Monthly Archives: July 2011

Sex at Church

Sex and church do not mix. At least they didn’t for me.

For the first 22 years of my life, I attended two Church of God churches. At Church #1, whose doors I marched through every Sunday of my childhood and for a year and a half in my early twenties, you’ll find healing, grace, and a profound sense of community. Church #2 is where I spent my adolescence, and since much of that revolved around the youth group, that is the only aspect of the church I’ll discuss here. The youth group at Church #2 was a place of emotional highs, legalistic rigidity, and statistics. It was more important to obey the rules than to have a real relationship with Jesus, for example. It was more important to bring in new people than to disciple the committed attendees. And it was very, very important not to have sex.

Like most churches, Church #2 believes in a trinity of sexual sins: homosexuality, adultery, and premarital sex. At Church #2 the third tended to be the most frequently discussed, usually during an abstinence campaign. Church #2 taught me a number of inaccuracies about sex, the gravity of which I didn’t fully realize until discussing them with Dr. B. I’ll share some of the subliminal messages I received from the youth pastor—not in an attempt to air my grievances, but to bare the reality of much religious instruction about sex.

1.) Sex is sex. This is the most detrimental of the lessons I learned because it paved the way for the rest. In sermons about sex at Church #2, no caveat was given about the difference between misuse of sex and monogamous sex. No sex seemed condoned by God. In the absence of a clause about the necessity of sex in the right kind of relationship, the resulting message is that sex, period, is sinful, not that immorality has its consequences. It’s true that when sex is used to fill a void, when it is carelessly tossed about, or when it is preceded by pressure, it will eventually lead to destruction of relationships and/or self. However, sex as an expression of commitment and love is a completely different ballgame. A gulf exists between those types of situations, one that was never addressed (to my knowledge) in Church #2’s youth group.

2.) Sex is disappointing. Over and over we were told that a virgin’s reaction after having sex the first time is typically, “That’s it?” This argument is that the media blows sex way out of proportion, leading people to believe that sex is neon awesome every time, whereas the truth is that it’s not all that. I assume the intent was to make us think we weren’t missing much. I find this unfair because as with anything in life, sex comes with a learning curve. The first time you make biscuits from scratch, they come out burned or doughy. The first time you clean your windshield, you streak it. The first time your child misbehaves, you suck at correction. That doesn’t mean you stop making the biscuits, cleaning the windshield, or correcting; it means you work at it and improve. The story doesn’t stop with “you’ll suck” (That’s what she said.). You probably won’t rock each other’s worlds the first time, but you learn. By saying sex is disappointing, you distract from this incredible gift of God.

3.) Sex is divorced from love. Never did love come up in a lesson about sex except in the context of “if he really loves you, he won’t force you to have sex.” (Of course, even this seemingly innocuous statement has an edge: if love is present, sex is not. Also, love is good; sex is bad.) Sex is not about expression here: it’s little more than the result of human biology and a sinful nature. Keep an eye on your hormones, and you’ll realize that your sex drive has to do with your youth and/or gender, not the loving relationship you’re in. Even terms like “making love”—a term I have come to prefer for several reasons—were banished from discussions about sex. No one ever told me that when you’re in a relationship with someone you love and admire, your heart fills with all sorts of desire for that person—you want an emotional and a spiritual connection, sure…but you also long for a physical connection. No one told me this was a normal and beautiful reaction to being cherished, being special to someone. Instead, I was taught that sex drive resulted from hormones or making out (or a combination of both), and that it would destroy my capacity for logical thought, fairly forcing me to unzip my shorts if I wasn’t vigilant.

4.) Sex is sinful and provokes divine judgment. The predominant arguments against sex were venereal disease, pregnancy, and emotional trauma. Any of these could be multifaceted, but pregnancy was the Big Problem. Church #2 essentially looked at it this way: 1) Choose abortion, and you’re a murderer. 2) Choose adoption, and you have to deal with the pain of losing a child. 3) As a teenager, you’re too much of an ill-prepared screw-up to try to raise the baby yourself. There was no way to win. And all this cause-and-effect was a virtual certainty: it’s God’s design for punishing sexual partners. To me, this God is a God of judgment, indeed a heartless God, who carelessly doles out life and death to teach a lesson. The miracle of birth becomes flesh-covered punishment. The heartbreak of fatal illness is your just desserts. So…have sex at your own risk, bucko.

You can see why these messages, all of which I deeply imbibed, contributed to my sexual struggles. There are others, but for the sake of space I will omit them for now. I’m sure that some who grew up in my youth group went on to have lots of great sex, but I also know I am not alone. Dr. B told me about a study he conducted with some colleagues years ago. The research team interviewed literally hundreds of people who fit into one of two groups: people who had been sexually abused and people who had been raised in sexually repressive religious environments. Would you believe that the effects were exactly the same? Dr. B’s research team discovered that both groups ended up with either sexual addiction or severe dysfunction—and sometimes both. The mental, emotional, and physical symptoms the two groups described were indistinguishable.

All of this then begs the question, “How should we teach about sex?” I don’t pretend to have the answer, but I have some ideas I’ll include in the next post. In the meantime, I would LOVE to hear the messages you received—good or bad—about sex from authority figures in your life. What has been your experience with religion and sex? How do you think we should teach about sex? This issue is really close to my heart, and I covet your insights.

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Sixth Sense

Two weeks ago, I did something I’d been wanting to do for a long time: I adopted a pet. My baby is a shih-poo, a shih-tzu-poodle mix. (Although, my best friend’s husband suggested that he be called a poo-zu, which is more entertaining.) Peabody is all the things that a dog is supposed to be: playful, cuddly, sweet, and totally devoted to me. Never have I had a cuter shadow. This dog trots from one room to the next, no more than a foot behind me. When I come home, whether I’ve been gone thirty minutes or all day, he can’t contain his excitement. Of the four words I’m trying to teach him, the only one he seems to consistently recognize is “bedtime” which translates to “seven uninterrupted hours of curling up behind Mama’s knees”—his favorite time of day. I’d barely known this animal two hours before I fell in love.

And I’m not the only one: he’s melted the hearts of everyone who’s met him so far. Last weekend my mom and I went on a road trip to see her side of the family. Since it’s a long trip, we stopped several times on the way to let Peabody do his business. At one stop, he walked right over to a homeless man who was sitting on the ledge around the gas station. Peabody stopped in front of him and paused, apparently waiting for something. The man reached his hand out and began petting my dog lightly on his head. His eyes filled with tears as he smiled and choked on a chuckle. He said nothing, not to me or to Peabody, but I could tell his day had been made. After a moment, Peabody looked up at me as if to say, “Alright, Mama, we can go now.” As we walked away, I turned to look at the man. He was still grinning and wiping tears from his eyes.

Call me crazy, but I believe animals can sense more than we give them credit for. I’ve heard several times about dogs that began sleeping at the foot of their mistress’s bed when she got pregnant. Countless stories circulate of dogs showing special devotion to a sick family member. One morning shortly after I adopted Peabody, I was upset, and that dog crawled into my lap and put his head right next to mine—something he hadn’t done before and hasn’t since. I think, in the case of the man at the gas station, Peabody could sense his loneliness and somehow knew he could brighten the man’s day.

John Grogan published Marley and Me several years ago now. I read it and loved it before I was a dog owner, but I found one part kind of silly. Grogan writes that he learned something about love from Marley: “Give a dog your heart, and he’ll give you his. It’s that simple. How many people can you say that about?” I don’t find it so silly anymore. Having now experienced the canine sixth sense for myself, I too feel like I’m learning from my dog. Would I have gone over and talked to the man at the gas station had I not been dragged there by Peabody? No. And yet the man clearly needed a reason to smile. How was my dog more sensitive to this than I, a fellow human, was? Perhaps Peabody could teach me something about being more perceptive and more willing to be someone’s miracle.

My dog is a genius.

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Talking About My Feelings

One of the first questions Dr. B asked me was, “What are your feelings about sex?” You’d think after months of obsessing over it, this would be a no-brainer. But after a knee-jerk response of, “Anger,” I had little else to say at first. What were my feelings about sex? As I thought about it, the proverbial dam broke, and I found myself emptying my head of quite a lot of thoughts.

“I’m angry—angry that my body doesn’t work, angry that God won’t answer my prayers, angry that my mind is apparently causing problems, too. I’m angry because I imagine everyone else in their lovely homes gets to have lots of wonderful sex with their partners. I’m angry because it feels like there’s a huge aspect of life that I don’t get to be a part of. I get angry when I hear my coworkers talk about sex…it seems like no one else struggles with the stuff I’m struggling with. And I’m angry that no one listened to me for so long, so I’m in this frustrating place now where I simply can’t make sex work for me. Of course, even if that first nurse practitioner had mentioned the scar tissue, I’d still probably be sitting here. But it would’ve been one less obstacle to deal with after the wedding.

“And I’m really, really disappointed. Sex is built up to be this great thing that makes you feel good, makes you feel close to your partner. I haven’t had a moment of that. It hasn’t made me feel good, and it hasn’t made me feel close to my husband. If anything, it’s been the complete opposite on both accounts. I can’t believe how stressful sex has made my life. I wish God hadn’t created it to being with, honestly. All it’s done for me is made me feel estranged from my spouse and hate my body even more than I already did. I mean, the honeymoon period is supposed to be all sex and rose-colored glasses…we haven’t had sixty seconds of that. This marriage and sexuality business has been nothing but heartbreak, stress, and frustration since the very first days after our wedding.

“I’m scared. I read a sentence in a book by a Christian marriage counselor that terrified me: ‘If you don’t have a passionate love affair with your husband, someone will.’ I can’t! I can’t have a passionate love affair with my husband! To be completely honest, I wouldn’t blame him at all for finding someone else. I mean, he’s waited for 26 years to have a sexual relationship with someone, and I can’t do that for him. It’s not fair for him to kiss it goodbye forever. And who knows? Maybe I’ll never be able to have sex. Some women never can—I read that somewhere. It would certainly hurt me if he cheated, but in the end…I’d understand. I can’t give him what he needs. And it just seems wrong to think after four months of marriage, ‘I wouldn’t blame my husband for cheating on me.’ That’s not normal.

“But I mostly feel hopeless. I’m still determined to make this work—I really am—but my hope is waning by the minute. It seems like we’ve already explored so many options—counseling, surgery, now this—and nothing is helping. Granted, you and I have only just started talking, so I have some hope there. But I have a hard time believing that it’s this hard for other couples. It seems like talking to someone in the beginning should’ve been enough. Surely surgery should’ve been enough. It’s gotten to the point where it’s embarrassing. I feel like I missed a day in school or something, and I’m being punished royally for it. The students I teach at the high school know more about sex than I do. I feel like an idiot, like an inadequate idiot. And I feel like everyone can see it.”

After I’d finished my monologue, Dr. B nodded. “We need to talk about your past.”

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