It’s Just Sex

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.

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I have had sex with two different women in my life. I’ve done everything but with quite a few more. For years all I had was shame and guilt surrounding sex. I know my issues, 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 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 a forming sexual identity. Is it any wonder that my spiritual mountain tops and valleys were linked to my romantic life? All I knew was that there was something flawed with me. Either I was wilfully 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.

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No one ever told me that sex was just sex. It was either nothing but a source of shame, or some holy grail that was the primary drive to wed. No one gave me a healthy sexual ethic. They loved me, these grandparents, pastors, and the spiritual experts writing books 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 sort of almost 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.

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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 six months before we were engaged. Then we were engaged, and having sex, for another year. 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 got 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.

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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 at the Ashura polls again, even under the guise of evangelical sexual moralism.

I don’t think we should be careless with sex. Even though it’s just 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. 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 about it.

But it’s still just sex.

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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 I made: you do not deserve to be shamed about sex. That is ungodly and straight from the devil and 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 to 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.

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We have to create 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 the totalitarian response about sex that we in the church tend to give. 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.

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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 tell, 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.

  • Cara Strickland

    Nicely done, friend.
    You’re right, this is such an idol for so many. Why not be along with each other for the journey instead of covering this thing with shame, fear and unreasonable expectations of ecstasy?
    And thank you for not saying “pre-marital sex.”

  • http://jenniferclarktinker.wordpress.com Jennifer Clark Tinker

    “we can’t ever step in and be the Holy Ghost for someone else.”

    You speak my heart right there. I think of things I would have done differently, but I don’t presume to be able to give a one-size-fits-all moral to my story. Bless you for speaking up about this.

  • kimberlyklein

    When I asked you about writing this last night, Aaron, I really didn’t even know what I hoped you would say. Yet somehow you managed to write everything I needed to hear and more.

    Thank you for sharing. I hope I can return the blessing you’ve been to me someday.

  • http://www.xanga.com/Amythist_Malaise sheila0405

    Brilliant!

  • Jennifer

    I loved this article. It is like we take away God’s power to forgive and restore. We ignore the grace.

  • http://gravatar.com/djwold Ragamuffin Me.

    This is great, man. Can I encourage you to read Richard Beck’s book “Unclean”? It really helped me navigate the shame and confusion I inherited from my church and parents regarding my sexuality. He talks about how damaging the church’s use of the “purity” metaphor can hinder our attitude of grace in the area of sexuality. No other sins we talk about in terms of pure/impure. The materialist is not “impure” for his hoarding of wealth. Yet, with sexuality, we superimpose this Pharisaical “purity/contamination” lens. This cultivates shame and restrains mercy.

  • http://twitter.com/EstherEmery Esther Emery (@EstherEmery)

    Yes. Sexual shame is such a choke hold. It is simply not what God has for us. Thanks for being brave about it and shedding light on your path to freedom.

  • http://quietrambling.wordpress.com quietrambling

    I grew up w/ a Catholic family, tried hard to fit into that mold, sex was always something that we were made to feel shameful about, like you, unless you were married, yet my grandparents where very open about their affection to each other… I remember always feeling confused about sex, and went from being very prude to the total opposite… (not to mention coming to terms w/ my own bisexuality) when I was married and living w/ my husband before hand, I thought I finally figured out my qualms w/ sex… yet here I am many years divorced confused about how I feel… not just w/ the sex bit, but the whole being in a relationship part of it… and for me one goes hand in hand w/ the other… am I afraid of the one, so I avoid the other? where it not for my children, would I have fallen into old habits? I rather sit it out at this point, though my one sort of resolutions for this year – go out on a date, w/ someone… (now I just have to get over my habit of being a hermit and meet people)

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  • jackaz

    I guess I’m on a “reading Aaron” jag right now. “It’s just sex” is powerful medicine against the shame that is heaped upon kids in christian circles. When I think about the hormones I had coursing through me combined with the insane instruction about sex, it’s a wonder I’m not a complete nut-job. Ok, some will say I am. But at least I’m no longer consumed with shame about my sexual desires. Once I realized that I wasn’t the one who thought up sex, I wasn’t the one who designed me, I wasn’t the one who made me so that I get aroused at the slightest curve of a breast or flash of a thigh, I wasn’t the the one decided to have a sex drive so strong that I literally couldn’t mentally function sometimes without some sort of relief, that’s when I quit beating myself up. Ugh, too soon old, too late wise.