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.