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.