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.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The specialness of the wedding day and night

"We want our wedding night to be special." This is a sentence you'll hear over and over by couples who explain their choice to wait to have sex until marriage. It's also used by preachers, youth leaders, and purity speakers to incentivize and threaten young people: "You want your wedding night to be special, don't you?" The strong implication being that your wedding night will not be special at all if you have done the deed prior. And if you take that logic one step further, it means that sex is the only thing that makes a marriage special. And in Christianity, marriage must be special. It is sacred and needs to be protected. Therefore, keeping sex within marriage alone is of utmost importance.

I have a few problems with this. One is that I think there are other things that make a marriage special. Another is that I think too many Christians are idolizing the wedding night. And most importantly, I believe that this idea that your wedding and wedding night must be special, or a cataclysmic shift of some kind, is fundamentally flawed.

Here's an example of the typical line of thinking in purity culture (emphasis are mine, and you can read more of his long-winded post here):

    Sadly, I think one reason many marriages fall apart is because the couple "acts married" -- to put it delicately -- before they are married.  Then when they are married, they find that it's not much different.  It reminds me of people who have opened their Christmas presents early, played with them a while, but then, just to be official, they re-wrap them and stick them back under the tree.  When Christmas comes, they re-open the presents and may ask themselves, "This is it?  Why do people make such a big deal out of Christmas?"  If the privileges of marriage are permitted outside of marriage, then I think it takes away the incentive to stay married.  If marriage wasn't something to be respected and revered before the wedding, why should it be afterwards?
    I want our wedding to be more than an exchange of rings and an excuse to have a party.  I want it to have real meaning, real significance.  I want it to be a fiery line, a solemn passage, that brings real changes to our lives.  I want it to be clear that the altar alters us.
    I want there to be a big difference between the unmarried us and the married us.  On that day, we go from being two separate people -- a boyfriend and a girlfriend, a fiance and a fiancee -- to one married couple who will completely melt into each other.  When I carry her across the threshold, I want it to be more than a formality.  I want it to be a fiery line we cross, one that forever welds us together, and makes us inseparable because of it.

Clearly, it is very important to him that there be a very significant change happening on the wedding day--in their relationship and in their lives. My question is, why? Why is that necessary? Assuming the couple fell in love with each other for who the other person is, and that their relationship is working well enough to progress to a lifelong commitment, why should it have to change significantly in order to be successful into the future? I personally don't want my future marriage to change us much. I love my boyfriend the way he is and I love our life together. Marriage, to me, is a commitment, and a wedding is a recognition and celebration of that commitment. It's not an "excuse to have a party," but a really good reason to celebrate!

I have to address the idea that "If the privileges of marriage are permitted outside of marriage, then I think it takes away the incentive to stay married." What he's revealing here is that his own incentive to stay married primarily involves getting to have sex. There are other privileges of marriage of course, but none of them are what he's writing about, and neither are they any more nobler reasons for keeping a marriage together than sex is, in my opinion. I personally believe the incentive to stay married should be love for each other and the commitment you've made, though each person is entitled to their own view because not all relationships are the same and that's okay. What I don't like about his sentence there is that it reminds me of the hurtful environment that is created from separating the privileged marrieds from the unprivileged singles in Christian communities, that I explained here. And it saddens me to think that these arbitrary privileges assigned to marriage should be the sole incentives to stay married. Assuming people can't stay married or have a healthy marriage without waiting to have sex or to live together until an appointed time does not put much faith in people or in love. It puts faith in rules and fear.

There may be people who expect marriage to be one thing and are disappointed to find it wasn't different enough. But whereas the writer above blames the couple's actions for not making it different enough, I blame the culture that creates unnecessary expectations. There's nothing wrong with wanting the beginning of your marriage to be special. I'd say it will be, regardless of circumstances, because taking the time to commit to another person is always a special thing. And the specialness of your wedding night is what you make of it. Just because you've had sex before doesn't mean it can't be special. Yes, having sex for the first time is usually very special. But it's not the only thing that can make a wedding special.

I'm done with fearing and needing my wedding to be special, and I'm done with thinking sex is the only thing that can make it special. My relationship is better than that and stronger than that. And I am special apart from who has touched my body and when.