There’s some things I really loved about growing up in the church; the sense of community, the security and the feeling of being specially chosen by God. Heading up the list of things I don't feel so positive about, was the teaching I was given about sex. From my early teens through to my twenties I was repeatedly reminded to “save myself” for marriage but without ever being given a logical or satisfactory reason.
The limited advice from home included a warning “not to push my whole body up against a boy” because it would make it “harder for him to control himself”. It’s farcical to look back on the way I hugged my first boyfriend with my hips held well away from him. Once we cuddled like normal people, that advice felt like a drop of water in a cup when I was about to be engulfed by the whole ocean. It was so irrelevant that I turned away from those who could have helped me negotiate other challenges involved in relationships - like maintaining my own identity when it was in danger of being swallowed up!
Turned on or tortured?
Regarding the act of sex I didn’t know much beyond the mechanics, and what I did know, I found confronting and gross. I was literally terrified of penises! I dated for almost a year before I started to realise love-making might be something to look forward to. The new stage meant I either felt “turned on” or tortured by guilt - either desiring sex or feeling sinful for desiring it.
I was mostly successful in keeping my boyfriend’s hands clear of the “danger zones” and kept my virginity until I got married at twenty-one. But, I never understood the reasons I was “waiting”. I think it had something to do with:
- disappointing my future husband.
- disappointing my parents.
- having nothing left to look forward to on the wedding night.
- possibly destroying my marriage before it even had even begun.
- a genuine fear of being cut off from God and sentenced to hell if I “failed.”
- being seen as a slut for lacking the willpower.
Shame, guilt and punishment
I was never taught that sleeping with my boyfriend was actually quite forgivable - and I wasn’t alone in this: A girl in my youth group used to respond to altar calls every Sunday, tears streaming down her face, because she had practised kissing with another girl and was terrified of the consequences! So much for the Bible’s teaching that, “Perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment.” (1 John 4:18)
The only clear and persuasive reason I ever found for abstaining was on Oprah of all places. She was interviewing Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, author of Kosher Sex: A Recipe for Passion and Intimacy, and he explained that if we “only ever have sex with one partner we could spend our whole lives believing that we were married to the greatest lover in the world.” The Rabbi said that having the ability to compare and contrast sexual partners from before we decided to settle down was likely to lead to dissatisfaction with our husbands and wives in future.
I was grateful for his teaching because it finally gave me a reason I could use when it came to explaining sex to my kids. “Because God says so…” is pretty unconvincing to a teen unless they're also filled with a fear of hell. However, there were flaws in the Rabbi’s teaching too… What happens if one partner is more sexually experienced than the other when they meet? Or, what if the covenant of marriage is broken through infidelity and the like? Kosher sex might be the ideal but ideals are hard to live up to.
Fear and ignorance
All-in-all my pre-marital attitude to sex and sexuality was seriously messed up. My boyfriend and I spent hours on our knees begging God to forgive us for straying outside the parameters for safe touching - possibly half as much time as we spent dancing on those same lines! The joys of sex were completely stifled by our fear and ignorance. Our wedding night can only be described as incredibly awkward, painful and embarrassing. All the “fun-play” of our dating years was replaced with a “straight to the finish line” style of seduction since my husband now had direct access to my body and didn’t realise I needed a little more “encouragement”. Sex was a devastating anti-climax (pun intended) and I couldn’t help wondering how much better things might have been if we had simply slipped up on one of those many times we’d been mucking about. My sex drive was dead in the water before I even climbed aboard the boat.
Things probably wouldn’t have worked out too differently though, because other “good girls” who’d “failed” lugged around loads of guilt as a result. They also taught me (too late) that there was a whole other level of protecting your virginity while enjoying everything but penetrative sex… which made me feel simultaneously smug and regretful.
The obstacles put in the way of the natural progression of a sexual relationship was not the only problem with the spiritual and sexual education I received - I was in a rush to walk down the aisle and into marriage despite being little more than a child. I was taught to date with the intent to marry and that it was wrong to “lead someone on”… A shared Christian faith was the crucial element in building a marriage. There was never much talk about the need for shared interests or compatibility based upon personality, intelligence, lifestyle, family of origin or communication styles. It was enough to be with someone who was committed to following God’s way - never mind if God’s way eventually took him in one direction and me in another - by that stage we were yoked - and I had promised to follow his lead: “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16).
Who am i created to be?
At 21 and three months I didn’t even know where I wanted to go or stay. I knew I wanted to be married and have sex without feeling guilty. I knew I wanted a lifelong companion who would love and accept me for who I was - except I was too young to know and accept myself. Instead I became someone who conformed to expectations and helped my husband pursue his interests while setting my own aside. In the process of marrying young I completely lost sight of who I was created to be and was trapped inside a lonely marriage for years, simply because I followed the path all good Christian girls (and most boys) are encouraged to take.
In fairness, my Christian parents did question my decision to get married so young but I pointed at their example (they were barely out of their twenties). I made it a habit to kiss, cuddle and pet my apprehensions into oblivion. Surely the sexual attraction between us made our decision the right one? It’s only in hindsight that I see my logic was not exactly sound but it was the kind of logic I had been conditioned to apply.
Fast forward twenty-four years: I find myself a divorced mother with four kids and it’s now my role to prepare two sons and two daughters for those first romantic connections and to provide some level of guidance regarding both spirituality and sexuality. How on earth do I prepare them for the future?
Read more of my story soon to be published, in: Sluts, Soul Ties and Sex Ed. (Part Two)
**I wish to differentiate between God and the church here. We humans put our own spin on things so we can keep our kids “safe”. The problem arises when our “safety” comes at the high price of lost independence, the demonisation of our natural desires and fear. My own thinking developed as a result of some explicit teaching I was given, coupled with certain inferences I made independently. I was taught sex was meant to be beautiful, but I was also taught, “Don’t do it… or else!” No wonder I’m still confused.**
Catherine is a teacher, life coach (linedwithsilver.com.au) and single mother of four. She loves trying to keep all of those balls in the air but fails spectacularly at times. Perfectionism and people-pleasing seemed to be written into her DNA but she's slowly releasing expectations imposed by others and settling into a more generous view of a loving God at the same time. Catherine's goal is to experience life in lots of different places and to use every wrong turn as an opportunity for learning. She resides on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia.
See all previous articles by Catherine Joy