I remember learning about the exact mechanics of sex when I was a child, maybe nine or 10, as an episode of Law & Order: SVU played in the background at my home. I had been wondering for a while. Because before I knew what sex was, I’d already learned that it was bad, sinful, something not to do.
My parents never gave me The Talk either; well-intended, I think they wanted me to learn about sex on my own terms. But I got a lot of negative messaging through a Christian lens. These lessons, usually telegraphed passively, still sunk in and affected me quite deeply; readings from scripture without context, bits of sermons with no opportunity to question, testimonies of young women who had sex and regretted it, or women’s retreat talks on the importance of purity and saving yourself for your future husband.
I was also a rigorous student, academically and spiritually. I read the Bible a lot, and I absorbed; the passages on sexuality sounded scolding, sometimes terrifying. As I entered my teen years, all I knew was that Biblical teaching on sex, outside the context of a husband-wife marriage, was hugely discouraged. From 1 Thessalonians: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.”
I struggled to color outside the lines drawn for me by these hyper-conservative teachings. I took perspectives on Christian sexuality as absolutes, instead of beliefs and ideas. I read the Bible as a constantly literal source instead of a series of stories, with figurative language and transcendent parables, in the context of a specific historical time. And controlling my body became just another mechanism for my own personal containment, pushing toward an image of perfection that somehow seemed like a worthy use of time.
Self-control was, and sometimes still is, my vice. I had a long and storied history with exerting my will onto others, and holding strong opinions. I struggled with showing outward emotion. I developed disordered eating habits as I struggled with digestive issues in my late teens; at the same time, I grappled for even more control of my body. I stayed “pure,” too, for as long as the fear outweighed the desire.
Sex, Shame, And The Church
Luke P. sex-shaming Hannah on this week’s episode of The Bachelorette was something that sounded eerily familiar. Despite sharing the same faith and bonding over it, Luke boiled their ultimate compatibility down to one single thing: if she’d had sex. Pegging a woman’s worthiness to virginity or sexual purity is a means of control, creating self-doubt, and stripping her of her autonomy. He, in essence, said she was not much of a Christian if she’d slept with the other men. Hannah wasn’t buying it, and relayed a modern view: Her husband will love her for who she is.
Luke walked back his judgment when Hannah called out his “pride,” but she wasn’t having it. Luke kept calling Hannah’s potential encounter in the fantasy suite “a slip-up.” To that, she was very clear: “I don’t slip up.”
It was a bold moment for an Alabama-born, vocally-Christian Bachelorette, although it shouldn’t be. Despite the stigma of premarital physicality, Hannah is far from alone. Christians have plenty of sex before marriage. According to a report by the Guttmacher Institute, premarital sex is somewhere in the neighborhood of 90% to 95% having sex before marriage. That means most of the churchgoing ones, too.
Would the shame still exist if there weren’t so many rules about sex — when to have it, whom to have it with (or not), what makes you holy or worthy or “pure”?
As I’ve meditated on this disconnect between teaching and reasonable behaviors, I started to wonder: What if sex wasn’t cloaked in such negative rhetoric in Christian communities? What if it was normalized instead of demonized? According to a 2009 study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (now called Power to Decide), more than eight out of 10 Christians engage in premarital sex while often proclaiming to hold the opposite views, including some of the more conservative denominations like Southern Baptists, according to a 2016 study (even though many report guilt at doing so).
Would the dysfunction still exist if there were sex-positive views within the church? There are numerous accounts of women from conservative or religious upbringings, who have developed a condition called vaginismus as they’ve attempted to have sex, even if they’ve waited until after marriage; partly physical and partly psychological, the muscles in the pelvic floor contract instead of relax at penetration, making sex challenging or impossible, often plagued with pain.
Would the shame still exist if there weren’t so many rules about sex — when to have it, whom to have it with (or not), what makes you holy or worthy or “pure”? In her book, Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free, Linda Kay Klein recalls her feelings of guilt after intimacy. “It began when I took the possibility of having sex and put it on the table,” the author told Broadly by Vice. “From that point on, sometimes it was my boyfriend and I being sexual that would make me have these breakdowns where I was in tears, scratching myself until I bled and ending up on the corner of the bed crying.”
The legalism of purity culture wasn’t that hard for me to abide by, until I started dating as a full-fledged adult — in my last year of college and beyond. My perspective had undergone serious change in my four and a half years of school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor; a collegiate liberal island in the middle “Trump country,” as Politico once called the surrounding areas of the state where I grew up.
There, I started to really grapple with beliefs about sexuality I felt to be true, rationally and emotionally — that you should love whomever you want, that sex did not define me, that sometimes premarital sex is both an expression of love and a prerequisite for determining compatibility — and the teaching I grew up with.
I stepped away from the church for a while, as I molded my own beliefs and came to terms with the fact that faith, like the rest of life, is defined in the gray areas. And I found others doing the same.
Liberals With Christian Upbringings Collide
One of the greatest blessings of my 20s was befriending other liberal Christian women who have struggled in similar ways, “breaking rules” and carving their own path. These women are now some of my closest friends. One is a 29-year-old Christian woman who got pregnant while still engaged, despite her ultra-conservative Southern upbringing drenched in patriarchy. Another is an evangelically-raised engineer who can’t fathom the idea of an engagement ring or traditional wedding to her boyfriend of four years; we go to church together often.
One left the Catholic Church when she was 13 or 14, swearing to me that she’d never go back; I never asked her why. But she was on her own private journey with sexuality, figuring out where faith fit in.
“It took me a long time to come out to even myself, because I had no exposure to gay people growing up and was raised with heavy emphasis on the sacrament of traditional, child-bearing heterosexual marriage,” she tells Bustle. “But I knew from a young age there was something ‘different’ about me — in terms of who I noticed as attractive, who I had dreams about. I always had crushes on both boys and girls, but convinced myself that everyone was this way deep down.”
She cites current cultural representation as helping her come to terms with her sexuality, and her grandma’s death as a turning point for finding others who share her faith and a more open view of sexuality. “When you’ve been raised with so much repression, it’s hard to change the preconceived notions you hold about who you should love and the path you should take,” she says.
She’s also started going back to church. “I joined its LGBT community group about a year ago. It’s been phenomenal to grow in my faith and in my identity alongside people who grew up with the same values and messages,” she says.
Like so many of the things we worry about, my fears about sex were unwarranted. I had sex; I feared the guilt; I felt none.
She’s discovered those who share her faith among all age groups, gender identities, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds. “The word ‘Catholic’ means universal, and the diversity within the Church extends to sexuality. I’m glad that’s being brought to light by parishes like my own, public theologians like Father James Martin and online communities like Vine & Fig.”
Another one of my liberal Catholic friends waited a good, long while to have sex, well into her 20s — after she had clearly abandoned a lot of the rigid beliefs imposed on her during childhood, and spoke freely about what she wanted (i.e. sex).
She’d survived several boyfriends and an enormous amount of online dating without having sex. She had a new legitimately serious relationship for several months, when she decided she wanted to have sex. But she was scared. I asked her what exactly was her hang-up. “I’m afraid of going to hell,” she said. That made sense. In Galatians 5: “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality... I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
Before I had sex, I was also afraid. It was an existential crisis of sorts. I wondered if I could finally do what I felt was right for my relationship at the time, what I truly wanted deep down, and if it would change me as a person or Christian. But I also determined that if fear was the driving factor in my faith and the decisions I made surrounding it, that my faith wasn’t very strong at all.
God gave me a body with instincts, the ability to love and reason to deduce right vs. wrong for myself. He gave me the ability to feel, and a deep intuition spurring me to live life a certain way — unencumbered, free, light. My salvation is not weighted on a measuring stick, on how many rules I can follow to a T; it’s weighted in the heart, according to scripture.
I told my friend that I’d been in her shoes. Anxiety is strange. It’s sometimes the fear of a future feeling. Like so many of the things we worry about, my fears about sex were unwarranted. I had sex; I feared the guilt; I felt none. She didn’t, either.
I still love God, and I strive hard to do right by Him and by others, but without the legalism that haunted much of my younger years. I’ve also read poignant, sex-positive views by Christian writers and thinkers to develop a more holistic view of faith-based values in a modern world.
We can all debate, discuss, and agree to disagree about a lot. But what we can’t deny is the pain caused by purity rings and virginity constructs.
I was raised well, with two great parents. I met a lot of great people in my church growing up, and still meet other great Christians today —some of whom have different views than I have. To me, that’s OK. We can all debate, discuss, and agree to disagree about a lot. But what we can’t deny is the pain caused by purity rings and virginity constructs.
“I’m done splitting my sexuality into pieces,” wrote one Christian writer on her blog. “Instead of an all or nothing approach... I’m building a holistic sexual ethic. I’m learning to be aware of the difference between healthy interactions and harmful behavior patterns.”
I couldn’t have said it better.
Today, I live with my boyfriend in a happy home. And I dated a ton to get here. I tested physical compatibility in my way, deeming it critically important on the road to getting to where I am today. I am no less a Christian than someone who thinks “true love waits,” or who decides to “kiss dating goodbye.” I am learning to color in the world with my own beliefs about God and sex — some of which fall outside the lines of conservative tradition. Maybe some who share my faith will not agree, but that’s fine; it’s not for them to judge.
Current Bachelorette Hannah so aptly summed up those feelings on Instagram last week. “It’s upsetting to get messages from Christians telling me I give Christians a bad name,” she admitted on Instagram. But she also spoke her truth: “I refuse to not stand in the sun. I refuse to feel shame.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Linda Kay Klein's name. The story has been updated to fix it.