Monday, July 28, 2014

Sex and Marriage: Thoughts on Waiting
 image by Sam Davis via Creative Commons
I am angry.

This is a portrait of the woman, angry.

Because I was made certain promises, promises that did not come through.

Because every day I hear of more and more people who were handed those same broken promises.

Or -- dare I say it -- the same lies.

And I am angry.

I wonder if you will be angry, too.

* * *

I trusted.

This is a portrait of the girl, trusting those words spoken by others as certainty.  

Perhaps you've heard them, too.

Save yourself for marriage.  
True love waits. 
Resist the devil and he [and his sexual temptations] will flee from you.  
Sex is dirty.  
Your body is dirty.
You are dirty if you think/want/wonder about sex.
Save yourself for marriage, and you will never regret it for a moment.

I listened.  I waited.  I saved myself.

I will regret it for a lifetime.

* * *

I feel betrayed.

This is a portrait of the woman, betrayed.

The betrayal, the regret, was born on my wedding night.  The night that finally -- f i n a l l y -- after twenty six years of life, it was acceptable for me to be a sexual being.  Not too sexual, of course, but sex was finally permissible.

My husband and I came as virgins to the marriage bed.  And -- 

we walked away virgins.

We did not have sex until four months after our wedding.
I did not enjoy sex for years after our wedding.
And we didn't learn why we couldn't have sex until many weeks after our wedding.

This wounds us, wounds my husband and I to this day.

* * *

I was broken.

This is a portrait of the woman, broken in body.

Or really, not broken.  Not breakable.  That was the problem, you see.

I trusted the church, trusted the people who said to wait, wait for sex.  I told them I was worried, because I couldn't even wear a tampon.  It wouldn't go in.  It felt excruciating.  They told me this was normal, that all would be made right on my wedding night.

It takes a penis, I figured.

But they were wrong.  I was wrong.

Because what it really took was a surgery.  Did you know that a woman's hymen can sometimes be not-mesh, not-breakable, can be skin?  Skin with holes in it so she can menstruate regularly, unsuspecting?

I didn't.  And mine was. 

My gynecologist was shocked that I got to my wedding night without knowing this about myself, my body.  She said this condition is not uncommon, but quite rare to remain undiscovered in the way mine was.

One surgery, a complicated healing, and a full season of the year, we consummated our marriage.  And when we did, it hurt like hell -- for years.

But what hurt even more is that I had done what the elders of the church told me to do.  John and Stasi, Shaunti, the few women in my life who were talking about sex and such, the leaders of the local and global church -- you promised me that the wait was worth it.

And it wasn't.

* * *

I am hurt.

This is a portrait of the woman, hurt by some of the very things she was taught would save her.

It's not just about my irregular hymen.  That makes for a dramatic story, of course, and it was anguishing to live.

But even if my husband and I had fully, awkwardly consummated our marriage on our wedding night, I would still be angry.

Because my sexuality is mine.  It is a part of me.  It is mine to know, to enjoy, to create life with.  

And the church made it not-mine.

I believed that if I waited to have sex, I would be handing my husband a priceless gift.

But the reality is that I gave my sexuality to the church -- or to God, if that sits better with you.  And therefore it was not mine to give to anyone else.  I didn't have a clue about how my body worked, about anything but the very basic mechanics of sex.  

And I think that for a woman to reach her marriage bed without a working knowledge of her sexuality -- without knowing what makes her tick, sigh, moan, orgasm -- she has nothing to give to her husband but a passive piece of flesh.

An unknowledgeable, fearful woman lying flinching on a mattress is not much of a gift at all.

* * *

I am embodied.

This is a portrait of the woman, embodied.

Because now, I know my self.  I know my body.  She is mine, I have learned how to inhabit her fully.  

Did you know that I only recently had my first satisfying orgasm?

My husband and I will be married for seven years.  It took me seven years of idling passive in bed, certain that a woman wasn't "supposed" to be alive, active, asking, needing in terms of sex and the having of it, to finally throw all that garbage out the window.

And let me just say -- seven years is too damn long.  

I didn't -- couldn't -- enjoy sex for seven years because I didn't own my own skin.  I didn't own my own sexuality.  Because I was not fully at home in this luscious body.

Both my husband and I agree that we regret waiting to make love until after "I do."  Not just because of the hymen thing, although we both would have really, really (really) loved to have dealt with that before our honeymoon.  

But because sexuality is an aspect of embodiment, of personhood, of compatibility that should be taken into account when deciding whether to marry a certain somebody -- one that the church not only does not value, but ignores at best and demonizes at worst.

I think that if my husband and I had come to our marriage as whole persons, sexuality included and embraced, our early years as one flesh would have been, could have been different.  Better, if not in all ways, then certainly in some ways.

Not because we would have slept around, not because we would have mindlessly fucked anything of the opposite sex that moved our way.  But because we would have shared all of ourselves with each other, and known more fully whether we loved each other.  

* * *

I am speaking.

This is a portrait of the woman, speaking about what does not get spoken of often enough.

Because it's not just me, not just my husband and I struggling still because of how the sexual  realm was handled when we were younger.

No, there are many -- too many -- other couples whose marriages are on the rocks because of this whole sex thing.  They lacked that certain something, that special spark that forever lovers share, but they didn't know they lacked it because they didn't know each other fully before they wed. 

I know couples who felt a blaring lack of spark before they got married, and were told by trusted pastors to marry anyway, that it would come -- and, years and years and children later, it has not come.  

I know couples who are living in turmoil because one spouse has finally, finally awakened to his or her (more often it's her, intriguingly) sexuality, and now needs to the freedom to explore it, to own it, but the other spouse will not or cannot meet them there.  And so the light of growth, of embodiment, that had finally begun to truly burn is doused. 

We should have known who we were as fully as possible before rings were exchanged.  We should have made our marriage choices based on whole persons, and we didn't.  We couldn't.  We were told to do so was bad -- no, was sin.

And now I see an epidemic of failed marriages of those who perhaps never should have married in the first place.  

* * *

I am thinking.

This is a portrait of the woman, thinking about sex and lies and how to start fixing this big damn mess.

It's not just about sex, this mess, this epidemic.  But sex and the vilification of sex is a big part of it -- and an even bigger part of the rape culture that we live in (and yes, we do live in a rape culture -- and while the church is not the only one responsible for rape culture, the church is also a major encourager of it).

Do all Christian couples experience this disappointment in waiting?  No.  Definitely not.  And for those couples, I am sincerely glad.  I truly delight in and celebrate the uncomplicated nature of sex and sexuality in your marriage and your life.

For the rest of us, however, I demand alternatives -- an alternative vocabulary for discussing sex and sexuality, for exploring one's self before and after the wedding day, for embracing sex as the beautiful expression of love and intimacy that it is.  Because I believe that such alternatives will create more mature, responsible, and healthy people -- and marriages.

Here are some starters for sexuality-related alternatives I would love to see:
  • sex and the body embraced as the lovely gifts and works of art that they are
  • a discussion of what masturbation is and how it can be helpful, healthy, and fun
  • parents encouraging teens to appreciate their sexuality while also helping them to be responsible for it in a way that won't make them scared of it (i.e., encouragement for youths to know all of themselves, and be responsible for all of themselves)
  • authentic conversations about what sex is for, and how to decide for one's self when to have it
  • "sex = dirty" talk ditched
  • an end to the objectification of women and women's bodies, and, relatedly, an end to the overtly communicated lie that men are victims of their bodies' naturally functionally mechanisms of arousal
  • the glorification of virgins and virginity
  • abstinence-only sex "education" eradicated; it has been proven not to work
  • gender equality, equivalent rights and opportunities and respect for women in practice, etc.

As for my husband and I . . . well, we're making it work, or trying to.  We're becoming more and more whole, each of us more and more of who we are -- all of who we are.  This is hard to do when you're married and have a kid, hard to do now this work that was made for young adulthood.  But we're doing it anyway, because the alternative is soul death.  And we've had enough of that.

Your turn -- how has your experience of sex and sexuality and related discussion, vocabulary, indoctrination, education/lack of education impacted your current sexual/marital/personal health?  What would you like to see change in our culture, and in religious culture?  What do you think should stay the same?

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  1. Oh, precious Beth. So honest. Raw. Real. I feel honored and heard by your words. Such an important discussion and movement toward action. I long for the new vocabulary. I even heard the other day, it's not "losing your virginity", it's your "sexual debut!" Awesome! :) I hope for more and more of these kind of conversations.

    1. "sexual debut" that!! *mwah*

  2. Love this, Beth. This is so important.

  3. You beautiful angry, trusting, betrayed, broken, hurt, embodied, speaking, thinking (and may I add) fierce creature: I have been having this conversation with myself and friends and mentors and lovers for the past few years. Isn't it funny how once you've shed the falsity, everything looks clear? Why yes, all along I could have reveled in and delighted in the inner workings of my anatomy and my sexuality. But, like you, for a very long season I did not, could not. And when I did I was filled with guilt and shame. I have now come to understand that sex is as natural and necessary as eating and sleeping. We all need it, we all want it, and none of us function at our peak without it. The fast is over. It's time for feasting.

    1. Trying to feast, although now we have extra challenges that prohibit that (*growls*). I love how you put it, though. Here's to seeing clearly and functioning optimally at last...yes!! <3

  4. Wow wow wow. This is beautifully and honestly written. I don't think there is such a thing as a "perfect" introduction to sexuality, whether it be in families, in the church, in peer groups, simply because it is so complex and rich with subtext and baggage. And it is so very personal. I was not a Christian until I was 20. I did not come a virgin into my marriage and neither did my husband. And I can say that there's baggage there too, so that's not the perfect answer- to "know ourselves" as a sexual being beforehand. My answer in my family, with my kids, is to be always open- about the beauty of our bodies, the beauty of the marriage relationship, what sex and intimacy are designed to be. I do believed sexuality is God-designed, but I also believe that we have skewed it- both in and out of the church.

    I'm so sorry for your experiences. And I'm happy to tell you that sex is better in your thirties and forties anyway. It gets better as you know yourself and explore life and spirituality and love and brokenness. It all belongs. A one-piece life.

    1. thank you, dear lady. and thank you for your words. I don't mean to imply that to come to a marriage with sexual experience is always awesome or perfect or even good...I'm sorry if I communicated this. but yes to everything belonging, to things getting better, to overcoming yuck of all kinds! <3

    2. You didn't imply that at all, I was just making the observation that it can be a tough experience regardless of where we come from. I love this post and your breaking free.

    3. I know you weren't saying that...just wanted to offer an apology anyway. Thanks for your you-ness. I love you so. :)

  5. U2's Ordinary Love playing in the background while I read this post = perfection. Thank you for sharing. This is some brave stuff!

    P.s. Wedding night memories shouldn't suck. But they do. Let's keep having this conversation over and over to bring about the change that needs to happen.

  6. Thank you for sharing this. So many women need to hear your story.

    I come from the opposite side of the spectrum... I didn't find the church until my late teens, a year after I'd lost my virginity, I'd already gotten my foundation in sex ed from the sex positive folks at, and I thought sex was beautiful... Something to be celebrated.

    I was puzzled by the church's stance, and refused to take it at face value. I questioned, and the leadership was threatened. Deemed a wild child and sentenced to sessions with middle aged men who were church elders asking questions that I look back horrified that I answered, all the while they caveating that I should really talk to their wives, because it would be more appropriate.... Women who when faced with a candid conversation about sex would look at me horrified and ask in hushed tones, "Why can't you just.... stop?"

    I was made to feel like I was dirty. That I was the town whore. I was lead to believe that all would be made right in God's eyes if I'd just go get married already.

    So, I set my eyes on marriage and at the tender age of 22, married someone who was not right for me at all for all the wrong reasons.

    1. Oh awful and unfair. I'm so sorry. You are not a whore, not a wild child (except in the very best sense). I hate that these people you trusted pushed and advised you into something not good for you. I hate that this happens, and that it happened to you. Big hugs.

  7. This is huge. You are a maverick. Thank you for speaking. <3

    1. Best comment ever. Maverick? I'll take it. Thanks, Alissa. :)

  8. beyond grateful for your words as i am at a loss for my own. i am newlywed and feeling paralyzed in many of the same ways you mentioned. i am stuck inside myself or elsewhere, i am not sure. am i angry?...perhaps still too ashamed to be. praying + longing for freedom. thank you, thank you, thank you for your vulnerability. i see you.

    1. I'm so sorry that you're in this hard, unfair place. Keep pushing, fighting, hoping, asking, desiring, and getting mad as you can. You are worth it. Your new husband is, too. Biggest hugs.

  9. Thank you for sharing this painful story Beth. I've heard the glorious victorious stories of abstinence until marriage but never this side, although I suspected it existed. Bless you as you continue to fight for the awakening of your body. You deserve that.

  10. Thank you for writing this. It needs/needed to be said.

    FYI - You listed among the "alternatives [you] would love to see": "• the glorification of virgins and virginity".

    I suspect you meant to write "• AN END TO the glorification of virgins and virginity".

  11. Hey, lovely Beth. First, I am really thankful for your anger. Somehow when you get angry, it is a fierce and beautiful thing. The story with your hymen sounds - well, traumatic, completely and utterly. And no one - but no one - talks about these things; not inside the church, not outside the church. I had known vaguely that sometimes hymens can remain fully intact, and something about horse riding being terribly good for breaking one's hymen, but I had never been told properly, or how you would know yours was completely intact, or what to do if it was. Who is there educating about these things? Who is there writing about these things? Not the Church, and not Cosmo, that's for sure.

    Second, I am really thankful for your honesty. You are always such a pioneer. Sex as a painful experience is very common (as I am discovering as I get older - people never say it as they're going through it, but only afterwards), but it is never spoken about, and as shameful as it is in church, it is probably even more shameful in the 'world'. I am really annoyed at those people who dismissed your concerns with 'it'll be alright on the night', whether it was from ignorance or naive optimism. I am also angry at your gynaecologist shamed you, by saying that you 'really ought to have known' etc. Really, truly, I don't know how you would know beforehand. The tampon thing is a clue, but it's impossible to know until you have sex.

    You asked me my experiences of sex and sexuality in the church - so these are my honest experiences, and they are almost universally good. (Sorry.)

    What I heard from school, and culture, and my peers, and my school teachers, was that sex was amazing, everyone was doing it, if you were in a relationship it had to be a sexual one (because why would you not?), that sex was expected after the second date, that you had to be looking gorgeous 100% of the time as a girl because that's the only thing guys were attracted to, that if a guy had trouble getting an erection you should dump him, that if a girl seemed reluctant or frigid you should dump her, that if both parties weren't completely satisfied you should end the relationship (which they did, and then became next day's gossip), that if sex hurt you had to pretend it didn't, that you knew you should have protected sex but guys didn't like wearing condoms so it was down to the girl, and you just had to hope no one had an STD. (And there were also some people in long term relationships, who were presumably having happy sex, though they never spoke about it, so who would know?)

    I guess my point is that the message from Cosmo (and my school teachers) was just as misleading as those from some churches - there's no point in controlling yourselves because you can't control yourself (hello, rape culture!), sex is instantly gratifying and mind-blowing, and if it isn't there's something wrong with YOU, and you need to go and be 'taught' by someone very sexually experienced, and then, armed with your new sex skills you are finally qualified to be able to have sex in a lasting relationship, because you couldn't possibly expect anyone to stick around in a relationship where the sex wasn't instantly gratifying.

  12. CONTD 2/2
    Our church youth group was taught that our bodies were good and sex was good, and if you wanted to have the best sex, you should save it for one person, the person you marry. This was best because sex was about more than pleasure - it is a life-uniting act (like superglue, I'm sure you know the talk...) with a life-creating possibility. I was taught that in sex you should be concerned about pleasing the other, not yourself (this is the one thing I wish they had modified a little - because yes, sex is about giving of yourself and loving someone else, but practically speaking, in the moment, it's important to be concentrating on your own pleasure as much as the other's. Perhaps there is a difference in what guys and girls should be told in this regard?)

    Girls and boys were told this alike. Our dress wasn't commented on. Girls weren't shamed for wearing short skirts or low cut tops or make up. We weren't told it was dirty, or if we had sex beforehand we would be dirty. We were taught by two sets of leaders - one who had saved sex for marriage, and another couple who had slept with others beforehand, but then become Christians, and had waited till they got married before having sex with eachother. All of them said that sex was something you work at in a marriage, and improves over time as you get to know one another. (For what it's worth, our vicar told us that for our honeymoon we should go somewhere where we'd enjoy the holiday anyway even if the sex was terrible, because we couldn't assume the sex would be good.) All of them emphasised that although having sex with more than one partner wasn't God's best plan, it was far from the worst thing that could happen, and didn't scar you for life, because Jesus' love and forgiveness covers over everything. We were told that we were sexual beings and that our sexuality was good, but like any appetite, needed to be controlled. We were told that masturbation wasn't a sin, but lust was. Not everyone in our youth group waited until marriage. Most who didn't wait, didn't marry that person. There was usually some regret, but not shame.

    We were told that you absolutely, definitely have to be sexually attracted to the person you want to marry, and you pretty much have to be dying to jump into bed together by the time you get married. One vicar said that he would counsel against marrying if that wasn't the case. It was generally accepted that we would draw our own 'lines' of what we thought was acceptable, which was usually significantly more than holding hands, the longer we had been dating.

    I was one of the lucky ones. We waited until marriage, (probably helped that I married young), and I enjoyed it almost immediately, and felt no shame. We had no history or comparisons or hang ups. (I know and appreciate that we were really lucky in that respect).

  13. CONTD 3/3

    I definitely agree that there's a problem with the fairytale romanticisation of sex that we often find in churches - ie if you wait till marriage, you will be rewarded with great sex immediately, forever and ever! This kind of 'bargain' is a lie, and you are right for calling it out.

    It's worth pointing out though that there is an alternative lie, which is that if you DON'T wait until marriage you're guaranteed great sex. I have never heard teaching outside the church that says 'sex is part of a relationship, and you need to work on it together, as you would do with any aspect of your relationship.'

    I wonder if the myth we need to bust, both inside and outside the church, is that great sex is not a guarantee. And even if it happens at the beginning of a relationship, it doesn't mean it always will.

    I think for this reason your story is so important. We need the stories of what it's really like the first time. (Man, we really need those stories - who tells those??) We need the stories of couples who have had to work at sex, for whom it wasn't like a Hollywood happily ever after. We need the stories of the women who have to wait decades till they experience their first orgasm. We need to hear of the couples who got a divorce because they never actually were able to had sex. We need to bust that myth that waiting = instantaneous great sex as a reward for your holiness. It's not true, and I can well understand your anger and feeling of betrayal.

    I am really grateful that my youth leaders were so honest about their experiences, and I am SO grateful especially that they somehow managed to communicate the value of saving sex for one person, without shaming people in the process. I am only realising now the full extent of what I owe them for their leadership.

  14. Aa-and - just thought that this seems like a good place to mention Nicole Romero and her most excellent 'Love and Making It' course, helping women / couples to discover freedom and joy in sex and their sexuality.

  15. Thank you thank you thank you for your honesty. We need more of this and absolutely ALL of you in this world. I was really lucky to have parents who presented sex as a really great experience within certain boundaries (marriage) but that it sexuality was a gift from God. And then there was my mother who gave me some "this is how your body works" talk on the way to Victoria's Secret and a "you just figure it out together which is why you are going away ALONE, but this is just the beginning" advice for my honeymoon. I think a lot about the ways I present sexuality to my girls. I still believe sex is designed for marriage (but know that there are other valid opinions and experiences so I hold that pretty loosely) and plan to tell my daughters that. But I hope in a way that does not shame their sexuality.

  16. Beth, I have been waiting, waiting, waiting (doubtfully, hopefully) for someone to talk about this. I actually just wrote this heartfelt response to your blog and it was deleted. Awesome. So I feel a bit winded, but as soon as I read this, I wanted to respond.

    I was a virgin until 29 years old (four months ago). Over the year prior, my faith has altered, disintegrated, and redesigned itself in every way. Part of that has shown me freedom bending to sex before marriage. I didn't jump into the first bed I found, but thankfully, started dating this guy (an atheist - go figure) who valued me and gave me the best first experience of sex I could have hoped for. I even knew I wouldn't be marrying him (gasp) because of contradicting life goals. In past years, this would have been unthinkable, asking for the consequence of heartache. It has turned out to be the healthiest, most honest relationship I've ever been in. I am beyond grateful.

    I find it hard to imagine entering into marriage with that huge question mark of 'how will this work?' or 'will it even fit?' I think sexual chemistry is hugely important, just as intellectual or emotional chemistry. I also feel that it tells you a lot about a person's character - how thoughtful or generous they are (important to know before plunging into a life-long commitment). It was an emotional experience letting go of my identity as a virgin, but it also let me come down off of a pedestal I had been balancing on for about 20 years. I suddenly felt a deeper connection to myself, even a greater appreciation for sex (which starkly contradicts the myth that you are devaluing yourself and cheapening sex by having it before marriage.)

    The culture that I grew up in was even against dating. 'Courting' was how real Christians did it. You had to have blind faith in compatibility with little-to-no outlet to explore any of it, for fear the temptation to sin would be too great. Ironically, the Christian relationships I've had were prone to abusive and codependent tendencies. I know this isn't everyone's experience, but so much of the philosophy I was fed promoted fear, shame, and perfectionism. It also makes me angry, makes me nauseous.

    I have been able to experience a part of life that I have been DYING TO. Seriously. I do not feel that good sex depends on marriage. I think it depends on a lot of things. It can be complicated inside and outside of marriage. It can be beautiful inside and outside of marriage. It can be difficult inside and outside of marriage. Just like anything else.

    I love that comment about the 'sexual debut', because sexuality IS beautiful. I told a trusted Christian woman about 'losing my virginity' and she clasped my hand and told me 'Congratulations!', that she wanted to celebrate with me as a defining moment in life. There were no horrified gasps or dismal words uttered. This is has not been nor will be everyone's response, but I am always so humbled and grateful to find other people who will acknowledge the misled guidance, the confining outlines, and the 'other' that they have experienced. Thank you for your brave vulnerability. It moves me.

  17. If may also add, bonding with this man even though we won't be committing to each other long-term is not a regret of mine. I have been devastating by relationships ending before (without sex being involved), but it had more to do with how we treated each other and the disappointment of a 'failed' relationship. Being in a healthy relationship, where we treat each other with kindness and sincerity, fills me with gratitude and love as sad as our parting may be. I am happy to have been with him in every way and want the absolute best for him, whatever that may be.

  18. I started masturbating at 16 and felt shame and guilt about it. But still I did it, I was curious and my more promiscuous friends talked about it so I had to try. My husband and I started exploring our bodies and then sex not too long after we started dating. Again I felt shame and guilt for it but it didn't stop me. I still feel a bit of shame for not waiting for marriage (even though my husband and I never had any other partners). But your writing has made me think about why I feel shame. I am happy we didn't wait now, because honestly that first time is awkward for everyone involved and being awkward on your wedding night is the last thing you picture. My shame has gotten in the way of our sex life over the years. Not to mention birth control messing up my libido and other issues that have come up. No part of a relationship is perfect and all parts require work. I am so thankful for you and your heart and your writing. You've made me think about my shame and really how ridiculous it is. I'm sorry about your experiences but glad you are finally exploring and hopefully finding pleasure and joy in your sexuality.

  19. THANK YOU for this very honest post, Beth!! I have a friend who has some medical issues that make it really difficult for her to have full-on sex, and she is actually so glad that she found out BEFORE marriage. She says she would have hated to have found out on her wedding night. I am no longer staunchly against premarital sex. I mean, I might say have sex within a loving relationship. But that's it. I think the purity culture of the church has done much damage and created a culture of guilt and shame. I have been married for 14 years and I still have sexual issues. When I first got married, sex was really hard for me because I felt so guilty. Sex had been bad for so long, and saying, "I do," didn't make that shame go away. I blame the church. Maybe that's cruel of me, but the church is was taught me to deny myself, to berate myself for having sexual feelings/desires before marriage, and to believe that even within marriage I couldn't get too wild. It's an unhealthy view toward our bodies, toward relationships, and toward love. Your story is refreshingly honest. Thanks for having the bravery to tell it.

  20. What courage to write this, Beth. I am glad you spoke up. I've tried to write some answers to the questions teens are asking, too. To open up the power and goodness of our bodies even before we're sexually active.

    My first thought is with you, we must talk about masturbation, about sex positive ways to enjoy our (luscious!) bodies. Thank you for sharing your story with us.

    Here's the post in case you want to see

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"I am glad you are here with me."
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King