Let’s talk about sex, baby. Let’s talk about you and me — and the church.
For centuries, the Christian church has had what amounts to a monopoly on Western conversations about sex and marriage. And during this time it has given a lot of bad advice in its tenure. While some religious institutions have used their platforms to preach tolerance and respect, all too often their more conservative counterparts have ended up perpetuating patriarchy, rape culture and heteronormativity.
A lot of religious institutions, especially conservative iterations, forgo sexual education in favor of blanket statements like, “Sex is impure, don’t have it until marriage.” In America, these types of dogmatic and outdated beliefs may be taking their toll on the faithful. According to the Pew Research Forum, more Americans than ever before claim they don’t consider themselves affiliated with any one religion, including nearly one-quarter of millennials. And it’s not just in the U.S.
If religious institutions truly want to stop this trend, they must change the perception that they are stuck in a rut culturally. One way to do this would be by contributing healthy ideas about sex and marriage. But they have to stop telling lies first.
Here are a few ways Christian leaders could stop being part of the problem when it comes to sexual stigmatization and shaming, instead helping their audience become more enlightened and empowered when it comes to sexuality.
Once you’ve had sex, you’re no longer a virgin — at least, that’s what some in the church would like you to believe. Indeed, for many denominations, there is a clear line between pre- and post-penetration that determines your virginity. But what kind of sex exactly are we talking about? Does oral sex count? How about anal sex? Or is it just vaginal intercourse with cisgender heterosexual penises and vaginas? In fact, the idea that virginity is a biological event is inherently flawed, a social construct that works to uphold purity culture.
“Virginity doesn’t exist as a one-time, biological reality. Instead, the ‘loss’ of virginity is the movement from being sexually inexperienced to being experienced, and this has numerous stages over a person’s life,” Dianna Anderson, author of Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity, told Mic.
“It makes much more sense to say that virginity exists as a construct that helps us define our level of sexual experience than it does to say it’s a biological reality,” Anderson said.
Marriage automatically makes sex amazing for everyone.
Sex can be awesome after marriage. It can also be pretty bad. Yes, in fact, your wedding night may be an awkward, fumbling sexual experience — and that’s OK. Good sex requires intimacy, trust, transparency and mutual satisfaction. These things can be achieved outside of a marriage, but can also be amplified by a marriage.
Despite what some Christians say, believing in the Bible won’t make your sex life amazing. Sex doesn’t magically become the bee’s knees because you signed a marriage certificate and received a priest’s blessing.
Sex is only for heterosexual cisgender people.
We’ve heard it all before: “If a man lies with another man as he lies with a woman, he is an abomination.” Many churches still hold onto theology that condemns same-sex intimacy and polices queer individuals who don’t appease the church’s sexual ethical standards. This shame-filled narrative holds that sex is only for straight cisgender people, essentially erasing LGBT people from the narrative altogether.
Even transgender people are unable to be intimate by some churches’ standards. A recent publication by a research institute for the Seventh-Day Adventist Church called trans identities a “sophisticated form of homosexuality.”
If you’re not married by a certain age, you’re screwed.
The pressure to find a spouse in your early 20s is intense in some corners of the Christian world, to the extent that some young adults feel doomed if they don’t marry by a certain age. In 2009, Christianity Today ran a piece by Mark Regnerus outlining a case for early marriage: “Amid our purity pledges and attempts to make chastity hip, we forgot to teach young Christians how to tie the knot.” More recently, Karen Swallow Prior in the Atlantic extolled the values of marrying young.
These arguments focus on fertility (“Get ’em while they’re young!”) and idolize a biblical definition of heterosexual marriage and fidelity. But there is no set age that someone must marry by. You can be 26, single and ready to mingle, and it’ll all be OK.
Having sex before marriage makes you damaged goods.
No one is damaged goods. No matter how much sex you’ve had, you are not damaged goods. This lie is especially dangerous for survivors of sexual abuse.
“There’s this deep fear within the purity movement that if you ‘give yourself away’ or ‘let someone else in,’ you’ll be damaged for your future marriage,” Anderson said. “But that’s not how life works. Our responses to events, both positive and negative, shape who we are as people. To say that any sexual activity makes you damaged is to say that your worth exists somewhere in your nether regions, which is patently false.”
Women must fulfill men’s needs.
There’s a double standard in how the church talks about sexual relationships. It’s one that usually favors the men and centers their needs over their female partners. The church espouses that women must be ready to fulfill their man’s needs at all times. But this argument does little to encourage men to fulfill their partner’s needs, sexual or not.
Christian author and on-again, off-again megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll goes as far to say that women who refuse sex (whether for sexual abuse trauma, pain or even anxiety) are selfish and go against God.
No offense to Driscoll, but it’s time to set the record straight on this issue. Attention, all God-fearing men: Women are not your personal sex toys.
Men marry for sex, women marry for love.
It’s common for some conservative Christian authors to describe men as “wild,” relinquishing any responsibility for a man’s “wandering eyes.” Yes, some even go as far to say “dateable girls shut up.”
This gender stereotypical nonsense is nonsense. People marry for all types of reasons. Sex and love aren’t even the only reasons some people get married. But there isn’t a reason that’s specific to any gender.
Although not always explicitly, women have been encouraged to forgive and even stay with unfaithful or abusive husbands. Women have similarly been encouraged to stay with their partners because, despite consistently high rates in North America and parts of Europe, divorce is still considered immoral in the eyes of some conservative Christian denominations. Outdated stigmas about virginity can make divorce especially hard for women, however.
Masturbation is a sin — and possibly gay.
Conservative Christianity’s promotion of chastity dovetails with a mistrust of masturbation, for both men and women. Some Christians even call masturbation an act of homosexuality. “Masturbation can be a form of homosexuality because it is a sexual act that does not involve a woman,” Driscoll notes. Often these arguments hinge on the Biblical story of Onan, a man who purposefully “spilled his seed the ground” according to Genesis 38, as proof masturbation’s sinfulness.
This couldn’t be further from the truth, of course. Masturbation is a perfectly normal, healthy behavior, for those who are single, in relationships or those who are sexually inactive. Matthew Vines, author of God and the Gay Christian, notes that the story of Onan is being read incorrectly, with the Bible’s words being twisted to make masturbation seem bad. “The wicked thing that arouses God’s wrath was not Onan’s act of non-procreative sex, but his refusal to fulfill a family obligation of great consequence under the Old Testament,” Vines writes.
Around the world, there are currently more than 2 billion people who consider themselves Christian in some way or another. In the United States, this number is closer to 250 million. Christian ideology comes in many forms, from liberal Protestants who actively welcome the LGBT community to conservative Catholics who believe mass should only be said in Latin. There is no universal Christian, as there is no universal Christian church. That said, there are still far too many Christians who subscribe to a narrow ideology of purity and female submissiveness, of homophobia and general intolerance. If the religion is going to endure, however, especially in the West, it must adapt to a world that no longer considers women subordinate, divorcees immoral and the LGBT community sinners.