Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Recommended Reading

There's been a couple blog posts I've come across this past week that I want to share, because they speak on topics that I like to write about but give more clarity and a different perspective.
Sarah Moon's post, The Magical Marriage Switch, illustrates the logical inconsistencies in some of purity culture's prime arguments by showing how their teachings about sex in marriage contradict and invalidate their teachings about sex while single. I've touched on this concept of magical transformation regarding marriage before. But Sarah gives specific examples of how purity culture will flip an argument on its head when marriage is introduced into the equation. Basically, anything that sex will ruin before marriage becomes something that sex will improve after marriage.

Anna Lynn's post, Christian Sex: What the Purity Movement Didn't Tell Us, gives a historical context for the purity movement and points out the topics the purity movement failed to address. It made me think about how I never had any concept I was involved in a "movement" while it was happening. I didn't know that the things I was being taught were in reaction to something else, or that it was anything new to Christianity. This quote in particular got my attention:
The purity movement’s mantra in answer to the sexual revolution was, “Don’t have sex outside of marriage.”  Harris’ addition to the mantra was, “and don’t think about it either.”
The "don't think about it either" brand of purity was the only kind I knew. Josh Harris' challenge to live so purely that you couldn't even allow yourself to think about sex with your soon-to-be spouse sounded impossible to live up to, but it also sounded right. Because to a naive teenager who only wants to please God more and knows nothing about sex except that it's bad outside of marriage, who was I to question someone as convincing as Josh Harris?

Now, with the benefits of hindsight, life experience, and understanding of the changing currents within Christianity throughout history, I can see the purity movement with a critical eye. The purity movement made "no premarital sex or even thinking about it" a huge part of my Christian belief system. It was so intertwined with everything I believed that it felt revolutionary when I realized I didn't believe in it anymore. I've stated before that I feel bitter towards the purity movement. That is still true, even though it's gotten better as I've been writing about it this past year. But when I look back over Christian history and see the various movements that impassioned people but, in the end, were nothing more than a fad, I am saddened that the movement I happened to get caught up in was so damaging to people's marriages, sex lives, and views of themselves. I feel angry because I feel as though I was used as a pawn in somebody else's game: someone who didn't care about me--only my virginity.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

True Love Waits is updating their purity campaign

I recently noticed this article about the True Love Waits campaign, which is 20 years old now. They say they have rewritten the entire program "to introduce a modern focus on the same message that has been encouraged onto millions of youth for the last two decades."

I am curious to know exactly what will be different about this campaign. It appears they are reacting to the criticism that has come about in the last year towards the purity movement, because the creator of the new program, Clayton King of Crossroads Worldwide, mentions the idolization of virginity:

"King also says the current project is unique in comparison to other abstinent-focused campaigns including the original 'True Love Waits' because his intention is not to "elevate virginity as the ultimate goal."
He says it will have a greater focus on grace and mercy for those who carry shame from abuse or past mistakes, and that it is more important to focus on being found faithful on judgment day than to be a virgin on your wedding day. My hesitance to be happy at that news derives from my assumption that not only would I disagree with what qualifies as a past "mistake," but more importantly I fear that the program's definition of "being faithful" includes "being a virgin at your wedding."

Maybe this program will focus less on the supposed negative consequences of premarital sex than they did when I was young, not shaming females into feeling dirty and worthless if they have been touched by a male. Maybe they will stop doling out the empty promises of having better married sex. Either of those things would be vast improvements.

But some of the language King uses makes me think it won't be different enough, particularly that he says he wants to draw attention to the "unchangeable word of God" and argues "If Jesus is your Lord, then you will gladly do what He says, trusting that because He loves you and He knows what's best for you." Both of those sayings are reminiscent to me of the type of Christianity I used to be a part of, where there was only one way to interpret scripture, and it would be used as a weapon against you to enforce conformity. Purity programs like this have already determined what they believe God wants from us regarding sex and marriage. Interpretation is not up for debate. They are there to convince young people to conform to their standards.

I never liked the name "True Love Waits," because it heavily implies that those who do not wait do not have true love. Now it is being called the "True Love Project," which I hope is an attempt to focus on God's love, rather than qualifying the worth of a couple's love. Mostly, though, I wish campaigns like this didn't exist, because it skews the relative importance of sex in a Christian's religious life. Why aren't there campaigns focusing on teaching young Christians to be charitable or to demonstrate love to all of God's creation? Perhaps those things wouldn't make them "set apart" from the world enough, since those values are already shared by most non-Christians.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Challenging the biblical case against sex before marriage

Back when I described how I made the decision to leave the purity movement and its teachings behind, I mentioned that the biblical defense of purity was too weak for me. I want to go  a little more in depth on that now.

For many years, my faith hinged on the bible. It was the one true source of authority for what was right and wrong, and the people who surrounded me believed that, too. Using the bible was the best way to defend yourself in an argument, because one verse was enough to defeat countless arguments for another position, no matter how well-founded they were as long as they were not also from the bible. As a result, people rarely challenged widely-accepted interpretations of passages of scripture. It could appear as though you were trying to twist the words to your own desires, and even worse, people would assume you were only trying to defend a sin you must be already committing. In a Christian community where you are constantly being judged as "one of them" or "someone who needs to change before they are right with God," being assumed to be sinning was an embarrassing and isolating experience.

That is one reason why no one ever really challenged our "biblically-based" beliefs on premarital sex, as well as masturbation, pornography, drugs, or homosexuality. Less-embarrassing potential sins were debated openly and freely, like tattoos, dancing, alcohol, gambling, or swearing.

I myself never questioned the biblical basis of my beliefs on sex because it was so in line with everyone else that no one ever asked me to defend it. Any sex outside of marriage was wrong, period. It wasn't until I started questioning the negative side effects of purity culture that I began to wonder if the whole foundation of it (the biblical interpretations) were wrong.

Basically what I found was that there were no verses in the bible that specifically condemned premarital sex. There are many verses that speak against "sexual immorality" and sometimes "fornication," but if you look deeper you will find they are translating from the greek word porneia, which is debated to mean other things--not premarital sex, or even the catch-all term "sexual immorality."

I wondered at first why most Christians assume premarital sex would fit in the category of sexual immorality. Of course, most believe it because their culture has always believed it. When questioned, they can come up with a lot of negative possible consequences of sex, which is enough for most people to declare a blanket decision on the question, even though most of those consequences are from non-consensual or unsafe sex, or involve people with evil intentions. No exceptions are made for all the other kinds of sex being had in the world. Then there is the issue of Old Testament laws regarding sex, which are very harsh. Even though many Christians will agree that the old law was done away with when Jesus fulfilled it in his death, they still like to use it as backup if it aligns with their position.

I do think that most of American Christianity's beliefs about premarital sex derive more from culture than from the bible. American culture still demonizes sex and is uncomfortable with it. We can't help but assume it is what Paul was talking about in his letters. Forget about the difference in cultures 2,000 years ago, historical context and the art of translating ancient languages! "The bible is clear on this issue..." Now that only makes me laugh. "I'm just following the bible" is another weapon pulled out from time to time. But it doesn't fool me anymore.

As you might have guessed, my faith is no longer solely based on the bible. I do not believe the bible is inerrant anymore. I doubt that every author in it was "spirit-led" at the time. But I still hold it in esteem and understand that there are people who need their beliefs to be defensible via scripture.

When it comes to biblical interpretation, there is a lot of bullying that goes on, in the form of mocking outliers, making accusations regarding the motivations of questioners, fear-mongering, and creating community divisions. I want to encourage Christians who trust the bible as their only authority on faith to be bold in asking questions and challenging norms and to see that people who do not see premarital sex as a sin can make a good biblical case, too.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Purity of heart: John Piper vs. altruism

I came across a post by John Piper the other day that reminded me how much I've changed since bible college.

For a little background, I attended a Baptist-leaning, "inter-denominational" bible college from 2001-2005. I didn't know who John Piper was before I enrolled, but by the time I graduated, I knew a lot about him. He was highly regarded by the bible professors and students. We used his books as textbooks sometimes. I attended his church frequently with my friends. I loved his use of logic and how he could pick apart a small set of verses to make an hour-long sermon. As a practiced Lutheran, I was not always comfortable with some of his positions, but I felt a strong obligation to agree with him on everything due to peer pressure.

A few years after college and after much thought and introspection, I came to the conclusion that love should be the most important aspect of my Christian faith. It seemed to me that love was the overarching theme of the bible, the lesson of many of its stories, and Jesus himself said that loving God and others were the greatest commandments. As I tried to figure out what it would look like to live a life where love took first place, a lot of things changed in my belief system. I learned to care about people as they were and not just judging where they stood with God. I stopped defining love as trying to make others follow Christian rules for godly living, and allowed my emotions to have a valid influence in determining right from wrong.

One of the most surprising things that came from this was that I rediscovered how good it felt to do good unto others. I was no longer volunteering out of a sense of duty or obligation, not even peer pressure. I was doing it because it made me happy to be helping someone else. It was a way to put more love into this world. I cannot explain how freeing that change felt. It was replacing hollow lies to myself with genuine love and good will. I no longer had an ulterior motive to influence or save someone's soul; I was doing good deeds because I cared about people and their well-being.

So when I came across Piper's post that stated altruism is not genuine love and is unbiblical and atheistic, I was dismayed and even angry.

So I answer again: "Doing a good deed for others with no view to any reward" is unbiblical and atheistic. It dishonors God. He offers more joy in his fellowship to those who do right "for his sake" than "for right's sake." If we don't embrace the offer of this reward in doing good, we belittle him. But if do embrace the offer, we show him as our supremely desired treasure - above all the rewards of doing wrong.

Doing good deeds to be rewarded by God either here or in heaven is something I am familiar with. It was the primary motivation for me from the ages of 17 to 25. And I will tell you, it didn't feel like love. Not the kind of love you feel as an emotion that comes from the heart. But many Christians believe the heart is deceitful, and emotions cannot be trusted. They redefine love as obedience. As action. I've written before about how the "love is a choice" dogma can lead to abuse in religion.

From where I stand today, I cannot really picture a good god who views true altruism to be dishonoring. The God of John Piper and most of Calvinism does not seem like a God worthy of worship.

In this blog, I usually talk about purity with the intent of showing how messed up the church's view of sexual purity is. I do not value the purity movement's purity. But I do value purity of the heart. I value genuineness, love, and good intent. And Piper's views do not exemplify those things to me. In fact, it more exemplifies what happens when you allow cold hard logic to be your only guide to interpretation of God and scripture, excluding feelings, experience, observation and intuition.

That is not to say there is not plenty of talk about joy and happiness in Piper's writing, and plenty of scripture references. Read it for yourself and see what you think. I think I would interpret the verses differently and probably define "joy" just as differently as we define "love."

Friday, September 20, 2013

Avoiding heartbreak through sexual purity

One of the many touted benefits of saving sex for marriage is supposed to be the avoidance of heartbreak on the road to finding true love. The idea is that sex creates deeper emotional attachments, which can be more hurtful in the even of a breakup. Courtship proponents talk much of guarding each others' hearts. And some take it further still by striving for "emotional purity," which is the attempt to not get too emotionally attached to someone until you are married to them.

I can sympathize with trying to avoid heartbreak. Nobody wants their heart broken. It hurts. But there is an undercurrent to the meaning of heartbreak in purity culture that the outside world doesn't have. In purity culture, it is heavily implied that if you have endured heartbreak over a potential mate, you are damaged goods. You gave too much of your heart away and cannot give as much to your future spouse. Outside of purity culture, most people view heartbreak as a normal and sometimes necessary part of living. It's something you learn from and move on. In fact, there is a general consensus that that being vulnerable and open to love and intimacy is worth suffering through however many heartbreaks are necessary to find true love.

I suppose I might have been considered a success story to purity believers in that I hardly dated anyone and therefore never got my heart broken by a boy. I never fell in love with anyone until I found the right person. But that took 28 years. And I will readily admit that I probably missed out on a lot of life experiences, had I not been so insecure and concerned with doing things the "right way." But more importantly, it didn't stop me from getting my heart broken. I had a falling out with my best friend in high school. I had some really lonely years after college. Many people have been heartbroken by their parents. And I think there are plenty of people who have had their heart broken by someone they loved but never dated because that love was unrequited.

All these other kinds of relationships and heartbreaks are ignored. In purity culture, the only thing that matters is the sexual and emotional purity between two prospective heterosexual mates. To them, whatever heartbreaks you've suffered from your other relationships don't count. They don't break off pieces of your heart and leave you damaged the way romantic relationships do.

It's irrational, isn't it? But that's what happens when you idolize sexual purity and marriage. It becomes more important than anything else, causing massive blind spots.

The other thing that concerns me about the talk of heartbreak in purity culture is that they are giving young people the impression that they will never suffer heartbreak from their spouse. When combined with the pressure to marry young to avoid fornication, that can cause people rush into a lifelong commitment without properly evaluating if it is right for them. If we taught young adults that marriage can run into heartache, too, maybe some would pause before jumping in too soon. Maybe they wouldn't treat marriage like a race to the finish line if they knew there was still a lot of hard work required to maintain a lasting relationship.

I would much rather suffer through a few early heartbreaks if it meant making a smarter choice in a spouse later on than suffer my first heartbreak due to a failed marriage. It's much harder to move on past that kind of heartbreak, especially when your entire life is invested in that relationship.

If purity culture valued the hearts of adults who have gone through divorce as much as they care about young virgins, I wonder how their teachings might change?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Relevant Arrested Development joke

There's a scene in my favorite show, Arrested Development, that makes fun of a common misconception held by purity believers. I mentioned it in my last post about the myth of "reward sex"--the idea that by waiting so long to have sex, your first time will be amazing because you've got so much pent-up sexuality to express. More of us should have had the reaction Michael has in this conversation (look at the 5th frame), but I unfortunately believed in this idea well through my twenties.



Sunday, July 14, 2013

Great married sex as a reward for staying pure

Continuing the discussion from my last post...

"Reward sex" is what I call the mythical fantastic sex that "pure" married couples are supposed have bestowed upon them by God as promised by the purity movement. It was something that a lot of youth group teens, homeschoolers, and bible college students looked forward to. Through the teachings of purity leaders and the writings of Josh Harris and Elizabeth Elliot, we were indoctrinated with this idea that married sex would definitely be worth the wait. Not just because it was sex, but because God would bless us in that area and because abstinence brought other benefits.

None of these ideas can be found in scripture. There is no real theological foundation for it. But it was very easy to believe. The logic went something like this: God cares about the tiniest details of your life and rewards you for obedience. Sex outside of marriage is a sin, so saving yourself for marriage is obeying God. Therefore, God will reward you for being abstinent until marriage.

I'm not sure how they made the jump from there to the reward being specifically great sex, but I suppose it is the most direct and easy reward to assume. Christians in the purity movement like to describe their marriages like a fairytale, probably because it conveys God's participation and approval in a more impactful way. But because of how common these fairytale stories were, I became convinced that my love life would be a fairytale, too. Fairytales, with their happily-ever-after endings, imply that, because it was fated, the marriage is perfect--including the sex. I think that's one other possible reason we all jumped to the conclusion that God was going to bless us with great sex.

Then there were the arguments that abstinence naturally made sex better. Waiting so long would mean there would be lots of pent-up sexuality to express, and marriage would be this huge release. Men and women who had never experimented with themselves sexually would be easier-pleased by their spouse's touch. Having only one sex partner in your life means you'll never know any better, so you'll be having the best sex of your life by default! (I really despise the last two arguments, because they are based on lowering the bar for good sex, and assume that people can only recognize bad sex by comparing it to other experiences, which is simply not true.)

Here's an example of the type of thinking I was inundated with as a young adult. From the Arndt family blog:
I think sometimes people forget that abstinence isn't giving something up; it's saving something.  When you drop coins into a piggy bank, the coins do not disappear!  You'll get it all back, only in the form of quite a jackpot!

I would say that one of the biggest misconceptions nowadays is that you're missing out by saving yourself for marriage.  On the contrary, I think those who don't set anything apart for their honeymoons are the ones who are missing out.  For them there is no awe-inspiring new frontier, no ta-da, no feeling of "wow, here we are!"  There's no history and no story.  No jackpot stored up or set aside, no fresh treasure to give your new husband or wife.  The apples were picked before they were ripe, and now there's little left at harvest time.

By waiting, you get the exact same thing, only with so much more power, passion, and permanence.  Every dollar you've deposited you'll get back, with interest!  You get a wedding night just like any other couple, only with hearts that have been slowly seasoned by a history of waiting and hoping.  You'll have reached the exact same point, only with a legacy of love and longing leading up to it.

What a wonderful feeling it will someday be to realize that you've made it across the finish line. 

I, personally, was convinced that any sexual experience I had before marriage, even masturbation, would detract from the intimacy and joy I would get when I one day married. I thought this was a fact of nature, that previous sexual experiences took away enjoyment from any relationship. I was led to believe this by shame-based purity teachers who were married and should have known better.

This has always frustrated me, how the adults could have spread and encouraged these false truths, when they themselves had experienced married sex. I assume some of them thought the end justified the means. Some had probably convinced themselves it was true, and that they were either living the dream or suffering the consequences of their own sexual choices.

But as most people realize when they begin a sexual relationship for the first time, sex is not so black and white. Abstaining doesn't make anything easier or better; in fact, it almost ensures you will get off to a rocky start. Sex works like anything does in a relationship between two people. It takes familiarity, practice, and communication.

Whenever the question was brought up, "what if the sex is bad?" the automatic response amongst purity proponents was, "we'll have the rest of our lives to make it better." It was the closest thing to practical and realistic they ever got: an admission that sex may take practice to get better. But it simultaneously dismissed the concern of incompatibility, leading youngsters like me to assume that any two people could make it work, and that with time, any sex problem could be solved.

I don't know if being told the truth about the non-existence of reward sex would have changed my mind about purity when I was young. I think it would have been good to dispel the magic of the purity movement, so that even though I still believed that premarital sex was wrong, at least I would have recognized the sacrifice I was making by committing to abstinence, rather than working towards a reward and pretending there were no downsides.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Purity culture's empty promises

Leaders in the purity movement have ways to entice young people to follow their dogma. It usually involves some biblical arguments with an injection of fear of negative consequences--spiritual, physical, and emotional. That is usually enough to convince well-intentioned Christians of the rights and wrongs when it comes to sex. But to really drive the message home and make it effective, positive incentives are needed. Promises are made of the rewards that will be reaped as a result of staying pure. Promises to be fulfilled on your long-awaited wedding day. What are these promised rewards? An amazing wedding night. A special wedding. A closer relationship with your spouse. A longer lasting marriage. Blessings from God on your marriage. Pride that you did it the right way. But most importantly: a better married sex life.

Nearly all of the promised rewards are only available to people who get married. Those who are destined to never marry will only get the benefit of knowing they were obedient. When testimonies are given to inspire young adults to wait, it is usually married people doing the talking. They can brag about their sex life and relationship and talk about how glad they were to have waited. An aging single person, on the other hand... what does he or she have to say that inspires young people? Sure, they can talk about how they have found contentment in God or how they are using their single years for good. But as a former young bible college student who listened to these stories, I remember thinking, "I hope that doesn't happen to me."

Because let's face it: we humans are relational. We don't want to be alone or live devoid of love and affection from a partner. It's natural. Maybe that's why the purity movement didn't stop at saying "obedience is its own reward," because when it comes to sexuality and human relationships, denying your humanness doesn't feel rewarding. Abstaining from these things until we are ready for marriage is very unnatural for most of us. But purity culture demands it, and so we try. It's difficult, so we cling to the promises we were given. We believe that the rewards awaiting us will make up for everything we missed out on while waiting. Phrases like "true love waits" and "worth the wait" are repeated as mantras.

I used to fully believe all this. It sounds silly to me now, the idea that abstinence plus marriage equals a better sex life. By "better," I mean "better than all those other people who didn't wait to get married before having sex." Which ironically means "better than all those people who had more practice and experience." It doesn't make much logical sense in the natural world, but when you believe that God specifically rewards those who wait with sexual bonuses upon reaching the finish line (marriage), anything is possible. For those of you who still have trouble understanding this belief, remember that the American Evangelical Christian faith strongly believes in an omnipotent, omniscient God who cares about and works with the minutia of an individual's personal and daily life. It doesn't take much of a step to go from there to believing your God cares about and is active in your sex life.

I'm going to call this idea of God rewarding virgin married couples with great sex "reward sex," which I've copied from Claire and Eli. I will analyze this idea in more detail in my next post, because even though a lot of Christians are backtracking and owning up to the fact that reward sex is a myth, this was something we were taught as pure fact, and a lot of us truly believed in it and looked forward to it. It deserves to be discussed.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Garfunkel and Oates sing about "God's Loophole" in purity

I find this hilarious and brilliant. But be warned: NSFW for anal sex references and language.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

New links on the About page

I've updated my About the blog page to include links to all the posts that tell my personal story. I wanted to make it easier for newcomers to understand who I am without having to sift through the archives.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Recommended Viewing

I recently watched a documentary called I Do, I Don't about a marriage between two young people who were prominent members of a church. Their marriage ended within a year, and through interviews with the couple and members of their church, you see the different perspectives of what happened and what should happen.

I was particularly interested to hear the husband say he realized they never got to develop a personal relationship with each other because they were a public couple that was accountable to everyone else. They wanted to be above reproach, and as a result, they spent very little quality time alone together.

Even though the wife never gives specifics about the things that made her realize they had made a mistake, it was clear that their problems started before they got married. But they and the people around them ignored the warning signs. It made me think of a couple I knew in college. They were both very liked and respected in our Christian community, and everyone was happy for them when they decided to get married, except for her two closest friends. They divorced a few years later and it was rumored that he was abusive. I would guess that they were encouraged to marry by most of the people they knew, the same as the couple in this documentary. It concerns me that this might be a common phenomenon in Christian communities, where everyone assumes that the two perfect Christian kids would make a perfect couple, and the couple, in turn, feels pressure to live up to everyone's expectations.

The other documentary I came across last week is one that is not finished, but you can watch some of the interview videos and read the back story: Give Me Sex Jesus. Anyone who has ever prayed, "God, please don't let me die before I've had sex" should be able to relate to it. I know I and most of the friends I had who believed in the purity movement definitely had that concern.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

When Christian guilt causes irrational decisions

Last night I had a long phone conversation with an old friend (I'll call her Emily) from bible college. She's been having marriage problems for the past year and has finally started seeing a therapist. Despite her misgivings and embarrassment over having to go to therapy, it has allowed her to look at factors in her Christian upbringing and experience in bible college that may have played a part in her current problems.

Her therapist, who attended a similar bible college for her undergrad, pointed out that the pressures to find a spouse ASAP and to do things "the right way" in those environments leads some people to choose to marry the first person they have a mutual attraction with. That is something I've assumed for a long time, but it was news to Emily. Now she's asking herself if that was what happened with her relationship. Her husband was her first serious boyfriend, they were young, and they had little other relationship experience. They met through work during her senior year of college, and were married the Christmas after she graduated.

They've been married for seven and a half years now. For as long as I've known her, last night was the first time she admitted to me that she and her husband had sex before marriage. Maybe she felt more open to sharing after I told her that I was planning to move in with my boyfriend this summer, but whatever the reason, I'm sad she didn't feel comfortable sharing that until now.

She said that since they both believed in saving sex for marriage, they rationalized what they had done by deciding they would get married. The guilt of having done it wrong pushed them to try to make it right the only way they knew how: marriage. She now wonders if the relationship could have naturally gone a different way if they didn't feel the pressures to stay "pure." Even after getting married, the guilt of having had premarital sex made her feel like sex was still wrong.

Once she left bible college and started work in a non-Christian setting, she was surprised to learn that most people thought it was crazy to get married after only knowing someone for a year. That was completely normal at bible college. But now she is faced with another normal. A lot of them in fact. It seems to have taken the breakdown of her marriage to make her question everything she was taught and to see her life from a different perspective. She now realizes how skewed her perception of reality has been due to the Christianity she grew up in.

It makes me sad for her. And sad for me. It took me until 26 to open my eyes the way she is doing now at 30, so I can relate. Even today, I still find lingering warped perceptions in my head that I need to deal with. But she is suffering worse consequences than I did, because she invested in a marriage and baby while under the veil of purity culture, while I, as a single person, escaped relatively unharmed. Being single in purity culture was its own form of suffering for me, but now I count it a blessing.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Young marriage and the conflict between God's law and God's creation

I have been trying to write a post about marrying young in purity culture: the pressures, the causes and effects. But discussion about those things felt like I was only touching upon the superficial issues that are a result or a symptom of something deeper. Stating the obvious feels pointless, but perhaps it is not. Purity culture puts a great emphasis on abstaining from sexual relations of any kind, to the point that your self-worth and even your worth to God and your spouse are supposed to be damaged by any failure in that area. The longer you go without marrying, the more chance you have of damaging yourself, because you are open to the temptation of fornication, which is having sex outside of marriage. Getting married puts you in the safe zone. Getting you to the safe zone sooner rather than later makes you and everyone else who cares about your sexual sins sigh a breath of relief.

The statistics of higher divorce rates among younger couples do not frighten evangelicals, because they believe that God will bless their marriage for following his laws or for simply being believers. There are those who believe true Christian marriages cannot fail, because they have figured out God's design for marriage, and as long as husband and wife follow the roles God has laid out for every man and woman, any couple can make it work. Happiness in marriage is something derived from obedience to God rather than relationship with your spouse. Of course, many married Christians boast about their healthy relationship with their spouse as a source of happiness, but they almost always attribute it to God blessing their union, or God having hand-picked the perfect spouse for them.

Not all Christians are marrying young. As the mainstream culture marries later and later, so do many Christians. They face the same career choices and economic struggles. They share the modern notions of waiting to marry the right person for love. They have the same options to lead a fun and adventurous life in their 20s, free of the need to settle down immediately. But when they struggle with sexual purity--that desire to be intimate with another person or to satisfy the biological urge for sex--the church's one-size-fits-all solution is to get married. To them, it's really the only option to avoid sexual sin or the struggles and loneliness that come from avoiding that sin.

A good example of this is an article printed in Christianity Today in 2009. Mark Regnarus recognizes all the problems with purity teachings and asking young Christians to go against their natural sexual urges. In fact, his common-sense assessment of the problems made me hopeful that he would have an equally common-sense solution, despite the title of the article.

Most young Americans no longer think of marriage as a formative institution, but rather as the institution they enter once they think they are fully formed. Increasing numbers of young evangelicals think likewise, and, by integrating these ideas with the timeless imperative to abstain from sex before marriage, we've created a new optimal life formula for our children: Marriage is glorious, and a big deal. But it must wait. And with it, sex. Which is seldom as patient.
As an aside: I am one of those that prefers to enter marriage once fully formed. I know not all people see it that way nor want it that way, but for me, I believe that with maturity comes the ability to have healthier relationships and make better choices.

Regnarus spends the rest of the article making a case for why early marriage really isn't that bad and how we can make it better and easier for young Christians to be successful with their young marriages. I will admit I was disappointed that that was the only solution offered, though I know I should not have expected anything else. Regnarus' belief that marriage is a covenant and that sex outside of it is a sin is so widely accepted as God's law that there really aren't any other options for a traditional bible-believing Christian to offer.

I see the Christianity Today article as a classic example of our interpretation of scripture creating unbending rules that do not consider humanity. I picture God's Law as a stone wall built along a a large body of water. The water is humanity, and no matter how many times the waves, following their natural flow, crash against the wall, it does not budge.

I know that the rules we create for following God's law derive from our interpretation of the bible, because we believe the bible to be the only authoritative source of truth. But what if we also used God's creation as an equal source of truth? How would valuing natural human tendencies and instincts influence our interpretation of God's will for us? Things like fornication and homosexuality might no longer be a problem for Christians, because they would no longer be considered sins at all. Telling someone to marry young or suffer the consequences wouldn't be necessary, because Christians could live happy lives in or out of marriage without fear of God's disapproval.

To most conservative Christians I know, the above paragraph sounds like the worst heresy. But that is where I am at right now. Letting go of biblical inerrancy and sola scriptura was scary for me, but I found that my faith did not depend on it. There is always the possibility that we have interpreted the bible wrong, no matter how confident the current thinkers of the day are in their assessment. I also like to think that Jesus freed us from many more laws than we give him credit for.

Friday, May 3, 2013

What does purity even mean?

When the word "purity" is mentioned, the vast majority of people assume it is short for "sexual purity." And 99% of the time they are right, because that is what the term "purity" is most used for in Christian culture.

But I often hear Christians try to define purity in broader terms, especially when they are under fire for focusing too much on teen or women's sexuality. They say it has to do with purity of thoughts and emotions as well. (The phrases "guard your heart" and "do not awaken love before its time" come to mind.) Some Christian groups, usually the more conservative ones, will try to implement guidelines in courtship to avoid emotional attachment prior to marriage. Of course that practice places people in danger of worse hurts later down the road, and, in my opinion, reveals the error in believing that avoiding heartbreak is part of purity. But in a small way I can appreciate that they are truly trying to apply their beliefs to their lives.

Because in my experience, the broader definitions of purity--the ones that incorporate more aspects of being human than sexuality alone--are proved hypocritical when put to the test. I saw this illustrated really well in a talk show I watched once. Anderson Cooper was interviewing a family who attended purity balls. The episode (I can't find the full video online) also had Randy Wilson, founder of the Colorado Springs purity ball, and Jessica Valenti, feminist author of The Purity Myth. At one point, the parents explained that purity was about much more than sexual purity, that it included all different parts of life. It sounded good in theory. But further into the show, one of the daughters spoke of the teens at her school who "were not pure." Anderson had her explain what she meant by that, and her answer was that they had had sex.

That did not surprise me, of course. If anyone is accused of being "not pure," it usually means that they have done something sexually with another person before they were married. I have never heard anyone be told they are not pure because they had sexual thoughts or got emotionally attached to someone. Sure, there will be some talk in small groups about "impure thoughts," but those are easily forgiven, and no one would ever show hesitance to date or court someone who had lost purity in one of the non-sexual-activity categories. What it comes down to is that sex is the only thing that actually matters in Christian purity. Having sex automatically disqualifies you from the "pure" group, while failing in any other area but sex keeps you in good standing.

While I personally would prefer purity to be a term used to describe the goodness of a person's heart and intentions, I also think that purity is a difficult term for any area of a person's life. It implies that perfection is expected and achievable, and I don't think it is. Purity is an all-or-nothing concept. The slightest tarnish takes away the ability to be pure at all.

I suspect that the church's obsession with sexual purity did not begin with finding purity described in the bible and then trying convey it to young people. Rather, I think the church latched on to the idea of ridding sexual sin from its young people, and found that to speak in terms of purity versus damaged goods made their message have more of an impact and was easier to talk about.

As a result, I find I do not like the word purity very much. It has lost its meaning and its sway. However, I believe there are good things in this life that can be pure. Love is one of them. I believe God is love. And I don't think love is hindered by impurities.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Good intentions and justifying the means

Since I've moved away, the church I grew up in and that my parents still attend has gotten more conservative. Last year, my mother told me about an event the church was hosting for teenage girls in the community. It was a lock-in and the theme would be--you guessed it--saving yourself for marriage. They were going to decorate the church as if for a wedding, and there would be dress forms showcasing bridal gowns around the church.

The idea sort of sickened me. It was just one more message these girls were going to get that told them their value lies in how worthy they are of wearing a white wedding gown. Of being ready for a wedding night. Of being chosen by a man. Of all the themes that could have been chosen for a church youth sleepover, it had to be about sex. It is what Christians are most worried about concerning their youth.

She told me, "The woman who organized it had a child outside of marriage at a young age, and she wants to make sure these girls don't make the same mistake." Okay, good intentions. I understand what she's trying to do, I just don't like how she's doing it. But I think all people that teach purity have good intentions, and look what's become of their teachings. For most youth, it simply didn't work. And for the ones who took the teachings to heart, like I did, many of them are now speaking out against the pain it has caused them in their lives.

When I was first working through my issues with the purity movement, I asked myself, "Can the end justify the means?" If teaching sexual purity can help a few teens avoid making some sexual mistakes, is it worth it? I do care that young people don't get hurt by jumping into sexual relationships too quickly or by getting pregnant way before they're ready. The answer came to me pretty quickly. There are other ways we can help them that come with much less baggage, less lies, and have application past the short range of young adulthood.

When I think about the things I was taught that were so dependent on the assumption that I wouldn't need them past the age of 22-25 (because I'd be married by then), it makes me angry. Angry that I was being fed a temporary fix that wasn't meant to be a lifelong value, but something that would simply get me safely past a finish line. The adults in my life should have known better. They were old enough to know the truth. Yet they allowed us to believe that waiting would make our married sex life better than everyone else's, that premarital sex would put us in a world of hurt no matter what the circumstance, and that people who had premarital sex were damaged goods nobody would want to be with.

Granted, the majority of the voices I heard hawking purity were young ones. Single or newly-married Christians in their twenties. Maybe they didn't know better. And maybe the older ones had fully convinced themselves the lies were true, despite whatever evidence they had witnessed to the contrary. But does that make it okay? Those facts do not change history. They do not heal wounds. Good intentions do not right wrongs.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Something lighthearded for a change

I've found satire to be incredibly therapeutic after leaving a place in your life that has caused you pain. Poking fun at the monster that used to torment you feels good and bonds you with others who have experienced the same thing. Here are a couple things I've come across in the past two weeks that poke fun at the purity movement:

Christian couple maintains abstinence through first two years of marriage

Is it just me, or is the logic of "If it was holy before it must be double-holy afterwards" not that ridiculous compared to the ridiculousness of what the purity movement actually believes?

Marriage announcement for Mormon couple

I love this so much. It perfectly encapsulates the arrogance and condescension of a successful "true love waits" couple, as well as the tall tales they tell of their wedding nights. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Pam Stenzel, slut-shaming, and setting rules

There is a recent article on Jezebel about the religious abstinence lecturer Pam Stenzel. I've mentioned her before in my posts about my personal history with the purity movement. I've seen her speak probably three to five times that I can remember. Usually it was at my public high school, but she also appeared at Christian youth conferences I attended. Jezebel points out her harmful tactics of slut-shaming and presenting wrong information about birth control.

I can attest to the accusations about slut-shaming. I don't remember what she said about birth control, but when I was a teen with the best intentions for staying pure, I didn't need to think about birth control. Stenzel always spoke/yelled very loudly into the microphone. She used a lot of humor and sarcasm. She ruthlessly mocked people's hypothetical reasons for having sex. I can still hear her say "But I loooooove him" in a high whiny voice.

And I loved it all. She was funny and engaging, and her rhetoric validated and reinforced everything I had already decided on for my life. I was going to refrain from sex until marriage. I hoped everyone who chose differently would regret it. That's why her slut-shaming didn't bother me. I was a slut-shamer, too.

Thinking about that makes me sad. The purity movement had the unintended effect of making me a meaner, more judgmental and spiteful person. The higher the standards I tried to live up to, the more people I would look down on.

I remember her saying something like, "You get married, and as soon as you say your 'I do's,' you can have at it," [cue the laughter] "but until you have that ring on your finger, keep your hands off each other!" She could list a million direct or indirect problems caused by sex that sounded terrifying to anyone. Everything depended on that ring, that ceremony, that legal marriage certificate. Then sex was A-okay. Why is it so easy for Christians to believe marriage alone fundamentally changes everything about sex? I've written about my frustration with this before.

I think it boils down to making decisions easier for us. Figuring out what's right and what's wrong on a case-by-case basis can be tiring. Making exceptions for people in unique situations is confusing. Many Christians find it easier to make a one-size-fits-all set of rules that prevent us from ever getting close to sin. Once you have those black and white boundaries, you don't have to think anymore. Just follow and obey, it's that simple.

I used to get exasperated that people couldn't follow simple rules. Now I get exasperated when people don't want to use their brains to ask "why."

Monday, April 8, 2013

The contradiction of "sex positive" purity teachings

I grew up in a purity movement that liked to rave about how great sex was. "Sex is beautiful." "God created sex." "God wants you to have great sex." We were taught that sex was important in marriage. I was given the impression that "anything goes" in the marriage bed, that there was no wrong way to please each other. Yet despite all these supposedly positive sex teachings, I still came out of it thinking that sex was wrong, sex was dirty and naughty, and that God would punish me for having it. That's because they teach all those things, too.

The purity movement views premarital sex and marital sex as two completely different things. One is really bad and one is really good. One will heap negative consequences on you, like a poor marriage, heartbreak, unwanted prenancy and STIs. One will bring blessings untold, like pleasure, intimacy, happiness, and beautiful children.

The problem is that sex is the same thing, whether it's had inside or outside of marriage.

Certainly there are factors that can make a sexual experience a positive one or negative one. But those factors do not divide neatly over a marital boundary. They have to do with a multitude of circumstances that can be found in or out of marriage. Things like consent, relationship, communication, health, mood, confidence, or experience.

So when young people are taught that sex is both horrible and amazing, what are they to do when they find out sex is just sex? How do we rationalize that sex is supposed to have two separate meanings without leaning one way or another?

For me, sex wasn't real. It was a concept, and I could give it duplicate meanings in my head, seamingly without problem. That is, until I had to apply it to reality. It was really easy to see it as dirty and wrong when unmarried people did it. Judging them was easy. But to view it as normal and good within a marriage was hard for me. Conceptually, I knew it was true. But realistically, I felt that married sex was having permission to do a naughty (but fun) thing. I never would have described it that way because I didn't realize I felt that way. But that's the way I and most of my Christian friends treated it when we spoke about married people. Married people were privileged. They had won at the game of life. They no longer had to live by the rules. Lucky.

Even to this day, I find remnants of my negative views on sex infiltrating my otherwise very positive views on sex. I have a hard time believing that most of the couples around me have frequent sex, or even have sex at all. Because I lived sexless for so long and didn't expect it to be a major part of my life (I thought I might be single forever), I tended to view others as the same way.  Also, sex was this rare gift put up on a pedestal for so long. If it really was as amazing (within marriage) as I was taught, the married people I knew would be more changed if they were experiencing that, wouldn't they? But they seemed just as average as me.

Also, I sometimes feel a sense of rebellion and pride in regards to my current sex life, that I wish there was no cause to feel. Pride that I'm getting to enjoy sex before others who are waiting for purity reasons, and before my Christian friends and teachers think I should be allowed to. Pride that I've discovered the truth about healthy sex and relationships, pride that I know better. Rebellion in that I'm living out everything I was taught was bad--and am happier for it. Rebellion for breaking the rules I upheld for so long. It feels good to rebel against the people and teachings I feared being judged by. But this isn't normal, this isn't right. I would never have had a cause to feel these ways if I had not been taught that sex was wrong. If I had never been taught to judge people based on their sexual past or status.

While religious leaders who teach "sex is great within marriage" may be better than those who pretend sex doesn't exist, their teaching is still not good enough to lead people to healthy views on sex. Just because people believe sex can be good does not mean they are equipped to handle it. It doesn't mean that the negative teachings won't bleed over into the good.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A man's experience in purity culture

Most discussion on purity culture has centered around women, probably because purity culture itself appears to focus on women. Women are held accountable for a man's stumblings, and women are the ones most devalued on the basis of their virginity status. And it's been mostly women who have been the loudest voices speaking out against the harmful messages of the purity movement. But men have suffered, too. The same messages that told women their worth was determined by how they've been touched by a man told men that they were uncontrollable sexual freaks and rapists at heart.

There's a really good post over at Homeschoolers Anonymous that describes the confusion and guilt experienced by one man when he was taught that he was something he didn't feel he was. I recommend reading the whole thing. An excerpt:

But really, what I took to heart from all this talk about how obsessed men were with sex was not just that there was a rapist inside of me. It was that apparently I had a broken rapist inside of me. Because, honestly, I never felt so overwhelmed by semi-exposed skin that I couldn’t control myself. I spent years thinking there was something wrong with me. Men were supposed to “stumble” when they saw a midriff, or a shoulder, or too much leg. But I never “stumbled” like that — meaning, I never saw a midriff and went home and masturbated about it.

So I decided when I was sixteen that I must be gay.

In retrospect, that only made me feel worse.

Because men never made me “stumble,” either.

Because I’m not gay.

I was actually straight. And as far as straight people go, I was actually normal, too. Apparently normal people — straight or gay or whatever you are — don’t obsess about sex as much as homeschooling parents do.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Is love a feeling or a choice?

Whenever I hear the words "love is a choice," my ears perk up and I see red warning flags. That is what happened this morning when I clicked on the new post from A Practical Wedding in my reader. The author writes about how she teaches her Catholic school students this shocking notion that love isn't a feeling, and how she "practices" loving her soon-to-be husband. The comments on the post were mostly "Yes! I agree!"

A Practical Wedding is not a religious website, so I was a little surprised by the wholehearted support of this idea. I had previously been taught that "love is a choice" only by religious groups. And later in life I learned that extreme religious groups use this doctrine to force women into loveless, often abusive marriages.

The first time I was introduced to this idea was in junior high when I attended weekly youth group meetings. We were asked by the leader, "Is love a feeling or a choice?" I was confused. Everyone was confused. We all knew what love was. We felt it for our family and friends. But the question was obviously leading us to challenge that notion. Love is an action, we were taught. I came away from that session feeling a little empty. I felt as though the love I had for people was now less meaningful, because all that mattered was what we did. And I felt an obligation to do things for other people without developing relationship first. After all, why develop a relationship if what you're doing already equals love?

In recent years, I have taken an interest in reading about spiritual abuse, particularly as it happens in extreme religious groups or cults. A common thread throughout many of these stories are people who have bought into the idea that love is a choice and have taken it to its logical extreme. Young women who are being courted by a man are told to dispel their girlish notions of romance. "As long as you serve each other, you are loving each other. That is what love is. Feelings are fleeting, and if your marriage is built on the feeling of love, you will break apart when the feeling leaves you. The heart is deceitful." People are taught to ignore their emotions and gut instincts. People like that are easy to control and abuse. Even when they feel utterly unhappy, they will stay where they are because all the factors they were taught to trust are telling them they're in the right place. Some people believe that any Christian man could have a successful marriage with any Christian woman if they followed the principles of "love is a choice."

Elizabeth Esther wrote about her struggles with trying to separate feelings from actions of love, and how it led her into deep depression and nearly ruined her marriage. She felt "inherently unlovable." She knew her husband loved her but she didn't feel it.

I think that the majority of people who like to spout off "love is a choice" don't really mean it. They're just trying to emphasize the importance of demonstrating love through actions by using confusing terminology to catch people's attentions and make them think they're hearing something new and revolutionary. Most of them probably take for granted that everyone will continue seeking and living the feelings of love. I do not like these tactics. At least not in a religious setting. You can't take things for granted there. People love to jump on revolutionary ideas and test them out in their lives, hoping for miraculous results, when it comes to religion.

Let's just say things how they are, without the confusing language. Love is a feeling. Choices, actions, and commitments are separate things, that often go hand-in-hand with love. They can be born out of love. They can maybe even lead to love. But they do not equal love. They are not a replacement for love.

There is wisdom in feelings, just as in reason. We need to use both.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

More thoughts on marriage

I've been thinking more about marriage since writing my post All marriages are not created equal. Specifically, how my perspective has changed over time, and why the church's treatment of marriage bothers me.

From the time I was a little girl until I was a sophomore in college, I imagined all weddings to be relatively the same. Sure, they might occur in different places and have vastly different themes to them, but I imagined every couple that had a wedding felt the same towards each other as every other couple who exchanged marriage vows. I assumed they were all at the same commitment level, the same in-love stage, the same general readiness to begin a life of living together, providing for themselves, and raising children.

I had a very idealized notion of what getting married meant. So when I heard stories of people getting married after a short whirlwind romance, I thought, "Wow, they must have had a really special connection if they were ready to get married that quickly! How romantic!" Or when I heard of a woman at my college who had been proposed to by two men in the same year, I thought, "Must be nice to have two men who are that in love with you!"

But what I've realized as I've gotten older is that those couples who get married after knowing each other only a short time are not necessarily more in love or more connected than other couples, but they may just be more impulsive. And the woman who got proposed to twice may not have developed the same relationship with both of those men.

After I graduated college, I began to see marriages fall apart between people I knew. I had been at their weddings, seen how happy they were, watched as a clergyman declared them husband and wife. Now those marriages that everyone had made such a fuss over when they began no longer existed. It was jarring to me, but it helped me face reality. People are just people, and weddings are not magic. Marriage isn't an institution that automatically transforms people. It's a relationship that takes work from two very human persons to succeed.

The mythical fantasy of marriage I had dreamed of as a girl was dispelled for me. I stopped worrying about getting married within a specific time frame because I now knew that that did not always equal success.

But I don't get the impression that the church has come to the same understanding as I. Time frames are important, because young marriages lessen the chance of the sin of premarital sex occurring. Weddings are still fantasized as magical, because the woman changes from a daughter to a wife, and from a virgin to a sexual lover. Marriages are an institution, where men and women are now treated differently and have expectations to fulfill, and success is evaluated based on length of time in the institution.

Speaking of length of time: I used to believe this was an excellent indicator of a successful marriage, because I thought divorce was a terrible sin, and a marriage that lacked that sin was a good thing. I even thought, "When I get married, I'm going to make sure he's the type of person who is determined to stay married to me even if we don't love each other any more." The sin of divorce was so bad in my mind that the personal happiness of me or my future spouse didn't matter in comparison. I never considered the sins that could result from the way two people treat each other when they are in a loveless marriage. A chapel speaker at my bible college once told us that finding yourself in a troublesome marriage did not necessarily mean it wasn't right; it could be that God's will for your life was to suffer through marriage and become better for it. Now, I understand that suffering can teach us many things in life, but I also know that when it comes to relationships, suffering can often result in abuse. Also, that statement implies that all Christian marriages are ordained by God, even though it's painfully obvious that Christians are perfectly capable of making wrong decisions.

We are only human. But in the mind of the church, we become something else when we get married. Suddenly our past mistakes are not supposed to apply. We are trapped in the institution and told to make it work. A couple that may have been advised not to marry will be told to work through it once they get married. Because marriage is that inflexible, that important, and that transformative.

I think marriage and purity are two major areas where the church turns a blind eye to our humanness, and it causes us to make poor decisions.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Avoiding lust while choosing a spouse

A few months ago, Lisa of the Broken Daughters blog wrote about what happens when sexual attraction is viewed negatively: how when people want to flee from sexual immorality so badly they flee from sexual attraction as well. This can lead to people choosing spouses they are not attracted to physically or sexually.

This is not something I can say I have experience with, but I don't doubt for a second it happens in purity culture. People who are passionate about living for their religion will do just about anything if it appears to be more holy or a higher standard to achieve. I do not know if any of my friends chose spouses they were not attracted to, but it is a possibility. I myself was never quite so vigilant about my sexual thoughts, so I had no practice in repressing them or fleeing from them. But I was well-disciplined in not acting on them when it came to relationships.

The Christians around me never appeared to be fleeing from sexual attraction. They flaunted it, really. By that I mean they raved about their significant others' good looks and how hard it was to stay pure before marriage, or how great it was to finally be married. They liked to emphasize how important physical attraction and sex is in a marriage. But I learned to talk the talk, too, and I know how easy it is to preach one thing while practicing another...and how hard it is to truly be honest in a Christian community that is passionate about righteous living.

When the pressure to marry young is ever present in the back of your mind, and you meet a great person who likes you and has all the qualities you're looking for in a spouse, it would be very hard to break off a relationship that seems to be going somewhere based on a lack of chemistry. Especially if you don't know what chemistry feels like, and you're not allowed to experiment to find out. So I wouldn't doubt that there are people I have known that have married someone they were not sexually attracted to.

Today, someone commented on that blog post with his story of marrying without passion, and it was heart breaking. I'm posting part of it below, but I urge you to go read the whole thing.

Long story short, I married a woman 13 years ago to whom I’m not sexually attracted, and I’ve never lusted after.
I knew it before I married her. I knew it the day I married her. I’ve known it for 13 long years in a passionless marriage.
She’s a really nice girl, and I’m devesatingly ashamed that I’ve ruined the woman she could have turned out to be… I see her as the true victim in it all… lack of passion has done that to both of us.
Warped by church teachings, I literally convinced myself that God was going to bless me with sexual attraction for her, by being obedient to marry her… like some magic wand of his would tap me on the head and “poof” …. Happily Ever After.
And, no, I’m not gay… I can sense you all wondering.
I had cold feet right up until the wedding, but had convinced myself that it was “just lack of faith.” … so I supressed it.
The night before the wedding, I got no sleep. I had no peace of mind. I don’t remember too much about that day…. and we left the reception early during the festivities… I was too tired to continue. But the full force of what I’d done hit me during the week… like a cold chill of death running down my spine… I was married… marriage is forever, and I’m unhappy…. forever … the exact opposite of what i’m supposed to be… I can’t get a divorce… divorced people go to hell in the express lane or the handbasket, or something. There may even be a reserved section in hell for divorced people, I thought… like maybe even a VIP entrance.
I felt so ashamed of myself. In a foreign country… surrounded by my new fundamentalist in-laws (still my neighbors today after all these years)… I vowed to just stuff it… all of it… just repress it and forget and go through the motions, and to never say a word to anyone. Too ashamed to admit what I’d done. Just put on a happy face… smile…. go to Church… and pray like hell.
Within two weeks I was being confronted by the father in law… something was wrong, since i was obviously not happy, not sleeping with his daughter…. emails were being sent back home to the pastors in the states… who also flew over eventually to meet me and my wife… I was ashamed, alone, and scared … I still believed that I needed to believe in the “right answer” … so I lied to them, and told them that my marriage was God’s will (besides, who wants to go to hell for divorce.) so I tried really hard to “do the right thing…” … and just stuff the negativity and the lack I was feeling….
My married life became one of fear, obligation and guilt.
Well, I don’t have to tell you, that women aren’t stupid. It’s been hard on both of us… and I didn’t become honest until several years and several children later.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

All marriages are not created equal

In Christian culture, it is well known and widely accepted that marriage is the sole qualification for determining whether sex between two people is a sin or a blessing. By the way people in purity culture treat sex, the difference between sex-as-sin and sex-as-blessing is as big as the ocean. Sex-as-sin reaps terrible consequences, can never be good in any way, is shameful and hurtful, and is worth shunning people for. Sex-as-blessing is a wonderful gift from God that is bonding, special, an expression of love, reaps multiple blessings, and is worth praising God for. What makes the difference between these two things? What changes this one form of human interaction from a cesspool of horror into a rainbow of dreams? Normally a change that drastic would require a big event, or multiple factors, or an evolution that takes a long time.

Because something that bad cannot possibly transform into something that good overnight, can it?

According to the majority of Christian belief, it can. All it requires is a marriage. Specifically, a religious ceremony or a legal certificate, depending on who you talk to. A personal commitment between two people does not count--you have to have one of the other two things for it to be valid! I've known purity-believing Christians who believed it okay to have sex after just a legal signing, and I've known those who will consummate after only a wedding ceremony. I've also known those who needed to have both before they could consider themselves truly married. But I've never met anyone who believed sex could be okay without the ceremony or certificate, no matter how deep or committed the relationship was. The general consensus is that if you have the ceremony and the certificate, your marriage is holy and accepted by God, and sex is now good and pure where it would have been sinful and destroying just thirty minutes prior.

It is assumed that when a couple gets married that they are deeply in love, they are mature enough to know what they want, and they have the best intentions in mind for each other and for their future. But not only is that not always the case, but it doesn't really matter if they don't have that relationship. Because when it comes to making Christian sex holy, all that matters is that you went through the motions: the ceremony and the certificate. If you were to ask anyone in the purity movement whether it would be okay for two mature adults in a committed and loving relationship to have sex without going through the motions, the answer will always be a resounding NO.

Relationship doesn't matter. Going through the motions matters.

My problem is I don't believe going through the motions should be the criteria for changing sex from a sin into a blessing.

To illustrate my point, here's part of a blog post by a woman who got married at a young age after a brief courtship:

6 years ago...Sam and I had our first real date out alone together, I honestly thought us getting to do THAT was my valentine's surprise, I got my first flowers from him ever AND he asked me to marry him...
Twas quite a day to say the least! Full of wonderful and not so wonderful memories. [...]

 As our therapist said today, we are now friends beginning to fall in love like we should have gotten to do 7 years ago when our "relationship" started. We are dating now like we should have dated at the beginning. It IS totally backwards and IS so much very harder...especially with kids. We are married on paper; to others; but we are boyfriend and girlfriend in our relationship reality.
Answer me this: why is sex between a couple of young adults who barely know each other considered holy, when sex between couples who have a much more real and deep relationship is not? These two people were thrown into the institution of marriage, and they weren't ready. But according to the rules of Christian sex, they received an instant stamp of approval. That is not healthy. People should begin sexual relationships when they are ready for them. But there are many Christians that push young people into rushed marriages because they think it's more important to avoid the temptation of sex outside of marriage.

Not everyone who gets married is at the same relationship or maturity level, so not all marriages are equal to each other. So then how can this one event systematically and consistently change something from a horrible sin to an unqualified blessing? I don't think it does. But I have been told that it does, over and over again.

If Christians choose to be this simple-minded about sex and marriage, we are allowing a fundamentally flawed view of humanity and God's law to wreak havoc on peoples' lives. Going through the motions of an average wedding does not magically change us into people more capable of handling a sex life or nurturing a relationship, and believing it does only sets us up for disappointment and an incapacity to handle reality. This is why I think it's important to ask the questions, "What is marriage, really?" and "Does my treatment of marriage promote healthy, natural relationships?"

Friday, February 15, 2013

The different ways we are handling the virginity problem

As I've been reading the recent deluge of blog posts and comments on virginity, I've noticed a difference between how most people are handling the topic compared to what I'm doing on my blog. When I began questioning the purity movement, I questioned all of it, down to the root of the culture, which is the belief that sex outside of marriage is a sin. But the majority of these Christian bloggers are keeping the discussion within the bounds of only calling into question the language of shame and guilt and the way purity has been sold. So far, I haven't seen anyone, aside from stray commenters, dare to go any further. Purity is still a very worthwhile goal to them, and sex outside of marriage is an unquestionable sin. When Elizabeth Esther wrote about idolizing virginity, she was accused of being "soft on sin." Her response, which I think was very beautiful, clarified that she still believed it was a sin and is telling her children to wait for marriage.

I do not have a problem with any of this, aside from wishing that more Christian voices would dare to challenge the standard interpretation of scripture in this area and really evaluate the fruits of our commonly accepted beliefs. Calling out the culture of shame and guilt is a wonderful first step. We need Christians to recognize that we cannot use just any tactic to get our fellow believers to avoid sin. The end does not justify the means. When you tell lies or exaggerate the truth, it has negative consequences for the people you sold the lies to. I know that getting anyone to change their interpretation of the bible is incredibly difficult and will not work most of the time. That is why the recent blogging is so great: it separates the sin from the purity culture and speaks to those who may never change their core beliefs, but are capable of recognizing the need for a change in treatment of sin and sinners. In this way, that discussion is probably much more effective than mine, in the way that it can produce more immediate change.

My problem with the purity movement was not isolated to the way purity was sold to me, although that was a huge part of it. I took issue with the fundamentals of how God created us and what defines marriage. I don't expect to change anyone's biblical interpretations, and I don't want to spend my time fighting for that. Most of my writing here is purely for myself. It's a space for me to get my thoughts out, to explain and possibly defend my choices, to figure out what I believe. But I do also hope that it can give a new perspective to someone who comes across it who may be questioning what they believe about virginity. I realize that many of the Christians who are participating in this discussion would view me as being soft on sin, or would think that I have over-zealously thrown out the baby with the bathwater. But on the contrary, I was very hesitant to ask, "is all sex outside of marriage a sin?" and I debated the issue a lot in my head before ending up on the other side. I wasn't trying to justify my desire to have premarital sex; at the time, that option was nowhere even near a possibility. In a way, my decision to quit purity and question the sin was against my will. I didn't want to depart from the theology of all my friends and family and teachers. I didn't want to come into conflict with them over this in the future. I knew the judgement I would incur from others who believed as I had when they realized I was no longer "on their side" in this issue. It would have been easier in those ways to turn off my brain and keep believing what I was taught. But my reasoning and heart led me elsewhere, and it's really hard to fight your conscience.

I support anyone who makes the choice to save sex for marriage. I understand those who believe it a sin to do otherwise. And I am rooting for people like her who are shedding the purity culture while keeping their values regarding sex. But I am not them.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Life after the purity movement

After I made the decision that I no longer believed in sexual purity, my life did not change much right away. I had not exactly been fending off men beforehand, valiantly preserving my virginity, nor were there any prospects in sight now that I had given up purity. I was 26 years old and still my same introverted self who was insecure and scared to date. But my mindset had changed. I was freer, more liberated and open-minded. And the thought of starting a relationship with someone wasn't as daunting. Whereas before, I would have worried about finding a virgin just like me who was willing to wait, now I was willing to open up my possibilities. I realized I could take any relationship at a natural pace: no need to set up rules and boundaries for physical affection, no need to rush into a marriage to avoid the temptation of sex. We could have sex when we felt ready to take that step.

It would be about 2 years before any of my beliefs regarding sex would be put to practical use. In the meantime, I focused on grad school and work. I moved into an apartment of my own. In my spare time I played video games, read books, went to dinners and movies with friends. I think it was in that time that I shed any and all guilt I felt about my sexuality. I came to accept myself as a sexual person. Maybe even embraced it. My whole youth, I had been taught that while God did indeed create us to be sexual creatures, that desire in us was only good for pushing us to find a spouse so we could release those desires within marriage. Until then, you were to "shut up shop" in nearly every way. (Don't ask me how those two concepts were supposed to coexist!) But I was able to refute that and stop the guilt and shame I carried for most of my young life. Thankfully, my mental and emotional progress was enough to begin a healthy relationship with very little baggage leftover from the purity movement.

When I was 28, I began dating a man I had known as a friend for a few years. We lived very far apart so the first year of our relationship was long distance with visits about every 6 weeks for the first year until he moved to be with me. He had exposure to a lot of the same Christian culture I experienced, including purity culture, but he had left it behind soon after high school. He didn't have a lot more experience than me in relationships, and he was still a virgin, too. We were both the same age and very compatible with each other; we fell in love quickly.

Considering everything I had been taught about sex--how momentous and life-altering it was--I was surprised at how soon I felt ready to take that step. And how natural and not-a-big-deal it seemed. Now that I was in a real relationship with no rules or stigmas surrounding sex, nearly all the things the purity movement had told me sounded ridiculous. I could see now how important sex was to a relationship and I couldn't imagine leaving that element to chance until a marital commitment. Through sex, we learned so much about each other and got to see different sides of ourselves. And rather than feeling used or ashamed (as I was led to believe I would feel if I had sex before marriage), I felt empowered. I could see now what an utter myth the promise of a magically amazing wedding night and sex life was now that I actually knew how it worked: how it took communication and practice to get good enough to have great sex.

I felt like I had been lied to my whole life. Sex wasn't demoralizing, it didn't change me, it didn't feel wrong or unnatural. I've begun to realize that almost every negative warning spewed out by the purity movement was based on the assumption that pre-marital sex happens mostly to people who aren't ready for it emotionally, between couples that do not have trust or commitment. It's the only way to explain why they think every woman comes away from it feeling broken and used and why every man will tire and leave the woman after. (Actually, there are a few other factors in play there.) Nowhere was I ever taught about the type of relationship I would find myself in: a loving, trusting relationship between two consenting and prepared adults. Purity culture tends to ignore those couples or dismiss them as people who are living in sin and who will be disappointed on their wedding day.

Not only did I find that premarital sex was okay and good, but once I experienced it, I realized that, at least for me, it was better and healthier than waiting would have been. Whereas we were able to take our sexual relationship at the pace we were comfortable at, progressing on our own timetable with no outside pressures, couples who wait have a different experience. They have an appointed date and time that their first intercourse is supposed to take place: the all-important wedding night. They can anticipate it for months, building up the expectations in their heads. They don't get to start out slow; they're expected to go from zero to sixty in one night, ready or not. And if the sex isn't as amazing as they were told it would be (which of course it isn't--they're both completely inexperienced), it's too embarrassing to admit it when everyone expects you to say it was like a fairytale.

The purity movement told me that practicing purity would prevent me from getting hurt, but I now feel as though I escaped a world of hurt that was waiting for me if I would have followed it through until marriage.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Recommended reading

There's been so much writing about purity culture in the last two weeks, and I've really enjoyed reading everything people are saying. It's encouraging to see the veil lifted off the obsession with virginity, exposing it for what it really is. I can only hope that the discussion will continue, more people will come out with their stories, and that eventually more minds will be changed.

Here's a couple links to get started if you're interested.

Personal stories from people influenced by purity teachings.

There are links to other articles at the bottom of this post.