Knowledge of Sexual Self: A Missing Piece in the Abstinence Discussion

A few years ago a young man who was abstaining from sex asked me how one navigates abstinence when they are looking to get married. He wondered what most Christians who are abstinent or celibate wonder, “How will I know if the sex will be good with my spouse if I don’t get to have it before marriage?” He asked me because I was outspoken about abstinence and saving myself until marriage and, in my mind, I also hoped he asked because he was thinking about saving himself for me. Given this I told him what was becoming a routine response for me to this question, “The God who created us knows all of our wants and needs, including our sexual desires. God knows we want good sex and so, if we are obedient to God in waiting for the one God has for us, God will ensure that our partner will be the perfect sexual fit”–no pun intended and pun intended all at the same damn time. I honestly believed what I told him, though I had no evidence it being true. It was something passed down to me from various sermons, Bible studies, and books I read about being a young, single Christian. I think the young man bought my spiel for a little while, after all it is kind of convincing when you package it up and leave sexual satisfaction to God. How can you  argue with that? God will supply all my sexual needs according to his riches in glory, right? Lately I’ve been thinking, wrong.

My conversation with that young man happened about four years ago and since then, many young Christian men and women–or men and women from Christian backgrounds–have spoken up about their experience of living under such teachings. A Salon article entitled “My Virginity Mistake” was such an account.  shared her story of “marrying Jesus” as a teenager under the banner of a purity campaign held by her Baptist Church. Henriquez would go from marrying Jesus to marrying her college sweetheart only to discover that she wasn’t sexually attracted to him and possibly not interested in sex at all. The marriage ended in divorce and Henriquez ended up discovering, well after the fact, that she was into sex after all. She discovered that she could have good sex with a variety of different people and especially within marriage, but this discovery was due to the realization that she just couldn’t wait to have sex until marriage. In her conclusion she said, “I learned that sex is important enough not to wait.” Now I’m not here to argue for or against premarital sex, though I do have some particular views about it that I will share at another time. I want to argue for something else that I believe is missing from the abstinence education/discussions.

Of Henriquez’s sexual experience with her first husband she says, “I admit that I was no willing student but he was no teacher either.” She commented on zoning out and making lists during sex and on having a very active kissing life before marriage because that is all they had. Henriquez’s situation seems like that of someone who is waiting for things to happen, of having an expectation of how things should be without the proper education of how they actually are and the role that we play in making things better. No one or no institution is more at fault for this than the church which tends to reduce sex to that which you don’t do before marriage yet once you get married you are supposed to go from 0-60 and discover your inner sex god or goddess. The church which teaches its members, particularly the young and single, that the flesh should be beat into subjection, masturbation is sin, and all sexual feeling must be dampened. The church which ignores full-bodied discussions on sexuality because its view of sexuality is so tied up in sin that they can’t recover it. Given this insistence on displacing sex and sexuality within the church, it is no wonder that people get married and get into trouble. Granted this is not everyone’s story but this is enough people’s story.

Relevant magazine tried to touch on this issue through an article entitled “Christians Are Not Called to Have Great Sex.” The writer, Rachel Pietka, went through some of the more recent stories of Christians who vowed abstinence until marriage only to get married and have disappointing sexual experiences. Pietka’s argument is, as the titles states, Christians aren’t called to have great sex because we are supposed to have a different view of sex. She says, “Although sex is indeed God’s gift to us, Christians are not directly commanded by God to have great sex.” She says this because sexual compatibility doesn’t–or shouldn’t–matter to Christians it means that sex is not–or shouldn’t be–our God. And as she concludes the article she claims that “bad sex is an opportunity to rejoice in suffering (1 Peter 4:13) and to be further conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29).” Now I am not even going to touch her strange proof texting work–even though I have touched it by calling it strange. I will say that I disagree with her about God not directly calling Christians to have good sex. There may not be a commandment in the Bible that says, “Thou shalt have good, great or mind-blowing sex,” but along the lines of what I told that young man years ago, I do believe God wants people to have great sex. I believe it is a part of the sacred covenant of marriage, that the two who come together under God as one do so in pleasure and acknowledge that the capacity for pleasure produced between them is great. If two people are joined together under God in love, great sex is a part of the equation, but it also necessary to understand what makes sex great between two people. More Christians than not are consumed by the dominant culture’s definition of what great sex is, a definition that is sometimes unrealistic for the culture that created it. Great sex may be closer than most people think, but because they have some unrealistic expectation about what sex is supposed to be like, they totally miss the point. So how do abstinent and the celibate get to great sex in marriage? I believe that part of that greatness happens well before the wedding night.

You see, what a lot of these discussions of abstinence before marriage are missing a reflection on knowledge of the sexual self. So much time is spent ensuring that young men and women remain chaste by any means necessary that little to no time is spent discussing whom they are as sexual beings. Rarely does anyone trust adolescents, teenagers, or even adults with their sexuality and instead they rely on fear-mongering that says “No” to anything related to sex. no1This creates men and women who know nothing about themselves as sexual beings aside from knowing they must deny anything related to sex. When a person is not trusted with handling their own  sexual desires, how can they then trust those desires with another? If they are repeatedly told not to touch themselves how will they know their capacity for experiencing pleasure? If they experience sexual attraction to someone but they immediately categorize it as bad and wrong, how will they de-program those years of learning and associate sexual attraction with that which is positive? What is at the root of all of this, for me, is a move toward educating people on how to function with knowledge of sexual self in way that acknowledges sexuality. Complicated, sometimes inconvenient, but always beautiful sexuality. Acknowledges sex and sexuality as healthy and integral parts of the human experience that should be understood on an individual basis before it understood as part of a relationship. (This is where I think so much failure lies, in making people’s only understanding of sex and sexuality in relation to another person in marriage. And I won’t even get into what I think is the patriarchal undertone of it all–that’s another post for another day. And I digress…)  And, of course, to do all of this under God whom, I believe, is less restrictive than the Christian tradition makes God out to be. I believe–or at the very least hope–that God is concerned about the holistic health of people and that God’s primary tool of educating is not “No” but “Yes,” “no,” “maybe,” and “let’s talk about it.” It is an open discussion on sex and sexuality that doesn’t depend on fear-mongering, negligence, and ignorance but thrives on trust and transparency.

Given this, there has to be a way for the church to teach young people about themselves as sexual beings in ways that promote sexual health and, that almost cliché term, “sexual positivity.” I’d love to see the church move beyond “no” and begin to break ground in “knowing.” That knowing requires open, honest, and candid discussions about sexuality. The type of conversations that might make people uncomfortable but  because they are held within a church context, they provide a safe space which breaks down discomfort. I know what I envision may seem too ideal, but it is time for this to move into the realm of the real, particularly because the church wants to have so much control over sexuality in the first place, why not actually participate in the discussion, in a real way? There can be no more silence on the topic of sexuality and there can be no more reliance on sexual negativity as a teaching tool. No one learns from “no” alone. And even though “no” has its place in this discourse it can’t be the primary answer when you are aiming to raise sexually healthy people. Sexually healthy individuals who might go on to be sexually healthy and satisfied in marriage or a committed relationship because they were taught to embrace, not negate, their sexuality.

Long story short, I believe an abstinent or celibate man or woman’s possibility of having great sex in marriage will only be increased when they understand who they are both under God and as sexual beings. Knowledge of God is integral and believing that God desires those whom God brings together to have a great sexual relationship is a part of that knowledge. Knowledge of self–sexual and otherwise–is pivotal in making great sex a reality. And I believe that in abstinence, one can move toward great sex if they begin to know and own who they are sexually now. Think of it as a sexual spin on “Be the wife or husband you want now.”

At this point I know you’ve read a lot but I just couldn’t resist posting this interesting little illustration that is sadly a pretty realistic depiction of abstinence education in the Christian context.

bp070426_abstinence

So what do you think? Let’s talk about it.

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Boy Scouts, the Church, Inclusion and Love

druidhillsbaptist

Druid Hill’s Baptist Church, Atlanta Georgia

Yesterday afternoon I posted this photo on my Facebook page and to my surprise only two people liked it. Two people out of the hundreds of friends and family I have on Facebook which includes a large number of those who would identify themselves as Christians. One of those two isn’t even a self-identifying Christian, she is a Unitarian Universalist who, if my memory serves me correct, also has a Jewish background. I also posted this photo on Instagram and three people liked it, three people whom were my classmates in the theology school I graduated from in May–the second person to like it on Facebook is also a graduate. A grand total of five people liked this photo of a church essentially doing what a church should be doing in the first place, opening the doors and extending hospitality to everyone. Now, in case you have already forgotten why a church would even feel the need to welcome the Boy Scouts in particular, let me jog your memory back a few months…

In January the Boy Scouts of America were considering lifting its ban on gay members and leaders. In April, a proposal was drafted to lift the ban on denying membership based on sexual orientation, and in May that proposal went forth and the ban was lifted. But since then many churches have either been getting on board with the new ruling by allowing Boy Scout Troops who use the facilities to continue their meetings, or by banning the Boy Scouts from the church. North Druid Hills Baptist is one of the first churches here in Atlanta that I have seen explicitly announce their support of the Boy Scouts but it also isn’t surprising since the church is located in a fairly liberal community and it leases out its space for yoga classes, plays that don’t have anything to do with the Gospel–at least not explicitly–and other activities that most churches would frown upon. But aside from the church doing what is par for the course for them in welcoming the Boy Scouts, I was sad. I was sad not for the church but for the fact that this is even something I would be excited about.

I thought about this as the picture made its way through cyberspace and situated itself on my Facebook page, my Twitter feed, and my Instagram account. Is it stupid to be excited about a church welcoming Boy Scouts, including those members who are openly gay? Yes I think it is stupid to be excited about this because I believe the church should be in the business of being the community that embraces everyone. I’m not going to make the “Jesus hung out with sinners and tax collectors” argument because I think it is trite and I’m not certain that openly gay boy scouts are the sinners in this situation. And let me just pause here for a moment…

One of the things most interesting to me about how the church treats LGBT concerns is that they, sometimes, are obsessed with the sex lives of persons in the LGBT community while being totally uninterested in their love lives. As if all gay men do is sit around looking for and having sex rather than or without love. As if sex is a bigger part of the experience than establishing a lifelong relationship in love. And sure, there are some people who are just looking for some sex but they are not the general profile of the community. I’m not a gay man or lesbian but I know enough to know that sex is but a fraction of the LGBT experience that may amount to the same percentage that it is among heterosexual people, so get out of people’s bedrooms and get into their hearts. But this is also an issue with the church as it regards heterosexual people, lots of interest in what does or doesn’t go on in the bedroom to ensure folks aren’t booking quick trips to hell. And I digress…

I’m more concerned in the fact that churches are closing their doors, doors that are supposed to be open to perform the most radical hospitality that can be performed in this sick world that is often too ready to shut people out because it is more interested in clinging to itself. The church, in my understanding, is not a space for exclusion but inclusion driven by love. This is something that should be a given but it isn’t. I remember sitting in a Watchnight service and hearing a pastor speak of family only as that unit which represents the biblical definition of family, man and woman. The pastor repeated this a few times and I remember tuning out of the service because all I saw was the church closing its doors.

Now I understand that this is what some would consider the “biblical” perspective on this matter, but that biblical perspective often seems to leave out love. Love, which is a part of the revelation of God as shown in Jesus Christ. In shutting out those whose lifestyles don’t match up with the so-called biblical definition of family or those openly-gay boy scouts, the church compromises itself and misses the opportunity to love. This is not about tolerance which, as I have stated before, suggests a mere “putting up” with different perspectives rather than a real shift. In the church’s case it would need to be a shift toward love, outwardly expressed. Love that isn’t just spoken about but love that is actually performed. Love that isn’t just prayed about in the way that a prayer can be prayed about something like this such as, “We pray that ‘they’ discover God’s love.” But love that expresses God’s love, the love we all have access to, the love that was bestowed upon us long ago, and the love that we have responsibility to share out. Love that can be expressed through something like say, opening or keeping your doors open to the Boy Scouts. It’s a “Don’t (just) speak about it, be about it” kind of love. Otherwise, the church is no different from the world if it closes its doors on the Boy Scouts, or members of the LGBT community or other communities that would be considered marginalized. Actually, nowadays, the world is exercising a little more openness to inclusion when it comes to persons in the LGBT community so it may be the church who has to keep up. And understand me well when I say this, I know that “keeping up” may sound like you have to be on board with it all, but what I’m suggesting in “keeping up” is being sure that the world doesn’t outdo you, because the world may be able to open some doors but the church and the people within in it, those supposed people of God are (supposed to be) part of the few and the proud that show forth God’s love, and only that kind of love is credible.

A Retrospect on Sexual Fantasies and Attraction

… feels sorry for any man, who after discovering my views on sex, decides I’m not worth talking to. I’m not the problem, your view of intimacy and a woman’s worth is. If you think someone is worth having sex with 24 hours after you meet them, knowing nothing about them, then you may want to re-evaluate your life and not mine. The stakes in life are too high to be so foolish…

Last night I was scrolling through my countless Facebook posts over the years when I stopped at the post above. I remembered it like it was yesterday…

Man and woman at bar

Image courtesy of Introverted Playboy

I met a guy at a friend’s birthday party who I thought I connected with. We had a good conversation filled with laughter and innocent flirtation and decided to exchange numbers. He texted me the next day and we commenced to getting to know each other. Our conversation started out innocently with all of the perfunctory “getting to know you” questions but it shifted when he asked me, “What is your fantasy?” Wanting to believe he asked me that because he wanted to know my vision of the ideal life, I told him something to that effect. Sadly, he wasn’t satisfied with my G-rated answer, so he asked me again. “No, I mean your sexual fantasy.” I was angry at the sight of his words and thought to myself, “How dare he ask me about my sexual fantasy? We just met yesterday!” I told him that I thought that it was inappropriate for him to ask me that so early in our knowing each other and that I felt disrespected because he jumped so quickly to wondering about my sexual imagination. I told him that if having sex with me is all he is interested in after knowing me for a nano-second, he could lose my number. He responded once more trying to justify his actions but I ignored his response and deleted his number.

Last night I looked at that status and felt a little sad for my 2010 self. On one hand I understood where I was coming from. I was a 29-year-old woman who was abstinent and taught to frown upon pre-marital sex and the people who had it. This meant that even talking about sexual fantasies was out of the question–not to mention the fact that I barely had any that I didn’t immediately want to send to the pits of hell after laughing about it with friends. Therefore the idea that a man could meet me and want to talk about my sexual fantasies after a day of knowing me was inappropriate and sinful. To be fair, I shouldn’t make myself out to be a saint and this man the sinner. I had my fair share of “everything but sex” sexual activity in college while simultaneously believing that what I was doing was a sin and wrong in the eyes of God. I made out with people and participated in heavy petting and woke up the morning after feeling dirty and begging for forgiveness. I consistently made promises and broke them because, as the scripture we are wont to quote says, “The mind is willing but the flesh is weak.” I even went as far as telling God that I wasn’t quite ready for a committed relationship with him so that I could have fun like everyone else; partying, drinking, and having (almost) everything but sex. So, by the time I met the young man in question, I was back on my promise to save myself for marriage and I had been resting firmly in that promise for half a decade. I couldn’t see how anyone, having met me hours before, would be interested in talking about sex with me. I judged this young man as wrong in his actions and as not viewing me as a person with intrinsic value but an object to gain pleasure from. I viewed him as putting his life in danger all for the sake of sex. All of these were snap judgments based on our little exchange. But what a difference three years makes…

I am a 32-year-old woman who has spent the last three years grappling with the Bible, my theology, and my sexuality in the contexts of theology school and my personal life. In this time my hardened heart and mind have gone soft. This is a result of time spent in reasoning, research, experience, and reflection that has lead me to shift on some of my more conservative views. Three years ago I demonized that young man for announcing his desires to know my sexual fantasies. Three years later, I have the work of Alain de Botton in How to Think More About Sex to give me food for thought. He suggests, “It’s time for the need for sex and the need for love to be granted equal standing, without an added moral gloss. Both may be independently felt and are of comparable value and validity.” Some may shudder after reading that but I think de Botton presents a fair reading of the issue of love and sex. Some of us want love before sex and some of us want sex before love, but assessing the morality of an individual based on which one of these they want first is unfair.

My three-year-old status update also alludes to an issue with premature sexual attraction, but is there even such a thing? As human beings we greet each other interacting–primarily–with our physical selves or, the “physical envelope” as de Botton calls it. He suggests that these physical envelopes play an important role in our destinies and desires. Even the most spiritual or spirit-minded of us may interact with a person and be sexually attracted to them. This is not an absolutely negative thing. This is natural for many people. de Botton argues that sexual attraction is actually something we don’t have control over. We may see someone and be sexually attracted to them or see someone who we’d love to be sexually attracted to but we can’t will ourselves into sexual attraction. Considering this, could the young man help being sexually attracted to me–or attracted enough to want to know my fantasies? There may be a chance that he had no control over it so it, so why lambast him? However, if we are going to follow the claim that sexual attraction is a product of nature, we must then take responsibility for our actions. Being sexually attracted to someone doesn’t give you any right to be reckless in your actions toward them. Instead it holds you responsible for what you do with that attraction which includes discerning whether the person you are attracted to is ready to share their sexual fantasy with you or ready to hear that you want to have sex with them. Sexual attraction and desire, as part of human nature, requires that we live in the tension of–more often than not–being sexually attracted to people who aren’t attracted to us or people who are attracted to us but aren’t ready to participate in a sexual relationship and vice versa. Being sexually attracted to someone isn’t a bad thing and I dare say it can be spiritual and not sinful. But where we err is what that sexual attraction leads us to do. Sexual attraction is not the gateway drug to fornication if we are taught about healthy ways to handle that attraction–and that is a post for another day.

Three years later and I am open. Not open as in available for promiscuous activity, but open as in available to learn and exercise more than tolerance in regards to differing opinions on sex and sexuality. I say “more than tolerance” because tolerance rubs me the wrong way. It implies a “putting up” with a different perspectives instead of a real shift and the shift is what I am looking toward. This may result in some calling me unorthodox but it’s ok because I know who and what is holding this openness together.

So what would I say to that or any young man who asked me about my sexual fantasy not too long after meeting me? Maybe something along the lines of, “I’m flattered that you are interested in what they are, but I’m not interested in sharing that part of myself just yet. Hopefully you’re ok with that and you’ll stick around so that you can find out one day, but if not, it’s been nice knowing you.” No judgment.

A Quickie: BlackCelibacy.com

By now I am well aware that my post can be a long so, every now and then, I will post a “Quickie.” I am sure all of us know what a “Quickie” is even if we aren’t currently sexually active, but just in case you don’t know what it is, it is quick sex. The kind of sexual event that includes little foreplay and is uninterested in prolonging pleasure, just experiencing pleasure as quickly as possible. As it pertains to “Sex and the Sanctuary” the “Quickie” will be short posts about things that I have found interesting but that I don’t have time to write a thesis on. Despite its brevity, I still hope that people will chime in and comment. Heck, I hope it will be easier for people to comment since they haven’t exhausted themselves reading a 1000+ word post. So, without further delay, here’s the first “Quickie”!

The other day I was lurking around Facebook when I saw a quote on my timeline from a site called BlackCelibacy.com. “Intriguing,” I thought to myself and I didn’t delay in looking it up. BlackCelibacy.com is a dating site for celibate black singles created so that they could, “Meet other like minded Black singles online for FREE without the pressure of SEX!!” (I didn’t add the all caps or exclamation points, those actually exist on the site.) The site’s focus scripture is Proverbs 18:22, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and receives favor from the Lord.” I stared at this verse curiously, wondering why, of all of the verses they could have used, they decided on this one. There is a particular political weight that this Scripture carries in the Christian singles community, black or otherwise. So I wondered, “Why this verse?” I wondered if, when a woman joins the site, she is prohibited from contacting men and can only engage with the men who engage her first.

Upon visiting BlackCelibacy’s “About Us” section I discovered another curious matter, their “Top 10 Reasons for Being Celibate”:

10 Benefits of being Celibate:
1. When you are celibate, you are doing God’s will.
2. Celibate people don’t have to worry about contracting STD’s.
3. When you are celibate, you don’t have to worry about unwanted pregnancies.
4. When you are celibate, you can focus more on your goals.
5. When you are celibate, you don’t have to worry about any bad sexual experiences.
6. When you are celibate and dating, you know whether you want to enter a relationship.
7. When you are celibate, it becomes clear that true love isn’t limited to physical relationships.
8. When you are celibate, you limit the unwanted emotional baggage.
9. When you are celibate and dating, your partner will often time trust you more.
10. When you are celibate, you get to explore a different kind of feeling of self worth, empowerment and individuality.

There’s so much I could say about this list but since this post is a quickie, I will withhold. Maybe I will take these up in a series on celibacy on the blog, but, for now, I want to hear from the readers. What do you think of this list? If you are celibate, are these the reasons why you are? If you aren’t celibate, how do you feel about this list? Do you think that BlackCelibacy.com doth protest too much?