Purity culture and real life: “have sex already”

During my drift from faith, I encountered this post by Hannah Ettinger that helped me shake off whatever ghosts of “purity culture” still lurked in my closet:

Here is my best advice for good Christian kids looking to get married: have sex already.

I’m watching too many couples play Russian roulette with their lives because they aren’t listening to their gut instincts about who they want or need to spend their lives with because they happened to have found one person somewhat enchanting and willing to play the Christian marriage game and the stakes are: your whole future on this decision, made in the worst possible state of mind, horny celibacy.

[…] Within Christian purity culture, sex, as an unknown and desirable thing (known to be powerful and good, but forbidden), necessarily becomes the bullet that we imagine blowing our brains out with if we pull the trigger at the wrong time, and we trick ourselves into believing that marriage will somehow protect us from spiritual suicide by pre-marital sex. We can’t know better if we’re still treating sex as a huge scary-and-wonderful unknown entity, but you’d think that our elders/wisers/more-experienced influencers would bother to let us in on the game before we sign on the dotted line.

[…] Thus, when we good [read: virgin] Christian kids decide to accept this system, trusting our parents and pastors’ terms and wisdom, and denying ourselves basic understanding of ourselves as sexual beings (which we are, but they help us overlook this by telling us that perpetual fear and denial of sexuality is a form of healthy [and therefore godly] sexuality), sex as an unknown other becomes a non-factor in our choices for who we date and who and when we marry, or it becomes the secret but driving factor for who and when we marry. It must remain secret as a motive, because everyone knows that marrying just to have sex is a bad idea, but there is no other alternative for healthy, safe, and consensual sexual experience when we have bought into this system.

And if we are unlucky enough to be just a little too horny to effectively deny the existence of our sexuality until the approved time and place (the wedding night), we are caught in an impossible place where in order to keep being Good Christian Kids, we have to not question what our parents and pastors have told us—which is, essentially, that everything I just laid out in layman’s hermeneutics about biblical sexual ethics is lies and that God’s best plan for sexuality is total ignorance and total commitment to one person and one form of sexual experience forever and ever, amen—and to jump through all the Christian social hoops to land in bed with someone and not get ostracized or shamed for wanting to have sex in the first place.

I’m awake for about 17 hours a day. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say I have sexual activity every day (ha!) for an hour (let’s pretend this is pre-children, before foreplay’s thrown out the window). That would mean I spend just under 6% of my time awake having sex. Now in real life, I (along with nearly everybody else) don’t have sexual activity every day for an hour, so it’s actually closer to about 1-2%. That means that I spend 98-99% of my time awake doing non-sexual things. And, yet, during my time as a conservative Christian, the vast majority of moral imperatives had to do with sex.

From the time I realistically had an opportunity for sexual activity until I got married after college, a time frame of about 6 or 7 years, I was “sexually active” (I define sexual activity as any consensual and intentional genital stimulation with the desired end being orgasm for one or both parties) for a grand total of about 3 months. I spent the remainder of that 6 or so years being preoccupied with avoiding “fornication.” I was uptight about it. I avoided a lot of opportunities to socially branch out, I ruined friendships with my uptightness, and my (non-romantic/sexual) relationships with females ceased to exist. The thing is, I wasn’t a good person during this time of my life. Because I was under the illusion that being a good Christian was tied to one’s sexual history, I didn’t notice what a judgmental jerk I was.

And, like what Hannah Ettinger mentioned in her post, I rushed into a marriage with someone with whom I was not sexually compatible. I guarantee that my now-wife and I would not have gotten married when we did, had we been having sex. It was terrible timing in both of our lives. But, that whole “marry or burn” mentality made sex the deciding factor. Not that we didn’t like each other or didn’t want to marry each other, but the decision to get married when we did, at a time when she was finishing college and I didn’t have a job lined up, had to do with not waiting yet another year for sex (we were together for a total 3 years and 4 months before we got married). And, because we were in a religious tradition that views not only sexual activity outside of marriage as sinful, but also masturbation, we thought that getting married was crucial for our salvation.

Getting married when we did has had a lot of material consequences – due to having our first child, my wife wasn’t able to finish her degree at a very elite university, having children made unstable employment situations very traumatic, and so on. And, all of this was unnecessary. All of this was because premarital sex (and contraception, but that’s another story) was off limits. I’ve also seen a number of my conservative Christian friends jump into dumb marriage situations, marrying too early in the relationship or marrying someone who they’re not compatible with – unsurprisingly about half are already divorced, which is a big blemish in conservative Christianity, not to mention the emotional and material toll divorce takes.

All of this to say that “purity” advocates don’t (or refuse to) realize the real harm their program does to its followers. Divorce, marrying the wrong person, material hardship is real harm. And, these are less necessary if you take premarital sex as an issue off the table. The amount of time spent on avoiding premarital sexual activity is ridiculous considering that it would only occupy 1-6% of your time. I wish that all of my romantic relationships had also been sexual relationships. Not because I like sex (although I do), but because it would have freed my mind and emotional capacity for other things.

Safe and consensual non-marital sex isn’t likely to ruin your life. An ill-advised marriage is. Whether or not you engage in pre-marital sexual activity says nothing about who you are as a person or how you will be as a life partner. How you spend the other 94-99% of your time says way more about who you are as a person. How do you treat other people? Do you help people in need? Do you take responsibility for your actions? These things tell us what kind of person you are, not whether or not you’ve engaged in consensual sex. Also, 94-99% of marriage isn’t sex – cooking, cleaning, diaper changing, working around schedules, compromising, etc. are what comprise most of married life – and none of those things are affected by one’s sexual history. And, two people being virgins may be where their commonalities end – getting married to someone before you have sex with them is no guarantee that you will be sexually or emotionally compatible.

Ethics is more than sex. Sex should be weighted 1-6% of Christian moral teaching, but it’s the overriding issue. It’s why one can violate Catholic teaching on just wages, caring for the poor, or being hospitable to immigrants and it’s not the end of the world – but even so much as think the wrong thing about sex and you’re in a state of mortal sin. That’s too much power given to sex. I say, let’s stop letting sex have all of the power in moral discourse. It’s not that sex isn’t powerful – it can be spiritual, communicative, bonding – and, it can also be a biological release of endorphins, a stress reliever, or just pure physical pleasure. There are so many aspects to life, but only sex is framed as ruining one’s “pure” state by just one act. No Christian would say that one has lost their innocence once and for all with one lie, one miscommunication, or overeating. Let’s stick to an ethic of love, compassion, non-violence, consent, and health, and include sex in our application of that ethic.

My advice to young people? First and foremost, GET EDUCATED on basic reproductive anatomy and physiology, learn about all forms of sex, get information on contraception and STI prevention, and what consent is and is not. Abstinence programs don’t give you accurate information on this stuff, and people who’ve had sex but haven’t been properly educated are also unreliable. Thankfully, Google exists and you can get more information than you could ever want to know. Once you’re educated, if your body is giving you signs it wants to have sex, and you have a willing partner who you’re sexually attracted to and they’re sexually attracted to you, discuss boundaries and expectations and plan your sexual debut. And then, if you’re both ready and fully consenting, go for it. And, if your not ready, educated, or have a consenting partner, don’t have sex. That’s the beautiful thing – you get to decide when, where, how, and with whom to have sex, and what sex means for you. In purity culture, the choice is made for you – if you’re not married then you’re not allowed to consent to have sex, and if you are married then you must “consent” to have sex with your spouse. This narrowly confines the meaning of sex. But, when you break free from purity culture, you get to experience life and figure out what sex means to you. You know, you get to be human.

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