I was lied to about sex.
Somewhere in my past there was a concerted effort to hype up sex and at the same time present it as the most dangerous thing in the world. Purity cards, abstinence-based health courses in my Christian schools, all those damn books about the lust machine that men are. From youth pastors to national speakers, I was always told that sex was like fire, it’ll burn you, turn you to ash, and wreck your life in ways only comparable to drug use, unless you were married. Slip on that ring, say the magic “I do”, and the beast that was sex now becomes the most spiritual connection you could ever achieve with another person. After the wedding, you were supposed to know how to have sex because it was a gift from God that he now wanted you to enjoy with abandon. Somehow, a civil and religious ceremony turned the destructive power of sex into something beautiful, fun, and holy.
Nobody told me it was just sex.
I’ve had sex with two different women. I’ve done everything but with quite a few more. For years all I had was shame and guilt surrounding sex. I knew my problems, my porn use, masturbation, fooling around with every girl I dated (at least I was usually a serial monogamist). No one talked to me about the patterns in my life being indicative of manic swings in my undiagnosed bipolar disorder. No one encouraged counseling. Hell, only a handful of people ever knew about my habits. You just don’t talk about “sexual sins” unless you were at the yearly men’s retreat, having a night of emotional confession and healing.
That healing usually lasted no more than three weeks.
Since no one was talking about sex, I was a twenty-something trying to navigate shame, guilt, and secrets rather than trying to navigate the formation of a sexual identity. Is it any wonder that my spiritual mountaintops and valleys were linked to my romantic life? All I knew was that there was something flawed with me. Either I was willfully sinning against God and girls time and time again, unrepentant and, therefore, unsaved, or I was too flawed and too broken to ever be pure in heart.
Nobody told me it was just sex.
No one ever told me that sex was just sex. It was either a source of shame or some holy grail that was the primary drive to get married. No one helped me form a healthy sexual ethic. They loved me, these grandparents and pastors, and the spiritual experts writing books said they cared about my heart (or something), but all anyone ever gave me was sexual moralism.
The list was always “don’t do this.” There may be a few differences from list to list: some said don’t hold hands, some said don’t kiss, and others said don’t be alone. But they were all lists of what not to ever do if you wanted your life to remain unruined by the hydra of sex. No one told me what I could do. So, this one-sided moralism was all I had to navigate the waters of teenage hormones and young adult biological drives.
No one told me it was just sex. No one told me that I would be ok. I feared as I tried to tread the waters of my sexuality that due to my actions, my choices, my weakness I had ruined any chance I had of having a happy marriage and a whole life.
No one told me it was just sex.
When my wife and I started dating, I moved in with her almost right away. And yes, we had sex. We lived together, having sex, for a year before we were engaged. Right now, we are still married. It’s rocky and rough at times, but any problems we have has absolutely zero to do with the fact that we had sex before we were married. In fact, my sexual history and hers really plays a small, small part if any in our marriage and sexual life together. We’ve talked about stuff like adults do. But it didn’t ruin us.
After all, it was just sex.
I don’t mean to diminish or minimize sex. It’s something special for sure, but let’s not turn it into the unicorn of human experience. Let’s not elevate orgasm into esoteric, spiritual realms. Let’s not start worshiping fertility goddesses again, even under the guise of evangelical sexual moralism.
I don’t think we should be careless with sex. Even though it’s an emotional and biological part of most human lives, there is something unique about it. There are words in scripture that we need to wrestle, talk, and think through as we develop our sexual ethic. Words about fornication, adultery, and keeping the marriage bed pure. We have to think about the idea of two icons of Yahweh coming together to be one flesh. There is something weighty there. I would say there is something sacred, something holy about it.
But it’s still just sex.
The shame is what kills me. The shame that I read in my journals. The shame that was burned into my mind and my emotional core. The scars I have from playing out that shame on my flesh with cuts and burns. The shame is shit, and I will fight against the evil that comes with it. I don’t care what choices you have made about sex, whether they are the choices I agree with or not: you do not deserve to be shamed about sex. That is ungodly and straight from the devil. Yet this is what the church peddles under the guise of purity culture. I refuse to stand by and let shame rule our sexual ethics.
Shame almost made me marry my wife for the wrong reasons, because we had sex. Shame almost forced me to try and marry the first girl I had sex with, and that relationship was so unhealthy. Shame as my sexual history has forced me to feel dirty and unclean about sex with my wife in our marriage bed.
There is no shame if it’s just sex.
We have to form our own sexual ethic. The church can’t continue to dictate it to us. We need to wrestle with the passages about keeping the marriage bed pure, refraining from adultery and fornication. We have to struggle through God’s detest of divorce and our reasons for jumping into an “I do” relationship. We have to know ourselves and how easily we lose our hearts. You are not me and I am not you, and neither of us can give a totalitarian response about sex. We can share our stories, talk about our questions and wrestling, urge caution and wisdom, but we can’t ever step in and be the Holy Ghost for someone else. That is what giving someone a sexual ethic based off moralism is trying to do after all.
We can’t keep relying on shame and fear to keep people doing what we want them to do sexually. It doesn’t work anyways. If we care about or friends, our lovers, our brothers and sisters of the faith, we need to talk about sex with honesty, in the mess of life, and with grace.
I mean it’s just sex.
I can’t give you the answers to sexual ethics. I can only tell you my story.
My story isn’t clean, or neat, nor is it simply a warning, like some sort of boogie man. My story is how I have had to wrestle with sex outside of marriage, why I chose to have it, why I might not make the same decision if I could go back, why I don’t know how to help steer my son, and why I refuse to shame anyone for sexual behavior. Sure, if it’s harmful, dangerous, or hurtful I’m going to call you out and demand an explanation. But I will not shame you for your story. I have done enough of that to other people and I have had it done to myself too many times.
I hope that my story can help you navigate your own formation of sexual ethics. I hope you will keep your conscience clear before God, act from faith, and rest on grace. I hope that we will be more frank and open in church about sex.
After all, it’s just sex.