Hulk Smash! Or: Experience is NOT universal.
So now that you’ve opened up the discussion and have shown willingness to get rid of squeamishness and discuss sexuality in an open and healthy manner, how do you go about doing this? As promised, the next few days will be full of some helpful tips for the conversation.
Your first tip? Realize that your experience is not universal.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but I can’t tell you how often this basic rule has been ignored when it comes to discussing sexuality. I think a large part of it is that it is such a personal thing – it’s very hard to understand and grasp how different people’s experiences concerning sexuality are, in part because no one discusses them openly. Frequently, the ones that do discuss sexual experience openly, do so in a way that universalizes their experience.
What I’m referring to specifically is the way in which testimony is often used in the purity movement. It’s inevitable: you go to summer camp and on the “don’t have sex talk” night (the night during which a whole lot of thinking and talking around sex is done, rather than actually, y’know, discussing sex). At some point during this painfully awkward discussion full of um’s and ah’s and I don’t know’s, an older person connected with the youth group gets up and gives their testimony about sex. “I got drunk and had sex with my girlfriend and regretted it.” “I thought I was going to marry him and it turned out he was just using me for sex. I wish I’d waited.” “I passed out at a party and woke up next to a guy and I’m not sure if I had sex or not but I still feel guilty about it so I’ve been repentant and celibate for years.”
And on and on and on.
I’ve spoken before about how testimony is a powerful thing. And when we allow these examples of regretting sex to be the only testimony surrounding sexual experience, we present a very imbalanced perspective and create self-fulfilling prophecies. When we tell tales of sex leading to guilt, make it sound like guilt is an inevitable conclusion of sexual experience, we need not be surprised when we do have some sexual experience and feel guilty afterward. Tell someone they’ll feel guilty after having sex outside of marriage, and 9 times out of 10, they will.
And most people in the church are just fine with perpetuating this system of shame and guilt. But, honestly, you shouldn’t be. It’s emotionally manipulative, ties a person’s worth before the God of the universe solely to what they do with their genitalia, and makes it virtually impossible to have a healthy experience of sexuality. In short: it’s wrong.
Instead of, as I’ve commented several times previous, presenting a view of sexuality that allows us to have a discussion of why sex is important and why it feels good and why it’s an extremely intimate experience that is best saved for a committed relationship to avoid hurt*, we end up presenting testimony to the opposite – sex will make you feel guilty, no matter what and feeling guilty is baaaaaad.
We need testimony from all sides of the issue. We need people to explain why, specifically, they decided to wait or not and how they feel about that decision. I cannot tell you how thankful I am for the testimony of people who have opened up in the comment sections of this blog, talking about how they felt about sex growing up and how their experience either changed or confirmed that view. There have been people who didn’t feel guilty until they “confessed” to someone else who saw it as their duty to punish. There have been people whose views of the opposite sex were severely screwed up by a cavalier approach to sexual activity. And there have been people who didn’t wait for marriage and are in a fine, healthy, long term relationship. The variety of testimony surrounding sexual experience is as varied as the experiences themselves.
And that testimony matters because the truth matters. We, as the church, are not supposed to be a propoganda machine. But our approach to sex and sexuality so often function as such. We only allow one narrow view – sex before marriage leads to guilty and broken relationships – to come through, which shuts down discussion and prevents a healthy truth-seeking approach.
It is possible to have sex outside of marriage and not feel guilty about it. And it’s possible to have it and feel guilty. One person’s experience is not universal for everyone – just because you felt guilty after having sex doesn’t mean your neighbor did. To present one type of experience as universal is disingenuous at best and propagandistic at worst.
So, this is what it comes down to: trusting people to make their own decisions. Talk about the numerous, varied ways in which people experience sex and how they felt after they did. Bring in testimony from people who waited and from those who didn’t and from people who do not regret their experience. And then we do an incredibly scary thing: we trust people to make their own decisions.
Let me explain why I feel so strongly about this issue: I don’t believe Jesus functions on a system of shame. The only people we see shamed in the Gospels are the ones who were shaming others – the Pharisees, etc. But for some reason, when it comes to sex, the Christian church thinks it’s okay to shame people, to make them stew in manufactured guilt, and to deny them forgiveness for something that is completely, and totally human. And I believe this is wrong, wrong, wrong.
Sexuality is a beautiful, fragile thing, and the church has handled it with all the grace and aplomb of the Hulk. It’s time to stop shaming and it’s time to trust people to make their own decisions with their lives and to accept them if they make a decision we would not have made. Your experience may not be theirs, and I believe in a God whose graciousness covers both the slut and the virgin and everyone in between.
*Sidenote: As someone currently going through a break up, I understand wanting to avoid hurt, but I also do not think this is an appropriate motivation for the abstinence message. The Christian life isn’t about avoiding hurt – it’s about living in community, in which case unhealthy approaches to sexuality (such as the “sex is good; don’t do it” approach of the abstinence movement) function to destroy and disillusion community much more than they do to build it up.