I’ve heard people say that growing up as an evangelical meant they never talked about sex. This wasn’t my experience. I grew up in the thick of evangelical purity culture and we talked about sex A LOT. We just spent all of that time talking about how and why NOT to have it.
As someone who waited until I was married to have sex, I was assured that I would be guaranteed an easy and rewarding sex life. When reality turned out to be different, I was disappointed and disillusioned. Only through gradual conversations with other married friends did I realize I wasn’t alone.
I started to wonder if maybe the expectations themselves were wrong. Maybe what I’d been told or had inferred about marital sex simply wasn’t true. These ideas came from multiple churches that I attended, from my Christian school, various summer camps, teachers, parents, and books I was encouraged to read. I know that my experience isn’t universal, but I also know that it is not unique. Since I have started writing about this, I have heard from thousands of people who have shared similar stories.
Here are four of the biggest lies I was taught about sex.
1.) Any and all physical contact is like a gateway drug to sex.
Once, in high school, I attended a big Christian youth conference. One night, one of the chaperones addressed the girls: “Ladies, we have noticed some very inappropriate touching going on…”
The inappropriate touching she meant turned out to be two high school couples in the youth group holding hands. This woman was deadly serious. “I know it may not seem like a big deal to you,” she said. “But hand-holding leads to OTHER THINGS!”
I heard similar things from parents, teachers, church leaders and books. In my church, it was not unusual for people to pledge not only to save sex until marriage but even to save their first kiss for their wedding day. “Don’t start the engine if you aren’t ready to drive the car,” and other similar metaphors warned me that any physical contact was a slippery slope straight into the jaws of fornication.
On this side of things, I can honestly say that there are SO many conscious decisions you have to make between kissing and having sex. Despite what Hollywood says, clothes do not just fall off, and bodies do not magically and effortlessly fit together.
If you are committed to waiting until you’re married to have sex, there are many valid reasons to set boundaries on your physical relationship, but the fear of accidentally having sex shouldn’t be one of them.
2.) If you wait until you are married to have sex, God will reward you with mind-blowing sex and a magical wedding night.
Before my wedding night, I had been told that honeymoon sex isn’t usually the best sex. I had heard that good sex takes work. I knew that it would probably be uncomfortable at first. But what nobody ever, EVER told me was that it might not work at all. On my wedding night, my mind and heart were there, but my body was locked up tighter than Maid Marian’s chastity belt.
I entered marriage with the firm conviction that God rewards those who wait, only to find myself confounded by the mechanics. I felt like an utter failure, both as a wife and a woman. And while we did (eventually) get things working, this was hard, frustrating, embarrassing and a huge blow to our confidences.
Saving sex for marriage is not a guarantee that you will have great sex or that sex will be easy. All it guarantees is that the person you fumble through it with will be someone who has already committed to [loving] you forever.
3.) All boys think about is sex, and good girls don’t think about it at all.
As a teenager and young adult, I cannot count the times I heard something to this effect: “Boys have raging hormones and are always thinking about sex.” We girls, on the other hand, were the guardians of virtue — our own, yes, but more importantly our brothers-in-Christ. I was taught that boys would go as far as we would let them and that it was our job to keep things in check. Along with the other good girls, I gave side hugs and wore tops that covered not just my chest but my shoulders as well.
Aside from the issue of whether or not girls should be responsible for others’ thoughts, I actually think this whole idea is degrading to men as well. It implies that men are animals or that they are slaves to their sexuality. The idea that sex is such an overpowering urge for teenage boys that they cannot control it is the exact same attitude that has led some to downplay sexual assault. (After all, how can you blame someone for something they are incapable of controlling?) Like all blanket statements, it’s also damaging because it generalizes all men’s experiences and our expectations of them.
I constantly heard about how much men love sex, so when I got married, I expected that we would be having sex at least [five] times a day. This might be true for some people, but I will be honest and say that this has never been true in my marriage. But because I believed that was the norm, I immediately inferred something was wrong with me. Why weren’t we having sex at every minute that we were not eating or sleeping or working? If this is what all men want and that’s not what our sex life looks like, then I must be doing something wrong. Spoiler alert: that wasn’t true. What was wrong were my expectations, which were based on the story I had been told over and over rather than on reality.
On the flip side of this is the belief that good Christian women aren’t sexual, or even that sex is something they do as a sacrifice for their husbands. For years I was casually told that “girls don’t care about sex.” Well, as it turns out, I do. This has been a deep source of shame for me. It was supposed to be something men cared about. If I actually wanted to have sex with my husband, wasn’t that somehow unfeminine? For a long time, I felt like a freak until I started to realize that I wasn’t the only one. I just didn’t know that because no one else had ever admitted it.
Girls (even “good Christian girls”) think about sex. In fact, girls can actually (gasp!) like sex. This doesn’t make you a freak. It doesn’t make you unfeminine or unnatural. God created us, both men AND women, as sexual beings. Enjoying sex makes you a human being created by God, in the image of God, with the capacity and desire to love — physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually and sexually.
4.) If you wait until marriage, sex with your spouse will be free of guilt or shame.
Many Christians have spent years — from the day they hit puberty until their wedding day — focusing their energy on keeping their sex drives in check. Then, in the space of a few hours, they are expected to stop feeling like their sexuality is something they must carefully control and instead be able to express it freely. And not only that — but express it freely with another person.
Many of us have programmed guilt into ourselves — this is how we keep ourselves in check throughout our dating relationships. And that “red light” feeling we train ourselves to obey doesn’t always go away just because we’ve spoken some vows and signed some papers.
It took me several months to stop having that sick-to-my-stomach guilty feeling every time I had sex with my husband. Not only that, in “losing” my virginity, I felt like I had lost some essential part of my identity. I subconsciously believe that my virginity was a core component of my moral character. Even though I knew this wasn’t true intellectually, I couldn’t help feeling that if purity was synonymous with virginity and sexual innocence, wasn’t I now impure? Not everyone experiences this, but for the many people who do, it’s terribly isolating. Once again we’re experiencing something our churches and communities never acknowledged as a possibility. We feel alone and broken and filled with a profound sense that this isn’t the way it’s meant to be.
I don’t regret waiting until I was married to have sex, and I’m not advocating that churches stop teaching that sex is designed for marriage. But I do think there is something seriously wrong with the way we’ve handled the conversation.
If our reason for saving sex until marriage is that we believe it will make sex better or easier for us later, we’re not only setting ourselves up for disappointment, but we’re missing the point entirely. Those who choose to wait do so because we hold certain beliefs about the sacredness of marriage and about God’s intentions and wishes for humanity, and we honor these regardless of whether they feel easier or harder. In the meantime, we in the evangelical church have a lot of work to do correcting the distorted ways we talk about sex and sexuality, especially to our youth.