people have some kind of a reasonable expectation of sex at some point in their life. I’m happy to hear you don’t think that.

    I’m not sure I’ve reached acceptance, LOL, though I strive for it. I think again what I was trying to express was based on the same misunderstanding. I don’t have a right to sex therefore following the no-sex-before-marriage rule hasn’t robbed me of anything, even if I was tempted to think that way.

    I’m sure you’re right about single women getting different messages from church and society, I’m not in a position to judge. I do think the church tends to present a certain model of life as normative – single and celibate up to your 20s/early 30s, then married with 2.4 kids to follow shortly. And I do think single people get sidelined from leadership positions. Not me personally as I never aspired to it really, but I know a guy who was ‘on track’ as it were and was starting to get comments about it. He got married (not due to that of course) soon after so the issue never really came to a head. Another friend had clear leadership potential but it was expected she’d express that as part of a husband-and-wife team. Of course given my age and history, both these examples are from nearly 20 years ago. I’m more on the fringes of my current church so I’m not sure if it’s the same, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

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  6. Jumping on late here but I had a thought and the time to reply!
    Our separation of the sexual act and reproduction does us no favours here.
    I’m not saying that each act ought to be to create life but being open to life changes our attitude to sex.
    Abstinence is often taught to teenagers because we don’t trust them to make decisions in a grey area. Instead, why not ask, ‘do you want to have this person’s child?’
    No? Keep vertical!
    Yes? Have you thought of marrying them? What’s a bigger commitment than linking your genes forever?

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    • so how do you apply that logic to same sex relationships? I’ve found one of the reasons view B advocates oppose Equal Marriage and acceptance and inclusion of LGBT within society and church is that they can’t use the “fear of pregnancy” argument to dissuade people from having sex outside of marriage. And so they are forced to either accept that it’s a bogus argument and should instead frame discussions around consent & commitment or to treat those people they can’t “scare” into not having sex as deficient at best and demonic at worst. Unfortunately they’ve taken the second option 😦
      I’m not saying we should completely separate the sex act and reproduction, but maintaining that the two things are inseparable is, I find, damaging to both the LGBT debate and to straight people too. We must stop maintaining the myth that the purpose of marriage is to propagate the species. It may have been a secondary purpose initially, but we’ve pretty much achieved saturation with the species, it’s no longer an essential. Instead let’s acknowledge that the primary purpose both then and now is one of companionship and team work. “It’s not good for this person I’ve made to be alone. I’ll provide a helper (and haven’t got time to go into how “Ezer” has been treated over the centuries) to come alongside them so they can work this garden together, enjoy each other, be a community and worship me together.”

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