I recently read an article critical of Christian purity culture that was rather sensationally titled "I Stayed a Virgin Until Marriage, and My Virginity Caused Me to Develop Vaginismus." (It has since been re-titled, "After Staying a Virgin Until Marriage, I Couldn't Have Sex With My Husband.")
In it, the author, Lauren Meeks, recounts her experience growing up in a Christian culture that emphasises the importance of sexual purity and of saving sexual intimacy for marriage. Embracing this ideal, Meeks and her fiancé decided to go a step further and avoid kissing until their wedding day.
From there, Meeks recounts, “Let's just say...things didn't work out as planned. There was a problem.”
Instead of the passionate, joyful married sex she was expecting, Ms. Meeks found that her new married life dominated by the pain and embarrassment of vaginismus, a condition where a woman’s pelvic muscles contract involuntarily with attempted penetration, making sex painful or impossible. She and her doctors soon made the connection between her premarital attitudes towards sex and her current difficulties:
I began to realise that decades of "saving myself" had subconsciously convinced me that sex was actually bad, something to be avoided and not thought about. And now that it was "good," my body didn't know what to do, because it had spent so many years not letting itself get too excited around members of the opposite sex.
She concludes that, had she known in advance what the consequences of her purity education could be, she would still have waited for sex until marriage, but “would have encouraged — and even demanded — open conversations about the many good aspects of sex and intimacy, rather than being told over and over again to simply avoid it until marriage.”
But would that have been enough?
By her own account, Ms. Meeks was already looking forward to a "hot, passionate sex life." She mentions that she experienced sexual desire for her fiancé and that there was a lot of sexual tension between them. Desire for sex was not the missing element.
A while ago, I read a book by sex educator Emily Nagoski in which she talks about the “dual-system” theory of sexual function. She says that, like other incentive-based desires, sexual feelings have an accelerator and a brake. The accelerator is responsible for interest in sex, but there is also a brake that is responsible for telling us when sex is not appropriate or safe. Any couple who has been interrupted just as things are getting interesting knows how effective and instantaneous that brake can be.
When Christians talk about married sex, even within the context of purity-based sex education, it’s usually with the promise that it sex will be so much BETTER in marriage than it is outside of marriage. Married sex is the carrot to incentivize unmarried sexual continence. If you save yourself for marriage, you’ll have a “hot, passionate sex life,” as Ms. Meeks anticipated.
But while the carrot is there, so is the stick—and the stick is not merely directed towards the dangers of sexual promiscuity—STDs, crisis pregnancy, and the like—but at lust—which is often simplified to mean “sexual desire.” Both young women and young men are warned about the dangers of unleashed male sexuality, which is “a microwave” next to a woman’s “slow cooker,” and a powerful “Ferrari” compared to her “bicycle.” One speaker I heard as a teen cautioned against passionate kissing because, he said, “why would you choose to play on the edge of a cliff?” In this analogy, sex is the dangerous, potentially life-ending cliff.
And on go the brakes.
Secular culture does nothing to contradict this message in its desire to affirm sexuality in all its forms. It frequently skips past "vanilla" sex to celebrate kinks that many find demeaning. It accepts or tolerates pornography with a shrug even though porn tropes are almost always degrading to women. It ignores the way porn use always objectifies the user and the person/people depicted, making both objects for the viewer’s sexual pleasure rather than subjects in relationship with one another. “Sex-positivity” uses the language of feminism and equality to promote treating sex transactionally, as an exchange of pleasures rather than an exchange of persons. When it comes to sexual ethics, consent is the only standard. If everyone consents, then whatever happens is OK, regardless of context or consequences.
But, of course, there are consequences, and evidence of those consequences is all around us in broken hearts, broken lives, and broken families.
So the girl raised in a purity culture gets the message that sex is dangerous both implicitly and explicitly, from the warnings and metaphors of fellow Christians and from observation of the casualties of secular "sex-positive" culture. She sees that sex is frequently demeaning and bad for women.
She might be told, if she's Catholic, that the Theology of the Body warns us not to use each other, but I'm afraid even that instruction often just increases the fear of being used. If she belongs to some Protestant subcultures, she’ll notice that married women are frequently counselled that the secret to a happy marriage is sexual availability to your husband. After all, married men still have those Ferrari engines and can’t be expected to be happy in marriage if their sexual “needs” aren’t met.
And a fairly large proportion of girls (and quite a few boys), regardless of what they are taught about sex, will actually have already been used sexually in one way or another--molested or targeted for indecent exposure or suggestive harassment—long before their first purity talk or sex ed course.
The result is that, for some people, women especially, the brakes go on, full stop, and they don't easily disengage, no matter how much we talk about the sanctity and pleasure of married sex.
If sexual dysfunction is to be understood in the context of the interaction of psychological and physiological sexual responses, then the message that's missing is not that married sex is “good.” It's that it can be safe for the human person. And while both church and world are concerned with sexual safety, they lack the personalist’s insight into the danger of use in human relationships.
Birth control, condoms, and consent don’t protect a person from the fear of being used. Sexual continence outside of marriage doesn’t protect from sexual objectification within marriage.
Sex is sacred—this we know. But do we know that the human person—the sexual human person—is also sacred?
Do we know how to protect our own subjectivity from use without becoming closed to union?
Do we know how to teach our children to be both safe and open?
I have some thoughts as to what a personalistic sexual education might look like, but, heck, my oldest child is 12. We’re still very early on this journey. So before I venture into giving my theories, I want to ask readers to share their experiences and thoughts.
What can we do to guide our children safely through all of the messages about sex contained in popular culture and Christian subcultures?
How do we teach chastity and prudence without teaching fear?