One of the biggest things I had to approach after leaving my belief in scriptural inerrancy behind was how do I approach morality. I was told the bible is the only source of morality. All other forms are foundationless and lead to a sinless destructive world.
I would now argue that we base our view of morality on societal and cultural norms. For me I would add in that I believe that all things are permissible. However, they should not bring harm to another person (emotional or physical). I would argue that the individual should act towards others how they themselves wish to be treated, but that is at the discretion of the individual.
I was taught that some of the ‘biggest” moral “sins” of the world are sexual. Anything beyond PIV married sex was displeasing to g-d. Any thought of sexual desire towards someone was also considered sin. As g-d said in matthew: 27 “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: 28 But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” Thus any sexual though was also deemed a sin.
I’ll rewind a bit in my life, and also give a short recap of what I was taught about sexuality. I had very little direction as a child / pre-teen in regards to my sexuality. And no type of formal sex ed. Nothing was taught regarding how the body works, how puberty changes you, or any description of sex. Sex was a vague concept something only married people had to worry about.
Starting towards my teen years my parents ramped up conversations about staying pure and avoiding temptation. Once again only in vague terms as no descriptions were given or sexual terms used. Conversation focused on remaining pure, avoiding lust / temptation, and avoiding sin. I was given a copy of Elizabeth Elliot’s Passion and Purity and Joshua Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye.
I “struggled” with “temptation” as a teen. Aka masturbation and daydreaming about fulfilling my sexual desires toward women – all very morally evil things in my parents and churches eyes. And I heaped a lot of shame on myself because of that. Read my purity culture post if you want to read more on that vein.
Well fast forward to college, and I had started dating. Me and my girlfriend were careful not to even let ourselves even have comfort in touch or a kiss. As we were told that that could lead to lustful desires.
Well after we got engaged we didn’t see a problem with holding hands. Right, that’s innocent? Well let me tell you, the amount of repressed hormones just flooded into our relationship. I don’t think either one of us has ever been that level of sexually aroused since that time. Every little sexual desire that we had been repressing for two years came to the forefront.
We had a winter break that we spent together. After the first time we held hands, and soon handholding escalated to moderate levels of touch. And quickly that moved to eventually kissing.
My fiancé was looking to move past some traumatic memories, and she thought that creating our own memories to suppress her traumatic sexual abuse would help. (I’ll let her tell her own story, in her own time). Suffice to say their was a lot of mixed emotions that went into that first kiss. And even a little shame as we were pushing past boundaries that we thought were possibly sinful.
Our first kiss was the most awkward thing of all time. When we leaned in for a kiss we both just hit teeth. All while watching a Pirates of the Caribbean movie together. I think we both ended up with a fat lip before we finally figured it out.
We hid our behaviors and really tried to keep it a secret. As we both felt that there would be judgement from our parents if they found out. And there was a lot of whiplash as we went from a college that didn’t allowing any touch between a man and a woman, to this moment between us.
I personally didn’t know whether or not it was wrong or right. But damn it felt good. I tried to suppress my sexual desires and thoughts that grew towards “her”, but it was a hard thing to do. But as a “Christian” I was told that suppression of my sexual desires was necessary to keep a relationship pure.
Well we went back to college and at that point. Chasity was forced back upon us. So not really any “action” until the following summer. Summer 2014 if I recall correctly.
We decided to go off campus on the last day of school. The school was busy and it was a good day to slip between the cracks. We went to Mobile and we were just going to have a short kiss before entering the mall.
Well things got a little steamy, and we may have done a bit a bit more than kissing. And we moved on to second base. Even though we had sworn we won’t go any further.
Well this was all it took to kick off a good bit of sexual exploration. 2nd and a wee bit of 3rd base action over the course of that summer. But also keep in mind we would sneak off to do this. Then come back to a campus that didn’t allow men and women to touch.
She wanted to push things all the way to home base, but I started trying to back out at this point. The shame of the “sin” we were committing coming on in full. I tried to break off our “encounters” off campus, and she pushed harder back. Reminding me of how I had been the one to make the first move to 2nd base. To be fair to her, she was processing a lot of past sexual trauma at the time. And she thought creating “better” sexual experiences would help her erase the trauma.
It’s a complicated messy bit of “romance,” but we decided on a day and time we were going to sneak off and “do it.” We had very little sex education because of both of our conservative pasts. And the fact that Pensacola Christian College did their best to erase any access to anything in regards to sex and sex ed. And you could conceivably be kicked out for looking at “porn” even if you were just trying to learn anything the basics of sex.
We knew enough to use contraceptives and lube. But man beyond that we were lost. And looking back now, we really should have just taken our time. “Losing our virginity” was an unpleasant experience for both of us. Especially for my fiancé as she had at the time what I would now call vaginismus. We were both nervous and push way to fast for something that we both thought the other one desperately wanted. I thought she wanted to have sex to get over her shit, and she thought that I didn’t love her if I didn’t want sex with her.
We both thought we were bringing the other person something good, but we really only ended up hurting each other. I fully blame trauma and purity culture for the mess that we created. We could have had a healthy exploratory sex life, but that didn’t come until long after we were married.
Instead of just being normal horney lovers (we were 20-21ish at this point) we entered a long period of shame and anger. Directed at each other and probably our own selves as well if I’m being honest. I tried to pull away from having further sexual relations with a shit ton more guilt. And she pushed harder towards it, feeling lost and unwanted. The words of her past ringing in her ears. On how men would be so ravenous for sex and how they desire your body.
“Fundamentally, when we feel sexual shame, we feel unworthy of love and belonging from those we love and from God. We are profoundly isolated, and we believe we deserve it.”Beyond Shame
We fought, reconciled, and then would eventually sneak out again for sex throughout our senior year of college. It wasn’t healthy, but we couldn’t stop the cycle. And I probably never would have. As in the Church’s eyes I had already sinned and lost my virginity. I couldn’t abandon our relationship and start over. I had to “do the right thing” and marry her. Yes love was still there, but it was so mixed in with guilt, shame, and anger.
We married directly following our college graduation – two days after to be precise. Then proceeded into life. Were we could have happy guilt-free sex, or so we were told. No one tells you it takes years to process all the shame that comes with purity culture.
The happy guilt-free sex took about 3-4 years of our marriage to get there. We had to both learn to be vulnerable with each other. To gently tell each other the pain that we endured and caused. And to forgive each other. Working to have a better view of self and learning to forgive our own selves as well. And working to be comfortable with our own sexuality.
We’ve been trying to push through that shame and move on. Working to show our own selves compassion and kindness in regards to our initially rocky start. It was a long process, and we are doing our best to start afresh.
“To practice self-compassion is simply ‘to treat ourselves with the same kindness, caring, and compassion we would show to a good friend, or even a stranger for that matter.’”Beyond Shame
Starting over isn’t easy. What is right or wrong in a marriage or in any sexual relationship for that matter? According to the church or peer pressure within the church, there are right / wrong ways to have sex or to run you marriage. PIV sex is the only way (hetero married couples only), and if you are maybe a touch risky maybe oral. Any church I have also attended has had strong view on what a woman’s role should be in the house. And the answer is almost always a submissive one.
Since we’ve moved out of Church and away from the evangelical space, I’ve been trying to learn more about developing a sexual ethic. And what I’ve often found is there isn’t an easy answer. The church has one up there. It has a long list of do’s and don’ts and every rule has a bible verse tacked to it (to give it some sense of legitimacy).
Outside of that strict framework you are really left to figure that out on your own. And it can see daunting as their are no “ten commandments” of dating and sex in the real world. The main thing is that sex shouldn’t harm you or your partner. And making sure boundaries and consent are in place before any sexual encounter.
As we have changed as people, my wife and I have had quite a few different conversations where those boundaries should be. And they have changed quite a bit. (My poor little evangelical college self would be horrified.) But we have found that as long as we both are 100% on board with something, then that boundary can move as we change as people.
I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that part of learning your own sexual ethic is that sometimes you will make mistakes. All you can do is learn from them and keep moving forward.
“Making mistakes is part of our journey toward healthy sexuality. Sexual health does not mean the absence of mistakes; it means learning from our mistakes and letting them guide us as we move forward. Sometimes we realize that what we once called a mistake wasn’t actually a mistake at all.”Beyond Shame
Also I’ve learned I have to be vulnerable. Getting comfortable with discussion and topics that were taboo at one point in my life. And being willing to share difficult things, trusting that your partner will show compassion and love to you.
Some of the best moments in our relationship have been when we’ve told each other stuff we thought the other person would judge him or her for. And then been shocked as the other person openly accepted and listened to what the other had to say. Whether it be past perceived sexual “sins”, or just something we always wanted to try. But didn’t think that it fit within our current “ethic.”
My point being, just work with your partner. Whether it be a short term or long term relationship. Open up to them and be willing to discuss difficult things. Be willing to change as you both change over time, but know your level of comfort as well. Don’t let your partner push you into something that makes you uncomfortable or uneasy. Trust yourself and your body, and say yes or no depending on what it tells you.
Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free by Linda Kay Klein
Sex, God, and the Conservative Church: Erasing Shame from Sexual Intimacy by Tina Schermer Sellers
Shameless: A Sexual Reformation by Nadia Bolz-Weber
Beyond Shame by Matthias Roberts