Where Logic Meets Love

Let's Get Real About Sex and Marriage

Thursday, December 15, 2011

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Let's Get Real About Sex and Marriage | Faith Permeating Life

This is a follow-up to my last post, in which I explained that I care a lot more about whether people are having sex in a context of love and service than whether they're married. I want to talk some more about why I'm willing -- and why I think it's important -- to share these kinds of beliefs that run contrary to the usual Christian talking points. But first...

Given my repeated defense of those who choose to have sex outside of marriage, you might find it strange that I personally saved sex -- and my first kiss -- for marriage. Here's why it makes sense to me.

I have zero regrets about saving sex for marriage. As I've said previously, to me marriage meant a commitment of unconditional love. And as I said in my previous post, I believe that sex should be in a context of love, and to me, that couldn't be conditional love. I felt that because the gift of my body in sex was one of the most valuable gifts I could give to someone, I didn't want to give that gift outside of a lifelong commitment.

I know this isn't true for everyone, and I don't pretend everyone is like me, but if I'd had sex with someone other than Mike, I would have felt like I left a piece of myself with that other person that could never be recovered. And until I made a commitment at the altar to Mike, I couldn't feel confident that we would be together forever either, and I didn't want to risk that. Waiting meant that once we were married, I could give my whole self to him with no worries and no reservations.

And if he'd turned out to be abusive or controlling, sexually or otherwise? That wouldn't have been OK, despite the rings on our fingers. Abuse is abuse is abuse.

I waited because I knew that it was a decision that would put me most at peace with myself, and I believed it would have the fewest negative consequences for me. And it had many positive consequences, as Mike and I spent our five years of "courting" time really getting to know each other (we weren't kissing, so there was plenty of opportunity to talk!) so when we got married, I felt confident that I knew, as much as I could, the person I was committing my life to.

So that's me. And if that's you, too, then more power to you. If it's not, I hope that you have thought through your own beliefs about what sex means to you, what marriage means to you, and how you can act in a way that is congruent with your own values. I care way more about all of those things than whether you and your sexual partner are married.

The problem I see with laying down rules like "sex can only happen in marriage" is the same one I talked about in How Short-Term Fear Makes Your Children Bad Loves: It's an external guideline that people can either follow or not follow. If someone doesn't agree with your rule about sex and marriage (or your religion's rule or your religion's interpretation of the Bible), they're just not going to follow it. Continuing to beat someone over the head with your black-and-white beliefs isn't going to change our culture, and it's definitely not going to help with the actual problems we should be concerned about when it comes to sex, from the big problems of sexual violence and abuse down to adolescent confusion about sexuality and what constitutes consent.

We need much more than rules if we're going to start tackling real problems that cause real hurt to thousands of people.

We need to be having conversations about what it means to have a healthy sexuality, to be comfortable with your own body, to have standards for who you have sex with and when that are consistent with your own personal values, to talk with your partner about sex, and to take your partner's desires and comfort level into account.

We need to stop pointing fingers at whole groups of people: gays, or unmarried partners, or whoever, and trying to blame them for problems like pedophilia and sexual assault. We need to look deeper and work harder to figure out the real reasons these things happen, and then find ways to bring help and interventions to those people whose distorted views of reality cause them to use sex as a tool.

We need new frames and new discussions of right and wrong when it comes to sex: Not married vs. unmarried, but loving, serving, and accommodating vs. abusing and coercing. (Not that it's that black and white either.)

It frustrates me when people want to shut the door on conversations about sex by boiling everything down to "This is what my religion says. This is what the Bible says. If you're doing it this way, you're right, and if you're doing it this way, you're wrong. End of story."

I think that, as in so many other situations (see also: overpopulation and abortion), we can easily get sucked into having the wrong conversation.* Sometimes I have conversations with people who are spouting rhetoric they've heard from their religion about how the world works, and I want to say, "Are you actually looking at the world around you? Are you talking to real people, who are different from you, about their lives? Because I feel like all it takes is going out your front door and looking around you to realize that gay people or unmarried people or 'liberals' or whoever else aren't all how you've been told they are."

I linked to an article on my Facebook page yesterday called "What's a Christian to Do with Dan Savage?". Essentially the author says that while he's not entirely sure Dan's views on sex are "Christian" (and certainly many would say they're not), he keeps coming back to hear what Dan has to say because it's a way more realistic and open conversation about sex than is happening in Christian circles.

I don't mean this to come off as preachy or judgmental. I'm just so tired of dogma running our conversations of serious issues. I want to start talking about things as they really happen, in a way that makes sense. I want people to disagree with me in a way that makes sense, and not simply because their version of truth is different than my version of truth.

Sometimes I think this is a pipe dream, and that I should be saving my breath rather than trying to reason and discuss with someone who sees everything in concrete, immoveable moral categories.

But then I read something like this article and the amazing responses it generated, and I think maybe there's hope after all.

So I keep writing.



*Overpopulation: I think the wrong conversation is "The world is overpopulated" vs. "The world is not overpopulated." I'd rather ask, "Is every person able to get food, shelter, and basic care, and if not, what can we do about it?"
Abortion: I think the wrong conversation is "Abortion should be illegal" vs. "Abortion should be legal." I'd rather ask, "What leads to fewer abortions? How can we make alternatives to abortion more practical?"

22 comments:

  1. "We need to stop pointing fingers at whole groups of people: gays, or unmarried partners, or whoever, and trying to blame them for problems like pedophilia and sexual assault. We need to look deeper and work harder to figure out the real reasons these things happen, and then find ways to bring help and interventions to those people whose distorted views of reality cause them to use sex as a tool."

    YES.

    And have you read Sex God by Rob Bell? One of my favorites on this topic.

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  2. @Emily Hornburg
    I have not! I've gotten a ton of book recommendations from readers lately (I'm reading The Spirit Level right now) but I will add it to my TBR list :) Thanks!

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  3. I waited for my husband (though when that happened he was my fiancé). He didn't do the same. On the one hand...I don't care. Like you said I can respect that. But on the other hand I made my decision for a reason because I feel it would be better for our marriage. So I don't know how to hold two conflicting opinions at once.

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  4. I've really enjoyed this series -- it reminds of a lot of topics that we teacher our juvenile sex offenders about (healthy sexuality and relationships, consent, communication, etc.). I think it would be important to add something you've said before about how we use/talk about/interpret the Bible - that is, that you can choose to follow your religion's rules or interpretations of the Bible, but that decision should come after your own inner reflection, prayer, and evaluation of its meaning and significance to *you*. Because there's a difference between, "This is what my religion says. This is what the Bible says... End of story," and "I've seriously thought, prayed, and educated myself about what my religion says and what the Bible says, and I believe something consistent with that." I don't remember what post it was, but I remember you making a similar point. :)
    -Missy

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  5. @Jessica

    You seriously need to read Sex God. I feel like you and Rob Bell would have VERY similar opinions - I know I agree with most of his points as well.

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  6. @Jackie
    Hmmm. I don't know if you are holding two conflicting opinions. You felt it would be better for your marriage to wait... so you did; you acted in congruence with your values. On the other hand, you found that when it came to being with the man you loved and wanted to marry, it wasn't a deal-breaker that he hadn't waited for marriage. And so you married him. To me, that sounds like someone holding to her values and doing what she thought was best, but having the flexibility to see that things don't always work out exactly like we imagine and it can still be OK.

    Who knows, I could be way off :) The closest experience I have is that while I saved my first kiss for marriage, Mike did not. And on the one hand I was sad about that, but on the other hand I realized it was more about "Wouldn't it have been cool if..." rather than anything that was really important to me, and that what ended up being important to our relationship was saving our own first kiss for our wedding day.

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  7. @Missy
    I think I may have said something like that either in the cafeteria Christians post or the understanding why you believe post. In any case... yes. I'm not trying to say that you can't have moral standards (obviously), but that I prefer to talk with people who have thought through and prayed about their beliefs rather than simply latching onto their religion's talking points and defending them "because they're the truth." They may very well end up believing many of the same things their religion says; there are plenty of things I believe that are consistent with the Catholic Church, I just tend to talk about the things I disagree with :) But one of the key things you said is "I believe." I may believe something with my whole heart and soul, but I will always acknowledge that that in itself doesn't make it the truth, and down the road somebody else may have insights that cause me to re-think my beliefs.

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  8. Along with what you and Missy were saying, I agree that someone substituting a source of authority for their own conclusions just because it is easier is bad. But I would take what you're saying even a step further: I don't think it is necessarily bad to take seriously the idea of obedience to a faith that doesn't totally make sense to you, or to think that at times your own reasoning, judgment and emotions are going to lead you astray.

    I think it is okay to appeal to the idea of obedience to religious authority (whether that is a church, a scripture, or something else) as long as (1) you have thoughtfully and individually come to the conclusion that your faith matters to you more than your opinions or feelings on a given topic and (2) you remain open to the possibility that someday (1) could change, and (3) your acceptance of religious authority and obedience to it doesn't stop you from analyzing and challenging it even as you follow it.

    I think of it as a question of trust: do I trust my individual intuitions more to lead me in the right direction, or this community/tradition/institution/text? I think it is just as valid to put your trust in the latter as in the former (given some constraints) because if you examine yourself you see all the ways you can lead yourself to think about or care about the wrong things. An imperfect analogy is that of a parent/child relationship: it is valid for children to put trust in their parents' opinions and values even though they know in some cases parents' positions can be flawed, misled, or self-serving. That doesn't mean children should take everything their parents say without really pressing on it, but if it comes down to a question of who is more likely to be right, I think it is perfectly valid for the child to willingly say, "This isn't what I feel like is the right answer, but knowing you and respecting you I'm choosing to trust that it is." I feel like that is what many people do with religion, and those kinds of appeals to authority are valid.

    I think the problem is that this is a multi-layered process of decisions and development for most people, not an either/or. Take for example the meaning of "love" or "serve"--what does it look like to love and serve your partner? Not everyone can agree on even this simple question. Some would say that it is serving a partner to provide them with consensual sexual pleasure even outside of a long-term committed relationship. That definition seems right if the alternative is selfishly using a partner for sex without caring how they feel. However, other people would say serving a partner is recognizing that sex was designed as a fulfillment of a lifetime, unconditional love commitment and sex in any other context is less than it should be, and therefore abstaining. Doesn't this demonstrate that it is more about definitions and degrees of love and service than a binary of loving and serving vs. not?

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  9. @Anonymous
    Jennifer Fulwiler had a great post several months ago called "Reason can convince you of stuff that's stupid and wrong" that I think you would like.

    Thanks for helping me to clarify my point about authority and religion. As I said in my cafeteria Christians post, everyone has to make decisions about what parts of the Bible to follow and how to interpret them, and I laid out that there are two main ways you can make these decisions: "You can figure it out for yourself... [or] you can allow someone else to interpret the Bible for you and just tell you what to do."

    I don't have a problem with looking to religion as a guide for these kinds of things. Personally I don't have time to sit and reason through every aspect of life, so I tend to default to the beliefs of the Catholic Church because that's my spiritual home; in cases where I find that those beliefs make me overly uncomfortable or seem to fly in the face of everything I know to be true about the world or other people, then I choose not to accept them without question. Where someone else does feel comfortable wholeheartedly placing their trust in their religion to tell them what to do, I simply think they need to be at peace with that decision--to say that they are choosing to look to that authority for guidance.

    And, as you said, I would argue it's important to remain open to the possibility that you could change your mind in the future. Basically everything you said in your second paragraph, I completely agree with.

    What I do have a problem with is having such blind faith in an authority, religious or otherwise, that you refuse even to listen to another viewpoint. I think getting stuck on the insistence that everyone must adhere to a specific morality stunts the ability of real problems to be solved.

    For example, someone may choose to submit themselves to an authority that says that people must wear purple at all times or they will go to Hell. Fine. I respect the right of that person to decide that that is the way they want to live their life, if they've reflected on it and believe that this is the truth and truly the best way to live their life. Where I find a problem is when I can't have a conversation with this person about any serious issue because they attribute every problem at its root to the non-purple-wearers and believe that every problem would be solved if everyone would simply wear purple. Since that isn't going to happen anytime soon, that means no progress can be made on these issues.

    I know that's a silly example, but I hope it helps illustrate what I'm trying to say.

    And to your last point: Yes, exactly what I was trying to say. There is no simple binary here, and that's why I think people need to reflect and decide on what sex/love/service/marriage/etc. means to them and then find a way to act in accordance with their own beliefs and values.

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  10. Posts like these literally feel like a breath of fresh air. Like I literally go, *deep breath in* ... aaaaaaah. Your statements about getting into the wrong represent my thoughts exactly.

    At the same time, I feel like some of what you said about waiting until marriage implied certain negative stereotypes about people who have had sex before marriage. I assume that it was completely unintentional on your part, but since that's what came to mind for me, I kind of want to raise the issue anyway, because I think you might have interesting insights in answer to my thoughts.

    You said, "if I'd had sex with someone other than Mike, I would have felt like I left a piece of myself with that other person that could never be recovered."

    For me this raises especially troublesome questions for people who have suffered sexual abuse, whether inside marriage or out. It seems to imply that, in addition to being traumatized by the abuse, victims have also been tainted, and almost that they can never be a whole person again, because their abuser took a part of them that cannot be gotten back. So the questions I have are, 1) what if one's spouse is sexually abusive, they leave their abuser, and find another person with whom to spend their life? Did their first spouse really take something that cannot be recovered? 2) What about people who have been raped or abused by someone other than a spouse? Is there no hope for full recovery, or to have as good of a relationship with a future spouse/partner as someone who was able to wait for marriage?

    I am also somewhat left with the impression that sex is inherently about losing something, or giving something away. To me, this can be interpreted as saying a person's sexuality as a commodity having a "rightful owner," (one's spouse), and therefore that your sexuality is not your own, and also that sex is somehow has automatic negative consequences.

    Regardless, in my opinion, the way one person views sex, inasmuch as it is not objectively harmful to themselves or others, is as valid as the perspective of every other person. The decision to have sex is deeply personal, and no one has the right to say that you should have had sex in a situation where you chose not to. Consent is supremely important, and if you're not comfortable, you're not comfortable. Is any harm caused in waiting until marriage? None that I can fathom. That might be different with another couple, but not with you. I may disagree with the reasoning, but if nobody is hurt and you are happy and healthy, that's really irrelevant, especially because you don't let your personal preference cause you to stereotype people who make choices that are different than your own.

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  11. Also, because I think it's funny to imagine people who kiss so much that they don't manage to have a conversation ... I just want to point out that Husband I, while being sexually active, scored so high on the FOCCUS survey (is it a score? I guess I'm just assuming) that the priest literally said to us, "you two must never shut up." I think this too comes down to maturity, respect, etc. rather than whether or not you're having sex. Whether you're having sex (or kissing) or not, if you want to get to know each other you will. If you don't want to, you won't.

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  12. @Mórrígan
    I completely understand what you mean, and I appreciate that you recognize I was sharing my own personal feelings and not trying to make a blanket statement about others. I'm not one of those people who goes, "You're a piece of Swiss cheese and every person you have sex with leaves a hole in you." Because that's bullshit.

    The reason I say I would have felt like I left a piece of myself to have had sex with another person outside of marriage is intrinsically linked to my feelings about marriage, unconditional love, and sex as the full giving of myself. Saving sex for the context of a commitment of unconditional love meant that I was able to say, "I am sharing my body and my life with you, completely." It was not a giving in the sense that Mike now "owned" me or my life, but in the sense of the 100% giving of myself in service that we each have for each other. To choose to have sex with someone outside of that context, for me, would have severed the gift, saying, "I am going to share my body with you in part, but not fully because I am not sharing my life with you fully. I am sharing my body in sex but not as a full gift of myself and my life." That was my perception of sex prior to marriage. It was not that I would have been "tainted" myself, but that I would have split up that gift in a way that I don't think I could have fully reconciled again.

    If Mike had been abusive and I had to leave him, or--let's take a more practical, though hopefully just as unlikely example--if Mike died and I chose to remarry, I would not feel like I was giving less than my whole self to my new spouse. I would again make a full commitment: I give you my body, I give you my life, I give you my whole self in service to each other in marriage.

    I understand what you're saying about sexual assault and I can't know how I would have felt about sex if I'd been raped prior to marriage. But again I don't think, in the way that I view sex, that that would have affected my ability to fully commit myself to Mike. On the other hand, making a choice to have sex outside the commitment of marriage, to me, would have felt like I'd decided to separate the gift of myself into pieces, and given a piece of it to someone else. That wouldn't have meant that my sexual relationship with Mike couldn't still be healthy, but it wouldn't have been the same, and I didn't want that.

    I hope that makes some sense. As I've said, I don't expect everyone, or even anyone, to understand sex this way and make these same decisions. But I did want to clarify that I don't believe I would have "ruined" or "tainted" myself to have had sex with someone other than Mike, because I don't think that's a good way to view oneself.

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  13. @Mórrígan
    That's a good point, and I should be careful about how I phrase that. It just amazes me how many people were completely flummoxed by the fact that Mike and I had discussed soooo many things prior to getting married. But then I knew of a lot of couples in college who seemed, from what they said, to spend most of their alone time making out, and it was like the only time they spent talking to each other was in groups. So I thought, no wonder they are so amazed that we've spent so much time talking things through. But of course that doesn't in itself mean Mike and I talked so much because we weren't kissing, which would imply it's impossible to do both.

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  14. @Jessica

    I really love the way you put it in your second paragraph, because it highlights the fact that every individual person has a right to set the rules and boundaries for the situations in which they will consent to sex, in which they will want to have sex. It's not about "this is what sex does to people, so everyone should only do it in X situations;" it's, "this is how I would feel in X or Y situation, so I choose to keep it to just X." It's like me saying I would never have sex with a woman. I don't think I would like it, but that doesn't mean other women, gay or straight, who have sex with women will be harmed or "tainted" when they do so.

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  15. @Mórrígan
    Exactly! I'm glad you understand :) And your example is exactly right. This is slightly tangential, but I honestly think that a lot of homophobic people are just thinking about how uncomfortable they themselves would feel being intimate with someone of the same sex, and they project that into their perceptions of gay people. Of course, then there are the people who are freaked out because they are attracted to the same sex... but that's a whole other issue!

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  16. @Jessica
    Honestly, I think that's the case with almost every taboo type of romantic relationship (not that it accounts for 100% of the prejudice, but it exists with all of them). People can't imagine that they'd be happy in this or that situation (I would never sleep with a woman, I would never want more than one spouse, I would never be with someone who is a lot older/younger than me), and they can't imagine that other people would feel differently.

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  17. @Mórrígan
    That's an excellent point! I think personal discomfort can drive a lot of different types of prejudices, and then they're rationalized after the fact.

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  18. I like to remind people who like to spew judgmental religious rhetoric that all religions teach the concept of G-d is One. What does is this supposed to mean if not simply that we are all apart of G-d's family. We are all part of a bigger whole and division such as I am "right" and you are "wrong" therefore you are my "enemy" or not like me, is innately anti-religious.
    I feel the exact same way about being "wrong" - disagree with me for a reason other than the fact that we were taught different things. When people discuss controversial issues, we should take the opportunity to learn different perspectives from various life experiences so that the we can see life from a much bigger perspective rather than our own limited egos.
    We should collectively learn to stop ourselves from dividing things into two categories - "right" and "wrong" and instead come together and not only accept each other's differences, but embrace them!

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  19. @Shayna Abrams
    disagree with me for a reason other than the fact that we were taught different things.
    Yes! Precisely! Because with everyone being taught different things, what are the chances that everything you were taught were all the exact right things? That's why listening to other people's perspectives and being open to learning new things is so important.

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  20. Hi there,
    I’m a producer for the TLC channel, and we’re currently casting for a show that deals with this very topic! People who have decided to save themselves for marriage, with an emphasis on engaged couples waiting to share their first kiss at the altar. If anyone sees this and knows someone who’d like to be involved or participate, I’d love to have a chance to talk with them! Participants will be reimbursed for their time with us, and you’ll get to share your unique story with the world! Email me personally if you have any questions or concerns! We’re really looking forward to meeting people who want to share their personal story!
    Scott MacDougall
    scott@psgfilms.com

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  21. I've spent most of my life quilting together a set of morals and beliefs from various different religions, mostly by excluding anything I feel promotes hatred (homophobia) or is silly (not wearing two fabrics at once). There's no short way to describe my beliefs, but the basic point here is that I'm often at odds with my friends who are more into religious dogmas. It's really nice to come upon people who see that it's love that's important, and all the rest is just details. So kudos to you. :)

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  22. @Emmie MC
    Thanks! I suggest also checking out JohnShore.com -- he has some very powerful (and refreshing) posts about why love trumps all.

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